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Robert--there is no occasion to mention his surname: he was a young farmer of some education who tried to coax the aged soil of Wiltshire scientifically--came to Cadover on business and fell in love with Mrs. Elliot. She was there on her bridal visit, and he, an obscure nobody, was received by Mrs. Failing into the house and treated as her social equal. He was good-looking in a bucolic way, and people sometimes mistook him for a gentleman until they saw his hands. He discovered this, and one of the slow, gentle jokes he played on society was to talk upon some cultured subject with his hands behind his back and then suddenly reveal them. "Do you go in for boating?" the lady would ask; and then he explained that those particular weals are made by the handles of the plough. Upon which she became extremely interested, but found an early opportunity of talking to some one else.
He played this joke on Mrs. Elliot the first evening, not knowing that she observed him as he entered the room. He walked heavily, lifting his feet as if the carpet was furrowed, and he had no evening clothes. Every one tried to put him at his ease, but she rather suspected that he was there already, and envied him. They were introduced, and spoke of Byron, who was still fashionable. Out came his hands--the only rough hands in the drawing-room, the only hands that had ever worked. She was filled with some strange approval, and liked him.
After dinner they met again, to speak not of Byron but of manure. The other people were so clever and so amusing that it relieved her to listen to a man who told her three times not to buy artificial manure ready made, but, if she would use it, to make it herself at the last moment. Because the ammonia evaporated. Here were two packets of powder. Did they smell? No. Mix them together and pour some coffee--An appalling smell at once burst forth, and every one began to cough and cry. This was good for the earth when she felt sour, for he knew when the earth was ill. He knew, too, when she was hungry he spoke of her tantrums--the strange unscientific element in her that will baffle the scientist to the end of time. "Study away, Mrs. Elliot," he told her; "read all the books you can get hold of; but when it comes to the point, stroll out with a pipe in your mouth and do a bit of guessing." As he talked, the earth became a living being--or rather a being with a living skin,--and manure no longer dirty stuff, but a symbol of regeneration and of the birth of life from life. "So it goes on for ever!" she cried excitedly. He replied: "Not for ever. In time the fire at the centre will cool, and nothing can go on then."
He advanced into love with open eyes, slowly, heavily, just as he had advanced across the drawing room carpet. But this time the bride did not observe his tread. She was listening to her husband, and trying not to be so stupid. When he was close to her--so close that it was difficult not to take her in his arms-- he spoke to Mr. Failing, and was at once turned out of Cadover.
"I'm sorry," said Mr. Failing, as he walked down the drive with his hand on his guest's shoulder. "I had no notion you were that sort. Any one who behaves like that has to stop at the farm."
"Any one." He sighed heavily, not for any personal grievance, but because he saw how unruly, how barbaric, is the soul of man. After all, this man was more civilized than most.
"Are you angry with me, sir?" He called him "sir," not because he was richer or cleverer or smarter, not because he had helped to educate him and had lent him money, but for a reason more profound--for the reason that there are gradations in heaven.
"I did think you--that a man like you wouldn't risk making people unhappy. My sister-in-law--I don't say this to stop you loving her; something else must do that--my sister-in-law, as far as I know, doesn't care for you one little bit. If you had said anything, if she had guessed that a chance person was in--this fearful state, you would simply--have opened hell. A woman of her sort would have lost all--"
"I knew that."
Mr. Failing removed his hand. He was displeased.
"But something here," said Robert incoherently. "This here." He struck himself heavily on the heart. "This here, doing something so unusual, makes it not matter what she loses--I--" After a silence he asked, "Have I quite followed you, sir, in that business of the brotherhood of man?"
"How do you mean?"
"I thought love was to bring it about."
"Love of another man's wife? Sensual love? You have understood nothing--nothing." Then he was ashamed, and cried, "I understand nothing myself." For he remembered that sensual and spiritual are not easy words to use; that there are, perhaps, not two Aphrodites, but one Aphrodite with a Janus face. "I only understand that you must try to forget her."
"I will not try."
"Promise me just this, then--not to do anything crooked."
"I'm straight. No boasting, but I couldn't do a crooked thing-- No, not if I tried."
And so appallingly straight was he in after years, that Mr. Failing wished that he had phrased the promise differently.
Robert simply waited. He told himself that it was hopeless; but something deeper than himself declared that there was hope. He gave up drink, and kept himself in all ways clean, for he wanted to be worthy of her when the time came. Women seemed fond of him, and caused him to reflect with pleasure, "They do run after me. There must be something in me. Good. I'd be done for if there wasn't." For six years he turned up the earth of Wiltshire, and read books for the sake of his mind, and talked to gentlemen for the sake of their patois, and each year he rode to Cadover to take off his hat to Mrs. Elliot, and, perhaps, to speak to her about the crops. Mr. Failing was generally present, and it struck neither man that those dull little visits were so many words out of which a lonely woman might build sentences. Then Robert went to London on business. He chanced to see Mr. Elliot with a strange lady. The time had come.
