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heart, and would not be flung away. She - she, of all beings, to be
suspected as a thief, and by the very man whose life she had saved!
She was willing enough to confess herself - and confessed herself night
and morning - a miserable sinner, and her heart a cage of unclean
birds, deceitful, and desperately wicked - except in that. The
conscious innocence flashed up in pride and scorn, in thoughts, even
when she was alone, in words, of which she would not have believed
herself capable. With hot brow and dry eyes she paced her little
chamber, sat down on the bed, staring into vacancy, sprang up and
paced again: but she went into no trance - she dare not. The grief was
too great; she felt that, if she once gave way enough to lose her
self-possession, she should go mad. And the first, and perhaps not the
least good effect of that fiery trial was, that it compelled her to
a stern self-restraint, to which her will, weakened by mental
luxuriousness, had been long a stranger.

But a fiery trial it was. The first wild (and yet not unnatural)
fancy, that heaven had given Thurnall to her, had deepened day by
day, by the mere indulgence of it. But she never dreamt of him as her
husband: only as a friendless stranger to be helped and comforted. And
that he was worthy of help; that some great future was in store
for him; that he was a chosen vessel marked out for glory, she had
persuaded herself utterly; and the persuasion grew in her day by day,
as she heard more and more of his cleverness, honesty, and kindliness,
mysterious and, to her, miraculous learning. Therefore she did not
make haste; she did not even try to see him, or to speak to him;
a civil bow in passing was all that she took or gave; and she was
content with that, and waited till the time came, when she was
destined to do for him - what she knew not; but it would be done if she
were strong enough. So she set herself to learn, and read, and trained
her mind and temper more earnestly than ever, and waited in patience
for God's good time. And now, behold, a black, unfathomable gulf of
doubt and shame had opened between them, perhaps for ever. And a
tumult arose in her soul, which cannot be, perhaps ought not to be,
analysed in words; but which made her know too well, by her own
crimson cheeks, that it was none other than human love strong as
death, and jealousy cruel as the grave.

At last long and agonising prayer brought gentler thoughts, and mere
physical exhaustion a calmer mood. How wicked she had been; how
rebellious! Why not forgive him, as One greater than she had forgiven?
It was ungrateful of him; but was he not human? Why should she expect
his heart to be better than hers? Besides, he might have excuses for
his suspicion. He might be the best judge, being a man, and such a
clever one too. Yes; it was God's cross, and she would bear it; she
would try and forget him. No; that was impossible; she must hear of
him, if not see him, day by day: besides, was not her fate linked up
with his? And yet shut out from him by that dark wall of suspicion! It
was very bitter. But she could pray for him; she would pray for him
now. Yes; it was God's cross, and she would bear it. He would right
her if He thought fit; and if not, what matter? Was she not born to
sorrow? Should she complain if another drop, and that the bitterest of
all, was added to the cup?

And bear her cross she did, about with her, coming in, and going out,
for many a weary day. There was no change in her habits or demeanour;
she was never listless for a moment in her school; she was more gay
and amusing than ever, when she gathered her little ones around her
for a story: but still there was the unseen burden, grinding her heart
slowly, till she felt as if every footstep was stained with a drop of
her heart's blood.... Why not? It would be the sooner over.

Then, at times came that strange woman's pleasure in martyrdom, the
secret pride of suffering unjustly: but even that, after a while, she
cast away from her, as a snare, and tried to believe that she deserved
all her sorrow - deserved it, that is, in the real honest sense of the
word; that she had worked it out, and earned it, and brought it on
herself - how, she knew not, but longed and strove to know. No; it was
no martyrdom. She would not allow herself so silly a cloak of pride;
and she went daily to her favourite "Book of Martyrs," to contemplate
there the stories of those who really innocent, really suffered for
welldoing. And out of that book she began to draw a new and a strange
enjoyment, for she soon found that her intense imagination enabled
her to re-enact those sad and glorious stories in her own person; to
tremble, agonise, and conquer with those heroines who had been for
years her highest ideals - and what higher ones could she have? And
many a night, after extinguishing the light, and closing her eyes, she
would lie motionless for hours on her little bed, not to sleep, but to
feel with Perpetua the wild bull's horns, to hang with St. Maura on
the cross, or lie with Julitta on the rack, or see with triumphant
smile, by Anne Askew's side, the fire flare up around her at the
Smithfield stake, or to promise, with dying Dorothea, celestial
roses to the mocking youth, whose face too often took the form of
Thurnall's; till every nerve quivered responsive to her fancy in
agonies of actual pain, which died away at last into heavy slumber, as
body and mind alike gave way before the strain. Sweet fool! she knew
not - how could she know? - that she might be rearing in herself the
seeds of idiotcy and death: but who that applauds a Rachel or
a Ristori, for being able to make awhile their souls and their
countenances the homes of the darkest passions, can blame her for
enacting in herself, and for herself alone, incidents in which the
highest and holiest virtue takes shape in perfect tragedy?

