Beth stopped short and her heart stood still. The slight was unmistakable; but what had she done? She looked about her as if for an explanation, and saw Lady Beg close beside her, talking to Mrs. Carne.
"Ah, how do you do? Nice ball, isn't it?" Lady Beg observed, but without shaking hands.
"How do you do?" said Mrs. Carne, and then they resumed their conversation, taking no further notice of Beth, who would probably have turned and fled from the dreadful place incontinently, if Mrs. Petterick had not come up at that moment and spoken to her as one human being to another, seizing upon Beth as Beth might have seized upon her, in despair; for Mrs. Petterick had also been having her share of snubs. Oh, those Christians! how they do love one another! how tender they are to one another's feelings! how careful to make the best of one another! how gentle, good, and kind, and true! How singular it is that when the wicked unbeliever comes to live amongst them, and sees them as they are, he is not immediately moved by admiration to adopt their religion in order that he also may acquire the noble attributes so conspicuously displayed by them!
"You're not dancing, my dear," Mrs. Petterick said. "Come along and sit with me on that couch against the wall yonder. We shall see all that's going on from there."
Beth was only too thankful to go. A waltz was being played, and Dan passed them, dancing with Bertha Petterick. They glided over the floor together with the gentle voluptuous swing, dreamy eyes, and smiling lips of two perfect dancers, conscious of nothing but the sensuous delight of interwoven paces and clasping arms.
"My! but they do step well together, him and Bertha!" Mrs. Petterick exclaimed. "He's a handsome man, your husband, and a gay one—flirting about with all the ladies! I wonder you're not jealous!"
"Jealous!" Beth answered, smiling. "Not I, indeed! Jealousy is a want of faith in one's self."
"Well, my dear, if you always looked as well as you do just now, you need not want confidence in yourself," Mrs. Petterick observed. "But what would you do if your husband gave you cause for jealousy?"
"Despise him," Beth answered promptly.
Mrs. Petterick looked as if she could make nothing of this answer. Then she became uneasy. The music had stopped, but Bertha had not returned to her. "I must go and look after my daughter," she said, rising from her comfortable seat with a sigh. "Gels are a nuisance. You've got to keep your eye on them all the time, or you never know what they're up to."
Beth stayed where she was, and soon began to feel uncomfortable. People stared coldly at her as they passed, and she could not help fancying herself the subject of unpleasant remark because she was alone. She prayed hard that some one would come and speak to her. Dan had disappeared. After a time she recognised Sir George Galbraith among the groups of people at the opposite side of the room. He was receiving that attention from every one which is so generously conferred on a man or woman of consequence, whose acquaintance adds to people's own importance, and to whom it is therefore well to be seen speaking; but although his manner was courteously attentive he looked round as if anxious to make his escape, and finally, to Beth's intense relief, he recognised her, and, leaving the group about him unceremoniously, came across the room to speak to her.
"Would it be fair to ask you to sit out a dance with me?" he said. "I do not dance."
"I would rather sit out a dance with you than dance it with any one else I know here," she answered naively; "but, as it happens, I do not dance either."
"Indeed! How is that? I should have thought you would like dancing."
"So I should, I am sure, if I could," she replied. "But I can't dance at all. They would not let me learn dancing at one school where I was, and I was not long enough at the other to learn properly."
"Now, that is a pity," he said, considering Beth, his professional eye having been struck by her thinness and languor. "But have some lessons. Dancing in moderation is capital exercise, and it exhilarates; and anything that exhilarates increases one's vitality. Why don't you make your husband teach you? He seems to know all about it."
"Yes," Beth answered, smiling; "but I shouldn't think teaching me is at all in his line. Why don't you dance yourself?"
"Oh, I am far too clumsy," he said good-naturedly. "My wife says if I could even learn to move about a room without getting in the way and upsetting things, it would be something."
"Is she here to-night?" Beth asked.
"No, she was not feeling up to it," he answered. "She tired herself in the garden this afternoon, helping me to bud roses."
"Oh, can you bud roses?" Beth exclaimed. "I should so like to know how it is done."
"I'll show you with pleasure."
"Will you really?" said Beth. "How kind of you."
"Not at all. Let me see, when will you be at home? We mustn't lose any time, or it will be too late in the year."
"I'm pretty nearly always at home," Beth said.
"Then if I came to-morrow morning would that be convenient?"
"Quite; and I hope you will stay lunch," Beth answered.
Dan returned to the ball-room just then, and, on seeing who was with her, he immediately joined them; but Sir George only stayed long enough to exchange greetings politely.
"You seem to get on very well with Galbraith," Dan observed.
"Don't you like him?" Beth asked in surprise, detecting a note of enmity in his voice.
"I haven't had much chance," he said bitterly. "He doesn't play the agreeable to me as he does to you."
Beth missed the drift of this remark in considering the expression "play the agreeable," which was unpleasantly suggestive to her of under-bred gentility.
"You will be able to give him an opportunity to-morrow then," she said, "if you are in at lunch-time, for he is coming to show me how to bud roses, and I have asked him to stay."
"Have you, indeed?" Dan exclaimed, obviously displeased, but why or wherefore Beth could not conceive. "I hope to goodness there's something to eat in the house," he added upon reflection, fussily.
"There is as much as there always is," Beth placidly rejoined.
"Well, that's not enough then. Just think what a man like that has on his own table!"
"A man like that won't expect our table to be like his."
"You'd better make it appear so for once then, or you'll be having our hospitality criticised as I heard the Barrack fellows criticise Mrs. Jeffery's the other day. A couple of them called about lunch-time, and she asked them to stay, and they said there was nothing but beer and sherry, and the fragments of a previous feast, and they were blessed if they'd go near the old trout again."
"An elegant expression!" said Beth. "It gives the measure of the mind it comes from. Please don't introduce the person who uses it to me. But as to Sir George Galbraith, you need not be afraid that he will accept hospitality and criticise it in that spirit. He will neither grumble at a cutlet, nor describe his hostess by a vulgar epithet after eating it."
She shut her mouth hard after speaking. Disillusion is a great enlightener; our insight is never so clear as when it is turned on the character of a person in whom we used to believe; and as Dan gradually revealed himself to Beth, trait by trait, a kind of distaste seized upon her, a want of respect, which found involuntary expression in trenchant comments upon his observations and in smart retorts. She did not seek sympathy from him now for the way in which she had been slighted at the ball, knowing perfectly well that he was more likely to blame her than anybody else. He had, in fact, by this time, so far as any confidence she might have reposed in him was concerned, dropped out of her life completely, and left her as friendless and as much alone as she would have been with the veriest stranger.
That night when she went home she felt world-worn and weary, but next morning, out in the garden with Sir George Galbraith budding roses, she became young again. Before they had been together half-an-hour she was chatting to him with girlish confidence, telling him about her attempts to cultivate her mind, her reading and writing, to all of which he listened without any of that condescension in his manner which Dan displayed when perchance he was in a good-humour and Beth had ventured to expand. Sir George was genuinely interested.
Dan came in punctually to lunch, for a wonder. He glanced at Beth's animated face sharply when he entered, but took no further notice of her. He was one of those husbands who have two manners, a coarse one for their families, and another, much more polished, which they assume when it is politic to be refined. But Dan's best behaviour sat ill upon him, because it was lacking in sincerity, and Beth suffered all through lunch because of the obsequious pose he thought it proper to assume towards his distinguished guest.
After lunch, when Sir George had gone, he took up his favourite position before the mirror over the chimney-piece, and stood there for a little, looking at himself and caressing his moustache.
"You talk a great deal too much, Beth," he said at last.
"Do you think so?" she rejoined.
"Yes, I do," he assured her. "Of course Galbraith had to be polite and affect to listen, but I could see that he was bored by your chatter. He naturally wanted to talk to me about things that interest men."
"Then why on earth didn't he talk to you?" Beth asked.
"How could he when you monopolised the conversation?"
"It was he who kept me talking," she protested.
"Oh yes; I notice you are very animated when anything in the shape of a man comes in," Dan sneered.
Beth got up and left the room, less affected by the insinuation, however, than by the vulgar expression of it.
The following week Sir George came in one morning with some cuttings, and stayed a while in the garden with Beth, showing her how to set them; but he would not wait for lunch. Dan showed considerable annoyance when he heard of the visit.
"He should come when I am at home," he said. "It is damned bad taste his coming when you are alone."
The next time Sir George came Dan happened to be in, to Beth's relief. She had brought her writing down that day, and was working at it on the dining-room table, not expecting Dan till much later. He was in a genial mood, for a wonder.
"What on earth are you scribbling about there?" he asked.
"Just something I was thinking about," Beth answered evasively.
"Going in for authorship, eh?"
"Why not?" said Beth.
Dan laughed. "You are not at all ambitious," he remarked; then added patronisingly, "A little of that kind of thing will do you no harm, of course; but, my dear child, your head wouldn't contain a book, and if you were just a little cleverer you would know that yourself."
Beth bit the end of her pencil and looked at him dispassionately, and it was at this moment that Sir George Galbraith was announced.
Dan received him with effusion as usual; and also, as usual, Sir George responded with all conventional politeness, but the greeting over, he turned his attention to Beth. He had brought her a packet of books.
"This looks like work in earnest," he said, glancing at the table. "I see you have a good deal of something done. Is it nearly finished?"
"All but," Beth rejoined.
"What are you going to do with it?"
Beth looked at him, and then at her manuscript vaguely. "I don't know," she said. "What can I do with it?"
"Publish it, if it is good," he answered.
