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THE PARLOR AT OWLKIRK.
When he called, as he had said, in the evening, she looked much better, and there was even a touch of playfulness in her manner. He could not but hope some crisis had been passed. The money she had received for the ring had probably something to do with it. Perhaps she had not known how valuable the ring was. Thereupon in his conscientiousness he began to doubt whether he had given her its worth. In reality he had exceeded it by a few pounds, as he discovered upon inquiry afterward in London. Anyhow it did not much matter, he said to himself: he was sure to find some way of restoring it to her.
Suddenly she looked up, and said hurriedly:
"I can never repay you, Dr. Faber. No one can do the impossible."
"You can repay me," returned Faber.
"How?" she said, looking startled.
"By never again thinking of obligation to me."
"You must not ask that of me," she rejoined. "It would not be right."
The tinge of a rose not absolutely white floated over her face and forehead as she spoke.
"Then I shall be content," he replied, "if you will say nothing about it until you are well settled. After that I promise to send you a bill as long as a snipe's."
She smiled, looked up brightly, and said,
"If you don't keep your promise, I shall have to take severe measures. Don't fancy me without money. I could pay you now--at least I think so."
It was a great good sign of her that she could talk about money plainly as she did. It wants a thoroughbred soul to talk just right about money. Most people treat money like a bosom-sin: they follow it earnestly, but do not talk about it at all in society.
"I only pay six shillings a week for my lodgings!" she added, with a merry laugh.
What had become of her constraint and stateliness? Courtesy itself seemed gone, and simple trust in its place! Was she years younger than he had thought her? She was hemming something, which demanded her eyes, but every now and then she cast up a glance, and they were black suns unclouding over a white sea. Every look made a vintage in the doctor's heart. There could be no man in the case! Only again, would fifty pounds, with the loss of a family ring, serve to account for such a change? Might she not have heard from somebody since he saw her yesterday? In her presence he dared not follow the thought.
Some books were lying on the table which could not well be Mrs. Puckridge's. He took up one: it was In Memoriam.
"Do you like Tennyson?" she asked.
"That is a hard question to answer straight off," he replied.--He had once liked Tennyson, else he would not have answered so.--"Had you asked me if I liked In Memoriam" he went on, "I could more easily have answered you."
"Then, don't you like In Memoriam?"
"No; it is weak and exaggerated."
"Ah! you don't understand it. I didn't until after my father died. Then I began to know what it meant, and now think it the most beautiful poem I ever read."
"You are fond of poetry, then?"
"I don't read much; but I think there is more in some poetry than in all the prose in the world."
"That is a good deal to say."
"A good deal too much, when I think that I haven't read, I suppose, twenty books in my life--that is, books worth calling books: I don't mean novels and things of that kind. Yet I can not believe twenty years of good reading would make me change my mind about In Memoriam.--You don't like poetry?"
"I can't say I do--much. I like Pope and Crabbe--and--let me see--well, I used to like Thomson. I like the men that give you things just as they are. I do not like the poets that mix themselves up with what they see, and then rave about Nature. I confess myself a lover of the truth beyond all things."
"But are you sure," she returned, looking him gently but straight in the eyes, "that, in your anxiety not to make more of things than they are, you do not make less of them than they are?"
"There is no fear of that," returned Faber sadly, with an unconscious shake of the head. "So long as there is youth and imagination on that side to paint them,--"
"Excuse me: are you not begging the question? Do they paint, or do they see what they say? Some profess to believe that the child sees more truly than the grown man--that the latter is the one who paints,--paints out, that is, with a coarse brush."
"You mean Wordsworth."
"Not him only."
"True; no end of poets besides. They all say it now-a-days."
"But surely, Mr. Faber, if there be a God,--"
"Ah!" interrupted the doctor, "there, you beg the question. Suppose there should be no God, what then?"
"Then, I grant you, there could be no poetry. Somebody says poetry is the speech of hope; and certainly if there were no God, there could be no hope."
