'Robin – you must not! Nay, Robin – you shame me!'
Then he knelt at my feet and seized my hand and kissed it. Oh, the foolishness of a man in love! And yet it pleases us. No woman is worth it. No woman can understand it; nor can she comprehend the power and might of man's love, nor why he singles out her alone from all the rest and fills his heart wholly with her, so that all other women are henceforward as his sisters. It is wonderful; it is most wonderful. Yet it pleases us. Nay, we cannot choose but thank God for it with all our heart and with all our soul.
I would not, if I could, set down all the things which Robin said. First, because the words of love are sacred; next, because I would not that other women should know the extravagance of his praise. It was in broken words, because love can never be eloquent.
As for me, what could I do, what could I say? For I had loved him from my very childhood, and now all my heart went out from me and became his. I was all his. I was his slave to command. That is the quality of earthly love by which it most closely resembles the heavenly love, so that just as the godly man is wholly devoted to the will of the Lord in all things great and small, resigned to His chastisements, and always anxious to live and die in His service, so in earthly love one must be wholly devoted to the person whom one loves.
And Robin was come home again, and I was lying in his arms, and he was kissing me and calling me all the sweet and tender things that he could invent, and laughing and sighing together as if too happy to be quiet. Oh! sweetest moments of my life! Why did they pass so quickly? Oh! sacrament of love, which can be taken only once, and yet changes the whole of life and fills it with memory which is wholly sweet! In all other earthly things there is something of bitterness. In this holy joy of pure and sacred love there is no bitterness – no; not any. It leaves behind nothing of reproach or of repentance, of shame or of sorrow. It is altogether holy.
Now, when my boy had somewhat recovered from his first rapture, and I had assured him very earnestly that I was not, indeed, an angel, but a most sinful woman, daily offending in my inner thoughts (an assurance which he received, indeed, with an appearance of disbelief and scorn), I was able to consider his appearance, which was now very fine, though always, as I learned when I saw him among other gentlemen, with some soberness, as became one whose upbringing inclined him to plainness of dress as well as of speech and manner. He wore a long wig of brown hair, which might have been his own but for its length; his hat was laced and cocked, which gave him a gallant and martial appearance; his neckcloth was long and of fine lace; beside him in my russet gown I must have looked truly plain and rustic; but Robin was pleased not to think so, and love is a great magician to cheat the eyes.
He was home again; he told me he should travel no more (yet you shall hear how far he afterwards travelled against his will); his only desire now was to stay at home and live as his grandfather had lived, in his native village; he had nothing to pray for but the continuance of my love – of which, indeed, there was no doubt possible.
It was now close upon six o'clock, and I begged him to go away for the present, and if my father and Sir Christopher should agree, and if it should seem to his Honour a fit and proper thing that Robin should marry a girl so penniless as myself, why – then – we might meet again after breakfast, or after dinner; or, indeed, at any other time, and so discourse more upon the matter. So he left me, being very reluctant to go; and I, forgetting my garden and what I had come forth to do, returned to the house.
You must understand that all these things passed in the garden, divided from the lane by a thick hedge, and that passers-by – but there were none – could not, very well, have seen what was done, though they might have heard what was said. But if my father had looked out of his window he could have seen, and if my mother had come downstairs she also might have seen through the window, or through the open door. This I thought not upon, nor was there anything to hide – though one would not willingly suffer anyone, even one's own mother, to see and listen at such a moment. Yet mother has since told me that she saw Robin on his knees kissing my hands; but she withdrew, and would not look again.
When I stepped within the door she was at work with her wheel, and looked up with a smile upon her lips, but tears were lying in her eyes. Had I known what she had seen I should have been ashamed.
'Daughter,' she said softly, 'thy cheek is burning red. Hast thou, perchance, been too long in the sun?'
'No, mother, the sun is not too hot.'
'Daughter,' she went on, still smiling through her tears, 'thine eyes are bright and glowing. Hast thou a touch of fever by ill chance?'
'No, mother, I have no fever.'
'Child, thy lips are trembling and thy hands are shaking. My dear, my dear, what is it? Tell thy mother all.'
She held out her arms to me, and I threw myself at her feet, and buried my head in her lap as if I had been again a child.
'Mother! mother!' I cried, 'Robin hath come home again, and he says he loves me, and nothing will do but he must marry me.'
'My dear,' she said, kissing and fondling me, 'Robin hath always been a good lad, and I doubt not that he hath returned unspotted from the world; but, nay, do not let us be too sure. For, first, his Honour must consent, and then Madam; and thy father must be asked – and he would never, for any worldly honour – no, never – suffer thee to marry an ungodly man. As for thy lack of fortune, I know not if that will not also stand in the way; and as for family, thy father, though he was born in New England, cometh of a good stock, and I myself am a gentlewoman, and on both sides we bear an ancient coat-of-arms. And as for thyself, my dear, thou art – I thank God for it! – of a sweet temper and an obedient disposition. From the earliest thou hast never given thy mother any uneasiness, and I think thy heart hath been mercifully disposed towards goodness from thy childhood upwards. It is a special grace in this our long poverty and oppression; and it consoles me partly for the loss of my son Barnaby.' Here she was silent for a space, and her eyes filled and brimmed over. 'Daughter,' she said earnestly, 'thou art comely in the eyes of men; that have I known for long. It is partly for thy sweet looks that Sir Christopher loves thee; Mr. Boscorel plays music with thee partly because his eyes love to behold the beauty of woman. Nay, I mean no reproach, because it is the nature of men to love all things beautiful, whether it be the plumage of a bird or the shape of a woman's head. Yes; thou art beautiful, my dear. Beauty passes, but love remains. Thy husband will perchance never cease to think thee lovely if he still proves daily thy goodness and the loveliness of thy heart. My dear, thou hast long comforted thy mother; now shalt thou go, with the blessing of the Lord, to be the solace and the joy of thy husband.'
