‘WE could really, Mr. Luke, almost fancy that we heard the Sirens singing, just now,’ said Mrs. Sinclair, when the ladies of the party had returned from their ramble on the shore, with Mr. Rose amongst them, like Apollo leading the Muses.
The coloured lamps were now glowing brightly, with their green and purple clusters; the table was glittering under them, a wilderness of enchanted sparklings; and outside the moonlight was bathing everything, the roof and pillars of the pavilion, the myrtles, and the multitudes of crowding roses, which trembled just a little in the air that they themselves scented.
‘Yes,’ Mrs. Sinclair said, whilst there were some arrangements going on amongst the others with shawls and opera-cloaks, ‘I never saw anything like the sea to-night. Far off the spray amongst the rocks looked like mermaids playing; and at our feet it seemed as if the little pale waves were whispering and sighing messages to us. I don’t think I should like to tell quite all I thought they said to me. And listen,’ she cried with a faint sigh, ‘is not that the nightingale? It is—I am certain it is!—
The same that oft-times hathWhat a night it is, to be sure! We all felt down on the beach as if we were literally breathing in Romance—or—well, I don’t know what the right word is.’
Charmed magic casements opening on the foam
Of perilous seas in faëry lands forlorn. 1
‘And I,’ said Mr. Rose, ‘have been explaining to them, that, had they lived in any other age, they would have felt nothing of all this; that they feel it, by virtue of senses that have only been acquired in ours.’
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Luke, clearing his throat; ‘that’s quite true, and I want now to try and explain clearly how and why it is true. I was particularly anxious,’ he said in a whisper to Laurence as he drew his chair forward, ‘to speak of this when your Roman Catholic friend was here; as she seems a very intelligent young lady, and is, I have no doubt, fully alive to some of the grotesquenesses of what she considers to be her creed.’
Mr. Luke resettled himself. On one side of him was Miss Merton, in a pale blue opera cloak, bordered with white fur, and embroidered with gold, something in her large eyes of a subdued sadness; and on the other side was Mrs. Sinclair, all in white, who looked like a wood-anemone against a background of dark foliage.
‘Now,’ Mr. Luke continued, raising his voice a little, but speaking with a more mellow persuasiveness than usual, ‘we all of us feel, in a general way—I think I may say that we nearly all of us feel—that the cultured minority of the present age is endowed with feelings, sentiments, and powers of insight, not only in advance of its common contemporaries, but in advance of all preceding times. We understand natural beauty, and natural affections, and above all moral beauty, in a new way, all our own. Now, to what is the advance due? It is all due to culture in its highest connection—its connection with religion. We feel stronger emotions about natural scenery, for just the same reason that we feel stronger emotions about righteousness. And the reason is, that our emotions, in either case, no longer tempt us to draw grotesque inferences from themselves. There’s the whole heart of the matter. We rest gratefully content with the objects that excite our love; we don’t pass away beyond them, and forget them. You had an excellent instance of the old treatment I condemn in those verses of Euripides which Mr. Laurence has translated with so much tenderness. There, you see, you have nature—flowers, meadows, and so forth; and more important still, you have a high conception of virtue. But yet in that poem you have no real feeling for either the flowers or the virtue. The feeling only grazes these, so to speak, and glances off to a shadowy deity beyond, who was no more true, no more verifiable, than any of the rest of her kind, male or female, singular or triple. And now,’ Mr. Luke went on, turning to Miss Merton, ‘here is another illustration of the whole thing—of the advance made by culture in our entire mental state, of which I particularly wanted to talk to you (for in one point at least we agree, even professedly—the doctrine of development), and this is an illustration of it that you in a special way will appreciate. You, of course,’ said Mr. Luke, ‘know something more or less about St. Augustine, I suppose.’
As it was with her reading that Father’s account of his conversion that Miss Merton in a peculiar way associated her own, she looked at Mr. Luke with increased interest, feeling at the same time that she had certainly as much knowledge on the subject as he so generously gave her credit for.
‘Well,’ Mr. Luke went on, ‘Augustine was on the whole, you know, the most cultured of all the Fathers, and, considering the early date at which he lived, had in some ways a real insight into Christianity; so we may safely consider him as the most favourable specimen of the results of the old system. Let us take then the purest and most elevating of all the pleasures of life, and enquire, through him, how it is treated and looked upon by theological Christianity. The eyes, says Augustine, love fair and various forms, and shining and lovely colours; and all day long they are before me, and solicit my contemplation. “For” (and this exquisite sentence I remember in his very words) “the Light, that queen of colours, bathing all that we can look upon, from morning till evening, let me go where I will, will still keep gliding by me in unnumbered guises, and soothes me whilst I am busy at other things, and am thinking nothing of her.’” 2
Miss Merton was pleased at the appreciative tone in which Mr. Luke quoted. Mr. Luke noticed this, and he was pleased also.
‘And now,’ he continued, ‘what return does our gentleman make to the light for its beautiful and constant service to him? Does he thank it? does he praise it? does he seek it? No—’ Mr. Luke here gave a little laugh—‘not a bit of it! He prays to his God that he may be delivered from its insidious snares; he envies the blindness of Tobit, and describes himself as “earnestly groaning” under the temptations of these eyes of his flesh. That is all! There,’ said Mr. Luke, with a confident appeal to Miss Merton, whose expression was now slightly altering, ‘we have in a most pointed form the barbarising results of the old theological religion. And now, put side by side with this, the following expression of the religion of sweet reason, such as culture reveals it to us. It deals with exactly the same sense, and the same pleasures:—
What soul was his, when, from the naked top
Of some bold headland, he beheld the sun
Rise up, and bathe the world in light! He looked—
Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth
And ocean’s liquid mass beneath him lay
In gladness and deep joy. The clouds were touched,
And in their silent faces could be read
Unutterable love. Sound needed none,
Nor any voice of joy; his spirit drank
The spectacle: sensation, soul, and form,
All melted into him; they swallowed up
His animal being; in them did he live,
And by them did he live; they were his life.
