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THE ARBOR AT THORNWICK.
The next day was Sunday at last, a day dear to all who do anything like their duty in the week, whether they go to church or not. For Mary, she went to the Baptist chapel; it was her custom, rendered holy by the companionship of her father. But this day it was with more than ordinary restlessness and lack of interest that she stood, knelt, and sat, through the routine of observance; for old Mr. Duppa was certainly duller than usual: how could it be otherwise, when he had been preparing to spend a mortal hour in descanting on the reasons which necessitated the separation of all true Baptists from all brother-believers? The narrow, high-souled little man--for a soul as well as a forehead can be both high and narrow--was dull that morning because he spoke out of his narrowness, and not out of his height; and Mary was better justified in feeling bored than even when George Turnbull plagued her with his vulgar attentions. When she got out at last, sedate as she was, she could hardly help skipping along the street by her father's side. Far better than chapel was their nice little cold dinner together, in their only sitting-room, redolent of the multifarious goods piled around it on all the rest of the floor. Greater yet was the following pleasure--of making her father lie down on the sofa, and reading him to sleep, after which she would doze a little herself, and dream a little, in the great chair that had been her grandmother's. Then they had their tea, and then her father always went to see the minister before chapel in the evening.
When he was gone, Mary would put on her pretty straw bonnet, and set out to visit Letty Lovel at Thornwick. Some of the church- members thought this habit of taking a walk, instead of going again to the chapel, very worldly, and did not scruple to let her know their opinion; but, so long as her father was satisfied with her, Mary did not care a straw for the world besides. She was too much occupied with obedience to trouble her head about opinion, either her own or other people's. Not until a question comes puzzling and troubling us so as to paralyze the energy of our obedience is there any necessity for its solution, or any probability of finding a real one. A thousand foolish doctrines may lie unquestioned in the mind, and never interfere with the growth or bliss of him who lives in active subordination of his life to the law of life: obedience will in time exorcise them, like many another worse devil.
It had drizzled all the morning from the clouds as well as from the pulpit, but, just as Mary stepped out of the kitchen-door, the sun stepped out of the last rain-cloud. She walked quickly from the town, eager for the fields and the trees, but in some dread of finding Tom Helmer at the stile; for he was such a fool, she said to herself, that there was no knowing what he might do, for all she had said; but he had thought better of it, and she was soon crossing meadows and cornfields in peace, by a path which, with many a winding, and many an up and down, was the nearest way to Thornwick.
The saints of old did well to pray God to lift on them the light of his countenance: has the Christian of the new time learned of his Master that the clouds and the sunshine come and go of themselves? If the sunshine fills the hearts of old men and babes and birds with gladness and praise, and God never meant it, then are they all idolaters, and have but a careless Father. Sweet earthy odors rose about Mary from the wet ground; the rain-drops glittered on the grass and corn-blades and hedgerows; a soft damp wind breathed rather than blew about the gaps and gates; with an upward springing, like that of a fountain momently gathering strength, the larks kept shooting aloft, there, like music- rockets, to explode in showers of glowing and sparkling song; while, all the time and over all, the sun as he went down kept shining in the might of his peace; and the heart of Mary praised her Father in heaven.
Where the narrow path ran westward for a little way, so that she could see nothing for the sun in her eyes, in the middle of a plowed field she would have run right against a gentleman, had he been as blind as she; but, his back being to the sun, he saw her perfectly, and stepped out of her way into the midst of a patch of stiff soil, where the rain was yet lying between the furrows. She saw him then, and as, lifting his hat, he stopped again upon the path, she recognized Mr. Wardour.
"Oh, your nice boots!" she cried, in the childlike distress of a simple soul discovering itself the cause of catastrophe, for his boots were smeared all over with yellow clay.
"It only serves me right," returned Mr. Wardour, with a laugh of amusement. "I oughtn't to have put on such thin ones at the first smile of summer."
Again he lifted his hat, and walked on.
Mary also pursued her path, genuinely though gently pained that one should have stepped up to the ankles in mud on her account. As I have already said, except in the shop she had never before spoken to Mr. Wardour, and, although he had so simply responded to her exclamation, he did not even know who she was.