He became diplomatic, and called at Mr. Elliot's rooms to find things out. For if Mrs. Elliot was happier than he could ever make her, he would withdraw, and love her in renunciation. But if he could make her happier, he would love her in fulfilment. Mr. Elliot admitted him as a friend of his brother-in-law's, and felt very broad-minded as he did so. Robert, however, was a success. The youngish men there found him interesting, and liked to shock him with tales of naughty London and naughtier Paris. They spoke of "experience" and "sensations" and "seeing life," and when a smile ploughed over his face, concluded that his prudery was vanquished. He saw that they were much less vicious than they supposed: one boy had obviously read his sensations in a book. But he could pardon vice. What he could not pardon was triviality, and he hoped that no decent woman could pardon it either. There grew up in him a cold, steady anger against these silly people who thought it advanced to be shocking, and who described, as something particularly choice and educational, things that he had understood and fought against for years. He inquired after Mrs. Elliot, and a boy tittered. It seemed that she "did not know," that she lived in a remote suburb, taking care of a skinny baby. "I shall call some time or other," said Robert. "Do," said Mr. Elliot, smiling. And next time he saw his wife he congratulated her on her rustic admirer.
She had suffered terribly. She had asked for bread, and had been given not even a stone. People talk of hungering for the ideal, but there is another hunger, quite as divine, for facts. She had asked for facts and had been given "views," "emotional standpoints," "attitudes towards life." To a woman who believed that facts are beautiful, that the living world is beautiful beyond the laws of beauty, that manure is neither gross nor ludicrous, that a fire, not eternal, glows at the heart of the earth, it was intolerable to be put off with what the Elliots called "philosophy," and, if she refused, to be told that she had no sense of humour. "Tarrying into the Elliot family." It had sounded so splendid, for she was a penniless child with nothing to offer, and the Elliots held their heads high. For what reason? What had they ever done, except say sarcastic things, and limp, and be refined? Mr. Failing suffered too, but she suffered more, inasmuch as Frederick was more impossible than Emily. He did not like her, he practically lived apart, he was not even faithful or polite. These were grave faults, but they were human ones: she could even imagine them in a man she loved. What she could never love was a dilettante.
Robert brought her an armful of sweet-peas. He laid it on the table, put his hands behind his back, and kept them there till the end of the visit. She knew quite well why he had come, and though she also knew that he would fail, she loved him too much to snub him or to stare in virtuous indignation. "Why have you come?" she asked gravely, "and why have you brought me so many flowers?"
"My garden is full of them," he answered. "Sweetpeas need picking down. And, generally speaking, flowers are plentiful in July."
She broke his present into bunches--so much for the drawing-room, so much for the nursery, so much for the kitchen and her husband's room: he would be down for the night. The most beautiful she would keep for herself. Presently he said, "Your husband is no good. I've watched him for a week. I'm thirty, and not what you call hasty, as I used to be, or thinking that nothing matters like the French. No. I'm a plain Britisher, yet-- I--I've begun wrong end, Mrs. Elliot; I should have said that I've thought chiefly of you for six years, and that though I talk here so respectfully, if I once unhooked my hands--"
There was a pause. Then she said with great sweetness, "Thank you; I am glad you love me," and rang the bell.
"What have you done that for?" he cried.
"Because you must now leave the house, and never enter it again."
"I don't go alone," and he began to get furious.
Her voice was still sweet, but strength lay in it too, as she said, "You either go now with my thanks and blessing, or else you go with the police. I am Mrs. Elliot. We need not discuss Mr. Elliot. I am Mrs. Elliot, and if you make one step towards me I give you in charge."
But the maid answered the bell not of the drawing-room, but of the front door. They were joined by Mr. Elliot, who held out his hand with much urbanity. It was not taken. He looked quickly at his wife, and said, "Am I de trop?" There was a long silence. At last she said, "Frederick, turn this man out."
"My love, why?"
Robert said that he loved her.
"Then I am de trop," said Mr. Elliot, smoothing out his gloves. He would give these sodden barbarians a lesson. "My hansom is waiting at the door. Pray make use of it."
"Don't!" she cried, almost affectionately. "Dear Frederick, it isn't a play. Just tell this man to go, or send for the police."
"On the contrary; it is French comedy of the best type. Don't you agree, sir, that the police would be an inartistic error?" He was perfectly calm and collected, whereas they were in a pitiable state.
"Turn him out at once!" she cried. "He has insulted your wife. Save me, save me!" She clung to her husband and wept. "He was going I had managed him--he would never have known--" Mr. Elliot repulsed her.
"If you don't feel inclined to start at once," he said with easy civility, "Let us have a little tea. My dear sir, do forgive me for not shooting you. Nous avons change tout cela. Please don't look so nervous. Please do unclasp your hands--"
He was alone.
