But at that time all her energy, will, and all her desire of personal fame were in art. She had striven on the thorny and rocky hill till she could climb no more, and then had crept away to Barbizon anxious to accept life unconditionally. But life, even as art, had been refused to her. She could not live as others lived; she could only enjoy in her way, and her way was not that of mankind. She had liked Morton very dearly. She had felt pleasure in his conversation, in himself, and, moved by the warmth of the night, she had been drawn to his side, and, as they strayed along the grass grown paths and had stooped under the mysterious darkness of the trees, she had taken his arm affectionately, conscious of the effect upon him, but still taking it from personal choice; and, as they leaned over the broken paling at the bottom of the garden in front of the stars, it had pleased her that he should put his arm round her, take her face in his hand and to kiss her lips. The forest, too, the enchantment of the tall trees, and the enigma of the moonlight falling through the branches and lighting up the banks over which he helped her, had wrought upon her imagination, upon her nerves, and there had been moments when she had thought that she could love him as other women loved.
Perhaps she ought to have told no one. He was not altogether to blame, and her eyes softened as she dwelt on the recollection.... It was not his fault, nor her fault. She could not control her moods, and she was not responsible for what she said and did when they were upon her. She had felt that she must leave Barbizon, she had felt that she hated artists and studios, and a force, which she could not resist, had drawn her towards the Delacours. She remembered it all very well. She did not blame Morton. She had acted wrongly, but it was fate. Looking back she could honestly say that it was impossible for her to have acted otherwise. Those moods of hers!
Delacour she had never cared about. He had made love to her, but she had done nothing wrong. Madame Delacour knew that she had done nothing wrong, and Mildred hated her for the accusation. 'She accused me of kissing her husband,' Mildred reflected. Mildred often liked to look the truth in the face, but, in this instance, the truth was unpleasant to look in the face; she shrank from it, and excused herself. She was at that time without hope, everything had gone wrong with her. She had to have a friend.... Moreover, she had resolved to break off with M. Delacour as soon as the Panama scandal had passed. But, owing to the accusations of that odious woman, her life had suddenly fallen to pieces. In two more years she would have mastered the French language, and might have won some place for herself in literature.... But in English she could do nothing. She hated the language. It did not suit her. No, there was nothing for her now to do but to live at Sutton and look after her brother's house or marry.... After all her striving she found herself back at the point whence she had started; she had accomplished the circle of life, or nearly so. To fulfil the circle she had to marry. There was nothing in life except a little fruitless striving, and then marriage. If she did not accept marriage, what should she do? She was tired asking herself that question; so she put it aside, and applied herself day by day with greater diligence to the conquest of Alfred.
Their first letters were quite formal. But one day Alfred was surprised by a letter beginning My dear Mr. Stanby. He asked himself if the my was intentional or accidental, and, after some reflection, began his letter 'My dear Miss Lawson.' A fortnight later he received a letter without the first line of usual address. This seemed to him significant, and he too omitted the first line, and in signing changed the yours truly to yours always. They wrote to each other two or three times a week, and Alfred had frequent appointments with Mildred. She wished to consult him about various things, and made various pretexts for asking him to come and see her. Her flirtations had hitherto been conducted by the aid of books and pictures. But, in Alfred's case, books and pictures were not possible pretexts; he knew nothing about either, he played several instruments but could not talk music, and her attempts to play his accompaniments seemed to estrange them. Gardening and tennis she had to fall back upon, and tennis meant the invitation of the young men and women of the neighbourhood, and this did not coincide with Mildred's ideas; her flirtations were severely private, she was not herself in the presence of many people. But she had to make the best of things; and having set the young people of the neighbourhood playing their game she walked about the grounds with Alfred.
She had tried on several occasions to allude to the past, the slightest allusion would precipitate a conclusion, and destroy the sentiment of distrust that separated and rendered their companionship uncomfortable. But Alfred persistently avoided all allusion to the past. He was very attentive, and clearly preferred her to other girls, but their conversation was strictly formal, and Mildred could not account for this discrepancy. If he cared for her no longer, why did he pay her so much attention. If he did care for her, why did he not tell her so. The wall of formality with which he opposed her puzzled and irritated her. Often she thought it would be well to abandon the adventure, but at least, in her flirtations, she had not failed. She recalled the number of her victims, the young poets who used to come to see Helene; none had ever hesitated between them. She had only to hold up her little finger to get any one of them away from Helene. It was strange that Alfred remained cold; she knew he was not cold; she remembered the storm of their interview when she broke off her engagement five years ago.
He had grown stouter, he still wore a long black frock coat, and now looked like a policeman. His commonplace good looks had changed to a ponderous regularity of feature. But Alfred was instinctively a gentleman, and he made no allusion to her painting that might lead Mildred to suppose that he thought that she had failed. That a young girl like Mildred should have chosen to live with such people as the Delacours, worse still, to have wasted a large part of her fortune in their shocking paper, was a matter which he avoided as carefully as she would the Divorce Court, in the presence of a man whose wife has just left him. As for marrying Mildred he didn't know what to think. She was a pretty woman, and for him something of the old charm still lingered. But his practical mind saw the danger of taking so flighty a minded person into the respectability of a British home. He had loved her, he still liked her, he didn't mind admitting that, but he was no longer a fool about her. She had spent her money, nearly all of it, and he couldn't afford to marry a fortuneless girl. She would be an heiress if her brother died, and he might die at any moment, he suffered from heart disease. Alfred liked Harold, and did not wish his death, but if Harold did go off suddenly Alfred saw no reason why he should not ask Mildred to marry him. He liked her as well as any other girl; he thought he would make her a good husband, he would be able to manage her better than any other man, he was sure of that, because he understood her. She was a queer one: but he thought they'd get along all right. But all this was in the future, so long as Harold lived he'd keep on just as he was; if she met a man she liked better she could have him. He had got on very well without her for the last five years; there was no hurry, he could afford to wait if she couldn't. She had thrown him over to go to Paris to paint; she had come back a failure, and now she wanted him to marry, because it suited her convenience. She could wait.
Sometimes his mood was gentler. 'If she did throw me over it wasn't for any other fellow, she always had odd ideas. It was because she was clever. I never cared for any girl as I did for her. By Jove, I think I'd sooner marry her than any one else. I wish she hadn't spent all her money on that damned socialistic paper.'
At the thought of the paper Alfred's face clouded, and he remembered that Harold had gone into the house to get him a cigar: he was longing for a smoke. Mildred was standing at a little distance talking to a group of players who had just finished a set, and he was about to ask her where her brother was, when he thought he would go and look for Harold himself.
He passed up the lawn and entered the house by one of the bow windows. He examined the pictures in the drawing-room, as do those to whom artistic work conveys no sense of merit. 'He paid three hundred for that at the Academy, I hear. It does not look much—a woman standing by a tree. I suppose it is very good; it—must be good; but I think one might find a better way of spending three hundred pounds. And that landscape cost a hundred and fifty—a lake and a few rushes, not a figure in it. I should have made the fellow put some figures in it,— before I paid all that money. The frames are very handsome, I wonder where that fellow has got to.... He must be worth six thousand a year, people say eight, but I always make a rule to deduct. If he has six thousand a year, he ought surely to give his only sister ten thousand pounds. But that cigar—I am dying for a smoke. Where is he? What's he doing all this while? I'll try the smoking-room.'
The door was open, and the first thing Alfred saw was Harold sitting in a strange crumpled-up attitude on the sofa. He sat with his back to the light, and the room was lit only by one window. But, even so, Alfred could distinguish the strange pallor. 'Harold!' he called,— 'Harold!' Receiving no answer, he stepped forward hastily and took the dead man by the shoulders. 'Harold!' The cold of the dead hand answered him, and Alfred said, 'He's dead.'... Then afraid of mistake, he shook the corpse and looked into the glassy eyes and the wide open mouth. 'By Jove! He is dead, there can be no doubt. Heart disease. He must have fallen just as he was opening the cigar-box. He was alive a quarter of an hour ago. Perhaps he's not dead a couple of minutes. Dead a couple of minutes or dead a thousand years, it is all the same. I must call some one. I had better ring.' He laid his hand on the bell, and then paused.
