Mrs. Humphry Ward
Part 14 out of 16
believing, produce again. But the hour and the men will come, and
"they also serve who only stand and wait!"'
Voice and look had kindled into fire. The consciousness of his
audience was passing from him--the world of ideas was growing
'So much, then for personalities of one sort. There are some of
another, however, which I must touch upon for a moment. I am to
speak to you to-night of the Jesus of history, but not only as an
historian. History is good, but religion is better!--and if Jesus
of Nazareth concerned me, and, in my belief, concerned you, only
as an historical figure, I should not be here to-night.
'But if I am to talk religion to you, and I have begun by telling
you I am not this and not that, it seems to me that for mere
clearness' sake, for the sake of that round and whole image of
thought which I want to present to you, you must let me run through
a preliminary confession of faith--as short and simple as I can
make it. You must let me describe certain views of the universe
and of man's place in it, which make the framework, as it were,
into which I shall ask you to fit the picture of Jesus which will
Robert stood a moment considering. An instant's nervousness, a
momentary sign of self-consciousness, would have broken the spell
and set the room against him. He showed neither.
'My friends,' he said at last, speaking to the crowded benches of
London workmen with the same simplicity he would have used toward
his boys at Murewell, 'the man who is addressing you to-night
believes in _God_; and in _Conscience_, which is God's witness in
the soul; and in _Experience_, which is at once the record and the
instrument of man's education at God's hands. He places his whole
trust, for life, and death, "_in God the Father Almighty!_"--in
that force at the root of things which is revealed to us whenever
a man helps his neighbor, or a mother denies herself for her child;
whenever a soldier dies without a murmur for his country, or a
sailor puts out in the darkness to rescue the perishing; whenever
a workman throws mind and conscience into his work, or a statesman
labors not for his own gain but for that of the State! He believes
in an Eternal Goodness---and an Eternal Mind--of which Nature and
Man are the continuous and the only revelation.' . . .
The room grew absolutely still. And into the silence, there fell,
one by one, the short, terse sentences, in which the seer, the
believer, struggled to express what God has been, is, and will ever
be to the soul which trusts Him. In them the whole effort of the
speaker was really to restrain, to moderate, to depersonalize the
voice of faith. But the intensity of each word burnt it into the
hearer as it was spoken. Even Lady Charlotte turned a little
pale--the tears stood in her eyes.
Then, from the witness of God in the soul, and in the history of
man's moral life, Elsmere turned to the glorification of _Experience_,
'of that unvarying and rational order of the world which has been
the appointed instrument of mans training since life and thought
'_There_,' he said slowly, 'in the unbroken sequences of nature,
in the physical history of the world, in the long history of man,
physical, intellectual, moral--_there_ lies the revelation of God.
There is no other, my friends!'
Then, while the room hung on his words, he entered on a brief
exposition of the text, '_Miracles do not happen_,' restating Hume's
old argument, and adding to it some of the most cogent of those
modern arguments drawn from literature, from history, from the
comparative study of religions and religious evidence, which were
not practically at Hume's disposal, but which are now affecting the
popular mind as Hume's reasoning could never have affected it.
'We are now able to show how miracle, or the belief in it, which
is the same thing, comes into being. The study of miracle in all
nations, and under all conditions, yields everywhere the same
results. Miracle may be the child of imagination, of love, nay,
of a passionate sincerity, but invariably it lives with ignorance
and is withered by knowledge!'
And then, with lightning unexpectedness, he turned upon his audience,
as though the ardent soul reacted at once against a strain of mere
'But do not let yourselves imagine for an instant that, because in
a rational view of history there is no place for a Resurrection and
Ascension, therefore you may profitably allow yourself a mean and
miserable mirth of _this_ sort over the past!'--and his outstretched
hand struck the newspapers beside him with passion--'Do not imagine
for an instant that what is binding, adorable, beautiful in that
past is done away with when miracle is given up! No, thank God!
We still "live by admiration, hope, and love." God only draws
closer, great men become greater, human life more wonderful as
miracle disappears. Woe to you if you cannot see it!--it is the
testing truth of our day.'
'And besides--do you suppose that mere violence, mere invective,
and savage mockery ever accomplished anything--nay, what is more
to the point, ever _destroyed_ anything in human history? No--an
idea cannot be killed from without--it can only be supplanted,
transformed, by another idea, and that one of equal virtue and
magic. Strange paradox! In the moral world you cannot pull down
except by gentleness--you cannot revolutionize except by sympathy.
Jesus only superseded Judaism by absorbing and re-creating all
that was best in it. There are no inexplicable gaps and breaks in
the story of humanity. The religion of the day with all its faults
and mistakes, will go on unshaken so long as there is nothing else
of equal loveliness and potency to put in its place. The Jesus of
the churches will remain paramount so long as the man of to-day
imagines himself dispensed by any increase of knowledge from loving
the Jesus of history.
'But _why?_ you will ask me. What does the Jesus of history matter
And so he was brought to the place of great men in the development
of mankind--to the part played in the human story by those lives
in which men have seen all their noblest thoughts of God, of duty,
and of law embodied, realized before them with a shining and
. . . 'You think--because it is becoming plain to the modern eye
that the ignorant love of his first followers wreathed his life in
legend, that therefore you can escape from Jesus of Nazareth, you
can put him aside as though he had never been? Folly! Do what you
will, you cannot escape him. His life and death underlie our
institutions as the alphabet underlies our literature. Just as the
lives of Buddha and of Mohammed are wrought ineffaceably into the
civilization of Africa and Asia, so the life of Jesus is wrought
ineffaceably into the higher civilization, the nobler social
conceptions of Europe. It is wrought into your being and into mine.
We are what we are to-night, as Englishmen and as citizens, largely
because a Galilean peasant was born and grew to manhood, and preached,
and loved, and died. And you think that a fact so tremendous can
be just scoffed away--that we can get rid of it, and of our share
in it, by a ribald paragraph and a caricature!'
'No. Your hatred and your ridicule are powerless. And thank God
they are powerless. There is no wanton waste in the moral world,
any more than in the material. There is only fruitful change and
beneficent transformation. Granted that the true story of Jesus
of Nazareth was from the beginning obscured by error and mistake;
granted that those errors and mistakes which were once the strength
of Christianity are now its weakness, and by the slow march and
sentence of time are now threatening, unless we can clear them away,
to lessen the hold of Jesus on the love and remembrance of man.
What then? The fact is merely a call to you and me, who recognize
it, to go, back to the roots of things, to re-conceive the Christ,
to bring him afresh into our lives, to make the life so freely given
for man minister again in new ways to man's new needs. Every great
religion is, in truth, a concentration of great ideas, capable, as
all ideas are, of infinite expansion and adaptation. And woe to
our human weakness if it loose its hold one instant before it must,
on any of those rare and precious possessions which have helped it
in the past, and may again inspire it in the future!'
'_To reconceive the Christ!_ It is the special task of our age,
though in some sort and degree it has been the ever recurring task
of Europe since the beginning.'
He paused, and then very simply, and so as to be understood by those
who heard him, he gave a rapid sketch of that great operation worked
by the best intellect of Europe during the last half-century--broadly
speaking--on the facts and documents of primitive Christianity.
From all sides and by the help of every conceivable instrument those
facts have been investigated, and now at last the great result-'the
revivified, reconceived truth--seems ready to emerge! Much may
still be known--much can never be known; but if we will, we may now
discern the true features of Jesus of Nazareth, as no generation
but our own has been able to discern them, since those who had seen
and handled, passed away.'
'Let me try, however feebly, and draw it afresh for you, that life
of lives, that story of stories, as the labor of our own age in
particular has patiently revealed it to us. Come back with me
through the centuries; let us try and see the Christ of Galilee and
the Christ of Jerusalem as he was, before a credulous love and
Jewish tradition and Greek subtlety had at once dimmed and glorified
the truth. Ah! do what we will, it is so scanty and poor, this
knowledge of ours, compared with all that we yearn to know--but,
such as it is, let me, very humbly and very tentatively, endeavor
to put it before you.'
At this point Flaxman's attention was suddenly distracted by a stir
round the door of entrance on his left hand. Looking round, he saw
a Ritualist priest, in cassock and cloak, disputing in hurried
undertones with the men about the door. At last he gained his point
apparently, for the men, with half-angry, half-quizzing looks at
each other, allowed him to come in, and he found a seat. Flaxman
was greatly struck by the face--by its ascetic beauty, the stern
and yet delicate whiteness and emaciation of it. He sat with both
hands resting on the stick he held in front of him, intently
listening, the perspiration of physical weakness on his brow and
round his finely curved mouth. Clearly he could hardly see the
lecturer, for the room had become inconveniently crowded, and the
men about him were mostly standing.
'One of the St. Wilfrid's priests, I suppose,' Flaxman said to
himself. 'What on earth is he doing _dans cette galere?_ Are we
to have a disputation? That would be dramatic.'
He had no attention, however, to spare, and the intruder was promptly
forgotten. When he turned back to the platform he found that Robert,
with Mackay's help, had hung on a screen to his right, four or five
large drawings of Nazareth, of the Lake of Gennesaret, of Jerusalem,
and the Temple of Herod, of the ruins of that synagogue on the
probable site of Capernaum in which conceivably Jesus may have
stood. They were bold and striking, and filled the bare hall at
once with suggestions of the East. He had used them often at
Murewell. Then, adopting a somewhat different tone, he plunged,
into the life of Jesus. He brought to it all his trained historical
power, all his story-telling faculty, all his sympathy with the
needs of feeling. And bit by bit, as the quick nervous sentences
issued and struck, each like the touch of a chisel, the majestic
figure emerged, set against its natural background, instinct with
some fraction at least of the magic of reality, most human, most
persuasive, most tragic. He brought out the great words of the new
faith, to which, whatever may be their literal origin, Jesus, and
Jesus only, gave currency and immortal force. He dwelt on the
magic, the permanence, the expansiveness, of the young Nazarene's
central conception--the spiritualized, universalized 'Kingdom of
God.' Elsmere's thought, indeed, knew nothing of a perfect man,
as it knew nothing of an incarnate God; he shrank from nothing that
he believed true; but every limitation, every reserve he allowed
himself, did but make the whole more poignantly real, and the claim
of Jesus more penetrating.
'The world has grown since Jesus preached in Galilee and Judaea.
We cannot learn the _whole_ of God's lesson from him now--nay, we
could not then! But all that is most essential to man--all that
saves the soul, all that purifies the heart--that he has still for
you and me, as he had it for the men and women of his own time.'
Then he came to the last scenes. His voice sank a little his notes
dropped from his hand; and the silence grew oppressive. The dramatic
force, the tender passionate insight, the fearless modernness with
which the story was told, made it almost unbearable. Those listening
saw the trial, the streets of Jerusalem, that desolate place outside
the northern gate; they were spectators of the torture, they heard
the last cry. No one present had ever so seen, so heard before.
