THE WINGS OF ICARUS
THE LIFE OF ONE EMILIA FLETCHER
AS REVEALED BY HERSELF IN
I. THIRTY-FIVE LETTERS
WRITTEN TO CONSTANCE NORRIS BETWEEN JULY 18TH, 188-, AND MARCH 26TH OF THE FOLLOWING YEAR
II. A FRAGMENTARY JOURNAL
III. A POSTSCRIPT
LAURENCE ALMA TADEMA
MACMILLAN AND COMPANY
THE WINGS OF ICARUS.
FLETCHER'S HALL, GRAYSMILL, July 18th.
Dear and Beloved Constance,—What shall I say to you? Here I sit, in a strange room, in a strange land,—and my life lies behind me. It is close upon midnight, and very dark. I can see nothing out of window. The air is hot and heavy, the moths flutter round my candle; I cannot save them all. I am trying to write you a letter—do you understand? Oh, but I have no thoughts, only visions! Three there are that rise before me, sometimes separately, sometimes all together.
I see you, Mrs. Norris. We are standing on the platform, side by side; people leaning out of window in my night-gown, watching the mists rise in the valley. The air is very sweet here in England; I see oceans of trees, great stretches of heath and meadow. Surely, surely one ought to be happy in this beautiful world! I shall dress quickly and go out. This letter, such as it is, shall go to you by the first post, and to-night I shall write again, when I myself know something of my surroundings. Good-bye then for the present, my best and dearest.
It is just half-past ten, my Constance; the two old ladies have gone to bed. I am getting on very well, on the whole, although I had the misfortune to keep them waiting three-quarters of an hour for breakfast this morning. It was so beautiful out of doors, and I was so happy roaming in field and wood,—happy with the happiness sunshine can lay atop of the greatest sorrow,—that I stayed out till nearly ten o'clock. I had taken some milk and bread in the kitchen before starting, not realising that breakfast here is a solemn meal. Poor old souls! they were too polite to begin without me, and I found them positively drooping with hunger.
All the rancour that I had harboured in my heart this many a year against my father's stepmother has vanished into thin air. One glance at the old lady's delicate weak face, at her diffident eyes and nervous fingers, dispelled once and forever any preconceived idea that she might have helped him in his ardent difficult boyhood, stood between him and his father in his day of disgrace. Had she been a woman of mettle, I could never have forgiven her the neutral part she played; but she stands there cleared by her very impotence.
I think she was nervous of meeting me, last night; she said something confused about my poor papa, about her husband's severity, adding that she was sorry not to have known my mamma, but supposed I must be like her, as I looked quite the foreigner with my black eyes. Her whole manner towards me is almost painful in its humility; this morning she begged me to let her live with me, and die in this house, saying she did not care to go and live with her son; upon which I of course assured her that she must still consider everything her own, and the scene ended in kisses and a pocket-handkerchief.
There is something very touching about an old woman's hand; I felt myself much more moved than the occasion warranted when she held me with her trembling fingers, moving them nervously up and down, so that I felt the small weak bones under the skin, all soft, full-veined, and wrinkled.
Her sister, Caroline Seymour, is younger, probably not more than sixty, and very active. She has a bright, bird-like face, over which flits from time to time a sad little gleam of lost beauty. Her fingers are always busy, and the beads in her cap bob up and down incessantly as she bends over her fancy-work. Poor old souls—poor old children! I think my grandfather must have led them a life; there is a peacefulness upon them that suggests deliverance. He has been dead just five weeks.
But the old house will see quiet days enough now. I have wandered all over it, and find it a beautiful place in itself, although it is so stuffed with wool-work, vile china, gildings, wax flowers, and indescribable mantel-piece atrocities, that there is not a simple or restful corner anywhere. Yet I find myself touched by its very hideousness, when I think that it probably looked even so, smelt even so stale and sweet, in the days of my dear father's boyhood. There is a picture in the large drawing-room that gives me infinite pleasure. It is a portrait of my own grandmother with papa in a white frock on her knees, and my poor Aunt Fanny beside her, a neat little smiling girl in pink, with very long drawers. There is something in the young mother's face that, at first sight, made my father's smile rise clearly to my memory. I have since tried to recall the vision, but in vain.
My father's half-brother, George Fletcher, a widower with a large family, who lives four miles from here, came to see me this afternoon, and I took a great dislike to him. (Did I hear you say "Of course"?) But really, dearest, these introductions are very painful; it is most unpleasant to have the undesirable stranger thrust upon one in the guise of friend and protector, to find oneself standing on a footing of inevitable familiarity with people whose hands one had rather not touch. He kissed me, Constantia, but he certainly will not do so again. Fortunately, I like my two old ladies; things might be worse.
To-morrow my lawyer comes from London to speak to me on business. I shall be glad when the interview is over, for I understand nothing at all about business matters. I can indeed barely grasp the fact that I have come into possession of land and money. Heaven only knows what I am to do with it all.
Write to me; write soon. You seem further away from me to-day than you did last night; and yet I should miss you more if I could realise my own existence. Can you make your way through these contradictions? It seems to me this evening that I, Emilia, am still beside you, that some one else sits here in exile with nothing written on the page of her future, not even by the finger of Hope. Good night, dearest.
Yours ever and always, EMILIA.
FLETCHER'S HALL, GRAYSMILL, July 26th.
What do you think stepped in with my bath this morning? A long narrow letter sealed with a heart. I kissed the blue stamp and spread the three dear sheets out on my pillow. Oime, Constantia, how I love you! But why write about me? Why waste pen and ink wondering how I am? Tell me about yourself, tell me all you do, and all you think; tell me how many different hats you wore on Wednesday, and how you misspent your time on Thursday; tell me of all the nonsense that is poured into your ears, of all the rubbish you read; tell me even how many times your mother wakes you in the night to ask if you are sleeping well. I long for you so that the very faults of your life are dear to me, even those for which I most reprove you when you are near.
Let me see: it is past midday with you; you and your mother are out walking. I hear you both.
"Constance," says Mrs. Rayner, "put up your parasol!"
"Thanks, mother," you reply; "I like to feel the sun."
"Through this thick veil and all the powder?"
"You'll freckle, I tell you. Put up your parasol."
"Oh, mother, do let me be!"
Here Mrs. Rayner wrenches the parasol out of your hands and puts it up with a jerk; you take it, heaving a very loud sigh, upon which your mother seizes it again and pops it down.
"Very well, be as freckled as you please; what does it matter to me, after all? It's so pretty to have freckles, isn't it? Please yourself! Only I warn you that you'll look like a fig before the year's out!"
Oh, dear me, it seems I'm in good spirits to-day! Why not, with your letter in my pocket? I am sitting out of doors in the woods. I love this place, apart from its own beauty; I like to think of my father out here in the open, dreaming his young dreams. Indoors in the old house I am often miserable, with a misery beyond my own, remembering how he suffered once between those walls.
No, I am not really in good spirits, although there comes now and again a little gust of light-heartedness. You know me. For the rest, I hate myself, I am a worm. The empire of myself is lost; I am sitting low on the ground, where my troubles laid me, letting what may run over me. I hate myself both for my abject hopelessness and for my incapacity to take comfort at the hands of those about me. But oh! the deadliness of their life is past description; they have neither breadth nor health in their thoughts. I am not speaking of the old women; their lives are at an end; they sit as little children there, simple of heart; what they were I ask not, nor boots it now, for their day is done. But George Fletcher and his family, and my various more distant relatives, and my neighbours far and near—oh, I shall never be able to live here! Believe me; you will soon see me back. Good people, mind you, one and all, according to their lights; God-fearing, law-abiding, nothing questioning, one and all. I shall soon expect to see the earth stand still and roll backwards. Yes; there they trot upon life's highway, chained together, dragging each other along; not one of them dares stop to pick a flower lest the others should tread on his fingers and toes. And they are so swaddled up in customs and conventions, baby-learned forms of speech and bearing, that there is nothing to be seen of the real man and woman; indeed, I cannot say that I have yet found a mummy worth unrolling. Yesterday a kind of cousin brought her children to see me. There was a small girl who had already learned, poor wretch, to play her little part, to quell the impulses of her young heart, to tune her tongue to a given pitch. She sat on the edge of her chair, feigning indifference to everything, from Chinese chessmen to gingerbread-nuts; it was a positive relief to me when her younger brother, who has not yet learned the most necessary falsehoods, yelled lustily and smashed a tea-cup. I should have been glad to do both myself.
I must unpack my books. A Broadwood is on its way from London; in a few days I hope to have made unto myself some kind of oasis in this desert. I have taken possession of the two rooms on the topmost floor that were my father's nurseries; and there, with my things about me, I mean to be happy against all odds.