Presently my father came in, the Bible in his hand. By his countenance it was plain that he had been already engaged in meditation, and that his mind was charged as with a message.
Alas! to think of the many great discourses that he pronounced (being as a dog who must be muzzled should he leave the farm-yard) to us women alone. If they were written down the world would lift up its hands with wonder, and ask if a prophet indeed had been vouchsafed to this unhappy country. The Roman Church will have that the time of Saints did not end with the last of the Apostles; that may be, and yet a Saint has no more power after death than remains in his written words and in the memory of his life. Shall we not, however, grant that there may still be Prophets, who see and apprehend the meaning of words and of things more fully than others even as spiritually minded as themselves? Now, I say, considering what was immediately to befall us, the passage which my father read and expounded that morning was in a manner truly prophetic. It was the vision of the Basket of Summer Fruit which was vouchsafed to the Prophet Amos. He read to us that terrible chapter – everybody knows it, though it hath but fourteen verses.
'I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation… I will send a famine in the land; not a famine of bread nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.'
He then applied the chapter to these times, saying that the Scriptures and the prophecies apply not only to the Israel of the time when Amos or any other prophet lived, but to the people of God in all ages, yet so that sometimes one prophet seems to deliver the message that befits the time and sometimes another. All these things prophesied by Amos had come to pass in this country of Great Britain; so that there was, and had now been for twenty-five years, a grievous famine and a sore thirst for the words of the Lord. He continued to explain and to enlarge upon this topic for nearly an hour, when he concluded with a fervent prayer that the famine would pass away and the sealed springs be open again for the children of grace to drink and be refreshed.
This done, he took his breakfast in silence, as was his wont, loving not to be disturbed by any earthly matters when his mind was full of his morning discourse. When he had eaten the bread and meat and taken the cup of cider, he arose and went back to his own room, and shut the door. We should have no more speech of him until dinner-time.
'I will speak with him, my dear,' said my mother. 'But not yet. Let us wait till we hear from Sir Christopher.'
'I would that my father had read us a passage of encouragement and promise on this morning of all mornings,' I said.
My mother turned over the leaves of the Bible. 'I will read you a verse of encouragement,' she said. 'It is the word of God as much as the Book of the Prophet Amos.' So she found and read for my comfort words which had a new meaning to me: —
'My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo! the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.'
And again, these that follow: —
'Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. If a man would give all the substance of his house for love it would utterly be contemned.'
In these gracious, nay, these enraptured words, doth the Bible speak of love; and though I am not so ignorant as not to know that it is the love of the Church for Christ, yet I am persuaded by my own spiritual experience – whatever Doctors of Divinity may argue – that the earthly love of husband and wife may be spoken of in these very words as being the type of that other and higher love. And in this matter I know that my mother would also confirm my judgment.
It might have been between nine and ten that Humphrey came. Surely he was changed more than Robin: for the great white periwig which he wore (being now a physician) falling upon his shoulders did partly hide the deformity of his wry shape, and the black velvet coat did also become him mightily. As for his face, that was not changed at all. It had been grave and serious in youth; it was now more grave and more serious in manhood. He stood in the doorway, not seeing me – I was making a pudding for dinner, with my sleeves rolled up and my arms white with flour.
'Mistress Eykin,' he said, 'are old friends passed out of mind?'
'Why,' my mother left her wheel and gave him her hand, ''tis Humphrey! I knew that we should see thee this morning, Humphrey. Is thy health good, my son, and is all well with thee?'
'All is well, madam, and my health is good. How is my master – thy husband?'
'He is always well, and – but thou knowest what manner of life he leads. Of late he hath been much disquieted; he is restless – his mind runs much upon the prophecies of war and pestilence. It is the news from London and the return of the Mass which keeps him uneasy. Go in and see him, Humphrey. He will willingly suffer thee to disturb him, though we must not go near him in his hours of study.'
'Presently; but where is my old playfellow – where is Alice?'
'She is behind you, Humphrey.'
He turned, and his pale face flushed when he saw me.
'Alice?' he cried. 'Is this truly Alice? Nay, she is changed indeed! I knew not – I could not expect – nay, how could one expect' —
'There is no change,' said my mother, sharply. 'Alice was a child, and is now a woman; that is all.'
'Humphrey expects,' I said, 'that we should all stop still while Time went on. You were to become a Bachelor of Medicine, sir, and a Fellow of All Souls' College, and to travel in Italy and France, and to come back in a velvet coat, and a long sword, and a periwig over your shoulders; and I was to be a little girl still.'
Humphrey shook his head.
'It is not only that,' he said; 'though I confess that one did not make due allowance for the flight of Time. It is that the sweet-faced child has become' —
'No, Humphrey,' I said, 'I want no compliments. Go now, sir, and speak with my father. Afterwards you shall tell me all that you have been doing.'
He obeyed, and opened my father's door.
'Humphrey!' My father sprang to his feet. 'Welcome, my pupil! Thou bringest good news? Nay; I have received thy letters: I read the good news in thy face – I see it in thine eyes. Welcome home!'
'Sir, I have, indeed, great news,' said Humphrey.
Then the door was closed.