But soon another, and a yet darker cause of sorrow arose in her. It
was clear, from what Willis had told her, that she had held the lost
belt in her hand. The question was, how had she lost it?

Did her mother know anything about it? That question could not but
arise in her mind, though, for very reverence she dared not put it to
her mother; and with it arose the recollection of her mother's
strange silence about the matter. Why had she put away the subject,
carelessly, and yet peevishly, when it was mentioned? Yes. Why? Did
her mother know anything? Was she - ? Grace dared not pronounce the
adjective, even in thought; dashed it away as a temptation of the
devil; dashed away, too, the thought which had forced itself on
her too often already, that her mother was not altogether one who
possessed the single eye; that in spite of her deep religious feeling,
her assurance of salvation, her fits of bitter self-humiliation and
despondency, there was an inclination to scheming and intrigue,
ambition, covetousness; that the secrets which she gained as
class-leader too, were too often (Grace could but fear) used to her
own advantage; that in her dealings her morality was not above the
average of little country shopkeepers; that she was apt to have two
prices; to keep her books with unnecessary carelessness when the
person against whom the account stood was no scholar. Grace had more
than once remonstrated in her gentle way; and had been silenced,
rather than satisfied, by her mother's commonplaces as to the right of
"making those who could pay, pay for those who could not;" that "it
was very hard to get a living, and the Lord knew her temptations,"
and "that God saw no sin in His elect," and "Christ's merits were
infinite," and "Christians always had been a backsliding generation;"
and all the other commonplaces by which such people drug their
consciences to a degree which is utterly incredible, except to those
who have seen it with their own eyes, and heard it with their own
ears, from childhood.

Once, too, in those very days, some little meanness on her mother's
part brought the tears into Grace's eyes, and a gentle rebuke to her
lips: but her mother bore the interference less patiently than usual;
and answered, not by cant, but by counter-reproach. "Was she the
person to accuse a poor widowed mother, struggling to leave her child
something to keep her out of the workhouse? A mother that lived for
her, would die for her, sell her soul for her, perhaps - "

And there Mrs. Harvey stopped short, turned pale, and burst into such
an agony of tears, that Grace, terrified, threw her arms round her
neck, and entreated forgiveness, all the more intensely on account of
those thoughts within which she dared not reveal. So the storm passed
over. But not Grace's sadness. For she could not but see, with her
clear pure spiritual eye, that her mother was just in that state in
which some fearful and shameful fall is possible, perhaps wholesome.
"She would sell her soul for me? What if she have sold it, and stopped
short just now, because she had not the heart to tell me that love for
me had been the cause? Oh! if she have sinned for my sake! Wretch that
I am! Miserable myself, and bringing misery with me! Why was I ever
born? Why cannot I die - and the world be rid of me?"

No, she would not believe it. It was a wicked, horrible, temptation
of the devil. She would rather believe that she herself had been the
thief, tempted during her unconsciousness; that she had hidden it
somewhere; that she should recollect, confess, restore all some day.
She would carry it to him herself, grovel at his feet, and entreat
forgiveness. "He will surely forgive, when he finds that I was not
myself when - that it was not altogether my fault - not as if I had been
waking - yes, he will forgive!" And then on that thought followed a
dream of what might follow, so wild that a moment after she had hid
her blushes in her hands, and fled to books to escape from thoughts.




CHAPTER XI.

THE FIRST INSTALMENT OF AN OLD DEBT.


