Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xiii.

L’homme Incompris.

Elsley went on, between improved health and the fear of Tom Thurnall, a good deal better for the next month. He began to look forward to Valencia’s visit with equanimity, and, at last, with interest; and was rather pleased than otherwise when, in the last week of July, a fly drove up to the gate of old Penalva Court, and he handed out therefrom Valencia, and Valencia’s maid.

Lucia had discovered that the wind was east, and that she was afraid to go to the gate for fear of catching cold; her real purpose being, that Valencia should meet Elsley first.

“She is so impulsive,” thought the good little creature, always plotting about her husband, “that she will rush upon me, and never see him for the first five minutes; and Elsley is so sensitive — how can he be otherwise, in his position, poor dear?” So she refrained herself, like Joseph, and stood at the door till Valencia was half-way down the garden-walk, having taken Elsley’s somewhat shyly-offered arm; and then she could refrain herself no longer, and the two women ran upon each other, and kissed, and sobbed, and talked, till Lucia was out of breath; but Valencia was not so easily silenced.

“My darling! and you are looking so much better than I expected; but not quite yourself yet. That naughty baby is killing you, I am sure! And Mr. Vavasour too, I shall begin to call him Elsley to-morrow, if I like him as much as I do now — but he is looking quite thin — wearing himself out with writing so many beautiful books — that Wreck was perfect! And where are the children? — I must rush upstairs and devour them! — and what a delicious old garden! and clipt yews, too, so dark and romantic, and such dear old-fashioned flowers! — Mr. Vavasour must show me all over it, and over that hanging wood, too. What a duck of a place! — And oh, my dear, I am quite out of breath!”

And so she swept in, with her arm round Lucia’s waist; while Elsley stood looking after her, well enough satisfied with her reception of him, and only hoping that the stream of words would slaken after a while.

“What a magnificent creature!” said he to himself. “Who could believe that the three years would make such a change!”

And he was right. The tall lithe girl had bloomed into full glory’ and Valencia St. Just, though not delicately beautiful, was as splendid an Irish damsel as man need look upon, with a grand masque, aquiline features, luxuriant black hair, and — though it was the fag-end of the London season — the unrivalled Irish complexion, as of the fair dame of Kilkenny, whose

“Lips were like roses, her cheeks were the same,

Like a dish of fresh strawberries smother’d in crame.”

Her figure was perhaps too tall, and somewhat too stout also; but its size was relieved by the delicacy of those hands and feet of which Miss Valencia was most pardonably proud, and by that indescribable lissomeness and lazy grace which Irishwomen inherit, perhaps, with their tinge of southern blood; and when, in half an hour, she reappeared, with broad straw-hat, and gown tucked up à la bergère over the striped Welsh petticoat, perhaps to show off the ankles, which only looked the finer for a pair of heavy laced boots, Elsley honestly felt it a pleasure to look at her, and a still greater pleasure to talk to her, and to be talked to by her; while she, bent on making herself agreeable, partly from real good taste, partly from natural good-nature, and partly, too, because she saw in his eyes that he admired her, chatted sentiment about all heaven and earth.

For to Miss Valencia — it is sad to have to say it — admiration had been now, for three years, her daily bread. She had lived in the thickest whirl of the world, and, as most do for a while, found it a very pleasant place.

She had flirted — with how many must not be told; and perhaps with more than one with whom she had no business to flirt. Little Scoutbush had remonstrated with her on some such affair, but she had silenced him with an Irish jest — “You’re a fisherman, Freddy; and when you can’t catch salmon, you catch trout; and when you can’t catch trout, you’ll whip on the shallow for poor little gubbahawns, and say that it is all to keep your hand in — and so do I.”

