The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XXVII. The Will to Live
Waymark made his way to Paddington at the usual time on the following evening, and found Maud alone. There was agitation in her manner as she welcomed him, and she resumed her seat as if the attitude of rest was needful to her. In reply to his inquiries about her health, she assured him she was well, and that she felt no painful results from the previous evening. Waymark also showed an unusual embarrassment. He stood for some moments by the table, turning over the leaves of a book.
"I didn't know you had Rossetti," he said, without looking up. "You never mentioned him."
"I seem to have had no opportunity."
"No. I too have many things that I have wanted to speak to you about, but opportunity was wanting. I have sometimes been on the point of asking you to let me write to you again."
He glanced inquiringly at her. Her eyes fell, and she tried to speak, but failed. Waymark went to a seat at a little distance from her.
"You do not look as well as when I met you in the summer," he said. "I have feared you might be studying too hard. I hope you threw away your books whilst you were at the sea-side."
"I did, but it was because I found little pleasure in them. It was not rest that took the place of reading."
"Are your difficulties of a kind you could speak of to me?" he asked, with some hesitation.
She kept her eyes lowered, and her fingers writhed nervously on the arm of the chair.
"My only fear would be lest you should think my troubles unreal. Indeed it is so hard to make them appear anything more than morbid fancies. They are traceable, no doubt, to my earliest years. To explain them fully, I should have to tell you circumstances of my life which could have little interest for you."
"Tell me--do," Waymark replied earnestly.
"Will you let me?" she said, with a timid pleasure in her voice. "I believe you could understand me. I have a feeling that you must have experienced something of these troubles yourself, and have overcome them. Perhaps you could help me to understand myself."
"If I thought I could, it would give me great happiness."
She was silent a little, then, with diffidence which lessened as she went on, she related the history, as far as she knew it, of her childhood, and described the growth of her mind up to the time when she had left home to begin life as a governess. It was all very simply, but very vividly, told; that natural command of impressive language which had so struck Waymark in her letters displayed itself as soon as she had gained confidence. Glimpses of her experience Waymark had already had, but now for the first time he understood the full significance of her early years. Whilst she spoke, he did not move his eyes from her face. He was putting himself in her position, and imagining himself to be telling his own story in the same way. His relation, he knew, would have been a piece of more or less clever acting, howsoever true; he would have been considering, all the time, the effect of what he said, and, indeed, could not, on this account, have allowed himself to be quite truthful. How far was this the case with Maud Enderby? Could he have surprised the faintest touch of insincerity in look or accent, it would have made a world's difference in his position towards her. His instinct was unfailing in the detection of the note of affected feeling; so much the stronger the impression produced upon him by a soul unveiling itself in the naivete of genuine emotion. That all was sincere he could have no doubt. Gradually he lost his critical attitude, and at moments surprised himself under the influence of a sympathetic instinct. Then he would lose consciousness of her words for an interval, during which he pondered her face, and was wrought upon by its strange beauty. The pure and touching spirituality of Maud's countenance had never been so present to him as now; she was pale with very earnestness, her eyes seemed larger than their wont, there was more than womanly sweetness in the voice which so unconsciously modulated itself to the perfect expression of all she uttered. Towards the end, he could but yield himself completely to the spell, and, when she ceased, he, like Adam at the end of the angel's speech, did not at once perceive that her voice was silent.
"It was long," she said, after telling the outward circumstances of her life with her aunt, "before I came to understand how differently I had been brought up from other children. Partly I began to see it at the school where we first met; but it only grew quite clear to me when I shared in the home life of my pupils in the country. I found I had an entirely different view of the world from what was usual. That which was my evil, I discovered to be often others' good; and my good, their abhorrence. My aunt's system was held to be utterly unchristian. Little things which I sometimes said, in perfect innocence, excited grave disapproval. All this frightened me, and made me even more reserved than I should have been naturally.
