"Well, I certainly couldn't. You must have formed an exaggerated estimate of my artistic powers."
"I think not! You can, and will, paint a distinctly better picture some day."
"In what way better?"
"Ah! there you have me. But I will try to tell you what I mean, though I speak as a fool; and if I say anything very egregious, you must let my ignorance be my excuse, and pardon the clumsy expression of my intentions because they are so well meant. It doesn't seem to me to be enough for anybody to do good work; they must go further, and do the best possible work in their power. Nothing but one's best is really worth the doing; the cult of the second-best is always a degrading form of worship. Even though one man's second-best be intrinsically superior to the best work of his fellows, he has nevertheless no right to offer it to the world. He is guilty of an injustice both to himself and the world in so doing."
"I don't agree with you. This is an age of results; and the world's business is with the actual value of the thing done, rather than with the capabilities of the man who did it."
"You are right in calling this an age of results, Miss Farringdon; but that is the age's weakness and not its strength. The moment men begin to judge by results, they judge unrighteous judgment. They confound the great man with the successful man; the saint with the famous preacher; the poet with the writer of popular music-hall songs."
"Then you think that we should all do our best, and not bother ourselves too much as to results?"
"I go further than that; I think that the mere consideration of results incapacitates us from doing our best work at all."
"I don't agree with you," repeated Elisabeth haughtily. But, nevertheless, she did.
"I daresay I am wrong; but you asked me for my candid opinion and I gave it to you. It is a poor compliment to flatter people—far too poor ever to be paid by me to you; and in this case the simple truth is a far greater compliment than any flattery could be. You can imagine what a high estimate I have formed of your powers, when so great a picture as The Pillar of Cloud fails to satisfy me."
The talk about her picture brought to Elisabeth's mind the remembrance of that other picture which had been almost as popular as hers; and, with it, the remembrance of the man who had painted it.
"I suppose you have heard nothing more about George Farringdon's son," she remarked, with apparent irrelevance. "I wonder if he will ever turn up?"
"Oh! I hardly think it is likely now; I have quite given up all ideas of his doing so," replied Christopher cheerfully.
"But supposing he did?"
"In that case I am afraid he would be bound to enter into his kingdom. But I really don't think you need worry any longer over that unpleasant contingency, Miss Farringdon; it is too late in the day; if he were going to appear upon the scene at all, he would have appeared before now, I feel certain."
"You really think so?"
"Most assuredly I do. Besides, it will not be long before the limit of time mentioned by your cousin is reached; and then a score of George Farringdon's sons could not turn you out of your rights."
For a moment Elisabeth thought she would tell Christopher about her suspicions as to the identity of Cecil Farquhar. But it was as yet merely a suspicion, and she knew by experience how ruthlessly Christopher pursued the line of duty whenever that line was pointed out to him; so she decided to hold her peace (and her property) a little longer. But she also knew that the influence of Christopher was even yet so strong upon her, that, when the time came, she should do the right thing in spite of herself and in defiance of her own desires. And this knowledge, strange to say, irritated her still further against the innocent and unconscious Christopher.
The walk from the Moat House to Sedgehill was a failure as far as the re-establishment of friendly relations between Christopher and Elisabeth was concerned, for it left her with the impression that he was less appreciative of her and more wrapped up in himself and his own opinions than ever; while it conveyed to his mind the idea that her success had only served to widen the gulf between them, and that she was more indifferent to and independent of his friendship than she had ever been before.
Elisabeth went back to London, and Christopher to his work again, and little Willie drew nearer and nearer to the country on the other side of the hills; until one day it happened that the gate which leads into that country was left open by the angels, and Willie slipped through it and became strong and well. His parents were left outside the gate, weeping, and at first they refused to be comforted; but after a time Alan learned the lesson which Willie had been sent to teach him, and saw plain.
"Dear," he said to his wife at last, "I've got to begin life over again so as to go the way that Willie went. The little chap made me promise to meet him in the country over the hills, as he called it; and I've never broken a promise to Willie and I never will. It will be difficult for us, I know; but God will help us."
Felicia looked at him with sad, despairing eyes. "There is no God," she said; "you have often told me so."
"I know I have; that was because I was such a blind fool. But now I know that there is a God, and that you and I must serve Him together."
"How can we serve a myth?" Felicia persisted.
"He is no myth, Felicia. I lied to you when I told you that He was."
And then Felicia laughed; the first time that she had laughed since Willie's death, and it was not a pleasant laugh to hear. "Do you think you can play pitch-and-toss with a woman's soul in that way? Well, you can't. When I met you I believed in God as firmly as any girl believed; but you laughed me out of my faith, and proved to me what a string of lies and folly it all was; and then I believed in you as firmly as before I had believed in God, and I knew that Christianity was a fable."
Alan's face grew very white. "Good heavens! Felicia, did I do this?"
"Of course you did, and you must take the consequences of your own handiwork; it is too late to undo it now. Don't try to comfort me, even if you can drug yourself, with fairy-tales about meeting Willie again. I shall never see my little child again in this life, and there is no other."
"You are wrong; believe me, you are wrong." And Alan's brow was damp with the anguish of his soul.
"It is only what you taught me. But because you took my faith away from me, it doesn't follow that you can give it back to me again; it has gone forever."
"Oh, Felicia, Felicia, may God and you and Willie forgive me, for I can never forgive myself!"
"I can not forgive you, because I have nothing to forgive; you did me no wrong in opening my eyes. And God can not forgive you, because there never was a God; so you did Him no wrong. And Willie can not forgive you, because there is no Willie now; so you did him no wrong."
"My dearest, it can not all have gone from you forever; it will come back to you, and you will believe as I do."
Felicia shook her head. "Never; it is too late. You have taken away my Lord, and I know not where you have laid Him; and, however long I live, I shall never find Him again."
And she went out of the room in the patience of a great despair, and left her husband alone with his misery.
THIS SIDE OF THE HILLS
On this side of the hills, alas! Unrest our spirit fills; For gold, men give us stones and brass— For asphodels, rank weeds and grass— For jewels, bits of coloured glass— On this side of the hills.
The end of July was approaching, and the season was drawing to a close. Cecil Farquhar and Elisabeth had seen each other frequently since they first met at the Academy soiree, and had fallen into the habit of being much together; consequently the thought of parting was pleasant to neither of them.
"How shall I manage to live without you?" asked Cecil one day, as they were walking across the Park together. "I shall fall from my ideals when I am away from your influence, and again become the grovelling worlding that I was before I met you."
"But you mustn't do anything of the kind. I am not the keeper of your conscience."
"But you are, and you must be. I feel a good man and a strong one when I am with you, and as if all things were possible to me; and now that I have once found you, I can not and will not let you go."
"You will have to let me go, Mr. Farquhar; for I go down to the Willows at the end of the month, and mean to stay there for some time. I have enjoyed my success immensely; but it has tired me rather, and made me want to rest and be stupid again."
"But I can not spare you," persisted Cecil; and there was real feeling in his voice. Elisabeth represented so much to him—wealth and power and the development of his higher nature; and although, had she been a poor woman, he would possibly never have cherished any intention of marrying her, his wish to do so was not entirely sordid. There are so few wishes in the hearts of any of us which are entirely sordid or entirely ideal; yet we find it so difficult to allow for this in judging one another.
"Don't you understand," Farquhar went on, "all that you have been to me: how you have awakened the best that is in me, and taught me to be ashamed of the worst? And do you think that I shall now be content to let you slip quietly out of my life, and to be the shallow, selfish, worldly wretch I was before the Academy soiree? Not I."
Elisabeth was silent. She could not understand herself, and this want of comprehension on her part annoyed and disappointed her. At last all her girlish dreams had come true; here was the fairy prince for whom she had waited for so long—a prince of the kingdom she loved above all others, the kingdom of art; and he came to her in the spirit in which she had always longed for him to come—the spirit of failure and of loneliness, begging her to make up to him for all that he had hitherto missed in life. Yet—to her surprise—his appeal found her cold and unresponsive, as if he were calling out for help to another woman and not to her.
Cecil went on: "Elisabeth, won't you be my wife, and so make me into the true artist which, with you to help me, I feel I am capable of becoming; but of which, without you, I shall always fall short? You could do anything with me—you know you could; you could make me into a great artist and a good man, but without you I can be neither. Surely you will not give me up now! You have opened to me the door of a paradise of which I never dreamed before, and now don't shut it in my face."
"I don't want to shut it in your face," replied Elisabeth gently; "surely you know me better than that. But I feel that you are expecting more of me than I can ever fulfil, and that some day you will be sadly disappointed in me."
"No, no; I never shall. It is not in you to disappoint anybody, you are so strong and good and true. Tell me the truth: don't you feel that I am as clay in your hands, and that you can do anything with me that you choose?"
Elisabeth looked him full in the face with her clear gray eyes. "I feel that I could do anything with you if only I loved you enough; but I also feel that I don't love you, and that therefore I can do nothing with you at all. I believe with you that a strong woman can be the making of a man she loves; but she must love him first, or else all her strength will be of no avail."
Farquhar's face fell. "I thought you did love me. You always seemed so glad when I came and sorry when I left; and you enjoyed talking to me, and we understood each other, and were happy together. Can you deny that?"
