BY SARAH GRAND
"L'esprit ne nous garantit pas des sottises de notre humeur."—VAUVENARGUES
You will ask me, perhaps, even you who are all charity, why parts of this book are what they are. I can only answer with another question: Why are we what we are? But I warn you that it would not be fair to take any of Ideala's opinions, here given, as final. Much of what she thought was the mere effervescence of a strong mind in a state of fermentation, a mind passing successively through the three stages of the process; the vinous, alcoholic, or excitable stage; the acetous, jaundiced, or embittered stage; and the putrefactive, or unwholesome stage; and also embodying, at different times, the characteristics of all three. But, even during its worst phase, it was an earnest mind, seeking the truth diligently, and not to be blamed for stumbling upon good and bad together by the way. It is, in fact, not a perfect, but a transitional state which I offer for your consideration, a state which has its repulsive features, but which, it may be hoped, would result in a beautiful deposit, when at last the inevitable effervescence had subsided.
But why exhibit the details of the process, you may ask. To encourage others, of course. What help is there in the contemplation of perfection ready made? It only disheartens us. We should lay down our arms, we should struggle no longer, we should be hopeless, despairing, reckless, if we never had a glimpse of growth, of those "stepping- stones of their dead selves" upon which men mount to higher things. The imperfections must be studied, because it is only from the details of the process that anything can be learned. Putting aside the people who criticise, not with a view to mending matters, but because a
... low desire Not to seem lowest makes them level all;
the people who judge, who condemn, who have no mercy on any faults and failings but their own, and who,
... if they find Some stain or blemish in a name of note, Not grieving that their greatest are so small, Inflate themselves with some insane delight,
and would ostracise a neighbour for the first offence by ruling that one mistake must mar a life—anybody's life but their own, of course; who have no peace in themselves, no habit of sweet thought; whose lives are one long agony of excitement, objection, envy, hate, and unrest; the decently clad devils of society who may be known by their eternal carping, and who are already in torment, and doing their utmost to drag others after them. Putting them aside, as any one may who has the courage to face them—for they are terrible cowards—and taking the best of us, and the best intentioned among us, we find that all are apt to make some one trait in the characters, some one trick in the manners, some one incident in the lives of people we meet the text of an objection to the whole person. And a state of objection is a miserable state, and a dangerous one, because it stops our growth by robbing us of half our power to love, in which lies all our strength, and which, with the delight of being loved, is the one thing worth living for. When we know in ourselves that love is heaven, and hate is hell, and all the intervals of like and dislike are antechambers to either, we possess the key to joy and sorrow, by which alone we can attain to the mystery that may not be mentioned here, but beyond which ecstasy awaits us.
This is why such details are necessary.
Doctors-spiritual must face the horrors of the dissecting-room, and learn before they can cure or teach; and even we, poor feeble creatures, who have no strength, however great our desire, to do either, can help at least a little by not hindering, if we attend to our own mental health, which we shall do all the better for knowing something of our moral anatomy, and the diseases to which it is liable. We hate and despise in our ignorance, and grow weak; but love and pity thrive on knowledge, and to love and pity we owe all the beauty of life, and all our highest power.
"It is that life of custom and accident in which many of us pass much of our time in this world; that life in which we do what we have not purposed, and speak what we do not mean, and assent to what we do not understand; that life which is overlaid by the weight of things external to it, and is moulded by them, instead of assimilating them; that which, instead of growing and blossoming under any wholesome dew, is crystallised over with it, as with hoar frost, and becomes to the true life what an arborescence is to a tree, a candied agglomeration of thoughts and habits foreign to it, brittle, obstinate, and icy, which can neither bend nor grow, but must be crushed and broken to bits if it stands in our way. All men are liable to be in some degree frost-bitten in this sort; all are partly encumbered and crusted over with idle matter; only, if they have real life in them, they are always breaking this bark away in noble rents, until it becomes, like the black strips upon the birch tree, only a witness of their own inward strength." —RUSKIN.
She came among us without flourish of trumpets. She just slipped into her place, almost unnoticed, but once she was settled there it seemed as if we had got something we had wanted all our lives, and we should have missed her as you would miss the thrushes in the spring, or any other sweet familiar thing. But what the secret of her charm was I cannot say. She was full of inconsistencies. She disliked ostentation, and never wore those ornamental fidgets ladies delight in, but she would take a piece of priceless lace to cover her head when she went to water her flowers. And she said rings were a mistake; if your hands were ugly they drew attention to them, if pretty they hid their beauty; yet she wore half-a-dozen worthless ones habitually for the love of those who gave them, to her. It was said that she was striking in appearance, but cold and indifferent in manner. Some, on whom she had never turned her eyes, called her repellent. But it was noticed that men who took her down to dinner, or had any other opportunity of talking to her, were never very positive in, what they said of her afterwards. She made every one, men and women alike, feel, and she did it unconsciously. Without effort, without eccentricity, without anything you could name or define, she impressed you, and she held you —or at least she held me, always—expectant. Nothing about her ever seemed to be of the present. When she talked she made you wonder what her past had been, and when she was silent you began to speculate about her future. But she did not talk much as a rule, and when she did speak it was always some subject of interest, some fact that she wanted to ascertain accurately, or some beautiful idea, that occupied her; she had absolutely no small talk for any but her most intimate friends, whom she was wont at times to amuse with an endless stock of anecdotes and quaint observations; and this made people of limited capacity hard on her. Some of these called her a cold, ambitious, unsympathetic woman; and perhaps, from their point of view, she was so. She certainly aspired to something far above them, and had nothing but scorn for the dead level of dull mediocrity from which they would not try to rise.
"To be distinguished among these people," she once said, "it is only necessary to have one's heart
Dowered with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn, The love of love.
There is no need to do anything; if you have the right feeling you may be as passive as a cow, and still excel them all, for they never thrill to a noble thought."
"Then, pity them," I said.
"No, despise them," she answered. "Pity is for affliction, for such shortcomings as are hereditary and can hardly be remedied—for the taint in nature which is all but hopeless. But these people are not afflicted. They could do better if they would. They know the higher walk, and deliberately pursue the lower. Their whole feeling is for themselves, and such things as have power to move them through the flesh only. I would almost rather sin on the impulse of a generous but misguided nature, and have the power to appreciate and the will to be better, than live a perfect, loveless woman, caring only for myself, like these. I should do more good."
They called Ideala unsympathetic, yet I have known her silent from excess of sympathy. She could walk with you, reading your heart and soul, sorrowing and rejoicing with you, and make you feel without a word that she did so. It was this power to sympathise, and the longing she had to find good in everything, that made her forgive the faults that were patent in a nature with which she was finally brought into contact, for the sake of the virtues which she discovered hidden away deep down under a slowly hardening crust of that kind of self- indulgence which mars a man.
But her own life was set to a tune that admitted of endless variations. Sometimes it was difficult even for those who knew her best to detect the original melody among the clashing cords that concealed it; but, let it be hidden as it might, one felt that it would resolve itself eventually, through many a jarring modulation and startling cadence, perhaps, back to the perfect key.
I saw her first at a garden party. She scarcely noticed me when we were introduced. There were great masses of white cloud drifting up over the blue above the garden, and she was wholly occupied with them when she could watch them without rudeness to those about her; and even when she was obliged to look away, I could see that she was still thinking of the sky. "Do you live much in cloudland?" I asked, and felt for a moment I had said a silly thing; but she turned to me quickly, and looked at me for the first time as if she saw me—and when I say she looked at me, I mean something more than an ordinary look, for Ideala's eyes were a wonder, affecting you as a poem does which has power to exalt.
"Ah, you feel it too," she said. "Are they not beautiful? Will you sit beside me here? You can see the river as well—down there, beneath the trees."
I thought she would have talked after that, but she did not. When I spoke to her once or twice she answered absently; and presently she forgot me altogether, and began to sing to herself softly:
Flow down, cold rivulet, to the sea, Thy tribute wave deliver; No more by thee my steps shall be For ever and for ever.
Then suddenly recollecting herself, she stopped, and exclaimed, in much confusion, "O please forgive me! That stupid thing has been running in my head all day—and it is a way I have. I always forget people and begin to sing."
