Having led the way to the drawing-room, Fanny retired again for a few moments, to fetch the fern of which she had spoken, leaving Peak in conversation wit_ittle Miss Lilywhite. Bertha was a rather shy girl of fifteen, not easil_nduced, under circumstances such as these, to utter more than monosyllables, and Godwin, occupied with the unforeseen results of his call, talked about th_eather. With half-conscious absurdity he had begun to sketch a theory of hi_wn regarding rain-clouds and estuaries (Bertha listening with an air of th_ravest attention) when Fanny reappeared, followed by Sidwell. Peak searche_he latter's face for indications of her mood, but could discover nothing sav_ spirit of gracious welcome. Such aspect was a matter of course, and he kne_t. None the less, his nervousness and the state of mind engendered by _eek's miserable solitude, tempted him to believe that Sidwell did not alway_ear that smile in greeting a casual caller. This was the first time that sh_ad received him without the countenance of Mrs. Warricombe. Observing he_erfect manner, as she sat down and began to talk, he asked himself what he_ge really was. The question had never engaged his thoughts. Eleven years ago, when he saw her at the house near Kingsmill and again at Whitelaw College, sh_ooked a very young girl, but whether of thirteen or sixteen he could not a_he time have determined, and such a margin of possibility allowed her now t_ave reached—it might be—her twenty-seventh summer. But twenty-seven dre_erilously near to thirty; no, no, Sidwell could not be more than twenty-five.
Her eyes still had the dewy freshness of flowering maidenhood; her cheek, he_hroat, were so exquisitely young——
In how divine a calm must this girl have lived to show, even at five-and- twenty, features as little marked by inward perturbation as those of a_nfant! Her position in the world considered, one could forgive her for havin_orne so lightly the inevitable sorrows of life, for having dismissed s_eadily the spiritual doubts which were the heritage of her time; but was sh_ total stranger to passion? Did not the fact of her still remaining unmarrie_ake probable such a deficiency in her nature? Had she a place among the wome_hom coldness of temperament preserves in a bloom like that of youth, unti_ading hair and sinking cheek betray them——?
Whilst he thought thus, Godwin was in appearance busy with the fern Fanny ha_rought for his inspection. He talked about it, but in snatches, wit_ntervals of abstractedness.
Yet might he not be altogether wrong? Last year, when he observed Sidwell i_he Cathedral and subsequently at home, his impression had been that her fac_as of rather pallid and dreamy cast; he recollected that distinctly. Had sh_hanged, or did familiarity make him less sensible of her finer traits?
Possibly she enjoyed better health nowadays, and, if so, it might result fro_nfluences other than physical. Her air of quiet happiness seemed to hi_specially noticeable this afternoon, and as he brooded there came upon him _read which, under the circumstances, was quite irrational, but for all tha_roubled his views. Perhaps Sidwell was betrothed to some one? He knew of bu_ne likely person—Miss Moorhouse's brother. About a month ago the Warricombe_ad been on a visit at Budleigh Salterton, and something might then hav_appened. Pangs of jealousy smote him, nor could he assuage them by remindin_imself that he had no concern whatever in Sidwell's future.
'Will Mr. Warricombe be long away?' he asked, coldly.
'A day or two. I hope you didn't wish particularly to see him to-day?'
'Do you know, Mr. Peak,' put in Fanny, 'that we are all going to London nex_onth, to live there for half a year?'
Godwin exhibited surprise. He looked from the speaker to her sister, an_idwell, as she smiled confirmation, bent very slightly towards him.
'We have made up our minds, after much uncertainty,' she said. 'My brothe_uckland seems to think that we are falling behind in civilisation.'
'So we are,' affirmed Fanny, 'as Mr. Peak would admit, if only he could b_incere.'
'Am I never sincere then, Miss Fanny?' Godwin asked.
'I only meant to say that nobody can be when the rules of politenes_nterfere. Don't you think it's a pity? We might tell one another the truth i_ pleasant way.'
'I agree with you. But then we must be civilised indeed. How do you think o_ondon, Miss Warricombe? Which of its aspects most impresses you?'
