She lay among the myrtles on the cliff; Above her glared the moon; beneath, the sea.
Upon the white horizon Athos' peak Weltered in burning haze; all airs were dead; The sicale slept among the tamarisk's hair; The birds sat dumb and drooping. Far below The lazy sea-weed glistened in the sun: The lazy sea-fowl dried their steaming wings; The lazy swell crept whispering up the ledge, And sank again. Great Pan was laid to rest; And mother Earth watched by him as he slept, And hushed her myriad children for awhile.
She lay among the myrtles on the cliff; And sighed for sleep, for sleep that would not hear, But left her tossing still: for night and day A mighty hunger yearned within her heart, Till all her veins ran fever, and her cheek, Her long thin hands, and ivory-channell'd feet, Were wasted with the wasting of her soul.
Then peevishly she flung her on her face, And hid her eyeb.a.l.l.s from the blinding glare, And fingered at the gra.s.s, and tried to cool Her crisp hot lips against the crisp hot sward: And then she raised her head, and upward cast Wild looks from homeless eyes, whose liquid light Gleamed out between deep folds of blue-black hair, As gleam twin lakes between the purple peaks Of deep Parna.s.sus, at the mournful moon.
Beside her lay a lyre. She s.n.a.t.c.hed the sh.e.l.l, And waked wild music from its silver strings; Then tossed it sadly by,--'Ah, hush!' she cries, 'Dead offspring of the tortoise and the mine!
Why mock my discords with thine harmonies?
'Although a thrice-Olympian lot be thine, Only to echo back in every tone, The moods of n.o.bler natures than thine own.'
'No!' she said. 'That soft and rounded rhyme suits ill with Sappho's fitful and wayward agonies. She should burst out at once into wild pa.s.sionate life-weariness, and disgust at that universe, with whose beauty she has filled her eyes in vain, to find it always a dead picture, unsatisfying, unloving--as I have found it.'
Sweet self-deceiver! had you no other reason for choosing as your heroine Sappho, the victim of the idolatry of intellect--trying in vain to fill her heart with the friendship of her own s.e.x, and then sinking into mere pa.s.sion for a handsome boy, and so down into self- contempt and suicide?
She was conscious, I do believe, of no other reason than that she gave; but consciousness is a dim candle--over a deep mine.
'After all,' she said pettishly, 'people will call it a mere imitation of Sh.e.l.ley's Alastor. And what harm if it is? Is there to be no female Alastor? Has not the woman as good a right as the man to long after ideal beauty--to pine and die if she cannot find it; and regenerate herself in its light?'
'Yo-hoo-oo-oo! Youp, youp! Oh-hooo!' arose doleful through the echoing shrubbery.
Argemone started and looked out. It was not a banshee, but a forgotten fox-hound puppy, sitting mournfully on the gravel-walk beneath, staring at the clear ghastly moon.
She laughed and blushed--there was a rebuke in it. She turned to go to rest; and as she knelt and prayed at her velvet faldstool, among all the nicknacks which now-a-days make a luxury of devotion, was it strange if, after she had prayed for the fate of nations and churches, and for those who, as she thought, were fighting at Oxford the cause of universal truth and reverend antiquity, she remembered in her pet.i.tions the poor G.o.dless youth, with his troubled and troubling eloquence? But it was strange that she blushed when she mentioned his name--why should she not pray for him as she prayed for others?
Perhaps she felt that she did not pray for him as she prayed for others.
She left the AEolian harp in the window, as a luxury if she should wake, and coiled herself up among lace pillows and eider blemos; and the hound coiled himself up on the gravel-walk, after a solemn vesper-ceremony of three turns round in his own length, looking vainly for a 'soft stone.' The finest of us are animals after all, and live by eating and sleeping: and, taken as animals, not so badly off either--unless we happen to be Dorsetshire labourers--or Spitalfields weavers--or colliery children--or marching soldiers-- or, I am afraid, one half of English souls this day.
And Argemone dreamed;--that she was a fox, flying for her life through a churchyard--and Lancelot was a hound, yelling and leaping, in a red coat and white buckskins, close upon her--and she felt his hot breath, and saw his white teeth glare. . . . And then her father was there: and he was an Italian boy, and played the organ-- and Lancelot was a dancing dog, and stood up and danced to the tune of 'C'est l'amour, l'amour, l'amour,' pitifully enough, in his red coat--and she stood up and danced too; but she found her fox-fur dress insufficient, and begged hard for a paper frill--which was denied her: whereat she cried bitterly and woke; and saw the Night peeping in with her bright diamond eyes, and blushed, and hid her beautiful face in the pillows, and fell asleep again.
