stretch but a little finger, throw him the rope that lies to your hand; nay, think it no shame to wet your feet and bring him gently and tenderly ashore, for is he not your brother?
The good work that Valerie's influence had begun, was perfected by the hardships and horrors of the Crimean campaign. No man could witness the sufferings so cheerfully borne, or take his share in the kindly offices so heartily interchanged on that dreary plateau above Sebastopol, without experiencing an improvement in his moral being, and imbibing far more correct notions than he had entertained before as to the _realities_ of life and death. No man could take his turn of duty day by day in the trenches, see friends and comrades one by one struck down by grape-shot, or withering from disease, and not feel that he too held life on a startlingly uncertain tenure; that if the material were indeed all-in-all, he had no business there; that the ideal has a large share even in this life, and will probably constitute the very essence of that which is to come. It is a mistake to suppose that danger hardens the heart; on the contrary, it renders it peculiarly alive to the softer and kindlier emotions. The brave are nearly always gentler, more susceptible, than apparently weaker natures; and many a man who does not quail at the roar of a battery, who confronts an advancing column with a careless smile and a pleasant jest upon his lips, will wince like a child at an injury or an unkindness dealt him from the hand he loves.
Ropsley, too, had many a pang of remorse to contend with, many an hour of unavailing regret, as he looked back to the mischief he had wrought by his unscrupulous schemes for his own benefit--the misery, to which in his now softened nature he was keenly alive, that a thoughtless selfishness had brought on his oldest and dearest friends. Poor Victor married in haste, when piqued and angry with one who, whatever might be her faults, was the only woman on earth to _him_. Constance Beverley, driven into this alliance by his own false representations, and her father's ill-judged vehemence. Another old school-fellow, whom he was at last beginning to value and esteem, attributing the wreck of all he hoped and cherished in the world to this fatal marriage; and he himself ere long wishing to be connected by the nearest and dearest ties with those whose future he had been so instrumental in blasting, and who could not but look upon him as the prime source and origin of all their unhappiness.
No wonder Ropsley was an altered man; no wonder Victor's sudden and awful death made a still further impression on his awakened feelings; no wonder he prized the blessing he had won, and determined to make himself worthy of a lot the golden joys of which his youth would have sneered at and despised, but which he was grateful to find his manhood was capable of appreciating as they deserved.
Happiness stimulates some tempers to action, as grief goads others to exertion; and Ropsley is not one to remain idle. Though Edeldorf has passed away from the name of De Rohan for evermore, he has attained a large fortune with his wife; but affluence and comfort alone will not fill up the measure of such a man's existence, and his energetic character will be sure to find some outlet for the talents and acquirements it possesses. Politics will probably be his sphere; and those who know of what efforts a bold far-seeing nature is capable, when backed by study, reflection, above all, common sense; and when blessed with a happy home of love on which to rest, and from which to gather daily new hope and strength, will not think me over sanguine in predicting that something more than a "_Hic Jacet_" will, in the fulness of time, be carved on Ropsley's tombstone; that he will do something more in his generation than eat and drink, and pay his son's debts, and make a will, and so lie down and die, and be forgotten.
It is good to be firm, strong-minded, and practical; it is good to swim with the stream, and, without ever losing sight of the landing-place, to lose no advantage of the current, no lull of the back-water, no rippling eddy in one's favour. It is not good to struggle blindly on against wind and tide, to trust all to a gallant heart, to neglect the beacon and the landmark, to go down at last, unconquered it may be in spirit, but beaten and submerged for all that, in fact. There is an old tale of chivalry which bears with it a deep and somewhat bitter moral: of a certain knight who, in the madness of his love, vowed to cast aside his armour and ride three courses through the melee with no covering save his lady's night-weeds. Helm, shield, and corslet, mail and plate, and stout buff jerkin, all are cast aside. With bared brow and naked breast the knight is up and away!--amongst those gathering warriors clad from head to foot in steel. Some noble hearts--God bless them!--turn aside to let him pass; but many a fierce blow and many a cruel thrust are delivered at the devoted champion in the throng. Twice, thrice he rides that fearful gauntlet; and ere his good horse stops, the white night-dress is fluttering in rags--torn and hacked, and saturated with blood. It is a tale of Romance, mark that! and the knight recovers, to be happy. Had it been Reality, his ladye might have wrung her hands over a clay-cold corpse in vain. Woe to him who sets lance in rest to ride a tournament with the world! Woe to the warm imagination, the kindly feelings, the generosity that scorns advantage, the soft and vulnerable heart! How it bleeds in the conflict, how it suffers in the defeat! Yet are there some battles in which it is perhaps nobler to lose than to win. Who shall say in what victory consists? "Discretion is the better part of valour," quoth Prudence; but Courage, with herald-voice, still shouts, "Fight on! brave knights, fight on!"