The friendship which now drew Mary to Thornwick, Godfrey Wardour's place, was not one of long date. She and Letty Lovel had, it is true, known each other for years, but only quite of late had their acquaintance ripened into something better; and it was not without protestation on the part of Mrs. Wardour, Godfrey's mother, that she had seen the growth of an intimacy between the two young women. The society of a shopwoman, she often remarked, was far from suitable for one who, as the daughter of a professional man, might lay claim to the position of a gentlewoman. For Letty was the orphan daughter of a country surgeon, a cousin of Mrs. Wardour, for whom she had had a great liking while yet they were boy and girl together. At the same time, however much she would have her consider herself the superior of Mary Marston, she by no means treated her as her own equal, and Letty could not help being afraid of her aunt, as she called her.
The well-meaning woman was in fact possessed by two devils--the one the stiff-necked devil of pride, the other the condescending devil of benevolence. She was kind, but she must have credit for it; and Letty, although the child of a loved cousin, must not presume upon that, or forget that the wife and mother of long- descended proprietors of certain acres of land was greatly the superior of any man who lived by the exercise of the best- educated and most helpful profession. She counted herself a devout Christian, but her ideas of rank, at least--therefore certainly not a few others--were absolutely opposed to the Master's teaching: they who did least for others were her aristocracy.
Now, Letty was a simple, true-hearted girl, rather slow, who honestly tried to understand her aunt's position with regard to her friend. "Shop-girls," her aunt had said, "are not fitting company for you, Letty."
"I do not know any other shop-girls, aunt," Letty replied, with hidden trembling; "but, if they are not nice, then they are not like Mary. She's downright good; indeed she is, aunt!--a great deal, ever so much, better than I am."
"That may well be," answered Mrs. Wardour, "but it does not make a lady of her."
"I am sure," returned Letty, bewildered, "on Sundays you could not tell the difference between her and any other young lady."
"Any other well-dressed young woman, my dear, you should say. I believe shop-girls do call their companions young ladies, but that can not justify the application of the word. I am scarcely bound to speak of my cook as a lady because letters come addressed to her as Miss Tozer. If the word 'lady' should sink at last to common use, as in Italy every woman is Donna, we must find some other word to ex-press what used to be meant by it."
"Is Mrs. Cropper a lady, aunt?" asked Letty, after a pause, in which her brains, which were not half so muddled as she thought them, had been busy feeling after firm ground in the morass of social distinction thus opened under her.
"She is received as such," replied Mrs. Wardour, but with doubled stiffness, through which ran a tone of injury.
"Would you receive her, aunt, if she called upon you?"
"She has horses and servants, and everything a woman of the world can desire; but I should feel I was bowing the knee to Mammon were I to ask her to my house. Yet such is the respect paid to money in these degenerate days that many a one will court the society of a person like that, who would think me or your cousin Godfrey unworthy of notice, because we have no longer a tithe of the property the family once possessed."
The lady forgot there is a Rimmon as well as a Mammon.
"God knows," she went on, "how that woman's husband made his money! But that is a small matter nowadays, except to old- fashioned people like myself. Not how but how much, is all the question now," she concluded, flattering herself she had made a good point.
"Don't think me rude, please, aunt: I am really wishing to understand--but, if Mrs. Cropper is not a lady, how can Mary Marston not be one? She is as different from Mrs. Croppor as one woman can be from another."
"Because she has not the position in society," replied Mrs. Wardour, enveloping her nothing in flimsy reiteration and self- contradiction.
"And Mrs. Cropper has the position?" ventured Letty, with a little palpitation from fear of offending.
"Apparently so," answered Mrs. Wardour. But her inquiring pupil did not feel much enlightened. Letty had not the logic necessary to the thinking of the thing out; or to the discovery that, like most social difficulties, hers was merely one of the upper strata of a question whose foundation lies far too deep for what is called Society to perceive its very existence. And hence it is no wonder that Society, abetted by the Church, should go on from generation to generation talking murderous platitudes about it.
