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Sidwell took no one into her confidence. The case was not one for counsel; whatever her future action, it must result from the maturing of self-knowledge, from the effect of circumstance upon her mind and heart. For the present she could live in silence.
'We hear,' she wrote from London to Sylvia Moorhouse, 'that Mr. Peak has left Exeter, and that he is not likely to carry out his intention of being ordained. You, I daresay, will feel no surprise.' Nothing more than that; and Sylvia's comments in reply were equally brief.
Martin Warricombe, after conversations with his wife and with Buckland, felt it impossible not to seek for an understanding of Sidwell's share in the catastrophe. He was gravely perturbed, feeling that with himself lay the chief responsibility for what had happened. Buckland's attitude was that of the man who can only keep repeating 'I told you so'; Mrs. Warricombe could only lament and upbraid in the worse than profitless fashion natural to women of her stamp. But in his daughter Martin had every kind of faith, and he longed to speak to her without reserve. Two days after her return from Exeter, he took Sidwell apart, and, with a distressing sense of the delicacy of the situation, tried to persuade her to frank utterance.
'I have been hearing strange reports,' he began, gravely, but without show of displeasure. 'Can you help me to understand the real facts of the case, Sidwell?--What is your view of Peak's behaviour?'
'He has deceived you, father,' was the quiet reply.
'You are convinced of that?--It allows of no----?'
'It can't be explained away. He pretended to believe what he did not and could not believe.'
'With interested motives, then?'
'Yes.--But not motives in themselves dishonourable.'
There was a pause. Sidwell had spoken in a steady voice, though with eyes cast down. Whether her father could understand a position such as Godwin's, she felt uncertain. That he would honestly endeavour to do so, there could be no doubt, especially since he must suspect that her own desire was to distinguish between the man and his fault. But a revelation of all that had passed between her and Peak was not possible; she had the support neither of intellect nor of passion; it would be asking for guidance, the very thing she had determined not to do. Already she found it difficult to recover the impulses which had directed her in that scene of parting; to talk of it would be to see her action in such a doubtful light that she might be led to some premature and irretrievable resolve. The only trustworthy counsellor was time; on what time brought forth must depend her future.
'Do you mean, Sidwell,' resumed her father, 'that you think it possible for us to overlook this deception?'
She delayed a moment, then said:
'I don't think it possible for you to regard him as a friend.'
Martin's face expressed relief.
'But will he remain in Exeter?'
'I shouldn't think he can.'
Again a pause. Martin was of course puzzled exceedingly, but he began to feel some assurance that Peak need not be regarded as a danger.
'I am grieved beyond expression,' he said at length. 'So deliberate a fraud--it seems to me inconsistent with any of the qualities I thought I saw in him.'
'Not--perhaps--to you?' Martin ventured, anxiously.
'His nature is not base.'
'Forgive me, dear.--I understand that you spoke with him after Buckland's call at his lodgings----?'
'Yes, I saw him.'
'And--he strove to persuade you that he had some motive which justified his conduct?'
'Excused, rather than justified.'
'Not--it seems--to your satisfaction?'
'I can't answer that question, father. My experience of life is too slight. I can only say that untruthfulness in itself is abhorrent to me, and that I could never try to make it seem a light thing.'
'That, surely, is a sound view, think as we may on speculative points. But allow me one more question, Sidwell. Does it seem to you that I have no choice but to break off all communication with Mr Peak?'
It was the course dictated by his own wish, she knew. And what could be gained by any middle way between hearty goodwill and complete repudiation? Time--time alone must work out the problem.
'Yes, I think you have no choice,' she answered.
'Then I must make inquiries--see if he leaves the town.'
'Mr. Lilywhite will know, probably.'
'I will write before long.'
So the dialogue ended, and neither sought to renew it.
Martin enjoined upon his wife a discreet avoidance of the subject. The younger members of the family were to know nothing of what had happened, and, if possible, the secret must be kept from friends at Exeter. When a fortnight had elapsed, he wrote to Mr. Lilywhite, asking whether it was true that Peak had gone away. 'It seems that private circumstances have obliged him to give up his project of taking Orders. Possibly he has had a talk with you?' The clergyman replied that Peak had left Exeter. 'I have had a letter from him, explaining in general terms his change of views. It hardly surprises me that he has reconsidered the matter. I don't think he was cut out for clerical work. He is far more likely to distinguish himself in the world of science. I suspect that conscientious scruples may have something to do with it; if so, all honour to him!'