'I hadn't thought of that. She is an heiress now—she is, there's no doubt. No one knows except me. No one saw me enter the house—no one; I might slip out and propose to her. I know she will accept me. If I don't propose now my chance will be lost, perhaps for ever. You can't propose to a girl immediately after her brother's death, particularly if his death makes her an heiress. Then, after the funeral, she may go away. She will probably go to London. I wouldn't give two pence for my chance. New influences! Besides, a girl with six thousand a year sees things in a very different light to a girl who has nothing, or next to nothing, even if it is the same girl. I shall lose her if I don't propose now. By Jove! What a chance! If I could only get out of this room without being seen! Hateful room! Curious place to choose to die in. Appropriate too—dark, gloomy, like a grave. I won't have it as a smoking-room. I'll put the smoking-room somewhere else. I wish that butler would stop moving about and get back to his pantry. Gad, supposing he were to catch me! I might be had up for murder. Awful! I had better ring the bell. If I do, I shall lose six thousand a year. A terrible game to play; but it is worth it. Here comes the butler.'
Alfred slipped behind the door and the servant passed up the passage without entering the room.
'By heavens, what a fool I am! What have I done? If I had been caught behind that door it would have gone hard with me. There would have been nothing for it but to have told the truth; that having accidentally found the brother dead, I was anxious to turn the discovery to account by proposing to the sister. I daresay I would be believed; improbable that I had murdered him. How still he does lie! Suppose he were only shamming. Oh, he is dead enough. I wish I were out of this room. Everything seems quiet now. I mustn't peep; I must walk boldly out, and take my chance. Not a sound.'
Alfred walked into the wide passage. He avoided the boarded places, selected the rugs and carpets to walk on, and so made his way into the drawing-room, and hence on to the lawn. Then he slipped down a secluded path, and returned to the tennis players from a different side.
'Where have you been?'
'I went for a stroll round the grounds. I thought you would not like my cigar, that was all.'
'Did Harold give you a cigar?'
'No, I have not seen him.'
'Let's go into the smoking-room and get one.'
'No, thank you, I really don't care to smoke. I'd sooner talk to you.'
'But you can do both.'
Alfred did not reply, and they walked down the pathway in silence. 'Good Heavens!' he thought, 'that cigar! If she insists on going to the smoking-room! I must say something, or she'll want to go and fetch a cigar. But I can't think of anything. How difficult it is to keep one's wits about one after what has happened.'
'Do let me fetch you a cigar.'
'No, I assure you, Miss Lawson, that I do not want to smoke. Let's play tennis.'
'Would you like to?'
'No, I don't think I should. I've no racquet, come for a walk instead.'
'I'll lend you my racquet. You said you'd like to play with me.'
'So I should another time; but now come and walk round the garden with me.'
'I am so sorry I can't; I have promised to play in this set; it will look so rude if I leave my guests.'
'Never mind being rude; it won't matter for once. Do this for me.'
Mildred looked up wistfully; then she said:
'Ethel and Mary, do you play Mr. Bates and Miss Shield. I will play in the next set; I am a little tired.'
The girls looked round knowingly, and Mildred and Alfred Stanby walked towards the conservatories.
Mildred sat in the long drawing-room writing. Not at the large writing-table in front of the window, but at an old English writing- desk, which had been moved from the corner where it had stood for generations. She bent over the little table. The paper-shaded lamp shed a soft and mellow light upon her vaporous hair, whitening the square white hands, till they seemed to be part of the writing paper.
Once or twice she stopped writing and dashed tears from her eyes with a quick and passionate gesture; and amid the rich shadows and the lines of light floating up the tall red curtains, the soft Carlo Dolce-like picture of the weary and weeping girl was impressive and beautiful.
The marble clock at length struck twelve short tingling sounds. Mildred closed the blotting-book. Then she closed the ink-stand, and went up the high staircase to her room.
A sensation of chilliness, of loneliness was about her, and when she came to her door she entered her room abruptly, as if she feared the dead man. And, standing in the middle of her room watching the yellow flame of the candle, she thought of him. She could see him pale and stark, covered by a sheet, the watchers on either side. She would like to go to him, but she feared the lonely passage. And she sat watching the bright sky; and, without belief or even hope, she wondered if Harold's spirit were far beyond those stars sitting with God in some auroral heaven amid aureoled saints and choirs of seraphim. But this dream did not detain her thoughts. They turned into remembrances of a kind-hearted city man who went to town every day by the ten minutes past nine train, who had taken the world as he found it, and who, unlike her, had never sought to be what he was not. Then her thoughts moved away from herself, and she feared that she had been a great trial to him. But regrets were vain, there was no use regretting; he was gone—she would hear no more of the ten minutes past nine. He would go to the city no more; and in a few years he would be forgotten by every one but her. How unutterably sad, how unspeakably sad, how unthinkingly sad it all seemed, and, oh, how commonplace. In a few years she, too, would be forgotten; in a few years they would lie in the same ground forgotten; it would be the same as if they had not lived at all.... How sad, how infinitely sad, how unthinkingly sad, and yet how common-place.
But what would happen in the few years that would intervene before she joined him in the earth! What? She had four thousand a year to dispose of as she pleased, to do with as she liked, but this fortune meant nothing to her. She had always had as much money as she had wanted. His purse had always been hers. Money did not bring happiness, at least it had not brought her happiness. And less now than ever would it bring her happiness, for she desired nothing; she had lived her life, there was nothing for her to do, she had tried and failed. She had tried everything, except marriage. Should she try that? She had promised Alfred that she would marry him. He had proposed to her that afternoon. One man dying, another proposing to marry. That was life. Every day the same situation. At this very moment, the same, and the same will continue till the end of time.
What is it that forces us to live? There is nothing to live for except trouble and misery, and yet we must live. What forces us to live? What makes us live? Enigma. Nature, whatever that may be, forces us to live, wills that we should live. 'And I, too, like millions of others must live. But how am I to live? How am I to fill my life? If we live we must find something to live for. Take a studio and paint bad pictures? I couldn't. Go back to Paris and start a salon? I wonder!'
Then the desire to weep overcame her, and, so as to be able to surrender herself wholly to grief and tears, she took off her gown and released herself of her stays. She put on an old wrapper and threw herself upon the floor. She threw herself over to this side and that; when she got to her feet her pocket-handkerchief was soaked, and she stood perplexed, and a little ashamed of this display of grief. For she was quite conscious of its seeming artificiality. Yet it was all quite real to her, only not quite real as she would have had it be. She had wept for herself and not for him! But no, it was not so; she had wept for them both. And she had taken off her gown, not because she was afraid of spoiling it, no such thought had crossed her brain; she did not care if she spoilt her dress or fifty dresses like it; no, it was not on account of the dress, but because she felt that she could find a fuller expression of grief in a loose wrapper than in a tight dress. That was the truth, she could not help things if they did seem a little incongruous. It was not her fault; she was quite sincere, though her grief to a third person might seem a little artificial. It was impossible to regret her brother more than she did. She would never forget him, no, not if they buried him ever so deep. She had been his little sister a long while; they had been children together. Since father and mother died they had been alone in the world. They had not understood each other very well; they were very different, but that had not prevented them loving each other very dearly. She did not know until this evening how dearly she loved him.
She sat down by the window, took a pensive attitude, and abandoned herself to the consideration of the pitifulness of life. She could see her life from end to end. Her father had died when she was quite a child, but she preserved a distinct impression of his death. She and her mother had come to pray by the bedside for a last time. The face of the corpse was covered with a handkerchief, and the nurse had warned her mother not to remove the handkerchief. But, in a paroxysm of grief, her mother had snatched the handkerchief away, and Mildred had been shocked by the altered face. Though she had hidden her face in her hands, the dead man's face had looked through, and she had felt nothing but disgust. Her mother's illness had been protracted, she and Harold had known that she was going to die for at least six months before, and they had come to talk about it as they would of the coming of summer or the approach of winter. They had got so accustomed to the thought that they used to find themselves making plans as to where they should go for a change when all was over. But, when the day came, Harold's resignation broke down, he was whelmed in grief for days and weeks. He had said to her:
'Mildred, if I had to remain here all day, I should go mad; it is my business in the city that keeps me alive.'
Her mother was a simple old lady, full of love for her children, Mildred had despised her mother, she had despised herself for her want of love, and she had envied Harold his sincere love for his mother. He had never, but she had always been aware of her mother's absurdity, and therefore could not grieve quite so sincerely as Harold. She had known all the while that her mother's death did not matter much. Very soon she would be forgotten even by Harold. He could not always grieve for her. She would become a faint memory, occupying less and less of their thoughts, exercising no perceptible influence upon their lives.
