Mrs. Humphry Ward
Part 13 out of 16
And Robert is not to speak to me! No, don't come--I will go alone.'
And warning her sister back, she groped her way upstairs. Inside
her room, when she had locked the door, she stood a moment upright
with the letter in her hand,--the blotted incoherent scrawl, where
Langham had for once forgotten to be literary, where every pitiable
half-finished sentence pleaded with her,--even in the first smart
of her wrong--for pardon, for compassion, as toward something maimed
and paralyzed from birth, unworthy even of her contempt. Then the
tears began to rain over her cheeks.
'I was not good enough,--I was not good enough--God would not let
And she fell on her knees beside the bed, the little bit of paper
crushed in her hands against her lips. Not good enough for what!
How lightly she had dreamed of healing, redeeming, changing! And
the task is refused her. It is not so much the cry of personal
desire that shakes her as she kneels and weeps,--nor is it mere
wounded woman's pride. It is a strange stern sense of law. Had
she been other than she is--more loving, less self-absorbed, loftier
in motive--he could not have loved her so, have left her so. Deep
undeveloped forces of character stir within her. She feels herself
judged,--and with a righteous judgement-issuing inexorably from the
facts of life and circumstance.
Meanwhile Catherine was shut up downstairs with Robert who had come
over early to see how the household fared.
Robert listened to the whole luckless story with astonishment and
dismay. This particular possibility of mischief had gone out of
his mind for some time. He had been busy in his East End work.
Catherine had been silent. Over how many matters they would once
have discussed with open heart was she silent now?
'I ought to have been warned,' he said, with quick decision--'if
you knew this was going on. I am the only man, among you, and I
understand Langham better than the rest of you. I might have looked
after the poor child a little.'
Catherine accepted the reproach mutely as one little smart the more.
However, what had she known? She had seen nothing unusual of late,
nothing to make her think a crisis was approaching. Nay, she had
flattered herself that Mr. Flaxman, whom she liked, was gaining
Meanwhile Robert stood pondering anxiously what could be done.
Could anything be done?
'I must go and see him,' he said presently. 'Yes, dearest, I must.
Impossible the thing should be left so! I am his old friend,--almost
her guardian. You say she is in great trouble--why it may shadow
her whole life! No--he must explain things to us--he is bound
to--he shall. It may be something comparatively trivial in the way
after all--money or prospects or something of the sort. You have
not seen the letter, you say? It is the last marriage in the world
one could have desired for her--but if she loves him, Catherine,
if she loves him----'
He turned to her--appealing, remonstrating. Catherine stood pale
and rigid. Incredible that he should think it right to intermeddle--to
take the smallest step toward reversing so plain a declaration of
God's will! She could not sympathize--she would not consent.
Robert watched her in painful indecision. He knew that she thought
him indifferent to her true reason for finding some comfort even
in her sister's trouble--that he seemed to her mindful only of the
passing human misery, indifferent to the eternal risk.
They stood sadly looking at one another. Then he snatched up his
'I must go,' he said in a low voice; 'it is right.'
And he went--stepping, however, with the best intentions in the
world, into a blunder.
Catherine sat painfully struggling with herself after he had left
her. Then someone came into the room--someone with pale looks and
flashing eyes. It was Agnes.
'She just let me in to tell me, and put me out again,' said the
girl--her whole, even cheerful self one flame of scorn and wrath.
'What are such creatures made for, Catherine--why do they exist?'
Meanwhile, Robert had trudged off through the frosty morning streets
to Langham's lodgings. His mood was very hot by the time he reached
his destination, and he climbed the staircase to Langham's room in
some excitement. When he tried to open the door after the answer
to his knock biding him enter, he found something barring the way.
'Wait a little,' said the voice inside, 'I will move the case.'
With difficulty the obstacle was removed and the door opened.
Seeing his visitor, Langham stood for a moment in sombre astonishment.
The room was littered with books and packing-cases with which he
had been busy.
'Come in,' he said, not offering to shake hands.
Robert shut the door, and, picking his way among the books, stood
leaning on the back of the chair Langham pointed out to him. Langham
paused opposite to him, his waving jet-black hair falling forward
over the marble-pale face which had been Robert's young ideal of
The two men were only six years distant in age, but so strong is
old association, that Robert's feeling toward his friend had always
remained in many respects the feeling of the undergraduate toward
the don. His sense of it now filled him with a curious awkwardness.
'I know why you are come,' said Langham slowly, after a scrutiny
of his visitor.
'I am here by a mere accident,' said the other, thinking perfect
frankness best. 'My wife was present when her sister received your
letter. Rose gave her leave to tell me. I had gone up to ask after
them all, and came on to you,--of course on my own responsibility
entirely! Rose knows nothing of my coming--nothing of what I have
He paused, struck against his will by the looks of the man before
him. Whatever he had done during the past twenty-four hours he had
clearly had the grace to suffer in the doing of it.
'You can have nothing to say!' said Langham, leaning against the
chimney-piece and facing him with black, darkly-burning eyes. 'You
Never had Robert seen him under this aspect. All the despair, all
the bitterness hidden under the languid student's exterior of every
day had, as it were, risen to the surface. He stood at bay, against
his friend, against himself.
'No!' exclaimed Robert, stoutly, 'I do not know you in the sense
you mean. I do not know you as the man who could beguile a girl
on to a confession of love, and then tell her that for you marriage
was too great a burden to be faced!'
Langham started, and then closed his lips in an iron silence.
Robert repented him a little. Langham's strange individuality
always impressed him against his will.
'I did not come simply to reproach you, Langham,' he went on, 'though
I confess to being very hot! I came to try and find out--for myself
only, mind--whether what prevents you from following up what I
understand happened last night is really a matter of feeling, or a
matter of outward circumstance. If, upon reflection, you find that
your feeling for Rose is not what you imagined it to be, I shall
have my own opinion about your conduct:--but I shall be the first
to acquiesce in what you have done this morning. If, on the other
hand, you are simply afraid of yourself in harness, and afraid of
the responsibilities of practical married life, I cannot help be
begging you to talk the matter over with me, and let us face it
together. Whether Rose would ever, under any circumstances, got
over the shock of this morning--I have not the remotest idea.
But--' and he hesitated, 'it seems the feeling you appealed to
yesterday has been of long growth. You know perfectly well what
havoc a thing of this kind may make in a girl's life. I don't say
it will. But, at any rate, it is all so desperately serious I could
not hold my hand. I am doing what is no doubt wholly unconventional;
but I am your friend and her brother; I brought you together, and
I ask you to take me into counsel. If you had but done it before!'
There was a moment's dead silence.
'You cannot pretend to believe,' said Langham, at last, with the
same sombre self-containedness, 'that a marriage with me would be
for your sister-in-law's happiness?'
'I don't know what to believe!' cried Robert. 'No,' he added
frankly, 'no; when I saw you first attracted by Rose at Murewell I
disliked the idea heartily; I was glad to see you separated; _a
priori_, I never thought you suited to each other. But reasoning
that holds good when a thing is wholly in the air, looks very
different when a man has committed himself and another, as you have
Langham surveyed him for a moment, then shook his hair impatiently
from his eyes and rose from his bending position by the fire.
'Elsmere, there is nothing to be said! I have behaved as vilely
as you please. I have forfeited your friendship. But I should be
an even greater fiend and weakling than you think me, if, in cold
blood, I could let your sister run the risk of marrying me. I could
not trust myself--you may think of the statement as you like--I
should make her _miserable_. Last night I had not parted from her
an hour, before I was utterly and irrevocably sure of it. My habits
are any masters. I believe,'--he added slowly, his eyes fixed
weirdly on something beyond Robert, 'I could even grow to _hate_
what came between me and them!'
Was it the last word of the man's life? It struck Robert with a
kind of shiver.
'Pray heaven,' he said with a groan, getting up to go, you may not
have made her miserable already!'
'Did it hurt her so much?' asked Langham, almost inaudibly, turning
away, Robert's tone meanwhile calling up a new and scorching image
in the subtle brain tissue.
'I have not seen her,' said Robert abruptly; 'but when I came in,
I found my wife--who has no light tears--weeping for her sister.'
His voice dropped as though what he were saying were in truth too
pitiful and too intimate for speech.
Langham said no more. His face had become a marble mask again.
'Good-by!' said Robert, taking up his hat with a dismal sense of
having got foolishly through a fool's errand. 'As I said to you
before, what Rose's feeling is at this moment I cannot even guess.
Very likely she would be the first to repudiate half of what I
have been saying. And I see that you will not talk to me--you will
not take me into your confidence and speak to me not only as her
brother but as your friend. And--and--are you going? What does
He looked interrogatively at the open packing-cases.
'I am going back to Oxford,' said the other briefly. 'I cannot
stay in these rooms, in these streets.'
Robert was sore perplexed. What real--nay, what terrible suffering--in
the face and manner, and yet how futile, how needless! He felt
himself wrestling with something intangible and phantom-like, wholly
unsubstantial, and yet endowed with a ghastly indefinite power over
'It is very hard--' he said hurriedly, moving nearer--'that our old
friendship should be crossed like this. Do trust me a little! You
are always undervaluing yourself. Why not take a friend into council
sometimes when you sit in judgment on yourself and your possibilities?
Your own perceptions are all warped!'
Langham, looking at him, thought his smile one of the most beautiful
and one of the most irrelevant things he had ever seen.
'I will write to you, Elsmere,' he said, holding out his hand,
'speech is impossible to me. I never had any words except through
Robert gave it up. In another minute Langham was left alone.
But he did no more packing for hours. He spent the day sitting
dumb and immovable in his chair. Imagination was at work again
more feverishly than ever. He was tortured by a fixed image of
Rose, suffering and paling.
And after a certain number of hours he could no more bear the incubus
of this thought than he could put up with the flat prospects of
married life the night before. He was all at sea, barely sane, in
fact. His life had been so long purely intellectual, that this
sudden strain of passion and fierce practical interests seemed to
unhinge him, to destroy his mental balance.
He bethought him. This afternoon he knew she had a last rehearsal
at Searle House. Afterward her custom was to come back from St.
James's Park to High Street, Kensington, and walk up the hill to
her own home. He knew it, for on two occasions after these rehearsals
he had been at Lerwick Gardens, waiting for her, with Agnes and
Mrs. Leyburn. Would she go this afternoon? A subtle instinct told
him that she would.
