previous
next



  ― 338 ―

18. CHAPTER XVIII.

Moonbeams.

note

The next day, as Isabel was leaving the garden by a gate which led to a certain favourite walk through the bush to a creek called there a river, she was hailed by some one on the bush side, and looking up, saw Dr. Mornay with his leather pouch slung on his shoulder, evidently on a botanical expedition, to which science he was much addicted. He bowed in his most courteous way, throwing a certain dignity into his greeting, which answered the purpose he intended, by putting her more at her ease.

‘Any new specimens?’ she asked, gaily.

Whereupon he opened his pouch, and from the book drew forth his spoils, at the same time giving a learned yet interesting account of each.

‘I wish I could induce you to enter into this pursuit,’ he said. ‘You would find it invaluable as a resource, giving an interest to every walk.’

‘I have already begun to notice and even gather the flowers,’ she answered. Then adding with a smile, ‘It was impossible to avoid catching the infection.’

He looked gratified.

‘I wish that I might believe my influence strong enough for that or for any other thing.’

‘But it was from you I learnt the taste.’

‘Or rather, being at a loss for an occupation just to fill up time, you have been led to try it, and I am delighted to find that it is so. Natural history has been to me a great gain, taking the place of the recreation


  ― 339 ―
others find in channels which are forbidden to me.’

‘And you really confess that you need relaxation and unbending from your calling? Yet I fancied it was all in all to you, leaving no blank.’

‘Well, and it has, I may say, filled me—led me on for years,’ he said, warmly. ‘Yes, it is a glorious, a high destiny! When one has passed the first difficulties, it opens a wide field to a man—power, influence, authority! In what other situation can a man attain so much?’

‘And I heard it said that Dr. Mornay's ambition was to be fully realized, that the highest honours awaited him in his profession. But—is it true,’ she added, breaking off abruptly into another tone, ‘is it true that you are going away?’

‘I am ordered to go to Rome. Yes; I have received flattering letters bidding me appear there as soon as I can.’

There was a tone of regret which surprised her, and looking up, she found his eyes bent on the ground.

‘Then it is true?’ Isabel rejoined.

‘What?’

And he searched her face with his powerful eyes. But even while he looked, his expression changed. Some feeling seemed to rise which softened while it troubled him. He withdrew his gaze with a sigh.

‘And your sister,’ Isabel ventured to say with hesitation. ‘She will, of course, hear and rejoice in your success and honour?’

He scarcely seemed to hear her. He was walking faster, and seemed disturbed.

‘Yes,’ he said, presently; ‘it is true I might attain to distinction and power; what I have toiled for, I have at least attained. Strange! that now it is offered—within my very reach—it seems to have lost its value. Strange state of things!’

And, most unusual for him, he was for a short time lost in thought, and walked on by her side as if unconscious of her presence, far less of her words. But Isabel did not mind it; she thought it was quite in character with his habits of deep and lonely thought, and all the great subjects which doubtless occupied him. She even hoped he had not heard her remark about his sister. She gave her attention to the plants growing near her, and stooped to gather some pretty blossom, hoping to leave him quite at ease. They were the lovely fringed violets which she gathered—so delicate in form, so brilliant and soft in tint. She examined them closely and with pleasure, and then arranged them with a spray of the correa. On looking up, she found his eyes again bent on her.

‘Does it ever strike you,’ he said, in a quiet, and almost mournful tone, ‘the analogy between plants and life? It may be fanciful, but it is at least


  ― 340 ―
a pleasant idea to trace it. This correa, now, with its stiff stem and prickly hard leaves, bearing so exquisite and delicate a blossom; so very fragile, it seems to be, among the hard prickles, yet it . . . .’

‘But I am too matter-of-fact to have a scrap of fancy,’ Isabel returned, laughing. ‘If I thought anything at all beyond the fact that these orange bells look well beside the violets, it would be to pity the poor little weak thing for being among such hard prickles.’

He smiled.

‘Yet the very contrast is touching; and perhaps the prickles and the stiff stem protect the fairy-like flowers better than more pliant, and softer companions would.’

Again he seemed to sigh; and Isabel fancying him in rather low spirits, felt afraid to begin on any subject.

‘I should like you to see, just to see my sister,’ he presently half whispered.

