Read CHAPTER XI of The Daughters of Danaus , free online book, by Mona Caird, on ReadCentral.com.

The autumn was now on the wane; the robins sang clear, wild little songs in the shrubberies, the sunshine fell slanting across the grass. And at night, the stars twinkled with a frosty brilliancy, and the flowers were cut down by cruel invisible hands. The long dark evenings and the shrieking winds of winter were before them.

With the shortening of the days, and the sweeping away of great shoals of leaves, in the frequent gales, Miss Du Prel’s mood grew more and more sombre. At last she announced that she could stand the gloom of this wild North no longer. She had made arrangements to return to London, on the morrow. As suddenly as she had appeared on the scene, she vanished, leaving but one day to grieve at the prospect of parting.

It was through an accidental turn in the conversation, on this last day, that the difference between her creed and the Professor’s was brought to light, accounting to Hadria for many things, and increasing, if possible, her admiration for the unconscious Professor.

As for her own private and personal justification for hope, Valeria asserted that she had none. Not even the thought of her work usually a talisman against depression had any power to comfort. Who cared for her work, unless she perjured herself, and told the lies that the public loved to hear?

“What should we all do,” asked Hadria, “if there were not a few people like you and Professor Fortescue, in the world, to keep us true to our best selves, and to point to something infinitely better than that best?”

Miss Du Prel brightened for a moment.

“What does it matter if you do not provide mental food for the crowd, seeking nourishment for their vulgarity? Let them go starve.”

“But they don’t; they go and gorge elsewhere. Besides, the question of starvation faces me rather than them.”

Miss Du Prel was still disposed to find fault with the general scheme of things, which she regarded as responsible for her own woes, great and little. Survival of the fittest! What was that but another name for the torture and massacre of the unfit? Nature’s favourite instruments were war, slaughter, famine, misery (mental and physical), sacrifice and brutality in every form, with a special malignity in her treatment of the most highly developed and the noblest of the race.

The Professor in vain pointed out that Valeria’s own revolt against the brutality of Nature, was proof of some higher law in Nature, now in course of development.

“The horror that is inspired in human beings by that brutality is just as much a part of Nature as the brutality itself,” he said, and he insisted that the supreme business of man, was to evolve a scheme of life on a higher plane, wherein the weak shall not be forced to agonize for the strong, so far as mankind can intervene to prevent it. Let man follow the dictates of pity and generosity in his own soul. They would never lead him astray. While Miss Du Prel laid the whole blame upon natural law, the Professor impeached humanity. Men, he declared, cry out against the order of things, which they, in a large measure, have themselves created.

“But, good heavens! the whole plan of life is one of rapine. We did not fashion the spider to prey upon the fly, or the cat to play with the wounded mouse. We did not ordain that the strong should fall upon the weak, and tear and torture them for their own benefit. Surely we are not responsible for the brutalities of the animal creation.”

“No, but we are responsible when we imitate them,” said the Professor.

Miss Du Prel somewhat inconsequently attempted to defend such imitation, on the ground that sacrifice is a law of life, a law of which she had just been bitterly complaining. But at this, the Professor would only laugh. His opponent indignantly cited scientific authority of the most solemn and weighty kind; the Professor shook his head. Familiarity with weighty scientific authorities had bred contempt.

“Vicarious sacrifice!” he exclaimed, with a sudden outbreak of the scorn and impatience that Hadria had seen in him on one other occasion, “I never heard a doctrine more insane, more immoral, or more suicidal!”

Miss Du Prel hugged herself in the thought of her long list of scouted authorities. They had assured her that our care of the weak, by interfering with the survival of the fittest, is injuring the race.

“Go down into the slums of our great cities, or to the pestilential East, and there observe the survival of the fittest, undisturbed by human knowledge or human pity,” recommended the Professor.

Miss Du Prel failed to see how this proved anything more than bad general conditions.

“It proves that however bad general conditions may be, some wretches will always survive; the ‘fittest,’ of course, to endure filth and misery. Selection goes on without ceasing; but if the conditions are bad, the surviving type will be miserable. Mere unaided natural selection obviously cannot be trusted to produce a fine race.”

Nothing would convince Miss Du Prel that the preservation of weakly persons was not injurious to the community. To this the Professor replied, that what is lost by their salvation is more than paid back by the better conditions that secured it. The strong, he said, were strengthened and enabled to retain their strength by that which saves the lives of the weak.

“Besides, do you suppose a race could gain, in the long run, by defiance of its best instincts? Never! If the laws of health in body and in mind were at variance, leaving us a hard choice between physical and moral disease, then indeed no despair could be too black. But all experience and all insight testify to the exact opposite. Heavens, how short-sighted people are! It is not the protection of the weak, but the evil and stupid deeds that have made them so, that we have to thank for the miseries of disease. And for our redemption powers of the universe! it is not to the cowardly sacrifice of the unfortunate that we must trust, but to a more brotherly spirit of loyalty, a more generous treatment of all who are defenceless, a more faithful holding together among ourselves weak and strong, favoured and luckless.”

Miss Du Prel was silent for a moment. Her sympathy but not her hope had been roused.

“I wish I could believe in your scheme of redemption,” she said; “but, alas! sacrifice has been the means of progress from the beginning of all things, and so I fear it will be to the end.”

“I don’t know what it will be at the end,” said the Professor, dryly; “for the present, I oppose with the whole strength of my belief and my conscience, the cowardly idea of surrendering individuals to the ferocity of a jealous and angry power, in the hope of currying favour for the rest. We might just as well set up national altars and sacrifice victims, after the franker fashion of the ancients. Morally, the principles are precisely the same.”

“Scarcely; for our object is to benefit humanity.”

“And theirs. Poor humanity!” cried the Professor. “What crimes are we not ready to commit in thy name!”