It was nearly six o'clock that evening when Rose, stepping out from
the High Street station, crossed the main road and passed into the
darkness of one of the streets leading up the hill. She had forced
herself to go and she would go alone. But as she toiled along she
felt weary and bruised all over. She carried with her a heart of
lead--a sense of utter soreness--a longing to hide herself from
eyes and tongues. The only thing that dwelt softly in the shaken
mind was a sort of inconsequent memory of Mr. Flaxman's manner at
the rehearsal. Had she looked so ill? She flushed hotly at the
thought, and then realized again, with a sense of childish comfort,
the kind look and voice, the delicate care shown in shielding her
from any unnecessary exertion, the brotherly grasp of the hand with
which he had put her into the cab that took her to the Underground.
Suddenly, where the road made a dark turn to the right, she saw a
man standing. As she came nearer she saw that it was Langham.
'You!' she cried, stopping.
He came up to her. There was a light over the doorway of a largo
detached, house not far off, which threw a certain illumination
over him, though it left her in the shadow. He said nothing, but
he held out both his hands mutely. She fancied rather than saw the
pale emotion of his look.
'What?' she said, after a pause. 'You think to-night is last night!
You and I have nothing to say to each other, Mr. Langham.'
'I have every thing to say,' he answered, under his breath; 'I
have committed a crime--a villainy.'
'And it is not pleasant to you?' she said, quivering. 'I am sorry--I
cannot help you. But you are wrong--it was no crime--it was necessary
and profitable like the doses of one's childhood! Oh! I might
have guessed you would do this! No, Mr. Langham, I am in no danger
of an interesting decline. I have just played my concerto very
fairly. I shall not disgrace myself at the concert to-morrow night.
You may be at peace--I have learnt several things to-day that have
been salutary--very salutary.'
She paused. He walked beside her while she pelted him--unresisting,
'Don't come any farther,' she said resolutely after a minute, turning
to face him. 'Let us be quits! I was a tempting easy prey. I
bear you no malice. And do not let me break your friendship with
Robert; that began before this foolish business--it should outlast
it. Very likely _we_ shall be friends again, like ordinary people,
some day. I do not imagine your wound is very deep, and----'
But no! Her lips closed; not even for pride's sake, and retort's
sake, will she desecrate the past, belittle her own first love.
She held out her hand. It was very dark. He could see nothing
among her furs but the gleaming whiteness of her face. The whole
personality seemed centred in the voice--the half-mocking, vibrating
voice. He took her hand and dropped it instantly.
'You do not understand,' he said, hopelessly--feeling as though
every phrase he uttered, or could utter, were equally fatuous,
equally shameful. 'Thank heaven you never will understand.'
'I think I do,' she said with a change of tone, and paused. He
raised his eyes involuntarily, met hers, and stood bewildered.
What _was_ the expression in them? It was yearning--but not the
yearning of passion. 'If things had been different--if one could
change the self--if the past were nobler!--was that the cry of
them? A painful humility--a boundless pity--the rise of some moral
wave within her he could neither measure nor explain--these were
some of the impressions which passed from her to him. A fresh gulf
opened between them, and he saw her transformed on the farther side,
with, as it were, a loftier gesture, a nobler stature, than had
ever yet been hers.
He bent forward quickly, caught her hands, held them for an instant
to his lips in a convulsive grasp, dropped them, and was gone.
He gained his own room again. There lay the medley of his books,
his only friends, his real passion. Why had he ever tampered with
'_It was not love--not love!_' he said to himself, with an accent
of infinite relief as he sank into his chair. '_Her_ smart will
Ten days after Langham's return to Oxford, Elsmere received a
characteristic letter from him, asking whether their friendship was
to be considered as still existing or at an end. The calm and even
proud melancholy of the letter showed a considerable subsidence of
that state of half-frenzied irritation and discomfort in which
Elsmere had last seen him. The writer, indeed, was clearly settling
down into another period of pessimistic quietism such as that which
had followed upon his first young efforts at self-assertion years
before. But this second period bore the marks of an even profounder
depression of all the vital forces than the first, and as Elsmere,
with a deep sigh, half-angry, half-relenting, put down the letter,
he felt the conviction that no fresh influence from the outside
world would ever again be allowed to penetrate the solitude of
Langham's life. In comparison with the man who had just addressed
him, the tutor of his undergraduate recollections was a vigorous
and sociable human being.
The relenting grew upon him, and he wrote a sensible, affectionate
letter in return. Whatever had been his natural feelings of
resentment, he said, he could not realize, now that the crisis was
past, that he cared less about his old friend. 'As far as we two
are concerned, lot us forget it all. I could hardly say this, you
will easily imagine, if I thought you had done serious or irreparable
harm. But both my wife and I agree now in thinking that by a pure
accident, as it were, and to her own surprise, Rose has escaped
either. It will be some time, no doubt, before she will admit it.
A girl is not so easily disloyal to her past. But to us it is
tolerably clear. At any rate, I send you our opinion for what it
is worth, believing that it will and must be welcome to you.'
Rose, however was not so long in admitting it. One marked result
of that now vulnerableness of soul produced in her by the shock of
that February morning was a great softening toward Catherine.
Whatever might have been Catherine's intense relief when Robert
returned from his abortive mission, she never afterward let a
disparaging word toward Langham escape her lips to Rose. She was
tenderness and sympathy itself, and Rose, in her curious reaction
against her old self, and against the noisy world of flattery and
excitement in which she had been living, turned to Catherine as she
had never done since she was a tiny child. She would spend hours
in a corner of the Bedford Square drawing-room pretending to read,
or play with little Mary, in reality recovering, like some bruised
and trodden plant, under the healing influence of thought and
One day when they were alone in the firelight, she startled Catherine
by saying with one of her old, odd smiles,--
'Do you know, Cathie, how I always see myself nowadays? It is a
sort of hullucination. I see a girl at the foot of a precipice.
She has had a fall, and she is sitting up, feeling all her limbs.
And, to her great astonishment, there is no bone broken!'
And she held herself back from Catherine's knee lest her sister
should attempt to caress her, her eyes bright and calm. Nor would
she allow an answer, drowning all that Catherine might have said
in a sudden rush after the child, who was wandering round them in
search of a playfellow.
In truth, Rose Leyburn's girlish passion for Edward Langham had
been a kind of accident unrelated to the main forces of character.
He had crossed her path in a moment of discontent, of aimless
revolt and lounging when she was but fresh emerged from the cramping
conditions of her childhood and trembling on the brink of new and
unknown activities. His intellectual prestige, his melancholy, his
personal beauty, his very strangenesses and weaknesses, had made a
deep impression on the girl's immature romantic sense. His resistance
had increased the charm, and the interval of angry, resentful
separation had done nothing to weaken it. As to the months in
London, they had been one long duel between herself and him--a duel
which had all the fascination of difficulty and uncertainty, but
in which pride and caprice had dealt and sustained a large portion
of the blows. Then, after a moment of intoxicating victory, Langham's
endangered habits and threatened individuality had asserted themselves
once for all. And from the whole long struggle--passion, exultation,
and crushing defeat--it often seemed to her that she had gained
neither joy nor irreparable grief, but a new birth of character, a
It may easily be imagined that Hugh Flaxman felt a peculiarly keen
interest in Langham's disappearance. On the afternoon of the Searle
House rehearsal he had awaited Rose's coming in a state of extraordinary
irritation. He expected a blushing _fiancee_, in a fool's paradise,
asking by manner, if not by word, for his congratulations, and
taking a decent feminine pleasure perhaps in the pang she might
suspect in him. And he had already taken his pleasure in the
planning of some double-edged congratulations.
Then up the steps of the concert platform there came a pale, tired
girl who seemed specially to avoid his look, who found a quiet
corner and said hardly a word to anybody till her turn came to play.
His revulsion of feeling was complete. After her piece he made his
way up to her, and was her watchful, unobtrusive guardian for the
rest of the afternoon.
He walked home after he had put her into her cab in a whirl of
'As compared to last night, she looks this afternoon as if she had
had an illness! What on earth has that philandering ass been about?
If he did not propose to her last night, he ought to be shot--and
if he did, _a fortiori_, for clearly she is _miserable_. But what
a brave child! How she played her part! I wonder whether she
thinks that _I_ saw nothing, like all the rest! Poor little cold
Next day in the street he met Elsmere, turned and walked with him,
and by dint of leading the conversation a little discovered that
Langham had left London.
Gone! But not without a crisis--that was evident. During the din
of preparation for the Searle House concert, and during the meetings
which it entailed, now at the Varleys', now at the house of some
other connection of his--for the concert was the work of his friends,
and given in the town house of his decrepit great-uncle, Lord
Daniel--he had many opportunities of observing Rose. And he felt
a soft, indefinable change in her which kept him in a perpetual
answering vibration of sympathy and curiosity. She seemed to him
for the moment to have lost her passionate relish for living, that
relish which had always been so marked with her. Her bubble of
social pleasure was pricked. She did everything she had to do, and
did it admirably. But all through she was to his fancy absent and
_distraite_, pursuing, through the tumult of which she was often
the central figure, some inner meditations of which neither he or
anyone else knew anything. Some eclipse had passed over the girl's
light, self-satisfied temper; some searching thrill of experience
had gone through the whole nature. She had suffered, and she was
quietly fighting down her suffering without a word to anybody.
Flaxman's guesses as to what had happened came often very near the
truth, and the mixture of indignation and relief with which he
received his own conjectures amused himself.
'To think,' he said to himself once with a long breath 'that that
creature was never at a public school, and will go to his death
without any one of the kickings due to him!'
Then his very next impulse, perhaps, would be an impulse of gratitude
toward this same 'creature,' toward the man who had released a prize
he had had the tardy sense to see was not meant for him. _Free_
again--to be loved, to be won! There was the fact of facts after
His own future policy, however, gave him much anxious thought.
Clearly at present the one thing to be done was to keep his own
ambitions carefully out of sight. He had the skill to see that she
was in a state of reaction, of moral and mental fatigue. What she
mutely seemed to ask of her friends was not to be made to feel.
He took his cue accordingly. He talked to his sister. He kept
Lady Charlotte in order. After all her eager expectation on Hugh's
behalf, Lady Helen had been dumfounded by the sudden emergence of
Langham at Lady Charlotte's party for their common discomfiture.
Who was the man?--why?--what did it all mean? Hugh had the most
provoking way of giving you half his confidence. To tell you he
was seriously in love, and to omit to add the trifling item that
the girl in question was probably on the point of engaging herself
to somebody else! Lady Helen made believe to be angry, and it was
not till she had reduced Hugh to a whimsical penitence and a full
confession of all he knew or suspected, that she consented, with
as much loftiness as the physique of an elf allowed her, to be his
good friend again, and to play those cards for him which at the
moment he could not play for himself.
So in the cheeriest, daintiest way Rose was made much of by both
brother and sister. Lady Helen chatted of gowns and music and
people, whisked Rose and Agnes off to this party and that, brought
fruit and flowers to Mrs. Leyburn, made pretty deferential love to
Catherine, and generally, to Mrs. Pierson's disgust, became the
girls' chief chaperon in a fast filling London. Meanwhile, Mr.