Sidwell answered rather indefinitely, and ended by mentioning that i_illette, which she had just re-read, Charlotte Bronte makes a contras_etween the City and the West End, and greatly prefers the former.
'Do you agree with her, Mr. Peak?'
'No, I can't. One understands the mood in which she wrote that; but a littl_ore experience would have led her to see the ccntrast in a different light.
That term, the West End, includes much that is despicable, but it means als_he best results of civilisation. The City is hateful to me, and for a reaso_hich I only understood after many an hour of depression in walking about it_treets. It represents the ascendency of the average man.'
Sidwell waited for fuller explanation.
'A liberal mind,' Peak continued, 'is revolted by the triumphal processio_hat roars perpetually through the City highways. With myriad voices the Cit_ellows its brutal scorn of everything but material advantage. There ever_umanising influence is contemptuously disregarded. I know, of course, tha_he trader may have his quiet home, where art and science and humanity are th_irst considerations; but the mass of traders, corporate and victorious, crus_ll such things beneath their heels. Take your stand (or try to do so) anywhere near the Exchange; the hustling and jolting to which you are expose_epresents the very spirit of the life about you. Whatever is gentle an_indly and meditative must here go to the wall—trampled, spattered, ridiculed.
Here the average man has it all his own way—a gross utilitarian power.'
'Yes, I can see that,' Sidwell replied, thoughtfully. 'And perhaps it als_epresents the triumphant forces of our time.'
He looked keenly at her, with a smile of delight.
'That also! The power which centres in the world's money-markets— plutocracy.'
In conversing with Sidwell, he had never before found an opportunity o_ttering his vehement prejudices. The gentler side of his character ha_ometimes expressed itself, but those impulses which were vastly mor_ignificant lay hidden beneath the dissimulation he consistently practised.
For the first time he was able to look into Sidwell's face with hones_irectness, and what he saw there strengthened his determination to talk o_ith the same freedom.
'You don't believe, then,' said Sidwell, 'that democracy is the proper nam_or the state into which we are passing?'
'Only if one can understand democracy as the opening of social privileges t_ree competition amongst men of trade. And social privilege is everything; home politics refer to nothing else.'
Fanny, true to the ingenuous principle of her years, put a direct question:
'Do you approve of real democracy, Mr. Peak?'
He answered with another question:
'Have you read the "Life of Phokion" in Plutarch?'
'No, I'm sorry to say.'
'There's a story about him which I have enjoyed since I was your age. Phokio_as once delivering a public speech, and at a certain point the majority o_is hearers broke into applause; whereupon he turned to certain of his friend_ho stood near and asked, "What have I said amiss?"'
'Then you despise public opinion?'
'With heart and soul!'
It was to Sidwell that he directed the reply. Though overcome by the joy o_uch an utterance, he felt that, considering the opinions and position o_uckland Warricombe, he was perhaps guilty of ill manners. But Sidwel_anifested no disapproval.
'Did you know that story?' Fanny asked of her.
'It's quite new to me.'
'Then I'm sure you'll read the "Life of Phokion" as soon as possible. He wil_ust Suit you, Sidwell.'
Peak heard this with a shock of surprise which thrilled in him deliciously. H_ad the strongest desire to look again at Sidwell but refrained. As no on_poke, he turned to Bertha Lilywhite and put a commonplace question.
A servant entered with the tea-tray, and placed it on a small table nea_anny. Godwin looked at the younger girl; it seemed to him that there was a_xcess of colour in her cheeks. Had a glance from Sidwell rebuked her? Wit_is usual rapidity of observation and inference he made much of this trifle.
Contrary to what he expected, Sidwell's next remark was in a tone o_heerfulness, almost of gaiety.
'One advantage of our stay in London will be that home will seem mor_elightful than ever when we return.'
'I suppose you won't be back till next summer?'
'I am afraid not.'
'Shall you be living here then?' Fanny inquired.
'It's very doubtful.'
He wished to answer with a decided negative, but his tongue refused. Sidwel_as regarding him with calm but earnest eyes, and he knew, without caring t_eflect, that his latest projects were crumbling.
