<< 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 ... 10 >>

For Faith and Freedom
Walter Besant

'Kiss me, Alice' – here he tried to lay his arm round my neck, but I ran away. 'Oh! if thou art skittish, I care not: all in good time. Very well, then; let us make things safe. Alice, when I come back thou wilt be seventeen or eighteen, which is an age when girls should marry' —

'I have nothing to do with marrying, Ben.'

'Not yet. If I mistake not, child, thou wilt then be as beautiful as a rose in June.'

'I want no foolish talk, Ben. Let me go.'

'Then I shall be twenty-one years of age, practising in the courts. I shall go the Western Circuit, in order to see thee often – partly to keep an eye upon thee and partly to warn off other men. Because, child, it is my purpose to marry thee myself. Think upon that, now.'

At this I laughed.

'Laugh if you please, my dear; I shall marry thee as soon as the way is open to the Bench and the Woolsack. What? I can see a long way ahead. I will tell thee what I see. There is a monstrous great crowd of people in the street staring at a glass coach. "Who is the lovely lady?" they ask. "The lovely lady" – that is you, Alice; none other – "with the diamonds at her neck and the gold chain, in the glass coach?" says one who knows her liveries: "'tis the lady of the great Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Sherborne." And the women fall green with envy of her happiness and great good fortune and her splendour. Courage, child: I go to prepare the way. Oh! thou knowest not the grand things that I shall pour into thy lap when I am a judge.'

This was the first time that any man spoke to me of love. But Benjamin was always masterful, and had no respect for such a nice point as the wooing of a maiden – which, methinks, should be gentle and respectful, not as if a woman was like a savage to be tempted by a string of beads, or so foolish as to desire with her husband such gauds as diamonds, or gold chains, or a glass coach. Nor doth a woman like to be treated as if she was to be carried off by force like the Sabine women of old.

The Rector rode to London with his son. It is a long journey, over rough ways; but it pleased him once more to see that great city, where there are pictures and statues and books to gladden the hearts of such as love these things. And on the way home he sojourned for a few days at his old college of All Souls, where were still left one or two of his old friends. Then he rode back to his village. 'There are but two places in this country,' he said, 'or perhaps three, at most, where a gentleman and a scholar, or one who loveth the fine arts, would choose to live. These are London and Oxford, and perhaps the Sister University upon the Granta. Well, I have once more been privileged to witness the humours of the Court and the town: I have once more been permitted to sniff the air of a great library. Let us be thankful.' He showed his thankfulness with a sigh which was almost a groan.

It was three years before we saw Benjamin again. Then he returned, but not for long. Like his father, he loved London better than the country, but for other reasons. Certainly, he cared nothing for those arts which so much delighted the Rector, and the air of a coffee-house pleased him more than the perfume of books in a library. When he left us he was a rustic; when he came back he was already what they call a fopling: that is to say, when he went to pay his respects to Sir Christopher, his grandfather, he wore a very fine cravat of Flanders lace, with silken hose, and lace and ribbons at his wrist. He was also scented with bergamot, and wore a peruke, which, while he talked, he combed and curled, to keep the curls of this monstrous head-dress in place. Gentlemen must, I suppose, wear this invention, and one of the learned professions must show the extent of the learning by the splendours of his full-bottomed wig. Yet I think that a young man looks most comely while he wears his own hair. He had cocked his hat, on which were bows of riband, and he wore a sword. He spoke also in a mincing London manner, having now forsworn the honest broad speech of Somerset; and (but not in the presence of his elders) he used strange oaths and ejaculations.

'Behold him!' said his father, by no means displeased at his son's foppery, because he ever loved the city fashions, and thought that a young man did well to dress and to comport himself after the way of the world. 'Behold him! Thus he sits in the coffee-house; thus he shows himself in the pit. Youth is the time for finery and for folly. Alas! would that we could bring back that time! What saith John Dryden – glorious John – of Sir Fopling? —

'"His various modes from various fathers follow:
One taught the toss, and one the new French wallow;
His sword-knot this, his cravat that, designed,
And this the yard-long snake he twirls behind.
From one the sacred periwig he gained,
Which wind ne'er blew, nor touch of hat profaned."

