The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XIV

The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XIV
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XIV.

FLORIMEL.

That night Florimel had her thoughts as well as Malcolm. Already life was not what it had been to her, and the feeling of a difference is often what sets one a-thinking first. While her father lived, and the sureness of his love overarched her consciousness with a heaven of safety, the physical harmony of her nature had supplied her with a more than sufficing sense of well-being. Since his death, too, there had been times when she even fancied an enlargement of life in the sense of freedom and power which came with the consciousness of being a great lady, possessed of the rare privilege of an ancient title, with an inheritance which seemed to her a yet greater wealth than it was. But she had soon found that as to freedom she had less of that than before — less of the feeling of it within her: not much freedom of any sort is to be had without fighting for it, and she had yet to discover that the only freedom worth the name — that of heart and soul and mind — is not to be gained except through the hardest of battles. She was very lonely too. Lady Bellair had never assumed with her any authority, and had always been kind, even to petting, but there was nothing about her to make a home for the girl's heart. She felt in her no superiority, and for a spiritual home that is essential. As she learned to know her better, this sense of loneliness went on deepening, for she felt more and more that her guardian was not one in whom she could place genuine confidence, while yet her power over her was greater than she knew. The innocent nature of the girl had begun to recoil from what she saw in the woman of the world, and yet she had in herself worldliness enough to render her freely susceptible of her influences.

Notwithstanding her fine health and natural spirits, Florimel had begun to know what it is to wake suddenly of a morning between three and four, and lie for a long, weary time sleepless. In youth, bodily fatigue ensures falling asleep, but as soon as the body is tolerably rested, if there be unrest in the mind, that wakes it, and consciousness returns in the shape of a dull misgiving, like the far echo of the approaching trump of the archangel. Indeed, those hours are as a vestibule to the great hall of judgment, and to such as, without rendering it absolute obedience, yet care to keep on some sort of terms with their conscience, it is a time of anything but comfort. Nor does the court those hours sitting concern itself only with heavy questions of right and wrong, but whoever loves himself and cares for his appearance before the eyes of men finds himself accused of paltry follies, stupidities and indiscretions, and punished with paltry mortifications, chagrins and anxieties. From such arraignment no man is free but him who walks in the perfect law of liberty — that is, the will of the Perfect — which alone is peace.

On the morning after she had thus taken Malcolm into her service Florimel had one of these experiences — a foretaste of the valley of the shadow: she awoke in the hour when judgment sits upon the hearts of men. Or is it not rather the hour for which a legion of gracious spirits are on the watch — when, fresh raised from the death of sleep, cleansed a little from the past and its evils by the gift of God, the heart and brain are most capable of their influences? — the hour when, besides, there is no refuge of external things wherein man may shelter himself from the truths they would so gladly send conquering into the citadel of his nature, no world of the senses to rampart the soul from thought, when the eye and the ear are as if they were not, and the soul lies naked before the infinite of reality. This live hour of the morning is the most real hour of the day, the hour of the motions of a prisoned and persecuted life, of its effort to break through and breathe. A good man then finds his refuge in the heart of the purifying fire: the bad man curses the swarms of Beelzebub that settle upon every sore spot in his conscious being.

But it was not the general sense of unfitness in the conditions of her life — neither was it dissatisfaction with Lady Bellair for the want of the pressure of authority upon her unstable being; it was not the sense of loneliness and unshelteredness in the sterile waste of fashionable life, neither was it weariness with the same and its shows, or all these things together, that could have waked the youth of Florimel and kept it awake at this hour of the night, for night that hour is, however near the morning.

Some few weeks agone she had accompanied to the study of a certain painter a friend who was then sitting for her portrait. The moment she entered, the appearance of the man and his surroundings laid hold of her imagination. Although on the very verge of popularity, he was young — not more than five-and-twenty. His face, far from what is called handsome, had a certain almost grandeur in it, owed mainly to the dominant forehead and the regnant life in the eyes. To this the rest of the countenance was submissive. The mouth was sweet yet strong, seeming to derive its strength from the will that towered above and overhung it, throned on the crags of those eyebrows. The nose was rather short, not unpleasantly so, and had mass enough. In figure he was scarcely above the usual height, but well formed. To a first glance, even, the careless yet graceful freedom of his movements was remarkable, while his address was manly and altogether devoid of self-recommendation. Confident modesty and unobtrusive ease distinguished his demeanor.

