Sidwell took no one into her confidence. The case was not one for counsel; whatever her future action, it must result from the maturing of self- knowledge, from the effect of circumstance upon her mind and heart. For th_resent she could live in silence.
'We hear,' she wrote from London to Sylvia Moorhouse, 'that Mr. Peak has lef_xeter, and that he is not likely to carry out his intention of bein_rdained. You, I daresay, will feel no surprise.' Nothing more than that; an_ylvia's comments in reply were equally brief.
Martin Warricombe, after conversations with his wife and with Buckland, fel_t impossible not to seek for an understanding of Sidwell's share in th_atastrophe. He was gravely perturbed, feeling that with himself lay the chie_esponsibility for what had happened. Buckland's attitude was that of the ma_ho can only keep repeating 'I told you so'; Mrs. Warricombe could only lamen_nd upbraid in the worse than profitless fashion natural to women of he_tamp. But in his daughter Martin had every kind of faith, and he longed t_peak to her without reserve. Two days after her return from Exeter, he too_idwell apart, and, with a distressing sense of the delicacy of the situation, tried to persuade her to frank utterance.
'I have been hearing strange reports,' he began, gravely, but without show o_ispleasure. 'Can you help me to understand the real facts of the case, Sidwell?—What is your view of Peak's behaviour?'
'He has deceived you, father,' was the quiet reply.
'You are convinced of that?—It allows of no——?'
'It can't be explained away. He pretended to believe what he did not and coul_ot believe.'
'With interested motives, then?'
'Yes.—But not motives in themselves dishonourable.'
There was a pause. Sidwell had spoken in a steady voice, though with eyes cas_own. Whether her father could understand a position such as Godwin's, sh_elt uncertain. That he would honestly endeavour to do so, there could be n_oubt, especially since he must suspect that her own desire was to distinguis_etween the man and his fault. But a revelation of all that had passed betwee_er and Peak was not possible; she had the support neither of intellect nor o_assion; it would be asking for guidance, the very thing she had determine_ot to do. Already she found it difficult to recover the impulses which ha_irected her in that scene of parting; to talk of it would be to see he_ction in such a doubtful light that she might be led to some premature an_rretrievable resolve. The only trustworthy counsellor was time; on what tim_rought forth must depend her future.
'Do you mean, Sidwell,' resumed her father, 'that you think it possible for u_o overlook this deception?'
She delayed a moment, then said:
'I don't think it possible for you to regard him as a friend.'
Martin's face expressed relief.
'But will he remain in Exeter?'
'I shouldn't think he can.'
Again a pause. Martin was of course puzzled exceedingly, but he began to fee_ome assurance that Peak need not be regarded as a danger.
'I am grieved beyond expression,' he said at length. 'So deliberate a fraud—i_eems to me inconsistent with any of the qualities I thought I saw in him.'
'Not—perhaps—to you?' Martin ventured, anxiously.
'His nature is not base.'
'Forgive me, dear.—I understand that you spoke with him after Buckland's cal_t his lodgings——?'
'Yes, I saw him.'
'And—he strove to persuade you that he had some motive which justified hi_onduct?'
'Excused, rather than justified.'
'Not—it seems—to your satisfaction?'
'I can't answer that question, father. My experience of life is too slight. _an only say that untruthfulness in itself is abhorrent to me, and that _ould never try to make it seem a light thing.'
'That, surely, is a sound view, think as we may on speculative points. Bu_llow me one more question, Sidwell. Does it seem to you that I have no choic_ut to break off all communication with Mr Peak?'
It was the course dictated by his own wish, she knew. And what could be gaine_y any middle way between hearty goodwill and complete repudiation? Time—tim_lone must work out the problem.
'Yes, I think you have no choice,' she answered.
'Then I must make inquiries—see if he leaves the town.'
'Mr. Lilywhite will know, probably.'
'I will write before long.'
So the dialogue ended, and neither sought to renew it.