"No; it is all true. I never enjoyed talking with anybody more than with you; and I certainly never in my life met any one who understood my ways of looking at things as thoroughly as you do, nor any one who entered so completely into all my moods. As a friend you are most satisfactory to me, as a comrade most delightful; but I can not help thinking that love is something more than that."
"But it isn't," cried Cecil eagerly; "that is just where lots of women make such a mistake. They wait and wait for love all their lives; and find out too late that they passed him by years ago, without recognising him, but called him by some wrong name, such as friendship and the like."
"I wonder if you are right."
"I am sure that I am. Women who are at all romantic, have such exaggerated ideas as to what love really is. Like the leper of old, they ask for some great thing to work the wonderful miracle upon their lives; and so they miss the simple way which would lead them to happiness."
Elisabeth felt troubled and perplexed. "I enjoy your society," she said, "and I adore your genius, and I pity your loneliness, and I long to help your weakness. Is this love, do you think?"
"Yes, yes; I am certain of it."
"I thought it would be different," said Elisabeth sadly; "I thought that when it did come it would transform the whole world, just as religion does, and that all things would become new. I thought it would turn out to be the thing that we are longing for when the beauty of nature makes us feel sad with a longing we know not for what. I thought it would change life's dusty paths into golden pavements, and earth's commonest bramble-bush into a magic briar-rose."
"And it hasn't?"
"No; everything is just the same as it was before I met you. As far as I can see, there is no livelier emerald twinkling in the grass of the Park than there ever is at the end of July, and no purer sapphire melting into the Serpentine."
Cecil laughed lightly. "You are as absurdly romantic as a school-girl! Surely people of our age ought to know better than still to believe in fairyland; but, as I have told you before, you are dreadfully young for your age in some things."
"I suppose I am. I still do believe in fairyland—at least I did until ten minutes ago."
"I assure you there is no such place."
"Not for anybody?"
"Not for anybody over twenty-one."
"I wish there was," said Elisabeth with a sigh. "I should have liked to believe it was there, even if I had never found it."
"Don't be silly, lady mine. You are so great and wise and clever that I can not bear to hear you say foolish things. And I want us to talk about how you are going to help me to be a great painter, and how we will sit together as gods, and create new worlds. There is nothing that I can not do with you to help me, Elisabeth. You must be good to me and hard upon me at the same time. You must never let me be content with anything short of my best, or willing to do second-rate work for the sake of money; you must keep the sacredness of art ever before my eyes, but you must also be very gentle to me when I am weary, and very tender to me when I am sad; you must encourage me when my spirit fails me, and comfort me when the world is harsh. All these things you can do, and you are the only woman who can. Promise me, Elisabeth, that you will."
"I can not promise anything now. You must let me think it over for a time. I am so puzzled by it all. I thought that when the right man came and told a woman that he loved her, she would know at once that it was for him—and for him only—that she had been waiting all her life; and that she would never have another doubt upon the subject, but would feel convinced that it was settled for all time and eternity. And this is so different!"
Again Cecil laughed his light laugh. "I suppose girls sometimes feel like that when they are very young; but not women of your age, Elisabeth."
"Well, you must let me think about it. I can not make up my mind yet."
And for whole days and nights Elisabeth thought about it, and could come to no definite conclusion.
There was no doubt in her mind that she liked Cecil Farquhar infinitely better than she had liked any of the other men who had asked her to marry them; also that no one could possibly be more companionable to her than he was, or more sympathetic with and interested in her work—and this is no small thing to the man or woman who possesses the creative faculty. Then she was lonely in her greatness, and longed for companionship; and Cecil had touched her in her tenderest point by his constant appeals to her to help and comfort him. Nevertheless the fact remained that, though he interested her, he did not touch her heart; that remained a closed door to him. But supposing that her friends were right, and that she was too cold by nature ever to feel the ecstasies which transfigure life for some women, should she therefore shut herself out from ordinary domestic joys and interests? Because she was incapable of attaining to the ideal, must the commonplace pleasures of the real also be denied her? If the best was not for her, would it not be wise to accept the second-best, and extract as much happiness from it as possible? Moreover, she knew that Cecil was right when he said that she could make of him whatsoever she wished; and this was no slight temptation to a woman who loved power as much as Elisabeth loved it.
There was also another consideration which had some weight with her; and that was the impression, gradually gaining strength in her mind, that Cecil Farquhar was George Farringdon's son. She could take no steps in the way of proving this just then, as Christopher was away for his holiday somewhere in the Black Forest, and nothing could be done without him; but she intended, as soon as he returned, to tell him of her suspicion, and to set him to discover whether or not Cecil was indeed the lost heir. Although it never seriously occurred to Elisabeth to hold her peace upon this matter and so keep her fortune to herself, she was still human enough not altogether to despise a course of action which enabled her to be rich and righteous at the same time, and to go on with her old life at the Willows and her work among the people at the Osierfield, even after George Farringdon's son had come into his own.
Although the balance of Elisabeth's judgment was upon the side of Cecil Farquhar and his suit, she could not altogether stifle—try as she might—her sense of disappointment at finding how grossly poets and such people had exaggerated the truth in their description of the feeling men call love. It was all so much less exalted and so much more commonplace than she had expected. She had long ago come to the conclusion—from comparisons between Christopher and the men who had wanted to marry her—that a man's friendship is a better thing than a man's love; but she had always clung to the belief that a woman's love would prove a better thing than a woman's friendship: yet now she herself was in love with Cecil—at least he said that she was, and she was inclined to agree with him—and she was bound to admit that, as an emotion, this fell far short of her old attachment to Cousin Anne or Christopher or even Felicia. But that was because now she was getting old, she supposed, and her heart had lost its early warmth and freshness; and she experienced a weary ache of regret that Cecil had not come across her path in those dear old days when she was still young enough to make a fairyland for herself, and to abide therein for ever.
"The things that come too late are almost as bad as the things that never come at all," she thought with a sigh; not knowing that there is no such word as "too late" in God's Vocabulary.
At the end of the week she had made up her mind to marry Cecil Farquhar. Women, after all, can not pick and choose what lives they shall lead; they can only take such goods as the gods choose to provide, and make the best of the same; and if they let the possible slip while they are waiting for the impossible, they have only themselves to blame that they extract no good at all out of life. So she wrote to Cecil, asking him to come and see her the following day; and then she sat down and wondered why women are allowed to see visions and to dream dreams, if the actual is to fall so far short of the imaginary. Brick walls and cobbled streets are all very well in their way; but they make but dreary dwelling-places for those who have promised themselves cities where the walls are of jasper and the pavements of gold. "If one is doomed to live always on this side of the hills, it is a waste of time to think too much about the life on the other side," Elisabeth reasoned with herself, "and I have wasted a lot of time in this way; but I can not help wondering why we are allowed to think such lovely thoughts, and to believe in such beautiful things, if our dreams are never to come true, but are only to spoil us for the realities of life. Now I must bury all my dear, silly, childish idols, as Jacob did; and I will not have any stone to mark the place, because I want to forget where it is."
Poor Elisabeth! The grave of what has been, may be kept green with tears; but the grave of what never could have been, is best forgotten. We may not hide away the dear old gnomes and pixies and fairies in consecrated ground—that is reserved for what has once existed, and so has the right to live again; but for what never existed we can find no sepulchre, for it came out of nothingness, and to nothingness must it return.
After Elisabeth had posted her letter to Cecil, and while she was still musing over the problem as to whether life's fulfilment must always fall short of its promise, the drawing-room door was thrown open and a visitor announced. Elisabeth was tired and depressed, and did not feel in the mood for keeping up her reputation for brilliancy; so it was with a sigh of weariness that she rose to receive Quenelda Carson, a struggling little artist whom she had known slightly for years. But her interest was immediately aroused when she saw that Quenelda's usually rosy face was white with anguish, and the girl's pretty eyes swollen with many tears.
"What is the matter, dear?" asked Elisabeth, with that sound in her voice which made all weak things turn to her. "You are in trouble, and you must let me help you."
Quenelda broke out into bitter weeping. "Oh! give him back to me—give him back to me," she cried; "you can never love him as I do, you are too cold and proud and brilliant."
Elisabeth stood as if transfixed. "Whatever do you mean?"
"You have everything," Quenelda went on, in spite of the sobs which shook her slender frame; "you had money and position to begin with, and everybody thought well of you and admired you and made life easy for you. And then you came out of your world into ours, and carried away the prizes which we had been striving after for years, and beat us on our own ground; but we weren't jealous of you—you know that we weren't; we were glad of your success, and proud of you, and we admired your genius as much as the outside world did, and never minded a bit that it was greater than ours. But even then you were not content—you must have everything, and leave us nothing, just to satisfy your pride. You are like the rich man who had everything, and yet took from the poor man his one ewe lamb; and I am sure that God—if there is a God—will punish you as He punished that rich man."
Elisabeth turned rather pale; whatever had she done that any one dared to say such things to her as this? "I still don't understand you," she said.