The Warricombes prolonged their stay in London until the end of June. On their return home, Martin was relieved to find that scarcely an inquiry was made of him concerning Peak. The young man's disappearance excited no curiosity in the good people who had come in contact with him, and who were so far from suspecting what a notable figure had passed across their placid vision. One person only was urgent in his questioning. On an afternoon when Mrs Warricombe and her daughters were alone, the Rev. Bruno Chilvers made a call.
'Oh!' he exclaimed, after a few minutes' conversation, 'I am so anxious to ask you what has become of Mr. Peak. Soon after my arrival in Exeter, I went to see him, and we had a long talk--a most interesting talk. Then I heard all at once that he was gone, and that we should see no more of him. Where is he? What is he doing?'
There was a barely appreciable delay before Mrs. Warricombe made answer.
'We have quite lost sight of him,' she said, with an artificial smile. 'We know only that he was called away on some urgent business --family affairs, I suppose.'
Chilvers, in the most natural way, glanced from the speaker to Sidwell, and instantly, without the slightest change of expression, brought his eyes back again.
'I hope most earnestly,' he went on, in his fluty tone, 'that he will return. A most interesting man! A man of large intellectual scope, and really broad sympathies. I looked forward to many a chat with him. Has he, I wonder, been led to change his views? Possibly he would find a secular sphere more adapted to his special powers.'
Mrs. Warricombe had nothing to say. Sidwell, finding that Mr Chilvers' smile now beamed in her direction, replied to him with steady utterance:
'It isn't uncommon, I think, nowadays, for doubts to interfere with the course of study for ordination?'
'Far from uncommon!' exclaimed the Rector of St. Margaret's, with almost joyous admission of the fact. 'Very far from uncommon. Such students have my profound sympathy. I know from experience exactly what it means to be overcome in a struggle with the modern spirit. Happily for myself, I was enabled to recover what for a time I lost. But charity forbid that I should judge those who think they must needs voyage for ever in sunless gulfs of doubt, or even absolutely deny that the human intellect can be enlightened from above.'
At a loss even to follow this rhetoric, Mrs. Warricombe, who was delighted to welcome the Rev. Bruno, and regarded him as a gleaming pillar of the Church, made haste to introduce a safer topic. After that, Mr. Chilvers was seen at the house with some frequency. Not that he paid more attention to the Warricombes than to his other acquaintances. Relieved by his curate from the uncongenial burden of mere parish affairs, he seemed to regard himself as an apostle at large, whose mission directed him to the households of well-to-do people throughout the city. His brother clergymen held him in slight esteem. In private talk with Martin Warricombe, Mr. Lilywhite did not hesitate to call him 'a mountebank', and to add other depreciatory remarks.
'My wife tells me--and I can trust her judgment in such things-- that his sole object just now is to make a good marriage. Rather disagreeable stories seem to have followed him from the other side of England. He makes love to all unmarried women--never going beyond what is thought permissible, but doing a good deal of mischief, I fancy. One lady in Exeter--I won't mention names-- has already pulled him up with a direct inquiry as to his intentions; at her house, I imagine, he will no more be seen.'
The genial parson chuckled over his narrative, and Martin, by no means predisposed in the Rev. Bruno's favour, took care to report these matters to his wife.
'I don't believe a word of it!' exclaimed Mrs. Warricombe. 'All the clergy are jealous of Mr. Chilvers.'
'What? Of his success with ladies?'
'Martin! It is something new for you to be profane!--They are jealous of his high reputation.'
'Rather a serious charge against our respectable friends.'
'And the stories are all nonsense,' pursued Mrs. Warricombe. 'It's very wrong of Mr. Lilywhite to report such things. I don't believe any other clergyman would have done so.'
Martin smiled--as he had been accustomed to do all through his married life--and let the discussion rest there. On the next occasion of Mr. Chilvers being at the house, he observed the reverend man's behaviour with Sidwell, and was not at all pleased. Bruno had a way of addressing women which certainly went beyond the ordinary limits of courtesy. At a little distance, anyone would have concluded that he was doing his best to excite Sidwell's affectionate interest. The matter of his discourse might be unobjectionable, but the manner of it was not in good taste.