Flaxman was always there to befriend or amuse his sister's
_protegees_--always there, but never in the way. He was bantering,
sympathetic, critical, laudatory, what you will; but all the time
he preserved a delicate distance between himself and Rose, a bright
nonchalance and impersonality of tone toward her which made his
companionship a perpetual tonic. And, between them, he and Helen
coerced Lady Charlotte. A few inconvenient inquiries after Rose's
health, a few unexplained stares and 'humphs' and grunts, a few
irrelevant disquisitions on her nephew's merits of head and heart,
were all she was able to allow herself. And yet she was inwardly
seething with a mass of sentiments, to which it would have been
pleasant to give expression--anger with Rose for having been so
blind and so presumptuous as to prefer some one else to Hugh; terror
with Hugh for his persistent disregard of her advice and the Duke's
feelings; and a burning desire to know the precise why and wherefore
of Langham's disappearance. She was too lofty to become Rose's
aunt without a struggle, but she was not too lofty to feel the
hungriest interest in her love affairs.
But, as we have said, the person who for the time profited most by
Rose's shaken mood was Catherine. The girl coming over, restless
under her own smart, would fall to watching the trial of the woman
and the wife, and would often perforce forget herself and her smaller
woes in the pity of it. She stayed in Bedford Square once for a
week, and then for the first time she realized the profound change
which had passed over the Elsmeres' life. As much tenderness between
husband and wife as ever--perhaps more expression of it even than
before, as though from an instinctive craving to hide the separateness
below from each other and from the world. But Robert went his way,
Catherine hers. Their spheres of work lay far apart; their interests
were diverging fast; and though Robert at any rate was perpetually
resisting, all sorts of fresh invading silences were always coming
in to limit talk, and increase the number of sore points which each
avoided. Robert was hard at work in the East End. under Murray
Edwardes' auspices. He was already known to certain circles as a
seceder from the Church who was likely to become both powerful and
popular. Two articles of his in the 'Nineteenth Century,' on
disputed points of Biblical criticism, had distinctly made their
mark, and several of the veterans of philosophical debate had already
taken friendly and flattering notice of the new writer. Meanwhile
Catherine was teaching in Mr. Clarendon's Sunday-school, and attending
his prayer-meetings. The more expansive Robert's energies became,
the more she suffered, and the more the small daily opportunities
for friction multiplied. Soon she could hardly bear to hear him
talk about his work, and she never opened the number of the 'Nineteenth
Century' which contained his papers. Nor had he the heart to ask
her to read them.
Murray Edwardes had received Elsmere, on his first appearance in
R----, with a cordiality and a helpfulness of the most self-effacing
kind. Robert had begun with assuring his new friend that he saw
no chance, at any rate for the present, of his formally joining the
'I have not the heart to pledge myself again just yet! And I own
I look rather for a combination from many sides than for the
development of any now existing sect. But, supposing,' he added,
smiling, 'supposing I do in time set up a congregation and a service
of my own, is there really room for you and me? Should I not be
infringing on a work I respect a great deal too much for anything
of the sort?'
Edwardes laughed the notion to scorn.
The parish, as a whole, contained 20,000 persons. The existing
churches, which, with the exception of St. Wilfrid's, were miserably
attended, provided accommodation at the out-side for 3,000. His
own chapel held 4OO, and was about half full.
'You and I may drop our lives here,' he said, his pleasant friendliness
darkened for a moment by the look of melancholy which London work
seems to develop even in the most buoyant of men, 'and only a few
hundred persons, at the most, be ever the wiser. Begin with us--then
make your own circle.'
And he forthwith carried off his visitor to the point from which,
as it seemed to him, Elsmere's work might start, viz., a lecture-room
half a mile from his own chapel, where two helpers of his had just
established an independent venture.
Murray Edwardes had at the time an interesting and miscellaneous
staff of lay-curates. He asked no questions as to religious opinions,
but in general the men who volunteered under him--civil servants,
a young doctor, a briefless barrister or two--were men who had
drifted from received beliefs, and found pleasure and freedom in
working for and with him they could hardly have found elsewhere.
The two who had planted their outpost in what seemed to them a
particularly promising corner of the district were men of whom
Edwardes knew personally little. 'I have really not much concern
with what they do,' he explained to Elsmere, 'except that they got
a small share of our funds. But I know they want help, and if they
will take you in, I think you will make something of it.'
After a tramp through the muddy winter streets, they came upon a
new block of warehouses, in the lower windows of which some bills
announced a night-school for boys and men. Here, to judge from the
commotion round the doors, a lively scene was going on. Outside,
a gang of young roughs were hammering at the doors, and shrieking
witticisms through the keyhole. Inside, as soon as Murray Edwardes
and Elsmere, by dint of good humor and strong shoulders, had succeeded
in shoving their way through and shutting the door behind them,
they found a still more animated performance in progress. The
schoolroom was in almost total darkness; the pupils, some twenty
in number, were racing about, like so many shadowy demons, pelting
each other and their teachers with the 'dips' which, as the buildings
were new, and not yet fitted for gas, had been provided to light
them through their three R's. In the middle stood the two
philanthropists they were in search of, freely bedaubed with tallow,
one employed in boxing a boy's ears, the other in saving a huge
ink-bottle whereon some enterprising spirit had just laid hands by
way of varying the rebel ammunition. Murray Edwardes, who was in
his element, went to the rescue at once, helped by Robert. The
boy-minister, as he looked, had been, in fact, 'bow' of the Cambridge
eight, and possessed muscles which men twice his size might have
envied. In three minutes he had put a couple of ringleaders into
the street by the scruff of the neck, relit a lamp which had been
turned out, and got the rest of the rioters in hand. Elsmere backed
him ably, and in a very short time they had cleared the premises.
Then the four looked at each other, and Edwardes went off into a
shout of laughter.
'My dear Wardlaw, my condolences to your coat! But I don't believe
if I were a rough myself I could resist "dips." Let me introduce
a friend--Mr. Elsmere--and if you will have him, a recruit for your
work. It seems to me another pair of arms will hardly come amiss
The short red-haired man addressed shook hands with Elsmere,
scrutinizing him from under bushy eyebrows. He was panting and
beplastered with tallow, but the inner man was evidently quite
unruffled, and Elsmere liked the shrewd Scotch face and gray eyes.
'It isn't only a pair of arms we want,' he remarked dryly, 'but a
bit of science behind them. Mr. Elsmere, I observed, can use his.'
Then he turned to a tall, affected-looking youth with a large nose
and long fair hair, who stood gasping with his hands upon his sides,
his eyes, full of a moody wrath, fixed on the wreck and disarray
of the schoolroom.
'Well, Mackay, have they knocked the wind out of you? My friend
and helper,--Mr. Elsmere. Come and sit down, won't you, a minute?
They've left us the chairs, I perceive, and there's a spark or two
of fire. Do you smoke? Will you light up?'
The four men sat on chatting some time, and then Wardlaw and Elsmere
walked home together. It had been all arranged. Mackay, a curious,
morbid fellow, who had thrown himself into Unitarianism and charity
mainly out of opposition to an orthodox and bourgeois family, and
who had a great idea of his own social powers, was somewhat grudging
and ungracious through it all. But Elsmere's proposals were much
too good to be refused. He offered to bring to the undertaking his
time, his clergyman's experience, and as much money as might be
wanted. Wardlaw listened to him cautiously for an hour, took stock
of the whole man physically and morally, and finally said, as he
very quietly and deliberately knocked the ashes out of his pipe,--
'All right, I'm your man, Mr. Elsmere. If Mackay agrees, I vote we
make you captain of this venture.'
'Nothing of the sort,' said Elsmere. 'In London I am a novice; I
come to learn, not to lead.'
Wardlaw shook his head with a little shrewd smile. Mackay faintly
endorsed his companion's offer, and the party broke up.
That was in January. In two months from that time, by the natural
force of things, Elsmere, in spite of diffidence and his own most
sincere wish to avoid a premature leadership, had become the head
and heart of the Elgood Street undertaking, which had already assumed
much larger proportions. Wardlaw was giving him silent approval
and invaluable help, while young Mackay was in the first uncomfortable
stages of a hero-worship which promised to be exceedingly good for
There were one or two curious points connected with the beginnings
of Elsmere's venture in North R---- one of which may just be noticed
here. Wardlaw, his predecessor and colleague, had speculatively
little or nothing in common with Elsmere or Murray Edwardes. He
was a devoted and Orthodox Comtist, for whom Edwardes had provided
an outlet for the philanthropic passion, as he had for many others
belonging to far stranger and remoter faiths.
By profession, he was a barrister, with a small and struggling
practice. On ibis practice, however, he had married, and his wife,
who had been a doctor's daughter and a national schoolmistress, had
the same ardors as himself. They lived in one of the dismal little
squares near the Goswell Road, and had two children. The wife, as
a Positivist mother is bound to do, tended and taught her children
entirely herself. She might have been seen any day wheeling their
perambulator through the dreary streets of a dreary region; she was
their Providence, their deity, the representative to them of all
tenderness and all authority. But when her work with them was done,
she would throw herself into charity organization cases, into efforts
for the protection of workhouse servants, into the homeliest acts
of ministry toward the sick, till her dowdy little figure and her
face, which but for the stress of London, of labor, and of poverty,
would have had a blunt fresh-colored dairymaid's charm, became
symbols of a divine and sacred helpfulness in the eyes of hundreds
of straining men and women.
The husband also, after a day spent in chambers, would give his
evenings to teaching or committee work. They never allowed themselves
to breathe even to each other that life might have brighter things
to show them than the neighborhood of the Goswell Road. There was
a certain narrowness in their devotion; they had their bitternesses
and ignorances like other people; but the more Robert knew of them
the more profound became his admiration for that potent spirit of
social help which in our generation Comtism has done so much to
develop, even among those of us who are but moderately influenced
by Comte's philosophy, and can make nothing of the religion of
Wardlaw has no large part in the story of Elsmere's work in North
R----. In spite of Robert's efforts, and against his will, the man
of meaner gifts and commoner clay was eclipsed by that brilliant
and persuasive something in Elsmere which a kind genius had infused
into him at birth. And we shall see that in time Robert's energies
took a direction which Wardlaw could not follow with any heartiness.
But at the beginning Elsmere owed him much, and it was a debt he
was never tired of honoring.
In the fast place, Wardlaw's choice of the Elgood Street room as a
fresh centre for civilizing effort had been extremely shrewd. The
district lying about it, as Robert soon came to know, contained a
number of promising elements.