We must now return to Elsley, who had walked home in a state of mind
truly pitiable. He had been flattering his soul with the hope that
Thurnall did not know him; that his beard, and the change which years
had made, formed a sufficient disguise: but he could not conceal
from himself that the very same alterations had not prevented his
recognising Thurnall; and he had been living for two months past in
continual fear that that would come which now had come.

His rage and terror knew no bounds. Fancying Thurnall a merely mean
and self-interested worldling, untouched by those higher aspirations
which stood to him in place of a religion, he imagined him making
every possible use of his power; and longed to escape to the uttermost
ends of the earth from his old tormentor, whom the very sea would not
put out of the way, but must needs cast ashore at his very feet, to
plague him afresh.

What a net he had spread around his own feet, by one act of foolish
vanity! He had taken his present name, merely as a _nom de guerre_,
when first he came to London as a penniless and friendless scribbler.
It would hide him from the ridicule (and, as he fancied, spite) of
Thurnall, whom he dreaded meeting every time he walked London streets,
and who was for years, to his melancholic and too intense fancy, his
_bête noir_, his Frankenstein's familiar. Beside, he was ashamed of
the name of Briggs. It certainly is not an euphonious or aristocratic
name; and "The Soul's Agonies, by John Briggs," would not have sounded
as well as "The Soul's Agonies, by Elsley Vavasour." Vavasour was a
very pretty name, and one of those which is supposed by novelists and
young ladies to be aristocratic; - why so is a puzzle; as its plain
meaning is a tenant-farmer, and nothing more nor less. So he had
played with the name till he became fond of it, and considered that
he had a right to it, through seven long years of weary struggles,
penury, disappointment, as he climbed the Parnassian Mount, writing
for magazines and newspapers, subediting this periodical and that;
till he began to be known as a ready, graceful, and trustworthy
workman, and was befriended by one kind-hearted _littérateur_ after
another. For in London, at this moment, any young man of real power
will find friends enough, and too many, among his fellow book-wrights,
and is more likely to have his head turned by flattery, than his heart
crushed by envy. Of course, whatsoever flattery he may receive, he is
expected to return; and whatsoever clique he may be tossed into on
his _début_, he is expected to stand by, and fight for, against the
universe; but that is but fair. If a young gentleman, invited to enrol
himself in the Mutual-puffery Society which meets every Monday and
Friday in Hatchgoose the publisher's drawing-room, is willing to
pledge himself thereto in the mystic cup of tea, is he not as solemnly
bound thenceforth to support those literary Catilines in their efforts
for the subversion of common sense, good taste, and established things
in general, as if he had pledged them, as he would have done in Rome
of old, in his own life-blood? Bound he is, alike by honour and by
green tea; and it will be better for him to fulfil his bond. For if
association is the cardinal principle of the age, will it not work as
well in book-making as in clothes-making? And shall not the motto
of the poet (who will also do a little reviewing on the sly) be
henceforth that which shines triumphant over all the world, on many a
valiant Scotchman's shield -

"Caw me, and I'll caw thee"?

But to do John Briggs justice, he kept his hands, and his heart also,
cleaner than most men do, during this stage of his career. After the
first excitement of novelty, and of mixing with people who could
really talk and think, and who freely spoke out whatever was in them,
right or wrong, in language which at least sounded grand and deep, he
began to find in the literary world about the same satisfaction for
his inner life which he would have found in the sporting world, or the
commercial world, or the religious world, or the fashionable world, or
any other world and to suspect strongly that wheresoever a world is,
the flesh and the devil are not very far off. Tired of talking when
he wanted to think, of asserting when he wanted to discover, and
of hearing his neighbours do the same; tired of little meannesses,
envyings, intrigues, jobberies (for the literary world, too, has
its jobs), he had been for some time withdrawing himself from the
Hatchgoose soirées into his own thoughts, when his "Soul's Agonies"
appeared, and he found himself, if not a lion, at least a lion's cub.