The old ladies said that this was the reason why she had not married; the men, however, asserted that no one dare marry her; and one club-oracle had given it as his opinion that no man in his rational senses was to be allowed to have anything to do with her, till she had been well jilted two or three times, to take the spirit out of her: but that catastrophe had not yet occurred, and Miss Valencia still reigned “triumphant and alone,” though her aunt, old Lady Knockdown, moved all the earth, and some dirty places, too, below the earth, to get the wild Irish girl off her hands; “for,” quoth she, “I feel with Valencia, indeed, just like one of those men who carry about little dogs in the Quadrant. I always pity the poor men so, and think how happy they must be when they have sold one. It is one chance less, you know, of having it bite them horribly, and then run away after all.”

There was, however, no more real harm in Valencia, than there is in every child of Adam. Town frivolity had not corrupted her. She was giddy, given up to enjoyment of the present: but there was not a touch, of meanness about her: and if she was selfish, as every one must needs be whose thoughts are of pleasure, admiration, and success, she was so unintentionally; and she would have been shocked and pained at being told that she was anything but the most kind-hearted and generous creature on earth. Major Campbell, who was her Mentor as well as her brother’s, had certainly told her so more than once; at which she had pouted a good deal, and cried a little, and promised to amend; then packed up a heap of cast-off things to send to Lucia — half of it much too fine to be of any use to the quiet little woman; and lastly, gone out and bought fresh finery for herself, and forgot all her good resolutions. Whereby it befell that she was tolerably deep in debt at the end of every season, and had to torment and kiss Scoutbush into paying her bills, which he did, like a good brother, and often before he had paid his own.

But, howsoever full Valencia’s head may have been of fine garments and London flirtations, she had too much tact and good feeling to talk that evening of a world of which even Elsley knew more than her sister. For poor Lucia had been but eighteen at the time of her escapade, and had not been presented twelve months; so that she was as “inexperienced” as any one can be, who has only a husband, three children, and a household to manage on less than three hundred a year. Therefore Valencia talked only of things which would interest Elsley; asked him to read his last new poem — which, I need not say, he did; told him how she devoured everything he wrote; planned walks with him in the country; seemed to consult his pleasure in every way.

“To-morrow morning I shall sit with you and the children, Lucia; of course I must not interrupt Mr. Vavasour: but really in the afternoon I must ask him to spare a couple of hours from the Muses.”

Vavasour was delighted to do anything —“Where would she walk?”

“Where? of course to see the beautiful schoolmistress who saved the man from drowning; and then to see the chasm across which he was swept. I shall understand your poem so much better, you know, if I can but realise the people and the place. And you must take me to see Captain Willis, too, and even the Lieutenant — if he does not smell too much of brandy. I will be so gracious and civil, quite the lady of the castle.”

“You will make quite a royal progress,” said Lucia, looking at her with sisterly admiration.

“Yes, I intend to usurp as many of Scoutbush’s honours as I can till he comes. I must lay down the sceptre in a fortnight, you know, so I shall make as much use of it as I can meanwhile.”

And so on, and so on; meaning all the while to put Elsley quite at his ease, and let him understand that bygones were bygones, and that with her any reconciliation at all was meant to be a complete one; which was wise and right enough. But Valencia had not counted on the excitable and vain nature with which she was dealing; and Lucia, who had her own fears from the first evening, was the last person in the world to tell her of it; first from pride in herself, and then from pride in her husband. For even if a woman has made a foolish match, it is hard to expect her to confess as much: and, after all, a husband is a husband, and let his faults be what they might, he was still her Elsley; her idol once; and perhaps (so she hoped) her idol again hereafter, and if not, still he was her husband, and that was enough.

“By which you mean, sir, that she considers herself bound to endure everything and anything from him, simply because she had been married to him in church?”

Yes, and a great deal more. Not merely being married in church; but what being married in church means, and what every woman who is a woman understands; and lives up to without flinching, though she die a martyr for it, or a confessor; a far higher saint, if the truth was known, as it will be some day, than all the holy virgins who ever fasted and prayed in a convent since the days when Macarius first turned fakeer. For to a true woman, the mere fact of a man’s being her husband, put it on the lowest ground that you choose, is utterly sacred, divine, all-powerful; in the might of which she can conquer self in a way which is an everyday miracle; and the man who does not feel about the mere fact of a woman’s having given herself utterly to him, just what she herself feels about it, ought to be despised by all his fellows; — were it not that, in that case, it would be necessary to despise more human beings than is safe for the soul of any man.

