Argemone need never have known of Lancelot’s share in the poaching affray; but he dared not conceal anything from her. And so he boldly went up the next day to the Priory, not to beg pardon, but to justify himself, and succeeded. And, before long, he found himself fairly installed as her pupil, nominally in spiritual matters, but really in subjects of which she little dreamed.
Every day he came to read and talk with her, and whatever objections Mrs. Lavington expressed were silenced by Argemone. She would have it so, and her mother neither dared nor knew how to control her. The daughter had utterly out-read and out-thought her less educated parent, who was clinging in honest bigotry to the old forms, while Argemone was wandering forth over the chaos of the strange new age,- -a poor homeless Noah’s dove, seeking rest for the sole of her foot and finding none. And now all motherly influence and sympathy had vanished, and Mrs. Lavington, in fear and wonder, let her daughter go her own way. She could not have done better, perhaps; for Providence had found for Argemone a better guide than her mother could have done, and her new pupil was rapidly becoming her teacher. She was matched, for the first time, with a man who was her own equal in intellect and knowledge; and she felt how real was that sexual difference which she had been accustomed to consider as an insolent calumny against woman. Proudly and indignantly she struggled against the conviction, but in vain. Again and again she argued with him, and was vanquished — or, at least, what is far better, made to see how many different sides there are to every question. All appeals to authority he answered with a contemptuous smile. ‘The best authorities?’ he used to say. ‘On what question do not the best authorities flatly contradict each other? And why? Because every man believes just what it suits him to believe. Don’t fancy that men reason themselves into convictions; the prejudices and feelings of their hearts give them some idea or theory, and then they find facts at their leisure to prove their theory true. Every man sees facts through narrow spectacles, red, or green, or blue, as his nation or his temperament colours them: and he is quite right, only he must allow us the liberty of having our spectacles too. Authority is only good for proving facts. We must draw our own conclusions.’ And Argemone began to suspect that he was right — at least to see that her opinions were mere hearsays, picked up at her own will and fancy; while his were living, daily-growing ideas. Her mind was beside his as the vase of cut flowers by the side of the rugged tree, whose roots are feeding deep in the mother earth. In him she first learnt how one great truth received into the depths of the soul germinates there, and bears fruit a thousandfold; explaining, and connecting, and glorifying innumerable things, apparently the most unlike and insignificant; and daily she became a more reverent listener, and gave herself up, half against her will and conscience, to the guidance of a man whom she knew to be her inferior in morals and in orthodoxy. She had worshipped intellect, and now it had become her tyrant; and she was ready to give up every belief which she once had prized, to flutter like a moth round its fascinating brilliance.
Who can blame her, poor girl? For Lancelot’s humility was even more irresistible than his eloquence. He assumed no superiority. He demanded her assent to truths, not because they were his opinions, but simply for the truth’s sake; and on all points which touched the heart he looked up to her as infallible and inspired. In questions of morality, of taste, of feeling, he listened not as a lover to his mistress, but rather as a baby to its mother; and thus, half unconsciously to himself, he taught her where her true kingdom lay,- -that the heart, and not the brain, enshrines the priceless pearl of womanhood, the oracular jewel, the ‘Urim and Thummim,’ before which gross man can only inquire and adore.
And, in the meantime, a change was passing upon Lancelot. His morbid vanity — that brawl-begotten child of struggling self-conceit and self-disgust — was vanishing away; and as Mr. Tennyson says in one of those priceless idyls of his, before which the shade of Theocritus must hide his diminished head —
‘He was altered, and began
To move about the house with joy,
And with the certain step of man.’
