Leonard's birth and identity were easily proved, and no one appeared to dispute them. The balance due to him as his father's heir, together with the sum Avenel ultimately paid to him for the patent of his invention, and the dowry which Harley insisted upon bestowing on Helen, amounted to that happy competence which escapes alike the anxieties of poverty, and (what to one of contemplative tastes and retired habits are often more irksome to bear) the show and responsibilities of wealth. His father's death made a deep impression upon Leonard's mind; but the discovery that he owed his birth to a statesman of so great a repute, and occupying a position in society so conspicuous, contributed not to confirm, but to still, the ambition which had for a short time diverted him from his more serene aspirations. He had no longer to win a rank which might equal Helen's. He had no longer a parent, whose affections might be best won through pride. The memories of his earlier peasant life, and his love for retirement,—in which habit confirmed the constitutional tendency,—made him shrink from what a more worldly nature would have considered the enviable advantages of a name that secured the entrance into the loftiest sphere of our social world. He wanted not that name to assist his own path to a rank far more durable than that which kings can confer. And still he retained in the works he had published, and still he proposed to bestow on the works more ambitious that he had, in leisure and competence, the facilities to design with care, and complete with patience, the name he had himself invented, and linked with the memory of the low-born mother. Therefore, though there was some wonder, in drawing-rooms and clubs, at the news of Egerton's first unacknowledged marriage, and some curiosity expressed as to what the son of that marriage might do,—and great men were prepared to welcome, and fine ladies to invite and bring out, the heir to the statesman's grave repute,—yet wonder and curiosity soon died away; the repute soon passed out of date, and its heir was soon forgotten. Politicians who fall short of the highest renown are like actors; no applause is so vivid while they are on the stage, no oblivion so complete when the curtain falls on the last farewell.
Leonard saw a fair tomb rise above Nora's grave, and on the tomb was engraved the word of WIFE, which vindicated her beloved memory. He felt the warm embrace of Nora's mother, no longer ashamed to own her grandchild; and even old John was made sensible that a secret weight of sorrow was taken from his wife's stern silent heart. Leaning on Leonard's arm, the old man gazed wistfully on Nora's tomb, and muttering, "Egerton! Egerton! 'Leonora, the first wife of the Right Honourable Audley Egerton!' Ha! I voted for him. She married the right colour. Is that the date? Is it so long since she died? Well, well! I miss her sadly. But wife says we shall both now see her soon; and wife once thought we should never see her again,—never; but I always knew better. Thank you, sir. I'm a poor creature, but these tears don't pain me,—quite otherwise. I don't know why, but I'm very happy. Where's my old woman? She does not mind how much I talk about Nora now. Oh, there she is! Thank you, sir, humbly; but I'd rather lean on my old woman,—I'm more used to it; and—wife, when shall we go to Nora?"
Leonard had brought Mrs. Fairfield to see her parents, and Mrs. Avenel welcomed her with unlooked-for kindness. The name inscribed upon Nora's tomb softened the mother's heart to her surviving daughter. As poor John had said, "She could now talk about Nora;" and in that talk, she and the child she had so long neglected discovered how much they had in common. So when, shortly after his marriage with Helen, Leonard went abroad, Jane Fairfield remained with the old couple. After their death, which was within a day of each other, she refused, perhaps from pride, to take up her residence with Leonard; but she settled near the home which he subsequently found in England. Leonard remained abroad for some years. A quiet observer of the various manners and intellectual development of living races, a rapt and musing student of the monuments that revive the dead, his experience of mankind grew large in silence, and his perceptions of the Sublime and Beautiful brightened into tranquil art under their native skies.