Mildred had always feared that she was without a heart, and the suspicion that she was heartless had always troubled her. In the course of their love-quarrels Morton had told her that her failure in painting was owing to her having no heart. She had felt that he was right. She had not loved painting for its own sake, but for the notoriety that she had hoped it would have brought her. She had never been carried away. She had tried to be religious; she had changed her religion. But she had never believed. There was no passion in her heart for God, and she had accepted literature just as she had accepted art. She had cared for literature only in proportion as literature helped her to social success. She had had to do something, literature was something, the Delacours were something, their newspaper was something, and the time in which her articles had appeared on the front page with her name at the bottom was the happiest in her life. She was some one in the Delacours' household, she was the pretty English girl who wrote French so well. She was some one, no one knew exactly what, a mysterious something, a thing apart, a thing in itself, and for which there was no match. She remembered the thrill of pleasure she had felt when some one said:
'Je suis sur Mademoiselle, quil n'a fas une Francaise qui occupe la mime position a Londres, que vous occupez a Paris?'
Self had been her ruin; she had never been able to get away from self, no, not for a single moment of her life. All her love stories had been ruined and disfigured by self-assertion, not a great unconscious self, in other words an instinct, but an extremely conscious, irritable, mean, and unworthy self. She knew it all, she was not deceived. She could no more cheat herself than she could change herself; that wretched self was as present in her at this moment as it had ever been; she was as much a slave to herself as she had ever been, and knowledge of her fault helped her nothing in its correction. She could not change herself, she would have to bear the burden of herself to the end. Even now, when she ought to be absorbed in grief for her brother's death she was thinking of herself, of how she should live, for live she must; she did not know why, she did not know how. She had tried everything and failed, and marriage stared her in the face as the only solution of the difficulty of her life. She had promised Alfred Stanby to marry him that afternoon. Should she keep that promise? Could she keep that promise? ... A thought fell into her mind. Did Alfred know of her brother's death when he proposed to her? She had heard something about a cigar; Harold had gone to the house to fetch one. A few minutes after she had seen Alfred walking towards the house. Had he gone to the smoking-room... found Harold dead on the sofa and come and proposed to her?
'It is my money and not myself that has tempted him back,' she cried, and she looked down the long line of her lovers. She had given her money to M. Delacour.... But no, he had loved her whatever the others might think, she knew that was so.... She could have had the Comte de la Ferriere, and how many others?—rich men, too—men to whom money was no consideration. But she had come back to Sutton to be married for her money; and to whom? an old, discarded lover.
As she tossed to and fro, the recollections of the day turned in her brain, ticking loudly; and she could see each event as distinctly as the figures on the dial of a great clock.
She saw the girls playing tennis, and Alfred walking towards the house.... She did not see him enter the house, it is true; but she had met him coming from the house. They had walked to the end of the garden, and had sat down under the elms not very far from the spot where she had rejected him five years before.
His hesitations had amused her. At last he had taken her hand and had asked her to marry him. There had been something strange in his manner. Something had struck her at the time, but the impression passed in the pride of seeing him fall a prey to her enchantment.
But it was her money that he was thinking of all the while.... She wondered if she was accusing him unjustly, and this led her into a long analysis of his character. 'But all this thinking leads nowhere,' she cried, throwing herself over in her hot bed. 'The mere probability that a man should marry me for my money would poison my whole life. But I shall have to marry some one.... I'm weary of my present life, and marriage is the only way of changing it. I cannot live alone, I'd have to take a companion; that would be odious. I am not suited to marriage; but from marriage there did not seem to be any escape. All girls must marry, rich and poor alike; there seems no escape, though it is impossible to say why. I have tried all my life to find escape from marriage, and here I am back at the same point. Everything comes back to the same point in the end. But whom am I to marry? Alfred? No, I could not marry a man whom I suspected was marrying me for my money. But how is one ever to know? ...'
She thought of Morton, and the remembrance of their life at Barbizon came upon her, actively as the odour of the lilies. He had loved her for herself; he had only thought of her.... He had always been nice, and she didn't know why she had spoken against him; it wasn't her fault.... Nor did she know why she had run away from Barbizon. Ah, those nights at Barbizon! those yellow moons shining upon the forest, upon the mist in the fields, and along the verge of the forest. Ah, how the scent of the fields and the forest used to fill their rooms at night, sweet influences, wonderful influences, which she would never forget.... This present night reminded her of the Barbizon nights. And as she got out of bed the sweetness of the syringa mingled with the sweetness of her body. She took a scarf from her wardrobe and wound it about her, because she feared a chill, and because she wished to look well as she stood in front of the soft night, calling upon her lover.
'Come,' she said. 'I'm waiting for you. Come, oh, my lover, and you'll find me no longer cold. I'm a Juliet burning for Romeo's kisses. My lover, my husband, come.... I have lived too long on the surface of things. I want to know life, to drink of life... and with you. Your Juliet awaits you; delay not, Romeo; come now, this very instant, or come not at all, for to-morrow instead of living fire, you may find dead ashes.'
She held her arms to the night, and the scents of night mingled with the passion of her bosom. But a wind rustled the leaves in the garden, and, drawing the scarf tightly about her, she said: 'Should I have turned from him if he had come, I wonder? Why should the idea transport, and the reality extinguish? Why cannot I live in natural instinct? ... I can, I will.... Morton shall come back.... He has not married Rose Turner; I should have heard of it if he had.... I've only to hold up my finger, and he will come back. But if I did get him back, and he did propose, how do I know that it would not be for my money? A love once dead cannot be revived; nothing ever happens twice.'
She crept back to her bed, cold and despondent. The passing passion she had felt for Morton was but a passing sensation of the summer night, as transient as the snatches of perfume which the night wind carried into the room. Again she cared for nothing in the world. She did not know what was going to become of her; the burden of life seemed so unbearable; she felt so unhappy. She lay quite still, with her eyes wide open, seeing the questions go round like the hands of a clock; the very words sounded as loud and distinct in her brain as the ticking of a clock. Her nerves were shattered, and life grew terribly distinct in the insomnia of the hot summer night. ... She threw herself over and over in her burning bed until at last her soul cried out of its lucid misery: 'Give me a passion for God or man, but give me a passion. I cannot live without one.'
Mrs. Norton walked with her quiet, decisive step to the window, and holding the gold-rimmed glasses to her eyes, she looked into the landscape. The day was grimy with clouds; mist had risen, and it hung out of the branches of the elms like a grey veil. She was a woman of forty-five, tall, strongly-built, her figure setting to the squareness of middle age. Her complexion was flushed, and her cold grey eyes were close together above a long thin nose. Her fashionably-cut silk fitted perfectly; the skirt was draped with grace and precision of style, and the glossy shawl with the long soft fringe fell gracefully over her shoulders. 'Surely,' she thought, 'he cannot have been foolish enough to have walked over the downs such a day as this;' then, raising her glasses again, she looked out at the smallest angle with the wall of the house, so that she should get sight of a vista through which any one coming from Shoreham would have to pass. At that moment a silhouette appeared on the sullen sky. Mrs. Norton moved precipitately from the window, and rang the bell.
'James,' she said, 'Mr. Hare has been going in for one of his long walks. He is coming across the park. I am sure he has walked over the downs; if so, he must be wet through. Have a fire lighted, and put out a pair of slippers for him: Here is the key of Mr. Norton's wardrobe; let Mr. Hare have what he wants.'
And having detached a key from one of the many bunches which filled her basket, Mrs. Norton went herself to open the door to her visitor. He was, however, still some distance away, and it was not until he climbed the iron fence which separated the park from the garden grounds that the figure grew into its individuality, into a man of about fifty, about the medium height, inclined to stoutness. His white neck-tie proclaimed him a parson, and the grey mud with which his boots were bespattered told of his long walk.
'You are quite right, Lizzie, you are quite right,' he said; 'I shouldn't have done it. Had I known what a state the roads were in, I wouldn't have attempted it.'
'If you don't know what these roads are like in winter by this time, you never will.'
'I never saw them in the state they are now; such a slush of chalk and clay was never seen.' 'What can you expect after a month of heavy rain? You are wringing wet.'
'Yes, I was caught in a heavy shower as I was crossing over by Fresh- Combe-bottom. I am certainly not in a fit state to come into your dining-room.'