Rose had hidden her face. Flaxman for the first time forgot to
watch the audience; the men had forgotten each other; and for the
first time that night, in many a cold embittered heart, there was
born that love of the Son of Man which Nathaniel felt, and John,
and Mary of Bethany, and which has in it now, as then, the promise
of the future.
_'"He laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of a rock, and he
rolled a stone against the door of the tomb." The ashes of Jesus
of Nazareth mingled with the earth of Palestin--_
'"Far hence he lies
In the lorn Syrian town,
And on his grave, with shining eyes,
The Syrian stars look down."'
He stopped. The melancholy cadence of the verse died away. Then
a gleam broke over the pale exhausted face--a gleam of extraordinary
'And in the days and weeks that followed the devout and passionate
fancy of a few mourning Galileans begat the exquisite fable of the
Resurrection. How natural--and amid all its falseness, how true--is
that naive and contradictory story! The rapidity with which it
spread is a measure of many things. It is, above all, a measure
of the greatness of Jesus, of the force with which he had drawn to
himself the hearts and imaginations of men.' . . .
'And now, my friends, what of all this? If these things I have
been saying to you are true, what is the upshot of them for you and
me? Simply this, as I conceive it--that instead of wasting your
time, and degrading your souls, by indulgence in such grime as
this'--and he pointed to the newspapers-'it is your urgent business
and mine--at this moment--to do our very _utmost_ to bring this
life of Jesus, our precious, invaluable possession as a people,
back into some real and cogent relation with our modern lives and
beliefs and hopes. Do not answer me that such an effort is a mere
dream and futility, conceived in the vague, apart from reality--that
men must have something to worship, and that if they cannot worship
Jesus they will not trouble to love him. Is the world desolate
with God still in it, and does it rest merely with us to love or
not to love? Love and revere _something_ we must, if we are to be
men and not beasts. At all times and in all nations, as I have
tried to show you, man has helped himself by the constant and
passionate memory of those great ones of his race who have spoken
to him most audibly of God and of eternal hope. And for us Europeans
and Englishmen, as I have also tried to show you, history and
inheritance have decided. If we turn away from the true Jesus of
Nazareth because he has been disfigured and misrepresented by the
Churches we turn away from that in which our weak will; and desponding
souls are meant to find their most obvious and natural help and
inspiration from that symbol of the Divine, which, of necessity,
means' most to us. No! give him back your hearts--be ashamed that
you have ever forgotten your debt to him! Let combination and
brotherhood do for the newer and simpler faith what they did once
for the old--let them give it a practical shape, a practical grip
on human life. Then we too shall have our Easter!--we too shall
have the right to say, _He is not here, he is risen_. Not here--in
legend, in miracle, in the beautiful out-worn forms and crystallizations
of older thought. _He is risen_--in a wiser reverence and a more
reasonable love; risen in new forms of social help inspired by his
memory, called afresh by his name!-Risen--if you and your children
will it--in a church or company of the faithful--over the gates of
which two sayings of man's past, in to which man's present has
breathed new meanings, shall be written:--
'_In Thee, O Eternal, have I put my trust:_
'_This do in remembrance of Me._'
The rest was soon over. The audience woke from the trance in which
it had been held with a sudden burst of talk and movement. In the
midst of it, and as the majority of the audience were filing out
into the adjoining rooms, the gas-fitter's tall companion Andrews
mounted the platform, while the gas-fitter himself with an impatient
shrug, pushed his way into the outgoing crowd. Andrews went slowly
and deliberately to work, dealing out his long cantankerous sentences
with a nasal _sang-froid_ which seemed to change in a moment the
whole aspect and temperature of things. He remarked that Mr. Elsmere
had talked of what great scholars had done to clear up this matter
of Christ and Christianity. Well, he was free to maintain that old
Tom Paine was as good a scholar as any of 'em, and most of them in
that hall knew what he thought about it. Tom Paine hadn't anything
to say against Jesus Christ, and he hadn't. He was a workman and
a fine sort of Man, and if he'd been alive now he'd have been a
Socialist, 'as most of us are,' and he'd have made it hot for the
rich loafers, and the sweaters, and the middle-men, 'as we'd like
to make it hot for 'em.' But as for those people who got up the
Church-Mythologists Tom Paine called 'em-and the miracles, and made
an uncommonly good thing out of it, pecuniarily speaking, he didn't
see what they'd got to do with keeping, or mending, or preserving
_their_ precious bit of work. The world had found 'em out, and
And he wound up with a fierce denunciation of priests, not without
harsh savor and eloquence, which was much clapped by the small knot
of workmen among whom he had been standing.
Then there followed a Socialist--an eager, ugly, black-bearded
little fellow, who preached the absolute necessity of doing without
'any cultus whatsoever,' threw scorn on both the Christians and the
Positivists for refusing so to deny themselves, and appealed earnestly
to his group of hearers 'to help in brining religion back from
heaven to earth, where it belongs.' Mr. Elsmere's new church, if
he ever got it, would only be a fresh instrument in the hands of
the bourgeoisie. And when the people had got their rights and
brought down the capitalists, they were not going to be such fools
as put their necks under the heel of what were called 'the educated
classes.' The people who wrote the newspapers Mr. Elsmere objected
to, know quite enough for the working-man--And people should not
be too smooth-spoken; what the working class wanted beyond everything
just now was _grit_.
A few other short speeches followed, mostly of the common Secularist
type, in defence of the newspapers attacked. But the defence, on
the whole, was shuffling and curiously half-hearted. Robert, sitting
by with his head on his hand, felt that there, at any rate, his
onslaught had told.
He said a few words in reply, in a low husky voice, without a trace
of his former passion, and the meeting broke up. The room had
quickly filled when it was known that he was up again; and as he
descended the steps of the platform, after shaking hands with the
chairman, the hundreds present broke into a sudden burst of cheering.
Lady Charlotte pressed forward to him through the crowd, offering
to take him home. 'Come with us, Mr. Elsmere; you look like a
ghost.' But he shook his head, smiling. No, thank you, Lady
Charlotte--I must have some air,' and he took her out on his arm,
while Flaxman followed with Rose.
It once occurred to Flaxman to look round for the priest he had
seen come in. But there were no signs of him. 'I had an idea he
would have spoken,' he thought. Just as Well perhaps. We should
have had a row.'
Lady Charlotte threw herself back in the carriage as they drove
off, with a long breath, and the inward reflection, 'So his wife
wouldn't come and hear him! Must be a woman with a character,
that--a Strafford in petticoats!'
Robert turned up the street to the City, the tall slight figure
seeming to shrink together as he walked. After his passionate
effort, indescribable depression had overtaken him.
'Words-words!' he said to himself, striking out his hands in a kind
of feverish protest, as he strode along, against his own powerlessness,
against that weight of the present and the actual which seems to
the enthusiast alternately light as air, or heavy as the mass of
AEtna on the breast of Enceladus.
Suddenly, at the corner of a street, a man's figure in a long black
robe stopped him and laid a hand on his arm.
'Newcome!' cried Robert, standing still.
'I was there,' said the other, bending forward and looking close
into his eyes. 'I heard almost all. I went to confront, to denounce
By the light of a lamp not far off Robert caught the attenuated
whiteness and sharpness of the well-known face, to which weeks of
fasting and mystical excitement had given a kind of unearthly
remoteness. He gathered himself together with an inward groan.
He felt as though there were no force in him at that moment wherewith
to meet reproaches, to beat down fanaticism. The pressure on nerve
and strength seemed unbearable.
Newcome, watching him with eagle eye, saw the sudden shrinking and
hesitation. He had often in old days felt the same sense of power
over the man who yet, in what seemed his weakness, had always escaped
him in the end.
'I went to denounce,' he continued, in a strange, tense voice; 'and
the Lord refused it to me. He kept me watching for you here--these
words are not mine I speak. I waited patiently in that room till
the Lord should deliver His enemy into my hand. My wrath was hot
against the deserter that could not even desert in silence--hot
against his dupes. Then suddenly words came to me--they have come
to me before, they burn up the very heart and marrow in me--"_Who
is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, and the Lord commandeth
it not?_" There they were in my ears, written on the walls--the
The hand dropped from Robert's arm. A dull look of defeat, of
regret, darkened the gleaming eyes. They were standing in a quiet
deserted street, but through a side-opening the lights, the noise,
the turbulence of the open-air market came drifting to them through
the rainy atmosphere which blurred and magnified everything.
'Ay, after days and nights in His most blessed sanctuary,' Newcome
resumed slowly, 'I came, by His commission, as I thought, to fight
His battle, with a traitor! And at the last moment His strength,
which was in me, went from me. I sat there dumb; His hand was heavy
upon me. His will be done!'
The voice sank; the priest drew his thin, shaking hand across his
eyes, as though the awe of a mysterious struggle were still upon
him. Then he turned again to Elsmere, his face softening, radiating.
'Elsmere, take the sign, the message! I thought it was given to
me to declare the Lord's wrath. Instead, He sends you once more
by me, even now--even fresh from this new defiance of His mercy,
the tender offer of His grace! He lies at rest to-night, my
brother'--what sweetness in the low vibrating tones! 'after all the
anguish. Let me draw you down on your knees beside Him. It is
you, you, who have helped to drive in the nails, to embitter the
agony! It is you who in His loneliness have been robbing Him of
the souls that should be his! It is you who have been doing your
utmost to make His cross and passion of no effect. Oh, let it break
your heart to think of it! Watch by Him to-night, my friend, my
brother, and to-morrow let the risen Lord reclaim his own!'
Never had Robert seen any mortal face so persuasively beautiful;
never surely did saint or ascetic plead with a more penetrating
gentleness. After the storm of those opening words the change was
magical. The tears stood in Elsmere's eyes. But his quick insight,
in spite of himself, divined the subtle natural facts behind the
outburst, the strained physical state, the irritable brain--all the
consequences of a long defiance of physical and mental law. The
priest repelled him, the man drew him like a magnet.
'What can I say to you, Newcome?' he cried despairingly. 'Let me
say nothing, dear old friend! I am tired out; so, I expect, are
you. I know what this week has been to you. Walk with me a little.
Leave these great things alone. We cannot agree. Be content--God
knows! Tell me about the old place, and the people. I long for
news of them.'
A sort of shudder passed through his companion. Newcome stood
wrestling with himself. It was like the slow departure of a
possessing force. Then he sombrely assented, and they turned toward
the City. But his answers, as Robert questioned him, were sharp
and mechanical and presently it became evident that the demands of
the ordinary talk to which Elsmere vigorously held him were more
than he could bear.
As they reached St. Paul's, towering into the watery moon-light of
the clouded sky, he stopped abruptly and said good-night.
You came to me in the spirit of war,' said Robert, with some emotion,
as he held his hand; 'give me instead the grasp of peace!'