His father, Arnold Lenorme, descended from an old Norman family, had given him the Christian name of Raoul, which, although outlandish, tolerably fitted the surname, notwithstanding the contiguous l's, so objectionable to the fastidious ear of their owner. The earlier and more important part of his education — the beginnings, namely, of everything he afterward further followed — his mother herself gave him, partly because she was both poor and capable, and partly because she was more anxious than most mothers for his best welfare. The poverty they had crept through, as those that strive after better things always will, one way or another, with immeasurable advantage, and before the time came when he must leave home her influence had armed him in adamant — a service which, alas! few mothers seem capable of rendering the knights whom they send out into the battle-field of the world. Most of them give their children the best they have, but how shall a foolish woman be a wise mother? The result in his case was that reverence for her as the type of womanhood, working along with a natural instinct for refinement, a keen feeling of the incompatibility with art of anything in itself low or unclean, and a healthful and successful activity of mind, had rendered him so far upright and honorable that he had never yet done that in one mood upon which in another he had looked back with loathing. As yet, he had withstood the temptations belonging to his youth and his profession — in a great measure also the temptations belonging to success: he had not yet been tried with disappointment or sorrow or failure.

As to the environment in which Florimel found him, it was to her a region of confused and broken color and form — a kind of chaos out of which beauty was ever ready to start. Pictures stood on easels, leaned against chair-backs, glowed from the wall, each contributing to the atmosphere of solved rainbow that seemed to fill the space. Lenorme was seated — not at his easel, but at a grand piano, which stood away, half hidden in a corner, as if it knew itself there on sufferance, with pictures all about the legs of it. For they had walked straight in without giving his servant time to announce them. A bar of a song, in a fine tenor voice, broke as they opened the door; and the painter came to meet them from the farther end of the study. He shook hands with Florimel's friend, and turned with a bow to her. At the first glance the eyes of both fell. Raised the same instant, they encountered each other point-blank, and then the eloquent blood had its turn at betrayal. What the moment meant Florimel did not know, but it seemed as if Raoul and she had met somewhere long ago — were presumed not to know it, but could not help remembering it, and agreeing to recognize it as a fact. A strange pleasure filled her heart. While Mrs. Barnardiston sat she flitted about the room like a butterfly, looking at one thing after another, and asking now the most ignorant, now the most penetrative question, disturbing not a little the work, but sweetening the temper of the painter as he went on with his study of the mask and helmet into which the gorgon stare of the unideal had petrified the face and head of his sitter. He found the situation trying, nevertheless. It was as if Cupid had been set by Jupiter to take a portrait of Io in her stall, while evermore he heard his Psyche fluttering about among the peacocks in the yard. For the girl had bewitched him at first sight. He thought it was only as an artist, though, to be sure, a certain throb, almost a pain, in the region of the heart, when first his eyes fell before hers, might have warned, and perhaps did in vain warn, him otherwise. Sooner than usual he professed himself content with the sitting, and then proceeded to show the ladies some of his sketches and pictures. As he did so, Florimel happened to ask to see one standing as in disgrace with its front to the wall. He put it, half reluctantly, on an easel, and said it was meant for the unveiling of Isis, as presented in a mahrchen of Novalis, called "Die Lehrlinge zu Sais" in which the goddess of nature reveals to the eager and anxious gaze of the beholder the person of his Rosenblüthchen, whom he had left behind him when he set out to visit the temple of the divinity. But on the great pedestal where should have sat the goddess there was no gracious form visible. That part of the picture was a blank. The youth stood below, gazing enraptured, with parted lips and outstretched arms, as if he had already begun to suspect what had begun to dawn through the slowly-thinning veil; but to the eye of the beholder he gazed as yet only on vacancy, and the picture had not reached an attempt at self-explanation. Florimel asked why he had left it so long unfinished, for the dust was thick on the back of the canvas.

"Because I have never seen the face or figure." the painter answered, "either in eye of mind or of body, that claimed the position."

As he spoke his eyes seemed to Florimel to lighten strangely, and as if by common consent they turned away and looked at something else. Presently, Mrs. Barnardiston, who cared more for sound than form or color, because she could herself sing a little, began to glance over some music on the piano, curious to find what the young man had been singing; whereupon Lenorme said to Florimel hurriedly, and almost in a whisper, with a sort of hesitating assurance, "If you would give me a sitting or two — I know I am presumptuous, but if you would — I — I — should send the picture to the Academy in a week."

"I will," replied Florimel, flushing like a wild poppy, and as she said it she looked up in his face and smiled. "It would have been selfish," she said to herself as they drove away, "to refuse him."

This first interview, and all the interviews that had followed, now passed through her mind as she lay awake in the darkness preceding the dawn, and she reviewed them not without self-reproach. But for some of my readers it will be hard to believe that one of the feelings that now tormented the girl was a sense of lowered dignity because of the relation in which she stood to the painter, seeing there was little or no ground for moral compunction, and the feeling had its root merely in the fact that he was a painter-fellow and she a marchioness. Her rank had already grown to seem to her so identified with herself that she was hardly any longer capable of the analysis that should show it distinct from her being. As to any duty arising from her position, she had never heard the word used except as representing something owing to, not owed by, rank. Social standing in the eyes of the superexcellent few of fashion was the Satan of unrighteousness worshipped around her. And the precepts of this worship fell upon soil prepared for it. For with all the simplicity of her nature there was in it an inborn sense of rank, of elevation in the order of the universe above most others of the children of men — greater intrinsic worth therefore in herself. How could it be otherwise with the offspring of generations of pride and falsely conscious superiority? Hence, as things were going now with the more human part of her, some commotion, if not earthquake indeed, was imminent. Nay, the commotion had already begun, as manifest in her sleeplessness and the thoughts that occupied it.