He had, at last, found one person who could appreciate him. And in deliberate confidence he set to work to conquer her, and make her his own. It was a traitorous return, but a very natural one. And she, sweet creature! walked straight into the pleasant snare, utterly blind, because she fancied that she saw clearly. In the pride of her mysticism, she had fancied herself above so commonplace a passion as love. It was a curious feature of lower humanity, which she might investigate and analyse harmlessly as a cold scientific spectator; and, in her mingled pride and purity, she used to indulge Lancelot in metaphysical disquisitions about love and beauty, like that first one in their walk home from Minchampstead, from which a less celestially innocent soul would have shrunk. She thought, forsooth, as the old proverb says, that she could deal in honey, without putting her hand to her mouth. But Lancelot knew better, and marked her for his own. And daily his self-confidence and sense of rightful power developed, and with them, paradoxical as it may seem, the bitterest self-abasement. The contact of her stainless innocence, the growing certainty that the destiny of that innocence was irrevocably bound up with his own, made him shrink from her whenever he remembered his own guilty career. To remember that there were passages in it which she must never know — that she would cast him from her with abhorrence if she once really understood their vileness? To think that, amid all the closest bonds of love, there must for ever be an awful, silent gulf in the past, of which they must never speak! — That she would bring to him what he could never, never bring to her! — The thought was unbearable. And as hideous recollections used to rise before him, devilish caricatures of his former self, mopping and mowing at him in his dreams, he would start from his lonely bed, and pace the room for hours, or saddle his horse, and ride all night long aimlessly through the awful woods, vainly trying to escape himself. How gladly, at those moments, he would have welcomed centuries of a material hell, to escape from the more awful spiritual hell within him — to buy back that pearl of innocence which he had cast recklessly to be trampled under the feet of his own swinish passions! But, no; that which was done could never be undone — never, to all eternity. And more than once, as he wandered restlessly from one room to another, the barrels of his pistols seemed to glitter with a cold, devilish smile, and call to him —
‘Come to us! and with one touch of your finger, send that bursting spirit which throbs against your brow to flit forth free, and nevermore to defile her purity by your presence!’
But no, again: a voice within seemed to command him to go on, and claim her, and win her, spite of his own vileness. And in after years, slowly, and in fear and trembling, he knew it for the voice of God, who had been leading him to become worthy of her through that bitter shame of his own unworthiness.
As One higher than them would have it, she took a fancy to read Homer in the original, and Lancelot could do no less than offer his services as translator. She would prepare for him portions of the Odyssey, and every day that he came up to the Priory he used to comment on it to her; and so for many a week, in the dark wainscoted library, and in the clipt yew-alleys of the old gardens, and under the brown autumn trees, they quarried together in that unexhausted mine, among the records of the rich Titan-youth of man. And step by step Lancelot opened to her the everlasting significance of the poem; the unconscious purity which lingers in it, like the last rays of the Paradise dawn; its sense of the dignity of man as man; the religious reverence with which it speaks of all human ties, human strength and beauty — ay, even of merely animal human appetites, as God-given and Godlike symbols. She could not but listen and admire, when he introduced her to the sheer paganism of Schiller’s Gods of Greece; for on this subject he was more eloquent than on any. He had gradually, in fact, as we have seen, dropped all faith in anything but Nature; the slightest fact about a bone or a weed was more important to him than all the books of divinity which Argemone lent him — to be laid by unread.
‘What DO you believe in?’ she asked him one day, sadly.
‘In this!’ he said, stamping his foot on the ground. ‘In the earth I stand on, and the things I see walking and growing on it. There may be something beside it — what you call a spiritual world. But if He who made me intended me to think of spirit first, He would have let me see it first. But as He has given me material senses, and put me in a material world, I take it as a fair hint that I am meant to use those senses first, whatever may come after. I may be intended to understand the unseen world, but if so, it must be, as I suspect, by understanding the visible one: and there are enough wonders there to occupy me for some time to come.’
‘But the Bible?’ (Argemone had given up long ago wasting words about the ‘Church.’)
‘My only Bible as yet is Bacon. I know that he is right, whoever is wrong. If that Hebrew Bible is to be believed by me, it must agree with what I know already from science.’
What was to be done with so intractable a heretic? Call him an infidel and a Materialist, of course, and cast him off with horror. But Argemone was beginning to find out that, when people are really in earnest, it may be better sometimes to leave God’s methods of educating them alone, instead of calling the poor honest seekers hard names, which the speakers themselves don’t understand.
But words would fail sometimes, and in default of them Lancelot had recourse to drawings, and manifested in them a talent for thinking in visible forms which put the climax to all Argemone’s wonder. A single profile, even a mere mathematical figure, would, in his hands, become the illustration of a spiritual truth. And, in time, every fresh lesson on the Odyssey was accompanied by its illustration — some bold and simple outline drawing. In Argemone’s eyes, the sketches were immaculate and inspired; for their chief, almost their only fault, was just those mere anatomical slips which a woman would hardly perceive, provided the forms were generally graceful and bold.
