The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter LVI

The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter LVI
by George MacDonald



There came a breath of something in the east. It was neither wind nor warmth. It was light before it is light to the eyes of men. Slowly and softly it grew, until, like the dawning soul in the face of one who lies in a faint, the life of light came back to the world, and at last the whole huge hollow hemisphere of rushing sea and cloud-flecked sky lay like a great empty heart, waiting, in conscious glory of the light, for the central glory, the coming lord of day. And in the whole crystalline hollow, gleaming and flowing with delight, yet waiting for more, the Psyche was the one only lonely life-bearing thing — the one cloudy germ-spot afloat in the bosom of the great roc-egg of sea and sky, whose sheltering nest was the universe with its walls of flame.

Florimel woke, rose, went on deck, and for a moment was fresh born. It was a fore-scent — even this could not be called a fore-taste — of the kingdom of heaven; but Florimel never thought of the kingdom of heaven, the ideal of her own existence. She could, however, half appreciate this earthly outbreak of its glory, this incarnation of truth invisible. Round her, like a thousand doves, clamored with greeting wings the joyous sea-wind. Up came a thousand dancing billows to shout their good-morning. Like a petted animal importunate for play, the breeze tossed her hair and dragged at her fluttering garments, then rushed into the Psyche's sails, swelled them yet deeper, and sent her dancing over the dancers. The sun peered up like a mother waking and looking out on her frolicking children. Black shadows fell from sail to sail, slipping and shifting, and one long shadow of the Psyche herself shot over the world to the very gates of the west, but held her not, for she danced and leaned and flew as if she had but just begun her coranto-lavolta fresh with the morning, and had not been dancing all the livelong night over the same floor. Lively as any new-born butterfly — not like a butterfly's flitting and hovering — was her flight, for still, like one that longed, she sped and strained and flew. The joy of bare life swelled in Florimel's bosom. She looked up, she looked around, she breathed deep. The cloudy anger that had rushed upon her like a watching tiger the moment she waked fell back, and left her soul a clear mirror to reflect God's dream of a world. She turned and saw Malcolm at the tiller, and the cloudy wrath sprung upon her. He stood composed and clear and cool as the morning, without sign of doubt or conscience of wrong, now peeping into the binnacle, now glancing at the sunny sails, where swayed across and back the dark shadows of the rigging as the cutter leaned and rose like a child running and staggering over the multitudinous and unstable hillocks. She turned from him.

"Good-morning, my lady! What a good morning it is!" As in all his address to his mistress, the freedom of the words did not infect the tone: that was resonant of essential honor. "Strange to think," he went on, "that the sun himself there is only a great fire, and knows nothing about 'it! There must be a sun to that sun, or the whole thing is a vain show. There must be One to whom each is itself, yet the all makes a whole — One who is at once both centre and circumference to all."

Florimel cast on him a scornful look. For not merely was he talking his usual unintelligible rubbish of poetry, but he had the impertinence to speak as if he had done nothing amiss and she had no ground for being offended with him. She made him no answer. A cloud came over Malcolm's face, and until she went again below he gave his attention to his steering.

In the mean time, Rose, who happily had turned out as good a sailor as her new mistress, had tidied the little cabin, and Florimel found, if not quite such a sumptuous breakfast laid as at Portland Place, yet a far better appetite than usual to meet what there was; and when she had finished her temper was better, and she was inclined to think less indignantly of Malcolm's share in causing her so great a pleasure. She was not yet quite spoilsed. She was still such a lover of the visible world and of personal freedom that the thought of returning to London and its leaden footed hours would now have been unendurable. At this moment she could have imagined no better thing than thus to go tearing through the water — home to her home. For although she had spent little of her life at Lossie House, she could not but prefer it unspeakably to the schools in which she had passed almost the whole of the preceding portion of it. There was little or nothing in the affair she could have wished otherwise except its origin. She was mischievous enough to enjoy even the thought of the consternation it would cause at Portland Place. She did not realize all its awkwardness. A letter to Lady Bellair when she reached home would, she said to herself, set everything right: and if Malcolm had now repented and put about, she would instantly have ordered him to hold on for Lossie. But it was mortifying that she should have come at the will of Malcolm, and not by her own — worse than mortifying that perhaps she would have to say so. If she were going to say so she must turn him away as soon as she arrived. There was no help for it. She dared not keep him after that in the face of society. But she might take the bold, and perhaps a little dangerous, measure of adopting the flight as altogether her own madcap idea. Her thoughts went floundering in the bog of expediency until she was tired, and declined from thought to reverie. Then, dawning out of the dreamland of her past, appeared the image of Lenorme. Pure pleasure, glorious delight, such as she now felt, could not long possess her mind without raising in its charmed circle the vision of the only man except her father whom she had ever something like loved. Her behavior to him had not yet roused in her shame or sorrow or sense of wrong. She had driven him from her; she was ashamed of her relation to him; she had caused him bitter suffering; she had all but promised to marry another man; yet she had not the slightest wish for that man's company there and then: with no one of her acquaintance but Lenorme could she have shared this conscious splendor of life. "Would to God he had been born a gentleman instead of a painter!" she said to herself when her imagination had brought him from the past and set him in the midst of the present. "Rank," she said, "I am above caring about. In that he might be ever so far my inferior and welcome, if only he had been o£ a good family, a gentleman born." She was generosity, magnanimity itself, in her own eyes. Yet he was of far better family than she knew, for she had never taken the trouble to inquire into his history. And now she was so much easier in her mind since she had so cruelly broken with him that she felt positively virtuous because she had done it and he was not at that moment by her side. And yet if he had that moment stepped from behind the mainsail she would in all probability have thrown herself into his arms.