Faber was struck with what she said, not from any feeling that there was truth in it, but from its indication of a not illogical mind. He was on the point of replying that certain kinds of poetry, and In Memoriam in particular, seemed to him more like the speech of a despair that had not the courage to confess itself and die; but he saw she had not a suspicion he spoke as he did for any thing but argument, and feared to fray his bird by scattering his crumbs too roughly. He honestly believed deliverance from the superstition into which he granted a fine nature was readier to fall than a common one, the greatest gift one human being could offer to another; but at the same time he could not bear to think of her recoil from such utterance of his unfaith as he had now almost got into the habit of making. He bethought himself, too, that he had already misrepresented himself, in giving her the impression that he was incapable of enjoying poetry of the more imaginative sort. He had indeed in his youth been passionately fond of such verse. Then came a time in which he turned from it with a sick dismay. Feelings and memories of agony, which a word, a line, would rouse in him afresh, had brought him to avoid it with an aversion seemingly deep-rooted as an instinct, and mounting even to loathing; and when at length he cast from him the semi-beliefs of his education, he persuaded himself that he disliked it for its falsehood. He read his philosophy by the troubled light of wrong and suffering, and that is not the light of the morning, but of a burning house. Of all poems, naturally enough, he then disliked In Memoriam the most; and now it made him almost angry that Juliet Meredith should like so much what he so much disliked. Not that he would have a lady indifferent to poetry. That would argue a lack of poetry in herself, and such a lady would be like a scentless rose. You could not expect, who indeed could wish a lady to be scientific in her ways of regarding things? Was she not the live concentration, the perfect outcome, of the vast poetic show of Nature? In shape, in motion of body and brain, in tone and look, in color and hair, in faithfulness to old dolls and carelessness of hearts, was she not the sublimation, the essence of sunsets, and fading roses, and butterflies, and snows, and running waters, and changing clouds, and cold, shadowy moonlight? He argued thus more now in sorrow than in anger; for what was the woman but a bubble on the sand of the infinite soulless sea--a bubble of a hundred lovely hues, that must shine because it could not help it, and for the same reason break? She was not to blame. Let her shine and glow, and sparkle, and vanish. For him, he cared for nothing but science--nothing that did not promise one day to yield up its kernel to the seeker. To him science stood for truth, and for truth in the inward parts stood obedience to the laws of Nature. If he was one of a poor race, he would rise above his fellows by being good to them in their misery; while for himself he would confess to no misery. Let the laws of Nature work--eyeless and heartless as the whirlwind; he would live his life, be himself, be Nature, and depart without a murmur. No scratch on the face of time, insignificant even as the pressure of a fern-leaf upon coal, should tell that he had ever thought his fate hard. He would do his endeavor and die and return to nothing--not then more dumb of complaint than now. Such had been for years his stern philosophy, and why should it now trouble him that a woman thought differently? Did the sound of faith from such lips, the look of hope in such eyes, stir any thing out of sight in his heart? Was it for a moment as if the corner of a veil were lifted, the lower edge of a mist, and he saw something fair beyond? Came there a little glow and flutter out of the old time? "All forget," he said to himself. "I too have forgotten. Why should not Nature forget? Why should I be fooled any more? Is it not enough?"
Yet as he sat gazing, in the broad light of day, through the cottage window, across whose panes waved the little red bells of the common fuchsia, something that had nothing to do with science and yet was, seemed to linger and hover over the little garden--something from the very depths of loveliest folly. Was it the refrain of an old song? or the smell of withered rose leaves? or was there indeed a kind of light such as never was on sea or shore?
Whatever it was, it was out of the midst of it the voice of the lady seemed to come--a clear musical voice in common speech, but now veiled and trembling, as if it brooded hearkening over the words it uttered:
"I wrong the grave with fears untrue: Shall love be blamed for want of faith? There must be wisdom with great Death: The dead shall look me through and through.
"Be near us when we climb or fall: Ye watch, like God, the rolling hours With larger other eyes than ours, To make allowance for us all."
She ceased, and the silence was like that which follows sweet music.
"Ah! you think of your father!" he hazarded, and hoped indeed it was her father of whom she was thinking.
She made no answer. He turned toward her in anxiety. She was struggling with emotion. The next instant the tears gushed into her eyes, while a smile seemed to struggle from her lips, and spread a little way over her face. It was inexpressibly touching.
"He was my friend," she said. "I shall never have such love again."
"All is not lost when much is lost," said the doctor, with sad comfort. "There are spring days in winter."
"And you don't like poetry!" she said, a sweet playful scorn shining through her tears.
"I spoke but a sober truth," he returned; "--so sober that it seems but the sadder for its truth. The struggle of life is to make the best of things that might be worse."
She looked at him pitifully. For a moment her lips parted, then a strange look as of sudden bodily pain crossed her face, her lips closed, and her mouth looked as if it were locked. She shut the book which lay upon her knee, and resumed her needlework. A shadow settled upon her face.
"What a pity such a woman should be wasted in believing lies!" thought the doctor. "How much better it would be if she would look things in the face, and resolve to live as she can, doing her best and enduring her worst, and waiting for the end! And yet, seeing color is not the thing itself, and only in the brain whose eye looks upon it, why should I think it better? why should she not shine in the color of her fancy? why should she grow gray because the color is only in herself? We are but bubbles flying from the round of Nature's mill-wheel. Our joys and griefs are the colors that play upon the bubbles. Their throbs and ripples and changes are our music and poetry, and their bursting is our endless repose. Let us waver and float and shine in the sun; let us bear pitifully and be kind; for the night cometh, and there an end."
