JAMES MAYNARD returned from his scientific expedition shortly after Margaret reached home. He was a man of abrupt
given to letter-writing, or to apprising others of his intentions or movements.
This peculiarity, no doubt, arose from his believing that no one was interested
in him or his doings. Lord Littmass was the only person to whom he ever dreamt
of giving any account of himself, and he had no reason to suppose that Lord
Littmass cared to hear from him, or to know of his coming, until he should
actually appear before him. Consequently, when he arrived in
James, therefore, on calling at the house in
Margaret was sitting under one of the noble chestnuts when James discovered and went up to her. The contrast between them was greater than ever. He, with skin embrowned, his dark hair long and wild, and his general bearing rugged from the wild open-air life of many months in a tropical climate. She, drooping, and paler than ever he had before seen her, yet more matured in expression, more womanly in dress, softer in tone, and less abstracted in manner. She greeted him with a glad smile that, for the moment, chased all the wanness from her face, and Maynard felt his heart leap towards her in the full strength of his manhood, with a shock of conflicting emotions among which, love, compassion, and apprehension strove for predominance.
Thinking he was going to speak, Margaret remained silent as he sat down on the
bench beside her; and looking up in surprise at his silence, she perceived that
he was undergoing some powerful inward struggle which for the moment made speech
impossible to him. Affecting unconsciousness she gave him time to regain his
composure. Presently he spoke, though with a suppressed eagerness and
determination in his manner altogether new to her. I have just returned from
gone as a nun into a convent, but I hurried off, to hear your confessions from yourself. Are you really a nun?’
‘Not quite,’ she replied, cheerfully, hoping, by non-observance of his strange nervousness, to enable him to get over it. ‘Not quite. Only a novice, on trial.’
‘Thank God!’ he ejaculated solemnly, in a low tone.
‘Margaret,’ he added, after a moment’s pause; ‘what have you to do with Lord Littmass? I mean in what way, and to what extent are you under his authority?’
‘I know not,’ she answered, surprised at his broaching a subject that was entirely new between them. ‘I have never thought of inquiring.’
‘You do not know if it was out of pure benevolence that he undertook charge of you when a child?’
‘I believe there was some provision left for me by my parents, but of the amount or conditions I know nothing. I have always looked on Lord Littmass as a sort of distant father, who now and then condescends from his high occupations to legislate for me out of regard for my parents.’
‘And you mean to live on listlessly and aimlessly, regardless of the world and of society, of life and its duties, and not caring to use your womanhood, but leaving your fate to the indifferent arbitration of this lordly providence!’
He purposely infused a tinge of bitterness into his words, for he judged such a tonic wanting to rouse her from her life of dreams. His being able to do this, proved him to be again master of himself, and superior to the emotion that had at first overcome him.
It was the first time Margaret had ever heard such a tone addressed to her by any one. She started up as if intending to pour out a torrent of exclamations. Maynard inwardly rejoiced at the vigour of her attitude, thinking, ‘If she reproaches me, it is because she cares for me.’ But she spoke not until she had nearly resumed her former position, and then quietly and humbly.
‘You used to tell me that I was an apt pupil. What is it that you wish to teach me now?’
James’s self-command completely broke down before the unexpected and winning gentleness of this answer.
‘Forgive me!’ he cried. ‘I must be mad to speak to you so. Why will you force me to love you, when I have before told you of my unhappy position, which makes it impossible for me to fulfil my longing.’
Margaret was speechless, but turned upon him a look so full of wonderment and pain that he at once perceived that the only consequence of his unguarded utterance would be to deprive him of her friendship without converting it into love. Dreading such a result, he hastened to undo the effect of his words.
‘We are both waifs,’ he said, apologetically. ‘Early alike orphaned and consigned to the same care; and it seems so natural that sympathy should exist between us, that I for a moment suffered imagination to outstrip reality. Will not the pupil forgive her repentant master?’