'I should think not, indeed! I really believe, if I were to allow it, you would sit the whole afternoon in your wet clothes. You'll find everything ready for you in John's room. I'll give you ten minutes. I'll tell them to bring up lunch in ten minutes. Stay, will you have a glass of wine before going upstairs?'
'I am afraid of spoiling your carpet.'
'Yes, indeed! not one step further! I'll fetch it for you.'
When the parson had drunk the wine, and was following the butler upstairs, Mrs. Norton returned to the dining-room with the empty glass in her hand. She placed it on the chimney-piece; she stirred the fire, and her thoughts flowed pleasantly as she dwelt on the kindness of her old friend. They had known each other since they were children, and had lived for twenty years separated only by a strip of downland.
'He only got my note this morning,' she mused. 'I wonder if he will be able to persuade John to return home.'
And now, maturing her plans for getting her boy back, she stood by the black mantelpiece, her head leaning on her hand. She uttered an exclamation when Mr. Hare entered.
'What,' she said, 'you haven't changed your things, and I told you you would find a suit of John's clothes. I must insist—'
'My dear Lizzie, no amount of insistence would get me into a pair of John's trousers. I am thirteen stone and a half, and he is not much over ten.'
'Ah! I had forgotten; but what are you to do? Something must be done; you will catch your death of cold if you remain in your wet clothes.... You are wringing wet.'
'No, I assure you, I am not. My feet were a little wet, but I have changed my stockings and shoes. And now, tell me, Lizzie, what there is for lunch,' he said, speaking rapidly to silence Mrs. Norton, who he saw was going to protest again.
'There is chicken and some curried rabbit, but I am afraid you will suffer for it if you remain the whole of the afternoon in those wet clothes; I really cannot, I will not allow it.'
'My dear Lizzie, my dear Lizzie,' cried the parson, laughing all over his rosy-skinned and sandy-whiskered face, 'I must beg of you not to excite yourself. Give me a wing of that chicken. James, I'll take a glass of sherry... and while I am eating you shall explain the matter you are minded to consult me on, and I will advise you to the best of my power, and then start on my walk across the hills.'
'What! you mean to say you are going to walk home? ... We shall have another downpour presently.'
'I cannot come to much harm so long as I am walking, whereas if I drove home in your carriage I might catch a chill.... It is at least ten miles to Shoreham by the road, while across the hills it is not more than six.'
'Six! it is eight if it is a yard!'
'Well, perhaps it is; but tell me, I am curious to hear what you want to talk to me about.... Something about John, is it not?'
'Of course it is; what else have I to think about? what else concerns middle-aged people like you and me but our children? Of course I want to talk to you about John. Something must be done; things cannot go on as they are. Why, it is nearly two years since he has been home. Why does he not come and live at his own beautiful place? Why does he not take up his position in the county? He is not a magistrate. Why does he not marry? ... he is the last; there is no one to follow him.'
'Do you think he'll never marry?'
'I'm afraid not.'
'Does he give any reason?'
'He says that he's afraid that a woman might prove a disturbing influence in his life.'
'And what did you say to that?'
'I told him that he was the last, and that it was his duty to marry.'
'I don't think that women present any attraction to him. In a way that is a matter of congratulation.'
'I would much sooner he were wild, like other young men. Young men get over those kind of faults, but he'll never get over his.'
Mr. Hare looked as if he thought these opinions were of a doubtful orthodoxy.
'He is quite different,' he said, 'from other young men. I never remember having seen him pay any woman the least attention. When he speaks of women it is only to sneer.'
'He does that to annoy me.'
'Do you think so? I was afraid it was owing to a natural dislike.' The conversation paused for a moment, and then Mr. Hare said:
'Have you had any news of him lately?'
'Yes, he wrote yesterday, but he did not speak of coming home.'
'What did he say?'
'He said he was meditating a book on the works of bishops and monks who wrote Latin in the early centuries. He has put up a thirteenth century window in the chapel, and he wants me to go up to London to make inquiries about organs. He is prepared to go as far as a thousand pounds. Did you ever hear of such a thing? Those Jesuits are encouraging him. Of course it would just suit them if he became a priest—nothing would suit them better; the whole property would fall into their hands. Now, what I want you to do, my dear friend, is to go to Stanton College to-morrow, or next day, as soon as you possibly can, and to talk to John. You must tell him how unwise it is to spend fifteen hundred pounds in one year building organs and putting up windows. His intentions are excellent, but his estate won't bear such extravagances; and everybody here thinks he is such a miser. I want you to tell him that he should marry. Just fancy what a terrible thing it would be if the estate passed away to distant relatives—to those terrible cousins of ours.'
'This is very serious.'
'Yes, it is very serious. If it weren't very serious I should not have put you to the trouble of coming over here to-day.'
'There was no trouble; I was glad of the walk. But I don't see how I am to advise you in this matter.'
'I don't want advice. It is John who wants advice. Will you go to Stanton College and talk to him?'
'What am I to say?'
'Tell him it is his duty to return home, to settle down and marry.'
'I don't think John would listen to me—it would not be prudent to speak to him in that way. He is not the sort of man who allows himself to be driven. But I might suggest that he should come home.'
'He certainly should come home for Christmas—-'
'Very well, Lizzie, that's what I'll say. I have not seen him for five years. The last time he was here I was away. I don't think it would be a bad notion to suggest that the Jesuits are after his money—that they are endeavouring to inveigle him into the priesthood in order that they may get hold of his property.'
'No, no; you must not say such a thing. I will not have you say anything against his religion. I was very wrong to suggest such a thing. I am sure no such idea ever entered the Jesuits' heads. Perhaps I am wrong to send you.... But I want you to try to get him to come home. Try to get him to come home for Christmas.'
In large serpentine curves the road wound through a wood of small beech trees—so small that in the November dishevelment the plantations were like brushwood; and lying behind the wind-swept opening were gravel walks, and the green spaces of the cricket field with a solitary divine reading his breviary. The drive turned and turned again in great sloping curves; more divines were passed, and then there came a terrace with a balustrade and a view of the open country. The high red walls of the college faced bleak terraces: a square tower squatted in the middle of the building, and out of it rose the octagon of the bell-tower, and in the tower wall was the great oak door studded with great nails.
'How Birmingham the whole place does look,' thought Mr. Hare, as he laid his hand on an imitation mediaeval bell-pull.
'Is Mr. John Norton at home?' he asked when the servant came. 'Will you give him my card, and say that I should like to see him.'
On entering, Mr. Hare found himself in a tiled hall, around which was built a staircase in varnished oak. There was a quadrangle, and from three sides latticed windows looked on greensward; on the fourth there was an open corridor, with arches to imitate a cloister. All was strong and barren, and only about the varnished staircase was there any sign of comfort. There the ceiling was panelled in oak; and the banisters, the cocoa-nut matting, the bit of stained glass, and the religious prints, suggested a mock air of hieratic dignity. And the room Mr. Hare was shown into continued this impression. Cabinets in carved oak harmonised with high-backed chairs glowing with red Utrecht velvet, and a massive table, on which lay a folio edition of St. Augustine's City of God and the Epistolae Consolitoriae of St. Jerome.
The bell continued to clang, and through the latticed windows Mr. Hare watched the divines hurrying along the windy terrace, and the tramp of the boys going to their class-rooms could be heard in passages below. Then a young man entered. He was thin, and he was dressed in black. His face was Roman, the profile especially was what you might expect to find on a Roman coin—a high nose, a high cheekbone, a strong chin, and a large ear. The eyes were prominent and luminous, and the lower part of the face was expressive of resolution and intelligence, but the temples retreated rapidly to the brown hair which grew luxuriantly on the top of the head. The mouth was large, the lips were thick, dim in colour, undefined in shape. The hands were large, powerful, and grasping; they were earthly hands; they were hands that could take and could hold, and their materialism was curiously opposed to the ideality of the eyes—an ideality that touched the confines of frenzy. The shoulders were square and carried well back, the head was round, with close-cut hair, the straight falling coat was buttoned high, and the fashionable collar, with a black satin cravat, beautifully tied and relieved with a rich pearl pin, set another unexpected detail to an aggregate of apparently irreconcilable characteristics.
'And how do you do, my dear Mr. Hare? Who would have expected to see you here? I am so glad.'