In such access of mind, in such high hour
Of visitation from the living God,
Thought was not; in enjoyment it expired;
No thanks he breathed, he proffered no request.’ 3
A sudden sigh here escaped from some one. Mr. Luke looked round.
‘Ah,’ exclaimed Mr. Stockton, ‘what a description of prayer! What a noble, what a magnificent description!’
The fashion of Mr. Luke’s countenance changed. He stopped short, he would not proceed a word farther. His whole quotation had been ruined, he felt, by this odious interruption.
‘I never supposed,’ said Miss Merton, who thought Mr. Luke pausing that she might give in her acquiescence, ‘I never supposed St. Augustine’s views quite final upon all matters. I dare say there are some things that even I could have taught him.’
She smiled as she said this; but there was a little embarrassment in her tone which was perceived by Laurence, and which brought him at once to her rescue.
‘I,’ he said, ‘think the contrast Mr. Luke has drawn even stronger than he has made it. I by no means think that Augustine was afraid of the pleasures of light and sight as they were enjoyed by Wordsworth; for I can hardly fancy that he could have had the least conception of them. They seem to me a new and peculiar heritage, which we may all more or less have part in; but which by former ages were undreamt of, not rejected. I often myself look back on a certain early walk I took one spring morning in these gardens—amongst the very trees and flowerbeds we are now looking out upon. The fresh softness that was in the air, and all the wandering scents, like dreams or prophecies of summers gone or coming, and the wet light glistening on the dewy leaves, seemed to go at once to the soul—to “melt into me,” as into Wordsworth’s herdsman. Once I surprised myself stooping under a dripping bough, to look upwards at a yellow flower, and watch it lonely against a background of blue sky; and once I started to find myself quite lost in staring at a red rock, gleaming amongst shrubs and ivy, which a plant of periwinkle spangled with a constellation of purple stars. The colour, the shape, the smell of every leaf and flower—each seemed to touch me like a note of music; and the bloom of morning mist was over everything.’
‘Ah,’ said Mrs. Sinclair, her dark eyes gleaming in the moonlight, ‘how those spring mornings sometimes make one sick with longing!’
‘Yes,’ said Laurence, ‘with longing—with a vague longing; not always, I am afraid, with thanksgiving or with praise. But I think the feeling in all its moods is the same in some ways. It is a mixing together of outward and inward things—our whole inward lives passing out of us into Nature; Nature melting into us, and growing part of our inward lives, so that all our hopes and fears and memories become embodied things, touching us in scents of flowers, in the breath of the air, in the sparkle of water, or mixing, like Hamadryads, their beings with the trees. Now, could I have described such feelings as these—my own state of mind during my morning walk—to Saint Augustine, he would not have understood me. He would have thought me raving. And my case is not peculiar. These feelings are no private things of my own. They belong to our whole age. And of this,’ Laurence went on, ‘you may see a very curious proof in a part of our modern literature, which as literature is least successful. I mean, a certain class of novels: not the works of the greater novelists, still less the works of the professional novel-manufacturers; not these, but a sort of production almost peculiar to our own time—the novels of amateurs, who write perhaps but a single book during their whole lives; and that one, with the simple aim of pouring out their own feelings for themselves to contemplate, or of explaining to themselves or others their own histories.’
‘And so,’ said Mr. Storks, ‘you would gauge the refinement of the age by its silliest novels?’
‘I think we too often forget,’ said Laurence, ‘that a very silly book may be evidently the work of a very clever person; and may show its author possessed of every gift, except that of literature. And in many of the poor novels I am speaking of, the utter failure of the expression often only calls our attention more strongly to the depth, the delicacy, and the refinement of what the writer has struggled to express. I was reading a girl’s novel in the train the other day, called Love in a Life. Its long spasms of ungrammatical verbiage, its utter want of knowledge of the world, would have turned the dullest reviewer, in spite of himself, into a caustic wit. But there was a something all through it, that its authoress was trying—trying to utter, that reminded me of Ariel trying to escape from his tree. What, Lady Ambrose! Have you written a novel? No? Then why are you looking so mysterious, and so full of meaning?’
‘Go on, Mr. Laurence,’ said Lady Ambrose. ‘I’ll show you by-and-by.’
‘Well,’ said Laurence, ‘take any one of these novels, and you will find the writer looking on Nature in just that peculiar modern way that we have been talking of. I don’t say you will always find the sentiment in the books, but the books will show you that you would find it in the writers. And this feeling about Nature is but an example of others. Take, as I said, the modern conception of love, and study that too, in these foolish novels. You will find half the folly comes from an attempt to express much, not from success in expressing little.’
A pause followed this. It was broken at last by Allen.
‘I quite agree with Mr. Laurence,’ he said diffidently. ‘I have not much right to judge, I dare say. I am not a great reader; and I can only speak from books. But still I know a little of the love poetry of this and of other times; and the poetry of this has always seemed to me far—far the highest. It has seemed to me to give the passion so much more meaning, and such a much greater influence over all life. And this, I suppose, must be because men, as the world goes on, are really learning to love in a higher way than perhaps they themselves are often conscious of.’
‘I think some philosopher,’ murmured Mrs. Sinclair to Leslie, ‘says we feel that we are greater than we know. It must be a great comfort sometimes to know that we are greater than we feel.’
‘Is it not Novalis,’ went on Allen, ‘who says that if all the human race were a single pair of lovers, the difference between mysticism and non-mysticism would cease? Would that have been understood even a hundred years ago? But as to poets, I was thinking of two English poets of our own day especially. Shakespeare may of course have exhibited the working of love more powerfully than they; yet I am sure he could never have conceived its meaning and its nature so deeply. No heroine of his could have understood Mrs. Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese; nor any hero of his her husband’s love lyrics. What seems to me the thing so peculiarly modern, is this notion of love as something which, once truly attained, would, as Browning says,
make Time break,
Letting us pent-up creatures through
Into Eternity, our due.’ 4
‘Ah!’ murmured Mrs. Sinclair, ‘but suppose there is no eternity! I think we had better take what we can, and be thankful. Listen—listen again! “The nightingales, the nightingales!” There, Lord Allen, there is a bit of your Mrs. Browning for you.’