"But how am I to know?" Beth asked eagerly. "Do you think it possible I could do anything fit to publish?"
Before he could reply, Dan chimed in. "I've just been telling her," he said, "that little heads like hers can't contain books. It's all very well to scribble a little for pastime, and all that, but she mustn't seriously imagine she can do that sort of work. She'll only do herself harm. Literature is men's work."
"Yet how many women have written, and written well, too," Beth observed.
"Oh yes, of course—exceptional women."
"And why mayn't I be an exceptional woman?" Beth asked, smiling.
"Coarse and masculine!" Dan exclaimed. "No, thank you. We don't want you to be one of that kind—do we, Galbraith?"
"There is not the slightest fear," Sir George answered dryly. "Besides, I don't think any class of women workers—not even the pit-brow women—are necessarily coarse and masculine. And I differ from you, too, with regard to that head," he added, fixing his keen, kindly eyes deliberately on Beth's cranium till she laughed to cover her embarrassment, and put up both hands to feel it. "I should say there was good promise both of sense and capacity in the size and balance of it—not to mention anything else."
"Well, you ought to know if anybody does," said Dan with a facetious sort of affectation of agreement, which left no doubt of his insincerity.
"I wish," Sir George continued, addressing Beth, "you would let me show some of your work to a lady, a friend of mine, whose opinion is well worth having."
"I would rather have yours," Beth jerked out.
"Oh, mine is no good," he rejoined. "But if you will let me read what you give me to show my lady, I should be greatly interested. We were talking about style in prose the other day, and I have ventured to bring you these books—some of our own stylists, and some modern Frenchmen. You read French, I know."
"There is nothing like the French," Dan chimed in. "We have no literature at all now. Look at their work compared to ours, how short, crisp, and incisive it is! How true to life! A Frenchman will give you more real life in a hundred pages than our men do in all their interminable volumes."
"More sexuality, you mean, I suppose," said Galbraith, "Personally I find them monotonous, and barren of happy phrases to enrich the mind, of noble sentiments to expand the heart, of great thoughts to help the soul; without balance, with little of the redeeming side of life, and less aspiration towards it. If France is to be judged by the tendency of its literature and art at present, one would suppose it to be dominated and doomed to destruction by a gang of lascivious authors and artists who are sapping the manhood of the country and degrading the womanhood by idealising self-indulgence and mean intrigue. The man or woman who lives low, or even thinks low, in that sense of the word, will tend always to descend still lower in times of trial. Moral probity is the backbone of our courage; without it we have nothing to support us when a call is made upon our strength."
 The truth of this assertion was lately proved in a terrible manner at the burning of the Charity Bazaar in the Rue Jean Goujon, when the nerves of the luxurious gentlemen present, debilitated by close intimacy with the haute cocotterie in and out of society, betrayed them, and they displayed the white feather of vice by fighting their own way out, not only leaving the ladies to their fate, but actually beating them back with their sticks and trampling on them in their frantic efforts to save themselves, as many a bruised white arm or shoulder afterwards testified. There was scarcely a man burnt on the occasion, husbands, lovers, and fathers escaped, leaving all the heroic deeds to be done by some few devoted men-servants, some workmen who happened to be passing, a stray Englishman or American, and mothers who perished in attempting to rescue their children.
"I can't stand English authors myself," was Dan's reply. "They're so devilish long-winded, don't you know."
"Poverty of mind accounts for the shortness of the book as a rule," said Galbraith. "I like a long book myself when it is rich in thought. The characters become companions then, and I miss them when we are forced to part."
Beth nodded assent to this. She had been turning over the books that Galbraith had brought her, with the tender touch of a true book-lover and that evident interest and pleasure which goes far beyond thanks. Mere formal thanks she forgot to express, but she had brightened up in the most wonderful way since Galbraith appeared, and was all smiles when he took his leave.
Not so Dan, however; but Beth was too absorbed in the books to notice that.
"How kind he is!" she exclaimed. "Dan, won't it be delightful if I really can write? I might make a career for myself."
"Rot!" said Dan.
"Sir George differs from you," Beth rejoined.
"I say that's all rot. What does he know about it? I tell you you're a silly fool, and your head wouldn't contain a book. I ought to know!"
"Doctors differ again, then, it seems," Beth said. "But in this case the patient is going to decide for herself. What is the use of opinion in such matters? One must experiment. I'm going to write, and if at first I don't succeed—I shall persevere."
"Oh, of course!" Dan sneered. "You'll take anybody's advice but your husband's. However, go your own way, as I know you will. Only, I warn you, you'll regret it."
Beth was dipping into one of the books, and took no notice of this. Dan's ill-humour augmented.
"Did you know the fellow was coming to-day?" he asked.
"No—if by fellow you mean Sir George Galbraith," she answered casually, still intent on the book.
"You know well enough who I mean, and that's just a nag," he retorted. "And it looks uncommonly as if you did expect him, and had set all that rubbish of writing out to make a display."
Beth bit the end of her pencil, and looked at Dan contemptuously.
"I dare say he'd like to get hold of you to make a tool of you," he pursued. "He's in with Lord Dawne and the whole of that advanced woman's party at Morne, who are always interfering with everything."
"How?" Beth asked.
"By poking their noses into things that don't concern them," he asseverated, "things they wouldn't know anything about if they weren't damned nasty-minded. There's that fanatical Lady Fulda Guthrie, and Mrs. Orton Beg, and Mrs. Kilroy, besides Madam Ideala—they're all busybodies, and if they succeed in what they're at just now, by Jove, they'll ruin me! I'll have my revenge, though, if they do! I'll attack your distinguished friend. He has established himself as a humanitarian, and travels on that reputation; but he has an hospital of his own, where I have no doubt some pretty games are played in the way of experiments which the public don't suspect. I know the kind of thing! Patients mustn't ask questions! The good doctor will do his best for them—trust him! He'll try nothing that he doesn't know to be for their good; and when they're under chloroform he'll take no unfair advantage in the way of cutting a little more for his own private information than they've consented to. Oh, I know! Galbraith seems to be by way of slighting me, but I'll show him up if it comes to that—and, at any rate, I'm on the way to discoveries myself, and I bet I'll teach him some things in his profession yet that will make him sit up—things he doesn't suspect, clever and all as he is."
Beth knew nothing of the things to which Dan alluded, and therefore missed the drift of this tirade; but the whole tone of it was so offensive to her that she gathered up her books and papers and left the room. Silence and flight were her weapons of defence in those days.
There was a gap of six months between that last visit of Sir George Galbraith's and the next, and in the interval Beth had worked hard, reading and re-reading the books he had lent her, writing, and perhaps most important of all, reflecting, as she sat in her secret chamber, busy with the beautiful embroideries which were to pay off that dreadful debt. She had made seven pounds by this time, and Aunt Grace Mary had sent her five for a present surreptitiously, advising her to keep it herself and say nothing about it—Aunt Grace Mary knew what husbands were. Beth smiled as she read the letter. She, too, was beginning to know what husbands are—husbands of the Uncle James kind. She added the five pounds to her secret hoard, and thanked goodness that the sum was mounting up, little by little.
But she wished Sir George would return. He was a busy man, and lived at the other side of the county, so that she could not expect him to come to Slane on her account; but surely something more important would bring him eventually, and then she might hope to see him. She knew he would not desert her. And she had some manuscript ready to confide to him now if he should repeat his offer; but she was too diffident to send it to him except at his special request.
She was all energy now that the possibility of making a career for herself had been presented to her, but it was the quietly restrained energy of a strong nature. She never supposed that she could practise a profession without learning it, and she was prepared to serve a long apprenticeship to letters if necessary. She meant to write and write and write until she acquired power of expression. About what she should have to express she never troubled herself. It was the need to express what was in her that had set her to work. She would never have to sit at a writing-table with a pen in her hand waiting for ideas to come. She had discovered by accident that she could have books in plenty, and of the kind she required, from the Free Library at Slane. Dan never troubled himself to consult her taste in books, but he was in the habit of bringing home three-volume novels for himself from the library, a form of literature he greatly enjoyed in spite of his strictures. He made Beth read them aloud to him in the evening, one after the other—an endless succession—while he smoked, and drank whiskies-and-sodas. He brought them home himself at first, but soon found it a trouble to go for them, and so sent her; and then it was she discovered that there were other books in the library. The librarian, an educated and intelligent man, helped her often in the choice of books. They had long talks together, during which he made many suggestions, and gave Beth many a hint and piece of information that was of value to her. He was her only congenial friend in Slane, and her long conversations with him often took her out of herself and raised her spirits. He little suspected what a help he was to the lonely little soul. For the most part she took less interest in the books themselves than in the people who wrote them; biographies, autobiographies, and any scrap of anecdote about authors and their methods she eagerly devoured. Life as they had lived it, not as they had observed and imagined it, seemed all-important to her; and as she read and thought, sitting alone in the charmed solitude of her secret chamber, her self-respect grew. Her mind, which had run riot, fancy-fed with languorous dreams in the days when it was unoccupied and undisciplined, came steadily more and more under control, and grew gradually stronger as she exercised it. She ceased to rage and worry about her domestic difficulties, ceased to expect her husband to add to her happiness in any way, ceased to sorrow for the slights and neglects that had so wounded and perplexed her during the first year of her life in Slane; and learnt by degrees to possess her soul in dignified silence so long as silence was best, feeling in herself that something which should bring her up out of all this and set her apart eventually in another sphere, among the elect—feeling this through her further faculty to her comfort, although unable as yet to give it any sort of definite expression. As she read of those who had gone before, she felt a strange kindred with them; she entered into their sorrows, understood their difficulties, was uplifted by their aspirations, and gloried in their successes. Their greatness never disheartened her; on the contrary, she was at home with them in all their experiences, and at her ease as she never was with the petty people about her. It delighted her when she found in them some small trait or habit which she herself had already developed or contracted, such as she found in the early part of George Sand's Histoire de ma Vie, and in the lives of the Brontes. Under the influence of nourishing books, her mind, sustained and stimulated, became nervously active. It had a trick of flashing off from the subject she was studying to something wholly irrelevant. She would begin Emerson's essay on Fate or Beauty with enthusiasm, and presently, with her eyes still following the lines, her thoughts would be busy forming a code of literary principles for herself. In those days her mind was continually under the influence of any author she cared about, particularly if his style were mannered. Involuntarily, while she was reading Macaulay, for instance, her own thoughts took a dogmatic turn, and jerked along in short, sharp sentences. She caught the peculiarities of De Quincey too, of Carlyle, and also some of the simple dignity of Ruskin, which was not so easy; and she had written things after the manner of each of these authors before she perceived the effect they were having upon her. But it was unfortunate for her that her attention had been turned from the matter which she had to express to the manner in which she should express it. From the time she began to think of the style and diction of prose as something to be separately acquired, the spontaneous flow of her thoughts was checked and hampered, and she expended herself in fashioning her tools, as it were, instead of using her tools to fashion her work. When, in her reading, she came under the influence of academic minds, she lost all natural freshness, and succeeded in being artificial. Her English became turgid with Latinities. She took phrases which had flowed from her pen, and were telling in their simple eloquence, and toiled at them, turning and twisting them until she had laboured all the life out of them; and then, mistaking effort for power, and having wearied herself, she was satisfied. Being too diffident to suspect that she had any natural faculty, she conceived that the more trouble she gave herself the better must be the result; and consequently she did nothing worth the doing except as an exercise of ingenuity. She was serving her apprenticeship, however—making her mistakes.
