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About three weeks after lord Gartley's call, during which he had left a good many cards in Addison square, Hester received the following letter from Miss Vavasor: "My dear Miss Raymount, I am very anxious to see you, but fear it is hardly safe to go to you yet. You with your heavenly spirit do not regard such things, but I am not so much in love with the future as to risk my poor present for it. Neither would I willingly be the bearer of infection into my own circle: I am not so selfish as to be careless about that. But communicate with you somehow I must, and that for your own sake as well as Gartley's who is pining away for lack of the sunlight of your eyes. I throw myself entirely on your judgment. If you tell me you consider yourself out of quarantine, I will come to you at once; if you do not, will you propose something, for meet we must."
Hester pondered well before returning an answer. She could hardly say, she replied, that there was no danger, for her brother, who had been ill, was yet in the house, too weak for the journey to Yrndale. She would rather suggest, therefore, that they should meet in some quiet corner of one of the parks. She need hardly add she would take every precaution against carrying infection.
The proposal proved acceptable to Miss Vavasor. She wrote suggesting time and place. Hester agreed, and they met.
Hester appeared on foot, having had to dismiss her cab at the gate; Miss Vavasor, who had remained seated in her carriage; got down as soon as she saw her, and having sent it away, advanced to meet her with a smile: she was perfect in skin-hospitality.
"How long is it now," she began, "since you saw Gartley?"
"Three weeks or a month," replied Hester.
"I am afraid, sadly afraid, you cannot be much of a lover, not to have seen him for so long and look so fresh!" smiled Miss Vavasor, with gently implied reproach, and followed the words with a sigh, as if she had memories of a different complexion.
"When one has one's work to do,--" said Hester.
"Ah, yes!" returned Miss Vavasor, not waiting for the sentence, "I understand you have some peculiar ideas about work. That kind of thing is spreading very much in our circle too. I know many ladies who visit the poor. They complain there are so few unobjectionable tracts to give them. The custom came in with these Woman's-rights. I fear they will upset everything before long. But I hope the world will last my time. No one can tell where such things will end."
"No," replied Hester. "Nothing has ever stopped yet."
"Is that as much as to say that nothing ever will stop?"
"I think it is something like it," said Hester.
"We know nothing about the ends of things--only the beginnings."
There had been an air of gentle raillery in Miss Vavasor's tone, and Hester used the same, for she had no hope of coming to an understanding with her about anything.
"Then the sooner we do the better! I don't see else how things are to go on at all!" said Miss Vavasor, revealing the drop of Irish blood in her.
"When the master comes he will stop a good deal," thought Hester, but she did not say it. She could not allude to such things without at least a possibility of response.
"You and Gartley had a small misunderstanding, he tells me, the last time you met," continued Miss Vavasor, after a short pause.
"I think not," answered Hester; "at least I fancy I understood him very well."
"My dear Miss Raymount, you must not be offended with me. I am an old woman, and have had to compose differences that had got in the way of their happiness between goodness knows how many couples. I am not boasting when I say I have had considerable experience in that sort of thing."
"I do not doubt it," said Hester. "What I do doubt is, that you have had any experience of the sort necessary to set things right between lord Gartley and myself. The fact is, for I will be perfectly open with you, that I saw then--for the first time plainly, that to marry him would be to lose my liberty."
"Not more, my dear, than every woman does who marries at all. I presume you will allow marriage and its duties to be the natural calling of a woman?"
"Then she ought not to complain of the loss of her liberty."
"Not of so much as is naturally involved in marriage, I allow."
"Then why draw back from your engagement to Gartley?"
"Because he requires me to turn away at once, and before any necessity shows itself, from the exercise of a higher calling yet."
"I am not aware of any higher calling."
"I am. God has given me gifts to use for my fellows, and use them I must till he, not man, stops me. That is my calling."
"But you know that of necessity a woman must give up many things when she accepts the position of a wife, and possibly the duties of a mother."
"The natural claims upon a wife or mother I would heartily acknowledge."
"Then of course to the duties of a wife belong the claims Society has upon her as a wife."
"So far as I yet know what is meant in your circle by such claims, I count them the merest usurpations: I will never subject myself to such--never put myself in a position where I should be expected to obey a code of laws not merely opposed to the work for which I was made, but to all the laws of the relations to each other of human beings as human beings."
