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VAVASOR AND HESTER.
The visits of Vavasor, in reality to Hester, continued. For a time they were more frequent, and he stayed longer. Hester's more immediate friends, namely her mother and Miss Dasomma, noted also, and with some increase of anxiety, that he began to appear at the church they attended, a dull enough place, without any possible attraction of its own for a man like Vavasor: they could but believe he went thither for the sake of seeing Hester. Two or three Sundays and he began to join them as they came out, and walk part of the way home with them. Next he went all the way, was asked to go in, and invited to stay to lunch.
It may well seem strange that Mrs. Raymount, anxious as to the result, should allow things to go on thus; but, in the first place, she had such thorough confidence in Hester as not to think it possible she should fall in love with such a man as Vavasor; and, in the second place, it is wonderful what weakness may co-exist with what strength, what worldliness stand side by side with what spirituality--for a time, that is, till the one, for one must, overcome the other; Mrs. Raymount was pleased with the idea of a possible marriage of such distinction for her daughter, which would give her just the position she counted her fit for. These mutually destructive considerations were, with whatever logical inconsistency, both certainly operative in her. Then again, they knew nothing against the young man! He made himself agreeable to every one in the house. In Addison Square he showed scarce the faintest shadow of the manner which made him at the bank almost hated. In the square not only was he on his good behavior as in a private house, but his heart, and his self-respect, as he would have called his self-admiration, were equally concerned in his looking his best--which always means looking better than one's best. Then in Hester's company his best was always uppermost, and humility being no part of this best, he not merely felt comfortable and kindly disposed--which he was--but good in himself and considerate of others--which he was not. There was that in Hester and his feeling towards her which had upon him what elevating influence he was yet capable of receiving, and this fact said more for him than anything else. She seemed gaining a power over him that could not be for other than good with any man who submitted to it. It had begun to bring out and cherish what was best in a disposition far from unamiable, although nearly ruined by evil influences on all sides. Both glad and proud to see her daughter thus potent, how, thought Mrs. Raymount, could she interfere? It was plain he was improving. Not once now did they ever hear him jest on anything belonging to church!--As to anything belonging to religion, he scarcely knew enough in that province to have any material for jesting.--If Vavasor was falling in love with Hester, the danger was for him--lest she, who to her mother appeared colder than any lady she knew, should not respond with like affection.
Miss Dasomma was more awake. She knew better than Mrs. Raymount the kind of soil in which this human plant had been reared, and saw more danger ahead. She feared the young man was but amusing himself, or at best enjoying Hester's company as some wary winged thing enjoys the flame, courting a few singes, not quite avoiding even a slight plumous conflagration, but careful not to turn a delightful imagination into a consuming reality, beyond retreat and self-recovery. She could not believe him as careless of himself as of her, but judged he was what he would to himself call flirting with her--which had the more danger for Hester that there was not in her mind the idea corresponding to the phrase. I believe he declined asking himself whither the enjoyment of the hour was leading; and I fancy he found it more easy to set aside the question because of the difference between his social position and that of the lady. Possibly he regarded himself as honoring the low neighborhood of Addison Square by the frequency of his shining presence; but I think he was at the same time feeling the good influences of which I have spoken more than he knew, or would have liked to acknowledge to himself; for he had never turned his mind in the direction of good; and it was far more from circumstance than refusal that he was not yet the more hurtful member of society which his no-principles were surely working to make him.
Hester was of course greatly interested in him. She had been but little in society, had not in the least studied men, and could not help being pleased with the power she plainly had over him, and which as plainly went on increasing. Even Corney, not very observant or penetrating, remarked on the gentleness of his behavior in their house. He followed every word of Hester's about his singing, and showed himself even anxious to win her approbation by the pains he took and the amount of practice he went through to approach her idea of song. He had not only ceased to bring forward his heathenish notions as to human helplessness and fate, but allowed what at first she let fall as mere hints concerning the individual mission of every human being to blossom in little outbursts concerning duty without show of opposition, listening with a manner almost humble, and seeming on the way to allow there might be some reality in such things. Whether any desire of betterment was now awake in him through the power of her spiritual presence, I cannot tell; but had Mrs. Raymount seen as much of him as Hester, she would have been yet better justified in her hope of him. For Hester, she thought first, and for some time, only of doing him good, nor until she imagined some success, did the danger to her begin.
After that, with every fresh encouragement the danger grew--for just so much grew the danger of selfcoming in and getting the upper-hand.