It was late in the autumn before she saw her good friend Sir George Galbraith again. He came on a bright, clear, frosty morning, and found her out in the garden, pacing up and down briskly, and looking greatly exhilarated by the freshness. When she saw him coming towards her, she uttered a little joyful exclamation, and hurried forward to meet him.
"I have been longing to see you," she said in her unaffected way; "but I know what the distance is, and how fully your time is occupied. It is very good of you to come at all."
"Only the time and distance have prevented me coming sooner," he rejoined. "But, tell me, how have you been getting on? And have you thought any more of making a career for yourself?"
"I have thought of nothing else," Beth answered brightly; "and I wonder I ever thought of anything else, for the idea has been in me, I believe, all my life. I must have discussed it, too, at a very early age, for I have remembered lately that I was once advised by an old aunt of mine, the best and dearest friend I ever had, to write only that which is—or aims at being—soul-sustaining."
He nodded his head approvingly. "From such seed a good crop should come," he said. "But what line shall you take?"
"I don't know."
"Not novels then, for certain?"
"Nothing for certain—whatever comes and calls for expression."
They were pacing up and down together, and there was a pause.
"Did you expect I should try to write novels, and do you think I ought?" Beth asked at last.
"I think I did expect it," he answered; "but as to whether you ought or ought not, that is for you to decide. There is much to be said against novel reading and writing. I think it was De Quincey who said that novels are the opium of the West; and I have myself observed that novel-reading is one of those bad habits that grow upon people until they are enslaved by it, demoralised by it; and if that is the case with the reader, what must the writer suffer?"
Beth bent her brows upon this. "But that is only one side of it, is it not?" she asked after a moment's reflection. "I notice in all things a curious duality, a right side and a wrong side. Confusion is the wrong side of order, misery of happiness, falsehood of truth, evil of good; and it seems to me that novel-reading, which can be a vice, I know, may also be made a virtue. It depends on the writer."
"And on the taste of the reader," he suggested. "But I believe the taste of the intelligent 'general reader' is much better than one supposes. The mind craves for nourishment; and the extraordinary success of books in which any attempt, however imperfect, is made to provide food for thought, as distinguished from those which merely offer matter to distract the attention, bears witness, it seems to me, to the involuntary effort which is always in progress to procure it. I believe myself that good fiction may do more to improve the mind, enlarge the sympathies, and develop the judgment than any other form of literature—partly because it looks into the hidden springs of action, and makes all that is obscure in the way of impulse and motive clear to us. Biography, for instance, merely skims the surface of life, as a rule; and in history, where man is a puppet moved by events, there can be very little human nature."
"I wonder if you read many novels," said Beth. "I have to read them aloud to my husband until I am satiated. And I am determined, if I ever do try to write one, to avoid all that is conventional. I never will have a faultlessly beautiful heroine, for instance. I am sick of that creature. When I come to her, especially if she has golden hair yards long, a faultless complexion, and eyes of extraordinary dimensions, I feel inclined to groan and shut the book. I have met her so often in the weary ways of fiction! I know every variety of her so well! She consists of nothing but superlatives, and is as conventional as the torso of an Egyptian statue, with her everlasting physical perfection. I think her as repulsive as a barber's block. I confess that a woman who has golden hair and manages to look like a lady, or to be like one even in a book, is a wonder, considering all that is associated with golden hair in our day; but I should avoid the abnormal as much as the conventional. I would not write plotty-plotty books either, nor make a pivot of the everlasting love-story, which seems to me to show such a want of balance in an author, such an absence of any true sense of proportion, as if there was nothing else of interest in life but our sexual relations. But, oh!" she broke off, "how I do appreciate what the difficulty of selection must be! In writing a life, if one could present all sides of it, and not merely one phase—the good and the bad of it, the joys and the sorrows, the moments of strength and of weakness, of wisdom and of folly, of misery and of pure delight—what a picture!"
"Yes; and how utterly beyond the average reader, who never understands complexity," he answered. "But I think it a good sign for your chances of success that you should have complained of the difficulty of selection in the matter of material rather than bemoan your want of experience of life. Most young aspirants to literary fame grumble that they are handicapped for want of experience. They are seldom content with the material they have at hand—the life they know. They want to go and live in London, where they seem to think that every one worth knowing is to be found."
"That isn't my feeling at all," said Beth. "The best people may be met in London, but I don't believe that they are at their best. The friction of the crowd rubs out their individuality. In a crowd I feel mentally as if I were in a maze of telegraph wires. The thoughts of so many people streaming out in all directions about me entangle and bewilder me."
"You do not seem to like anything exceptional."
"No, I do not," said Beth. "I like the normal—the everyday. Great events are not the most significant, nor are great people the most typical. It is the little things that make life livable. The person who comes and talks clever is not the person we love, nor the person who interests us most. Those we love sympathise with us in the ordinary everyday incidents of our lives, and discuss them with us, merely touching, if at all, on the thoughts they engender. I don't want to know what people think as a rule; I want to know what they have experienced. People who talk facts, I like; people who talk theories, I fly from. And I think upon the whole that I shall always like the kind people better than the clever ones. I believe we owe more to them, too, and learn more from them—more human nature, which after all is what we want to know."
"But the clever people are kind also sometimes," said Sir George.
"When they are, of course it is perfect," Beth answered. "But judging the clever ones of to-day by what they write, I cannot often think them so. The works of our smartest modern writers, particularly the French, satiate me with their cleverness; but they are vain, hollow, cynical, dyspeptic; they appeal to the head, but the heart goes empty away. Few of them know or show the one thing needful—that happiness is the end of life; and that by trying to live rightly we help each other to happiness. That is the one thing well worth understanding in this world; but that, with all their ingenuity, they are not intelligent enough to see."
"You are an optimist, I perceive," Sir George said, smiling, "and I entirely agree with you. So long as we understand that happiness is the end of life, and that the best way to secure it for ourselves is by helping others to attain to it, we are travelling in the right direction. By happiness I do not mean excitement, of course, nor the pleasure we owe to others altogether; but that quiet content in ourselves, that large toleration and love which should overflow from us continually, and make the fact of our existence a source of joy and strength to all who know us."
They walked up and down a little in silence, then Sir George asked her what she thought of some of the specimens of style and art in literature he had lent her to study.
"I don't know yet," Beth said. "My mind is in a state of chaos on the subject. I seem to reject 'style' and 'art.' I ask for something more or something else, and am never satisfied. But tell me what you think of the stylists."
"I think them brilliant," he rejoined, "but their work is as the photograph is to the painting, the lifeless accuracy of the machine to the nervous fascinating faultiness of the human hand. No, I don't care for the writers who are specially praised for their style. I find their productions cold and bald as a rule. I want something warmer—more full-blooded. Most of the stylists write as if they began by acquiring a style and then had to sit and wait for a subject. I believe style is the enemy of matter. You compress all the blood out of your subject when you make it conform to a studied style, instead of letting your style form itself out of the necessity for expression. This is rank heresy, I know, and I should not have ventured on it a few years ago; but now, I say, give me a style that is the natural outcome of your subject, your mind, your character, not an artificial but a natural product; and even though it be as full of faults as human nature is, faults of every kind, so long as there is no fault of the heart in it, that being the one unpardonable fault in an author—if you have put your own individuality into your work—I'll answer for it that you will arrive sooner and be read longer than the most admired stylist of the day. Be prepared to sacrifice form to accuracy, to avoid the brilliant and the marvellous for the simple and direct. What matters it how the effect is got so that it comes honestly? But of course it will be said that this, that, and the other person did not get their effects so; they will compare you to the greatest to humiliate you."
