Martin Warricombe was reconciled to the prospect of a metropolitan winter b_he fact that his old friend Thomas Gale, formerly Geological Professor a_hitelaw College, had of late returned from a three years' sojourn in Nort_merica, and now dwelt in London. The breezy man of science was welcomed bac_mong his brethren with two-fold felicitation; his book on the Appalachian_ould have given no insufficient proof of activity abroad, but evidence mor_enerally interesting accompanied him in the shape of a young and beautifu_ife. Not every geologist whose years have entered the fifties can go fort_nd capture in second marriage a charming New England girl, thirty years hi_unior. Yet those who knew Mr. Gale— his splendid physique, his bluf_ordiality, the vigour of his various talk—were scarcely surprised. The youn_ady was no heiress; she had, in fact, been a school teacher, and might hav_earied through her best years in that uncongenial pursuit. Transplanted t_he richest English soil, she developed remarkable aptitudes. A month or tw_f London exhibited her as a type of all that is most attractive in America_omanhood.
Between Mrs. Gale and the Warricombes intimacy was soon established. Sidwel_aw much of her, and liked her. To this meditative English girl the youn_merican offered an engrossing problem, for she avowed her indifference to al_eligious dogmas, yet was singularly tolerant and displayed a moral fervou_hich Sidwell had believed inseparable from Christian faith. At the Gales'
house assembled a great variety of intellectual people, and with her father'_xpress approval (Martin had his reasons) Sidwell made the most of thi_pportunity of studying the modern world. Only a few days after her arrival i_ondon, she became acquainted with a Mr. Walsh, a brother of that heresiarch, the Whitelaw Professor, whose name was still obnoxious to herf mother. He wa_ well-favoured man of something between thirty and forty, brilliant i_onversation, personally engaging, and known by his literary productions, which found small favour with conservative readers. With surprise, Sidwell i_ short time became aware that Mr. Walsh had a frank liking for her society.
He was often to be seen in Mrs. Warricombe's drawing-room, and at Mrs Gale'_e yet more frequently obtained occasions of talking with her. The candou_ith which he expressed himself on most subjects enabled her to observe a typ_f mind which at present had peculiar interest for her. Discretion often pu_estraint upon her curiosity, but none the less Mr. Walsh had plausibl_rounds for believing that his advances were not unwelcome. He saw tha_idwell's gaze occasionally rested upon him with a pleasant gravity, and note_he mood of meditation which sometimes came upon her when he had drawn apart.
The frequency of these dialogues was observed by Mrs Warricombe, and on_vening she broached the subject to her daughter rather abruptly.
'I am surprised that you have taken such a liking to Mr. Walsh.'
Sidwell coloured, and made answer in the quiet tone which her mother had com_o understand as a reproof, a hint of defective delicacy:
'I don't think I have behaved in a way that should cause you surprise.'
'It seemed to me that you were really very—friendly with him.'
'Yes, I am always friendly. But nothing more.'
'Don't you think there's a danger of his misunderstanding you, Sidwell?'
'I don't, mother. Mr. Walsh understands that we differ irreconcilably o_ubjects of the first importance. I have never allowed him to lose sight o_hat.'
Intellectual differences were of much less account to Mrs. Warricombe than t_er daughter, and her judgment in a matter such as this was consequently fa_ore practical.
'If I may advise you, dear, you oughtn't to depend much on that. I am not th_nly one who has noticed something—I only mention it, you know.'
Sidwell mused gravely. In a minute or two she looked up and said in he_entlest voice:
'Thank you, mother. I will be more careful.'
Perhaps she had lost sight of prudence, forgetting that Mr. Walsh could no_ivine her thoughts. Her interest in him was impersonal; when he spoke she wa_rofoundly attentive, only because her mind would have been affected in th_ame way had she been reading his words instead of listening to them. Sh_ould not let him know that another face was often more distinct to he_magination than his to her actual sight, and that her thoughts wer_requently more busy with a remembered dialogue than with this in which sh_as engaged. She had abundantly safe-guarded herself against seriou_isconstruction, but if gossip were making her its subject, it would b_nconsiderate not to regard the warning.
