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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBorn In Exile - Part 3 - Chapter 5
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Born In Exile - Part 3 - Chapter 5 Post by :cclittle Category :Long Stories Author :George Gissing Date :May 2012 Read :1070

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Born In Exile - Part 3 - Chapter 5

PART III CHAPTER V

Having led the way to the drawing-room, Fanny retired again for a few moments, to fetch the fern of which she had spoken, leaving Peak in conversation with little Miss Lilywhite. Bertha was a rather shy girl of fifteen, not easily induced, under circumstances such as these, to utter more than monosyllables, and Godwin, occupied with the unforeseen results of his call, talked about the weather. With half-conscious absurdity he had begun to sketch a theory of his own regarding rain-clouds and estuaries (Bertha listening with an air of the gravest attention) when Fanny reappeared, followed by Sidwell. Peak searched the latter's face for indications of her mood, but could discover nothing save a spirit of gracious welcome. Such aspect was a matter of course, and he knew it. None the less, his nervousness and the state of mind engendered by a week's miserable solitude, tempted him to believe that Sidwell did not always wear that smile in greeting a casual caller. This was the first time that she had received him without the countenance of Mrs. Warricombe. Observing her perfect manner, as she sat down and began to talk, he asked himself what her age really was. The question had never engaged his thoughts. Eleven years ago, when he saw her at the house near Kingsmill and again at Whitelaw College, she looked a very young girl, but whether of thirteen or sixteen he could not at the time have determined, and such a margin of possibility allowed her now to have reached--it might be--her twenty-seventh summer. But twenty-seven drew perilously near to thirty; no, no, Sidwell could not be more than twenty-five. Her eyes still had the dewy freshness of flowering maidenhood; her cheek, her throat, were so exquisitely young----

In how divine a calm must this girl have lived to show, even at five-and-twenty, features as little marked by inward perturbation as those of an infant! Her position in the world considered, one could forgive her for having borne so lightly the inevitable sorrows of life, for having dismissed so readily the spiritual doubts which were the heritage of her time; but was she a total stranger to passion? Did not the fact of her still remaining unmarried make probable such a deficiency in her nature? Had she a place among the women whom coldness of temperament preserves in a bloom like that of youth, until fading hair and sinking cheek betray them----?

Whilst he thought thus, Godwin was in appearance busy with the fern Fanny had brought for his inspection. He talked about it, but in snatches, with intervals of abstractedness.

Yet might he not be altogether wrong? Last year, when he observed Sidwell in the Cathedral and subsequently at home, his impression had been that her face was of rather pallid and dreamy cast; he recollected that distinctly. Had she changed, or did familiarity make him less sensible of her finer traits? Possibly she enjoyed better health nowadays, and, if so, it might result from influences other than physical. Her air of quiet happiness seemed to him especially noticeable this afternoon, and as he brooded there came upon him a dread which, under the circumstances, was quite irrational, but for all that troubled his views. Perhaps Sidwell was betrothed to some one? He knew of but one likely person--Miss Moorhouse's brother. About a month ago the Warricombes had been on a visit at Budleigh Salterton, and something might then have happened. Pangs of jealousy smote him, nor could he assuage them by reminding himself that he had no concern whatever in Sidwell's future.

'Will Mr. Warricombe be long away?' he asked, coldly.

'A day or two. I hope you didn't wish particularly to see him to-day?'

'Oh, no.'

'Do you know, Mr. Peak,' put in Fanny, 'that we are all going to London next month, to live there for half a year?'

Godwin exhibited surprise. He looked from the speaker to her sister, and Sidwell, as she smiled confirmation, bent very slightly towards him.

'We have made up our minds, after much uncertainty,' she said. 'My brother Buckland seems to think that we are falling behind in civilisation.'

'So we are,' affirmed Fanny, 'as Mr. Peak would admit, if only he could be sincere.'

'Am I never sincere then, Miss Fanny?' Godwin asked.