These words were spoken frankly and cordially, and there was a note of mundane cheerfulness in the voice which did not quite correspond with the sacerdotal elegance of this young man. Then he added quickly, as if to save himself from asking the reason of this very unexpected visit:
'You'll stay and dine? I'll show you over the college: you have never been here before.... Now I come to reckon it up, I find I have not seen you for nearly five years.'
'It must be very nearly that; I missed you the last time you were at Thornby Place, and that was three years ago.'
'Three years! It sounds very shocking, doesn't it, to have a beautiful place in Sussex and not to live there?'
The conversation paused a moment, and then John said:
'But you did not travel two hundred miles to see Stanton College. You have, I fear, messages for me from my mother.'
'It is at her request I am here.'
'Quite so. You're here to advise me to return home and accept the marriage state.'
'It is only natural that your mother should wish you to marry.'
'Her determination to get me married is one of the reasons why I am here. My mother will not recognise my right to live my life in my own fashion. When she learns to respect my opinions I will return home. I wish you would impress that upon her. I wish you would try to get her to understand that.'
'I will tell your mother what you say. It would be well for her to know why you choose to live here. I agree with you that no one but ourselves can determine what duties we should accept.'
'Ah! if you would only explain that to my mother. You have expressed my feelings exactly. I have no pity for those who take up burdens and then say they are not fitted to carry them. And now that disagreeable matter is settled, come and I will show you over the college.'
The two men descended the staircase into the long stony corridor. There were pictures along the walls of the corridor—pictures of upturned faces and clasped hands—and these drew words of commiseration for the artistic ignorance of the college authorities from John's lips.
'And they actually believe that that dreadful monk with the skull is a real Ribera.... The chapel is on the right, the refectory on the left. Come, let us see the chapel; I am anxious to hear what you think of my window.'
'It ought to be very handsome; it cost five hundred, did it not?'
'No, not quite so much as that,' John answered abruptly; and then, passing through the communion rails, they stood under the multi- coloured glory of three bishops. Mr. Hare felt that a good deal of rapture was expected of him; but in his efforts to praise he felt that he was exposing his ignorance. John called his attention to the transparency of the green-watered skies; and turning their backs on the bishops, the blue ceiling with the gold stars was declared, all things considered, to be in excellent taste. The benches in the body of the church were for the boys; the carved chairs set along both walls, between the communion rails and the first steps of the altar, were for the divines. The president and vice-president knelt facing each other. The priests, deacons, and sub-deacons followed, according to their rank. There were slenderer benches, and these were for the choir; and from the great gold lectern the leader conducted the singing.
The side altar, with the Turkey carpet spread over the steps, was St. George's, and further on, in an addition made lately, there were two more altars, dedicated respectively to the Virgin and St. Joseph,
'The maid-servants kneel in that corner. I have often suggested that they should be moved out of sight.'
'Why would you remove them out of sight? You will not deny their right to hear Mass?'
'Of course not. But it seems to me that they would be better away. They present a temptation where there are a number of young men about. I have noticed that some of the young men look round when the maid- servants come into church. I have overheard remarks too.... I know not what attraction they can find in such ugliness. It is beastly.'
'Maid-servants are not attractive; but if they were princesses you would dislike them equally. The severest moralists are those who have never known the pain of temptation.'
'Perhaps the severest moralists are those who have conquered their temptations.'
'Then you have been tempted!'
John's face assumed a thoughtful expression, and he said:
'I'm not going to tell you my inmost soul. This I can say, if I have had temptations I have conquered them. They have passed away.'
The conversation paused, and, in a silence which was pregnant with suggestion, they went up to the organ-loft, and he depreciated the present instrument and enlarged upon some technical details anent the latest modern improvements in keys and stops. He would play his setting of St. Ambrose's hymn, 'Veni redemptor gentium,' if Mr. Hare would go to the bellows; and feeling as if he were being turned into ridicule, Mr. Hare took his place at the handle.
In the sacristy the consideration of the censers, candle-sticks, chalices, and albs took some time, and John was a little aggressive in his explanation of Catholic ceremonial, and its grace and comeliness compared with the stiffness and materialism of the Protestant service. Handsome lads of sixteen were chosen for acolytes; the torch-bearers were selected from the smallest boys, the office of censer was filled by himself, and he was also the chief sacristan, and had charge of the altar plate and linen and the vestments.
In answer to Mr. Hare, who asked him if he did not weary of the narrowness of ecclesiastical life, John said that when the desire of travel came upon him, he had to consult no one's taste or convenience but his own, merely to pack his portmanteau. Last year he had been through Russia, and had enjoyed his stay in Constantinople. And while speaking of the mosques he said that he had had an ancestor who had fought in the crusades. Perhaps it was from him he had inherited his love and comprehension of Byzantine art—he did not say so, but it might be so; one of the mysteries of atavism! Who shall say where they end?
'You would have liked to have fought in the crusades?'
'Yes, I think that I should have made a good knight. The hardships they underwent were no doubt quite extraordinary. But I am strong; my bones are heavy; my chest is deep; I can bear a great deal of fatigue.'
Then laughing lightly he said:
'You can't imagine me as a knight on the way to the Grail.'
'Why not? I think you would have acquitted yourself very well.'
'The crusades were once as real in life as tennis parties are to-day; and I think infinitely more beautiful.'
'You would not have fought in the tournaments for a lady love?'
'Perhaps not; I should have fought for the Grail, like Parsifal. I was at Bayreuth last year. But Bayreuth is no longer what it was. Popular innovations have been introduced into the performances. Would you believe it, the lovely music in the cupola, written by Wagner for boys' voices, is now sung by women.'
'Surely a woman's voice is finer than a boy's.'
'It is more powerful, of course; but it has not the same quality—the timbre is so much grosser. Besides, women's voices are opposed to the ecclesiastical spirit.'
'How closely you do run your hobby.'
'No; in art I have no prejudices; I recognise the beauty of a woman's voice in its proper place—in opera. It is as inappropriate to have Palestrina sung by women as it would be to have Brunnhilde and Isolde sung by boys—at least so it seems to me. I was at Cologne last year— that is the only place where you can hear Palestrina. I was very lucky—I heard the great Mass, the Mass of Pope Marcellus. Wagner's music in the cupola is very lovely, but it does not compare with Palestrina.'
From the sacristy they went to the boys' library, and while affecting to take an interest in the books Mr. Hare continued to encourage John to talk of himself. Did he never feel lonely?
'No, I do not know what it is to feel lonely. In the morning I write; I ride in the afternoon; I read in the evening. I read a great deal— literature and music.'
'But when you go abroad you go alone—do you feel no need of a companion? Do you never make acquaintances when you go abroad?'
'People don't interest me. I am interested in things much more than in people—in pictures, in music, in sculpture. When I'm abroad I like the streets, I like to see people moving about, I like to watch the spectacle of life, but I do not care to make acquaintances. As I grow older it seems to me that a process of alienation is going on between me and others.'
They stopped on the landings of the staircases; they lingered in the passages, and, speaking of his admiration of the pagan world, John said: 'It knew how to idealise, it delighted in the outward form, but it raised it, invested it with a sense of aloofness.... You know what I mean.' He looked inquiringly at Mr. Hare, and, gesticulating with his fingers, said, 'You know what I mean.' 'A beyond?'
'Yes; that's the word—a beyond. There must be a beyond. In Wagner there is none. That is his weakness. He is too perfect. Never since the world began did an artist realise himself so completely. He achieved all he desired, therefore something is wanting. A beyond is wanting.... I do not say that I have changed my opinion regarding Wagner, I still admire him: but I no longer accept his astonishing ingenuities for inspiration. No, I'm not afraid to say it, I bar nearly the whole first act of Parsifal. For instance, Gurnemanz's long narrative, into which is introduced all the motives of the opera—is merely beautiful musical handicraft, and I cannot accept handicraft, however beautiful, for inspiration. I rank much higher the entrance of Kundry—her evocation of Arabia.... That is a real inspiration! The over-praised choruses are beautiful, but again I have to make reservations. These choruses are, you know, divided into three parts. The chorus of the knights is ordinary enough, the chorus of the young men I like better, but I can only give my unqualified admiration to the chorus of the children. Again, the chorus of the young girls in the second act is merely beautiful writing, and there is no real inspiration until we get to the great duet between Kundry and Parsifal. The moment Kundry calls to Parsifal, "Parsifal... Remain!" those are the words, I think, Wagner inspiration begins, then he is profound, then he says interesting things.' John opened the door of his room.