'Well, Ben,' said Sir Christopher, 'if the mode can help thee to the Bench why not follow the mode?'

'It will not hinder, Sir,' Ben replied. 'A man who hath his fortune to make does well to be seen everywhere, and to be dressed like other men of his time.'

One must do Benjamin the justice to acknowledge that though, like the young gentlemen his friends and companions, his dress was foppish, and his talk was of the pleasures of the town, he suffered nothing to stand in the way of his advancement. He was resolved upon being a great lawyer, and, therefore, if he spent the evening in drinking, singing, and making merry, he was reading in chambers or else attending the Courts all the day, and neglected nothing that would make him master of his profession. And, though of learning he had little, his natural parts were so good, and his resolution was so strong, that I doubt not he would have achieved his ambition had it not been for the circumstances which afterwards cut short his career. His course of life, by his own boastful confession, was profligate; his friends were drinkers and revellers; his favourite haunt was the tavern, where they all drank punch and sang ungodly songs, and smoked tobacco; and of religion he seemed to have no care whatever.

I was afraid that he would return to the nauseous subject which he had opened three years before. Therefore I continued with my mother, and would give him no chance to speak with me. But he found me, and caught me returning home one evening.

'Alice,' he said, 'I feared that I might have to go away without a word alone with thee.'

'I want no words alone, Benjamin. Let me pass!' For he stood before me in the way.

'Not so fast, pretty!' – he caught me by the wrist, and, being a young man so strong and determined, he held me as by a vice. 'Not so fast, Mistress Alice. First, my dear, let me tell thee that my purpose still holds – nay' – here he swore a most dreadful, impious oath – 'I am more resolved than ever. There is not a woman, even in London, that is to be compared with thee, child. What? Compared with thee? Why, they are like the twinkling stars compared with the glorious Queen of Night. What did I say? – that at nineteen thou wouldst be a miracle of beauty? Nay, that time hath come already! I love thee, child! I love thee, I say, ten times as much as ever I loved thee before!'

He gasped, and then breathed hard; but still he held me fast.

'Idle compliments cost a man nothing, Benjamin. Say what you meant to say and let me go. If you hold me any longer I will cry out and bring your father to learn the reason.'

'Well,' he said, 'I will not keep thee. I have said what I wanted to say. My time hath not yet arrived. I am shortly to be called, and shall then begin to practise. When I come back here again, 'twill be with a ring in one hand, and in the other the prospect of the Woolsack. Think upon that while I am gone. "Your Ladyship" is finer than plain "Madam," and the Court is more delightful than a village green among the pigs and ducks. Think upon it well: thou art a lucky girl; a plain village girl to be promoted to a coronet! However, I have no fears for thee; thou wilt adorn the highest fortune. Thou wilt be worthy of the great place whither I shall lead thee. What? Is Sir George Jeffreys a better man than I? Is he of better family? Had he better interest? Is he a bolder man? Not so. Yet was Sir George a Common Serjeant at twenty-three, and Recorder at thirty; Chief Justice of Chester at thirty-two. What he hath done I can do. Moreover, Sir George hath done me the honour to admit me to his company, and will advance me. This he hath promised, both in his cups and when he is sober. Think it over, child: a ring in one hand and a title in the other.'

So Benjamin went away again. I was afraid when I thought of him and his promise, because I knew him of old; and his eyes were as full of determination as when he would fight a lad of his own age and go on fighting till the other had had enough. Yet he could not marry me against my will. His own father would protect me, to say nothing of mine.

I should have told him then – as I had told him before – that I would never marry him. Then, perhaps, he would have been shaken in his purpose. The very thought of marrying him filled me with terror unspeakable. I was afraid of him not only because he was so masterful – nay, women like a man to be strong of will – but because he had no religion in him and lived like an Atheist, if such a wretch there be; at all events, with unconcern about his soul; and because his life was profligate, his tastes were gross, and he was a drinker of much wine. Even at the Manor House I had seen him at supper drinking until his cheeks were puffed out and his voice grew thick. What kind of happiness would there be for a wife whose husband has to be carried home by his varlets, too heavy with drink to stand or to speak?