On his return to England he purchased a small house amidst the most beautiful scenes of Devonshire, and there patiently commenced a work in which he designed to bequeath to his country his noblest thoughts in their fairest forms. Some men best develop their ideas by constant exercise; their thoughts spring from their brain ready-armed, and seek, like the fabled goddess, to take constant part in the wars of men. And such are, perhaps, on the whole, the most vigorous and lofty writers; but Leonard did not belong to this class. Sweetness and serenity were the main characteristics of his genius; and these were deepened by his profound sense of his domestic happiness. To wander alone with Helen by the banks of the murmurous river; to gaze with her on the deep still sea; to feel that his thoughts, even when most silent, were comprehended by the intuition of love, and reflected on that translucent sympathy so yearned for and so rarely found by poets,—these were the Sabbaths of his soul, necessary to fit him for its labours: for the Writer has this advantage over other men, that his repose is not indolence. His duties, rightly fulfilled, are discharged to earth and men in other capacities than those of action. If he is not seen among those who act, he is all the while maturing some noiseless influence, which will guide or illumine, civilize or elevate, the restless men whose noblest actions are but the obedient agencies of the thoughts of writers. Call not, then, the Poet whom we place amidst the Varieties of Life, the sybarite of literary ease, if, returning on Summer eves, Helen's light footstep by his musing side, he greets his sequestered home, with its trellised flowers smiling out from amidst the lonely cliffs in which it is embedded; while lovers still, though wedded long, they turn to each other, with such deep joy in their speaking eyes, grateful that the world, with its various distractions and noisy conflicts, lies so far from their actual existence,—only united to them by the happy link that the writer weaves invisibly with the hearts that he moves and the souls that he inspires. No! Character and circumstance alike unfitted Leonard for the strife of the thronged literary democracy; they led towards the development of the gentler and purer portions of his nature,—to the gradual suppression of the more combative and turbulent. The influence of the happy light under which his genius so silently and calmly grew, was seen in the exquisite harmony of its colours, rather than the gorgeous diversities of their glow. His contemplation, intent upon objects of peaceful beauty, and undisturbed by rude anxieties and vehement passions, suggested only kindred reproductions to the creative faculty by which it was vivified; so that the whole man was not only a poet, but, as it were, a poem,—a living idyl, calling into pastoral music every reed that sighed and trembled along the stream of life. And Helen was so suited to a nature of this kind, she so guarded the ideal existence in which it breathes! All the little cares and troubles of the common practical life she appropriated so quietly to herself,—the stronger of the two, as should be a poet's wife, in the necessary household virtues of prudence and forethought. Thus if the man's genius made the home a temple, the woman's wisdom gave to the temple the security of the fortress. They have only one child,—a girl; they call her Nora. She has the father's soul-lit eyes, and the mother's warm human smile. She assists Helen in the morning's noiseless domestic duties; she sits in the evening at Leonard's feet, while he reads or writes. In each light grief of childhood she steals to the mother's knee; but in each young impulse of delight, or each brighter flash of progressive reason, she springs to the father's breast. Sweet Helen, thou hast taught her this, taking to thyself the shadows even of thine infant's life, and leaving to thy partner's eyes only its rosy light!
But not here shall this picture of Helen close. Even the Ideal can only complete its purpose by connection with the Real; even in solitude the writer must depend upon mankind.