"In my letters to you I began to venture for the first time to speak of things which were making my life restless. I did little more than hint my opinions; I wonder, in looking back, that I had the courage to do even that. But I already knew that your mind was broader and richer than mine, and I suppose I caught with a certain desperation at the chance of being understood. It was the first opportunity I had ever had of discussing intellectual things. With my aunt I had never ventured to discuss anything; I reverenced her too much for that; she spoke, and I received all she said. I thought that from you I should obtain confirmation where I needed it, but your influence was of the opposite kind. Your letters so abounded with suggestion that was quite new to me, referred so familiarly to beliefs and interests of which I was quite ignorant, showed such a boldness in judging all things, that I drifted further and further from certainty. The result of it all was that I fell ill.
"You see now what it is that has burdened me from the day when I first began to ask myself about my beliefs. I was taught to believe that the world was sin, and that the soul only freed itself from sin in proportion as it learned to live apart from and independently of the world. Everything was dark because of sin; only in the still, secret places of the soul was the light of purity and salvation.
"I thought I had passed out of this. When I returned to London, and began this new life, the burden seemed all at once lifted from me. I could look here and there with freedom; the sky was bright above me; human existence was cheerful and noble and justified in itself. I began to learn a thousand things. Above all, my mind fixed on Art; in that I thought I had found a support that would never fail me.
"Oh, why could it not last? The clouds began to darken over me again. I heard voices once which I had hoped were for ever silenced. That sense of sin and horror came upon me last night in the streets. I suffered dreadfully."
She was silent, and, meeting Waymark's eyes so fixed on her own, became conscious of the eagerness and fervour with which she had spoken.
"Have you any experience of such things?" she asked nervously. "Did you ever suffer in the same way?"
"It is all very strange," he said, without answering her question. "This overpowering consciousness of sin is an anachronism in our time. But, from the way in which you express yourself, I should have thought you had been studying Schopenhauer. I suppose you know nothing of him?"
"Some of your phrases were precisely his. Your doctrine is simply Pessimism, with an element of dogmatic faith added. With Schopenhauer, the will to live is the root of sin; mortify this, deny the first instincts of your being, and you approach righteousness. Buddhism has the same system. And, in deducing all this from the plain teachings of Christianity, I am disposed to think you are right and consistent. Christianity is pessimism, so far as this world is concerned; we see that in such things as the thanksgiving for a' person's death in the burial service, and the prayer that the end of the world may soon come."
He paused, and thought for a moment.
"But all this," he resumed, rising from his seat, and going to stand with one arm upon the mantelpiece, "is of course, with me, mere matter of speculation. There are two allegories, which define Pessimism and Optimism. First that of Adam and Christ. Adam falls through eating of the tree of knowledge; in other words, sin only comes with self-consciousness, sin is the conscious enjoyment of life. And, according to this creed, it can only be overcome by abnegation, by the denial of the will to live. Accordingly, Christ enters the world, and, representing Humanity, as Adam had done, saves the world by denial, of Himself, even to death. The other allegory is that of Prometheus. He also represents mankind, and his stealing of the fire means man's acquirement of a conscious soul, whereby he makes himself capable of sin. The gods put him in bondage and torment, representing the subjection to the flesh. But Prometheus is saved in a different way from Adam; not by renunciation, but by the prowess of Hercules, that is to say, the triumphant aspiration of Humanity. Man triumphs by asserting his right to do so. Self-consciousness he claims as a good thing, and embraces the world as his birthright. Here, you see, there is no room for the crushing sense of sin. Sin, if anything, is weakness. Let us rejoice in our strength, whilst we have it. The end of course will come, but it is a wise man's part not to heed the inevitable. Let us live whilst it is called to-day; we shall go to sleep with all the better conscience for having used the hours of daylight."
Maud listened with head bent.
"My own temperament," Waymark went on, "is, I suppose, exceptional, at all events among men who have an inner life. I never knew what goes by the name of religious feeling; impulses of devotion, in the common sense of the phrase, have always been strange to me. I have known fear at the prospect of death; religious consolation, never. Sin, above all, has been a word without significance to me. As a boy, it was so; it is so still, now that I am self-conscious. I have never been a deep student of philosophy, but the doctrine of philosophical necessity, the idea of Fate, is with me an instinct. I know that I could not have acted otherwise than I did in any juncture of my life; I know that the future is beyond my control. I shall do this, and avoid that, simply owing to a preponderance of motives, which I can gauge, but not control. Certain things I hate and shrink from; but I try to avoid, even in thought, such words as vice and crime; the murderer could not help himself, and the saint has no merit in his sanctity. Does all this seem horrible to you?"
