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Chapter 4

  • 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.'
  • 'No doubt.'
  • '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.