"Oh, that would be nothing to me so that I produced my own effects," Beth broke in. "That is just where I am at present. I mean to be myself. But please do not think that I have too much assurance. If I go wrong, I hope I shall find it out in time; and I shall certainly be the first to acknowledge it. I do not want to prove myself right; I want to arrive at the truth."
"Then you will arrive," he assured her. "But above everything, mind that you are not misled by the cant of art if you have anything special to say. If a writer would be of use in his day, and not merely an amuser of the multitude, he must learn that right thinking, right feeling, and knowledge are more important than art. When you address the blockhead majority, you must not only give them your text, you must tell them also what to think of it, otherwise there will be fine misinterpretation. You may be sure of the heart of the multitude if you can touch it; but its head, in the present state of its development, is an imperfect machine, manoeuvred for the most part by foolishness. People can see life for themselves, but they cannot always see the meaning of it, the why and wherefore, whence things come and whither they are tending, so that the lessons of life are lost—or would be but for the efforts of the modern novelist."
Beth reflected a little, then she said: "I am glad you think me an optimist. It seems to me that healthy human nature revolts from pessimism. The work that lasts is the work that cheers. Give us something with hope in it—something that appeals to the best part of us—something which, while we read, puts us in touch with fine ideals, and makes us feel better than we are."
"That is it precisely," said he. "The school of art-and-style books wearies us because there is no aspiration in it, nothing but a deadly dull artistic presentment of hopeless levels of life. It is all cold polish, as I said before, with never a word to warm the heart or stir the better nature."
"That is what I have felt," said Beth; "and I would rather have written a simple story, full of the faults of my youth and ignorance, but with some one passage in it that would put heart and hope into some one person, than all that brilliant barren stuff. And I'm going to write for women, not for men. I don't care about amusing men. Let them see to their own amusements, they think of nothing else. Men entertain each other with intellectual ingenuities and Art and Style, while women are busy with the great problems of life, and are striving might and main to make it beautiful."
"Now that is young in the opprobrious sense of the word," said Sir George. "It is only when we are extremely young that we indulge in such sweeping generalisations."
Beth blushed. "I am always afraid my judgment will be warped by my own narrow personal experience,—I must guard against that!" she exclaimed, conscious that she had had her husband in her mind when she spoke.
Sir George nodded his head approvingly, and looked at his watch. "I must go," he said, "but I hope there will not be such a long interval before I come again. My wife is sorry that she has not been able to call. She is not equal to such a long drive. But she desired me to explain and apologise; and she has sent you some flowers and fruit which she begs you will accept. Have you some of your work ready for me this time? I have asked my friend Ideala to give you her opinion, which is really worth having, and she says she will with pleasure. You must know her. I am sure you would like her extremely."
"But would she like me?" slipped from Beth unawares.
"Now, that is young again," he said, with his kindly smile-indulgent.
"It is the outcome of sad experience," Beth rejoined with a sigh. "No woman I have met here so far has shown any inclination to cultivate my acquaintance. I think I am being punished for some unknown crime."
Sir George became thoughtful, but said nothing.
As they approached the house, Beth saw Dan peeping at them from behind the curtain of an upstairs window. The hall-table was covered with the fruit and flowers Sir George had brought. Beth sent a servant for Dan. The girl came back and said that the doctor was not in.
"Nonsense!" said Beth. "I saw him at one of the windows just now. If you will excuse me, Sir George, I will find him myself."
She called him as she ran upstairs, and Dan made his appearance, looking none too well pleased.
He went down to Sir George, and Beth ran on up to her secret chamber for her manuscripts and the books Sir George had lent her, which had been waiting ready packed for many a day.
* * * * *
When he had gone, Beth danced round the dining-room, clapping her hands.
"I can't contain myself," she exclaimed. "I do feel encouraged, strengthened, uplifted."
She caught a glimpse of Dan's face, and stopped short.
"What's the matter?" she said.
"The matter is that I'll have no more of this," he answered in a brutal tone.
"No more of what?" Beth demanded.
"No more of this man's philandering after you," he retorted.
"I don't understand you," Beth gasped.
"Oh, you're mighty innocent," he sneered. "You'll be telling me next that he comes to see me, lends me books, walks up and down by the hour together with me, brings me fruit and flowers! You think I'm blind, I suppose! You're a nice person! and so particular too! and so fastidious in your conversation! Oh, trust a prude! But I tell you," he bawled, coming up close to her, and shaking his fist in her face, "I tell you I won't have it. Now, do you understand that?"
Beth did not wince, but oh, what a drop it was from the heights she had just left to this low level! "Be good enough to explain your meaning precisely," she said quietly. "I understand that you are bringing some accusation against me. It is no use blustering and shaking your fist in my face. I am not to be frightened. Just explain yourself. And I advise you to weigh your words, for you shall answer to me in public for any insult you may offer me in private."
Dr. Maclure was sobered by this unexpected flash of spirit. They had been married nearly three years by this time, and Beth's habitual docility had deceived him. Hitherto men have been able to insult their wives in private with impunity when so minded, and Dan was staggered for a moment to find himself face to face with a mere girl who boldly refused to suffer the indignity. He was not prepared for such a display of self-respect.
"You're very high and mighty!" he jeered at last.
"I am very determined," Beth rejoined, and set her lips.
He tried to subdue her by staring her out of countenance; but Beth scornfully returned his gaze. Then suddenly she stamped her foot, and brought her clenched fist down on the dining-room table, beside which she was standing. "Come, come, sir," she said, "we've had enough of this theatrical posing. You are wasting my time, explain yourself."
He took a turn up and down the room.
"Look here, Beth," he began, lowering his tone, "you cannot pretend that Galbraith comes to see me."
"Why should I?" she asked.
"Well, it isn't right that he should come to see you, and I won't have it," he reiterated.
"Do you mean that I am not to have any friends of my own?" she demanded.
"He is not to be one of your friends," Dan answered doggedly.
"And what explanation am I to give him, please?" she asked politely.
"I won't have you giving him any explanation."
"My dear Dan," she rejoined, "when you speak in that way, you show an utter want of knowledge of my character. If I will not allow you to insult me, and bully me, and bluster at me, it is not likely that I will allow you to insult my friends. If Sir George Galbraith's visits are to stop, I shall tell him the reason exactly. He at least is a gentleman."
"That is as much as to say that I am not," Dan blustered.
"You certainly are not behaving like one now," Beth coolly rejoined. "But there! You have my ultimatum. I am not going to waste any more time in vulgar scenes with you."
"Ultimatum, indeed!" he jeered. "Well, you are, you know! You'll write and explain to him, will you, that your husband's jealous of him? That shows the terms you are on!"
"It is jealousy then, is it?" said Beth. "Thank you. Now I understand you."
Dan's evil mood took another turn. His anger changed to self-pity. "Oh dear! oh dear! what am I to do with you?" he exclaimed. "And after all I've done for you—to treat me like this." He took out his pocket-handkerchief and wiped away the tears which any mention of his own goodness and the treatment he received from others always brought to his eyes.
Beth watched him contemptuously, yet her heart smote her. He was a poor creature, but for that very reason, and because she was strong, surely she should be gentle with him.
"Look here, Dan," she said. "I have never knowingly done you any wrong in thought, or word, or deed; all you have said to me to-day has been ridiculously wrong-headed; but never mind. Stop crying, do, and don't let us have any more idiotic jealousy. Why, it was Lady Galbraith who sent me the flowers and fruit, with a kind message of apology because she has not been able to call. Why should not she be jealous?"
"Oh, she's a fool!" Dan rejoined, recovering himself. "She leads him the life of a dog with her fears and fancies, and she won't take any part in his philanthropic work, though he wishes it. She's a pretty pill!"
The servant came in at this moment to lay the table for lunch, and Dan went to the looking-glass with the inconsequence of a child, and forgot his grievance in the contemplation of his own beloved image and in abusing Lady Galbraith. Abusing somebody was mental relaxation of the most agreeable kind to him. Feeling that he had gone too far, he was gracious to Beth during lunch, and just before he went out he kissed her, and said, "We won't mention that fellow again, Beth. I don't believe you'd do anything dishonourable."
"I should think not!" said Beth.
When he had gone, she returned to her secret chamber, the one little corner sacred to herself, to her purest, noblest thoughts, her highest aspirations; and as she looked round, it seemed as if ages had passed since she last entered it, full of happiness and hope. It was as if she had been innocent then, and was now corrupted. Her self-control did not give way, but she could do nothing, and just sat there, wan with horror; and as she sat, every now and then she shivered from head to foot. She had known of course in a general way that such things did happen, that married women did give their husbands cause for jealousy; but to her mind they were a kind of married women who lived in another sphere where she was not likely to encounter them. She had never expected to be brought near such an enormity, let alone to have it brought home to herself in a horrible accusation; and the effect of it was a shock to her nervous system—one of those stunning blows which are scarcely felt at first, but are agonising in their after effects. When the reaction set in, Beth's disgust was so great it took a physical form, and ended by making her violently sick. It was days before she quite recovered, and in one sense of the word she was never the same again.
Dan said no more about Sir George Galbraith; and indeed he had no excuse, for Sir George did not come again. There were other men, however, who came to the house, Dan's own friends; and now that Beth's eyes were opened, she perceived that he watched them all suspiciously if they paid her any attention; and if she showed the slightest pleasure in the conversation of any of them, he would be sure to make some sneering remark about it afterwards. Dan was so radically vicious that the notion of any one being virtuous except under compulsion was incomprehensible to him.
