THE following letter from Sophia awaited Noel
What has become of you, and what is the matter with you? And what do you mean by spoiling my Christmas party by your absence from it? I heard that you were in Devonshire, and I got two or three leading men to come to meet you, thinking they would be useful in helping you to get into Parliament, where I want you to be, that you may the better help me with my Project, which does not stand still, though its progress is much slower than I like. Are you ill? or in love? or merely good for nothing, and going to the dogs? Let me have a line to say, that I may know whether my sympathies are wasted on you.’
In reply to this, Noel hastily despatched the following note: –
‘DEAR, GOOD SOPHY,
‘I am ill. I am good for nothing. I am in love. I am going to the dogs. I can’t afford to go into Parliament; and I have no notion of championing women to further independence. To my mind, they have too much of it already. Some of them, at least.’
And then he set to work once more to remodel and rewrite his book, fancying that he saw in it a last chance of winning Margaret, at least from the intensity of her woe. His plan now was to set before her a picture of life that should be, in a general sense, intelligible to all, but in a particular sense only to her. Her character and her relations to James and to himself should be so represented as to exhibit her absolute faultlessness, at least in the eyes of himself and of those who aspire to a higher law for the conduct of humanity than is ordinarily recognised. By thus convincing her of perfect righteousness in thought and
act, he hoped to win her from the conviction of sin, and the idea of penance, which had taken such fast hold of her.
‘I see how it is,’ was his reflection. ‘Margaret hopes to atone for what she fancies to have been a defect of duty towards James by an excess of devotion towards me; but that devotion must be accomplished in a way that will bring suffering in place of happiness to herself. It is the curious old theological notion of compensation for error by pain. A schoolboy has a more difficult lesson than he can manage, and the master beats the boy for failure, instead of blaming himself for setting it. People degrade the Almighty into a flogging pedagogue. It is less trouble to strike than to teach; to frighten than to win. Really, Margaret is very illogical in this idea of hers. She thinks that I cannot fail some day to reproach her, in my heart at least, on account of the past. She will not see that if any wrong has been committed, I must be a sharer in it. It must be that where love is concerned she is blind. I cannot deem this an imperfection in her. So for me Margaret remains as ever, perfect in all respects.’
As his work grew under his hands, it was a supreme delight to him to find how completely one spirit had animated himself and Margaret throughout. He by principle, and she by instinct, had come to own one and the same law as king over the conscience of both, even that perfect law in the heart, the default of which lands man in conventions. From the beginning of their relations until now, did Noel trace the consistent operation of the rule which constitutes human feeling the ultimate criterion of action. It was by no fault of Margaret that James had failed of perfect happiness. She had ever ignored herself, and done her best for him. If his lot was dashed with misery, it was through the meeting in it of elements which could not combine, and that by no fault of theirs. He lived in the quick. The tension of his life was too great. Yet he would not have exchanged it for the calm flow of a more perfect contentment. He had been as happy, therefore, as he was capable of being; and this through Margaret. Ought she not then to be satisfied, even though his happiness was not of the kind that she could herself appreciate?
No thought of the world had ever come between James and Margaret; and now that he was removed, the world was equally far from her. It provided her with no scruple or restriction. As before, she had thought only what would be
best for James, so now, she thought only what would be best for Edmund.
On his part, Noel owned to himself that the sole controlling influence for him had been his intense solicitude for her future happiness, and for James’s as influencing hers. Thus, he had declined the last sacrifice she had offered of herself, chiefly, if not solely, because he felt that his acceptance of it must create unhappiness for her some time in the future. Whatever the immediate interval of ecstasy, nothing could compensate him for the conviction that, constituted as society is, he should be laying up for her a possible futurity of mortification and woe. The more truly he loved her, the less could he take her and be happy at such cost to herself. However confident he might be that he should never abandon, never change to her, he could not hope for ever to shield her from the consciousness that must some day come – the consciousness that he had not insisted on the best for her.
It was a further pleasure to Noel to reassure himself of the genuineness and strength of his affection for Maynard; and it was a source of never-failing satisfaction to him to reflect that there had been no open conflict between them to engender bitterness; though at the same time he was Artist enough to perceive how much the story he had to tell would have gained in dramatic interest from such a clash.
As the sad details of his history receded from the region of sorrow into that of sentiment, and the outlines of his character and principles became blended into a distinct and coherent form, Noel learnt to generalise the man and his meaning. He thus came to attain a comprehension of Maynard’s favourite doctrine of evolution, surpassing in vividness and grandeur all his previous conceptions of it. And, – regarding all life as an education, not merely for the individual or for the race, but for the whole universe of being, – ‘if,’ he thought, ‘in all departments of nature alike, in the physical, the intellectual, the moral, the emotional, there be inherent a capacity for advance towards results which become perpetually larger and more complex, what matters it how the atom transiently fares? If that capacity be accompanied by Consciousness, what is wanting to complete our idea of Deity?’
It had been Maynard’s view that the conflict between the two great schools of thought, – always co-existent, but dominant at different eras, – commenced long before the terms, or the
ideas, of theology or science were invented: so long ago even as the days when first Deity was imagined by some men as a Being apart from and superior to Nature, a Being ‘who spake, and it was done;’ or by others, who viewed the world pantheistically, as One in whom ‘we live and move and have our being.’
