Charles Kingsley.

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Therefore Valencia talked only of things which would interest Elsley;
asked him to read his last new poem - which, I need not say, he did;
told him how she devoured everything he wrote; planned walks with him
in the country; seemed to consult his pleasure in every way.

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

Vavasour was delighted to do anything - "Where would she walk?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the Nemesis, then?

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

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

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

"Breaking a country heart
For pastime, ere she went to town."

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

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

"Do take care that you do not break his heart!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




CHAPTER XIV.

THE DOCTOR AT BAY.


Did you ever, in a feverish dream, climb a mountain which grew higher
and higher as you climbed; and scramble through passages which changed
perpetually before you, and up and down break-neck stairs which broke
off perpetually behind you? Did you ever spend the whole night, foot
in stirrup, mounting that phantom hunter which never gets mounted, or,
if he does, turns into a pen between your knees; or in going to fish
that phantom stream which never gets fished? Did you ever, late
for that mysterious dinner-party in some enchanted castle, wander
disconsolately, in unaccountable rags and dirt, in search of that
phantom carpet-bag which never gets found? Did you ever "realise" to
yourself the sieve of the Danaides, the stone of Sisyphus, the wheel
of Ixion; the pleasure of shearing that domestic animal who (according
to the experience of a very ancient observer of nature) produces more
cry than wool; the perambulation of that Irishman's model bog, where
you slip two steps backward for one forward, and must, therefore, in
order to progress at all, turn your face homeward, and progress as
a pig does into a steamer, by going the opposite way? Were you ever
condemned to spin ropes of sand to all eternity, like Tregeagle the
wrecker; or to extract the cube roots of a million or two of hopeless
surds, like the mad mathematician; or last, and worst of all, to work
the Nuisances Removal Act? Then you can enter, as a man and a brother,
into the sorrows of Tom Thurnall, in the months of June and July,
1854.

He had made up his mind, for certain good reasons of his own, that the
cholera ought to visit Aberalva in the course of the summer; and, of
course, tried his best to persuade people to get ready for their ugly
visitor: but in vain. The cholera come there? Why, it never had come
yet, which signified, when he inquired a little more closely, that
there had been only one or two doubtful cases in 1837, and five or six
in 1849. In vain he answered, "Very well; and is not that a proof that


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Online LibraryCharles KingsleyTwo Years Ago, Volume I → online text (page 22 of 26)