‘Why a stress on ‘just to see’?’

‘Because I don't know that I should care for you to be much with her. She is almost a saint—a devoted daughter of the Church.’

‘And would of course disdain me as a heretic?’

‘Or lead you, through admiration of her saintly character, to think as she does,’ he said, gently.

‘Well! and I should have fancied that would be just what you would wish and desire. In fact, Dr. Mornay, I never do quite understand it, pleasant and convenient as it is, how you manage to like us Protestants, and don't even try to convert us. How is it?’

‘For one thing, had I commenced in that way, your doors would have been shut against me. I have lived long enough to know how ill-judged haste is. Yet, pray don't imagine from this, I am keeping in reserve, and mean suddenly to show my teeth;’ and he smiled rather sadly. ‘It strikes me as strange myself, that in my intercourse with you, the thought once so prominent and powerful, seems to have faded. I have not, after the very first, thought of even wishing it were so, far less of converting you; rather—on the contrary, I mean——’

He stopped short in evident confusion; and she answered, in a joking way,

‘You don't mean that you think of coming round to us?’

‘No! no! Yet—I will own—yes, Isabel (mind, I am saying what I would not hint at to another soul—scarcely allow to myself—except in confession) my intercourse with you—my great, intense pleasure—has cost me much severe sorrow and penance. You little think what it needs to—to—keep oneself in order. And how it is, I don't know, but just


  ― 341 ―
lately, regrets, old feelings and associations, seem to have received new life. My sister—the old home—my boyhood—all has, as it were, risen from the grave, and haunted me. Doubtless—for my good! In order to strengthen the weaker parts ere the day of reward. I mean, when I may, by God's mercy, be called to a higher post.’

‘Do you mean,’ she said, in her straightforward way, after looking at him, ‘that because of your friendly visits to us, you have had to do penance?’

‘I do;’ and he smiled. ‘Yes; severe penance.’

‘Then why come? Why do what you think wrong or dangerous? I am sure we should—mamma, would be sorry enough to bring this on you.’

‘Thank you,’ he said, rather coldly. ‘I dare say you could well and easily spare me. As to what I foolishly said just now—pray think no more about it; above all, say nothing to others. It lies between me and God. Human flesh is weak and faulty to the end. It is a gain and a relief to know that penance will avail to blot out our infirmities. I was led on to open my heart to you—as I often am, I know not why or how. You will not betray me—my weakness—will you?’

‘You know I will not! of course not. But how can you suppose that torturing yourself is of any use? And, really if your visits to us cause it, I cannot wish that——’

‘They will not be for long,’ he interrupted. ‘Very soon I go from this—may be for ever! Don't grudge me the last lingering look on all—all those feelings and ties, from which I may soon be more than ever cut off. Long fasts and deep penitence will wipe out their memory afterwards, no fear! Perhaps this strange impulse, this looking back—this . . . . Perhaps it may be sent to try—to prove me;—a little indulgence is sometimes graciously permitted. I crave your kindness, Isabel Lang, for the short time left me here.’

‘We shall all be glad, I am sure, to do anything for your comfort,’ she answered readily, and moved to pity and feel for him by his sad and mournful manner. Even Isabel's simple and single heart was not proof against the charm—that this much talked-of and highly considered priest, usually so impenetrable in his bland courteousness—should bend to open his inner heart to her, and to her alone.

‘You have been a very kind friend, Dr. Mornay—in a time of need, too—when—when there were but few,’ she said with a husky voice.

‘You are very good to say so. But—when you say this, do you mean yourself? For it is your kindness and your sympathy I crave—yours, as distinct from the others—from all—the world,’ he added; the last two words in so low a whisper that Isabel did not hear it.




  ― 342 ―

They had reached the creek now, and after admiring the graceful growth of the water-loving shrubs, and listening for the bell-bird's note, Dr. Mornay said he must cross the river, being bound for a distant farm. He knew she did not mind the walk back alone. If he could, he should come in the evening, and bring her a book he had ready prepared for specimens of dried flowers. He was anxious to make a botanist of her before he left.

She answered that they should be glad to see him, and with a friendly nod, responded to by a long and grave look, rather than a bow, Isabel turned back, and, walking fast, was soon through the bush, her active nature longing for a little commonplace home talk, after the strange, rather sad, and, to her, incomprehensible conversation of Dr. Mornay.