One day his fancy attempted a bolder flight. He brought a large pen-and-ink drawing, and laying it silently on the table before her, fixed his eyes intensely on her face. The sketch was labelled, the ‘Triumph of Woman.’ In the foreground, to the right and left, were scattered groups of men, in the dresses and insignia of every period and occupation. The distance showed, in a few bold outlines, a dreary desert, broken by alpine ridges, and furrowed here and there by a wandering watercourse. Long shadows pointed to the half-risen sun, whose disc was climbing above the waste horizon. And in front of the sun, down the path of the morning beams, came Woman, clothed only in the armour of her own loveliness. Her bearing was stately, and yet modest; in her face pensive tenderness seemed wedded with earnest joy. In her right hand lay a cross, the emblem of self-sacrifice. Her path across the desert was marked by the flowers which sprang up beneath her steps; the wild gazelle stept forward trustingly to lick her hand; a single wandering butterfly fluttered round her head. As the group, one by one, caught sight of her, a human tenderness and intelligence seemed to light up every face. The scholar dropt his book, the miser his gold, the savage his weapons; even in the visage of the half-slumbering sot some nobler recollection seemed wistfully to struggle into life. The artist caught up his pencil, the poet his lyre, with eyes that beamed forth sudden inspiration. The sage, whose broad brow rose above the group like some torrent furrowed Alp, scathed with all the temptations and all the sorrows of his race, watched with a thoughtful smile that preacher more mighty than himself. A youth, decked out in the most fantastic fopperies of the middle age, stood with clasped hands and brimming eyes, as remorse and pleasure struggled in his face; and as he looked, the fierce sensual features seemed to melt, and his flesh came again to him like the flesh of a little child. The slave forgot his fetters; little children clapped their hands; and the toil-worn, stunted, savage woman sprung forward to kneel at her feet, and see herself transfigured in that new and divine ideal of her sex.
Descriptions of drawings are clumsy things at best; the reader must fill up the sketch for himself by the eye of faith.
Entranced in wonder and pleasure, Argemone let her eyes wander over the drawing. And her feelings for Lancelot amounted almost to worship, as she apprehended the harmonious unity of the manifold conception — the rugged boldness of the groups in front, the soft grandeur of the figure which was the lodestar of all their emotions — the virginal purity of the whole. And when she fancied that she traced in those bland aquiline lineaments, and in the crisp ringlets which floated like a cloud down to the knees of the figure, some traces of her own likeness, a dream of a new destiny flitted before her — she blushed to her very neck; and as she bent her face over the drawing and gazed, her whole soul seemed to rise into her eyes, and a single tear dropped upon the paper. She laid her hand over it, and then turned hastily away.
‘You do not like it! I have been too bold,’— said Lancelot, fearfully.
‘Oh, no! no! It is so beautiful — so full of deep wisdom! But — but — You may leave it.’
Lancelot slipped silently out of the room, he hardly knew why; and when he was gone, Argemone caught up the drawing, pressed it to her bosom, covered it with kisses, and hid it, as too precious for any eyes but her own, in the farthest corner of her secretaire.
And yet she fancied that she was not in love!
The vicar saw the growth of this intimacy with a fast-lengthening face; for it was very evident that Argemone could not serve two masters so utterly contradictory as himself and Lancelot, and that either the lover or the father-confessor must speedily resign office. The vicar had had great disadvantages, by the bye, in fulfilling the latter function; for his visits at the Priory had been all but forbidden; and Argemone’s ‘spiritual state’ had been directed by means of a secret correspondence — a method which some clergymen, and some young ladies too, have discovered, in the last few years, to be quite consistent with moral delicacy and filial obedience. John Bull, like a stupid fellow as he is, has still his doubts upon the point; but he should remember that though St. Paul tells women when they want advice to ask their husbands at home, yet if the poor woman has no husband, or, as often happens, her husband’s advice is unpleasant, to whom is she to go but to the next best substitute, her spiritual cicisbeo, or favourite clergyman? In sad earnest, neither husband nor parent deserves pity in the immense majority of such cases. Woman will have guidance. It is her delight and glory to be led; and if her husband or her parents will not meet the cravings of her intellect, she must go elsewhere to find a teacher, and run into the wildest extravagances of private judgment, in the very hope of getting rid of it, just as poor Argemone had been led to do.
