Chapter III.
 

From that day forth, Alan and Herminia met frequently. Alan was given to sketching, and he sketched a great deal in his idle times on the common. He translated the cottages from real estate into poetry. On such occasions, Herminia's walks often led her in the same direction. For Herminia was frank; she liked the young man, and, the truth having made her free, she knew no reason why she should avoid or pretend to avoid his company. She had no fear of that sordid impersonal goddess who rules Philistia; it mattered not to her what "people said," or whether or not they said anything about her. "Aiunt: quid aiunt? aiant," was her motto. Could she have known to a certainty that her meetings on the common with Alan Merrick had excited unfavorable comment among the old ladies of Holmwood, the point would have seemed to her unworthy of an emancipated soul's consideration. She could estimate at its true worth the value of all human criticism upon human action.

So, day after day, she met Alan Merrick, half by accident, half by design, on the slopes of the Holmwood. They talked much together, for Alan liked her and understood her. His heart went out to her. Compact of like clay, he knew the meaning of her hopes and aspirations. Often as he sketched he would look up and wait, expecting to catch the faint sound of her light step, or see her lithe figure poised breezy against the sky on the neighboring ridges. Whenever she drew near, his pulse thrilled at her coming,-- a somewhat unusual experience with Alan Merrick. For Alan, though a pure soul in his way, and mixed of the finer paste, was not quite like those best of men, who are, so to speak, born married. A man with an innate genius for loving and being loved cannot long remain single. He must marry young; or at least, if he does not marry, he must find a companion, a woman to his heart, a help that is meet for him. What is commonly called prudence in such concerns is only another name for vice and cruelty. The purest and best of men necessarily mate themselves before they are twenty. As a rule, it is the selfish, the mean, the calculating, who wait, as they say, "till they can afford to marry." That vile phrase scarcely veils hidden depths of depravity. A man who is really a man, and who has a genius for loving, must love from the very first, and must feel himself surrounded by those who love him. 'Tis the first necessity of life to him; bread, meat, raiment, a house, an income, rank far second to that prime want in the good man's economy.

But Alan Merrick, though an excellent fellow in his way, and of noble fibre, was not quite one of the first, the picked souls of humanity. He did not count among the finger-posts who point the way that mankind will travel. Though Herminia always thought him so. That was her true woman's gift of the highest idealizing power. Indeed, it adds, to my mind, to the tragedy of Herminia Barton's life that the man for whom she risked and lost everything was never quite worthy of her; and that Herminia to the end not once suspected it. Alan was over thirty, and was still "looking about him." That alone, you will admit, is a sufficiently grave condemnation. That a man should have arrived at the ripe age of thirty and not yet have lighted upon the elect lady--the woman without whose companionship life would be to him unendurable is in itself a strong proof of much underlying selfishness, or, what comes to the same thing, of a calculating disposition. The right sort of man doesn't argue with himself at all on these matters. He doesn't say with selfish coldness, "I can't afford a wife;" or, "If I marry now, I shall ruin my prospects." He feels and acts. He mates, like the birds, because he can't help himself. A woman crosses his path who is to him indispensable, a part of himself, the needful complement of his own personality; and without heed or hesitation he takes her to himself, lawfully or unlawfully, because he has need of her. That is how nature has made us; that is how every man worthy of the name of man has always felt, and thought, and acted. The worst of all possible and conceivable checks upon population is the vile one which Malthus glossed over as "the prudential," and which consists in substituting prostitution for marriage through the spring-tide of one's manhood.

Alan Merrick, however, was over thirty and still unmarried. More than that, he was heart-free,--a very evil record. And, like most other unmarried men of thirty, he was a trifle fastidious. He was "looking about him." That means to say, he was waiting to find some woman who suited him. No man does so at twenty. He sees and loves. But Alan Merrick, having let slip the golden moment when nature prompts every growing youth to fling himself with pure devotion at the feet of the first good angel who happens to cross his path and attract his worship, had now outlived the early flush of pure passion, and was thinking only of "comfortably settling himself." In one word, when a man is young, he asks himself with a thrill what he can do to make happy this sweet soul he loves; when he has let that critical moment flow by him unseized, he asks only, in cold blood, what woman will most agreeably make life run smooth for him. The first stage is pure love; the second, pure selfishness.