But, although such was her reasoning beforehand, heart had so far overcome habit and prejudice with Mrs. Wardour, that, convinced on the first interview of the high tone and good influence of Mary, she had gradually come to put herself in the way of seeing her as often as she came, ostensibly to herself that she might prevent any deterioration of intercourse; and although she always, on these occasions, played the grand lady, with a stateliness that seemed to say, "Because of your individual worth, I condescend, and make an exception, but you must not imagine I receive your class at Thornwick," she had almost entirely ceased making remarks upon the said class in Letty's hearing.
On her part, Letty had by this time grown so intimate with Mary as to open with her the question upon which her aunt had given her so little satisfaction; and this same Sunday afternoon, as they sat in the arbor at the end of the long yew hedge in the old garden, it had come up again between them; for, set thinking by Letty's bewilderment, Mary had gone on thinking, and had at length laid hold of the matter, at least by the end that belonged to her.
"I can not consent, Letty," she said, "to trouble my mind about it as you do. I can not afford it. Society is neither my master nor my servant, neither my father nor my sister; and so long as she does not bar my way to the kingdom of heaven, which is the only society worth getting into, I feel no right to complain of how she treats me. I have no claim on her; I do not acknowledge her laws--hardly her existence, and she has no authority over me. Why should she, how could she, constituted as she is, receive such as me? The moment she did so, she would cease to be what she is; and, if all be true that one hears of her, she does me a kindness in excluding me. What can it matter to me, Letty, whether they call me a lady or not, so long as Jesus says Daughter to me? It reminds me of what I heard my father say once to Mr. Turnbull, when he had been protesting that none but church people ought to be buried in the churchyards. 'I don't care a straw about it, Mr. Turnbull,' he said. 'The Master was buried in a garden.'--'Ah, but you see things are different now,' said Mr. Turnbull.--'I don't hang by things, but by my Master. It is enough for the disciple that he should be as his Master,' said my father.--'Besides, you don't think it of any real consequence yourself, or you would never want to keep your brothers and sisters out of such nice quiet places!'--Mr. Turnbull gave his kind of grunt, and said no more."
After passing Mary, Mr. Wardour did not go very far before he began to slacken his pace; a moment or two more and he suddenly wheeled round, and began to walk back toward Thornwick. Two things had combined to produce this change of purpose--the first, the state of his boots, which, beginning to dry in the sun and wind as he walked, grew more and more hideous at the end of his new gray trousers; the other, the occurring suspicion that the girl must be Letty's new shopkeeping friend, Miss Marston, on her way to visit her. What a sweet, simple young woman she was! he thought; and straightway began to argue with himself that, as his boots were in such evil plight, it would be more pleasant to spend the evening with Letty and her friend, than to hold on his way to his own friend's, and spend the evening smoking and lounging about the stable, or hearing his sister play polkas and mazurkas all the still Sunday twilight.
Mary had, of course, upon her arrival, narrated her small adventure, and the conversation had again turned upon Godfrey just as he was nearing the house.
"How handsome your cousin is!" said Mary, with the simplicity natural to her.
"Do you think so?" returned Letty.
"Don't you think so?" rejoined Mary.
"I have never thought about it," answered Letty.
"He looks so manly, and has such a straightforward way with him!" said Mary.
"What one sees every day, she may feel in a sort of take-for- granted way, without thinking about it," said Letty. "But, to tell the truth, I should feel it as impertinent of me to criticise Cousin Godfrey's person as to pass an opinion on one of the books he reads. I can not express the reverence I have for Cousin Godfrey."
"I don't wonder," replied Mary. "There is that about him one could trust."
"There is that about him," returned Letty, "makes me afraid of him--I can not tell why. And yet, though everybody, even his mother, is as anxious to please him as if he were an emperor, he is the easiest person to please in the whole house. Not that he tells you he is pleased; he only smiles; but that is quite enough."
"But I suppose he talks to you sometimes?" said Mary.
"Oh, yes--now. He used not; but I think he does now more than to anybody else. It was a long time before he began, though. Now he is always giving me something to read. I wish he wouldn't; it frightens me dreadfully. He always questions me, to know whether I understand what I read."