"Your spirits seem to go up when Mr. Vanrickards is here," he observed one day.
"Thank you for warning me," Beth answered, descending to his level in spite of herself. "I will be properly depressed the next time he comes."
But although she could keep him in check so that he dared not say all that he had in his mind, she understood him; and the worst of it was that his coarse and brutal jealousy accustomed her to the suspicion, and made her contemplate the possibility of such a lapse as he had in his mind. She began to believe that he would not have tormented himself so if husbands did not ordinarily have good reason to be jealous of their wives. She concluded that such treachery of man to man as he dreaded must be normal. And then also she realised that it was thought possible for a married woman to fall in love, and even wondered at last if that would ever be her own case. Dan had, in fact, destroyed his own best safeguard. If a man would keep his wife from evil, he should not teach her to suspect herself—neither should he familiarise her with ideas of vice. Since their marriage Dan's whole conversation, and the depravity of his tastes and habits, had tended towards the brutalisation of Beth. Married life for her was one long initiation into the ways of the vicious.
Dr. Maclure's sordid jealousy made him the laughing-stock of the place, though he never suspected it. His conceit was too great to let him suppose that any sentiment of his could provoke ridicule. It became matter for common gossip, however, and from that time forward gentlemen ceased to visit the house. Men of a certain kind came still, men who were bound to Dan by kindred tastes, but not such as he cared to introduce to Beth. These boon companions generally came in the evening, and were entertained in the dining-room, where they spent the night together, smoking, drinking, and talking after the manner of their kind. Beth could not use her secret chamber after dark for fear of the light being seen, so she stayed in the drawing-room alone till she went to bed. She found those evenings interminable, and the nights more trying still. She could not read or write because of the noise in the dining-room, and had to fall back on her sewing for occupation; but sewing left her mind open to any obsession, and only too often, with the gross laughter from the next room, scraps of the lewd topics her husband delighted in came to her recollection. When Dan discoursed about such things he was at the high-water mark of pleasure, his countenance glowed, and enjoyment of the subject was expressed in all his person. Beth's better nature revolted, but alas! she had become so familiar with such subjects by this time that, although she loathed them, she could not banish them. Life from her husband's point of view was a torment to her, yet under the pressure of his immediate influence it was forced upon her attention more and more—from his point of view.
When she went to bed on his festive nights she suffered from the dread of being disturbed. If her husband were called out at night professionally, it was a pleasure to her to lie awake so that she might be ready to rise the moment he returned, and get him anything he wanted. On those occasions she always had a tray ready for him, with soup to be heated, or coffee to be made over a spirit-lamp, and any little dainty she thought would refresh him. She was fully in sympathy with him in his work, and would have spared herself no fatigue to make it easier for him, but she despised him for his vices, and refused to sacrifice herself in order to make them pleasanter for him. When he stayed up smoking and drinking half the night she resented the loss of sleep entailed upon her, which meant less energy for her own work the next day. The dread of being disturbed made her restless, and the futility of it under the circumstances exasperated her. She suffered, too, more than can be mentioned, from the smell of alcohol and tobacco, of which he reeked, and from which he took no trouble to purify himself. Often and often, when she had tossed herself into a fever on these dreadful nights, she craved for long hours, with infinite yearning, to be safe from disturbance, in purity and peace; and thought how happily, how serenely she would have slept until the morning, and how strong and fresh she would have arisen for another day's work had she been left alone. Only once, however, did she complain. Dan was going out in a particularly cheerful mood that night.
"Shall you be late?" she asked.
"Yes, probably. Why?"
"I was thinking, if you wouldn't mind, I would have a bed made up for you in the spare room. I only sleep in snatches when you are out and I am expecting you. Every sound rouses me. I think it is the door opening. And then when you do come it disturbs me, and I do not sleep again. If you don't mind I should prefer to be alone—on your late nights—your late festive nights."
Dr. Maclure stood looking gloomily into the fireplace.
"Have I annoyed you, Dan?" Beth asked at last.
He walked to the door, stood a moment with his back to her, then turned and looked at her. "Annoyed is not the word," he said. "You have wounded me deeply."
He opened the door as he spoke, and went out. When he had gone Beth sat and suffered. She could not bear to hurt him, she was not yet sufficiently brutalised for that; so she said no more on the subject, but patiently endured the long lonely night watches, and the after companionship which had in it all that is most trying and offensive to a refined and delicate woman.
* * * * *
After that first display of jealousy Beth discovered that her husband pried upon her continually. He was very high and mighty on the subject of women spying upon men, but there seemed no meanness he would not compass in order to spy upon a woman. He had duplicate keys to her drawers and boxes, and rummaged through all her possessions when she went out. One day she came upon him standing before her wardrobe, feeling in the pockets of her dresses, and on another occasion she discovered him unawares in her bedroom, picking little scraps of paper out of the slop-pail and piecing them together to see what she had been writing. To Beth, accustomed to the simple, honourable principles of her parents, and to the confidence with which her mother had left her letters lying about, because she knew that not one of her children would dream of looking at them, Dan's turpitude was revolting. On those occasions when she caught him, he did not hear her enter the room, and she made her escape without disturbing him, and stole up to her secret chamber, and sat there, suffering from one of those attacks of nausea and shivering which came upon her in moments of deep disgust.
After that she had an attack of illness which kept her in bed for a week; but even then, feverish and suffering as she was, and yearning for the coolness and liberty of a room to herself, she dared not suggest such a thing for fear of a scene.
While she was still in bed Dan brought her some letters one morning. He made no remark when he gave them to her, but he had opened them as usual, and stood watching her curiously while she read them. The first she looked at was from her sister Bernadine, and had a black border round it; but she took it out of its envelope unsuspiciously, and read the words that were uppermost, "Mamma died this morning." In a moment it flashed upon her that Dan had read the letter, and was waiting now to see the effect of the shock upon her. She immediately, but involuntarily, set herself to baffle his cruel curiosity. With a calm, illegible face she read the letter from beginning to end, folded it, and put it back in its envelope deliberately, then took up another which had also been opened.
But suppressed feeling finds vent in some form or other, and Beth showed temper now instead of showing grief. "I wish you would not open my letters," she said irritably. "All the freshness of them is gone for me when you open them without my permission and read them first. Besides, it is an insult to my correspondents. What they say to me is intended for me, and not for you."
"I have a perfect right to open your letters," he retorted.
"I should like to see the Scripture that gives you the right, and I should advise you to waive it if you do not wish me to assume the right to open yours. Your petty prying keeps me in a continual state of irritation. I shall be lowered to retaliate sooner or later. So stop it, please, once and for all."
"My petty prying, indeed!" he exclaimed. "Well, that is a nice thing to say to your husband! Why, even when I do open your letters, which is not often, I never read them without your permission."
"Indeed," said Beth, who had ceased to be stunned by falsehoods. "Then be good enough not even to open them in future."
Dan tried to express injury and indignation in a long, hard look; but Beth was reading another letter, and took no further notice of him.
He hung about a little watching her.
"Any news," he ventured at last, with an imperfect assumption of indifference.
"You know quite well what my news is," she answered bluntly, "and I am not going to discuss it with you. I wish you would leave me alone."
"Well, you're a nice pill!" said Dan, discomfited.
Beth looked up at him. "What are you doing with your hat on in my bedroom?" she asked sharply. "I thought I had made you understand that you must treat me with respect, even if I am your wife."
Dan uttered a coarse oath, and left the room, banging the door after him.
"Thank Heaven—at last!" Beth ejaculated. She had been too anxious to get rid of him to scruple about the means, but when he had gone a reaction set in, and she lay back on her pillows, flushed, excited, furious with him, disgusted with herself. She felt she was falling away from all her ideals. "As the husband is the wife is"—the words flashed through her mind, but she would not believe it inevitable. But even if she should degenerate, her own nature was too large, too strong, too generous to cast the blame on any one but herself. "No!" she exclaimed. "We are what we allow ourselves to be."
Swift following upon that thought came the recollection of a bad fall she had had when she was a little child in Ireland, and the way her mother had picked her up, and cuddled her, and comforted her. Beth burst into a paroxysm of tears. She had understood her mother better than her mother had understood her, had felt for her privations, had admired and imitated her patient endurance; and now to think that it was too late, to think that she had gone, and it would never be in Beth's power to brighten her life or lessen the hardship of it! That was all she thought of. Every week since her marriage she had sent her mother a long, cheerful, amusing letter, full of pleasant details—an exercise in that form of composition; but with never a hint of her troubles; and Mrs. Caldwell died under the happy delusion that it was well with Beth. She never suspected that she had married Beth to a low-born man—not low-born in the sense of being a tradesman's son, for a tradesman's son may be an honest and upright gentleman, just as a peer's son may be a cheat and a snob; but low-born in that he came of parents who were capable of fraud and deceit in social relations, and had taught him no scheme of life in which honour played a conspicuous part. Beth had done her best for her mother, but there was no one now to remind her of this for her comfort, poor miserable girl. Her courageous toil had gone for nothing—her mother would never even know of it; and it seemed to her in that moment of deep disheartenment as if everything she tried was to be equally ineffectual.
Hours later, Minna the housemaid found Beth sitting up in bed, sobbing hopelessly; and got her tea, and stayed with her, making her put some restraint upon herself by the mere fact of her presence; and presently Beth, in her human way, began to talk about her mother to the girl, which relieved her. Mrs. Caldwell had only been ill a few days, and not seriously, as it was supposed; the end had come quite suddenly, so that Beth had never been warned.