Still, Alan Merrick was now "getting on in his profession," and, as people said, it was high time he should be settled. They said it as they might have said it was high time he should take a business partner. From that lowest depth of emotional disgrace Herminia Barton was to preserve him. It was her task in life, though she knew it not, to save Alan Merrick's soul. And nobly she saved it.

Alan, "looking about him," with some fine qualities of nature underlying in the background that mean social philosophy of the class from which he sprang, fell frankly in love almost at first sight with Herminia. He admired and respected her. More than that, he understood her. She had power in her purity to raise his nature for a time to something approaching her own high level. True woman has the real Midas gift: all that she touches turns to purest gold. Seeing Herminia much and talking with her, Alan could not fail to be impressed with the idea that here was a soul which could do a great deal more for him than "make him comfortable,"-- which could raise him to moral heights he had hardly yet dreamt of,--which could wake in him the best of which he was capable. And watching her thus, he soon fell in love with her, as few men of thirty are able to fall in love for the first time,--as the young man falls in love, with the unselfish energy of an unspoilt nature. He asked no longer whether Herminia was the sort of girl who could make him comfortable; he asked only, with that delicious tremor of self-distrust which belongs to naive youth, whether he dare offer himself to one so pure and good and beautiful. And his hesitation was justified; for our sordid England has not brought forth many such serene and single-minded souls as Herminia Barton.

At last one afternoon they had climbed together the steep red face of the sandy slope that rises abruptly from the Holmwood towards Leith Hill, by the Robin Gate entrance. Near the top, they had seated themselves on a carpet of sheep-sorrel, looking out across the imperturbable expanse of the Weald, and the broad pastures of Sussex. A solemn blue haze brooded soft over the land. The sun was sinking low; oblique afternoon lights flooded the distant South Downs. Their combes came out aslant in saucer-shaped shadows. Alan turned and gazed at Herminia; she was hot with climbing, and her calm face was flushed. A town-bred girl would have looked red and blowsy; but the color and the exertion just suited Herminia. On that healthy brown cheek it seemed natural to discern the visible marks of effort. Alan gazed at her with a sudden rush of untrammelled feeling. The elusive outline of her grave sweet face, the wistful eyes, the ripe red mouth enticed him. "Oh, Herminia," he cried, calling her for the first time by her Christian name alone, "how glad I am I happened to go that afternoon to Mrs. Dewsbury's. For otherwise perhaps I might never have known you."

Herminia's heart gave a delicious bound. She was a woman, and therefore she was glad he should speak so. She was a woman, and therefore she shrank from acknowledging it. But she looked him back in the face tranquilly, none the less on that account, and answered with sweet candor, "Thank you so much, Mr. Merrick."

"I said 'Herminia,'" the young man corrected, smiling, yet aghast at his own audacity.

"And I thanked you for it," Herminia answered, casting down those dark lashes, and feeling the heart throb violently under her neat bodice.

Alan drew a deep breath. "And it was that you thanked me for," he ejaculated, tingling.

"Yes, it was that I thanked you for," Herminia answered, with a still deeper rose spreading down to her bare throat. "I like you very much, and it pleases me to hear you call me Herminia. Why should I shrink from admitting it? 'Tis the Truth, you know; and the Truth shall make us Free. I'm not afraid of my freedom."

Alan paused for a second, irresolute. "Herminia," he said at last, leaning forward till his face was very close to hers, and he could feel the warm breath that came and went so quickly; "that's very, very kind of you. I needn't tell you I've been thinking a great deal about you these last three weeks or so. You have filled my mind; filled it to the brim, and I think you know it."

Philosopher as she was, Herminia plucked a blade of grass, and drew it quivering through her tremulous fingers. It caught and hesitated. "I guessed as much, I think," she answered, low but frankly.

The young man's heart gave a bound. "And you, Herminia?" he asked, in an eager ecstasy.

Herminia was true to the Truth. "I've thought a great deal about you too, Mr. Merrick," she answered, looking down, but with a great gladness thrilling her.

"I said 'Herminia,'" the young man repeated, with a marked stress on the Christian name.

Herminia hesitated a second. Then two crimson spots flared forth on her speaking face, as she answered with an effort, "About you too, Alan."