I do not suppose that Vavasor once consciously laid himself out to deceive her, or make her think him better than he thought himself. With a woman of Hester's instincts, there might have been less danger if he had; she also would then perhaps have been aware of the present untruth, and have recoiled. But if he had any he had but the most rudimentary notion of truth in the inward parts, and could deceive the better that he did not know he was deceiving. As little notion had he of the nature of the person he was dealing with, or the reality to her of the things of which she spoke;--belief was to him at most the mere difference between decided and undecided opinion. Nay, she spoke the language of a world whose existence he was incapable at present of recognizing, for he had never obeyed one of its demands, which language therefore meant to him nothing like what it meant to her. His natural inborn proclivities to the light had, through his so seldom doing the deeds of the light, become so weak, that he hardly knew such a thing as reform was required of, possible to, or desirable in him. Nothing seemed to him to matter except "good form." To see and hear him for a few minutes after leaving her and entering his club, would have been safety to Hester. I do not mean that he was of the baser sort there, but whatever came up there, he would meet on its own grounds, and respond to in its own kind.
He was certainly falling more and more into what most people call love. How little regard there may be in that for the other apart from the self I will not now inquire, but what I may call the passionate side of the spiritual was more affected in him than ever previously. As to what he meant he did not himself know. When intoxicated with the idea of her, that is when thinking what a sensation she would make in his grand little circle, he felt it impossible to live without her: some way must be found! it could not be his fate to see another triumph in her!--He called his world a circle rightly enough: it was no globe, nothing but surface.--Whether or not she Would accept him he never asked himself; almost awed in her presence, he never when alone doubted she would. Had he had anything worthy the name of property coming with the title, he would have proposed to her at once, he said to himself. But who with only the most beautiful wife in the world, would encounter a naked earldom! The thing would be raging madness--as unjust to Hester as to himself! How just, how love-careful he was not to ask her--considerate for her more than himself! But perhaps she might have expectations! That could hardly be: no one with anything would slave as her governor did, morning, noon and night! True his own governor was her uncle--there was money in the family; but people never left their money to their poor relations! To marry her would be to live on his salary, in a small house in St. John's wood, or Park Village--perhaps even in Camden Town, ride home in the omnibus every night like one of a tin of sardines, wear half-crown gloves, cotton socks, and ten-and-six-penny hats: the prospect was too hideous to be ludicrous even! Would the sweetness of the hand that darned the socks make his over-filled shoe comfortable? And when the awful family began to come on, she would begin to go off! A woman like her, living in ease and able to dress well--by Jove, she might keep her best points till she was fifty! If there was such a providence as Hester so dutifully referred to, it certainly did not make the best things the easiest to get! How could it care for a fellow's happiness, or even for his leading a correct life! Would he not be a much better man if allowed to have Hester!--whereas in all probability she would fall to the lot of some quill-driver like her father--a man that made a livelihood by drumming his notions into the ears of people that did not care a brass farthing about them!--Thus would Vavasor's love-fits work themselves off--declining from cold noon to a drizzly mephitic twilight.
It was not soon that he risked an attempt to please her with a song of his own. There was just enough unconscious truth in him to make him a little afraid of Hester. Commonplace as were in the most thorough sense the channels in which his thoughts ran, he would not for less than a fortune have risked encountering her scorn. For he believed, and therein he was right, that she was capable of scorn, and that of no ordinarily withering quality: Hester had not yet gathered the sweet gentleness that comes of long breathing the air of the high countries. It is generally many years before a strong character learns to think of itself as it ought to think. While there is left in us the possibility of scorn we know not quite the spirit we are of--still less if we imagine we may keep this or that little shadow of a fault. But Hester was far less ready to scorn on her own account than on the part of another. And if she had fairly seen into the mind interesting her so much, seen how poverty-stricken it was, and with how little motion towards the better, she would indeed have felt a great rush of scorn, but chiefly against herself for being taken in after such a fool's-fashion.
But he had come to understand Hester's taste so far as to know certain qualities she would not like in a song; he could even be sure she would like this one or that; and although of many he could not be certain, having never reached the grounds of her judgment, he had not yet offended her with any he brought her--and so by degrees he had generated the resolve to venture something himself in the hope of pleasing her: he flattered himself he knew her style! He was very fond of the word, and had an idea that all writers, to be of any account, must fashion their style after that of this or the other master. How the master got it, or whether it might not be well to go back to the seed and propagate no more by cutting, it never occurred to him to ask. In the prospect of one day reaching the bloom of humanity in the conservatory of the upper house, he already at odd moments cultivated his style by reading aloud the speeches of parliamentary orators; but the thought never came to him that there was no such thing per se as speaking well, that there was no cause of its existence except thinking well, were the grandfather, and something to say the father of if--something so well worth saying that it gave natural utterance to its own shape. If you had told him this, and he had, as he thought, perceived the truth of it, he would immediately have desired some fine thing to say, in order that he might say it well! He could not have been persuaded that, if one has nothing worth saying, the best possible style for him is just the most halting utterance that ever issued from empty skull. To make a good speech was the grand thing! what side it was on, the right or the wrong, was a point unthinkable with him. Even whether the speaker believed what he said was of no consequence--except that, if he did not, his speech would be the more admirable, as the greater tour de force, and himself the more admirable as the cleverer fellow.