‘What, Lord Allen!’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘and is Mr. Robert Browning a better poet than Shakespeare? I always thought Shakespeare was quite our best.’
‘It is not a question,’ said Laurence, as Allen did not speak, ‘of different poets, but of different ages. I have often wondered myself how far Faust would have appealed to the author of Hamlet, and whether all the spiritual action of the drama, in so far as it relates to the heroine, might not be lost upon him. What a difference between Margaret and Ophelia—not between themselves, but between the parts they play! Shakespeare himself might have understood Margaret’s influence. I doubt it. But even if he had, that would prove little. Shakespeare’s was
The prophetic souland the “wide world” of his time would itself have understood nothing of it. But what strikes me still more than the growth of particular feelings, is the infusion and the inter-penetration of all. Look at Shakespeare’s Sonnets. He loved the objects they were addressed to; he loved flowers and Nature. But these two sets of things were connected only in his mind, they were not fused. Take, however, that most typical of all modern poems—the celebrated love-song in Maud, and think of that:—
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come; 5
The slender acacia would not shakeWhat a passion is here! We almost hear the lover’s pulses as they painfully beat quicker. Our breath catches with his; and we long and long with his longing. And yet hardly a word about his feelings is said directly. The secret is echoed back to us from the scene and from the summer night. It is the milk-bloom of the acacia, the musk of the roses, the stir of the morning breeze, that tells it all to us as if they were living things, and as if a human passion had passed into them for a soul. Now, would the world have understood this in any other times but ours? I don’t think even Shakespeare’s Jessica would, nor Dante’s Beatrice, nor Petrarch’s Laura, nor Horace’s Lydia, nor Plato’s Diotima, nor Homer’s Helen.’
One long milk-bloom on the tree;
The white lake-blossom fell into the lake.
And the pimpernel dozed on the lea;
But the rose was awake all night for your sake,
Knowing your promise to me;
The lilies and roses were all awake,
They sighed for the dawn and thee.
‘Listen!’ exclaimed Mr. Rose eagerly, as soon as Laurence stopped; ‘will you let me read one passage out of my work which bears upon this very point—in fact, sums up exactly what you have been saying? It occurs,’ said Mr. Rose, who was sitting ready under one of the lamps with some printer’s proofs before him, ‘in my Essay on Capacity. “But chief”—this is the passage I mean—“But chief amongst the new things which the heart of man has come to the understanding of , is the passion of love, in its distinctly modern form. The goddess of this love is no longer the Aphrodite of the Greeks, or the Mary of the Christians, She is a mysterious hybrid being, in whose veins is the blood of both of them. She is Mary in her desire of the Creator; she is Aphrodite in her desire of the creature; and in her desire of the creation, she is also Artemis.” (‘Oh, this will never do—this will never do!’ muttered Dr. Jenkinson to himself, tapping with his feet on the ground.) ‘“Into the strange passion,”’ Mr. Rose went on, ‘“of which hers is the tutelage, there have melted the sounds of woods and of waters, and the shapes and the hues of mountains, and the savour of airs and winds, and the odours of all flowers. All the joys, indeed, of the senses have fallen into it, like streams into one sea. And with the joys of the spirit it has been likewise. But whereas the senses have contributed their joys mainly, the spirit has contributed its sorrows and pains as well. Throughout this love, despite its fulness of life, there yet runs also a constant taint of death, of which it needs cleansing—grotesque troubles and misgivings of conscience, and cloistral meditations, and fantastic repentances. For this very reason, however, is it the more wholly expressive to us of the man’s inner development. It shows us how all his desires, senses, and powers of feeling have been growing together, and coalescing into a single organism, capable of quite new sets of pleasures, and responding to far finer movements from without.”’
‘H’m,’ said Mr. Luke slowly, in a tone of meditative commendation, ‘there’s a great deal of truth in that—a very great deal—if the fellow,’ he added to himself, ‘would only put it a little better.’
‘Are you quite sure,’ said Dr. Jenkinson, looking round him in an agony of suppressed irritation, ‘that anyone at all feels all these things, beyond the very few people who talk about them?’
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Rose, smiling with a honeyed gravity, and wholly unconscious of the Doctor’s animus, ‘all feel thus who have any part or lot in the world’s development.’
‘You,’ said the Doctor, turning sharply away from Mr. Rose, ‘think so, Laurence, don’t you, because you find some of the same sort of phrases in novels? I don’t think you’ll find very much thought in those novels—not very much. They are effeminate foolish books.’
‘Yes,’ said Allen with an assenting voice that much pleased the Doctor, ‘a great deal of this increased depth and refinement of feeling, I know, is very good—all of it, I dare say, may be. But still, if left to itself, it must tend—indeed, I have often seen it tend—to make men effeminate, as Dr. Jenkinson says, and unfit for work. Now, I dare say Mr. Luke will call me a barbarian, but I am going to venture to say that, in spite of all that is said against it, that barbarous thing sport—shooting, deer-stalking, hunting—is of great value, especially to people who are not barbarians, as a kind of mental tonic. It makes them active and spirited—it must do so: it gives them presence of mind, and a readiness to exert themselves; and though sport may in one sense be a self-indulgence, it is a self-indulgence that is constantly teaching all sorts of self-denial.’