The spell of his manner, his presence, prevailed at last. A quivering
smile dawned on the priest's delicate lip.
'God bless you--God restore you!' he said sadly, and was gone.
A week later Elsmere was startled to find himself detained, after
his story-telling, by a trio of workmen, asking on behalf of some
thirty or forty members of the North R---- Club that he would give
them a course of lectures on the New Testament. One of them was
the gas-fitter Charles Richards; another was the watchmaker Lestrange,
who had originally challenged Robert to deliver himself; and the
third was a tough old Scotchman of sixty with a philosophical turn,
under whose spoutings of Hume and Locke, of Reid and Dugald Stewart,
delivered in the shrillest of cracked voices, the Club had writhed
many an impatient half-hour on debating nights. He had an unexpected
artistic gift, a kind of 'sport' as compared with the rest of his
character, which made him a valued designer in the pottery works;
but his real interests were speculative and argumentative, concerned
with 'common nawtions of the praimary elements of reason,' and the
appearance of Robert in the district seemed to offer him at last a
foeman worthy of his steel. Elsmere shrewdly suspected that the
last two looked forward to any teaching he might give mostly as a
new and favorable exercising ground for their own wits but he took
the risk, gladly accepted the invitation, and fixed Sunday afternoons
for a weekly New Testament lecture.
His first lecture, which he prepared with great care, was delivered
to thirty-seven men a fortnight later. It was on the political and
social state of Palestine and the East at the time of Christ's
birth; and Robert, who was as fervent a believer in 'large maps'
as Lord Salisbury, had prepared a goodly store of them for the
occasion, together with a number of drawings and photographs which
formed part of the collection he had been gradually making since
his own visit to the Holy Land. There was nothing he laid more
stress on than, these helps to the eye and imagination in dealing
with the Bible. He was accustomed to maintain in his arguments
with Hugh Flaxman that the orthodox traditional teaching of
Christianity would become impossible as soon as it should be the
habit to make a free and modern use of history and geography and
social material in connection with the Gospels. Nothing tends so
much, he would say, to break down the irrational barrier which men
have raised about this particular tract of historical space, nothing
helps so much to let in the light and air of scientific thought
upon it, and therefore nothing prepares the way so effectively for
a series of new conceptions.
By a kind of natural selection Richards became Elsmere's chief
helper and adjutant in the Sunday lectures,--with regard to all
such matters as beating up recruits, keeping guard over portfolios,
handing round maps and photographs, &c.--supplanting in this function
the jealous and sensitive Mackay, who, after his original opposition,
had now arrived at regarding Robert as his own particular property,
and the lecturer's quick smile of thanks for services rendered as
his own especial right. The bright, quicksilvery, irascible little
workman, however, was irresistible and had his way. He had taken
a passion for Robert as for a being of another order and another
world. In the discussions which generally followed the lecture he
showed a receptiveness, an intelligence, which were in reality a
matter not of the mind but of the heart. He loved, therefore he
understood. At the Club he stood for Elsmere with a quivering,
spasmodic eloquence, as against Andrews, and the Secularists. One
thing only puzzled Robert. Among all the little fellow's sallies
and indiscretions, which were not infrequent, no reference to his
home life was ever included. Here he kept even Robert absolutely
at arm's length. Robert knew that he was married and had children,
The old Scotchman, Macdonald, came out after the first lecture
'Not the sort of stooff I'd expected!' he said, with a shade of
perplexity on the rugged face. 'He doosn't talk eneuf in the
_aa_bstract for me.'
But he went again, and the second lecture, on the origin of the
Gospels, got hold of him, especially as it supplied him with a whole
armory of new arguments in support of Hume's doctrine of conscience,
and in defiance of 'that blatin' creetur, Reid'. The thesis with
which Robert, drawing on some of the stores supplied him by the
Squire's book, began his account--i.e. the gradual growth within the
limits of history of man's capacity for telling the exact truth--fitted
in, to the Scotchman's thinking, so providentially with his own
favorite experimental doctrines as against the 'intueetion' folks,
'who will have it that a babby's got as moch mind as Mr. Gladstone
ef it only knew it!' that afterward he never missed a lecture.
Lestrange was more difficult. He had the inherited temperament of
the Genevese _frondeur_, which made Geneva the headquarters of
Calvinism in the sixteenth century, and bids fair to make her the
headquarters of continental radicalism in the nineteenth. Robert
never felt his wits so much stretched and sharpened as when after
the lecture Lestrange was putting questions and objections with an
acrid subtlety and persistence worthy of a descendant of that burgher
class which first built up the Calvinistic system and then produced
the destroyer of it in Rousseau. Robert bore his heckling, however,
with great patience and adroitness. He had need of all he knew,
as Murray Edwardes had warned him. But luckily he knew a great
deal; his thought was clearing and settling month by month, and
whatever he may have lost at any moment by the turn of an argument,
he recovered immediately afterward by the force of personality, and
of a single-mindedness in which there was never a trace of personal
Week by week the lecture became more absorbing to him, the men more
pliant, his hold on them firmer. His disinterestedness, his
brightness and resource, perhaps, too, the signs about him of a
light and frail physical organization, the novelty of his position,
the inventiveness of his method, gave him little by little an immense
power in the place. After the first two lectures Murray Edwardes
became his constant and enthusiastic hearer on Sunday afternoons,
and, catching some of Robert's ways and spirit, he gradually brought
his own chapel and teaching more and more into line with the Elgood
Street undertaking. So that the venture of the two men began to
take ever larger proportions; and, kindled by the growing interest
and feeling about him, dreams began to rise in Elsmere's mind which
as yet he hardly dared to cherish which came and went, however,
weaving a substance for themselves out of each successive incident
Meanwhile he was at work on an average three evenings in the week
besides the Sunday. In West End drawing-rooms his personal gift
had begun to tell no less than in this crowded, squalid East; and
as his aims became known, other men, finding the thoughts of their
own hearts revealed in him, or touched with that social compunction
which is one of the notes of our time, came down and became his
helpers. Of all the social projects of which that Elgood Street
room became the centre, Elsmere was, in some sense, the life and
inspiration. But it was not these projects themselves which made
this period of his life remarkable. London at the present moment,
if it be honey-combed with vice and misery, is also honey-combed
with the labor of ever expanding charity. Week, by week men and
women of like gifts and energies with Elsmere spend themselves, as
he did, in the constant effort to serve and to alleviate. What
_was_ noticeable, what _was_ remarkable in this work of his, was
the spirit, the religious passion which, radiating from him, began
after a while to kindle the whole body of men about him. It was
from his Sunday lectures and his talks with the children, boys and
girls, who came in after the lecture to spend a happy hour and a
half with him on Sunday afternoons, that in later years hundreds
of men and women will date the beginnings of a new absorbing life.
There came a time, indeed, when, instead of meeting criticism by
argument, Robert was able simply to point to accomplished facts.
'You ask me,' he would say in effect, 'to prove to you that men can
love, can make a new and fruitful use, for daily life and conduct,
of a merely human Christ. Go among our men, talk to our children,
and satisfy yourself. A little while ago scores of these men either
hated the very name of Christianity or were entirely indifferent
to it. To scores of them now the name of the teacher of Nazareth,
the victim of Jerusalem, is dear and sacred; his life, his death,
his words, are becoming once more a constant source of moral effort
and spiritual hope. See for yourself!'
However, we are anticipating. Let us go back to May.
One beautiful morning Robert was sitting working in his study, his
windows open to the breezy blue sky and the budding plane-trees
outside, when the door was thrown open and Mr. Wendover was announced.
The Squire entered; but what a shrunken and aged Squire! The gait
was feeble, the bearing had lost all its old erectness, the bronzed
strength of the face had given place to a waxen and ominous pallor.
Robert, springing up with joy to meet the great gust of Murewell
air which seemed to blow about him with the mention of the Squire's
name, was struck, arrested. He guided his guest to a chair with
an almost filial carefulness.
'I don't believe, Squire,' he exclaimed, 'you ought to be doing
this---wandering about London by yourself!'
But the Squire, as silent and angular as ever when anything personal
to himself was concerned, would take no notice of the implied anxiety
and sympathy. He grasped his umbrella between his knees with a
pair of brown twisted hands, and, sitting very upright, looked
critically round the room. Robert, studying the dwindled figure,
remembered with a pang the saying of another Oxford scholar, _a
propos_ of the death of a young man of extraordinary promise, '_What
learning has perished with him! How vain seem all toil to
acquire!_'--and the words, as they passed through his mind, seemed
to him to ring another death-knell.
But after the first painful impression he could not help losing
himself in the pleasure of the familiar face, the Murewell associations.
'How is the village, and the lnstitute? And what sort of man is
my successor--the man, I mean, who came after Armitstead?'
'I had him once to dinner,' said the Squire briefly; 'he made a
false quantity, and asked me to subscribe to the Church Missionary
Society. I haven't seen him since. He and the village have been
at loggerheads about the Institute, I believe. He wanted to turn
out the Dissenters. Bateson came to me, and we circumvented him,
of course. But the man's an ass. Don't talk of him!'
Robert sighed a long sigh. Was all his work undone? It wrung his
heart to remember the opening of the Institute, the ardor of his
boys. He asked a few questions about individuals, but soon gave
it up as hopeless. The Squire neither knew nor cared.
'And Mrs. Darcy?'
'My sister had tea in her thirtieth summer-house last Sunday,'
remarked the Squire grimly. 'She wished me to communicate the fact
to you and Mrs. Elsmere. Also, that the worst novel of the century
will be out in a fortnight, and she trusts to you to see it well
reviewed in all the leading journals.'
Robert laughed, but it was not very easy to laugh. There was a
sort of ghastly undercurrent in the Squire's sarcasms that effectually
deprived them of anything mirthful.
'And your book?'
'Is in abeyance. I shall bequeath you the manuscript in my will,
to do what you like with.'
'Quite true! If you had stayed, I should have finished it, I
suppose. But after a certain age the toil of spinning cobwebs
entirely out of his own brain becomes too much for a man.'
It was the first thing of the sort that iron mouth had ever said
to him. Elsmere was painfully touched.
'You must not--you shall not give it up,' he urged. Publish the
first part alone, and ask me for any help you please.'
The Squire shook his head.
'Let it be. Your paper in the "Nineteenth Century" showed me that
the best thing I can do is to hand on my materials to you. Though
I am not sure that when you have got them you will make the best
use of them. You and Grey between you call yourselves Liberals,
and imagine yourselves reformers, and all the while you are doing
nothing but playing into the hands of the Blacks. All this theistic
philosophy of yours only means so much grist to their mill in the
'They don't see it in that light themselves,' said Robert, smiling.
'No,' returned the Squire, 'because most men are puzzle-heads.
