No life was ever yet a play: I mean, an unbroken sequence of dramatic incidents. Calms will come; unfortunately for the readers, happily for the read. And I remember seeing it objected to novelists, by a young gentleman just putting his foot for the first time into "Criticism," that the writers aforesaid suppress the small intermediate matters which in real life come by the score between each brilliant event: and so present the ordinary and the extraordinary parts of life in false proportions. Now, if this remark had been offered by way of contrast between events themselves and all mortal attempts to reproduce them upon paper or the stage, it would have been philosophical; but it was a strange error to denounce the practice as distinctive of fiction: for it happens to be the one trait the novelist and dramatist have in common with the evangelist. The Gospels skip fifteen years of the most interesting life Creation has witnessed; they relate Christ's birth in full, but hurry from His boyhood to the more stirring events of His thirtieth and subsequent years. And all the inspired histories do much the same thing. The truth is, that epics, dramas, novels, histories, chronicles, reports of trials at law, in a word, all narratives true or fictitious, except those which, true or fictitious, nobody reads, abridge the uninteresting facts as Nature never did, and dwell as Nature never did on the interesting ones.
Can nothing, however, be done to restore, in the reader's judgment, that just balance of "the sensational" and the "soporific," which all writers, that have readers, disturb? Nothing, I think, without his own assistance. But surely something with it. And, therefore, I throw myself on the intelligence of my readers; and ask them to realise, that henceforth pages are no strict measure of time, and that to a year big with strange events, on which I have therefore dilated in this story, succeeded a year in which few brilliant things happened to the personages of this tale: in short, a year to be skimmed by chronicler or novelist, and yet (mind you) a year of three hundred and sixty-five days six hours, or thereabouts, and one in which the quiet, unobtrusive troubles of our friends' hearts, especially the female hearts, their doubts, divisions, distresses, did not remit — far from it. Now this year I propose to divide into topics, and go by logical, rather than natural, sequence of events.
Alfred came every day to see Julia, and Mrs. Dodd invariably left the room at his knock.
At last Julia proposed to Alfred not to come to the house for the present; but to accompany her on her rounds as district visitor. To see and soothe the bitter calamities of the poor had done her own heart good in its worst distress, and she desired to apply the same medicine to her beloved, who needed it: that was one thing: and then another was, that she found her own anger rising when her mother left the room at that beloved knock: and to be angry with her poor widowed, mother was a sin. "She is as unfortunate as I am happy," thought Julia; "I have got mine back."
Alfred assented to this arrangement with rather an ill grace. He misunderstood Julia, and thought she was sacrificing him to what he called her mother's injustice. This indeed was the interpretation any male would have been pretty sure to put on it. His soreness, however, did not go very far; because she was so kind and good to him when they were together. He used to escort her back to the door of 66: and look imploringly; but she never asked him in. He thought her hard for this. He did not see the tears that flowed for that mute look of his the moment the door was closed; tears she innocently restrained for fear the sight of them should make him as unhappy as his imploring look made her. Mauvais calcul! She should have cried right out. When we men are unhappy, we like our sweethearts to be unhappier — that consoles us.
But when this had gone on nearly a month, and no change, Alfred lost patience: so he lingered one day at the door to make a request. He asked Julia to marry him: and so put an end to this state of things.
"Marry you, child?" cried Julia, blushing like a rose with surprise and pleasure. "Oh, for shame!"
After the first thrill, she appealed to his candour whether that would not be miserably selfish of her to leave her poor mother in her present distressed condition. "Ah, Alfred, so pale, so spiritless, and inconsolable! My poor, poor mother!"
"You will have to decide between us two one day."
"Heaven forbid!" said Julia, turning pale at the very idea. But he repeated doggedly that it must come to that, sooner or later. Then he reminded her of their solemn engagement, and put it to her whether it was a moral proceeding in her to go back from her plighted troth? What had he done to justify her in drawing back from her word? "I admit," said he, "that I have suffered plenty of wrong for your sake: but what have I done wrong?"
Undeterred by the fear of immorality, the monotonous girl had but one reply to his multiform reasons: "This is no time for me to abandon my mother."
"Ah, it is her you love: you don't care for me," snapped Alfred.
"Don't I, dear Alfred?" murmured Julia.
"Forgive me! I'm a ruffian, a wretch."
"You are my Alfred. But oh, have a little patience, dear."
"A little patience? I have the patience of Job. But even his went at last."
[I ought to have said they were in the passage now. The encroaching youth had gained an entrance by agitating her so at the door that she had to ask him in to hide her own blushes from the public.] She now gently reminded him how much happier they were than they had been for months. "Dear me," said she, "I am almost happy: happier than I ought to be; could be quite so, but that I see you discontented."
"Ah, you have so many about you that you love: I have only you."
"And that is true, my poor Alfred."
This softened him a little; and then she interwove her fingers together, and so put both palms softly on his shoulder (you never saw a male do that, and never will), and implored him to be patient, to be generous. "Oh," said she, " if you knew the distress it gives me to refuse to you anything on earth, you would be generous, and not press me when my heart says 'Yes,' but my lips must say 'No.'"
This melted him altogether, and he said he would not torment her any more.
But he went away discontented with himself for having yielded: my lord did not call it "yielding," but "being defeated." And as he was not only very deep in love, but by nature combative, he took a lodging nearly opposite No. 66, and made hot love to her, as hot as if the attachment was just forming. Her mother could not go out but he was at the door directly: she could not go out but he was at her heels. This pleased her at first and thrilled her with the sense of sweet and hot pursuit: but by-and-by, situated as she was between him and her mother, it worried her a little at times, and made her nervous. She spoke a little sharply to him now and then. And that was new. It came from the nerves, not the heart. At last she advised him to go back to Oxford. "I shall be the ruin of your mind if we go on like this," said she sadly.