‘My dear Lord Allen,’ said Mr. Luke, ‘I most entirely agree with you. It does seem, I admit, at first sight, a somewhat singular thing, that the result of the latest civilisation should be to give men leisure to return to the occupations of their earliest barbarism—and those too deprived of their one justification—necessity. But still these barbarous sports must, as you say, if not pursued too exclusively, give a valuable moral tone to minds whose refinement might else become weakness. Only the worst of the matter, as it actually stands, is this—that the majority of people who do follow sport, are the very people who have no refinement that needs strengthening, but merely an idle aimless strength that needs refining. And you must remember, Lord Allen, that the man who is gluttonous of aimless bodily action is no better than the man who is an epicure in aimless mental emotion.’
‘And so,’ said Donald Gordon, with devout solemnity, ‘this is what we must remedy in our new Republic. Our gentlemen there must have both sides of their nature developed equally; and they must be at once so intellectual and so manly, as to be content that partridges and foxes shall die exclusively for them, without their living exclusively for partridges and foxes.’
‘Exactly so,’ said Mr. Luke drily.
‘Some one observed this afternoon,’ said Allen, turning a little stiffly to Donald Gordon, ‘how one could see the expression of a girl’s face changed by the influence of a little genuine mental culture. I have noticed the same thing in men’s faces, under the influence of a little genuine bodily culture. And I think myself that the moors of your country, or a river in Norway, or a good cruise in a yacht, may go—well, at least half as far towards making a complete man, as the study of books, and art, and poetry, in an arm-chair, or in a picture-gallery.’
‘I think that is so true,’ said Miss Merton softly to him in a whisper, for Dr. Jenkinson had begun to speak.
‘But,’ the Doctor was saying, ‘you must want something besides looking at pretty scenery, and falling in love, and shooting. I think you want something besides that to make life complete. You will want to exercise your intellect—your reason.’
‘Yes,’ said Allen, ‘and I defend all this voluntary physical exercise and excitement, because I think it makes the mind even more healthy than it does the body.’
‘Yes,’ said Dr. Jenkinson with a smile, ‘I think that’s right.’
‘You, gentlemen,’ interposed Lady Grace, ‘seem to be taking very good care of yourselves; but are we women to shoot and take all this exercise also?’
‘That,’ said Mr. Luke with a courtly smile, ‘we defer to your superior wisdom. There are, however, two helps to education, akin to exercise, in which both sexes will share, and which in a perfect state of society would be most important in their results. I mean travelling, and the halving of our lives between town and country. The completeness, the many-sidedness of such culture as there is amongst us, is in a great measure due to these; but it is only slowly that we are learning to use them properly. Of course, Jenkinson, you understand all this—no man can do so better. It is simply the music and gymnastic of the Greeks. It is simply true education, which is but another name for culture. And in the cultivated man, thought, and taste, and feeling, and spirit are really all one, and fused together. Could we but look forward to a time when all or even the greater part of those one meets would unite these priceless gifts, there might then indeed be some satisfaction and some hope in life.’
‘And don’t you want goodness?’ said Dr. Jenkinson, all his sharpness returning; ‘do you want no sense of duty, and right, and wrong?’
‘Yes,’ said Laurence, ‘but we have included that already. We have found that that is pre-supposed in every educated pleasure. It is that that gives even our lightest conversation its best sparkle, and beads its surface over with its bright, crisp foam of half-conscious irony. The moral ideal is a note, as it were, which we are always hearing, and with which our daily talk makes continual harmonies, because it is never pitched in unison with it. Thus we talk of killing time, and so on, as being the great end of our lives; of money or position being the only thing to marry for; and of marriage ties as if they were always a weariness, or a grotesque torture.’
‘And thus,’ said Leslie, ‘we say a man has had, par excellence, a success, when he has, for his own selfish pleasure, done a woman the greatest injury possible.’
‘And thus,’ said Donald Gordon softly, ‘when he does not tell all the world he has done so, we say he is a perfect gentleman.’
‘And do you want no religion?’ said Dr. Jenkinson, paying no attention to all this, but again turning to Mr. Luke.
‘My dear Jenkinson,’ said Mr. Luke, ‘you and I agree upon these matters so well, that I think you must be trying to misunderstand us. Can religion and morals be separated? and are not they both included in what we mean by culture? Is it not in virtue of culture—of that nice and complex discrimination—that we can tell at once when we come across a genuine logion of Jesus amongst the sayings vulgarly supposed to be most distinctive of Him? Think, for instance,’ Mr. Luke continued, ‘what a beautiful and profound harmony is at once made amongst our heartstrings, if culture have really tuned them, by such a story as that of the woman taken in adultery, or by the parable of the Prodigal Son, or by such simple, pregnant sayings as, “ὑπάγω καὶ ἔρχομαι πρὸς” and then turn for a moment to the theological accounts of the Trinity! Why,’ exclaimed Mr. Luke with a sudden jauntiness, ‘to sit on the key-board of an organ would make music compared to the discord, the jangling, the string-breaking that Church Catechisms, and Athanasian Creeds, and Episcopal speculations on the personality of the Creator, make on the musical instrument of the cultured mind. Ah,’ Mr. Luke continued, ‘could the Founder of Christianity only have found men of more culture as His immediate disciples and reporters—could He only have secured a biographer as simply honest as poor Boswell was—Well, well, but it’s no use speculating about what might have been. Religion has had bad times hitherto, but now at last we—some of us, at least—are seeing the way to make them better; you yourself, Jenkinson, amongst the number. And all this is due to that very thing which we say is the essence of the best human life—culture; culture which is neither religion, nor morality, nor taste, nor intellect, nor knowledge, nor wide reading, but the single result of all—and this,’ Mr. Luke added, ‘showing itself to the full—doing itself complete justice, through—as our friends have already said— what we call polish and high-breeding, and refinement of manner, and of manners.’
‘Surely you,’ said Mr. Stockton, turning to Dr. Jenkinson with the most mollifying deference, ‘must agree with us that the present century has seen the soul of man widening out, with all its marvellous powers, and displaying new riches of beauty like an unfolding flower. But whilst we value—and none can value more than I—our higher flights of imagination, our finer forms of love, and poetry, and worship, I am not blind to the great agent that is at the bottom of all this change. I mean the emancipated human intellect, with all its manifold apparatus of discovery and conquest—that great liberator of life, and thought, and religion.’