"I never had anything nice in my life till I met him," the girl continued incoherently—"I had always been poor and pinched and wretched and second-rate; even my pictures were never first-rate, though I worked and worked all I knew to make them so. And then I met Cecil Farquhar, and I loved him, and everything became different, and I didn't mind being second-rate if only he would care for me. And he did; and I thought that I should always be as happy as I was then, and that nothing would ever be able to hurt me any more. Oh! I was so happy—so happy—and I was such a fool, I thought it would last forever! I worked hard and saved every penny that I could, and so did he; and we should have been married next year if you hadn't come and spoiled it all, and taken him away from me. And what is it to you now that you have got him? You are too proud and cold to love him, or anybody else, and he doesn't care for you a millionth part as much as he cares for me; yet just because you have money and fame he has left me for you. And I love him so—I love him so!" Here Quenelda's sobs choked her utterance, and her torrent of words was stopped by tears.
"Come and sit down beside me and tell me quietly what is the matter," said Elisabeth gently; "I can do nothing and understand nothing while you go on like this. But you are wrong in supposing that I took your lover from you purposely; I did not even know that he was a friend of yours. He ought to have told me."
"No, no; he couldn't tell you. Don't you see that the temptation was too strong for him? He cares so much for rank and money, and things like that, my poor Cecil! And all his life he has had to do without them. So when he met you, and realized that if he married you he would have all the things he wanted most in the world, he couldn't resist it. The fault was yours for tempting him, and letting him see that he could have you for the asking; you knew him well enough to see how weak he was, and what a hold worldly things had over him; and you ought to have allowed for this in dealing with him."
A great wave of self-contempt swept over Elisabeth. She, who had prided herself upon the fact that no man was strong enough to win her love, to be accused of openly running after a man who did not care for her but only for her money! It was unendurable, and stung her to the quick! And yet, through all her indignation, she recognised the justice of her punishment. She had not done what Quenelda had reproached her for doing, it was true; but she had deliberately lowered her ideal: she had wearied of striving after the best, and had decided that the second-best should suffice her; and for this she was now being chastised. No men or women who wilfully turn away from the ideal which God has set before them, and make to themselves graven images of the things which they know to be unworthy, can escape the punishment which is sure, sooner or later, to follow their apostasy; and they do well to recognise this, ere they grow weary of waiting for the revelation from Sinai, and begin to build altars unto false gods. For now, as of old, the idols which they make are ground into powder, and strawed upon the water, and given them to drink; the cup has to be drained to the dregs, and it is exceeding bitter.
"I still think he ought to have told me there was another woman," Elisabeth said.
"Not he. He knew well enough that your pride could not have endured the thought of another woman, and that that would have spoiled his chance with you forever. There always is another woman, you know; and you women, who are too proud to endure the thought of her, have to be deceived and blinded. And you have only yourselves to thank for it; if you were a little more human and a little more tender, there would be no necessity for deceiving you. Why, I should have loved him just the same if there had been a hundred other women, so he always told me the truth; but he lied to you, and it was your fault and not his that he was obliged to lie."
Elisabeth shuddered. It was to help such a man as this that she had been willing to sacrifice her youthful ideals and her girlish dreams. What a fool she had been!
"If you do not believe me, here is his letter," Quenelda went on; "I brought it on purpose for you to read, just to show you how little you are to him. If you had loved him as I love him, I would have let you keep him, because you could have given him so many of the things that he thinks most about. But you don't. You are one of the cold, hard women, who only care for people as long as they are good and do what you think they ought to do; Cecil never could do what anybody thought he ought to do for long, and then you would have despised him and grown tired of him. But I go on loving him just the same, whatever he does; and that's the sort of love that a man wants—at any rate, such a man as Cecil."
Elisabeth held out her hand for the letter; she felt that speech was of no avail at such a crisis as this; and, as she read, every word burned itself into her soul, and hurt her pride to the quick.
* * * * *
"DEAREST QUENELDA" (the letter ran, in the slightly affected handwriting which Elisabeth had learned to know so well, and to welcome with so much interest), "I have something to say to you which it cuts me to the heart to say, but which has to be said at all costs. We must break off our engagement at once; for the terrible truth has at last dawned upon me that we can never afford to marry each other, and that therefore it is only prolonging our agony to go on with it. You know me so well, dear little girl, that you will quite understand how the thought of life-long poverty has proved too much for me. I am not made of such coarse fibre as most men—those men who can face squalor and privation, and lack all the little accessories that make life endurable, without being any the worse for it. I am too refined, too highly strung, too sensitive, to enter upon such a weary struggle with circumstances as my marriage with a woman as poor as myself would entail; therefore, my darling Quenelda, much as I love you I feel it is my duty to renounce you; and as you grow older and wiser you will see that I am right.
"Since I can not marry you whom I love, I have put romance and sentiment forever out of my life; it is a bitter sacrifice for a man of my nature to make, but it must be done; and I have decided to enter upon a mariage de convenance with Miss Farringdon, the Black Country heiress. Of course I do not love her as I love you, my sweet—what man could love a genius as he loves a beauty? And she is as cold as she is clever. But I feel respect for her moral characteristics, and interest in her mental ones; and, when youth and romance are over and done with, that is all one need ask in a wife. As for her fortune, it will keep me forever out of the reach of that poverty which has always so deleterious an effect upon natures such as mine; and, being thus set above those pecuniary anxieties which are the death of true art, I shall be able fully to develop the power that is in me, and to do the work that I feel myself called to do.
"Good-bye, my sweetest. I can not write any more; my heart is breaking. How cruel it is that poverty should have power to separate forever such true lovers as you and I!
"Your heartbroken "CECIL."
Elisabeth gave back the letter to Quenelda. "Do you mean to tell me that you don't despise the man who sent this?" she asked.
"No; because I love him, you see. You never did."
"You are right there. I never loved him. I tried to love him, but I couldn't."
"I know you didn't. As I told you before, if you had loved him I would have given him up to you."
Elisabeth looked at the girl before her with wonder. What a strange thing this love was, which could make a woman forgive such a letter as that, and still cling to the man who wrote it! So there was such a place as fairyland after all, and poor little Quenelda had found it; while she, Elisabeth, had never so much as peeped through the gate. It had brought Quenelda much sorrow, it was true; but still it was good to have been there; and a chilly feeling crept across Elisabeth's heart as she realized how much she had missed in life.
"I think if one loved another person as much as that," she said to herself, "one would understand a little of how God feels about us." Aloud she said: "Dear, what do you want me to do? I will do anything in the world that you wish."
Quenelda seized Elisabeth's hand and kissed it. "How good you are! And I don't deserve it a bit, for I've been horrid to you and said vile things."
There was a vast pity in Elisabeth's eyes. "I did you a great wrong, poor child!" she said; "and I want to make every reparation in my power."
"But you didn't know you were doing me a great wrong."
"No; but I knew that I was acting below my own ideals, and nobody can do that without doing harm. Show me how I can give you help now? Shall I tell Cecil Farquhar that I know all?"
"Oh! no; please not. He would never forgive me for having spoiled his life, and taken away his chance of being rich." And Quenelda's tears flowed afresh.
Elisabeth put her strong arm round the girl's slim waist. "Don't cry, dear; I will make it all right. I will just tell him that I can't marry him because I don't love him; and he need never know that I have heard about you at all."
And Elisabeth continued to comfort Quenelda until the pale cheeks grew pink again, and half the girl's beauty came back; and she went away at last believing in Elisabeth's power of setting everything right again, as one believes in one's mother's power of setting everything right again when one is a child.
After she had gone, Elisabeth sat down and calmly looked facts in the face; and the prospect was by no means an agreeable one. Of course there was no question now of marrying Cecil Farquhar; and in the midst of her confusion Elisabeth felt a distinct sense of relief that this at any rate was impossible. She could still go on believing in fairyland, even though she never found it; and it is always far better not to find a place than to find there is no such place at all. But she would have to give up the Willows and the Osierfield, and all the wealth and position that these had brought her; and this was a bitter draught to drink. Elisabeth felt no doubt in her own mind that Cecil was indeed George Farringdon's son; she had guessed it when first he told her the story of his birth, and subsequent conversations with him had only served to confirm her in the belief; and it was this conviction which had influenced her to some extent in her decision to accept him. But now everything was changed. Cecil would rule at the Osierfield and Quenelda at the Willows instead of herself, and those dearly loved places would know her no more.
At this thought Elisabeth broke down. How she loved every stone of the Black Country, and how closely all her childish fancies and girlish dreams were bound up in it! Now the cloud of smoke would hang over Sedgehill, and she would not be there to interpret its message; and the sun would set beyond the distant mountains, and she would no longer catch glimpses of the country over the hills. Even the rustic seat, where she and Christopher had sat so often, would be hers no longer; and he and she would never walk together in the woods as they had so often walked as children. And as she cried softly to herself, with no one to comfort her, the memory of Christopher swept over her, and with it all the old anger against him. He would be glad to see her dethroned at last, she supposed, as that was what he had striven for all those years ago; but, perhaps, when he saw a stranger reigning at the Willows and the Osierfield in her stead, he would be sorry to find the new government so much less beneficial to the work-people than the old one had been; for Elisabeth knew Cecil quite well enough to be aware that he would spend all his money on himself and his own pleasures; and she could not help indulging in an unholy hope that, whereas she had beaten Christopher with whips, her successor would beat him with scorpions. In fact she was almost glad, for the moment, that Farquhar was so unfit for the position to which he was now called, when she realized how sorely that unfitness would try Christopher.