In the tomb of his fathers, in a gloomy vault, where a light is constantly kept burning, sleeps Victor de Rohan, my boyhood's friend, my more than brother. Many a stout and warlike ancestor lies about him; many a bold Crusader, whose marble effigy, with folded hands and crossed legs, makes silent boast that he had struck for the good cause in the Holy Land, rests there, to shout and strike no more. Not one amongst them all that had a nobler heart than he who joined them in the flower of manhood--the last of his long and stainless line. As the old white-haired sexton opens the door of the vault to trim and replenish the glimmering death-lamp, a balmy breeze steals in and stirs the heavy silver fringe on the pall of Victor's coffin--a balmy breeze that plays round the statue of the Virgin on the chapel roof, and sweeps across many a level mile of plain, and many a fair expanse of wood and water, till it reaches the fragrant terraces and the frowning towers of distant Sieben-burgen--a balmy breeze that cools the brow of yon pale drooping lady, who turns an eager, wistful face towards its breath. For why? It blows direct from where he sleeps at Edeldorf.
She is not even clad in mourning, yet who has mourned him as she has done? She might not even see him borne to his last home, yet who so willingly would lay her down by his side, to rest for ever with him in the grave?
Alas for you, Rose, Princess Vocqsal!--you who must needs play with edged tools till they cut you to the quick!--you who must needs rouse passions that have blighted you to the core!--you who never knew you had a heart till the eve of St. Hubert's Day, and found it empty and broken on the morrow of that festival!
She tends that old man now with the patience and devotion of a saint--that old childish invalid in his garden chair, prattling of his early exploits, playing contentedly with his little dog, fretful and impatient about his dinner. This is all that a paralytic stroke, acting on a constitution weakened by excess, has left of Prince Vocqsal.
Nor is the wife less altered than her husband. Who would recognise in those pale sunken features, in that hair once so sunny, now streaked with whole masses of grey, in that languid step and listless, fragile form, the fresh, sparkling roseate beauty of the famous Princess Vocqsal? She has done with beauty now; she has done with love and light, and all that constitute the charm and the sunshine of life; but she has still a duty to perform; she has still an expiation to make; and with a force and determination which many a less erring nature might fail to imitate, she has set herself resolutely to the task.
Save to attend to her religious duties, comprising many an act of severe and grievous penance, she never leaves her patient. All that woman's care and woman's tenderness can provide, she lavishes on that querulous invalid; with woman's instinct of loving that which she protects, he is dearer to her now than anything on earth; but oh! it is a sad, sad face that she turns to the breeze from Edeldorf.
Her director comes to see her twice a day; he is a grave, stern priest--an old man who has shriven criminals on the scaffold--who has accustomed himself to read the most harrowing secrets of the human soul.
He should be dead to sensibility, and blunted to all softer emotions, yet he often leaves the Princess with tears in his grave cold eyes.
She is a Roman Catholic; do not therefore argue that her repentance may not avail. She has been a sinner--scarlet, if you will, of the deepest dye; do not therefore say that the door of mercy will be shut in her face. There are sins besides those of the feelings--crimes which spring from more polluted sources than the affections. The narrow gate is wide enough for all. If you are striving to reach it, walking hopefully along the strait path, it is better not to turn aside and take upon yourself the punishment of every prostrate bleeding sinner; if you must needs stop, why not bind the gaping wounds, and help the sufferer to resume the uphill journey? There are plenty of flints lying about, we know--heavy, sharp, and three-cornered--such as shall strike the poor cowering wretch to the earth, never to rise again. Which of us shall stoop to lift one of them in defiance of Divine mercy? Which of us shall dare to say, "I am qualified to cast the first stone at her"?
