CHAPTER XLIII: A PERPLEXITY
After Malcolm's departure, Clementina attempted to find what
Florimel thought of the things her strange groom had been saying:
she found only that she neither thought at all about them, nor had
a single true notion concerning the matter of their conversation.
Seeking to interest her in it and failing, she found however that
she had greatly deepened its impression upon herself.
Florimel had not yet quite made up her mind whether or not she
should open her heart to Clementina, but she approached the door
of it in requesting her opinion upon the matter of marriage between
persons of social conditions widely parted--"frightfully sundered,"
she said. Now Clementina was a radical of her day, a reformer,
a leveller--one who complained bitterly that some should be so
rich, and some so poor. In this she was perfectly honest. Her own
wealth, from a vague sense of unrighteousness in the possession of
it, was such a burden to her, that she threw it away where often
it made other people stumble if not fall. She professed to regard
all men as equal, and believed that she did so. She was powerful
in her contempt of the distinctions made between certain of the
classes, but had signally failed in some bold endeavours to act as
if they had no existence except in the whims of society. As yet no
man had sought her nearer regard for whom she would deign to cherish
even friendship. As to marriage, she professed, right honestly, an
entire disinclination, even aversion to it, saying to herself that
if ever she should marry it must be, for the sake of protest and
example, one notably beneath her in social condition. He must be a
gentleman, but his claims to that rare distinction should lie only
in himself, not his position, in what he was, not what he had. But
it is one thing to have opinions, and another to be called upon to
show them beliefs; it is one thing to declare all men equal, and
another to tell the girl who looks up to you for advice, that she
ought to feel herself at perfect liberty to marry--say a groom;
and when Florimel proposed the general question, Clementina might
well have hesitated. And indeed she did hesitate--but in vain
she tried to persuade herself that it was solely for the sake of
her young and inexperienced friend that she did so. As little could
she honestly say that it was from doubt of the principles she had
so long advocated. Had Florimel been open with her, and told her
what sort of inferior was in her thoughts, instead of representing
the gulf between them as big enough to swallow the city of Rome;
had she told her that he was a gentleman, a man of genius and gifts,
noble and large hearted, and indeed better bred than any other man
she knew, the fact of his profession would only have clenched Lady
Clementina's decision in his favour; and if Florimel had been honest
enough to confess the encouragement she had given him--nay, the
absolute love passages there had been, Clementina would at once have
insisted that her friend should write an apology for her behaviour
to him, should dare the dastard world, and offer to marry him when
he would. But, Florimel putting the question as she did, how should
Clementina imagine anything other than that it referred to Malcolm?
and a strange confusion of feeling was the consequence. Her thoughts
heaved in her like the half shaped monsters of a spiritual chaos,
and amongst them was one she could not at all identify. A direct
answer she found impossible. She found also that in presence
of Florimel, so much younger than herself, and looking up to her
for advice, she dared not even let the questions now pressing for
entrance appear before her consciousness. She therefore declined
giving an answer of any sort--was not prepared with one, she
said; much was to be considered; no two cases were just alike.
They were summoned to tea, after which she retired to her room, shut
the door, and began to think--an operation which, seldom easy if
worth anything, was in the present case peculiarly difficult, both
because Clementina was not used to it, and the subject object of
it was herself. I suspect that self examination is seldom the most
profitable, certainly it is sometimes the most unpleasant, and
always the most difficult of moral actions--that is, to perform
after a genuine fashion. I know that very little of what passes
for it has the remotest claim to reality; and I will not say it has
never to be done; but I am certain that a good deal of the energy
spent by some devout and upright people on trying to understand
themselves and their own motives, would be expended to better
purpose, and with far fuller attainment even in regard to that object
itself, in the endeavour to understand God, and what he would have
us to do.
Lady Clementina's attempt was as honest as she dared make it. It
went something after this fashion:
"How is it possible I should counsel a young creature like that,
with all her gifts and privileges, to marry a groom--to bring
the stable into her chamber? If I did--if she did, has she the
strength to hold her face to it?--Yes, I know how different he
is from any other groom that ever rode behind a lady! but does she
understand him? Is she capable of such a regard for him as could
outlast a week of closer intimacy? At her age it is impossible she
should know what she was doing in daring such a thing. It would
be absolute ruin to her. And how could I advise her to do what I
could not do myself?--But then if she's in love with him?"
She rose and paced the room--not hurriedly--she never did anything
hurriedly--but yet with unleisurely steps, until, catching sight
of herself in the glass, she turned away as from an intruding and
unwelcome presence, and threw herself on her couch, burying her
face in the pillow. Presently, however, she rose again, her face
glowing, and again walked up and down the room--almost swiftly
now. I can but indicate the course of her thoughts.
"If what he says be true!--It opens another and higher life.
--What a man he is! and so young!--Has he not convicted me of
feebleness and folly, and made me ashamed of myself?--What better
thing could man or woman do for another than lower her in her own
haughty eyes, and give her a chance of becoming such as she had
but dreamed of the shadow of?--He is a gentleman--every inch!