And, indeed, she had, of late, wandered into very strange paths: would to God they were as uncommon as strange! Both she and the vicar had a great wish that she should lead a ‘devoted life;’ but then they both disdained to use common means for their object. The good old English plan of district visiting, by which ladies can have mercy on the bodies and souls of those below them, without casting off the holy discipline which a home, even the most ungenial, alone supplies, savoured too much of mere ‘Protestantism.’ It might be God’s plan for christianising England just now, but that was no reason, alas! for its being their plan: they wanted something more ‘Catholic,’ more in accordance with Church principles (for, indeed, is it not the business of the Church to correct the errors of Providence!); and what they sought they found at once in a certain favourite establishment of the vicar’s, a Church-of-England beguinage, or quasi-Protestant nunnery, which he fostered in a neighbouring city, and went thither on all high tides to confess the young ladies, who were in all things nuns, but bound by no vows, except, of course, such as they might choose to make for themselves in private.
Here they laboured among the lowest haunts of misery and sin, piously and self-denyingly enough, sweet souls! in hope of ‘the peculiar crown,’ and a higher place in heaven than the relations whom they had left behind them ‘in the world,’ and unshackled by the interference of parents, and other such merely fleshly relationships, which, as they cannot have been instituted by God merely to be trampled under foot on the path to holiness, and cannot well have instituted themselves (unless, after all, the Materialists are right, and this world does grind of itself, except when its Maker happens to interfere once every thousand years), must needs have been instituted by the devil. And so more than one girl in that nunnery, and out of it, too, believed in her inmost heart, though her ‘Catholic principles,’ by a happy inconsistency, forbade her to say so.
In a moment of excitement, fascinated by the romance of the notion, Argemone had proposed to her mother to allow her to enter this beguinage, and called in the vicar as advocate; which produced a correspondence between him and Mrs. Lavington, stormy on her side, provokingly calm on his: and when the poor lady, tired of raging, had descended to an affecting appeal to his human sympathies, entreating him to spare a mother’s feelings, he had answered with the same impassive fanaticism, that ‘he was surprised at her putting a mother’s selfish feelings in competition with the sanctity of her child,’ and that ‘had his own daughter shown such a desire for a higher vocation, he should have esteemed it the very highest honour;’ to which Mrs. Lavington answered, naively enough, that ‘it depended very much on what his daughter was like.’— So he was all but forbidden the house. Nevertheless he contrived, by means of this same secret correspondence, to keep alive in Argemone’s mind the longing to turn nun, and fancied honestly that he was doing God service, while he was pampering the poor girl’s lust for singularity and self-glorification.
But, lately, Argemone’s letters had become less frequent and less confiding; and the vicar, who well knew the reason, had resolved to bring the matter to a crisis.
So he wrote earnestly and peremptorily to his pupil, urging her, with all his subtle and refined eloquence, to make a final appeal to her mother, and if that failed, to act ‘as her conscience should direct her;’ and enclosed an answer from the superior of the convent, to a letter which Argemone had in a mad moment asked him to write. The superior’s letter spoke of Argemone’s joining her as a settled matter, and of her room as ready for her, while it lauded to the skies the peaceful activity and usefulness of the establishment. This letter troubled Argemone exceedingly. She had never before been compelled to face her own feelings, either about the nunnery or about Lancelot. She had taken up the fancy of becoming a Sister of Charity, not as Honoria might have done, from genuine love of the poor, but from ‘a sense of duty.’ Almsgiving and visiting the sick were one of the methods of earning heaven prescribed by her new creed. She was ashamed of her own laziness by the side of Honoria’s simple benevolence; and, sad though it may be to have to say it, she longed to outdo her by some signal act of self-sacrifice. She had looked to this nunnery, too, as an escape, once and for all, from her own luxury, just as people who have not strength to be temperate take refuge in teetotalism; and the thought of menial services towards the poor, however distasteful to her, came in quite prettily to fill up the little ideal of a life of romantic asceticisms and mystic contemplation, which gave the true charm in her eyes to her wild project. But now — just as a field had opened to her cravings after poetry and art, wider and richer than she had ever imagined — just as those simple childlike views of man and nature, which she had learnt to despise, were assuming an awful holiness in her eyes — just as she had found a human soul to whose regeneration she could devote all her energies — to be required to give all up, perhaps for ever (and she felt that if at all, it ought to be for ever); — it was too much for her little heart to bear; and she cried bitterly; and tried to pray, and could not; and longed for a strong and tender bosom on which to lay her head, and pour out all her doubts and struggles; and there was none. Her mother did not understand — hardly loved her. Honoria loved her; but understood her even less than her mother. Pride — the pride of intellect, the pride of self-will — had long since sealed her lips to her own family . . . .