THE RETURN OF SPRING
The smoke curls up once more from the chimneys of Alton Grange; the woman in possession, she with the soapy arms and unkempt hair, who was always cleaning with no result, has been paid for her occupancy and sent back to her own untidy home in the adjoining village. The windows are fresh painted, the lawn fresh mown, the garden trimmed, and the walks rolled; nay, the unwonted sound of wheels is sometimes heard upon the gravel sweep in front of the house, for the country neighbours, a race who wage unceasing war against anything mysterious, and whose thirst for "news," and energy in the acquisition of gossip, are as meritorious as they are uncalled for, have lavished their attentions on the solitary, and welcomed him back to his lonely home far more warmly than he deserves. The estate, too, has been at nurse ever since he went away.
An experienced man of business has taken it into his own especial charge, but somehow the infant has not attained any great increase of vigour under his fostering care, and the proprietor is ungrateful enough to think he could have managed it better for himself. Inside, the house is dark and gloomy still. I miss poor Bold dreadfully. After a day of attention to those trivial details which the landowner dignifies with the title of "business," or worse still, of vacant, dreary hours passed in listless apathy, it is very lonely to return to a solitary dinner and a long silent evening, to feel that the wag of a dog's tail against the floor would be company, and to own there is solace in the sympathy even of a brute's unreasoning eye. It is not good for man to be alone, and that is essentially a morbid state in which solitude is felt to be a comfort and a relief; more especially does the want of occupation and companionship press upon one who has been leading a life of busy every-day excitement such as falls to the lot of the politician or the soldier; and it has always appeared to me that the worst of all possible preparations for the quiet, homely duties of a country gentleman, are the very two professions so generally chosen as the portals by which the heir of a landed estate is to enter life. It takes years to tame the soldier, and the politician seldom _really_ settles down at all; but of course you will do what your fathers did--if the boy is dull, you will gird a sword upon his thigh; if he is conceited, you will get him into Parliament, and fret at the obtuse deafness of the House. Perhaps you may as well be disappointed one way as the other; whatever you do with him, by the time he is thirty you will wish you had done differently, and so will he. Action, however, is the only panacea for despondency; work, work, is the remedy for lowness of spirits. What am I that I should sit here with folded hands, and repine at the common lot? There are none so humble but they can do some little good, and in this the poor are far more active than the rich. Let me take example by the day labourers at my gate. There is a poor family not a mile from here who sadly lack assistance, and whom for the last fortnight I have neglected to visit. A gleam of sunshine breaks in through the mullioned window, and gilds even the black oak wainscoting: the clouds are passing rapidly away, I will take my hat and walk off at once towards the common. Oh, the hypocrisy of human motives! The poor family are tenants of Constance de Rohan; their cottage lies in the direct road to Beverley Manor.
It has been raining heavily, and the earth is completely saturated with moisture. The late spring, late even for England, is bursting forth almost with tropical luxuriance. Dank and dripping, the fragrant hedges glisten in the noonday beams. Brimful is every blossom in the orchard, fit chalice for the wild bird or the bee. Thick and tufted, the wet grass sprouts luxuriantly in the meadow-lands where the cowslip hangs her scented head, and the buttercup, already dry, reflects the sunshine from its golden hollow. The yellow brook laughs merrily on beneath the foot-bridge, and the swallows shoot hither and thither high up against the clear blue sky. How fresh and tender is the early green of the noble elms in the foreground, and the distant larches on the hill. How sweet the breath of spring; how fair and lovable the smile upon her face. How full of hope and promise and life and light and joy. Oh, the giant capacity for happiness of the human heart! Oh, what a world it might be! What a world it is!
