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BEFORE many months had passed, without the slightest approach to any formal recognition, I found myself one of the church of labour of which Falconer was clearly the bishop. As he is the subject, or rather object of my book, I will now record a fact which may serve to set forth his views more clearly. I gained a knowledge of some of the circumstances, not merely from the friendly confidences of Miss St. John and Falconer, but from being a kind of a Scotch cousin of Lady Janet Gordon, whom I had taken an opportunity of acquainting with the relation. She was old-fashioned enough to acknowledge it even with some eagerness. The ancient clan-feeling is good in this, that it opens a channel whose very existence is a justification for the flow of simply human feelings along all possible levels of social position. And I would there were more of it. Only something better is coming instead of it--a recognition of the infinite brotherhood in Christ. All other relations, all attempts by churches, by associations, by secret societies--of Freemasons and others, are good merely as they tend to destroy themselves in the wider truth; as they teach men to be dissatisfied with their limitations. But I wander; for I mentioned Lady Janet now, merely to account for some of the information I possess concerning Lady Georgina Betterton.
I met her once at my so-called cousin's, whom she patronized as a dear old thing. To my mind, she was worth twenty of her, though she was wrinkled and Scottishly sententious. 'A sweet old bat,' was another epithet of Lady Georgina's. But she came to see her, notwithstanding, and did not refuse to share in her nice little dinners, and least of all, when Falconer was of the party, who had been so much taken with Lady Janet's behaviour to the Marquis of Boarshead, just recorded, that he positively cultivated her acquaintance thereafter.
Lady Georgina was of an old family--an aged family, indeed; so old, in fact, that some envious people professed to think it decrepit with age. This, however, may well be questioned if any argument bearing on the point may be drawn from the person of Lady Georgina. She was at least as tall as Mary St. John, and very handsome--only with somewhat masculine features and expression. She had very sloping shoulders and a long neck, which took its finest curves when she was talking to inferiors: condescension was her forte. Of the admiration of the men, she had had more than enough, although either they were afraid to go farther, or she was hard to please.
She had never contemplated anything admirable long enough to comprehend it; she had never looked up to man or woman with anything like reverence; she saw too quickly and too keenly into the foibles of all who came near her to care to look farther for their virtues. If she had ever been humbled, and thence taught to look up, she might by this time have been a grand woman, worthy of a great man's worship. She patronized Miss St. John, considerably to her amusement, and nothing to her indignation. Of course she could not understand her. She had a vague notion of how she spent her time; and believing a certain amount of fanaticism essential to religion, wondered how so sensible and ladylike a person as Miss St. John could go in for it.
Meeting Falconer at Lady Janet's, she was taken with him. Possibly she recognized in him a strength that would have made him her master, if he had cared for such a distinction; but nothing she could say attracted more than a passing attention on his part. Falconer was out of her sphere, and her influences were powerless to reach him.
At length she began to have a glimmering of the relation of labour between Miss St. John and him, and applied to the former for some enlightenment. But Miss St. John was far from explicit, for she had no desire for such assistance as Lady Georgina's. What motives next led her to seek the interview I am now about to record, I cannot satisfactorily explain, but I will hazard a conjecture or two, although I doubt if she understood them thoroughly herself.
She was, if not blasée, at least ennuyée, and began to miss excitement, and feel blindly about her for something to make life interesting. She was gifted with far more capacity than had ever been exercised, and was of a large enough nature to have grown sooner weary of trifles than most women of her class. She might have been an artist, but she drew like a young lady; she might have been a prophetess, and Byron was her greatest poet. It is no wonder that she wanted something she had not got.
Since she had been foiled in her attempt on Miss St. John, which she attributed to jealousy, she had, in quite another circle, heard strange, wonderful, even romantic stories about Falconer and his doings among the poor. A new world seemed to open before her longing gaze--a world, or a calenture, a mirage? for would she cross the 'wandering fields of barren foam,' to reach the green grass that did wave on the far shore? the dewless desert to reach the fair water that did lie leagues beyond its pictured sweetness? But I think, mingled with whatever motives she may have had, there must have been some desire to be a nobler, that is a more useful woman than she had been.