“That cannot be a crime which benefits mankind,” argued Miss Du Prel.

“It is very certain that it cannot eventually benefit mankind, if it be a crime,” he retorted.

“This sequence of ideas makes one dizzy!” exclaimed Hadria.

The Professor smiled. “Moreover,” he added, “we know that society has formed the conditions of existence for each of her members; the whole material of his misfortune, if he be ill-born and ill-conditioned. Is society then to turn and rend her unlucky child whose misery was her own birthday gift? Shall we, who are only too ready, as it is, to trample upon others, in our haste and greed shall we be encouraged in this savage selfishness by what dares to call itself science, to play one another false, instead of standing, with united front, to the powers of darkness, and scorning to betray our fellows, human or animal, in the contemptible hope of gaining by the treachery? Ah! you may quote authorities, wise and good, till you are hoarse!” cried the Professor, with a burst of energy; “but they will not convince me that black is white. I care not who may uphold the doctrine of vicarious sacrifice; it is monstrous, it is dastardly, it is damnable!

There are some sentences and some incidents that fix themselves, once for all, in the memory, often without apparent reason, to remain as an influence throughout life. In this fashion, the afternoon’s discussion registered itself in the memory of the silent member of the trio.

In her dreams that night, those three concluding and energetic adjectives played strange pranks, as, in dreams, words and phrases often will. Her deep regret at Miss Du Prel’s departure, her dread of her own future, her growing sense of the torment, and horror, and sacrifice that form so large a part of the order of the world, all appeared to be united fantastically in malignant and threatening form, in the final words of the Professor: “It is monstrous, it is dastardly, it is damnable!” The agony of the whole earth seemed to hang over the sleeper, hovering and black and intolerable, crushing her with a sense of hopeless pity and fatigue.

And on waking, though the absurd masquerading of words and thoughts had ceased, she was still weighed down with the horror of the dream, which she knew had a corresponding reality still more awful. And there was no adversary to all this anguish; everybody acquiesced, nay, everybody threw on yet another log to the martyr’s pile, and coolly watched the hungry flames at their work, for “Nature,” they all agreed, demanded sacrifice.

It was in vain to turn for relief to the wise and good; the “wise” insisted on keeping up the altar fires that they might appease the blood-thirsty goddess by a continuous supply of victims (for the noble purpose of saving the others); the “good” trusted to the decision of the wise; they were humbly content to allow others to judge for them; for by this means would they not secure some of the spoils?

No, no; there was no help anywhere on earth, no help, no help. So ran Hadria’s thoughts, in the moments of vivid sensation, between sleeping and waking. “Suffering, sacrifice, oppression: there is nothing else under the sun, under the sun.”

Perhaps a brilliant beam that had found its way, like a message of mercy, through the blind, and shone straight on to the pillow, had suggested the form of the last thought.

Hadria moved her hand into the ray, that she might feel the warmth and “the illusion of kindness.”

There was one person, and at the moment, only one, whose existence was comforting to remember. The hundreds of kind and good people, who were merely kind and good where popular sentiment expected or commended such conduct, gave no re-assurance; on the contrary, they proved the desperation of our plight, since wisdom and goodness themselves were busy at the savage work.

When the party met at breakfast, an hour later, the Professor caused universal consternation, by announcing that he would be obliged to return to London on that very day, having received a letter, by the morning’s post, which left him no choice. The very butler paused, for a perceptible period, while handing ham and eggs to the guest. Forks and knives were laid down; letters remained unopened.

“It’s no use your attempting to go, my dear Chantrey,” said Mr. Fullerton, “we have grown accustomed to the luxury of your society, and we can’t get on without it.”

But the Professor explained that his departure was inevitable, and that he must go by the morning train.

He and Hadria had time for a short walk to the river, by the pathway of the tunnels.

“What are your plans for the winter?” the Professor asked. “I hope that you will find time to develop your musical gift. It ought to be used and not wasted, or worse than wasted, as all forces are, unless they find their legitimate outlet. Don’t be persuaded to do fancy embroidery, as a better mode of employing energy. You have peculiar advantages of a hereditary kind, if only you can get a reasonable chance to use them. I have unbounded faith in the Fullerton stock. It has all the elements that ought to produce powers of the highest order. You know I have always cherished a warm affection for your parents, but ten years more of experience have taught me better how to value that sterling sincerity and honour in your father, united with so much kindliness, not to mention his qualities of brain; and then your mother’s strong sense of duty, her ability, her native love of art, and her wonderful devotion. These are qualities that one does not meet with every day, and the children of such parents start in life with splendid material to fashion into character and power.”

“Algitha will be worthy of our parents, I think,” said Hadria, “though she has commenced her career by disobeying them.”

“And you too must turn your power to account.”

“You can’t conceive how difficult it is.”

“I can very easily. I see that the sacrifice of her own development, which your mother has made for your sakes, is taking its inevitable revenge upon her, and upon you all. One can’t doom one’s best powers to decay, however excellent the motive, without bringing punishment upon oneself and one’s children, in some form or other. You will have to fight against that penalty. I know you will not have a smooth time of it; but who has, except cowards and weaklings? Your safeguard will be in your work.”

“And my difficulty,” said Hadria. “In the world that I was born into (for my sins), when one tries to do something that other people don’t do, it is like trying to get up early in a house where the breakfast-hour is late. Nothing fits in with one’s eccentric custom; everything conspires to discourage it.”

“I wish I could give you a helping hand,” said the Professor wistfully; “but one is so powerless. Each of us has to fight the real battle of life alone. Nobody can see with our eyes, or feel with our nerves. The crux of the difficulty each bears for himself. But friendship can help us to believe the struggle worth while; it can sustain our courage and it can offer sympathy in victory, but still more faithfully in defeat.”