Good-bye for to-day. Do you remember this morning a fortnight ago? It might be last year—it might be yesterday! How strange is the beat of Time's wings!
GRAYSMILL, August 2d.
Now that's the kind of letter I like to have! Only my heart sickens for thee. At each word I hear your voice; at every pause, the little ripples that run away with it so sweetly. I cannot even find it in me to scold you for your many follies. Young woman, I don't approve of you, but you are the sweetest creature that ever walked this earth. Thanks be where thanks are due that I am a woman; you would have been my bane had I been born a man!
But, to be serious, I have been thinking things out; you must leave your mother, Constance, and come to me. You have lived this kind of life long enough; and—believe me, my dearest—you are not strong enough to bear it longer unharmed.
Shall I be a little cruel to you? Well, my own, I think that if you looked into your heart, searchingly and truly, as you always declare you know not how, you would find that it is more cowardice than duty binds you to Mrs. Rayner. She bore you, you say, she brought you up—Good Lord! and how! If you were not a pearl among women, what would you be by this time? No, you know as well as I do that it is cowardice, not duty, prevents you from taking this step.
I shall never forget what you said to me once, when first I knew you; it was in Florence, and we were leaning out of window in my room. I remember it the better because it was during this conversation that I ventured to put my arm round your waist for the first time.
"Now I call this pleasant!" you said. "Here am I looking out of window with a nice girl's arm round my waist, and right away from my mother. She doesn't even know where I am!"
I loved my mother so much that this shocked me extremely, and I told you so. You flushed, I remember, and cried:—
"Oh, but you don't know what my life is! You don't know what it is to long with all your might to get away from somebody, somebody who has hung over you ever since you were born, so that she seemed to stand between you and the very air you breathed." And then you told me about your marriage; how, in order to be free from her, you took the husband, rich and infamous, into whose arms she threw you in your innocence; how, at the end of a few months, you returned home doubly a slave, to be crushed, year in, year out, by love that showed itself almost as hate; bound now in such a way that if any other love were offered you, you could not take it.
And how old are you now? Twenty-four. Still her puppet, her doll, for that is what you are; she dresses and undresses you from morning till night, then struts up and down the streets of Europe, showing her pretty plaything. You say she has no thought but you, loves you so much that it would break her heart if you left her. Look here, Constance: you knew my mother; you know then what it means to live nobly and truly in the light of a greater goodness than the world yet understands. God, or whoever made you, made your soul very white; how dare you let the smuts fall upon it? How dare you tread among falsehoods, you that have heard of Truth?
Try, my dearest, try to be brave; surely it is the duty of each one of us to live the noblest life he can. The world is so beautiful! It is only ourselves and our mistakes that lie foul upon it. When the most holy of human ties, defying nature, becomes the bane of those it binds, it is better to break it than to let one's life cast a daily blot, as it were, on the sanctity of motherhood and the love of the child.
Come to me; live with me in peace awhile! We will think and read together, master ourselves, and find some path to tread. I, too, am in need of resolution. Whilst my dear mother lived, she held me by the hand. You know how, when two walk together, the weaker unconsciously leaves it to the stronger to lead the way? Well, so it was with me; and now I must learn to find my path alone. I know now what she meant when she said that the first use to which a man must put his courage is to being himself.
All good be with you, dear heart.
GRAYSMILL, August 7th.
Dearest, I wrote you such a stern letter the other day, that I feel I must write again before the week comes round. It was, after all, a silly promise we made each other to write just once a week, neither more nor less. This time I write at odds with myself. It's all very well to talk about sincerity, it baffles one completely at times; there isn't a greater liar under the sun at this moment than Emilia Fletcher. My outward life is all out of tune with my inward self. Perhaps if you saw me with my old ladies, you would say: "Quite right; please them by all means, sit with them, drive with them, make small talk, listen to their little tales. It pleases them, and it doesn't harm you." But I answer: Is it right? Is it not rank hypocrisy? Is affection won by false pretences worth the having? I tell you, I am playing a part all day long. I read to them out of books that I either despise or abhor; I play to them music unworthy of the name; I nod my head in acquiescence when my very soul cries no. Nor is that all; I take my place each morning in the centre of the room, open the Bible, and in pious voice, I, Infidel, read forth the prayers that are to strengthen the household through the day. When, at a given point, all the maid-servants rise, whirl round in their calico gowns and turn their demure backs to me as they kneel in a row, I know not whether to laugh or cry. O Constance, it is infamous of me! And why do I do it? Out of consideration for them? out of kind-heartedness? Not a bit of it! Vanity, my dear; sheer vanity. If they cared for me less, if I did not feel that they almost worship me, holding out their old hands to me for all the pleasure that their day still may bring, would I do it? No; for then I should not care, as I feel I do now, to keep their good opinion, even at the expense of making myself appear better, according to their lights, than I really am. I am a worm; I never thought I could sink so low. It was so easy to live in tune with Truth beside my mother; but she was Truth's high-priestess; she never swerved from the straight path.
I went to church last Sunday; there's a confession! Another such act of cowardice, and I am lost. It never entered my head, of course, to go the first Sunday I was here; and as it so happened that I had a headache that day, no comment was made upon my absence. But on Saturday the vicar said something about "to-morrow"; Uncle George invited himself to dinner after service; and when Aunt Caroline asked me, at breakfast on Sunday, what hat I was going to put on, I replied, "The small one," and followed her like a lamb. I don't know what to do now. This afternoon, the good little old lady asked me to call with her on a friend whose father died last week, and I went, Heaven knows why. I was well served out. There they sat a mortal hour, blowing their noses and praising their God, until I could have shrieked. When I had safely seen Aunt Caroline home, I set off for a long walk in the gloaming; the silent earth was stretched in peace beneath the deepening sky, the moon rose among great clouds that floated like dragons' ghosts upon the blue. And I cried out within myself for very pain that I who had perception of these things should live so lying and so false a life. Perhaps I am not quite myself yet; so much sorrow came to me at once that all my strength has left me. But it is cowardly to make excuses.
I hear you: "There you go, old wise-bones! Here's a storm in a tea-cup! It's much better to behave properly outside anyway, than to hurt people's feelings and make them think worse of you than they need, by showing them what a wicked infidel you are. Besides, what does it matter?"
Little one, do you remember how we shocked each other that Christmas morning in Florence, when we made a round of the churches together? I can see you still, you pretty thing, crossing yourself at the door of Santa Maria Novella. With all the strictness of my nineteen years I was simply horrified.
"Constance!" I cried, "what on earth are you doing?"
"I don't like to be left in the cold," you replied; "if there are any blessings going, I may as well have my share."
"But, dearest," said I, "you don't believe in it!"
"Of course I don't, but it may be true, for all that; how do we know? Do let me enjoy myself, you dear old granny! The stale water may not do me any good, but it won't do me any harm either, now will it?"
Oh, dear, how the smell of the church comes back with the remembered words! It was a long time ago. Dear and sweet one, I must not think of you too much, I long for you so.
Yours in endless love, EMILIA.
FLETCHER'S HALL, August 12th.
You must do as you think best. You know that I long for you, that the thought of your wasted life is constant pain to me. Think again, think every day, and if ever you can make up your mind to leave Mrs. Rayner, you know that I am here, that all I have is yours also. I shall say no more.
So you have seen him, and he asked after me. Well. What was he doing in Homburg, I wonder? Not that I care. I really believe, Constance, that I care no longer. And yet it so happens that last night I thought of him a good deal. It came about so. Grandmamma had gone to bed, and I went into Aunt Caroline's room to light her candles. There are some little water-colours round the mirror that she painted as a girl. I stopped to look at them, and the poor soul took them down one by one to show me. There was a story attached to each, and her eyes brightened with remembrance of the past. Most of the little pictures were different views of the same house. Suddenly she gave a little smile.
"Wait a minute; I'll show you another picture, Milly—my best picture." (They will call me Milly; there's no help for it.) "I have never shown it to any one before, but you are a good girl; I think I should like to show it to you."
She cleared a space upon her dressing-table, lighted a third candle, a fourth, making a little illumination; then from her wardrobe she brought an old desk, and unlocked it solemnly with a key that always hangs upon her watch-chain. The desk was full of treasures,—letters, flowers, ends of ribbon, all neatly labelled. She opened a little case and placed in my hands the portrait of a young man.