It came, indeed, at a moment when she was very willing to rest from socia_ctivity. At the time of her last stay in London, three years ago, she had no_een ripe for reflection on what she saw. Now her mind was kept so incessantl_t strain, and her emotions answered so intensely to every appeal, that a_ength she felt the need of repose. It was not with her as with the youn_omen who seek only to make the most of their time in agreeable ways.
Sidwell's vital forces were concentrated in an effort of profound spiritua_ignificance. The critical hour of her life was at hand, and she exerted ever_aculty in the endeavour to direct herself aright.
Having heard from his brother that Sidwell had not been out for several days, Buckland took an opportunity of calling at the house early one morning. H_ound her alone in a small drawing-room, and sat down with an expression o_eary discontent. This mood had been frequent in the young man of late.
Sidwell remarked a change that was coming over him, a gloominess unnatural t_is character.
'Seen the Walworths lately?' he asked, when his sister had assured him tha_he was not seriously ailing.
'We called a few days ago.'
'Meet anyone there?'
'Two or three people. No one that interested me.'
'You haven't come across some friends of theirs called Moxey?'
'Oh yes! Miss Moxey was there one afternoon about a fortnight ago.'
'Did you talk to her at all?' Buckland asked.
'Yes; we hadn't much to say to each other, though. How do you know of her?
Through Sylvia, I daresay.'
'Met her when I was last down yonder.'
Sidwell had long since heard from her friend of Miss Moxey's visit to Budleig_alterton, but she was not aware that Buckland had been there at the sam_ime. Sylvia had told her, however, of the acquaintance existing between Mis_oxey and Peak, a point of much interest to her, though it remained a mer_nconnected fact. In her short conversation with Marcella, she had no_entured to refer to it.
'Do you know anything of the family?'
'I was going to ask you the same,' returned Buckland. 'I thought you migh_ave heard something from the Walworths.'
Sidwell had in fact sought information, but, as her relations with th_alworths were formal, such inquiry as she could make from them elicite_othing more than she already knew from Sylvia.
'Are you anxious to discover who they are?' she asked.
Buckland moved uneasily, and became silent.
'Oh, not particularly.'
'I dined with Walsh yesterday,' he said, at length, struggling to shake of_he obvious dreariness that oppressed him. 'He suits me; we can get o_ogether.'
'But you don't dislike him, I think?'
'Implying that I dislike you,' said Sidwell, lightsomely.
'You have no affection for my opinions.—Walsh is an honest man.'
'I hope so.'
'He says what he thinks. No compromise with fashionable hypocrisy.'
'I despise that kind of thing quite as much as you do.'
They looked at each other. Buckland had a sullen air.
'Yes, in your own way,' he replied, 'you are sincere enough, I have no doubt.
I wish all women were so.
'What exception have you in mind?'
He did not seem inclined to answer.
'Perhaps it is your understanding of them that's at fault,' added Sidwell, gently.
'Not in one case, at all events,' he exclaimed. 'Supposes you were asked t_efine Miss Moorhouse's religious opinions, how would you do it?'
'I am not well enough acquainted with them.'
'Do you imagine for a moment that she has any more faith in the supernatura_han I have?'
'I think there is a great difference between her position and yours.'
'Because she is hypocritical!' cried Buckland, angrily. 'She deceives you. Sh_asn't the courage to be honest.'
Sidwell wore a pained expression.
'You judge her,' she replied, 'far too coarsely. No one is called upon to mak_n elaborate declaration of faith as often as such subjects are spoken of.
Sylvia thinks so differently from you about almost everything that, when sh_appens to agree with you, you are misled and misinterpret her whol_osition.'
'I understand her perfectly,' Buckland went on, in the same irritated voice.
'There are plenty of women like her—with brains enough, but utter an_ontemptible cowards. Cowards even to themselves, perhaps. What can yo_xpect, when society is based on rotten shams?'
For several minutes he pursued this vein of invective, then took an abrup_eave. Sidwell had a piece of grave counsel ready to offer him, but he wa_learly in no mood to listen, so she postponed it.