Alas! there is one thing which girls, happily, do never apprehend. They cannot understand how it is possible for a man to become so possessed with the idea of their charms (which they hold themselves as of small account, knowing how fleeting they are, and of what small value) that he will go through fire and water for that woman; yea, and break all the commandments, heedless of his immortal soul, rather than suffer another man to take her – and that, even though he knows that the poor creature loves him not, or loves another man. If maidens knew this, I think that they would go in fear and trembling lest they should be coveted by some wild beast in human shape, and prove the death of the gallant gentleman whom they would choose for their lover. Or they would make for themselves convents and hide in them, so great would be their fear. But it is idle to speak of this, because, say what one will, girls can never understand the power and the vehemence of love, when once it hath seized and doth thoroughly possess a man.



Humphrey did not, like Benjamin, brag of the things he would do when he should go forth to the world. Nevertheless, he thought much about his future, and frequently he discoursed with me about the life that he fain would lead. A young man, I think, wants someone with whom he may speak freely concerning the thoughts which fill his soul. We who belong to the sex which receives but does not create or invent, which profits by man's good work, and suffers from the evil which he too often does, have no such thoughts and ambitions.

'I cannot,' he would say, 'take upon me holy orders, as Mr. Boscorel would have me, promising, in my cousin Robin's name, this living after his death, because, though I am in truth a mere pauper and dependent, there are in me none of those prickings of the spirit which I could interpret into a Divine call for the ministry; next, because I cannot in conscience swear to obey the Thirty-nine Articles while I still hold that the Nonconformist way of worship is more consonant with the Word of God. And, again, I am of opinion that the Law of Moses, which forbade any but a well-formed man from serving at the altar, hath in it something eternal. It denotes that as no cripple may serve at the earthly altar, so in heaven, of which the altar is an emblem, all those who dwell therein shall be perfect in body as in soul. What, then, is such a one as myself, who hath some learning and no fortune, to do? Sir Christopher, my benefactor, will maintain me at Oxford until I have taken a degree. This is more than I could have expected. Therefore, I am resolved to take a degree in medicine. It is the only profession fit for a mis-shapen creature. They will not laugh at me when I alleviate their pains.'

'Could anyone laugh at you, Humphrey?'

'Pray heaven, I frighten not the ladies at the first aspect of me.' He laughed, but not with merriment; for, indeed, a cripple or a hunchback cannot laugh mirthfully over his own misfortune. 'Some men speak scornfully of the profession,' he went on. 'The great French playwright, Monsieur Molière, doth make the physicians the butt and laughing-stock of all Paris. Yet consider. It is medicine which prolongs our days and relieves our pains. Before the science was studied, the wretch who caught a fever in the marshy forest lay down and died; an ague lasted all one's life; a sore throat putrefied and killed; a rheumatism threw a man upon the bed, from which he would never rise. The physician is man's chief friend. If our Sovereigns studied the welfare of humanity as deeply as the art of war, they would maintain, at vast expense, great colleges of learned men continually engaged in discovering the secrets of nature – the causes and the remedies of disease. What better use can a man make of his life than to discover one – only one – secret which will drive away part of the agony of disease? The Jews, more merciful than the Romans, stupefied their criminals after they were crucified; they died, indeed, but their sufferings were less. So the physician, though in the end all men must die, may help them to die without pain. Nay, I have even thought that we might devise means of causing the patient by some potent drug to fall into so deep a sleep that even the surgeon's knife shall not cause him to awaken.'

He, therefore, before he entered at Oxford, read with my father many learned books of the ancients on the science and practice of medicine, and studied botany with the help of such books as he could procure.

Some men have but one side to them – that is to say, the only active part of them is engaged in but one study; the rest is given up to rest or indolence. Thus Benjamin studied law diligently, but nothing else. Humphrey, for his part, read his Galen and his Celsus, but he neglected not the cultivation of those arts and accomplishments in which Mr. Boscorel was as ready a teacher as he was a ready scholar. He thus learned the history of painting, and sculpture, and architecture, and that of coins and medals, so that at eighteen Humphrey might already have set up as a virtuoso.

