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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesErnest Maltravers - Book 1 - Chapter 5
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Ernest Maltravers - Book 1 - Chapter 5 Post by :jimh1626 Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :2266

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Ernest Maltravers - Book 1 - Chapter 5

BOOK I CHAPTER V

"Thought would destroy their Paradise."--GRAY.

MALTRAVERS found Alice as docile a pupil as any reasonable preceptor might have desired. But still, reading and writing--they are very uninteresting elements! Had the groundwork been laid, it might have been delightful to raise the fairy palace of knowledge; but the digging the foundations and the constructing the cellars is weary labour. Perhaps he felt it so; for in a few days Alice was handed over to the very oldest and ugliest writing-master that the neighbouring town could afford. The poor girl at first wept much at the exchange; but the grave remonstrances and solemn exhortations of Maltravers reconciled her at last, and she promised to work hard and pay every attention to her lessons. I am not sure, however, that it was the tedium of the work that deterred the idealist--perhaps he felt its danger--and at the bottom of his sparkling dreams and brilliant follies lay a sound, generous, and noble heart. He was fond of pleasure, and had been already the darling of the sentimental German ladies. But he was too young and too vivid, and too romantic, to be what is called a sensualist. He could not look upon a fair face, and a guileless smile, and all the ineffable symmetry of a woman's shape, with the eye of a man buying cattle for base uses. He very easily fell in love, or fancied he did, it is true,--but then he could not separate desire from fancy, or calculate the game of passion without bringing the heart or the imagination into the matter. And though Alice was very pretty and very engaging, he was not yet in love with her, and he had no intention of becoming so.

He felt the evening somewhat long, when for the first time Alice discontinued her usual lesson; but Maltravers had abundant resources in himself. He placed Shakespeare and Schiller on his table, and lighted his German meerschaum--he read till he became inspired, and then he wrote--and when he had composed a few stanzas he was not contented till he had set them to music, and tried their melody with his voice. For he had all the passion of a German for song, and music--that wild Maltravers!--and his voice was sweet, his taste consummate, his science profound. As the sun puts out a star, so the full blaze of his imagination, fairly kindled, extinguished for the time his fairy fancy for his beautiful pupil.

It was late that night when Maltravers went to bed--and as he passed through the narrow corridor that led to his chamber he heard a light step flying before him, and caught the glimpse of a female figure escaping through a distant door. "The silly child," thought he, at once divining the cause; "she has been listening to my singing. I shall scold her." But he forgot that resolution.

The next day, and the next, and many days passed, and Maltravers saw but little of the pupil for whose sake he had shut himself up in a country cottage, in the depth of winter. Still he did not repent his purpose, nor was he in the least tired of his seclusion--he would not inspect Alice's progress, for he was certain he should be dissatisfied with its slowness--and people, however handsome, cannot learn to read and write in a day. But he amused himself, notwithstanding. He was glad of an opportunity to be alone with his own thoughts, for he was at one of those periodical epochs of life when we like to pause and breathe a while, in brief respite from that methodical race in which we run to the grave. He wished to re-collect the stores of his past experience, and repose on his own mind, before he started afresh upon the active world. The weather was cold and inclement; but Ernest Maltravers was a hardy lover of nature, and neither snow nor frost could detain him from his daily rambles. So, about noon, he regularly threw aside books and papers, took his hat and staff, and went whistling or humming his favourite airs through the dreary streets, or along the bleak waters, or amidst the leafless woods, just as the humour seized him; for he was not an Edwin or Harold, who reserved speculation only for lonely brooks and pastoral hills. Maltravers delighted to contemplate nature in men as well as in sheep or trees. The humblest alley in a crowded town had something poetical for him; he was ever ready to mix in a crowd, if it were only gathered round a barrel-organ or a dog-fight, and listen to all that was said and notice all that was done. And this I take to be the true poetical temperament essential to every artist who aspires to be something more than a scene-painter. But, above all things, he was most interested in any display of human passions or affections; he loved to see the true colours of the heart, where they are most transparent--in the uneducated and poor--for he was something of an optimist, and had a hearty faith in the loveliness of our nature. Perhaps, indeed, he owed much of the insight into and mastery over character that he was afterwards considered to display, to his disbelief that there is any wickedness so dark as not to be susceptible of the light in some place or another. But Maltravers had his fits of unsociability, and then nothing but the most solitary scenes delighted him. Winter or summer, barren waste or prodigal verdure, all had beauty in his eyes; for their beauty lay in his own soul, through which he beheld them. From these walks he would return home at dusk, take his simple meal, rhyme or read away the long evenings with such alternation as music or the dreamy thoughts of a young man with gay life before him could afford. Happy Maltravers!--youth and genius have luxuries all the Rothschilds cannot purchase! And yet, Maltravers, you are ambitious!--life moves too slowly for you!--you would push on the wheels of the clock!--Fool--brilliant fool!--you are eighteen, and a poet!--What more can you desire?--Bid Time stop for ever!