What the little imp, who managed this puppet-show on Argemone's brain-stage, may have intended to symbolise thereby, and whence he stole his actors and stage-properties, and whether he got up the interlude for his own private fun, or for that of a choir of brother Eulenspiegels, or, finally, for the edification of Argemone as to her own history, past, present, or future, are questions which we must leave unanswered, till physicians have become a little more of metaphysicians, and have given up their present plan of ignoring for nine hundred and ninety-nine pages that most awful and significant custom of dreaming, and then in the thousandth page talking the boldest materialist twaddle about it.
In the meantime, Lancelot, contrary to the colonel's express commands, was sitting up to indite the following letter to his cousin, the Tractarian curate:--
'You complain that I waste my time in field-sports: how do you know that I waste my time? I find within myself certain appet.i.tes; and I suppose that the G.o.d whom you say made me, made those appet.i.tes as a part of me. Why are they to be crushed any more than any other part of me? I am the whole of what I find in myself--am I to pick and choose myself out of myself? And besides, I feel that the exercise of freedom, activity, foresight, daring, independent self- determination, even in a few minutes' burst across country, strengthens me in mind as well as in body. It might not do so to you; but you are of a different const.i.tution, and, from all I see, the power of a man's muscles, the excitability of his nerves, the shape and balance of his brain, make him what he is. Else what is the meaning of physiognomy? Every man's destiny, as the Turks say, stands written on his forehead. One does not need two glances at your face to know that you would not enjoy fox-hunting, that you would enjoy book-learning and "refined repose," as they are pleased to call it. Every man carries his character in his brain. You all know that, and act upon it when you have to deal with a man for sixpence; but your religious dogmas, which make out that everyman comes into the world equally brutish and fiendish, make you afraid to confess it. I don't quarrel with a "douce" man like you, with a large organ of veneration, for following your bent. But if I am fiery, with a huge cerebellum, why am I not to follow mine?--For that is what you do, after all--what you like best. It is all very easy for a man to talk of conquering his appet.i.tes, when he has none to conquer. Try and conquer your organ of veneration, or of benevolence, or of calculation--then I will call you an ascetic.
Why not!--The same Power which made the front of one's head made the back, I suppose?
'And, I tell you, hunting does me good. It awakens me out of my dreary mill-round of metaphysics. It sweeps away that infernal web of self-consciousness, and absorbs me in outward objects; and my red-hot Perillus's bull cools in proportion as my horse warms. I tell you, I never saw a man who could cut out his way across country who could not cut his way through better things when his turn came.
The cleverest and n.o.blest fellows are sure to be the best riders in the long run. And as for bad company and "the world," when you take to going in the first-cla.s.s carriages for fear of meeting a swearing sailor in the second-cla.s.s--when those who have "renounced the world" give up buying and selling in the funds--when my uncle, the pious banker, who will only "a.s.sociate" with the truly religious, gives up dealing with any scoundrel or heathen who can "do business"
with him--then you may quote pious people's opinions to me. In G.o.d's name, if the Stock Exchange, and railway stagging, and the advertis.e.m.e.nts in the Protestant Hue-and-Cry, and the frantic Mammon-hunting which has been for the last fifty years the peculiar pursuit of the majority of Quakers, Dissenters, and Religious Churchmen, are not The World, what is? I don't complain of them, though; Puritanism has interdicted to them all art, all excitement, all amus.e.m.e.nt--except money-making. It is their dernier ressort, poor souls!
'But you must explain to us naughty fox-hunters how all this agrees with the good book. We see plainly enough, in the meantime, how it agrees with "poor human nature." We see that the "religious world,"
like the "great world," and the "sporting world," and the "literary world,"
"Compounds for sins she is inclined to, By d.a.m.ning those she has no mind to;"
and that because England is a money-making country, and money-making is an effeminate pursuit, therefore all sedentary and spoony sins, like covetousness, slander, bigotry, and self-conceit, are to be c.o.c.kered and plastered over, while the more masculine vices, and no- vices also, are mercilessly hunted down by your cold-blooded, soft- handed religionists.
