The Beckoning Hand, and Other Stories
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Netta looked at him timidly, with another blush, and said slowly, "No, Mr. Milliter; I cannot. I must not."
"Why not, Netta? Oh, why not? Tell me a reason."
"Because it wouldn't be right. Because it wouldn't be fair to you. Because it wouldn't be true of me. You ought to marry a lady – some one in your own rank of life, you know. It would be wrong to tie your future down to a poor nameless nobody like me, when you might marry – marry – almost any lady you chose in all Mortiscombe."
"Netta, you pain me. You are wronging me. You know I care nothing for such gewgaws as birth or wealth or rank or station. I would not marry one of those ladies even if she asked me. And, as to my own position in life, why, Netta, my position is yours. My parents were poor God-fearing people, like your parents; and if you will not love me, then, Netta, Netta, I say it solemnly, I will never, never marry anybody."
Netta answered never a word; but, as any other good girl would do in her place, once more burst into a flood of tears, and looked at him earnestly from her swimming eyes in speechless doubt and trepidation.
Perhaps it was wrong of Cyril Milliter – on a Sunday, and in the public pathway too – but he simply put his strong arm gently round her waist, and kissed her a dozen times over fervidly without let or hindrance.
Then Netta put him away from her, not too hastily, but with a lingering hesitation, and said once more, "But, Mr. Milliter, I can never marry you. You will repent of this yourself by-and-by at your leisure. Just think, how could I ever marry you, when I should always be too frightened of you to call you anything but 'Mr. Milliter!'"
"Why, Netta," cried the young professor, with a merry laugh, "if that's all, you'll soon learn to call me, 'Cyril.'"
"To call you 'Cyril,' Mr. Milliter! Oh dear, no, never. Why, I've looked at you so often in meeting, and felt so afraid of you, because you were so learned, and wise, and terrible: and I'm sure I should never learn to call you by your Christian name, whatever happened."
"And as you can't do that, you won't marry me! I'm delighted to hear it, Netta – delighted to hear it; for if that's the best reason you can conjure up against the match, I don't think, little one, I shall find it very hard to talk you over."
"But, Mr. Milliter, are you quite sure you won't regret it yourself hereafter? Are you quite sure you won't repent, when you find Society doesn't treat you as it did, for my sake? Are you quite sure nothing will rise up hereafter between us, no spectre of class difference, or class prejudice, to divide our lives and make us unhappy?"
"Never!" Cyril Milliter answered, seizing both her hands in his eagerly, and looking up with an instinctive glance to the open heaven above them as witness. "Never, Netta, as long as I live and you live, shall any shadow of such thought step in for one moment to put us asunder."
And Netta, too proud and pleased to plead against her own heart any longer, let him kiss her once again a lover's kiss, and pressed his hand in answer timidly, and walked back with him blushing towards Mortiscombe, his affianced bride before the face of high heaven.
When Society at Mortiscombe first learnt that that clever young Professor Milliter was really going to marry the daughter of some factory foreman, Society commented frankly upon the matter according to the various idiosyncrasies and temperaments of its component members.Some of it was incredulous; some of it was shocked; some of it was cynical; some of it was satirical; and some of it, shame to say, was spitefully free with suggested explanations for such very strange and unbecoming conduct. But Cyril Milliter himself was such a transparently honest and straightforward man, that, whenever the subject was alluded to in his presence, he shamed the cynicism and the spitefulness of Society by answering simply, "Yes, I'm going to marry a Miss Leaworthy, a very good and sweet girl, the daughter of the foreman at the Tube Works, who is a great friend of mine and a member of my little Sunday congregation." And, somehow, when once Cyril Milliter had said that in his quiet natural way to anybody, however cynical, the somebody never cared to talk any more gossip thenceforward for ever on the subject of the professor's forthcoming marriage.
