'You are cold, Miss Lavington?'
'Oh, not in the least.' Cold! when every vein was boiling so strangely! A soft luscious melancholy crept over her. She had always had a terror of darkness; but now she felt quite safe in his strength. The thought of her own unprotected girlhood drew her heart closer to him. She remembered with pleasure the stories of his personal prowess, which had once made her think him coa.r.s.e and brutal. For the first time in her life she knew the delight of dependence--the holy charm of weakness. And as they paced on silently together, through the black awful night, while the servants lingered, far out of sight, about the horses, she found out how utterly she trusted to him.
'Listen!' she said. A nightingale was close to them, pouring out his whole soul in song.
'Is it not very late in the year for a nightingale?'
'He is waiting for his mate. She is rearing a late brood, I suppose.'
'What do you think it is which can stir him up to such an ecstasy of joy, and transfigure his whole heart into melody?'
'What but love, the fulness of all joy, the evoker of all song?'
'All song?--The angels sing in heaven.'
'So they say: but the angels must love if they sing.'
'They love G.o.d!'
'And no one else?'
'Oh yes: but that is universal, spiritual love; not earthly love--a narrow pa.s.sion for an individual.'
'How do we know that they do not learn to love all by first loving one?'
'Oh, the angelic life is single!'
'Who told you so, Miss Lavington?'
She quoted the stock text, of course:--'"In heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels."'
'"As the tree falls, so it lies." And G.o.d forbid that those who have been true lovers on earth should contract new marriages in the next world. Love is eternal. Death may part lovers, but not love.
And how do we know that these angels, as they call them, if they be really persons, may not be united in pairs by some marriage bond, infinitely more perfect than any we can dream of on earth?'
'That is a very wild view, Mr. Smith, and not sanctioned by the Church,' said Argemone, severely. (Curious and significant it is, how severe ladies are apt to be whenever they talk of the Church.)
'In plain historic fact, the early fathers and the middle-age monks did not sanction it: and are not they the very last persons to whom one would go to be taught about marriage? Strange! that people should take their notions of love from the very men who prided themselves on being bound, by their own vows, to know nothing about it!'
'They were very holy men.'
'But still men, as I take it. And do you not see that Love is, like all spiritual things, only to be understood by experience--by loving?'
'But is love spiritual?'
'Pardon me, but what a question for one who believes that "G.o.d is love!"'
'But the divines tell us that the love of human beings is earthly.'
'How did they know? They had never tried. Oh, Miss Lavington!
cannot you see that in those barbarous and profligate ages of the later empire, it was impossible for men to discern the spiritual beauty of marriage, degraded as it had been by heathen brutality?
Do you not see that there must have been a continual tendency in the minds of a celibate clergy to look with contempt, almost with spite, on pleasures which were forbidden to them?'
'It must be very delicious,' said Argemone, thoughtfully, 'for any one who believes it, to think that marriage can last through eternity. But, then, what becomes of entire love to G.o.d? How can we part our hearts between him and his creatures?'
'It is a sin, then, to love your sister? or your friend? What a low, material view of love, to fancy that you can cut it up into so many pieces, like a cake, and give to one person one t.i.t-bit, and another to another, as the Popish books would have you believe!
Love is like flame--light as many fresh flames at it as you will, it grows, instead of diminishing, by the dispersion.'
'It is a beautiful imagination.'
'But, oh, how miserable and tantalising a thought, Miss Lavington, to those who know that a priceless spirit is near them, which might be one with theirs through all eternity, like twin stars in one common atmosphere, for ever giving and receiving wisdom and might, beauty and bliss, and yet are barred from their bliss by some invisible adamantine wall, against which they must beat themselves to death, like b.u.t.terflies against the window-pane, gazing, and longing, and unable to guess why they are forbidden to enjoy!'
Why did Argemone withdraw her arm from his? He knew, and he felt that she was entrusted to him. He turned away from the subject.
'I wonder whether they are safe home by this time?'
'I hope my father will not catch cold. How sad, Mr. Smith, that he will swear so. I do not like to say it; and yet you must have heard him too often yourself.'
'It is hardly a sin with him now, I think. He has become so habituated to it, that he attaches no meaning or notion whatsoever to his own oaths. I have heard him do it with a smiling face to the very beggar to whom he was giving half-a-crown. We must not judge a man of his school by the standard of our own day.'
'Let us hope so,' said Argemone, sadly.
There was another pause. At a turn of the hill road the black ma.s.ses of beech-wood opened, and showed the Priory lights twinkling right below. Strange that Argemone felt sorry to find herself so near home.
'We shall go to town next week,' said she; "and then--You are going to Norway this summer, are you not?'
'No. I have learnt that my duty lies nearer home.'
'What are you going to do?'
'I wish this summer, for the first time in my life, to try and do some good--to examine a little into the real condition of English working men.'
'I am afraid, Mr. Smith, that I did not teach you that duty.'
'Oh, you have taught me priceless things! You have taught me beauty is the sacrament of heaven, and love its gate; that that which is the most luscious is also the most pure.'
'But I never spoke a word to you on such subjects.'
'There are those, Miss Lavington, to whom a human face can speak truths too deep for books.'
Argemone was silent; but she understood him. Why did she not withdraw her arm a second time?
In a moment more the colonel hailed them from the dog-cart and behind him came the britschka with a relay of servants.
They parted with a long, lingering pressure of the hand, which haunted her young palm all night in dreams. Argemone got into the carriage, Lancelot jumped into the dog-cart, took the reins, and relieved his heart by galloping Sandy up the hill, and frightening the returning coachman down one bank and his led horses up the other.
'Vogue la Galere, Lancelot? I hope you have made good use of your time?'
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