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Chapter 5

  • 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?'
  • 'Oh, no.'
  • '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?"'
  • Fanny laughed.
  • '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!