Direktlänk till inlägg 23 maj 2011

a look both timid

Av debbyhanxu debbyhanxu - 23 maj 2011 04:12

Five uneventful days passed after the last I have described. For Charles, no opportunities to continue his exploration of the Undercliff presented themselves. On one day there was a long excursion to Sidmouth; the mornings of the others were taken up by visits or other more agreeable diversions, such as archery, then a minor rage among the young ladies of En­gland—the dark green de rigueur was so becoming, and so delightful the tamed gentlemen walking to fetch the arrows from the butts (where the myopic Ernestina’s seldom landed, I am afraid) and returning with pretty jokes about Cupid and hearts and Maid Marian. As for the afternoons, Ernestina usually persuaded him to stay at Aunt Tranter’s; there were very serious domestic matters to discuss, since the Kensington house was far too small and the lease of the Belgravia house, into which they would eventually move, did not revert into Charles’s hands for another two years. The little contretemps seemed to have changed Ernestina; she was very deferential to Charles, so dutiful-wifely that he complained he was beginning to feel like a Turkish pasha—and unoriginally begged her to contra­dict him about something lest he forget theirs was to be a Christian marriage. Charles suffered this sudden access of respect for his every wish with good humor. He was shrewd enough to realize that Ernestina had been taken by surprise; until the little disagree­ment she had perhaps been more in love with marriage than with her husband-to-be; now she had recognized the man, as well as the state. Charles, it must be confessed, found this transposition from dryness to moistness just a shade cloying at times; he was happy to be adulated, fussed over, consulted, deferred to. What man is not? But he had had years of very free bachelorhood, and in his fashion was also a horrid, spoiled child. It was still strange to him to find that his mornings were not his own; that the plans of an afternoon might have to be sacrificed to some whim of Tina’s. Of course he had duty to back him up; husbands were expected to do such things, therefore he must do them—just as he must wear heavy flannel and nailed boots to go walking in the country. And the evenings! Those gaslit hours that had to be filled, and without benefit of cinema or television! For those who had a living to earn this was hardly a great problem: when you have worked a twelve-hour day, the problem of what to do after your supper is easily solved. But pity the unfortunate rich; for whatever license was given them to be solitary before the evening hours, convention demanded that then they must be bored in company. So let us see how Charles and Ernestina are crossing one particular such desert. Aunt Tranter, at least, they are spared, as the good lady has gone to take tea with an invalid spinster neighbor; an exact facsim­ile, in everything but looks and history, of herself. Charles is gracefully sprawled across the sofa, two fingers up his cheek, two others and the thumb under his chin, his elbow on the sofa’s arm, and staring gravely across the Axminster carpet at Tina, who is reading, a small red moroc­co volume in her left hand and her right hand holding her fireshield (an object rather like a long-paddled Ping-Pong bat, covered in embroidered satin and maroon-braided round the edges, whose purpose is to prevent the heat from the crackling coals daring to redden that chastely pale complex­ion), which she beats, a little irregularly, to the very regular beat of the narrative poem she is reading. It is a best seller of the 1860s: the Honorable Mrs. Caroline Norton’s The Lady of La Garaye, of which The Edinburgh Review, no less, has pronounced: “The poem is a pure, tender, touching tale of pain, sorrow, love, duty, piety and death”—surely as pretty a string of key mid-Victorian adjectives and nouns as one could ever hope to light on (and much too good for me to invent, let me add). You may think that Mrs. Norton was a mere insipid poetastrix of the age. Insipid her verse is, as you will see in a minute; but she was a far from insipid person. She was Sheridan’s granddaughter for one thing; she had been, so it was rumored, Melbourne’s mistress—her husband had certainly believed the rumor strongly enough to bring an unsuccessful crim. con. action against the great statesman; and she was an ardent feminist— what we would call today a liberal. The lady of the title is a sprightly French lord’s sprightly wife who has a crippling accident out hunting and devotes the rest of her excessively somber life to good works—more useful ones than Lady Cotton’s, since she founds a hospital. Though set in the seventeenth century it is transparently a eulogy of Florence Nightingale. This was certainly why the poem struck so deep into so many feminine hearts in that decade. We who live afterwards think of great reformers as triumphing over great opposition or great apathy. Opposition and apathy the real Lady of the Lamp had certainly had to contend with; but there is an element in sympathy, as I have pointed out elsewhere, that can be almost as harmful. It was very far from the first time that Ernestina had read the poem; she knew some of it almost by heart. Each time she read it (she was overtly reading it again now because it was Lent) she felt elevated and purified, a better young woman. I need only add here that she had never set foot in a hospital, or nursed a sick cottager, in her life. Her parents would not have allowed her to, of course; but she had never even thought of doing such a thing. Ah, you say, but women were chained to their role at that time. But remember the date of this evening: April 6th, 1867. At Westminster only one week before John Stuart Mill had seized an opportunity in one of the early debates on the Reform Bill to argue that now was the time to give women equal rights at the ballot box. His brave attempt (the motion was defeated by 196 to 73, Disraeli, the old fox, abstaining) was greeted with smiles from the average man, guffaws from Punch (one joke showed a group of gentlemen besieging a female Cabinet minister, haw haw haw), and disapproving frowns from a sad majority of educated women, who maintained that their influence was best exerted from the home. Nonetheless, March 30th, 1867, is the point from which we can date the beginning of feminine emancipation in England; and Ernestina, who had giggled at the previous week’s Punch when Charles showed it to her, cannot be completely exonerated. But we started off on the Victorian home evening. Let us return to it. Listen. Charles stares, a faint opacity in his suitably solemn eyes, at Ernestina’s grave face. “Shall I continue?”

