I heard a story the other day of our most earnest and genial humorist, who is just now proving himself also our most earnest and genial novelist. ‘I like your novel exceedingly,’ said a lady; ‘the characters are so natural — all but the baronet, and he surely is overdrawn: it is impossible to find such coarseness in his rank of life!’
The artist laughed. ‘And that character,’ said he, ‘is almost the only exact portrait in the whole book.’
So it is. People do not see the strange things which pass them every day. ‘The romance of real life’ is only one to the romantic spirit. And then they set up for critics, instead of pupils; as if the artist’s business was not just to see what they cannot see — to open their eyes to the harmonies and the discords, the miracles and the absurdities, which seem to them one uniform gray fog of commonplaces.
Then let the reader believe, that whatsoever is commonplace in my story is my own invention. Whatsoever may seem extravagant or startling is most likely to be historic fact, else I should not have dared to write it down, finding God’s actual dealings here much too wonderful to dare to invent many fresh ones for myself.
Lancelot, who had had a severe concussion of the brain and a broken leg, kept his bed for a few weeks, and his room for a few more. Colonel Bracebridge installed himself at the Priory, and nursed him with indefatigable good-humour and few thanks. He brought Lancelot his breakfast before hunting, described the run to him when he returned, read him to sleep, told him stories of grizzly bear and buffalo-hunts, made him laugh in spite of himself at extempore comic medleys, kept his tables covered with flowers from the conservatory, warmed his chocolate, and even his bed. Nothing came amiss to him, and he to nothing. Lancelot longed at first every hour to be rid of him, and eyed him about the room as a bulldog does the monkey who rides him. In his dreams he was Sinbad the Sailor, and Bracebridge the Old Man of the Sea; but he could not hold out against the colonel’s merry bustling kindliness, and the almost womanish tenderness of his nursing. The ice thawed rapidly; and one evening it split up altogether, when Bracebridge, who was sitting drawing by Lancelot’s sofa, instead of amusing himself with the ladies below, suddenly threw his pencil into the fire, and broke out, a propos de rien —
‘What a strange pair we are, Smith! I think you just the best fellow I ever met, and you hate me like poison — you can’t deny it.’
There was something in the colonel’s tone so utterly different from his usual courtly and measured speech, that Lancelot was taken completely by surprise, and stammered out —
‘I— I— I— no — no. I know I am very foolish — ungrateful. But I do hate you,’ he said, with a sudden impulse, ‘and I’ll tell you why.’
‘Give me your hand,’ quoth the colonel: ‘I like that. Now we shall see our way with each other, at least.’
‘Because,’ said Lancelot slowly, ‘because you are cleverer than I, readier than I, superior to me in every point.’
The colonel laughed, not quite merrily. Lancelot went on, holding down his shaggy brows.
‘I am a brute and an ass! — And yet I do not like to tell you so. For if I am an ass, what are you?’
‘Look here. — I am wasting my time and brains on ribaldry, but I am worth nothing better — at least, I think so at times; but you, who can do anything you put your hand to, what business have you, in the devil’s name, to be throwing yourself away on gimcracks and fox-hunting foolery? Heavens! If I had your talents, I’d be-I’d make a name for myself before I died, if I died to make it.’ The colonel griped his hand hard, rose, and looked out of the window for a few minutes. There was a dead, brooding silence, till he turned to Lancelot —
‘Mr. Smith, I thank you for your honesty, but good advice may come too late. I am no saint, and God only knows how much less of one I may become; but mark my words — if you are ever tempted by passion, and vanity, and fine ladies, to form liaisons, as the Jezebels call them, snares, and nets, and labyrinths of blind ditches, to keep you down through life, stumbling and grovelling, hating yourself and hating the chain to which you cling — in that hour pray — pray as if the devil had you by the throat — to Almighty God, to help you out of that cursed slough! There is nothing else for it! — pray, I tell you!’
There was a terrible earnestness about the guardsman’s face which could not be mistaken. Lancelot looked at him for a moment, and then dropped his eyes ashamed, as if he had intruded on the speaker’s confidence by witnessing his emotion.