She did not see in the least that her apology might have been considered an adding of insult to injury, and, of course, I was careful not to let her know that I thought it so, although I must confess that for a moment I felt just a trifle aggrieved. I thought my presence had bored her, and was surprised to see, when I got up to go, that she would rather have had me stay.
She cared little for people in general, and had few likings. It was love with her if anything; but those whom she loved once she loved always, never changing in her affection for them, however badly they might treat her. And she had the power of liking people for themselves, regardless of their feeling for her; indeed, her indifference on this score was curious. I once heard a lady say to her: "You are one of the few young married ladies whom I dare chaperon in these degenerate days. No degree of admiration or worship ever seems to touch you. Is it real or pretended, your unconsciousness?"
"Unconsciousness of what?"
"Of the feeling you excite."
"The feeling I excite?" Ideala seemed to think a moment; then she answered gravely: "I do not think I am conscious of anything that relates to myself, personally, in my intercourse with people. They are ideas to me for the most part—men especially so."
That way she had of forgetting people's presence was one of her peculiarities. If she liked you she was content just to have you there, but she never showed it except by a regretful glance when you went away. She was very absent, too. One day I found her with a big, awkward volume on her knee, heated, excited, and evidently put out.
"Is anything the matter?" I wanted to know.
"O yes," she answered desperately; "I've lost my pen, and I'm writing for the mail."
"Why, where are you looking for it?" I asked.
She glanced at me, and then at the book.
"I—I believe," she faltered, "I was looking for it among the p's in the French dictionary."
On another occasion I watched her revising a manuscript. As she wrote her emendations she gummed them on over the old copy, and she was so absorbed that at last she put the gum-brush into the ink-bottle. Discovering her mistake, she gave a little disconcerted sort of laugh, and took the brush away to wash it. She returned presently, examining it critically to see if it were perfectly cleansed, and having satisfied herself, she carefully put it back in the ink-bottle.
But perhaps the funniest instance of this peculiarity of hers was one that happened in the Grosvenor Gallery on a certain occasion. She had been busy with her catalogue, doing the pictures conscientiously, and not talking at all, when suddenly she burst out laughing.
"Do you know what I have been doing?" she said. "I wanted to know who that man is"—indicating a gentleman of peculiar appearance in the crowd—"and I have been looking all over him for his number, that I might hunt up his name in the catalogue!"
Her way of seeing analogies as plausible as the obvious relation of p to pen, and of acting on wholly wrong conclusions deduced from most unexceptionable premises, was another characteristic. She always blamed her early education, or rather want of education, for it. "If I had been taught to think," she said, "when my memory was being burdened with historical anecdotes torn from the text, and other useless scraps of knowledge, I should be able to see both sides of a subject, and judge rationally, now. As it is, I never see more than one side at a time, and when I have mastered that, I feel like the old judge in some Greek play, who, when he had heard one party to a suit, begged that the other would not speak as it would only poggle what was then clear to him."
But in this Ideala was not quite fair to herself.
It was not always—although, unfortunately, it was oftenest at critical moments—that she was beset with this inability to see more than one side of a subject at a time. The odd thing about it was that one never knew which side, the pathetic or the humorous, would strike her. Generally, however, it was the one that related least to herself personally. This self-forgetfulness, with a keen sense of the ludicrous, led her sometimes, when she had anything amusing to relate, to overlook considerations which would have kept other people silent.
"I saw a pair of horses running away with a heavy wagon the other day," she told us once. "It was in Cross Street, and there was a child in the way—there always is a child in the way!—and, as there was no one else to do it, I ran into the road to remove that child. I had to pull it aside quickly, and there was no time to say 'Allow me'—in fact, there was no time for anything—and in my hurry I lost my balance and fell in the mud, and the wagon came tearing over me. It was an unpleasant sensation, but I wasn't hurt, you know; neither the wheels nor the horses touched me. I got very dirty, though, and I have no doubt I looked as ridiculous as I felt, and for that I expected to be tenderly dealt with; but when I went to ask after the child, a few days later, a neighbour told me that its mother was out, and it was a good thing too, as she had been heard to declare she would 'go for that lady the next time she saw her, for flingin' of her bairn about!'"
When she had told the story, Ideala was horrified to find that the fact, which she had overlooked, of her having risked her life to save the child struck us all much more forcibly than the ingratitude that amused her.
Although her sense of humour was keen, it was not always, as I said before, the humorous side of a subject that struck her. I found her one day looking utterly miserable.
"What has happened?" I asked. "You look sad."
"And I feel sad," she answered. "I was just thinking what a pity it is those gay, pleasure-loving, flower-clad people of Hawaii are dying out!"
She was quite in earnest, and could not be made to see that there was anything droll in her mourning poignantly for a people so remote.
Another instance of her absent-mindedness recurs to me. The incident was related at our house one evening, in Ideala's presence, by Mr. Lloyd, a mutual friend. A clever drawing by another friend, of Ideala trying to force a cabman to take ten shillings for a half-crown fare— one of the great fears of her life being the chance of not giving people of that kind as much as they expected—had caused Ideala to protest that she did understand money matters.
"O yes, we all know that your capacity for business is quite extraordinary," Mr. Lloyd said, with a smile that meant something. And then, addressing us all, he asked: "Did I ever tell you about her coming to borrow five shillings from me one day? Shall I tell, Ideala?"
"You may, if you like," Ideala answered, getting very red. "But the story is not interesting."
We all began to be anxious to hear it.
"Judge for yourselves," Mr. Lloyd said. "One day the head clerk came into my private room at the Bank, looking perplexed and discomfited. 'Please, sir' he said, 'a lady wishes to see you.' 'A lady,' I answered. 'Ladies have no business here. What does she want?' 'She would not say, sir, and she would not send in her name. She said it did not matter.' I began to wonder what I had been doing. 'What is she like?' I asked. He looked all round as if in search of a simile, and then he answered: 'Well, sir, she's more like a picture than anything.' 'Show her in,' I said."
Here the story was interrupted by a shout of laughter. He laughed a little himself.
"I should have been polite in any case," he declared, apologetically. "The clerk ushered in a lady whose extreme embarrassment made me sorry for her. She changed colour half-a-dozen times in as many seconds, and then she hurled her errand at my head in these words, without any previous preparation to break the blow: 'Mr. Lloyd, can you lend me five shillings?' and before I had recovered she continued—'I came in by train this morning, and I've lost my purse, and can't get back if you won't help me—at least I think I've lost my purse. I took it out to give sixpence to a beggar—and—and here is the sixpence!' and she held it out to me. She had given her purse to the beggar and carried the sixpence off in triumph. You may well say 'Oh, Ideala!'"
"And Mr. Lloyd was so very good as to take me to the station, and see me into the train," Ideala murmured; "and he gave me his bank-book to amuse me on the journey, and carried Huxley's Elementary Physiology, which I had come in to buy, off in triumph!"
But with all her self-forgetfulness there were moments in which she showed that she must have thought deeply about herself, weighing her own individuality against others, to see what place she occupied in her own age, and how she stood with regard to the ages that had gone before; yet even this she seemed to have done in a selfless way, having apparently examined herself coolly, critically, fairly, as she might have examined any other specimen of humanity in which she felt an interest, unbiassed by any special regard.
"People always want to know if I write, or paint, or play, or what I do," she once said to me. "They all expect me to do something. My function is not to do, but to be. I make no poetry. I am a poem—if you read me aright."
And again, in a moment of despondency, she said, "I am one of the weary women of the nineteenth century. No other age could have produced me."
When she said she did nothing she must have meant she was not great in anything, for her time was all occupied, and those things in which she was interested were never so well done without her help. If any crying abuse were brought to light in the old Cathedral city; if any large measure of reform were set on foot; if the local papers suddenly became eloquent in favour of some good movement, and adroit in their powers of persuasion; if burdens had to be lifted from the oppressed, and the weak defended against great odds, you might be sure that Ideala was busy, and her work could be detected in it all. And she was especially active when efforts were being made to find amusement for the people. "That is what they want, poor things," she would say. "Their lives are such a dreary round of dull monotonous toil, and they have so little sun to cheer them. They ought to be taught to laugh, and have the brightness put into themselves, and then it would seem as if they had been relieved of half the atmospheric pressure beneath which they groan. Think what your own life would be if day day after day brought you nothing but toil; if you had nothing to look back upon, nothing to look forward to, but the labour that makes a machine of you, deadening the power to care, and holding mind and body in the galling bondage and weariness of everlasting routine."
