Now it was not extraordinary that Squire Lavington had ‘assimilated’ a couple of bottles of Carbonel’s best port; for however abstemious the new lord himself might be, he felt for the habits, and for the vote of an old-fashioned Whig squire. Nor was it extraordinary that he fell fast asleep the moment he got into the carriage; nor, again, that his wife and daughters were not solicitous about waking him; nor, on the other hand, that the coachman and footman, who were like all the squire’s servants, of the good old sort, honest, faithful, boozing, extravagant, happy-go-lucky souls, who had ‘been about the place these forty years,’ were somewhat owlish and unsteady on the box. Nor was it extraordinary that there was a heavy storm of lightning, for that happened three times a-week in the chalk hills the summer through; nor, again, that under these circumstances the horses, who were of the squire’s own breeding, and never thoroughly broke (nothing was done thoroughly at Whitford), went rather wildly home, and that the carriage swung alarmingly down the steep hills, and the boughs brushed the windows rather too often. But it was extraordinary that Mrs. Lavington had cast off her usual primness, and seemed to-night, for the first time in her life, in an exuberant good humour, which she evinced by snubbing her usual favourite Honoria, and lavishing caresses on Argemone, whose vagaries she usually regarded with a sort of puzzled terror, like a hen who has hatched a duckling.
‘Honoria, take your feet off my dress. Argemone, my child, I hope you spent a pleasant evening?’
Argemone answered by some tossy commonplace.
A pause — and then Mrs. Lavington recommenced —
‘How very pleasing that poor young Lord Vieuxbois is, after all!’
‘I thought you disliked him so much.’
‘His opinions, my child; but we must hope for the best. He seems moral and well inclined, and really desirous of doing good in his way; and so successful in the House, too, I hear.’
‘To me,’ said Argemone, ‘he seems to want life, originality, depth, everything that makes a great man. He knows nothing but what he has picked up ready-made from books. After all, his opinions are the one redeeming point in him.’
‘Ah, my dear, when it pleases Heaven to open your eyes, you will see as I do!’
Poor Mrs. Lavington! Unconscious spokeswoman for the ninety-nine hundredths of the human race! What are we all doing from morning to night, but setting up our own fancies as the measure of all heaven and earth, and saying, each in his own dialect, Whig, Radical, or Tory, Papist or Protestant, ‘When it pleases Heaven to open your eyes you will see as I do’?
‘It is a great pity,’ went on Mrs. Lavington, meditatively, ‘to see a young man so benighted and thrown away. With his vast fortune, too — such a means of good! Really we ought to have seen a little more of him. I think Mr. O’Blareaway’s conversation might be a blessing to him. I think of asking him over to stay a week at Whitford, to meet that sainted young man.’
Now Argemone did not think the Reverend Panurgus O’Blareaway, incumbent of Lower Whitford, at all a sainted young man, but, on the contrary, a very vulgar, slippery Irishman; and she had, somehow, tired of her late favourite, Lord Vieuxbois; so she answered tossily enough —
‘Really, mamma, a week of Lord Vieuxbois will be too much. We shall be bored to death with the Cambridge Camden Society, and ballads for the people.’
‘I think, my dear,’ said Mrs. Lavington (who had, half unconsciously to herself, more reasons than one for bringing the young lord to Whitford), ‘I think, my dear, that his conversation, with all its faults, will be a very improving change for your father. I hope he’s asleep.’
The squire’s nose answered for itself.
‘Really, what between Mr. Smith, and Colonel Bracebridge, and their very ineligible friend, Mr. Mellot, whom I should never have allowed to enter my house if I had suspected his religious views, the place has become a hotbed of false doctrine and heresy. I have been quite frightened when I have heard their conversation at dinner, lest the footmen should turn infidels!’
‘Perhaps, mamma,’ said Honoria, slyly, ‘Lord Vieuxbois might convert them to something quite as bad. How shocking if old Giles, the butler, should turn Papist!’
‘Honoria, you are very silly. Lord Vieuxbois, at least can be trusted. He has no liking for low companions. He is above joking with grooms, and taking country walks with gamekeepers.’
It was lucky that it was dark, for Honoria and Argemone both blushed crimson.
‘Your poor father’s mind has been quite unsettled by all their ribaldry. They have kept him so continually amused, that all my efforts to bring him to a sense of his awful state have been more unavailing than ever.’