In the centre of the floor was an oak table—a table made of sharp slabs of oak laid upon a frame that was evidently of ancient design, probably early German, a great, gold screen sheltered a high canonical chair with elaborate carvings, and on a reading-stand close by lay the manuscript of a Latin poem.
The parson looked round for a seat, but the chairs were like cottage stools on high legs, and the angular backs looked terribly knife-like.
'Shall I get you a pillow from the next room? Personally I cannot bear upholstery. I cannot conceive anything more hideous than a padded armchair. All design is lost in that infamous stuffing. Stuffing is a vicious excuse for the absence of design. If upholstery were forbidden by law to-morrow, in ten years we should have a school of design. Then the necessity of composition would be imperative.'
'I daresay there is a good deal in what you say; but tell me, don't you find these chairs very uncomfortable? Don't you think that you would find a good comfortable arm-chair very useful for reading purposes?'
'No, I should feel far more uncomfortable on a cushion than I do on this bit of hard oak. Our ancestors had an innate sense of form that we have not. Look at these chairs, nothing can be plainer; a cottage stool is hardly more simple, and yet they are not offensive to the eye. I had them made from a picture by Albert Durer.'
Mr. Hare smoked in silence, uncertain how far John was in earnest, how far he was assuming an attitude of mind. Presently he walked over to the book-cases. There were two: one was filled with learned-looking volumes bearing the names of Latin authors; and the parson, who prided himself on his Latinity, was surprised, and a little nettled, to find so much ignorance proved upon him. With Tertullian, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, he was acquainted, but of Lactantius Hibernicus Exul, Angilbert, he was obliged to admit he knew nothing—even the names were unknown to him.
In the book-case on the opposite side of the room there were complete editions of Landor and Swift, then came two large volumes on Leonardo da Vinci. Raising his eyes, the parson read through the titles: Browning's works; Tennyson in a cheap seven-and-six edition; Swinburne, Pater, Rossetti, Morris, two novels by Rhoda Broughton, Dickens, Thackeray, Fielding, and Smollett; the complete works of Balzac, Gautier's Emaux et Camees, Salammbo, L'Assommoir; Carlyle, Newman, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and the dramatists of the Restoration.
At the end of a long silence Mr. Hare said glancing once again at the Latin authors, and walking towards the fire:
"Tell me, John, are those the books you are writing about? Supposing you explain to me, in a few words, the line you are taking. Your mother tells me that you intend to call your book the History of Christian Latin."
"Yes, I had thought of using that title, but I am afraid it is a little too ambitious. To write the history of a literature extending over at least eight centuries would entail an appalling amount of reading; and besides, only a few, say a couple of dozen writers out of some hundreds, are of the slightest literary interest, and very few indeed of any real aesthetic value.
"Ah!" he said, as his eye lighted on a certain name, 'here is Marbodius, a great poet; how well he understood women! Listen to this:
'"Femina, dulce malum, pariter favus atque venenum, Melle linens gladium cor confodit et sapientum. Quis suasit primo vetitum gustare parenti? Femina. Quis partem natas vitiare coegit? Femina. Quis fortem spoliatum crine peremit? Femina. Quis justi sacrum caput ense recidit? Femina, quae matris cumulavit crimine crimen, Incestum gravem graviori caede notavit....
"Chimeram Cui non immerito fertur data forma triformis, Nam pars prima leo, pars ultima cauda draconis, Et mediae partes nil sunt nisi fervidus ignis."'
'Well, of course, that quite carries out your views of women. And now tell me what I am to say to your mother. Will you come home for Christmas?'
'I suppose I must. I suppose it would seem unkind if I didn't. I wonder why I dislike the place? I cannot think of it without a revulsion of feeling.'
'I won't argue that point with you, but I think you ought to come home.'
'Why come home? Come home and marry my neighbour's daughter—one of those Austin girls, for instance? Fancy my settling down to live with one them, and undertaking to look after her all my life; walking after her carrying a parasol and a shawl. Don't you see the ludicrous side? I always see a married man carrying a parasol and a shawl—a parasol and a shawl, the symbols of his office.' John laughed loudly.
'The swinging of a censer and the chanting of Latin responses are equally absurd if—'
'Do you think so?'
'Ritual is surely not the whole of religion?'
'No. But we were speaking of several rituals, and Catholic ritual seems to me more dignified than that of the shawl and parasol. The social life of the nineteenth century, that is to say, drawing-rooms, filled with half-dressed women, present no attraction for me. You and my mother think because I do not wish to marry and spend some small part of my time in this college that I intend to become a priest. Marry and bring up children, or enter the Church! There is nothing between, so you say, having regard for my Catholicism. But there is an intermediate state, the onlooker. However strange it may seem to you, I do assure you that no man in the world has less vocation for the priesthood than I. I am merely an onlooker, the world is my monastery. I am an onlooker.'
'Is not that a very selfish attitude?'
'My attitude is this. There is a mystery. No one denies that. An explanation is necessary, and I accept the explanation offered by the Roman Catholic Church. I obey Her in all her instruction for the regulation of life; I shirk nothing, I omit nothing, I allow nothing to come between me and my religion. Whatever the Church says I believe, and so all responsibility is removed from me. But this is an attitude of mind which you as a Protestant cannot sympathise with.'
'I know, my dear John, I know your life is not a dissolute one; but your mother is very anxious—remember you are the last. Is there no chance of your ever marrying?'
'I fear I am not suited to married life. There is a better and a purer life to lead... an inner life, coloured and permeated with feelings and tones that are intensely our own. He who may live this life shrinks from any adventitious presence that might jar it.'
'Maybe, it certainly would take too long to discuss—I should miss my train. But tell me, are you coming home for Christmas?'
'Yes, yes; I have some estate business to see to. I shall be home for Christmas. As for your train ... will find out all about your train presently... you must stay to dinner.'
'I was very much alarmed, my dear John, about your not sleeping. Mr. Hare told me you said that you went two or three nights without closing your eyes, and that you had to have recourse to sleeping draughts.'
'Not at all, mother, I never took a sleeping draught but twice in my life.'
'Well, you don't sleep well, and I am sure it is those college beds. But you will be far more comfortable here. You are in the best bedroom in the house, the one in front of the staircase, the bridal chamber; and I have selected the largest and softest feather-bed in the house.'
'My dear mother, if there is one thing more than another I dislike, it is a feather-bed. I should not be able to close my eyes; I beg of you to have it taken away.'
Mrs. Norton's face flushed. 'I cannot understand, John; it is absurd to say that you cannot sleep on a feather-bed. Mr. Hare told me you complained of insomnia, and there is no surer way of losing your health. It is owing to the hardness of those college mattresses, whereas in a feather-bed—'
'There is no use in our arguing that point, mother. I say I cannot sleep on a feather-bed—-'
'But you have not tried one; I don't believe you ever slept on a feather-bed in your life.'
'Well, I am not going to begin now.'
'We haven't another bed aired, and it is really too late to ask the servants to change your room.'
'Well, then, I shall be obliged to sleep at the hotel in Henfield.'
'You should not speak to your mother in that way; I will not have it.'
'There! you see we are quarrelling already; I did wrong to come home.'
'It was not to please me that you came home. You were afraid if you didn't you mightn't find another tenant for the Beeding farm. You were afraid you might have it on your hands. It was self-interest that brought you home. Don't try to make me believe it wasn't.'
Then the conversation drifted into angry discussion.
'You are not even a J. P., but there will be no difficulty about that; you must make application to the Lord-Lieutenant.... You have not seen any of the county people for years. We'll have the carriage out some day this week, and we'll pay a round of visits.'
'We'll do nothing of the kind. I have no time for visiting; I must get on with my book. I hope to finish my study of St. Augustine before I leave here. I have my books to unpack, and a great deal of reading to get through. I have done no more than glance at the Anglo-Latin. Literature died in France with Gregory of Tours at the end of the sixth century; with St. Gregory the Great, in Italy, at the commencement of the seventh century; in Spain about the same time. And then the Anglo-Saxons became the representatives of the universal literature. All this is most important. I must re-read St. Aldhelm.'
'Now, sir, we have had quite enough of that, and I would advise you not to go on with any of that nonsense here; you will be turned into dreadful ridicule.'