"That's all right," he exclaimed, and strolled to the door. The hansom was disappearing round the corner. "That's all right," he repeated in more quavering tones as he returned to the drawing- room and saw that it was littered with sweet-peas. Their colour got on his nerves--magenta, crimson; magenta, crimson. He tried to pick them up, and they escaped. He trod them underfoot, and they multiplied and danced in the triumph of summer like a thousand butterflies. The train had left when he got to the station. He followed on to London, and there he lost all traces. At midnight he began to realize that his wife could never belong to him again.
Mr. Failing had a letter from Stockholm. It was never known what impulse sent them there. "I am sorry about it all, but it was the only way." The letter censured the law of England, "which obliges us to behave like this, or else we should never get married. I shall come back to face things: she will not come back till she is my wife. He must bring an action soon, or else we shall try one against him. It seems all very unconventional, but it is not really. it is only a difficult start. We are not like you or your wife: we want to be just ordinary people, and make the farm pay, and not be noticed all our lives."
And they were capable of living as they wanted. The class difference, which so intrigued Mrs. Failing, meant very little to them. It was there, but so were other things.
They both cared for work and living in the open, and for not speaking unless they had got something to say. Their love of beauty, like their love for each other, was not dependent on detail: it grew not from the nerves but from the soul.
"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren, And the tree toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest, And the running blackberry would adorn the parlours of heaven."
They had never read these lines, and would have thought them nonsense if they had. They did not dissect--indeed they could not. But she, at all events, divined that more than perfect health and perfect weather, more than personal love, had gone to the making of those seventeen days.
"Ordinary people!" cried Mrs. Failing on hearing the letter. At that time she was young and daring. "Why, they're divine! They're forces of Nature! They're as ordinary as volcanoes. We all knew my brother was disgusting, and wanted him to be blown to pieces, but we never thought it would happen. Do look at the thing bravely, and say, as I do, that they are guiltless in the sight of God."
"I think they are," replied her husband. "But they are not guiltless in the sight of man."
"You conventional!" she exclaimed in disgust. "What they have done means misery not only for themselves but for others. For your brother, though you will not think of him. For the little boy--did you think of him? And perhaps for another child, who will have the whole world against him if it knows. They have sinned against society, and you do not diminish the misery by proving that society is bad or foolish. It is the saddest truth I have yet perceived that the Beloved Republic"-- here she took up a book--"of which Swinburne speaks"--she put the book down--"will not be brought about by love alone. It will approach with no flourish of trumpets, and have no declaration of independence. Self-sacrifice and--worse still--self-mutilation are the things that sometimes help it most, and that is why we should start for Stockholm this evening." He waited for her indignation to subside, and then continued. "I don't know whether it can be hushed up. I don't yet know whether it ought to be hushed up. But we ought to provide the opportunity. There is no scandal yet. If we go, it is just possible there never will be any. We must talk over the whole thing and--"
"--And lie!" interrupted Mrs. Failing, who hated travel.
"--And see how to avoid the greatest unhappiness."
There was to be no scandal. By the time they arrived Robert had been drowned. Mrs. Elliot described how they had gone swimming, and how, "since he always lived inland," the great waves had tired him. They had raced for the open sea.
"What are your plans?" he asked. "I bring you a message from Frederick."
"I heard him call," she continued, "but I thought he was laughing. When I turned, it was too late. He put his hands behind his back and sank. For he would only have drowned me with him. I should have done the same."
Mrs. Failing was thrilled, and kissed her. But Mr. Failing knew that life does not continue heroic for long, and he gave her the message from her husband: Would she come back to him?
To his intense astonishment--at first to his regret--she replied, "I will think about it. If I loved him the very least bit I should say no. If I had anything to do with my life I should say no. But it is simply a question of beating time till I die. Nothing that is coming matters. I may as well sit in his drawing-room and dust his furniture, since he has suggested it."
And Mr. Elliot, though he made certain stipulations, was positively glad to see her. People had begun to laugh at him, and to say that his wife had run away. She had not. She had been with his sister in Sweden. In a half miraculous way the matter was hushed up. Even the Silts only scented "something strange." When Stephen was born, it was abroad. When he came to England, it was as the child of a friend of Mr. Failing's. Mrs. Elliot returned unsuspected to her husband.
But though things can be hushed up, there is no such thing as beating time; and as the years passed she realized her terrible mistake. When her lover sank, eluding her last embrace, she thought, as Agnes was to think after her, that her soul had sunk with him, and that never again should she be capable of earthly
love. Nothing mattered. She might as well go and be useful to her husband and to the little boy who looked exactly like him, and who, she thought, was exactly like him in disposition. Then Stephen was born, and altered her life. She could still love people passionately; she still drew strength from the heroic past. Yet, to keep to her bond, she must see this son only as a stranger. She was protected be the conventions, and must pay them their fee. And a curious thing happened. Her second child drew her towards her first. She began to love Rickie also, and to be more than useful to him. And as her love revived, so did her capacity for suffering. Life, more important, grew more bitter. She minded her husband more, not less; and when at last he died, and she saw a glorious autumn, beautiful with the voices of boys who should call her mother, the end came for her as well, before she could remember the grave in the alien north and the dust that would never return to the dear fields that had given it.
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