In a moment the colonel had returned to his smile and his polish.
‘And now, my dear invalid, I must beg your pardon for sermonising. What do you say to a game of ecarte? We must play for love, or we shall excite ourselves, and scandalise Mrs. Lavington’s piety.’ And the colonel pulled a pack of cards out of his pocket, and seeing that Lancelot was too thoughtful for play, commenced all manner of juggler’s tricks, and chuckled over them like any schoolboy.
‘Happy man!’ thought Lancelot, ‘to have the strength of will which can thrust its thoughts away once and for all.’ No, Lancelot! more happy are they whom God will not allow to thrust their thoughts from them till the bitter draught has done its work.
From that day, however, there was a cordial understanding between the two. They never alluded to the subject; but they had known the bottom of each other’s heart. Lancelot’s sick-room was now pleasant enough, and he drank in daily his new friend’s perpetual stream of anecdote, till March and hunting were past, and April was half over. The old squire came up after dinner regularly (during March he had hunted every day, and slept every evening); and the trio chatted along merrily enough, by the help of whist and backgammon, upon the surface of this little island of life — which is, like Sinbad’s, after all only the back of a floating whale, ready to dive at any moment. — And then? —
But what was Argemone doing all this time? Argemone was busy in her boudoir (too often a true boudoir to her) among books and statuettes, and dried flowers, fancying herself, and not unfairly, very intellectual. She had four new manias every year; her last winter’s one had been that bottle-and-squirt mania, miscalled chemistry; her spring madness was for the Greek drama. She had devoured Schlegel’s lectures, and thought them divine; and now she was hard at work on Sophocles, with a little help from translations, and thought she understood him every word. Then she was somewhat High–Church in her notions, and used to go up every Wednesday and Friday to the chapel in the hills, where Lancelot had met her, for an hour’s mystic devotion, set off by a little graceful asceticism. As for Lancelot, she never thought of him but as an empty-headed fox-hunter who had met with his deserts; and the brilliant accounts which the all smoothing colonel gave at dinner of Lancelot’s physical well doing and agreeable conversation only made her set him down the sooner as a twin clever-do-nothing to the despised Bracebridge, whom she hated for keeping her father in a roar of laughter.
But her sister, little Honoria, had all the while been busy messing and cooking with her own hands for the invalid; and almost fell in love with the colonel for his watchful kindness. And here a word about Honoria, to whom Nature, according to her wont with sisters, had given almost everything which Argemone wanted, and denied almost everything which Argemone had, except beauty. And even in that, the many-sided mother had made her a perfect contrast to her sister — tiny and luscious, dark-eyed and dark-haired; as full of wild simple passion as an Italian, thinking little, except where she felt much — which was, indeed, everywhere; for she lived in a perpetual April-shower of exaggerated sympathy for all suffering, whether in novels or in life; and daily gave the lie to that shallow old calumny, that ‘fictitious sorrows harden the heart to real ones.’
Argemone was almost angry with her sometimes, when she trotted whole days about the village from school to sick-room: perhaps conscience hinted to her that her duty, too, lay rather there than among her luxurious day-dreams. But, alas! though she would have indignantly repelled the accusation of selfishness, yet in self and for self alone she lived; and while she had force of will for any so-called ‘self-denial,’ and would fast herself cross and stupefied, and quite enjoy kneeling thinly clad and barefoot on the freezing chapel-floor on a winter’s morning, yet her fastidious delicacy revolted at sitting, like Honoria, beside the bed of the ploughman’s consumptive daughter, in a reeking, stifling, lean-to garret, in which had slept the night before, the father, mother, and two grown-up boys, not to mention a new-married couple, the sick girl, and, alas! her baby. And of such bedchambers there were too many in Whitford Priors.