Martin enjoined upon his wife a discreet avoidance of the subject. The younge_embers of the family were to know nothing of what had happened, and, i_ossible, the secret must be kept from friends at Exeter. When a fortnight ha_lapsed, he wrote to Mr. Lilywhite, asking whether it was true that Peak ha_one away. 'It seems that private circumstances have obliged him to give u_is project of taking Orders. Possibly he has had a talk with you?' Th_lergyman replied that Peak had left Exeter. 'I have had a letter from him, explaining in general terms his change of views. It hardly surprises me tha_e has reconsidered the matter. I don't think he was cut out for clerica_ork. He is far more likely to distinguish himself in the world of science. _uspect that conscientious scruples may have something to do with it; if so, all honour to him!'
The Warricombes prolonged their stay in London until the end of June. On thei_eturn home, Martin was relieved to find that scarcely an inquiry was made o_im concerning Peak. The young man's disappearance excited no curiosity in th_ood people who had come in contact with him, and who were so far fro_uspecting what a notable figure had passed across their placid vision. On_erson only was urgent in his questioning. On an afternoon when Mrs Warricomb_nd her daughters were alone, the Rev. Bruno Chilvers made a call.
'Oh!' he exclaimed, after a few minutes' conversation, 'I am so anxious to as_ou what has become of Mr. Peak. Soon after my arrival in Exeter, I went t_ee him, and we had a long talk—a most interesting talk. Then I heard all a_nce that he was gone, and that we should see no more of him. Where is he?
What is he doing?'
There was a barely appreciable delay before Mrs. Warricombe made answer.
'We have quite lost sight of him,' she said, with an artificial smile. 'W_now only that he was called away on some urgent business —family affairs, _uppose.'
Chilvers, in the most natural way, glanced from the speaker to Sidwell, an_nstantly, without the slightest change of expression, brought his eyes bac_gain.
'I hope most earnestly,' he went on, in his fluty tone, 'that he will return.
A most interesting man! A man of large intellectual scope, and really broa_ympathies. I looked forward to many a chat with him. Has he, I wonder, bee_ed to change his views? Possibly he would find a secular sphere more adapte_o his special powers.'
Mrs. Warricombe had nothing to say. Sidwell, finding that Mr Chilvers' smil_ow beamed in her direction, replied to him with steady utterance:
'It isn't uncommon, I think, nowadays, for doubts to interfere with the cours_f study for ordination?'
'Far from uncommon!' exclaimed the Rector of St. Margaret's, with almos_oyous admission of the fact. 'Very far from uncommon. Such students have m_rofound sympathy. I know from experience exactly what it means to be overcom_n a struggle with the modern spirit. Happily for myself, I was enabled t_ecover what for a time I lost. But charity forbid that I should judge thos_ho think they must needs voyage for ever in sunless gulfs of doubt, or eve_bsolutely deny that the human intellect can be enlightened from above.'
At a loss even to follow this rhetoric, Mrs. Warricombe, who was delighted t_elcome the Rev. Bruno, and regarded him as a gleaming pillar of the Church, made haste to introduce a safer topic. After that, Mr. Chilvers was seen a_he house with some frequency. Not that he paid more attention to th_arricombes than to his other acquaintances. Relieved by his curate from th_ncongenial burden of mere parish affairs, he seemed to regard himself as a_postle at large, whose mission directed him to the households of well-to-d_eople throughout the city. His brother clergymen held him in slight esteem.
In private talk with Martin Warricombe, Mr. Lilywhite did not hesitate to cal_im 'a mountebank', and to add other depreciatory remarks.
'My wife tells me—and I can trust her judgment in such things— that his sol_bject just now is to make a good marriage. Rather disagreeable stories see_o have followed him from the other side of England. He makes love to al_nmarried women—never going beyond what is thought permissible, but doing _ood deal of mischief, I fancy. One lady in Exeter—I won't mention names— ha_lready pulled him up with a direct inquiry as to his intentions; at he_ouse, I imagine, he will no more be seen.'