And then, out of the darkness of her heart, Lancelot’s image rose before her stronger than all, tenderer than all; and as she remembered his magical faculty of anticipating all her thoughts, embodying for her all her vague surmises, he seemed to beckon her towards him. — She shuddered and turned away. And now she first became conscious how he had haunted her thoughts in the last few months, not as a soul to be saved, but as a living man — his face, his figure, his voice, his every gesture and expression, rising clear before her, in spite of herself, by day and night.
And then she thought of his last drawing, and the looks which had accompanied it — unmistakable looks of passionate and adoring love. There was no denying it — she had always known that he loved her, but she had never dared to confess it to herself. But now the earthquake was come, and all the secrets of her heart burst upward to the light, and she faced the thought in shame and terror. ‘How unjust I have been to him! how cruel! thus to entice him on in hopeless love!’
She lifted up her eyes, and saw in the mirror opposite the reflection of her own exquisite beauty.
‘I could have known what I was doing! I knew all the while! And yet it is so delicious to feel that any one loves me! Is it selfishness? It is selfishness, to pamper my vanity on an affection which I do not, will not return. I will not be thus in debt to him, even for his love. I do not love him — I do not; and even if I did, to give myself up to a man of whom I know so little, who is not even a Christian, much less a Churchman! Ay! and to give up my will to any man! to become the subject, the slave, of another human being! I, who have worshipped the belief in woman’s independence, the hope of woman’s enfranchisement, who have felt how glorious it is to live like the angels, single and self-sustained! What if I cut the Gordian knot, and here make, once for all, a vow of perpetual celibacy?’
She flung herself on her knees — she could not collect her thoughts.
‘No,’ she said, ‘I am not prepared for this. It is too solemn to be undertaken in this miserable whirlwind of passion. I will fast, and meditate, and go up formally to the little chapel, and there devote myself to God; and, in the meantime, to write at once to the superior of the Beguines; to go to my mother, and tell her once for all — What? Must I lose him? — must I give him up? Not his love — I cannot give up that — would that I could! but no! he will love me for ever. I know it as well as if an angel told me. But to give up him! Never to see him! never to hear his voice! never to walk with him among the beech woods any more! Oh, Argemone! Argemone! miserable girl! and is it come to this?’ And she threw herself on the sofa, and hid her face in her hands.
Yes, Argemone, it is come to this; and the best thing you can do, is just what you are doing — to lie there and cry yourself to sleep, while the angels are laughing kindly (if a solemn public, who settles everything for them, will permit them to laugh) at the rickety old windmill of sham-Popery which you have taken for a real giant.
At that same day and hour, as it chanced, Lancelot, little dreaming what the said windmill was grinding for him, was scribbling a hasty and angry answer to a letter of Luke’s, which, perhaps, came that very morning in order to put him into a proper temper for the demolishing of windmills. It ran thus —
‘Ay, my good Cousin — So I expected —
‘Suave mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis
E terra magnum alterius spectare laborem . . .
Pleasant and easy for you Protestants (for I will call you what you are, in spite of your own denials, a truly consistent and logical Protestant — and therefore a Materialist)— easy for you, I say, to sit on the shore, in cold, cruel self-satisfaction, and tell the poor wretch buffeting with the waves what he ought to do while he is choking and drowning. . . . Thank Heaven, the storm has stranded me upon the everlasting Rock of Peter; — but it has been a sore trouble to reach it. Protestants, who look at creeds as things to be changed like coats, whenever they seem not to fit them, little know what we Catholic-hearted ones suffer. . . . If they did, they would be more merciful and more chary in the requirements of us, just as we are in the very throe of a new-born existence. The excellent man, to whose care I have committed myself, has a wise and a tender heart . . . he saw no harm in my concealing from my father the spiritual reason of my giving up my curacy (for I have given it up), and only giving the outward, but equally true reason, that I found it on the whole an ineligible and distressing post. . . . I know you will apply to such an act that disgusting monosyllable of which Protestants are so fond. He felt with me and for me — for my horror of giving pain to my father, and for my wearied and excited state of mind; and strangely enough — to show how differently, according to the difference of the organs, the same object may appear to two people — he quoted in my favour that very verse which you wrest against me. He wished me to show my father that I had only changed my heaven, and not my character, by becoming an Ultramontane–Catholic . . . that, as far as his esteem and affection were founded on anything in me, the ground of it did not vanish with my conversion. If I had told him at once of my altered opinions, he would have henceforth viewed every word and action with a perjudiced eye. . . . Protestants are so bigoted . . . but if, after seeing me for a month or two the same Luke that he had ever known me, he were gradually informed that I had all the while held that creed which he had considered incompatible with such a life as I hope mine would be-you must see the effect which it ought to have. . . . I don’t doubt that you will complain of all this. . . . All I can say is, that I cannot sympathise with that superstitious reverence for mere verbal truth, which is so common among Protestants. . . . It seems to me they throw away the spirit of truth, in their idolatry of its letter. For instance — what is the use of informing a man of a true fact but to induce a true opinion in him? But if, by clinging to the exact letter of the fact, you create a false opinion in his mind, as I should do in my father’s case, if by telling him at once of my change, I gave him an unjust horror of Catholicism — you do not tell him the truth. . . . You may speak what is true to you — but it becomes an error when received into his mind. . . . If his mind is a refracting and polarising medium — if the crystalline lens of his soul’s eye has been changed into tourmaline or Labrador spar — the only way to give him a true image of the fact, is to present it to him already properly altered in form, and adapted to suit the obliquity of his vision; in order that the very refractive power of his faculties may, instead of distorting it, correct it, and make it straight for him; and so a verbal wrong in fact may possess him with a right opinion . . . .