'I only meant to say that nobody can be when the rules of politeness interfere. Don't you think it's a pity? We might tell one another the truth in a pleasant way.'

'I agree with you. But then we must be civilised indeed. How do you think of London, Miss Warricombe? Which of its aspects most impresses you?'

Sidwell answered rather indefinitely, and ended by mentioning that in ~Villette~, which she had just re-read, Charlotte Bronte makes a contrast between the City and the West End, and greatly prefers the former.

'Do you agree with her, Mr. Peak?'

'No, I can't. One understands the mood in which she wrote that; but a little more experience would have led her to see the ccntrast in a different light. That term, the West End, includes much that is despicable, but it means also the best results of civilisation. The City is hateful to me, and for a reason which I only understood after many an hour of depression in walking about its streets. It represents the ascendency of the average man.'

Sidwell waited for fuller explanation.

'A liberal mind,' Peak continued, 'is revolted by the triumphal procession that roars perpetually through the City highways. With myriad voices the City bellows its brutal scorn of everything but material advantage. There every humanising influence is contemptuously disregarded. I know, of course, that the trader may have his quiet home, where art and science and humanity are the first considerations; but the ~mass~ of traders, corporate and victorious, crush all such things beneath their heels. Take your stand (or try to do so) anywhere near the Exchange; the hustling and jolting to which you are exposed represents the very spirit of the life about you. Whatever is gentle and kindly and meditative must here go to the wall--trampled, spattered, ridiculed. Here the average man has it all his own way--a gross utilitarian power.'

'Yes, I can see that,' Sidwell replied, thoughtfully. 'And perhaps it also represents the triumphant forces of our time.'

He looked keenly at her, with a smile of delight.

'That also! The power which centres in the world's money-markets-- plutocracy.'

In conversing with Sidwell, he had never before found an opportunity of uttering his vehement prejudices. The gentler side of his character had sometimes expressed itself, but those impulses which were vastly more significant lay hidden beneath the dissimulation he consistently practised. For the first time he was able to look into Sidwell's face with honest directness, and what he saw there strengthened his determination to talk on with the same freedom.

'You don't believe, then,' said Sidwell, 'that democracy is the proper name for the state into which we are passing?'

'Only if one can understand democracy as the opening of social privileges to free competition amongst men of trade. And social privilege is everything; home politics refer to nothing else.'

Fanny, true to the ingenuous principle of her years, put a direct question:

'Do you approve of real democracy, Mr. Peak?'

He answered with another question:

'Have you read the "Life of Phokion" in Plutarch?'

'No, I'm sorry to say.'

'There's a story about him which I have enjoyed since I was your age. Phokion was once delivering a public speech, and at a certain point the majority of his hearers broke into applause; whereupon he turned to certain of his friends who stood near and asked, "What have I said amiss?"'

Fanny laughed.

'Then you despise public opinion?'

'With heart and soul!'

It was to Sidwell that he directed the reply. Though overcome by the joy of such an utterance, he felt that, considering the opinions and position of Buckland Warricombe, he was perhaps guilty of ill manners. But Sidwell manifested no disapproval.

'Did you know that story?' Fanny asked of her.

'It's quite new to me.'

'Then I'm sure you'll read the "Life of Phokion" as soon as possible. He will just Suit you, Sidwell.'

Peak heard this with a shock of surprise which thrilled in him deliciously. He had the strongest desire to look again at Sidwell but refrained. As no one spoke, he turned to Bertha Lilywhite and put a commonplace question.

A servant entered with the tea-tray, and placed it on a small table near Fanny. Godwin looked at the younger girl; it seemed to him that there was an excess of colour in her cheeks. Had a glance from Sidwell rebuked her? With his usual rapidity of observation and inference he made much of this trifle.

Contrary to what he expected, Sidwell's next remark was in a tone of cheerfulness, almost of gaiety.

'One advantage of our stay in London will be that home will seem more delightful than ever when we return.'

'I suppose you won't be back till next summer?'

'I am afraid not.'