‘There is some truth in that,’ said Dr. Jenkinson, not ungraciously, ‘but I think you are all putting it in a wrong way. And, Luke,’ he added with a little more causticity, ‘to understand Christianity, you must know something of other religions too. You must study the great religions of the East, and compare them with those of the West. No religion can be understood by its own light only.’
‘In our ideal city,’ said Mr. Rose, ‘as I saw it in my brief Apocalypse, you will find a home and a temple for every creed, and for every form of worship.’
‘What!’ exclaimed Lady Ambrose, ‘does Dr. Jenkinson want us to introduce Juggernaut and his car into England?’
‘May I ask you one question,’ broke in Mr. Herbert suddenly, ‘a question which at times, I confess, seems to me not without importance! Will this religion of yours, as you told us in the afternoon it was based on the discrimination between good and evil, also involve a discrimination between life and death? Will it, I mean, point to any other life beyond this, or will it not? Is whatever evil and sorrow we patiently suffer, a thing which, if it do not bring its reward to us here, will never bring us any reward at all? And shall we call the death of the noble sufferer blessed for no other reason than that he rests from his labours and his works do not follow him?’
‘Dear me! dear me!’ said Dr. Jenkinson petulantly to himself. ‘These sort of questions ought never to be asked in that hard abrupt way. You can’t answer them—you can’t answer them.’
Mr. Stockton, however, found no difficulty with his answer.
‘As to that,’ he said, ‘each man would think as he pleased, and his thoughts would shape themselves to meet the deepest needs of his life. In the state of society we long for, the belief in a future life would be open to all to accept or to reject. The only thing to guard against would be any definite public opinion on the matter, one way or the other; for in any definite public opinion, remember, there is the germ of all dogmatism and of all persecution. Public opinion, in society as it ought to be, would be a frictionless fluid, if I may borrow a metaphor from science, in which no adventitious obstacle from prejudice or otherwise would impede the progress of any view that its own merits set in motion.’
Mr. Luke was certainly an unfortunate man. Mr. Stockton had again, in part at least, expressed the exact thing which in other words he was going to have said himself. Mr. Luke, however, did not flinch. He boldly took the bull by the horns.
‘True,’ he said; ‘that metaphor is ingenious, and explains exactly what we want to explain. That is one of the great conditions of a truly cultivated society, what Mr. Stockton calls a frictionless public opinion—a public opinion which shall let every system, every creed, every philosophy of life, stand or fall on its own practical verifiable merits; and this we shall get, too, if we can only banish two things, prejudice and ignorance, of which last,’ Mr. Luke added, looking studiously away from Mr. Stockton, ‘by far the deadliest form is the fetish-worship of useless knowledge.’
‘Well,’ said Miss Merton, ‘I suppose that this is all that any of us would ask, who really and truly believe in what we profess to believe.’
‘Of course it is,’ said Mr. Luke, ‘everything:—everything.’
‘And I’m quite sure,’ said Lady Grace, ‘that in a society where the tone is so nobly liberal, and where all have such a true and burning admiration of the morally beautiful, it will be quite impossible that woman’s life shall not be seen to be what it really is—a thing as capable as men’s of high aims, and independent purposes, and not, as it were, entirely sunk in theirs. I, Mr. Luke, in face of such a public opinion as you speak of, should have little fear for our cause. I think, under God, it would prosper there.’
‘Of course it would,’ said Mr. Luke. ‘If culture enables us to detect beauty and to prize it, what should it enable us to prize more than womanhood, with all its exquisite capabilities developed to their utmost? Life has no greater ornament than cultured womanhood.’
‘Except cultured manhood,’ said Lady Grace, unconsciously giving Mr. Luke a slight wound by her generous and unexpected return of his royal compliment. ‘Ah,’ she sighed to herself with a look at Mr. Luke, ‘and he does not believe in God—or thinks he does not! I suppose it must needs be that offences come; but I wish they did not come by such good men. However—I trust that it is all really for the best. And then—there is no such thing as eternal punishment. One may be thankful to feel sure of that.’
‘I am afraid you will think me very troublesome,’ said Mr. Herbert, who had been talking to Laurence in a low tone for the last few minutes. ‘but there is one question more I should like to ask you. I want to know if you, who see the many delicate beauties of life, and the countless positions it may be viewed from,—I want to know if you will teach the lower, the commoner classes, who look up to you as models, to quote poetry, and to be enquiring and sceptical also?’
‘I hope not, indeed,’ broke in Lady Ambrose with vigour; ‘and as to our being their models, Mr. Herbert, I’m sure you can’t mean that. It seems to me one of the very worst things in these times that they will take us for their models. However, I think it is really a good deal our fault, and that it comes very much from our giving our maids so many of our old clothes to wear. That sort of thing puts notions into their heads. Now, here at any rate is one reform, that is implied in our Republic;—I don’t like that word Republic, by the way—we must put a stop to all this imitation of ourselves. Isn’t that so, Mr. Laurence? ’
‘Thank you, Lady Ambrose,’ said Mr. Herbert, rising, ‘thank you. I think it altogether a wise—nay, more than wise, an essential thing, to keep these wide speculations from spreading beyond the only circles that they are really fitted for. I have to go indoors now, as I have a few matters to arrange to-night; but I am much obliged to you all for what you have taught me about culture, and enlightenment, and society, as it ought to be.’