Letty ended with a little cry. Through the one narrow gap in the yew hedge, near to the arbor, Godfrey had entered the walk, and was coming toward them.
He was a well-made man, thirty years of age, rather tall, sun- tanned, and bearded, with wavy brown hair, and gentle approach. His features were not regular, but that is of little consequence where there is unity. His face indicated faculty and feeling, and there was much good nature, shadowed with memorial suffering, in the eyes which shone so blue out of the brown.
Mary rose respectfully as he drew near.
"What treason were you talking, Letty, that you were so startled at sight of me?" he said, with a smile. "You were complaining of me as a hard master, were you not?"
"No, indeed, Cousin Godfrey!" answered Letty energetically, not without tremor, and coloring as she spoke. "I was only saying I could not help being frightened when you asked me questions about what I had been reading. I am so stupid, you know!"
"Pardon me, Letty," returned her cousin, "I know nothing of the sort. Allow me to say you are very far from stupid. Nobody can understand everything at first sight. But you have not introduced me to your friend."
Letty bashfully murmured the names of the two.
"I guessed as much," said Wardour. "Pray sit down, Miss Marston. For the sake of your dresses, I will go and change my boots. May I come and join you after?"
"Please do, Cousin Godfrey; and bring something to read to us," said Letty, who wanted her friend to admire her cousin. "It's Sunday, you know."
"Why you should be afraid of him, I can't think," said Mary, when his retreating steps had ceased to sound on the gravel. "He is delightful!"
"I don't like to look stupid," said Letty.
"I shouldn't mind how stupid I looked so long as I was learning," returned Mary. "I wonder you never told me about him!"
"I couldn't talk about Cousin Godfrey," said Letty; and a pause followed.
"How good of him to come to us again!" said Mary. "What will he read to us?"
"Most likely something out of a book you never heard of before, and can't remember the name of when you have heard it--at least that's the way with me. I wonder if he will talk to you, Mary? I should like to hear how Cousin Godfrey talks to girls."
"Why, you know how he talks to you," said Mary.
"Oh, but I am only Cousin Letty! He can talk anyhow to me."
"By your own account he talks to you in the best possible way."
"Yes; I dare say; but--"
"I can't help wishing sometimes he would talk a little nonsense. It would be such a relief. I am sure I should understand better if he would. I shouldn't be so frightened at him then."
"The way I generally hear gentlemen talk to girls makes me ashamed--makes me feel as if I must ask, 'Is it that you are a fool, or that you take that girl for one?' They never talk so to me."
Letty sat pulling a jonquil to pieces. She looked up. Her eyes were full of thought, but she paused a long time before she spoke, and, when she did, it was only to say:
"I fear, Mary, I should take any man for a fool who took me for anything else."
Letty was a rather small and rather freckled girl, with the daintiest of rounded figures, a good forehead, and fine clear brown eyes. Her mouth was not pretty, except when she smiled--and she did not smile often. When she did, it was not unfrequently with the tears in her eyes, and then she looked lovely. In her manner there was an indescribably taking charm, of which it is not easy to give an impression; but I think it sprang from a constitutional humility, partly ruined into a painful and haunting sense of inferiority, for which she imagined herself to blame. Hence there dwelt in her eyes an appeal which few hearts could resist. When they met another's, they seemed to say: "I am nobody; but you need not kill me; I am not pretending to be anybody. I will try to do what you want, but I am not clever. Only I am sorry for it. Be gentle with me." To Godfrey, at least, her eyes spoke thus.
In ten minutes or so he reappeared, far at the other end of the yew-walk, approaching slowly, with a book, in which he seemed thoughtfully searching as he came. When they saw him the girls instinctively moved farther from each other, making large room for him between them, and when he came up he silently took the place thus silently assigned him.
"I am going to try your brains now, Letty," he said, and tapped the book with a finger.
"Oh, please don't!" pleaded Letty, as if he had been threatening her with a small amputation, or the loss of a front tooth.
"Yes," he persisted; "and not your brains only, Letty, but your heart, and all that is in you."