The day passed on. Florimel grew tired and went to sleep; woke and had her dinner; took a volume of the "Arabian Nights" and read herself again to sleep; woke again; went on deck; saw the sun growing weary in the west. And still the unwearied wind blew, and still the Psyche danced on, as unwearied as the wind.

The sunset was rather an assumption than a decease, a reception of him out of their sight into an eternity of gold and crimson; and when he was gone, and the gorgeous bliss had withered into a dove-hued grief, then the cool, soft twilight, thoughtful of the past and its love, crept out of the western caves over the breast of the water, and filled the dome, and made of itself a great lens royal, through which the stars and their motions were visible; and the ghost of Aurora with both hands lifted her shroud above her head, and made a dawn for the moon on the verge of the watery horizon — a dawn as of the past, the hour of inverted hope. Not a word all day had been uttered between Malcolm and his mistress: when the moon appeared, with the waves sweeping up against her face, he approached Florimel where she sat in the stern. Davy was steering. "Will your ladyship come forward and see how the Psyche goes?" he said. "At the stern you can see only the passive part of her motion. It is quite another thing to see the will of her at work in the bows."

At first she was going to refuse, but she changed her mind, or her mind changed her: she was not much more of a living and acting creature yet than the Psyche herself. She said nothing, but rose and permitted Malcolm to help her forward.

It was the moon's turn now to be level with the water, and as Florimel stood on the larboard side, leaning over and gazing down, she saw her shine through the little feather of spray the cutwater sent curling up before it and turn it into pearls and semi-opals.

"She's got a bone in her mouth, you see, my lady," said old Travers.

"Go' aft till I call you, Travers," said Malcolm.

Rose was in Florimel's cabin, and they were now quite alone.

"My lady," said Malcolm, "I can't bear to have you angry with me."

"Then you ought not to deserve it," returned Florimel.

"My lady, if you knew all, you would not say I deserved it."

"Tell me all, then, and let me judge."

"I cannot tell you all yet, but I will tell you something which may perhaps incline you to feel merciful. Did your ladyship ever think what could make me so much attached to your father?"

"No, indeed. I never saw anything peculiar in it. Even nowadays there are servants to be found who love their masters. It seems to me natural enough. Besides, he was very kind to you."

"It was natural indeed, my lady — more natural than you think. Kind to me he was, and that was natural too."

"Natural to him, no doubt, for he was kind to everybody."

"My grandfather told you something of my early history, did he not, my lady?"

"Yes: at least I think I remember his doing so."

"Will you recall it, and see whether it suggests nothing?"

But Florimel could remember nothing in particular, she said. She had, in truth, forasmuch as she was interested at the time, forgotten almost everything of the story. "I really cannot think what you mean," she added. "If you are going to be mysterious I shall resume my place by the tiller. Travers is deaf and Davy is dumb: I prefer either."

"My lady," said Malcolm, "your father knew my mother, and persuaded her that he loved her."

Florimel drew herself up, and would have looked him to ashes, if wrath could burn.

Malcolm saw he must come to the point at once or the parley would cease. "My lady," he said, "your father was my father too. I am the son of the marquis of Lossie, and your brother — your, ladyship's half-brother, that is."

She looked a little stunned. The gleam died out of her eyes and the glow out of her cheek. She turned and leaned over the bulwark. He said no more, but stood watching her. She raised herself suddenly, looked at him and said, "Do I understand you?"

"I am your brother," Malcolm repeated.

She made a step forward and held out her hand. He took the little thing in his great grasp tenderly. Her lip trembled. She gazed at him for an instant, full in the face, with a womanly, believing expression. "My poor Malcolm!" she said. "I am sorry for you."