There is a house or two in Town where you may meet on certain
evenings, everybody; where duchesses and unfledged poets, bishops and
red republican refugees, fox-hunting noblemen and briefless barristers
who have taken to politics, are jumbled together for a couple of
hours, to make what they can out of each other, to the exceeding
benefit of them all. For each and every one of them finds his
neighbour a pleasanter person than he expected; and none need leave
those rooms without knowing something more than he did when he came
in, and taking an interest in some human being who may need that
interest. To one of these houses, no matter which, Elsley was invited
on the strength of the "Soul's Agonies;" found himself, for the first
time, face to face with high-bred Englishwomen; and fancied - small
blame to him - that he was come to the mountains of the Peris, and to
Fairy Land itself. He had been flattered already: but never with such
grace, such sympathy, or such seeming understanding; for there are few
high-bred women who cannot seem to understand, and delude a hapless
genius into a belief in their own surpassing brilliance and
penetration, while they are cunningly retailing again to him the
thoughts which they have caught up from the man to whom they spoke
last; perhaps - for this is the very triumph of their art - from the
very man to whom they are speaking. Small blame to bashful, clumsy
John Briggs, if he did not know his own children; and could not
recognise his own stammered and fragmentary fancies, when they were
re-echoed to him the next minute, in the prettiest shape, and with the
most delicate articulation, from lips which (like those in the fairy
tale) never opened without dropping pearls and diamonds.

Oh, what a contrast, in the eyes of a man whose sense of beauty and
grace, whether physical or intellectual, was true and deep, to
that ghastly ring of prophetesses in the Hatchgoose drawing-room;
strong-minded and emancipated women, who prided themselves on having
cast off conventionalities, and on being rude, and awkward, and
dogmatic, and irreverent, and sometimes slightly improper; women
who had missions to mend everything in heaven and earth, except
themselves; who had quarrelled with their husbands, and had therefore
felt a mission to assert women's rights, and reform marriage in
general; or who had never been able to get married at all, and
therefore were especially competent to promulgate a model method of
educating the children whom they never had had; women who wrote poetry
about Lady Blanches whom they never had met, and novels about male and
female blackguards whom (one hopes) they never had met, or about whom
(if they had) decent women would have held their peace; and every one
of whom had in obedience to Emerson, "followed her impulses," and
despised fashion, and was accordingly clothed and bedizened as was
right in the sight of her own eyes, and probably in those of no one
else.

No wonder that Elsley, ere long, began drawing comparisons, and using
his wit upon ancient patronesses, of course behind their backs,
likening them to idols fresh from the car of Juggernaut, or from the
stern of a South Sea canoe; or, most of all, to that famous
wooden image of Freya, which once leapt lumbering forth from her
bullock-cart, creaking and rattling in every oaken joint, to belabour
the too daring Viking who was flirting with her priestess. Even so,
whispered Elsley, did those brains and tongues creak and rattle,
lumbering before the blasts of Pythonic inspiration; and so, he verily
believed, would the awkward arms and legs have done likewise, if one
of the Pythonesses had ever so far degraded herself as to dance.

No wonder, then, that those gifted dames had soon to complain
of Elsley Vavasour as a traitor to the cause of progress and
civilisation; a renegade who had fled to the camp of aristocracy,
flunkeydom, obscurantism, frivolity, and dissipation; though there was
not one of them but would have given an eye - perhaps no great loss to
the aggregate loveliness of the universe - for one of his invitations
to 999 Cavendish Street south-east, with the chance of being presented
to the Duchess of Lyonesse.

