On a spur of the Sussex Downs, inland from Nettle-Cold, there stands
a beech-grove. The traveller who enters it out of the heat and
brightness, takes off the shoes of his spirit before its, sanctity;
and, reaching the centre, across the clean beech-mat, he sits
refreshing his brow with air, and silence. For the flowers of
sunlight on the ground under those branches are pale and rare, no
insects hum, the birds are almost mute. And close to the border
trees are the quiet, milk-white sheep, in congregation, escaping from
noon heat. Here, above fields and dwellings, above the ceaseless
network of men's doings, and the vapour of their talk, the traveller
feels solemnity. All seems conveying divinity--the great white
clouds moving their wings above him, the faint longing murmur of the
boughs, and in far distance, the sea.... And for a space his
restlessness and fear know the peace of God.
So it was with Miltoun when he reached this temple, three days after
that passionate night, having walked for hours, alone and full of
conflict. During those three days he had been borne forward on the
flood tide; and now, tearing himself out of London, where to think
was impossible, he had come to the solitude of the Downs to walk, and
face his new position.
For that position he saw to be very serious. In the flush of full
realization, there was for him no question of renunciation. She was
his, he hers; that was determined. But what, then, was he to do?
There was no chance of her getting free. In her husband's view, it
seemed, under no circumstances was marriage dissoluble. Nor, indeed,
to Miltoun would divorce have made things easier, believing as he did
that he and she were guilty, and that for the guilty there could be
no marriage. She, it was true, asked nothing but just to be his in
secret; and that was the course he knew most men would take, without
further thought. There was no material reason in the world why he
should not so act, and maintain unchanged every other current of his
life. It would be easy, usual. And, with her faculty for self-
effacement, he knew she would not be unhappy. But conscience, in
Miltoun, was a terrible and fierce thing. In the delirium of his
illness it had become that Great Face which had marched over him.
And, though during the weeks of his recuperation, struggle of all
kind had ceased, now that he had yielded to his passion, conscience,
in a new and dismal shape, had crept up again to sit above his heart:
He must and would let this man, her husband, know; but even if that
caused no open scandal, could he go on deceiving those who, if they
knew of an illicit love, would no longer allow him to be their
representative? If it were known that she was his mistress, he could
no longer maintain his position in public life--was he not therefore
in honour bound; of his own accord, to resign it? Night and day he
was haunted by the thought: How can I, living in defiance of
authority, pretend to authority over my fellows? How can I remain in
public life? But if he did not remain in public life, what was he to
do? That way of life was in his blood; he had been bred and born
into it; had thought of nothing else since he was a boy. There was
no other occupation or interest that could hold him for a moment--he
saw very plainly that he would be cast away on the waters of
So the battle raged in his proud and twisted spirit, which took
everything so hard--his nature imperatively commanding him to keep
his work and his power for usefulness; his conscience telling him as
urgently that if he sought to wield authority, he must obey it.
He entered the beech-grove at the height of this misery, flaming with
rebellion against the dilemma which Fate had placed before him;
visited by gusts of resentment against a passion, which forced him to
pay the price, either of his career, or of his self-respect; gusts,
followed by remorse that he could so for one moment regret his love
for that tender creature. The face of Lucifer was not more dark,
more tortured, than Miltoun's face in the twilight of the grove,
above those kingdoms of the world, for which his ambition and his
conscience fought. He threw himself down among the trees; and
stretching out his arms, by chance touched a beetle trying to crawl
over the grassless soil. Some bird had maimed it. He took the
little creature up. The beetle truly could no longer work, but it
was spared the fate lying before himself. The beetle was not, as he
would be, when his power of movement was destroyed, conscious of his
own wasted life. The world would not roll away down there. He would
still see himself cumbering the ground, when his powers were taken,
from him. This thought was torture. Why had he been suffered to
meet her, to love her, and to be loved by her? What had made him so
certain from the first moment, if she were not meant for him? If he
lived to be a hundred, he would never meet another. Why, because of
his love, must he bury the will and force of a man? If there were no
more coherence in God's scheme than this, let him too be incoherent!
Let him hold authority, and live outside authority! Why stifle his
powers for the sake of a coherence which did not exist! That would
indeed be madness greater than that of a mad world!
There was no answer to his thoughts in the stillness of the grove,
unless it were the cooing of a dove, or the faint thudding of the
sheep issuing again into sunlight. But slowly that stillness stole
into Miltoun's spirit. "Is it like this in the grave?" he thought.
"Are the boughs of those trees the dark earth over me? And the sound
in them the sound the dead hear when flowers are growing, and the
wind passing through them? And is the feel of this earth how it
feels to lie looking up for ever at nothing? Is life anything but a
nightmare, a dream; and is not this the reality? And why my fury, my
insignificant flame, blowing here and there, when there is really no
wind, only a shroud of still air, and these flowers of sunlight that
have been dropped on me! Why not let my spirit sleep, instead of
eating itself away with rage; why not resign myself at once to wait
for the substance, of which this is but the shadow!"
And he lay scarcely breathing, looking up at the unmoving branches
setting with their darkness the pearls of the sky.
"Is not peace enough?" he thought. "Is not love enough? Can I not
be reconciled, like a woman? Is not that salvation, and happiness?
What is all the rest, but 'sound and fury, signifying nothing?"
And as though afraid to lose his hold of that thought, he got up and
hurried from the grove.
The whole wide landscape of field and wood, cut by the pale roads,
was glimmering under the afternoon sun, Here was no wild, wind-swept
land, gleaming red and purple, and guarded by the grey rocks; no home
of the winds, and the wild gods. It was all serene and silver-
golden. In place of the shrill wailing pipe of the hunting buzzard-
hawks half lost up in the wind, invisible larks were letting fall
hymns to tranquillity; and even the sea--no adventuring spirit
sweeping the shore with its wing--seemed to lie resting by the side
of the land.