She withdrew her hand, and again leaned over the bulwark. Her heart was softened towards her groom-brother, and for a moment it seemed to her that some wrong had been done. Why should the one be a marchioness and the other a groom? Then came the thought that now all was explained. Every peculiarity of the young man, every gift extraordinary of body, mind, or spirit, his strength, his beauty, his courage and honesty, his simplicity, nobleness, and affection — yes, even what in him was mere doggedness and presumption — all, everything, explained itself to Florimel in the fact that the incomprehensible fisherman-groom, that talked like a parson, was the son of her father. She never thought of the woman that was his mother, and what share she might happen to have in the phenomenon — thought only of her father, and a little pitifully of the half honor and more than half disgrace infolding the very existence of her attendant. As usual, her thoughts were confused. The one moment the poor fellow seemed to exist only on sufferance, having no right to be there at all, for as fine a fellow as he was: the next she thought how immeasurably he was indebted to the family of the Colonsays. Then arose the remembrance of his arrogance and presumption in assuming on such a ground something more than guardianship, absolute tyranny, over her, and with the thought pride and injury at once got the upper hand. Was she to be dictated to by a low-born, low-bred fellow like that — a fellow whose hands were harder than any leather, not with doing things for his amusement, but actually with earning his daily bread — one that used to smell so of fish — on the ground of a right too, and such a right as ought to exclude him forever from her presence?

She turned to him again. "How long have you known this — this — painful — in deed I must confess to finding it an awkward and embarrassing fact? I presume you do know it?" she said coldly and searchingly.

"My father confessed it on his deathbed."

"Confessed!" echoed Florimel's pride, but she restrained her tongue. "It explains much," she said with a sort of judicial relief. "There has been a great change upon you since then. Mind, I only say explains. It could never justify such behavior as yours — no, not if you had been my true brother. There is some excuse, I dare say, to be made for your ignorance and inexperience. No doubt the discovery turned your head. Still, I am at a loss to understand how you could imagine that sort of — of — that sort of thing gave you any right over me."

"Love has its rights, my lady," said Malcolm.

Again her eyes flashed and her cheek flushed: "I cannot permit you to talk so to me. You must not fancy such things are looked upon in our position with the same indifference as in yours. You must not flatter yourself that you can be allowed to cherish the same feeling towards me as if — as if — you were really my brother. I am sorry for you, Malcolm, as I said already, but you have altogether missed your mark if you think that can alter facts or shelter you from the consequences of presumption."

Again she turned away. Malcolm's heart was sore for her. How grievously she had sunk from the Lady Florimel of the old days! It was all from being so constantly with that wretched woman and her vile nephew. Had he been able to foresee such a rapid declension he would have taken her away long ago, and let come of her feelings what might. He had been too careful over them.

"Indeed," Florimel resumed, but this time without turning toward him, "I do not see how things can possibly, after what you have told me, remain as they are. I should not feel at all comfortable in having one about me who would be constantly supposing he had rights and reflecting on my father for fancied injustice, and whom I fear nothing could prevent from taking liberties. It is very awkward indeed, Malcolm — very awkward. But it is your own fault that you are so changed; and I must say I should not have expected it of you: I should have thought you had more good sense and regard for me. If I were to tell the world why I wanted to keep you, people would but shrug their shoulders and tell me to get rid of you; and if I said nothing, there would always be something coming up that required explanation. Besides, you would forever be trying to convert me to one or other of your foolish notions. I hardly know what to do. I will consult — my friends on the subject. And yet I would rather they knew nothing of it. My father, you see" — she paused. "If you had been my real brother it would have been different."

"I am your real brother, my lady, and I have tried to behave like one ever since I knew it."

"Yes, you have been troublesome: I have always understood that brothers were troublesome. I am told they are given to taking upon them the charge of their sisters' conduct. But I would not have even you think me heartless. If you had been a real brother, of course I should have treated you differently."

"I don't doubt it, my lady, for everything would have been different then. I should have been the Marquis of Lossie, and you would have been Lady Florimel Colonsay. But it would have made little difference in one thing: I could not have loved you better than I do now, if only you would believe it, my lady."

The emotion of Malcolm, evident in his voice as he said this, seemed to touch her a little. "I believe it, my poor Malcolm," she returned, "quite as much as I want or as it is pleasant to believe it. I think you would do a good deal for me, Malcolm. But then you are so rude! take things into your own hands, and do things for me I don't want done! You will judge, not only for yourself, but for me! How can a man of your training and position judge for a lady of mine? Don't you see the absurdity of it? At times it has been very awkward indeed. Perhaps when I am married it might be arranged; but I don't know." Here Malcolm ground his teeth, but was otherwise irresponsive as block of stone. "How would a gamekeeper's place suit you? That is a half-gentlemanly kind of post. I will speak to the factor, and see what can be done. But on the whole, I think, Malcolm, it will be better you should go. I am very sorry. I wish you had not told me. It is very painful to me. You should not have told me. These things are not intended to be talked of. Suppose you were to marry, say ——" She stopped abruptly, and it was well both for herself and Malcolm that she caught back the name that was on her lips.