'Shall you be living here then?' Fanny inquired.

'It's very doubtful.'

He wished to answer with a decided negative, but his tongue refused. Sidwell was regarding him with calm but earnest eyes, and he knew, without caring to reflect, that his latest projects were crumbling.

'Have you been to see our friends at Budleigh Salterton yet?' she asked.

'Not yet. I hope to in a few days.'

Pursuing the subject, he was able to examine her face as she spoke of Mr. Moorhouse. His conjecture was assuredly baseless.

Fanny and Bertha began to talk together of domestic affairs, and presently, when tea-cups were laid aside, the two girls went to another part of the room; then they withdrew altogether. Peak was monologising on English art as represented at the Academy, but finding himself alone with Sidwell (it had never before happened) he became silent. Ought he to take his leave? He must already have been sitting here more than half-an-hour. But the temptation of ~teae-a-teae~ was irresistible.

'You had a visit from Mr. Chilvers the other day?' he remarked, abruptly.

'Yes; did he call to see you?'

Her tone gave evidence that she would not have introduced this topic.

'No; I heard from Mrs. Lilywhite. He had been to the vicarage. Has he changed much since he was at Whitelaw?'

'So many years must make a difference at that time of life,' Sidwell answered, smiling.

'But does he show the same peculiarities of manner?'

He tried to put the question without insistency, in a tone quite compatible with friendliness. Her answer, given with a look of amusement, satisfied him that there was no fear of her taking Mr Chilvers too seriously.

'Yes. I think he speaks in much the same way.'

'Have you read any of his publications?'

'One or two. We have his lecture on ~Altruism~.'

'I happen to know it. There are good things in it, I think. But I dislike his modern interpretation of old principles.'

'You think it dangerous?'

He no longer regarded her frankly, and in the consciousness of her look upon him he knit his brows.

'I think it both dangerous and offensive. Not a few clergymen nowadays, who imagine themselves free from the letter and wholly devoted to spirit, are doing their best in the cause of materialism. They surrender the very points at issue between religion and worldliness. They are so blinded by a vague humanitarian impulse as to make the New Testament an oracle of popular Radicalism.'

Sidwell looked up.

'I never quite understood, Mr. Peak, how you regard Radicalism. You think it opposed to all true progress?'

'Utterly, as concerns any reasonable limit of time.'

'Buckland, as you know, maintains that spiritual progress is only possible by this way.'

'I can't venture to contradict him,' said Godwin; 'for it may be that advance is destined only to come after long retrogression and anarchy. Perhaps the way ~does~ lie through such miseries. But we can't foresee that with certainty, and those of us who hate the present tendency of things must needs assert their hatred as strongly as possible, seeing that we ~may~ have a more hopeful part to play than seems likely.'

'I like that view,' replied Sidwell, in an undertone.

'My belief,' pursued Godwin, with an earnestness very agreeable to himself, for he had reached the subject on which he could speak honestly, 'is that an instructed man can only hold views such as your brother's--hopeful views of the immediate future--if he has never been brought into close contact with the lower classes. Buckland doesn't know the people for whom he pleads.'

'You think them so degraded?'

'It is impossible, without seeming inhumanly scornful, to give a just account of their ignorance and baseness. The two things, speaking generally, go together. Of the ignorant, there are very few indeed who can think purely or aspiringly. You, of course, object the teaching of Christianity; but the lowly and the humble of whom it speaks scarcely exist, scarcely can exist, in our day and country. A ludicrous pretence of education is banishing every form of native simplicity. In the large towns, the populace sink deeper and deeper into a vicious vulgarity, and every rural district is being affected by the spread of contagion. To flatter the proletariat is to fight against all the good that still characterises educated England--against reverence for the beautiful, against magnanimity, against enthusiasm of mind, heart, and soul.'

He quivered with vehemence of feeling, and the flush which rose to his hearer's cheek, the swimming brightness of her eye, proved that a strong sympathy stirred within her.