She thought laughter an unfailing specific for most of the ills of life. "We can none of us be thankful enough for the sensation," she said. "Nothing relieves the mental oppression, which does such moral and physical harm, like mirth; of course, I mean legitimate laughter, not levity, nor the ill-natured rejoicing of small minds in such subjects for sorrow as their neighbours' faults, follies, and mistakes. What I am thinking of is the pleasure without excitement which there is in sympathetic intercourse with those large, loving natures that elevate, and the laughter without bitterness which is always a part of it."
Like most people whose goodness is neither affected nor acquired, but natural to them, Ideala saw no merit in her own works, and would not take the credit she deserved for them; nor would she have had her good deeds known at all if she could have helped it. But knowledge of these things leaks out somehow, although probably not a third of what she did will ever be even suspected.
Speaking to me of women one day, she said: "Certainly they are vainqueurs des vainqueurs de la terre in any sense they choose; but the pity of it is that they do not choose to exercise their power for good to any great extent. I agree with Madame Bernier—if it were Madame Bernier—who said: 'L'ignorance o les femmes sont de leurs devoirs, l'abus qu'elles font de leur puissance, leur font perdre le plus beau et le plus prcieux de leurs avantages, celui d'tre utiles.' But hundreds of other quotations will occur to you, written by thoughtful men and women in all ages, and all to the same effect; it is impossible to over-estimate their restraining and refining influence as the companions and mothers of men—and almost equally impossible to make them realise their responsibility or care to use their strength. I would have every woman feel herself a power for good in the land—and if only half of them did, what a world of difference it would make to everybody's health and happiness! But women should, as a rule, be silent powers. There are, of course, occasions when they must speak—and all honour to those who do so when the need arises—but our influence is most felt when it is quietly persistent and unobtrusive. There is no social reform that we might not accomplish if we agreed among ourselves to do it, and then worked, each of us using her influence to that end in her own family, and among her own friends, only. I once induced some ladies to try a little experiment to prove this. At that time the gentlemen of our respective families were all wearing a certain kind of necktie. We agreed to banish the necktie, and in a month it had disappeared, and not one of those gentlemen was ever able to tell us why he had given it up. We don't deserve much credit for our ingenuity, though," she added, lightly. "Men are so easily managed. All you have to do is to feed them and flatter them."
"I think that hardly fair," I commented.
"What? The feeding and flattering?"
"No, the conspiracy."
"Well, that occurred to me too—afterwards, when it was too late to do anything but repent. At the time, I own, I thought of nothing but the success of the experiment as an example and proof of our will-power."
"You considered one side of the subject only, as per usual, when you are eager and interested," I softly insinuated.
She frowned at me thoughtfully; then, after a pause, she resumed: "Ah, yes! You may be sure there is a great deal of good motive power in women, but most of it is lost for want of knowledge and means to apply it. It works like the sails of a windmill not attached to the machinery, which whirl round and round with incredible velocity and every evidence of strength, but serve no better purpose than to show which way the wind blows."
This question of the position of women in our own day occupied her a good deal.
"The women of my time," she said to me once, "are in an unsettled state, it may be a state of transition. Much that made life worth having has lost its charm for them. The old interests pall upon them. Occupations that used to be the great business of their lives are now thought trivial, and are left to children and to servants. Principles accepted since the beginning of time have been called in question. Weariness and distrust have taken the place of peace and content, and doubt and dissatisfaction are the order of the day. Women want something; they are determined to have it, too; and doubtless they would get it if only they knew what it is that they want. They are struggling to arrive at something, but opinions differ widely as to what that something ought to be; and the result is that they have divided themselves into three classes, not exactly distinct: they dovetail into each other so nicely that it is hard to say where the influence of the one set ends and the other begins. There are, first of all, the women who in their struggles for political power have done so much to unsex us. They have tried to force themselves into unnatural positions, and the consequence has been about as pleasing and edifying as an attempt to make a goose sing. They clamour for change, mistaking change for progress. But don't let the puzzling dovetail confuse you. The people I speak of are not those who have so nobly devoted themselves to the removal of the wrongs of women, though they work together. But the object of all this class is good. They wish to raise us, and what they want, for the most part, is a little more common sense—as is shown in their system of education, for instance, which cultivates the intellectual at the expense of the physical powers, girls being crammed as boys (to their great let and hindrance also) are crammed, just when nature wants all their strength to assist their growth; the result of which becomes periodically apparent when a number of amiable young ladies are let loose on society without hair or teeth. But the thing they clamour for most is equality. There is a great deal to be said in favour of placing the sexes on an equal footing, and if social conventions are stronger and more admirable than natural instincts—and doubtless they are—the thing should be done; but the innate perversity of women make it difficult—for, I know this, that whatever the position of a true woman, and however much she may clamour for equality with men in general, the man she herself loves in particular will always be her master.
"But such ridicule as this party has brought upon itself would not have mattered so much had nothing worse come of it. Unfortunately, there seems to be no neutral ground for us women: we either do good or harm; and I hold that first class responsible for the existence of those people who clamour for change of any kind, regardless of the consequences. Their ideas, shorn of all good intention, have resulted in the production of a new creature; and have made it possible for women who have the faults of both sexes and the virtues of neither to mix in society. The bad work done by the influence of this second class is only too apparent. It is to them we owe the fact that there is less refinement, less courtesy, less of the really good breeding which shows itself in kindness and consideration for others, and, Heaven help us! even less modesty among us now than there was some years ago."
"These are the women, too, who spend their time and talents on the production of cleverly written books of the most corrupt tendency. Their works are a special feature of the age, and are doubly dangerous because they have the art of making the worst ideas attractive, by presenting them in forms too refined and beautiful to shock even the most delicate."
"Besides these two classes there is the third, which is more difficult to define. It is the one on which our hope rests. The women who belong to it are dissatisfied like the others, but they are less decided, and therefore their dissatisfaction takes no positive shape. They also want something, and go this way and that as if in search of it, but they are not really trying for anything in particular. They do good and evil indiscriminately, and for the same motive: they find distraction in doing something—anything. But the desire to do good is latent in all of them; show them the way, and it will make itself apparent."
"But what is the reason of all this dissatisfaction?" I asked. "Why don't you go to your husbands and brothers to be set right, as of old?"
"Ah! when you ask me that, you get to the first cause of the trouble," she answered. "The truth is that we have lost faith in our men. They claim some superiority for themselves, but we find none. The age requires people to practise what they preach, and yet expects us to be guided by the counsels of those whose own lives, we know, have rendered them contemptible. They are not fit to guide us, and we are not fit to go alone. I suppose we shall come to an understanding eventually— either they must be raised or we must be lowered. It is for the death of manliness we women mourn. We marry, and find we have taken upon ourselves misery, and lifelong widowhood of the mind and moral nature. Do you wonder that some of us ask: Why should we keep ourselves pure if impurity is to be our bedfellow? You make us breathe corruption, and wonder that we lose our health."
"But why do you talk of the death of manliness? Men have as much courage now as they ever had."
"Oh, of course—mere animal courage; there is plenty of that, but that is nothing. A cat will fight for her kittens. It is moral courage that makes a man, and where do you find it now? Are men self-denying? Are they scrupulous to a shadow of the truth? Are they disinterested? How many gentlemen have you met in the course of your life? I know about half a dozen."
"What do you call a gentleman, then?" I asked in surprise. "What makes a man one?"
"Why, truth and affection, of course," she answered; "the one is the most ennobling, and the other the most refining quality. As a child I used to think ladies and gentlemen never told stories; it was only the common people who were dis-honourable, and that was what made them common. Hlas! one lives and learns!"
"I don't think the world is worse than it ever was," I said, drily.
"Not worse, when we know so much better!" she answered with scorn. "Not worse when we have learnt to see so clearly, and most of us acknowledge that
It is our will Which thus enchains us to permitted ill!
