To revert to what was said a moment ago, it may be urged that no sufficient cause is shown for Miriam's determination. What had she undergone? A little poverty, a little love affair, a little sickness. But what brought Paul to the disciples at Damascus? A light in the sky and a vision. What intensity of light, what brilliancy of vision, would be sufficient to change the belief and the character of a modern man of the world or a professional politician? Paul had that in him which could be altered by the pathetic words of the Crucified One, "I am He whom thou persecutest." The man of the world or the politician would evade an appeal from the heaven of heavens, backed by the glory of seraphim and archangel. Miriam had a vitality, a susceptibility or fluidity of character—call it what you will—which did not need great provocation. There are some mortals on this earth to whom nothing more than a certain, summer morning very early, or a certain chance idea in a lane ages ago, or a certain glance from a fellow-creature dead for years, has been the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, or the Descent of the Holy Ghost.
A man now old and nearing his end is known to Miriam's biographer, who one Sunday November afternoon, when he was but twenty years old, met a woman in a London street and looked in her face. Neither he nor she stopped for an instant; he looked in her face, passed on, and never saw her again. He married, had children, who now have children, but that woman's face has never left him, and the colours of the portrait which hangs in his soul's oratory are as vivid as ever. A thousand times has he appealed to it; a thousand times has it sat in judgment; and a thousand times has its sacred beauty redeemed him.
Miriam wrote to Miss Tippit expressing her newly-formed wish. Miss Tippit, with some doubts as to her friend's fitness for the duty, promised to do what she could; and at last, after complete recovery, Miriam was allowed to begin a kind of apprenticeship to the art of nursing in a small hospital, recommended by Miss Tippit's friend, the doctor. One morning, a bright day in June, she was taken there. When the door opened, there was disclosed a long white room with beds on either side, and a broad passage down the middle. The walls were relieved by a few illuminated sentences, scriptural and secular; women dressed in a blue uniform were moving about noiselessly, and one of the physicians on the staff, with some students or assistants, was standing beside a patient happily unconscious, and demonstrating that he could not live. Round one of the beds a screen was drawn; Miriam did not quite know what it meant, but she guessed and shuddered. She passed on to a little room at the end, and here she was introduced to her new mistress, the lady-superintendent. She was a small, well-formed woman of about thirty, with a pale thin face, lightish brown hair, grey eyes, and thinnish lips. She also was dressed in uniform, but with a precision and grace which showed that though the material might be the same as that used by her underlings, it was made up at the West End. She was evidently born to command, as little women often are. It was impossible to be five minutes in her company without being affected by her domination. Her very clothes felt it, for not a rebellious wrinkle or crease dared to show itself. The nurses came to her almost every moment for directions, which were given with brevity and clearness, and obeyed with the utmost deference. The furniture was like that of a yacht, very compact, scrupulously clean, and very handy. There was a complete apparatus for instantaneously making tea, a luxurious little armchair specially made for its owner, a minute writing-case, and, for decorations, there were dainty and delicate water-colours. Half-a-dozen books lay about, a novel or two of the best kind, and two or three volumes of poems.
"You wish to become a nurse?" said Miss Dashwood.
"I am afraid you hardly know what it is, and that when you do know you will find it very disagreeable. So many young women come here with entirely false notions as to their duties."
Miriam was silent; Miss Dashwood's manner depressed her.
"However, you can try. You will have to begin at the very bottom. I always insist on this with my probationers. It teaches them how the work ought to be done, and, in addition, proper habits of subordination. For three months you will have to scrub the floors and assist in keeping the wards in order."
Miriam had imagined that she would at once be asked to watch over grateful patients, to give them medicine, and read to them. However, she was determined to go through with her project, and she assented. The next morning saw her in coarse clothes, busy with a pail and soap and water. It was very hard. She was not a Catholic novice; she was not penetrated with the great religious idea that, done in the service of the Master, all work is alike in dignity; she had, in fact, no religion whatever, and she was confronted with a trial severe even to an enthusiast received into a nunnery with all the pomp of a gorgeous ritual and sustained by the faith of ages.
Specially troublesome was her new employment to Miriam, because she was by nature so unmethodical and careless. Perhaps there are no habits so hard to overcome as those of general looseness and want of system. They are often associated with abundance of energy. The corners are not shirked through fatigue, but there is an unaccountable persistency in avoiding them, which resolution and preaching are alike unable to conquer. The root of the inconsistency is a desire speedily to achieve results. To keep this desire in subjection, to shut the eyes to results, but patiently to remove the dust to the last atom of it lying in the dark angle, is a good part of self-culture.
In a hospital Miriam's defect was one of the deadly sins, and many were the admonitions which she received from Miss Dashwood. One evening, after a day in which they had been more frequent than usual, she went to bed, but lay awake. She was obliged to confess to herself that the light of three months ago, which had then shone round her great design, had faded. To conceive such a design is one thing, to go down on the knees and scour floors week after week is something different.
She did not intend, however, to give up. When she rose in the morning she looked out over the London tiles and through the smoke with a miserable sinking of heart, hoping, if she hoped for anything, for the end of the day, and still more for the end of life; but still she persevered, and determined to persevere.
One day a new case came into the ward. It was evidently serious. A man returning home late at night, drunk or nearly so, had fallen under a cart in crossing a road and had been terribly crushed. He had received some injury to the head and was unconscious. Miriam, to whom such events were now tolerably familiar, took no particular notice until her work brought her near the bed, and then she saw to her amazement and horror that the poor wretch was Montgomery. Instantly all that had slumbered in her, as fire slumbers in grey ashes, broke out into flame. She continually crept as well as she could towards him, and listened for any remark which might be dropped by nurse or doctor upon his condition. Three days afterwards he died, without having once regained his reason save just one hour before death. He then opened his eyes—they fell upon Miriam; he knew her, and with a faint kind of astonishment muttered her name. Before she could come close to him he had gone.
Another month passed, and as Miriam's constitutional failings showed no sign of mitigation, Miss Dashwood found herself obliged to take serious notice of them. The experienced, professional superintendent knew perfectly well that the smart, neat, methodical girl, with no motive in her but the desire of succeeding and earning a good living, was worth a dozen who were self-sacrificing but not soldierly. One morning, after Miss Dashwood's patience had been more than usually tried, she sent for Miriam, and kindly but firmly told her that she was unsuitable for a hospital and must prepare to leave. She was not taken by surprise; she had said the same thing to herself a dozen times before; but when it was made certain to her by another person, it sounded differently.
She sought her friend Miss Tippit. To Miss Tippit the experience was not new. She had herself in her humble way imagined schemes of usefulness, which were broken through personal unfitness; she knew how at last the man who thinks he will conquer a continent has to be content with the conquest of his own kitchen-garden, fifty feet by twenty. She knew this in her own humble way, although her ambition, so far from being continental, had never extended even to a parish. She, however, could do Miriam no good. She had learned how to vanquish her own trouble, but she was powerless against the very same trouble in another person. She had the sense, too, for she was no bigot, to see her helplessness, and she gave Miriam the best of all advice—to go home to Cowfold. Alpine air, Italian cities, would perhaps have been better, bat as these were impossible, Cowfold was the next best. Perhaps the worst effect of great cities, at any rate of English cities, is not the poverty they create and the misery which it brings, but the mental mischief which is wrought, often unconsciously, by their dreariness and darkness. In Pimlico or Bethnal Green a man might have a fortune given him, and it would not stir him to so much gratitude as an orange if he were living on the South Downs, and the peculiar sourness of modern democracy is due perhaps to deficiency of oxygen and sunlight. Miriam had no objection to return. She was beaten and indifferent; her father and mother wrote to welcome her, and she recollected her mother's devotion to her when she was ill. She had not the heart to travel by the road on which she and Andrew came to London, and she chose a longer route by which she was brought to a point about ten miles from Cowfold. She found affection and peace, and Andrew, who had lost his taste for whisky, was quietly at work in his father's shop at his old trade. There was at the same time no vacant space for her in the household. There was nothing particular for her to do, and after a while, when the novelty of return had worn off, she grew weary, and longed unconsciously for something on which fully to exercise her useless strength.