Close by the dingy street which sheltered their school-room, rose
the great pile of a new factory of artistic pottery, a rival on the
north side of the river to Doulton's immense works on the south.
The old winding streets near it, and the blocks of workman's dwellings
recently erected under its shadow, were largely occupied by the
workers in its innumerable floors, and among these workers was a
large proportion of skilled artisans, men often of a considerable
amount of cultivation, earning high wages, and maintaining a high
standard of comfort. A great many of them, trained in the art
school which Murray Edwardes had been largely instrumental in
establishing within easy distance of their houses, were men of
genuine artistic gifts and accomplishment, and as the development
of one faculty tends on the whole to set others working, when Robert,
after a few weeks' work in the place, set up a popular historical
lecture once a fortnight, announcing the fact by a blue and white
poster in the school-room windows, it was the potters who provided
him with his first hearers.
The rest of the parish was divided between a population of dock
laborers, settled there to supply the needs of the great dock which
ran up into the south-eastern corner of it, two or three huge
breweries, and a colony of watchmakers, an offshoot of Clerkenwell,
who lived together in two or three streets, and showed the same
peculiarities of race and specialized training to be noticed in the
more northerly settlement from which they had been thrown off like
a swarm from a hive. Outside these well-defined trades there was,
of course, a warehouse population, and a mass of heterogeneous
cadging and catering which went on chiefly in the river-side streets
at the other side of the parish from Elgood Street, in the neighborhood
of St. Wilfrid's.
St. Wilfrid's at this moment seemed to Robert to be doing a very
successful work among the lowest strata of the parish. From them
at one end of the scale, and from the innumerable clerks and
superintendents who during the daytime crowded the vast warehouses,
of which the district was full, its Lenten congregations, now in
full activity, were chiefly drawn.
The Protestant opposition, which had shown itself so brutally and
persistently in old days, was now, so far as outward manifestations
went, all but extinct. The cassocked monk-like clergy might preach
and 'process' in the open air as much as they pleased. The populace,
where it was not indifferent, was friendly, and devoted living had
borne its natural fruits.
A small incident, which need not be recorded, recalled to Elsmere's
mind--after he had been working some six weeks in the district--the
forgotten unwelcome fact that St. Wilfrid's was the very church
where Newcome, first as senior curate and then as vicar, had spent
those ten wonderful years into which Elsmere at Murewell had been
never tired of inquiring. The thought of Newcome was a very sore
thought. Elsmere had written to him announcing his resignation of
his living immediately after his interview with the Bishop. The
letter had remained unanswered, and it was by now tolerably clear
that the silence of its recipient meant a withdrawal from all
friendly relations with the writer. Elsmere's affectionate, sensitive
nature took such things hardly, especially as he knew that Newcome's
life was becoming increasingly difficult end embittered. And it
gave him now a fresh pang to imagine how Newcome would receive the
news of his quondam friend's 'infidel propaganda,' established on
the very ground where he himself had all but died for those beliefs
Elsmere had thrown over.
But Robert was learning a certain hardness in this London life which
was not without its uses to character. Hitherto he had always swum
with the stream, cheered by the support of all the great and
prevailing English traditions. Here, he and his few friends were
fighting a solitary fight apart from the organized system of English
religion and English philanthropy. All the elements of culture and
religion already existing in the place were against them. The
clergy of St. Wilfrid's passed there with cold averted eyes; the
old and _faineant_ rector of the parish church very soon let it be
known what he thought as to the taste of Elsmere's intrusion on his
parish, or as to the eternal chances of those who might take either
him or Edwardes as guides in matters religious. His enmity did
Elgood Street no harm, and the pretensions of the Church, in this
Babel of 20,000 souls, to cover the whole field, bore clearly no
relation at all to the facts. But every little incident in this
new struggle of his life cost Elsmere more perhaps than it would
have cost other men. No part of it came easily to him. Only a
high Utopian vision drove him on from day to day, bracing him to
act and judge, if need be, alone and for himself, approved only by
conscience and the inward voice.
Tasks in Hours of insight willed
Can be in Hours of gloom fulfilled;
and it was that moment by the river which worked in him through all
the prosaic and perplexing details of this hew attempt to carry
enthusiasm into life.
It was soon plain to him that in this teeming section of London the
chance of the religious reformer lay entirely among the _upper
working class_. In London, at any rate, all that is most prosperous
and intelligent among the working class holds itself aloof--broadly
speaking--from all existing spiritual agencies, whether of Church
Upon the genuine London artisan the Church has practically no hold
whatever; and Dissent has nothing like the hold which it has on
similar material in the great towns of the North. Toward religion
in general the prevailing attitude is, one of indifference tinged
with hostility. 'Eight hundred thousand people in South London,
of whom the enormous proportion belong to the working class, and
among them, Church and Dissent nowhere--_Christianity not in
possession_. Such is the estimate of an Evangelical of our day; and
similar laments come from all parts of the capital. The Londoner
is on the whole more conceited, more prejudiced, more given over
to crude theorizing, than his North-country brother, the mill-hand,
whose mere position, as one of a homogeneous and tolerably constant
body, subjects him to a continuous discipline of intercourse and
discussion. Our popular religion, broadly speaking, means nothing
to him. He is sharp enough to see through its contradictions and
absurdities; he has no dread of losing what he never valued; his
sense of antiquity, of history, is nil; and his life supplies him
with excitement enough without the stimulants of 'other-worldliness.'
Religion has been on the whole irrationally presented to him, and
the result on his part has been an irrational breach with the whole
moral and religious order of ideas.
But the race is quick-witted and imaginative. The Greek cities
which welcomed and spread Christianity carried within them much the
same elements as are supplied by certain sections of the London
working class-elements of restlessness, of sensibility, of passion.
The more intermingling of races, which a modern city shares with
those old towns of Asia Minor, predisposes the mind to a greater
openness and receptiveness, whether for good or evil.
As the weeks passed on, and after the first inevitable despondency
produced by strange surroundings and an unwonted isolation had begun
to wear off; Robert often found himself filled with a strange flame
and ardor of hope! But his first steps had nothing to do with
Religion. He made himself quickly felt in the night school, and
as soon as he possibly could he hired a large room at the back of
their existing room, on the same floor, where, on the recreation
evenings, he might begin the storytelling which had been so great
a success at Murewell. The story-telling struck the neighborhood
as a great novelty. At first only a few youths straggled in from
the front room, where dominoes and draughts and the illustrated
papers held seductive sway. The next night the number was increased,
and by the fourth or fifth evening the room was so well filled both
by boys and a large contingent of artisans, that it seemed well to
appoint a special evening in the week for story-telling, or the
recreation room would have been deserted.
In these performances Elsmere's aim had always been two-fold--the
rousing of moral sympathy and the awakening of the imaginative power
pure and simple. He ranged the whole world for stories. Sometimes
it would be merely some feature of London life itself--the history
of a great fire, for instance, and its hairbreadth escapes; a
collision in the river; a string of instances as true and homely
and realistic as they could be made of the way in which the poor
help one another. Sometimes it would be stories illustrating the
dangers and difficulties of particular trades--a colliery explosion
and the daring of the rescuers; incidents from the life of the great
Northern iron-works, or from that of the Lancashire factories; or
stories of English country life and its humors, given sometimes in
dialect--Devonshire, or Yorkshire, or Cumberland--for which he had
a special gift. Or, again, he would take the sea and its terrors--the
immortal story of the 'Birkenhead;' the deadly plunge of the
'Captain;' the records of the lifeboats, or the fascinating story
of the ships of science, exploring step by step, through miles of
water, the past, the inhabitants, the hills and valleys of that
underworld, that vast Atlantic bed, in which Mount Blanc might be
buried without showing even his top-most snow-field above the plain
of waves. Then at other times it would be the simple frolic and
fancy of fiction--fairy tale and legend, Greek myth or Icelandic
saga, episodes from Walter Scott, from Cooper, from Dumas; to be
followed perhaps on the next evening by the terse and vigorous
biography of some man of the people--of Stephenson or Cobden, of
Thomas Cooper or John Bright, or even of Thomas Carlyle.
One evening, some weeks after it had begun, Hugh Flaxman, hearing
from Rose of the success of the experiment, went down to hear his
new acquaintance tell the story of Monte Cristo's escape from the
Chateau d'If. He started an hour earlier than was necessary, and
with an admirable impartiality he spent that hour at St. Wilfrid's
hearing vespers. Flaxman had a passion for intellectual or social
novelty; and this passion was beguiling him into a close observation
of Elsmere. At the same time he was crossed and complicated by all
sorts of fastidious conservative fibres, and when his friends talked
rationalism, it often gave him a vehement pleasure to maintain that
a good Catholic or Ritualist service was worth all their arguments,
and would outlast them. His taste drew him to the Church, so did
a love of opposition to current 'isms.' Bishops counted on him for
subscriptions, and High Church divines sent him their pamphlets.
He never refused the subscriptions, but it should be added that
with equal regularity _he_ dropped the pamphlets into his waste-paper
basket. Altogether a not very decipherable person in religious
matters--as Rose had already discovered.
The change from the dim and perfumed spaces of St. Wilfrid's to the
bare warehouse room with its packed rows of listeners was striking
enough. Here were no bowed figures, no _recueillement_. In the
blaze of crude light every eager eye was fixed upon the slight
elastic figure on the platform, each change in the expressive face,
each gesture of the long arms and thin flexible hands, finding its
response in the laughter, the attentive silence, the frowning
suspense of the audience. At one point a band of young roughs at
the back made a disturbance, but their neighbors had the offenders
quelled and out in a twinkling, and the room cried out for a
repetition of the sentences which had been lost in the noise. When
Dantes, opening his knife with his teeth, managed to out the strings
of the sack, a gasp of relief ran through the crowd; when at last
he reached _terra firma_ there was a ringing cheer.
'What is he, d'ye know?' Flaxman heard a mechanic ask his neighbor,
as Robert paused for a moment to get breath, the man jerking a grimy
thumb in the story-teller's direction meanwhile. 'Seems like a
parson somehow. But he ain't a parson.'
'Not he,' said the other laconically. 'Knows better. Most of 'em
as comes down 'ere stuffs all they have to say as full of goody-goody
as an egg's full of meat. If he wur that sort you wouldn't catch
_me_ here. Never heard him say anything in the "dear brethren"
sort of style, and I've been 'ere most o' these evenings and to his
'Perhaps he's one of your d--d sly ones,' said the first speaker
dubiously. 'Means to shovel it in by-and-by.'
'Well, I don't know as I couldn't stand it if he did,' returned his
companion. 'He'd let other fellows have their say, anyhow.'
