AFTER he had dined, Lord Littmass retired to his study, there to occupy himself with his writing while awaiting James Maynard. He had meditated on the position, and decided that this would be a better plan than receiving him familiarly over his wine in the dining-room, or in a more formal manner in the drawing-room. Besides, it was advisable for Margaret to be in waiting in the latter, in case a reference to her should be found necessary.
Lord Littmass was fully conscious of the two apparently incongruous characters which united in him; so much so as sometimes to wonder which of them was the real and which the assumed. For he found it impossible to convince himself that there could be any identity between himself as Artist, and himself as Man of the world; and yet he was fain to confess that he was in heart and by turns thoroughly both. Of late he had inclined more and more to the conviction that he was intended by nature to be Artist solely, for he had found that the more involved his affairs become, and the blacker the future looked to him, the more he felt drawn to his work of creation; the more vivid grew his imagination, the keener his moral insight, the profounder the feelings he could depict, and the intenser the emotions he could evolve.
He had now reached a point in his work which claimed for its elaboration his whole undivided power. His imaginary characters had grown under his hand, from their earliest vague conception, to be creatures of warm flesh and blood, high intellect, genuine feeling. Allowing them freely to enact the parts to which their respective characters impelled them under circumstances which, though peculiar, were very possible, he found them now in such a situation that to extricate them from it had become a powerful incentive to his vanity as an Artist, if not to his humanity as a man.
To these hapless children of his latest creation, the exercise of whose inherent characters and freewill, amid the circumstances in which they had been placed by him, had brought them into entanglement apparently inextricable, his humanity, whether artistic or genuine, said, –
‘Ye shall not sin or die! but shall come forth from the trial like gold refined. And this by the sole force, still ever operating,
of your own natures. Not a jot of my Art will I sacrifice. For the Artist who abandons his art, and sacrifices his genius to Expedients, owns himself vanquished, and that by beings of his own formation.’
And this reflection aroused his vanity; –
‘Shall men say that I, Lord Littmass, who have hitherto succeeded in my every tried enterprise of Art, have failed at last. Better death, and leave my work unfinished, my world in chaos, than fail thus. Ha! was this, then, the meaning of the Ancients in representing their gods as dying; – that, failing to carry the world they had made and the race they had cherished, onwards to their promised perfection, the Immortals compassed their own destruction, and died of mortified vanity?
‘Little thought you, my Lucretius, how near you approached, in results at least, to the later dogmatists. Banish the gods, or kill them, and man is equally left to his own devices, is equally master of his own fate. Well, if the gods, or man’s belief in them and in their powers of interference for his good, brought him to the pass, he was wise to let them go, and work out his salvation for himself.’
It was a habit with Lord Littmass to refer all matters connected with philosophy and theology to a vague antiquity. He had imbibed his principal knowledge of such subjects in his youth, and had come to associate them in his mind as kindred if not identical processes. He was now, according to his custom in all the more difficult situations to which the exercise of his art brought him, pen in hand, allowing his thoughts to run on, utterly heedless as to whither they carried him, trusting to some sparks being struck out at white heat, which might serve either as stars for guidance or as gems for adornment. In his present condition of mind and body, he felt his thoughts completely detached from his external circumstances; as once when, on inhaling ether for a slight though painful operation, he had, by preserving the clearness of his perceptions to the extreme verge of consciousness, been able to watch the gradual extinction of sensation in the extremities, and concentration of all life at the centre of his being; the heart beating more and more rapidly and fully as it seemed to draw the whole circulation into itself, – until the supreme moment when consciousness was merged in annihilation, thorough as that of death.
Lord Littmass seemed to have reached such a point of complete abstraction from the external world with which the extremities
of his being ordinarily tingled, when, glancing up from his writing, he found James Maynard standing before him; looking, in the shaded light of his study lamp, oh, so like his own earlier self, that for the moment the years seemed to have rolled back, and he fancied he was gazing at his own reflection in a mirror. The thought shot to his heart, and almost escaped to his lips, –
‘Mine indeed! Mine indeed!’
And whatever doubts he may have had before, from the moment of that glance they vanished.
Maynard was the first to speak, murmuring an apology for the imperceptibility of his entrance. Lord Littmass soon recovered his presence of mind, and, motioning him to a chair, expressed himself at his service.