The genial parson chuckled over his narrative, and Martin, by no mean_redisposed in the Rev. Bruno's favour, took care to report these matters t_is wife.
'I don't believe a word of it!' exclaimed Mrs. Warricombe. 'All the clergy ar_ealous of Mr. Chilvers.'
'What? Of his success with ladies?'
'Martin! It is something new for you to be profane!—They are jealous of hi_igh reputation.'
'Rather a serious charge against our respectable friends.'
'And the stories are all nonsense,' pursued Mrs. Warricombe. 'It's very wron_f Mr. Lilywhite to report such things. I don't believe any other clergyma_ould have done so.'
Martin smiled—as he had been accustomed to do all through his married life—an_et the discussion rest there. On the next occasion of Mr. Chilvers being a_he house, he observed the reverend man's behaviour with Sidwell, and was no_t all pleased. Bruno had a way of addressing women which certainly wen_eyond the ordinary limits of courtesy. At a little distance, anyone woul_ave concluded that he was doing his best to excite Sidwell's affectionat_nterest. The matter of his discourse might be unobjectionable, but the manne_f it was not in good taste.
Mrs. Warricombe was likewise observant, but with other emotions. To her i_eemed a subject for pleasurable reflection, that Mr. Chilvers should sho_nterest in Sidwell. The Rev. Bruno had bright prospects. With the colour o_is orthodoxy she did not concern herself. He was ticketed 'broad', a ter_hich carried with it no disparagement; and Sidwell's sympathies wer_ltogether with the men of 'breadth'. The time drew near when Sidwell mus_arry, if she ever meant to do so, and in comparison with such candidates a_r Walsh and Godwin Peak, the Rector of St. Margaret's would be an idea_usband for her. Sidwell's attitude towards Mr. Chilvers was not encouraging, but Mrs. Warricombe suspected that a lingering regard for the impostor, s_ately unmasked, still troubled her daughter's mind: a new suitor, even i_ejected, would help the poor girl to dismiss that shocking infatuation.
Sidwell and her father nowadays spent much time together, and in the autum_ays it became usual for them to have an afternoon ramble about the lanes.
Their talk was of science and literature, occasionally skirting very clos_pon those questions which both feared to discuss plainly—for a twofol_eason. Sidwell read much more than had been her wont, and her choice o_uthors would alone have indicated a change in her ways of thinking, even i_he had not allowed it to appear in the tenor of her talk. The questions sh_ut with reference to Martin's favourite studies were sometimes embarrassing.
One day they happened to meet Mr. Chilvers, who was driving with his eldes_hild, a boy of four. The narrowness of the road made it impossible—as Marti_ould have wished—to greet and pass on. Chilvers stopped the carriage an_umped out. Sidwell could not but pay some attention to the youthful Chilvers.
'Till he is ten years old,' cried Bruno, 'I shall think much more of his bod_han of his mind. In fact, at this age the body is the mind. Books, books—oh, we attach far too much importance to them. Over-study is one of the morbifi_endencies of our time. Some one or other has been trying to frown down wha_e calls the excessive athleticism of our public schools. No, no! Let u_ejoice that our lads have such an opportunity of vigorous physica_evelopment. The culture of the body is a great part of religion.' He alway_ttered remarks of this kind as if suggesting that his hearers should not_hem in a collection of aphorisms. 'If to labour is to pray, so also is th_ractice of open-air recreation.
When they had succeeded in getting away, father and daughter walked for som_inutes without speaking. At length Sidwell asked, with a smile:
'How does this form of Christianity strike you?'
'Why, very much like a box on the ear with a perfumed glove,' replied Martin.
'That describes it very well.'
They walked a little further, and Sidwell spoke in a more serious tone.
'If Mr. Chilvers were brought before the ecclesiastical authorities an_ompelled to make a clear statement of his faith, what sect, in all th_istory of heresies, would he really seem to belong to?'
'I know too little of him, and too little of heresies.'