"I do not quite understand you," said Miss Vavasor.
"Well, for instance," returned Hester, willing to give the question a general bearing, "a mother in your class, according at least to much that I have heard, considers the duties she owes to society, duties that consist in what looks to me the merest dissipation and killing of time, as paramount even to those of a mother. Because of those 'traditions of men,' or fancies of fashionable women rather, she justifies herself in leaving her children in the nursery to the care of other women--the vulgarest sometimes."
"Not knowingly," said Miss Vavasor. "We are all liable to mistakes."
"But certainly," insisted Hester, "without taking the pains necessary to know for themselves the characters of those to whom they trust the children God has given to their charge; whereas to abandon them to the care of angels themselves would be to go against the laws of nature and the calling of God."
Miss Vavasor began to think it scarcely desirable to bring a woman of such levelling opinions into their quiet circle: she would be preaching next that women were wicked who did not nurse their own brats! But she would be faithful to Gartley!
"To set up as reformers would be to have the whole hive about our ears," she said.
"That may be," replied Hester, "but it does not apply to me. I keep the beam out of my own eye which I have no hope of pulling out of my neighhour's. I do not belong to your set."
"But you are about to belong to it, I hope."
"I hope not."
"You are engaged to marry my nephew."
"Not irrevocably, I trust."
"You should have thought of all that before you gave your consent. Gartley thought you understood. Certainly our circle is not one for saints."
"Honest women would be good enough for me. But I thought I had done and said more than was necessary to make Gartley understand my ideas of what was required of me in life, and I thought he sympathized with me so far at least that he would be what help to me he could. Now I find instead of this, that he never believed I meant what I said, but all the time intended to put a stop to the aspiration of my life the moment he had it in his power to do so."
"Ah, my dear young lady, you do not know what love is!" said Miss Vavasor, and sighed again as if she knew what love was. And in truth she had been in love at least once in her youth, but had yielded without word of remonstrance when her parents objected to her marrying three hundred a year, and a curacy of fifty. She saw it was reasonable: what fellowship can light have with darkness, or love with starvation? "A woman really in love," she went on, "is ready to give up everything, yes, my dear, everything for the man she loves. She who is not equal to that, does not know what love is."
"Suppose he should prove unworthy of her?"
"That would be nothing, positively nothing. If she had once learned to love him she would see no fault in him."
"Whatever faults he might have?"
"Whatever faults: love has no second thoughts."
"Suppose he were to show himself regardless of her best welfare--caring for her only as an adjunct to his display?"
"If she loved him, I only say if she loved him, she would be proud to follow in his triumph. His glory is hers."
"Whether it be real or not?"
"If he counts it so. A woman who loves gives herself to her husband to be moulded by him."
"I fear that is the way men think of us," said Hester, sadly; "and no doubt there are women whose behaviour would justify them in it. With all my heart I say a woman ought to be ready to die for the man she loves; that is a matter of course; she cannot really love him if she would not; but that she should fall in with all his thoughts, feelings, and judgments whatever, even such as in others she would most heartily despise; that she should act as if her husband and not God made her, and his whims, instead of the lovely will of him who created man and woman, were to be to her the bonds of her being--that surely no woman could grant who had not first lost her reason."
"You won't lose yours for love at least," concluded Miss Vavasor, who could not help admiring her ability, though she despised the direction it took. "I see," she said to herself, "she is one of the strong-minded who think themselves superior to any man. Gartley will be well rid of her--that is my conviction! I think I have done nearly all he could require of me."
"I tell you honestly," continued Hester, "I love lord Gartley so well that I would gladly yield my life to do him any worthy good."--"It is easy to talk," said Miss Vavasor to herself.--"Not that that is saying much," Hester went on, "for I would do that to redeem any human creature from the misery of living without God. I would even marry lord Gartley--I think I would, after what has passed--if only I knew that he would not try to prevent me from being the woman I ought to be and have to be;--perhaps I would--I am not clear about it just at this moment: never, if I were married to him, would I be so governed by him that he should do that! But who would knowingly marry for strife and debate? Who would deliberately add to the difficulties of being what she ought to be, what she desired, and was determined, with God's help, to be! I for one will not take an enemy into the house of my life. I will not make it a hypocrisy to say, 'Lead us not into temptation.' I grant you a wife must love her husband grandly'--passionately, if you like the word; but there is one to be loved immeasurably more grandly, yea passionately, if the word means anything true and good in love--he whose love creates love. Can you for a moment imagine, when the question came between my Lord and my husband, I would hesitate?"
