Read CHAPTER XLII of The Amazing Marriage, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

THE RETARDED COURTSHIP

Carinthia reached Esslemont near noon. She came on foot, and had come unaccompanied, stick in hand, her dress looped for the roads. Madge bustled her shorter steps up the park beside her; Fleetwood met her on the terrace.

‘No one can be spared at Croridge,’ she said. ‘I go back before dark.’ Apology was not thought of; she seemed wound to the pitch.

He bowed; he led into the morning-room. ‘The boy is at Croridge?’

‘With me. He has his nurse. Madge was at home here more than there.’

‘Why do you go back?’

‘I am of use to my brother.’

‘Forgive me in what way?’

’He has enemies about him. They are the workmen of Lord Levellier. They attacked Lekkatts the other night, and my uncle fired at them out of a window and wounded a man. They have sworn they will be revenged. Mr. Wythan is with my brother to protect him.’

’Two men, very well; they don’t want, if there’s danger, a woman’s aid in protecting him?’

She smiled, and her smile was like the hint of the steel blade an inch out of sheath.

‘My brother does not count me a weak woman.’

‘Oh no! No one would think that,’ Fleetwood said hurriedly and heartily. ‘Least of all men, I, Carinthia. But you might be rash.’

‘My brother knows me cautious.’

‘Chillon?’

‘It is my brother’s name.’

’You used to call him by his name.

‘I love his name.’

’Ah, well! I may be pardoned for wishing to hear what part you play there.’

‘I go the rounds with my brother.’

‘Armed?’

‘We carry arms.’

’Queer sight to see in England. But there are rascals in this country, too.’

She was guilty of saying, though not pointedly: ’We do not hire defenders.’

‘In civilized lands...’ he began and stopped ‘You have Mr. Wythan?’

‘Yes, we are three.’

‘You call him, I think, Owain?’

‘I do.’

‘In your brother’s hearing?’

‘Yes, my lord; it would be in your hearing if you were near.’

‘No harm, no doubt.’

‘There is none.’

‘But you will not call your brother Chillon to me.’

‘You dislike the name.’

‘I learn to like everything you do and say; and every person you like.’

’It is by Mr. Wythan’s dead wife’s request that I call him by his name. He is our friend. He is a man to trust.’

‘The situation...’ Fleetwood hung swaying between the worldly view of it and the white light of this woman’s nature flashed on his emotion into his mind. ’You shall be trusted for judging. If he is your friend, he is my friend. I have missed the sight of our boy. You heard I was at Esslemont?’

‘I heard from Madge!’

‘It is positive you must return to Croridge?’

‘I must be with my brother, yes.’

‘Your ladyship will permit me to conduct you.’

Her head assented. There was nothing to complain of, but he had not gained a step.

The rule is, that when we have yielded initiative to a woman, we are unable to recover it without uncivil bluster. So, therefore, women dealing with gentlemen are allowed unreasonable advantages. He had never granted it in colloquy or act to any woman but this one. Consequently, he was to see, that if the gentleman in him was not put aside, the lady would continue moving on lines of the independence he had likewise yielded, or rather flung, to her. Unless, as a result, he besieged and wooed his wife, his wife would hold on a course inclining constantly farther from the union he desired. Yet how could he begin to woo her if he saw no spark of womanly tenderness? He asked himself, because the beginning of the wooing might be checked by the call on him for words of repentance only just possible to conceive. Imagine them uttered, and she has the initiative for life.

She would not have it, certainly, with a downright brute. But he was not that. In an extremity of bitterness, he fished up a drowned old thought, of all his torments being due to the impulsive half-brute he was. And between the good and the bad in him, the sole point of strength was a pride likely, as the smooth simplicity of her indifference showed him, soon to be going down prostrate beneath her feet. Wholly a brute well? He had to say, that playing the perfect brute with any other woman he would have his mastery. The summoning of an idea of personal power to match this woman in a contest was an effort exhausting the idea.

They passed out of Esslemont gates together at that hour of the late afternoon when South-westerly breezes, after a summer gale, drive their huge white flocks over blue fields fresh as morning, on the march to pile the crown of the sphere, and end a troubled day with grandeur. Up the lane by the park they had open land to the heights of Croridge.

‘Splendid clouds,’ Fleetwood remarked.

She looked up, thinking of the happy long day’s walk with her brother to the Styrian Baths. Pleasure in the sight made her face shine superbly. ‘A flying Switzerland, Mr. Woodseer says,’ she replied. ’England is beautiful on days like these. For walking, I think the English climate very good.’

He dropped a murmur: ‘It should suit so good a walker,’ and burned to compliment her spirited easy stepping, and scorned himself for the sycophancy it would be before they were on the common ground of a restored understanding. But an approval of any of her acts threatened him with enthusiasm for the whole of them, her person included; and a dam in his breast had to keep back the flood.

’You quote Woodseer to me, Carinthia. I wish you knew Lord Feltre. He can tell you of every cathedral, convent, and monastery in Europe and Syria. Nature is well enough; she is, as he says, a savage. Men’s works, acting under divine direction to escape from that tangle, are better worthy of study, perhaps. If one has done wrong, for example.’

‘I could listen to him,’ she said.

’You would not need except, yes, one thing. Your father’s book speaks of not forgiving an injury.’

’My father does. He thinks it weakness to forgive an injury. Women do, and are disgraced, they are thought slavish. My brother is much stronger than I am. He is my father alive in that.’

‘It is anti-Christian, some would think.’