I hardly knew how to take it. "It is beautiful," I said; "what a handsome face!" Then the veil of silence and old age fell from her heart; she told me the whole tale. Nothing new, of course. She had loved, and—strange to say!—the man had done likewise; they were engaged, but because his family was not equal to hers in birth, her brother-in-law, my grandfather, would not hear of the match, and obliged her to break it off. Yet another sin to add to his score!
"I think," said I, "that you should have married him, all the same."
The old woman blew her nose, rose, and kissed me.
"You are the first that ever told me so," she said; "I think so, too."
It was past midnight when I left her, and I must confess that my own eyes were not dry.
"Is he still alive?" I asked, as I reached the door.
The old woman smiled.
"I don't know," she said, "but I shall know in good time; please God we shall soon meet again in a better land."
I lay awake a long time in the night, marvelling at her constancy and her faith. But then I wept to think how many women, even as she, have held one only flower in their hands, clung to it still when colour and scent were gone, refusing to pluck another; wept, too, to think how many such as she are buoyed up by a hope I cannot share. I wonder what it feels like, this implicit faith in an after life! It must make a difference, even in love. Perhaps we who believe in one life only cling with the greater passion to what we love, seeing that, once lost, we have no hope of re-possession.
Well, it's a sad world. But a funny one, too. I was quite shy of meeting Aunt Caroline again this morning, lest the remembrance of what she had told me over-night should make her feel ill at ease; lest, in fact, she had repented of her confidence. And I stood quite a while outside the breakfast-room door, like a fool. But as I entered, her beaded cap was bobbing over an uplifted dish-cover.
"Oh, good morning, Milly!" she said. "No, sister, it's not Upton's fault. The bacon's beautiful, only cook can't cut a rasher."
And again I was in my common dilemma; I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Good-bye, sweetest; take care of yourself.
GRAYSMILL, August 20th.
Good evening, Mrs. Norris. I am in a very good temper,—and you? (N.B. I had an extra letter this morning; somebody spoils me.)
Now what shall I tell you, Inquisitiveness? Indeed, I tell you all there is to tell. You complain that I never speak about the people I meet; that's true enough. When I find myself in their company, I make the best of it, but I never think about them between whiles. As for Uncle George, why, I dislike him thoroughly. He is handsome in his way, and looks remarkably young,—not that that is exactly a crime! One of my principal objections to his person is a kind of bachelor smartness he carries about with him. It is quite ridiculous to see him with his daughters, the eldest of whom is just eighteen and engaged to be married. There is nothing of the simplicity of the country gentleman about him,—a simplicity that in many cases covers a multitude of faults. No, I shall never be able to bear him,—neither his juvenility, his jewelry, nor his whiskers—certainly never the scent on his handkerchief! Ouf! I hate him altogether. I promise you that when I find a human being with whom I can exchange an idea, whose thoughts have even wandered half a mile beyond the parish, I shall apprize you of the fact. Meanwhile, dearest, you must put up with my company, as I myself am learning to do. It seems to me almost that I need no one else! I sit here in my room, out there in the woods, and I am content. I read a great deal; I have just re-read the "Volsunga Saga," and have begun Tolstoi's "Cossacks." I am trying, too, to continue my mother's translation of "Prometheus," but the difference between my work and hers is so great that I sometimes lose heart. However, I shall try to finish it. Her beautiful face and yours look down at me from the shelf above my writing-table, amidst a wealth of flowers; and, as I look up, I can see the sun setting behind the beech-trees, for I sit beside the window. The sky is full of hope, the little clouds are glowing with colour, the trees with fulness of life; a blackbird is singing his heart out in the willow by the pond. I must needs believe that life is worth living....
I have watched all the pink fade from the sky; the mottled clouds are grey and sleepy-looking. I have turned away. You are smiling very sweetly up there; my table is strewn with things her hand has touched,—I am not quite alone.
Well, good night. I must go down to my dear old ladies and read to them a while before they go to bed.
GRAYSMILL, September 4th.
You are a sweet to write so often, and I am a wretched niggard that deserves not one half of what you give. I began to write several times—of course you know that. Take care of yourself; the thought of your coughing troubles me; each time I think of you I hear you cough, and it makes me miserable. I met a child on the Common yesterday, with hair your colour that fell back in thick curls from a forehead almost as white as yours. Need I say that I kissed her? Poor mite, she had such dirty clothes! She told me where she lives; I must make inquiries about her mother. I might be able to help. The existence of poverty is just beginning to dawn upon me. It is strange how long one can live with one's eyes entirely closed to certain things. In Italy I never thought about it; I sometimes felt sorry for a beggar, but never quite believed in poverty as an actual state; it merely seemed a rather disreputable but picturesque profession. Here in England I have come face to face with destitution; with hunger, labour, sweat, and barren joylessness. My first thought was that money might set all this straight; I made Uncle George laugh by seriously suggesting that I should give of my superfluity to every cottage. Most people here visit the poor; I went with Aunt Caroline at first and saw it all. I soon gave it up. I cannot walk boldly into free human beings' homes and poke my nose into their privacy; I cannot speak to them of the Lord's will and persuade them that all is for the best. I can only give them money. Little Mrs. Dobb, the rector's wife, thanked me with tears in her eyes for a sum I placed in her hands yesterday. They say she does a great deal of good, and if my money and her religion can work together, by all means let it be so.
Meanwhile I ask myself every day: What is the use of Emilia Fletcher? I really cannot see why I ever was born; my perceptions are keen, but keener than my capabilities. I shall never be able to do anything to help the world; yet I see so much that might be done. I shall not ever be able to lead that life of simple truth, of absolute fidelity to high-set aims, which I yet believe it must be in every man's power to live. Which is the more to be despised—he who perceives a higher path and lacks the resolution to adhere to it, or he who trots along the common road out of sheer short-sightedness? Clearly the first. I am a worm. (You have probably heard this before.)
Well, I am not a very gay companion; I shall leave you for to-day, sweetest.
I have made a fool of myself; and yet I am happier to-night than I have been this many a day, for I have at least shown myself honest. I did it foolishly, thoughtlessly, I know, and yet,—well, I don't regret it.
I went to church this morning for the last time. I went with Aunt Caroline, as usual, but, as I knelt beside her on entering the pew, I was seized with a great horror of myself. There was I, hypocrite, with silent lips and silent heart, feigning to share in the simple fervour around me, denying my own faith, insulting that of another. However, I sat and knelt and stood and went through all the forms along with the rest. The sunlight streamed in at the windows, and lay coloured on the dusty floor, on bowed head and Sunday bonnet; through one little white window, just opposite me, I could see a sparrow bobbing up and down on the ivy. Then away sailed my spirit, through the church wall, over the meadows, and into the copse; I pushed my way through the underwood, and picked up a leaf here and there, listening to the gentle voice of the wood-pigeon. And then—you know there is one thought into which all thoughts resolve—I walked with you, dearest, on the hilltops by Fiesole; she, too, was there, and you both laughed at me because I tried to dig up a wild orchid with a flint, and got my hands so dirty.
Then we had that long talk about the possibility of an after-life, which began with the bulb of the orchid—do you remember?
"Nothing is lost in Nature," said my mother. "There is no such thing as annihilation; death is surely transubstantiation."
"Perhaps then, after all," said I, "the noblest part of us, the self, that invisible core which we call soul, is just a drop, as it were, in a great soul-ocean, whose waves wrap creation, and into which we shall fall. What's the matter, Constantia?"
"I can't listen to you any more, you prosy things; you make me melancholy. Go and be waves if you like, you two; I'm going to have white wings and be an angel!"
* * * * *
"I believe in God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth."
These words roused me with a hard and sudden shock. I had completely forgotten where I was; I looked about me, half dazed, and saw everyone standing except myself. Must I, too, rise and say the Creed? I did not hesitate, because I did not think. I simply stood up and left the church.
After dinner I went to the rectory; I felt that my former hypocrisy and cowardice must be atoned for without delay. Besides, as Goethe's mother used to say, there is no need to stare at the devil, it is better to swallow him whole. Well, I went to Mr. Dobb, and confessed myself. He was less shocked at my disbelief than I had expected, but my profession of it troubled him considerably. He spoke a great deal about example, about the leading of the masses, and altogether seems to hold avowed lack of faith, a greater sin than feigned belief.
Of course he had plenty to say on the subject; he seems to be an honest man, and I must admit that much of what I heard impressed me. I envied him the ease with which he spoke, the ready-coined language he was free to use. I could find no words in which to prove that I, too, had a religion. I wonder, shall I ever be able to tell another what it is that I feel, as by means of a sixth sense, when earth and heaven are fairest, when poets sing their best and music is most divine, when the souls of men and women leap to their eyes and their hearts lie bare; then something within me smiles and shivers, and I say, "This—this is God!"