‘The difficulty is,’ said Lady Ambrose, as Mr. Herbert was walking away, ‘how to keep all this thought, and so forth, to ourselves. One thing I’m quite certain of, that we really do a great deal of harm without thinking of it, by the way in which we speak our minds out before servants, and that sort of people, without in the least considering what may come of it. Now, what do you think of this, as a plan for making our ideal state a really good and contented place?—the upper classes should speak a different language from the lower classes. Of course we should be able to speak theirs, but they would not be able to speak ours. And then, you see, they would never hear us talk, or read our books, or get hold of our ideas; which, after all, is what does all the mischief. And yet,’ said Lady Ambrose with a sigh, ‘that’s not the great difficulty. The great difficulty would be about daughters and younger sons, and how to give them all enough to keep them going in the world. However, this we can talk of in a minute. But—’ here Lady Ambrose put her hand in her pocket, and a sound was heard as of rustling paper.
‘I really do believe,’ said Laurence, ‘that Lady Ambrose has written a novel, although she denies it; and there she is going to read a bit of it now, as a specimen of her own culture.’
‘No,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘really and truly. And if I had written a novel, Mr. Laurence, I should not have the cruelty to inflict it upon you. No; but what I have here,’ she said at last, producing a manuscript, ‘though it is not mine, is next door to a novel, and in some respects better than one. It is a sort of memoir of herself, written by a certain lady I know. I am betraying no confidence in showing it to you; as she herself has lent it to a good many friends, and as long as her name is not mentioned, she is by way of wishing to have it circulated. She has, in fact, consulted me about having it printed. Now I want you, Mr. Laurence, to look through some of it, and tell me if the writer is not really a person of culture. Perhaps you would not mind reading out a little of it.’
‘Am I to read it all through?’ asked Laurence, as he took the seat which Mr. Rose gave up to him at the table.
‘No, no,’ said Lady Ambrose. ‘Just pick out the best bits—a page here, and a page there.’
‘Well,’ said Laurence, ‘I will, at any rate, start with the beginning. Now, are all of us ready to be let into the secrets of a young lady’s soul?—
‘“One often feels a longing—who has not felt it?—in the hurry and trouble of life to pause for a little while and look back upon the past, which we too too often forget, and see what it is we have grown from. We long to see how it has fared with ourselves—our own selves—our characters.”’
‘I think you may skip the beginning,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘it’s a little dull. Turn over a page or two.’
‘“How strangely do they come back to me, those distant irrevocable days!” Will that do?’ asked Laurence.
‘Yes,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘I think so— go on there.’
‘“—those distant irrevocable days, when the world was all new to me, and each experience was fresh and delightful, and I knew nothing of what self-reproach could mean. Ah, me! how times have changed since then! I sometimes fancy that I am hardly worthy now to look back upon my own past. I was gifted naturally with a curious warmth and sincerity of nature, that must have been very beautiful. But my peculiar gift, my own own gift, was a power of sympathy with others, by which quite naturally I used to throw myself into their places, understand their difficulties, and excite myself with their interests. When I was yet quite a child, that, I know, is what men felt in me—I never cared for boys—one man especially. It was then that life began for me, and what it all meant broke on me like a revelation. I, in my simplicity, never dreamt of his being more than a friend—I am not sure even that he was my dearest friend. I certainly never tried to charm him. But I did charm him, nevertheless, quite unconsciously. And he loved me passionately, devotedly, child as I was. Ah, God! when will another ever feel the same for me? And I—‘O, my lost, my rejected friend! come back to me’, sometimes I still cry in my solitude; ‘poor, and obscurely connected as you are, come back to me!’ I shall never forget—poor little me!—the solemn shock of the moment, how my heart stood still, how all the blood came rushing into my cheek, when all of a sudden, as it seemed to me, and without any warning, he asked me to be his wife. Everything seemed to grow dizzy before me. It seemed to me as if the day of judgment had come. (Alas! will there ever be a day of judgment at all? is what I now ask.) I don’t know what I said. I only remember distinctly my throwing myself into my mother’s arms, and crying like a child—and I was one—as if my very heart would break. ‘I am only a child!’ that is what I said. ‘Oh, mother, I am such a child!’ The pathos of the scene often comes back to me even now—a shadowy timid memory, wondering if I shall give it harbour. I remember, too, how I said my prayers that night, and how I asked God—”’
‘I think you needn’t read that,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘go on a page or two further.’
‘“I spent much of my time sketching.” Shall I go on there?’ said Laurence. ‘“I had always a curiously appreciative eye for natural beauty.” Will that do? Or shall I go on here—I think this is better—at the next paragraph?—“Oh the great waste of love in this our world.”’
‘Yes, go on there,’ said Mrs. Sinclair and several others.
‘“Oh the great waste of love in this our world! How many a true heart would have given itself to me, could I only honestly and unreservedly have opened out to it all the depths of mine, and received it! And why did I never do so? It may be that I have known none who could really understand me—none that I could really love. But does that excuse me, not for not loving them, but for making as though I did love them, and so ruining their lives and searing my own? sending them in the end to their brandy-bottles, and their gaming-hells, and their wild Cremornes, and myself—to the mental state in which I am now!