The young man drew back and gazed at her.

She was very, very beautiful. "Dare I ask you, Herminia?" he cried. "Have I a right to ask you? Am I worthy of you, I mean? Ought I to retire as not your peer, and leave you to some man who could rise more easily to the height of your dignity?"

"I've thought about that too," Herminia answered, still firm to her principles. "I've thought it all over. I've said to myself, Shall I do right in monopolizing him, when he is so great, and sweet, and true, and generous? Not monopolizing, of course, for that would be wrong and selfish; but making you my own more than any other woman's. And I answered my own heart, Yes, yes, I shall do right to accept him, if he asks me; for I love him, that is enough. The thrill within me tells me so. Nature put that thrill in our souls to cry out to us with a clear voice when we had met the soul she then and there intended for us."

Alan's face flushed like her own. "Then you love me," he cried, all on fire. "And you deign to tell me so; Oh, Herminia, how sweet you are. What have I done to deserve it?"

He folded her in his arms. Her bosom throbbed on his. Their lips met for a second. Herminia took his kiss with sweet submission, and made no faint pretence of fighting against it. Her heart was full. She quickened to the finger-tips.

There was silence for a minute or two,--the silence when soul speaks direct to soul through the vehicle of touch, the mother-tongue of the affections. Then Alan leaned back once more, and hanging over her in a rapture murmured in soft low tones, "So Herminia, you will be mine! You say beforehand you will take me."

"Not will be yours," Herminia corrected in that silvery voice of hers. "am yours already, Alan. I somehow feel as if I had always been yours. I am yours this moment. You may do what you would with me."

She said it so simply, so purely, so naturally, with all the supreme faith of the good woman, enamoured, who can yield herself up without blame to the man who loves her, that it hardly even occurred to Alan's mind to wonder at her self-surrender. Yet he drew back all the same in a sudden little crisis of doubt and uncertainty. He scarcely realized what she meant. "Then, dearest," he cried tentatively, "how soon may we be married?"

At sound of those unexpected words from such lips as his, a flush of shame and horror overspread Herminia's cheek. "Never!" she cried firmly, drawing away. "Oh, Alan, what can you mean by it? Don't tell me, after all I've tried to make you feel and understand, you thought I could possibly consent to marry you?"

The man gazed at her in surprise. Though he was prepared for much, he was scarcely prepared for such devotion to principle. "Oh, Herminia," he cried, "you can't mean it. You can't have thought of what it entails. Surely, surely, you won't carry your ideas of freedom to such an extreme, such a dangerous conclusion!"

Herminia looked up at him, half hurt. "Can't have thought of what it entails!" she repeated. Her dimples deepened. "Why, Alan, haven't I had my whole lifetime to think of it? What else have I thought about in any serious way, save this one great question of a woman's duty to herself, and her sex, and her unborn children? It's been my sole study. How could you fancy I spoke hastily, or without due consideration on such a subject? Would you have me like the blind girls who go unknowing to the altar, as sheep go to the shambles? Could you suspect me of such carelessness?--such culpable thoughtlessness?--you, to whom I have spoken of all this so freely?"

Alan stared at her, disconcerted, hardly knowing how to answer. "But what alternative do you propose, then?" he asked in his amazement.

"Propose?" Herminia repeated, taken aback in her turn. It all seemed to her so plain, and transparent, and natural. "Why, simply that we should be friends, like any others, very dear, dear friends, with the only kind of friendship that nature makes possible between men and women."

She said it so softly, with some womanly gentleness, yet with such lofty candor, that Alan couldn't help admiring her more than ever before for her translucent simplicity, and directness of purpose. Yet her suggestion frightened him. It was so much more novel to him than to her. Herminia had reasoned it all out with herself, as she truly said, for years, and knew exactly how she felt and thought about it. To Alan, on the contrary, it came with the shock of a sudden surprise, and he could hardly tell on the spur of the moment how to deal with it. He paused and reflected. "But do you mean to say, Herminia," he asked, still holding that soft brown hand unresisted in his, "you've made up your mind never to marry any one? made up your mind to brave the whole mad world, that can't possibly understand the motives of your conduct, and live with some friend, as you put it, unmarried?"