'Do you suppose for a moment that he sincerely believes the dogmas of hi_hurch?'
Martin bit his lip and looked uneasy.
'We can't judge him, Sidwell.'
'I don't know,' she persisted. 'It seems to me that he does his best to giv_s the means of judging him. I half believe that he often laughs in himself a_he success of his audacity.'
'No, no. I think the man is sincere.'
This was very uncomfortable ground, but Sidwell would not avoid it. Her eye_lashed, and she spoke with a vehemence such as Martin had never seen in her.
'Undoubtedly sincere in his determination to make a figure in the world. But _hristian, in any intelligible sense of that much-abused word,—no! He is on_ype of the successful man of our day. Where thousands of better and stronge_en struggle vainly for fair recognition, he and his kind are glorified. I_omparison with a really energetic man, he is an acrobat. The crowd stares a_im and applauds, and there is nothing he cares for so much as that kind o_dmiration.'
Martin kept silence, and in a few minutes succeeded in; broaching a wholl_ifferent subject.
Not long after this, Mr. Chilvers paid a call at the conventional hour.
Sidwell, hoping to escape, invited two girls to step out with her on to th_awn. The sun was sinking, and, as she stood with eyes fixed upon it, the Rev.
Bruno's voice disagreeably broke her reverie. She was perforce involved in _ialogue, her companions moving aside.
'What a magnificent sky!' murmured Chilvers. '"There sinks the nebulous star."
Forgive me, I have fallen into a tiresome trickof quoting. How differently _unset is viewed nowadays from what it was in old times! Our impersona_motions are on a higher plane— don't you think so? Yes, scientific discover_as done more for religion than all the ages of pious imagination. A theory o_alileo or Newton is more to the soul than a psalm of David.'
'You think so?' Sidwell asked, coldly.
In everyday conversation she was less suave than formerly. This summer she ha_ever worn her spray of sweet-brier, and the omission might have been deeme_ignificant of a change in herself. When the occasion offered, she no longe_esitated to express a difference of opinion; at times she uttered her dissen_ith a bluntness which recalled Buckland's manner in private.
'Does the comparison seem to you unbecoming?' said Chilvers, with genia_ondescension. 'Or untrue?'
'What do you mean by "the soul"?' she inquired, still gazing away from him.
'The principle of conscious life in man—that which understands and worships.'
'The two faculties seem to me so different that'——She broke off. 'But _ustn't talk foolishly about such things.'
'I feel sure you have thought of them to some purpose. I wonder whether yo_ver read Francis Newman's book on ~The Soul~?'
'No, I never saw it.'
'Allow me to recommend it to you. I believe you would find it deepl_nteresting.'
'Does the Church approve it?'
'The Church?' He smiled. 'Ah! what Church? Churchmen there are, unfortunately, who detest the name of its author, but I hope you have never classed me amon_hem. The Church, rightly understood, comprehends every mind and heart that i_triving upwards. The age of intolerance will soon be as remote from us a_hat of persecution. Can I be mistaken in thinking that this broader view ha_our sympathy, Miss Warricombe?'
'I can't sympathise with what I don't understand, Mr. Chilvers.'
He looked at her with tender solicitude, bending slightly from his usua_quare-shouldered attitude.
'Do let me find an opportunity of talking over the whole matter with you—by n_eans as an instructor. In my view, a clergyman may seek instruction from th_umblest of those who are called his flock. The thoughtful and high-minde_mong them will often assist him materially in his endeavour at self- development. To my "flock",' he continued, playfully, 'you don't belong; bu_ay I not count you one of that circle of friends to whom I look for th_igher kind of sympathy?'
Sidwell glanced about her in the hope that some one might be approaching. He_wo friends were at a distance, talking and laughing together.
'You shall tell me some day,' she replied, with more attention to courtesy,
'what the doctrines of the Broad Church really are. But the air grows too coo_o be pleasant; hadn't we better return to the drawing-room?'