"What, leave the field to my rivals? No, thank you."
"What rivals, sir?" asked Julia, drawing up.
"Your mother, your brother, your curates that would come buzzing the moment I left; your sick people, who bask on your smiles and your sweet voice till I envy them: Sarah, whom you permit to brush your lovely hair, the piano you play on, the air you deign to breathe and brighten, everybody and everything that is near you; they are all my rivals; and shall I resign you to them, and leave myself desolate? I'm not such a fool."
She smiled, and could not help feeling it was sweet to be pestered. So she said with matronly dignity, and the old Julian consistency, "You are a foolish impetuous boy. You are the plague of my life: and — the sun of my existence." That passed off charmingly. But presently his evil genius prompted Alfred to endeavour to soften Mrs. Dodd by letter, and induce her to consent to his marriage with her daughter. He received her answer at breakfast-time. It was wonderfully polite and cold; Mrs. Dodd feigned unmixed surprise at the proposal, and said that insanity being unfortunately in her own family, and the suspicion of insanity resting on himself, such a union was not to be thought of; and therefore, notwithstanding her respect for his many good qualities, she must decline with thanks the honour he offered her. She inserted a poisoned sting by way of postscript. "When you succeed in publicly removing the impression your own relations share with me, and when my husband owes his restoration to you, instead of his destruction, of course you will receive a very different answer to your proposal — should you then think it consistent with your dignity to renew it."
As hostile testators used to leave the disinherited one shilling, not out of a shilling's worth of kindly feeling, but that he might not be able to say his name was omitted through inadvertency, so Mrs. Dodd inserted this postscript merely to clench the nail and tantalise her enemy. It was a masterpiece of feminine spite.
She would have been wonderstruck could she have seen how Alfred received her missive.
To be sure he sat in a cold stupor of dejection for a good half hour; but at the end of that time he lifted up his head, and said quietly, "So be it. I'll get the trial over, and my sanity established, as soon as possible: and then I'll hire a yacht and hunt her husband till I find him."
Having settled this little plan, he looked out for Julia, whose sympathy he felt in need of after such a stern blow.
She came out much later than usual that day, for to tell the truth, her mother had detained her to show her Alfred's letter, and her answer.
"Ah, mamma," said poor Julia, "you don't love me as you did once. Poor Alfred!"
Mrs. Dodd sighed at this reproach, but said she did not deserve it. No mother in her senses would consent to such a match.
Julia bowed her head submissively and went to her duties. But when Alfred came to her open-mouthed to complain of her mother's cruelty, she stopped him at once, and asked him how he could go and write that foolish, unreasonable letter. Why had he not consulted her first? "You have subjected yourself to a rebuff," said she angrily, "and one from which I should have saved you. Is it nothing that mamma out of pity to me connives at our meeting and spending hours together? Do you think she does no violence to her own wishes here? and is she to meet with no return?"
"What, are you against me too?" said poor Alfred.
"No, it is you who are our enemy with your unreasonable impatience."
"I am not so cold-blooded as you are, certainly."
"Humility and penitence would become you better than to retort on me. I love you both, and pray God on my knees to show me how to do my duty to both."
"That is it; you are not single-hearted like me. You want to please all the world, and reconcile the irreconcilable. It won't do: you will have to choose between your mother and me at last."
"Then of course I shall choose my mother."
"Because she claims my duty as well as my love; because she is bowed down with sorrow, and needs her daughter just now more than you do; besides, you are my other self, and we must deny ourselves."
"We have no more right to be unjust to ourselves than to anybody else; injustice is injustice."
"Alfred, you are a high-minded Heathen, and talk Morality. Morality is a snare. What I pray to be is a Christian, as your dear sister was, and to deny myself; and you make it, oh so difficult."
"So I suppose it will end in turning out your heathen and then taking your curate. Your mother would consent to that directly."
"Alfred," said Julia with dignity, "these words are harsh, and — forgive me for saying so — they are coarse. Such words would separate us two, without my mother, if I were to hear many of them; for they take the bloom off affection, and that mutual reverence, without which no gentleman and lady could be blessed in holy wedlock."
Alfred was staggered and mortified too: they walked on in silence now.
"Alfred," said Julia at last, "do not think me behind you in affection, but wiser, for once, and our best friend. I do think we had better see less of one another for a time, my poor Alfred."
"And why for a time? Why not for ever?"
"If your heart draws no distinction, why not indeed?"
"So be it then: for I will be no woman's slave. There's my hand, Julia: let us part friends."
"Thank you for that, dear Alfred: may you find some one who can love you more — than — I do."
The words choked her. But he was stronger, because he was in a passion. He reproached her bitterly. "If I had been as weak and inconstant as you are, I might have been out of Drayton House long before I did escape. But I was faithful to my one love. I have some right to sing 'Aileen Aroon,' you have none. You are an angel of beauty and goodness; you will go to Heaven, and I shall go to the devil now for want of you; but then you have no constancy nor true fidelity: so that has parted us, and now nothing is left me but to try and hate you."
He turned furiously on his heel.
"God bless you, go where you will," faltered Julia.
He replied with a fierce ejaculation of despair, and dashed away.
Thus temper and misunderstanding triumphed, after so many strange and bitter trials had failed.
But alas! it is often so.