‘You have travelled far since we last met, and have done good work. I hoped to have heard of the results first from your own lips.’
‘Your lordship was absent from town ––’
‘True, and you followed me to Devonshire.’
‘Scarcely so. Failing to find your lordship in London, I went to Devonshire for a purpose that I cherish more dearly than life,
‘And accomplished it?’
‘And missed it – for the time. Your lordship knows how and why.’
‘And now, having gained the confidence of those to whom your lordship recommended me and who entrusted me with their commission, and having been placed in a position of emolument and independence, I venture to ask permission to pay my addresses to your lordship’s ward, Miss Margaret Waring, with a view to her accompanying me to Mexico as my wife.’
‘May I ask, have you any reason to suppose that, if I grant the permission you seek, she will accept you?
‘I say frankly, I have no means of judging.’
‘So that you have not taken advantage of your acquaintance with her to gain her affections?’
‘I meant to imply that I do not know that I have gained them. That I have wished and tried to gain them I do not deny. Our intercourse, whenever we have met, has, on her side, been as that of brother and sister. So far as I am aware, she is as much of a child in heart now as ever, and any intimations
which I may have thrown out regarding my own hopes and wishes have fallen unheeded and uncomprehended. But with your good permission I trust now to speak to her more plainly and effectively.’
‘And if I decline to give it?’
‘Your lordship will scarcely do so without at least allowing her an opportunity of deciding her own fate.’
‘Pray, have you any recollection of a conversation I held with you shortly before you left England, in which I used the phrase “fine prospects,” in relation to her?’
‘Perfectly, and of the agony it caused me, as indicating an unsuspected barrier between us?’
‘And has anything occurred to induce you to suppose that that barrier no longer exists?’
‘My best reply is that I am ready to take her, and renounce all fortune, save that which I may win for her.’
‘It seems to me that in contemplating such an arrangement, you are thinking of no one beyond yourself.’
‘Give me leave to address her, and I promise that unless I succeed in winning her to such a love as will be the crowning happiness of both our lives, – a love in comparison with which all else is worthless, – I will abandon my pursuit, and do my best to reconcile myself to my bitter disappointment.’
‘If I do not stop to comment on the undesirableness of such a future as you offer to this tenderly-nurtured girl – a future in which a life in Mexico and a precarious income constitute the principal features, – it is that I may not be exciting hopes which must never be realised. James Maynard, you can never, while I live, marry Margaret Waring.’
The firm, solemn, and decided tone in which these words were uttered, convinced Maynard that they were intended to be final. Tightly grasping the arm of his chair, he gasped for breath, and for an instant attempted in vain to articulate.
Lord Littmass perceived his agitation, and enjoyed a momentary triumph of superiority. But soon his admiration was excited by the manner in which James mastered his emotion, and, recovering himself, said, with a dignity and firmness even exceeding his own, –
‘Then I have only at present to ask your lordship’s reasons.’ It was Lord Littmass’s turn to be moved.
‘My reasons!’ he exclaimed; and then, yielding to sarcasm,
‘do you know that, on searching my memory, I am unable to recall a single instance of my ever having given reasons for my actions.’
This answer was a mistake, and Lord Littmass at once saw that it was so, and, mentally registering the first point in the game to his opponent, he determined to avoid a similar slip in the future. Had anything been wanting to confirm Maynard’s determination, this answer would have supplied it.
‘My lord,’ he said, in the firmest and most respectful tone, ‘the conduct of a man must ever change with circumstances. It has never before happened to you to be called on to decide the fate of one who is bound to you by no less a tie than that of life-long protection, when pleading for all that he values in life. You have never, therefore, had the same motives for giving your reasons which will now induce you to satisfy me.’
Nevertheless, I must still decline.’
‘The emergency is one that confers on me the right to know them. They may be founded on something disparaging to my character: some injurious suspicion which I have a right to dispel.’
‘The conversation to which I have already alluded, if rightly apprehended, seems to me to supply what you seek, without conjuring up groundless or painful imaginations. I have other views for my ward.’