Nor was this all. Still, by the help of the Rector, he learned the use of the pencil and the brush, and could both draw prettily, or paint in water colours, whether the cottages or the church, the cows in the fields, or the woods and hills. I have many pictures of his painting which he gave me from time to time. And he could play sweetly, whether on the spinnet, or the violin, or the guitar, spending many hours every week with Mr. Boscorel playing duettos together; and willingly he would sing, having a rich and full voice, very delightful to hear. When I grew a great girl, and had advanced far enough, I was permitted to play with them. There was no end to the music which Mr. Boscorel possessed. First, he had a great store of English ditties such as country people love – as, 'Sing all a green willow,' 'Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,' or 'Once I loved a maiden fair.' There was nothing rough or rude in these songs, though I am informed that much wickedness is taught by the ribald songs that are sung in playhouses and coffee-rooms. And when we were not playing or singing, Mr. Boscorel would read us poetry – portions from Shakspeare or Ben Jonson, or out of Milton's 'Paradise Lost'; or from Herrick, who is surely the sweetest poet that ever lived, 'yet marred,' said Mr. Boscorel, 'by his coarseness and corruption.' Now, one day, after we had been thus reading – one winter afternoon, when the sun lay upon the meadows – Humphrey walked home with me, and on the way confessed, with many blushes, that he, too, had been writing verses. And with that he lugged a paper out of his pocket.

'They are for thine own eyes only,' he said. 'Truly, my dear, thou hast the finest eyes in the world. They are for no other eyes than thine,' he repeated. 'Not for Robin, mind, lest he laugh: poetry hath in it something sacred, so that even the writer of bad verses cannot bear to have them laughed at. When thou art a year or two older thou wilt understand that they were written for thy heart as well as for thine eyes. Yet, if thou like the verses, they may be seen by Mr. Boscorel, but in private; and if he laugh at them do not tell me. Yet, again, one would like to know what he said; wherefore, tell me, though his words be like a knife in my side.'

Thus he wavered between wishing to show them to his master in art, and fearing.

In the end, when I showed them to Mr. Boscorel, he said that, for a beginner, they were very well – very well, indeed; that the rhymes were correct, and the metre true; that years and practice would give greater firmness, and that the crafty interlacing of thought and passion, which was the characteristic of Italian verse, could only be learned by much reading of the Italian poets. More he said, speaking upon the slight subject of rhyme and poetry with as much seriousness and earnestness as if he were weighing and comparing texts of Scripture.

Then he gave me back the verses with a sigh.

'Child,' he said, 'to none of us is given what most we desire. For my part, I longed in his infancy that my son should grow up even as Humphrey, as quick to learn; with as true a taste; with as correct an ear; with a hand as skilful. But – you see, I complain not, though Benjamin loves the noisy tavern better than the quiet coffee-house where the wits resort. To him such things as verses, art, and music are foolishness. I say that I complain not; but I would to Heaven that Humphrey were my own, and that his shoulders were straight, poor lad! Thy father hath made him a Puritan: he is such as John Milton in his youth – and as beautiful in face as that stout Republican. I doubt not that we shall have from the hand of Humphrey, if he live and prosper, something fine, the nature of which, whether it is to be in painting, or in music, or in poetry, I know not. Take the verses, and take care that thou lose them not; and, child – remember – the poet is allowed to say what he pleases about a woman's eyes. Be not deceived into thinking – But no – no – there is no fear. Good-night, thou sweet and innocent saint.'

I knew not then what he meant; but these are the verses, and I truly think that they are very moving and religious. For if woman be truly the most beautiful work of the Creator (which all men aver), then it behoves her all the more still to point upwards. I read them with a pleasure and surprise that filled my whole soul, and inflamed my heart with pious joy: —

Around, above, and everywhere
The earth hath many a lovely thing;
The zephyrs soft, the flowers fair,
The babbling brook, the bubbling spring.

The grey of dawn, the azure sky,
The sunset glow, the evening gloom;
The warbling thrush, the skylark high,
The blossoming hedge, the garden's bloom.

The sun in state, the moon in pride,
The twinkling stars in order laid;
The winds that ever race and ride,
The shadows flying o'er the glade.

<< 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 ... 10 >>