She had not any superabundance of feminine delicacy, though she had plenty of good-breeding, and she trusted to her position in society to cover the eccentricity of her present undertaking.
One morning after breakfast she called upon Falconer; and accustomed to visits from all sorts of people, Mrs. Ashton showed her into his sitting-room without even asking her name. She found him at his piano, apologized, in her fashionable drawl, for interrupting his music, and accepted his offer of a chair without a shade of embarrassment. Falconer seated himself and sat waiting.
'I fear the step I have taken will appear strange to you, Mr. Falconer. Indeed it appears strange to myself. I am afraid it may appear stranger still.'
'It is easy for me to leave all judgment in the matter to yourself, Miss--I beg your pardon; I know we have met; but for the moment I cannot recall your name.'
'Lady Georgina Betterton,' drawled the visitor carelessly, hiding whatever annoyance she may have felt.
Falconer bowed. Lady Georgina resumed.
'Of course it only affects myself; and I am willing to take the risk, notwithstanding the natural desire to stand well in the opinion of any one with whom even my boldness could venture such a step.'
A smile, intended to be playful, covered the retreat of the sentence. Falconer bowed again. Lady Georgina had yet again to resume.
'From the little I have seen, and the much I have heard of you--excuse me, Mr. Falconer--I cannot help thinking that you know more of the secret of life than other people--if indeed it has any secret.'
'Life certainly is no burden to me,' returned Falconer. 'If that implies the possession of any secret which is not common property, I fear it also involves a natural doubt whether such secret be communicable.'
'Of course I mean only some secret everybody ought to know.'
'I do not misunderstand you.'
'I want to live. You know the world, Mr. Falconer. I need not tell you what kind of life a girl like myself leads. I am not old, but the gilding is worn off. Life looks bare, ugly, uninteresting. I ask you to tell me whether there is any reality in it or not; whether its past glow was only gilt; whether the best that can be done is to get through with it as fast as possible?'
'Surely your ladyship must know some persons whose very countenances prove that they have found a reality at the heart of life.'
'Yes. But none whose judgment I could trust. I cannot tell how soon they may find reason to change their minds on the subject. Their satisfaction may only be that they have not tried to rub the varnish off the gilding so much as I, and therefore the gilding itself still shines a little in their eyes.'
'If it be only gilding, it is better it should be rubbed off.'
'But I am unwilling to think it is. I am not willing to sign a bond of farewell to hope. Life seemed good once. It is bad enough that it seems such no longer, without consenting that it must and shall be so. Allow me to add, for my own sake, that I speak from the bitterness of no chagrin. I have had all I ever cared--or condescended to wish for. I never had anything worth the name of a disappointment in my life.'
'I cannot congratulate you upon that,' said Falconer, seriously. 'But if there be a truth or a heart in life, assurance of the fact can only spring from harmony with that truth. It is not to be known save by absolute contact with it; and the sole guide in the direction of it must be duty: I can imagine no other possible conductor. We must do before we can know.'
'Yes, yes,' replied Lady Georgina, hastily, in a tone that implied, 'Of course, of course: we know all about that.' But aware at once, with the fine instinct belonging to her mental organization, that she was thus shutting the door against all further communication, she added instantly: 'But what is one's duty? There is the question.'
'The thing that lies next you, of course. You are, and must remain, the sole judge of that. Another cannot help you.'
'But that is just what I do not know.'
I interrupt Lady Georgina to remark--for I too have been a pupil of Falconer--that I believe she must have suspected what her duty was, and would not look firmly at her own suspicion. She added:
'I want direction.'
But the same moment she proceeded to indicate the direction in which she wanted to be directed; for she went on:
'You know that now-a-days there are so many modes in which to employ one's time and money that one does not know which to choose. The lower strata of society, you know, Mr. Falconer--so many channels! I want the advice of a man of experience, as to the best investment, if I may use the expression: I do not mean of money only, but of time as well.'
'I am not fitted to give advice in such a matter.'