Flaxman looked curiously at the speaker. He was a young man, a
gas-fitter--to judge by the contents of the basket he seemed to
have brought in with him on his way from work--with eyes like live
birds, and small emaciated features. During the story Flaxman had
noticed the man's thin begrimed hand, as it rested on the bench in
front of him, trembling with excitement.
Another project of Robert's, started as soon as he had felt his way
a little in the district, was the scientific Sunday-school. This
was the direct result of a paragraph in Huxley's Lay Sermons, where
the hint of such a school was first thrown out. However, since the
introduction of science teaching into the Board schools, the novelty
and necessity of such a supplement to a child's ordinary education
is not what it was. Robert set it up mainly for the sake of drawing
the boys out of the streets in the afternoons, and providing them
with some other food for fancy and delight than larking and smoking
and penny dreadfuls. A little simple chemical and electrical
experiment went down greatly; so did a botany class, to which Elsmere
would come armed with two stores of flowers, one to be picked to
pieces, the other to be distributed according to memory and attention.
A year before he had had a number of large colored plates of
tropical fruit and flowers prepared for him by a Kew assistant.
Those he would often set up on a large screen, or put up on the
walls, till the dingy school-room became a bower of superb blossom
and luxuriant leaf, a glow of red and purple and orange. And
then--still by the help of pictures--he would take his class on a
tour through strange lands, talking to them of China or Egypt or
South America, till they followed him up the Amazon, or into the
pyramids or through the Pampas, or into the mysterious buried cities
of Mexico, as the children of Hamelin followed the magic of the
Hardly any of those who came to him, adults or children, while
almost all of the artisan class, were of the poorest class. He
knew it, and had laid his plans for such a result. Such work as
he had at heart has no chance with the lowest in the social scale,
in its beginnings. It must have something to work upon, and must
penetrate downward. He only can receive who already hath--there
is no profounder axiom.
And meanwhile the months passed on, and he was still brooding, still
waiting. At last the spark fell.
There, in the next street but one to Elgood Street rose the famous
Workmen's Club of North R----. It had been started by a former
Liberal clergyman of the parish, whose main object however, had
been to train the workmen to manage it for themselves. His training
had been, in fact too successful. Not only was it now wholly managed
by artisans, but it had come to be a centre of active, nay, brutal,
opposition to the Church and faith which had originally fostered
it. In organic connection with it was a large debating hall, in
which the most notorious secularist lecturers held forth every
Sunday evening; and next door to it, under its shadow and patronage,
was a little dingy shop filled to overflowing with the coarsest
freethinking publications, Colonel Ingersoll's books occupying the
place of honor in the window and the 'Freethinker' placard flaunting
at the door. Inside there was still more highly seasoned literature
even than the 'Freethinker' to be had. There was in particular a
small half-penny paper which was understood to be in some sense the
special organ of the North R---- Club; which was at any rate published
close by, and edited by one of the workmen founders of the club.
This unsavory sheet began to be more and more defiantly advertised
through the parish as Lent drew on toward Passion week, and the
exertions of St. Wilfrid's and of the other churches, which were
being spurred on by the Ritualists' success, became more apparent.
Soon it seemed to Robert that every bit of boarding and every waste
wall was filled with the announcement:--
'Read "Faith and Fools." Enormous success. Our "Comic Life of
Christ" now nearly completed. Quite the best thing of its kind
going. Woodcut this week--Transfiguration.'
His heart grew fierce within him. One night in Passion week he
left the night school about ten o'clock. His way led him past the
club, which was brilliantly lit up, and evidently in full activity.
Round the door there was a knot of workmen lounging. It was a
mild moonlit April night, and the air was pleasant. Several of
them had copies of 'Faith and Fools,' and were showing the week's
woodcut to those about them, with chuckles and spurts of laughter.
Robert caught a few words as he hurried past them, and stirred by
a sudden impulse turned into the shop beyond, And asked for the
paper. The woman handed it to him, and gave him his change with a
business-like _sang-froid_, which struck on his tired nerves almost
more painfully then the laughing brutality of the men he had just
Directly he found himself in another street he opened the paper
under a lamp-post. It contained a caricature of the Crucifixion,
the scroll emanating from Mary Magdalene's mouth, in particular,
containing obscenities which cannot be quoted here.
Robert thrust it into his pocket and strode on, every nerve quivering.
'This is Wednesday in Passion week,' he said to himself. The day
after to-morrow is Good Friday!'
He walked fast in a north-westerly direction, and soon found himself
within the City, where the streets were long since empty and silent.
But he noticed nothing around him. His thoughts were in the distant
East, among the flat roofs and white walls of Nazareth, the olives
of Bethany, the steep streets and rocky ramparts of Jerusalem. He
had seen them with the bodily eye, and the fact had enormously
quickened his historical perception. The child of Nazareth, the
moralist and teacher of Capernaum and Gennesaret, the strenuous
seer and martyr of the later Jerusalem preaching--all these various
images sprang into throbbing poetic life within him. That anything
in human shape should be found capable of dragging this life and
this death through the mire of a hideous and befouling laughter!
Who was responsible? To what cause could one trace such a temper
of mind toward such an object--present and militant as that temper
is in all the crowded centres of working life throughout modern
Europe? The toiler of the world as he matures may be made to love
Socrates or Buddha or Marcus Aurelius. It would seem often as
though he could not be made to love Jesus! Is it the Nemesis that
ultimately discovers and avenges the sublimest, the least conscious
departure from simplicity and verity?--is it the last and most
terrible illustration of a great axiom! '_Faith has a judge--in
He went home and lay awake half the light pondering. If he could
but pour out his heart! But though Catherine, the wife of his
heart, of his youth, is there, close beside him, doubt and struggle
and perplexity are alike frozen on his lips. He cannot speak without
sympathy, and she will not bear except under a moral compulsion
which he shrinks more and more painfully from exercising.
The next night was a storytelling night. He spent it in telling
the legend of St. Francis. When it was over he asked the audience
to wait a moment, and there and then--with the tender, imaginative
Franciscan atmosphere, as it were, still about them--he delivered
a short and vigorous protest, in the name of decency, good feeling,
and common-sense against the idiotic profanities with which the
whole immediate neighborhood seemed to be reeking. It was the first
time he had approached any religious matter directly. A knot of
workmen sitting together at the back of the room looked at each
other with a significant grimace or two.
When Robert ceased speaking, one of them, an elderly watchmaker,
got up and made a dry and cynical little speech, nothing moving but
the thin lips in the shrivelled mahogany face. Robert knew the man
well. He was a Genevese by birth, Calvinist by blood, revolutionist
by development. He complained that Mr. Elsmere had taken his
audience by surprise; that a good many of those present understood
the remarks he had just made as an attack upon an institution in
which many of them were deeply interested; and that he invited Mr.
Elsmere to a more thorough discussion of the matter, in a place
where he could be both heard and answered.
The room applauded with some signs of suppressed excitement. Most
of the men there were accustomed to disputation of the sort which
any Sunday visitor to Victoria Park may hear going on there week
after week. Elsmere had made a vivid impression; and the prospect
of a fight with him had an unusual piquancy.'
Robert sprang up. 'When you will,' he said. 'I am ready to stand
by what I have just said in the face of you all, it you care to
Place and particulars were hastily arranged, subject to the approval
of the club committee, and Elsmere's audience separated in a glow
of curiosity and expection.
'Didn't I tell ye?' the gas-fitter's snarling friend said to him.
'Scratch him and you find the parson. Then upper-class folk, when
they come among us poor ones, always seem to me just hunting for
souls, as those Injuns he was talking about last week hunt for
scalps. They can't go to heaven without a certain number of 'em
slung about 'em.'
'Wait a bit!' said the gas-fitter, his quick dark eyes betraying a
certain raised inner temperature.
Next morning the North R---- Club was placarded with announcements
that on Easter Eve next Robert Elsmere, Esq., would deliver a lecture
in the Debating Hall on 'The Claim of Jesus upon Modern Life;' to
be followed, as usual, by general discussion.
It was the afternoon of Good Friday. Catherine had been to church
at St. Paul's, and Robert, though not without some inward struggle,
had accompanied her. Their mid-day meal was over, and Robert had
been devoting himself to Mary, who had been tottering round the
room in his wake, clutching one finger tight with her chubby hand.
In particular, he had been coaxing her into friendship with a
wooden Japanese dragon which wound itself in awful yet most seductive
coils all round the cabinet at the end of the room. It was Mary's
weekly task to embrace this horror, and the performance went by the
name of 'kissing the Jabberwock.' It had been triumphantly achieved,
and, as the reward of bravery, Mary was being carried round the
room on her father's shoulder, holding on mercilessly to his curls,
her shining blue eyes darting scorn at the defeated monster.
At last Robert deposited her on a rug beside a fascinating farm-yard
which lay there spread out for her, and stood looking, not at the
child but at his wife.
'Catherine, I feel so much as Mary did three minutes ago!'
She looked up startled. The tone was light, but the sadness, the
emotion of the eyes, contradicted it.
'I want courage,' he went on--'courage to tell you something that
may hurt you. And yet I ought to tell it.'
Her face took the shrinking expression which was so painful to him.
But she waited quietly for what he had to say.
'You know, I think,' he said, looking away from her to the gray
Museum outside, 'that my work in R---- hasn't been religious as yet
at all. Oh, of course, I have said things here and there, but I
haven't delivered myself in any way. Now there has come an opening.'
And he described to her--while she shivered a little and drew herself
together--the provocations which were leading him into a tussle
with the North R---- Club.
'They have given me a very civil invitation. They are the sort of
men after all whom it pays to get hold of, if one can. Among their
fellows, they are the men who think. One longs to help them to
think to a little more purpose.'
'What have you to give them, Robert?' asked Catherine, after a
pause, her eyes bent on the child's stocking she was knitting. Her
heart was full enough already, poor soul. Oh, the bitterness of
this Passion week! He had been at her side often in church, but
through all his tender silence and consideration she had divined
the constant struggle in him between love and intellectual honesty,
and it had filled her with a dumb irritation and misery indescribable.
Do what she would, wrestle with herself as she would, there was
constantly emerging in her now a note of anger, not with Robert,
but, as it were, with those malign forces of which he was the prey.
'What have I to give them?' he repeated sadly. 'Very little,
Catherine, as it seems to me to-night. But come and see.'
His tone had a melancholy which went to her heart. In reality, he
was in that state of depression which often precedes a great effort.
But she was startled by his suggestion.
'Come with you, Robert? To the meeting of a secularist club!'
'Why not? I shall be there to protest against outrage to what both
you and I hold dear. And the men are decent fellows. There will
be no disturbance.'
'What are you going to do?' she asked in a low voice.