Why,' he added, looking darkly at Robert, while the great head fell
forward on his breast in the familiar Murewell attitude, 'why can't
you do your work and let the preaching alone?'
'Because,' said Robert, 'the preaching seems to me my work. There
is the great difference between us, Squire. You look upon knowledge
as an end in itself. It may be so. But to me, knowledge has always
been valuable first and foremost for its bearing on life.'
'Fatal twist that,' returned the Squire harshly. 'Yes, I know; it
was always in you. Well, are you happy? does this new crusade of
yours give you pleasure?'
'Happiness,' replied Robert, leaning against the chimney-piece and
speaking in a low voice, 'is always relative. No one knows it
better than you. Life is full of oppositions. But the work takes
my whole heart and all my energies.'
The Squire looked at him in disapproving silence for a while.
'You will bury your life in it miserably,' he said at last; it will
be a toil of Sisyphus leaving no trace behind it; whereas such a
book as you might write, if you gave your life to it, might live
and work, and harry the enemy when you are gone.'
Robert forbore the natural retort.
The Squire went round his library, making remarks, with all the
caustic shrewdness natural to him, on the new volumes that Robert
had acquired since their walks and talks together.
'The Germans,' he said at last, putting back a book into the shelves
with a new accent of distaste and weariness, 'are beginning to
founder in the sea of their own learning. Sometimes I think I will
read no more German. It is a nation of learned fools, none of whom
ever sees an inch beyond his own professorial nose.'
Then he stayed to luncheon, and Catherine, moved by many feelings--perhaps
in subtle striving against her own passionate sense of wrong at
this man's hands--was kind to him, and talked and smiled, indeed,
so much, that the Squire for the first time in his life took
individual notice of her, and as he parted with Elsmere in the hall
made the remark that Mrs. Elsmere seemed to like London, to which
Robert, busy in an opportune search for his guest's coat made no
'When are you coming to Murewell?' the Squire said to him abruptly,
as he stood at the door muffled up as though it were December.
'There are a good many points in that last article you want talking
to about. Come next month with Mrs. Elsmere.'
Robert drew a long breath, inspired by many feelings.
'I will come, but not yet. I must get broken in here more thoroughly
first. Murewell touches me too deeply, and my wife. You are going
abroad in the summer, you say. Let me come to you in the autumn.'
The Squire said nothing, and went his way, leaning heavily on his
stick, across the square. Robert felt himself a brute to let him
go, and almost ran after him.
That evening Robert was disquieted by the receipt of a note from a
young fellow of St. Anselm's, an intimate friend and occasional
secretary of Grey. Grey, the writer said, had received Robert's
last letter, was deeply interested in his account of his work, and
begged him to write again. He would have written, but that he was
himself in the doctor's hands, suffering from various ills, probably
connected with an attack of malarial fever which had befallen him
in Rome the year before.
Catherine found him poring over the letter, and, as it seemed to
her, oppressed by an anxiety out of all proportion to the news
'They are not really troubled, I think,' she said, kneeling down
beside him, and laying her cheek against his. 'He will soon get
over it, Robert.'
But, alas! this mood, the tender characteristic mood of the old
Catherine, was becoming rarer and rarer with her. As the spring
expanded, as the sun and the leaves came back, poor Catherine's
temper had only grown more wintry and more rigid. Her life was
full of moments of acute suffering. Never, for instance, did she
forget the evening of Robert's lecture to the club. All the time
he was away she had sat brooding by herself in the drawing-room,
divining with a bitter clairvoyance all that scene in which he was
taking part, her being shaken with a tempest of misery and repulsion.
And together with that torturing image of a glaring room in which
her husband, once Christ's loyal minister, was employing all his
powers of mind and speech to make it easier for ignorant men to
desert and fight against the Lord who bought them, there mingled a
hundred memories of her father which were now her constant companions.
In proportion as Robert and she became more divided, her dead
father resumed a ghostly hold upon her. There were days when she
went about rigid and silent, in reality living altogether in the
past, among the gray farms, the crags and the stony ways of the
At such times her mind would be full of pictures of her father's
ministrations--his talks with the shepherds on the hills, with the
women at their doors, his pale dreamer's face beside some wild
death-bed, shining with the Divine message, the 'visions' which to
her awe-struck childish sense would often seem to hold him in their
silent walks among the misty hills.
Robert, taught by many small indications, came to recognize these
states of feeling in her with a dismal clearness, and to shrink
more and more sensitively while they lasted from any collision with
her. He kept his work, his friends, his engagements to himself,
talking resolutely of other things, she trying to do the same, but
with less success, as her nature was less pliant than his.
Then there would come moments when the inward preoccupation would
give way, and that strong need of loving, which was, after all, the
basis of Catherine's character, would break hungrily through, and
the wife of their early married days would reappear, though still
only with limitations. A certain nervous physical dread of any
approach to a particular range of subjects with her husband was
always present in her. Nay, through all these months it gradually
increased in morbid strength. Shock had produced it; perhaps shock
alone could loosen the stiffing pressure of it. But still every
now and then her mood was brighter, more caressing, and the area
of common mundane interests seemed suddenly to broaden for them.
Robert did not always make a wise use of these happier times; he
was incessantly possessed with his old idea that if she only would
allow herself some very ordinary intercourse with his world, her
mood would become less strained, his occupations and his friends
would cease to be such bugbears to her, and, for his comfort and
hers, she might ultimately be able to sympathize with certain sides
at any rate of his work.
So again and again, when her manner no longer threw him back on
himself, he made efforts and experiments. But he managed them far
less cleverly than he would have managed anybody else's affairs,
as generally happens. For instance, at a period when he was feeling
more enthusiasm than usual for his colleague Wardlaw, and when
Catherine was more accessible than usual, it suddenly occurred to
him to make an effort to bring them together. Brought face to face,
each _must_ recognize the nobleness of the other. He felt boyishly
confident of it. So he made it a point, tenderly but insistently,
that Catherine should ask Wardlaw and his wife to come and see them.
And Catherine, driven obscurely by a longing to yield in something,
which recurred, and often terrified herself, yielded in this.
The Wardlaws, who in general never went into society, were asked
to a quiet dinner in Bedford Square, and came. Then, of course,
it appeared that Robert, with the idealist blindness, had forgotten
a hundred small differences of temperament and training which must
make it impossible for Catherine, in a state of tension, to see the
hero in James Wardlaw. It was an unlucky dinner. James Wardlaw,
with all his heroisms and virtues, had long ago dropped most of
those delicate intuitions and divinations, which make the charm of
life in society, along the rough paths of a strenuous philanthropy.
He had no tact, and, like most saints, he drew a certain amount
of inspiration from a contented ignorance of his neighbor's point
of view. Also, he was not a man who made much of women, and he
held strong views as to the subordination of wives. It never
occurred to him that Robert might have a Dissenter in his own
household, and as, in spite of their speculative differences, he
had always been accustomed to talk freely with Robert he now talked
freely to Robert plus his wife, assuming, as every good Comtist
does, that the husband is the wife's pope.
Moreover, a solitary eccentric life, far from the society of his
equals, had developed in him a good many crude Jacobinisms. His
experience of London clergymen, for instance, had not been particularly
favorable, and he had a store of anecdotes on the subject which
Robert had heard before, but which now, repeated in Catherine's
presence, seemed to have lost every shred of humor they once
possessed. Poor Elsmere tried with all his might to divert the
stream, but it showed a tormenting tendency to recur to the same
channel. And meanwhile the little spectacled wife, dressed in a
high home-made cashmere, sat looking at her husband with a benevolent
and smiling admiration. She kept all her eloquence for the poor.
After dinner things grew worse. Mrs. Wardlaw had recently presented
her husband with a third infant, and the ardent pair had taken
advantage of the visit to London of an eminent French Comtist to
have it baptized with full Comtist rites. Wardlaw stood astride,
on the rug, giving the assembled company a minute account of the
ceremony observed, while his wife threw in gentle explanatory
interjections. The manner of both showed a certain exasperating
confidence, if not in the active sympathy, at least in the impartial
curiosity of their audience, and in the importance to modern religious
history of the incident itself. Catherine's silence grew deeper
and deeper; the conversation fell entirely to Robert. At last
Robert, by main force as it were, got Wardlaw off into politics,
but the new Irish Coercion Bill was hardly introduced before the
irrepressible being turned to Catherine, and said to her with smiling
'I don't believe I've seen you at one of your husband's Sunday
addresses yet, Mrs. Elsmere? And it isn't so far from this part
of the world either.'
Catherine slowly raised her beautiful large eyes upon him. Robert
looking at her with a qualm, saw an expression he was learning to
dread flash across the face.
'I have my Sunday-school at that time, Mr. Wardlaw. I am a
The tone had a touch of _hauteur_ Robert had hardly ever heard from
his wife before. It effectually stopped all further conversation.
Wardlaw fell into silence, reflecting that he had been a fool.
His wife, with a timid flush, drew out her knitting and stuck to
it for the twenty minutes that remained. Catherine immediately did
her best to talk, to be pleasant; but the discomfort of the little
party was too great. It broke up at ten, and the Wardlaws departed.
Catherine stood on the rug while Elsmere went with his guests to
the door, waiting restlessly for her husband's return. Robert,
however, came back to her, tired, wounded, and out of spirits,
feeling that the attempt had been wholly unsuccessful, and shrinking
from any further talk about it. He at once sat down to some letters
for the late post. Catherine lingered a little, watching him longing
miserably, like any girl of eighteen, to throw herself on his neck
and reproach him for their unhappiness, his friends--she knew not
what! He all the time was intimately conscious of her presence,
of her pale beauty, which now at twenty-seven, in spite of its
severity, had a subtler finish and attraction than ever, of the
restless little movements so unlike herself, which she made from
time to time. But neither spoke except upon indifferent things.
Once more the difficult conditions of their lives seemed too obvious,
too oppressive. Both were ultimately conquered by the same sore
impulse to let speech alone.
And after this little scene, through the busy exciting weeks of the
season which followed, Robert taxed to the utmost on all sides,
yielded to the impulse of silence more and more.
Society was another difficulty between them. Robert delighted in
it so far as his East End life allowed him to have it. No one was
ever more ready to take other men and women at their own valuation
than he. Nothing was so easy to him as to believe in other people's
goodness, or cleverness, or super-human achievement. On the other
hand, London is kind to such men as Robert Elsmere. His talk, his
writing, were becoming known and relished; and even the most rigid
of the old school found it difficult to be angry with him. His
knowledge of the poor and of social questions attracted the men of
action; his growing historical reputation drew the attention of the
men of thought. Most people wished to know him and to talk to him,
and Catherine, smiled upon for his sake, and assumed to be his chief
disciple, felt herself more and more bewildered and antagonistic
as the season rushed on.
For what pleasure could she get out of these dinners and these
evenings, which supplied Robert with so much intellectual stimulus?