Leonard at last has completed the work, which has been the joy and the labour of so many years,—the work which he regards as the flower of all his spiritual being, and to which he has committed all the hopes that unite the creature of today with the generations of the future. The work has gone through the press, each line lingered over with the elaborate patience of the artist, loath to part with the thought he has sculptured into form, while an improving touch can be imparted by the chisel. He has accepted an invitation from Norreys. In the restless excitement (strange to him since his first happy maiden effort) he has gone to London. Unrecognized in the huge metropolis, he has watched to see if the world acknowledge the new tie he has woven between its busy life and his secluded toil. And the work came out in an unpropitious hour; other things were occupying the public; the world was not at leisure to heed him, and the book did not penetrate into the great circle of readers. But a savage critic has seized on it, and mangled, distorted, deformed it, confounding together defect and beauty in one mocking ridicule; and the beauties have not yet found an exponent, nor the defects a defender; and the publisher shakes his head, points to groaning shelves, and delicately hints that the work which was to be the epitome of the sacred life within life does not hit the taste of the day. Leonard thinks over the years that his still labour has cost him, and knows that he has exhausted the richest mines of his intellect, and that long years will elapse before he can recruit that capital of ideas which is necessary to sink new shafts and bring to light fresh ore; and the deep despondency of intellect, frustrated in its highest aims, has seized him, and all he has before done is involved in failure by the defeat of the crowning effort. Failure, and irrecoverable, seems his whole ambition as writer; his whole existence in the fair Ideal seems to have been a profitless dream, and the face of the Ideal itself is obscured. And even Norreys frankly, though kindly, intimates that the life of a metropolis is essential to the healthful intuition of a writer in the intellectual wants of his age, since every great writer supplies a want in his own generation, for some feeling to be announced, some truth to be revealed. And as this maxim is generally sound, as most great writers have lived in cities, Leonard dares not dwell on the exception; it is only success that justifies the attempt to be an exception to the common rule; and with the blunt manhood of his nature, which is not a poet's, Norreys sums up with, "What then? One experiment has failed; fit your life to your genius, and try again." Try again! Easy counsel enough to the man of ready resource and quick combative mind; but to Leonard, how hard and how harsh! "Fit his life to his genius!"—renounce contemplation and Nature for the jostle of Oxford Street! Would that life not scare away the genius forever? Perplexed and despondent, though still struggling for fortitude, he returns to his home; and there at his hearth awaits the Soother, and there is the voice that repeats the passages most beloved, and prophesies so confidently of future fame; and gradually all around smiles from the smile of Helen. And the profound conviction that Heaven places human happiness beyond the reach of the world's contempt or praise, circulates through his system and restores its serene calm. And he feels that the duty of the intellect is to accomplish and perfect itself,—to harmonize its sounds into music that may be heard in heaven, though it wake not an echo on the earth. If this be done, as with some men, best amidst the din and the discord, be it so; if, as with him, best in silence, be it so too. And the next day he reclines with Helen by the seashore, gazing calmly as before on the measureless sunlit ocean; and Helen, looking into his face, sees that it is sunlit as the deep. His hand steals within her own, in the gratitude that endears beyond the power of passion, and he murmurs gently, "Blessed be the woman who consoles."
The work found its way at length into fame, and the fame sent its voices loud to the poet's home. But the applause of the world had not a sound so sweet to his ear, as, when, in doubt, humiliation, and sadness, the lips of his Helen had whispered "Hope! and believe!"
Side by side with this picture of Woman the Consoler, let me place the companion sketch. Harley L'Estrange, shortly after his marriage with Violante, had been induced, whether at his bride's persuasions, or to dissipate the shadow with which Egerton's death still clouded his wedded felicity, to accept a temporary mission, half military, half civil, to one of our colonies. On this mission he had evinced so much ability and achieved so signal a success, that on his return to England he was raised to the peerage, while his father yet lived to rejoice that the son who would succeed to his honours had achieved the nobler dignity of honours not inherited, but won. High expectations were formed of Harley's parliamentary success; but he saw that such success, to be durable, must found itself on the knowledge of wearisome details, and the study of that practical business which jarred on his tastes, though it suited his talents. Harley had been indolent for so many years,—and there is so much to make indolence captivating to a man whose rank is secured, who has nothing to ask from fortune, and who finds at his home no cares from which he seeks a distraction; so he laughed at ambition in the whim of his delightful humours, and the expectations formed from his diplomatic triumph died away. But then came one of those political crises, in which men ordinarily indifferent to politics rouse themselves to the recollection that the experiment of legislation is not made upon dead matter, but on the living form of a noble country; and in both Houses of Parliament the strength of party is put forth.