‘You see the whole question turns on your Protestant deification of the intellect. . . . If you really believed, as you all say you do, that the nature of man, and therefore his intellect among the rest, was utterly corrupt, you would not be so superstitiously careful to tell the truth . . . as you call it; because you would know that man’s heart, if not his head, would needs turn the truth into a lie by its own corruption. . . . The proper use of reasoning is to produce opinion — and if the subject in which you wish to produce the opinion is diseased, you must adapt the medicine accordingly.’
To all which Lancelot, with several strong curses, scrawled the following answer:—
‘And this is my Cousin Luke! — Well, I shall believe henceforward that there is, after all, a thousand times greater moral gulf fixed between Popery and Tractarianism, than between Tractarianism and the extremest Protestantism. My dear fellow — I won’t bother you, by cutting up your charming ambiguous middle terms, which make reason and reasoning identical, or your theory that the office of reasoning is to induce opinions —(the devil take opinions, right or wrong — I want facts, faith in real facts!)— or about deifying the intellect — as if all sound intellect was not in itself divine light — a revelation to man of absolute laws independent of him, as the very heathens hold. But this I will do — thank you most sincerely for the compliment you pay us Cismontane heretics. We do retain some dim belief in a God — even I am beginning to believe in believing in Him. And therefore, as I begin to suppose, it is, that we reverence facts, as the work of God, His acted words and will, which we dare not falsify; which we believe will tell their own story better than we can tell it for them. If our eyes are dimmed, we think it safer to clear them, which do belong to us, than to bedevil, by the light of those very already dimmed eyes, the objects round, which do not belong to us. Whether we are consistent or not about the corruptness of man, we are about the incorruptness of God; and therefore about that of the facts by which God teaches men: and believe, and will continue to believe, that the blackest of all sins, the deepest of all Atheisms, that which, above all things, proves no faith in God’s government of the universe, no sense of His presence, no understanding of His character, is — a lie.
‘One word more — Unless you tell your father within twenty-four hours after receiving this letter, I will. And I, being a Protestant (if cursing Popery means Protestantism), mean what I say.’
As Lancelot walked up to the Priory that morning, the Reverend Panurgus O’Blareaway dashed out of a cottage by the roadside, and seized him unceremoniously by the shoulders. He was a specimen of humanity which Lancelot could not help at once liking and despising; a quaint mixture of conceit and earnestness, uniting the shrewdness of a stockjobber with the frolic of a schoolboy broke loose. He was rector of a place in the west of Ireland, containing some ten Protestants and some thousand Papists. Being, unfortunately for himself, a red-hot Orangeman, he had thought fit to quarrel with the priest, in consequence of which he found himself deprived both of tithes and congregation; and after receiving three or four Rockite letters, and a charge of slugs through his hat (of which he always talked as if being shot at was the most pleasant and amusing feature of Irish life), he repaired to England, and there, after trying to set up as popular preacher in London, declaiming at Exeter Hall, and writing for all the third-rate magazines, found himself incumbent of Lower Whitford. He worked there, as he said himself, ‘like a horse;’ spent his mornings in the schools, his afternoons in the cottages; preached four or five extempore sermons every week to overflowing congregations; took the lead, by virtue of the ‘gift of the gab,’ at all ‘religious’ meetings for ten miles round; and really did a great deal of good in his way. He had an unblushing candour about his own worldly ambition, with a tremendous brogue; and prided himself on exaggerating deliberately both of these excellences.