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“You read most beautifully.” She clears her throat delicately, raises the book again. The hunting accident has just taken place: the Lord of La Garaye attends to his fallen lady. “He parts the masses of her golden hair, He lifts her, helpless, with a shuddering care, He looks into her face with awestruck eyes;— She dies—the darling of his soul—she dies!” Ernestina’s eyes flick gravely at Charles. His eyes are shut, as if he is picturing to himself the tragic scene. He nods solemnly; he is all ears. Ernestina resumes. “You might have heard, through that thought’s fearful shock, The beating of his heart like some huge clock; And then the strong pulse falter and stand still, When lifted from that fear with sudden thrill, Which from those blanched lips low and trembling came: ‘Oh! Claud!’ she said: no more—but never yet Through all the loving days since first they met, Leaped his heart’s blood with such a yearning vow That she was all in all to him, as now.” She has read the last line most significantly. Again she glanced up at Charles. His eyes are still closed, but he is clearly too moved even to nod. She takes a little breath, her eyes still on her gravely reclined fiance, and goes on. “’Oh! Claud—the pain!’ ‘Oh! Gertrude, my beloved!’ Then faintly o’er her lips a wan smile moved, Which dumbly spoke of comfort from his tone— You’ve gone to sleep, you hateful mutton-bone!” A silence. Charles’s face is like that of a man at a funeral. Another breath and fierce glance from the reader. “Ah! happy they who in their grief or pain Yearn not for some familiar face in vain— CHARLES!” The poem suddenly becomes a missile, which strikes Charles a glancing blow on the shoulder and lands on the floor behind the sofa. “Yes?” He sees Ernestina on her feet, her hands on her hips, in a very untypical way. He sits up and murmurs, “Oh dear.” “You are caught, sir. You have no excuse.” But sufficient excuses or penance Charles must have made, for the very next lunchtime he had the courage to complain when Ernestina proposed for the nineteenth time to discuss the furnishings of his study in the as yet unfound house. Leaving his very comfortable little establishment in Kensing­ton was not the least of Charles’s impending sacrifices; and he could bear only just so much reminding of it. Aunt Tranter backed him up, and he was accordingly granted an afternoon for his “wretched grubbing” among the stones. He knew at once where he wished to go. He had had no thought except for the French Lieutenant’s Woman when he found her on that wild cliff meadow; but he had just had enough time to notice, at the foot of the little bluff whose flat top was the meadow, considerable piles of fallen flint. It was certainly this which made him walk that afternoon to the place. The new warmth, the intensification of love between Ernestina and himself had driven all thought, or all but the most fleeting, casual thought, of Mrs. Poulteney’s secretary from his conscious mind. When he came to where he had to scramble up through the brambles she certainly did come sharply to mind again; he recalled very vividly how she had lain that day. But when he crossed the grass and looked down at her ledge, it was empty; and very soon he had forgotten her. He found a way down to the foot of the bluff and began to search among the scree for his tests. It was a colder day than when he had been there before. Sun and clouds rapidly succeeded each other in proper April fashion, but the wind was out of the north. At the foot of the south-facing bluff, therefore, it was agreeably warm; and an additional warmth soon came to Charles when he saw an excellent test, seemingly not long broken from its flint matrix, lying at his feet. Forty minutes later, however, he had to resign himself to the fact that he was to have no further luck, at least among the flints below the bluff. He regained the turf above and walked towards the path that led back into the woods. And there, a dark movement! She was halfway up the steep little path, too occupied in disengaging her coat from a recalcitrant bramble to hear Charles’s turf-silenced approach. As soon as he saw her he stopped. The path was narrow and she had the right of way. But then she saw him. They stood some fifteen feet apart, both clearly embarrassed, though with very different expres­sions. Charles was smiling; and Sarah stared at him with profound suspicion. “Miss Woodruff!” She gave him an imperceptible nod, and seemed to hesi­tate, as if she would have turned back if she could. But then she realized he was standing to one side for her and made hurriedly to pass him. Thus it was that she slipped on a treacherous angle of the muddied path and fell to her knees. He sprang forward and helped her up; now she was totally like a wild animal, unable to look at him, trembling, dumb. Very gently, with his hand on her elbow, he urged her forward on to the level turf above the sea. She wore the same black coat, the same indigo dress with the white collar. But whether it was because she had slipped, or he held her arm, or the colder air, I do not know, but her skin had a vigor, a pink bloom, that suited admirably the wild shyness of her demeanor. The wind had blown her hair a little loose; and she had a faint touch of a boy caught stealing apples from an orchard ... a guilt, yet a mutinous guilt. Suddenly she looked at Charles, a swift sideways and upward glance from those almost exophthalmic dark-brown eyes with their clear whites: a look both timid and forbidding. It made him drop her arm. “I dread to think, Miss Woodruff, what would happen if you should one day turn your ankle in a place like this.” “It does not matter.” “But it would most certainly matter, my dear young lady. From your request to me last week I presume you don’t wish Mrs. Poulteney to know you come here. Heaven forbid that I should ask for your reasons. But I must point out that if you were in some way disabled I am the only person in Lyme who could lead your rescuers to you. Am I not?” “She knows. She would guess.” “She knows you come here—to this very place?”


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