Oh, it is all very well to talk of being sincere! Again and yet again I must say it. For the lips cannot speak what the spirit feels. And then,—why, I spoiled my truthful day by a lie at the end. How could I go to those two old dears and say, "I cannot pray with you or go to church any more, I am an infidel." How could I? I said instead, "My mother brought me up in a different faith; I tried to go to your church, but I cannot, and I think you would not wish me to act against my conscience in so sacred a matter, so we will go our ways."
Oh, what a struggling world it is! And how weary one becomes of the incessant strife when those upon whose hearts one might lean are far away, unknown, or dead! Oh, I am very lonely. What is life without love? It is not to be borne. Do you remember what it was to lie in your cot, to watch the firelight on the ceiling, feeling the darkness without; and, as you lay snug in your little world within the world, to see your mother lean over your pillow, a great Heaven-roof of love,—to be lifted, weak and small and trustful, in her arms, to feel your weary head pressed close against her breast? O Constance, I would give all—my very eyesight—to feel an arm about me in the dark, to yield up Self, to rest. We women are poor wretches; no man would ever feel so, I think.
Good night; my candle has burned low in the socket, the paper is flaring already, I shall have to undress in the dark.
Good night, dearest. E
GRAYSMILL, September 20th.
Blessings upon you, my sweet dearest; your birthday is the day of days to me. How could I live without you? I am purely selfish when I wish you perfect joy and a long golden life; it is almost like praying for fine weather! All the strings of my heart go towards you, Constance Norris, and are knotted in your bosom. Be happy, be well, my darling, else I suffer. We shall not be apart on your next birthday, I think. I have evolved a marvellous scheme. Your mother is still young, and a very handsome woman; why don't you marry her? Really, it's a plan worth attempting; couldn't you persuade one of your numerous admirers to transfer his affections? Then, Constantia mia, we two could live together. We should mostly live abroad, following the sunshine; but for a part of the year we should stay here in England. Don't wrinkle up your dear nose! You will be every bit as much in love with the country as I am, when once you know it well. I wish I could show it you now; the woods are changing colour, 'tis a glowing world, and your lungs have never tasted such air as blows on Graysmill Heath. You would be very happy in the woods in summer; you could lie down and bring your face on a level with the flowers, and I should sit by and love you. There would be little sunbeams piercing the roof of leaves and twinkling about us, and just enough breeze to clear your brow of curls. O Constance! Why are we so far apart? Only one life, and then parted! But one must not think of such things.
I send you a little ring that I found the other day in Miltonhoe; there is a kiss on the red stone, don't lose it.
Blessings upon you, my heart of gold.
GRAYSMILL, October 5th.
Three several times have I begun to write to you, but I came to the conclusion that it is better not to write at all than to give vent to such feelings as mine. Besides, I had nothing, positively nothing, to tell you. Furthermore, you did not deserve a letter. However, as it is all too long since you honoured me with a communication, Mrs. Norris, I feel I must write and remind you of my existence. I am well, thank you, but the world's a dull place.
Grandmamma and Aunt Caroline—perhaps myself, who knows?—are in a great state of excitement to-day because a niece of theirs is coming here on a visit. I heard of her existence for the first time last week, and immediately decided to invite her to Fletcher's Hall. For, Constance, let me whisper it, the old ladies—bless their hearts!—are killing me. This person, Ida Seymour by name, is a spinster of some forty winters, a kind of roving, charitable star, from what I gather, who spends her life visiting from place to place with a trunkful of fancy work, pious books, and innocent sources of amusement,—a fairy godmother to old ladies, pauper children, and bazaars. My vanity has run its course, and I shall gladly yield the place of honour to this worthy soul. May she stay long!
That is absolutely all the news I have for you, and, indeed, it is more than you deserve; for you are about as lazy as you are sweet, which is saying a good deal. If I don't get a letter to-morrow, I shall be on the brink of despair. At the approach of post time, I am nearly ill with anticipation, and afterwards fall headlong into deepest melancholy.
Your ill-used EMILIA.
GRAYSMILL, October 10th.
Sweet, your letter of Thursday comforted me wondrous much; but I have something to tell you, and my impatience will not even let me dwell on the joy it was to read words of yours again. Well; yesterday was a dull day, the sky was covered all the morning, and at dinner-time it began to rain. I sat in my room in the afternoon and read "Richard Feverel" until, looking up from my book, I saw that the rain had ceased. The wind had risen, and, in the west, a hole had been poked through the grey mantle, showing the gilded edge of a snowy cloud against a patch of blue. Out I ran, across the garden and the little park that touches the heath, then through my dear beechwood until I reached a certain clearing where the ground goes sheer down at one's feet and where one may behold, over the tree-tops, stretches of wood and meadow in the plain below. I sprang on to a knoll, and there stood breathless, watching the rout of the tumbled clouds.
Something started beside me,—I started also, for these woods are always very lonely,—and, to my surprise, I saw a young man. Imagine a very tall slight fellow, carelessly dressed, at one and the same time graceful and ungainly,—I have come to the conclusion that he is physically graceful, but that a certain shyness and nervousness of temperament produce at times self-consciousness and awkwardness of bearing. It is difficult to describe his face; I don't know whether he is merely interesting or actually beautiful; here again there is some discrepancy between flesh and spirit, for the features are not regular, but the expression exquisite. I suppose he might be considered plain; his nose is large, rather thin, and not straight; his mouth is large but finely shaped; I think he smiles a little crookedly. Anyway, his eyes are beautiful; they are set far apart, and are strangely expressive. For the rest, he is more freckled than any one I ever saw, and his hair—which is of no particular colour—is rather long and thrown off the temples, save for one lock that continually falls forward. You will think I am in love with the apparition, to judge by the way in which I dwell on his description; indeed, I am almost inclined to think so myself!
Well! I stood and stared at him; his hat was off, an open book was in his hand, and he gazed at me as one not well awake, that has been roused from dreams; with something in his looks, too, of the startled animal that would run away and dare not. There is no knowing how long we might have stood there staring at each other, but for a sudden gust of wind that whisked off my hat, whereupon the young man and I both started downhill in pursuit. The wind was playful, and led us a fine dance; we were obliged to laugh. When at last he caught and handed back to me my property, we were thoroughly exhausted and sat down at the foot of the hill on the mossy tree-roots. I am sure we must have looked very silly, for we were so out of breath that we could not leave off laughing,—my young man has the heartiest laugh I ever heard. When we had somewhat recovered, I said:
"I wonder why one always laughs when something blows away?"
"It is," he replied, with mock gravity, "what people call a wise dispensation of Providence. There is nothing between laughter and tears."
It never entered my head to get up and go my way; his shyness, too, seemed vanished; we were quite at ease.
"Have you ever noticed," asked he, "how many different kinds of moss there are in these woods?"—and we began to count the varieties as we sat. At last I looked up and saw that the heavens were blue.
"I'm going uphill again," said I, "to see the sunset. How quickly the sky has cleared! It almost seems as if some invisible broom had made a clean sweep of the clouds." To which the young man answered:
"It was a birch-broom. I see the marks of it."
We climbed the hill side by side; it did not seem at all strange at the time. When we reached the summit, the sun was setting in fullest glory, and we were silent. Suddenly he cried:
"Let us be fire-worshippers! There is more of God in that great light than in all the gospels of mankind."
"What a queer, comforting thing," said I, "to hear from a stranger in a wood."
It struck me afterwards that perhaps I, too, had said a queer thing; but we seemed to understand each other. Presently we sat down again, and he talked to me about the Parsees; he appears to know a great deal about them.
We narrowly escaped a second run downhill; again the wind seized my hat, but he nimbly caught it on the wing.
"Why don't you do as I do?" he asked, passing his fingers through his hair. "It's a great mistake to wear a hat, especially if one has a turn for trespassing."
"Who tells you," laughed I then, "that I am trespassing? For aught you know, this may be my own ground."
The young man looked at me curiously.
"Are you, then, Emilia Fletcher?" he cried.
I nodded assent; whereupon he held out his hand and jerked his head forward; it was evidently an attempt at courtesy. I took the hand and laughed outright: he looked so funny with his bright eyes twinkling beneath the tangled forelock.
"I have heard of you," he said, "and I am glad to meet you. The other day I asked to whom the land belonged, and was told that you were half Italian and rather eccentric. You seem to be a human being. I am glad to have met you. My name is Gabriel Norton."
Here the big bell rang out from the house, summoning me to tea,—it had rung once already. So the apparition and I parted company.
I wonder if he has caught cold; I am sure that I have; I have been sneezing all the evening.