Finding her mother in the garden, they had a discussion as to which crop would be most profitable; then Isabel adjourned to the stock-yard, where she refreshed herself by a survey of the calves and a chat with Charlie Brand. From one thing to another she lingered on till summoned to tea, surprised to find it quite half-an-hour later than usual, and her mother doing the honours to Dr. Mornay, having added several small luxuries to their usual fare, in expectation of his visit. Isabel peeped in, and with due dismay, at finding how she had forgotten time, she promised not to be long, and ran away to take off her walking things. While doing so, the remembrance of Dr. Mornay's face, unusually pale, and very hollow, struck her.

‘I see now, how much thinner he is. Fancy his fasting, and all that! Well! I suppose he is very earnest and good, poor man. He has great courage and self-denial, for he is one who evidently values all he has to renounce. I suspect there is many a battle between spirit and flesh there. I hope he wont kill himself! But really now I think of it, he is looking sadly.’

Full of this, she returned prepared to be very cordial and kind, and to allow the ‘poor man’ at least a little pleasure, if he thought it such.

Apparently he had thrown off the gravity which had oppressed her. He talked pleasantly and chattily of various things, making Mrs. Lang quite merry, and sorry when he rose, saying he must go. He shook hands all round, even with Isabel, who generally confined herself to a nod.

They thought him on his way home, and Mrs. Lang was speaking of him in terms of praise, when he returned, saying that really the moonshine was so very beautiful, and the air so soft and balmy, it was a pity not to enjoy it. Wouldn't they put on shawls and come as far as the gate? It was a pity to shut out such silvery calm radiance; it would ensure them good dreams and sweet sleep. He spoke to Mrs. Lang, but


  ― 343 ―
his eye sought Isabel.

The idea of rheumatism made Mrs. Lang shrink from going beyond the door, but she added, ‘Issy never catches cold, she can go! She is such an admirer of moonlight too. Ah! how poor darling Kate used to joke you, don't you remember? and compare you with Mr. Herbert. Kate never cared very much for it, I think.’

‘O yes, mamma, she did. It is lightning you are thinking of. Moonlight is too sentimental and uncertain for me. I prefer broad daylight, much. You see, those mysterious shadows, that undefined outline, except just under the white light which is so very cold—is not after my taste. Give me everything open and clear, warm, true, and decided.’

‘Yet keep a little corner for moonlight—such light as this is,’ Dr. Mornay said, turning and gazing upwards, as he stood at the door. ‘Not only the moon, but the planets, the constellations, and those wondrous nebul' which to-night look like innumerable silver threads. And I want you to see the effect of the deep shadow and bright light on the hill where your man's hut stands. The very oxen, as they lie about, chewing the cud, take a new form; and the clumps of scarlet geranium look quite singularly lovely. You are not afraid of cold, I know. Let me beg you to come! You may prefer sunshine after all, if you like it.’

‘Go, Issy. Don't keep Dr. Mornay standing! Don't be so perverse, child,’ said her mother.

Isabel caught up a little shawl which lay on a side table, and hastily throwing it over her head, she passed rather brusquely by Dr. Mornay, and went out to the far end of the deep verandah. But there she stopped short.

‘Yes, it is very bright. ‘The daylight sick;’note and what a noise those frogs are making! Quite melodious you think, I dare say. But to me it is only croaking, though it is all in honour of the moon, I dare say. How many sheets of paper have you wasted in trying to adore her ladyship, and what epithets did you use? I should like to hear some new way of praising it.’

So she rattled on, without waiting for an answer.

‘You don't see it here. A little further on—do come!’

‘No, I don't wish to be mad. Moonbeams affect the brain, you know. But you'll have nice light for walking home. That troublesome dog, old ‘Noble,’ will be be disturbing mamma all night. Don't you hear him! Silly fellow, baying at the moon. How the little opossums will be out to-night; ah! there goes a gun. Poor little things, some one is slaughtering them. How many bad and cruel deeds has the moon seen, even more than the sun—perhaps that is what makes her pale.’




  ― 344 ―

‘Yes, that idea is expressed very well by some author, though at this moment I don't recollect who.’