The difference he held to be rather one of method than of result: and, in so far as it arose from differences of individual temperament, altogether incapable of adjustment by any device or demonstration of logic. It seemed, however, to Noel, that the two lines of thought were combined, if not blended, in Maynard himself; like, perhaps, if an illustration may be ventured upon, the two parallel rails on which the locomotive runs. For, while believing in an universal system of law, and in the progress and development of man as part of that system, he maintained that it was impossible to dissociate from it those ideas of Consciousness and Will which for man indicate Deity. Maynard’s view of the phenomena both of the Abstract and of the Concrete, led him to regard the dualism which he found inherent in the universe, as the prime and perpetual essential of existence. This dualism for him implied Love. It was love that he beheld operating in all stages of creation, from the lowest to the highest, producing the worlds, producing humanity, and by its continued and sublimating agency, raising man into a condition of appreciation of the Infinite.
In his view, therefore, it was a false philosophy which dissevered the love that is spiritual from its proper natural basis. To dissolve the connection between the two extremities of the same process was to mutilate the whole, and degrade and stultify both, inasmuch as it relegated one to contempt, and the other to the inanity of a vain imagining.
But Noel intended his book to be romantic, rather than didactic. He would not, therefore, imperil its artistic character by minute references to the great issues indicated by such trains of thought, except in so far as they affected and illustrated Maynard’s character. Neither was it here that he would develop his friend’s ideas concerning the old divisions of mankind, and show how he illustrated the Continuity of nature, by tracing modern dogmas back to their earliest discoverable source in Oriental imagery and speculation; or exhibit, interesting though the process might be, the probability that from the meeting of races primitive or antagonistic, sprung the compound
of identity and antagonism that has ever since constituted the religious thought of man.
Many a time, in the progress of his labour of love, was Noel tempted into the devious paths of such speculations as these, and many an idea and suggestion did he note down for future use. It even seemed to him that he occasionally made an advance upon the ideal he had gathered from Maynard in these matters; but it was rather with the development of Maynard’s emotional character, under the double influence of his philosophy and his love, that Noel’s present concern lay. In the pursuit of his task he perused the papers given to him by Lady Bevan, and was greatly struck by Lord Littmass’s clairvoyant insight into the characters of Margaret and James, and his prevision of their incompatibility. And he thought more highly of the moral status of the artist who could appreciate and forecast such natures. It was, he held, no derogation of Lord Littmass’s art that he failed, and died: no derogation of Maynard’s philosophy that he did likewise. The problem they both sought to solve, was soluble only by death. Modern Convention, disregardful alike of Philosophy and Art, had ordained that it should be so.
By the time that Noel approached the last division of his work, he was confirmed in his idea of the supreme religiousness of Maynard’s character. He saw how, in the most rigidly mechanical departments of science, he had ever recognised the invisible God struggling to become manifest through, and to, ‘the things which are made;’ and on their part, the things which are made striving to become conscious of their inherent unity. The growth of the human intelligence, the development of human thought, faith, feeling, and knowledge, were for him the result of nature’s perpetual effort to know itself. For him, the religion could not be true which is opposed to or independent of science, for by science Maynard meant the knowledge of that which is, and by religion the spirit in which that knowledge should be followed. Morality he regarded as being purely a question of human relations, to which all transcendental considerations were alien. The asceticism of temperament engendered by his early life and education had first become relaxed in presence of the revelation which he found in the rudimentary nature-worship of mankind, of love as the prime deity. It gave way altogether as the sentiment of love inspired by Margaret
orbed into a full and perfect passion; orbed, alas! to set in agony and death.
‘But,’ asked Noel of himself, ‘had it really set, and for ever? Might it not have suffered an eclipse only, to emerge in splendour beyond?’
This was beyond the ken of Noel, or of any other. Happily it was no part of his present task to solve the problem of a love that never found its earthly sequel and satisfaction in a blissful reciprocity; or to decide how far its anguish was necessary preliminary to his development in a future existence. How far a capacity for love thus originated, thus nurtured, thus abruptly rended, could resume its course in another life and under other conditions of being, was a question on which Maynard had seemed to have formed his ideal in accordance with his circumstances and temperament, rather than his reason or science. In the very futility, disappointment, and agony of this life he had sought the demonstration of another. For him, in theory at least, to mourn here implied the possibility of being blessed hereafter. But these were topics on which he had rarely spoken; and his utterances were too much the offspring of his mood to be a fair indication of his fixed belief. Noel now better than ever comprehended his poor friend’s meaning, and the ineffable longing of his spirit, when, in the shade of their grove on their high place in Mexico, James had found an argument for immortality in the quaint utterance of his favourite poet: –
‘Dear dead women, with such hair, too, – what’s become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly, and grown old.’
It was a solace to Noel to think that the anguish of his latest moments might have been assuaged by the shadow of a possible future, as indicated by this other and distincter prophecy of hope and longing, which also Maynard loved: –
‘Delayed it may be for more lives yet.
Through worlds I shall traverse, not a few,
Much is to learn, and much to forget,
Ere the time be come for taking you.’
And then Noel’s own fancy went careering on in the sane track: – ‘But how will it be with me? Even if I win her here, how will it be when the pursuit is renewed in the worlds beyond? Oh, Margaret, to whom will you cling then? Will
it not be to the nobler and stronger nature? Ah me, where then is rest or certainty? Is eternity, too, an education?
‘Or can it be that, baffled in his upward quest by his failure to win the satisfaction of an earthly reciprocity, James was timely translated to a sphere where henceforth he is for ever free from all bondage of the heart?
‘If such be man’s lot in heaven, well is it for us that we know it not here.’