'I assure you I am not. I subscribe to no society myself--not one.'
'Excuse me, but I can hardly believe the rumours I hear of you--people will talk, you know--are all inventions. They say you are for ever burrowing amongst the poor. Excuse the phrase.'
'I excuse or accept it, whichever you please. Whatever I do, I am my own steward.'
'Then you are just the person to help me! I have a fortune, not very limited, at my own disposal: a gentleman who is his own steward, would find his labours merely facilitated by administering for another as well--such labours, I mean.'
'I must beg to be excused, Lady Georgina. I am accountable only for my own, and of that I have quite as much as I can properly manage. It is far more difficult to use money for others than to spend it for yourself.'
'Ah!' said Lady Georgina, thoughtfully, and cast an involuntary glance round the untidy room, with its horse-hair furniture, its ragged array of books on the wall, its side-table littered with pamphlets he never read, with papers he never printed, with pipes he smoked by chance turns. He saw the glance and understood it.
'I am accustomed,' he said, 'to be in such sad places for human beings to live in, that I sometimes think even this dingy old room an absolute palace of comfort.--But,' he added, checking himself, as it were, 'I do not see in the least how your proposal would facilitate an answer to your question.'
'You seem hardly inclined to do me justice,' said Lady Georgina, with, for the first time, a perceptible, though slight shadow crossing the disc of her resolution. 'I only meant it,' she went on, 'as a step towards a further proposal, which I think you will allow looks at least in the direction you have been indicating.'
'May I beg of you to state the proposal?' said Falconer.
But Lady Georgina was apparently in some little difficulty as to the proper form in which to express her object. At last it appeared in the cloak of a question.
'Do you require no assistance in your efforts for the elevation of the lower classes?' she asked.
'I don't make any such efforts,' said Falconer.
Some of my lady-readers will probably be remarking to themselves, 'How disagreeable of him! I can't endure the man.' If they knew how Falconer had to beware of the forwardness and annoyance of well-meaning women, they would not dislike him so much. But Falconer could be indifferent to much dislike, and therein I know some men that envy him.
When he saw, however, that Lady Georgina was trying to swallow a lump in her throat, he hastened to add,
'I have only relations with individuals--none with classes.'
Lady Georgina gathered her failing courage. 'Then there is the more hope for me,' she said. 'Surely there are things a woman might be useful in that a man cannot do so well--especially if she would do as she was told, Mr. Falconer?'
He looked at her, inquiring of her whole person what numen abode in the fane. She misunderstood the look.
'I could dress very differently, you know. I will be a sister of charity, if you like.'
'And wear a uniform?--as if the god of another world wanted to make proselytes or traitors in this! No, Lady Georgina, it was not of a dress so easily altered that I was thinking; it was of the habit, the dress of mind, of thought, of feeling. When you laid aside your beautiful dress, could you avoid putting on the garment of condescension, the most unchristian virtue attributed to Deity or saint? Could you--I must be plain with you, Lady Georgina, for this has nothing to do with the forms of so-called society--could your temper endure the mortifications of low opposition and misrepresentation of motive and end--which, avoid intrusion as you might, would yet force themselves on your perception? Could you be rudely, impudently thwarted by the very persons for whom you were spending your strength and means, and show no resentment? Could you make allowances for them as for your own brothers and sisters, your own children?'
Lady Georgina was silent.