"It will serve him right for leaving me and going off after George Farringdon's son," she said to herself, "to discover how little worth the finding George Farringdon's son really was! Christopher is so self-centred, that a thing is never properly brought home to him until it affects himself; no other person can ever convince him that he is in the wrong. But this will affect himself; he will hate to serve under such a man as Cecil; I know he will; because Cecil is just the type of person that Christopher has always looked down upon, for Christopher is a gentleman and Cecil is not. Perhaps when he finds out how inferior an iron-master Cecil is to me, Christopher will wish that he had liked me better and been kinder to me when he had a chance. I hope he will, and that it will make him miserable; for those hard, self-righteous people really deserve to be punished in the end." And Elisabeth derived so much comfort from the prospect of Christopher's coming trials, that she almost forgot her own.
GEORGE FARRINGDON'S SON
I need thee, Love, in peace and strife; For, till Time's latest page be read, No other smile could light my life Instead.
And even in that happier place, Where pain is past and sorrow dead, I could not love an angel's face Instead.
That night Elisabeth wrote to Christopher Thornley, telling him that she believed she had found George Farringdon's son at last, and asking him to come up to London in order to facilitate the giving up of her kingdom into the hands of the rightful owner. And, in so doing, she was conscious of a feeling of satisfaction that Christopher should see for himself that she was not as mercenary as he had once imagined her to be, but that she was as ready as he had ever been to enable the king to enjoy his own again as soon as that king appeared upon the scene. To forsake the reigning queen in order to search for that king, was, of course, a different matter, and one about which Elisabeth declined to see eye to eye with her manager even now. Doubtless he had been in the right all through, and she in the wrong, as all honourable people could see for themselves; but when one happens to be the queen one's self, one's perspective is apt to become blurred and one's sense of abstract justice confused. It is so easy for all of us to judge righteous judgment concerning matters which in no way affect ourselves.
Elisabeth was still angry with Christopher because she had deliberately made the worst of herself in his eyes. It was totally unjust—and entirely feminine—to lay the blame of this on his shoulders; as a matter of fact, he had had nothing at all to do with it. She had purposely chosen a path of life of which she knew he would disapprove, principally in order to annoy him; and then she had refused to forgive him for feeling the annoyance which she had gone out of her way to inflict. From the purely feminine standpoint her behaviour was thoroughly consistent; a man, however, might in his ignorance have accused her of inconsistency. But men know so little about some things!
The following afternoon Cecil Farquhar came to see Elisabeth, as she had bidden him; and she smiled grimly to herself as she realized the difference between what she had intended to say to him when she told him to come, and what she was actually going to say. As for him, he was full of hope. Evidently Elisabeth meant to marry him and make him into a rich man; and money was the thing he loved best in the world. Which of us would not be happy if we thought we were about to win the thing we loved best? And is it altogether our own fault if the thing we happen to love best be unworthy of love, or is it only our misfortune?
Because he was triumphant, Cecil looked handsomer than usual, for there are few things more becoming than happiness; and as he entered the room, radiant with that vitality which is so irresistibly attractive, Elisabeth recognised his charm without feeling it, just as one sees people speaking and gesticulating in the distance without hearing a word of what is said.
"My dear lady, you are going to say yes to me; I know that you are; you would not have sent for me if you were not, for you are far too tender-hearted to enjoy seeing pain which you are forced to give."
Elisabeth looked grave, and did not take his outstretched hand. "Will you sit down?" she said; "there is much that I want to talk over with you."
Cecil's face fell. In a superficial way he was wonderfully quick in interpreting moods and reading character; and he knew in a moment that, through some influence of which he was as yet in ignorance, such slight hold as he had once had upon Elisabeth had snapped and broken since he saw her last. "Surely you are not going to refuse to marry me and so spoil my life. Elisabeth, you can not be as cruel as this, after all that we have been to each other."
"I am going to refuse to marry you, but I am not going to spoil your life. Believe me, I am not. There are other things in the world besides love and marriage."
Cecil sank down into a seat, and his chin twitched. "Then you have played with me most abominably. The world was right when it called you a heartless flirt, and said that you were too cold to care for anything save pleasure and admiration. I thought I knew you better, more fool I! But the world was right and I was wrong."
"I don't think that we need discuss my character," said Elisabeth. She was very angry with herself that she had placed herself in such a position that any man dared to sit in judgment upon her; but even then she could not elevate Cecil into the object of her indignation.
He went on like a querulous child. "It is desperately hard on me that you have treated me in this way! You might have snubbed me at once if you had wished to do so, and not have made me a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world. I made no secret of the fact that I intended to marry you; I talked about it to everybody; and now everybody will laugh at me for having been your dupe."
So he had boasted to his friends of the fortune he was going to annex, and had already openly plumed himself upon securing her money! Elisabeth understood perfectly, and was distinctly amused. She wondered if he would remember to remind her how she was going to elevate him by her influence, or if the loss of her money would make him forget even to simulate sorrow at the loss of herself.
"I don't know what I shall do," he continued, with tears of vexation in his eyes; "everybody is expecting our engagement to be announced, and I can not think what excuses I shall invent. A man looks such a fool when he has made too sure of a woman!"
"Doubtless. But that isn't the woman's fault altogether."
"Yes; it is. If the woman hadn't led him on, the man wouldn't have made sure of her. You have been unutterably cruel to me—unpardonably cruel; and I will never forgive you as long as I live."
Elisabeth winced at this—not at Cecil's refusal to forgive her, but at the thought that she had placed herself within the reach of his forgiveness. But she was not penitent—she was only annoyed. Penitence is the last experience that comes to strong-willed, light-hearted people, such as Elisabeth; they are so sure they are right at the time, and they so soon forget about it afterward, that they find no interval for remorse. Elisabeth was beginning to forgive herself for having fallen for a time from her high ideal, because she was already beginning to forget that she had so fallen; life had taught her many things, but she took it too easily even yet.
"I have a story to tell you," she said; "a story that will interest you, if you will listen."
By this time Cecil's anger was settling down into sulkiness. "I have no alternative, I suppose."
Then Elisabeth told him, as briefly as she could, the story of George Farringdon's son; and, as she spoke, she watched the sulkiness in his face give place to interest, and the interest to hope, and the hope to triumph, until the naughty child gradually grew once more into the similitude of a Greek god.
"You are right—I am sure you are right," he said when she had finished; "it all fits in—the date and place of my birth, my parents' poverty and friendlessness, and the mystery concerning them. Oh! you can not think what this means to me. To be forever beyond the reach of poverty—to be able to do whatever I like for the rest of my life—to be counted among the great of the earth! It is wonderful—wonderful!" And he walked up and down the room in his excitement, while his voice shook with emotion.
"I shall have such a glorious time," he went on—"the most glorious time man ever had! Of course, I shall not live in that horrid Black Country—nobody could expect me to make such a sacrifice as that; but I shall spend my winters in Italy and my summers in Mayfair, and I shall forget that the world was ever cold and hard and cruel to me."
Elisabeth watched him curiously. So he never even thought of her and of what she was giving up. That his gain was her loss was a matter of no moment to him—it did not enter into his calculations. She wondered if he even remembered Quenelda, and what this would mean to her; she thought not. And this was the man Elisabeth had once delighted to honour! She could have laughed aloud as she realized what a blind fool she had been. Were all men like this? she asked herself; for, if so, she was glad she was too cold to fall in love. It would be terrible indeed to lay down one's life at the feet of a creature such as this; it was bad enough to have to lay down one's fortune there!
Throughout the rest of the interview Cecil lived up to the estimate that Elisabeth had just formed of his character: he never once remembered her—never once forgot himself. She explained to him that Christopher Thornley was the man who would manage all the business part of the affair for him, and give up the papers, and establish his identity; and she promised to communicate with Cecil as soon as she received an answer to the letter she had written to Christopher informing the latter that she believed she had at last discovered George Farringdon's son.
Amidst all her sorrow at the anticipation of giving up her kingdom into the hands of so unfitting a ruler as Cecil, there lurked a pleasurable consciousness that at last Christopher would recognise her worth, when he found how inferior her successor was to herself. It was strange how this desire to compel the regard which she had voluntarily forfeited, had haunted Elisabeth for so many years. Christopher had offended her past all pardon, she said to herself; nevertheless it annoyed her to feel that the friendship, which she had taken from him for punitive purposes, was but a secondary consideration in his eyes after all. She had long ago succeeded in convincing herself that the grapes of his affection were too sour to be worth fretting after; but she still wanted to make him admire her in spite of himself, and to realize that Miss Elisabeth Farringdon of the Osierfield was a more important personage than he had considered her to be. Half the pleasure of her success as an artist had lain in the thought that this at last would convince Christopher of her right to be admired and obeyed; but she was never sure that it had actually done so. Through all her triumphal progress he had been the Mordecai at her gates. She did not often see him, it is true; but when she did, she was acutely conscious that his attitude toward her was different from the attitude of the rest of the world, and that—instead of offering her unlimited praise and adulation—he saw her weaknesses as clearly now she was a great lady as he had done when she was a little girl.