Rightly to understand the sense of shame and degradation she had not unfrequently felt of late, we must remember that in the circle in which she moved she heard, on all sides, professions, arts, and trades alluded to with the same unuttered but the more strongly implied contempt — a contempt, indeed, regarded as so much a matter of course, so thoroughly understood, so reasonable in its nature, so absolute in its degree, that to utter it would have been bad taste from very superfluity. Yet she never entered the painter's study but with trembling heart, uncertain foot, and fluttering breath, as of one stepping within the gates of an enchanted paradise, whose joy is too much for the material weight of humanity to ballast, even to the steadying of the bodily step and the outward calm of the bodily carriage. How far things had gone between them we shall be able to judge by-and-by: it will be enough at present to add that it was this relation, and the inward strife arising from it, that had not only prematurely, but over-rapidly, ripened the girl into the woman.

This my disclosure of her condition, however, has not even yet uncovered the sorest spot upon which the flies settled in the darkness of this torture-hour of the human clock. Although still the same lively, self-operative nature she had been in other circumstances, she was so far from being insensible or indifferent to the opinions of others that she had not even strength enough to keep a foreign will off the beam of her choice: the will of another, in no way directly brought to bear on hers, would yet weigh to her encouragement where her wish was doubtful, or to her restraint where impulse was strong. It would even move her toward a line of conduct whose anticipated results were distasteful to her. Ever and anon her pride would rise armed against the consciousness of slavery, but its armor was too weak either for defence or for deliverance. She knew that the heart of Lady Bellair — what of heart she had — was set upon her marriage with her nephew, Lord Liftore. Now she recoiled from the idea of marriage, and dismissed it into a future of indefinite removal. She had no special desire to please Lady Bellair from the point of gratitude, for she was perfectly aware that her relation to herself was far from being without advantage to that lady's position as well as means: a whisper or two that had reached her had been enough to enlighten her in that direction. Neither could she persuade herself that Lord Liftore was at all the sort of man she could become proud of as a husband; and yet she felt destined to be his wife. On the other hand, she had no dislike to him: he was handsome, well informed, capable — a gentleman, she thought, of good regard in the circles in which they moved, and one who would not in any manner disgrace her, although, to be sure, he was her inferior in rank, and she would rather have married a duke. At the same time, to confess all the truth, she was by no means indifferent to the advantages of having for a husband a man with money enough to restore the somewhat tarnished prestige of her own family to its pristine brilliancy. She had never said a word to encourage the scheming of Lady Bellair; neither, on the other hand, had she ever said a word to discourage her hopes or give her ground for doubting of the acceptableness of her cherished project Hence, Lady Bellair had naturally come to regard the two as almost affianced. But Florimel's aversion to the idea of marriage, and her horror at the thought of the slightest whisper of what was between her and Lenorme, increased together.

There were times, too, when she asked herself in anxious discomfort whether she was not possibly a transgressor against a deeper and simpler law than that of station — whether she was altogether maidenly in the encouragement she had given and was giving to the painter. It must not be imagined that she had once visited him without a companion, though that companion was, indeed, sometimes only her maid — her real object being covered by the true pretext of sitting for her portrait, which Lady Bellair pleased herself with imagining would one day be presented to Lord Liftore. But she could not, upon such occasions of morning judgment as this, fail to doubt sorely whether the visits she paid him, and the liberties which upon fortunate occasions she allowed him, were such as could be justified on any ground other than that she was prepared to give him all. All, however, she was by no means prepared to give him: that involved consequences far too terrible to be contemplated even as possibilities.

With such causes for disquiet in her young heart and brain, it is not, then, wonderful that she should sometimes be unable to slip across this troubled region of the night in the boat of her dreams, but should suffer shipwreck on the waking coast, and have to encounter the staring and questioning eyes of more than one importunate truth. Nor is it any wonder either that, to such an inexperienced and so troubled a heart, the assurance of one absolutely devoted friend should come with healing and hope, even if that friend should be but a groom, altogether incapable of understanding her position, or perceiving the phantoms that crowded about her, threatening to embody themselves in her ruin. A clumsy, ridiculous fellow! she said to herself, from whose person she could never dissociate the smell of fish, who talked a horrible jargon called Scotch, and who could not be prevented from uttering unpalatable truths at uncomfortable moments; yet whose thoughts were as chivalrous as his person was powerful, and whose countenance was pleasing, if only for the triumph of honesty therein: she actually felt stronger and safer to know he was near and at her beck and call.