'I shall seem to glorify myself, but at that risk I must put the reality before you.--Could you endure the ugliness both moral and physical which you must meet at every turn? Could you look upon loathsomeness, not merely without turning away in disgust, and thus wounding the very heart you would heal, but without losing your belief in the Fatherhood of God, by losing your faith in the actual blood-relationship to yourself of these wretched beings? Could you believe in the immortal essence hidden under all this garbage--God at the root of it all? How would the delicate senses you probably inherit receive the intrusions from which they could not protect themselves? Would you be in no danger of finding personal refuge in the horrid fancy, that these are but the slimy borders of humanity where it slides into, and is one with bestiality? I could show you one fearful baboon-like woman, whose very face makes my nerves shudder: could you believe that woman might one day become a lady, beautiful as yourself, and therefore minister to her? Would you not be tempted, for the sake of your own comfort, if not for the pride of your own humanity, to believe that, like untimely blossoms, these must fall from off the boughs of the tree of life, and come to nothing at all--a theory that may do for the preacher, but will not do for the worker: him it would paralyze?--or, still worse, infinitely worse, that they were doomed, from their birth, to endless ages of a damnation, filthy as that in which you now found them, and must probably leave them? If you could come to this, you had better withhold your hand; for no desire for the betterment of the masses, as they are stupidly called, can make up for a lack of faith in the individual. If you cannot hope for them in your heart, your hands cannot reach them to do them good. They will only hurt them.'
Lady Georgina was still silent. Falconer's eloquence had perhaps made her ashamed.
'I want you to sit down and count the cost, before you do any mischief by beginning what you are unfit for. Last week I was compelled more than once to leave the house where my duty led me, and to sit down upon a stone in the street, so ill that I was in danger of being led away as intoxicated, only the policeman happened to know me. Twice I went back to the room I had left, crowded with human animals, and one of them at least dying. It was all I could do, and I have tolerable nerve and tolerable experience.'
A mist was gathering over Lady Georgina's eyes. She confessed it afterwards to Miss St. John. And through the mist he looked larger than human.
'And then the time you must spend before you can lay hold upon them at all, that is with the personal relation which alone is of any real influence! Our Saviour himself had to be thirty years in the world before he had footing enough in it to justify him in beginning to teach publicly: he had been laying the needful foundations all the time. Not under any circumstances could I consent to make use of you before you had brought yourself into genuine relations with some of them first.'
'Do you count societies, then, of no use whatever?' Lady Georgina asked, more to break the awkwardness of her prolonged silence than for any other reason.
'In as far as any of the persons they employ fulfil the conditions of which I have spoken, they are useful--that is, just in as far as they come into genuine human relations with those whom they would help. In as far as their servants are incapable of this, the societies are hurtful. The chief good which societies might effect would be the procuring of simple justice for the poor. That is what they need at the hands of the nation, and what they do not receive. But though few can have the knowledge of the poor I have, many could do something, if they would only set about it simply, and not be too anxious to convert them; if they would only be their friends after a common-sense fashion. I know, say, a hundred wretched men and women far better than a man in general knows him with whom he claims an ordinary intimacy. I know many more by sight whose names in the natural course of events I shall probably know soon. I know many of their relations to each other, and they talk about each other to me as if I were one of themselves, which I hope in God I am. I have been amongst them a good many years now, and shall probably spend my life amongst them. When I went first, I was repeatedly robbed; now I should hardly fear to carry another man's property. Two years ago I had my purse taken, but next morning it was returned, I do not know by whom: in fact it was put into my pocket again--every coin, as far as I could judge, as it left me. I seldom pretend to teach them--only now and then drop a word of advice. But possibly, before I die, I may speak to them in public. At present I avoid all attempt at organization of any sort, and as far as I see, am likely of all things to avoid it. What I want is first to be their friend, and then to be at length recognized as such. It is only in rare cases that I seek the acquaintance of any of them: I let it come naturally. I bide my time. Almost never do I offer assistance. I wait till they ask it, and then often refuse the sort they want. The worst thing you can do for them is to attempt to save them from the natural consequences of wrong: you may sometimes help them out of them. But it is right to do many things for them when you know them, which it would not be right to do for them until you know them. I am amongst them; they know me; their children know me; and something is always occurring that makes this or that one come to me. Once I have a footing, I seldom lose it. So you see, in this my labour I am content to do the thing that lies next me. I wait events. You have had no training, no blundering to fit you for such work. There are many other modes of being useful; but none in which I could undertake to direct you. I am not in the habit of talking so much about my ways--but that is of no consequence. I think I am right in doing so in this instance.'
'I cannot misunderstand you,' faltered Lady Georgina.