Maynard did not immediately reply, and Lord Littmass finding him silent, thought that he was bringing himself to abandon his purpose, and so continued, in a softer tone, –
‘With regard to yourself, too, I had other hopes. I have seen for some time past that you were preoccupied, and you may remember that I more than once let fall suggestions in reference to your prospects, in the hope of leading you to perceive the very great mistake you make in thinking at all of marriage. Your whole career in life depends upon the unwavering persistency with which you pursue your studies and your labours. Marriage, whether happy or unhappy in itself, can only be to you a hindrance and a damage. You are not the man I have taken you for if you seek to free yourself from the necessity of working, by means of a wealthy alliance. Your disposition is altogether too noble for that. I have pleased myself by looking forward to the time when your name will rank high among England’s worthies, who have forsaken all minor ambitions for the love of science, and are looked up to as
the leaders and benefactors of their kind. Even this agency in Mexico, lucrative as there is a possibility, more or less remote, of its proving, does not content me as a permanency for you. But I considered that, as you are yet young, a few years would not be ill spent in acquiring a little capital, with which you may return to devote yourself to your real work, the work of scientific investigation, for which your character and position so eminently fit you. Nay, – hear me out – any man can marry. Your special gift lies in another direction. For a man to abandon a special gift, and devote himself to the commonplace, is to bury his genius in the ground, and to waste God’s greatest blessing, by depriving himself and mankind of the benefits of its exercise. I consider it better for that man had he never been born.’
‘Your lordship kindly endeavours, by flattering language, to neutralise the painful effect of your resolution. But I must claim the liberty of demurring to the accuracy of such a view of marriage, at least in my own case. Neither should I consider myself justified in burdening you with the responsibility of enacting the part of a providence to decide the question that of all most deeply affects my whole existence. I have grown up, my lord, in frequent and intimate intercourse with my fellow orphan and ward. I have watched the growth of her mind and character, and have done my best to aid in their development. I believe that her affections are entirely free, but that she has too much regard for me lightly to subject me to the pain of a refusal. And I confidently trust that, if allowed to address her, I shall succeed in converting her assent into a warmer feeling. True love is apt to be contagious; and that my love is true, my whole life to its inmost depths bears witness. I regret the necessity that compels me to take up a position antagonistic to your wishes, and I ask pardon for my share in it, but I claim for myself and for her whom I love, the right of being the arbiters of our own destinies.’
‘You are very persistent,’ said Lord Littmass, pettishly.
‘A man is apt to be persistent when pleading for his life. How much more so when pleading for what he values more than life, – his whole chance of happiness here and hereafter. Think, I pray you, my lord, of how little worth are all these plans and views which you have formed for Margaret or for myself; of how little avail these social ambitions of the world, if bought by the sacrifice of precious hopes, and all that endears
life to us. I know not whether you have undergone similar experiences in your own history; whether your life has had its share of the hopes and joys which men prize so dearly; or whether disappointment came early to steel your heart against the indulgence of all such but as a man, and one, moreover, possessed of more than ordinary insight respecting the emotional phenomena of humanity, you cannot persist in opposing your own merely speculative plans, – plans preconceived without reference to the feelings of those most concerned, – to such considerations as I am now urging upon you.’
While he was thus speaking Lord Littmass was reflecting.
‘If only I could trust Margaret to refuse him, firmly and decidedly, I would relieve myself of the necessity. But he talks too well. A woman’s ear is her weakest point, and the very power which he shows in addressing me is the strongest reason against letting him see her.’
So he said, –
‘I cannot tell you how disappointed and humiliated I feel at the position in which I find myself placed by your conduct. I had hoped that in all these years you would have learned to appreciate my position and character sufficiently to believe that only a strong sense of duty would govern my decisions. It is no pleasure to me to withstand the wishes of any in whom I take an interest. I endeavoured long ago by delicate means to intimate to you the hopelessness of your growing attachment, without betraying to you that I more than suspected its existence; but you did not think proper to act on the suggestion, and arrest the course of your feelings before they attained their present strength.’
‘My lord,’ interrupted Maynard, ‘those feelings have ever been a part of myself. I cannot remember the time when they were not, in some degree. They have grown with my growth and strengthened with my strength, until it has come to this: – that Margaret is my fate, and I cannot surrender my hope of winning her at any one’s bidding, save her own.’