Dan did not come in till next morning, which was a great relief to her. She meant to speak about the news to him when he appeared, but somehow, the moment she saw him, her heart hardened, and she could not bring herself to utter a word on the subject. The position was awkward for him; but he got out of it adroitly by pretending he had seen an announcement of the death in the paper.
"I suppose I ought to go to the funeral," he said. "There is doubtless a will."
"Doubtless," said Beth, "but you will not benefit by it, if that is what you are thinking of. Mamma considered that I was provided for, and therefore she left the little she had to Bernadine. She told me herself, because she wanted me to understand her reason for making such a difference between us; and I think she was quite right. She may have left me two or three hundred pounds, but it will not be more than that."
"But even that will be something towards the bills," said Dan, his countenance, which had dropped considerably, clearing again.
Beth looked at him with a set countenance, but said no more. She had begun to observe that the bills only became pressing when her allowance was due.
Some one in Slane gave Sir George Galbraith a hint of Dan's coarse jealousy, and he had judged it better for Beth that he should not call again; but his interest in her and his desire to help her increased if anything. He had read her manuscript carefully himself, and obtained Ideala's opinion of it also; but Beth had not done her best by any means in the one she had given him. She had written it for the purpose, for one thing, which was fatal, for her style had stiffened with anxiety to do her best, and her ideas, instead of flowing spontaneously, had been forced and formal, as her manner was when she was shy. It is one thing to have a fine theory of art and high principles (and an excellent thing, too), but it is quite another to put them into effect, especially when you're in a hurry to arrive. Hurry misplaced is hindrance. If Beth had given Sir George some one of the little things which she had written in sheer exuberance of thought and feeling, without hampering hopes of doing anything with them, he would have been very differently impressed; but, even as it was, what she had given him was as full of promise as it was full of faults, and he was convinced that he had not been mistaken in her, especially when he found that Ideala thought even better of her prospects than he did. Ideala, who was an impulsive and generous woman, wrote warmly on the subject, and Sir George sent her letter to Beth with a few lines of kindly expressed encouragement from himself. He returned her manuscript; but when Beth saw it again, she was greatly dissatisfied. The faults her friends had pointed out to her she plainly perceived, and more also; but she could not see the merits. Praise only made her the more fastidious about her work; but in that way it helped her.
Sir George's kindness did not stop at criticism however. He was cut off from her himself, and could expect no help from his wife, whose nervous system had suffered so much from the shock of unhappy circumstances in her youth that she could not now bear even to hear of, let alone to be brought in contact with, any form of sorrow or suffering; but there were other ladies—Mrs. Kilroy of Ilverthorpe, for instance. Sir George had known her all her life, and went specially to ask her as a favour to countenance Beth.
"I want you to be kind to Mrs. Maclure, Angelica," he said. "She's far too good for that plausible bounder of a barber's block she's married."
"Then why did she marry him?" Angelica interrupted, in her vivacious way.
"Pitchforked into it at the suggestion of her friends in her infancy, I should say, reasoning by induction," he answered. "That's generally the explanation in these cases. But, at any rate, she's not going to be happy with him. And she's a charming little creature, very sweet and docile naturally, and with unusual ability, or I'm much mistaken, and plenty of spirit, too, when she's roused, I should anticipate. But at present, in her childish ignorance, she's yielding where she should resist, and she'll be brutalised if no one comes to the rescue. I don't trust that man Maclure. A man who speaks flippantly of things that should be respected is not a man who will be scrupulous when his own interests are concerned; and such a man has it in his power to make the life of a girl a hell upon earth in ways which she will not complain of, if she has no knowledge to use in self-defence; and girls seldom have."
"As I have learnt, alas! from bitter experience in my work amongst the victims of holy matrimony," Angelica interposed bitterly. "Oh, how sickening it all is! Sometimes I envy Evadne in that she is able to refuse to know."
Sir George was silent for a little, then he said, "This is likely to be a more than usually pathetic case, because of the girl's unusual character and promise, and also because her brain is too delicately poised to stand the kind of shocks and jars that threaten her. You will take pity on her, Angelica?"
Mrs. Kilroy shrugged her shoulders. "How can I countenance a woman who acquiesces in such a position as her husband holds, and actually lives on his degrading work?"
"I don't believe she knows anything about it," he rejoined.
"If I were sure of that," said Angelica, meditating.
"It is easy enough to make sure," he suggested.
* * * * *
Mrs. Carne, wife of the leading medical man in Slane, conceived it to be her duty to patronise Beth to the extent of an occasional formal call, as she was the wife of a junior practitioner; and Beth duly returned these calls, because she was determined not to make enemies for Dan by showing any resentment for the slights she had suffered in Slane.
Feeling depressed indoors one dreary afternoon, she set off, alone as usual, to pay one of these visits. She rather hoped perhaps to find some sort of satisfaction by way of reward for the brave discharge of an uncongenial duty.
On the way into town, Dan passed her in his dogcart with a casual nod, bespattering her with mud. "You'll have your carriage soon, please God! and never have to walk. I hate to see a delicate woman on foot in the mud." Beth remembered the words so well, and Dan's pious intonation as he uttered them, and she laughed. She had a special little laugh for exhibitions of this kind of divergence between Dan's precepts and his practices. But even as she laughed her face contracted as with a sudden spasm of pain, and she ejaculated—"But I shall succeed!"
Mrs. Carne was at home, and Beth was shown into the drawing-room, where she found several other lady visitors—Mrs. Kilroy, Mrs. Orton Beg, Lady Fulda Guthrie, and Ideala. The last two she had not met before.
"Where will you sit?" said Mrs. Carne, who was an effusive little person. "What a day! You were brave to come out, though perhaps it will do you good. My husband says go out in all weathers and battle with the breeze; there's nothing like exercise."
"Battling with the breeze and an umbrella on a wet day is not exercise, it is exasperation," Beth answered, and at the sound of her peculiarly low, clear, cultivated voice, the conversation stopped suddenly, and every one in the room looked at her. She seemed unaware of the attention. In fact, she ignored every one present except her hostess. This was her habitual manner now, assumed to save herself from slights. When she entered, Mrs. Kilroy had half risen from her seat, and endeavoured to attract her attention; but Beth passed her by, deliberately chose a seat, and sat down. Her demeanour, so apparently cold and self-contained, was calculated to command respect, but it cost Beth a great deal to maintain it. She felt she was alone in an unfriendly atmosphere—a poor little thing, shabbily dressed in home-made mourning, and despised for she knew not what offence; and she suffered horribly. She had grown very fragile by this time, and looked almost childishly young. Her eyes were unnaturally large and wistful, her mouth drooped at the corners, and the whole expression of her face was pathetic. Mrs. Kilroy looked at her seriously, and thought to herself, "That girl is suffering."
Mrs. Carne offered Beth tea, but she refused it. She could not accept such inhuman hospitality. She had come to do her duty, not to force a welcome. She glanced at the clock. Five minutes more, and she might go. The conversation buzzed on about her. She was sitting next to a strange lady, a serene and dignified woman, dressed in black velvet and sable. Beth glanced at her the first time with indifference, but looked again with interest. Mrs. Carne bustled up and spoke to the lady in her effusive way.
"You are better, I hope," she said, as she handed her some tea. "It really is sweet to see you looking so much yourself again."
"Oh yes, I am quite well again now, thanks to your good husband," the lady answered. "But he has given me so many tonics and things lately, I always seem to be shaking bottles. I am quite set in that attitude. Everything I touch I shake. I found myself shaking my watch instead of winding it up the other day."
"Ah, then, you are quite yourself again, I see," Mrs. Carne said archly. "But why didn't you come to the Wilmingtons' last night?"
"Oh, you know I never go to those functions if I can help it," the lady answered, her gentle rather drawling voice lending a charm to the words quite apart from their meaning. "I cannot stand the kind of conversation to which one is reduced on such occasions—if you can call that conversation which is but the cackle of geese, each repeating the utterances of the other. When the Lord loves a woman, I think He takes her out of society by some means or other, and keeps her out of it for her good."
Beth knew that if she had said such a thing, Mrs. Carne would have received it with a stony stare, but now she simpered. "That is so like you!" she gushed. "But the Wilmingtons were dreadfully disappointed."
"They will get over it," the lady answered, glancing round indifferently.
"How are you getting on with your new book, Ideala?" Mrs. Kilroy asked her across the room. Beth instantly froze to attention. This was her friend, then, Sir George's Ideala.
"I have not got into the swing of it yet," Ideala answered. "It is all dot-and-go-one—a uniform ruggedness which is not true either to life or mind. Our ways in the world are stony enough at times, but they are not all stones. There are smooth stretches along which we gallop, and sheltered grassy spaces where we rest."
"What I love about your work is the style," said Mrs. Carne.
"Do you?" Ideala rejoined, somewhat dryly as it seemed to Beth. "But what is style?"
"I am so bad at definitions," said Mrs. Carne, "but I feel it, you know."
"As if it were a thing in itself to be adopted or acquired?" Ideala asked.
"Yes, quite so," said Mrs. Carne in a tone of relief—as of one who has acquitted herself better than she expected and is satisfied.