In Cowfold at that time dwelt a basketmaker named Didymus Farrow. Why he was called Didymus is a very simple story.
His mother had once heard a sermon preached by a bishop from the text, "Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow-disciples, Let us also go, that we may die with Him." The preacher enlarged on the blessed privilege offered by our Lord, and observed how happy he should have been—how happy all his dear brethren in Christ would have been, if the same privilege had been extended to them. But, alas! God had not so decreed. When the day arrived on which they would see their Master in glory, they could then assure Him, and He would believe them, how willingly they would have borne His cross—aye, and even have hung with Him on the fatal tree.
Some weeks before Didymus Farrow was born, Mrs. Farrow remembered the bishop and part of his discourse, but what she remembered most distinctly was, "Thomas, which is called Didymus." These words were borne in upon her, she said, and accordingly the son was baptized Didymus. When he grew up, he entered upon his father's trade, which was that of making the willow hampers for fruit-growers, of whom there were a good many round Cowfold, and who sent their fruit to London, stacked high on huge broad-wheeled waggons. Didymus also manufactured hand-baskets, all kinds of willow ware and white wood goods. He had a peculiar aptitude for the lathe, and some of his bread-plates were really as neatly executed as any that could be seen in London. He had even turned in poplar some vases, which found their way to a drawing-master, and were used as models. He was now about thirty, had yellow hair, blue eyes, a smiling face, widish mouth, always a little open, nose a little turned up, whistled a good deal, and walked with a peculiar dance-like lilt. He was a gay, innocent creature, honest in all his dealings, and fairly prosperous. He had been married early, but had lost his wife when he was about twenty-six, and had been left with one daughter, whom his sister had in charge. The sister was about to be married, and when her brother knew that the day for her departure was fixed, it came into his head that he ought to be married again. Otherwise, who could manage his house and his family?
He was not a man to seek any recondite reasons for doing or not doing anything. He was not in the habit of pausing before he acted, and demanding the production of every conceivable argument, yea or nay, and then with toil adjusting the balance between them. If a lot of withies looked cheap, he bought them straightway, and did not defer the bargain for weeks till he could ascertain if he could get them cheaper elsewhere.
Going home one evening, he passed his friend Giacomo's shop, and through the window saw Miriam talking to her father. Instantly it struck him that Miriam was the girl for him, and he began to whistle the air to "Hark the Lark," for he was a member of the Cowfold Glee Club, and sang alto. This was on the 25th May. Miriam being accustomed to walk in the fields in the evening, and Mr. D. Farrow being fully aware of her custom, he met her on the 26th and after some preliminary skirmishing requested her to take him for better or for worse. She was surprised, but did not say so, and asked time for consideration. She did consider, but consideration availed nothing. It is so seldom even at the most important moments that our faculties are permitted fully to help us. There is no free space allowed, and we are dragged hither and thither by a swarm of temporary impulses. The result has to stand, fixed for ever, but the operative forces which determine it are those of the moment, and not of eternity. Miriam, moreover, just then lacked the strong instinct which mercifully for us so often takes us in hand. She was not altogether unhappy, but dull and careless as to what became of her. No oracle advised her. There is now no pillar of cloud or of fire to guide mortals; the heavenly apparition does not appear even in extremities; and consequently a week afterwards she said yes, and six months afterwards she was Mrs. Farrow.
For some time the day went pleasantly enough. She had plenty to do as mistress of the house, and in entertaining the new friends who came to see her. After a while, when the novelty had worn off, the old insuperable feeling of monotony returned, more particularly in the evening. Mr. Farrow never went near a public-house, but he never opened a book, and during the winter, when the garden was closed, amused himself with an accordion, or in practising his part in a catch, or in cutting with a penknife curious little wooden chairs and tables. This mode of passing the time was entertaining enough to him, but not so to Miriam, who was fatally deficient, as so many of her countrymen and countrywomen are, in that lightness which distinguishes the French or the Italians, and would have enabled her, had she been so fortunately endowed with it, to sit by the fire and prattle innocently to her husband, whatever he might be doing. When she came to her new abode and was turning out the corners, she discovered upstairs in a cupboard a number of brown-looking old books, which had not been touched for many a long day. Amongst them were Rollin's Ancient History, some of Swift's Works with pages torn out, doubtless those which some impatiently clean creature had justly considered too filthy for perusal. There were also Paul and Virginia, Dryden's Virgil, Robinson Crusoe, and above all a Shakespeare. Miriam had never been much of a reader; but now, having nothing better to do, she looked into these books, and generally brought one downstairs in the afternoon. Swift she did not quite understand, and he frightened her; she never, in fact, got through anything but Gulliver and the Tale of a Tub; but some of his sayings stuck to her and came up against her again and again, until, like most of us who have had even a glimpse of the dark and dreadful caverns in that man's soul, she wished that he had never been born. For years, even to the day of her death, the poison of one sentence in the Tale of a Tub remained with her—those memorable words that "happiness is a perpetual possession of being well deceived." Yet she pitied him; who does not pity him? Who is there in English history who excites and deserves profounder pity?
Of all her treasures, however, the one which produced the deepest impression on her was "Romeo and Juliet." She saw there the possibilities of love. For the first time she became fully aware of what she could have been. One evening she sat as in a trance. Cowfold had departed; she was on the balcony in Verona, Romeo was below. She leaned over and whispered to him—
"My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep: the more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite."
She went on; the day was breaking; she heard the parting—
"Farewell! farewell! one kiss and I'll descend,"
Her arms were round his neck with an ecstasy of passion; he was going; the morning star was flashing before the sun, and she cried after him—
"Art thou gone so? love, lord, ay husband, friend! I must hear from thee every day in the hour, For in a minute there are many days."
Ah, God! what is the count of all the men and women whom, since it was first "plaid publiquely with great applause," this tragedy has reminded of the what might have been!
Mr. Didymus Farrow, during his wife's absence in Verona, had been very much engaged in whittling a monkey which toppled over on a long pole, but being dissatisfied with its performance he had taken his accordion out of the box, and, just as Lady Capulet called, he struck up "Down amongst the dead men," which, whatever its merit may be, is not particularly well adapted to that instrument. Verona and Romeo were straightway replaced by Cowfold and the Cowfold consort. He was in the best of spirits, and he stooped down just as his wife was waking, took the cat—which was lying before the fire—and threw it on her lap.
"Oh, please do not!" she exclaimed, a little angry, shocked, and sad.
"I wish you would not sit and addle your brains over those books. Blessed if I don't burn them all! What good do they do? Why don't you talk?"
"I've nothing particular to say."
"You never have anything to say when you've been reading. Now if I read a bit of the newspaper, I've always something to talk about."
She was silent, and her husband continued his tune.
"Miriam, my dear, you aren't well. Are you in pain?"
Mr. Farrow never understood any suffering unless it was an ache of some bind.
"Let me get you just a drop of brandy with some ginger in it."
"No, thank you."
"Yes, you will have just a drop," and he jumped up at once and went to the cupboard.
"I tell you I will not."
The "not" came out with such emphasis that he desisted and sat down. The monkey lay on the table, the accordion lay there too; Mr. Farrow stopped his whistling and sat back in his chair with his finger to his mouth. At last, he took up the book, turned it over, and put it down again. He loved his wife after his fashion, and could not bear to see anybody distressed. He placed his chair beside hers, and lifting her arm, put it round his neck, she nothing resisting.
"Tell me now, there's a dear, what's the matter," and he kissed her.
"Nothing," she said, somewhat softened by his caresses.
"That's right, my twopenny," a name he used confidentially to her. "A little faint; the room is rather close," and he opened the window a trifle at the top, returning to his seat, and embracing her again.
Yet, though she yielded, it was not Mr. Farrow who held her in his arms; she purposely strove to think an imaginary Romeo's head was on her neck—his face was something like the face of Montgomery—and she kept up the illusion all that night. When she came down to breakfast and sat opposite her husband, it struck her suddenly that she had cheated him and was a sinner.