That fortnight was the sunniest which Elsley had passed, since he made secret love to Lucia in Eaton Square. Romantic walks, the company of a beautiful woman as ready to listen as she was to talk, free licence to pour out all his fancies, sure of admiration, if not of flattery, and pardonably satisfied vanity — all these are comfortable things for most men, who have nothing better to comfort them. But, on the whole, this feast did not make Elsley a better or a wiser man at home. Why should it? Is a boy’s digestion improved by turning him loose into a confectioner’s shop? And thus the contrast between what he chose to call Valencia’s sympathy, and Lucia’s want of sympathy, made him, unfortunately, all the more cross to her when they were alone; and who could blame the poor little woman for saying one night, angrily enough:

“Ah, yes! Valencia — Valencia is imaginative — Valencia understands you — Valencia sympathises — Valencia thinks . . . Valencia has no children to wash and dress, no accounts to keep, no linen to mend — Valencia’s back does not ache all day long, so that she would be glad enough to lie on the sofa from morning till night, if she was not forced to work whether she can work or not. No, no; don’t kiss me, for kisses will not make up for injustice, Elsley. I only trust that you will not tempt me to hate my own sister. No: don’t talk to me now, let me sleep if I can sleep; and go and walk and talk sentiment with Valencia to-morrow, and leave the poor little brood hen to sit on her nest, and be despised.” And refusing all Elsley’s entreaties for pardon, she sulked herself to sleep.

Who can blame her? If there is one thing more provoking than another to a woman, it is to see her husband Strass-engel, Haus-teufel, an angel of courtesy to every woman but herself; to see him in society all smiles and good stories, the most amiable and self-restraining of men; perhaps to be complimented on his agreeableness: and to know all the while that he is penning up all the accumulated ill-temper of the day, to let it out on her when they get home; perhaps in the very carriage as soon as it leaves the door. Hypocrites that you are, some of you gentlemen! Why cannot the act against cruelty to women, corporal punishment included, be brought to bear on such as you? And yet, after all, you are not most to blame in the matter: Eve herself tempts you, as at the beginning; for who does not know that the man is a thousand times vainer than the woman? He does but follow the analogy of all nature. Look at the Red Indian, in that blissful state of nature from which (so philosophers inform those who choose to believe them) we all sprang. Which is the boaster, the strutter, the bedizener of his sinful carcase with feathers and beads, fox-tails and bears’ claws — the brave, or his poor little squaw? An Australian settler’s wife bestows on some poor slaving gin a cast-off French bonnet; before she has gone a hundred yards, her husband snatches it off, puts it on his own mop, quiets her for its loss with a tap of the waddie, and struts on in glory. Why not? Has he not the analogy of all nature on his side? Have not the male birds and the male moths, the fine feathers, while the females go soberly about in drab and brown? Does the lioness, or the lion, rejoice in the grandeur of a mane; the hind, or the stag, in antlered pride? How know we but that, in some more perfect and natural state of society, the women will dress like so many quakeresses; while the frippery shops will become the haunts of men alone, and “browches, pearls and owches be consecrate to the nobler sex?” There are signs already, in the dress of our young gentlemen, of such a return to the law of nature from the present absurd state of things, in which the human peahens carry about the gaudy trains which are the peacocks’ right.