Hear him talk!--Scotch, no doubt,--and--well--a little
long winded--a bad fault at his age! But see him ride!--see
him swim!--and to save a bird!--But then he is hard--severe
at best! All religious people are so severe! They think they are
safe themselves, and so can afford to be hard on others! He would
serve his wife the same as his mare if he thought she required
it!--And I have known women for whom it might be the best thing.
I am a fool! a soft hearted idiot! He told me I would give a baby
a lighted candle if it cried for it--Or didn't he? I believe he
never uttered a word of the sort; he only thought it"--As she
said this, there came a strange light in her eyes, and the light
seemed to shine from all around them as well as from the orbs
Suddenly she stood still as a statue in the middle of the room, and
her face grew white as the marble of one. For a minute she stood
thus--without a definite thought in her brain. The first that
came was something like this: "Then Florimel does love him!--and
wants help to decide whether she shall marry him or not! Poor weak
little wretch!--Then if I were in love with him, I would marry
him--would I?--It is well, perhaps, that I'm not!--But she!
he is ten times too good for her! He would be utterly thrown away
on her! But I am her counsel, not his; and what better could come
to her than have such a man for a husband; and instead of that
contemptible Liftore, with his grand earldom ways and proud nose!
He has little to be proud of that must take to his rank for it!
Fancy a right man condescending to be proud of his own rank! Pooh!
But this groom is a man! all a man! grand from the centre out, as
the great God made him!--Yes, it must be a great God that made
such a man as that!--that is, if he is the same he looks--the
same all through!--Perhaps there are more Gods than one, and one
of them is the devil, and made Liftore! But am I bound to give her
advice? Surely not! I may refuse. And rightly too! A woman that
marries from advice, instead of from a mighty love, is wrong. I
need not speak. I shall just tell her to consult her own heart--
and conscience, and follow them.--But, gracious me! Am I then going
to fall in love with the fellow?--this stable man who pretends
to know his maker!"
"Certainly not. There is nothing of the kind in my thoughts.
Besides, how should I know what falling in love means? I never was
in love in my life, and don't mean to be. If I were so foolish as
imagine myself in any danger, would I be such a fool as be caught
in it? I should think not indeed! What if I do think of this man
in a way I never thought of anyone before, is there anything odd
in that? How should I help it when he is unlike anyone I ever saw
before? One must think of people as one finds them. Does it follow
that I have power over myself no longer, and must go where any
chance feeling may choose to lead me?"
Here came a pause. Then she started, and once more began walking
up and down the room, now hurriedly indeed.
"I will not have it!" she cried aloud--and checked herself, dashed
at the sound of her own voice. But her soul went on loud enough for
the thought universe to hear. "There can't be a God, or he would
never subject his women to what they don't choose. If a God had
made them, he would have them queens over themselves at least--
and I will be queen, and then perhaps a God did make me. A slave
to things inside myself!--thoughts and feelings I refuse, and
which I ought to have control over! I don't want this in me, yet I
can't drive it out! I will drive it out. It is not me. A slave on
my own ground! worst slavery of all!--It will not go.--That must
be because I do not will it strong enough. And if I don't will it
--my God!--what does that mean?--That I am a slave already?"
Again she threw herself on her couch, but only to rise and yet
again pace the room.
"Nonsense! it is not love. It is merely that nobody could help
thinking about one who had been so much before her mind for so long
--one too who had made her think. Ah! there, I do believe, lies
the real secret of it all!--There's the main cause of my trouble
--and nothing worse! I must not be foolhardy though, and remain in
danger, especially as, for anything I can tell, he may be in love
with that foolish child. People, they say, like people that are
not at all like themselves. Then I am sure he might like me!--She
seems to be in love with him! I know she cannot be half a quarter
in real love with him: it's not in her."
She did not rejoin Florimel that evening: it was part of the
understanding between the ladies that each should be at absolute
liberty. She slept little during the night, starting awake as
often as she began to slumber, and before the morning came was a
good deal humbled. All sorts of means are kept at work to make the
children obedient and simple and noble. Joy and sorrow are servants
in God's nursery; pain and delight, ecstasy and despair minister in
it; but amongst them there is none more marvellous in its potency
than that mingling of all pains and pleasures to which we specially
give the name of Love.
When she appeared at breakfast, her countenance bore traces of her
suffering, but a headache, real enough, though little heeded in
the commotion upon whose surface it floated, gave answer to the not
very sympathetic solicitude of Florimel. Happily the day of their
return was near at hand. Some talk there had been of protracting
their stay, but to that Clementina avoided any farther allusion.
She must put an end to an intercourse which she was compelled to
admit was, at least, in danger of becoming dangerous. This much she
had with certainty discovered concerning her own feelings, that her
heart grew hot and cold at the thought of the young man belonging
more to the mistress who could not understand him than to herself
who imagined she could; and it wanted no experience in love to see
that it was therefore time to be on her guard against herself, for
to herself she was growing perilous.