The children are playing about before the door of the cottage on the common. Dirty, and noisy, and rosy, the little urchins stare, wonder-struck, at the stranger, and disappear tumultuously into certain back settlements, where there are a garden, and a beehive, and a pig.
An air of increased comfort pervades the dwelling, and its mistress has lost the wan, anxious look it pained me so to see some ten days ago.
With a corner of her apron she dusts a chair for me to sit down, and prepares herself for a gossip, in which experience tells me the talking will be all one way. "Her 'old man' is gone out to-day for the first time to his work. He is quite stout again at last, but them low fevers keeps a body down terrible, and the doctor's stuff was no good, and she thinks after all it's the fine weather as has brought him round; leastways, that and the broth Lady Beverley sent him from the Manor House; and she to come up herself only yesterday was a week, through a pour of rain, poor dear! for foreign parts has not agreed with her, and she's not so rosy as she were when I knew her first, but a born angel all the same, and ever will be."
Tears were in the good woman's eyes, and her voice was choked. I stayed to hear no more. Lady Beverley, as she called her, was, then, once more at home. She had been here--here on this very spot, but one short week ago. I could have knelt down and kissed the very ground she had trodden. I longed if it was only to see her footprints. I, who had schooled myself to such a pitch of stoicism and apathy, who had stifled and rooted out and cut down the germs of passion till I had persuaded myself that they had ceased to exist, and that my heart had become hard and barren as the rock,--I, who had thought that when the time came I should meet her in London with a kindly greeting, as became an old friend, and never turn to look the way she went; and now, because she had been here a week ago, because there was a possibility of her being at the moment within three miles of where I stood, to feel the blood mounting to my brow, the tears starting to my eyes,--oh! it was scarlet shame, and yet it was burning happiness too.
The sun shone brighter, the birds sang more merrily now. There was no longer a mockery in the spring. The dry branch seemed to blossom once more--the worn and weary nature to imbibe fresh energies and renewed life. There was hope on this side the grave, hope that might be cherished without bitterness or remorse. Very dark had been the night, but day was breaking at last. Very bitter and tedious had been the winter, but spring, real spring, was bursting forth. I could hardly believe in the prospect of happiness thus opened to me. I trembled to think of what would be my destiny if I should lose it all again.
In the ecstasy of joy, as in the tumult of uncertainty and the agony of grief, there is but one resource for failing human strength, how feeble and failing none know so well as those whom their fellows deem the noblest and the strongest. That resource has never yet played man false at his need. The haughty brow may be compelled to stoop, the boasted force of will be turned aside, the proud spirit be broken and humbled to the dust, the race be lost to the swift and the battle go against the strong, but the victory shall be wrested, the goal shall be attained by the clasped hands and the bended knees, and the loving heart that through good and evil has trusted steadfastly to the end.
I may lock the old desk now. I have told my tale; 'tis but the every-day story of the ups and downs of life--the winnings and losings of the game we all sit down to play. One word more, and I have done.
In the solitude of my chamber I took from its hiding-place a withered flower; once it had been a beautiful white rose, how beautiful, how cherished, none knew so well as I. Long and steadfastly I gazed at it, conjuring up the while a vision of that wild night, with its flying clouds and its waving fir-trees, and the mocking moonlight shining coldly on the gravel path, and the bitterness of that hour, the bitterness of all that had yet fallen to my lot, and so I fell asleep.
And behold it seemed to be noon, midsummer-noon in a garden of flowers, hot and bright and beautiful. The butterfly flitted in the sunshine, and the wood-pigeon mourned sweetly and sadly in the shade. Little children with laughing eyes played and rolled about upon the sward, and ran up, warm and eager, to offer me posies of the choicest flowers. One by one I refused them all, for amongst the pride of the garden there was none to me like my own withered rose that I had cherished so long, and I turned away from each as it was brought me, and pressed her closer to my heart where she always lay.
Then, even as I clasped her she bloomed in her beauty once more, fresh and pure and radiant as of old, steeping my very soul in fragrance, a child of earth indeed, but wafting her sweetness up to heaven.
And I awoke, and prayed that it might not be all a dream.