At this even Mary could not help feeling a little frightened; and she was glad there was no occasion for her to speak.
With just a word of introduction, Godfrey read Carlyle's translation of that finest of Jean Paul's dreams in which he sets forth the condition of a godless universe all at once awakened to the knowledge of the causelessness of its own existence. Slowly, with due inflection and emphasis--slowly, but without pause for thought or explanation--he read to the end, ceased suddenly, and lifted his eyes.
"There, Letty," he said, "what do you think of that? There's a bit of Sunday reading for you!"
Letty was looking altogether perplexed, and not a little frightened.
"I don't understand a word of it," she answered, gulping back her tears. He glanced at Mary. She was white as death, her lips quivered, and from her eyes shot a keen light that seemed to lacerate their blue.
"It is terrible!" she said. "I never read anything like that."
"There is nothing like it," he answered.
"But the author is a Unitarian, is he not?" remarked Mary--for she heard plenty of theology, if not much Christianity, in her chapel.
Godfrey looked at her, then at the book for a moment.
"That may merely seem, from the necessity of the supposition," he answered; and read again:
"'Now sank from aloft a noble, high Form, with a look of uneffaceable sorrow, down to the Altar, and all the Dead cried out, "Christ! is there no God?" He answered, "There is none!" The whole Shadow of each then shuddered, not the breast alone; and one after the other all, in this shuddering, shook into pieces.' --"You see," he went on, "that if there be no God, Christ can only be the first of men."
"I understand," said Mary.
"Do you really then, Mary?" said Letty, looking at her with wondering admiration.
"I only meant," answered Mary--"but," she went on, interrupting herself, "I do think I understand it a little. If Mr. Wardour would be kind enough to read it through again!"
"With much pleasure," answered Godfrey, casting on her a glance of pleased surprise.
The second reading affected Mary more than the first--because, of course, she took in more. And this time a glimmer of meaning broke on the slower mind of Letty: as her cousin read the passage, "Oh, then came, fearful for the heart, the dead Children who had been awakened in the Churchyard, into the temple, and cast themselves before the high Form on the Altar, and said, 'Jesus, have we no Father?' And he answered, with streaming tears: 'We are all orphans, I and you; we are without Father!'"-- at this point Letty gave her little cry, then bit her lip, as if she had said something wrong.
All the time a great bee kept buzzing in and out of the arbor, and Mary vaguely wondered how it could be so careless.
"I can't be dead stupid after all, Cousin Godfrey," said Letty, with broken voice, when once more he ceased, and, as she spoke, she pressed her hand on her heart, "for something kept going through and through me; but I can not say yet I understand it.-- If you will lend me the book," she continued, "I will read it over again before I go to bed."
He shut the volume, handed it to her, and began to talk about something else.
Mary rose to go.
"You will take tea with us, I hope, Miss Marston," said Godfrey.
But Mary would not. What she had heard was working in her mind with a powerful fermentation, and she longed to be alone. In the fields, as she walked, she would come to an understanding with herself.
She knew almost nothing of the higher literature, and felt like a dreamer who, in the midst of a well-known and ordinary landscape, comes without warning upon the mighty cone of a mountain, or the breaking waters of a boundless ocean.
"If one could but get hold of such things, what a glorious life it would be!" she thought. She had looked into a world beyond the present, and already in the present all things were new. The sun set as she had never seen him set before; it was only in gray and gold, with scarce a touch of purple and rose; the wind visited her cheek like a living thing, and loved her; the skylarks had more than reason in their jubilation. For the first time she heard the full chord of intellectual and emotional delight. What a place her chamber would be, if she could there read such things! How easy would it be then to bear the troubles of the hour, the vulgar humor of Mr. Turnbull, and the tiresome attentions of George! Would Mr. Wardour lend her the book? Had he other books as good? Were there many books to make one's heart go as that one did? She would save every penny to buy such books, if indeed such treasures were within her reach! Under the enchantment of her first literary joy, she walked home like one intoxicated with opium--a being possessed for the time with the awful imagination of a grander soul, and reveling in the presence of her loftier kin.
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