A day or two after this, she received a letter from Sylvia. Miss Moorhouse wa_nything but a good correspondent; she often confessed her inability t_ompose anything but the briefest and driest statement of facts. With n_ittle surprise, therefore, Sidwell found that the envelope contained tw_heets all but covered with her friend's cramped handwriting. The letter bega_ith apology for long delay in acknowledging two communications.
'But you know well enough my dilatory disposition. I have written to yo_entally at least once a day, and I hope you have mentally received th_esults—that is to say, have assured yourself of my goodwill to you, and I ha_othing else to send.'
At this point Sylvia had carefully obliterated two lines, blackening the pag_nto unsightliness. In vain Sidwell pored over the effaced passage, led to d_o by a fancy that she could discern a capital P, which looked like the firs_etter of a name. The writer continued:
'Don't trouble yourself so much about insoluble questions. Try to be mor_ositive—I don't say become a Positivist. Keep a receptive mind, and wait fo_ime to shape your views of things. I see that London has agitated an_onfused you; you have lost your bearings amid the maze of contradictor_inger-posts. If you were here I could soothe you with Sylvian (much the sam_s sylvan) philosophy, but I can't write.'
Here the letter was to have ended, for on the line beneath was legible 'Giv_y love to Fanny', but this again had been crossed out, and there followed _ong paragraph:
I have been reading a book about ants. Perhaps you know all the wonderfu_hings about them, but I had neglected that branch of natural history. Thei_oings are astonishingly like those of an animal called man, and it seems t_e that I have discovered one point of resemblance which perhaps has neve_een noted. Are you aware that at an early stage of their existence ants hav_ings? They fly—how shall I express it?—only for the brief time of thei_ourtship and marriage and when these important affairs are satisfactoril_one with their wings wither away, and thenceforth they have to conten_hemselves with running about on the earth. Now isn't this a remarkabl_arallel to one stage of human life? Do not men and women also soar an_lutter—at a certain time? And don't their wings manifestly drop off as soo_s the end of that skyward movement has been achieved? If the gods had made m_oetical, I would sonnetise on this idea. Do you know any poet with a fondnes_or the ant-philosophy? If so, offer him this suggestion with liberty to "mak_ny use of it he likes".
'But the fact of the matter is that some human beings are never winged at all.
I am decidedly coming to the conclusion that I am one of those. Think of m_enceforth as an apteryx—you have a dictionary at hand? Like the tailless fox, I might naturally maintain that my state is the more gracious, but honestly _m not assured of that. It may be (I half believe it is) a good thing to soa_nd flutter, and at times I regret that nature has forbidden me tha_xperience. Decidedly I would never try to persuade anyone else to forego th_se of wings. Bear this in mind, my dear girl. But I suspect that in time t_ome there will be an increasing number of female human creatures who fro_heir birth are content with walking. Not long ago, I had occasion to hin_hat—though under another figure—to your brother Buckland. I hope h_nderstood me—I think he did—and that he wasn't offended.
'I had something to tell you. I have forgotten it—never mind.'
And therewith the odd epistle was concluded. Sidwell perused the latter par_everal times. Of course she was at no loss to interpret it. Buckland'_emeanour for the past two months had led her to surmise that his latest visi_o Budleigh Salterton had finally extinguished the hopes which drew him i_hat direction. His recent censure of Sylvia might be thus explained. Sh_rieved that her brother's suit should be discouraged, but could not persuad_erself that Sylvia's decision was final. The idea of a match between thos_wo was very pleasant to her. For Buckland she imagined it would be fraugh_ith good results, and for Sylvia, on the whole, it might be the best thing.
Before she replied to her friend nearly a month passed, and Christmas was a_and. Again she had been much in society. Mr. Walsh had renewed hi_nmistakable attentions, and, when her manner of meeting them began to troubl_im with doubts, had cleared the air by making a formal offer of marriage.
Sidwell's negative was absolute, much to her mother's relief. On the day o_hat event, she wrote rather a long letter to Sylvia, but Mr. Walsh's name wa_ot mentioned in it.
'Mother tells me [it began] that your mother has written to her fro_alisbury, and that you yourself are going there for a stay of some weeks. _m sorry, for on the Monday after Christmas Day I shall be in Exeter, an_oped somehow to have seen you. We—mother and I—are going to run dow_ogether, to see after certain domestic affairs; only for three days at most.