And herein Elisabeth's intuition was not at fault; her failings were actually more patent to Christopher than to the world at large. But here her perception ended; and she did not see, further, that it was because Christopher had formed such a high ideal of her, that he minded so much when she fell short of it. She had not yet grasped the truth that whereas the more a woman loves a man the easier she finds it to forgive his faults, the more a man loves a woman the harder he finds it to overlook her shortcomings. A woman merely requires the man she loves to be true to her; while a man demands that the woman he loves shall be true to herself—or, rather, to that ideal of her which in his own mind he has set up and worshipped.
Her consciousness of Christopher's disapproval of the easy-going, Bohemian fashion in which she had chosen to walk through life, made Elisabeth intensely angry; though she would have died rather than let him know it. How dared this one man show himself superior to her, when she had the world at her feet? It was insupportable! She said but little to him, and he said still less to her, and what they did say was usually limited to the affairs of the Osierfield; nevertheless Elisabeth persistently weighed herself in Christopher's balances, and measured herself according to Christopher's measures; and, as she did so, wrote Tekel opposite her own name. And for this she refused to forgive him. She assured herself that his balances were false, and his measures impossible, and his judgments hard in the extreme; and when she had done so, she began to try herself thereby again, and hated him afresh because she fell so far short of them.
But now he was going to see her in a new light; if he declined to admire her in prosperity, he should be compelled to respect her in adversity; for she made up her mind she would bear her reverses like a Spartan, if only for the sake of proving to him that she was made of better material than he, in his calm superiority, had supposed. When he saw for himself how plucky she could be, and how little she really cared for outside things, he might at last discover that she was not as unworthy of his regard as he had once assumed, and might even want to be friends with her again; and then she would throw his friendship back again in his face, as he had once thrown hers, and teach him that it was possible even for self-righteous people to make mistakes which were past repairing. It would do him a world of good, Elisabeth thought, to find out—too late—that he had misjudged her, and that other people besides himself had virtues and excellences; and it comforted her, in the midst of her adversities, to contemplate the punishment which was being reserved for Christopher, when George Farringdon's son came into his own. And she never guessed—how could she?—that when at last George Farringdon's son did come into his own, there would be no Christopher Thornley serving under him at the Osierfield; and that the cup of remorse, which she was so busily preparing, was for her own drinking and not for Christopher's.
Christopher's expected answer to her epistle was, however, not forthcoming. The following morning Elisabeth received a letter from one of the clerks at the Osierfield, informing her that Mr. Thornley returned from his tour in Germany a week ago; and that immediately on his return he was seized with a severe attack of pneumonia—the result of a neglected cold—and was now lying seriously ill at his house in Sedgehill. In order to complete the purchase of a piece of land for the enlargement of the works, which Mr. Thornley had arranged to buy before he went away, it was necessary (the clerk went on to say) to see the plans of the Osierfield; and these were locked up in the private safe at the manager's house, to which only Christopher and Elisabeth possessed keys. Therefore, as the manager was delirious and quite incapable of attending to business of any kind, the clerk begged Miss Farringdon to come down at once and take the plans out of the safe; as the negotiations could not be completed until this was done.
For an instant the old instinct of tenderness toward any one who was weak or suffering welled up in Elisabeth's soul, and she longed to go to her old playmate and help and comfort him; but then came the remembrance of how once before, long ago, she had been ready to help and comfort Christopher, and he had wanted neither her help nor her comfort; so she hardened her heart against him, and proudly said to herself that if Christopher could do without her she could do without Christopher.
That summer's day was one which Elisabeth could never forget as long as she lived; it stood out from the rest of her life, and would so stand out forever. We all know such days as this—days which place a gulf, that can never be passed over, between their before and after. She travelled down to Sedgehill by a morning train; and her heart was heavy within her as she saw how beautiful the country looked in the summer sunshine, and realized that the home she loved was to be taken away from her and given to another. Somehow life had not brought her all that she had expected from it, and yet she did not see wherein she herself had been to blame. She had neither loved nor hoarded her money, but had used it for the good of others to the best of her knowledge; yet it was to be taken from her. She had not hidden her talent in a napkin, but had cultivated it to the height of her powers; yet her fame was cold and dreary to her, and her greatness turned to ashes in her hands. She had been ready to give love in full measure and running over to any one who needed it; yet her heart had asked in vain for something to fill it, and in spite of all its longings had been sent empty away. She had failed all along the line to get the best out of life; and yet she did not see how she could have acted differently. Surely it was Fate, and not herself, that was to blame for her failure.
When she arrived at Sedgehill she drove straight to Christopher's house, and learned from the nurse who was attending him how serious his illness was—not so much on account of the violence of the cold which he had taken in Germany, as from the fact that his vitality was too feeble to resist it. But she could not guess—and there was no one to tell her—that his vitality had been lowered by her unkindness to him, and that it was she who had deliberately snapped the mainspring of Christopher's life. It was no use anybody's seeing him, the nurse said, as he was delirious and knew no one; but if he regained consciousness, she would summon Miss Farringdon at once.
Then Elisabeth went alone into the big, oak-panelled dining-room, with the crape masks before its windows, and opened the safe.
She could not find the plans at once, as she did not know exactly where to look for them; and as she was searching for them among various papers, she came upon a letter addressed to herself in Christopher's handwriting. She opened it with her usual carelessness, without perceiving that it bore the inscription "Not to be given to Miss Farringdon until after my death"; and when she had begun to read it, she could not have left off to save her life—being a woman. And this was what she read:
"MY DARLING—for so I may call you at last, since you will not read this letter until after I am dead;
"There are two things that I want to tell you. First, that I love you, and always have loved you, and always shall love you to all eternity. But how could I say this to you, sweetheart, in the days when my love spelled poverty for us both? And how could I say it when you became one of the richest women in Mershire, and I only the paid manager of your works? Nevertheless I should have said it in time, when you had seen more of the world and were capable of choosing your own life for yourself, had I thought there was any chance of your caring for me; for no man has ever loved you as I have loved you, Elisabeth, nor ever will. You had a right to know what was yours, when you were old enough to decide what to do with it, and to take or leave it as you thought fit; and no one else had the right to decide this for you. But when you so misjudged me about my journey to Australia, I understood that it was I myself, and not my position, that stood between us; and that your nature and mine were so different, and our ideas so far apart, that it was not in my power to make you happy, though I would have died to do so. So I went out of your life, for fear I should spoil it; and I have kept out of your life ever since, because I know you are happier without me; for I do so want you to be happy, dear.
"There is one other thing I have to tell you: I am George Farringdon's son. I shouldn't have bothered you with this, only I feel it is necessary—after I am gone—for you to know the truth, lest any impostor should turn up and take your property from you. Of course, as long as I am alive I can keep the secret, and yet take care that no one else comes forward in my place; and I have made a will leaving everything I possess to you. But when I am gone, you must hold the proofs of who was really the person who stood between you and the Farringdon property. I never found it out until my uncle died; I believed, as everybody else believed, that the lost heir was somewhere in Australia. But on my uncle's death I found a confession from him—which is in this safe, along with my parents' marriage certificate and all the other proofs of my identity—saying how his sister told him on her death-bed that, when George Farringdon ran away from home, he married her, and took her out with him to Australia. They had a hard life, and lost all their children except myself; and then my father died, leaving my poor mother almost penniless. She survived him only long enough to come back to England, and give her child into her brother's charge. My uncle went on to say that he kept my identity a secret, and called me by an assumed name, as he was afraid that Miss Farringdon would send both him and me about our business if she knew the truth; as in those days she was very bitter against the man who had jilted her, and would have been still bitterer had she known he had thrown her over for the daughter of her father's manager. When Maria Farringdon died and showed, by her will, that at last she had forgiven her old lover, my uncle's mind was completely gone; and it was not until after his death that I discovered the papers which put me in possession of the facts of the case.
"By that time I had learned, beyond all disputing, that I was too dull and stupid ever to win your love. I only cared for money that it might enable me to make you happy; and if you could be happier without me than with me, who was I that I should complain? At any rate, it was given to me to insure your happiness; and that was enough for me. And you said that I didn't care what became of you, as long as I laid up for myself a nice little nest-egg in heaven! Sweetheart, I think you did me an injustice. So be happy, my dearest, with the Willows and the Osierfield and all the dear old things which you and I have loved so well; and remember that you must never pity me. I wanted you to be happy more than I wanted anything else in the world, and no man is to be pitied who has succeeded in getting what he wanted most.
"Yours, my darling, for time and eternity, "CHRISTOPHER FARRINGDON."
Then at last Elisabeth's eyes were opened, and for the first time in her life she saw clearly. So Christopher had loved her all along; she knew the truth at last, and with it she also knew that she had always loved him; that throughout her life's story there never had been—never could be—any man but Christopher. Until he told her that he loved her, her love for him had been a fountain sealed; but at his word it became a well of living water, flooding her whole soul and turning the desert of her life into a garden.
