The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XLIII

The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XLIII
by George MacDonald

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 endeavors 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 favor; 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 behavior 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 endeavor to understand God, and what he would have us 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 is 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 themselves.

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 to 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 stableman 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 any one before, is there anything odd in that? How should I help it when he is unlike any one 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, ecstacy 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 further 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 head grew hot and her heart 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.