The greater part of the winter went by before she had again to submit to _ete-a-tete with the Rev. Bruno. It was seldom that she thought of him sav_hen compelled to do so by his exacting presence, but in the meantime h_xercised no small influence on her mental life. Insensibly she was confirme_n her alienation from all accepted forms of religious faith. Whether sh_ished it or not, it was inevitable that such a process should keep he_onstantly in mind of Godwin Peak. Her desire to talk with him at times becam_o like passion that she appeared to herself to love him more truly than ever.
Yet such a mood was always followed by doubt, and she could not say whethe_he reaction distressed or soothed her. These months that had gone by brough_ne result, not to be disguised. Whatever the true nature of her feeling fo_odwin, the thought of marrying him was so difficult to face that it seemed t_nvolve impossibilities. He himself had warned her that marriage would mea_everance from all her kindred. It was practically true, and time would onl_ncrease the difficulty of such a determination.
The very fact that her love (again, if love it were) must be indulged i_efiance of universal opinion tended to keep emotion alive. A woman i_isposed to cling to a lover who has disgraced himself, especially if she ca_elieve that the disgrace was incurred as a result of devotion to her. Coul_ove be separated from thought of marriage, Sidwell would have encourage_erself in fidelity, happy in the prospect of a life-long spiritual communion —for she would not doubt of Godwin's upward progress, of his eventua_urification. But this was a mere dream. If Godwin's passion were steadfast, the day would come when she must decide either to cast in her lot with his, o_o bid him be free. And could she imagine herself going forth into exile?
There came a letter from him, and she was fortunate enough to receive i_ithout the knowledge of her relatives. He wrote that he had obtaine_mployment. The news gave her a troubled joy, lasting for several days. Tha_o emotion appeared in her reply was due to a fear lest she might be guilty o_isleading him. Perhaps already she had done so. Her last whisper—'Som_ay!'—was it not a promise and an appeal? Now she had not the excuse o_rofound agitation, there must be no word her conscience could not justify.
But in writing those formal lines she felt herself a coward. She was drawin_ack—preparing her escape.
Often she had the letter beneath her pillow. It was the first she had eve_eceived from a man who professed to love her. So long without romance in he_ife, she could not but entertain this semblance of it, and feel that she wa_till young.
It told much in Godwin's favour that he had not ventured to write before ther_as this news to send her. It testified to the force of his character, th_urity of his purpose. A weaker man, she knew, would have tried to excite he_ompassion by letters of mournful strain, might even have distressed her wit_ttempts at clandestine meeting. She had said rightly—his nature was not base.
And she loved him! She was passionately grateful to him for proving that he_ove had not been unworthily bestowed.
When he wrote again, her answer should not be cowardly.
The life of the household went on as it had been wont to do for years, bu_ith the spring came events. An old lady died whilst on a visit to the house (she was a half-sister of Mrs. Warricombe), and by a will executed a few year_reviously she left a thousand pounds, to be equally divided between th_hildren of this family. Sidwell smiled sadly on finding herself in possessio_f this bequest, the first sum of any importance that she had ever held in he_wn right. If she married a man of whom all her kith and kin so strongl_isapproved that they would not give her even a wedding present, two hundre_nd fifty pounds would be better than no dowry at all. One could furnish _ouse with it.
Then Fanny had an attack of bronchitis, and whilst she was recovering Bucklan_ame down for a few days, bringing with him a piece of news for which no on_as prepared. As if to make reparation to his elder sister for the harshnes_ith which he had behaved in the affair of Godwin Peak, he chose her for hi_irst confidante.
'Sidwell, I am going to be married. Do you care to hear about it?'
'Certainly I do.'
Long ago she had been assured of Sylvia Moorhouse's sincerity in rejectin_uckland's suit. That was still a grief to her, but she acknowledged he_riend's wisdom, and was now very curious to learn who it was that the Radica_ad honoured with his transferred affections.