‘I scarcely know what I have to forgive,’ said Margaret, ‘nor can I account for the pain I felt just now, unless it was because I saw you were moved far beyond my former experience of you. I owe you much gratitude and affection, and those you have freely from me. Beyond those I am unable to go. I am but as a child in the ways of the world, and know nothing of love or its meaning, except as toward my Maker. Our fates are alike in another respect than those you mentioned. For me as well as for you all is forbidden save a solitary life. For you by the external circumstances of your condition. For me by the constitution of my own nature. Such affection and respect as I can give are yours already. You will continue to be my friend, will you not?’
Her sweet tones and kindly words compelled his obedience. He replied, falteringly, –
‘I will try to submit; but do not be hard upon me if vain hopes will show themselves. The new vision of life that has thrust itself before me cannot be dismissed at will. Tell me,’ he resumed, after a pause, what is your destination? ‘Do you remain with your guardian?’
‘I know not for certain. The doctors recommend country or sea air: and I believe he is looking for a retired spot where I can freely have both. I shall not know until he returns next week.’
‘And, as I remain in town until then, you will allow me to walk here with you daily, will you not?’ he asked, imploringly.
‘Oh yes, it will be dear old
beauty more than ever since I left my cell,’ she said, with a shudder at the reminiscence.
Eagerly did Maynard apply himself to the task thus allotted to him during those few blissful days. For blissful they were to him, in spite of the limitation imposed upon him: not merely because it was happiness to him to be with her; but because he thought that through the interpretation of Nature, love might yet find an entrance into her heart. ‘It were a sin,’ he said to himself, ‘to suffer such a being as this to be wasted. With so much evil and ugliness ever springing up in the world, it is a sacred duty for the beautiful and the good to become multiplied. In this alone lies hope for humanity. How can I win her; and, winning her, how maintain her? I will preach to her of life and its duties, as well as of its joys; and, by aid of my science, illustrate the common nature of all things. In the absence of a voice from the heart, perchance she will obey her conscience. The blasphemy which she committed against God and man by entering that accursed convent, shall be atoned by obedience to the divine laws of our being. The Girl must be taught to become a Woman; and I––– I! how do I know that I shall benefit thereby, and not another? How, if I am educating her for another to win? decking the shrine for a stranger to worship at?’
The thought struck through him like a sword; and, at one glance, the lightning-flash of jealousy revealed to him all the dread depths of feeling that lay at the foundation of his nature, never before suspected, never again, he trusted, to be thus lighted up.
‘Oh merciful God!’ he cried, ‘in the intensity of his momentary anguish; nevermore let me see myself thus; but let the very memory of this moment die, never to revive.'
Deeply humiliated as James felt at the discovery he had made of the latent possibilities of his own nature, he learnt thereby the might of his passion for Margaret. The stronger that passion appeared to him to be, the farther it seemed remove him from Margaret’s sphere. Yet in this very unlikeness he found room for hope. Utterly unable as she was to comprehend his feeling, she had no instinct that prompted her to shrink from him; and that which was denied to love, might she not yet yield to compassion? On any terms he would take her; and, this achieved, would not the rest be sure to follow in the train of such devotion as he would pay her?
Maynard fancied he was solving the mystery of Margaret’s dissympathy. Of her perfection he had no doubt. That was an article of faith beyond dispute. It must be owing to some particular arrest of development, he thought, bringing his botanical knowledge to bear upon his analysis of her. Can there be any physical weakness; any radical defect of health?’
Alarmed at the idea, he sought Lord Littmass’s medical attendant, and introduced into his conversation an apparently, casual remark about Miss Waring’s extreme delicacy of constitution. He was a practitioner of the old school, shrewd and eccentric; but not disdaining new lights.