Poor Mrs. Lavington! She had married, at eighteen, a man far her inferior in intellect; and had become — as often happens in such cases — a prude and a devotee. The squire, who really admired and respected her, confined his disgust to sly curses at the Methodists (under which name he used to include every species of religious earnestness, from Quakerism to that of Mr. Newman). Mrs. Lavington used at first to dignify these disagreeables by the name of persecution, and now she was trying to convert the old man by coldness, severity, and long curtain-lectures, utterly unintelligible to their victim, because couched in the peculiar conventional phraseology of a certain school. She forgot, poor earnest soul, that the same form of religion which had captivated a disappointed girl of twenty, might not be the most attractive one for a jovial old man of sixty.
Argemone, who a fortnight before would have chimed in with all her mother’s lamentations, now felt a little nettled and jealous. She could not bear to hear Lancelot classed with the colonel.
‘Indeed,’ she said, ‘if amusement is bad for my father, he is not likely to get much of it during Lord Vieuxbois’s stay. But, of course, mamma, you will do as you please.’
‘Of course I shall, my dear,’ answered the good lady, in a tragedy-queen tone. ‘I shall only take the liberty of adding, that it is very painful to me to find you adding to the anxiety which your unfortunate opinions give me, by throwing every possible obstacle in the way of my plans for your good.’
Argemone burst into proud tears (she often did so after a conversation with her mother). ‘Plans for my good!’— And an unworthy suspicion about her mother crossed her mind, and was peremptorily expelled again. What turn the conversation would have taken next, I know not, but at that moment Honoria and her mother uttered a fearful shriek, as their side of the carriage jolted half-way up the bank, and stuck still in that pleasant position.
The squire awoke, and the ladies simultaneously clapped their hands to their ears, knowing what was coming. He thrust his head out of the window, and discharged a broadside of at least ten pounds’ worth of oaths (Bow Street valuation) at the servants, who were examining the broken wheel, with a side volley or two at Mrs. Lavington for being frightened. He often treated her and Honoria to that style of oratory. At Argemone he had never sworn but once since she left the nursery, and was so frightened at the consequences, that he took care never to do it again.
But there they were fast, with a broken wheel, plunging horses, and a drunken coachman. Luckily for them, the colonel and Lancelot were following close behind, and came to their assistance.
The colonel, as usual, solved the problem.
‘Your dog-cart will carry four, Smith?’
‘Then let the ladies get in, and Mr. Lavington drive them home.’
‘What?’ said the squire, ‘with both my hands red-hot with the gout? You must drive three of us, colonel, and one of us must walk.’
‘I will walk,’ said Argemone, in her determined way.
Mrs. Lavington began something about propriety, but was stopped with another pound’s worth of oaths by the squire, who, however, had tolerably recovered his good humour, and hurried Mrs. Lavington and Honoria, laughingly, into the dog-cart, saying —
‘Argemone’s safe enough with Smith; the servants will lead the horses behind them. It’s only three miles home, and I should like to see any one speak to her twice while Smith’s fists are in the way.’
Lancelot thought so too.
‘You can trust yourself to me, Miss Lavington?’
‘By all means. I shall enjoy the walk after —:’ and she stopped. In a moment the dog-cart had rattled off, with a parting curse from the squire to the servants, who were unharnessing the horses.
Argemone took Lancelot’s arm; the soft touch thrilled through and through him; and Argemone felt, she knew not why, a new sensation run through her frame. She shuddered — not with pain.
‘You are cold, Miss Lavington?’
‘Oh, not in the least.’ Cold! when every vein was boiling so strangely! A soft luscious melancholy crept over her. She had always had a terror of darkness; but now she felt quite safe in his strength. The thought of her own unprotected girlhood drew her heart closer to him. She remembered with pleasure the stories of his personal prowess, which had once made her think him coarse and brutal. For the first time in her life she knew the delight of dependence — the holy charm of weakness. And as they paced on silently together, through the black awful night, while the servants lingered, far out of sight, about the horses, she found out how utterly she trusted to him.
‘Listen!’ she said. A nightingale was close to them, pouring out his whole soul in song.
‘Is it not very late in the year for a nightingale?’
‘He is waiting for his mate. She is rearing a late brood, I suppose.’
‘What do you think it is which can stir him up to such an ecstasy of joy, and transfigure his whole heart into melody?’
‘What but love, the fulness of all joy, the evoker of all song?’
‘All song? — The angels sing in heaven.’
‘So they say: but the angels must love if they sing.’
‘They love God!’
‘And no one else?’
‘Oh yes: but that is universal, spiritual love; not earthly love — a narrow passion for an individual.’
‘How do we know that they do not learn to love all by first loving one?’
‘Oh, the angelic life is single!’