In the afternoon she went out for a stroll through the streets, and up to the monument in the park. Cowfold was busy, for it was market-day. Sheep-pens were in the square full of sheep, and men were purchasing them and picking them out as they were sold; dogs were barking; the wandering dealer who pitched his earthenware van at the corner was ringing his plates together to prove them indestructible; old Madge Campion, who sold gooseberry-tarts and hot mutton-pies on her board under an awning supported by clothes-props, was surrounded by a shoal of children, as happy as the sunshine; the man with the panorama was exhibiting, at one halfpenny a head, the murder of Lord William Russell to a string of boys and girls who mounted the stool in turn to look through the glasses; and the cheapjack was expatiating on the merits of cutlery, pictures, fire-irons, and proving that his brass candlestick, honestly-worth-ten-shillings-but-obtainable-at-one-and-four-pence- because-he-really-could-not-cart-it-about-any-longer answered the double purpose of a candlestick and burglar-alarm by reason of the tremendous click of the spring, which anybody might—if they liked—mistake for a pistol.
Through all the crowd Miriam walked unsympathetic. She cursed the constitution with which she was born. She wished she had been endowed with that same blessed thoughtlessness, and that she could be taken out of herself with an interest in pigs, pie-dishes, and Cowfold affairs generally. She went on up to her favourite resting-place; everything was so still, and her eye wandered over the illimitable distance but without pleasure. She recollected that she had an engagement; that two cousins of her husband were coming to tea, and she slowly returned. At half-past five they appeared. They chattered away merrily with Mr. Farrow, who was as lively as they were, until by degrees Miriam's silence began to operate, and they grew dull. Tea being over, she managed to escape, and as she went upstairs she heard the laughter recommence, for it was she who had suppressed it. Lying down in her room overhead, the noise continued, and it came into her mind that wherever she went she cast a cold shadow. "They must wish me dead," she thought.
She had been married so short a time; to what a dreary length the future stretched before her, and she did not love the man she had chosen, as she understood love. How was life to be lived? She did not reproach herself. If she could have done that, if she could have accused herself of deliberate self-betrayal, it would have been better; but she seemed to have been blindfolded, and led by some unknown force into the position in which she found herself.
For some days she went on with her books, but the more she read the more miserable she became, because there was nobody with whom she could interchange what she thought about them. She was alarmed at last to find that something very much like hatred to her husband was beginning to develop itself. She was alarmed because she was too much of an Englishwoman to cherish the thought of any desperate remedy, such as separation; and yet the prospect of increasing aversion, which appeared to grow she knew not how, terrified her. One Monday afternoon she had gone out to her usual haunt in the park, and near the monument she saw somebody whom she presently recognised to be Mr. Armstrong, the vicar of Marston-Cocking, a village about four miles from Cowfold. She knew him because he had dealt with her husband, and she had met him in the shop. Marston-Cocking was really nothing better than a hamlet, with a little grey squat church with a little square tower. Adjoining the churchyard was Mr. Armstrong's house. It was not by any means a model parsonage. It was a very plain affair of red brick with a door in the middle, a window with outside shutters on either side, and one story above. There was a small garden in front, protected from the road by white palings and a row of laurels. At the back was a bigger garden, and behind that an orchard. It had one recommendation, worth to its tenant all the beauty of a moss-covered manse in Devonshire, and that was its openness. It was on a little sandy hill. For some unaccountable reason there was a patch of sand in that part of the country, delicious, bright, cheerful yellow and brown sand, lifting itself into little cliffs here and there, pierced with the holes of the sand-martin. It exhaled no fogs, and was never dull even on a November day, when the clay-lands five miles away breathed a vapour which lay blue and heavy on the furrows, and the miry paths, retaining in their sullenness for weeks the impress of every footmark, almost pulled the boots off the feet as you walked along them. At Marston, on the contrary, the rain disappeared in an hour; and the landscape always seemed in the depths of winter to retain something of summer sunshine. The vicarage was open, open to every wind, and from the top rooms the stars could be seen to rise and set, no trees intercepting the view. Mr. Armstrong was a man of sixty, a widower with no children. His income from his living was about two hundred pounds annually, and the number of his parishioners all told, men, women, and children, was, as nearly as may be, two hundred. He had been at Marston-Cocking for thirty-five years. He came just after his wife died—how he hardly knew. The living was offered him; he thought the change would do him good, although he did not intend to remain; but there he had stayed, and there was no chance of his removal. He was completely out of the world, troubled himself with no church controversies, and preached little short sermons telling his congregation not to tell lies nor be unkind to one another. Every now and then he introduced into his discourses his one favourite subject, astronomy, and by degrees the labourers in Marston-Cocking knew more about the sky and its daily and nightly changes than many a highly educated person in the city. Mr. Armstrong, otherwise a very plain, simple creature, always grew eloquent on the common ignorance of the heavens. "Here," he would say, "has God thrust upon us these marvellous sights. These are not the secrets hidden in the mine—they are forced upon us; and yet we walk with our heads to the earth; we do not know the morning star when we see it, nor can we even recognise the Pleiads and Arcturus which Job knew." Mr. Armstrong had made all his instruments with his own hands, and had even used the top of the church-tower as an observatory. Mrs. Bullen, the wife of the one farmer in the parish, a lady who wrote the finest of Italian pointed hands, who had been in a Brighton boarding-school for ten years, and had been through "Keith on the Use of the Globes," was much scandalised at this "appropriation of the sacred edifice to secular purposes," as she called it, but she met with no encouragement. The poor people somehow connected heaven with the stars, and Mr. Armstrong never undeceived them, so that they saw nothing improper in the big telescope under the weathercock.
"Really, James," said Mrs. Bullen one morning to Mr. Armstrong's gardener and general man-of-all-work as he was carrying a chair from the house into the tower, "do you think this is quite right? Do you think our Saviour would have sanctioned the erection of a profane instrument over the house of prayer?"
James was very thick-headed, and hardly knew the meaning of these long words, bat he did not like Mrs. Bullen, and he resented her talking to him, a servant, in that strain about his master.
"Ah! Mrs. Bullen, you needn't bother yourself. He's all right with the Saviour,—more so nor many other people, maybe."
"Well, but, James, this is a church consecrated to the service of God."
"Ah! how do you know? Very likely o' nights—for he's up there when you're abed and asleep—he's a looking into heaven through that there glass, and, sees God and the blessed angels."
"Really, James, can you be so ignorant as not to know that God is a Spirit? I am astonished at you." And Mrs. Bullen passed on without a single doubt in her mind that there was a single weak spot in her creed, or that anybody could question its intelligibility and coherence who would not also question the multiplication-table. She told her husband when she got home that it was really dreadful to think that the poor had such low views of the Divine Being. How degraded! No wonder they were so immoral. Bullen, however, did not trouble himself much about these matters. He assented to what his wife said, but then he called "spirit" "sperrit," to her annoyance, and she could not get him to comprehend what she meant by "entirely immaterial," although it was so plain.
Mr. Armstrong, as we have said, was in front of Miriam. He had brought a small telescope to that point to be tested, for exactly eight miles away was a church-tower with a clock, and he wished to see if he could tell the time by it. Miriam was about to avoid him, but he recognised her and beckoned to her.
"Ah! Mrs. Farrow, is it you? Would yon like to look through my glass?"
He adjusted it for her, and she saw the hour quite plainly.
"Oh," she exclaimed, "that is wonderful!"
"Yes, it is pretty well. We will now put him in his box. For the box I have to thank Mr. Farrow. He is one of the neatest hands at that kind of work I know, although it is not exactly his trade. I never was much of a joiner."
Miriam was a little surprised. She knew that her husband was clever with his tools, but she had never set any value on his labours. Now, however, she was really struck with the well-polished mahogany and the piece of brass neatly let into the lid, and when she heard Mr. Armstrong's praises she began to think a little differently.
"Ah!" he continued, "it is so difficult now to get anybody to take any interest in such a job as that. I have got another box at home made by a professed cabinetmaker, and it is really disgraceful. It will never be right, although I have had it altered two or three times. When it was shut it caught the object-glass inside. I remedied that defect, but only to create a worse, for then the instrument shook about. So it is, when once a thing is badly done, you had better get rid of it; it is of no use to bother with it. You may depend upon it, it is not bad just here or there, but is bad all through, and the attempt to mend it serves no other purpose than to bring to light hidden weakness. On the other hand, if you are fortunate enough to have work done like Mr. Farrow's, it is perfect all through. You can never surprise it, so to speak. Just look at it. Look at that green baize rest. There is not the thirty-second part of an inch to spare on either side, and the lid comes down so evenly that you can hardly see where the edge is. Shake the box, and you will not feel a single movement. You have never seen my big telescope at Marston?"