"'Tis a pity you were not born in the middle ages," said Miss Vavasor, smiling, but with a touch of gentle scorn in the superiority of her tone; "you would certainly have been canonized!"
"But now I am sadly out of date--am I not?" returned Hester, trying to smile also.
"I could no more consent to live in God's world without minding what he told me, than I would marry a man merely because he admired me."
"Heavens," exclaimed Miss Vavasor to what she called herself, "what an extravagant young woman! She won't do for us! You'll have to let her fly, my dear boy!"
What she said to Hester was,
"Don't you think, my dear, all that sounds a little--just a little extravagant? You know as well as I do--you have just confessed it--that the kind of thing is out of date--does not belong to the world of to-day. And when a thing is once of the past, it cannot be called back, do what you will. Nothing will ever bring in that kind of thing again. It is all very well to go to church and that sort of thing; I should be the last to encourage the atheism that is getting so frightfully common, but really it seems to me such extravagant notions about religion as you have been brought up in must have not a little to do with the present sad state of affairs--must in fact go far to make atheists. Civilization will never endure to be priest-ridden."
"It is my turn now," said Hester, "to say that I scarcely understand you. Do you take God for a priest? Do you object to atheism, and yet regard obedience to God as an invention of the priests? Was Jesus Christ a priest? or did he say what was not true when he said that whoever loved any one else more than him was not worthy of him? Or do you confess it true, yet say it is of no consequence? If you do not care about what he wants of you, I simply tell you that I care about nothing else; and if ever I should change, I hope he will soon teach me better--whatever sorrow may be necessary for me to that end. I desire not to care a straw about anything he does not care about."
"It is very plain, at least," said Miss Vavasor, "that you do not love my nephew as he deserves to be loved--or as any woman ought to love the man to whom she has given her consent to be his wife! You have very different ideas from such as were taught in my girlhood concerning the duties of wives! A woman, I used to be told, was to fashion herself upon her husband, fit her life to his life, her thoughts to his thoughts, her tastes to his tastes."
Absurd indeed would have seemed, to any one really knowing the two, the idea of a woman like Hester fitting herself into the mould of such a man as lord Gartley!--for what must be done with the quantity of her that would be left over after his lordship's mould was filled! The notion of squeezing a large, divine being, like Hester, into the shape of such a poor, small, mean, worldly, time-serving fellow, would have been so convincingly ludicrous as to show at once the theory on which it was founded for the absurdity it was. Instead of walking on together in simple equality, in mutual honour and devotion, each helping the other to be better still, to have the woman, large and noble, come cowering after her pigmy lord, as if he were the god of her life, instead of a Satan doing his best to damn her to his own meanness!--it is a contrast that needs no argument! Not the less if the woman be married to such a man, will it be her highest glory, by the patience of Christ, by the sacrifice of self, yea of everything save the will of God, to win the man, if he may by any means be won, from the misery of his self-seeking to a noble shame of what he now delights in.
"You are right," said Hester; "I do not love lord Gartley sufficiently for that! Thank you, Miss Vavasor, you have helped me to the thorough conviction that there could never have been any real union between us. Can a woman love with truest wifely love a man who has no care that she should attain to the perfect growth of her nature? He would have been quite content I should remain for ever the poor creature I am--would never by word, or wish, or prayer, have sought to raise me above myself! The man I shall love as I could love must be a greater man than lord Gartley! He is not fit to make any woman love him so. If she were so much less than he as to have to look up to him, she would be too small to have any devotion in her. No! I will be a woman and not a countess!--I wish you good morning, Miss Vavasor."
"If I am not to help him," she said to herself, "what is there in reason why I should marry him? His love, no doubt, is the best thing he has to give, but a poor thing is his best, and save as an advantage for serving him, not worth the having." What her love to him would have been three months after marrying him, I am glad to have no occasion to imagine.