‘Who told you so, Miss Lavington?’
She quoted the stock text, of course:—’“In heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels.”’
‘“As the tree falls, so it lies.” And God forbid that those who have been true lovers on earth should contract new marriages in the next world. Love is eternal. Death may part lovers, but not love. And how do we know that these angels, as they call them, if they be really persons, may not be united in pairs by some marriage bond, infinitely more perfect than any we can dream of on earth?’
‘That is a very wild view, Mr. Smith, and not sanctioned by the Church,’ said Argemone, severely. (Curious and significant it is, how severe ladies are apt to be whenever they talk of the Church.)
‘In plain historic fact, the early fathers and the middle-age monks did not sanction it: and are not they the very last persons to whom one would go to be taught about marriage? Strange! that people should take their notions of love from the very men who prided themselves on being bound, by their own vows, to know nothing about it!’
‘They were very holy men.’
‘But still men, as I take it. And do you not see that Love is, like all spiritual things, only to be understood by experience — by loving?’
‘But is love spiritual?’
‘Pardon me, but what a question for one who believes that “God is love!”’
‘But the divines tell us that the love of human beings is earthly.’
‘How did they know? They had never tried. Oh, Miss Lavington! cannot you see that in those barbarous and profligate ages of the later empire, it was impossible for men to discern the spiritual beauty of marriage, degraded as it had been by heathen brutality? Do you not see that there must have been a continual tendency in the minds of a celibate clergy to look with contempt, almost with spite, on pleasures which were forbidden to them?’
‘It must be very delicious,’ said Argemone, thoughtfully, ‘for any one who believes it, to think that marriage can last through eternity. But, then, what becomes of entire love to God? How can we part our hearts between him and his creatures?’
‘It is a sin, then, to love your sister? or your friend? What a low, material view of love, to fancy that you can cut it up into so many pieces, like a cake, and give to one person one tit-bit, and another to another, as the Popish books would have you believe! Love is like flame — light as many fresh flames at it as you will, it grows, instead of diminishing, by the dispersion.’
‘It is a beautiful imagination.’
‘But, oh, how miserable and tantalising a thought, Miss Lavington, to those who know that a priceless spirit is near them, which might be one with theirs through all eternity, like twin stars in one common atmosphere, for ever giving and receiving wisdom and might, beauty and bliss, and yet are barred from their bliss by some invisible adamantine wall, against which they must beat themselves to death, like butterflies against the window-pane, gazing, and longing, and unable to guess why they are forbidden to enjoy!’
Why did Argemone withdraw her arm from his? He knew, and he felt that she was entrusted to him. He turned away from the subject.
‘I wonder whether they are safe home by this time?’
‘I hope my father will not catch cold. How sad, Mr. Smith, that he will swear so. I do not like to say it; and yet you must have heard him too often yourself.’
‘It is hardly a sin with him now, I think. He has become so habituated to it, that he attaches no meaning or notion whatsoever to his own oaths. I have heard him do it with a smiling face to the very beggar to whom he was giving half-a-crown. We must not judge a man of his school by the standard of our own day.’
‘Let us hope so,’ said Argemone, sadly.
There was another pause. At a turn of the hill road the black masses of beech-wood opened, and showed the Priory lights twinkling right below. Strange that Argemone felt sorry to find herself so near home.
‘We shall go to town next week,’ said she; “and then — You are going to Norway this summer, are you not?’
‘No. I have learnt that my duty lies nearer home.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I wish this summer, for the first time in my life, to try and do some good — to examine a little into the real condition of English working men.’
‘I am afraid, Mr. Smith, that I did not teach you that duty.’
‘Oh, you have taught me priceless things! You have taught me beauty is the sacrament of heaven, and love its gate; that that which is the most luscious is also the most pure.’
‘But I never spoke a word to you on such subjects.’
‘There are those, Miss Lavington, to whom a human face can speak truths too deep for books.’
Argemone was silent; but she understood him. Why did she not withdraw her arm a second time?
In a moment more the colonel hailed them from the dog-cart and behind him came the britschka with a relay of servants.
They parted with a long, lingering pressure of the hand, which haunted her young palm all night in dreams. Argemone got into the carriage, Lancelot jumped into the dog-cart, took the reins, and relieved his heart by galloping Sandy up the hill, and frightening the returning coachman down one bank and his led horses up the other.
‘Vogue la Galere, Lancelot? I hope you have made good use of your time?’
But Lancelot spoke no word all the way home, and wandered till dawn in the woods around his cottage, kissing the hand which Argemone’s palm had pressed.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56