Since I can do no good because a woman, Reach constantly at something that is near it. --The Maid's Tragedy: BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER.
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown intorelief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed thatshe could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which theBlessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well asher stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plaingarments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her theimpressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible,--or from one of ourelder poets,--in a paragraph of to-day's newspaper. She was usuallyspoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that hersister Celia had more common-sense. Nevertheless, Celia wore scarcelymore trimmings; and it was only to close observers that her dressdiffered from her sister's, and had a shade of coquetry in itsarrangements; for Miss Brooke's plain dressing was due to mixedconditions, in most of which her sister shared. The pride of beingladies had something to do with it: the Brooke connections, though notexactly aristocratic, were unquestionably good: if you inquiredbackward for a generation or two, you would not find any yard-measuringor parcel-tying forefathers--anything lower than an admiral or aclergyman; and there was even an ancestor discernible as a Puritangentleman who served under Cromwell, but afterwards conformed, andmanaged to come out of all political troubles as the proprietor of arespectable family estate. Young women of such birth, living in aquiet country-house, and attending a village church hardly larger thana parlor, naturally regarded frippery as the ambition of a huckster'sdaughter. Then there was well-bred economy, which in those days madeshow in dress the first item to be deducted from, when any margin wasrequired for expenses more distinctive of rank. Such reasons wouldhave been enough to account for plain dress, quite apart from religiousfeeling; but in Miss Brooke's case, religion alone would havedetermined it; and Celia mildly acquiesced in all her sister'ssentiments, only infusing them with that common-sense which is able toaccept momentous doctrines without any eccentric agitation. Dorotheaknew many passages of Pascal's Pensees and of Jeremy Taylor by heart;and to her the destinies of mankind, seen by the light of Christianity,made the solicitudes of feminine fashion appear an occupation forBedlam. She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual lifeinvolving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in gimp andartificial protrusions of drapery. Her mind was theoretic, and yearnedby its nature after some lofty conception of the world which mightfrankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there;she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracingwhatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom,to make retractations, and then to incur martyrdom after all in aquarter where she had not sought it. Certainly such elements in thecharacter of a marriageable girl tended to interfere with her lot, andhinder it from being decided according to custom, by good looks,vanity, and merely canine affection. With all this, she, the elder ofthe sisters, was not yet twenty, and they had both been educated, sincethey were about twelve years old and had lost their parents, on plansat once narrow and promiscuous, first in an English family andafterwards in a Swiss family at Lausanne, their bachelor uncle andguardian trying in this way to remedy the disadvantages of theirorphaned condition.
It was hardly a year since they had come to live at Tipton Grange withtheir uncle, a man nearly sixty, of acquiescent temper, miscellaneousopinions, and uncertain vote. He had travelled in his younger years,and was held in this part of the county to have contracted a toorambling habit of mind. Mr. Brooke's conclusions were as difficult topredict as the weather: it was only safe to say that he would act withbenevolent intentions, and that he would spend as little money aspossible in carrying them out. For the most glutinously indefiniteminds enclose some hard grains of habit; and a man has been seen laxabout all his own interests except the retention of his snuff-box,concerning which he was watchful, suspicious, and greedy of clutch.
In Mr. Brooke the hereditary strain of Puritan energy was clearly inabeyance; but in his niece Dorothea it glowed alike through faults andvirtues, turning sometimes into impatience of her uncle's talk or hisway of letting things be on his estate, and making her long all themore for the time when she would be of age and have some command ofmoney for generous schemes. She was regarded as an heiress; for notonly had the sisters seven hundred a-year each from their parents, butif Dorothea married and had a son, that son would inherit Mr. Brooke'sestate, presumably worth about three thousand a-year--a rental whichseemed wealth to provincial families, still discussing Mr. Peel's lateconduct on the Catholic question, innocent of future gold-fields, andof that gorgeous plutocracy which has so nobly exalted the necessitiesof genteel life.
And how should Dorothea not marry?--a girl so handsome and with suchprospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and herinsistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause awary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might leadher at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth andfortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sicklaborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in thetime of the Apostles--who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist,and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wifemight awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for theapplication of her income which would interfere with political economyand the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twicebefore he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected tohave weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domesticlife was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what theirneighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might knowand avoid them.
The rural opinion about the new young ladies, even among the cottagers,was generally in favor of Celia, as being so amiable andinnocent-looking, while Miss Brooke's large eyes seemed, like herreligion, too unusual and striking. Poor Dorothea! compared with her,the innocent-looking Celia was knowing and worldly-wise; so muchsubtler is a human mind than the outside tissues which make a sort ofblazonry or clock-face for it.
Yet those who approached Dorothea, though prejudiced against her bythis alarming hearsay, found that she had a charm unaccountablyreconcilable with it. Most men thought her bewitching when she was onhorseback. She loved the fresh air and the various aspects of thecountry, and when her eyes and cheeks glowed with mingled pleasure shelooked very little like a devotee. Riding was an indulgence which sheallowed herself in spite of conscientious qualms; she felt that sheenjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward torenouncing it.