The poor girl must not be judged as if she had been more than a girl, or other than one with every disadvantage of evil training. Had she been four or five years older, she might have been a good deal worse, and have seemed better, for she would have kept much of what she had now said to herself, and would perhaps have treated her brother more kindly while she cared even less for him.

"What will you do with Kelpie, my lady?" asked Malcolm quietly.

"There it is, you see!" she returned. "So awkward! If you had not told me, things could have gone on as before, and for your sake I could have pretended I came this voyage of my own will and pleasure. Now, I don't know what I can do, except indeed you —— Let me see: if you were to hold your tongue, and tell nobody what you have just told me, I don't know but you might stay till you got her so far trained that another man could manage her. I might even be able to ride her myself. Will you promise?"

"I will promise not to let the fact come out so long as I am in your service, my lady."

"After all that has passed, I think you might promise me a little more. But I will not press it."

"May I ask what it is, my lady?"

"I am not going to press it, for I do not choose to make a favor of it. Still I do not see that it would be such a mighty favor to ask of one who owes respect at least to the house of Lossie. But I will not ask. I will only suggest, Malcolm, that you should leave this part of the country — say this country altogether — and go to America or New South Wales or the Cape of Good Hope. If you will take the hint, and promise never to speak a word of this unfortunate — yes, I must be honest and allow there is a sort of relationship between us — but if you will keep it secret I will take care that something is done for you — something, I mean, more than you could have any right to expect. And mind, I am not asking you to conceal anything that could reflect honor upon you or dishonor upon us."

"I cannot, my lady."

"I scarcely thought you would. Only you hold such grand ideas about self-denial that I thought it might be agreeable to you to have an opportunity of exercising the virtue at a small expense and a great advantage."

Malcolm was miserable. Who could have dreamed to find in her such a woman of the world? He must break off the hopeless interview. "Then, my lady," he said, "I suppose I am to give my chief attention to Kelpie, and things are to be as they have been?"

"For the present. And as to this last piece of presumption, I will so far forgive you as to take the proceeding on myself — mainly because it would have been my very choice had you submitted it to me. There is nothing I should have preferred to a sea-voyage and returning to Lossie at this time of the year. But you also must be silent on your insufferable share in the business. And for the other matter, the least arrogance or assumption I shall consider to absolve me at once from all obligation toward you of any sort. Such relationships are never acknowledged."

"Thank you — sister," said Malcolm — a last forlorn experiment; and as he said the word he looked lovingly in her eyes.

She drew herself up like the princess Lucifera, "with loftie eyes, halfe loth to looke so lowe," and said, cold as ice, "If once I hear that word on your lips again, as between you and me, Malcolm, I shall that very moment discharge you from my service as for a misdemeanor. You have no claim upon me, and the world will not blame me."

"Certainly not, my lady. I beg your pardon. But there is one who perhaps will blame you a little."

"I know what you mean, but I don't pretend to any of your religious motives. When I do, then you may bring them to bear upon me."

"I was not so foolish as you think me, my lady. I merely imagined you might be as far on as a Chinaman," said Malcolm, with a poor attempt at a smile.

"What insolence do you intend now?"

"The Chinese, my lady, pay the highest respect to their departed parents. When I said there was one who would blame you a little, I meant your father." He touched his cap and withdrew.

"Send Rose to me," Florimel called after him, and presently with her went down to the cabin.

And still the Psyche soul-like flew. Her earthly birth held her to the earth, but the ocean upbore her and the breath of God drove her on. Little thought Florimel to what she hurried her. A queen in her own self-sufficiency and condescension, she could not suspect how little of real queendom, noble and self-sustaining, there was in her being; for not a soul of man or woman whose every atom leans not upon its father-fact in God can sustain itself when the outer wall of things begins to tumble toward the centre, crushing it in on every side.

During the voyage no further allusion was made by either to what had passed. By the next morning Florimel had yet again recovered her temper, and, nothing fresh occurring to irritate her, kept it and was kind.

Malcolm was only too glad to accept whatever parings of heart she might offer.

By the time their flight was over Florimel almost felt as if it had indeed been undertaken at her own desire and motion, and was quite prepared to assert that such was the fact.