At first she was overpowered with the joy of it; she was upheld by that strange feeling of exaltation which comes to all of us when we realize for a moment our immortality, and feel that even death itself is powerless to hurt us. Christopher was dying, but what did that signify? He loved her—that was the only thing that really mattered—and they would have the whole of eternity in which to tell their love. For the second time in her life she came face to face with the fact that there was a stronger Will than her own guiding and ruling her; that, in spite of all her power and ability and self-reliance, the best things in her life were not of herself but were from outside. As long ago in St. Peter's Church she had learned that religion was God's Voice calling to her, she now learned that love was Christopher's voice calling to her; and that her own strength and cleverness, of which she had been so proud, counted for less than nothing. To her who longed to give, was given; she who desired to love, was beloved; she who aspired to teach, had been taught. That strong will of hers, which had once been so dominant, had suddenly fallen down powerless; she no longer wanted to have her own way—she wanted to have Christopher's. Her warfare against him was at last accomplished. To the end of her days she knew she would go on weighing herself in his balances, and measuring herself according to his measures; but now she would do so willingly, choosing to be guided by his wisdom rather than her own, for she no more belonged to herself but to him. The feeling of unrest, which had oppressed her for so many years, now fell from her like a cast-off garment. Christopher was the answer to her life's problem, the fulfilment of her heart's desire; and although she might be obliged to go down again into the valley of the shadow, she could never forget that she had once stood upon the mountain-top and had beheld the glory of the promised land.
And she never remembered that now her fortune was secured to her, and that the Willows and the Osierfield would always be hers; even these were henceforth of no moment to her, save as monuments of Christopher's love.
So in the dingy dining-room, on that hot summer's afternoon, Elisabeth Farringdon became a new creature. The old domineering arrogance passed away forever; and from its ashes there arose another Elisabeth, who out of weakness was made stronger than she had ever been in her strength—an Elisabeth who had attained to the victory of the vanquished, and who had tasted the triumph of defeat. But in all her exaltation she knew—though for the moment the knowledge could not hurt her—that her heart would be broken by Christopher's death. Through the long night of her ignorance and self-will and unsatisfied idealism she had wrestled with the angel that she might behold the Best, and had prayed that it might be granted unto her to see the Vision Beautiful. At last she had prevailed; and the day for which she had so longed was breaking, and transfiguring the common world with its marvellous light. But the angel-hand had touched her, and she no longer stood upright and self-reliant, but was bound to halt and walk lamely on her way until she stood by Christopher's side again.
This exalted mood did not last for long. As she sat in the gloomy room and watched the blazing sunshine forcing its way through the darkened windows, her eye suddenly fell upon two notches cut in the doorway, where she and Christopher had once measured themselves when they were children; and the familiar sight of these two little notches, made by Christopher's knife so long ago, awoke in her heart the purely human longing for him as the friend and comrade she had known and looked up to all her life. And with this longing came the terrible thought of how she had hurt and misunderstood and misjudged him, and of how it was now too late for her to make up to him in this life for all the happiness of which she had defrauded him in her careless pride. Then, for the first time since she was born, Elisabeth put her lips to the cup of remorse, and found it very bitter to the taste. She had been so full of plans for comforting mankind and helping the whole world; yet she had utterly failed toward the only person whom it had been in her power actually to help and comfort; and her heart echoed the wail of the most beautiful love-song ever written—"They made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept."
As she was sitting, bowed down in utter anguish of spirit while the waves of remorse flooded her soul, the door opened and the nurse came in.
"Mr. Thornley is conscious now, and is asking for you, Miss Farringdon," she said.
Elisabeth started up, her face aglow with new hope. It was so natural to her not to be cast down for long. "Oh! I am so glad. I want dreadfully to see him, I have so much to say to him. But I'll promise not to tire or excite him. Tell me, how long may I stay with him, Nurse, and how quiet must I be?"
The nurse smiled sadly. "It won't matter how long you stay or what you say, Miss Farringdon; I don't think it is possible for anything to hurt or help him now; for I am afraid, whatever happens, he can not possibly recover."
As she went upstairs Elisabeth kept saying to herself, "I am going to see the real Christopher for the first time"; and she felt the old, shy fear of him that she had felt long ago when Richard Smallwood was stricken. But when she entered the room and saw the worn, white face on the pillow, with the kind smile she knew so well, she completely forgot her shyness, and only remembered that Christopher was in need of her, and that she would gladly give her life for his if she could.
"Kiss me, my darling," he said, holding out his arms; and she knew by the look in his eyes that every word of his letter was true. "I am too tired to pretend any more that I don't love you. And it can't matter now whether you know or not, it is so near the end."
Elisabeth put her strong arms round him, and kissed him as he asked. "Chris, dear," she whispered, "I want to tell you that I love you, and that I've always loved you, and that I always shall love you; but I've only just found it out."
Christopher was silent for a moment, and clasped her very close. But he was not so much surprised as he would have been had Elisabeth made such an astounding revelation to him in the days of his health. When one is drawing near to the solution of the Great Mystery, one loses the power of wondering at anything.
"How did you find it out, my dearest?" he asked at last.
"Through finding out that you loved me. It seems to me that my love was always lying in the bank at your account, but until you gave a cheque for it you couldn't get at it. And the cheque was my knowing that you cared for me."
"And how did you find that out, Betty?"
"I was rummaging in the safe just now for the plans of the Osierfield, and I came upon your letter."
"I didn't mean you to read that while I was alive; but, all the same, I think I am rather glad that you did."
"And I am glad, too. I wish I hadn't always been so horrid to you, Chris; but I believe I should have loved you all the time, if only you had given me the chance. Still, I was horrid—dreadfully horrid; and now it is too late to make it up to you." And Elisabeth's eyes filled with tears.
"Don't cry, my darling—please don't cry. And, besides, you have made it up to me by loving me now. I am glad you understand at last, Betty; I did so hope you would some day."
"And you forgive me for having been so vile?"
"There is nothing to forgive, sweetheart; it was my fault for not making you understand; but I did it for the best, though I seem to have made a mess of it."
"And you like me just the same as you did before I was unkind to you?"
"My dear, don't you know?"
"You see, Chris, I was wanting you to be nice to me all the time—nothing else satisfied me instead of you. And when you seemed not to like me any longer, but to care for doing your duty more than for being with me, I got sore and angry, and decided to punish you for making a place for yourself in my heart and then refusing to fill it."
"Well, you did what you decided, as you generally do; there is no doubt of that. You were always very prone to administer justice and to maintain truth, Elisabeth, and you certainly never spared the rod as far as I was concerned."
"But now I see that I was wrong; I understand that it was because you cared so much for abstract right, that you were able to care so much for me; a lower nature would have given me a lower love; and if only we could go through it all again, I should want you to go to Australia after George Farringdon's son."
Christopher's thin fingers wandered over Elisabeth's hair; and as they did so he remembered, with tender amusement, how often he had comforted her on account of her dark locks. Now one or two gray hairs were beginning to show through the brown ones, and it struck him with a pang that he would no longer be here to comfort her on account of those; for he knew that Elisabeth was the type of woman who would require consolation on that score, and that he was the man who could effectually have administered it.
"I can see now," Elisabeth went on, "how much more important it is what a man is than what a man says, though I used to think that words were everything, and that people didn't feel what they didn't talk about. You used to disappoint me because you said so little; but, all the same, your character influenced me without my knowing it; and whatever good there is in me, comes from my having known you and seen you live up to your own ideals. People wonder that worldly things attract me so little, and that my successes haven't turned my head; so they would have done, probably, if I had never met you; but having once seen in you what the ideal life is, I couldn't help despising lower things, though I tried my hardest not to despise them. Nobody who had once been with you, and looked even for a minute at life through your eyes, could ever care again for anything that was mean or sordid or paltry. Darling, don't you understand that my knowing you made me better than I tried to be—better even than I wanted to be; and that all my life I shall be a truer woman because of you?"
But by that time the stupendous effort which Christopher had made for Elisabeth's sake had exhausted itself, and he fell back upon his pillows, white to the lips, and too weak to say another word. Yet not even the great Shadow could cloud the love that shone in his eyes, as he looked at Elisabeth's eager face, and listened to the voice for which his soul had hungered so long. The sight of his weakness brought her down to earth again more effectually than any words could have done; and with an exceeding bitter cry she hid her face in her arms and sobbed aloud—
"Oh! my darling, my darling, come back to me; I love you so that I can not let you go. The angels can do quite well without you in heaven, but I can not do without you here. Oh! Chris, don't go away and leave me, just now that we've learned to understand one another. I'll be good all my life, and do everything that you tell me, if only you won't go away. My dearest, I love you so—I love you so; and I've nobody in the world but you."
Christopher made another great effort to take her in his arms and comfort her; but it was too much for him, and he fainted away.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HILLS
Shall I e'er love thee less fondly than now, dear? Tell me if e'er my devotion can die? Never until thou shalt cease to be thou, dear; Never until I no longer am I.
Whether the doctors were right when they talked of the renewed desire to live producing fresh vitality, or whether the wise man knew best after all when he said that love is stronger than death, who can say? Anyway, the fact remained that Christopher responded—as he had ever responded—to Elisabeth's cry for help, and came back from the very gates of the grave at her bidding. He had never failed her yet, and he did not fail her now.
The days of his recovery were wonderful days to Elisabeth. It was so strange and new to her to be doing another person's will, and thinking another person's thoughts, and seeing life through another person's eyes; it completely altered the perspective of everything. And there was nothing strained about it, which was a good thing, as Elisabeth was too light-hearted to stand any strain for long; the old comradeship still existed between them, giving breadth to a love which the new relationship had made so deep.