Falconer was silent. Without looking up from the floor on which her eyes had rested all the time he spoke, Lady Georgina said at last,
'Then what is my next duty? What is the thing that lies nearest to me?'
'That, I repeat, belongs to your every-day history. No one can answer that question but yourself. Your next duty is just to determine what your next duty is.--Is there nothing you neglect? Is there nothing you know you ought not to do?--You would know your duty, if you thought in earnest about it, and were not ambitious of great things.'
'Ah then,' responded Lady Georgina, with an abandoning sigh, 'I suppose it is something very commonplace, which will make life more dreary than ever. That cannot help me.'
'It will, if it be as dreary as reading the newspapers to an old deaf aunt. It will soon lead you to something more. Your duty will begin to comfort you at once, but will at length open the unknown fountain of life in your heart.'
Lady Georgina lifted up her head in despair, looked at Falconer through eyes full of tears, and said vehemently,
'Mr. Falconer, you can have no conception how wretched a life like mine is. And the futility of everything is embittered by the consciousness that it is from no superiority to such things that I do not care for them.'
'It is from superiority to such things that you do not care for them. You were not made for such things. They cannot fill your heart. It has whole regions with which they have no relation.'
'The very thought of music makes me feel ill. I used to be passionately fond of it.'
'I presume you got so far in it that you asked, "Is there nothing more?" Concluding there was nothing more, and yet needing more, you turned from it with disappointment?'
'It is the same,' she went on hurriedly, 'with painting, modelling, reading--whatever I have tried. I am sick of them all. They do nothing for me.'
'How can you enjoy music, Lady Georgina, if you are not in harmony with the heart and source of music?'
'How do you mean?'
'Until the human heart knows the divine heart, it must sigh and complain like a petulant child, who flings his toys from him because his mother is not at home. When his mother comes back to him he finds his toys are good still. When we find Him in our own hearts, we shall find him in everything, and music will be deep enough then, Lady Georgina. It is this that the Brahmin and the Platonist seek; it is this that the mystic and the anchorite sigh for; towards this the teaching of the greatest of men would lead us: Lord Bacon himself says, "Nothing can fill, much less extend the soul of man, but God, and the contemplation of God." It is Life you want. If you will look in your New Testament, and find out all that our Lord says about Life, you will find the only cure for your malady. I know what such talk looks like; but depend upon it, what I am talking about is something very different from what you fancy it. Anyhow to this you must come, one day or other.'
'But how am I to gain this indescribable good, which so many seek, and so few find?'
'Those are not my words,' said Falconer emphatically. 'I should have said--"which so few yet seek; but so many shall at length find."'
'Do not quarrel with my foolish words, but tell me how I am to find it; for I suppose there must be something in what so many good people assert.'
'You thought I could give you help?'
'Yes. That is why I came to you.'
'Just so. I cannot give you help. Go and ask it of one who can.'
'Speak more plainly.'
'Well then: if there be a God, he must hear you if you call to him. If there be a father, he will listen to his child. He will teach you everything.'
'But I don't know what I want.'
'He does: ask him to tell you what you want. It all comes back to the old story: "If ye then being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the holy Spirit to them that ask him!" But I wish you would read your New Testament--the Gospels I mean: you are not in the least fit to understand the Epistles yet. Read the story of our Saviour as if you had never read it before. He at least was a man who seemed to have that secret of life after the knowledge of which your heart is longing.'
Lady Georgina rose. Her eyes were again full of tears. Falconer too was moved. She held out her hand to him, and without another word left the room. She never came there again.
Her manner towards Falconer was thereafter much altered. People said she was in love with him: if she was, it did her no harm. Her whole character certainly was changed. She sought the friendship of Miss St. John, who came at length to like her so much, that she took her with her in some of her walks among the poor. By degrees she began to do something herself after a quiet modest fashion. But within a few years, probably while so engaged, she caught a fever from which she did not recover. It was not till after her death that Falconer told any one of the interview he had had with her. And by that time I had the honour of being very intimate with him. When she knew that she was dying, she sent for him. Mary St. John was with her. She left them together. When he came out, he was weeping.
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