‘The top of the morning to ye, Mr. Smith. Ye haven’t such a thing as a cegar about ye? I’ve been preaching to school-children till me throat’s as dry as the slave of a lime-burner’s coat.’
‘I am very sorry; but, really, I have left my case at home.’
‘Oh! ah! faix and I forgot. Ye mustn’t be smokin’ the nasty things going up to the castle. Och, Mr. Smith, but you’re the lucky man!’
‘I am much obliged to you for the compliment,’ said Lancelot, gruffly; ‘but really I don’t see how I deserve it.’
‘Desarve it! Sure luck’s all, and that’s your luck, and not your deserts at all. To have the handsomest girl in the county dying for love of ye’—(Panurgus had a happy knack of blurting out truths — when they were pleasant ones). ‘And she just the beautifulest creature that ever spilte shoe-leather, barring Lady Philandria Mountflunkey, of Castle Mountflunkey, Quane’s County, that shall be nameless.’
‘Upon my word, O’Blareaway, you seem to be better acquainted with my matters than I am. Don’t you think, on the whole, it might be better to mind your own business?’
‘Me own business! Poker o’ Moses! and ain’t it me own business? Haven’t ye spilte my tenderest hopes? And good luck to ye in that same, for ye’re as pretty a rider as ever kicked coping-stones out of a wall; and poor Paddy loves a sportsman by nature. Och! but ye’ve got a hand of trumps this time. Didn’t I mate the vicar the other day, and spake my mind to him?’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Lancelot, with a strong expletive.
‘Faix, I told him he might as well Faugh a ballagh — make a rid road, and get out of that, with his bowings and his crossings, and his Popery made asy for small minds, for there was a gun a-field that would wipe his eye — maning yourself, ye Prathestant.’
‘All I can say is, that you had really better mind your own business, and I’ll mind my own.’
‘Och,’ said the good-natured Irishman, ‘and it’s you must mind my business, and I’ll mind yours; and that’s all fair and aqual. Ye’ve cut me out intirely at the Priory, ye Tory, and so ye’re bound to give me a lift somehow. Couldn’t ye look me out a fine fat widow, with an illigant little fortune? For what’s England made for except to find poor Paddy a wife and money? Ah, ye may laugh, but I’d buy me a chapel at the West-end: me talents are thrown away here intirely, wasting me swateness on the desert air, as Tom Moore says’ (Panurgus used to attribute all quotations whatsoever to Irish geniuses); ‘and I flatter meself I’m the boy to shute the Gospel to the aristocracy.’
Lancelot burst into a roar of laughter, and escaped over the next gate: but the Irishman’s coarse hints stuck by him as they were intended to do. ‘Dying for the love of me!’ He knew it was an impudent exaggeration, but, somehow, it gave him confidence; ‘there is no smoke,’ he thought, ‘without fire.’ And his heart beat high with new hopes, for which he laughed at himself all the while. It was just the cordial which he needed. That conversation determined the history of his life.
He met Argemone that morning in the library, as usual; but he soon found that she was not thinking of Homer. She was moody and abstracted; and he could not help at last saying —
‘I am afraid I and my classics are de trop this morning, Miss Lavington.’
‘Oh, no, no. Never that.’ She turned away her head. He fancied that it was to hide a tear.
Suddenly she rose, and turned to him with a clear, calm, gentle gaze.
‘Listen to me, Mr. Smith. We must part today, and for ever. This intimacy has gone on — too long, I am afraid, for your happiness. And now, like all pleasant things in this miserable world, it must cease. I cannot tell you why; but you will trust me. I thank you for it — I thank God for it. I have learnt things from it which I shall never forget. I have learnt, at least from it, to esteem and honour you. You have vast powers. Nothing, nothing, I believe, is too high for you to attempt and succeed. But we must part; and now, God be with you. Oh, that you would but believe that these glorious talents are His loan! That you would but be a true and loyal knight to him who said —“Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls!”— Ay,’ she went on, more and more passionately, for she felt that not she, but One mightier than herself was speaking through her, ‘then you might be great indeed. Then I might watch your name from afar, rising higher and higher daily in the ranks of God’s own heroes. I see it — and you have taught me to see it — that you are meant for a faith nobler and deeper than all doctrines and systems can give. You must become the philosopher, who can discover new truths — the artist who can embody them in new forms, while poor I— And that is another reason why we should part. — Hush! hear me out. I must not be a clog, to drag you down in your course. Take this, and farewell; and remember that you once had a friend called Argemone.’