'I know nothing of the uneducated in towns,' she said, 'but the little I have seen of them in country places certainly supports your opinion. I could point to two or three families who have suffered distinct degradation owing to what most people call an improvement in their circumstances. Father often speaks of such instances, comparing the state of things now with what he can remember.'

'My own experience,' pursued Godwin, 'has been among the lower classes in London. I don't mean the very poorest, of whom one hears so much nowadays; I never went among them because I had no power of helping them, and the sight of their vileness would only have moved me to unjust hatred. But the people who earn enough for their needs, and whose spiritual guide is the Sunday newspaper--I know them, because for a long time I was obliged to lodge in their houses. Only a consuming fire could purify the places where they dwell. Don't misunderstand me; I am not charging them with what are commonly held vices and crimes, but with the consistent love of everything that is ignoble, with utter deadness to generous impulse, with the fatal habit of low mockery. And ~these~ are the people who really direct the democratic movement. They set the tone in politics; they are debasing art and literature; even the homes of wealthy people begin to show the effects of their influence. One hears men and women of gentle birth using phrases which originate with shopboys; one sees them reading print which is addressed to the coarsest million. They crowd to entertainments which are deliberately adapted to the lowest order of mind. When commercial interest is supreme, how can the tastes of the majority fail to lead and control?'

Though he spoke from the depths of his conviction, and was so moved that his voice rose and fell in tones such as a drawing-room seldom hears, he yet kept anxious watch upon Sidwell's countenance. That hint afforded him by Fanny was invaluable; it had enabled him to appeal to Sidwell's nature by the ardent expression of what was sincerest in his own. She too, he at length understood, had the aristocratic temperament. This explained her to him, supplied the key of doubts and difficulties which had troubled him in her presence. It justified, moreover, the feelings with which she had inspired him--feelings which this hour of intimate converse had exalted to passion. His heart thrilled with hope. Where sympathies so profound existed, what did it matter that there was variance on a few points between his intellect and hers? He felt the power to win her, and to defy every passing humiliation that lay in his course.

Sidwell raised her eyes with a look which signified that she was shaping a question diffidently.

'Have you always thought so hopelessly of our times?'

'Oh, I had my stage of optimism,' he answered, smiling. 'Though I never put faith in the masses, I once believed that the conversion of the educated to a purely human religion would set things moving in the right way. It was ignorance of the world.'

He paused a moment, then added:

'In youth one marvels that men remain at so low a stage of civilisation. Later in life, one is astonished that they have advanced so far.'

Sidwell met his look with appreciative intelligence and murmured:

'In spite of myself, I believe that expresses a truth.'

Peak was about to reply, when Fanny and her friend reappeared. Bertha approached for the purpose of taking leave, and for a minute or two Sidwell talked with her. The young girls withdrew again together.

By the clock on the mantelpiece it was nearly six. Godwin did not resume his seat, though Sidwell had done so. He looked towards the window, and was all but lost in abstraction, when the soft voice again addressed him:

'But you have not chosen your life's work without some hope of doing good?'

'Do you think,' he asked, gently, 'that I shall be out of place in the Christian Church?'

'No--no, I certainly don't think that. But will you tell me what you have set before yourself?'

He drew nearer and leaned upon the back of a chair.

'I hope for what I shall perhaps never attain. Whatever my first steps may be--I am not independent; I must take the work that offers--it is my ambition to become the teacher of some rural parish which is still unpolluted by the influences of which we have been speaking--or, at all events, is still capable of being rescued. For work in crowded centres, I am altogether unfit; my prejudices are too strong; I should do far more harm than good. But among a few simple people I think my efforts mightn't be useless. I can't pretend to care for anything but individuals. The few whom I know and love are of more importance to me than all the blind multitude rushing to destruction. I hate the word ~majority~; it is the few, the very few, that have always kept alive whatever of effectual good we see in the human race. There are individuals who outweigh, in every kind of value, generations of ordinary people. To some remote little community I hope to give the best energies of my life. My teaching will avoid doctrine and controversy. I shall take the spirit of the Gospels, and labour to make it a practical guide. No doubt you find inconsistencies in me; but remember that I shall not declare myself to those I instruct as I have done to you. I have been laying stress on my antipathies. In the future it will be a duty and a pleasure to forget these and foster my sympathies, which also are strong when opportunity is given them.'