‘“Have I then lost it for ever—lost all hope of love? and must I quietly take up with my unappreciated loneliness? If it is so, if, indeed, it is so, surely I have brought it on myself. Was there not one—not my earliest lover—but another, who with a devotion I understood far more fully, laid himself at my feet, and offered me all his man’s devotion, and his man’s sympathy! Why, why in my madness did I send him from me, penniless as he was—but what of that?—driving him to death, and leaving myself to desolation? How does the image of his pale still face upturned towards the Indian star-light, with eyes which no star-light could ever touch any more, rise before me—his hand on his breast, and clasping with its last grasp a locket with my picture in it! Yes, I see him there, though I did not see him. I know how he must have looked, with his heart bullet-pierced—noble, beautiful in death. Unworthy as I was of you, my true-hearted one, too late, too late, did I learn my own unworthiness. I was sitting in the window of our house at Ventnor, when the letter came that told me. It was evening; and I had been looking out through the summer twilight at the sea and at the sunset. As I read the letter, it dropped from my hand. I gave a gasp. I repressed a shrill cry. I felt a choking sensation in my throat; but I was very proud, and I even repressed a sob. I only, with entire calmness, turned my head towards the sea, and sighed a sigh deep-drawn as if my soul were in it. My cheek was pale, my eyes were wild and wistful—full of a solemn new earnestness. What the exact thoughts were that were busy in me, I cannot tell. All I am conscious of was this, that far, far off were the great crimson spaces of evening sky and a trail of rippled splendour on the sea. One great violet cloud fringed with a border of living fire, that seemed to be eating into it, hung just above the place where the sun had gone down; and over this, in a pale liquid solitude of hushed colour, was the evening star, trembling like a tear-drop. I was always sensitive to colour; and somehow or other this sunset relieved me—went right to my heart with a quiet sense of healing. That evening was, I think, one of the great points in my life. I seemed ever after to see my own character more clearly—how deep were my own capacities for feeling, and also how strangely Nature could enter in and comfort me, when all human sympathy would have seemed intrusive. That night, when I went upstairs, I hardly knew myself. There was a wild look in my eyes—an inexpressible mournfulness and an inexpressible longing. Two or three long tendrils of hair had got loose, and hung over my forehead with a kind of wild languor. ‘What is there that men can see in me to attract them?’ I had often said to myself. I think then a something of what it was began to dawn upon me. ‘And he—he, the true, the gallant, the devoted, he has lost all this’, I gasped, turning away from the glass; and, throwing myself on my knees by the bed, the sob I had so long suppressed broke forth, and I tried to pray—” h’m—and so on, and so on, and so on—’
‘You needn’t read all those bits about the prayers,’ said Lady Ambrose. ‘I don’t think it is quite reverent.’
‘Well,’ said Laurence, ‘here’s a new stage of her life. Let us go on here. “And now, from the bleak desolation of my present existence, I peer wistfully out on all sides, and see if any will bring the love to me that I so much crave for.”’
‘Poor thing!’ said Mrs. Sinclair, with a little sigh.
‘I’m afraid,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘I must mention, by the way, that the lady is married, and remarkably well married too.’
‘“Here in the old house with its quiet gables,” Laurence went on reading, “I sit in my own room, and watch the sunset dying away over the yellowing autumn woods, itself the colour of a belated autumn leaf. I watch it alone—yes, thank heaven, alone. I manage to steal for an hour or two away from those people of whom the house is full. Who is there amongst them that can understand me? whose spirit meets mine on equal terms? I laugh with them, I talk with them, I jest with them, and they think they know me. But ah! the weariness, the far-offness of it all—”’
‘It is entirely her own fault,’ said Lady Ambrose,’ that she has these people here. Her husband is devoted to the country and the turnips for their own sake, and would never see a soul but a few of the neighbouring squires and parsons, if she did not make him. In London, you know, she is nearly always by herself. At least,’ Lady Ambrose added, ‘he’s very rarely with her.’
‘A little further on,’ said Laurence, ‘it seems that all the visitors have gone; and she has been to pay a visit to the parson’s wife.’
‘You may be sure she was quite by herself if she did that,’ said Lady Ambrose.
‘Here,’ Laurence continued, ‘is a description of the visit. “What sweet eyes the little thing had! What a look of trustfulness in her face! A good and pure, and therefore a happy woman, if ever there was one. What a trust in those eyes of hers! What an innocence! What a sweet content! There is no purple shadow of care under her eyes—(people say I darken mine artificially. Alas! heaven knows there is little need for me to do that!) There is no secret trouble discernible in her lips—no languor in her air! What does she know of life, with its troubles, its distractions, its sins? Ah! were I but like her—I, world-worn and world-weary, sickened with pomps, and vanities, and soiled affections, and hollow homage—were I but worthy that she should talk to me! ‘Don’t talk to me,’ I felt inclined to say. ‘You wouldn’t if you knew—if you could know! Oh, how far better are you than I! You little dream when I show myself demurely in my seat in the village church, bowing at the Glorias, or kneeling with my face hid in my hands, you little imagine what a woman you see there. You little dream what strange thoughts unbidden mix themselves up for me with the hymn-music; what wild regrets, what bitter reveries, what strange scenes and figures, fill my mind as I kneel before the Communion-table. Why could I not have been content like you with a quiet lot, a toiling honest husband like you? Is there not something holy, even in his dull sermons, if you only look on them in the lovely light of duty? Why does my heart vibrate with the troubled wailing music of many sorrows, many longings, of which you do not even dream the existence? Oh! what a far higher, far nobler woman are you than I, in every way!”’
‘And now,’ said Lady Ambrose, seeing that Laurence had shut the book, ‘I want to know if all this is a specimen of culture, and if you would call the writer a cultivated person; because she is really one of the most delightful people I know to talk to; and if this is what you call culture—though I think, in her case, it’s a little bit affected, you know—but then she never lets you see all this when you talk to her—I do quite from the bottom of my heart give up about culture being priggish, and bookish, and all that; and since, as you say, it really must include religion, I don’t see what we could wish for more, to make life—humanly speaking—perfect. Of course we shall do good sometimes—I mean, not forget the poor—there’s something so wretchedly heartless in that, I think. And then, too, politics—’
‘Yes,’ repeated Allen, ‘politics—’
‘Of course,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘it is necessary that some of us should look after politics, because if we did not somebody else would. But still—(are you a Liberal, Lord Allen?)—but still, within a limit, I think the less we meddle the better.’
‘Much, Lady Ambrose,’ said Mr. Rose, who had been somewhat put out by this digression, ‘much is, no doubt, to be got over in your friend’s style; nor do I think the culture displayed in her memoirs, even apart from that—’
‘Oh, but you mustn’t judge her only by her writings,’ said Lady Ambrose. ‘When you meet her, she is not a bit like them.’
‘Amateurs in writing rarely are,’ said Laurence. ‘Their writings are simply the foot-notes of their lives, where they tell you what they have not skill enough to bring into the text.’