"Well, if you like, you can come over with your husband any bright night, and I shall be happy to show it to you."
Miriam thanked him, and they parted.
A few days afterwards Mrs. and Mr. Farrow presented themselves at the vicarage. It was a lovely evening, and so clear that the outline of the constellations was obscured by the multitude of small stars, which usually are not seen, or seen but imperfectly. In the south was Jupiter, mild, magnificent, like a god amongst the crowd of lesser divinities.
Mr. Armstrong, with all the ardour of an enthusiast for his science, began a little preliminary lecture.
"I am not going to let you peep simply in order to astonish you. I abominate what are called popular lectures for that very reason. If you can be made to understand the apparent revolution of the heavens, that is better than all speculation. To understand is the great thing, not to gape. Now I assume you know that the earth goes round on its axis, and that consequently the stars seem to revolve round the earth. But the great difficulty is to realise how they go round, because the axis is not upright, nor yet horizontal, but inclined, and points to that star up there, the pole-star. Consequently the stars describe circles which are not at right angles with the horizon, nor yet parallel to it. That is my first lesson."
Mr. Farrow comprehended without the slightest difficulty, but Miriam could not. She had noticed that some of the stars appear in the east and disappear in the west, but beyond that she had not gone. Mr. Armstrong continued—
"The next thing you have to bear in mind is that the planets move about amongst the stars. Just think! They go round the sun, and so do we. The times of their revolution are not coincident with ours, and their path is sometimes forwards and sometimes backwards. Suppose we were in the centre of the planetary system, all these irregularities would disappear; but we are outside, and therefore it looks so complicated."
Again Mr. Farrow comprehended, but to Miriam it was all dark.
"Now," continued Mr. Armstrong, "these are the two great truths which I wish you not simply to acknowledge, but to feel. If you can once from your own observation realise the way the stars revolve—why some near the pole never set—why some never rise, and why Venus is seen both before the sun and after it—you will have done yourselves more real good than if you were to dream for years of immeasurable distances, and what is beyond and beyond and beyond, and all that nonsense. The great beauty of astronomy is not what is incomprehensible in it, but its comprehensibility—its geometrical exactitude. Now you may look."
Miriam looked first. Jupiter was in the field. She could not suppress a momentary exclamation of astonished ecstasy at the spectacle. While she watched, Mr. Armstrong told her something about the mighty orb. He pointed out the satellites, contrasted the size of Jupiter with that of the earth, and explained to her the distances at which parts of the planet are from each other as compared with those of New Zealand and America from London. But what affected her most was to see Jupiter's solemn, still movement, and she gazed and gazed, utterly absorbed, until at last he had disappeared. The stars had passed thus before her eyes ever since she had been born, but what was so familiar had never before been emphasised or put in a frame, and consequently had never produced its due effect.
Afterwards Mr. Farrow had his turn, and Mr. Armstrong then observed that they had had enough; that it was getting late, but that he hoped they would come again. They started homewards, but their teacher remained solitary till far beyond midnight at his lonely post. The hamlet lay asleep beneath him in profoundest peace. His study had a strange fascination for him. He never wrote anything about it; he never set himself up as a professional expert; he could not preach much about it; most of what he acquired was incommunicable at Marston-Cocking, or nearly so, and yet he was never weary. It was for some inexplicable reason the food and the medicine which his mind needed. It kept him in health, it pacified him, and contented him with his lot.
On the following evening Miriam and her husband sat at tea.
"You didn't quite understand Mr. Armstrong, Miriam?"
"No, not quite."
"Ah! it is not easy; it all lies in the axis not being perpendicular, and in our not being in the middle. Now look here!"
He took a long string; tied one end to the curtain-rod over the window, and brought the other down to the floor. He then took Miriam, placed her underneath it in the middle with her face to the window.
"Now, that is the north, and the top of the string is the pole star. Just imagine the string the axis of a great globe in which the stars are fixed, and that it goes round from your right hand to your left." But to Miriam, although she had so strong an imagination, it was unimaginable. It was odd that she could create Verona and Romeo with such intense reality, and yet that she could not perform such a simple feat as that of portraying to herself the revolution of an inclined sphere.
Mr. Farrow was not disappointed.
"It will be all right," he said, and the next morning he was busy in the shed in the bottom of the garden. He came to his afternoon meal with glee, and directly it was over, took his wife away to see what he had been doing. The shed had two floors, with a trap-door in the middle. To the topmost corner of the upper story he had fixed a pole which descended obliquely through a hole in the floor. This was the axis, and the floor was the horizon. He had also, by the help of some stoutish wire and some of his withies, fairly improvised a few meridians, so that when Miriam put her head through the trap-door, she seemed to be in the centre of a half globe.
"Now, my dear, it will all be plain. I cannot make the thing turn, but you can fancy a star fixed down there in the east at the end of that withy, and if the withy were to go round, or if the star were to climb up it, it would just go so," tracing its course with his finger, "and set there. Now, those stars near the pole, you see, would never set, and that is why we see them all night long."
It all came to her in an instant.
"Really, how clever you are!" she said.
"Do you think so?" and there was a trace of something serious, something of a surprise on his countenance.
"I have heard Mr. Armstrong talk about the stars before, although never so much as he did that night, and then I've watched them a good bit, and noticed the way they go. As for the planets, they are not so easy, but I think I have got hold of it all."
Miriam looked out of window when she went to bed, and felt a new pleasure. The firmament, instead of being a mere muddle—beautiful, indeed, she had always thought it—had a plan in it. She marked where one particularly bright star was showing itself in the south-east—it was Sirius; and in the night she rose softly, drew aside the blind, saw him again due south, and recognised the similarity of the arc with that which her husband had constructed with his withies and wire. She lay down again, thinking, as she went off to sleep, that still that silent, eternal march went on. At four she again awoke from light slumber, and crept to the blind again. Another portion of the same arc had been traversed, and Sirius with his jewelled flashes was beginning to descend. She thought she should like to see him actually sink, and she waited and waited till he had disappeared, till the first tint of dawn was discernible in the east, and that almost indistinguishable murmur was heard which precedes the day. She then once more lay down, and when she rose, she was richer by a very simple conception, but still richer. She felt as a novice might feel who had been initiated, and had been intrusted at least with the preliminary secrets of her community. She owed her initiation to Mr. Armstrong, but also to her husband. Experts no doubt may smile, and so may the young people who, in these days of universal knowledge, have got up astronomy for examinations, but nevertheless, in the profounder study of the science there is perhaps no pleasure so sweet and so awful as that which arises, not when books are read about it, but when the heavens are first actually watched, when the movement of the Bear is first actually seen for ourselves, and with the morning Arcturus is discerned punctually over the eastern horizon; when the advance of the stars westwards through the year, marking the path of the earth in its orbit, is noted, and the moon's path also becomes intelligible.
Mr. Armstrong had long desired to make an orrery for the purpose of instructing a few children and friends, but had never done anything towards it, partly for lack of time, and partly for lack of skill with joinery tools. He now, however, had in Farrow at once a willing pupil and an artist, and the work went forward in Farrow's house, Miriam watching its progress with great interest. She could even contribute her share, and the graduation of the rim was left to her, a task she performed with accuracy after a few failures in pencil. It was a handsome instrument when it was completed. The relative distances of the planets from the sun could not be preserved, nor their relative magnitudes; but what was of more importance, their relative velocities in their orbits were maintained. The day came when the machine was to be first used. Miriam insisted that there should be no experiments with it beforehand. She desired, even at the risk of disappointment, to see a dramatic start into existence. She did not wish her pleasure to be spoiled and her excitement to be diminished by trials. Her husband humoured her, but secretly he took care that every preventible chance of a breakdown should be removed. When she was absent, he tested every pinion and every cog, eased a wheel here and an axle there, and in truth what he had to do in this way with file and sandpaper was almost equal to the labour spent upon saw and chisel. Infinite adjustment was necessary to make the idea a noiseless, smooth practical success, and infinite precautions had to be taken and devices invented which were not foreseen when the drawing first appeared on paper. With some of these difficulties Miriam, of course, was acquainted. They would not probably have been so great to a professional instrument-maker, but they were very considerable to an amateur. Farrow selected the best-seasoned wood he could find, but it frequently happened that after it was cut it warped a little, and the slightest want of truth threw all the connected part out of gear. Miriam learned something when she saw that a wheel whose revolution was not in a perfect plane could give rise to so much annoyance, and she learned something also when she saw how her husband, in the true spirit of a genuine craftsman, remained discontented if there was the slightest looseness in a bearing.