It may be very pleasant and romantic to sit on the moss with a wood-sprite after a shower, but perhaps it is not very wise.
I must go and say good night downstairs. I left Miss Seymour reading sentimental ballads on pauper childhood to the old ladies; it must now be close upon their bed-time.
Good night, beloved. Your EMILIA.
P.S. I forgot to say that he has one really fine point: his hands are quite beautiful. I keep on wondering what you would think of him. O dio! how good it was to laugh again.
GRAYSMILL, October 18th.
Very dear, I hope this letter will reach Vienna before you do, and welcome you there. The words we write in one mood are read when another has taken its place; perhaps you are as merry as a bird in spring by this time,—perhaps not. My poor little dear. I know myself what it is to sink into a bottomless pit of senseless misery, but I must tell you that it nearly always happens when I am idle.
A woman that is debarred from woman's best profession—wifehood and motherhood—must find some other work to do; idleness, uselessness—above all, idleness—are the hotbed of all manner of follies. The stupidest man in existence, working day by day at the worldliest work, has the better of us in this, that he is weighted, so to speak, and cannot flutter to and fro with every breeze that blows. You say that you cannot work, that you have heard all this at least a thousand times; well, never mind, hear it once more!
Take German lessons, your German is very bad; go on with your singing, your sweet voice is very ignorant; read, make some study, however unprofitable, of the French Revolution, the Renaissance, the Conquest of Peru, anything, anything you like; or buy a sewing-machine at least, and make flannel petticoats for the poor; anything, Constantia, only don't for Heaven's sake sit there with your hands in your lap, listening to the gabble of fools, while Mrs. Rayner touches up a curl here and a frill there, from morning till night, for ever and ever.
But now to other things, for indeed I am not in the fault-finding mood you might suppose. Only, as you know well, I can always worry about you, at any time.
Well, I have seen my wood-sprite again, this very morning. I could not sleep after six, although I twice covered up my head with the bed-clothes and made believe I was not awake; so I got up, and the young sun was so beautiful, driving the mists out of the valley, that I went out.
Between the flower garden and the park, there lies a shrubbery; green paths wind in and out between high walls of box and laurel, leading one at length to a little blue door in an old wall. Well, I was stepping along between the evergreens as fast as the moss on the pebbles would let me, swinging my hat round as I went, and singing loudly, when I thought I heard footsteps round the bend of the path. I turned the corner—nobody; only a little scrambling sound, and the treacherous flutter of a branch in the laurel hedge. Of course I immediately thought of poachers, and in my imagination already saw Emilia Fletcher stretched a lifeless corpse upon the ground. I took three backward steps, then paused. Silence and stillness reigned.
Pooh! thought I, it's nothing, and with a bold, swift step I walked past the fearful spot. No sooner had I passed than there came another crackle; I turned and beheld a luminous eye between the branches. Whether I turned pale with fright or not, I cannot tell; but a hand came forth, a foot, then, with considerable difficulty, an entire body; and on the path before me stood my dishevelled friend, covered with green dust and blushes.
"I have no excuse to offer," said he.
I laughed; there was nothing else to do.
"You did startle me," said I, "but I forgive you."
I did not ask him what he was doing in my shrubbery, nor did he offer the least explanation.
"Are you going for a walk?" said he, simply, "and, if so, may I go with you?"
I was glad enough, and we had taken a few steps forward when he suddenly clapped his hands to his pockets.
"I shall have to get into the bush again," he cried, with rueful face; "I must have dropped 'Peer Gynt.'"
And in he scrambled, returning triumphant with an exceedingly shabby book.
We walked a full hour and a half, through the park, through the woods, and through the park again, for he insisted on bringing me back to the little blue door. We talked mostly about "Peer Gynt," which, by the way, he is reading in the original. He seems to read every possible language, although he declares he speaks nothing but English. We did not talk at all about ourselves, so I know nothing further about him, save that he lives in a cottage on the heath towards Miltonhoe, with his father and his aunt.
When we parted company, he asked me if I would mind going to see his aunt.
"I believe," said he, "that she ought to call first on you,—at least, she says so,—but that she'll never do. If I landed her at your very door, she'd never find courage to ring the bell."
"Very well," said I; "I'll come to her instead."
And the sprite vanished.
I think I shall go to-morrow, or perhaps next day.
Good-bye, sweet, Your EMILIA.
GRAYSMILL, October 23d.
You are a dear to take such becoming interest in my friend. I have a great deal more to tell you about the lunatic, as you call him, who, by the way, is a great deal saner than either you or I.
Well, I went last Thursday. It took me some time to find the cottage. After much rambling I came upon it in the most secluded part of the Common, in a slight hollow. It is a sort of double cottage, partly thatched, standing in a good-sized garden. I marched through a rickety gate, and made for the house door. The garden is one wild medley of vegetables, fruit-trees, and flowers, luxuriant still, in spite of the late season. I was just bending over a chrysanthemum when I heard a startling "Hulloa!" and found myself accosted by the gardener, who stood, spade in hand, at the opposite end of the gravel walk. He was in his shirtsleeves; his corduroy trousers were more picturesque than respectable; an enormous straw hat, well tanned and chipped by wear, was stuck on the back of his head.
"Hulloa!" he cried again.
I approached and asked, as soon as I could do so without shouting, whether Miss Norton were at home.
"She is at home," replied the man, "and who may you be?"
"Perhaps you will kindly tell her," said I, making up by my civility for his lack of it, "that Emilia Fletcher has come to see her."
Down went the spade, off came the disreputable hat.
"God bless my soul!" he cried, rubbing the earth off his fingers, "so it's you, is it?"
He seemed doubtful whether his hand were fit to offer me or not, so I relieved him of his anxiety by shaking it warmly.
"Come on indoors," said he; "let's surprise them; Gabriel will be delighted," and he set off at a trot, I after him. He was not a grand runner. I conjectured at once that his health is not good, and that he probably looks ten years older than he really is. His hair is almost white, his face deeply wrinkled.
When we reached the cottage door, he pushed me gently in, and I found myself in what appeared to be a lumber-room. There was a table in the centre covered with bundles, books, and papers, on the summit of which, precariously poised on the lid of a biscuit-tin, stood a jug and some glasses; piles of books lay on the floor; in one corner stood a stack of brooms, rakes, guns, fishing-rods, sticks, and umbrellas; and a marvellous medley of coats and hats, baskets, cords, etc., loaded a groaning row of pegs.
"Wait here," said the old man, tilting the only chair in such a way that a Bible, a match-box, and a cocoa-tin filled with nails were safely deposited on the floor. He then popped his head in at three several doors that opened on to the apartment (it was intended, I afterwards discovered, for the hall), and finally disappeared behind one of them which led straight on to a flight of stairs. Suddenly I heard a scuffling, a sound as of some one coming down head foremost, and my friend appeared, book and forelock and all.
"This is nice of you!" he cried; then his father stumped downstairs again, followed by a tall, sweet-faced woman.
"There, Jane," said he, "there she is."
I went up to her; she was, indeed, very shy. "Dear, dear," was all she said; "deary me, think of this, it's very kind of you, I'm sure," squeezing my hand the while as if it had been a sponge.
She led me off through the door to the right, into a comparatively presentable parlour; but her brother took my other hand and pulled me in the opposite direction.
"No, no," he said; "no, no, we'll go into the kitchen and have tea."
"Yes, come," said Gabriel; "I'm hungry, aren't you? Let's go and find something to eat."
So we recrossed the hall and passed through a good-sized room which looked like a second-hand bookshop. Books overflowed the shelves, and lay in piles in every available corner,—the floor, the table, the old upright piano, the very chairs, were covered with dusty volumes. Out of this room led the kitchen, which at least looked clean. A rosy little maid was leaving after the day's work as we entered.
"Sit down," said Gabriel's father to me; "sit down, my dear; you shall have some tea in a minute." And he began taking plates down from the dresser. Miss Norton, meanwhile, had disappeared, and presently returned with a loaf, dragging Gabriel after her.
"I can't keep that boy out of the larder," she said plaintively.
Gabriel laughed and fetched the teapot, also a jug and two paper bags. I thought I had better help, too. I discovered some knives in the drawer of the table, and set them out.
"Tea or cocoa?" asked Richard Norton, pointing his finger at tea-pot and jug in turn. I chose cocoa, I can't think why.
"That's lucky," sighed Gabriel; "there's no tea in the bag."
He made the cocoa, Jane Norton cut the bread; at last we sat down. I don't think I ever enjoyed a meal so much in my life. They ate voraciously, and we talked meanwhile in the silliest fashion, about nothing at all, laughing until the tears rolled down our cheeks.