'Have you been to see our friends at Budleigh Salterton yet?' she asked.
'Not yet. I hope to in a few days.'
Pursuing the subject, he was able to examine her face as she spoke of Mr.
Moorhouse. His conjecture was assuredly baseless.
Fanny and Bertha began to talk together of domestic affairs, and presently, when tea-cups were laid aside, the two girls went to another part of the room; then they withdrew altogether. Peak was monologising on English art a_epresented at the Academy, but finding himself alone with Sidwell (it ha_ever before happened) he became silent. Ought he to take his leave? He mus_lready have been sitting here more than half-an-hour. But the temptation of ~teae-a-teae~ was irresistible.
'You had a visit from Mr. Chilvers the other day?' he remarked, abruptly.
'Yes; did he call to see you?'
Her tone gave evidence that she would not have introduced this topic.
'No; I heard from Mrs. Lilywhite. He had been to the vicarage. Has he change_uch since he was at Whitelaw?'
'So many years must make a difference at that time of life,' Sidwell answered, smiling.
'But does he show the same peculiarities of manner?'
He tried to put the question without insistency, in a tone quite compatibl_ith friendliness. Her answer, given with a look of amusement, satisfied hi_hat there was no fear of her taking Mr Chilvers too seriously.
'Yes. I think he speaks in much the same way.'
'Have you read any of his publications?'
'One or two. We have his lecture on Altruism.'
'I happen to know it. There are good things in it, I think. But I dislike hi_odern interpretation of old principles.'
'You think it dangerous?'
He no longer regarded her frankly, and in the consciousness of her look upo_im he knit his brows.
'I think it both dangerous and offensive. Not a few clergymen nowadays, wh_magine themselves free from the letter and wholly devoted to spirit, ar_oing their best in the cause of materialism. They surrender the very point_t issue between religion and worldliness. They are so blinded by a vagu_umanitarian impulse as to make the New Testament an oracle of popula_adicalism.'
Sidwell looked up.
'I never quite understood, Mr. Peak, how you regard Radicalism. You think i_pposed to all true progress?'
'Utterly, as concerns any reasonable limit of time.'
'Buckland, as you know, maintains that spiritual progress is only possible b_his way.'
'I can't venture to contradict him,' said Godwin; 'for it may be that advanc_s destined only to come after long retrogression and anarchy. Perhaps the wa_oes lie through such miseries. But we can't foresee that with certainty, an_hose of us who hate the present tendency of things must needs assert thei_atred as strongly as possible, seeing that we may have a more hopeful part t_lay than seems likely.'
'I like that view,' replied Sidwell, in an undertone.
'My belief,' pursued Godwin, with an earnestness very agreeable to himself, for he had reached the subject on which he could speak honestly, 'is that a_nstructed man can only hold views such as your brother's—hopeful views of th_mmediate future—if he has never been brought into close contact with th_ower classes. Buckland doesn't know the people for whom he pleads.'
'You think them so degraded?'
'It is impossible, without seeming inhumanly scornful, to give a just accoun_f their ignorance and baseness. The two things, speaking generally, g_ogether. Of the ignorant, there are very few indeed who can think purely o_spiringly. You, of course, object the teaching of Christianity; but the lowl_nd the humble of whom it speaks scarcely exist, scarcely can exist, in ou_ay and country. A ludicrous pretence of education is banishing every form o_ative simplicity. In the large towns, the populace sink deeper and deepe_nto a vicious vulgarity, and every rural district is being affected by th_pread of contagion. To flatter the proletariat is to fight against all th_ood that still characterises educated England—against reverence for th_eautiful, against magnanimity, against enthusiasm of mind, heart, and soul.'
He quivered with vehemence of feeling, and the flush which rose to hi_earer's cheek, the swimming brightness of her eye, proved that a stron_ympathy stirred within her.
'I know nothing of the uneducated in towns,' she said, 'but the little I hav_een of them in country places certainly supports your opinion. I could poin_o two or three families who have suffered distinct degradation owing to wha_ost people call an improvement in their circumstances. Father often speaks o_uch instances, comparing the state of things now with what he can remember.'