"Do you think it matters?" said she.
"Matters! Don't you see that if it goes on it gets worse? Every wobble increases the next, and not only so, it sets the whole thing wobbling."
"Couldn't you manage to put a piece on? Suppose you lined that hole with something."
"Oh, no! Not the slightest use; out it must come, and a new one must be put in."
At length the day came for the start. Farrow had made a trial by himself the night before, and nothing could be better. Mr. Armstrong came over, and after tea they all three went upstairs into the large garret which had been used as a workshop. The great handle was taken down and fitted into its place, Mr. Armstrong standing at one end and Miriam and her husband at the other. Obedient to the impulse, every planet at once answered; Mercury with haste, and Saturn with such deliberation that scarcely any motion was perceptible. The Earth spun its diurnal round, the Moon went forward in her monthly orbit. The lighted ground-glass globe which did duty for the sun showed night and day and the seasons. Miriam was transported, when suddenly there was a jerk and a stop. Something was wrong, and Farrow, who was fortunately turning with great caution, gave a cry such as a man might utter who was suddenly struck a heavy blow. He recovered himself instantly, and luckily at the very first glance saw what was the matter. The nicety of his own handicraft was the cause of the disaster. A shaving not much thicker than a piece of writing-paper had dropped between two cogs. A gentle touch of a quarter of an inch backwards released it.
"Hooray!" he cried in his mad delight, and the mimic planets recommenced their journeys as silently almost as their great archetypes outside.
"Strange," he said with a smile, "that such a chip as that should upset the whole solar system."
Miriam looked at him for a moment inquiringly, and then fell to watching the orrery again. Slowly the moon waxed and waned. Slowly the winter departed from our latitude on the little ball representing our dwelling-place, and the summer came; and as she still watched, slowly and almost unconsciously her arms crept round her husband's waist.
"That is a fair representation," said Mr. Armstrong, "of all that is directly connected with us, excepting, of course, as I have told you, that we could not keep the distances." A little later on, although he disapproved of "gaping," as he called it, he taught Miriam so much of geometry as was sufficient to make her understand what he meant when he told her that a fixed star yielded no parallax, and that the earth was consequently the merest speck of dust in the universe. She found his simple trigonometry very, very hard, but to her husband it was easy, and with his help she succeeded.
One afternoon, wet and dreary, Miriam had taken up her book. There was nothing to do in the shop, and Mr. Farrow entered the parlour in one of his idle moods, repeating the same behaviour which had so often distressed Miriam when she was reading anything for which he did not care. She had recovered from the dust upstairs a ragged volume in paper boards, and she was musing over the lines—
"But bound and fixed in fettered solitude To pine, the prey of every changing mood."
The poem was about as remote in its whole conception and treatment from Mr. Farrow as it could well be, and his monkey-tricks exasperated her. She shut her book in wrath and misery, left the room, dressed, and went out. The sky had cleared, and just after the sunset there lay a long lake of tenderest bluish-green above the horizon in the west, bounded on its upper coast by the dark grey cloud which the wind was slowly bearing eastward. In the midst of that lake of bluish-green lay Venus, glittering like molten silver. Miriam's first thought was her husband. She always thought of him when she looked at planets or stars, because he was so intimately connected with them in her mind. She waited till it was late and she then turned homewards. A man overtook her whom she recognised at once as Fitchew the jobbing gardener, porter, rough carpenter, creature of all work in Cowfold, one of the honestest souls in the place. He had his never-failing black pipe in his mouth, which he removed for a moment in order to bid her good-night. She kept up with him, for it was dusk, and she was glad to walk by his side. Fitchews had lived in Cowfold for centuries. An old parson always maintained that the name was originally Fitz-Hugh, but this particular representative of the family was certainly not a Fitz-Hugh but a Fitchew, save that he was as independent as a baron, and, notwithstanding his poverty, cared little or nothing what people thought about him. He could neither read nor write, and was full of the most obstinate and absurd prejudices. He was incredulous of everything which was said to him by people with any education, but what he had heard from those who were as uneducated as himself, or the beliefs, if such they can be called, which grew in his skull mysteriously, by spontaneous generation, he held most tenaciously. His literature was Cowfold, the people, the animals, the inanimate objects of which it was made up, and his criticism on these was often just. He never could be persuaded to enter either church or chapel. Of the arguments for Christianity, of the undesigned coincidences in the Bible, of the evidence from prophecy, of the metaphysical necessity for an incarnation and atonement, he knew nothing, and it was a marvel to all respectable young persons how Fitchew, whose ignorance would disgrace a charity child, and who did not know that the world was round, or the date of the battle of Hastings, should set himself up against those who were so superior to him.
"What should we say," observed the superintendent of the Dissenting Sunday-school one day to one of his classes, having Fitchew in his mind, "of a man who, if he was on a voyage in a ship commanded by a captain with a knowledge of navigation, should refuse in a storm to obey orders, affirming that they were all of no use, and should betake himself to his own little raft?"
Curiously enough, the Sunday before, the vicar, having the Dissenter in his mind, had said just the same of "unlettered schismatics," as he called them.
Fitchew always had one argument for those friends who strove to convert him. "I don't see as them that goes to church are any better than them as don't. What's he know about it?" meaning the parson or the minister, as the case might be.
Fitchew was very rough and coarse, and rather grasping in his dealings with those who employed him, not so much because he was naturally mean, but because he was always determined that well-dressed folk should not "put on him." Nevertheless, he was in his way sympathetic and even tender, particularly to those persons who suffered as he did, for he was afflicted with a kind of nervous dyspepsia, not infrequent even amongst the poor, and it kept him awake at night and gave him the "horrors."
"Well, Fitchew, are you any better?" said Miriam.
"Bad just now. Ain't had no regular sleep for a fortnight. Last night it was awful. I kicked about and sat up; the noise in my ears was something, I can tell you; and then the wind in me! It's my belief that that there noise in my ears is the wind a coming out through them. I couldn't stand it any longer, and I got up and walked up and down the road. Would you believe it, the missus never stirred; there she lay like a stone, and when I came in she says to me, 'Wot's the matter with you?' That's just like her. She goes to bed, turns round, and never knows nothing of anything till the morning. I could, have druv my head agin the door-post."
"Well, she cannot help sleeping."
"No," after a long pause, "that's true enough. I tell you what it is—I don't want to live for ever."
"Cannot you do anything to help yourself? Have you seen the doctor?"
"Doctor!" in great scorn. "He's no more use than that there dog behind me, nor yet half so much. I am better when I am at work, that's all as I can tell."
"Have you had plenty to do lately?"
"No, not much. Folk are allers after me in the summer-time, but in the winter, when their gardens don't want doing, they never have nothing to say to me. There's one thing about my missus, though. She's precious careful. I never touches the money part of the business. So we get's along."
Miriam knew the "missus" well. She was a little thin-lipped woman, who, notwithstanding her poverty, was most particularly clean. No speck of dirt was to be seen on her person or in her cottage, but she was as hard as flint. She never showed the least affection for her husband. They had married late in life—why, nobody could tell—and had one child, a girl, whom the mother seemed to disregard just as she did her husband, saving that she dressed her and washed her with the same care which she bestowed on her kettle and candlesticks.
"It's a good thing for you, Fitchew, that she is what she is."
Fitchew hesitated for some time.