‘Then the sooner the matter is settled, the better,’ said Lord Littmass, with the air of a man who, at the end of a desperate game, finally produces the winning card; and, rising from his seat, he proceeded to the door. But there he stopped, and added, –
‘Before I subject her to the pain of choosing between us, I will make one more appeal to your better feeling. Are you
resolved, at all hazard, to set yourself against me in this matter, and to count as nothing the years of care that I have exercised over you from your earliest childhood, – throwing to the winds all ties of gratitude and duty for the sake of forcing this girl to be your wife; dragging from me the sole bright ray of my house, in order to immure her in a Mexican mine? Speak!’
‘My lord,’ said James, nettled by the light estimate thus coolly placed upon the advantages of a marriage with him, before I can fairly compute the extent of gratitude and self-sacrifice due to you from me, I must be enlightened as to the motives which have prompted your benevolence. Who am I?’
The suddenness with which this unexpected question was put, almost overcame Lord Littmass’s self-possession. He staggered and leant against the door, regarding Maynard with a strange and wistful look. But he did not speak at once. Totally unprepared for the inquiry, he had framed no reply in anticipation. But his favourite maxim stood him in good need: ‘When in doubt, hold your tongue.’
Maynard repeated his question.
‘I ask your lordship, who was my father?’
His answer came forth in a measured and wondering tone, –
‘Nearly thirty years of age, and never asked the question before!’
The sarcasm of this reply, intense as it was, failed to shake James’s serenity. He said, quietly, –
‘Add, since I was a child. If in later years I have shown any unnatural indifference on such a subject, it is because my interest was early chilled and repressed by yourself. The faculty of personal attachment for friend or relative was never cultivated in me, whether for any or for what reason is best known to yourself. I, so far at least, have only done justice to your teaching. I do not deny, however, that, notwithstanding my failure to comprehend your motives, such was my confidence that you would do whatever was right, and tell me at a fitting time, that I have refrained from putting the interrogation, until compelled now by this crisis of my fate.’
‘Why, how can the knowledge help you?’
‘Thus. It may reveal to me whether the balance of duty owed is due from your side or from mine; whether it is you or I that have the best claim to the forbearance of the other; whether, in requiring my abandonment of Margaret, you are claiming a sacrifice fairly due to you, or are adding a new and
a greater item to the catalogue of charges which I may fairly bring against you on my own behalf.’
‘Do you say this without having the slightest idea as to your origin?’ asked Lord Littmass, in a hoarse tone, and speaking very slowly.
James started to hear his altered voice, and glancing keenly at him, was shocked to note his haggard look. He answered, –
‘It is as I have already said. I have forborne to seek information, trusting to you to tell me at the fitting moment.’
By this time Lord Littmass had returned to his chair, and Maynard, who had risen when he rose, remained standing.
‘And now you expect me to give you information for the express purpose of employing it as a weapon against myself. Hear this, James Maynard. If I have never broached the subject of your parentage to living being, it has been solely from a sincere regard to the best interests of all concerned. Supposing that a doubt rested on the fair fame of one or both of your parents, was it any duty of mine to subject you to the pain of knowing it, or to the stigma of having it known? Or, supposing that, owing to family intricacies, it were doubtful as to who really was your father, was it not a thousand times better to bury the doubt in oblivion, and leave you to make a name for yourself, undisturbed by useless regrets about events long past and persons long dead? That friendships of my own were involved in such history should be clear to you, from the fact of the relations which have so long existed between us. If in these relations I have sometimes suffered bitter memories to come between us and infuse a degree of coldness into our intercourse, it has been owing to no fault of yours, and I ask your pardon. Yes,’ he repeated, with singular feebleness and slowness, as if almost incapable of speech, ‘I . . . ask . . . your . . . pardon,’ and, exhausted by the struggle, sank back in his chair.
Maynard sprang forward in alarm, and proffered his aid, but Lord Littmass desired him, in a whisper, to sit down and wait, as the attack would soon pass of. After a little while he began to rally, and then he smiled a smile that seemed ghastly to James, and said, still in a soft, low voice, –
‘No one but you has ever witnessed this weakness of mine. I cannot talk to you more now. If you still persist in the course you have taken, come to-morrow, by noon, and I will consider how far I can meet you.’
Not liking to leave him in that condition, James lingered,
and begged to be allowed to call a servant, but receiving for answer, accompanied by an impatient gesture, only the words –
‘No, no, go; only go,’ he had no choice but to take his leave.