'This is a more quiet letter than usual from me, my dear coz, for many of your reproofs cut me home: they angered me at the time; but I deserve them. I am miserable, self-disgusted, self-helpless, craving for freedom, and yet crying aloud for some one to come and guide me, and teach me; and WHO IS THERE IN THESE DAYS WHO COULD TEACH A FAST MAN, EVEN IF HE WOULD TRY? Be sure, that as long as you and yours make piety a synonym for unmanliness, you will never convert either me or any other good sportsman.
'By the bye, my dear fellow, was I asleep or awake when I seemed to read in the postscript of your last letter, something about "being driven to Rome after all"? . . . Why thither, of all places in heaven or earth? You know, I have no party interest in the question. All creeds are very much alike to me just now. But allow me to ask, in a spirit of the most tolerant curiosity, what possible celestial bait, either of the useful or the agreeable kind, can the present excellent Pope, or his adherents, hold out to you in compensation for the solid earthly pudding which you would have to desert? . . . I daresay, though, that I shall not comprehend your answer when it comes. I am, you know, utterly deficient in that sixth sense of the angelic or supralunar beautiful, which fills your soul with ecstasy. You, I know, expect and long to become an angel after death: I am under the strange hallucination that my body is part of me, and in spite of old Plotinus, look with horror at a disembodiment till the giving of that new body, the great perfection of which, in your eyes, and those of every one else, seems to be, that it will be less, and not more of a body, than our present one.
. . . Is this hope, to me at once inconceivable and contradictory, palpable and valuable enough to you to send you to that Italian Avernus, to get it made a little more certain? If so, I despair of your making your meaning intelligible to a poor fellow wallowing, like me, in the Hylic Borboros--or whatever else you may choose to call the unfortunate fact of being flesh and blood. . . . Still, write.'
CHAPTER III: NEW ACTORS, AND A NEW STAGE
When Argemone rose in the morning, her first thought was of Lancelot. His face haunted her. The wild brilliance of his intellect struggling through foul smoke-clouds, had haunted her still more. She had heard of his profligacy, his bursts of fierce Berserk-madness; and yet now these very faults, instead of repelling, seemed to attract her, and intensify her longing to save him. She would convert him; purify him; harmonise his discords.
And that very wish gave her a peace she had never felt before. She had formed her idea; she had now a purpose for which to live, and she determined to concentrate herself for the work, and longed for the moment when she should meet Lancelot, and begin--how, she did not very clearly see.
It is an old jest--the fair devotee trying to convert the young rake. Men of the world laugh heartily at it; and so does the devil, no doubt. If any readers wish to be fellow-jesters with that personage, they may; but, as sure as old Saxon women-worship remains for ever a blessed and healing law of life, the devotee may yet convert the rake--and, perhaps, herself into the bargain.
Argemone looked almost angrily round at her beloved books and drawings; for they spoke a message to her which they had never spoken before, of self-centred ambition. 'Yes,' she said aloud to herself, 'I have been selfish, utterly! Art, poetry, science--I believe, after all, that I have only loved them for my own sake, not for theirs, because they would make me something, feed my conceit of my own talents. How infinitely more glorious to find my work-field and my prize, not in dead forms and colours, or ink-and-paper theories, but in a living, immortal, human spirit! I will study no more, except the human heart, and only that to purify and enn.o.ble it.'
True, Argemone; and yet, like all resolutions, somewhat less than the truth. That morning, indeed, her purpose was simple as G.o.d's own light. She never dreamed of exciting Lancelot's admiration, even his friendship for herself. She would have started as from a snake, from the issue which the reader very clearly foresees, that Lancelot would fall in love, not with Young Englandism, but with Argemone Lavington. But yet self is not eradicated even from a woman's heart in one morning before breakfast. Besides, it is not 'benevolence,' but love--the real Cupid of flesh and blood, who can first
'Touch the chord of self which, trembling, Pa.s.ses in music out of sight.'
But a time for all things; and it is now time for Argemone to go down to breakfast, having prepared some dozen imaginary dialogues between herself and Lancelot, in which, of course, her eloquence always had the victory. She had yet to learn, that it is better sometimes not to settle in one's heart what we shall speak, for the Everlasting Will has good works ready prepared for us to walk in, by what we call fortunate accident; and it shall be given us in that day and that hour what we shall speak.