One morning Ernest rose earlier than his wont, and sauntered carelessly through the conservatory which adjoined his sitting-room; observing the plants with placid curiosity (for besides being a little of a botanist, he had odd visionary notions about the life of plants, and he saw in them a hundred mysteries which the herbalists do not teach us), when he heard a low and very musical voice singing at a little distance. He listened, and recognised, with surprise, words of his own, which he had lately set to music, and was sufficiently pleased with to sing nightly.

When the song ended, Maltravers stole softly through the conservatory, and as he opened the door which led into the garden, he saw at the open window of a little room which was apportioned to Alice, and jutted out from the building in the fanciful irregularity common to ornamental cottages, the form of his discarded pupil. She did not observe him, and it was not till he twice called her by name, that she started from her thoughtful and melancholy posture.

"Alice," said he, gently, "put on your bonnet, and walk with me in the garden: you look pale, child; the fresh air will do you good."

Alice coloured and smiled, and in a few moments was by his side. Maltravers, meanwhile, had gone in and lighted his meerschaum, for it was his great inspirer whenever his thoughts were perplexed, or he felt his usual fluency likely to fail him, and such was the case now. With this faithful ally he awaited Alice in the little walk that circled the lawn, amidst shrubs and evergreens.

"Alice," said he after a pause; but he stopped short.

Alice looked up at him with grave respect.

"Tush!" said Maltravers; "perhaps the smoke is unpleasant to you. It is a bad habit of mine."

"No, sir," answered Alice; and she seemed disappointed. Maltravers paused, and picked up a snowdrop.

"It is pretty," he said; "do you love flowers?"

"Oh, dearly," answered Alice, with some enthusiasm; "I never saw many till I came here."

"Now then I can go on," thought Maltravers; why, I cannot say, for I do not see the _sequitur_; but on he went _in medias res_. "Alice, you sing charmingly."

"Ah! sir, you--you--" she stopped abruptly, and trembled visibly.

"Yes, I overheard you, Alice."

"And you are angry?"

"I!--Heaven forbid! It is a _talent_--but you don't know what that is; I mean it is an excellent thing to have an ear; and a voice, and a heart for music; and you have all three."

He paused, for he felt his hand touched; Alice suddenly clasped and kissed it. Maltravers thrilled through his whole frame; but there was something in the girl's look that showed she was wholly unaware that she had committed an unmaidenly or forward action.

"I was so afraid you would be angry," she said, wiping her eyes as she dropped his hand; "and now I suppose you know all."

"All!"

"Yes; how I listened to you every evening, and lay awake the whole night with the music ringing in my ears, till I tried to go over it myself; and so at last I ventured to sing aloud. I like that much better than learning to read."

All this was delightful to Maltravers: the girl had touched upon one of his weak points; however, he remained silent. Alice continued:

"And now, sir, I hope you will let me come and sit outside the door every evening and hear you; I will make no noise--I will be so quiet."

"What, in that cold corridor, these bitter nights?"

"I am used to cold, sir. Father would not let me have a fire when he was not at home."

"No, Alice, but you shall come into the room while I play, and I will give you a lesson or two. I am glad you have so good an ear; it may be a means of your earning your own honest livelihood when you leave me."

"When I--but I never intend to leave you, sir!" said Alice, beginning fearfully and ending calmly.

Maltravers had recourse to the meerschaum.

Luckily, perhaps, at this time, they were joined by Mr. Simcox, the old writing-master. Alice went in to prepare her books; but Maltravers laid his hand upon the preceptor's shoulder.

"You have a quick pupil, I hope, sir?" said he.