It is nearly two thousand years since Christianity began its work, and it is still unaccomplished. Do you know, I sometimes think that all this talk of virtue, and teaching of religion, is a kind of practical joke, gravely kept up to find a church parade of respectability for States, a profession for hundreds, and a means of influencing men by making a tender point in their nervous system to be touched, as with a rod, when necessary—a rod that is held over them always in terrorem! We all talk about morality; but try some measure of reform, and you will find that every man sees the necessity of it for his neighbour only. Goodness is happiness, and sin is disease. The truism is as old as the hills, and as evident; but if men were in earnest, do you suppose they would go on for ever choosing sin and its ghastly companion as they do? Do you know, there are moments when I think that even their reverence for the purity of women is a sham. For why do they keep us pure? Is it not to make each morsel more delicious for themselves, that sense and sentiment may be satisfied together, and their own pleasure made more complete? Individuals may be in earnest, but the great bulk of mankind is a hypocrite. When the history of this age is written, moral cowardice and self-indulgence will be found to have been the most striking characteristics of the people. There is no truth to be found in the inward parts."
But Ideala did not often adopt this tone, and she would herself check other people who were preparing to assume it. She had a favourite quotation, adroitly mangled, to suit such occasions. "When we begin to inculcate morality as a science, we must discard moralising as a method," she declared; and she would also beg us to stop the hysteria. "It is the mortal malady of all well-beloved measures," she said; "and it spreads to an epidemic if the infected ones are not suppressed at once to prevent contagion."
But, although she spoke so positively when taken out of herself by the interest and importance of a subject, she had no very high opinion of her own judgment and power to decide. A little more self-esteem would have been good for her; she was too diffident, "I have not come across people on whose knowledge I could rely," she told me. "I have been obliged to study alone, and to form my opinions for myself out of such scraps of information as I have had the capacity to acquire from reading and observation. I am, therefore, always prepared to find myself mistaken, even when I am surest about a thing—for
What am I? An infant crying in the night: An infant crying for the light: And with no language but a cry!
In practice, too, she frequently, albeit unconsciously, diverged from her theories to some considerable extent; as on one occasion, when, after talking long and earnestly of the sin of selfishness, she absently picked up a paper I had just cut with intent to enjoy myself, took it away with her to the drawing-room, and sat on it for the rest of the morning—as I afterwards heard.
Ideala held that dignity and calm are essential in a woman, but, like the rest of the world, she found it hard to attain to her own standard of excellence. Her bursts of enthusiasm were followed by fits of depression, and these again by periods of indifference, when it was hard to rouse her to interest in anything. She always said, and was probably right, that want of proper discipline in childhood was the reason of this variableness, which she deplored, but could neither combat nor conceal. Temperament must also have had something to do with it. Her nervous system was too highly strung, she was too sensitive, too emotional, too intense. She reflected phases of feeling with which she was brought into contact as a lake reflects the sky above it, and the bird that skims across it, and the boats that rest upon its breast; yet, like the lake's, her own nature remained unchanged; it might be darkened by shadows, and lashed by tempests till it raged, but the pure element showed divinely even in its wrath, and the passion of it was expended always to some good end.
But even her love of the beautiful was carried to excess. It was a passion with her which would, in a sturdier age, have been considered a vice. She delighted in the scent of flowers, the song of the thrushes in the spring; colour, and beautiful forms. Doubtless the emotion they caused her was pure enough, and it was natural that, highly bred, cultivated, and refined as she was, she should feel these delicate, sensuous pleasures in a greater degree than lower natures do. There was danger, however, in the over-education of the senses, which made their ready response inevitable, but neither limited the subjects, nor regulated the degree, to which they should respond. But it would be hard in any case to say where cultivation of love for the beautiful should end, and to determine the exact point at which the result ceases to be intellectual and begins to be sensual.
I have sat and watched Ideala lolling at an open window in the summer. The house stood on a hill, a river wound through the valley below, and beyond the river—the land sloped up again, green and dotted with trees, to a range of low hills, crested with a fringe of wood.
"Do you know what there is beyond those hills?" Ideala asked me once, abruptly. "I don't know; but I love to believe that the sea is there, and that the sun is sinking into it now. Sometimes I fancy I can hear it murmur."
And then followed a long silence. And the scent of mignonette and roses blew in upon her, and the twilight deepened, and I saw her grow pale with pleasure when the nightingale began to sing—and then I stole away and never was missed. She would lie in a long chair for hours like that, scarcely moving, and never speaking. At first I used to wonder what she thought about; but afterwards I knew that at such times she did not think, she only felt.
I have some pictures of her as she was then, dressed in a gown of some quaint blue and white Japanese material, with her white throat bare—I was just going to catalogue her charms, but it seems indelicate to describe a woman, point by point, like a horse that is for sale. I have some other pictures of her, too, as she appeared to me one hot summer when I was painting a picture by the river, and she used to come down the towing-path to watch me work, and sit beside me on the grass for hours together, talking, reading aloud, reciting, or silent, according to her mood, but always interesting. It was then I learnt to know her best. And I am always glad to think of her as I used to see her then, coming towards me in one particular grey frock she wore, tight-fitting and perfect, yet with no detail evident. It was like an expression of herself, that dress, so quiet to all seeming, and yet so rich in material, and so complex in design. The wonder and the beauty of it grew upon you, and never failed of its effect.
When I first knew Ideala her religious opinions were all unsettled. "I neither believe nor disbelieve," she told me; "I am in a state of don't know; or perhaps it would be more exact to say that I both doubt and believe at one and the same time. I go indifferently to either church, Protestant or Catholic, and am thankful when any note of music, or thrill of feeling in the voice, or noble sentiment, elevates me so that I can pray. But I am told that both Catholics and Protestants consider me a weak waverer, and call me incorrigible. Sometimes I cannot pray for months together, and when I do it is generally to ask for something I want, not to praise or give thanks. But what a blank it is when one cannot pray; when one has lost the power to conceive that there is a something greater than man, to whom man is nevertheless all in all, and to whom we may look for comfort in all times of our tribulation, and for sympathy in all times of our wealth! To be able to give thanks to God when one is happy is the most rapturous, and to be able to call upon Him in the day of trouble is the most blessed, state of mind I know. Yet I believe we should only pray for the possible. The leafless tree may pray for the time of buds and blossoms; will the time come the sooner? Perhaps not, but it will come."
"I must confess," she said on another occasion, "that I do have moments of pure scepticism; but when I cannot believe in the existence of a God, and a Beyond, I feel as if the sky were nearer, and weighed upon me, so that I could not lift my head."
She thought religion consisted much more in doing right than in believing right, and set morality above faith; but I think she had a leaning towards the Roman Catholic religion nevertheless.
"It is a grand old faith," she said, "only it has certain ramifications with which I should always quarrel, notably that of the Sacred Heart with which Catholics deface their lovely Lady in the churches. I always feel that such bad art cannot be good religion. When the Roman Catholic religion commanded respect it expressed itself better—as in the days when it carved itself in harmonies of solid stone, and wrote itself in tint and tone on glowing canvases, and learnt to speak in thundering mass and mighty hymns of praise! There are people who think these new shoots good as a sign of life in the tree, and this consideration might perhaps make their appearance welcome; but a great deal of strength is expended on their production, and it would be just as well to lop them off again. The old tree wants pruning and cutting back occasionally, and it is a false sentiment that is letting it fall to decay for the sake of these struggling branches.
"There is another thing, too, for which we should all quarrel with the Catholic religion. I think the fact his already been noticed by some writer; at all events, it is evident enough to have occurred to any one. I mean the fact that the Church, by its narrow views about education, and its most unspiritual ambition for itself, has retarded the world's progress for centuries by interfering with the law of natural selection. As a matter of course for ages all the best men went into the Church; it was the only career open to them; and so they left no descendants."
At our house, on another occasion, when the Roman Catholic religion happened to be under discussion, she launched forth some observations in her usual emphatic way. There were only two strangers present, a lady and her husband. Ideala asked the lady, who was sitting next to her, if she were a Catholic, to which the lady answered "No;" and Ideala, satisfied, proceeded to remark: "It may be the true religion, but it certainly is not the religion of truth. The doctrine of expediency, or the latitude they allow themselves on the score of expediency—I don't quite know how they put it—but it has much to answer for. I never find that my Roman Catholic friends are true, as my Protestant friends are. There is always a something kept back, a reservation; a want of straightforwardness, even when there is no positive deception—I can't describe the thing I mean, but it is quite perceptible, and causes an uneasy feeling of distrust, which is all the more tormenting from its vagueness and want of definition. The low-class Roman Catholics, I find, never hesitate if a lie will serve their purpose; and Roman Catholic servants are notoriously untrustworthy. That, of course, proves nothing, for one knows that low-class people of any religion are not to be depended on—still, there is no doubt that one finds deception more rife among Catholics than among Protestants, and one wonders why, if the religion is not to blame."