The first evening that Lancelot came downstairs, Honoria clapped her hands outright for joy as he entered, and ran up and down for ten minutes, fetching and carrying endless unnecessary cushions and footstools; while Argemone greeted him with a cold distant bow, and a fine-lady drawl of carefully commonplace congratulations. Her heart smote her though, as she saw the wan face and the wild, melancholy, moonstruck eyes once more glaring through and through her; she found a comfort in thinking his stare impertinent, drew herself up, and turned away; once, indeed, she could not help listening, as Lancelot thanked Mrs. Lavington for all the pious and edifying books with which the good lady had kept his room rather than his brain furnished for the last six weeks; he was going to say more, but he saw the colonel’s quaint foxy eye peering at him, remembered St. Francis de Sales, and held his tongue.
But, as her destiny was, Argemone found herself, in the course of the evening, alone with Lancelot, at the open window. It was a still, hot, heavy night, after long easterly drought; sheet-lightning glimmered on the far horizon over the dark woodlands; the coming shower had sent forward as his herald a whispering draught of fragrant air.
‘What a delicious shiver is creeping over those limes!’ said Lancelot, half to himself.
The expression struck Argemone: it was the right one, and it seemed to open vistas of feeling and observation in the speaker which she had not suspected. There was a rich melancholy in the voice; — she turned to look at him.
‘Ay,’ he went on; ‘and the same heat which crisps those thirsty leaves must breed the thunder-shower which cools them? But so it is throughout the universe: every yearning proves the existence of an object meant to satisfy it; the same law creates both the giver and the receiver, the longing and its home.’
‘If one could but know sometimes what it is for which one is longing!’ said Argemone, without knowing that she was speaking from her inmost heart: but thus does the soul involuntarily lay bare its most unspoken depths in the presence of its yet unknown mate, and then shudders at its own abandon as it first tries on the wedding garment of Paradise.
Lancelot was not yet past the era at which young geniuses are apt to ‘talk book’ at little.
‘For what?’ he answered, flashing up according to his fashion. ‘To be; — to be great; to have done one mighty work before we die, and live, unloved or loved, upon the lips of men. For this all long who are not mere apes and wall-flies.’
‘So longed the founders of Babel,’ answered Argemone, carelessly, to this tirade. She had risen a strange fish, the cunning beauty, and now she was trying her fancy flies over him one by one.
‘And were they so far wrong?’ answered he. ‘From the Babel society sprung our architecture, our astronomy, politics, and colonisation. No doubt the old Hebrew sheiks thought them impious enough, for daring to build brick walls instead of keeping to the good old-fashioned tents, and gathering themselves into a nation instead of remaining a mere family horde; and gave their own account of the myth, just as the antediluvian savages gave theirs of that strange Eden scene, by the common interpretation of which the devil is made the first inventor of modesty. Men are all conservatives; everything new is impious, till we get accustomed to it; and if it fails, the mob piously discover a divine vengeance in the mischance, from Babel to Catholic Emancipation.’
Lancelot had stuttered horribly during the latter part of this most heterodox outburst, for he had begun to think about himself, and try to say a fine thing, suspecting all the while that it might not be true. But Argemone did not remark the stammering: the new thoughts startled and pained her; but there was a daring grace about them. She tried, as women will, to answer him with arguments, and failed, as women will fail. She was accustomed to lay down the law a la Madame de Stael, to savants and non-savants and be heard with reverence, as a woman should be. But poor truth-seeking Lancelot did not see what sex had to do with logic; he flew at her as if she had been a very barrister, and hunted her mercilessly up and down through all sorts of charming sophisms, as she begged the question, and shifted her ground, as thoroughly right in her conclusion as she was wrong in her reasoning, till she grew quite confused and pettish. — And then Lancelot suddenly shrank into his shell, claws and all, like an affrighted soldier-crab, hung down his head, and stammered out some incoherencies — ‘N-n-not accustomed to talk to women — ladies, I mean. F-forgot myself. — Pray forgive me!’ And he looked up, and her eyes, half-amused, met his, and she saw that they were filled with tears.
‘What have I to forgive?’ she said, more gently, wondering on what sort of strange sportsman she had fallen. ‘You treat me like an equal; you will deign to argue with me. But men in general — oh, they hide their contempt for us, if not their own ignorance, under that mask of chivalrous deference!’ and then in the nasal fine ladies’ key, which was her shell, as bitter brusquerie was his, she added, with an Amazon queen’s toss of the head — ‘You must come and see us often. We shall suit each other, I see, better than most whom we see here.’
