The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
Alan Merrick strode from his father's door that day stung with a burning sense of wrong and injustice. More than ever before in his life he realized to himself the abject hollowness of that conventional code which masquerades in our midst as a system of morals. If he had continued to "live single" as we hypocritically phrase it, and so helped by one unit to spread the festering social canker of prostitution, on which as basis, like some mediaeval castle on its foul dungeon vaults, the entire superstructure of our outwardly decent modern society is reared, his father no doubt would have shrugged his shoulders and blinked his cold eyes, and commended the wise young man for abstaining from marriage till his means could permit him to keep a wife of his own class in the way she was accustomed to. The wretched victims of that vile system might die unseen and unpitied in some hideous back slum, without touching one chord of remorse or regret in Dr. Merrick's nature. He was steeled against their suffering. Or again, if Alan had sold his virility for gold to some rich heiress of his set, like Ethel Waterton--had bartered his freedom to be her wedded paramour in a loveless marriage, his father would not only have gladly acquiesced, but would have congratulated his son on his luck and his prudence. Yet, because Alan had chosen rather to form a blameless union of pure affection with a woman who was in every way his moral and mental superior, but in despite of the conventional ban of society, Dr. Merrick had cast him off as an open reprobate. And why? Simply because that union was unsanctioned by the exponents of a law they despised, and unblessed by the priests of a creed they rejected. Alan saw at once it is not the intrinsic moral value of an act such people think about, but the light in which it is regarded by a selfish society.
Unchastity, it has been well said, is union without love; and Alan would have none of it.
He went back to Herminia more than ever convinced of that spotless woman's moral superiority to every one else he had ever met with. She sat, a lonely soul, enthroned amid the halo of her own perfect purity. To Alan, she seemed like one of those early Italian Madonnas, lost in a glory of light that surrounds and half hides them. He reverenced her far too much to tell her all that had happened. How could he wound those sweet ears with his father's coarse epithets?
They took the club train that afternoon to Paris. There they slept the night in a fusty hotel near the Gare du Nord, and went on in the morning by the daylight express to Switzerland. At Lucerne and Milan they broke the journey once more. Herminia had never yet gone further afield from England than Paris; and this first glimpse of a wider world was intensely interesting to her. Who can help being pleased, indeed, with that wonderful St. Gothard--the crystal green Reuss shattering itself in white spray into emerald pools by the side of the railway; Wasen church perched high upon its solitary hilltop; the Biaschina ravine, the cleft rocks of Faido, the serpentine twists and turns of the ramping line as it mounts or descends its spiral zigzags? Dewy Alpine pasture, tossed masses of land-slip, white narcissus on the banks, snowy peaks in the background--all alike were fresh visions of delight to Herminia; and she drank it all in with the pure childish joy of a poetic nature. It was the Switzerland of her dreams, reinforced and complemented by unsuspected detail.
One trouble alone disturbed her peace of mind upon that delightful journey. Alan entered their names at all the hotels where they stopped as "Mr. and Mrs. Alan Merrick of London." That deception, as Herminia held it, cost her many qualms of conscience; but Alan, with masculine common-sense, was firm upon the point that no other description was practically possible; and Herminia yielded with a sign to his greater worldly wisdom. She had yet to learn the lesson which sooner or later comes home to all the small minority who care a pin about righteousness, that in a world like our own, it is impossible for the righteous always to act consistently up to their most sacred convictions.
At Milan, they stopped long enough to snatch a glimpse of the cathedral, and to take a hasty walk through the pictured glories of the Brera. A vague suspicion began to cross Herminia's mind, as she gazed at the girlish Madonna of the Sposalizio, that perhaps she wasn't quite as well adapted to love Italy as Switzerland. Nature she understood; was art yet a closed book to her? If so, she would be sorry; for Alan, in whom the artistic sense was largely developed, loved his Italy dearly; and it would be a real cause of regret to her if she fell short in any way of Alan's expectations. Moreover, at table d'hote that evening, a slight episode occurred which roused to the full once more poor Herminia's tender conscience. Talk had somehow turned on Shelley's Italian wanderings; and a benevolent-looking clergyman opposite, with that vacantly well-meaning smile, peculiar to a certain type of country rector, was apologizing in what he took to be a broad and generous spirit of divine, toleration for the great moral teacher's supposed lapses from the normal rule of tight living. Much, the benevolent-looking gentleman opined, with beaming spectacles, must be forgiven to men of genius. Their temptations no doubt are far keener than with most of us. An eager imagination--a vivid sense of beauty--quick readiness to be moved by the sight of physical or moral loveliness--these were palliations, the old clergyman held, of much that seemed wrong and contradictory to our eyes in the lives of so many great men and women.
