"A penny for your thought, Walter!" said the girl, after a long silence, in which the night seemed at length to clasp her too close.
"Your penny, then! I was thinking how wild and sweet the dark wind would be blowing up there among the ringing bells of the heather."
"You shall have the penny. I will pay you with your own coin. I keep all the pennies I win of you. What do you do with those you win of me?"
"Oh, I don't know! I take them because you insist on paying your bets, but--"
"Debts, you mean, Walter! You know I never bet, even in fun! I hate taking things for nothing! I wouldn't do it!"
"Then what are you making me do now?"
"Take a penny for the thought I bought of you for a penny. That's fair trade, not gambling. And your thought to-night is well worth a penny. I felt the very wind on the moor for a moment!"
"I'm afraid I sha'n't get a penny a thought in London!"
"Then you are going to London, Walter?"
"Yes, indeed! What else! What is a man to do here?"
"What is a man to do there?"
"Make his way in the world."
"But, Walter, please let me understand! indeed I don't want to be disagreeable! What do you wish to make your way to?"
"To such a position as--"
Here he stopped unsure.
"You mean to fame, and honor, and riches, don't you, Walter?" ventured Molly.
"No--not riches. Did you ever hear of a poet and riches in the same breath?"
"Oh, yes, I have!--though somehow they don't seem to go together comfortably. If a poet is rich, he ought to show he couldn't help it."
"Suppose he was made a lord, where would he then be without money?"
"If to be a lord one must be rich, he ought never to wish to be a lord. But you do not want to be either lord or millionaire, Walter, do you?"
"I hope I know better!"
"Where does the way you speak of lead then, Walter? To fame?"
"If it did, what would you have to say against it? Even Milton calls it 'That last infirmity of noble mind!'"
"But he calls it an infirmity, and such a bad infirmity, apparently, that it is the hardest of all to get rid of!"
The fact was that Walter wanted to be--thought he was a poet, but was far from certain--feared indeed it might not be so, therefore desired greatly the verdict of men in his favor, if but for his own satisfaction. Fame was precious to him as determining, he thought, his position in the world of letters--his kingdom of heaven. Well read, he had not used his reading practically enough to perceive that the praise of one generation may be the contempt of another, perhaps of the very next, so that the repute of his time could assure him of nothing. He did not know the worthlessness of the opinion that either grants or withholds fame.
He looked through the dark at his cousin, thinking, "What sets her talking of such things? How can a girl understand a man with his career before him!"
She read him through the night and his silence.
"I know what you are thinking, Walter!" she said. "You are thinking women can't think. But I should be ashamed not to have common sense, and I can not see the sense of doing anything for a praise that can help nothing and settle nothing."
"Why then should all men have the desire for it?"
"That they may get rid of it Why have all men vanity? Where would the world be on the way to now, if Jesus Christ had sought the praise of men?"
"But He has it!"
"Not much of it yet, I suspect. He does not care for the praise that comes before obedience!--that's what I have heard your father say."
"I never heard him!"
"I have heard him say it often. What could Jesus care for the praise of one whose object in life was the praise of men!"
Walter had not lived so as to destroy the reverence of his childhood. He believed himself to have high ideals. He felt that a man must be upright, or lose his life. So strongly did he feel it, that he imagined himself therefore upright, incapable of a dishonest or mean thing. He had never done, never could, he thought, do anything unfair. But to what Molly said, he had no answer. What he half thought in his silence, was something like this: that Jesus Christ was not the type of manhood, but a man by himself, who came to do a certain work; that it was both absurd and irreverent to talk as if other men had to do as He did, to think and feel like Him; that He was so high above the world He could not care for its fame, while to mere man its praises must be dear. Nor did Walter make any right distinction between the approbation of understanding men, who know the thing they praise, and the empty voice of the unwise many.
In a word, Walter thought, without knowing he did, that Jesus Christ was not a man.
"I think, Molly," he said, "we had better avoid the danger of irreverence."
For the sake of his poor reverence he would frustrate the mission of the Son of God; by its wretched mockery justify himself in refusing the judgment of Jesus!
"I know you think kindly of me, Molly," he went on, "and I should be sorry to have you misunderstand me; but surely a man should not require religion to make him honest! I scorn the notion. A man must be just and true because he is a man! Surely a man may keep clear of the thing he loathes! For my own honor," he added, with a curl of his lip, "I shall at least do nothing disgraceful, however I may fall short of the angelic."
"I doubt," murmured Molly, "whether a man is a man until he knows God."
But Walter, if he heard the words, neither heeded nor answered them. He was far from understanding the absurdity of doing right from love of self.
He was no hypocrite. He did turn from what seemed to him degrading. But there were things degrading which he did not see to be such, things on which some men to whom he did not yet look up, would have looked down. Also there was that in his effort to sustain his self-respect which was far from pure: he despised such as had failed; and to despise the human because it has fallen, is to fall from the human. He had done many little things he ought to be, and one day must be, but as yet felt no occasion to be--ashamed of. So long as they did not trouble him they seemed nowhere. Many a youth starts in life like him, possessed with the idea, not exactly formulated, that he is a most precious specimen of pure and honorable humanity. It comes of self-ignorance, and a low ideal taken for a high one. Such are mainly among the well-behaved, and never doubt themselves a prize for any woman. They color their notion of themselves with their ideal, and then mistake the one for the other. The mass of weaknesses and conceits that compose their being they compress into their ideal mold of man, and then regard the shape as their own. What composes it they do not heed.
No man, however, could look in the refined face of Walter Colman and imagine him cherishing sordid views of life. Asked what of all things he most admired, he might truly answer, "The imaginative intellect." He was a fledgling poet. He worshiped what he called thoughts, would rave about a thought in the abstract, apostrophize an uncaught idea. When a concrete thinkable one fell to him, he was jubilant over the isolate thing, and with his joy value had nothing to do. He would stand wrapped in the delight of what he counted its beauty, and yet more in the delight that his was the mind that had generated such a meteor! To be able to think pretty things was to him a gigantic distinction! A thought that could never be soul to any action, would be more valuable to him than the perception of some vitality of relation demanding the activity of the whole being. He would call thoughts the stars that glorify the firmament of humanity, but the stars of his firmament were merely atmospheric--pretty fancies, external likenesses. That the grandest thing in the world is to be an accepted poet, is the despotic craze of a vast number of the weak-minded and half-made of both sexes. It feeds poetic fountains of plentiful yield, but insipid and enfeebling flow, the mere sweat of weakness under the stimulus of self-admiration.