Lancelot, in the meantime, shrank from meeting Argemone; and was quite glad of the weakness which kept him upstairs. Whether he was afraid of her--whether he was ashamed of himself or of his crutches, I cannot tell, but I daresay, reader, you are getting tired of all this soul-dissecting. So we will have a bit of action again, for the sake of variety, if for nothing better.
Of all the species of lovely scenery which England holds, none, perhaps, is more exquisite than the banks of the chalk-rivers--the perfect limpidity of the water, the gay and luxuriant vegetation of the banks and ditches, the ma.s.ses of n.o.ble wood embosoming the villages, the unique beauty of the water-meadows, living sheets of emerald and silver, tinkling and sparkling, cool under the fiercest sun, brilliant under the blackest clouds.--There, if anywhere, one would have expected to find Arcadia among fertility, loveliness, industry, and wealth. But, alas for the sad reality! the cool breath of those glittering water-meadows too often floats laden with poisonous miasma. Those picturesque villages are generally the perennial hotbeds of fever and ague, of squalid penury, sottish profligacy, dull discontent too stale for words. There is luxury in the park, wealth in the huge farm-steadings, knowledge in the parsonage: but the poor? those by whose dull labour all that luxury and wealth, ay, even that knowledge, is made possible--what are they? We shall see, please G.o.d, ere the story's end.
But of all this Lancelot as yet thought nothing. He, too, had to be emanc.i.p.ated, as much as Argemone, from selfish dreams; to learn to work trustfully in the living Present, not to gloat sentimentally over the unreturning Past. But his time was not yet come; and little he thought of all the work which lay ready for him within a mile of the Priory, as he watched the ladies go out for the afternoon, and slipped down to the Nun's-pool on his crutches to smoke and fish, and build castles in the air.
The Priory, with its rambling courts and gardens, stood on an island in the river. The upper stream flowed in a straight artificial channel through the garden, still and broad, towards the Priory mill; while just above the Priory wall half the river fell over a high weir, with all its appendages of bucks and hatchways, and eel- baskets, into the Nun's-pool, and then swept round under the ivied walls, with their fantastic turrets and gables, and little loopholed windows, peering out over the stream, as it hurried down over the shallows to join the race below the mill. A postern door in the walls opened on an ornamental wooden bridge across the weir-head--a favourite haunt of all fishers and sketchers who were admitted to the dragon-guarded Elysium of Whitford Priors. Thither Lancelot went, congratulating himself, strange to say, in having escaped the only human being whom he loved on earth.
He found on the weir-bridge two of the keepers. The younger one, Tregarva, was a stately, thoughtful-looking Cornishman, some six feet three in height, with thews and sinews in proportion. He was sitting on the bridge looking over a basket of eel-lines, and listening silently to the chat of his companion.
Old Harry Verney, the other keeper, was a character in his way, and a very bad character too, though he was a patriarch among all the gamekeepers of the vale. He was a short, wiry, bandy-legged, ferret-visaged old man, with grizzled hair, and a wizened face tanned brown and purple by constant exposure. Between rheumatism and constant handling the rod and gun, his fingers were crooked like a hawk's claws. He kept his left eye always shut, apparently to save trouble in shooting; and squinted, and sniffed, and peered, with a stooping back and protruded chin, as if he were perpetually on the watch for fish, flesh, and fowl, vermin and Christian. The friendship between himself and the Scotch terrier at his heels would have been easily explained by Lessing, for in the transmigration of souls the spirit of Harry Verney had evidently once animated a dog of that breed. He was dressed in a huge thick fustian jacket, scratched, stained, and patched, with bulging, greasy pockets; a cast of flies round a battered hat, riddled with shot-holes, a dog- whistle at his b.u.t.ton-hole, and an old gun cut short over his arm, bespoke his business.
'I seed that 'ere Crawy against Ashy Down Plantations last night, I'll be sworn,' said he, in a squeaking, sneaking tone.
'Well, what harm was the man doing?'
'Oh, ay, that's the way you young 'uns talk. If he warn't doing mischief, he'd a been glad to have been doing it, I'll warrant. If I'd been as young as you, I'd have picked a quarrel with him soon enough, and found a cause for tackling him. It's worth a brace of sovereigns with the squire to haul him up. Eh? eh? Ain't old Harry right now?'
'Humph!' growled the younger man.
'There, then, you get me a snare and a hare by to-morrow night,'
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