At sound of such immoral and unworthy teaching, Herminia's ardent soul rose up in revolt within her. "Oh, no," she cried eagerly, leaning across the table as she spoke. "I can't allow that plea. It's degrading to Shelley, and to all true appreciation of the duties of genius. Not less but more than most of us is the genius bound to act up with all his might to the highest moral law, to be the prophet and interpreter of the highest moral excellence. To whom much is given, of him much shall be required. Just because the man or woman of genius stands raised on a pedestal so far above the mass have we the right to expect that he or she should point us the way, should go before us as pioneer, should be more careful of the truth, more disdainful of the wrong, down to the smallest particular, than the ordinary person. There are poor souls born into this world so petty and narrow and wanting in originality that one can only expect them to tread the beaten track, be it ever so cruel and wicked and mistaken. But from a Shelley or a George Eliot, we expect greater things, and we have a right to expect them. That's why I can never quite forgive George Eliot--who knew the truth, and found freedom for herself, and practised it in her life--for upholding in her books the conventional lies, the conventional prejudices; and that's why I can never admire Shelley enough, who, in an age of slavery, refused to abjure or to deny his freedom, but acted unto death to the full height of his principles."
The benevolent-looking clergyman gazed aghast at Herminia. Then he turned slowly to Alan. "Your wife," he said in a mild and terrified voice, "is a very advanced lady."
Herminia longed to blurt out the whole simple truth. "I am not his wife. I am not, and could never be wife or slave to any man. This is a very dear friend, and he and I are travelling as friends together." But a warning glance from Alan made her hold her peace with difficulty and acquiesce as best she might in the virtual deception. Still, the incident went to her heart, and made her more anxious than ever to declare her convictions and her practical obedience to them openly before the world. She remembered, oh, so well one of her father's sermons that had vividly impressed her in the dear old days at Dunwich Cathedral. It was preached upon the text, "Come ye out and be ye separate."
From Milan they went on direct to Florence. Alan had decided to take rooms for the summer at Perugia, and there to see Herminia safely through her maternal troubles. He loved Perugia, he said; it was cool and high-perched; and then, too, it was such a capital place for sketching. Besides, he was anxious to complete his studies of the early Umbrian painters. But they must have just one week at Florence together before they went up among the hills. Florence was the place for a beginner to find out what Italian art was aiming at. You got it there in its full logical development-- every phase, step by step, in organic unity; while elsewhere you saw but stages and jumps and results, interrupted here and there by disturbing lacunae. So at Florence they stopped for a week en route, and Herminia first learnt what Florentine art proposed to itself.
Ah, that week in Florence! What a dream of delight! 'Twas pure gold to Herminia. How could it well be otherwise? It seemed to her afterwards like the last flicker of joy in a doomed life, before its light went out and left her forever in utter darkness. To be sure, a week is a terribly cramped and hurried time in which to view Florence, the beloved city, whose ineffable glories need at least one whole winter adequately to grasp them. But failing a winter, a week with the gods made Herminia happy. She carried away but a confused phantasmagoria, it is true, of the soaring tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, pointing straight with its slender shaft to heaven; of the swelling dome and huge ribs of the cathedral, seen vast from the terrace in front of San Miniato; of the endless Madonnas and the deathless saints niched in golden tabernacles at the Uffizi and the Pitti; of the tender grace of Fra Angelico at San Marco; of the infinite wealth and astounding variety of Donatello's marble in the spacious courts of the cool Bargello. But her window at the hotel looked straight as it could look down the humming Calzaioli to the pierced and encrusted front of Giotto's campanile, with the cupola of San Lorenzo in the middle distance, and the facade of Fiesole standing out deep-blue against the dull red glare of evening in the background. If that were not enough to sate and enchant Herminia, she would indeed have been difficult. And with Alan by her side, every joy was doubled.
She had never before known what it was to have her lover continuously with her. And his aid in those long corridors, where bambinos smiled down at her with childish lips, helped her wondrously to understand in so short a time what they sought to convey to her. Alan was steeped in Italy; he knew and entered into the spirit of Tuscan art; and now for the first time Herminia found herself face to face with a thoroughly new subject in which Alan could be her teacher from the very beginning, as most men are teachers to the women who depend upon them. This sense of support and restfulness and clinging was fresh and delightful to her. It is a woman's ancestral part to look up to the man; she is happiest in doing it, and must long remain so; and Herminia was not sorry to find herself in this so much a woman. She thought it delicious to roam through the long halls of some great gallery with Alan, and let him point out to her the pictures he loved best, explain their peculiar merits, and show the subtle relation in which they stood to the pictures that went before them and the pictures that came after them, as well as to the other work of the same master or his contemporaries. It was even no small joy to her to find that he knew so much more about art and its message than she did; that she could look up to his judgment, confide in his opinion, see the truth of his criticism, profit much by his instruction. So well did she use those seven short days, indeed, that she came to Florence with Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, mere names; and she went away from it feeling that she had made them real friends and possessions for a life-time.
So the hours whirled fast in those enchanted halls, and Herminia's soul was enriched by new tastes and new interests. O towers of fretted stone! O jasper and porphyry! Her very state of health made her more susceptible than usual to fresh impressions, and drew Alan at the same time every day into closer union with her. For was not the young life now quickening within her half his and half hers, and did it not seem to make the father by reflex nearer and dearer to her? Surely the child that was nurtured, unborn, on those marble colonnades and those placid Saint Catherines must draw in with each pulse of its antenatal nutriment some tincture of beauty, of freedom, of culture! So Herminia thought to herself as she lay awake at night and looked out of the window from the curtains of her bed at the boundless dome and the tall campanile gleaming white in the moonlight. So we have each of us thought-- especially the mothers in Israel among us--about the unborn babe that hastens along to its birth with such a radiant halo of the possible future ever gilding and glorifying its unseen forehead.