"Yes, well, I said to myself, after I'd had a cup of tea and something to eat this morning—I didn't say it afore then, though—that it might be wuss. If she was allus a slaverin' on me and a pityin' me, it wouldn't do me no good; and then we are as we are, and we must make the best of it."
When Miriam parted from Fitchew she had still ten minutes' walk. Before the ten minutes had expired the black veil of rain-cloud was rolled still farther to the east, and the crescent of the young moon gleamed in the dying twilight.
It poured with rain nevertheless during the night Miriam lay and listened, thinking it would be wet and miserable on the following day. She dropped off to sleep, and at four she rose and went to the window and opened it wide. In streamed the fresh south-west morning air, pure, delicious, scented with all that was sweet from fields and woods, and the bearer inland even as far as Cowfold of Atlantic vitality, dissipating fogs, disinfecting poisons—the Life-Giver.
She put on her clothes silently, went downstairs and opened the back-door. The ever-watchful dog, hearing in his deepest slumbers the slightest noise, moved in his kennel, but recognised her at once and was still. She called to him to follow her, and he joyfully obeyed. He would have broken out into tumultuous barking if she had not silenced him instantly, and he was forced to content himself with leaping up at her and leaving marks of his paws all over her cloak. Not a soul was to be seen, and she went on undisturbed till she came to her favourite spot where she had first met Mr. Armstrong. She paced about for a little while, and then sat down and once more watched the dawn. It was not a clear sky, but barred towards the east with cloud, the rain-cloud of the night. She watched and watched, and thought after her fashion, mostly with incoherence, but with rapidity and intensity. At last came the first flash of scarlet upon the bars, and the dead storm contributed its own share to the growing beauty. The rooks were now astir, and flew, one after the other, in an irregular line eastwards black against the sky. Still the colour spread, until at last it began to rise into pure light, and in a moment more the first glowing point of the disc was above the horizon. Miriam fell on her knees against the little seat and sobbed, and the dog, wondering, came and sat by her and licked her face with tender pity. Presently she recovered, rose, went home, let herself in softly before her husband was downstairs, and prepared the breakfast. He soon appeared, was in the best of spirits, and laughed at her being able to leave the room without waking him. She looked happy, but was rather quiet at their meal; and after he had caressed the cat for a little while, he pitched her, as he had done before, on Miriam's lap. She was about to get up to cut some bread and butter, and she went behind him and kissed the top of his head. He turned round, his eyes sparkling, and tried to lay hold of her, but she stepped backward and eluded him. He mused a little, and when she sat down he said in a tone which for him was strangely serious—
"Thank you, my dear; that was very, very sweet."
Michael Trevanion was a well-to-do stonemason in the town of Perran in Cornwall. He was both working-man and master, and he sat at one end of the heavy stone-saw, with David Trevenna, his servant, at the other, each under his little canopy to protect them a trifle from the sun and rain, slowly and in full view of the purple Cornish sea, sawing the stone for hours together: the water dripped slowly on the saw from a little can above to keep the steel cool, and occasionally they interchanged a word or two—always on terms of perfect equality, although David took wages weekly and Michael paid them. Michael was now a man of about five and forty. He had married young and had two children, of whom the eldest was a youth just one and twenty. Michael was called by his enemies Antinomian. He was fervently religious, upright, temperate, but given somewhat to moodiness and passion. He was singularly shy of talking about his own troubles, of which he had more than his share at home, but often strange clouds cast shadows upon him, and the reasons he gave for the change observable in him were curiously incompetent to explain such results. David, who had watched him from the other end of the saw for twenty years, knew perfectly what these attacks of melancholy or wrath meant, and that, though their assigned cause lay in the block before them or the weather, the real cause was indoors. His trouble was made worse, because he could not understand why he received no relief, although he had so often laid himself open before the Lord, and wrestled for help in prayer. In his younger days he had been subject to great temptation. One night he had nearly fallen, but an Invisible Power seized him. "It was no more I," he said, "than if somebody had come and laid hold of me by the scruff of my neck," and he was forced away in terror upstairs to his bedroom, where he went on his knees in agony, and the Devil left him, and he became calm and pure. But no such efficient help was given him in the trial of his life. He knew in his better moments, that the refusal of grace was the Lord's own doing, and he supposed that it was due to His love and desire to try him; but upon this assurance he could not continually rest. It slipped away from under him, and at times he felt himself to be no stronger than the merest man of the world.
His case was very simple and very common—the simplest, commonest case in life. He married, as we have said, when he was young, before he knew what he was doing, and after he had been married twelvemonths, he found he did not care for his wife. When they became engaged, he was in the pride of youth, but curbed by his religion. He mistook passion for love; reason was dumb, and had nothing to do with his choice; he made the one, irretrievable false step and was ruined. No strong antipathy developed itself; there were no quarrels, but there was a complete absence of anything like confidence. Michael had never for years really consulted his wife in any difficulty, because he knew he could not get any advice worth a moment's consideration; and he often contrasted his lot with that of David, who had a helpmate like that of the left arm to the right, who knew everything about his affairs, advised him in every perplexity, and cheered him when cast down—a woman on whom he really depended. As David knew well enough, although he never put it in the form of a proposition, there is no joy sweeter than that begotten by the dependence of the man upon the woman for something she can supply but he cannot—not affection only, but assistance.
Michael, as we have said, had two children, a girl and a boy, the boy being the eldest. Against neither could he ever utter a word of complaint. They were honest and faithful. But the girl, Eliza, although unlike her mother, was still less like her father, and had a plain mind, that is to say, a mind endowed with good average common sense, but unrelieved by any touch of genius or poetry. Her intellect was solid but ordinary—a kind of homely brown intellect, untouched by sunset or sunrise tint. A strain of the mother was in her, modified by the influence of the father, and the result was a product like neither father nor mother, so cunning are the ways of spiritual chemistry. The boy, Robert Trevanion, on the contrary, was his father; not only with no apparent mixture of the mother, but his father intensified. The outside fact was of far less consequence to him than the self-created medium through which it was seen, and his happiness depended much more intimately on himself as he chanced to be at the time than on the world around him. He was apprenticed to his father, and the two were bound together by the tie of companionship and friendship, intertwined with filial and paternal love. What Eliza said, although it was right and proper, never interested the father; but when Robert spoke, Michael invariably looked at him, and often reflected upon his words for hours.
There was in the town of Perran a girl named Susan Shipton. Michael knew very little of the family, save that her father was a draper and went to church. Susan was reputed to be one of the beauties of Perran, although opinion was divided. She had—what were not common in Cornwall—light flaxen hair, blue eyes, and a rosy face, somewhat inclined to be plump. The Shiptons lay completely outside Michael's circle. They were mere formalists in religion, fond of pleasure, and Susan especially was much given to gaiety, went to picnics and dances, rowed herself about in the bay with her friends, and sauntered about the town with her father and mother on Sunday afternoon. She was also fond of bathing, and was a good swimmer. Michael hardly knew how to put his objection into words, but he nevertheless had a horror of women who could swim. It seemed to him an ungodly accomplishment. He did not believe for a moment that St. Paul would have sanctioned it, and he sternly forbade Eliza the use of one of the bathing-machines which had lately been introduced into Perran for the benefit of the few visitors who had discovered its charms.