It is a lovely day in spring, and Harley is seated by the window of his old room at Knightsbridge,—now glancing to the lively green of the budding trees; now idling with Nero, who, though in canine old age, enjoys the sun like his master; now repeating to himself, as he turns over the leaves of his favourite Horace, some of those lines that make the shortness of life the excuse for seizing its pleasures and eluding its fatigues, which formed the staple morality of the polished epicurean; and Violante (into what glorious beauty her maiden bloom has matured!) comes softly into the room, seats herself on a low stool beside him, leaning her face on her hands, and looking up at him through her dark, clear, spiritual eyes; and as she continues to speak, gradually a change comes over Harley's aspect, gradually the brow grows thoughtful, and the lips lose their playful smile. There is no hateful assumption of the would-be "superior woman," no formal remonstrance, no lecture, no homily which grates upon masculine pride; but the high theme and the eloquent words elevate unconsciously of themselves, and the Horace is laid aside,—a Parliamentary Blue Book has been, by some marvel or other, conjured there in its stead; and Violante now moves away as softly as she entered. Harley's hand detains her.
"Not so. Share the task, or I quit it. Here is an extract I condemn you to copy. Do you think I would go through this labour if you were not to halve the success?—halve the labour as well!"
And Violante, overjoyed, kisses away the implied rebuke, and sits down to work, so demure and so proud, by his side. I do not know if Harley made much way in the Blue Book that morning; but a little time after he spoke in the Lords, and surpassed all that the most sanguine had hoped from his talents. The sweetness of fame and the consciousness of utility once fully tasted, Harley's consummation of his proper destinies was secure. A year later, and his voice was one of the influences of England. His boyish love of glory revived,—no longer vague and dreamy, but ennobled into patriotism, and strengthened into purpose. One night, after a signal triumph, he returned home, with his father, who had witnessed it, and Violante—who all lovely, all brilliant, though she was, never went forth in her lord's absence, to lower among fops and flatterers the dignity of the name she so aspired to raise—sprang to meet him. Harley's eldest son—a boy yet in the nursery—had been kept up later than usual; perhaps Violante had anticipated her husband's triumph, and wished the son to share it. The old earl beckoned the child to him, and laying his hand on the infant's curly locks, said with unusual seriousness,
"My boy, you may see troubled times in England before these hairs are as gray as mine; and your stake in England's honour and peace will be great. Heed this hint from an old man who had no talents to make a noise in the world, but who yet has been of some use in his generation. Neither sounding titles, nor wide lands, nor fine abilities, will give you real joy, unless you hold yourself responsible for all to your God and to your country; and when you are tempted to believe that the gifts you may inherit from both entail no duties, or that duties are at war with true pleasure, remember how I placed you in your father's arms, and said, 'Let him be as proud of you some day as I at this hour am of him.'"
The boy clung to his father's breast, and said manfully, "I will try!" Harley bent his fair smooth brow over the young earnest face, and said softly, "Your mother speaks in you!"
Then the old countess, who had remained silent and listening on her elbow-chair, rose and kissed the earl's hand reverently. Perhaps in that kiss there was the repentant consciousness how far the active goodness she had often secretly undervalued had exceeded, in its fruits, her own cold unproductive powers of will and mind. Then passing on to Harley, her brow grew elate, and the pride returned to her eye.
"At last," she said, laying on his shoulder that light firm hand, from which he no longer shrunk,—"at last, O my noble son, you have fulfilled all the promise of your youth!"
"If so," answered Harley, "it is because I have found what I then sought in vain." He drew his arm around Violante, and added, with half tender, half solemn smile, "Blessed is the woman who exalts!"
So, symbolled forth in these twin and fair flowers which Eve saved for Earth out of Paradise, each with the virtue to heal or to strengthen, stored under the leaves that give sweets to the air; here, soothing the heart when the world brings the trouble; here, recruiting the soul which our sloth or our senses enervate, leave we Woman, at least in the place Heaven assigns to her amidst the multiform "Varieties of Life."
Farewell to thee, gentle Reader; and go forth to the world, O MY NOVEL!