Indeed, so fully did the young professor manage to carry public sentiment with him in the end, that when the wedding-day actually arrived, almost every carriage in all Mortiscombe was drawn up at the doors of the small chapel where the ceremony was performed; and young Mrs. Milliter had more callers during the first fortnight after her honeymoon than she knew well how to accommodate in their tiny drawing-room. In these matters, Society never takes any middle course. Either it disapproves of a "mixed marriage" altogether, in which case it crushes the unfortunate offender sternly under its iron heel; or else it rapturously adopts the bride into its own magic circle, in which case she immediately becomes a distinct somebody, in virtue of the very difference of original rank, and is invited everywhere with empressement as a perfect acquisition to the local community. This last was what happened with poor simple blushing little Netta, who found herself after a while so completely championed by all Mortiscombe that she soon fell into her natural place in the college circle as if to the manner born. All nice girls, of whatever class, are potentially ladies (which is more than one can honestly say for all women of the upper ranks), and after a very short time Netta became one of the most popular young married women in all Mortiscombe. When once Society had got over its first disappointment because Cyril Milliter had not rather married one of its own number, it took to Netta with the greatest cordiality. After all, there is something so very romantic, you know, in a gentleman marrying a foreman's daughter; and something so very nice and liberal, too, in one's own determination to treat her accordingly in every way like a perfect equal.
And yet, happy as she was, Netta could never be absolutely free from a pressing fear, a doubt that Cyril might not repent his choice, and feel sorry in the end for not having married a real lady. That fear pursued her through all her little triumph, and almost succeeded in making her half jealous of Cyril whenever she saw him talking at all earnestly (and he was very apt to be earnest) with other women. "They know so much more than I do," she thought to herself often; "he must feel so much more at home with them, naturally, and be able to talk to them about so many things that he can never possibly talk about with poor little me." Poor girl, it never even occurred to her that from the higher standpoint of a really learned man like Cyril Milliter the petty smattering of French and strumming of the piano, wherein alone these grand girls actually differed from her, were mere useless surface accomplishments, in no way affecting the inner intelligence or culture, which were the only things that Cyril regarded in any serious light as worthy of respect or admiration. As a matter of fact, Netta had learnt infinitely more from her Bible, her English books, her own heart, and surrounding nature, than any of these well-educated girls had learnt from their parrot-trained governesses; and she was infinitely better fitted than any of them to be a life companion for such a man as Cyril Milliter.
For the first seven or eight months of Netta's married life all went smoothly enough with the young professor and his pretty wife. But at the end of that time an event came about which gave Netta a great deal of unhappiness, and caused her for the very first time since she had ever known him to have serious doubts about Cyril's affection. And this was just how it all happened.
One Sunday morning, in the upper chamber at Patmos, Cyril had announced himself to preach a discourse in opposition to sundry wicked scientific theories which were then just beginning seriously to convulse the little world of religious Mortiscombe. Those were the days when Darwin's doctrine of evolution had lately managed to filter down little by little to the level of unintelligent society; and the inquiring working-men who made up Cyril Milliter's little congregation in the upper chamber were all eagerly reading the "Origin of Species" and the "Descent of Man." As for Cyril himself, in his austere fashion, he doubted whether any good could come even of considering such heterodox opinions. They were plainly opposed to the Truth, he held, both to the Truth as expressed in the written Word, and to the Truth as he himself clearly read it in the great open book of nature. This evolution they talked about so glibly was a dream, a romance, a mere baseless figment of the poor fallible human imagination; all the plain facts of science and of revelation were utterly irreconcilable with it, and in five years' time it would be comfortably dead and buried for ever, side by side with a great load of such other vague and hypothetical rubbish. He could hardly understand, for his part, how sensible men could bother their heads about such nonsense for a single moment. Still, as many of his little flock had gone to hear a brilliant young lecturer who came down from London last week to expound the new doctrine at the Literary and Philosophical Institute, and as they had been much shaken in their faith by the lecturer's sophistical arguments and obvious misrepresentations of scientific principles, he would just lay before them plainly what science had to say in opposition to these fantastic and immature theorists. So on Sunday morning next, with Bible in one hand and roll of carefully executed diagrams in the other (for Cyril Milliter was no conventional formalist, afraid of shocking the sense of propriety in his congregation), he went down in militant guise to the upper chamber and delivered a fervent discourse, intended to smite the Darwinians hip and thigh with the arms of the Truth – both Scriptural and scientific – to slay the sophists outright with the sword of the Lord and of Gideon.