And it was very wonderful to Christopher, also, to find himself in the sunshine at last after so many years of shadowland. At first the light almost dazzled him, he was so unaccustomed to it; but as he gradually became used to the new feeling of being happy, his nature responded to the atmosphere of warmth and brightness, and opened as a flower in the sun. As it was strange to Elisabeth to find herself living and moving and having her being in another's personality, so it was strange to Christopher to find another's personality merged in his. He had lived so entirely for other people that it was a great change to find another person living entirely for him; and it was a change that was wholly beneficial. As his nature deepened Elisabeth's, so her nature expanded his; and each was the better for the influence of the other, as each was the complement of the other. So after a time Christopher grew almost as light-hearted as Elisabeth, while Elisabeth grew almost as tender-hearted as Christopher. For both of them the former things had passed away, and all things were made new.
It was beautiful weather, too, which helped to increase their happiness; that still, full, green weather, which sometimes comes in the late summer, satisfying men's souls with its peaceful perfectness; when the year is too old to be disturbed by the restless hope of spring, too young to be depressed by the chilling dread of autumn, and so just touches the fringe of that eternity which has no end neither any beginning. The fine weather hastened Christopher's recovery; and, as he gained strength, he and Elisabeth spent much time in the old garden, looking toward the Welsh mountains.
"So we have come to the country on the other side of the hills at last," she said to him, as they were watching one of the wonderful Mershire sunsets and drinking in its beauty. "I always knew it was there, but sometimes I gave up all hope of ever finding it for myself."
Christopher took her hand and began playing with the capable artist-fingers. "And is it as nice a country as you expected, sweetheart?"
"As nice as I expected? I should just think it is. I knew that in the country over the hills I should find all the beautiful things I had imagined as a child and all the lovely things I had longed for as a woman; and that, if only I could reach it, all the fairy-tales would come true. But now that I have reached it, I find that the fairy-tales fell far short of the reality, and that it is a million times nicer than I ever imagined anything could be."
"Darling, I am glad you are so happy. But it beats me how such a stupid fellow as I am can make you so."
"Well, you do, and that's all that matters. Nobody can tell how they do things; they only know that they can do them. I don't know how I can paint pictures any more than you know how you can turn smoky ironworks into the country over the hills. But we can, and do; which shows what clever people we are, in spite of ourselves."
"I think the cleverness lies with you in both cases—in your wonderful powers of imagination, my dear."
"Do you? Then that shows how little you know about it."
Christopher put his arm round her. "I always was stupid, you know; you have told me so with considerable frequency."
"Oh! so you were; but you were never worse than stupid."
"That's a good thing; for stupidity is a misfortune rather than a fault."
"Now I was worse than stupid—much worse," continued Elisabeth gravely; "but I never was actually stupid."
"Weren't you? Don't be too sure of that. I don't wish to hurt your feelings, sweetheart, or to make envious rents in your panoply of wisdom; but, do you know, you struck me now and again as being a shade—we will not say stupid, but dense?"
"When I thought you didn't like me because you went to Australia, you mean?"
"That was one of the occasions when your acumen seemed to be slightly at fault. And there were others."
Elisabeth looked thoughtful. "I really did think you didn't like me then."
"Denseness, my dear Elisabeth—distinct denseness. It would be gross flattery to call it by any other name."
"But you never told me you liked me."
"If I had, and you had then thought I did not, you would have been suffering from deafness, not denseness. You are confusing terms."
"Well, then, I'll give in and say I was dense. But I was worse than that: I was positively horrid as well."
"Not horrid, Betty; you couldn't be horrid if you tried. Perhaps you were a little hard on me; but it's all over and done with now, and you needn't bother yourself any more about it."
"But I ought to bother about it if I intend to make a trustworthy step-ladder out of my dead selves to upper storeys."
"A trustworthy fire-escape, you mean; but I won't have it. You sha'n't have any dead selves, my dear, because I shall insist on keeping them all alive by artificial respiration, or restoration from drowning, or something of that kind. Not one of them shall die with my permission; remember that. I'm much too fond of them."
"You silly boy! You'll never train me and discipline me properly if you go on in this way."
"Hang it all, Betty! Who wants to train and discipline you? Certainly not I. I am wise enough to let well—or rather perfection—alone."
Elisabeth nestled up to Christopher. "But I'm not perfection, Chris; you know that as well as I do."
"Probably I shouldn't love you so much if you were; so please don't reform, dear."
"And you like me just as I am?"
"Precisely. I should break my heart if you became in any way different from what you are now."
"But you mustn't break your heart; it belongs to me, and I won't have you smashing up my property."
"I gave it to you, it is true; but the copyright is still mine. The copyright of letters that I wrote to you is mine; and I believe the law of copyright is the same with regard to hearts as to letters."
"Well, anyhow, I've written my name all over it."
"I know you have; and it was very untidy of you, my dearest. Once would have been enough to show that it belonged to you; but you weren't content with that: you scribbled all over every available space, until there was no room left even for advertisements; and now nobody else will ever be able to write another name upon it as long as I live."
"I'm glad of that; I wouldn't have anybody else's name upon it for anything. And I'm glad that you like me just as I am, and don't want me to be different."
"But still I was horrid to you once, Chris, however you may try to gloss it over. My dear, my dear, I don't know how I ever could have been unkind to you; but I was."
"Never mind, sweetheart; it is ancient history now, and who bothers about ancient history? Did you ever meet anybody who fretted over the overthrow of Carthage, or made a trouble of the siege of Troy?"
"No," Elisabeth truthfully replied; "and I'm really nice to you now, whatever I may have been before. Don't you think I am?"
"I should just think you are, Betty; a thousand times nicer than I deserve, and I am becoming most horribly conceited in consequence."
"And, after all, I agree with the prophet Ezekiel that if people are nice at the end, it doesn't much matter how disagreeable they have been in the meantime. He doesn't put it quite in that way, but the sentiment is the same. I suit you down to the ground now, don't I, Chris?"
"You do, my darling; and up to the sky, and beyond." And Christopher drew her still closer to him and kissed her.
After a minute's silence Elisabeth whispered—
"When one is as divinely happy as this, isn't it difficult to realize that the earth will ever be earthy again, and the butter turnipy, and things like that? Yet they will be."
"But never quite as earthy or quite as turnipy as they were before; that's just the difference."
After playing for a few minutes with Christopher's watch-chain, Elisabeth suddenly remarked—
"You never really appreciated my pictures, Chris. You never did me justice as an artist, though you did me far more than justice as a woman. Why was that?"
"Didn't I? I'm sorry. Nevertheless, I'm not sure that you are right. I was always intensely interested in your pictures because they were yours, quite apart from their own undoubted merits."
"That was just it; you admired my pictures because they were painted by me, while you really ought to have admired me because I had painted the pictures."
A look of amusement stole over Christopher's face. "Then I fell short of your requirements, dear heart; for, as far as you and your works were concerned, I certainly never committed the sin of worshipping the creature rather than the creator."
"But there was a time when I wanted you to do so."
"As a matter of fact," said Christopher thoughtfully, "I don't believe a man who loves a woman can ever appreciate her genius properly, because love is greater than genius, and so the greater swallows up the less. In the eyes of the world, her genius is the one thing which places a woman of genius above her fellows, and the world worships it accordingly. But in the eyes of the man who loves her, she is already placed so far above her fellows that her genius makes no difference to her altitude. Thirty feet makes all the difference in the height of a weather-cock, but none at all in the distance between the earth and a fixed star."
"What a nice thing to say! I adore you when you say things like that."
Christopher continued: "You see, the man is interested in the woman's works of art simply because they are hers; just as he is interested in the rustle of her silk petticoat simply because it is hers. Possibly he is more interested in the latter, because men can paint pictures sometimes, and they can never rustle silk petticoats properly. You are right in thinking that the world adores you for the sake of your creations, while I adore your creations for the sake of you; but you must also remember that the world would cease to worship you if your genius began to decline, while I should love you just the same if you took to painting sign-posts and illustrating Christmas cards—even if you became an impressionist."
"What a dear boy you are! You really are the greatest comfort to me. I didn't always feel like this, but now you satisfy me completely, and fill up every crevice of my soul. There isn't a little space anywhere in my mind or heart or spirit that isn't simply bursting with you." And Elisabeth laughed a low laugh of perfect contentment.
"My darling, how I love you!" And Christopher also was content.
Then there was another silence, which Christopher broke at last by saying—
"What is the matter, Betty?"
"There isn't anything the matter. How should there be?"
"Oh, yes, there is. Do you think I have studied your face for over thirty years, my dear, without knowing every shade of difference in its expression? Have I said anything to vex you?"
"No, no; how could I be vexed with you, Chris, when you are so good to me? I am horrid enough, goodness knows, but not horrid enough for that."
"Then what is it? Tell me, dear, and see if I can't help?"
Elisabeth sighed. "I was thinking that there is really no going back, however much we may pretend that there is. What we have done we have done, and what we have left undone we have left undone; and there is no blotting out the story of past years. We may write new stories, perhaps, and try to write better ones, but the old ones are written beyond altering, and must stand for ever. You have been divinely good to me, Chris, and you never remind me even by a look how I hurt you and misjudged you in the old days. But the fact remains that I did both; and nothing can ever alter that."