With her all the moral nerves were jarring and out of tune. At
any time Richard Leyburn's daughter would have found it hard to
tolerate a society where everything is an open question and all
confessions of faith are more or less bad taste. But now, when
there was no refuge to fall back upon in Robert's arms, no certainty
of his sympathy--nay, a certainty, that, however tender and pitiful
he might be, he would still think her wrong and mistaken! She went
here and there obediently because he wished; but her youth seemed
to be ebbing, the old Murewell gayety entirely left her, and people
in general wondered why Elsmere should have married a wife older
than himself, and apparently so unsuited to him in temperament.
Especially was she tried at Madame de Netteville's. For Robert's
sake she tried for a time to put aside her first impression and to
bear Madame de Netteville's evenings--little dreaming, poor thing,
all the time that Madame de Netteville thought her presence at the
famous 'Fridays' an incubus only to be put up with because her
husband was becoming socially an indispensable.
But after two or three Fridays Catherine's endurance failed her.
On the last occasion she found herself late in the evening hemmed
in behind Madame de Netteville and a distinguished African explorer,
who was the lion of the evening. Eugenie de Netteville had forgotten
her silent neighbor, and presently, with some biting little phrase
or other, she asked the great man his opinion on a burning topic
of the day, the results of Church missions in Africa. The great
man laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and ran lightly through a
string of stories in which both missionaries and converts played
parts which were either grotesque or worse. Madame de Netteville
thought the stories amusing, and as one ceased she provoked another,
her black eyes full of a dry laughter, her white hand lazily plying
her great ostrich fan.
Suddenly a figure rose behind them.
'Oh, Mrs. Elsmere!' said Madame de Netteville, starting, and then
coolly recovering herself, 'I had no idea you were there all alone.
I am afraid our conversation has been disagreeable to you. I am
afraid you are a friend of missions!'
And her glance, turning from Catherine to her companion, made a
little malicious signal to him which only he detected, as though
bidding him take note of a curiosity.
'Yes, I care for them, I wish for their success,' said Catherine,
one hand, which trembled slightly, resting on the table beside her,
her great gray eyes fixed on Madame de Netteville. 'No Christian
has any right to do otherwise.'
Poor brave goaded soul! She had a vague idea of 'bearing testimony'
as her father would have borne it in like circumstances. But she
turned very pale. Even to her the word 'Christian' sounded like a
bombshell in that room. The great traveller looked up astounded.
He saw a tall woman in white with a beautiful head, a delicate
face, a something indescribably noble and unusual in her whole look
and attitude. She looked like a Quaker prophetess--like Dinah
Morris in society--like--but his comparisons failed him. How did
such a being come _there_? He was amazed; but he was a man of
taste, and Madame de Netteville caught a certain Aesthetic approbation
in his look.
She rose, her expression hard and bright as usual.
'May one Christian pronounce for all?' she said, with a scornful
affectation of meekness. 'Mrs. Elsmere, please find some chair
more comfortable than that ottoman; and Mr. Ansdale, will you come
and be introduced to Lady Aubrey?'
After her guests had gone Madame de Netteville came back to the
fire flushed and frowning. It seemed to her that in that strange
little encounter she had suffered, and she never forgot or forgave
the smallest social discomfiture.
'Can I put up with that again?' she asked herself with a contemptuous
hardening of the lip. 'I suppose I must if he cannot be got without
her. But I have an instinct that it is over--that she will not
appear here again. Daudet might make use of her. I can't. What
a specimen! A boy and girl match, I suppose. What else could have
induced that poor wretch to cut his throat in such fashion? He,
of all men.'
And Eugenie de Netteville stood thinking--not, apparently, of the
puritanical wife; the dangerous softness which over-spread the face
could have had no connection with Catherine.
Madame de Netteville's instinct was just. Catherine Elsmere never
appeared again in her drawing-room.
But, with a little sad confession of her own invincible distaste,
the wife pressed the husband to go without her. She urged it at a
bitter moment, when it was clear to her that their lives must of
necessity, even in outward matters, be more separate than before.
Elsmere resisted for a time; then, lured one evening toward this
end of February by the prospect conveyed in a note from Madame de
Netteville, wherein Catherine was mentioned in the most scrupulously
civil terms, of meeting one of the most eminent of French critics,
he went, and thenceforward went often. He had, so far, no particular
liking for the hostess; he hated some of her _habitues_; but there
was no doubt that in some ways she made an admirable holder of a
_salon_, and that round about her there was a subtle mixture of
elements, a liberty of discussion and comment, to be found nowhere
else. And how bracing and refreshing was that free play of equal
mind to the man weary sometimes of his leader's _role_ and weary
As to the _woman_, his social naivete, which was extraordinary, but
in a man of his type most natural, made him accept her exactly as
he found her. If there were two or three people in Paris or London
who knew or suspected incidents of Madame de Netteville's young
married days which made her reception at some of the strictest
English houses a matter of cynical amusement to them, not the
remotest inkling of their knowledge was ever likely to reach Elsmere.
He was not a man who attracted scandals. Nor was it anybody's
interest to spread them. Madame de Netteville's position in London
society was obviously excellent. If she had peculiarities of manner
and speech they were easily supposed to be French. Meanwhile she
was undeniably rich and distinguished, and gifted with a most
remarkable power of protecting herself and her neighbors from
boredom. At the same time, though Elsmere was, in truth, more
interested in her friends than in her, he could not possibly be
insensible to the consideration shown for him in her drawing-room.
Madame de Netteville allowed herself plenty of jests with her
intimates as to the young reformer's social simplicity, his dreams,
his optimisms. But those intimates were the first to notice that
as soon as he entered the room those optimisms of his were adroitly
respected. She had various delicate contrivances for giving him
the lead; she exercised a kind of _surveillance_ over the topics
introduced; or in conversation with him she would play that most
seductive part of the cynic shamed out of cynicism by the neighborhood
of the enthusiast.
Presently she began to claim a practical interest in his Street
work. Her offers were made with a curious mixture of sympathy and
mockery. Elsmere could not take her seriously. But neither could
he refuse to accept her money, if she chose to spend it on a library
for Elgood Street, or to consult with her about the choice of books.
This whim of hers created a certain friendly bond between them
which was not present before. And on Elsmere's side it was
strengthened when, one evening, in a corner of her inner drawing-room,
Madame de Netteville suddenly, but very quietly, told him the story
of her life--her English youth, her elderly French husband, the
death of her only child, and her flight as a young widow to England
during the war of 1870. She told the story of the child, as it
seemed to Elsmere, with a deliberate avoidance of emotion, nay,
even with a certain hardness. But it touched him profoundly. And
everything else that she said, though she professed no great regret
for her husband, or for the break-up of her French life and though
everything was reticent and measured, deepened the impression of a
real forlornness behind all the outward brilliance and social
importance. He began to feel a deep and kindly pity for her, coupled
with an earnest wish that he could help her to make her life more
adequate and satisfying. And all this he showed in the look of his
frank gray eyes, in the cordial grasp of the hand with which, he
said good-by to her.
Madame de Netteville's gaze followed him out of the room--the tall
boyish figure, the nobly carried head. The riddle of her flushed
cheek and sparkling eye was hard to read. But there were one or
two persons living who could have read it, and who could have warned
you that the _true_ story of Eugenie de Netteville's life was
written, not in her literary studies or her social triumphs, but
in various recurrent outbreaks of unbridled impulse--the secret,
and in one or two cases the shameful landmarks of her past. And,
as persons of experience, they could also have warned you that the
cold intriguer, always mistress of herself, only exists in fiction,
and that a certain poisoned and fevered interest in the religious
leader, the young and pious priest, as such, is common enough among
the corrupter women of all societies.
Toward the end of May she asked Elsmere to dine '_en petit comite_,
a gentleman's dinner--except for my cousin, Lady Aubrey Willert'--to
meet an eminent Liberal Catholic, a friend of Montalembert's youth.
It was a week or two after the failure of the Wardlaw experiment.
Do what each would, the sore silence between the husband and wife
was growing, was swallowing up more of life.
'Shall I go, Catherine?' he asked, handing her the note.
'It would interest you,' she said gently, giving it back to him
scrupulously, as though she had nothing to do with it.
He knelt down before her, and put his arms round her, looking at
her with eyes which had a dumb and yet fiery appeal written in them.
His heart was hungry for that old clinging dependence, that willing
weakness of love, her youth had yielded him so gladly, instead of
this silent strength of antagonism. The memory of her Murewell
self flashed miserably through him as he knelt there, of her delicate
penitence toward him after her first sight of Newcome, of their
night walks during the Mile End epidemic. Did he hold now in his
arms only the ghost and shadow of that Murewell Catherine?
She must have read the reproach, the yearning of his look, for she
gave a little shiver, as though bracing herself with a kind of agony
'Let me go, Robert!' she said gently, kissing him on the forehead
and drawing back. 'I hear Mary calling, and nurse is out.'
The days went on and the date of Madame de Netteville's dinner party
had come round. About seven o'clock that evening Catherine sat
with the child in the drawing-room, expecting Robert. He had gone
off early in the afternoon to the East End with Hugh Flaxman to
take part in a committee of workmen organized for the establishment
of a choral union in R----, the scheme of which had been Flaxman's
chief contribution so far to the Elgood Street undertaking.
It seemed to her as she sat there working, the windows open on to
the bit of garden, where the trees are already withered and begrimed,
that the air without and her heart within were alike stifling and
heavy with storm. _Something_ must put an end to this oppression,
this misery! She did not know herself. Her whole inner being
seemed to her lessened and degraded by this silent struggle, this
fever of the soul, which made impossible all those serenities and
sweetnesses of thought in which her nature had always lived of old.
The fight into which fate had forced her was destroying her. She
was drooping like a plant cut off from all that nourishes its life.
And yet she never conceived it possible that she should relinquish
that fight. Nay, at times there sprang up in her now a dangerous
and despairing foresight of even worse things in store. In the
middle of her suffering, she already began to feel at moments the
ascetic's terrible sense of compensation. What, after all, is the
Christian life but warfare? '_I came not to send peace, but a
Yes, in these June days Elsmere's happiness was perhaps nearer wreck
than it had ever been. All strong natures grow restless under such
a pressure as was now weighing on Catherine. Shock and outburst
So she sat alone this hot afternoon, haunted by presentiments, by
vague terror for herself and him; while the child tottered about
her, cooing, shouting, kissing, and all impulsively, with a ceaseless
energy, like her father.
The outer door opened and she heard Robert's step and apparently
Mr. Flaxman's also. There was a hurried rushed word or two in the
hall, and the two entered the room where she was sitting.
Robert came, pressing back the hair from his eyes with a gesture
which with him was the invariable accompaniment of mental trouble.
Catherine sprang up.