Cyril took for his text a single clause from the twenty-first verse of the first chapter of Genesis – "Every winged fowl after his kind." That, he said impressively, was the eternal and immutable Truth upon the matter. He would confine his attention that morning entirely to this one aspect of the case – the creation of the class of birds. "In the beginning," the Word told us, every species of bird had been created as we now see it, perfect and fully organized after its own kind. There was no room here for their boasted "development," or their hypothetical "evolution." The Darwinians would fain force upon them some old wife's tale about a monstrous lizard which gradually acquired wings and feathers, till at last, by some quaint Ovidian metamorphosis (into such childish heathenism had we finally relapsed), it grew slowly into the outward semblance of a crow or an ostrich. But that was not what the Truth told them. On the fourth day of creation, simultaneously with the fish and every living creature that moveth in the ocean, the waters brought forth "fowl that might fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven." Such on this subject was the plain and incontrovertible statement of the inspired writer in the holy Scripture.
And now, how did science confirm this statement, and scatter at once to the winds the foolish, brain-spun cobwebs of our windy, vaporous, modern evolutionists? These diagrams which he held before him would sufficiently answer that important question. He would show them that there was no real community of structure in any way between the two classes of birds and reptiles. Let them observe the tail, the wings, the feathers, the breast-bone, the entire anatomy, and they would see at once that Darwin's ridiculous, ill-digested theory was wholly opposed to all the plain and demonstrable facts of nature. It was a very learned discourse, certainly; very crushing, very overwhelming, very convincing (when you heard one side only), and not Netta alone, but the whole congregation of intelligent, inquiring artisans as well, was utterly carried away by its logic, its clearness, and its eloquent rhetoric. Last of all, Cyril Milliter raised his two white hands solemnly before him, and uttered thus his final peroration.
"In conclusion, what proof can they offer us of their astounding assertions?" he asked, almost contemptuously. "Have they a single fact, a single jot or tittle of evidence to put in on this matter, as against the universal voice of authoritative science, from the days of Aristotle, of Linn?us, or of Cuvier, to the days of Owen, of Lyell, and of Carpenter? Not one! Whenever they can show me, living or fossil, an organism which unites in itself in any degree whatsoever the characteristics of birds and reptiles – an organism which has at once teeth and feathers; or which has a long lizard-like tail and true wings; or which combines the anatomical peculiarities I have here assigned to the one class with the anatomical peculiarities I have here assigned to the other: then, and then only, will I willingly accede to their absurd hypothesis. But they have not done it. They cannot do it. They will never do it. A great gulf eternally separates the two classes. A vast gap intervenes impassably between them. That gulf will never be lessened, that gap will never be bridged over, until Truth is finally confounded with falsehood, and the plain facts of nature and the Word are utterly forgotten in favour of the miserable, inconsistent figments of the poor fallible human imagination."
As they walked home from worship that morning, Netta felt she had never before so greatly admired and wondered at her husband. How utterly he had crushed the feeble theory of these fanciful system-mongers, how clearly he had shown the absolute folly of their presumptuous and arrogant nonsense! Netta could not avoid telling him so, with a flush of honest pride in her beautiful face: and Cyril flushed back immediately with conscious pleasure at her wifely trust and confidence. But he was tired with the effort, he said, and must go for a little walk alone in the afternoon: a walk among the fields and the Downs, where he could commune by himself with the sights and sounds of truth-telling nature. Netta was half-piqued, indeed, that he should wish even so to go without her; but she said nothing: and so after their early dinner, Cyril started away abstractedly by himself, and took the lane behind the village that led up by steep inclines on to the heavy moorland with its fresh bracken and its purple heather.
As he walked along hastily, his mind all fiery-full of bones and fossils, he came at last to the oolite quarry on the broken hillside. Feeling tired, he turned in to rest awhile in the shade on one of the great blocks of building stone hewn out by the workmen; and by way of occupation he began to grub away with his knife, half-unconsciously as he sat, at a long flat slab of slaty shale that projected a little from the sheer face of the fresh cutting. As he did so, he saw marks of something very like a bird's feather on its upper surface. The sight certainly surprised him a little. "Birds in the oolite," he said to himself quickly; "it's quite impossible! Birds in the oolite! this is quite a new departure. Besides, such a soft thing as a feather could never conceivably be preserved in the form of a fossil."