Maud raised her eyes, and looked steadily at him, but did not speak. It was the gaze of one who tries humbly to understand, and longs to sympathise. But there was a shadow of something like fear upon her face.
Waymark spoke with more earnestness.
"You will not think me incapable of what we call noble thought and feeling? I have in me the elements of an enthusiast; they might have led me to strange developments, but for that cold, critical spirit which makes me so intensely self-conscious. This restless scepticism has often been to me a torment in something the same way as that burden of which you speak. Often, often, I would so gladly surrender myself to my instincts of passion and delight. I may change; I may perhaps some day attain rest in an absolute ideal. If I do, it will be through the help of one who shall become to me that ideal personified, who shall embody all the purer elements of my nature, and speak to me as with the voice of my own soul."
She hung upon his words, and an involuntary sigh, born of the intensity of the moment, trembled on her lips.
"I have spoken to you," he said, after what seemed a long silence, "with a sincerity which was the due return for your own. I could have shown myself in a more pleasing light. You see how little able I am to help you; the centre-thought of your being is wholly strange to me. And for all that--may I speak my thought?--we are nearer to each other than before."
"Yes, nearer," she repeated, under her breath.
"You think that? You feel that? I have not repelled you?"
"You have not"
"And if I stood before you, now, as you know me--egotistic, sceptical, calm--and told you that you are the only being in whom I have ever felt complete confidence, whose word and thought I felt to be one; that you exercise more power over me than any other ever did or shall; that life in your companionship might gain the unity I long for; that in your presence I feel myself face to face with a higher and nobler nature than my own, one capable of sustaining me in effort and leading me to great results--"
He became silent, for her face had turned deadly pale. But this passed, and in her eyes, as they met his, trouble grew to a calm joy. Without speaking, she held her hand to him.
"You are not afraid," Waymark said, "to link your fate with mine? My life is made up of uncertainties. I have no position; it may be a long time before I can see even the promise of success in my work. I have chosen that work, however, and by it I stand or fall. Have you sufficient faith in me to wait with confidence?"
"I have absolute faith in you. I ask no greater happiness than to have a share in your aims. It will give me the strength I need, and make my life full of hope."
It had come then, and just as he had foreseen it would. It was no result of deliberate decision, he had given up the effort to discover his true path, knowing sufficiently that neither reason nor true preponderance of inclination was likely to turn the balance. The gathering emotion of the hour had united with opportunity to decide his future. The decision was a relief; as he walked homewards, he was lighthearted.
On the way, he thought over everything once more, reviewing former doubts from his present position. On the whole, he felt that fate had worked for his happiness.
And yet there was discontent. He had never known, felt that perhaps he might never know, that sustained energy of imaginative and sensual longing which ideal passion demands. The respectable make-believe which takes the form of domestic sentiment, that everyday love, which, become the servant of habit, suffices to cement the ordinary household, is not the state in which such men as Waymark seek or find repose; the very possibility of falling into it unawares is a dread to them. If he could but feel at all times as he had felt at moments in Maud's presence. It might be that the growth of intimacy, of mutual knowledge, would make his love for her a more real motive in his life. He would endeavour that it should be so. Yet there remained that fatal conviction of the unreality of every self-persuasion save in relation to the influences of the moment. To love was easy, inevitable; to concentrate love finally on one object might well prove, in his case, an impossibility. Clear enough to him already was the likelihood of a strong revulsion of feeling when Ida once more came back, and the old life--if it could be--was resumed. Compassion would speak so loudly for her; her face, pale and illuminated with sorrow, would throw a stronger spell than ever upon his senses. Well, there was no help. Whatever would be, would be. It availed nothing to foresee and scheme and resolve.
And, in the same hour, Maud was upon her knees, in the silence of her own chamber, shedding tears which were at once both sweet and bitter, in her heart a tumult of emotion, joy and thanksgiving at strife with those dark powers which shadowed her existence. She had do doubts of the completeness and persistency of her love. But was not this love a sin, and its very strength the testimony of her soul's loss?