While she was sobbing in bed, he was sitting, with a short, black pipe stuck into his mouth, on the corner of the churchyard wall opposite. Before he had left the house he and Priscilla had spoken together for some minutes about Mrs. Trevelyan. "Of course she was wrong to see him," said Priscilla. "I hesitate to wound her by so saying, because she has been ill-used,—though I did tell her so, when she asked me. She could have lost nothing by declining his visit."
"The worst of it is that Trevelyan swears that he will never receive her again if she received him."
"He must unswear it," said Priscilla, "that is all. It is out of the question that a man should take a girl from her home, and make her his wife, and then throw her off for so little of an offence as this. She might compel him by law to take her back."
"What would she get by that?"
"Little enough," said Priscilla; "and it was little enough she got by marrying him. She would have had bread, and meat, and raiment without being married, I suppose."
"But it was a love-match."
"Yes;—and now she is at Nuncombe Putney, and he is roaming about in London. He has to pay ever so much a year for his love-match, and she is crushed into nothing by it. How long will she have to remain here, Hugh?"
"How can I say? I suppose there is no reason against her remaining as far as you are concerned?"
"For me personally, none. Were she much worse than I think she is, I should not care in the least for myself, if I thought that we were doing her good,—helping to bring her back. She can't hurt me. I am so fixed, and dry, and established, that nothing anybody says will affect me. But mamma doesn't like it."
"What is it she dislikes?"
"The idea that she is harbouring a married woman, of whom people say, at least, that she has a lover."
"Is she to be turned out because people are slanderers?"
"Why should mamma suffer because this woman, who is a stranger to her, has been imprudent? If she were your wife, Hugh—"
"If we were in any way bound to her, of course we would do our duty. But if it makes mamma unhappy I am sure you will not press it. I think Mrs. Merton has spoken to her. And then Aunt Stanbury has written such letters!"
"Who cares for Aunt Jemima?"
"Everybody cares for her,—except you and I. And now this man who has been here asking the servant questions has upset her greatly. Even your coming has done so, knowing, as she does, that you have come, not to see us, but to make inquiries about Mrs. Trevelyan. She is so annoyed by it, that she does not sleep."
"Do you wish her to be taken away at once?" asked Hugh, almost in an angry tone.
"Certainly not. That would be impossible. We have agreed to take her, and must bear with it. And I would not have her moved from this, if I thought that if she stayed awhile it might be arranged that she might return from us direct to her husband."
"I shall try that, of course;—now."
"But if he will not have her;—if he be so obstinate, so foolish, and so wicked, do not leave her here longer than you can help." Then Hugh explained that Sir Marmaduke and Lady Rowley were to be in England in the spring, and that it would be very desirable that the poor woman should not be sent abroad to look for a home before that. "If it must be so, it must," said Priscilla. "But eight months is a long time."
Hugh went out to smoke his pipe on the church-wall in a moody, unhappy state of mind. He had hoped to have done so well in regard to Mrs. Trevelyan! Till he had met Colonel Osborne, he felt sure, almost sure, that she would have refused to see that pernicious troubler of the peace of families. In this he found that he had been disappointed; but he had not expected that Priscilla would have been so much opposed to the arrangement which he had made about the house, and then he had been buoyed up by the anticipation of some delight in meeting Nora Rowley. There was, at any rate, the excitement of seeing her to keep his spirits from flagging. He had seen her, and had had the opportunity of which he had so long been thinking. He had seen her, and had had every possible advantage on his side. What could any man desire better than the privilege of walking home with the girl he loved through country lanes of a summer evening? They had been an hour together,—or might have been, had he chosen to prolong the interview. But the words which had been spoken between them had had not the slightest interest,—unless it were that they had tended to make the interval between him and her wider than ever. He had asked her,—he thought that he had asked,—whether it would grieve her to abandon that delicate, dainty mode of life to which she had been accustomed; and she had replied, that she would never abandon it of her own accord. Of course she had intended him to take her at her word.
