THE letters received by Noel from Maynard indicated so much steadiness of purpose and feeling that it was with pain and surprise he heard from Sophia during the winter, that she wished all communication between Mexico and Rome could be stopped; for that whenever the mail brought a letter, Margaret was so completely upset by it as not to recover herself for several days afterwards.
‘She says not a word to anybody,’ wrote Sophia, but shuts herself up, neglects her self-imposed tasks, and looks wan and pale and patient, as if enduring overwhelming grief. If this be the result of being absent from one’s husband, I hope that I shall either never be absent from mine, or never have one to be absent from. It cannot be that she is anxious about his health or safety, since your accounts are good. What can it be? Can she be fancying that she has anything to reproach herself with in respect to him? She will not own to repenting having left him, or having married him; and she is not one to indulge in unavailing regrets for what is only temporary. I hoped at one time that I should have helped her and mamma out of all our melancholinesses by means of the bright society of this place. We came here, it is true, meaning to be quiet and moderately sad. But, as usual with me, people came round us, and our circle grew, and I gradually found myself, this time really in spite of myself, surrounded by adorers, the cardinal A–– for my special slave, and heaps of clever men of all nations with
whom I talk and sing like a polyglot, and my only difficulty is to get a moment to myself. Margaret never appears in all this, and mamma but seldom. So I reign alone, a harmless candle to all these moths. Perhaps it is as well that it should be so, for I am positive that if she were to become known in our parties, the furore would take a different turn. The voluble plaudits for me would turn to silent admiration for her, and she would have no peace left. You see there is no reason that I can give for her retirement, so that I should be always having to make excuses for her absence, were she once to be seen in my salon. As it is, and in spite of her thick veil, she never walks with her little girls on the Pincian without the children being made an excuse by hosts of priests and monks for trying to get into conversation with her. It would not be accepted as any excuse for her seclusion that her husband is at a distance, – rather the contrary. Mamma, who has just come from her, says that she fears Margaret is giving way to a morbid presentiment of evil to James, for she acknowledges a growing weight at her heart that she cannot account for. What do you think of running over at Christmas and seeing what you can do with her? Adieu, for the present. I am off to a reception at the French Ambassadors’. Their parties are charming. A–– has promised to give me his opinion, (as a man, not as a cardinal.), about my girls’ college. He is delightful, whatever people may say of his being saturnine and forbidding. The scowl does not make the monk.’
Noel did not need to go to
‘I am thinking, beloved friend, that it is only fair, now that James and I are partners, that I should give him a holiday, by taking his place at the mine. Not, mind you, that he has said a word to show that he is tired of work, or wants a change. I think we both know him well enough to be sure that if I write to make such a proposition, he will refuse to avail himself of it. The only way to get him home is for me to go unannounced. Tell me, would such an arrangement add in the least to your happiness? I always try to read your heart, and think I do so pretty well, generally; but how is it in this instance? Am I not right in thinking that you, ignoring
yourself as usual, are fancying that you ought not to be away from him, and are even indulging in self-reproach in the matter? You will comprehend my proposal. It is not that your own happiness will directly be the greater for his coming; but you will be the happier in making a sacrifice to what you deem a duty, even though you be a sufferer thereby. I am as sure that I read you aright in this, as that you will not misconceive my motive. I wonder if you can quite comprehend what I am offering to do. Being what we are to each other, I am offering to go far away from you in order to send him to you! I can do this for you, but I must not let myself think about it, or I may fail. Write to me, something longer this time than the rare little notes which I keep by me and read and kiss often.’
This was her reply: –
‘You ask for a long letter. Oh, my dear friend, what is the use? Does multiplication make words stronger and deeper? Forgive me if I do not seem to thank you enough for the offer. I understand it all. The feeling that prompts it is an atonement in itself – in part. You read me rightly. It would do no good. Either he would not come, or you would be too late. You may laugh at my superstition; but I feel that his plans are beyond being changed by us. You know that I pretend to a little second sight.
‘There are so many things here that I should like to see with you, alone and
quietly. But do not come, at least for the present. We cannot escape a crowd,
and a crowd always desecrates
Now I can understand people clinging to them. Is it that contact with the world dulls the spiritual vision? I used to disagree with the sentiment, –
‘ “Although the ocean’s inmost heart be pure,
Yet the salt fringe that daily licks the shore
Is gross with sand.”
I rebel against it now, for I see not why heart and world should not be pure alike. Is all life but a clouded crystal?
‘Sophia came home from the French Embassy the other night in such a bad humour that I encouraged her to tell me what had occurred. It only turned out that she was angry with one of the cardinals for making fun of her enthusiasm on behalf of her sex. She had seriously asked his opinion and advice in reference to her girls’ college, and he said, banteringly, that it would never do to raise the standard of women, as they are already so superior to the men that a little more elevation would put them out of reach altogether. And when she pressed for a serious answer, he said that there can be no greater mistake than to seek to widen a woman’s mind at the expense of her heart; for that emotion is everything to women, intellect nothing. They can appreciate, but not emulate, man in his sphere, while man can appreciate, but not emulate, woman in hers. The gist of the remarks which so offended Sophia, was, so far as I understand them, to this effect. Cultivation must do more harm than good to women, because their special function is emotion; and it is the essence of emotion to be spontaneous; and cultivation destroys spontaneousness.
‘Ah me! if cultivation would blunt feeling, what a boon would work be. As it is, it only lulls it into a brief forgetfulness, to return in redoubled strength afterwards.
‘If I have been dilatory in replying to your most kind and thoughtful offer, do not think that it is because I am ungrateful. I have told you before that I always know when you are writing to me, and so am never taken by surprise by your letters. I was expecting this last one, and was wondering at its non-appearance, but did not like to make any inquiries. At last Sophia, in taking a bundle of letters out of one of her capacious pockets, exclaimed, –
‘ “Dear me, I quite forgot. Margaret, here is a letter for you which I was bringing up to you the other day, when something interrupted me, and it went into my pocket.” Pray write more guardedly. I know all your feeling. Words are
not necessary. I do so dread any accident that might give him pain. This, as you know, has ever been my one restraining motive in all our relations. For me it has, perhaps too much, taken the place of all higher sense of duty; not that you will allow any other to be higher.
‘But about yourself. Dear friend, need I tell you how much I wish and long for your happiness? Believe me, there is but one way to it. Look upon me as dead. But for the dull aching pain that is ever at my heart I should sometimes think I am dead. Cherish my memory as fondly as you may, but open your heart to the future. There is ample blessing in store for you, if you will only seek it thus. I assure you it will be to me an awakening into new life the day when you write to me of your happiness. I long for it intensely. I shall not continue to feel then that I have the ruin of your life upon me in addition to that of his.’