My sister, Claudia, had tried to catch Ideala's eye, and stop her, but in vain; and the lady next her broke out the moment she paused: "Indeed, you are quite wrong. You cannot have known many Catholics. They are not untrue."
"O yes, I have known numbers," Ideala answered; "I speak from experience. Yet it always seems to me that the Roman Catholic religion is good for individuals. There is pleasure in it, and help and comfort for them. But then it is death to the progress of nations, and the question is: Would an individual be justified in adding a unit more for his own benefit to a system which would ruin his country? I think not."
Here, however, she stopped, seeing at last that something was wrong.
"What dreadful mistake did I make this evening?" she asked me afterwards. "Mrs. Jervois declared she wasn't a Catholic."
"But her husband is," I answered; "and he heard every word."
Not long afterwards Mrs. Jervois wrote and told us she had entered the Catholic Church. "I had, in fact, been received before I went to you," she confessed.
"There!" Ideala exclaimed. "It is just what I said. A want of common honesty is a part of the religion; and you see she had begun to practise it while she was here."
"What an eternal lie it is they preach when they tell us life is not worth having," she said to me once, speaking of preachers generally. "I have heard an oleosaccharine priest preach for an hour on this subject, detailing the worthlessness of all earthly pleasures, with which he seemed to be intimately acquainted—his appearance making one suspect that he had not even yet exhausted them all himself—and giving a florid account of the glories of the life to come, about which he appeared to know as much but to care less; just as if heaven might not begin on earth if only men would let it."
One day I had to warn her about acting so often on impulse. She heard what I had to say very good-naturedly, and, after thinking about it for a while, she said: "What a pity it is one never sees an impulse coming. It is impossible to know whether they arise from below, or descend from above. I always find if I act on one that it has arisen; and as surely if I leave it alone it proves to have been a good opportunity lost. And how curiously our thoughts go on, often so irrespective of ourselves. I was in a Roman Catholic church the other day, and the priest—a friend of mine, who looks like the last of the Mohicans minus the feathers in his hair; but a good man, with nice, soft, velvety brown eyes—preached most impressively. He told us that the Lord was there—there on that very altar, ready to answer our prayers; and, oh dear! when I came to think of it, there were so many of my prayers waiting to be answered! I 'felt like' presenting them all over again, it seemed such a good opportunity. And then they sang the O salutaris Hostia divinely— so divinely that I thought if the Lord really had been there He would certainly have made them sing it again—and I could not pray any more after that. You call this rank irreverence, do you not? I do. And I wish I had not thought it. Yet it was one of those involuntary tricks of the mind for which I cannot believe that we are to be held responsible. Theologians would say it was a temptation of the devil, but they are wrong. The first cause of these mental lapses is to be found in some habit of levity, acquired young, and not easily got rid of, but still not hopeless. But prevention is better than cure, and children should be taught right-mindedness early. I wish I had been. Happy is the child who is started in life with a set of fixed principles, and the power to respect."
I used to wish that there might be a universal religion, but Ideala did not share my feeling on this subject. "I suppose it is a fine idea," she said; "but while minds run in so many different grooves, it seems to me far finer for one system of morality to have found expressions enough to satisfy nearly everybody."
She had very decided views about what heaven ought to be.
"The mere material notion of abundance of gold and precious stones, which appealed to the early churchmen, has no charm for us," she declared. "We must have new powers of perception, and new pleasures provided for us, such, for instance, as Mr. Andrew Lang suggests in an exquisite little poem about the Homeric Phacia—the land whose inhabitants were friends of the gods, a sort of heaven upon earth." And then she quoted:
The languid sunset, mother of roses, Lingers, a light on the magic seas; The wide fire flames as a flower uncloses; Heavy with odour and loose to the breeze.
* * * * *
The strange flowers' perfume turns to singing, Heard afar over moonlit seas; The siren's song, grown faint with winging, Falls in scent on the cedar trees.
"Those lines were the first to make me grasp the possibility of having new faculties added to our old ones in another state of existence," she said, "faculties which should give us a deeper insight into the nature of things, and enable us to discover new pleasures in the unity which may be expected to underlie beauty and excellence in all their manifestations, as Mr. Norman Pearson puts it. Did you ever read that paper of his, 'After Death,' in the Nineteenth Century? It embodies what I had long felt, but could never grasp before I found his admirable expression of it. 'I can see no reason,' he says, in one passage in particular which I remember word for word, I think, it gives me such pleasure to recall it—'I can see no reason for supposing that some such insight would be impossible to the quickened faculties of a higher development. With a nature material so far as the existence of those faculties might require, but spiritual to the highest degree in their exercise and enjoyment: under physical conditions which might render us practically independent of space, and actually free from the host of physical evils to which we are now exposed, we might well attain a consummation of happiness, generally akin to that for which we now strive, but idealised into something like perfection. The faculties which would enable us to obtain a deeper and truer view of all the manifestations of cosmic energy would at the same time reveal to us new forms of beauty, new possibilities of pleasure on every side: and—to take a single instance—the emotions to which the sight of Niagara now appeals might then be gratified by a contemplation of the fierce grandeur of some sun's chromosphere or the calmer glories of its corona.' That satisfies, does it not?" she added, with a sigh. "It suggests such infinite possibilities."
* * * * *
One day, when she was making herself miserable for want of a religion, I tried to comfort her by talking of the different people whose lives had been good and pure and noble, although they had had no faith.
"I suppose my principles are right," she said; "but if they are, they have come right by accident. The children of the people are sent to Sunday-schools, and taught the difference between right and wrong; we seem to be expected to know it instinctively. I think if I had learnt I might have profited, because I cling so fondly to the one principle I ever heard clearly enunciated. It was on the sin of shooting foxes; and I cannot tell you the horror I have of the crime, even down to the present day. But, now I think of it, I did receive two other scraps of religious training. My governess taught me the Ten Commandments by making me say them after her when I was eating bread and sugar for breakfast before going to church on Sunday. The thought of them always brings back the flavour of bread and sugar. And the other scrap I got from a clergyman to whom I was sent on a single occasion when I was thought old enough to be confirmed. He asked me which was the commandment with promise, and I didn't know, so he told me; and then I made him laugh about a horse of mine that used to have great fun trying to break my neck, and after that he said I should do. I did not agree with him, however, and I positively refused to be confirmed until I knew more about it. My mother said I was the most disagreeable child she had ever known, which was probably true, but as an argument it failed to convince. It was her last remark on the subject, happily, and after that the thing was allowed to drop."
Ideala was fourteen when she refused to be confirmed for conscientious scruples, and although she made light of it in this way, she had suffered a good deal and been severely punished at the time for her refusal, but vainly, for she never gave in.
In after-life she held, of course, that Christianity was the highest moral revelation the world had ever known; but when she saw that legal right was not always moral right, I think she began to look for a higher.
By baptism she belonged to the Church of England, but she seems to have thought of the Sacrament always with the idea of transubstantiation in her mind. She spoke of it reverently, but had never been able to take it, and for a curious reason: she said the idea of it nauseated her. She felt that the elements were unnatural food, and therefore she could not touch them—and this feeling never left her but once, when she was dangerously ill, and yearned, as she told me, for the Sacrament more than for life and health. Day and night the longing never left her; but, not having been confirmed, she did not like to ask for it, and as she recovered the old feeling gradually returned.
Religious difficulties always tormented her more or less. As she grew older she felt with Shelley that belief is involuntary, and a man is neither to be praised nor blamed for it; and she was always ready to acknowledge with Sir Philip Sidney that "Reason cannot show itself more reasonable than to leave reasoning on things above reason," but nevertheless her mind did not rest.