A sneer and a blush passed together over Lancelot’s ugliness.
‘What, better than the glib Colonel Bracebridge yonder?’
‘Oh, he is witty enough, but he lives on the surface of everything! He is altogether shallow and blase. His good-nature is the fruit of want of feeling; between his gracefulness and his sneering persiflage he is a perfect Mephistopheles–Apollo.’
What a snare a decently-good nickname is! Out it must come, though it carry a lie on its back. But the truth was, Argemone thought herself infinitely superior to the colonel, for which simple reason she could not in the least understand him.
[By the bye, how subtly Mr. Tennyson has embodied all this in The Princess. How he shows us the woman, when she takes her stand on the false masculine ground of intellect, working out her own moral punishment, by destroying in herself the tender heart of flesh, which is either woman’s highest blessing or her bitterest curse; how she loses all feminine sensibility to the under-current of feeling in us poor world-worn, case-hardened men, and falls from pride to sternness, from sternness to sheer inhumanity. I should have honoured myself by pleading guilty to stealing much of Argemone’s character from The Princess, had not the idea been conceived, and fairly worked out, long before the appearance of that noble poem.]
They said no more to each other that evening. Argemone was called to the piano; and Lancelot took up the Sporting Magazine, and read himself to sleep till the party separated for the night.
Argemone went up thoughtfully to her own room. The shower had fallen, and the moon was shining bright, while every budding leaf and knot of mould steamed up cool perfume, borrowed from the treasures of the thundercloud. All around was working the infinite mystery of birth and growth, of giving and taking, of beauty and use. All things were harmonious — all things reciprocal without. Argemone felt herself needless, lonely, and out of tune with herself and nature.
She sat in the window, and listlessly read over to herself a fragment of her own poetry:—
She lay among the myrtles on the cliff;
Above her glared the moon; beneath, the sea.
Upon the white horizon Athos’ peak
Weltered in burning haze; all airs were dead;
The sicale slept among the tamarisk’s hair;
The birds sat dumb and drooping. Far below
The lazy sea-weed glistened in the sun:
The lazy sea-fowl dried their steaming wings;
The lazy swell crept whispering up the ledge,
And sank again. Great Pan was laid to rest;
And mother Earth watched by him as he slept,
And hushed her myriad children for awhile.
She lay among the myrtles on the cliff;
And sighed for sleep, for sleep that would not hear,
But left her tossing still: for night and day
A mighty hunger yearned within her heart,
Till all her veins ran fever, and her cheek,
Her long thin hands, and ivory-channell’d feet,
Were wasted with the wasting of her soul.
Then peevishly she flung her on her face,
And hid her eyeballs from the blinding glare,
And fingered at the grass, and tried to cool
Her crisp hot lips against the crisp hot sward:
And then she raised her head, and upward cast
Wild looks from homeless eyes, whose liquid light
Gleamed out between deep folds of blue-black hair,
As gleam twin lakes between the purple peaks
Of deep Parnassus, at the mournful moon.
Beside her lay a lyre. She snatched the shell,
And waked wild music from its silver strings;
Then tossed it sadly by — ‘Ah, hush!’ she cries,
‘Dead offspring of the tortoise and the mine!
Why mock my discords with thine harmonies?
‘Although a thrice-Olympian lot be thine,
Only to echo back in every tone,
The moods of nobler natures than thine own.’
‘No!’ she said. ‘That soft and rounded rhyme suits ill with Sappho’s fitful and wayward agonies. She should burst out at once into wild passionate life-weariness, and disgust at that universe, with whose beauty she has filled her eyes in vain, to find it always a dead picture, unsatisfying, unloving — as I have found it.’
Sweet self-deceiver! had you no other reason for choosing as your heroine Sappho, the victim of the idolatry of intellect — trying in vain to fill her heart with the friendship of her own sex, and then sinking into mere passion for a handsome boy, and so down into self-contempt and suicide?