'My own experience,' pursued Godwin, 'has been among the lower classes i_ondon. I don't mean the very poorest, of whom one hears so much nowadays; _ever went among them because I had no power of helping them, and the sight o_heir vileness would only have moved me to unjust hatred. But the people wh_arn enough for their needs, and whose spiritual guide is the Sunda_ewspaper—I know them, because for a long time I was obliged to lodge in thei_ouses. Only a consuming fire could purify the places where they dwell. Don'_isunderstand me; I am not charging them with what are commonly held vices an_rimes, but with the consistent love of everything that is ignoble, with utte_eadness to generous impulse, with the fatal habit of low mockery. And thes_re the people who really direct the democratic movement. They set the tone i_olitics; they are debasing art and literature; even the homes of wealth_eople begin to show the effects of their influence. One hears men and wome_f gentle birth using phrases which originate with shopboys; one sees the_eading print which is addressed to the coarsest million. They crowd t_ntertainments which are deliberately adapted to the lowest order of mind.
When commercial interest is supreme, how can the tastes of the majority fai_o lead and control?'
Though he spoke from the depths of his conviction, and was so moved that hi_oice rose and fell in tones such as a drawing-room seldom hears, he yet kep_nxious watch upon Sidwell's countenance. That hint afforded him by Fanny wa_nvaluable; it had enabled him to appeal to Sidwell's nature by the arden_xpression of what was sincerest in his own. She too, he at length understood, had the aristocratic temperament. This explained her to him, supplied the ke_f doubts and difficulties which had troubled him in her presence. I_ustified, moreover, the feelings with which she had inspired him—feeling_hich this hour of intimate converse had exalted to passion. His hear_hrilled with hope. Where sympathies so profound existed, what did it matte_hat there was variance on a few points between his intellect and hers? H_elt the power to win her, and to defy every passing humiliation that lay i_is course.
Sidwell raised her eyes with a look which signified that she was shaping _uestion diffidently.
'Have you always thought so hopelessly of our times?'
'Oh, I had my stage of optimism,' he answered, smiling. 'Though I never pu_aith in the masses, I once believed that the conversion of the educated to _urely human religion would set things moving in the right way. It wa_gnorance of the world.'
He paused a moment, then added:
'In youth one marvels that men remain at so low a stage of civilisation. Late_n life, one is astonished that they have advanced so far.'
Sidwell met his look with appreciative intelligence and murmured:
'In spite of myself, I believe that expresses a truth.'
Peak was about to reply, when Fanny and her friend reappeared. Berth_pproached for the purpose of taking leave, and for a minute or two Sidwel_alked with her. The young girls withdrew again together.
By the clock on the mantelpiece it was nearly six. Godwin did not resume hi_eat, though Sidwell had done so. He looked towards the window, and was al_ut lost in abstraction, when the soft voice again addressed him:
'But you have not chosen your life's work without some hope of doing good?'
'Do you think,' he asked, gently, 'that I shall be out of place in th_hristian Church?'
'No—no, I certainly don't think that. But will you tell me what you have se_efore yourself?'
He drew nearer and leaned upon the back of a chair.
'I hope for what I shall perhaps never attain. Whatever my first steps ma_e—I am not independent; I must take the work that offers—it is my ambition t_ecome the teacher of some rural parish which is still unpolluted by th_nfluences of which we have been speaking—or, at all events, is still capabl_f being rescued. For work in crowded centres, I am altogether unfit; m_rejudices are too strong; I should do far more harm than good. But among _ew simple people I think my efforts mightn't be useless. I can't pretend t_are for anything but individuals. The few whom I know and love are of mor_mportance to me than all the blind multitude rushing to destruction. I hat_he word ~majority~; it is the few, the very few, that have always kept aliv_hatever of effectual good we see in the human race. There are individuals wh_utweigh, in every kind of value, generations of ordinary people. To som_emote little community I hope to give the best energies of my life. M_eaching will avoid doctrine and controversy. I shall take the spirit of th_ospels, and labour to make it a practical guide. No doubt you fin_nconsistencies in me; but remember that I shall not declare myself to those _nstruct as I have done to you. I have been laying stress on my antipathies.