It was a summer's morning in June, and Robert had gone along the shore on business to a house which was being built a little way out of the town. The tide was running out fast to the eastward. A small river came down into the bay, and the current was sweeping round the rocks to the left in a great curve at a distance of about two hundred yards from the beach. Inside the curve was smooth water, which lay calmly rippling in the sun, while at its edge the buoys marking the channel were swaying to and fro, and the stream lifted itself against them, swung past them, with bright multitudinous eddies, and went out to sea. Half-way in the shallows was one of the bathing-machines, and Robert saw that a girl whom he could not recognise was having a bathe. She swam well, and presently she started off straight outwards. Robert watched her for a moment, and saw her go closer and closer to the dangerous line. He knew she could not see it so well as he could, and he knew too that the buoys which were placed to guide small craft into the harbour were well in the channel, and that at least twenty yards this side of them the ebb would be felt, and with such force that no woman could make headway against it. Suddenly he saw that her course was deflected to the left, and he knew that unless some help could arrive she would be lost. In an instant his coat, waistcoat, and boots were off, and he was rushing over the sandy shallows, which fortunately stretched out a hundred yards before he was out of his depth. Susan—for it was Miss Shipton—had now perceived her peril and had turned round, but she was overpowered, and he heard a shriek for help. Raising himself out of the water as far as he could, he called out and signalled to her not to go dead against the tide, or even to try and return, but to go on and edge her way to its margin, and so make for the point. This she tried to do, but her strength began to fail—the drift was too much for her. Meanwhile Robert went after her. He was one of the best swimmers in Perran, but when he felt the cooler, deeper water, he was suddenly seized with a kind of fainting and a mist passed over his eyes. He looked at the land, and he was in a moment convinced he should never set foot on it again. He was on the point of sinking, when he bethought himself that if he was to die, he might just as well die after having put forth all his strength; and in an instant, as if touched by some divine spell, the agitation ceased, and he was himself again. In three minutes more he was by Susan's side, had gripped her by the bathing-dress at the back of the neck, and had managed to avail himself of a little swirl which turned inwards just before the rocks were reached. They were safe. She nearly swooned, but recovered herself after a fit of sobbing.
"I owe you my life, Mr. Trevanion; you've saved me—you've saved me."
"Nonsense, Miss Shipton!" He hardly knew what to say. "I would not go so near the tide again, if I were you. You had better get back to the machine as soon as you can and go home. You are about done up." So saying, he ran away to the place where he had left his coat, and went up into the town, thinking intently as he went. Very earnestly he thought; so earnestly that he saw nothing of Perran, and nothing of his neighbours, who wondered at his dripping trousers; thinking very earnestly, not upon his own brave deed, nor even upon his strange attack of weakness, and equally strange recovery, but upon Miss Shipton as she stood by his side at the rock very earnestly picturing to himself her white arms, her white neck, her long hair falling to her waist, and her beautiful white feet, seen on the sand through the clear sun-sparkling water.
Robert Trevanion, although brought up in the same school of philosophy as his father, belonged to another generation. The time of my history is the beginning of the latter half of the present century, and Michael was already considered somewhat of a fossil. Robert was inconsistent, as the old doctrine when it is decaying, or the new at its advent always is; but the main difference between Michael and Robert was not any distinct divergence, but that truths believed by Michael, and admitted by Robert, failed to impress Robert with that depth and sharpness of cut with which they were wrought into his father. Mere assent is nothing; the question of importance is whether the figuration of the creed is dull or vivid—as vivid as the shadows of a June sun on a white house. Brilliance of impression, is not altogether dependent on mere processes of proof, and a faultless logical demonstration of something which is of eternal import may lie utterly uninfluential and never disturb us.
Robert walked out the next morning to the house he went to visit the day before. Nobody save Miss Shipton and himself knew anything about his adventure. He had made some excuse for his wet clothes. The beach of the little village in the early part of the day was almost always deserted, and the man who attended to the machine had been lying on his back on the shingle smoking his pipe during the few minutes occupied in Miss Shipton's rescue. It was settled weather. The sky was cloudless, and the blue seemed on fire. What little wind there was, was from the south-south-east, and every outline quivered in the heat. The water inshore was absolutely still, and of such an azure as nobody whose sea is that of the Eastern Coast or the Channel can imagine. A boat lay here and there idle, with its shadow its perfect double in unwavering detail and blackness. Just beyond this cerulean lake the river ebb, as yesterday, rippled swiftly round Deadman's Nose; the buoys, with their heads all eastward, breaking the stream as it impatiently hurried past them on its mysterious errand. Beyond and beyond lay the ocean, unruffled, melting into the white haze which united it with the sky on the horizon. Robert loved the summer, and especially a burning summer. The sun, of which other persons complained, some perhaps sincerely, but for the most part hypocritically—can anybody really hate the sun?—rejoiced him. He loved to be out in it when the light on the unsheltered Cornish rocks and in the whitewashed street was so "glaring," as silly people called it, that they put up parasols and umbrellas, and the warmth which made him withdraw his hand smartly from the old anchor that lay on the grass just above high-water-mark, exhilarated him like wine. He was not a poet, he knew nothing of Greek mythology; and yet on summer days like these, the landscape and seascape were all changed for him. To say that they were a dream would be untrue—they were the reality; the hideous winter, with its damp fogs and rain, were the dream; and yet upon seascape and landscape rested such a miraculous charm that they seemed visionary rather than actual. As he walked along, he naturally thought of yesterday, and the light, the heat, and the colour naturally also renewed in him the picture which he had been continually repainting for himself since yesterday morning. He went to the house, saw the stonework was going on all right, and as he returned, whom should he meet but Miss Shipton, who, undeterred by the fright of the day before, had just had another bathe, and was taking a turn along the cliff to dry her hair, which was hanging over her shoulders. She was not by any means what is called "fast," but she knew how to dress herself. She had a straw hat with a very large brim, a plain brown holland dress, a brown holland parasol, and pretty white shoes; for nothing would ever induce Miss Shipton to put her feet into the yellow abominations which most persons wore at Perran in the summer.
Robert took off his cap.
"Oh, Mr. Trevanion, I am so glad to see you. You must have thought me such a queer creature. I have not half thanked you. But what could I do? I couldn't write, and I couldn't call, and I thought you would not like a noise being made about it. Yet you saved me from being drowned."
"It was nothing, Miss Shipton," said Robert, smiling. "You were in the ebb there, and I pulled you out of it—just twenty yards, that was all. I hope you haven't told anybody."
"No; as I have said, I thought you wouldn't like it; but nevertheless, although it is all very well for you to talk in that way, I owe you my life."
"Are you going any farther?"
"Just a few steps till my hair is dry."
He turned and walked by her side.
"You see that the buoys are beyond where the channel really begins. I once tried to swim round two of them, but it was as much as ever I could do to get back. If I were you, I would give them a wide berth again; but if you should be caught, go on and do what we did yesterday—try to turn off into the back-stream just inside the point."
"You may be sure I shall never go near them any more."
"Unless you happen to see me," said Robert, his face flushed with his happy thought, "and then you will give me the pleasure of coming after you."
She looked at him, shifted her parasol, and laughed a little.
"Pleasure! really, Mr. Trevanion, were you not very much frightened?"
"Not for myself, except just for an instant."
"Oh, I was awfully frightened! I thought I must give up. I never, never shall forget that moment when you laid hold of me."
"But you have been in the water again this morning."
"Oh, yes! I do enjoy it so, and of course I did not go far. That stupid bathing-man, by the way, ought to have looked out yesterday. He might have come in the boat and have saved you a wetting. I believe he was asleep."
"He is old, and I am very, very glad he did not see you. Aren't you tired? Would you not like to sit down a moment before we go back?"
They sat down on one of the rocks near the edge of the water.
"You are a very good swimmer, Mr. Trevanion."
"No, not very; and yesterday I was particularly bad, for a kind of faintness came over me just before I reached you, and I thought I was done for."
"Dear me! how dreadful! How did you conquer it?"
"Merely by saying to myself I would not give in, and I struggled with it for a minute and then it disappeared."
"How strong you must be! I am sure I could not do that."
"Ah! there was something else, Miss Shipton. You see, I had you ahead of me, and I thought I could be of some service to you."
Miss Shipton made no direct reply, but threw some pebbles in the water. Robert felt himself gradually overcome, or nearly overcome, by what to him was quite new. He could not keep his voice steady, and although what he said was poor and of no importance, it was charged with expressionless heat. For example, Miss Shipton's parasol dropped and she stooped to pick it up. "Let me pick it up," he said, and his lips quivered, and the let me pick it up—a poor, little, thin wire of words—was traversed by an electric current raising them to white-hot glow, and as powerful as that which flows through many mightier and more imposing conductors. What are words? "Good-bye," for example, is said every morning by thousands of creatures in the London suburbs as they run to catch their train, and the present writer has heard it said by a mother to her beloved boy as she stepped on board the tug which was about to leave the big steamer, and she knew she would never see him again. Robert handed her the parasol, and unconsciously, by that curious sympathy by which we are all affected, without any obvious channel of communication, she felt the condition in which his nerves were. She was a little uncomfortable, and, rising, said she thought it was time she was at home. They rose and walked back slowly till their paths parted.