But in the sad silence, he and the lady were perhaps drifting further and further apart!
"I did not mean," he said, plunging into what came first, "that I could not enjoy verse of the kind you prefer--as verse. I took the matter by the more serious handle, because, evidently, you accepted the tone and the scope of it. I have a weakness for honesty."
"There is something not right about you, though, Mr. Faber--if I could find it out," said Miss Meredith. "You can not mean you enjoy any thing you do not believe in?"
"Surely there are many things one can enjoy without believing in them?"
"On the contrary, it seems to me that enjoying a thing is only another word for believing in it. If I thought the sweetest air on the violin had no truth in it, I could not listen to it a moment longer."
"Of course the air has all the truth it pretends to--the truth, that is, of the relations of sounds and of intervals--also, of course, the truth of its relation as a whole to that creative something in the human mind which gave birth to it."
"That is not all it pretends. It pretends that the something it gives birth to in the human mind is also a true thing."
"Is there not then another way also, in which the violin may be said to be true? Its tone throughout is of suffering: does it not mourn that neither what gives rise to it, nor what it gives rise to, is any thing but a lovely vapor--the phantom of an existence not to be lived, only to be dreamed? Does it not mourn that a man, though necessarily in harmony with the laws under which he lives, yet can not be sufficiently conscious of that harmony to keep him from straining after his dream?"
"Ah!" said Miss Meredith, "then there is strife in the kingdom, and it can not stand!"
"There is strife in the kingdom, and it can not stand," said the doctor, with mingled assent and assertion. "Hence it is forever falling."
"But it is forever renewed," she objected.
"With what renewal?" rejoined Faber. "What return is there from the jaws of death? The individual is gone. A new consciousness is not a renewal of consciousness."
She looked at him keenly.
"It is hard, is it not?" she said.
"I will not deny that in certain moods it looks so," he answered.
She did not perceive his drift, and was feeling after it.
"Surely," she said, "the thing that ought to be, is the thing that must be."
"How can we tell that?" he returned. "What do we see like it in nature? Whatever lives and thrives--animal or vegetable--or human--it is all one--every thing that lives and thrives, is forever living and thriving on the loss, the defeat, the death of another. There is no unity save absolutely by means of destruction. Destruction is indeed the very center and framework of the sole existing unity. I will not, therefore, as some do, call Nature cruel: what right have I to complain? Nature can not help it. She is no more to blame for bringing me forth, than I am to blame for being brought forth. Ought is merely the reflex of like. We call ourselves the highest in Nature--and probably we are, being the apparent result of the whole--whence, naturally, having risen, we seek to rise, we feel after something we fancy higher. For as to the system in which we live, we are so ignorant that we can but blunderingly feel our way in it; and if we knew all its laws, we could neither order nor control, save by a poor subservience. We are the slaves of our circumstance, therefore betake ourselves to dreams of what ought to be."
Miss Meredith was silent for a time.
"I can not see how to answer you," she said at length. "But you do not disturb my hope of seeing my father again. We have a sure word of prophecy."
Faber suppressed the smile of courteous contempt that was ready to break forth, and she went on:
"It would ill become me to doubt to-day, as you will grant when I tell you a wonderful fact. This morning I had not money enough to buy myself the pair of strong shoes you told me I must wear. I had nothing left but a few trinkets of my mother's--one of them a ring I thought worth about ten pounds. I gave it to my landlady to sell for me, hoping she would get five for it. She brought me fifty, and I am rich!"
Her last words trembled with triumph. He had himself been building her up in her foolish faith! But he took consolation in thinking how easily with a word he could any moment destroy that buttress of her phantom house. It was he, the unbeliever, and no God in or out of her Bible, that had helped her! It did not occur to him that she might after all see in him only a reed blown of a divine wind.
"I am glad to hear of your good fortune," he answered. "I can not say I see how it bears on the argument. You had in your possession more than you knew."
"Does the length of its roots alter the kind of the plant?" she asked. "Do we not know in all nature and history that God likes to see things grow? That must be the best way. It may be the only right way. If that ring was given to my mother against the time when the last child of her race should find herself otherwise helpless, would the fact that the provision was made so early turn the result into a mere chance meeting of necessity and subsidy? Am I bound to call every good thing I receive a chance, except an angel come down visibly out of the blue sky and give it to me? That would be to believe in a God who could not work His will by His own laws. Here I am, free and hopeful--all I needed. Every thing was dark and troubled yesterday; the sun is up to-day."