My friend is very funny, but his fun is of the kind that cannot bear repeating; taken away from himself, separated from his personality, it would sound merely foolish. You know what I mean. I sat next Miss Norton during tea. When we had done, Gabriel stood up, chair and all, and came beside me.
"What do you think of us?" he asked. "Aren't we rather nice?"
"Yes, indeed," I replied; "and the funny part of it is that I feel as though I'd known you all my life."
"That's just how I feel with you," said Gabriel, and Richard Norton added,—
"I like you; you're a nice girl; you don't turn up your nose at us because we live in our own way. You're a nice girl."
"I like your way of living," said I, then. "From what I can see, it seems to me you are about as free as any one can be in this world, and that is the best of all things,—freedom."
"You've hit it!" cried Richard Norton, bringing his flat hand down on the table. "We are free!"
"Now I'll tell you," said Gabriel. "This time last year we had horrible lodgings in Bloomsbury. Father went every day to drudgery in a dirty office, helping another man to rob his fellow-creatures; aunt there gave lessons,—she can't teach a bit; she was only putting nonsense into the heads of future men and women, and, such as it was, putting it there wrong. I was doing likewise, and I teach worse than she does. Of an evening I wrote drivel for the papers. We were, every one of us, useless and miserable. At last one day I said—"
"You did!" interrupted his father. "You may live to be a hundred, you'll never say anything so wise again."
"I said: 'Look here! How many lives have we?' 'One,' replied father. 'What are we alive for?' 'I don't know,' replied father. 'Neither do I; only I know that life's not worth living as we live it. Let's go into the country.'"
"I beg your pardon, Gabriel," interrupted his father again; "it was not quite so, it was better than that. The boy lectured me, Miss Fletcher,—pitched into me, and I deserved it. He told me I was fifty-five and a fool for my years. So I was. There was I, grinding away,—what for? We never saw each other, we never saw the fields, we were selling all the joys of life for three farthings. So we decided to drudge no more. Gabriel would have continued, but I could not allow that; I wanted him here. We found we should have just enough money to rent a cottage, buy body-covering and plain food. So here we are. And we are happy. As Gabriel said, What is the use of toiling for more, when the unprofitable work that brings us a few extra shillings takes away our capacities for enjoying life? Here we are, happy all day, eh, Gabriel? He writes his poetry and devours his books, I devour mine, Jane devours hers; we are learning now all the beauties of Nature, and man's best thoughts. We are very happy."
A vision of my present life flitted across me, like a cloud on a sunlit field.
"Oh!" said I, "how I envy you! Nothing useless, not a clog about you, no stupid formalities, stifling luxuries, no daily lies and false duties."
"Have you all these?" asked Gabriel.
"Not so badly as some people, but badly enough. I have money, and no end of respectable relations."
He laughed, and made a wry face.
When I found that it was time to wend my way home, Gabriel offered to walk with me. I was very glad. On the way out, he stopped in the hall and knocked half the things off the pegs.
"Beloved aunt!" he cried, "there used to be a hat somewhere!"
I assured him that he need not discomfort himself for my sake, and he bounded forth bareheaded, with a yell of exultation. On the road we had a long and somewhat warm discussion on suicide, which was started by an essay of Montaigne's he happened to be reading. Every now and again he pulled the book from his pocket and read me extracts, until it was too dark to see; even then he once struck a match to find a passage.
For the sake of argument we occasionally took opposite sides, but, in fact, we were both agreed upon the principal point; namely, that although man enters the world against his will, he may surely choose the time and the manner of his exit. That this is every one's right we both believe, yet believe, also, that the right should be sparingly used. For although suicide might almost be considered an act of duty on the part of those suffering from incurable disease, mental or physical, most of us, however useless and superfluous we may at times believe ourselves to be, have, willy-nilly, the fate of some fellow-creature bound up with our own; and it is surely an act of unpardonable cowardice to make our escape from a world of difficulties, leaving others to bear the burden of our faults.
But, really, I must put an end to this letter; I never wrote such a long one in my life, not even I, not even to you. My friend left me as we approached Graysmill, saying that he dared not set foot on the confines of respectability.
That was Thursday, and I have not seen him since.
Good-bye, my dearest; I kiss your sweet eyes.
GRAYSMILL, October 31st.
No, of course I have not said a word about it at the house; what an idea! Why should I? Good gracious me, they'd think me mad. Besides, I am my own mistress, and am not answerable to anybody for my actions. Not for the world would I speak of the Nortons to any of these people here.
Ida Seymour is a fixture, for the present, at least. Her good offices leave me a great deal more liberty than I enjoyed during the first few months. Apart from meal-times I give some two hours a day to my old ladies, and work hard the rest of the time. I have finished "Prometheus," and laid it aside to await revision; I am now sorting my mother's papers, with a view to some day publishing a selection of them. Perhaps. But there is such a sacredness to me about all she has left behind, that I cannot yet bear the thought of sending anything that remains of her out into the cold world, to be misjudged and misprized.
How can you ask me what colour his eyes are? When did you know me care for any one—except mamma—whose eyes were not blue? His are very dark, and very beautiful. I cannot think, by the way, why I ever told you that he might perhaps be considered plain. I looked at him hard yesterday, and cannot think what possessed me to say such a thing; for he is certainly as far from plain as any man I ever set eyes on. It's really very strange that I did not see it at once.
You see, we have met again. Five days passed, and I must admit that I found them dull. To be quite sincere, I will also admit that I once walked towards Miltonhoe, and was disappointed not to meet him. At last, on Wednesday morning, I received a note from him. He writes a good hand, although not a firm one—he makes two or three of his letters in two or three different ways. I would send you the letter, only mine is sure to be heavy enough without enclosures. It ran thus:—
Dear Miss Fletcher,—I am afraid of your butler. What is to be done? I tried this afternoon to pay you a call, but my courage vanished at the lodge. I think we did not quite exhaust our subject last Thursday. I have thought a great deal more about it, and I dare say you have done likewise. Can I see you by any means without facing the butler? I shall sit in the laurel hedge every morning, on the chance of your taking another walk before breakfast.
Your humble servant, GABRIEL NORTON.
I did not go next morning, although I wished to do so. I hardly know why I waited until Friday; it was not only unreasonable on my part, but also not quite straightforward. How is it that, even when circumstances might enable us to act according to our impulses, some unexpected inconsistency in our own selves throws a bar across the path? I begin to think that it must be an idle dream,—sincerity, self-honesty. My thoughts are fixed upon it constantly, I strive towards it with heart and soul; yet daily, under the very eyes of my own scrutiny, I lie either in word or in action.
Well, on Friday I went, and we had a happy time together. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have met this creature, to come once again into contact with a being whose footsteps fall near my own. We are are very different, yet I feel that our faces are turned towards the same light. I told him a great deal about my mother; she would have loved him.
There goes the second bell, and I have not even washed my hands. Farewell for to-day.
Yours in all truth, EMILIA.
GRAYSMILL, November 8th.
My little dear Constance, first and foremost I am freezing, and have got a red nose, I'm certain. Is it cold with you also? The week has been a full one. Uncle George's eldest daughter was married the day before yesterday, and there were great festivities in the family. The marriage should have taken place last June, but was postponed owing to the grandfather's death.
What extraordinary creatures we are! I cannot tell you how many Emilias were at that wedding. Something in me was touched by the sight of a large family assembled from far and wide, excited and united for the moment by a common sentiment; something in me was lonely beyond description, for I was not of them; and whereas I smiled and made merry in a white gown and felt the tears come to my eyes when the little bride went forth under a shower of rice, I was nevertheless looking on at the smiles and tears of the others with doubt and cynicism rampant in my heart.
Poor little bride! I wondered how much she thought she loved him, how much he cared for her; and where her smiles and her golden dreams would be this time next year, poor little white thing, veiled in ignorance.
It is not altogether a bad world, for all that. I certainly have not found it so; but then it has been my good fortune to draw near the hearts and brains of some very dear mortals. I cannot tell you how fond I have grown of this creature,—Gabriel Norton, I mean. I can say this openly to you, because you are sensible and know me, and will not think at once, because he is a man and I a woman, that there is any question here of sentiments exceeding friendship. We are neither of us children; he is three or four years older than I, I should imagine,—twenty-nine or thirty, or thereabouts.
For aught I know, he may already have loved and lost as I have; and were it even possible that I should ever love again, I hardly think that Gabriel would be the man. Anyway, we are excellent friends, and I believe that my companionship has become as precious to him as his is to me. We meet now every two or three days, and walk together, either before breakfast or after early dinner.