In the future it will be a duty and a pleasure to forget these and foster m_ympathies, which also are strong when opportunity is given them.'
Sidwell listened, her face bent downwards but not hidden from the speaker.
'My nature is intolerant,' he went on, 'and I am easily roused to a_ntagonism which destroys my peace. It is only by living apart, amid friendl_ircumstances, that I can cultivate the qualities useful to myself and others.
The sense that my life was being wasted determined me a year ago to escape th_orld's uproar and prepare myself in quietness for this task. The resolve wa_aken here, in your house.'
'Are you quite sure,' asked Sidwell, 'that such simple duties an_atisfactions'—
The sentence remained incomplete, or rather was finished in the timid glanc_he gave him.
'Such a life wouldn't be possible to me,' he replied, with unsteady voice, 'i_ were condemned to intellectual solitude. But I have dared to hope that _hall not always be alone.'
A parched throat would have stayed his utterance, even if words had offere_hemselves. But sudden confusion beset his mind—a sense of having been guilt_f monstrous presumption—a panic which threw darkness about him and made hi_rasp the chair convulsively. When he recovered himself and looked at Sidwel_here was a faint smile on her lips, inexpressibly gentle.
'That's the rough outline of my projects,' he said, in his ordinary voice, moving a few steps away. 'You see that I count much on fortune; at the best, it may be years before I can get my country living.'
With a laugh, he came towards her and offered his hand for good-bye. Sidwel_ose.
'You have interested me very much. Whatever assistance it may be in m_ather's power to offer you, I am sure you may count upon.'
'I am already much indebted to Mr. Warricombe's kindness.'
They shook hands without further speech, and Peak went his way.
For an hour or two he was powerless to collect his thoughts. All he had sai_epeated itself again and again, mixed up with turbid comments, with deadl_ears and frantic bursts of confidence, with tumult of passion and merciles_ogic of self-criticism. Did Sidwell understand that sentence: 'I have dare_o hope that I shall not always be alone'? Was it not possible that she migh_nterpret it as referring to some unknown woman whom he loved? If not, if hi_oice and features had betrayed him, what could her behaviour mean, excep_istinct encouragement? 'You have interested me very much.' But could she hav_sed such words if his meaning had been plain to her? Far more likely that he_rank kindness came of misconception. She imagined him the lover of some gir_f his own 'station'—a toiling governess, or some such person; it could no_nter into her mind that he 'dared' so recklessly as the truth implied.
But the glow of sympathy with which she heard his immeasurable scorn: ther_as the spirit that defies artificial distances. Why had he not been bolder?
At this rate he must spend a lifetime in preparing for the decisive moment.
When would another such occasion offer itself?
Women are won by audacity; the poets have repeated it from age to age, an_ome truth there must be in the saying. Suspicion of self-interest could no_ut attach to him; that was inherent in the circumstances. He must rely upo_he sincerity of his passion, which indeed was beginning to rack and rend him.
A woman is sensitive to that, especially a woman of Sidwell's refinement. I_atters of the intellect she may be misled, but she cannot mistake quiverin_rdour for design simulating love. If it were impossible to see her again i_rivate before she left Exeter, then he must write to her. Half a year o_omplete uncertainty, and of counterfeiting face to face with Bruno Chilvers, would overtax his resolution.
The evening went by he knew not how. Long after nightfall he was returnin_rom an aimless ramble by way of the Old Tiverton Road. At least he would pas_he house, and soothe or inflame his emotions by resting for a moment thu_ear to Sidwell.
What? He had believed himself incapable of erotic madness? And he pressed hi_orehead against the stones of the wall to relieve his sick dizziness.
It was Sidwell or death. Into what a void of hideous futility would his lif_e cast, if this desire proved vain, and he were left to combat alone with th_emory of his dishonour! With Sidwell the reproach could be outlived. Sh_ould understand him, pardon him— and thereafter a glorified existence, rivalling that of whosoever has been most exultant among the sons of men!