I have also heard her quote, "Credulity is the man's weakness, but the child's strength," and add that in matters of faith and religion we are all children, and I have thought at times that she had been able to leave it so; but something always fell from her sooner or later which showed that the old trouble was rankling still—as when she told me once: "I have never heard the Divine voice which has called you and all my friends. I listen for it, but it does not speak. I call, but there is no reply. I wait, but it does not come. The heaven of heavens is dark to me, and the yearning of my soul meets no response. Will it be so for ever?"
No, not for ever—but she was led by tortuous ways, and left to work out her own salvation in very fear and trembling, till the dear human love was given to her in pity to help her to know something of that which is Divine. And then, I hope, above the trouble of her senses, and the turmoil of the world, the Divine voice did call her, and she was able at last to hear.
Ideala often recurred to the subject of work for women.
"There are so many thousands of us," she said, "who have no object in life, and nothing to make us take it seriously. My own is a case in point. I am not necessary, even to my husband. There is nothing I am bound to do for him, or that he requires of me, nothing but to be agreeable when he is with me, which would not interfere with a serious occupation if I had one, and is scarcely interest enough in life for an energetic woman. My household duties take, on an average, half an hour a day; and everything in our house is done regularly, and well done. My social duties may be got through at odd moments, and the more of a pastime I make them the better I fulfil them; and, with the exception of these, there is nothing in my life that I cannot have done for me by some one better able to do it than I am. And even if I had children I should not be much more occupied, for the things they ought to learn from their mothers are best taught by example. For all practical purposes, parents, as a rule, are bad masters for any but very young children. They err on the side of over severity or the reverse. So you see I have no obligations of consequence, and there is, therefore, nothing in my life to inspire a sense of responsibility. And all this seems to me a grievous waste of Me. I remember Lord Wensum telling me, when we discussed this subject, that he was travelling once with a well-known editor, and, noticing the number of villas that had sprung up of late years along the whole line of rail they were on, he said: 'I wonder what the ladies in those villas do with their time? I suppose their social duties are limited, and they are too well off to be obliged to trouble themselves about anything.' 'It is the existence of those villas,' the editor answered, 'that makes the present profession of the novelist possible.' But I think," said Ideala, "that those women might find something better to do than to make a profession for novelists."
"But you do a good deal yourself, Ideala," I ventured.
"Yes, in a purposeless way. All my acts are isolated; it would make little difference if they had never been done."
"Then you are not content, after all, to be merely a poem?" I said, maliciously. "You would like to do as well as to be?"
She laughed. Then, after a little, she said earnestly: "Do you know, I always feel as if I could do something—teach something—or help others in a small way with some work of importance. I never believe I was born just to live and die. But I have a queer feeling about it. I am sure I shall be made to go down into some great depth of sin and misery myself, in order to learn what it is I have to teach."
She loved music, and painting, and poetry, and science, and none of her loves were barren. She embraced them each in turn with an ardour that resulted in the production of an offspring—a song, a picture, a poem, or book on some most serious subject, and all worthy of note. But she was inconstant, and these children of her thought or fancy were generally isolated efforts that marked the culminating point of her devotion, and lessened her interest if they did not exhaust her strength.
Perhaps, though, I wrong her when I call her inconstant. It seems to me now that each new interest was a step by which she mounted upwards, learning to sympathise practically and perfectly with all men in their work as she passed them on her way to find her own.
She knew the poor of the place well, and took a lively interest in all that concerned them; and occasionally she would confide some of her own odd observations and reflections to me.
"On Sunday morning all the women wash their doorsteps," she told me; "I think it is part of their religion."
And on another occasion she said: "They have such lovely children here, and such swarms of them. I am always hard on the women with lovely children. People say it is envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, that makes me so; but it really is because I think women who have nice children should be better than other women. It would be worse for one of them to do a wrong thing than for poor childless me."
This conclusion may be quarrelled with as illogical, but the feeling that led to it was beautiful beyond question; and, indeed, all her ideas on that subject were beautiful.
She went once, soon after she came among us, to comfort a lady in the neighbourhood who had lost a baby at its birth.
"It is sad that you should lose your child," Ideala said to her; "but you are better off than I am, for I never knew what it was to be a mother."
She would have thought it a privilege to have experienced even the sorrows of maternity.
Talking about the people, she told me: "They draw such nice distinctions. They speak of 'a lady' and 'a real lady.' A 'real lady' is a person who gives no trouble. If Mrs. Vanbrugh wants anything from the butcher, and he has already sent to her house once that day, she does not expect him to send again; she sends to him—and she is 'a real lady.' Mrs. Stanton is also thoughtful, but she is something more; she is sociable and kind, and talks to them all in a friendly way, just as if they were human beings; and she is something more than 'a real lady'—she's 'a real nice lady.'
"Do you know Mrs. Polter at the fish-shop? What a fine-looking woman she is! Middle-aged, intelligent, and a very good specimen of her class, I should think. She has eight children already, and would consider the ninth a further blessing. Her husband is a good-looking man, too, and most devoted. In fact, they are quite an ideal pair with their eight children and their fish-shop. He had to go to Yarmouth the other day to buy bloaters, and while he was away she went by the five o'clock train every morning to choose the day's supply of fish for the shop, and he was quite unhappy about it. He was afraid she would 'overdo' herself, and rather than that should happen he desired her to let the business go to the—ahem! He made her write every day to say how she was, and was wretched till he returned to relieve her of her arduous duties. She made friends with me during the scarlet fever epidemic. Number eight was a baby then, and she was afraid he might catch the disease and be taken to the hospital and die for want of her; and I sympathised strongly with her denunciations of the cruelty of the act. Fancy taking little babies from their mothers! Barbarous, don't you think it? One day a lady came into the shop while I was there. She was dressed in a bright pink costume, with a large hat all smothered in pink feathers. I thought of the Queen of Sheba, and felt alarmed. Mrs. Polter told me afterwards she was 'just a lady,' rolling in recently acquired wealth, and 'as hard to please as if she had never washed her own doorstep.' It was then I learnt the difference between 'a lady' and 'a real lady.'"
One of Ideala's exploits got into the paper somehow, and she was annoyed about it, and anxious to make us believe the account of the risk she ran had been greatly exaggerated. I was present when she gave her own version of the story, which was characteristic in every way.
"I heard frantic cries from the river," she said. "Some one was shrieking, 'The child will be drowned!' and I ran to see what was the matter. A man was tearing up and down on the bank, a child was struggling in the water, and as there was nobody else to be seen he looked to me for assistance! I advised him to go in and bring the child out, but the idea did not appear to commend itself to him, so he took to running up and down again, bawling, 'The child will be drowned!' And indeed it seemed very likely; so I was obliged to go in and bring it out myself. The man was overjoyed when I restored it to him. He clasped it in his arms with every demonstration of affection; and then he looked at me and became embarrassed. He evidently felt that he ought to say something, but the difficulty was what to say. At last a bright idea seemed to strike him. His countenance cleared, and he spoke with much feeling. 'I am afraid you are rather wet,' he observed; and then he left me, and a sympathetic landlady, who keeps a little public-house by the river, and had witnessed the occurrence, took me in and dried me. She gave me whisky and hot water, and entertained me for the rest of the afternoon. She is a remarkable woman, and I should visit her often were it not for her love of, and faith in, whisky and hot water. I tell her there are five things which make the nose red— viz., cold, tight-lacing, disease of the right side of the heart, dyspepsia, and alcohol, and the greatest of these is alcohol; but she says a little colour anywhere would be an improvement to me, and I feel that I can have nothing in common with a woman who has such bad taste in the distribution of colour."
Ideala's notions of propriety were altogether unconventional. She never could be made to understand that it was not the proper thing to talk familiarly to any one she met, and discuss any subject they were equal to with them.
"It is good for people to talk, and natural, and therefore proper," she said. "If I can give pleasure to a stranger by doing so, or he can give pleasure to me, it would not be right to keep silent."
She carried this idea of her duty to her neighbour rather far sometimes.
I remember her telling me once about two old gentlemen she had travelled with the day before.