'Robert, you look so tired! and how late you are!' Then as she
came nearer to him: 'And your coat--_torn--blood!_'
'There is nothing wrong with _me_, dear,' he said hastily, taking
her hands 'nothing! But it has been an awful afternoon. Flaxman
will tell you. I must go to this place, I suppose, though I hate
the thought of it! Flaxman, will you tell her all about it?' And,
loosing his hold, he went heavily out of the room and upstairs.
'It has been an accident,' said Flaxman gently, coming forward, 'to
one of the men of his class. May we sit down, Mrs. Elsmere? Your
husband and I have gone through a good deal these last two hours.'
He sat down with, a long breath, evidently to regain, his ordinary
even manner. His clothes, too, were covered with dust, and his
hand shook. Catherine stood before him in consternation, while a
nurse came for the child.
'We had just begun our committee at four o'clock,' he said at last,
'though only about half of the men had arrived when there was a
great shouting and commotion outside, and a man rushed in calling
for Elsmere. We ran out, found a great crowd, a huge brewer's dray
standing in the street and a man run over. Your husband pushed his
way in. I followed, and, to my horror, I found him kneeling
'Charles Richards?' Catherine repeated vacantly.
Flaxman looked up at her, as though puzzled; then a flash of
astonishment passed over his face.
'Elsmere has never told you of Charles Richards the little gas-fitter,
who has been his right hand for the past three months?'
'No--never,' she said slowly.
Again he looked astonished; then he went on sadly: 'All this spring
he has been your husband's shadow, never saw such devotion. We
found him lying in the middle of the road. He had only just left
work, a man said, who had been with him, and was running to the
meeting. He slipped and fell, crossing the street, which was muddy
from last night's rain. The dray swung round the corner--the driver
was drunk or careless--and they went right over him. One foot was
a sickening sight. Your husband and I luckily know how to lift him
for the best. We sent off for doctors. His home was in the next
street, as it as it happened--nearer than any hospital; so we carried
him there. The neighbors were around the door.'
Then he stopped himself.
'Shall I tell you the whole story?' he said kindly, 'it has been a
tragedy! I won't give you details if you had rather not.'
'Oh, no!' she said hurriedly; 'no--tell me.'
And she forgot to feel any wonder that Flaxman, in his chivalry,
should treat her as though she were a girl with nerves.
'Well, it was the surroundings that were so ghastly. When we got
to the house, an old woman rushed at me, "His wife's in there, but
ye'll not find her in her senses; she's been at it from eight o'clock
this morning. We've took the children away." I didn't know what
she meant exactly till we got into the little front room. There,
such a spectacle! A young woman on a chair by the fire sleeping
heavily, dead drunk; the breakfast things on the table, the sun
blazing in on the dust and the dirt, and on the woman's face. I
wanted to carry him into the room on the other side--he was
unconscious; but a doctor had come up with us, and made us put him
down on a bed there was in the corner. Then we got some brandy and
poured it down. The doctor examined him, looked at his foot, threw
something over it. "Nothing to be done," he said--"internal
injuries--he can't live half an hour." The next minute the poor
fellow opened his eyes. They had pulled away the bed from the wall.
Your husband was on the further side, knelling. When he opened
his eyes, clearly the first thing he saw was his wife. He half
sprang up--Elsmere caught him--and gave a horrible cry--indescribably
horrible. "_At it again, at it again! My God!_" Then he fell back
fainting. They got the wife out of the room between them--a perfect
log--you could hear her heavy breathing from the kitchen opposite.
We gave him more brandy and he came to again. He looked up in
your husband's face. "_She hasn't broke out for two months,_" he
said, so piteously, "_two months--and now--I'm done--I'm done--and
she'll just go straight to the devil!_" And it comes out, so the
neighbors told us, that for two years or more he had been patiently
trying to reclaim this woman, without a word of complaint to anybody,
though his life must have been a dog's life. And now, on his
death-bed, what seemed to be breaking his heart was, not that he
was dying, but that his task was snatched from him!'
Flaxman paused, and looked away out of the window. He told his
story with difficulty.
'Your husband tried to comfort him--promised that the wife and
children should be his special case, that everything that could be
done to save and protect them should be done. And the poor little
fellow looked up at him, with the tears running down his cheeks,
and--and--blessed him. "I cared about nothing," he said, "when you
came. You've been--God--to me--I've seen Him--in you." Then he
asked us to say something. Your husband said verse after verse of
the Psalms, of the Gospels, of St. Paul. His eyes grew filmy but
he seemed every now and then to struggle back to, life, and as soon
as he caught Elsmere's face his look lightened. Toward the last
he said something we none of us caught; but your husband thought
it was a line from Emily Bronte's "Hymn," which he said to them
last Sunday in lecture.'
He looked up at her interrogatively, but there was no response in
'I asked him about it,' the speaker went on, 'as we came home. He
said Grey of St. Anselm's once quoted it to him, and he has had a
love for it ever since.'
'Did he die while you were there?' asked Catherine presently after
a silence. Her voice was dull and quiet. He thought her a strange
'No,' said Flaxman, almost sharply-'but by now, it must be over.
The last sign of consciousness was a murmur of his children's names.
They brought them in, but his hands had to be guided to them. A
few minutes after it seemed to me that he was really gone, though
he still breathed. The doctor was certain there would be no more
consciousness. We stayed nearly another hour. Then his brother
came, and some other relations, and we left him. Oh, it is over
Hugh Flaxman sat looking out into the dingy bit of London garden.
Penetrated with pity as he was, he felt the presence of Elsmere's
pale, silent, unsympathetic wife an oppression. How could she,
receive such a story in such a way?
The door opened and Robert came in hurriedly.
'Good-night, Catherine--he has told you?'
He stood by her, his hand on her shoulder, wistfully looking at
her, the face full of signs of what he had gone through.
'Yes, it was terrible!' she said, with an effort.
His face fell. He kissed her on the forehead and went away.
When he was gone, Flaxman suddenly got up and leant against the
open French window, looking keenly down on his companion. A new
idea had stirred in him.
And presently, after more talk of the incident of the afternoon,
and when he had recovered his usual manner, he slipped gradually
into the subject of his own experiences in North R---- during the
last six months. He assumed all through that she knew as much as
there was to be known of Elsmere's work, and that she was as much
interested as the normal wife is in her husband's doings. His tact,
his delicacy, never failed him for a moment. But he spoke of his
own impressions, of matters within his personal knowledge. And
since the Easter sermon he had been much on Elsmere's track; he had
been filled with curiosity about him.
Catherine sat a little way from him, her blue dress lying in long
folds about her, her head bent, her long fingers crossed on her
lap. Sometimes she gave him a startled look, sometimes she shaded
her eyes, while her other hand played silently with her watch-chain.
Flaxman, watching her closely, however little he might seem to do
so, was struck by her austere and delicate beauty as he had never
She hardly spoke all through, but he felt that she listened without
resistance, nay, at last that she listened with a kind of hunger.
He went from story to story, from scene to scene, without any
excitement, in his most ordinary manner, making his reserves now
and then, expressing his own opinion when it occurred to him, and
not always favorably. But gradually the whole picture emerged,
began to live before them. At last he hurriedly looked at his
'What a time I have kept you! It has been a relief to talk to you.'
'You have not had dinner!' she said, looking up at him with a sudden
nervous bewilderment which touched him and subtly changed his
impression of her.
'No matter. I will got some at home. Good-night!'
When he was gone she carried the child up to bed; her supper was
brought to her solitary in the dining-room; and afterward in the
drawing-room, where a soft twilight was fading into a soft and
starlit night, she mechanically brought out some work for Mary, and
sat bending over it by the window. After about an hour she looked
up straight before her, threw her work down, and slipped on to the
floor, her head resting on the chair.
The shock, the storm, had come. There for hours lay Catherine
Elsmere weeping her heart away, wrestling with herself, with memory,
with God. It was the greatest moral upheaval she had ever
known--greater even than that which had convulsed her life at
Robert, tired and sick at heart, felt himself in no mood this evening
for a dinner-party in which conversation would be treated more or
less as a fine art. Liberal Catholicism had lost its charm; his
sympathetic interest in Montalembert, Lacordaire, Lamennais, had
to be quickened, pumped up again as it were, by great efforts, which
were constantly relaxed within him as he sped westward by the
recurrent memory of that miserable room, the group of men, the
bleeding hand, the white dying face.
In Madame de Netteville's drawing-room he found a small number of
people assembled. M. de Querouelle, a middle-sized, round-headed
old gentleman of a familiar French type; Lady Aubrey, thinner, more
lath-like than ever, clad in some sumptuous mingling of dark red
and silver; Lord Rupert, beaming under the recent introduction of
a Land Purchase Bill for Ireland, by which he saw his way at last
to wash his hands of 'a beastly set of tenants;' Mr. Wharncliffe,
a young private secretary with a waxed moustache, six feet of height,
and a general air of superlativeness which demanded, and secured
attention; a famous journalist, whose smiling, self-repressive look
assured you that he carried with him the secrets of several empires;
and one Sir John Headlam, a little black-haired Jewish-looking man
with a limp--an ex-Colonial Governor, who had made himself accepted
in London as an amusing fellow, but who was at least as much disliked
by one half of society as he was popular with the other.
'Purely for talk, you see, not for show!' said Madame de Netteville
to Robert, with a little smiling nod round her circle as they stood
waiting for the commencement of dinner.
'I shall hardly do my part,' he said with a little sigh. 'I have
just come from a very different scene.'
She looted at him with inquiring eyes.
'A terrible accident in the East End,' he said briefly. 'We won't
talk of it. I only mention it to propitiate you before-hand. Those
things are not forgotten at once.'
She said no more, but, seeing that he was indeed out of heart,
physically and mentally, she showed the most subtle consideration
for him at dinner. M. de Querouelle was made to talk. His hostess
wound him up and set him going, tune after tune. He played them
all and, by dint of long practice, to perfection, in the French
way. A visit of his youth to the Island grave of Chateaubriand;
his early memories, as a poetical aspirant, of the magnificent
flatteries by which Victor Hugo made himself the god of young
romantic Paris; his talks with Montalembert in the days of _L'Avenir_;
his memories of Lamennais' sombre figure, of Maurice de Guerin's
feverish ethereal charm; his account of the opposition _salons_
under the Empire--they had all been elaborated in the course of
years, till every word fitted and each point led to the next with
the 'inevitableness' of true art. Robert, at first silent and
_distraut_, found it impossible after a while not to listen with
interest. He admired the skill, too, of Madame de Netteville's
second in the duet, the finish, the alternate sparkle and melancholy
of it; and at last he too was drawn in, and found himself listened
to with great benevolence by the French man, who had been informed
about him, and regarded him indulgently, as one more curious specimen
of English religious provincialisms. The journalist, Mr. Addlestone,
who had won a European reputation for wisdom by a great scantiness
of speech in society, coupled with the look of Minerva's owl,
attached himself to them; while Lady Aubrey, Sir John Headlam, Lord
Rupert, and Mr. Wharncliffe made a noisier and more dashing party
at the other end.