‘Indeed! Yet I never read it; so I was not stealing, if it turns out a clever idea.’

‘No one knowing you could suppose such a thing. No wonder that you like all clear and bright things, and have so little patience for anything doubtful or hidden. You are almost transparent yourself, and as clear as—as truth! I don't wish you to be less so by even the shadow of a shade. May you never be forced into subtle reserves, never haunted and oppressed by doubts and uncertainty, or by inability to discern light from darkness. Yet—yet—the very angels are said to have compassion—to look down from their pure and lofty heights with pity and compassion on mortals obliged to wear a veil. Thus much I would ask from you . . . .’

‘But I am no angel, and never profess to be one,’ she said, quickly.

‘An angel! No indeed! What is an angel? Intangible,—a dream—perhaps a myth. You are living and real. A woman—a woman . . . Come further here.’

And he even laid his hand on her arm to draw her out. His voice had fallen gradually in the more excited, more solemn tone which now and then came. She was unwilling to go on, and yet did not like to offend or hurt him by refusing altogether. She stopped again at the fence, however, and declared she would not go beyond.

‘Don't you feel such a scene carry you away far beyond the present—quite back to old times; and then again to some unknown future we have perhaps dreamt of in a confused way?’ he asked. ‘It seems to me so suggestive of peace and rest—work done. And if, as you say, so many dark deeds are done at such an hour, how many passages of love, how many sacred confidences and heroic resolves, have received inspiration, or rather consecration, from these unobtrusive rays—not quite dark, yet not quite light—tempting one on to utter thoughts which the glare of day and the very feeling of work to be done, sends back like a snail to its shell. One reposes now and feels! Every one, probably, has some particular moonlight night to look back upon as an era, when words were said or deeds done, which coloured his life for ever. Some under its influence have sworn a life's love and devotion, interchanging vows, and henceforth feeling not one—not alone—but mated! Others, less happy, choose their career; perhaps turn the long doubting scales, and in a moment of enthusiasm add the required weight, which makes them henceforth aliens from their kind—slaves—martyrs—ay, martyrs . . . laying down all of self—even to the very liberty of speech and look.


  ― 345 ―
And this total abnegation, this entire surrender of will, has at first its own stern charm. It points to an unknown future, and self-sacrifice is dear to an ardent, impassioned nature. He goes a willing victim—bound—laid on the altar. He works and toils and suffers. Brain, intellect, affections, temper, passions, taste, all are brought up and submitted to discipline, drilled, and ruthlessly cut down, except in as far as they are of use in the sacrifice . . . And then, this first elevation of mind passed, then there steps in ambition! To be first in the train, to be best and first to do and to suffer, to rule as he has been ruled, even the world; to mould men's fiercest passions as he chooses. Vast—infinite almost—seems this path—glorious and inspiring! Happy, happy for that man, if from such a dream he never awakes, if this phase is the last; except, indeed, that which in course of nature comes on all who live long enough to find that all is vanity,note yea, ‘all;’ and that all must die—be dust, and perish. But for some . . .’

He paused, his voice thrilling with the deep, constrained passion it betrayed; and glancing timidly in his face, Isabel saw the deep-set eyes glitter strangely, while the lips were quivering, and the broad forehead, whiter even than common in the moonlight, seemed to expand. She could not but listen and be still. His whole strength of will was bent on it, and such excess of urgency seldom fails for a time.

‘For some,’ he went on, ‘even this wont do! The highest, the most coveted and eagerly sought after prizes, all power, all authority, all praise, turns suddenly into apples of Sodomnote—dust and ashes—a mere sham and delusion. A man awakes to find himself burning with thirst, craving just that one—one drop of living waternote which has been put from him—consumed in the fire of the sacrifice—gone—gone! He gave it up. Like Esau,note he bartered it. And now—now—my God!—well—what is left for him? Hell! What is hell? Tell me, tell me, Isabel, you young, innocent girl, standing there in open surprise, wondering if I am mad or the Evil One himself! . . . . No, I am but a man—mortal, miserable! A man without a hope—without a tie—ay, almost without a faith!’

