The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XXXVII

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The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XXXVII
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XXXVII.

AN INNOCENT PLOT.

Florimel and Lady Clementina Thornicroft — the same who in the park rebuked Malcolm for his treatment of Kelpie — had met several times during the spring, and had been mutually attracted — Florimel as to a nature larger, more developed, more self-supporting than her own, and Lady Clementina as to one who, it was plain, stood in sore need of what countenance and encouragement to good and free action the friendship of one more experienced might afford her. Lady Clementina was but a few years older than Florimel, it is true, but had shown a courage which had already wrought her an unquestionable influence, and that chiefly with the best. The root of this courage was compassion. Her rare humanity of heart would, at the slightest appearance of injustice, drive her like an angel with a flaming sword against customs regarded, consciously or unconsciously, as the very buttresses of social distinction. Anything but a wise woman, she had yet so much in her of what is essential to all wisdom, love to her kind, that if as yet she had done little but blunder, she had at least blundered beautifully. On every society that had for its declared end the setting right of wrong or the alleviation of misery she lavished, and mostly wasted, her money. Every misery took to her the shape of a wrong. Hence to every mendicant that could trump up a plausible story she offered herself a willing prey. Even when the barest-faced imposition was brought home to one of the race parasitical, her first care was to find all possible excuse for his conduct: it was matter of pleasure to her friends when she stopped there and made no attempt at absolute justification.

Left like Florimel an orphan, but at a yet earlier age, she had been brought up with a care that had gone over into severity, against which her nature had revolted with an energy that gathered strength from her own repression of its signs; and when she came of age and took things into her own hands, she carried herself in its eyes so oddly, yet with such sweetness and dignity and consistency in her oddest extravagances, that society honored her even when it laughed at her, loved her, listened to her, applauded, approved — did everything except imitate her; which, indeed, was just as well, for else confusion would have been worse confounded. She was always rushing to defence — with money, with indignation, with refuge. It would look like a caricature did I record the number of charities to which she belonged, and the various societies which, in the exuberance of her passionate benevolence, she had projected and of necessity abandoned. Yet still the fire burned, for her changes were from no changeableness: through them all the fundamental operation of her character remained the same. The case was that, for all her headlong passion for deliverance, she could not help discovering now and then, through an occasional self-assertion of that real good sense which her rampant and unsubjected benevolence could but overlay, not finally smother, that she was either doing nothing at all or more evil than good.

The lack of discipline in her goodness came out in this, at times amusingly, that she would always at first side with the lower or weaker or worse. If a dog had torn a child and was going to be killed in consequence, she would not only intercede for the dog, but absolutely side with him, mentioning this and that provocation which the naughty child must have given him ere he could have been goaded to the deed. Once, when the schoolmaster in her village was going to cane a boy for cruelty to a cripple, she pleaded for his pardon on the ground that it was worse to be cruel than to be a cripple, and therefore more to be pitied. Everything painful was to her cruel, and softness and indulgence, moral honey and sugar and nuts to all alike, was the panacea for human ills. She could not understand that infliction might be loving-kindness. On one occasion, when a boy was caught in the act of picking her pocket, she told the policeman he was doing nothing of the sort — he was only searching for a lozenge for his terrible cough; and in proof of her asserted conviction she carried him home with her, but lost him before morning, as well as the spoon with which he had eaten his gruel.

As to her person, I have already made a poor attempt at describing it. She might have been grand but for loveliness. When she drew herself up in indignation, however, she would look grand for the one moment ere the blood rose to her cheek and the water to her eyes. She would have taken the whole world to her infinite heart and in unwisdom coddled it into corruption. Praised be the grandeur of the God who can endure to make and see his children suffer! Thanks be to him for his north winds and his poverty, and his bitterness that falls upon the spirit that errs! Let those who know him thus praise the Lord for his goodness. But Lady Clementina had not yet descried the face of the Son of man through the mists of Mount Sinai, and she was not one to justify the ways of God to men. Not the less was it the heart of God in her that drew her to the young marchioness, over whom was cast the shadow of a tree that gave but baneful shelter. She liked her frankness, her activity, her daring, and fancied that, like herself, she was at noble feud with that infernal parody of the kingdom of heaven called Society. She did not well understand her relation to Lady Bellair, concerning whom she was in doubt whether or not she was her legal guardian, but she saw plainly enough that the countess wanted to secure her for her nephew; and this nephew had about him a certain air of perdition, which even the catholic heart of Lady Clementina could not brook. She saw too, that, being a mere girl, and having no scope of choice in the limited circle of their visitors, she was in great danger of yielding without a struggle, and she longed to take her in charge like a poor little persecuted kitten for the possession of which each of a family of children was contending. What if her father had belonged to a rowdy set, was that any reason why his innocent daughter should be devoured, body and soul and possessions, by those of the same set who had not yet perished in their sins? Lady Clementina thanked Heaven that she came herself of decent people, who paid their debts, dared acknowledge themselves in the wrong, and were as honest as if they had been born peasants; and she hoped a shred of the mantle of their good name had dropped upon her, big enough to cover also this poor little thing who had come of no such parentage. With her passion for redemption, therefore, she seized every chance of improving her acquaintance with Florimel; and it was her anxiety to gain such a standing in her favor as might further her coveted ministration that had prevented her from bringing her charge of brutality against Malcolm as soon as she discovered whose groom he was: when she had secured her footing on the peak of her friendship she would unburden her soul; and meantime the horse must suffer for his mistress — a conclusion in itself a great step in advance, for it went dead against one of her most confidently-argued principles — namely, that the pain of any animal is, in every sense, of just as much consequence as the pain of any other, human or inferior: pain is pain, she said, and equal pains are equal wherever they sting; in which she would have been right, I think, if pain and suffering were the same thing; but, knowing well that the same degree, and even the same kind of pain, means two very different things in the foot and in the head, I refuse the proposition.