"The sun came in and bothered me, and one of them offered to draw the blind," she said, "and he remarked it was rather a treat to see the sun, we have so little of it now; and I said that was true, and told him how I pitied the farmers. I had to stay in my room the other day with a bad cold, and I amused myself watching one of them at work in some fields opposite. The state of his mind was expressed by his boots. On Monday the sun was shining, the air was mild, and it seemed as if we were going to have a continuance of fine weather, and the farmer appeared of a cheerful countenance, and his boots were polished and laced. On Tuesday there was an east wind, veering south, with showers, and his boots were laced, but not polished. On Wednesday there was frost, fog, and gloom, and they were neither laced nor polished. On Thursday there was a snowstorm, and he had no boots at all on; and after that I did not see him, and I wondered if he had committed suicide—in which case I thought the jury might almost have brought in a verdict of 'justifiable felo-de-se.' And when I told that story the other old gentleman shut his book, and began to talk too. And I said I thought the weather was much colder than it used to be, for I could remember wearing muslin dresses in May, and I could not wear them at all now; but I did not know if the change were in the climate or in myself—perhaps a little of both—though, indeed, I knew that, to a certain extent, it was in the climate, which had been very much altered in different districts by drainage, and cutting, or planting—altered for the better, however, as a rule. And one old gentleman had heard that before, but did not understand it exactly, so I explained it to him; and then I talked about changes of climate in general, and the formation of beds of coal, and the ice period, and sun-spots, and the theory of comets, and about my husband getting up to see the last one, and going out in a felt hat and dressing-gown with a bed-candle to look for it—and about that dream of mine, did I tell you? I dreamt the comet came into our drawing-room, and the leg of a Chinese table turned into a snake and snorted at it, and the comet looked so taken aback that I woke myself with a shout of laughter. And then we talked of popular superstitions about comets, and dreams, and ghosts— particularly ghosts, and I told a number of creepy stories, and one old gentleman pretended he didn't believe in them, but he did, and so did the other without any pretence; and we talked about Darwinism, and the nature of the soul, and Nihilism, and the state of society—and—and a few other things. And they were such dear delightful old gentlemen, and they knew such a lot, and were so clever; and one of them was a Railway Director, and the other couldn't let his farms, and was bothered about his pheasants, and wanted to have the trains altered to suit him. I should so like to meet them both again."
"And how long did all this take, Ideala?"
"Oh, some hours. I fancy their dreams would be rather confused last night," she added, naively.
"Poor old gentlemen!" said I.
This sociability and inclination to talk the matter out, and, I may say, a certain amount of innocence and lack of worldly wisdom into the bargain, betrayed her occasionally into small improprieties of conduct that were not to be excused, and would possibly not have been forgiven in any one but Ideala. But such things were allowed in her as certain things are allowed in certain people—not because the things are right in themselves, but because the people who do them see no harm in them. There are people, too, who seem to enjoy the privilege of making wrong right by doing it. Society, however, only accords this privilege to a limited and distinguished few.
When Ideala saw for herself that she had done an unjustifiable thing she was very ready to confess it. I always fancied she had some latent idea of making atonement in that way. It never mattered how much a story told against herself, nor how much malicious people might make of it to her discredit; she told all, inimitably, and with scrupulous fidelity to fact.
One day she was standing waiting for a train at the station at York, and in her absent way she fixed her eyes on a gentleman who was walking about the platform.
Presently he went up to her, and, without any apology or show of respect, remarked: "I am sure I have seen you before."
"Probably," Ideala rejoined, as if the occurrence were the most natural thing in the world, "but I do not remember you. Perhaps if I heard your name——?"
"Oh, I don't suppose you ever heard my name," he said.
"In that case I can never have known you," she answered, calmly. "I never know any one except by name. I suppose you are an Englishman?"
"Yes," he said, eagerly; "I am in the 5th——"
"Ah, I thought so," she interrupted, placidly. "Englishmen in the 5th, and some other regiments, are apt to have but the one idea——"
"And that is?"
"And that is a bad one."
He looked at her for a moment, and then, hat in hand, he made her a low bow, and left her without another word.
"I think he felt ill, and went to have some refreshment," she added, when she told me.
From what happened afterwards I am sure that at the time she had no idea of the real significance of the position in which she found herself placed on this occasion. But, as a rule, if she did or said the wrong thing, she became painfully conscious of the fact immediately afterwards—indeed, it was generally afterwards that she grasped the full meaning of most things. She was ready with repartee without being in the least quick of understanding; she had to think things over, and even then she was not sure to do the right thing next time.
"Mr. Graves is ten years younger than his wife," she told me once, "and only fancy what I said one day. It was in his studio, and she was there. I declared a woman could have no sense of propriety at all who married a man younger than herself—that no good could possibly come of such marriages—and a lot more. Then I suddenly remembered, and you can imagine my feelings! But what do you think I did? I went there the next year, and said the same thing again exactly!"
When we were a small party of intimate friends, and Ideala was quite at her ease with us, it was pleasant to see her lolling, a little languidly as was her wont (for physically her energy was fitful), in the corner of a couch, looking happy and interested, her face, which was sad in repose, lit up for the time with amusement, as she quietly listened to our talk, and observed all that was going on around her. Even when she did not speak a word she somehow managed to make her presence felt, and, as a rule, she spoke little on these occasions. But sometimes we managed to draw her out, and sometimes she would burst forth suddenly of her own accord, with a torrent of eloquence that silenced us all; and even when she was utterly wrong she charmed us. Her chance observations were generally noteworthy either for their sense or their humour. It was only her sense of humour, I think, that saved her from being sentimental; but she gave expression to it in season and out of season, and would let it carry her too far sometimes, for she made enemies for herself more than once by the way she exposed the absurdity of certain things to the very people who believed in them. Every lapse of this kind caused her infinite regret, but the fault seemed incurable: she was always either repenting of it or committing it, although, having so many quirks of her own, she felt that she, of all people in the world, should have dealt most tenderly with the weaknesses of others.
She knew how narrowly she escaped being sentimental, and would often joke about her danger in that respect. "This lovely summer weather makes me sickly sentimental," she told me once. "I feel like the heroine of a three-volume novel written by a young lady of eighteen, and I think continually of him. I don't know in the least who he is, but that makes no difference. The thought of him delights me, and I want to write long letters to him, and make verses about him the whole day long. And he wants me to be good."
She had two or three pet abominations of her own, any allusion to which was sure to make her outrageous—false sentiment and affectation of any kind were amongst them. She had little habits, too, that we were all pleased to fall in with. Sitting in the corner of a couch, and of one couch in particular in every house, was one of these; and people got into the way of giving up that seat to her whenever she appeared. I think it would have puzzled us all to say why or wherefore, for she never said or looked anything that could make us think she wished to appropriate it; she simply took it as a matter of course when it was offered to her, and probably did not know that she invariably sat there. Ideala was a splendid horsewoman, and swam like a fish; but she was not good at tennis or games of any kind, and she did not dance, for a curious reason: she objected to be touched by people for whom she had no special affection. She even disliked to shake hands, and often wished some one would put the custom out of fashion. With regard to dancing I have heard her say, too, that she sympathised entirely with the Oriental feeling on the subject. She thought it delightful to be danced to, to lie still with a pleasant companion near her who would not talk too much, and listen to the music, and enjoy the poetry of motion coolly and at ease. "I love to see the 'dancers dancing in tune,'" she said; "but to have to dance myself would be as great a bother as to have to cook my dinner as well as eat it. I suppose it is a healthy amusement—indeed, I know it is when you take it as I do; for when all you people come down the morning after a dance with haggard eyes and no power to do anything, I am as fresh as a lark, and have decidedly the best of it."
She was not good at games because she was not ambitious. She did not care to have her skill commended, and was content to lose or win with equal indifference—so long as only the honour of the thing was involved; but when the stakes were more material she showed a vice of which she was quite conscious.
"I daren't play for money," she said to me. "I never have, and I have always said that I never will. All the women of my family are born gamblers. My mother has often told me that regularly, when she was a girl, the day after she received her allowance she had either doubled it or lost it all; and before she was twenty she hadn't a jewel worth anything in her possession—and my aunts were as bad. One of them staked herself one night to a gentleman she was playing with, and he won, and married her. Gambling was more the custom then than it is now, but for me it is as much in the air as if it were still the fashion. When there is any talk of play I feel fascinated, and when I see a pack of cards the temptation is so irresistible that I have often to go away to save my resolution."
Which made me think of a favourite quotation of Lessing's from Minna:—"Tout les gens d'esprit aiment le jeu la folie."
