ALL troubles past, present, or to come; all fatigues, inconveniences, and discomforts, were forgotten in the ecstasy of delight with which the homeward-bound party gazed upon the scene that lay before them.
During the progress of the cavalcade, if such a term be applicable to a train principally composed of mules, from el Real de Dolóres to the edge of the table-land, the scene had been obscured by mists, and the spirits, especially of Margaret and Noel, had felt the gloomy influence. The strangely varying demeanour of James, too, had troubled them. At one time he would be walking by her side, holding her bridle or her hand, and treating her with the tenderness and affection of one who was haunted by remorse for past unkindnesses, and was determined now to atone for them. At another, he would be away for hours together far in advance with the condúcta, and his return to them would be marked by moodiness and silence. And then, again, he would be chatting with Noel in the most animated manner on the topics suggested by the time or the place, as if he did not know what care or responsibility meant.
The ascent of the final sierra that interposed between them and the region of the Huasteca, so famed for its beauty, seemed to bring with it unusual equanimity to Maynard, and the evening passed on its summit was one long to be remembered. The convoy had gone down to some distance below the ridge for the sake of pasture for the animals, and Maynard and his party
encamped on the summit, whence they could behold, as it were, all the kingdoms of the earth; so far away, now that the veil of cloud was lifted, stretched the view before them.
Seeing Maynard busying himself in aiding Margaret to dismount (for Noel purposely kept aloof from paying her too much attention), lifting the children out of their panniers, and selecting the spots for the three little white tents that formed their nightly shelter, while the tinkling of the mule bells from the hill-side below faintly reached their ears, Noel was irresistibly reminded of the representations by the old painters of the flight into Egypt, and at the same time struck by the curious contrast between the legendary history and the actual one of the group before him. In the former, the credit of parentage being assigned entirely to the mother; and in the latter, the father claiming it all for himself. In the former, contented acquiescence in the divine decree; and in the latter, only bitterness and grief at the supposed defect of a nature deemed otherwise so perfectly excellent. Yet, if ever mother was virgin, surely none, it seemed to him, was ever more essentially so than Margaret!
The sun was setting behind them when all preparations for the night’s encampment were finished, the evening meal taken, and nought remained but to gaze their fill upon the scene that stretched itself out below. Here and there a cloud still floated below them, its upper side lit up by the nearly level sun, and giving them the sensation of dwelling above in a firmament of their own. Away to the east, towards the invisible shores of the great gulf, stretched a succession of valleys covered with a sea of verdure, the like of which was unknown to the table-lands, and whose any spray or parasite would have been a prize for a northern conservatory. From far down the cliffs ascended the plashing sounds of innumerable cascades created or replenished by the rain of the day; and here and there in the distance, gleaming amid the foliage of the mahogany swamps, through which it wound, could be seen the river, at whose mouth lay their port of embarkation, the Panuco; now swollen with the rains, which, to Maynard’s discomposure, had that season commenced earlier than was usual.
The contrast between the arid table-land through which their journey had hitherto lain, and the scene before them, served to enhance the present beauty for the gazers from the brink. A slight shiver on the part of Margaret, as the sun
sank and the
mountain air became at once chilly, induced Noel to throw his serápe over her, and prompted James to remark that it would be hot enough
to-morrow, and during their ride through the tierra caliente to
Tampico. ‘Everything here,’ he said, ‘is in extremes. Nature had forgotten her
general moderation when she made
‘Small hope for man in this pendulous theory of yours,’ observed Noel, who saw that James’s present philosophy was the offspring of a bitter mood.
‘What hope does man want,’ he asked, ‘beyond the limits of his own life? People will go on living, and working, and dying, and living to do so, without depending for their happiness on a comparison between remote periods of history.’
‘Alas, for my continuous man, then!’ said Noel. ‘You would deprive my book of its hero.’
‘Ah, I forgot your literary exigencies. No; stick to him, and let us see how you work it out. I am only afraid that when we all reach the stage of your contemplated perfection it
will be a very dull world – almost as
bad as the popular heaven. I suspect the truth is,
that a spice of wickedness is necessary to our enjoyment. It at least allows
room for hope, which is a blessed frame of mind, scarcely admissible in a state
of perfection. Hope! I wonder what it feels like. Perhaps we shall find out when
we come back to fight with Juarez for the regeneration of
‘It is very cold,’ said Margaret, shuddering, and rising to go to her tent. ‘I am sure that if there is any sympathy between the feelings and the thermometer, Hope must be warm, and Despair somewhere near zero.’
James looked after her thoughtfully as she moved away, and then said, –
‘Thus does woman’s instinct surpass man’s reason. It is cold; and I have been enunciating the philosophy of the iceberg. It will be too warm to-morrow. Pendulum again!’