’Let offending people go. He would not punish them. They may go where they will be forgiven. For them our religion is a happy retreat; we are glad they have it. My father and my brother say that injury forbids us to be friends again. My father was injured by the English Admiralty: he never forgave it; but he would have fought one of their ships and offered his blood any day, if his country called to battle.’

‘You have the same feeling, you mean.’

’I am a woman. I follow my brother, whatever he decides. It is not to say he is the enemy of persons offending him; only that they have put the division.’

‘They repent?’

‘If they do, they do well for themselves.’

‘You would see them in sackcloth and ashes?’

‘I would pray to be spared seeing them.’

‘You can entirely forget well, other moments, other feelings?’

‘They may heighten the injury.’

’Carinthia, I should wish to speak plainly, if I could, and tell you....’

‘You speak quite plainly, my lord.’

‘You and I cannot be strangers or enemies.’

‘We cannot be, I would not be. To be friends, we should be separate.’

’You say you are a woman; you have a heart, then?’ for, if not, what have you? was added in the tone.

‘My heart is my brother’s,’ she said.

‘All your heart?’

‘My heart is my brother’s until one of us drops.’

‘There is not another on earth beside your brother Chillon?’

‘There is my child.’

The dwarf square tower of Croridge village church fronted them against the sky, seen of both.

‘You remember it,’ he said; and she answered: ‘I was married there.’

‘You have not forgotten that injury, Carinthia?’

‘I am a mother.’

’By all the saints! you hit hard. Justly. Not you. Our deeds are the hard hitters. We learn when they begin to flagellate, stroke upon stroke! Suppose we hold a costly thing in the hand and dash it to the ground no recovery of it, none! That must be what your father meant. I can’t regret you are a mother. We have a son, a bond. How can I describe the man I was!’ he muttered, ’possessed! sort of werewolf! You are my wife?’

‘I was married to you, my lord.’

‘It’s a tie of a kind.’

‘It binds me.’

‘Obey, you said.’

‘Obey it. I do.’

‘You consider it holy?’

’My father and my mother spoke to me of the marriage-tie. I read the service before I stood at the altar. It is holy. It is dreadful. I will be true to it.’

‘To your husband?’

‘To his name, to his honour.’

‘To the vow to live with him?’

‘My husband broke that for me.’

’Carinthia, if he bids you, begs you to renew it? God knows what you may save me from!’

’Pray to God. Do not beg of me, my lord. I have my brother and my little son. No more of husband for me! God has given me a friend, too, a man of humble heart, my brother’s friend, my dear Rebecca’s husband. He can take them from me: no one but God. See the splendid sky we have.’

With those words she barred the gates on him; at the same time she bestowed the frank look of an amiable face brilliant in the lively red of her exercise, in its bent-bow curve along the forehead, out of the line of beauty, touching, as her voice was, to make an undertone of anguish swell an ecstasy. So he felt it, for his mood was now the lover’s. A torture smote him, to find himself transported by that voice at his ear to the scene of the young bride in thirty-acre meadow.

‘I propose to call on Captain Kirby-Levellier tomorrow, Carinthia,’ he said. ‘The name of his house?’

‘My brother is not now any more in the English army,’ she replied. ’He has hired a furnished house named Stoneridge.’

‘He will receive me, I presume?’

‘My brother is a courteous gentleman, my lord.’

‘Here is the church, and here we have to part for today. Do we?’

‘Good-bye to you, my lord,’ she said.

He took her hand and dropped the dead thing.

‘Your idea is, to return to Esslemont some day or other?’

‘For the present,’ was her strange answer.

She bowed, she stepped on. On she sped, leaving him at the stammered beginning of his appeal to her.

Their parting by the graveyard of the church that had united them was what the world would class as curious. To him it was a further and a well-marked stroke of the fatality pursuing him. He sauntered by the graveyard wall until her figure slipped out of sight. It went like a puffed candle, and still it haunted the corner where last seen. Her vanishing seemed to say, that less of her belonged to him than the phantom his eyes retained behind them somewhere.

There was in his pocket a memento of Ambrose Mallard, that the family had given him at his request. He felt the lump. It had an answer for all perplexities. It had been charged and emptied since it was in his possession; and it could be charged again. The thing was a volume as big as the world to study. For the touch of a finger, one could have its entirely satisfying contents, and fly and be a raven of that night wherein poor Ambrose wanders lost, but cured of human wounds.

He leaned on the churchyard wall, having the graves to the front of eyes bent inward. They were Protestant graves, not so impressive to him as the wreathed and gilt of those under dedication to Feltre’s Madonna. But whatever they were, they had ceased to nurse an injury or feel the pain for having inflicted it. Their wrinkles had gone from them, whether of anger or suffering. Ambrose Mallard lay as peaceful in consecrated ground: and Chumley Potts would be unlikely to think that the helping to lay Ambrose in his quiet last home would cost him a roasting until priestly intercession availed. So Chummy continues a Protestant; dull consciences can! But this is incomprehensible, that she, nursing her injury, should be perfectly civil. She is a woman without emotion. She is a woman full of emotion, one man knows. She ties him to her, to make him feel the lash of his remorse. He feels it because of her casting him from her and so civilly. If this were a Catholic church, one might go in and give the stained soul free way to get a cleansing. As it is, here are the graves; the dead everywhere have their sanctity, even the heathen.

Fleetwood read the name of the family of Meek on several boards at the head of the graves. Jonathan Meek died at the age of ninety-five. A female Meek had eighty-nine years in this life. Ezra Meek gave up the ghost prematurely, with a couplet, at eighty-one. A healthy spot, Croridge, or there were virtues in the Meek family, he reflected, and had a shudder that he did not trace to its cause, beyond an acknowledgement of a desire for the warm smell of incense.