She put into his hands a little Bible. He took it, and laid it down on the table.
For a minute he stood silent and rooted to the spot. Disappointment, shame, rage, hatred, all boiled up madly within him. The bitterest insults rose to his lips —‘Flirt, cold-hearted pedant, fanatic!’ but they sank again unspoken, as he looked into the celestial azure of those eyes, calm and pure as a soft evening sky. A mighty struggle between good and evil shook his heart to the roots; and, for the first time in his life, his soul breathed out one real prayer, that God would help him now or never to play the man. And in a moment the darkness passed; a new spirit called out all the latent strength within him; and gently and proudly he answered her —
‘Yes, I will go. I have had mad dreams, conceited and insolent, and have met with my deserts. Brute and fool as I am, I have aspired even to you! And I have gained, in the sunshine of your condescension, strength and purity. — Is not that enough for me? And now I will show you that I love you — by obeying you. You tell me to depart — I go for ever.’
He turned away. Why did she almost spring after him?
‘Lancelot! one word! Do not misunderstand me, as I know you will. You will think me so cold, heartless, fickle. — Oh, you do not know — you never can know — how much I, too, have felt!’
He stopped, spell-bound. In an instant his conversation with the Irishman flashed up before him with new force and meaning. A thousand petty incidents, which he had driven contemptuously from his mind, returned as triumphant evidences; and, with an impetuous determination, he cried out —
‘I see — I see it all, Argemone! We love each other! You are mine, never to be parted!’
What was her womanhood, that it could stand against the energy of his manly will! The almost coarse simplicity of his words silenced her with a delicious violence. She could only bury her face in her hands and sob out —
‘Oh, Lancelot, Lancelot, whither are you forcing me?’
‘I am forcing you no whither. God, the Father of spirits, is leading you! You, who believe in Him, how dare you fight against Him?’
‘Lancelot, I cannot — I cannot listen to you — read that!’ And she handed him the vicar’s letter. He read it, tossed it on the carpet, and crushed it with his heel.
‘Wretched pedant! Can your intellect be deluded by such barefaced sophistries? “God’s will,” forsooth! And if your mother’s opposition is not a sign that God’s will — if it mean anything except your own will, or that — that man’s — is against this mad project, and not for it, what sign would you have? So “celibacy is the highest state!” And why? Because “it is the safest and the easiest road to heaven?” A pretty reason, vicar! I should have thought that that was a sign of a lower state and not a higher. Noble spirits show their nobleness by daring the most difficult paths. And even if marriage was but one weed-field of temptations, as these miserable pedants say, who have either never tried it, or misused it to their own shame, it would be a greater deed to conquer its temptations than to flee from them in cowardly longings after ease and safety!’
She did not answer him, but kept her face buried in her hands.
‘Again, I say, Argemone, will you fight against Fate — Providence — God — call it what you will? Who made us meet at the chapel? Who made me, by my accident, a guest in your father’s house! Who put it into your heart to care for my poor soul? Who gave us this strange attraction towards each other, in spite of our unlikeness? Wonderful that the very chain of circumstances which you seem to fancy the offspring of chance or the devil, should have first taught me to believe that there is a God who guides us! Argemone! speak, tell me, if you will, to go for ever; but tell me first the truth — You love me!’
A strong shudder ran through her frame — the ice of artificial years cracked, and the clear stream of her woman’s nature welled up to the light, as pure as when she first lay on her mother’s bosom: she lifted up her eyes, and with one long look of passionate tenderness she faltered out —
‘I love you!’
He did not stir, but watched her with clasped hands, like one who in dreams finds himself in some fairy palace, and fears that a movement may break the spell.
‘Now, go,’ she said; ‘go, and let me collect my thoughts. All this has been too much for me. Do not look sad — you may come again tomorrow.’
She smiled and held out her hand. He caught it, covered it with kisses, and pressed it to his heart. She half drew it back, frightened. The sensation was new to her. Again the delicious feeling of being utterly in his power came over her, and she left her hand upon his heart, and blushed as she felt its passionate throbbings.
He turned to go — not as before. She followed with greedy eyes her new-found treasure; and as the door closed behind him, she felt as if Lancelot was the whole world, and there was nothing beside him, and wondered how a moment had made him all in all to her; and then she sank upon her knees, and folded her hands upon her bosom, and her prayers for him were like the prayers of a little child.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56