He blew forth quick clouds of heavy smoke, as he attempted to make himself believe that this was all for the best. What would such a one as he was do with a wife? Or, seeing as he did see, that marriage itself was quite out of the question, how could it be good either for him or her that they should be tied together by a long engagement? Such a future would not at all suit the purpose of his life. In his life absolute freedom would be needed;—freedom from unnecessary ties, freedom from unnecessary burdens. His income was most precarious, and he certainly would not make it less so by submission to any closer literary thraldom. And he believed himself to be a Bohemian,—too much of a Bohemian to enjoy a domestic fireside with children and slippers. To be free to go where he liked, and when he liked; to think as he pleased; to be driven nowhere by conventional rules; to use his days, Sundays as well as Mondays, as he pleased to use them; to turn Republican, if his mind should take him that way,—or Quaker, or Mormon, or Red Indian, if he wished it, and in so turning to do no damage to any one but himself;—that was the life which he had planned for himself. His Aunt Stanbury had not read his character altogether wrongly, as he thought, when she had once declared that decency and godliness were both distasteful to him. Would it not be destruction to such a one as he was, to fall into an interminable engagement with any girl, let her be ever so sweet?
But yet, he felt as he sat there, filling pipe after pipe, smoking away till past midnight, that though he could not bear the idea of trammels, though he was totally unfit for matrimony, either present or in prospect,—he felt that he had within his breast a double identity, and that that other division of himself would be utterly crushed if it were driven to divest itself of the idea of love. Whence was to come his poetry, the romance of his life, the springs of clear water in which his ignoble thoughts were to be dipped till they should become pure, if love was to be banished altogether from the list of delights that were possible to him? And then he began to speculate on love,—that love of which poets wrote, and of which he found that some sparkle was necessary to give light to his life. Was it not the one particle of divine breath given to man, of which he had heard since he was a boy? And how was this love to be come at, and was it to be a thing of reality, or merely an idea? Was it a pleasure to be attained, or a mystery that charmed by the difficulties of the distance,—a distance that never could be so passed that the thing should really be reached? Was love to be ever a delight, vague as is that feeling of unattainable beauty which far-off mountains give, when you know that you can never place yourself amidst their unseen valleys? And if love could be reached,—the love of which the poets sing, and of which his own heart was ever singing,—what were to be its pleasures? To press a hand, to kiss a lip, to clasp a waist, to hear even the low voice of the vanquished, confessing loved one as she hides her blushing cheek upon your shoulder,—what is it all but to have reached the once mysterious valley of your far-off mountain, and to have found that it is as other valleys,—rocks and stones, with a little grass, and a thin stream of running water? But beyond that pressure of the hand, and that kissing of the lips,—beyond that short-lived pressure of the plumage which is common to birds and men,—what could love do beyond that? There were children with dirty faces, and household bills, and a wife who must, perhaps, always darn the stockings,—and be sometimes cross. Was love to lead only to this,—a dull life, with a woman who had lost the beauty from her cheeks, and the gloss from her hair, and the music from her voice, and the fire from her eye, and the grace from her step, and whose waist an arm should no longer be able to span? Did the love of the poets lead to that, and that only? Then, through the cloud of smoke, there came upon him some dim idea of self-abnegation,—that the mysterious valley among the mountains, the far-off prospect of which was so charming to him,—which made the poetry of his life, was, in fact, the capacity of caring more for other human beings than for himself. The beauty of it all was not so much in the thing loved as in the loving. "Were she a cripple, hunchbacked, eyeless," he said to himself, "it might be the same. Only she must be a woman." Then he blew off a great cloud of smoke, and went into bed lost amidst poetry, philosophy, love, and tobacco.