Mrs. Warricombe was likewise observant, but with other emotions. To her it seemed a subject for pleasurable reflection, that Mr. Chilvers should show interest in Sidwell. The Rev. Bruno had bright prospects. With the colour of his orthodoxy she did not concern herself. He was ticketed 'broad', a term which carried with it no disparagement; and Sidwell's sympathies were altogether with the men of 'breadth'. The time drew near when Sidwell must marry, if she ever meant to do so, and in comparison with such candidates as Mr Walsh and Godwin Peak, the Rector of St. Margaret's would be an ideal husband for her. Sidwell's attitude towards Mr. Chilvers was not encouraging, but Mrs. Warricombe suspected that a lingering regard for the impostor, so lately unmasked, still troubled her daughter's mind: a new suitor, even if rejected, would help the poor girl to dismiss that shocking infatuation.
Sidwell and her father nowadays spent much time together, and in the autumn days it became usual for them to have an afternoon ramble about the lanes. Their talk was of science and literature, occasionally skirting very close upon those questions which both feared to discuss plainly--for a twofold reason. Sidwell read much more than had been her wont, and her choice of authors would alone have indicated a change in her ways of thinking, even if she had not allowed it to appear in the tenor of her talk. The questions she put with reference to Martin's favourite studies were sometimes embarrassing.
One day they happened to meet Mr. Chilvers, who was driving with his eldest child, a boy of four. The narrowness of the road made it impossible--as Martin would have wished--to greet and pass on. Chilvers stopped the carriage and jumped out. Sidwell could not but pay some attention to the youthful Chilvers.
'Till he is ten years old,' cried Bruno, 'I shall think much more of his body than of his mind. In fact, at this age the body is the mind. Books, books--oh, we attach far too much importance to them. Over-study is one of the morbific tendencies of our time. Some one or other has been trying to frown down what he calls the excessive athleticism of our public schools. No, no! Let us rejoice that our lads have such an opportunity of vigorous physical development. The culture of the body is a great part of religion.' He always uttered remarks of this kind as if suggesting that his hearers should note them in a collection of aphorisms. 'If to labour is to pray, so also is the practice of open-air recreation.
When they had succeeded in getting away, father and daughter walked for some minutes without speaking. At length Sidwell asked, with a smile:
'How does this form of Christianity strike you?'
'Why, very much like a box on the ear with a perfumed glove,' replied Martin.
'That describes it very well.'
They walked a little further, and Sidwell spoke in a more serious tone.
'If Mr. Chilvers were brought before the ecclesiastical authorities and compelled to make a clear statement of his faith, what sect, in all the history of heresies, would he really seem to belong to?'
'I know too little of him, and too little of heresies.'
'Do you suppose for a moment that he sincerely believes the dogmas of his Church?'
Martin bit his lip and looked uneasy.
'We can't judge him, Sidwell.'
'I don't know,' she persisted. 'It seems to me that he does his best to give us the means of judging him. I half believe that he often laughs in himself at the success of his audacity.'
'No, no. I think the man is sincere.'
This was very uncomfortable ground, but Sidwell would not avoid it. Her eyes flashed, and she spoke with a vehemence such as Martin had never seen in her.
'Undoubtedly sincere in his determination to make a figure in the world. But a Christian, in any intelligible sense of that much-abused word,--no! He is one type of the successful man of our day. Where thousands of better and stronger men struggle vainly for fair recognition, he and his kind are glorified. In comparison with a really energetic man, he is an acrobat. The crowd stares at him and applauds, and there is nothing he cares for so much as that kind of admiration.'
Martin kept silence, and in a few minutes succeeded in; broaching a wholly different subject.
Not long after this, Mr. Chilvers paid a call at the conventional hour. Sidwell, hoping to escape, invited two girls to step out with her on to the lawn. The sun was sinking, and, as she stood with eyes fixed upon it, the Rev. Bruno's voice disagreeably broke her reverie. She was perforce involved in a dialogue, her companions moving aside.
'What a magnificent sky!' murmured Chilvers. '"There sinks the nebulous star." Forgive me, I have fallen into a tiresome trickof quoting. How differently a sunset is viewed nowadays from what it was in old times! Our impersonal emotions are on a higher plane-- don't you think so? Yes, scientific discovery has done more for religion than all the ages of pious imagination. A theory of Galileo or Newton is more to the soul than a psalm of David.'
'You think so?' Sidwell asked, coldly.
In everyday conversation she was less suave than formerly. This summer she had never worn her spray of sweet-brier, and the omission might have been deemed significant of a change in herself. When the occasion offered, she no longer hesitated to express a difference of opinion; at times she uttered her dissent with a bluntness which recalled Buckland's manner in private.
'Does the comparison seem to you unbecoming?' said Chilvers, with genial condescension. 'Or untrue?'
'What do you mean by "the soul"?' she inquired, still gazing away from him.
'The principle of conscious life in man--that which understands and worships.'