'That's just why I wish to avoid them. Just fancy my having to listen to them! What is the use of growing wheat when we are only getting eight pounds ten a load? ... But we must grow something, and there is nothing else but wheat. We must procure a certain amount of straw, or we'd have no manure. I don't believe in the fish manure. But there is market gardening, and if we kept shops at Brighton, we could grow our own stuff and sell it at retail price.... And then there is a great deal to be done with flowers.'
'Now, sir, that will do, that will do.... How dare you speak to me so! I will not allow it.' And then relapsing into an angry silence, Mrs. Norton drew her shawl about her shoulders.
'Why will she continue to impose her will upon mine? Why has she not found out by this time the uselessness of her effort? She hopes at last to wear me down. She wants me to live the life she has marked out for me to live—to take up my position in the county, and, above all, to marry and give her an heir to the property. I see it all; that is why she wanted me to spend Christmas with her; that is why she has Kitty Hare here to meet me. How cunning, how mean women are! a man would not do that. Had I known it.... I have a mind to leave to- morrow. I wonder if the girl is in the little conspiracy.' And turning his head he looked at her.
Tall and slight, a grey dress, pale as the wet sky, fell from her waist outward in the manner of a child's frock. There was a lightness, there was brightness in the clear eyes. The intense youth of her heart was evanescent; it seemed constantly rising upwards like the breath of a spring morning. The face sharpened to a tiny chin, and the face was pale, although there was bloom on the cheeks. The forehead was shadowed by a sparkling cloud of brown hair, the nose was straight, and each little nostril was pink tinted. The ears were like shells. There was a rigidity in her attitude. She laughed abruptly, perhaps a little nervously, and the abrupt laugh revealed the line of tiny white teeth. Thin arms fell straight to the translucent hands, and there was a recollection of Puritan England in look and in gesture. Her picturesqueness calmed John's ebullient discontent; he decided that she knew nothing of, and was not an accomplice in, his mother's scheme. And, for the sake of his guest, he strove to make himself agreeable during dinner, but it was clear that he missed the hierarchy of the college table. The conversation fell repeatedly. Mrs. Norton and Kitty spoke of making syrup for bees; and their discussion of the illness of poor Dr.—-, who would no longer be able to get through the work of the parish single-handed, and would require a curate, was continued till the ladies rose from the table. Nor did matters mend in the library. The room seemed to him intolerably uncomfortable and ugly, and he went to the billiard-room to smoke a cigar. It was not clear to him that he would be able to spend two months in Thornby Place. If every evening passed like the present, it were a modern martyrdom.... But had they removed the feather-bed? He went upstairs. The feather-bed had been removed. But the room was draped with many curtains—pale curtains covered with walking birds and falling petals, a sort of Indian pattern. There was a sofa at the foot of the bed, and a toilet table hung out its skirts in the light of the fire. He thought of his ascetic college bed, of the great Christ upon the wall, of the prie-dieu with the great rosary hanging. To lie in this great bed seemed ignoble; and he could not rid his mind of the distasteful feminine influences which had filled the day, and which now haunted the night.
After breakfast next morning Mrs. Norton stopped John as he was going upstairs to unpack his books. 'Now,' she said, 'you must go out for a walk with Kitty Hare, and I hope you will make yourself agreeable. I want you to see the new greenhouse I have put up; she'll show it to you. And I told the bailiff to meet you in the yard. I thought you would like to see him.'
'I wish, mother, you would not interfere in my business; had I wanted to see Burns I should have sent for him.'
'If you don't want to see him, he wants to see you. There are some cottages on the farm that must be put into repair at once. As for interfering in your business, I don't know how you can talk like that; were it not for me the whole place would be falling to pieces.'
'Quite true; I know you save me a great deal of expense; but really—'
'Really what? You won't go out to walk with Kitty Hare?'
'I did not say I wouldn't, but I must say that I am very busy just now. I had thought of doing a little reading, for I have an appointment with my solicitor in the afternoon.'
'That man charges you 200 pounds a year for collecting the rents; now, if you were to do it yourself, you would save the money, and it would give you something to do.'
'Something to do! I have too much to do as it is.... But if I am going out with Kitty I may as well go at once. Where is she?'
'I saw her go into the library a moment ago.'
It was preferable to go for a walk with Kitty than to continue the interview with his mother. John seized his hat and called Kitty, Kitty, Kitty! Presently she appeared, and they walked towards the garden, talking. She told him she had been at Thornby Place the whole time the greenhouse was being built, and when they opened the door they were greeted by Sammy, He sprang instantly on her shoulder.
'This is my cat,' she said. 'I've fed him since he was a little kitten; isn't he sweet?'
The girl's beauty appeared on the brilliant flower background; and the boyish slightness of her figure led John to think of a statuette done in a period of Greek decadence. 'Others,' he thought, 'would only see her as a somewhat too thin example of English maidenhood. I see her quite differently.' And when her two tame rooks alighted at her feet, he said:
'I wonder how you can let them come near you.'
'Why not; don't you like birds?'
'No, they frighten me; there's something electric about birds.'
'Poor little things, they fell out of the nest before they could fly, and I brought them up. You don't care for pets?'
'I don't like birds. I couldn't sit in a room with a large bird. There's something in the sensation of feathers I can't bear.'
'Don't like birds! Why, that seems as if you said that you didn't like flowers.'
And while the young squire talked to his bailiff Kitty fed her rooks. They cawed, and flew to her hand for the scraps of meat. The coachman came to speak about oats and straw. They went to the stables. Kitty adored horses, and it amused John to see her pat them, and her vivacity and light-heartedness rather pleased him than otherwise.
Nevertheless, during the whole of the following week the ladies held little communication with John. In the morning he went out with his bailiffs to inspect farms and consult about possible improvement and necessary repairs. He had appointments with his solicitor. There were accounts to be gone through. He never paid a bill without verifying every item. At four o'clock he came in to tea, his head full of calculations of such complex character that even his mother could not follow the different statements to his satisfaction. When she disagreed with him he took up the Epistles of St. Columban of Bangor the Epistola ad Sethum, or the celebrated poem, Epistola ad Fedolium, written when the saint was seventy-two, and continued his reading, making copious notes in a pocket-book.
On the morning of the meet of the hounds he was called an hour earlier. He drank a cup of tea and ate a piece of dry toast in a back room. The dining-room was full of servants, who laid out a long table rich with comestibles and glittering with glass. Mrs. Norton and Kitty were upstairs dressing.
He wandered into the drawing-room and viewed the dead, cumbrous furniture; the two cabinets bright with brass and veneer. He stood at the window staring. It was raining. The yellow of the falling leaves was hidden in grey mist. 'This weather will keep many away; so much the better; there will be too many as it is. I wonder who this can be.' A melancholy brougham passed up the drive. There were three old maids, all looking sweetly alike; one was a cripple who walked with crutches, and her smile was the best and the gayest imaginable smile.
'How little material welfare has to do with our happiness,' thought John. 'There is one whose path is the narrowest, and she is happier and better than I.' And then the three sweet old maids talked with their cousin of the weather; and they all wondered—a sweet feminine wonderment—if he would see a girl that day whom he would marry.
Presently the house was full of people. The passage was full of girls; a few men sat at breakfast at the end of the long table. Some red- coats passed. The huntsman stopped in front of the house, the dogs sniffed here and there, the whips trotted their horses and drove them back. 'Get together, get together; get back there! Woodland Beauty, come up here.' The hounds rolled on the grass and leaned their fore- paws on the railings, willing to be caressed.
'Now, John, try and make yourself agreeable; go over and talk to some of the young ladies. Why do you dress yourself in that way? Have you no other coat? You look like a young priest. Look at that young man over there; how nicely dressed he is! I wish you would let your moustache grow; it would improve you immensely.' With these and similar remarks whispered to him, Mrs. Norton continued to exasperate her son until the servants announced that lunch was ready. 'Take in Mrs. So-and-so,' she said to John, who would fain have escaped from the melting glances of the lady in the long seal-skin. He offered her his arm with an air of resignation, and set to work valiantly to carve a large turkey.
As soon as the servants had cleared away after one set another came, and although the meet was a small one, John took six ladies in to lunch. About half-past three the men adjourned to the billiard-room to smoke. The numerous girls followed, and with their arms round each other's waists and interlacing fingers, they grouped themselves about the room. At five the huntsmen returned, and much to his annoyance, John had to furnish them with a change of clothes. There was tea in the drawing-room, and soon after the visitors began to take their leave.