To do Elsley justice, one reason why he liked his new acquaintances so
well was, that they liked him. He behaved well himself, and therefore
people behaved well to him. He was, as I have said, a very handsome
fellow in his way; therefore it was easy to him, as it is to all
physically beautiful persons, to acquire a graceful manner. Moreover,
he had steeped his whole soul in old poetry, and especially in
Spenser's Faery Queen. Good for him, had he followed every lesson
which he might have learnt out of that most noble of English books:
but one lesson at least he learnt from it; and that was, to be
chivalrous, tender, and courteous to all women, however old or ugly,
simply because they were women. The Hatchgoose Pythonesses did not
wish to be women, but very bad imitations of men; and therefore he
considered himself absolved from all knightly duties toward them: but
toward these Peris of the west, and to the dowagers who had been Peris
in their time, what adoration could be too great? So he bowed down
and worshipped; and, on the whole, he was quite right in so doing.
Moreover, he had the good sense to discover, that though the young
Peris were the prettiest to look at, the elder Peris were the better
company; and that it is, in general, from married women that a poet or
any one else will ever learn what woman's heart is like. And so well
did he carry out his creed, that before his first summer was over he
had quite captivated the heart of old Lady Knockdown, aunt to Lucia
St. Just, and wife to Lucia's guardian; a charming old Irishwoman, who
affected a pretty brogue, perhaps for the same reason that she wore a
wig, and who had been, in her day, a beauty and a blue, a friend
of the Miss Berrys, and Tommy Moore, and Grattan, and Lord Edward
Fitzgerald, and Dan O'Connell, and all other lions and lionesses which
had roared for the last sixty years about the Emerald Isle. There was
no one whom she did not know, and nothing she could not talk about.
Married up, when a girl, to a man for whom she did not care, and
having no children, she had indemnified herself by many flirtations,
and the writing of two or three novels, in which she penned on paper
the superfluous feeling which had no vent in real life. She had
deserted, as she grew old, the novel for unfulfilled prophecy; and was
a distinguished leader in a distinguished religious coterie: but she
still prided herself upon having a green head upon grey shoulders; and
not without reason; for underneath all the worldliness and intrigue,
and petty affectation of girlishness, which she contrived to jumble
in with her religiosity, beat a young and kindly heart. So she was
charmed with Mr. Vavasour's manners, and commended them much to Lucia,
who, a shrinking girl of seventeen, was peeping at her first season
from under Lady Knockdown's sheltering wing.

"Me dear, let Mr. Vavasour be who he will, he has not only the
intellect of a true genius, but what is a great deal better for
practical purposes; that is, the manners of one. Give me the man
who will let a woman of our rank say what we like to him, without
supposing that he may say what he likes in return; and considers one's
familiarity as an honour, and not as an excuse for taking liberties. A
most agreeable contrast, indeed, to the young men of the present
day; who come in their shooting jackets, and talk slang to their
partners, - though really the girls are just as bad, - and stand with
their backs to the fire, and smell of smoke, and go to sleep after
dinner, and pay no respect to old age, nor to youth either, I think.
'Pon me word, Lucia, the answers I've heard young gentlemen make to
young ladies, this very season, - they'd have been called out the
next morning in my time, me dear. As for the age of chivalry, nobody
expects that to be restored: but really one might have been spared the
substitute for it which, we had when I was young, in the grand air of
the old school. It was a 'sham,' I daresay, as they call everything
now-a-days: but really, me dear, a pleasant sham is better to live
with than an unpleasant reality, especially when it smells of cigars."

So it befell that Elsley Vavasour was asked to Lady Knockdown's, and
that there he fell in love with Lucia, and Lucia fell in love with
him.

The next winter, old Lord Knockdown, who had been decrepit for some
years past, died; and his widow, whose income was under five hundred
a year, - for the estates were entailed, and mortgaged, and everything
else which can happen to an Irish property, - came to live with her
nephew, Lord Scoutbush, in Eaton Square, and take such care as she
could of Lucia and Valencia.

So, after a dreary autumn and winter of parting and silence, Elsley
found himself the next season invited to Eaton Square; there the
mischief, if mischief it was, was done; and Elsley and Lucia started
in life upon two hundred a year. He had inherited some fifty of his
own; she had about a hundred and fifty, which, indeed, was not yet
her own by right; but little Scoutbush (who was her sole surviving
guardian) behaved on the whole very well for a young gentleman of
twenty-two, in a state of fury and astonishment. The old Lord had,
wisely enough, settled in his will that Lucia was to enjoy the
interest of her fortune from the time that she came out, provided she
did not marry without her guardian's leave; and Scoutbush, to avoid
esclandre and misery, thought it as well to waive the proviso, and
paid her her dividends as usual.

But how had she contrived to marry at all without his leave? That is
an ugly question. I will not say that she had told a falsehood,
or that Elsley had forsworn himself when he got the licence: but
certainly both of them were guilty of something very like a white lie,
when they declared that Lucia had the consent of her sole surviving
guardian, on the strength of an half-angry, half-jesting expression of


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Online LibraryCharles KingsleyTwo Years Ago, Volume I → online text (page 19 of 26)