Still, the queer object interested him languidly, by its odd and timely connection with the subject of his morning sermon; and he looked at it again a little more closely. By Jove, yes, it was a feather, not a doubt in the world of that now; he could see distinctly the central shaft of a tail-quill, and the little barbed branches given off regularly on either side of it. The shale on which it was impressed was a soft, light-brown mudstone; in fact, a fragment of lithographic slate, exactly like that employed by lithographers for making pictures. He could easily see how the thing had happened; the bird had fallen into the soft mud, long ages since, before the shale had hardened, and the form of its feathers had been distinctly nature-printed, while it was still moist, upon its plastic surface. But a bird in the oolite! that was a real discovery; and, as the Gospel Evangelists were no Sabbatarians, Cyril did not scruple in the pursuit of Truth to dig away at the thin slab with his knife, till he egged it out of the rock by dexterous side pressure, and laid it triumphantly down at last for further examination on the big stone that stood before him.
Gazing in the first delight of discovery at his unexpected treasure, he saw in a moment that it was a very complete and exquisitely printed fossil. So perfect a pictorial representation of an extinct animal he had never seen before in his whole lifetime; and for the first moment or two he had no time to do anything else but admire silently the exquisite delicacy and extraordinary detail of this natural etching. But after a minute, the professional interest again asserted itself, and he began to look more carefully into the general nature of its curious and unfamiliar anatomical structure.
As he looked, Cyril Milliter felt a horrible misgiving arise suddenly within him. The creature at which he was gazing so intently was not a bird, it was a lizard. And yet – no – it was not a lizard – it was a bird. "Why – these are surely feathers – yes, tail feathers – quite unmistakable… But they are not arranged in a regular fan; the quills stand in pairs, one on each side of each joint in a long tail, for all the world exactly like a lizard's… Still, it must be a bird; for, see, these are wings … and that is certainly a bird's claw… But here's the head; great heavens! what's this?.. A jaw, with teeth in it…" Cyril Milliter leaned back, distractedly, and held his beating forehead between his two pale hands. To most scientific men it would have been merely the discovery of an interesting intermediate organism – something sure to make the reputation of a comparative anatomist; to him, it was an awful and sudden blow dealt unexpectedly from the most deadly quarter at all his deepest and most sacred principles. Religion, honour, Truth, the very fundamental basis of the universe itself – all that makes life worth living for, all that makes the world endurable – was bound up implicitly that moment for Cyril Milliter in the simple question whether the shadowy creature, printed in faint grey outline on the slab of shaly oolite before him, was or was not half bird and half lizard.
It may have been foolish of him: it may have been wrong: it may have been madness almost; but at that instant he felt dazzled and stunned by the crushing weight of the blow thus unexpectedly dealt at his whole preconceived theory of things, and at his entire mental scheme of science and theology. The universe seemed to swim aimlessly before him: he felt the solid ground knocked at once from beneath his feet, and found himself in one moment suspended alone above an awful abyss, a seething and tossing abyss of murky chaos. He had pinned all his tottering faith absolutely on that single frail support; and now the support had given way irretrievably beneath him, and blank atheism, nihilism, utter nothingness, stared him desperately in the face. In one minute, while he held his head tight between his two palms to keep it from bursting, and looked with a dull, glazed, vacant eye at the ghastly thing before him – only a few indistinct fossil bones, but to him the horridest sight he had ever beheld – a whole world of ideas crowded itself on the instant into his teeming, swimming brain. If we could compress an infinity of thought into a single second, said Shelley once, that second would be eternity; and on the brink of such a compressed eternity Cyril Milliter was then idly sitting. It seemed to him, as he clasped his forehead tighter and tighter, that the Truth which he had been seeking, and for which he had been working and fighting so long, revealed itself to him now and there, at last, in concrete form, as a visible and tangible Lie. It was no mere petrified lizard that he saw beneath his eyes, but a whole ruined and shattered system of philosophic theology. His cosmogony was gone; his cosmos itself was dispersed and disjointed; creation, nay, the Creator Himself, seemed to fade away slowly into nonentity before him. He beheld dimly an awful vision of a great nebulous mist, drifting idly before the angry storm-cyclones of the masterless universe – drifting without a God or a ruler to guide it; bringing forth shapeless monstrosities one after another on its wrinkled surface; pregnant with ravine, and rapine, and cruelty; vast, powerful, illimitable, awful; but without one ray of light, one gleam of love, one hope of mercy, one hint of divine purpose anywhere to redeem it. It was the pessimistic nightmare of a Lucretian system, translated hastily into terms of Cyril Milliter's own tottering and fading theosophy.
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