For there is a secret feeling in woman’s heart that she is in her wrong place; that it is she who ought to worship the man, and not the man her; and when she becomes properly conscious of her destiny, has not he a right to be conscious of his? If the grey hens will stand round in the mire clucking humble admiration, who can blame the old blackcock for dancing and drumming on the top of a moss hag, with outspread wings and flirting tail, glorious and self-glorifying. He is a splendid fellow; and he was made splendid for some purpose surely? Why did Nature give him his steel-blue coat, and his crimson crest, but for the very same purpose that she gave Mr. A—— his intellect — to be admired by the other sex? And if young damsels, overflowing with sentiment and Ruskinism, will crowd round him, ask his opinion of this book and that picture, treasure his bon-mots, beg for his autograph, looking all the while the praise which they do not speak (though they speak a good deal of it), and when they go home write letters to him on matters about which in old times girls used to ask only their mothers; — who can blame him if he finds the little wife at home a very uninteresting body, whose head is so full of petty cares and gossip, that he and all his talents are quite unappreciated? Les femmes incomprises of France used to (perhaps do now) form a class of married ladies, whose sorrows were especially dear to the novelists, male or female; but what are their woes compared to those of l’homme incompris? What higher vocation for a young maiden than to comfort the martyr during his agonies? And, most of all, where the sufferer is not merely a genius, but a saint; persecuted, perhaps, abroad by vulgar tradesmen and Philistine bishops, and snubbed at home by a stupid wife, who is quite unable to appreciate his magnificent projects for regenerating all heaven and earth; and only, humdrum, practical creature that she is, tries to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with her God? Fly to his help, all pious maidens, and pour into the wounded heart of the holy man the healing balm of self-conceit; cover his table with confidential letters, choose him as your father-confessor, and lock yourself up alone with him for an hour or two every week, while the wife is mending his shirts upstairs. — True, you may break the stupid wife’s heart by year-long misery, as she slaves on, bearing the burden and heat of the day, of which you never dream; keeping the wretched man, by her unassuming good example, from making a fool of himself three times a week; and sowing the seed of which you steal the fruit. What matter? If your immortal soul requires it, what matter what it costs her carnal heart? She will suffer in silence; at least, she will not tell you. You think she does not understand you. Well; — and she thinks in return that you do not understand her, and her married joys and sorrows, and her five children, and her butcher’s bills, and her long agony of fear for the husband of whom she is ten times more proud than you could be; for whom she has slaved for years; whose defects she has tried to cure, while she cured her own; for whom she would die to-morrow, did he fall into disgrace, when you had flounced off to find some new idol: and so she will not tell you: and what the ear heareth not, that the heart grieveth not. — Go on and prosper! You may, too, ruin the man’s spiritual state by vanity: you may pamper his discontent with the place where God has put him, till he ends by flying off to “some purer Communion,” and taking you with him. Never mind. He is a most delightful person, and his intercourse is so improving. Why were sweet things made, but to be eaten? Go on and prosper.

Ah, young ladies, if some people had (as it is perhaps well for them that they have not) the ordering of this same British nation, they would certainly follow your example, and try to restore various ancient institutions. And first among them would be that very ancient institution of the cucking-stool; to be employed however, not as of old, against married scolds (for whom those who have been behind the scenes have all respect and sympathy), but against unmarried prophetesses, who, under whatsoever high pretence of art or religion, flirt with their neighbours’ husbands, be they parson or poet.

Not, be it understood, that Valencia had the least suspicion that Elsley considered himself “incompris.” If he had hinted the notion to her, she would have resented it as an insult to the St. Justs in general, and to her sister in particular; and would have said something to him in her off-hand way, the like whereof he had seldom heard, even from adverse reviewers.

Elsley himself soon divined enough of her character to see that he must keep his sorrows to himself, if he wished for Valencia’s good opinion; and soon — so easily does a vain man lend himself to meanness — he found himself trying to please Valencia, by praising to her the very woman with whom he was discontented. He felt shocked and ashamed when first his own baseness flashed across him: but the bait was too pleasant to be left easily: and, after all, he was trying to say to his guest what he knew his guest would like; and what was that but following those very rules of good society, for breaking which Lucia was always calling him gauche and morose? So he actually quieted his own conscience by the fancy that he was bound to be civil, and to keep up appearances, “even for Lucia’s sake,” said the self-deceiver to himself. And thus the mischief was done; and the breach between Lucia and her husband, which had been somewhat bridged over during the last month or two, opened more wide than ever, without a suspicion on Valencia’s part that she was doing all she could to break her sister’s heart.