The wind blew very coldly, the roosting rooks rose out of the branches, and the carriages rolled into the night; but still a remnant of visitors stood on the steps talking to John. He felt very ill, and now a long sharp pain had grown through his left side, and momentarily it became more and more difficult to exchange polite words and smiles. The footmen stood waiting by the open door, the horses champed their bits, the green of the park was dark, and a group of girls moved about the loggia, wheels grated on the gravel... all were gone! The butler shut the door, and John went to the library fire. There his mother found him. She saw that something was seriously the matter. He was helped up to bed, and the doctor sent for.
For more than a week he suffered. He lay bent over, unable to straighten himself, as if a nerve had been wound up too tightly in the left side. He was fed on gruel and beef-tea, the room was kept very warm; it was not until the twelfth day that he was taken out of bed.
'You have had a narrow escape,' the doctor said to John, who, well wrapped up, lay back, looking very pale and weak, before a blazing fire. 'It was lucky I was sent for. Twenty-four hours later I would not have answered for your life.'
'I was delirious, was I not?'
'Yes; you cursed and swore fearfully at us when we rolled you up in the mustard plaster. It was very hot, and must have burnt you.'
'It has scarcely left a bit of skin on me. But did I use very bad language? I suppose I could not help it.... I was delirious, was I not?'
'I remember, and if I remember right, I used very bad language. But people when they are delirious do not know what they say. Is not that so, doctor?'
'If they are really delirious they do not remember, but you were only slightly delirious... you were maddened by the pain occasioned by the pungency of the plaster.'
'Yes; but do you think I knew what I was saying?'
'You must have known what you were saying because you remember what you said.'
'But could I be held accountable for what I said?'
'Accountable? ... Well, I hardly know what you mean. You were certainly not in the full possession of your senses. Your mother (Mrs. Norton) was very much shocked, but I told her that you were not accountable for what you said.'
'Then I could not be held accountable, I did not know what I was saying.'
'I don't think you did exactly; people in a passion don't know what they say!'
'Ah! yes, but we are answerable for sins committed in the heat of passion; we should restrain our passion; we were wrong in the first instance in giving way to passion.... But I was ill, it was not exactly passion. And I was very near death; I had a narrow escape, doctor?'
'Yes, I think I can call it a narrow escape.' The voices ceased. The curtains were rosy with lamp-light, and conscience awoke in the languors of convalescent hours. 'I stood on the verge of death!' The whisper died away. John was still very weak, and he had not strength to think with much insistence, but now and then remembrance surprised him suddenly like pain; it came unexpectedly, he knew not whence or how, but he could not choose but listen. Was he responsible for those words? He could remember them all now; each like a burning arrow lacerated his bosom, and he pulled them to and fro.
He could now distinguish the instantaneous sensation of wrong that had flashed on his excited mind in the moment of his sinning.... Then he could think no more, and in the twilight of contrition he dreamed vaguely of God's great goodness, of penance, of ideal atonements. And as strength returned, remembrance of his blasphemies grew stronger and fiercer, and often as he lay on his pillow, his thoughts passing in long procession, his soul would leap into intense suffering. 'I stood on the verge of death with blasphemies on my tongue. I might have been called to confront my Maker with horrible blasphemies in my heart and on my tongue; but He, in His Divine goodness, spared me; He gave me time to repent. Am I answerable, O my God, for those dreadful words that I uttered against Thee, because I suffered a little pain, against Thee who once died on the cross to save me! O God, Lord, in Thine infinite mercy look down on me, on me! Vouchsafe me Thy mercy, O my God, for I was weak! My sin is loathsome; I prostrate myself before Thee, I cry aloud for mercy!'
Then seeing Christ amid His white million of youths, beautiful singing saints, gold curls and gold aureoles, lifted throats, and form of harp and dulcimer, he fell prone in great bitterness on the misery of earthly life. His happiness and ambitions appeared to him less than the scattering of a little sand on the sea-shore. Joy is passion, passion is suffering; we cannot desire what we possess; therefore desire is rebellion prolonged indefinitely against the realities of existence; when we attain the object of our desire, we must perforce neglect it in favour of something still unknown, and so we progress from illusion to illusion. The winds of folly and desolation howl about us; the sorrows of happiness are the worst to bear, and the wise soon learn that there is nothing to dream of but the end of desire. God is the one ideal, the Church the one shelter, from the incurable misery of life. The life of the cloister is far from the meanness of life. And oh! the voices of chanting boys, the cloud of incense, and the Latin hymn afloat on the tumult of the organ.
In such religious aestheticisms the soul of John Norton had long slumbered, but now it awoke in remorse and pain, and, repulsing its habitual exaltations as if they were sins, he turned to the primal idea of the vileness of this life, and its sole utility in enabling man to gain heaven. A pessimist he admitted himself to be so far as this world was concerned. But the manifestations of modern pessimism were checked by constitutional mysticity. Schopenhauer, when he overstepped the line ruled by the Church, was repulsed. From him John Norton's faith had suffered nothing; the severest and most violent shocks had come from another side—a side which none would guess, so complex and contradictory are the involutions of the human brain. Hellenism, Greek culture and ideal; academic groves; young disciples, Plato and Socrates, the august nakedness of the Gods were equal, or almost equal, in his mind with the lacerated bodies of meagre saints; and his heart wavered between the temple of simple lines and the cathedral of a thousand arches. Once there had been a sharp struggle, but Christ, not Apollo, had been the victor, and the great cross in the bedroom of Stanton College overshadowed the beautiful slim body in which Divinity seemed to circulate like blood; and this photograph was all that now remained of much youthful anguish and much temptation.
A fact to note is that his sense of reality had always remained in a rudimentary state; it was, as it were, diffused over the world and mankind. For instance, his belief in the misery and degradation of earthly life, and the natural bestiality of man, was incurable; but of this or that individual he had no opinion; he was to John Norton a blank sheet of paper, to which he could not affix even a title. His childhood had been one of tumult and sorrow; the different and dissident ideals growing up in his heart and striving for the mastery, had torn and tortured him, and he had long lain as upon a mental rack. Ignorance of the material laws of existence had extended even into his sixteenth year, and when, bit by bit, the veil fell, and he understood, he was filled with loathing of life and mad desire to wash himself free of its stain; and it was this very hatred of natural flesh that had precipitated a perilous worship of deified flesh. But the Gothic cathedral had intervened; he had been taken by the beauty of its architecture and the beauty of its Gregorian chant. But now he realised—if not in all its truth, at least in part—that his love of God had only taken the form of a gratification of the senses, a sensuality higher but as intense as those which he so much reproved. His life had been but a sin, an abomination. And as a woman rising from a bed of small-pox shrinks from destroying the fair remembrance of her face by pursuing the traces of the disease through every feature, he hid his face in his hands and called for forgiveness—for escape from the endless record of his conscience. He saw the Hell which awaits him who blasphemes. To the verge of that Hell he had drifted.... He pictured himself lost in eternal torment. The Christ he saw had grown pitiless. He saw Christ standing in judgment amid a white million of youths....
Too weak to think clearly, he sat dreaming. The blazing fire decorated the darkness, and the twilight shed upon curtains purfled with birds and petals. He sat, his head resting on his large, strong fingers, pining for sharp-edged mediaeval tables and antique lamps. The soft, diffused light of the paper-shaded lamp jarred his intimate sense of things. However dim the light of his antique lamps, their beautiful shapes were always an admonition, and took his thoughts back to the age he loved—an age of temples and disciples. Recollection of Plato floated upon his weak brain, and he remembered that the great philosopher had said that there were men who were half women, and that these men must perforce delight in the society of women. That there were men too who were wholly men, and that these perforce could find neither pleasure nor interest away from their own sex. He had always felt himself to be wholly male, and this was why the present age, so essentially the age of women, was repellent to him.
His thoughts floated from Greece to Palestine, and looking into the blaze he saw himself bearing the banner of the Cross into the land of the infidel, fighting with lance and sword for the Sepulchre. He saw the Saracen, and trembling with aspiration, he heard the great theme of salvation to the Saviour sung by the basses, by the tenors, by the altos; it was held by a divine boy's voice for four bars high up in the cupola, and the belief theme in harp arpeggios rained down like manna on the bent heads of the knights.