She held out her hand. Miss Vavasor drew herself up, and looked a cold annihilation into her eyes. The warm blood rose from Hester's heart to her brain. Quietly she returned her gaze, nor blenched a moment. She felt as if she were looking a far off idea in the face--as if she were telling her what a poor miserable creature of money and manners, ambitions and expediencies she thought her. Miss Vavasor, unused to having such a full strong virgin look fixed fearless, without defiance, but with utter disapproval, upon her, quailed--only a little, but as she had never in her life quailed before. She forced her gaze, and Hester felt that to withdraw her eyes would give her a false sense of victory. She therefore continued her look, but had no need to force it, for she knew she was the stronger. It seemed minutes where only seconds passed. She smiled at last and said,
"I am glad you are not going to be my aunt, Miss Vavasor."
"Thank goodness, no!" cried Miss Vavasor, with a slightly hysterical laugh.
Notwithstanding her educated self-command, she felt cowed before the majesty of Hester, for woman was face to face with woman, and the truth was stronger than the lie. Had she then yielded to the motions within her, she would, and it would have been but the second time in her life, have broken into undignified objurgation. She had to go back to her nephew and confess that she had utterly failed where she had expected, if not an easy victory, yet the more a triumphant one! She had to tell him that his lady was the most peculiar, most unreasonable young woman she had ever had to deal with; and that she was not only unsuited to him, but quite unworthy of him! He would conclude she had managed the matter ill, and said things she ought not to have said! It was very hard that she, who desired only to set things right, looking for no advantage to herself--she who was recognized as a power in her own circle, should have been so ignominiously foiled in the noble endeavour, having sacrificed herself, to sacrifice also another upon the altar of her beloved earldom! She could not reconcile herself to the thought. It did not occur to her that there was a power here concerned altogether different from any she had before encountered--namely a soul possessed by truth and clad in the armour of righteousness. Of conscience that dealt with the qualities of things, nor cared what had been decreed concerning them by a class claiming for itself the apex of the world, she had scarce even a shadowy idea; for never in her life had she herself acted from any insight into primary quality. When therefore she had to do with a girl who did not acknowledge the jurisdiction of the law to which she bowed as supreme, she was out of her element--had got, as it seemed to her, into water too shoal to swim in; whereas, in fact, she had got into water too deep to wade in, and did not know how to swim.
She turned and walked away, attempting a show of dignity, but showing only that Brummagem thing, haughtiness--an adornment the possessor alone does not recognize as a counterfeit. Then Hester turned too, and walked in the opposite direction, feeling that one supposed portion of her history was but an episode, and at an end.
She did not know that, both coming and going, she was attended at a near distance by a tall, portly gentleman of ruddy complexion and military bearing. He had beheld her interview--by no means overheard her conversation--with Miss Vavasor, and had seen with delight the unmistakable symptoms of serious difference which at last appeared, and culminated in their parting. He did not venture to approach her, but when she got into a cab, took a Hansom and followed her to the entrance of the square, where he got down, his heart beating with exultant hope that "the rascal ass of a nobleman" had been dismissed.
All the time since he came to London with Hester, he had, as far as possible to him, kept guard over her, and had known a good deal more of her goings and comings than she was aware of--this with an unselfishness of devotion that took from him the least suspicion of its being a thing unwarrantable. He was like the dog which, not allowed to accompany his master, follows him at a distance, ready to interfere at any moment when such interference may be desirable. She had let him know that she had found her brother, that he was very ill, and that she was helping to nurse him; but she had not yet summoned him. In severe obedience to orders, therefore, he did not even now call. Next day, however, he found a summons waiting him at his club, and made haste to obey it.
She had thought it better to prepare him for what she was about to ask of him, therefore mentioned in her note that in a day or two she was going to Yrndale with her brother and his wife.
"Whew!" exclaimed the major when he read it, "wife! this complicates matters! I was sure he had not gone to the dogs--no dog but a cur would receive him--without help!--Marriage and embezzlement! Poor devil! if he were not such a confounded ape I should pity him! But the small-pox and a wife may perhaps do something for him!"
When he reached the house, Hester received him warmly, and at once made her request that he would go down with them. It would be such a relief to her if he would, she said. He expressed entire readiness, but thought she had better not say he was coming, as in the circumstances he could hardly be welcome. They soon made their arrangements, and he left her yet more confirmed in a respect such as he had never till now felt. And this was the major's share in the good that flowed from Hester's sufferings: the one most deficient thing in him was reverence, and in this he was now having a strong lesson.
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