For a moment he bent his head and crossed his arms on his bosom, perhaps from long habit. Then lifting his head and looking at her, with dim eyes and features drawn as if by sudden and great effort to control agitation, ‘But you are thinking that I am a priest, one sworn to work in the fold of the only true and Catholic Church. A good and great work it is. Yet suppose—I say suppose—that I hate and rebel . . . O, Isabel!’

‘Dr. Mornay!’ she put in quickly. ‘Please don't say that! Do you know what you are saying, I wonder?’

Her clear, true-sounding voice was in strong contrast with his hurried,


  ― 346 ―
husky whisper. The very heat and strength of his passion made her doubly calm, as if it extinguished all feeling in her (a not uncommon occurrence to undemonstrative natures).

‘Forgive me!’ he said, ‘you are right—forgive! Yet—you cannot see—you cannot understand—a Protestant! what is it? to be free—free! free to—to—O, if you felt—if you knew!—but you are so cool, unconscious—Isabel! (with renewed energy) you must feel! Heat communicates heat!’ and he seized her hand, but dropped it almost immediately, and then in quite a different voice, subdued, courteous, and restrained, ‘You said that moonbeams affected the head or the brain. There is truth in every fable; certainly they strangely stir the heart. They always have—always had—a peculiar influence on me. Atmospheric influences have never been enough studied, I think,’ he added, drily, after a pause. ‘I fear,’ he said again, as she remained silent, ‘I fear I have been ranting unpardonably! It will not add to your liking for moonshine. Have I disturbed you?’ and now his voice went, as it were, with his words, and expressed a gentle, troubled regret. ‘Will you forget and forgive? Say you forgive me. Be kind—a little so! It will harm no one. I am a priest—yet—sometimes I can't help being only a man, and I go back to old times—to home—to a sister. Is it so very sinful, that I should feel a pang of loneliness, and crave for one word of true affection—one kind word!’

‘Sinful! Why should you suppose so?’ she said quickly, and resenting the hardness of his lot. ‘It is natural and right! O, I do think it is so wicked to forbid priests from marrying, if they wish it. Of course many must be wretchedly lonely, for it is not every one who is so very ambitious, or successful either.’ She spoke in her frank, impulsive way, all her innate Protestantism urging her to pity the man, and consider him the victim of system.

‘Ah! we wont enter on that discussion,’ he answered, with a little start, and even a look of alarm in his face. ‘Now I ought not to detain you against your will, I know. Good night! You do—you will forgive?’ he added, lingering and retaining her hand in both his.

‘Yes, quite,—if it is needed, entirely! Good-night! You shall have the sketch!’

‘Thanks.’ He murmured something besides which she could not catch, and then turned away. Soon he had passed out of the gate, which swung to, with a sharp click, and Isabel saw him go down the cedar avenue which led from the front of the cottage to the township or settlement; saying to herself, ‘Curious! I wonder if he meant himself all the time! I suppose so. Horrible, cruel system it is, too! And this is the


  ― 347 ―
great Dr. Mornay Mr. Farrant was speaking of as being so influential in his own Church, and one likely to arrive at the very highest distinctions; commanded to repair to Rome by the Pope himself, there to be fêted and honoured, and they say to receive a Cardinal's Hat, and to . . . Well, well! suppose, as Mr. Farrant said, he should be Pope himself some day, it would be curious to remember this walk and talk. At all events it assures me that Popes are just like all other men; a little cleverer, perhaps, instead of the indescribable and impossible beings my fancy has painted them.’

With these thoughts, half uttered aloud, according to a trick of hers, Isabel reached the parlour, and blinking and shading her eyes from the lamp-light, she answered her mother's queries, ‘Was Dr. Mornay gone? What had he talked of? What an agreeable man he was! so astonishing for a Roman Catholic priest, too!’ &c. &c. Mrs. Lang was somewhat fretful that night, and inclined to be offended at Isabel's inclination for silence or short answers. She accused her of being very rude and brusque to Dr. Mornay, at which Isabel laughed, and owned she was so sometimes; she didn't know why exactly, but a ‘feeling’ came over her, and she didn't always like his manner or his look. But she assured her mother they had made it up and parted good friends, and that she pitied him very much, too much to be annoyed at him, and then declared her intention of going to bed. Mrs. Lang answered that it was no use for her to do the like, for the dogs were making such a noise she could not sleep. She would write to ‘poor dear Kate.’

previous
next