'The lady's name,' Buckland began, 'is Miss Matilda Renshaw. She is the secon_aughter of a dealer in hides, tallow, and that kind of thing. Both he_arents are dead; she has lived of late with her married sister a_lackheath.'
Sidwell listened with no slight astonishment, and her countenance looked wha_he felt.
'That's the bald statement of the cause,' pursued her brother, seeming t_njoy the consternation he had excited. 'Now, let me fill up the outline. Mis_enshaw is something more than good-looking, has had an admirable education, is five-and-twenty, and for a couple of years has been actively engaged i_umanitarian work in the East End. She has published a book on socia_uestions, and is a very good public speaker. Finally, she owns propert_epresenting between three and four thousand a year.'
'The picture has become more attractive,' said Sidwell.
'You imagined a rather different person? If I persuade mother to invite he_own here presently, do you think you could be friendly with her?'
'I see no reason why I should not be.'
'But I must warn you. She has nothing to do with creeds and dogmas.'
He tried to read her face. Sidwell's mind was a mystery to him.
'I shall make no inquiry about her religious views,' his sister replied, in _ispassionate tone, which conveyed no certain meaning.
'Then I feel sure you will like her, and equally sure that she will like you.'
His parents had no distinct fault to find with this choice, though they woul_oth greatly have preferred a daughter-in-law whose genealogy could be mor_reely spoken of. Miss Renshaw was invited to Exeter, and the first week o_une saw her arrival. Buckland had in no way exaggerated her qualities. Sh_as a dark-eyed beauty, perfect from the social point of view, a ver_nteresting talker,— in short, no ordinary woman. That Buckland should hav_allen in love with her, even after Sylvia, was easily understood; it seeme_ikely that she would make him as good a wife as he could ever hope to win.
Sidwell was expecting another letter from the north of England. The silenc_hich during those first months had been justifiable was now a source o_nxiety. But whether fear or hope predominated in her expectancy, she stil_ould not decide. She had said to herself that her next reply should not b_owardly, yet she was as far as ever from a courageous resolve.
Mental harassment told upon her health. Martin, watching her with solicitude, declared that for her sake as much as for Fanny's they must have a thoroug_oliday abroad.
Urged by the approaching departure, Sidwell overcame her reluctance to writ_o Godwin before she had a letter to answer. It was done in a mood o_ntolerable despondency, when life looked barren before her, and the desire o_ove all but triumphed over every other consideration. The letter written an_osted, she would gladly have recovered it—reserved, formal as it was.
Cowardly still; but then Godwin had not written.
She kept a watch upon the postman, and again, when Godwin's reply wa_elivered, escaped detection.
Hardly did she dare to open the envelope. Her letter had perchance been mor_ignificant than she supposed; and did not the mere fact of her writing invit_ lover's frankness?
But the reply was hardly more moving than if it had come from a tota_tranger. For a moment she felt relieved; in an hour's time she suffere_ndescribable distress. Godwin wrote—so she convinced herself after repeate_erusals—as if discharging a task; not a word suggested tenderness. Had th_etter been unsolicited, she could have used it like the former one; but i_as the answer to an appeal. The phrases she had used were still present i_er mind. 'I am anxious … it is more than half a year since you wrote … I hav_een expecting … anything that is of interest to you will interest me… .' Ho_ould she imagine that this was reserved and formal? Shame fell upon her; sh_ocked herself from all companionship, and wept in rebellion against the law_f life.
A fortnight later, she wrote from Royat to Sylvia Moorhouse. It was a lon_pistle, full of sunny descriptions, breathing renewed vigour of body an_ind. The last paragraph ran thus:
'Yesterday was my birthday; I was twenty-eight. At this age, it is wisdom in _oman to remind herself that youth is over. I don't regret it; let it go wit_ll its follies! But I am sorry that I have no serious work in life; it is no_heerful to look forward to perhaps another eight-and-twenty years of elegan_eisure—that is to say, of wearisome idleness. What can I do? Try and think o_ome task for me, something that will last a lifetime.'