'The two faculties seem to me so different that'----She broke off. 'But I mustn't talk foolishly about such things.'
'I feel sure you have thought of them to some purpose. I wonder whether you ever read Francis Newman's book on The Soul?'
'No, I never saw it.'
'Allow me to recommend it to you. I believe you would find it deeply interesting.'
'Does the Church approve it?'
'The Church?' He smiled. 'Ah! what Church? Churchmen there are, unfortunately, who detest the name of its author, but I hope you have never classed me among them. The Church, rightly understood, comprehends every mind and heart that is striving upwards. The age of intolerance will soon be as remote from us as that of persecution. Can I be mistaken in thinking that this broader view has your sympathy, Miss Warricombe?'
'I can't sympathise with what I don't understand, Mr. Chilvers.'
He looked at her with tender solicitude, bending slightly from his usual square-shouldered attitude.
'Do let me find an opportunity of talking over the whole matter with you--by no means as an instructor. In my view, a clergyman may seek instruction from the humblest of those who are called his flock. The thoughtful and high-minded among them will often assist him materially in his endeavour at self-development. To my "flock",' he continued, playfully, 'you don't belong; but may I not count you one of that circle of friends to whom I look for the higher kind of sympathy?'
Sidwell glanced about her in the hope that some one might be approaching. Her two friends were at a distance, talking and laughing together.
'You shall tell me some day,' she replied, with more attention to courtesy, 'what the doctrines of the Broad Church really are. But the air grows too cool to be pleasant; hadn't we better return to the drawing-room?'
The greater part of the winter went by before she had again to submit to a tete-a-tete with the Rev. Bruno. It was seldom that she thought of him save when compelled to do so by his exacting presence, but in the meantime he exercised no small influence on her mental life. Insensibly she was confirmed in her alienation from all accepted forms of religious faith. Whether she wished it or not, it was inevitable that such a process should keep her constantly in mind of Godwin Peak. Her desire to talk with him at times became so like passion that she appeared to herself to love him more truly than ever. Yet such a mood was always followed by doubt, and she could not say whether the reaction distressed or soothed her. These months that had gone by brought one result, not to be disguised. Whatever the true nature of her feeling for Godwin, the thought of marrying him was so difficult to face that it seemed to involve impossibilities. He himself had warned her that marriage would mean severance from all her kindred. It was practically true, and time would only increase the difficulty of such a determination.
The very fact that her love (again, if love it were) must be indulged in defiance of universal opinion tended to keep emotion alive. A woman is disposed to cling to a lover who has disgraced himself, especially if she can believe that the disgrace was incurred as a result of devotion to her. Could love be separated from thought of marriage, Sidwell would have encouraged herself in fidelity, happy in the prospect of a life-long spiritual communion --for she would not doubt of Godwin's upward progress, of his eventual purification. But this was a mere dream. If Godwin's passion were steadfast, the day would come when she must decide either to cast in her lot with his, or to bid him be free. And could she imagine herself going forth into exile?
There came a letter from him, and she was fortunate enough to receive it without the knowledge of her relatives. He wrote that he had obtained employment. The news gave her a troubled joy, lasting for several days. That no emotion appeared in her reply was due to a fear lest she might be guilty of misleading him. Perhaps already she had done so. Her last whisper--'Some day!'--was it not a promise and an appeal? Now she had not the excuse of profound agitation, there must be no word her conscience could not justify. But in writing those formal lines she felt herself a coward. She was drawing back--preparing her escape.
Often she had the letter beneath her pillow. It was the first she had ever received from a man who professed to love her. So long without romance in her life, she could not but entertain this semblance of it, and feel that she was still young.
It told much in Godwin's favour that he had not ventured to write before there was this news to send her. It testified to the force of his character, the purity of his purpose. A weaker man, she knew, would have tried to excite her compassion by letters of mournful strain, might even have distressed her with attempts at clandestine meeting. She had said rightly--his nature was not base. And she loved him! She was passionately grateful to him for proving that her love had not been unworthily bestowed.
When he wrote again, her answer should not be cowardly.
The life of the household went on as it had been wont to do for years, but with the spring came events. An old lady died whilst on a visit to the house (she was a half-sister of Mrs. Warricombe), and by a will executed a few years previously she left a thousand pounds, to be equally divided between the children of this family. Sidwell smiled sadly on finding herself in possession of this bequest, the first sum of any importance that she had ever held in her own right. If she married a man of whom all her kith and kin so strongly disapproved that they would not give her even a wedding present, two hundred and fifty pounds would be better than no dowry at all. One could furnish a house with it.