Ideala's low esteem for "mere animal courage" was probably due to the fact that she possessed it herself in a high degree. Yet soon after I met her I began to suspect, and was afterwards convinced, that something in her manner which had puzzled me at first arose from fear. There was that in her life which made her afraid of the world, which would, had it guessed the truth, have pryed with curious eyes into her sorrow, and found an interest in seeing her suffer. The trouble was her husband. She rarely spoke of him herself, and I think I ought to follow her example, and say as little about him as possible. He was jealous of her, jealous of her popularity, and jealous of every one who approached her. He carried it so far that she scarcely dared to show a preference, and was even obliged to be cold and reserved with some of her best friends. I was a privileged person, allowed to be intimate with her from the first, partly because I insisted on it when I saw how matters stood, and partly because my position and reputation gave me a right to insist. I never had occasion to brave insults for her sake, but, like many others, I would have done so had it been necessary. Her friends were constantly being driven from her on one pretext or another. People would have taken her part readily enough had she complained, but complaint was contrary to her nature and her principles. Some, who suspected the truth, blamed her reticence; but I always thought it right, and on one occasion when we approached the subject indirectly I told her "Silence is best." I ought to have qualified the advice, for she carried it too far, and was silent afterwards when she should have spoken—that is to say, when it had become evident that endurance was useless and degrading.
She fought hard to preserve her dignity, and was determined that "as the husband is, the wife is," should not be true in her case. But he did lower her insensibly, nevertheless. As her life became more and more unendurable she became a little reckless in speech; it was a sort of safety-valve by means of which she regained her composure, and I soon began to recognise the sign, and to judge of the amount she had suffered by the length to which she afterwards went in search of relief, and the extent to which suffering made her untrue to herself.
As a rule, when with him, she was yielding, but she had fits of determination, too, when she knew she was right. One night, as they were driving home from a ball together, her husband suddenly declared that he would not allow her to be one of the patronesses of a fancy fair which was to be held for a charitable purpose, although she had already consented and he had made no objection at the time.
"But why may I not?" Ideala asked.
"Because I object. Do you hear? I will not have it, and you must withdraw."
"I must decline to obey any such arbitrary injunction," she answered, quietly.
He detained her on the doorstep until the carriage had driven round to the stables.
"Now, are you going to obey me?" he asked.
"Yes, if you give me a reason for what you require," she answered, wearily.
"Oh, you are obstinate, are you?" he rejoined, in a jeering tone. "Well, stay in the garden and think it over. Perhaps reflection will make you more dutiful. I shall tell your maid you will not want her to-night. When you have made up your mind you can ring." And so saying he walked into the house and shut the door upon her.
It was a summer night, but Ideala felt chilly with only a thin shawl over her ball dress. She walked about as long as she could, but fatigue overcame her at last, and she was obliged to lie down on one of the garden seats. She wrapped the train of her dress round her shoulders, and lay looking up at the stars. The air was heavy with the scent of flowers. The night was very still. Once or twice the rush of a passing train in the distance became audible; and the ceaseless, solemn, inarticulate murmur of the night was broken by a nightingale that sang out at intervals, divinely.
Ideala never thought of submitting; she simply lay there, waiting without expecting. The night air overcame her more and more with a sense of fatigue, but she could not sleep. She saw the darkness fade and the dawn appear, and when at last the servants began to move in the house she watched her opportunity and slipped in unobserved. She went to one of the spare rooms, undressed, rang, and got into bed. When the bell was answered she ordered a hot bath and hot coffee immediately. The maid supposed she had slept there, and seemed surprised; but as her mistress offered no explanation she could make no remark; and so the matter ended.
But I do not think Ideala suffered much on that occasion. Her strong young womanhood saved her somewhat—and there was a charm for her in the beauty of the night and the novelty of her position, which a less healthy organism would not have appreciated, had it been able to discover it—at such a time.
Ideala had been married eight years, and two months after that night the long-delayed hope of her life, which she had begun to believe was beyond hope, was at last realised. Her child was a boy, and her joy in him is something that one is glad to have seen. But it was short-lived. I do not know if her husband were jealous of her happiness, or if he thought the child was more to her than he was, or if he were merely making a proposition, by way of experiment, which he never meant to carry into effect—probably the latter. At all events, he went to her one day when the child was about six weeks old, and told her he thought she must give up nursing him.
The mother's nature was up in arms in a moment. I suppose she had not quite regained her strength, for she had been very ill, and, being weak, she was excitable.
"I will not give my baby up! How can you think it?" she exclaimed.
"Oh, well," he answered, coolly, "just as you like, you know. But I should think you'd better—for the child's sake, at least."
"It isn't true. I don't believe it," she said, piteously.
"Ask the doctor, then;" and he sauntered out, smiling, and perhaps not dreaming that she would.
But "for the child's sake" had alarmed Ideala, and she sent for the doctor. It was hours before he could come to her, and, in the meantime, not knowing that her state of mind would affect the child, she had fidgeted and fretted herself into a fever, and when the doctor saw her, he could only confirm her husband's verdict.
"I am afraid you must give up nursing," he said. "You are in such a nervous state it will do the child harm. But he's such a fine fellow! He'll thrive all right—you needn't be frightened."
Ideala said nothing, but she sat in her own room night after night for a week, and heard the child crying for her, and could not go to him— and even when he did not cry she fancied she heard him still. I think as the milk slowly and painfully left her, her last spark of affection for her husband dried up too.
The child died of diphtheria some time afterwards, and in a little while, Ideala, who was then in her twenty-sixth year, returned to her old pursuits, and no one ever knew what she felt about it:
For, it is with feelings as with waters— The shallow murmur, but the deep are dumb!
My widowed sister, Claudia, was one of Ideala's most intimate friends. She was a good deal older than Ideala, whom she loved as a mother loves a naughty child, for ever finding fault with her, but ready to be up in arms in a moment if any one else ventured to do likewise. She was inclined to quarrel with me because, although I never doubted Ideala's truth and earnestness (no one could), knowing her weak point, I feared for her. I thought if all the passion in her were ever focussed on one object she would do something extravagant—a prediction which Claudia, with good intent, rashly repeated to her once.
Claudia was mistress of my house, and she and I had agreed from the first that, whatever happened, we would watch over Ideala and befriend her.
My sister was one of the people who thought it would have been better for Ideala to have talked of her troubles. When I praised Ideala's loyalty, and her uncomplaining devotion to an uncongenial duty, Claudia said: "Loyalty is all very well; but I don't see much merit in a life- long devotion to a bad cause. If there were any good to be done by it, it would be different, of course; but, as it is, Ideala is simply sacrificing herself for nothing—and worse, she is setting a bad example by showing men they need not mend their manners since wives will endure anything. It is immoral for a woman to live with such a husband. I don't understand Ideala's meekness; it amounts to weakness sometimes, I think. I believe if he struck her she would say, 'Thank you,' and fetch him his slippers. I feel sure she thinks some unknown defect in herself is at the bottom of all his misdeeds."
"I don't think she knows half as much about his misdeeds as we do," I observed.
"Then I think it would be a charity to enlighten her," Claudia answered, decidedly. "One can't touch pitch without being defiled, and when it is too late we shall find she has suffered 'some taint in nature,' in spite of herself. Will you kindly take us to the Palace this evening? The Bishop wants us to go in after dinner, and Ideala has promised to come too."
Ideala was fastidious about her dress, and being in one of her moods that evening she teased Claudia unmercifully, on the way to the Palace, about a blue woollen shawl she was wearing. "A delicate and refined nature expresses itself by nothing more certainly than elegant wraps," she said, parodying another famous dictum; "and I should not like to be able to understand the state of mind a lady was in when she bought herself a blue woollen shawl; but I could believe she was suffering at the time from a temporary aberration of intellect—only, if she wore it afterwards the thing would be quite inexplicable." Claudia drew the wrap round her with dignity, and made no reply; then Ideala laughed and turned to me. "Certainly your friend," she said, alluding to a young sculptor who was staying with me, "can 'invest his portraits with artistic merit.' Claudia's likeness in the Exhibition is capital, and the fame of it is being noised abroad with a vengeance. But I think something should be done to stop the little newspaper-boy nuisance: the reports they spread are quite alarming."