She was open, ardent, and not in the least self-admiring; indeed, itwas pretty to see how her imagination adorned her sister Celia withattractions altogether superior to her own, and if any gentlemanappeared to come to the Grange from some other motive than that ofseeing Mr. Brooke, she concluded that he must be in love with Celia:Sir James Chettam, for example, whom she constantly considered fromCelia's point of view, inwardly debating whether it would be good forCelia to accept him. That he should be regarded as a suitor to herselfwould have seemed to her a ridiculous irrelevance. Dorothea, with allher eagerness to know the truths of life, retained very childlike ideasabout marriage. She felt sure that she would have accepted thejudicious Hooker, if she had been born in time to save him from thatwretched mistake he made in matrimony; or John Milton when hisblindness had come on; or any of the other great men whose odd habitsit would have been glorious piety to endure; but an amiable handsomebaronet, who said Exactly to her remarks even when she expresseduncertainty,--how could he affect her as a lover? The reallydelightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort offather, and could teach you even Hebrew, if you wished it.
These peculiarities of Dorothea's character caused Mr. Brooke to be allthe more blamed in neighboring families for not securing somemiddle-aged lady as guide and companion to his nieces. But he himselfdreaded so much the sort of superior woman likely to be available forsuch a position, that he allowed himself to be dissuaded by Dorothea'sobjections, and was in this case brave enough to defy the world--thatis to say, Mrs. Cadwallader the Rector's wife, and the small group ofgentry with whom he visited in the northeast corner of Loamshire. SoMiss Brooke presided in her uncle's household, and did not at alldislike her new authority, with the homage that belonged to it.
Sir James Chettam was going to dine at the Grange to-day with anothergentleman whom the girls had never seen, and about whom Dorothea feltsome venerating expectation. This was the Reverend Edward Casaubon,noted in the county as a man of profound learning, understood for manyyears to be engaged on a great work concerning religious history; alsoas a man of wealth enough to give lustre to his piety, and having viewsof his own which were to be more clearly ascertained on the publicationof his book. His very name carried an impressiveness hardly to bemeasured without a precise chronology of scholarship.
Early in the day Dorothea had returned from the infant school which shehad set going in the village, and was taking her usual place in thepretty sitting-room which divided the bedrooms of the sisters, bent onfinishing a plan for some buildings (a kind of work which she delightedin), when Celia, who had been watching her with a hesitating desire topropose something, said--
Dorothea, dear, if you don't mind--if you are not very busy--supposewe looked at mamma's jewels to-day, and divided them? It is exactlysix months to-day since uncle gave them to you, and you have not lookedat them yet.
Celia's face had the shadow of a pouting expression in it, the fullpresence of the pout being kept back by an habitual awe of Dorothea andprinciple; two associated facts which might show a mysteriouselectricity if you touched them incautiously. To her relief,Dorothea's eyes were full of laughter as she looked up.
What a wonderful little almanac you are, Celia! Is it six calendar orsix lunar months?
It is the last day of September now, and it was the first of Aprilwhen uncle gave them to you. You know, he said that he had forgottenthem till then. I believe you have never thought of them since youlocked them up in the cabinet here.
Well, dear, we should never wear them, you know. Dorothea spoke in afull cordial tone, half caressing, half explanatory. She had herpencil in her hand, and was making tiny side-plans on a margin.
Celia colored, and looked very grave. I think, dear, we are wantingin respect to mamma's memory, to put them by and take no notice ofthem. And, she added, after hesitating a little, with a rising sob ofmortification, necklaces are quite usual now; and Madame Poincon, whowas stricter in some things even than you are, used to wear ornaments.And Christians generally--surely there are women in heaven now who worejewels. Celia was conscious of some mental strength when she reallyapplied herself to argument.
You would like to wear them? exclaimed Dorothea, an air of astonisheddiscovery animating her whole person with a dramatic action which shehad caught from that very Madame Poincon who wore the ornaments. Ofcourse, then, let us have them out. Why did you not tell me before?But the keys, the keys! She pressed her hands against the sides of herhead and seemed to despair of her memory.
They are here, said Celia, with whom this explanation had been longmeditated and prearranged.
Pray open the large drawer of the cabinet and get out the jewel-box.
The casket was soon open before them, and the various jewels spreadout, making a bright parterre on the table. It was no greatcollection, but a few of the ornaments were really of remarkablebeauty, the finest that was obvious at first being a necklace of purpleamethysts set in exquisite gold work, and a pearl cross with fivebrilliants in it. Dorothea immediately took up the necklace andfastened it round her sister's neck, where it fitted almost as closelyas a bracelet; but the circle suited the Henrietta-Maria style ofCelia's head and neck, and she could see that it did, in the pier-glassopposite.