Knowing that Hester was fond of a good ballad, he thought at first to try his hand on one: it could not be difficult, he thought! But he found that, like everything else, a ballad was easy enough if you could do it, and more than difficult enough if you could not: after several attempts he wisely yielded the ambition; his gift did not lie in that direction! He had, however, been so long in the habit of writing drawing-room verses that he had better ground for hoping he might produce something in that kind which the too severe taste of Hester could yet admire! It would be a great stroke towards placing him in a right position towards her--one, namely, in which his intellectual faculty would be more manifest! It should be a love song, and he would present it as one he had written long ago: as such it would say the more for him while it would not commit him.
So one evening as he stood by her piano, he said all at once:
"By the bye, Miss Raymount, last night, as I was turning over some songs I wrote many years ago, I came upon one I thought I should like you just to look at--not the music--that is worth nothing, though I was proud enough of it then and thought it an achievement; but the words I still think are not so bad--considering. They are so far from me now that I am able to speak of them as if they were not mine at all!"
"Do let me see them!" said Hester, hiding none of the interest she felt, though fearing a little she might not have to praise them so much as she would like.
He took the song from his pocket, and smoothed it out before her on the piano.
"Read it to me, please," said Hester.
"No; excuse me," he answered with a little shyness, the rarest of phenomena in his spiritual atmosphere; "I could not read it aloud. But do not let it bore you if--"
He did not finish his sentence, and Hester was already busy with his manuscript.
Here is the song:
If thou lov'st I dare not ask thee, Lest thou say, "Not thee;" Prythee, then, in coldness mask thee, That it may be me.
If thou lov'st me do not tell me, Joy would make me rave, And the bells of gladness knell me To the silent grave.
If thou lovest not thy lover, Neither veil thine eyes, Nor to his poor heart discover What behind them lies.
Be not cruel, be not tender; Grant me twilight hope; Neither would I die of splendor, Nor in darkness mope.
I entreat thee for no favor, Smallest nothingness; I will hoard thy dropt glove's savor, Wafture of thy dress.
So my love shall daring linger! Moth-like round thy flame; Move not, pray, forbidden finger-- Death to me thy blame.
Vavasor had gone half-way towards Mrs. Raymount, then turned, and now stood watching Hester. So long was her head bent over his paper that he grew uncomfortably anxious. At length, without lifting her eyes, she placed it on the stand before her, and began to try its music. Then Vavasor went to her hurriedly, for he felt convinced that if she was not quite pleased with the verses, it would fare worse with the music, and begged she would not trouble herself with anything so childish. Even now he knew less about music than poetry, he said.
"I wanted you to see the verses, and the manuscript being almost illegible I had to copy it; so, in a mechanical mood, I copied the music also. Please let me have them again. I feared they were not worth your notice! I know it now."
Hester, however, would not yield the paper, but began again to read it: Vavasor's writing, out of the bank, was one of those irritating hands that wrong not only with the absence of legibility but with the show of its presence, and she had not yet got so clear a notion of his verses as a mere glance of them in print would have given her. Why she did not quite like them she did not yet know, and was anxious not to be unfair. That they were clever she did not doubt; they had for one thing his own air of unassumed ease, and she could not but feel they had some claim to literary art. This added a little to her hesitation, not in pronouncing on them--she was far from that yet--but in recognizing what she felt about them. Had she had a suspicion of the lie he had told her, and that they were the work of yesterday, it would at once have put leagues between them, and made the verses hateful to her. As it was, the more she read and thought, the farther she seemed from a conclusion, and the time Vavasor stood there waiting, appeared to both of them three times as long as it really was. At last he felt he was pounded and must try back.
"You have discovered," he said, "that the song is an imitation of Sir John Suckling!"
He had never thought of the man while writing it.
"I don't know anything of him," answered Hester, looking up.
Vavasor knew nothing was more unlikely than that she should know anything of him.
"When did he write?" she asked.
"In the reign of Charles I., I believe," he answered.
"But tell me," said Hester, "where is the good of imitating anyone--even the best of writers. Our own original, however poor, must be the thing for us! To imitate is to repudiate our own being."
"That I admit," answered Vavasor, who never did anything original except when he followed his instincts; "but for a mere trial of skill an imitation is admissible--don't you think?"
"Oh, surely," replied Hester; "only it seems to me a waste of time--especially with such a gift as you have of your own!"
"At all events," said Vavasor, hiding his gratification with false humility, "there was no great presumption in a shy at Suckling!"
"There may have been the more waste," returned Hester. "I would sooner imitate Bach or even Handel than Verdi."
Vavasor could stand a good deal of censure if mingled with some praise--which he called appreciation. Of this Hester had given him enough to restore his spirits, and had also suggested a subject on which he found he could talk.