She, meanwhile, had plenty of reasons which justified her new intimacy to herself. How could she better please Lucia? How better show that bygones were to be bygones, and that Elsley was henceforth to be considered as one of the family, than by being as intimate as possible with him? What matter how intimate? For, after all, he was only a brother, and she his sister.

She had law on her side in that last argument, as well as love of amusement. Whether she had either common sense or Scripture, is a very different question.

Poor Lucia, too, tried to make the best of the matter; and to take the new intimacy as Valencia would have had her take it, in the light of a compliment to herself; and so, in her pride, she said to Valencia, and told her that she should love her for ever for her kindness to Elsley, while her heart was ready to burst.

But ere the fortnight was over the Nemesis had come, and Lucia, woman as she was, could not repress a thrill of malicious joy, even though Elsley became more intolerable than ever at the change.

What was the Nemesis, then?

Simply that this naughty Miss St. Just began to smile upon Frank Headley the curate, even as she had smiled upon Elsley Vavasour.

It was very naughty; but she had her excuses. She had found Elsley out; and it was well for both of them that she had done so. Already, upon the strength of their supposed relationship, she had allowed him to talk a great deal more nonsense to her — harmless perhaps, but nonsense still — than she would have listened to from any other man; and it was well for both of them that Elsley was a man without self-control who began to show the weak side of his character freely enough, as soon as he became at ease with his companion, and excited by conversation. Valencia quickly saw that he was vain as a peacock, and weak enough to be led by her in any and every direction, when she chose to work on his vanity. And she despised him accordingly, and suspected, too, that her sister could not be very happy with such a man.

None are more quick than sisters-in-law to see faults in the brother-in-law, when once they have begun to look for them; and Valencia soon remarked that Elsley showed Lucia no petits soins, while he was ready enough to show them to her; that he took no real trouble about his children, or about anything else; and twenty more faults, which she might have perceived in the first two days of her visit, if she had not been in such a hurry to amuse herself. But she was too delicate to ask Lucia the truth, and contented herself with watching all parties closely, and in amusing herself meanwhile — for amusement she must have — in

  “Breaking a country heart

For pastime, ere she went to town.”

She had met Frank several times about the parish and in the schools, and had been struck at once with his grace and high breeding, and with that air of melancholy which is always interesting in a true woman’s eyes. She had seen, too, that Elsley tried to avoid him, naturally enough not wishing an intrusion on their pleasant têtes-à-tête. Whereon, half to spite Elsley, and half to show her own right to chat with whom she chose, she made Lucia ask Frank to tea; and next contrived to go to the school when he was teaching there, and to make Elsley ask him to walk with them; and all the more, because she had discovered that Elsley had discontinued his walks with Frank, as soon as she had appeared at Penalva.

Lucia was not sorry to countenance her in her naughtiness; it was a comfort to her to have a fourth person in the room at times, and thus to compel Elsley and Valencia to think of something beside each other; and when she saw her sister gradually transferring her favours from the married to the unmarried victim, she would have been more than woman if she had not rejoiced thereat. Only, she began soon to be afraid for Frank, and at last told Valencia so.

“Do take care that you do not break his heart!”

“My dear! You forget that I sit under Mr. O’Blareaway, and am to him as a heathen and a publican. Fresh from St. Nepomuc’s as he is, he would as soon think of falling in love with an ‘Oirish Prodestant,’ as with a malignant and a turbaned Turk. Besides, my dear, if the mischief is going to be done, it’s done already.”

“I dare say it is, you naughty beautiful thing. If anybody is goose enough to fall in love with you, he’ll be also goose enough, I don’t doubt, to do so at first sight. There, don’t look perpetually in that glass: but take care!”

“What use? If it is going to happen at all, I say, it has happened already; so I shall just please myself, as usual.”

And it had happened: and poor Frank had been, ever since the first day he saw Valencia, over head and ears in love. His time had come, and there was no escaping his fate.