It had been arranged over-night that he was to start the next morning at half-past seven, and Priscilla had promised to give him his breakfast before he went. Priscilla, of course, kept her word. She was one of those women who would take a grim pleasure in coming down to make the tea at any possible hour,—at five, at four, if it were needed,—and who would never want to go to bed again when the ceremony was performed. But when Nora made her appearance,—Nora, who had been called dainty,—both Priscilla and Hugh were surprised. They could not say why she was there,—nor could Nora tell herself. She had not forgiven him. She had no thought of being gentle and loving to him. She declared to herself that she had no wish of saying good-bye to him once again. But yet she was in the room, waiting for him, when he came down to his breakfast. She had been unable to sleep, and had reasoned with herself as to the absurdity of lying in bed awake, when she preferred to be up and out of the house. It was true that she had not been out of her bed at seven any morning since she had been at Nuncombe Putney; but that was no reason why she should not be more active on this special morning. There was a noise in the house, and she never could sleep when there was a noise. She was quite sure that she was not going down because she wished to see Hugh Stanbury, but she was equally sure that it would be a disgrace to her to be deterred from going down, simply because the man was there. So she descended to the parlour, and was standing near the open window when Stanbury bustled into the room, some quarter of an hour after the proper time. Priscilla was there also, guessing something of the truth, and speculating whether these two young people, should they love each other, would be the better or the worse for such love. There must be marriages,—if only that the world might go on in accordance with the Creator's purpose. But, as far as Priscilla could see, blessed were they who were not called upon to assist in the scheme. To her eyes all days seemed to be days of wrath, and all times, times of tribulation. And it was all mere vanity and vexation of spirit. To go on and bear it till one was dead,—helping others to bear it, if such help might be of avail,—that was her theory of life. To make it pleasant by eating, and drinking, and dancing, or even by falling in love, was, to her mind, a vain crunching of ashes between the teeth. Not to have ill things said of her and of hers, not to be disgraced, not to be rendered incapable of some human effort, not to have actually to starve,—such was the extent of her ambition in this world. And for the next,—she felt so assured of the goodness of God that she could not bring herself to doubt of happiness in a world that was to be eternal. Her doubt was this, whether it was really the next world which would be eternal. Of eternity she did not doubt;—but might there not be many worlds? These things, however, she kept almost entirely to herself. "You down!" Priscilla had said.
"Well, yes; I could not sleep when I heard you all moving. And the morning is so fine, and I thought that perhaps you would go out and walk after your brother has gone." Priscilla promised that she would walk, and then the tea was made.
"Your sister and I are going out for an early walk," said Nora, when she was greeted by Stanbury. Priscilla said nothing, but thought she understood it all.
"I wish I were going with you," said Hugh. Nora, remembering how very little he had made of his opportunity on the evening before, did not believe him.
The eggs and fried bacon were eaten in a hurry, and very little was said. Then there came the moment for parting. The brother and sister kissed each other, and Hugh took Nora by the hand. "I hope you make yourself happy here," he said.
"Oh, yes;—if it were only for myself I should want nothing."
"I will do the best I can with Trevelyan."
"The best will be to make him, and every one, understand that the fault is altogether his, and not Emily's."
"The best will be to make each think that there has been no real fault," said Hugh.
"There should be no talking of faults," said Priscilla. "Let the husband take his wife back,—as he is bound to do."
These words occupied hardly a minute in the saying, but during that minute Hugh Stanbury held Nora by the hand. He held it fast. She would not attempt to withdraw it, but neither would she return his pressure by the muscle of a single finger. What right had he to press her hand; or to make any sign of love, any pretence of loving, when he had gone out of his way to tell her that she was not good enough for him? Then he started, and Nora and Priscilla put on their hats and left the house.
"Let us go to Niddon Park," said Nora.
"To Niddon Park again?"
"Yes; it is so beautiful! And I should like to see it by the morning light. There is plenty of time."
So they walked to Niddon Park in the morning, as they had done on the preceding evening. Their conversation at first regarded Trevelyan and his wife, and the old trouble; but Nora could not keep herself from speaking of Hugh Stanbury.
"He would not have come," she said, "unless Louis had sent him."
"He would not have come now, I think."
"Of course not;—why should he?—before Parliament was hardly over, too? But he won't remain in town now,—will he?"
"He says somebody must remain,—and I think he will be in London till near Christmas."