Then Fanny had an attack of bronchitis, and whilst she was recovering Buckland came down for a few days, bringing with him a piece of news for which no one was prepared. As if to make reparation to his elder sister for the harshness with which he had behaved in the affair of Godwin Peak, he chose her for his first confidante.
'Sidwell, I am going to be married. Do you care to hear about it?'
'Certainly I do.'
Long ago she had been assured of Sylvia Moorhouse's sincerity in rejecting Buckland's suit. That was still a grief to her, but she acknowledged her friend's wisdom, and was now very curious to learn who it was that the Radical had honoured with his transferred affections.
'The lady's name,' Buckland began, 'is Miss Matilda Renshaw. She is the second daughter of a dealer in hides, tallow, and that kind of thing. Both her parents are dead; she has lived of late with her married sister at Blackheath.'
Sidwell listened with no slight astonishment, and her countenance looked what she felt.
'That's the bald statement of the cause,' pursued her brother, seeming to enjoy the consternation he had excited. 'Now, let me fill up the outline. Miss Renshaw is something more than good-looking, has had an admirable education, is five-and-twenty, and for a couple of years has been actively engaged in humanitarian work in the East End. She has published a book on social questions, and is a very good public speaker. Finally, she owns property representing between three and four thousand a year.'
'The picture has become more attractive,' said Sidwell.
'You imagined a rather different person? If I persuade mother to invite her down here presently, do you think you could be friendly with her?'
'I see no reason why I should not be.'
'But I must warn you. She has nothing to do with creeds and dogmas.'
He tried to read her face. Sidwell's mind was a mystery to him.
'I shall make no inquiry about her religious views,' his sister replied, in a dispassionate tone, which conveyed no certain meaning.
'Then I feel sure you will like her, and equally sure that she will like you.'
His parents had no distinct fault to find with this choice, though they would both greatly have preferred a daughter-in-law whose genealogy could be more freely spoken of. Miss Renshaw was invited to Exeter, and the first week of June saw her arrival. Buckland had in no way exaggerated her qualities. She was a dark-eyed beauty, perfect from the social point of view, a very interesting talker,-- in short, no ordinary woman. That Buckland should have fallen in love with her, even after Sylvia, was easily understood; it seemed likely that she would make him as good a wife as he could ever hope to win.
Sidwell was expecting another letter from the north of England. The silence which during those first months had been justifiable was now a source of anxiety. But whether fear or hope predominated in her expectancy, she still could not decide. She had said to herself that her next reply should not be cowardly, yet she was as far as ever from a courageous resolve.
Mental harassment told upon her health. Martin, watching her with solicitude, declared that for her sake as much as for Fanny's they must have a thorough holiday abroad.
Urged by the approaching departure, Sidwell overcame her reluctance to write to Godwin before she had a letter to answer. It was done in a mood of intolerable despondency, when life looked barren before her, and the desire of love all but triumphed over every other consideration. The letter written and posted, she would gladly have recovered it--reserved, formal as it was. Cowardly still; but then Godwin had not written.
She kept a watch upon the postman, and again, when Godwin's reply was delivered, escaped detection.
Hardly did she dare to open the envelope. Her letter had perchance been more significant than she supposed; and did not the mere fact of her writing invite a lover's frankness?
But the reply was hardly more moving than if it had come from a total stranger. For a moment she felt relieved; in an hour's time she suffered indescribable distress. Godwin wrote--so she convinced herself after repeated perusals--as if discharging a task; not a word suggested tenderness. Had the letter been unsolicited, she could have used it like the former one; but it was the answer to an appeal. The phrases she had used were still present in her mind. 'I am anxious . . . it is more than half a year since you wrote . . . I have been expecting . . . anything that is of interest to you will interest me. . . .' How could she imagine that this was reserved and formal? Shame fell upon her; she locked herself from all companionship, and wept in rebellion against the laws of life.
A fortnight later, she wrote from Royat to Sylvia Moorhouse. It was a long epistle, full of sunny descriptions, breathing renewed vigour of body and mind. The last paragraph ran thus:
'Yesterday was my birthday; I was twenty-eight. At this age, it is wisdom in a woman to remind herself that youth is over. I don't regret it; let it go with all its follies! But I am sorry that I have no serious work in life; it is not cheerful to look forward to perhaps another eight-and-twenty years of elegant leisure--that is to say, of wearisome idleness. What can I do? Try and think of some task for me, something that will last a lifetime.'
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