'I have been trying to think it out,' he said with difficulty. 'I
want simply, if I can, to transfer to their minds that image of
Jesus of Nazareth which thought--and love--and reading--have left
upon my own. I want to make them realize for themselves the
historical character, so far as it can be, realized--to make them
see for themselves the real figure, as it went in and out among
men--so far as our eyes can now discern it.'
The words came quicker toward the end, while the voice sank--took
the vibrating characteristic note the wife knew so well.
'How can that help them?' she said abruptly. 'Your historical
Christ, Robert, will never win souls. If he was God, every word
you speak will insult him. If he was man, he was not a good man!'
'Come and see,' was all he said, holding out his hand to her. It
was in some sort a renewal of the scene at Les Avants, the inevitable
renewal of an offer he felt bound to make, and she felt bound to
She let her knitting fall and placed her hand in his. The baby on
the rug was alternately caressing and scourging a woolly baa-lamb,
which was the fetish of her childish worship. Her broken, incessant
baby-talk, and the ringing kisses with which she atoned to the
baa-lamb for each successive outrage, made a running accompaniment
to the moved undertones of the parents.
'Don't ask me, Robert, don't ask me! Do you want me to come and
sit thinking of last year's Easter Eve?'
'Heaven knows I was miserable enough last Easter Eve,' he said
'And now,' she exclaimed, looking at him with a sudden agitation
of every feature, 'now you are not miserable? You are quite confident
and sure? You are going to devote your life to attacking the few
remnants of faith that still remain in the world?
Never in her married life had she spoken to him with this accent
of bitterness and hostility. He started and withdrew his hand, and
there was a silence.
'I held once a wife in my arms,' he said presently with a voice
hardly audible, 'who said to me that she would never persecute her
husband. But what is persecution, if it is not the determination
not to understand?'
She buried her face in her hands. 'I could not understand,' she
'And rather than try,' he insisted, 'you will go on believing that
I am a man without faith, seeking only to destroy.'
'I know you think you have faith,' she answered, 'but how can it
seem faith to me? "He that will not confess Me before men, him
will I also deny before My Father which is in heaven." Your unbelief
seems to me more dangerous than these horrible things which shock
you. For you can make it attractive, you can make it loved, as you
once made the faith of Christ loved.'
He was silent She raised her face presently, whereon were the traces
of some of those quiet, difficult tears which were characteristic
of her, and went softly out of the room.
He stood awhile leaning against the mantelpiece, deaf to little
Mary's clamor, and to her occasional clutches at his knees, as she
tried to raise herself on her tiny tottering feet. A sense as
though of some fresh disaster was upon him. His heart was sinking,
sinking within him. And yet none knew better than he that there
was nothing fresh. It was merely that the scene had recalled to
him anew some of those unpalpable truths which the optimist is
always much too ready to forget.
Heredity, the moulding force of circumstance, the iron hold of the
past upon the present--a man like Elsmere realizes the working of
these things in other men's lives with it singular subtlety and
clearness, and is for ever overlooking them, running his head against
them, in his own.
He turned and laid his arms on the chimney-piece, burying his head
on them. Suddenly he felt a touch on his knee, and, looking down,
saw Mary peering up, her masses of dark hair streaming back from
the straining little face, the grave open mouth, and alarmed eyes.
'Fader, tiss! fader, tiss!' she said imperatively.
He lifted her up and covered the little brown cheeks with kisses.
But the touch of the child only woke in him a fresh dread--the
like of something he had often divined of late in Catherine. Was
she actually afraid now that he might feel himself bound in future
to take her child spiritually from her? The suspicion of such a
fear in her woke in him a fresh anguish; it seemed a measure of the
distance they had travelled from that old perfect unity.
'She thinks I could even become in time her tyrant and torturer,'
he said to himself with measureless pain, 'and who knows--who can
answer for himself? Oh, the puzzle of living!'
When she came back into the room, pale and quiet, Catherine said
nothing, and Robert went to his letters. But after a while she
opened his study door.
'Robert, will you tell me what your stories are to be next week,
and let me put out the pictures?'
It was the first time she had made any such offer. He sprang up
with a flash in his gray eyes, and brought her a slip of paper with
a list. She took it without looking at him. But he caught her in
his arms, and for a moment in that embrace the soreness of both
hearts passed away.
But if Catherine would not go, Elsmere was not left on this critical
occasion without auditors from his own immediate circle. On the
evening of Good Friday Flaxman had found his way to Bedford Square,
and as Catherine was out, was shown into Elsmere's study.
'I have come,' he announced, 'to try and persuade you and Mrs.
Elsmere to go down with me to Greenlaws to-morrow. My Easter party
has come to grief, and it would be a real charity on your part to
come and resuscitate it. Do! You look abominably fagged, and as
if some country would, do you good.'
'But I thought--' began Robert, taken aback.
'You thought,' repeated Flaxman coolly, 'that, your two sisters-in-law
were going down there with Lady Helen, to meet some musical folk.
Well, they are not coming. Miss Leyburn thinks your mother-in-law
not very well to-day, and doesn't like to come. And your younger
sister prefers also to stay in town. Helen is much disappointed,
so am I. But--' And he shrugged his shoulders.
Robert found it difficult to make a suitable remark. His sisters-in-law
were certainly inscrutable young women. This Easter party at
Greenlaws, Mr. Flaxman's country house, had been planned, he knew,
for weeks. And certainly nothing could be very wrong with Mrs.
Leyburn, or Catherine would have been warned.
'I am afraid your plans must be greatly put out,' he said, with
'Of course they are,' implied Flaxman, with a dry smile. He stood
opposite Elsmere, his hands in his pockets.
'Will you have a confidence?' the bright eyes seemed to say. 'I
am quite ready. Claim it if you like.'
But Elsmere had no intention of offering it. The position of all
Rose's kindred, indeed, at the present moment was not easy. None
of them had the least knowledge of Rose's mind. Had she forgotten
Langham? Had, she lost her heart afresh to Flaxman? No one knew.
Flaxman's absorption in her was clear enough. But his love-making,
if it was such, was not of an ordinary kind, and did not always
explain itself. And, moreover, his wealth and social position were
elements in the situation calculated to make people like the Elsmeres
particularly diffident and discreet. Impossible for them, much as
they liked him, to make any of the advances!
No, Robert wanted no confidences. He was not prepared to take the
responsibility of them. So, letting Rose alone, he took up his
visitor's invitation to themselves, and explained the engagement
for Easter Eve, which tied them to London.
'Whew!' said Hugh Flaxman, 'but that will be a shindy worth seeing,
I must come!'
'Nonsense!' said Robert, smiling. 'Go down to Greenlaws, and go
to church. That will be much more in your line.'
'As for church,' said Flaxman meditatively. 'If I put off may party
altogether, and stay in town, there will be this further advantage,
that, after hearing you on Saturday night, I can, with a blameless
impartiality, spend the following day in St. Andrew's, Wells Street.
Yes! I telegraph to Helen--she knows my ways--and I come down to
protect you against an atheistical mob to-morrow night!'
Robert tried to dissuade him. He did not want Flaxman. Flaxman's
Epicureanism, the easy tolerance with which, now that the effervescence
of his youth had subsided, the man harbored and dallied with a dozen
contradictory beliefs, were at times peculiarly antipathetic to
Elsmere. They were so now, just as heart and soul were nerved to
an effort which could not be made at all without the nobler sort
But Flaxman was determined.
'No,' he said: 'this one day we'll give to heresy. Don't look so
forbidding! In the first place, you won't see me; in the next, if
you did, you would feel me as wax in your hands. I am like the man
in Sophocles--always the possession of the last speaker! One day
I am all for the Church. A certain number of chances in the hundred
there still are, you will admit, that she is the right of it. And
if so, why should I cut myself off from a whole host of beautiful
things not to be got outside her? But the next day--_vive_ Elsmere
and the Revolution! If only Elsmere could persuade me intellectually!
But I never yet came across a religious novelty that seemed to me
to have a leg of logic to stand on!'
He laid his hand on Robert's shoulder, his eyes twinkling with a
sudden energy. Robert made no answer. He stood erect, frowning a
little, his hands thrust far into the pockets of his light gray
coat. He was in no mood to disclose himself to Flaxman. The inner
vision was fixed with extraordinary intensity on quite another sort
of antagonist with whom the mind was continuously grappling.
'Ah, well--till to-morrow!' said Flaxman, with a smile, shook hands,
Outside he hailed a cab and drove off to Lady Charlotte's.
He found his aunt and Mr. Wynnstay in the drawing-room alone, one
on either side of the fire. Lady Charlotte was reading the latest
political biography with an apparent profundity of attention; Mr.
Wynnstay was lounging and caressing the cat. But both his aunt's
absorption and Mr. Wynnstay's nonchalance seemed to Flaxman overdone.
He suspected a domestic breeze.
Lady Charlotte made him effusively welcome. He had come to propose
that she should accompany him the following evening to hear Elsmere
'I advise you to come,' he said. 'Elsmere will deliver his soul,
and the amount of soul he has to deliver in these dull days is
astounding. A dowdy dress and a veil, of course. I will go down
beforehand and see some one on the spot, in case there should be
difficulties about getting in. Perhaps Miss Leyburn, too, might
like to hear her brother-in-law?'
'_Really_, Hugh,' cried Lady Charlotte impatiently, 'I think you
might take your snubbing with dignity. Her refusal this morning
to go to Greenlaws was brusqueness itself. To my mind that young
person gives herself airs!' And the Duke of Sedbergh's sister drew
herself up with a rustle of all her ample frame.
'Yes, I was snubbed,' said Flaxman, unperturbed; 'that, however,
is no reason why she shouldn't find it attractive to go to-morrow
'And you will let her see that, just because you couldn't get hold
of her, you have given up your Easter party and left your sister
in the lurch?'
'I never had excessive notions of dignity,' he replied composedly.
'You may make up any story you please. The real fact is that I
want to hear Elsmere.'
'You had better go, my dear!' said her husband sardonically. 'I
cannot imagine anything more piquant than an atheistic slum on
'Nor can I!' she replied, her combativeness rousing at once. 'Much
obliged to you, Hugh. I will borrow my housekeeper's dress, and
be ready to leave here at half-past seven.'
'Nothing more was said of Rose, but Flaxman knew that she would be
asked, and let it alone.
'Will his wife be there?' asked Lady Charlotte.
'Who? Elsmere's? My dear aunt, when you happen to be the orthodox
wife of a rising heretic, your husband's opinions are not exactly
the spectacular performance they are to you and me. I should think
it most unlikely.'
'Oh, she persecutes him does she?'