'Are you still in your old quarters?' Lady Aubrey asked Sir John
Headlam, turning his old, roguish face upon her. 'That house of
Well Gwynne's, wasn't it, in Meade Street?'
'Oh dear no! We could only get it up to May this year, and then
they made us turn out for the season, for the first time for ten
years. There is a tiresome young heir who has married a wife and
wants to live in it. I could have left a train of gunpowder and a
slow match behind, I was so cross!'
'Ah,--"Reculer pour mieux _faire_ sauter!"' said Sir John, mincing
out his pun as though he loved it.
'Not bad, Sir John,' she said, looking at him calmly, 'but you have
way to make up. You were so dull the last time you took me in to
dinner, that positively----'
'You began to wonder to what I owed my paragraph in the "Societe
de Londres,"' he rejoined, smiling, though a close observer might
have seen an angry flash in his little eyes. 'My dear Lady Aubrey,
it was simply because I had not seen you for six weeks. My education
had been neglected. I get my art and my literature from you. The
last time but one we meet, you gave me the cream of three new French
novels and all the dramatic scandal of the period. I have lived
on it for weeks. By the way, have you read the "Princesse de----"'
He looked at her audaciously. The book had affronted even Paris.
'I haven't,' she said, adjusting her bracelets, while she flashed
a rapier-glance at him, 'but if I had, I should say precisely the
same. Lord Rupert will you kindly keep Sir John in order?'
Lord Rupert plunged in with the gallant floundering motion
characteristic of him, while Mr. Wharncliffe followed like a modern
gunboat behind a three-decker. That young man was a delusion. The
casual spectator, to borrow a famous Cambridge _mot_, invariably
assumed that all 'the time he could spare from neglecting his duties
he must spend in adorning his person.' Not at all! The _tenue_
of a dandy was never more cleverly used to mask the schemes of a
Disraeli or the hard ambition of a Talleyrand than in Master Frederick
Wharncliffe, who was in reality going up the ladder hand over hand,
and meant very soon to be on the top rungs.
It was a curious party, typical of the house, and of a certain
stratum of London. When, every now and then, in the pauses of their
own conversation, Elsmere caught something of the chatter going on
at the other end of the table, or when the party became fused into
one for a while under the genial influence of a good story or the
exhilaration of a personal skirmish, the whole scene--the dainty
oval room, the lights, the servants, the exquisite fruit and flowers,
the gleaming silver, the tapestried wall--would seem to him for an
instant like a mirage, a dream, yet with something glittering and
arid about it which a dream never has.
The hard self-confidence of these people--did it belong to the same
world as that humbling, that heavenly self-abandonment which had
shone on him that afternoon from Charles Richards' begrimed and
blood-stained face? '_Blessed are the poor in spirit_,' he said
to himself once with an inward groan. 'Why am I here? Why am I
not at home with Catherine?'
But Madame de Netteville was pleasant to him. He had never seen
her so womanly, never felt more grateful for her delicate social
skill. As she talked to him, or to the Frenchman, of literature,
or politics, or famous folk, flashing her beautiful eyes from one
to the other, Sir John Headlam would, every now and then, turn his
odd puckered face observantly toward the farther end of the table.
'By Jove!' he said afterward to Wharncliffe as they walked away
from the door together, 'she was inimitable to-night; she has more
roles than Desforets!' Sir John and his hostess were very old
Upstairs, smoking began, Lady Aubrey and Madame de Netteville joining
in. M. de Querouelle, having talked the best of his repertoire at
dinner, was now inclined for amusement, and had discovered that
Lady Aubrey could amuse him, and was, moreover, _une belle personne_.
Madame de Netteville, was obliged to give some time to Lord Rupert.
The other men stood chatting politics and the latest news, till
Robert, conscious of a complete failure of social energy, began to
took at his watch. Instantly Madame de Netteville glided up to
'Mr. Elsmere, you have talked no business to me, and I must know
how nay affairs in Elgood Street are getting on. Come into my
little writing-room.' And she led him into a tiny panelled room
at the far end of the drawing-room and shut off from it by a heavy
curtain, which she now left half-drawn.
'The latest?' said Fred Wharncliffe to Lady Aubrey, raising his
eyebrows with the slightest motion of the head toward the writing-room.
'I suppose so,' she said indifferently; 'She is East-Ending, for a
change. We all do it nowadays. It is like Dizzy's young man who
"liked bad wine, he was so bored with good."'
Meanwhile, Madame de Netteville was leaning against the open window
of the fantastic little room, with Robert beside her.
'You look as if you had had a strain,' she said to him, abruptly,
after they had talked business for a few minutes. 'What has been
He told her Richards' story, very shortly. It would have been
impossible to him to give more than the dryest outline of it in
that room. His companion listened gravely. She was an epicure in
all things, especially in moral sensation, and she liked his moments
of reserve and strong self-control. They made his general expansiveness
Presently there was a pause, which she broke by saying,--
'I was at your lecture last Sunday--you didn't see me!'
'Were you? Ah! I remember a person in black, and veiled, who puzzled
me. I don't think we want you there, Madame de Netteville.'
His look was pleasant, but his tone had some decision in it.
'Why not? Is it only the artisans who have souls? A reformer
should refuse no one.'
'You have your own opportunities,' he said quietly; 'I think the
men prefer to have it to themselves for the present. Some of them
are dreadfully in earnest.'
'Oh, I don't pretend to be in earnest,' she said with a little wave
of her hand; 'or, at any rate, I know better than to talk of
earnestness to _you_.'
'Why to me?' he asked, smiling.
'Oh, because you and your like have your fixed ideas of the upper
class and the lower. One social type fills up your horizon. You
are not interested in any other.'
She looked at him defiantly. Everything about her to-night was
splendid and regal--her dress of black and white brocade, the
diamonds at her throat, the carriage of her head, nay, the marks
of experience and living on the dark subtle face.
'Perhaps not,' he replied; 'it is enough for one life to try and
make out where the English working class is tending to.'
'You are quite wrong, utterly wrong. The man who keeps his eye
only on the lower class will achieve nothing. What can the idealist
do without the men of action--the men who can take his beliefs and
make them enter by violence into existing institutions? And the
men of action are to be found with _us_.'
'It hardly looks just now as if the upper class was to go on enjoying
a monopoly of them,' he said, smiling.
'Then appearances are deceptive, The populace supplies mass and
weight--nothing else. What _you_ want is to touch the leaders, the
men and women whose voices carry, and then your populace would
follow hard enough, For instance'--and she dropped her aggressive
tone and spoke with a smiling kindness--'come down next Saturday
to my little Surrey cottage; you shall see some of these men and
women there, and I will make you confess when you go away that you
have profited your workmen more by deserting them than by staying
with them. Will you come?'
'My Sundays are too precious to me just now, Madame de Netteville.
Besides, my firm conviction is that the upper class can produce a
Brook Farm, but nothing more. The religious movement of the future
will want a vast effusion of feeling and passion to carry it into
action, and feeling and passion are only to be generated in sufficient
volume among the masses, where the vested interests of all kinds
are less tremendous. You upper-class folk have your part, of course.
Woe betide you if you shirk--but----'
'Oh, let us leave it alone,' she said with a little shrug. 'I knew
you would give us all the work and refuse us all the profits. We
are to starve for your workman, to give him our hearts and purses
and everything we have, not that we may hoodwink him--which might
be worth doing--but that he may rule us. It is too much!'
'Very well,' he said dryly, his color rising. 'Very well, let it
be too much.'
And, dropping his lounging attitude, he stood erect, and she saw
that he meant to be going. Her look swept over him from head to
foot--over the worn face with its look of sensitive refinement and
spiritual force, the active frame, the delicate but most characteristic
hand. Never had any man so attracted her for years; never had she
found it so difficult to gain a hold. Eugenie de Netteville,
_poseuse_, schemer, woman of the world that she was, was losing
command of herself.
'What did you really mean by "worldliness" and the "world" in your
lecture last Sunday?' she asked him suddenly, with a little accent
of scorn. 'I thought your diatribes absurd. What you religious
people call the "world" is really only the average opinion of
sensible people which neither you nor your kind could do without
for a day.'
He smiled, half amused by her provocative tone, and defended himself
not very seriously. But she threw all her strength into the argument,
and he forgot that he had meant to go at once. When she chose she
could talk admirably, and she chose now. She had the most aggressive
ways of attacking, and then, in the same breath, the most subtle
and softening ways of yielding and, as it were, of asking pardon.
Directly her antagonist turned upon her he found himself disarmed
he knew not how. The disputant disappeared, and he felt the woman,
restless, melancholy, sympathetic, hungry for friendship and esteem,
yet too proud to make any direct bid for either. It was impossible
not to be interested and touched.
Such at least was the woman whom Robert Elsmere felt. Whether in
his hours of intimacy with her twelve months before, young Alfred
Evershed had received the same impression, may be doubted. In all
things Eugenie de Netteville was an artist.
Suddenly the curtain dividing them from the larger drawing-room was
drawn back, and Sir John Headlam stood in the doorway. He had the
glittering amused eyes of a malicious child as he looked at them.
'Very sorry, Madame,' he began in his high cracked voice, 'but
Wharncliffe and I are off to the New Club to see Desforets. They
have got her there to-night.'
'Go,' she said, waving her hand to him, 'I don't envy you. She is
not what she was.'
'No, there is only one person,' he said, bowing with grotesque
little airs of gallantry, 'for whom time stands still.'
Madame de Netteville looked at him with smiling, half-contemptuous
serenity. He bowed again, this time with ironical emphasis, and
'Perhaps I had better go and send them off,' she said, rising.
'But you and I have not had our talk out yet.'
She led the way into the drawing-room. Lady Aubrey was lying back
on the velvet sofa, a little green paroquet that was accustomed to
wander tamely about the room was perching on her hand. She was
holding the field against Lord Rupert and Mr. Addlestone in a
three-cornered duel of wits, while M. de Querouelle sat by, his
plump hands on his knees, applauding.
They all rose as their hostess came in.
'My dear,' said Lady Aubrey, 'it is disgracefully early, but my
country before pleasure. It is the Foreign Office to-night, and
since James took office I can't with decency absent myself. I had
rather be a scullery-maid than a minister's wife. Lord Rupert, I
will take you on if you want a lift.'
She touched Madame de Netteville's cheek with her lips, nodding to
the other men present, and went out, her fair stag-like head well
in the air, 'chaffing' Lord Rupert, who obediently followed her,
performing marvellous feats of agility in his desire to keep out
of the way of the superb train sweeping behind her. It always
seemed as if Lady Aubrey could have had no childhood, as if she
must always have had just that voice and those eyes. Tears she
could never have shed, not even as a baby over a broken toy.