There, Celia! you can wear that with your Indian muslin. But thiscross you must wear with your dark dresses.
Celia was trying not to smile with pleasure. O Dodo, you must keepthe cross yourself.
No, no, dear, no, said Dorothea, putting up her hand with carelessdeprecation.
Yes, indeed you must; it would suit you--in your black dress, now,said Celia, insistingly. You _might_ wear that.
Not for the world, not for the world. A cross is the last thing Iwould wear as a trinket. Dorothea shuddered slightly.
Then you will think it wicked in me to wear it, said Celia, uneasily.
No, dear, no, said Dorothea, stroking her sister's cheek. Soulshave complexions too: what will suit one will not suit another.
But you might like to keep it for mamma's sake.
No, I have other things of mamma's--her sandal-wood box which I am sofond of--plenty of things. In fact, they are all yours, dear. We needdiscuss them no longer. There--take away your property.
Celia felt a little hurt. There was a strong assumption of superiorityin this Puritanic toleration, hardly less trying to the blond flesh ofan unenthusiastic sister than a Puritanic persecution.
But how can I wear ornaments if you, who are the elder sister, willnever wear them?
Nay, Celia, that is too much to ask, that I should wear trinkets tokeep you in countenance. If I were to put on such a necklace as that,I should feel as if I had been pirouetting. The world would go roundwith me, and I should not know how to walk.
Celia had unclasped the necklace and drawn it off. It would be alittle tight for your neck; something to lie down and hang would suityou better, she said, with some satisfaction. The complete unfitnessof the necklace from all points of view for Dorothea, made Celiahappier in taking it. She was opening some ring-boxes, which discloseda fine emerald with diamonds, and just then the sun passing beyond acloud sent a bright gleam over the table.
How very beautiful these gems are! said Dorothea, under a new currentof feeling, as sudden as the gleam. It is strange how deeply colorsseem to penetrate one, like scent. I suppose that is the reason whygems are used as spiritual emblems in the Revelation of St. John. Theylook like fragments of heaven. I think that emerald is more beautifulthan any of them.
And there is a bracelet to match it, said Celia. We did not noticethis at first.
They are lovely, said Dorothea, slipping the ring and bracelet on herfinely turned finger and wrist, and holding them towards the window ona level with her eyes. All the while her thought was trying to justifyher delight in the colors by merging them in her mystic religious joy.
You _would_ like those, Dorothea, said Celia, rather falteringly,beginning to think with wonder that her sister showed some weakness,and also that emeralds would suit her own complexion even better thanpurple amethysts. You must keep that ring and bracelet--if nothingelse. But see, these agates are very pretty and quiet.
Yes! I will keep these--this ring and bracelet, said Dorothea.Then, letting her hand fall on the table, she said in anothertone--Yet what miserable men find such things, and work at them, andsell them! She paused again, and Celia thought that her sister wasgoing to renounce the ornaments, as in consistency she ought to do.
Yes, dear, I will keep these, said Dorothea, decidedly. But takeall the rest away, and the casket.
She took up her pencil without removing the jewels, and still lookingat them. She thought of often having them by her, to feed her eye atthese little fountains of pure color.
Shall you wear them in company? said Celia, who was watching her withreal curiosity as to what she would do.
Dorothea glanced quickly at her sister. Across all her imaginativeadornment of those whom she loved, there darted now and then a keendiscernment, which was not without a scorching quality. If Miss Brookeever attained perfect meekness, it would not be for lack of inward fire.
Perhaps, she said, rather haughtily. I cannot tell to what level Imay sink.
Celia blushed, and was unhappy: she saw that she had offended hersister, and dared not say even anything pretty about the gift of theornaments which she put back into the box and carried away. Dorotheatoo was unhappy, as she went on with her plan-drawing, questioning thepurity of her own feeling and speech in the scene which had ended withthat little explosion.
Celia's consciousness told her that she had not been at all in thewrong: it was quite natural and justifiable that she should have askedthat question, and she repeated to herself that Dorothea wasinconsistent: either she should have taken her full share of thejewels, or, after what she had said, she should have renounced themaltogether.
I am sure--at least, I trust, thought Celia, that the wearing of anecklace will not interfere with my prayers. And I do not see that Ishould be bound by Dorothea's opinions now we are going into society,though of course she herself ought to be bound by them. But Dorotheais not always consistent.
Thus Celia, mutely bending over her tapestry, until she heard hersister calling her.
Here, Kitty, come and look at my plan; I shall think I am a greatarchitect, if I have not got incompatible stairs and fireplaces.
As Celia bent over the paper, Dorothea put her cheek against hersister's arm caressingly. Celia understood the action. Dorothea sawthat she had been in the wrong, and Celia pardoned her. Since theycould remember, there had been a mixture of criticism and awe in theattitude of Celia's mind towards her elder sister. The younger hadalways worn a yoke; but is there any yoked creature without its privateopinions?