"I am sure it is not," Beth burst out, forgetting herself and her slights all at once in the interest of the subject. "I have been reading the lives of authors lately, together with their works, and it seems to me, in the case of all who had genius, that their style was the outcome of their characters—their principles—the view they took of the subject—that is, if they were natural and powerful writers. Only the second-rate people have a manufactured style, and force their subject to adapt itself to it—the kind of people whose style is mentioned quite apart from their matter. In the great ones the style is the outcome of the subject. Each emotion has its own form of expression. The language of passion is intense; of pleasure jocund, easy, abundant; of content calm, of happiness strong but restrained; of love warm, tender. The language of artificial feeling is artificial; there is no mistaking insincerity when a writer is not sincere, and the language of true feeling is equally unmistakable. It is simple, easy, unaffected; and it is the same in all ages. The artificial styles of yesterday go out of fashion with the dresses their authors wear, and become an offence to our taste; but Shakespeare's periods appeal to every generation. He wrote from the heart as well as the head, and triumphed in the grace of nature."
Beth stopped short and coloured crimson, finding that every one in the room was listening to her.
Mrs. Carne stood while she was speaking with a cup of tea in her hand, and tried to catch Ideala's eye in order to signal with raised eyebrows her contempt for Beth's opinion; but Ideala was listening with approval.
"That is exactly what I think," she exclaimed, "only I could not have expressed it so. You write yourself doubtless?"
But Beth had become confused, and only gazed at her by way of reply. She felt she had done the wrong thing to speak out like that in such surroundings, and she regretted every word, and burned with vexation. Then suddenly in herself, as before, something seemed to say, or rather to flash forth the exclamation for her comfort: "I shall succeed! I shall succeed!"
She drew herself up and looked round on them all with a look that transformed her. Such an assurance in herself was not to be doubted. The day would come when they would be glad enough to see her, when she too would be heard with respect and quoted. She, the least considered, she in her shabby gloves, neglected, slighted, despised, alone, she would arrive, would have done something—more than them all!
She arose with her eyes fixed on futurity, and was half-way home before she came to and found herself tearing along through the rain with her head forward and her hands clasped across her chest, urged to energy by the cry in her heart, "I shall succeed! I shall succeed!"
"Who was that?" said Ideala in a startled voice when Beth jumped up and left the room.
"The wife of that Dr. Maclure, you know," Mrs. Carne replied. "Her manners seem somewhat abrupt. She forgot to say good-bye. I did not know she was by way of being clever."
"By way of being clever!" Ideala ejaculated. "I wish I had known who she was. Why didn't you introduce her? By way of being clever, indeed! Why, she is just what I have missed being with all my cleverness, or I am much mistaken, and that is a genius. And what is more important to us, I suspect she is the genius for whom we are waiting. Why, why didn't you name her? It is the old story. She came unto her own, and her own received her not."
"I—I never dreamt you would care to know her—her position, you know," Mrs. Carne stammered disconcerted.
"Her position! What is her position to me?" Ideala exclaimed. "It is the girl herself I think of. Besides, I daresay she doesn't even know what her position is!"
"That is what Sir George says, and he knows her well," Mrs. Kilroy interposed.
"But I never suspected that she was in the least interesting," Mrs. Carne protested; "and I'm sure she doesn't look attractive—such an expression!"
"You are to blame for that, all of you," Ideala rejoined, with something in her gentle way of speaking which had the effect of strength and vehemence. "I know how it has been. She is sensitive, and you have made her feel there is something wrong. You have treated her so that she expects no kindness from you, and so, from diffidence and restraint of tenderness, her face has set hard into coldness. But that is only a mask. How you treat each other, you women! And you are as wanting in discernment, too, as you are in kindness and sympathy. She has had to put on that mask of coldness to hide what you make her suffer, and it will take long loving to melt it now, and make her look human again. You misinterpret her silence too. How can you expect her to be interesting if you take no interest in her? But look at her eyes? Any one with the least kindly discernment might have seen the love and living interest there! If she had been in a good position, everybody would have found her as singularly interesting as she, without caring a rap for our position, has found us. She sees through us all with those eyes of hers—ay, and beyond! She sees what we have never seen, and never shall in this incarnation; hers are the vision and the dream that are denied to us. Were she to come forward as a leader to-morrow, I would follow her humbly and do as she told me.... I read some of her writings the other day, but I thought they were the work of a mature woman. Had I known she was such a child I should have wondered!"
"Dear me! does she really write?" said Mrs. Carne. "Well, you surprise me! I should never have dreamt that she had anything in her!"
"You make me feel ashamed of myself, Ideala," said Mrs. Kilroy with contrition. "I ought to have known. But I could think of nothing, see nothing in her but that horrible business. I shall certainly do my best now, however, when we return from town, to cultivate her acquaintance, if she will let me."
"Let you!" Mrs. Carne ejaculated with her insinuating smile. "I should think she would be flattered."
"I am not so sure of that," said Ideala.
"Neither am I," said Mrs. Kilroy. "I only wish I were. But she ignored us all rather pointedly when she came in."
"To save herself from being ignored, I suppose," said Ideala bitterly. "The girl is self-respecting."
"I confess I liked her the first time I saw her," said Mrs. Orton Beg; "but afterwards, when I heard what her husband was, I felt forced to ignore her. How can you countenance her if she approves?"
"It was a mistake to take her approval for granted," said Mrs. Kilroy. "Ideala would have inquired."
"Yes," said Ideala. "I take nothing for granted. If I hear anything nice, I believe it; but if I hear anything objectionable about any one, I either inquire about it or refuse to believe it point-blank. And in a case like this, I should be doubly particular, for, in one of its many moods, genius is a young child that gazes hard and sees nothing."
"And you really think the little woman is a genius, and will be a great writer some day?" Mrs. Carne asked with exaggerated deference to Ideala's opinion.
"I don't know about being a writer," said Ideala. "Genius is versatile. There are many ways in which she might succeed. It depends on herself—on the way she is finally impelled to choose. But great she will be in something—if she lives."
"Let us hope that she will be a great benefactor of her own sex then, and do great good," said the gentle Lady Fulda.
"Amen!" Ideala ejaculated fervently.
Mrs. Carne tried to put off her agreeable society smile and put on her Sunday-in-church expression, but was not in time. When we only assume an attitude once a week, be it mental or physical, we do not fall into it readily on a sudden.
"Not that working for women as a career is what I should wish her for her own comfort," said Ideala after a pause. "Women who work for women in the present period of our progress—I mean the women who bring about the changes which benefit their sex—must resign themselves to martyrdom. Only the martyr spirit will carry them through. Men will often help and respect them, but other women, especially the workers with methods of their own, will make their lives a burden to them with pin-pricks of criticism, and every petty hindrance they can put in their way. There is little union between women workers, and less tolerance. Each leader thinks her own idea the only good one, and disapproves of every other. They seldom see that many must be working in many ways to complete the work. And as to the bulk of women, those who will benefit by our devotion, they bespatter us with mud, stone us, slander us, calumniate us; and even in the very act of taking advantage of the changes we have brought about, ignore us, slight us, push us under, and step up on our bodies to secure the benefits which our endeavours have made it possible for them to enjoy. I know! I have worked for women these many years, and could I show you my heart, you would find it covered with scars—the scars of the wounds with which they reward me."
* * * * *
When Beth got in that day, she found Dan standing in the hall, examining a letter addressed to herself. She took it out of his hand without ceremony, and tore it open. "Hurrah!" she exclaimed, "it's accepted."
"What's accepted?" he asked.
"An article I sent to Sunshine. And the editor says he would like to see some more of my work," Beth rejoined, almost dancing with delight.
"I don't suppose that will put much in your pocket," Dan observed. "He wouldn't praise you if he meant to pay you."
"But he has sent me a cheque for thirty shillings," said Beth.
Dan's expression changed. "Then you may be sure it's worth double," he said. "But you might get some nice notepaper for me out of it, and have it stamped with my crest, like a good girl. It's necessary in my profession, and I've finished the last you got."
Beth laughed as she had laughed—that same peculiar mirthless little laugh—when he drove past her and splashed her with mud on the road. "It never seems to occur to you that I may have some little wants of my own, Dan," she said; "you are a perfect horseleech's daughter."
Dan gazed at her blankly. He never seemed to understand any such allusion. "You've got a grievance, have you?" he snarled. "Do I ever prevent you getting anything you like?"
Beth shrugged her shoulders by way of answer, and went into the dining-room. He followed her, bent on making a scene; and she, perceiving this, set herself down on a chair and folded her hands.
He took a turn up and down the room. "And this is my fine marriage into a county family, which was to have done so much for me!" he ejaculated at last. "But I might have known better, considering the hole I took you out of. You've soon forgotten all I've done for you."
Beth smiled enigmatically.
"Oh yes! it's a laughing matter," he proceeded. "I've just ruined myself by marrying you; that's what I've done. Not a soul in the place will come to the house because of you. Nobody could ever stand you but me; and what have I got by it? Not a halfpenny! It was just a swindle, the whole business."
"Be careful!" Beth flashed forth. "If you make such assertions you must prove them. The day is past when a man might insult his wife with impunity. I have already told you I won't stand it. It would neither be good for you nor for me if I did."
"It was a swindle," he bawled. "Where are the seven or eight hundred a year I married you for?"
Beth looked at him a moment, then burst out laughing. "Dear Dan," she said, offering him the cheque, "you shall have the thirty shillings all to yourself. You deserve it for telling the truth for once. I consider I have had the best of the bargain, though. Thirty shillings is cheap for such valuable information."
"Oh, damn you!" said Dan, leaving the room and banging the door after him.
Beth signed the cheque and left it lying on his writing-table. She never saw it again.