Did your ears burn on Wednesday? I told him a great deal about you. We had been having one of our customary argumentative conversations, principally about marriage, more especially still about the horrors of false marriages, and this led me to tell him that the best friend I have on earth is infamously bound for the whole of her dear life by a marriage contracted before she was seventeen years old. He thinks, dearest, with me, that you ought to face the horrors of the divorce court rather than linger on in chains, and certainly listen no longer to the considerations, pecuniary and otherwise, which influence your mother.
I fancy, from the way in which he spoke, that his father and mother were not happy together; he has therefore not had in his life the blessing that was mine,—the daily contemplation of an absolutely perfect union. Indeed, he hardly seems to believe in the possibility of ideal marriages, and declares that he himself will certainly never marry unless some law is passed whereby men and women shall be able to bind themselves for a limited number of years, at the expiration of which they may either renew the bond or go free. I laughed when he said this, for I thought he was jesting; so he was, partly, yet more than half in earnest.
"No, no," said he; "I shall never marry. I had sooner not break the laws of my country, but if it came to be a question between breaking them or the laws of true morality, I should not hesitate in my choice. Love without marriage is a sin against society; marriage without love is a sin against Nature."
Of course he is right. How my mother would have loved him! Do you remember her invectives against marriage? It was the very perfection of the tie between her and my father that filled her with indignation and regret whenever she looked about her and beheld, on all sides, the parody of her heaven.
Good-bye. You are getting very lazy, Mrs. Norris. How dare you leave me letterless so long?
Write directly you get this to
Your loving EMILIA.
GRAYSMILL, November 21st.
For the first time in my life, I have been a little cross with you, Constance of my heart. My anger did not last long, but even when it was practically at an end I felt obliged to play at being cross with you, and therefore would not write. But to-day comes another sweet letter from you, and I am miserable to think you should have had to write a second time before getting an answer to your dear words. Forgive me! I do love you so! I shall tell you quite frankly why I was cross. You must never tease me again about Gabriel Norton. I don't like to be teased at the best of times, and I think it positively wrong to make love a subject for laughter and nonsense. You see, I allow that I love him; of course I do, but not as you imagine. Surely there is a love of spirit to spirit which stands higher than the material love of man and woman. It is just because we look upon each other in the first place as human beings, as comrades on the road of life, that our friendship is a source of strength and comfort to us. If either were to harbour other thoughts, all that is beautiful in our intercourse must come to an end. No, you are silly; you must never say such things again, promise me that. Why, it is just the very absence of love that makes our friendship. If only people would believe this, if only men and women would learn to exchange their thoughts in freedom, to be simple and open in their dealings with each other, what a much better world this world would be!
But you are just like the rest; indeed, worse than the rest. Because, somehow or other, whether it's the fault of your curls or of your lips, or of your smile, or of your whole sweet self, I know not, but because no man ever draws near you but what you make a fool of him, you seem to think all men resemble your victims, all women you, their bane. No, you don't, though; I malign you. Do you remember saying to me one day: "Try and make yourself appear a little silly sometimes, Emilia, do, now! Men never fall in love with clever women!" And right you were. The only passions I ever inspired flared through their day in the bosoms of women and boys. Never mind! I had sooner have Gabriel's friendship than ten thousand of your lovers; I had sooner see you too, sweet, with such a friend as he to lean upon, than surrounded as you are now by the foolish and ugly admiration of worthless men.
There, enough lecturing for the present. It's understood, eh?
Gabriel and Jane Norton have actually been here to tea. What do you say to that? I must tell you how it came about; it's a long story, but you shall have it all. The other day, my friend and I were overtaken by a rain-storm on the heath; we ran as fast as we could to the Thatched Cottage, and there I remained fully two hours, till the rain had given over. As Gabriel was very restless and unmanageable, I suggested that we might turn his superfluous energy to good account by arranging the library. How those dear creatures keep alive, I cannot imagine; they are helpless and unpractical beyond all belief. Jane Norton has absolutely no sense of order, the household drifts along as best it can. "I hate it so," she groans; "I have a horror of it all." That very afternoon I tore my dress and wanted to mend it. A brass thimble was soon produced from the kitchen clock, where Jane keeps it "to have it handy," but never were needle and thread more difficult to procure. After much hunting, a dirty reel of white cotton was discovered in the soup-tureen, the needle-case had entirely disappeared; she finally managed, however, to squeeze some rusty kind of skewer out of her pincushion, and with these implements I mended my skirt as best I could. But to return to the library. The confusion we found it in is indescribable. When first we began operations Gabriel stood about in a helpless way, but he became enthusiastic as the work of clearance advanced, and laboured with good will.
"This was a veritable inspiration!" he cried presently, perching himself upon the table; "there hasn't been a corner to sit upon for weeks, not for weeks. It's very odd: I believe that I much prefer to see things kept in order, only I haven't the least idea how to bring such a state about. None of us have. Why! there's Plato! Blessings upon you, Emilia! He must have been behind the piano quite two months. I have hunted for him high and low." He seized the volume rapturously and began reading aloud.
"That's all Greek to me," said I.
"Come along then," said he, "let's leave off now, the room's beautiful; come, I'll teach you the alphabet."
And this was the germ of a scheme we have started. We had been racking our brains for some time past how to meet during the winter, in defiance of shortening days, cold, rain, and prejudice. Now we have it. He is to teach me Greek, and will come to the house to give me lessons. Thanks to my foreign extraction and to a certain reputation I have got here for originality, my old ladies were not at all surprised when I told them that a poor gentleman who lived with his father and his aunt towards Miltonhoe was coming twice a week to teach me. On the contrary, their kind old hearts were touched at the mere mention of poverty, and they asked if I wouldn't invite Miss Norton to tea; hence Monday's tea-party, which was exceedingly funny. Ida Seymour had gone to a school treat at Miltonhoe, so my old ladies and I had the place to ourselves. They were much distressed, bless them, at the extraordinary antiquity of Jane Norton's black silk gown; Heaven only knows in what year of Grace it was fabricated, and how she manages to keep it together. I'm afraid I shall have some difficulty in preventing Aunt Caroline from giving Jane a new dress,—she certainly won't rest till she has done so. As for Gabriel, he was so remarkably dusty and threadbare that I set him at table with his back to the light, in such a manner that his mere silhouette was exposed to Hopkinson's scrutiny. I must allow, however, that he behaved beautifully, and Jane was perfect; she made an excellent impression on grandmamma, who is very anxious I should invite her again.
"In fact," said she, "I don't see why she shouldn't come and have a cup of tea with us every time your teacher comes; then we shall know she has a good tea twice a week at least, poor thing!"
Why can't I see him without these subterfuges? Why can't we meet here in my house in all simplicity, without fear of that monster, the world, and its murderous tongue? It all seemed so good and so simple that morning when he said to me:—
"We will be friends as friends should be; all shall be true and free between us; we shall make exchange of our thoughts, and learn together how to live."
Never mind; I am very fortunate.
Good-bye, my sweet dear, and again, forgive me! I love you.
GRAYSMILL, November 26th.
Bless you for all your words! Yes, you must come out to me next spring, and then we three can be friends together: three should be more beautiful than two, in such harmony as ours would be. I take it for granted that you and Gabriel will care for each other; it would be a great grief to me if you did not. I hate people I like not to like each other; nothing hurts more—except, perhaps, to oneself dislike a friend's friend.
My Greek is getting on; I am fearfully industrious, and have even pinned up the declensions, written out in a large hand, on my bedroom wall, so that I can learn them whilst I dress.
Gabriel is quite pleased with his pupil, and I have begun to teach him Italian. He reads it very well, but cannot speak it at all at present. We had a long talk, the other day, about his future. I think it will be quite impossible for him to continue this mode of life very long; I find that I am not so happy about him as I was at first. Sometimes I think I should like to give him half my money—how ridiculous it seems that such a thing should be out of the question!—and let him lead the tranquil life of study and contemplation that he loves, send him to other lands where he might wander up and down in the sunshine, seeing the world and all its beauties,—he that has eyes to see, a heart to feel. But then, at other times, I feel that I should like to strip him even of the little he has, and hurl him into the very vortex of life, see him struggle and fight and come out a conqueror. I see in him the germs of so much greatness that I cannot believe he was meant to dream his days away on the heather. It was right of him, certainly, to break from a course of life he felt himself unable to pursue, and right it is also that he should pause now, and breathe, and feel his wings. But it will soon be time for energy and action. We are not here for ourselves only; there is so much to be done. And if I am often discontented with myself for the futility of my dreams, for sitting here a mere spectator, as it were, of struggles that I long to share, yet know not how, greater still is my impatience at the sight of one wasting his days in mere speculation, who, having all the strength, the manhood, that I lack, might leap into the very thick of the fight, Truth's warrior.