But to escape he tried. Convinced, with many good men of all ages and creeds, that a celibate life was the fittest one for a clergyman, he had fled from St. Nepomuc’s into the wilderness to avoid temptation, and beheld at his cell-door a fairer fiend than ever came to St. Dunstan. A fairer fiend, no doubt; for St. Dunstan’s imagination created his temptress for him, but Valencia was a reality: and fact and nature may be safely backed to produce something more charming than any monk’s brain can do. One questions whether St. Dunstan’s apparition was not something as coarse as his own mind, clever though that mind was. At least, he would never have had the heart to apply the hot tongs to such a nose as Valencia’s, but at most have bowed her out pityingly, as Frank tried to bow out Valencia from the sacred place of his heart, but failed.

Hard he tried, and humbly too. He had no proud contempt for married parsons. He was ready enough to confess, that he, too, might be weak in that respect, as in a hundred others. He conceived that he had no reason, from his own inner life, to believe himself worthy of any higher vocation — proving his own real nobleness of soul by that very humility. He had rather not marry. He might do so some day: but he would sacrifice much to avoid the necessity. If he was weak, he would use what strength he had to the uttermost ere he yielded. And all the more, because he felt, and reasonably enough, that Valencia was the last woman in the world to make a parson’s wife. He had his ideal of what such a wife should be, if she were to be allowed to exist at all — the same ideal which Mr. Paget has drawn in his charming little book (would that all parsons’ wives would read and perpend), the “Owlet of Owlstone Edge.” But Valencia would surely not make a Beatrice. Beautiful she was, glorious, lovable, but not the helpmeet whom he needed. And he fought against the new dream like a brave man. He fasted, he wept, he prayed: but his prayers seemed not to be heard. Valencia seemed to have enthroned herself, a true Venus victrix, in the centre of his heart, and would not be dispossessed. He tried to avoid seeing her: but even for that he had not strength: more miserable each time, as fierce against himself and his own weakness as if he had given way to wine or to oaths. In vain, too, he represented to himself the ridiculous hopelessness of his passion; the impossibility of the London beauty ever stooping to marry the poor country curate. Fancies would come in, how such things, strange as they might seem, had happened already; might happen again. It was a class of marriages for which he had always felt a strong dislike, even suspicion and contempt; and though he was far more fitted, in family as well as personal excellence, for such a match, than three out of four who make them, yet he shrank with disgust from the notion of being himself classed at last among the match-making parsons. Whether there was “carnal pride” or not in that last thought, his soul so loathed it, that he would gladly have thrown up his cure at Aberalva; and would have done so actually, but for one word which Tom Thurnall had spoken to him, and that was — Cholera.

That the cholera might come; that it probably would come, in the course of the next two months, was news to him which was enough to keep him at his post, let what would be the consequence. And gradually he began to see a way out of his difficulty — and a very simple one; and that was to die.

“That is the solution after all,” said he. “I am not strong enough for God’s work: but I will not shrink from it, if I can help. If I cannot master it, let it kill me; so at least I may have peace. I have failed utterly here: all my grand plans have crumbled to ashes between my fingers. I find myself a cumberer of the ground, where I fancied that I was going forth like a very Michael — fool that I was! — leader of the armies of heaven. And now, in the one remaining point on which I thought myself strong, I find myself weakest of all. Useless and helpless! I have one chance left, one chance to show these poor souls that I really love them, really wish their good — Selfish that I am! What matter whether I do show it or not? What need to justify myself to them? Self, self, creeping in everywhere! I shall begin next, I suppose, longing for the cholera to come, that I may show off myself in it, and make spiritual capital out of their dying agonies! Ah me! that it were all over! — That this cholera, if it is to come, would wipe out of this head what I verily believe nothing but death will do!” And therewith Frank laid his head on the table, and cried till he could cry no more.

It was not over manly: but he was weakened with overwork and sorrow: and, on the whole, it was perhaps the best thing he could do; for he fell asleep there, with his head on the table, and did not wake till the dawn blazed through his open window.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:48