She was conscious, I do believe, of no other reason than that she gave; but consciousness is a dim candle — over a deep mine.
‘After all,’ she said pettishly, ‘people will call it a mere imitation of Shelley’s Alastor. And what harm if it is? Is there to be no female Alastor? Has not the woman as good a right as the man to long after ideal beauty — to pine and die if she cannot find it; and regenerate herself in its light?’
‘Yo-hoo-oo-oo! Youp, youp! Oh-hooo!’ arose doleful through the echoing shrubbery.
Argemone started and looked out. It was not a banshee, but a forgotten fox-hound puppy, sitting mournfully on the gravel-walk beneath, staring at the clear ghastly moon.
She laughed and blushed — there was a rebuke in it. She turned to go to rest; and as she knelt and prayed at her velvet faldstool, among all the nicknacks which now-a-days make a luxury of devotion, was it strange if, after she had prayed for the fate of nations and churches, and for those who, as she thought, were fighting at Oxford the cause of universal truth and reverend antiquity, she remembered in her petitions the poor godless youth, with his troubled and troubling eloquence? But it was strange that she blushed when she mentioned his name — why should she not pray for him as she prayed for others?
Perhaps she felt that she did not pray for him as she prayed for others.
She left the Æolian harp in the window, as a luxury if she should wake, and coiled herself up among lace pillows and eider blemos; and the hound coiled himself up on the gravel-walk, after a solemn vesper-ceremony of three turns round in his own length, looking vainly for a ‘soft stone.’ The finest of us are animals after all, and live by eating and sleeping: and, taken as animals, not so badly off either — unless we happen to be Dorsetshire labourers — or Spitalfields weavers — or colliery children — or marching soldiers — or, I am afraid, one half of English souls this day.
And Argemone dreamed; — that she was a fox, flying for her life through a churchyard — and Lancelot was a hound, yelling and leaping, in a red coat and white buckskins, close upon her — and she felt his hot breath, and saw his white teeth glare. . . . And then her father was there: and he was an Italian boy, and played the organ — and Lancelot was a dancing dog, and stood up and danced to the tune of ‘C’est l’amour, l’amour, l’amour,’ pitifully enough, in his red coat — and she stood up and danced too; but she found her fox-fur dress insufficient, and begged hard for a paper frill — which was denied her: whereat she cried bitterly and woke; and saw the Night peeping in with her bright diamond eyes, and blushed, and hid her beautiful face in the pillows, and fell asleep again.
What the little imp, who managed this puppet-show on Argemone’s brain-stage, may have intended to symbolise thereby, and whence he stole his actors and stage-properties, and whether he got up the interlude for his own private fun, or for that of a choir of brother Eulenspiegels, or, finally, for the edification of Argemone as to her own history, past, present, or future, are questions which we must leave unanswered, till physicians have become a little more of metaphysicians, and have given up their present plan of ignoring for nine hundred and ninety-nine pages that most awful and significant custom of dreaming, and then in the thousandth page talking the boldest materialist twaddle about it.
In the meantime, Lancelot, contrary to the colonel’s express commands, was sitting up to indite the following letter to his cousin, the Tractarian curate:—
‘You complain that I waste my time in field-sports: how do you know that I waste my time? I find within myself certain appetites; and I suppose that the God whom you say made me, made those appetites as a part of me. Why are they to be crushed any more than any other part of me? I am the whole of what I find in myself — am I to pick and choose myself out of myself? And besides, I feel that the exercise of freedom, activity, foresight, daring, independent self-determination, even in a few minutes’ burst across country, strengthens me in mind as well as in body. It might not do so to you; but you are of a different constitution, and, from all I see, the power of a man’s muscles, the excitability of his nerves, the shape and balance of his brain, make him what he is. Else what is the meaning of physiognomy? Every man’s destiny, as the Turks say, stands written on his forehead. One does not need two glances at your face to know that you would not enjoy fox-hunting, that you would enjoy book-learning and “refined repose,” as they are pleased to call it. Every man carries his character in his brain. You all know that, and act upon it when you have to deal with a man for sixpence; but your religious dogmas, which make out that everyman comes into the world equally brutish and fiendish, make you afraid to confess it. I don’t quarrel with a “douce” man like you, with a large organ of veneration, for following your bent. But if I am fiery, with a huge cerebellum, why am I not to follow mine? — For that is what you do, after all — what you like best. It is all very easy for a man to talk of conquering his appetites, when he has none to conquer. Try and conquer your organ of veneration, or of benevolence, or of calculation — then I will call you an ascetic. Why not! — The same Power which made the front of one’s head made the back, I suppose?