‘She draws beautifully,’ Lady Ambrose went on, ‘and is really the brightest of creatures—so witty, and with such a sense of the ridiculous! And really, to hear her tell a bit of scandal—not that I at all approve of scandal myself—I always think it’s so uncharitable—’
‘Ah,’ said Donald Gordon gently, ‘I have the very highest opinion of scandal. It is founded on the most sacred of things—that is, Truth, and it is built up by the most beautiful of things—that is, Imagination.’
‘Well, Mr. Gordon,’ said Lady Ambrose, smiling, ‘we won’t talk about that now. But as for what you say about style, Mr. Rose, it is rather jerky, and so forth, I admit. However, that’s the way with us women. Indeed, I often think that if women had invented language, it would have consisted mainly of interjections, and that its only stop would have been a note of exclamation.’
Mr. Rose was much annoyed at these interruptions.
‘I wanted to say,’ he went on, as soon as Lady Ambrose had ceased, ‘that I think your friend’s memoirs more instructive from their very shortcomings, as showing how the human mind—even if not exceptionally gifted —has come to be an organism of increased delicacy and capacity, except when stunted by the necessity of work, or of occupation that is other than voluntary, and chosen for any object beyond itself. You have here, you see, that same modern sense of the blending together of the outer and inner worlds; there is the same delicate discrimination between the aesthetic aspects of the different stages of life, and the nice gradation of moral colours: there is the same fine self-consciousness, and consequent endeavour to give tone and quality to her memories as they pass by her, in exquisite and complex ways.’
‘Yes,’ exclaimed Leslie suddenly, who had spoken but little all the evening, ‘here, I think, is the crowning work of culture. It teaches each of us to look back upon his own life, with all its wants, its relations, and its possibilities, all its wasted hours and its affections trifled away or degraded—it teaches us to look back upon all this with quite a new kind of discrimination. The beauty of youth, with all its buoyancy and innocence, wakes in us of the modern world a more wistful and solemn regret; we are more keenly alive to the pathos of failure; to the sadness of the cold shadows that will often darken the whole inward landscape, and the ravage made by the storms that will sometimes break over it; and to the gleams of sunshine fitfully reappearing, often only touching its distant wolds. And the charm of this is,’ Leslie went on, with a short laugh, ‘that however disastrous our lives may have been, whatever shipwreck we may have made of ourselves or others, let us only look back on this with the eyes of culture, whilst “es wiederholt die Klage des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf,” and the whole retrospect becomes a delightful picture, the more impressive and suggestive from its landslips, its broken roads, and its waste places. I really think one is repaid for having made oneself quite lonely, and deserted, and friendless, by the pleasure one gets from contemplating one’s own situation.’
‘I cannot bear that man,’ whispered Lady Ambrose to Miss Merton. ‘Didn’t you notice the nasty way in which all that was said? But—good gracious, Mr. Laurence, what is that bell ringing for in the house? Is that for us to leave off talking? We have not half done yet.’
Laurence smiled, and looked a little shy, and murmured that he did not think it was so late. ‘I don’t know whether you’ll mind,’ he said at last, ‘but our Rector is going to give us a little evening service. He proposed it this afternoon in the garden, and I could not well refuse.’
‘Mind it!’ exclaimed Lady Ambrose. ‘I should think not.’
‘Service!’ said Dr. Jenkinson briskly; ‘yes, come and let us go to that. I think,’ he said, looking round him, ‘that you will find the religion we have is the best for us at present. I think so. And Christianity,’ he added, turning to Mr. Stockton, ‘really embraces all religions, even any honest denial of itself.’
There was now a general movement towards the house.
‘I’m afraid,’ said Mrs. Sinclair to Leslie, ‘that you’re not of a very happy disposition. You don’t look happy, somehow. And yet I think you might be, if you only tried. I suppose you’re not out of spirits like Mr. Laurence, because you don’t believe in the Trinity, are you? Just look at the sea now. Isn’t that beautiful? Don’t you care for that? But I, you know,’ she added with a sigh, ‘disagree with Mr. Luke. I want the notion of a personal deity, to make me enjoy nature. I want my thought to pass away to him. But I don’t mean a vague deity; but some one whom I have myself made a deity, and who, therefore, I can be quite sure exists—do you see?’
‘My dear,’ said Lady Ambrose again to Miss Merton, ‘I really cannot bear Mr. Leslie. I feel quite sure he’s a bad man. And the way he sneers and laughs at things does go so against me. I wouldn’t have that man inside my house, do you know, for anything. I know you don’t think so; but then you Roman Catholics believe so much, you can afford to be liberal. Not that I myself am at all bigoted; indeed, the one thing I think we want is toleration and charity. And do you know, my dear,’ Lady Ambrose added as they were entering the house, ‘I have a set of eight cousins, all unmarried; and when I look at those girls’ faces, I do confess, my dear, that I positively wish your religion was true; for then they could all go into convents. One doesn’t like those half-and-half Protestant things, you know.’
Just at this moment, emerging from the house, pale and disappointed, appeared the figure of Mr. Saunders.
‘It is thrown away,’ he exclaimed; ‘my disproof of God’s existence. The under-housemaid did it! I am pleased to discover, however, that she previously read through a part; so it has not perished, I trust, without emancipating one spirit. What! are you all going indoors?’
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Storks, laying his arm on Mr. Saunders’s shoulder; ‘and you had better come too. Young man,’ he said in a voice of commanding kindness, ‘you should never in this virulent way deny God’s existence. What rational man believes in it?’
‘I was looking before dinner,’ said Mr. Rose, who with Laurence was bringing up the rear, ‘at the books in your uncle’s pavilion in the garden; and I saw there, in a closed case, a copy of the “Cultes secrets des Dames Romaines.”’
‘Well?’ said Laurence a little stiffly. ‘It has been locked up for years.’
‘I conceived as much,’ said Mr. Rose gently. ‘As you do not seem to set much store by the work, I will give you thirty pounds for it.’