'Your ant-letter was very amusing, but it saddened me, dear Sylvia. I can'_ake any answer. On these subjects it is very difficult even for the closes_riends to open their minds to each other. I don't— and don't wish to—believ_n the apteryx profession; that's all I must say.
'My health has been indifferent since I last wrote. We live in all bu_ontinuous darkness, and very seldom indeed breathe anything that can b_alled air. No doubt this state of things has its effect on me. I loo_orwards, not to the coming of spring, for here we shall see nothing of it_eauties, but to the month which will release us from London. I want to smel_he pines again, and to see the golden gorse in our road.
'By way of being more "positive", I have read much in the newspapers, supplementing from them my own experience of London society. The result i_hat I am more and more confirmed in the fears with which I have alread_orried you. Two movements are plainly going on in the life of our day. Th_ecay of religious belief is undermining morality, and the progress o_adicalism in politics is working to the same end by overthrowing socia_istinctions. Evidence stares one in the face from every column of the papers.
Of course you have read more or less about the recent "scandal"—I mean th_ost recent.—It isn't the kind of thing one cares to discuss, but we can'_elp knowing about it, and does it not strongly support what I say? Here i_aterialism sinking into brutal immorality, and high social rank degradin_tself by intimacy with the corrupt vulgar. There are newspapers that mak_olitical capital out of these "revelations".
I have read some of them, and they make me so fiercely aristocratic that _ind it hard to care anything at all even for the humanitarian efforts o_eople I respect. You will tell me, I know, that this is quite the wrong wa_f looking at it. But the evils are so monstrous that it is hard to fix one'_ind on the good that may long hence result from them.
'I cling to the essential (that is the ~spiritual~) truths of Christianity a_he only absolute good left in our time. I would say that I care nothing fo_orms, but some form there must be, else one's faith evaporates. It has becom_ery easy for me to understand how men and women who know the world refuse t_elieve any longer in a directing Providence. A week ago I again met Mis_oxey at the Walworths', and talked with her more freely than before. Thi_onversation showed me that I have become much more tolerant toward_ndividuals. But though this or that person may be supported by moral sens_lone, the world cannot dispense with religion. If it tries to—and it ~will~—there are dreadful times before us.
'I wish I were a man! I would do something, however ineffectual. I would stan_n the side of those who are fighting against mob-rule and mob-morals. Ho_ould you like to see Exeter Cathedral converted into a "coffee music-hall"?
And that will come.'
Reading this, Sylvia had the sense of listening to an echo. Some of th_hrases recalled to her quite a different voice from Sidwell's. She smiled an_used.
On the morning appointed for her journey to Exeter Sidwell rose early, and i_nusually good spirits. Mrs. Warricombe was less animated by the prospect o_ive hours in a railway carriage, for London had a covering of black snow, an_t seemed likely that more would fall. Martin suggested postponement, bu_ircumstances made this undesirable.
'Let Fanny go with me,' proposed Sidwell, just after breakfast. 'I can see t_verything perfectly well, mother.'
But Fanny hastened to decline. She was engaged for a dance on the morrow.
'Then I'll run down with you myself, Sidwell,' said her father.
Mrs. Warricombe looked at the weather and hesitated. There were strong reason_hy she should go, and they determined her to brave discomforts.
It chanced that the morning post had brought Mr. Warricombe a letter fro_odwin Peak. It was a reply to one that he had written with Christma_reetings; a kindness natural in him, for he had remembered that the young ma_as probably hard at work in his lonely lodgings. He spoke of it privately t_is wife.
'A very good letter—thoughtful and cheerful. You're not likely to see him, bu_f you happen to, say a pleasant word.'
'I shouldn't have written, if I were you,' remarked Mrs. Warricombe.
'Why not? I was only thinking the other day that he contrasted very favourabl_ith the younger generation as we observe it here. Yes, I have faith in Peak.
There's the right stuff in him.'
'Oh, I daresay. But still'——
And Mrs. Warricombe went away with an air of misgiving.