"But," he said, "how can it be worse for me to imitate this or that writer, than for you to play over and over music you could easily excel."
"I never practice music," answered Hester, "not infinitely better than I could write myself. But playing is a different thing altogether from writing. I play as I eat my dinner--because I am hungry. My hunger I could never satisfy with any amount of composition or extemporization of my own. My land would not grow corn enough, or good enough for my necessity. My playing merely corresponds to your reading of your favorite poets--especially if you have the habit of reading aloud like my father."
"They do not seem to me quite parallel," rejoined Vavasor, who had learned that he lost nothing with Hester by opposing her--so long as no moral difference was involved. In questions of right and wrong he always agreed with her so far as he dared expression where he understood so little, and for that very reason, in dread of seeming to have no opinion of his own, made a point of differing from her where he had a safe chance. "One may read both poetry and music at sight, but you would never count such reading of music a reproduction of it. That requires study and labor, as well as genius and an art like those which produce it."
"I am equally sure you can never read anything worth reading," returned Hester, "as it ought to be read, until you understand it at least as well as the poet himself. To do a poem justice, the reader must so have pondered phrase and word as to reproduce meaning and music in all the inextricable play of their lights and shades. I never came near doing the kind of thing I mean with any music till I had first learned it thoroughly by heart. And that too is the only way in which I can get to understand some poetry!"
"But is it not one of the excellences of poetry to be easy?"
"Yes, surely, when what the poet has to say is easy. But what if the thoughts themselves be of a kind hard to put into shape? There's Browning!"
Of Browning Vavasor knew only that in his circle he was laughed at--for in it a man who had made a feeble attempt or two to understand him, and had failed as he deserved, was the sole representative of his readers. That he was hard to understand Hester knew, for she understood enough of him to believe that where she did not understand him he was perhaps only the better worth understanding. She knew how, lover of music as she was, she did not at first care for Bach; and how in the process of learning to play what he wrote she came to understand him.
To her reference to Browning then, Vavasor did not venture a reply. None of the poetry indeed by him cultivated was of any sort requiring study. The difficulty Hester found in his song came of her trying to see more than was there; her eyes made holes in it, and saw the less. Vavasor's mental condition was much like that of one living in a vacuum or sphere of nothing, in which the sole objects must be such as he was creator enough to project from himself. He had no feeling that he was in the heart of a crowded universe, between all whose great verities moved countless small and smaller truths. Little notion had he that to learn these after the measure of their importance, was his business, with eternity to do it in! He made of himself but a cock, set for a while on the world's heap to scratch and pick.
When he was gone, leaving his manuscript behind him, Hester set to it again, and trying the music over, was by it so far enlightened that she despaired of finding anything in it, and felt a good deal disappointed.
For she was continuing to gather interest in Vavasor, though slowly, as was natural with a girl of her character. But she had no suspicion how empty he was, for it was scarcely possible for her to imagine a person indifferent to the truth of things, or without interest in his own character and its growth. Being all of a piece herself, she had no conception of a nature all in pieces--with no unity but that of selfishness. Her nature did now and then receive from his a jar and shock, but she generally succeeded in accounting for such as arising from his lack of development--a development which her influence over him would favor. If she felt some special pleasure in the possession of that influence, who will blame her for the weakness?
Women are being constantly misled by the fancy and hope of being the saviours of men! It is natural to goodness and innocence, but not the less is the error a disastrous one. There ought surely at least to be of success some probability as well founded as rare, to justify the sacrifices involved. Is it well that a life of supreme suffering should be gone through for nothing but an increase of guilt? It will be said that patience reaps its reward; but I fear too many patiences fail, and the number of resultant saints is small. The thing once done, the step no longer retrievable, fresh duty is born, and divine good will result from what suffering may arise in the fulfillment of the same. The conceit or ambition itself which led to the fault, may have to be cured by its consequences. But it may well be that a woman does more to redeem a man by declining than by encouraging his attentions. I dare not say how much a woman is not to do for the redemption of a man; but I think one who obeys God will scarcely imagine herself free to lay her person in the arms, and her happiness in the bosom of a man whose being is a denial of him. Good Christians not Christians enough to understand this, may have to be taught by the change of what they took for love into what they know to be disgust. It is very hard for the woman to know whether her influence has any real power over the man. It is very hard for the man himself to know; for the passion having in itself a betterment, may deceive him as well as her. It might be well that a woman asked herself whether moral laxity or genuine self-devotion was the more persuasive in her to the sacrifice. If her best hope be to restrain the man within certain bounds, she is not one to imagine capable of any noble anxiety. God cares nothing about keeping a man respectable; he will give his very self to make of him a true man. But that needs God; a woman is not enough for it. This cannot be God's way of saving bad men.
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