Then she went up to her secret chamber, and spent long hours—sobbing, sobbing, sobbing, as if the marks of her married life on her character could be washed away with tears.
Beth had made fifty pounds in eighteen months by her beautiful embroideries; but after her mother's death she did no more for sale, neither did she spend the money. She had suffered so many humiliations for want of money, it made her feel safer to have some by her. She gave herself up to study at this time, and wrote a great deal. It was winter now, and she was often driven down from her secret chamber to the dining-room by the cold. When Dan came in and found her at work, he would sniff contemptuously or facetiously, according to his mood at the moment. "Wasting paper as usual, eh? Better be sewing on my buttons," was his invariable remark. Not that his buttons were ever off, or that Beth ever sewed them on either. She was too good an organiser to do other people's work for them.
She made no reply to Dan's sallies. With him her mind was in a state of solitary confinement always—not a good thing for her health, but better on the whole than any attempt to discuss her ideas with him, or to talk to him about anything, indeed, but himself.
Beth fared well that winter, however—fared well in herself, that is. She had some glorious moments, revelling in the joy of creation. There is a mental analogy to all physical processes. Fertility in life comes of love; and in art the fervour of production is also accompanied by a rapture and preceded by a passion of its own. When Beth was in a good mood for work, it was like love—love without the lover; she felt all the joy of love, with none of the disturbance. When the idea of publication was first presented to her, it robbed her of this joy. As she wrote, she thought more of what she might gain than of what she was doing. Visions of success possessed her, and the ideas upon which her attention should have been fully concentrated were thinned by anticipations; and during that period her work was indifferent. Later, however, she worked again for work's sake, loving it; and then she advanced. She saw little of Dan in those days, and thought less; but when they met, she was, as usual, gentle and tolerant, patiently enduring his "cheeriness," and entering into no quarrel unless he forced one upon her.
One bright frosty morning he came in rather earlier than usual and found her writing in the dining-room.
"Well, I've had a rattling good ride this morning," he began, plunging into his favourite topic as usual without any pretence of interest in her or in her pursuits. "Nothing like riding for improving the circulation! I wish to goodness I could keep another horse. It would add to my income in the long run. But I'm so cursedly handicapped by those bills. They keep me awake at night thinking of them."
Beth sucked the end of her pencil and looked out of the window, wondering inwardly why he never tried to pay them.
"I calculate that they come to just three hundred pounds," he proceeded, looking keenly at Beth as he spoke; but she remained unmoved. "Don't you think," he ventured, "it would be a good thing to expend that three hundred pounds your mother left you on the debts? I know I could make money if I once got my head above water."
"That three hundred brings me in fifteen pounds a year," said Beth. "It is well invested, and I promised my mother not to touch any of my little capital. There is the interest, however, it arrived this morning. You can have that if you like."
"Well, that would be a crumb of comfort, at all events," he said, pouncing on the lawyer's letter, which was lying beside Beth on the table, and gloating on the cheque. "But don't you think, now that you have the interest, it would be a good time to sell and get the principal? Of course your mother was right and wise to advise you not to part with your capital; but this wouldn't be parting with it, because I should pay you back in time, you know. It would only be a loan, and I'd give you the interest on it regularly too; just think what a relief it would be to me to get those bills paid!" He ran his fingers up through his hair as he spoke, and gazed at himself in the glass tragically.
"Any news?" said Beth, after a little pause.
Dan, baffled, turned and began to walk up and down the room. "No, there never is any news in this confounded hole," he answered, venting his irritation on the place. "Oh, by the way, though, I am forgetting. I was at the Pettericks' to-day. That girl Bertha is not getting on as I should like."
"The hysterical one?" said Beth.
"Ye—yes," he answered, hesitating. "The one who threatened to be hysterical at one time. But that's all gone off. Now she's just weak, and she should have electricity; but I can't be going there every day to apply it—takes too much time: so I suggested to her people that she should come here for a while, as a paying patient, you know."
"And is she coming?" Beth said, rather in dismay.
"Yes, to-morrow," he replied. "I said you'd be delighted; but you must write and say so yourself, just for politeness' sake. It will be a good thing for you too, you know. You are too much alone, and she'll be a companion for you. She's not half a bad girl."
"Shall I be obliged to give her much of my time?" Beth asked lugubriously.
"Oh dear, no! She'll look after herself," Dr. Maclure cheerfully assured her. "I'll hire a piano for her. Must launch out a little on these occasions, you know. It's setting a sprat to catch a whale."
The piano arrived that afternoon. Beth wished Dan had let her choose it; but a piano of any kind was a delight. She had not had one since her marriage. Dan had said at first that a piano was a luxury which they must not think of when they could not afford the necessaries; and a luxury he had considered it ever since.
Bertha Petterick was not the kind of person that Beth would have chosen for a companion, and she dreaded her coming; but before Bertha had been in the house a week she had so enlivened it that Beth wondered she had ever objected to her. Bertha fawned upon Beth from the first, and was by way of looking up to her, and admiring her intellect. She was four or five years older than Beth, but gave herself no airs on that account. She was a dark girl, good looking in a common kind of way, with a masculine stride in her walk, a deep mannish voice; and not at all intellectual, but very practical: what some people consider a fine girl and others a coarse one, according to their taste. She was a good shot, could make a dress, cook a dinner, ride to hounds, and play any game; and she was what is called good-natured, that is to say, ready to do for any one anything that could be done on the spur of the moment. Things she might promise to do, or things requiring thought, she did not trouble herself about; but she would finish a pretty piece of work for Beth, gather flowers or buy them and do the table decorations, and keep things tidy in the sitting-rooms. She played and sang well, and was ready to do both at any time if she were asked, which was a joy to Beth; and her bright chatter kept Dan in a good humour, which was a relief. She had plenty of money, and spent it lavishly. Every time she went out she bought Beth something, a piece of music she had mentioned, a book she longed for, materials for work, besides flowers and fruit and sweets in unlimited quantities. Beth remonstrated, but Bertha begged Beth not to deprive her of the one pleasure she had in life just then, the pleasure of pleasing Beth, and of acknowledging what she never could repay but dearly appreciated—Beth's sisterly sympathy, her consistent kindness! Such sayings were tinged with sadness, which made Beth suspect that Bertha had some secret sorrow; but if so, it was most carefully concealed, for there was not a trace of it in her habitual manner. She showed no physical delicacy either; but then, as she said herself, she was picking up in such a wonderful way under the treatment, she really began to feel that there was very little the matter with her.
Dan managed to be at home a great deal to look after his patient, and was most attentive to her. He hired a brougham three times a week to do his rounds in, that she might accompany him, and so get the air without fatigue or risk of cold; and he would have her to sit with him in the dining-room when he was smoking, and rolled cigarettes for her; or would spend the evening with her in the drawing-room, listening to her playing and singing, or playing bezique with her, and seemingly well content, although in private he sometimes said to Beth it was all a beastly bore, but he must go through with it as a duty since he had undertaken it, it being his way to do a thing thoroughly if he did it at all.
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might," he added piously. "If a thing's worth doing at all, it's worth doing well, I always think."
That was his formula for the time being, but Beth judged him by his demeanour, which was gay, and not by his professions, and did not pity him. She was in excellent spirits herself, for her writing was going well; and it varied the monotony pleasantly for her to have Bertha to talk to, and walk, play, or sew with, after her work. Bertha's demonstrations of affection, too, were grateful to Beth, who had had so little love either bestowed upon her or required of her.
Bertha had been in the house three months, when one day her mother called, and found Beth alone, Dan and Bertha having gone for a drive together. Mrs. Petterick had just returned from abroad, where the whole family had been living most of the time that Bertha had been with the Maclures.
"Really," Mrs. Petterick said, "I don't know how to thank you for your kindness to my girl. She's quite a different person I can see by her letters, thanks to the good doctor. Before he took her in hand she was quite hysterical, and had to lie down two or three times a day, because she said she had no strength for anything. But really three months is an abuse of hospitality; and I think she should be coming home now."
"Oh no, do let her stay a little longer if you can spare her," Beth pleaded. "It is so nice to have her here."
"Well, it is good of you to say so," said Mrs. Petterick, "but it must be a great expense to you. We weren't well off ourselves at one time. Mr. Petterick's a self-made man, and I know that every additional mouth makes a difference. But, however, you being proud, I won't offend you by offering money in exchange for kindness, which can't be repaid, but shan't be forgotten."
When Mrs. Petterick had gone, Beth sat awhile staring into the fire. She was somewhat stunned, for Dan had assured her that Bertha was a paying patient, and that, it seemed, had been a gratuitous lie. She was roused at last by Minna, the parlour-maid. "Please, ma'am, a lady wishes to see you," Minna said.
"Show her in," Beth answered listlessly. But the next moment she stiffened with astonishment, for the lady who entered was Mrs. Kilroy of Ilverthorpe.
"I am afraid I have taken you by surprise," Mrs. Kilroy began rather nervously.
"Will you sit down?" Beth said coldly. "You cannot wonder if I am surprised to see you. This is the first visit you have paid me, although we met directly after I came to Slane some years ago. You were kind and cordial on that occasion, but the next time I saw you—at that ball—you slighted me; and after that you shunned me until I met you the other day at Mrs. Carne's, and then you seemed inclined to take me up again. I do not understand such caprices, and I do not like them."
"It was not caprice," Mrs. Kilroy assured her. "I liked you very much the first time we met, and I should have called immediately; but when I asked for your address, I was told that your husband was in charge of the Lock Hospital——"