'She wouldn't be a woman if she didn't!' observed Mr. Wynnstay,
_sotto voce_. The small dark man was lost in a great arm-chair,
his delicate painter's hands playing with the fur of a huge Persian
cat. Lady Charlotte threw him an eagle glance, and he subsided,--for
Flaxman, however, was perfectly right. There had been a breeze.
It had been just announced to the master of the house by his spouse
that certain Socialist celebrities--who might any day be expected
to make acquaintance with the police--were coming to dine at his
table, to finger his spoons, and mix their diatribes with his
champagne, on the following Tuesday. Overt rebellion had never
served him yet, and he knew perfectly well that when it came to the
point he should smile more or less affably upon these gentry, as
he had smiled upon others of the same sort before. But it had not
yet come to the point and his intermediate state was explosive in
Mr. Flaxman dexterously continued the subject of the Elsmeres.
Dropping his bantering tone, he delivered himself of a very delicate,
critical analysis of Catherine Elsmere's temperament and position,
as in the course of several months his intimacy with her husband
had revealed them to him. He did it well, with acuteness and
philosophical relish. The situation presented itself to him as an
extremely refined and yet tragic phase of the religious difficulty,
and it gave him intellectual pleasure to draw it out in words.
Lady Charlotte sat listening, enjoying her nephew's crisp phrases,
but also gradually gaining a perception of the human reality behind
this word-play of Hugh's. That 'good heart' of hers was touched;
the large imperious face began to frown.
'Dear me!' she said, with a little sob. 'Don't go on, Hugh! I
suppose it's because we all of us believe so little that the poor
thing's point of view seems to one so unreal. All the same, however,'
she added, regaining her usual _role_ of magisterial common-sense,
'a woman, in my opinion ought to go with her husband in religious
'Provided, of course, she sets him at nought in all others,' put
in Mr. Wynnstay, rising and daintily depositing the cat. 'Many
men, however, my dear, might be willing to compromise it differently.
Granted a certain _modicum_ of worldly conformity, they would not
be at all indisposed to a conscience clause.'
He lounged out of the room, while Lady Charlotte shrugged her
shoulders with a look at her nephew in which there was an irrepressible
twinkle. Mr. Flaxman neither heard nor saw. Life would have ceased
to be worth having long ago had he ever taken sides in the smallest
degree in this menage.
Flaxman walked home again, not particularly satisfied with himself
and his manoeuvres. Very likely it was quite unwise of him to have
devised another meeting between himself and Rose Leyburn so soon.
Certainly she had snubbed him--there could be no doubt of that.
Nor was he in much perplexity as to the reason. He had been
forgetting himself, forgetting his _role_ and the whole lie of the
situation and if a man will be an idiot he must suffer for it. He
had distinctly been put back a move.
The facts were very simple. It was now nearly three months since
Langham's disappearance. During that time Rose Leyburn had been,
to Flaxman's mind, enchantingly dependent on him. He had played
his part so well, and the beautiful high-spirited child had suited
herself so naively to his acting! Evidently she had said to herself
that his age, his former marriage, his relation to Lady Helen, his
constant kindness to her and her sister, made it natural that she
should trust him, make him her friend, and allow him an intimacy
she allowed to no other male friend. And when once the situation
had been so defined in her mind, how the girl's true self had come
out!--what delightful moments that intimacy had contained for him!
He remembered how on one occasion he had been reading some Browning
to her and Helen, in Helen's crowded, belittered drawing-room, which
seemed all piano and photographs and lilies of the valley. He never
could exactly trace the connection between the passage he had been
reading and what happened. Probably it was merely Browning's
poignant, passionate note that had addicted her. In spite of all
her proud, bright reserve, both he and Helen often felt through
these weeks that just below this surface there was a heart which
quivered at the least touch.
He finished the lines and laid down the book. Lady Helen heard her
three-year-old boy crying upstairs, and ran up to see what was the
matter. He and Rose were left alone in the scented, fire-lit room.
And a jet of flame suddenly showed him the girl's face turned away,
convulsed with a momentary struggle for self-control. She raised
a hand an instant to her eyes, not dreaming evidently that she could
be seen in the dimness; and her gloves dropped from her lap.
He moved forward, stooped on one knee, and as she held out her hand
for the gloves, he kissed the hand very gently, detaining it afterward
as a brother might. There was not a thought of himself in his mind.
Simply he could not bear that so bright a creature should ever be
sorry. It seemed to him intolerable, against the nature of things.
If he could have procured for her at that moment a coerced and
transformed Langham, a Langham fitted to make her happy, he could
almost have done it; and, short of such radical consolation, the
very least he could do was to go on his knee to her, and comfort
her in tender, brotherly fashion.
She did not say anything; she let her hand stay a moment, and then
she got up, put on her veil, left a quiet message for Lady Helen,
and departed. But as he put her into a hansom her whole manner to
him was full of a shy, shrinking sweetness. And when Rose was shy
and shrinking she was adorable.
Well, and now he had never again gone nearly so far as to kiss her
hand, and yet because of an indiscreet moment everything was changed
between them; she had turned resentful, stand-off, nay, as nearly
rude as a girl under the restraints of modern manners can manage
to be. He almost laughed as he recalled Helen's report of her
interview with Rose that morning, in which she had tried to persuade
a young person outrageously on her dignity to keep an engagement
she had herself spontaneously made.
'I am very sorry, Lady Helen,' Rose had said, her slim figure drawn
up so stiffly that the small Lady Helen felt herself totally effaced
beside her. 'But I had rather not leave London this week. I think
I will stay with mamma and Agnes.'
And nothing Lady Helen could say moved her, or modified her formula
'What _have_ you been doing, Hugh?' his sister asked him, half
dismayed, half provoked.
Flaxman shrugged his shoulders and vowed he had been doing nothing.
But, in truth, he knew very well that the day before he had
overstepped the line. There had been a little scene between them,
a quick passage of speech, a rash look and gesture on his part,
which had been quite unpremeditated, but which had nevertheless
transformed their relation. Rose had flushed up, and said a few
incoherent words, which he had understood to be words of reproach,
had left Lady Helen's as quickly as possible, and next morning his
Greenlaws party had fallen through.
'Check, certainly,' said Flaxman to himself ruefully, as he pondered
these circumstances, 'not mate, I hope, if one can but find out how
not to be a fool in future.'
And over his solitary fire he meditated far into the night.
Next day, at half-past seven in the evening, he entered Lady
Charlotte's drawing-room, gayer, brisker, more alert than ever.
Rose started visibly at the sight of him, and shot a quick glance
at the unblushing Lady Charlotte.
'I thought you were at Greenlaws,' she could not help saying to
him, and she coldly offered him her hand. Why had Lady Charlotte
never told her he was to escort them? Her irritation arose anew.
'What can one do,' he said lightly, 'if Elsmere will fix such a
performance for Easter Eve? My party was at its last gasp too; it
only wanted a telegram to Helen to give it its _coup de grace_.'
Rose flushed up, but he turned on his heel at once, and began to
banter his aunt on the housekeeper's bonnet and veil in which she
had a little too obviously disguised herself.
And certainly, in the drive to the East End, Rose had no reason to
complain of importunity on his part. Most of the way he was deep
in talk with Lady Charlotte as to a certain loan exhibition in the
East End, to which he and a good many of his friends were sending
pictures; apparently his time and thoughts were entirely occupied
with it. Rose, leaning back silent in her corner, was presently
seized with a little shock of surprise that there should be so many
interests and relations in his life of which she knew nothing. He
was talking now as the man of possessions and influence. She saw
a glimpse of him as he was in his public aspect, and the kindness,
the disinterestedness, the quiet sense, and the humor of his talk
insensibly affected her as she sat listening. The mental image of
him which had been dominant in her mind altered a little. Nay, she
grew a little hot over it. She asked, herself scornfully whether
she was not as ready as any bread-and-buttery miss of her acquaintance
to imagine every man she knew in love with her.
Very likely he had meant what he said quite differently, and she--oh!
humiliation--had flown into a passion with him for no reasonable
cause. Supposing he had meant, two days ago, that if they were to
go on being friends she must let him be her lover too, it would of
course have been unpardonable. How _could_ she let any one talk
to her of love yet?--especially Mr. Flaxman, who guessed, as she
was quite sure, what had happened to her? He must despise her to
have imagined it. His outburst had filled her with the oddest and
most petulent resentment. Were all men self-seeking? Did all men
think women shallow and fickle? Could a man and a woman never be
honestly and simply friends? If he _had_ made love to her, he could
not possibly--and there was the sting of it--feel toward her maiden
dignity that romantic respect which she herself cherished toward
it. For it was incredible that any delicate-minded girl should go
through such a crisis as she had gone through, and then fall calmly
into another lover's arms a few weeks later as though nothing had
How we all attitudinize to ourselves! The whole of life often seems
one long dramatic performance, in which one-half of us is forever
posing to the other half.
But had he really made love to her?--had be meant what she had
assumed him to mean? The girl lost herself in a torrent of memory
and conjecture, and meanwhile Mr. Flaxman sat opposite, talking
away, and looking certainly as little love sick as any man can well
look. As the lamps flashed into the carriage her attention was
often caught by his profile and finely-balanced head, by the hand
lying on his knee, or the little gestures, full of life and freedom,
with which he met some raid of Lady Charlotte's on his opinions,
or opened a corresponding one on hers. There was certainly power
in the man, a bright human sort of power, which inevitably attracted
her. And that he was good too she had special grounds for knowing.
But what an aristocrat he was after all! What an over-prosperous,
exclusive set he belonged to! She lashed herself into anger as the
other two chatted and sparred, with all these names of wealthy
cousins and relations, with their parks and their pedigrees and
their pictures! The aunt and nephew were debating how they could
best bleed the family, in its various branches, of the art treasures
belonging to it for the benefit of the East-enders; therefore the
names were inevitable. But Rose curled her delicate lip over them.
And was it the best breeding, she wondered, to leave a third person
so ostentatiously outside the conversation?
'Miss Leyburn, why are you coughing?' said Lady Charlotte suddenly.
'There is a great draught,' said Rose, shivering a little.
'So there is!' cried Lady Charlotte. 'Why, we have got both the
windows open. Hugh, draw up Miss Leyburn's.'
He moved over to her and drew it up.
'I thought you liked a tornado,' he said to her, smiling. 'Will
you have a shawl--there is one behind me.'
'No, thank you,' she replied rather stiffly, and he was silent--retaining
his place opposite to her, however.
'Have we reached Mr. Elsmere's part of the world yet?' asked Lady
Charlotte, looking out.
'Yes, we are not far off--the river is to our right. We shall pass
St. Wilfrid's soon.'