"Yes, I've made up my mind," Herminia answered, with a faint tremor in her maidenly voice, but with hardly a trace now of a traitorous blush, where no blush was needed. "I've made up my mind, Alan; and from all we had said and talked over together, I thought you at least would sympathize in my resolve."

She spoke with a gentle tinge of regret, nay almost of disillusion. The bare suggestion of that regret stung Alan to the quick. He felt it was shame to him that he could not rise at once to the height of her splendid self-renunciation. "You mistake me, dearest," he answered, petting her hand in his own (and she allowed him to pet it). "It wasn't for myself, or for the world I hesitated. My thought was for you. You are very young yet. You say you have counted the cost. I wonder if you have. I wonder if you realize it."

"Only too well," Herminia replied, in a very earnest mood. "I have wrought it all out in my mind beforehand,--covenanted with my soul that for women's sake I would be a free woman. Alan, whoever would be free must himself strike the blow. I know what you will say,-- what every man would say to the woman he loved under similar circumstances,--'Why should you be the victim? Why should you be the martyr? Bask in the sun yourself; leave this doom to some other.' But, Alan, I can't. I feel I must face it. Unless one woman begins, there will be no beginning." She lifted his hand in her own, and fondled it in her turn with caressing tenderness. "Think how easy it would be for me, dear friend," she cried, with a catch in her voice, "to do as other women do; to accept the honorable marriage you offer me, as other women would call it; to be false to my sex, a traitor to my convictions; to sell my kind for a mess of pottage, a name and a home, or even for thirty pieces of silver, to be some rich man's wife, as other women have sold it. But, Alan, I can't. My conscience won't let me. I know what marriage is, from what vile slavery it has sprung; on what unseen horrors for my sister women it is reared and buttressed; by what unholy sacrifices it is sustained, and made possible. I know it has a history, I know its past, I know its present, and I can't embrace it; I can't be untrue to my most sacred beliefs. I can't pander to the malignant thing, just because a man who loves me would be pleased by my giving way and would kiss me, and fondle me for it. And I love you to fondle me. But I must keep my proper place, the freedom which I have gained for myself by such arduous efforts. I have said to you already, 'So far as my will goes, I am yours; take me, and do as you choose with me.' That much I can yield, as every good woman should yield it, to the man she loves, to the man who loves her. But more than that, no. It would be treason to my sex; not my life, not my future, not my individuality, not my freedom."

"I wouldn't ask you for those," Alan answered, carried away by the torrent flood of her passionate speech. "I would wish you to guard them. But, Herminia, just as a matter of form,--to prevent the world from saying the cruel things the world is sure to say,--and as an act of justice to you, and your children! A mere ceremony of marriage; what more does it mean now-a-days than that we two agree to live together on the ordinary terms of civilized society?"

Still Herminia shook her head. "No, no," she cried vehemently. "I deny and decline those terms; they are part and parcel of a system of slavery. I have learnt that the righteous soul should avoid all appearance of evil. I will not palter and parley with the unholy thing. Even though you go to a registry-office and get rid as far as you can of every relic of the sacerdotal and sacramental idea, yet the marriage itself is still an assertion of man's supremacy over woman. It ties her to him for life, it ignores her individuality, it compels her to promise what no human heart can be sure of performing; for you can contract to do or not to do, easily enough, but contract to feel or not to feel,--what transparent absurdity! It is full of all evils, and I decline to consider it. If I love a man at all, I must love him on terms of perfect freedom. I can't bind myself down to live with him to my shame one day longer than I love him; or to love him at all if I find him unworthy of my purest love, or unable to retain it; or if I discover some other more fit to be loved by me. You admitted the other day that all this was abstractly true; why should you wish this morning to draw back from following it out to its end in practice?"

Alan was only an Englishman, and shared, of course, the inability of his countrymen to carry any principle to its logical conclusion. He was all for admitting that though things must really be so, yet it were prudent in life to pretend they were otherwise. This is the well-known English virtue of moderation and compromise; it has made England what she is, the shabbiest, sordidest, worst-organized of nations. So he paused for a second and temporized. "It's for your sake, Herminia," he said again; "I can't bear to think of your making yourself a martyr. And I don't see how, if you act as you propose, you could escape martyrdom."