Sidwell listened, her face bent downwards but not hidden from the speaker.

'My nature is intolerant,' he went on, 'and I am easily roused to an antagonism which destroys my peace. It is only by living apart, amid friendly circumstances, that I can cultivate the qualities useful to myself and others. The sense that my life was being wasted determined me a year ago to escape the world's uproar and prepare myself in quietness for this task. The resolve was taken here, in your house.'

'Are you quite sure,' asked Sidwell, 'that such simple duties and satisfactions'--

The sentence remained incomplete, or rather was finished in the timid glance she gave him.

'Such a life wouldn't be possible to me,' he replied, with unsteady voice, 'if I were condemned to intellectual solitude. But I have dared to hope that I shall not always be alone.'

A parched throat would have stayed his utterance, even if words had offered themselves. But sudden confusion beset his mind--a sense of having been guilty of monstrous presumption--a panic which threw darkness about him and made him grasp the chair convulsively. When he recovered himself and looked at Sidwell there was a faint smile on her lips, inexpressibly gentle.

'That's the rough outline of my projects,' he said, in his ordinary voice, moving a few steps away. 'You see that I count much on fortune; at the best, it may be years before I can get my country living.'

With a laugh, he came towards her and offered his hand for good-bye. Sidwell rose.

'You have interested me very much. Whatever assistance it may be in my father's power to offer you, I am sure you may count upon.'

'I am already much indebted to Mr. Warricombe's kindness.'

They shook hands without further speech, and Peak went his way.

For an hour or two he was powerless to collect his thoughts. All he had said repeated itself again and again, mixed up with turbid comments, with deadly fears and frantic bursts of confidence, with tumult of passion and merciless logic of self-criticism. Did Sidwell understand that sentence: 'I have dared to hope that I shall not always be alone'? Was it not possible that she might interpret it as referring to some unknown woman whom he loved? If not, if his voice and features had betrayed him, what could her behaviour mean, except distinct encouragement? 'You have interested me very much.' But could she have used such words if his meaning had been plain to her? Far more likely that her frank kindness came of misconception. She imagined him the lover of some girl of his own 'station'--a toiling governess, or some such person; it could not enter into her mind that he 'dared' so recklessly as the truth implied.

But the glow of sympathy with which she heard his immeasurable scorn: there was the spirit that defies artificial distances. Why had he not been bolder? At this rate he must spend a lifetime in preparing for the decisive moment. When would another such occasion offer itself?

Women are won by audacity; the poets have repeated it from age to age, and some truth there must be in the saying. Suspicion of self-interest could not but attach to him; that was inherent in the circumstances. He must rely upon the sincerity of his passion, which indeed was beginning to rack and rend him. A woman is sensitive to that, especially a woman of Sidwell's refinement. In matters of the intellect she may be misled, but she cannot mistake quivering ardour for design simulating love. If it were impossible to see her again in private before she left Exeter, then he must write to her. Half a year of complete uncertainty, and of counterfeiting face to face with Bruno Chilvers, would overtax his resolution.

The evening went by he knew not how. Long after nightfall he was returning from an aimless ramble by way of the Old Tiverton Road. At least he would pass the house, and soothe or inflame his emotions by resting for a moment thus near to Sidwell.

What? He had believed himself incapable of erotic madness? And he pressed his forehead against the stones of the wall to relieve his sick dizziness.

It was Sidwell or death. Into what a void of hideous futility would his life be cast, if this desire proved vain, and he were left to combat alone with the memory of his dishonour! With Sidwell the reproach could be outlived. She would understand him, pardon him-- and thereafter a glorified existence, rivalling that of whosoever has been most exultant among the sons of men!

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