‘She delicate!’ cried the physician; ‘not a bit of it. Not a weak spot in her. If anything, she is too strong; too slow of development for the taste of an age that likes pace even in its women. A hardy plant, she does not shoot up into completeness one day to wither the next. Too much brain at the top of her head, perhaps, for most people; but with such a spine as hers to support it, there is nothing to fear. A little of the real education of life will soon send the blood circulating through her whole system, and equalise her developments. I have great faith in people’s spines. In one I can see beauty without strength, and in another strength without beauty. But in hers I find them combined in a very rare degree. Sir, the spine is the basis of the character physical and moral. In that delicate thread which runs throughout its entire length, and culminates in the brain, protected against the chance of injury as no other part of the body is, there resides the moi, or individual self-hood; and thence radiate all the nerves and their emotions. Why, there is scarcely a twist of opinion but may be traced to its corresponding curve in the spine. Only the other day a lady came to consult me about her daughter, who was taken, she said, with some strange religious fancies. ‘Tell me no more, madam,’ I said, but let me examine her spine.’ I did so; and said at once that I should not be surprised to find that she was inclined to join the sect of Plymouth Brethren. Her mother was astonished, and owned that she was attached to a clergyman who had entered that very communion. Another time I was examining the back of a girl whose parents are strict Protestants; plain, downright, matter-of-fact people, alike incapable of logical sequence, and devoid of imagination. Well, their two positives had produced a negative; and the daughter’s back-bone was the natural re-action from the parents’
self-opiniatedness. The vertebræ lacked consolidation, and indicated a total absence of self-reliance. I cautioned them that if they treated her injudiciously, and did not give her plenty of healthy exercise for both mind and body, she would be sure, some day, to turn Roman Catholic. They considered themselves so insulted by the suggestion of such a possibility for a daughter of theirs, that they never called me in again. The girl, however, some time afterwards, left her home and joined a Sisterhood.’
Maynard obtained another testimony to the perfection of Margaret’s spinal column. The dame told him that at Paris, on their way home from the convent, it was necessary to employ a dress-maker; and that this personage was so struck, first, by the young lady’s extreme look of delicacy and emaciated frame, and then by the unexpected straightness and regularity of her spine, that she exclaimed, –
‘Ah, mon Dieu! quel ange! such a back must not be let to grow wings before its time.’
To draw Margaret from the life she dwelt apart, pure, luminous, and dreamy as a star in its halo; her imagination fixed on the vague ideal suggested by the beautiful things of earth; this was the task Maynard had now set himself. He saw that she was one whom nought unlovely touched, or, at least, soiled; for she had no perception of the contrary of beauty or goodness. She was a very sensitive plant in this respect, shrinking and closing at once in presence of all that was unsympathetic to her; but opening, as to her whole nature, to the influence of the genuine and pure. Such power had their attraction over her imagination, that she could have gene as a martyr to the fire, rapt in unconsciousness of the external, and subduing torment by faith in the unseen.
Fully understanding that she dwelt in a charmed circle, into which nought that was not of the loftiest could enter, Maynard forced beneath the control of his intellect the love that burnt and raged within him; and sought for a process whereby he might unconsciously to her transform her sense of passive beauty into one of duty, her sympathy with the abstract into a personal feeling. To achieve this, he thought, it would be well to disclose to her more fully the nature of the world of which she was an individualised portion, and convince her that she would be attaining a truer harmony with it by adding the beauty of Doing to that of Being.
James felt that as a man he was not unworthy to be entrusted with even her affection; but he might have despaired of winning it, had he been less of a natural philosopher. On his knowledge that the laws of attraction are to be brought into operation by the conjunction of affinities, as well as by the exhibition of opposites, he founded his hopes of success. Margaret must be won from the abstract to the concrete, as a soul from heaven to earth, without having the tender susceptibilities, of which her ethereal nature was composed, scared by contact with too gross an element. Maynard felt that it was necessary to lay the foundations of his achievement in the brief interval that remained before their guardian’s return.