Maynard was right. It was more than too warm next day when, after a tedious and slippery descent of many thousand feet, they made their first halt in the tierra caliente. Here, as if to make ample amends for the cold and barren heights, Nature seemed to revel in warmth and luxuriance. Henceforward to the coast their path lay among dense masses of tangled foliage, rich pastures, cultivated ground, and groves of palms. Here, instead of the stony or slimy track, broad, smooth, grassy rides, cut through the forest, invited to a gallop; and it was only by the fanning of an occasional canter that the suffocating heat could be for a moment mitigated. Maynard alone seemed to enjoy the excessive temperature.
‘Ah,’ said he to Noel, as they rode along, ‘this kills you, though it just suits me. You want bracing airs to bring you up to the mark. Your very name indicates relaxation – all liquids and vowels. And a man’s name is much more a part of himself than is generally supposed.’
When camped for the night, he should like, he said, to be a tree, and to be planted there, to grow, and put forth spreading roots and branches, and sustain creepers and parasites, and have bright-feathered birds singing among his leaves, and to be haunted by those magnificent big mariposas by which the children had been so delighted in the latter part of their ride. ‘On the whole,’ he added, ‘I suspect the vegetable world has the best of it. At least, its members adapt themselves less painfully to
circumstances. It is difficult to fancy a tree crossed in love.’
‘Do you hold that to be the greatest of misfortunes?’ asked Noel, laughing.
‘Whether it be so, or not, a man always fancies it to be so. Falling in love is
the chief and crucial act of life, whereby man is distinguished from all lower –
perhaps from all higher animals. And to be thwarted in that is to be made to
feel that he lives in vain. Place of all places is this for the topic. Climate
of Paradise, and trees of
‘To open the children’s tent. They must be too warm with the flaps so low down.’
‘Poor child!’ said James, when she had moved away. ‘She can’t bear the thought of the realities of nature. And she is often angry with herself for being, as she thinks, a disappointment to me. I cannot persuade her that I would rather be disappointed with her than satisfied with any other. I sometimes wish that she might fall in love, that she might understand things better. And then I dread her doing so, because I know how intense will be her remorse at the misery she will believe herself to have made me suffer. It is a marvellous heart, and I suspect it may be better for her never to get to the bottom of it – in this world, at least. The greatest happiness that can befall her will be to lose me, and have only to occupy herself with her children and her art-worship.’
‘Her taste for the latter is indeed a part of her very nature,’ observed Noel, somewhat at a loss what to say.
‘A good deal more than the former,’ returned James. ‘And, therefore, as you have perhaps observed, I do not encourage her in it. Her tendency to the Abstract is almost a morbid one; and I fear the children will be ruined by it for all practical purposes of life. They will be brought up to object to men for being men and not angels. It is a sort of religiousness that has a charm for some imaginations in its eminent unpracticality. To me worship without love, work without an end, art without creation, are monstrosities. Such art or religion as hers, is a
mere reverie, an immoral sensationalism; inasmuch as it is divested of all relation to the concrete. Like the religion of monks and nuns, its end is self.’
‘Surely, you do her injustice,’ remonstrated Edmund. ‘There is no slavish terror in her feeling, as is apt to be with them.’
‘No, you are right there. But the result is the same, though the motives are as far apart as light and darkness. Contemplation divorced from action is as mischievous as action divorced from contemplation. Her very nature is an aspiration. My theory of differentiation does not apply to her, for in her the Divine thought has failed to culminate in a distinct individuality. Margaret has nothing to part with, no sea-change to suffer, in order to re-unite with the universal soul.’ Then, after a pause, he added, –
‘Poor child! it was a strange and hard trial to introduce her to the life of earth; and I cannot see that it was needed in her case: that is, supposing life to be a probation. And if an education, it has failed.’
‘I wonder if I shall have a theory about my wife, if I ever have one!’ said Noel, fascinated by any prospect of a revelation concerning Margaret, and yet half fearing to betray his interest.
‘God forbid!’ said Maynard, devoutly.
‘Marry a woman that is wholly woman, when you are about it, or never marry at all. Better be born and remain so, than open your eyes only to close them again.’ And he muttered to himself words which Noel rather divined than heard.
‘If ever you think me bitter in anything you have heard me say,’ he resumed, ‘pray remember that my bitterness was against fate, and not against individuals.’
‘Is ever love without a spice of bitterness?’ asked Noel. ‘Perhaps something of the kind may be necessary to preserve it from cloying.’
‘That is no reason why it should predominate over the sweet. But you have not expressed a young man’s sentiment – and a bachelor’s.’
‘Very likely. But my own fear in a too happy love would be, lest familiarity and use degenerate into indifference.’
‘Now, that is a frame of mind I cannot imagine,’ said Maynard; ‘though I am inclined to envy it.’
‘It is not an uncommon one, I fancy, if the testimony of many be taken.’
‘The testimony of many must be the testimony of the commonplace. It is unnecessary to argue from them. It would be fishing in stagnant waters.’