"There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune," said the doctor.
"I begin to fear you mean what you say, Mr. Faber. I hoped it was only for argument's sake," returned Miss Meredith.
She did not raise her eyes from her work this time. Faber saw that she was distressed if not hurt, and that her soul had closed its lips to him. He sprang to his feet, and stood bending before her.
"Miss Meredith," he said, "forgive me. I have offended you."
"You have not offended me," she said quietly.
"Hurt you then, which is worse."
"How should I have got through," she said, as if to herself, and dropped her hands with her work on her knees, "if I had not believed there was One caring for me all the time, even when I was most alone!"
"Do you never lose that faith?" asked the doctor.
"Yes; many and many a time. But it always comes back."
"Comes and goes with your health."
"No--is strongest sometimes when I am furthest from well."
"When you are most feverish," said the doctor. "What a fool I am to go on contradicting her!" he added to himself.
"I think I know you better than you imagine, Mr. Faber," said Miss Meredith, after just a moment's pause. "You are one of those men who like to represent themselves worse than they are. I at least am bound to think better of you than you would have me. One who lives as you do for other people, can not be so far from the truth as your words."
Faber honestly repudiated the praise, for he felt it more than he deserved. He did try to do well by his neighbor, but was aware of no such devotion as it implied. Of late he had found his work bore him not a little--especially when riding away from Owlkirk. The praise, notwithstanding, sounded sweet from her lips, was sweeter still from her eyes, and from the warmer white of her cheek, which had begun to resume its soft roundness.
"Ah!" thought the doctor, as he rode slowly home, "were it not for sickness, age, and death, this world of ours would be no bad place to live in. Surely mine is the most needful and the noblest of callings!--to fight for youth, and health, and love; against age, and sickness, and decay! to fight death to the last, even knowing he must have the best of it in the end! to set law against law, and do what poor thing may be done to reconcile the inexorable with the desirable! Who knows--if law be blind, and I am a man that can see--for at the last, and only at the last do eyes come in the head of Nature--who knows but I may find out amongst the blind laws to which I am the eyes, that blind law which lies nearest the root of life!--Ah, what a dreamer I should have been, had I lived in the time when great dreams were possible! Beyond a doubt I should have sat brooding over the elixir of life, cooking and mixing, heating and cooling, watching for the flash in the goblet. We know so much now, that the range of hope is sadly limited! A thousand dark ways of what seemed blissful possibility are now closed to us, because there the light now shines, and shows naught but despair. Yet why should the thing be absurd? Can any one tell why this organism we call man should not go on working forever? Why should it not, since its law is change and renewal, go on changing and renewing forever? Why should it get tired? Why should its law work more feeble, its relations hold less firmly, after a hundred years, than after ten? Why should it grow and grow, then sink and sink? No one knows a reason. Then why should it be absurd to seek what shall encounter the unknown cause, and encountering reveal it? Might science be brought to the pitch that such a woman should live to all the ages, how many common lives might not well be spared to such an end! How many noble ones would not willingly cease for such a consummation--dying that life should be lord, and death no longer king!"
Plainly Faber's materialism sprang from no defect in the region of the imagination; but I find myself unable to determine how much honesty, and how much pride and the desire to be satisfied with himself, had relatively to do with it. I would not be understood to imply that he had an unusual amount of pride; and I am sure he was less easily satisfied with himself than most are. Most people will make excuses for themselves which they would neither make nor accept for their neighbor; their own failures and follies trouble them little: Faber was of another sort. As ready as any other man to discover what could be said on his side, he was not so ready to adopt it. He required a good deal of himself. But then he unconsciously compared himself with his acquaintances, and made what he knew of them the gauge, if not the measure, of what he required of himself.
It were unintelligible how a man should prefer being the slave of blind helpless Law to being the child of living Wisdom, should believe in the absolute Nothing rather than in the perfect Will, were it not that he does not, can not see the Wisdom or the Will, except he draw nigh thereto.
I shall be answered:
"We do not prefer. We mourn the change which yet we can not resist. We would gladly have the God of our former faith, were it possible any longer to believe in Him."
I answer again:
"Are you sure of what you say? Do you in reality mourn over your lost faith? For my part, I would rather disbelieve with you, than have what you have lost. For I would rather have no God than the God whom you suppose me to believe in, and whom therefore I take to be the God in whom you imagine you believed in the days of your ignorance. That those were days of ignorance, I do not doubt; but are these the days of your knowledge? The time will come when you will see deeper into your own hearts than now, and will be humbled, like not a few other men, by what you behold."
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