The next day Robert renewed his walk, but there was no Miss Shipton. The summer heat had passed into thunderstorms, and these were succeeded by miserable grey days with mist, confusing sea, land, and sky, and obliterating every trace of colour. As he went backwards and forwards to the house over the hill, he watched every corner and turned round a hundred times, although his reason would have told him that to expect Miss Shipton in the rain was ridiculously absurd.
Michael Trevanion loved his son with a father's love, but with a mother's too. He rejoiced to talk with him as his father and friend, but there was in him also that wild, ferocious passion for his child which generally belongs to the woman, a passion which in its intense vitality forecasts, apprehends, and truly discerns danger where, to the mere intellect, there is nothing. Michael wondered a little at Robert's unusually frequent visits to his work over the hill, and as he was in the town one morning, he determined to cross the hill himself and see how the house was going on. The mist, which had hung about for a week, had gradually rolled itself into masses as the sun rose higher. It was no longer without form and void, but was detaching itself into huge fragments, which let in the sun and were gradually sucked up by him. Rapidly everything became transformed, and lo! as if by enchantment, the whole sky resumed once more its deepest blue, the perfect semicircle of the horizon sharply revealed itself, and vessels five miles off were visible to their spars. Michael reached the end of his journey and waited, looking out from one of the upper stories. He saw nothing of the splendour of the scene before him. He was restless, he did not quite know why. He could not tell exactly why he was there, but nevertheless he determined to remain. He generally carried a Bible in his pocket, and he turned where he had turned so often before, to the fifteenth chapter of Luke, and read the parable of the prodigal son. He had affixed his own interpretation to that story, and he always held that the point of it was not the love of the father, but the magnificent repentance of the boy who could simply say, "I have sinned against Heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants." No wonder the fatted calf was killed for him. No excuses; a noble confession and a trust in his father's affection for him! His own Robert would never go wrong, but if he did, it would cost nothing to forgive him. Then, as he often did, he fell on his knees, and, in front of the space where the window was to come, which would open on a little southern balcony looking over the sea, there, amid the lumps of plaster and shavings, he besought his Maker to preserve the child. Michael was sincere in his prayers, nakedly sincere, and yet there were some things he kept to himself even when he was with his God. He never mentioned his disappointment with his wife, never a word; but he assumed a right to the perfect enjoyment of Robert by way of compensation. Calvinist as he was to the marrow, he would almost have impeached the Divine justice if Robert had been removed from him.
Robert, walking leisurely, turning to look behind him for the hundredth time, had spied Miss Shipton on her road to the town from her accustomed plunge. He intercepted her by going round a meadow to the left at a great rate, and found himself face to face with her as she was about to pass the corner. The third side of the meadow round which he had raced was an unfinished road, and was a way, though not the usual way, back to Perran.
"Good morning, Miss Shipton. Are you going home?"
"Yes! I suppose you are going to your house."
"Yes," and Robert walked slowly back along the way he had come, Miss Shipton accompanying him, for it was the way home. When they came to the corner, however, they both, without noticing it, went eastward, and not to the town.
"Should you like to be a sailor, Mr. Trevanion?" said Miss Shipton, catching sight of the fishing vessels over the low sea-beaten hedge.
"No, I think not. At least it would depend——"
"Depend on what?"
"I should not like to be away for weeks during the North Sea fishing, if——"
"If it were very cold?"
"Oh, no; that is not what I meant—if I had a wife at home who cared for me and watched for me!"
"Really, Mr. Trevanion, if you were a fisherman you would not take things so seriously. It would all come as a matter of course. Yon would be busy with your nets, and have no time to think of her."
"But she might think of me."
"Oh, well, perhaps she might now and then; but she would have her house to look after, and all her friends would be near her."
"On stormy nights," said Robert, musingly.
"How very serious you are! Such a lovely day, too—a nice time to be talking about stormy nights! Of course there are stormy nights, but the boats can run into harbour, and if they cannot, the men are not always drowned."
"Certainly not; how foolish, and to think of coming home after five or six weeks on the Doggerbank—oh me! But here is the very rock where we sat the other morning. I am sure you are tired, let us sit down again; your hair is not dry yet."
They sat down.
"It is quite wet still," and Robert ventured to touch it, putting his hand underneath it.
"An awful plague it is! Horrid sandy-coloured stuff, and such a nuisance in the water! I think I shall have it cut short."
"I am sure you won't. Sandy-coloured! it is beautiful."
Miss Shipton tossed her parasol about, shaking her hair loose from his fingers.
"When it is spread out in the sunshine," said Robert, as he separated a little piece of it between his fingers, "the sun shows its varying shades. How lovely they are!" His hand went a little higher, till it touched the back of her neck.
"On stormy nights.—on stormy nights," he almost whispered, "I should think of you if you did not think of me."
The hand went a little farther under the hair, his head inclined to it, and he was intoxicated with its own rich scent mingled with, that of the sweet sea-water. He trembled with emotion from head to foot. What is there in life like this? Old as creation, ever new; and under the almost tropical sun, fronting the ocean, in the full heat of youth, he drew her head to his. She yielded, and in a moment his eyes and mouth were buried in her loose-clustering tresses. Before, however, he could say another word he was interrupted. A sheep, feeding above them, alarmed by a stranger's approach, rushed down past them; and hastily recovering himself, Robert looked up. There was nobody, but he saw that they were near his house, and that his father, who had just come to the window, was looking down straight upon them. Miss Shipton immediately said that it was late, rose, and walked homewards; and Robert alone went up the cliff. Michael had seen the girl walk away and had recognised her, but he had not seen what had preceded her departure. Instantly, however, he penetrated the secret, and his first words when Robert presented himself were—
"Why, Robert, that was Miss Shipton."
"What were she and you doing here?"
"We happened to meet."
There was something in the tone in which Robert replied which showed the father at once that his son's confidence in him was not illimitable, as he had believed it to be hitherto. It is a heart-breaking time for father and mother when they first become aware that the deepest secrets in their children are intrusted not to them, but to others. Michael felt repelled and was silent; but after a while, as they both were leaning over the garden-wall and gazing upon the water, he said—
"Mere worldlings, those Shiptons, Robert!"
"I do not know much about them, but they seem an honest, good sort of people."
"Ah! yes, my son; they may be all that. But what is it? They are not the Lord's."
Robert made no reply, and presently father and son left the house and went back to Perran to their work, uncommunicative.
It was a peculiar misfortune for a man of Michael's temperament that he had nobody save his son who could assist him in the shaping of his resolves or in the correction of his conclusions. Brought up in a narrow sect, self-centred, moody, he needed continually that wholesome twist to another point of the compass which intercourse with equals gives. He was continually prone to subjection under the rigorous domination of a single thought, from which he deduced inference after inference, ending in absurdity, which would have been dissipated in an instant by discussion. We complain of people because they are not original, but we do not ask what their originality, if they had any, would be worth. Better a thousand times than the originality of most of us is the average common-sense which is not our own exclusively, but shared with millions of our fellow-beings, and is not due to any one of them. Michael ought to have talked over the events of the morning with his wife; but alas! his wife's counsel was never sought, and not worth having. He did seek counsel at the throne of heavenly grace that night, but the answer given by the oracle was framed by himself. He was in sore straits. Something seemed to have interposed itself between him and Robert, and when, instead of the old unveiled frankness, Robert was reticent and even suspicious, Michael's heart almost broke, and he went up to his room, and shutting the door, wept bitter tears. His sorrow clothed itself, even at its uttermost, with no words of his own, but always in those of the Book.
"O my son Absalom!" he cried, "my son, my son, Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!"
He remembered also what his own married life had been; he always trusted that Robert would have a wife who would be a help to him, and he felt sure that this girl Shipton, with her pretty rosy face and blue eyes, had no brains. To think that his boy should repeat the same inexplicable blunder, that she was silly, that he would never hear from her lips a serious word! What will she be if trouble comes on him? What will she be when a twelvemonth has passed? What will he be when he sits by his fireside in long winter evenings, alone with her, and finds she cannot interest him for a moment?