He tells me that he has written a great deal, and has promised to bring me a bundle of poems to read at my leisure. "You must understand," said he, "that you will be the only one to whom I ever showed them." I feel very proud.
To revert to what I said above, I believe, too, that it is very bad for any man not to have a fixed occupation; however great his natural energy may be, it either relaxes with time, or expends itself uselessly. The mere thinker often ends by hovering on the confines of lunacy.
Good-bye, dear love. Your EMILIA.
GRAYSMILL, November 30th.
I write to you very soon, partly because of your letter that crossed mine, but principally because I feel that I must write you a few words before I go to sleep. I have just gone through Gabriel's poems, and am beside myself with wonder. Constance, the creature is a genius. I marvel at my happiness, that I should have touched his life. No, I'll not write; I feel that, if I do, I shall write bosh. Good-night; I hope you are sleeping fast at this moment,—and he too.
We had a walk this afternoon. He looks pale, poor dear! he has had a cold. How it hurts to see ill-health on a face that one loves!
We had a great altercation about his poems. I could not speak of them when I put the manuscript into his hands; any words I might have used must have sounded fulsome flattery. But later on, I asked:—
"Have you thought of a publisher for your verse?"
He shook his head and made a face at me.
"You must certainly publish those poems," I said; "you surely know that they are unusually beautiful, and that you have no right to keep them to yourself."
"Dear Emilia," he answered, "I like to hear this from you, but you are mistaken. My poems are not so remarkable as you imagine; you are too near a friend to be a fair judge. They are intensely subjective,—that is, by the way, one of their faults; they reflect me; therefore you, who know me well and care for me, find them sympathetic. That's the whole of the tale."
"If I cared for you ten times more than I do," said I then, "I should not be quite so blind as you suppose. But, if you doubt my judgment, ask some one else, or compare the poems yourself with other verse."
"Never!" he said. "How can you even suggest such a thing? Look here, Emilia. A man has an ideal, a glimpse of something glittering up there in highest Heaven; he tries to shape his vision into words. When he afterwards turns to his work coldly, critically, how shall he judge? He must take measure by the height of the ideal, not by the achievement of another, even if that other be nearer Heaven than himself."
I found this very fine and true, yet selfish. Had he ever climbed less high than he wished, he might at least stand forth, and showing where he stood, stretch out a hand to others.
"No," he replied again, "no, I am too weak myself to help others. Dear girl, don't you see that those things were written with the blood of my heart? Cold men would read them, tear them to pieces. Emilia! they would review me!"
He said this with a sort of yell of despair. I saw that he was in a perfectly impossible mood, so I left him in peace. We talked of you afterwards, and he sent you his love. Was that bold or not? If you don't care for the gift, send it back to me. I am very hungry for that same food.
The snow is on the ground; 'tis a beautiful white world. Yet to-day has been a dull day. I had my lesson yesterday. I spent the whole of this afternoon preparing a list of Christmas charities, in which Aunt Caroline and Ida Seymour helped me, good souls. I can think of nothing but flannel this evening. That is a lie, by the way; I almost wish it were not. Yesterday Gabriel and I had an adventure. I was walking part of the way back with him and Jane Norton, who had been taking tea with my old ladies, and as we went past a cottage, just off the lane, we heard fearful screams. Gabriel sprang in, I following, and there we found a woman beating a little girl with a broom. Gabriel's eyes were like fire; he caught the child in one hand, the broom in the other; I thought he meant to bring it down on the woman's back. We stayed there some time, he lecturing the mother, I consoling the poor mite. She was wretchedly clad; I shall bring her some clothes to-morrow.
I am dull. I meant to write you a long letter, but somehow I can't. Farewell until to-morrow.
What will you be thinking of me? Your silence is almost more unbearable than a letter of reproach would be; I had not realised until I found the above fragment in my desk just now, how miserably long it is since last I wrote to you. Write to me, my dearest; I need to feel your love. I think I am not very well just now; you must forgive me, yet don't be anxious on my account. I don't feel very well, that's all; there is nothing the matter with me. Neither is there anything to tell you; all goes on as usual. Gabriel is well.
Oh, my pretty Constance, I cannot write! I shall send off this miserable scrap, and write again very soon.
Your poor fool, EMILIA.
Thank Heaven that you are here, in the world; I should die if you were not. Let me think, where shall I begin? At the end; that is nearest. I have only just come upstairs; I have been shaking in the dark. They are beasts; I hate them all. I was sitting playing cribbage with grandmamma after supper, when Uncle George was announced. He wanted to speak to me, he said. I took him into the breakfast room, and there he told me in a fat pompous voice that I—O Dio, my blood still burns to think of it, and the way in which he said it—that I was getting myself talked about in the neighbourhood; that probably I didn't know, owing to my foreign education, that it wasn't the thing here in England to let oneself be seen constantly alone in the company of a young man; that he thought it his duty, etc., etc.
"Thank you," said I,—my very skin felt tight,—"I see that I must be more underhand in my actions, and contrive to see my friends entirely on the sly."
"Excuse me, my dear niece," interrupted Uncle George, "but I feel it my duty to fill a father's place by you. It isn't as if you could possibly marry this young Norton; he hasn't a penny; and as it is now some time since first the rumour of your very careless behaviour reached my ears, I have been able to make full inquiries into the matter. His antecedents, to say no more—"
Constance, did you ever hear of such infamy. I believe I grew perfectly green; Heaven knows what I said, but you have seen me lose my temper once! When I mastered myself, Uncle George was standing by the door, looking considerably startled; I was on a chair, shaking from head to foot. After a moment's silence I said:
"I beg your pardon for losing my self-control as I did just now; I am very sorry, but you have done me a great wrong. I know you meant it for the best; so we will say no more about it. I only hope that you will leave me and my friends alone in future. I am twenty-six and my own mistress, and I care for my good name every whit as much as you do."
Then he left me, and I came upstairs.
So now they have done it! They have touched my paradise with their dirty fingers. O Constance! how is it to be borne? My one comfort is that Gabriel knows nobody, hears nothing; if such talk were to reach his ears, I should kill myself.
Yet perhaps it is just as well that this blow has come to me. It has given me the shock I needed. I have made up my mind to keep away from Gabriel as long as I can; it is best so. Christmas charities, etc., will serve as a sufficient excuse.
Constance, I am going to tell you all; I trust so to your understanding and your love. It seems strange, perhaps, to speak as I am about to speak; I shall burst if I don't. It is this: I love him, I love him horribly, horribly; I cannot bear it. Why must one do this? Why couldn't it last, our white friendship? On his side it might; he loves me, I know, but only as I loved him at first. He loves me very much. I am grown in a way indispensable to him, but his love makes him content; it will not kill him. Mine is grown unbearable.
Perhaps I should have told you this before, yet I have not known it very long. I knew some time ago that all my joy is in him; he has been for many weeks the goal of my eyes, the centre of my thought; the time I spent away from him was dead time; when I was with him I was flooded in peace. But all this was joy, not pain. That came later; the time I spent away from him was no longer dead, it was living longing.
One day, about a week ago, I had forgotten him (I forget how I managed that!), but suddenly the thought of him returned to me. I felt a sudden sharp pain at my heart, a sort of aching that tingled through me to my very finger-tips. I knew then how it was with me.
Next day I did not go to meet him in the wood as I had promised; I went straight to the cottage; I feared myself. When he returned at tea-time, he came up to me and took my hand with more friendship than of wont.
"Oh, Emilia!" he cried, "why have you failed me? I have been so anxious; I feared you were ill."
He said this as a brother might have said it; he looked me full in the face as serenely as the stars at night. I looked back at him; his calm fell upon me, and I laughed at myself for my fears. I got better after that, yet not well; I was never at ease. To-day we were together very long; I was perfectly happy; we had spoken of beautiful things, calmly, in great peace. But at parting he forgot to let my hand go; he held it so long that I had time to feel his, and my blood bounded through me in great waves. I still think he must have felt it; if he did, I can never look at him again.
I hate myself for loving him so; I hate myself that I suffer through him; the fault seems his, being entirely mine.
And now I wish that I had never seen him, that all these days of joy were wiped out of my life; for the joy is turned to misery and pain, and for this there can be no cure. If he grew to love me as I do him, it would be unearthly; such happiness is not for this world. I think that if he loved me, one of us would surely die. This is the world, O Constance! Bursts of beauty, bursts of bliss, but none to live untouched, none to endure.