Happily for Florimel, she had by this time made progress enough to venture a proposal — namely, that she should accompany her to a small estate she had on the south coast, with a little ancient house upon it — a strange place altogether, she said — to spend a week or two in absolute quiet; only she must come alone — without even a maid: she would take none herself. This she said because, with the instinct, if not quite insight, of a true nature, she could not endure the woman Caley.

"Will you come with me there for a fortnight?" she concluded.

"I shall be delighted," returned Florimel without a moment's hesitation. "I am getting quite sick of London. There's no room in it. And there's the spring all outside, and can't get in here. I shall be only too glad to go with you, you dear creature!"

"And on those hard terms — no maid, you know? " insisted Clementina.

"The only thing wanted to make the pleasure complete: I shall be charmed to be rid of her."

"I am glad to see you so independent."

"You don't imagine me such a baby as not to be able to get on without a maid? You should have seen me in Scotland! I hated having a woman about me then. And indeed I don't like it a bit better now; only everybody has one, and your clothes want looking after," added Florimel, thinking what a weight it would be off her if she could get rid of Caley altogether.

"But I should like to take my horse," she said: "I don't know what I should do in the country without Abbot."

"Of course: we must have our horses," returned Clementina. "And — yes — you had better bring your groom."

"Please. You will find him very useful. He can do anything and everything, and is so kind and helpful"

"Except to his horse," Clementina was on the point of saying, but thought again she would first secure the mistress, and bide her time to attack the man.

Before they parted the two ladies had talked themselves into ecstasies over the anticipated enjoyments of their scheme. It must be carried out at once.

"Let us tell nobody," said Lady Clementina, "and set off to-morrow."

"Enchanting!" cried Florimel in full response.

Then her brow clouded. "There is one difficulty, though," she said. "No man could ride Kelpie with a led horse; and if we had to employ another, Liftore would be sure to hear where we had gone."

"That would spoil all," said Clementina. "But how much better it would be to give that poor creature a rest, and bring the other I see him on sometimes!"

"And by the time we came back there would not be a living creature, horse or man, anything bigger than a rat, about the stable. Kelpie herself would be dead of hunger, if she hadn't been shot. No, no; where Malcolm goes Kelpie must go. Besides, she's such fun — you can't think."

"Then I'll tell you what," cried Clementina after a moment's pause of perplexity: "we'll ride down. It's not a hundred miles, and we can take as many days on the road as we please."

"Better and better!" cried Florimel.

"Well run away with each other. But what will dear old Bellair say?"

"Never mind her," rejoined Clementina. "She will have nothing to say. You can write and tell her as much as will keep her from being really alarmed. Order your man to get everything ready, and I will instruct mine. He is such a staid old fellow, you know, he will be quite enough for protection. To-morrow mornning we will set out together for a ride in Richmond Park, that lying in our way. You can leave a letter on the breakfast-table, saying you are gone with me for a little quiet. You're not in chancery, are you?"

"I don't know," answered Florimel.

"I suppose I'm all right. Anyhow, whether I am in chancery or not, here I am, and going with you; and if chancery don't like it, chancery may come and fetch me."

"Send anything you think you may want to my house. I shall get a box ready, and we will write from some town on our way to have it sent there, and then we can write for it from The Gloom. We shall find all mere necessaries there."

So the thing was arranged: they would start quite early the next morning; and that there might be no trouble in the streets, Malcolm should go before with Kelpie and await them in the park.