"Oh, very, very, Mr. Butler. She comes on famously. She practises a great deal when I am away, and I do my best."

"And," asked Maltravers, in a grave tone, "have you succeeded in instilling into the poor child's mind some of those more sacred notions of which I spoke to you at our first meeting?"

"Why, sir, she was indeed quite a heathen--quite a Mahometan, I may say; but she is a little better now."

"What have you taught her?"

"That God made her."

"That is a great step."

"And that He loves good girls, and will watch over them."

"Bravo! You beat Plato."

"No, sir, I never beat any one, except little Jack Turner; but he is a dunce."

"Bah! What else do you teach her?"

"That the devil runs away with bad girls, and--"

"Stop there, Mr. Simcox. Never mind the devil yet a while. Let her first learn to do good, that God may love her; the rest will follow. I would rather make people religious through their best feelings than their worst,--through their gratitude and affections, rather than their fears and calculations of risk and punishment."

Mr. Simcox stared.

"Does she say her prayers?"

"I have taught her a short one."

"Did she learn it readily?"

"Lord love her, yes! When I told her she ought to pray to God to bless her benefactor, she would not rest till I had repeated a prayer out of our Sunday School book, and she got it by heart at once."

"Enough, Mr. Simcox. I will not detain you longer."

Forgetful of his untasted breakfast, Maltravers continued his meerschaum and his reflections: he did not cease, till he had convinced himself that he was but doing his duty to Alice, by teaching her to cultivate the charming talent she evidently possessed, and through which she might secure her own independence. He fancied that he should thus relieve himself of a charge and responsibility which often perplexed him. Alice would leave him, enabled to walk the world in an honest professional path. It was an excellent idea. "But there is danger," whispered Conscience. "Ay," answered Philosophy and Pride, those wise dupes that are always so solemn and always so taken in; "but what is virtue without trial?"

And now every evening, when the windows were closed, and the hearth burnt clear, while the winds stormed, and the rain beat without, a lithe and lovely shape hovered about the student's chamber; and his wild songs were sung by a voice which Nature had made even sweeter than his own.

Alice's talent for music was indeed surprising; enthusiastic and quick as he himself was in all he undertook, Maltravers was amazed at her rapid progress. He soon taught her to play by ear; and Maltravers could not but notice that her hand, always delicate in shape, had lost the rude colour and roughness of labour. He thought of that pretty hand more often than he ought to have done, and guided it over the keys when it could have found its way very well without him.

On coming to the cottage he had directed the old servant to provide suitable and proper clothes for Alice; but now that she was admitted "to sit with the gentleman," the crone had the sense, without waiting for new orders, to buy the "pretty young woman" garments, still indeed simple, but of better materials and less rustic fashion; and Alice's redundant tresses were now carefully arranged into orderly and glossy curls, and even the texture was no longer the same; and happiness and health bloomed on her downy cheeks, and smiled from the dewy lips, which never quite closed over the fresh white teeth, except when she was sad--but that seemed never, now she was not banished from Maltravers.

To say nothing of the unusual grace and delicacy of Alice's form and features, there is nearly always something of Nature's own gentility in very young women (except, indeed, when they get together and fall a-giggling); it shames us men to see how much sooner they are polished into conventional shape than our rough, masculine angles. A vulgar boy requires Heaven knows what assiduity to make three steps--I do not say like a gentleman, but like a body that has a soul in it; but give the least advantage of society or tuition to a peasant girl, and a hundred to one but she will glide into refinement before the boy can make a bow without upsetting the table. There is sentiment in all women, and sentiment gives delicacy to thought, and tact to manner. But sentiment with men is generally acquired, an offspring of the intellectual quality, not, as with the other sex, of the moral.

In the course of his musical and vocal lessons, Maltravers gently took the occasion to correct poor Alice's frequent offences against grammar and accent: and her memory was prodigiously quick and retentive. The very tones of her voice seemed altered in the ear of Maltravers; and, somehow or other, the time came when he was no longer sensible of the difference in their rank.

The old woman-servant, when she had seen how it would be from the first, and taken a pride in her own prophecy, as she ordered Alice's new dresses, was a much better philosopher than Maltravers; though he was already up to his ears in the moonlit abyss of Plato, and had filled a dozen commonplace books with criticisms on Kant.

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