Besides, at no period of her life could she have looked upon a lost
possession as anything else than the opportunity for a new one.
The other men took their departure for one reason or another. It
was not late, but London was in full swing, and M. de Querouelle
talked with gusto of four 'At homes' still to be grappled with.
As she dismissed Mr. Wharncliffe, Robert too held out his hand.
'No,' she said, with a quick impetuousness, 'no: I want my talk
out. It is barely half-past ten, and neither one of us wants to be
racing about London to-night.'
Elsmere had always a certain lack of social decision, and he lingered
rather reluctantly for another ten minutes, as he supposed.
She threw herself into a low chair. The windows were open to the
back of the house, and the roar of Piccadilly and Sloane Street
came borne in upon the warm night air. Her superb dark head stood
out against a stand of yellow lilies close behind her, and the
little paroquet, bright with all the colors of the tropics, perched
now on her knee, now on the back of her chair, touched every now
and then by quick unsteady fingers.
Then an incident followed which Elsmere remembered to his dying day
with shame and humiliation.
In ten minutes from the time of their being left alone, a woman who
was five years his senior had made him what was practically a
confession of love--had given him to understand that she know what
were the relations between himself and his wife--and had implored
him with the quick breath of an indescribable excitement to see
what a woman's sympathy and a woman's unique devotion could do for
the causes he had at heart.
The truth broke upon Elsmere very slowly, awakening in him, when
at last it was unmistakable, a swift agony of repulsion, which his
most friendly biographer can only regard with a kind of grim
satisfaction. For after all there is an amount of innocence and
absentmindedness in matters of daily human life, which is not only
_niaiserie_, but comes very near to moral wrong. In this crowded
world a man has no business to walk about with his eyes always on
the stars. His stumbles may have too many consequences. A harsh
but a salutary truth! If Elsmere needed it, it was bitterly taught
him during a terrible half-hour. When the half-coherent enigmatical
sentences, to which he listened at first with a perplexed surprise,
began gradually to define themselves; when he found a woman roused
and tragically beautiful between him and escape; when no determination
on his part not to understand; when nothing he could say availed
to protect her from her-self; when they were at last face to face
with a confession and an appeal which were a disgrace to both--then
at last Elsmere paid 'in one minute glad life's arrears'--the natural
penalty of an optimism, a boundless faith in human nature, with
which life, as we know it, is inconsistent.
How he met the softness, the grace, the seduction of a woman who
was an expert in all the arts of fascination he never knew. In
memory afterward it was all a ghastly mirage to him. The low voice,
the splendid dress, the scented room came back to him, and a confused
memory of his own futile struggle to ward off what she was bent on
saying--little else. He had been maladroit, he thought, had lost
his presence of mind. Any man of the world of his acquaintance,
he believed, trampling on himself, would have done better.
But when the softness and the grace were all lost in smart and
humiliation, when the Madame de Netteville of ordinary life
disappeared, and something took her place which was like a coarse
and malignant underself suddenly brought into the light of day,--from
that point onward, in after days, he remembered it all.
'. . . I know,' cried Eugenie de Netteville at last, standing at
bay before him, her hands locked before her, her white lips quivering,
when her cup of shame was full, and her one impulse left was to
strike the man who had humiliated her-'I know that you and your
puritanical wife are miserable--_miserable_. What is the use of
denying facts that all the world can see, that you have taken pains,'
and she laid a fierce, deliberate emphasis on each word, 'all the
world shall see? There,--let your wife's ignorance and bigotry,
and your own obvious relation to her, be my excuse, if I wanted
any; but'--and she shrugged her white shoulders passionately--'I
want _none!_ I am not responsible to your petty codes. Nature and
feeling are enough for me. I saw you wanting sympathy and
'My wife!' cried Robert, hearing nothing but that one word. And
then, his glance sweeping over the woman before him, he made a stern
'Let me go, Madame de Netteville, let me go, or I shall forget that
you are a woman, and I a man, and that in some way I cannot understand
my own blindness and folly----'
'Must have led to this most undesirable scene,' she said with mocking
suddenness, throwing, herself, however, effectually in his way.
Then a change came over her, and erect, ghastly white, with frowning
brow and shaking limbs, a baffled and smarting woman from whom every
restraint had fallen away, let loose upon him a torrent of gall and
bitterness which he could not have cut short without actual violence.
He stood proudly enduring it, waiting for the moment when what
seemed to him an outbreak of mania should have spent itself. But
suddenly he caught Catherine's name coupled with some contemptuous
epithet or other, and his self-control failed him. With flashing
eyes he went close up to her and took her wrists in a grip of iron.
'You shall not,' he said; beside himself, 'You shall not! What
have I done--what has she done--that you should allow yourself such
words? My poor wife!'
A passionate flood of self-reproachful love was on his lips. He
choked it back. It was desecration that her name should be mentioned
in that room. But he dropped the hand he held. The fierceness
died out of his eyes. His companion stood beside him panting,
'Thank God,' he said slowly, 'thank God for yourself and me that I
love my wife! I am not worthy of her--doubly unworthy, since it
has been possible for any human being to suspect for one instant
that I was ungrateful for the blessing of her love, that I could
ever forget and dishonor her! But worthy or not----No!--no matter!
Madame de Netteville, let me go, and forget that such a person
She looked at him steadily for a moment, at the stern manliness of
the face which seemed in this half-hour to have grown older, at the
attitude with its mingled dignity and appeal. In that second she
realized what she had done and what she had forfeited; she measured
the gulf between herself and the man before her. But she did not
flinch. Still holding him, as it were, with menacing defiant eyes,
she moved aside, she, waved her hand with a contemptuous gesture
of dismissal. He bowed, passed her, and the door shut.
For nearly an hour afterward Elsmere wandered blindly and aimlessly
through the darkness and silence of the park.
The sensitive optimist nature was all unhinged, felt itself wrestling
in the grip of dark, implacable things, upheld by a single thread
above that moral abyss which yawns beneath us all, into which the
individual life sinks so easily to ruin and nothingness. At such
moments a man realizes within himself, within the circle of
consciousness, the germs of all things hideous and vile. '_Save
for the grace of God_,' he says to himself, shuddering, 'save only
for the grace of God----'
Contempt for himself, loathing for life and its possibilities, as
he had just beheld them; moral tumult, pity, remorse, a stinging
self-reproach--all these things wrestled within him. What, preach
to others, and stumble himself into such mire as this? Talk loudly
of love and faith, and make it possible all the time that a fellow
human creature should think you capable at a pinch of the worst
treason against both?
Elsmere dived to the very depths of his own soul that night. Was
it all the natural consequence of a loosened bond, of a wretched
relaxation of effort--a wretched acquiescence in something second
best? Had love been cooling? Had it simply ceased to take the
trouble love must take to maintain itself? And had this horror
been the subtle inevitable Nemesis?
All at once, under the trees of the park, Elsmere stopped for a
moment in the darkness, and bared his head, with the passionate
reverential action of a devotee before his saint. The lurid image
which had been pursuing him gave way, and in its place came the
image of a new-made mother, her child close within her sheltering
arm. Ah! it was all plain to him now. The moral tempest had done
One task of all tasks had been set him from the beginning--to keep
his wife's love! If she had slipped away from him, to the injury
and moral lessening of both, on his cowardice, on his clumsiness,
be the blame! Above all, on his fatal power of absorbing himself
in a hundred outside interests, controversy, literature, society.
Even his work seemed to have lost half its sacredness. If there
be a canker at the root, no matter how large the show of leaf and
blossom overhead, there is but the more to wither! Of what worth
is any success, but that which is grounded deep on the rock of
personal love and duty?
Oh! let him go back to her!--wrestle with her, open his heart again,
try new ways, make new concessions. How faint the sense of _her_
trial has been growing within him of late! hers which had once been
more terrible to him than his own! He feels the special temptations
of his own nature; he throws himself, humbled, convicted, at her
feet. The woman, the scene he has left, is effaced, blotted out
by the natural intense reaction of remorseful love.
So he sped homeward at last through the noise of Oxford Street,
hearing nothing. He opened, his own door, and let himself into the
dim, silent house. How the moment recalled to him that other supreme
moment of his life at Murewell! No light in the drawing-room. He
went upstairs and softly turned the handle of her room.
Inside the room seemed to him nearly dark. But the window was wide
open. The free, loosely growing branches of the plane trees made
a dark, delicate network against the luminous blue of the night.
A cool air came to him laden with an almost rural scent of earth
and leaves. By the window sat a white motionless figure. As he
closed the door it rose and walked toward him without a word.
instinctively Robert felt that something unknown to him had been
passing here. He paused, breathless, expectant.
She came to him. She linked her cold, trembling fingers round his
'Robert, I have been waiting so long--it was so late! I thought'--and
she choked down a sob-'perhaps something has happened to--him, we
are separated forever, and I shall never be able to tell him.
Robert, Mr. Flaxman talked to me; he opened my eyes; I have been
so cruel to you, so hard! I have broken my vow. I don't deserve
She had spoken with extraordinary self-command till the last word,
which fell into a smothered cry for pardon. Catherine Elsmere had
very little of the soft clingingness which makes the charm of a
certain type of woman. Each phrase she had spoken had seemed to
take with it a piece of her life. She trembled and tottered in her
He bent over her with half-articulate words of amazement, of passion.
He led her to her chair, and kneeling before her, he tried, so far
as the emotion of both would let him, to make her realize what was
in his own heart, the penitence and longing which had winged his
return to her. Without a mention of Madame de Netteville's name,
indeed! _That_ horror she should never know. But it was to it,
as he held his wife, he owed his poignant sense of something
half-jeopardized and wholly recovered; it was that consciousness
in the background of his mind, ignorant of it as Catherine was then
and always, which gave the peculiar epoch-making force to this
sacred and critical hour of their lives. But she would hear nothing
of his self-blame--nothing. She put her hand across his lips.
'I have seen things as they are, Robert,' she said very simply;
'while I have been sitting here, and downstairs, after Mr. Flaxman
left me. You were right--I _would_ not understand. And, in a
sense, I shall never understand. I cannot change,' and her voice
broke into piteousness. 'My Lord is my Lord always--, but He is
yours too. Oh, I know it, say what you will! _That_ is what has
been hidden from me; that is what my trouble has taught me; the
powerlessness, the worthlessness, of words. _It is the spirit that
quickeneth_. I should never have felt it so, but for this fiery
furnace of pain. But I have been wandering in strange places,
through strange thoughts. God has not one language, but many. I
have dared to think He had but one, the one I know. I have dared'--and
she faltered--'to condemn your faith as no faith. Oh! I lay there
so long in the dark downstairs, seeing you by that bed; I heard
your voice, I crept to your side. Jesus was there, too. Ah, He
was--He was! Leave me that comfort! What are you saying? Wrong--you?
Back to Full Books