‘And, I tell you, hunting does me good. It awakens me out of my dreary mill-round of metaphysics. It sweeps away that infernal web of self-consciousness, and absorbs me in outward objects; and my red-hot Perillus’s bull cools in proportion as my horse warms. I tell you, I never saw a man who could cut out his way across country who could not cut his way through better things when his turn came. The cleverest and noblest fellows are sure to be the best riders in the long run. And as for bad company and “the world,” when you take to going in the first-class carriages for fear of meeting a swearing sailor in the second-class — when those who have “renounced the world” give up buying and selling in the funds — when my uncle, the pious banker, who will only “associate” with the truly religious, gives up dealing with any scoundrel or heathen who can “do business” with him — then you may quote pious people’s opinions to me. In God’s name, if the Stock Exchange, and railway stagging, and the advertisements in the Protestant Hue-and-Cry, and the frantic Mammon-hunting which has been for the last fifty years the peculiar pursuit of the majority of Quakers, Dissenters, and Religious Churchmen, are not The World, what is? I don’t complain of them, though; Puritanism has interdicted to them all art, all excitement, all amusement — except money-making. It is their dernier ressort, poor souls!
‘But you must explain to us naughty fox-hunters how all this agrees with the good book. We see plainly enough, in the meantime, how it agrees with “poor human nature.” We see that the “religious world,” like the “great world,” and the “sporting world,” and the “literary world,”
“Compounds for sins she is inclined to,
By damning those she has no mind to;”
and that because England is a money-making country, and money-making is an effeminate pursuit, therefore all sedentary and spoony sins, like covetousness, slander, bigotry, and self-conceit, are to be cockered and plastered over, while the more masculine vices, and no-vices also, are mercilessly hunted down by your cold-blooded, soft-handed religionists.
‘This is a more quiet letter than usual from me, my dear coz, for many of your reproofs cut me home: they angered me at the time; but I deserve them. I am miserable, self-disgusted, self-helpless, craving for freedom, and yet crying aloud for some one to come and guide me, and teach me; and who is there in these days who could teach a fast man, even if he would try? Be sure, that as long as you and yours make piety a synonym for unmanliness, you will never convert either me or any other good sportsman.
‘By the bye, my dear fellow, was I asleep or awake when I seemed to read in the postscript of your last letter, something about “being driven to Rome after all”? . . . Why thither, of all places in heaven or earth? You know, I have no party interest in the question. All creeds are very much alike to me just now. But allow me to ask, in a spirit of the most tolerant curiosity, what possible celestial bait, either of the useful or the agreeable kind, can the present excellent Pope, or his adherents, hold out to you in compensation for the solid earthly pudding which you would have to desert? . . . I daresay, though, that I shall not comprehend your answer when it comes. I am, you know, utterly deficient in that sixth sense of the angelic or supralunar beautiful, which fills your soul with ecstasy. You, I know, expect and long to become an angel after death: I am under the strange hallucination that my body is part of me, and in spite of old Plotinus, look with horror at a disembodiment till the giving of that new body, the great perfection of which, in your eyes, and those of every one else, seems to be, that it will be less, and not more of a body, than our present one. . . . Is this hope, to me at once inconceivable and contradictory, palpable and valuable enough to you to send you to that Italian Avernus, to get it made a little more certain? If so, I despair of your making your meaning intelligible to a poor fellow wallowing, like me, in the Hylic Borboros — or whatever else you may choose to call the unfortunate fact of being flesh and blood. . . . Still, write.’
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52