Herminia looked up at him with pleading eyes. Tears just trembled on the edge of those glistening lashes. "It never occurred to me to think," she said gently but bravely, "my life could ever end in anything else but martyrdom. It must needs be so with all true lives, and all good ones. For whoever sees the truth, whoever strives earnestly with all his soul to be good, must be raised many planes above the common mass of men around him; he must be a moral pioneer, and the moral pioneer is always a martyr. People won't allow others to be wiser and better than themselves, unpunished. They can forgive anything except moral superiority. We have each to choose between acquiescence in the wrong, with a life of ease, and struggle for the right, crowned at last by inevitable failure. To succeed is to fail, and failure is the only success worth aiming at. Every great and good life can but end in a Calvary."

"And I want to save you from that," Alan cried, leaning over her with real tenderness, for she was already very dear to him. "I want to save you from yourself; I want to make you think twice before you rush headlong into such a danger."

"Not to save me from myself, but to save me from my own higher and better nature," Herminia answered with passionate seriousness. "Alan, I don't want any man to save me from that; I want you rather to help me, to strengthen me, to sympathize with me. I want you to love me, not for my face and form alone, not for what I share with every other woman, but for all that is holiest and deepest within me. If you can't love me for that, I don't ask you to love me; I want to be loved for what I am in myself, for the yearnings I possess that are most of all peculiar to me. I know you are attracted to me by those yearnings above everything; why wish me untrue to them? It was because I saw you could sympathize with me in these impulses that I said to myself, Here, at last, is the man who can go through life as an aid and a spur to me. Don't tell me I was mistaken; don't belie my belief. Be what I thought you were, what I know you are. Work with me, and help me. Lift me! raise me! exalt me! Take me on the sole terms on which I can give myself up to you."

She stretched her arms out, pleading; she turned those subtle eyes to him, appealingly. She was a beautiful woman. Alan Merrick was human. The man in him gave way; he seized her in his clasp, and pressed her close to his bosom. It heaved tumultuously. "I could do anything for you, Herminia," he cried, "and indeed, I do sympathize with you. But give me, at least, till to-morrow to think this thing over. It is a momentous question; don't let us be precipitate."

Herminia drew a long breath. His embrace thrilled through her. "As you will," she answered with a woman's meekness. "But remember, Alan, what I say I mean; on these terms it shall be, and upon none others. Brave women before me have tried for awhile to act on their own responsibility, for the good of their sex; but never of their own free will from the very beginning. They have avoided marriage, not because they thought it a shame and a surrender, a treason to their sex, a base yielding to the unjust pretensions of men, but because there existed at the time some obstacle in their way in the shape of the vested interest of some other woman. When Mary Godwin chose to mate herself with Shelley, she took her good name in her hands; but still there was Harriet. As soon as Harriet was dead, Mary showed she had no deep principle of action involved, by marrying Shelley. When George Eliot chose to pass her life with Lewes on terms of equal freedom, she defied the man-made law; but still, there was his wife to prevent the possibility of a legalized union. As soon as Lewes was dead, George Eliot showed she had no principle involved, by marrying another man. Now, I have the rare chance of acting otherwise; I can show the world from the very first that I act from principle, and from principle only. I can say to it in effect, 'See, here is the man of my choice, the man I love, truly, and purely, the man any one of you would willingly have seen offering himself in lawful marriage to your own daughters. If I would, I might go the beaten way you prescribe, and marry him legally. But of my own free will I disdain that degradation; I choose rather to be free. No fear of your scorn, no dread of your bigotry, no shrinking at your cruelty, shall prevent me from following the thorny path I know to be the right one. I seek no temporal end. I will not prove false to the future of my kind in order to protect myself from your hateful indignities. I know on what vile foundations your temple of wedlock is based and built, what pitiable victims languish and die in its sickening vaults; and I will not consent to enter it. Here, of my own free will, I take my stand for the right, and refuse your sanctions! No woman that I know of has ever yet done that. Other women have fallen, as men choose to put it in their odious dialect; no other has voluntarily risen as I propose to do.'" She paused a moment for breath. "Now you know how I feel," she continued, looking straight into his eyes. "Say no more at present; it is wisest so. But go home and think it out, and talk it over with me tomorrow."