He had a conviction that Lord Littmass was averse to his holding any acquaintance with Margaret, though the grounds of that conviction were of a merely negative kind, – principally the seclusion in which she had been kept, the absence of any reference to her in conversation, and the demeanour of her old nurse. To Margaret herself it never occurred that any one was specially influencing or controlling her life. She lived as flowers live, enjoying the bounties of light, air, and shower, and giving out beauty and fragrance in return, but knowing nothing of a hand that tended her; and James was careful not to suggest that in being intimate with him she might be opposing and thwarting her guardian’s wishes respecting her. He read her well enough to be aware that, while to support misfortune and suffering she would bring the strength of an immortal, yet beneath a sense of wrong done by her she would inevitably droop and wither away.
His object in the conversations which he held with her during this interval was to reveal to her his view of the meaning of the Universe, and the necessary and intimate relations between its material and its spiritual, its physical and its mental parts; and to show her that it could attain its highest development only by all portions of it fulfilling their part in the general advance, and living up to the greatest capacity of their natures.
‘Nature,’ he said, ‘leads no merely desultory existence, content to enjoy and to be admired of itself; but is ever working as well as being, unfolding new possibilities, and advancing toward higher results. We are told that each night that closed a day in the history of Creation was followed by another day in which a fresh step was made towards perfection; that even geologic catastrophe and desolation have conduced to
the production of higher and more complex forms of life. And if growth be the inherent law of nature in respect of material and non-sentient existence, who can doubt that it is to be equally predicated of the moral, the intellectual, and the emotional would, which is the object and highest result, the flower and fruit of the physical universe? Crystals have their beauty and their use, certainly, but they are sterile and unproductive, and I should be sorry to see you content with being one of the crystals of humanity.’
‘Yet they are immortal and have no trouble or fatigue of existence,’ said Margaret, sighing. ‘I suspect that my heaven is one of rest, rather than of progress or movement. But pray do not think that I claim to have reached perfection. I am only really unconscious of a want. If nature has omitted to supply me with the impulse to activity which animates the rest, does that not indicate that my special function is to rest and be thankful?’
‘It is a common attempt at compliment to tell a woman that she is an angel,’ returned Maynard, laughing. ‘Now, I hold the angel to be the inferior of the two, and would promote you to be a woman. The sense of human duty is above that of abstract perfection. It educates the individual for the benefit of all. If we were intended for a passive and merely contemplative existence, it might be different; but having human powers and affections, we are clearly out of place while inert and indifferent. God works in and through the human mind and emotions as much as in other departments of existence. But, perhaps, I am forgetting that you have been ill, and need long sleep of mind and feeling to renovate you for the real work of life, the work which brings the highest reward and enjoyment, the work of fulfilling one’s nature.’
‘You are very good to find an excuse for my indolence,’ said Margaret; ‘but, tell me, I hope all your own affairs have gone as you wish?’
‘I have nothing beyond my studies to occupy my interest,’ returned Maynard, ‘and whenever I work they go on. My fellowship provides me the means of living, but it also cuts me off from the ordinary hopes and ambitions of men. As a college Fellow I may say with the Fiend in “Festus,”
Nor joy nor sorrow; but a changeless tone
Of sadness like the night wind’s is the strain
Of what I have of feeling.’
If I have not reproached yon for entering that convent, it is because I have no right to cast a stone on such account, who have myself virtually taken a vow of renunciation of love and manhood by partaking of an endowment based on the same monastic principle. Hailing all light as I do, I scarcely feel glad to have the veil removed from my eyes, now that it is possibly too late to change my career.’
‘Yet such a life as yours must have many consolations,’ said Margaret. You need to speak of its exemption from care and anxiety, and the freedom to follow your own bent whithersoever it might lead you.’
‘Excepting in one direction. There is a time appointed unto men,’ said James, solemnly, ‘to contemn the selfishness of isolation, and yearn for the sympathies of human ties. Were we but mere intellects, the life would be perfect. As it is, the awakening to the consciousness of our complex natures brings only agony and regret, against which we can only strive by rushing into fresh activities.’
‘What is the usual mode of escape?’
‘Taking a college living when about fifty years of age, and compensating a wasted manhood by teaching catechisms to ploughboys: unless in the rare instance of marrying a woman who has money enough for two, or more.’