The coachman turned into a street where an open-air market was going
on. The roadway and pavements were swarming; the carriage could
barely pick its way through the masses of human beings. Flaming
gas-jets threw it all into strong satanic light and shade. At this
corner of a dingy alley Rose could see a fight going on; the begrimed,
ragged children, regardless of the April rain, swooped backward and
forward under the very hoofs of the horses, or flattened their noses
against the windows whenever the horses were forced into a walk.
The young girl-figure, with the gray feathered hat, seemed especially
to excite their notice. The glare of the street brought out the
lines of the face, the gold of the hair. The Arabs outside made
loutishly flattering remarks once or twice, and Rose, coloring,
drew back as far as she could into the carriage. Mr. Flaxman seemed
not to hear; his aunt, with that obtrusive thirst for information
which is so fashionable now among all women of position, was
cross-questioning him as to the trades and population of the district,
and he was dryly responding. In reality his mind was full of a
whirl of feeling, of a wild longing to break down a futile barrier
and trample on a baffling resistance, to take that beautiful,
tameless creature in strong coercing arms, scold her, crush her,
love her! Why does she make happiness so difficult? What right
has she to hold devotion so cheap? He too grows angry. 'She was
_not_ in love with that spectral creature,' the inner self declares
with energy--'I will vow she never was. But she is like all the
rest--a slave to the merest forms and trappings of sentiment.
Because he _ought_ to have loved her, and didn't, because she
_fancied_ she loved him, and didn't, my love is to be an offence
to her! Monstrous--unjust!'
Suddenly they swept past St. Wilfrid's, resplendent with lights,
the jewelled windows of the choir rising above the squalid walls
and roofs into the rainy darkness, as the mystical chapel of the
Graal, with its 'torches glimmering fair,' flashed out of the
mountain storm and solitude on to Galahad's seeking eyes.
Rose bent forward involuntarily. 'What angel singing!' she said,
dropping the window again to listen to the retreating sounds, her
artist's eye Kindling. 'Did you hear it? It was the last chorus
in the St. Matthew Passion music.'
'I did not distinguish it,' he said--'but their music is famous.'
His tone was distant; there was no friendliness in it. It would
have been pleasant to her if he would have taken up her little
remark and let bygones be bygones. But he showed no readiness to
do so. The subject dropped, and presently he moved back to his
former seat, and Lady Charlotte and he resumed their talk. Rose
could not but see that his manner toward her was much changed. She
herself had compelled it, but all the same she saw him leave her
with a capricious little pang of regret, and afterward the drive
seemed to her more tedious and the dismal streets more dismal than
She tried to forget her companions altogether. Oh! what would
Robert have to say? She was unhappy, restless. In her trouble
lately it had often pleased her to go quite alone to strange churches,
where for a moment the burden of the self had seemed lightened.
But the old things were not always congenial to her, and there were
modern ferments at work in her. No one of her family, unless it
were Agnes, suspected what was going on. But in truth the rich
crude nature had been touched at last, as Robert's had been long
ago in Mr. Grey's lecture-room, by the piercing under-voices of
things--the moral message of the world. 'What will he have to say?'
she asked herself again feverishly, and as she looked across to Mr.
Flaxman she felt a childish wish to be friends again with him, with
everybody. Life was too difficult as it was, without quarrels and
misunderstandings to make it worse.
A long street of warehouses--and at the end of it the horses
'I saw the president of the club yesterday,' said Flaxman, looking
out. 'He is an old friend of mine--a most intelligent fanatic--met
him on a Madison House Fund committee last winter. He promised we
should be looked after. But we shall only get back seats, and
you'll have to put up with the smoking. They don't want ladies,
and we shall only be there on sufferance.'
The carriage stopped. Mr. Flaxman guided his charges with some
difficulty through the crowd about the steps, who inspected them
and their vehicle with a frank and not over-friendly curiosity.
At the door they found a man who had been sent to look for them,
and were immediately taken possession of. He ushered them into the
back of a large bare hall, glaringly lit, lined with white brick,
and hung at intervals with political portraits and a few cheap
engravings of famous men, Jesus of Nazareth taking his turn with
Buddha, Socrates, Moses, Shakespeare, and Paul of Tarsus.
'Can't put you any forrarder, I'm afraid,' said their guide, with
a shrug of the shoulders. 'The committee don't like strangers
coming, and Mr. Collett, he got hauled over the coals for letting
you in this evening.'
It, was a new position for Lady Charlotte to be anywhere on sufferance.
However, in the presence of three hundred smoking men, who might
all of them be political assassins in disguise for anything she
knew, she accepted her fate with meekness; and she and Rose settled
themselves into their back seat under a rough sort of gallery, glad
of their veils, and nearly blinded with the smoke.
The hall was nearly full, and Mr. Flaxman looked curiously round
upon its occupants. The majority of them were clearly artisans--a
spare, stooping sharp-featured race. Here and there were a knot
of stalwart dock-laborers, strongly marked out in physique from the
watchmakers and the potters, or an occasional seaman out of work,
ship-steward, boatswain, or what not, generally bronzed, quick-eyed,
and comely, save where the film of excess had already deadened color
and expression. Almost everyone had a pot of beer before him,
standing on long wooden flaps attached to the benches. The room
was full of noise, coming apparently from the further end, where
some political bravo seemed to be provoking his neighbors. In their
own vicinity the men scattered about were for the most part tugging
silently at their pipes, alternately eyeing the clock and the
There was a stir of feet round the door.
'There he is,' said Mr. Flaxman, craning round to see, and Robert
He started as he saw them, flashed a smile to Rose, shook
his head at Mr. Flaxman, and passed up the room.
'He looks pale and nervous,' said Lady Charlotte grimly, pouncing
at once on the unpromising side of things. 'If he breaks down are
you prepared, Hugh to play Elisha?'
Flaxman was far too much interested in the beginnings of the
performance to answer.
Robert was standing forward on the platform, the chairman of the
meeting at his side, members of the committee sitting behind on
either hand. A good many men put down their pipes, and the hubbub
of talk ceased. Others smoked on stolidly.
The chairman introduced the lecturer. The subject of the address
would be, as they already knew, 'The Claim of Jesus upon Modern
Life.' It was not very likely, he imagined, that Mr. Elsmere's
opinions would square with those dominant in the club; but whether
or no, he claimed for him, as for everybody, a patient hearing, and
the Englishman's privilege of fair play.
The speaker, a cabinetmaker dressed in a decent brown suit, spoke
with fluency, and at the same time with that accent of moderation
and _savoir faire_ which some Englishmen in all classes have obviously
inherited from centuries of government by discussion. Lady Charlotte,
whose Liberalism was the mere varnish of an essentially aristocratic
temper, was conscious of a certain dismay at the culture of the
democracy as the man sat down. Mr. Flaxman, glancing to the right,
saw a group of men standing, and among them a slight, sharp-featured
thread-paper of a man, with a taller companion whom he identified
as the pair he had noticed on the night of the story-telling. The
little gas-fitter was clearly all nervous fidget and expectation;
the other, large and gaunt in figure, with a square impassive face,
and close-shut lips that had a perpetual mocking twist in the
corners, stood beside him like some clumsy modern version, in a
commoner clay, of Goothe's 'spirit that denies.'
Robert came forward with a roll of papers in his hands.
His first, words were hardly audible. Rose felt her color rising,
Lady Charlotte glanced at her nephew, the standing group of men
cried, 'Speak up!' The voice in the distance rose at once, braced
by the touch of difficulty, and what it said came calmly down to
In after days Flaxman could not often be got to talk of the experiences
of this evening. When he did he would generally say, briefly, that
as an _intellectual_ effort he had never been inclined to rank this
first public utterance very high among Elsmere's performances. The
speaker's own emotion had stood somewhat in his way. A man argues
better, perhaps, when he feels less.
'I have often heard him put his case, as I thought, more cogently
in conversation,' Flaxman would say--though only to his most intimate
friends--'but what I never saw before or since was such an _effect
of personality_ as he produced that night. From that moment at any
rate I loved him, and I understood his secret!'
Elsmere began with a few words of courteous thanks to the club for
the hearing they had promised him.
Then he passed on to the occasion of his address--the vogue in the
district of 'certain newspapers which, I understand, are specially
relished and patronized by your association.'
And he laid down on the table beside him the copies of the 'Freethinker'
and of 'Faith and Fools' which he had brought with him, and faced
his audience again, his hands on his sides.
'Well! I am not here to-night to attack those newspapers. I want
to reach your sympathies if I can in another way. If there is
anybody here who takes pleasure in them, who thinks that such
writings and such witticisms as he gets purveyed to him in these
sheets do really help the cause of truth and intellectual freedom,
I shall not attack his position from the front. I shall try to
undermine it. I shall aim at rousing in him such a state of feeling
as may suddenly convince him that what is injured by writing of
this sort is not the orthodox Christian, or the Church, or Jesus
of Nazareth, but always and inevitably, the man who writes it and
the man who loves it! His mind is possessed of an inflaming and
hateful image, which drives him to mockery and violence. I want
to replace it, if I can, by one of calm, of beauty and tenderness,
which may drive him to humility and sympathy. And this, indeed,
is the only way in which opinion is ever really altered--by the
substitution of one mental picture for another.
'But in the first place,' resumed the speaker, after a moment's
pause, changing his note a little, 'a word about myself. I am not
here to-night quite in the position of the casual stranger, coming
down to your district for the first time. As some of you know, I
am endeavoring to make what is practically a settlement among you,
asking you working-men to teach me, if you will, what you have to
teach as to the wants and prospects of your order, and offering you
in return whatever there is in me which may be worth your taking.
Well, I imagine I should look at a man who preferred a claim of
that sort with some closeness! You may well ask me for "antecedents,"
and I should like, if I may, to give them to you very shortly.'
Well, then, though I came down to this place under the wing of Mr.
Edwardes' (some cheering) 'who is so greatly liked and respected
here, I am not a Unitarian, nor am I an English Churchman. A year
ago I was the rector of an English country parish, where I should
have been proud, so far as personal happiness went, to spend my
life. Last autumn I left it and resigned my orders because I could
no longer accept the creed of the English Church.' Unconsciously,
the thin dignified figure drew itself up, the voice took a certain
dryness. All this was distasteful but the orator's instinct was
As he spoke about a score of pipes which had till now been active
in Flaxman's neighborhood went down. The silence in the room became
suddenly of a perceptibly different quality.
'Since then I have joined no other religious association. But it
is not--God forbid!--because there is nothing left me to believe,
but because in this transition England it is well for a man who has
broken with the old things, to be very _patient_. No good can come
of forcing opinion or agreement prematurely. A generation, nay,
more, may have to spend itself in mere waiting and preparing for
those new leaders and those new forms of corporate action which any
great revolution of opinion, such as that we are now living through,
has always produced in the past, and will, we are justified in
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