"Silly little child, it's all over and past now! I've forgotten it, and you must forget it too."
"I can't forget it; that's just the thing. I spoiled your life for the best ten years of it; and now, though I would give everything that I possess to restore those years to you, I can't restore them, or make them up to you for the loss of them. That's what hurts so dreadfully."
Christopher looked at her with a great pity shining in his eyes. He longed to save from all suffering the woman he loved; but he could not save her from the irrevocableness of her own actions, strive as he would; which was perhaps the best thing in the world for her, and for all of us. Human love would gladly shield us from the consequences of what we have done; but Divine Love knows better. What we have written, we have written on the page of life; and neither our own tears, nor the tears of those who love us better than we love ourselves, can blot it out. For the first time in her easy, self-confident career, Elisabeth Farringdon was brought face to face with this merciless truth; and she trembled before it. It was just because Christopher was so ready to forgive her, that she found it impossible to forgive herself.
"I always belonged to you, you see, dear," Christopher said very gently, "and you had the right to do what you liked with your own. I had given you the right of my own free will."
"But you couldn't give me the right to do what was wrong. Nobody can do that. I did what was wrong, and now I must be punished for it."
"Not if I can help it, sweetheart. You shall never be punished for anything if I can bear the punishment for you."
"You can't help it, Chris; that's just the point. And I am being punished in the way that hurts most. All my life I thought of myself, and my own success, and how I was going to do this and that and the other, and be happy and clever and good. But suddenly everything has changed. I no longer care about being happy myself; I only want you to be happy; and yet I know that for ten long years I deliberately prevented you from being happy. Don't you see, dear, how terrible the punishment is? The thing I care for most in the whole world is your happiness; and the fact remains, and will always remain, that that was the thing which I destroyed with my own hands, because I was cruel and selfish and cold."
"Still, I am happy enough now, Betty—happy enough to make up for all that went before."
"But I can never give you back those ten years," said Elisabeth, with a sob in her voice—"never as long as I live. Oh! Chris, I see now how horrid I was; though all the time I thought I was being so good, that I looked down upon the women who I considered had lower ideals than I had. I built myself an altar of stone, and offered up your life upon it, and then commended myself when the incense rose up to heaven; and I never found out that the sacrifice was all yours, and that there was nothing of mine upon the altar at all."
"Never mind, darling; there isn't going to be a yours and mine any more, you know. All things are ours, and we are beginning a new life together."
Elisabeth put both arms round his neck and kissed him of her own accord. "My dearest," she whispered, "how can I ever love you enough for being so good to me?"
But while Christopher and Elisabeth were walking across enchanted ground, Cecil Farquhar was having a hard time. Elisabeth had written to tell him the actual facts of the case almost as soon as she knew them herself; and he could not forgive her for first raising his hopes and then dashing them to the ground. And there is no denying that he had somewhat against her; for she had twice played him this trick—first as regarded herself, and then as regarded her fortune. That she had not been altogether to blame—that she had deluded herself in both cases as effectually as she had deluded him—was no consolation as far as he was concerned; his egoism took no account of her motives—it only resented the results. Quenelda did all in her power to comfort him, but she found it uphill work. She gave him love in full measure; but, as it happened, money and not love was the thing he most wanted, and that was not hers to bestow. He still cared for her more than he cared for anybody (though not for anything) else in the world; it was not that he loved Caesar less but Rome more, Cecil's being one of the natures to whom Rome would always appeal more powerfully than Caesar. His life did consist in the things which he had; and, when these failed, nothing else could make up to him for them. Neither Christopher nor Elisabeth was capable of understanding how much mere money meant to Farquhar; they had no conception of how bitter was his disappointment on knowing that he was not, after all, the lost heir to the Farringdon property. And who would blame them for this? Does one blame a man, who takes a dirty bone away from a dog, for not entering into the dog's feelings on the matter? Nevertheless, that bone is to the dog what fame is to the poet and glory to the soldier. One can but enjoy and suffer according to one's nature.
It happened, by an odd coincidence, that the mystery of Cecil's parentage was cleared up shortly after Elisabeth's false alarm on that score; and his paternal grandfather was discovered in the shape of a retired shopkeeper at Surbiton of the name of Biggs, who had been cursed with an unsatisfactory son. When in due time this worthy man was gathered to his fathers, he left a comfortable little fortune to his long-lost grandson; whereupon Cecil married Quenelda, and continued to make art his profession, while his recreation took the form of believing—and retailing his belief to anybody who had time and patience to listen to it—that the Farringdons of Sedgehill had, by foul means, ousted him from his rightful position, and that, but for their dishonesty, he would have been one of the richest men in Mershire. And this grievance—as is the way of grievances—never failed to be a source of unlimited pleasure and comfort to Cecil Farquhar.
But in the meantime, when the shock of disappointment was still fresh, he wrote sundry scathing letters to Miss Elisabeth Farringdon, which she in turn showed to Christopher, rousing the fury of the latter thereby.
"He is a cad—a low cad!" exclaimed Christopher, after the perusal of one of these epistles; "and I should like to tell him what I think of him, and then kick him."
Elisabeth laughed; she always enjoyed making Christopher angry. "He wanted to marry me," she remarked, by way of adding fuel to the flames.
"Confounded impudence on his part!" muttered Christopher.
"But he left off when he found out that I hadn't got any money."
"Worse impudence, confound him!"
"Oh! I wish you could have seen him when I told him that the money was not really mine," continued Elisabeth, bubbling over with mirth at the recollection; "he cooled down so very quickly, and so rapidly turned his thoughts in another direction. Don't you know what it is to bite a gooseberry at the front door while it pops out at the back? Well, Cecil Farquhar's love-making was just like that. It really was a fine sight!"
"Never mind about him, dear! I'm tired of him."
"But I do mind when people dare to be impertinent to you. I can't help minding," Christopher persisted.
"Then go on minding, if you want to, darling—only don't let us waste our time in talking about him. There's such a lot to talk about that is really important—why you said so-and-so, and how you felt when I said so-and-so, ten years ago; and how you feel about me to-day, and whether you like me as much this afternoon as you did this morning; and what colour my eyes are, and what colour you think my new frock should be; and heaps of really serious things like that."
"All right, Betty; where shall we begin?"
"We shall begin by making a plan. Do you know what you are going to do this afternoon?"
"Yes; whatever you tell me. I always do."
"Well, then, you are coming with me to have tea at Mrs. Bateson's, just as we used to do when we were little; and I have told her to invite Mrs. Hankey as well, to make it seem just the same as it used to be. By the way, is Mrs. Hankey as melancholy as ever, Chris?"
"Quite. Time doth not breathe on her fadeless gloom, I can assure you."
"Won't it be fun to pretend we are children again?" Elisabeth exclaimed.
"Great fun; and I don't think it will need much pretending, do you know?" replied Christopher, who saw deeper sometimes than Elisabeth did, and now realized that it was only when they two became as little children—he by ceasing to play Providence to her, and she by ceasing to play Providence to herself—that they had at last caught glimpses of the kingdom of heaven.
So they walked hand in hand to Caleb Bateson's cottage, as they had so often walked in far-off, childish days; and the cottage looked so exactly the same as it used to look, and Caleb and his wife and Mrs. Hankey were so little altered by the passage of time, that it seemed as if the shadow had indeed been put back ten degrees. And so, in a way, it was, by the new spring-time which had come to Christopher and Elisabeth. They were both among those beloved of the gods who are destined to die young—not in years but in spirit; her lover as well as herself was what Elisabeth called "a fourth-dimension person," and there is no growing old for fourth-dimension people; because it has already been given to them to behold the vision of the cloud-clad angel, who stands upon the sea and upon the earth and swears that there shall be time no longer. They see him in the far distances of the sunlit hills, in the mysteries of the unfathomed ocean, and their ears are opened to the message that he brings; for they know that in all beauty—be it of earth, or sea, or sky, or human souls—there is something indestructible, immortal, and that those who have once looked upon it shall never see death. Such of us as make our dwelling-place in the world of the three dimensions, grow weary of the sameness and the staleness of it all, and drearily echo the Preacher's Vanitas vanitatum; but such of us as have entered into the fourth dimension, and have caught glimpses of the ideal which is concealed in all reality, do not trouble ourselves over the flight of time, for we know we have eternity before us; and so we are content to wait patiently and joyfully, in sure and certain hope of that better thing which, without us, can not be made perfect.
It was with pride and pleasure that Mr. and Mrs. Bateson received their guests. The double announcement that Christopher was the lost heir of the Farringdons (for Elisabeth had insisted on his making this known), and that he was about to marry Elisabeth, had given great delight all through Sedgehill. The Osierfield people were proud of Elisabeth, but they had learned to love Christopher; they had heard of her glory from afar, but they had been eye-witnesses of the uprightness and unselfishness and nobility of his life; and, on the whole, he was more popular than she. Elisabeth was quite conscious of this; and—what was more—she was glad of it. She, who had so loved popularity and admiration, now wanted people to think more of Christopher than of her. Once she had gloried in the thought that George Farringdon's son would never fill her place in the hearts of the people of the Osierfield; now her greatest happiness lay in the fact that he filled it more completely than she could ever have done, and that at Sedgehill she would always be second to him.