"How disagreeable! But I suppose he doesn't care. It's all the same to a man like him. They don't shut the clubs up, I dare say. Will he come here at Christmas?"
"Either then or for the New Year;—just for a day or two."
"We shall be gone then, I suppose?" said Nora.
"That must depend on Mr. Trevelyan," said Priscilla.
"What a life for two women to lead;—to depend upon the caprice of a man who must be mad! Do you think that Mr. Trevelyan will care for what your brother says to him?"
"I do not know Mr. Trevelyan."
"He is very fond of your brother, and I suppose men friends do listen to each other. They never seem to listen to women. Don't you think that, after all, they despise women? They look on them as dainty, foolish things."
"Sometimes women despise men," said Priscilla.
"Not very often;—do they? And then women are so dependent on men. A woman can get nothing without a man."
"I manage to get on somehow," said Priscilla.
"No, you don't, Miss Stanbury,—if you think of it. You want mutton. And who kills the sheep?"
"But who cooks it?"
"But the men-cooks are the best," said Nora; "and the men-tailors, and the men to wait at table, and the men-poets, and the men-painters, and the men-nurses. All the things that women do, men do better."
"There are two things they can't do," said Priscilla.
"What are they?"
"They can't suckle babies, and they can't forget themselves."
"About the babies, of course not. As for forgetting themselves,—I am not quite so sure that I can forget myself.—That is just where your brother went down last night."
They had at this moment reached the top of the steep slope below which the river ran brawling among the rocks, and Nora seated herself exactly where she had sat on the previous evening.
"I have been down scores of times," said Priscilla.
"Let us go now."
"You wouldn't go when Hugh asked you yesterday."
"I didn't care then. But do come now,—if you don't mind the climb." Then they went down the slope and reached the spot from whence Hugh Stanbury had jumped from rock to rock across the stream. "You have never been out there, have you?" said Nora.
"On the rocks? Oh, dear, no! I should be sure to fall."
"But he went; just like a goat."
"That's one of the things that men can do, I suppose," said Priscilla. "But I don't see any great glory in being like a goat."
"I do. I should like to be able to go, and I think I'll try. It is so mean to be dainty and weak."
"I don't think it at all dainty to keep dry feet."
"But he didn't get his feet wet," said Nora. "Or if he did, he didn't mind. I can see at once that I should be giddy and tumble down if I tried it."
"Of course you would."
"But he didn't tumble down."
"He has been doing it all his life," said Priscilla.
"He can't do it up in London. When I think of myself, Miss Stanbury, I am so ashamed. There is nothing that I can do. I couldn't write an article for a newspaper."
"I think I could. But I fear no one would read it."
"They read his," said Nora, "or else he wouldn't be paid for writing them." Then they climbed back again up the hill, and during the climbing there were no words spoken. The slope was not much of a hill,—was no more than the fall from the low ground of the valley to the course which the river had cut for itself; but it was steep while it lasted; and both the young women were forced to pause for a minute before they could proceed upon their journey. As they walked home Priscilla spoke of the scenery, and of the country, and of the nature of the life which she and her mother and sister had passed at Nuncombe Putney. Nora said but little till they were just entering the village, and then she went back to the subject of her thoughts. "I would sooner," said she, "write for a newspaper than do anything else in the world."
"Because it is so noble to teach people everything! And then a man who writes for a newspaper must know so many things himself! I believe there are women who do it, but very few. One or two have done it, I know."
"Go and tell that to Aunt Stanbury, and hear what she will say about such women."
"I suppose she is very,—prejudiced."
"Yes; she is; but she is a clever woman. I am inclined to think women had better not write for newspapers."
"And why not?" Nora asked.
"My reasons would take me a week to explain, and I doubt whether I have them very clear in my own head. In the first place there is that difficulty about the babies. Most of them must get married you know."
"But not all," said Nora.
"No; thank God; not all."
"And if you are not married you might write for a newspaper. At any rate, if I were you, I should be very proud of my brother."
"Aunt Stanbury is not at all proud of her nephew," said Priscilla, as they entered the house.