Chapter 11 Aurora

Felix fell on the seat beside her, burying his face in the folds of her dress; he sobbed, not with tears, but choking passion. She held him to her heart as if he had been a child, stroking his hair and kissing it, whispering to him, assuring him that her love was his, that she was unchanged. She told him that it was not her fault. A little while before the feast the Baron had suddenly broken out into a fit of temper, such as she had never seen him indulge in previously; the cause was pressure put upon him by his creditors. Unpleasant truths had escaped him; amongst the rest, his dislike, his positive disapproval of the tacit engagement they had entered into.

He declared that if the least outward sign of it appeared before the guests that were expected, he would order Felix to leave the place, and cancel the hearth-friendship, no matter what the consequence. It was clear that he was set upon a wealthy and powerful alliance for her; that the Earl was either coming, or would send his son, he knew; and he knew that nothing so repels a possible suitor as the rumour that the lady has a previous engagement. In short, he made it a condition of Felix’s presence being tolerated at all, that Aurora should carefully abstain from showing the slightest attention to him; that she should ignore his existence.

Nor could she prevent Durand following her without a marked refusal to listen to his conversation, a refusal which would most certainly at once have brought about the dreaded explosion. She thought it better, under the circumstances, to preserve peace, lest intercourse between her and Felix should be entirely broken off for ever. This was the secret history of the apparent indifference and neglect which had so deeply hurt him. The explanation, accompanied as it was with so many tender expressions and caresses, soothed him; he returned her kisses and became calmer. He could not doubt her, for in his heart he had suspected something of the kind long since.

Yet it was not so much the explanation itself, nor even the love she poured upon him, as the mere fact of her presence so near that brought him to himself. The influence of her steadfast nature, of her clear, broad, straightforward view of things, the decision of her character, the high, unselfish motives which animated her, all together supplied that which was wanting in himself. His indecision, his too impressionable disposition, which checked and stayed the force of his talent, and counteracted the determination of a naturally iron will; these, as it were, were relieved; in a word, with her he became himself.

How many times he had told her as much! How many times she had replied that it was not herself, but that in which she believed, that was the real cause of this feeling! It was that ancient and true religion; the religion of the primitive church, as she found it in the fragments of the Scriptures that had come down from the ancients.

Aurora had learnt this faith from childhood; it was, indeed, a tradition of the house preserved unbroken these hundred years in the midst of the jarring creeds, whose disciples threatened and destroyed each other. On the one hand, the gorgeous rite of the Vice-Pope, with the priests and the monks, claimed dominion, and really held a large share, both over the body and the soul; on the other, the Leaguers, with their bold, harsh, and flowerless creed, were equally over-bearing and equally bigoted. Around them the Bushmen wandered without a god; the Romany called upon the full moon. Within courts and cities the gay and the learned alike mocked at all faith, and believed in gold alone.

Cruelty reigned everywhere; mercy, except in the name of honour, there was none; humanity was unknown. A few, a very few only, had knowledge of or held to the leading tenets, which, in the time of the ancients, were assented to by everyone, such as the duty of humanity to all, the duty of saving and protecting life, of kindness and gentleness. These few, with their pastors, simple and unassuming, had no power or influence; yet they existed here and there, a living protest against the lawlessness and brutality of the time.

Among these the house of Thyma had in former days been conspicuous, but of late years the barons of Thyma had, more from policy than from aught else, rather ignored their ancestral faith, leaning towards the League, which was then powerful in that kingdom. To have acted otherwise would have been to exclude himself from all appointments. But Aurora, learning the old faith at her mother’s knee, had become too deeply imbued with its moral beauty to consent to this course. By degrees, as she grew up, it became in her a passion; more than a faith, a passion; the object of her life.

A girl, indeed, can do but little in our iron days, but that little she did. The chapel beside the castle, long since fallen to decay, was, at her earnest request, repaired; a pastor came and remained as chaplain, and services, of the simplest kind, but serious and full of meaning, took place twice a week. To these she drew as many as possible of the inhabitants of the enclosure; some even came from afar once now and then to attend them. Correspondence was carried on with the remnant of the faith.

That no one might plead ignorance (for there was up to the date no written record) Aurora set herself the task of reducing the traditions which had been handed down to writing. When the manuscript was at last completed it occupied her months to transcribe copies of it for circulation; and she still continued to make copies, which were sent by messengers and by the travelling merchants to the markets, and even across the sea. Apart from its intrinsically elevating character, the mere mental labour expended on this work had undoubtedly strengthened a naturally fine intellect. As she said, it was the faith, the hope that that faith would one day be recognised, which gave her so much influence over others.

Upon this one thing only they differed; Felix did not oppose, did not even argue, he was simply untouched. It was not that he believed in anything else, nor that he doubted; he was merely indifferent. He had too great a natural aptitude for the physical sciences, and too clear a mind, to accept that which was taught by the one or the other of the two chief opposing parties. Nor could he join in the ridicule and derision of the gay courtiers, for the mystery of existence had impressed him deeply while wandering alone in the forest. But he stood aloof; he smiled and listened, unconvinced; like the wild creatures of the forest, he had no ears for these matters. He loved Aurora, that was all.

But he felt the influence just the same; with all his powers of mind and contempt of superstitions in others, he could not at times shake off the apprehensions aroused by untoward omens, as when he stepped upon the adder in the woods. Aurora knew nothing of such things; her faith was clear and bright like a star; nothing could alarm her, or bring uneasiness of mind. This beautiful calm, not cold, but glowing with hope and love, soothed him.

That evening, with her hope and love, with her message of trust, she almost persuaded him. He almost turned to what she had so long taught. He almost repented of that hardness of heart, that unutterable distance, as it were, between him and other men, which lay at the bottom of his proposed expedition. He opened his lips to confess to her his purpose, and had he done so assuredly she would have persuaded him from it. But in the very act of speaking, he hesitated. It was characteristic of him to do so. Whether she instinctively felt that there was something concealed from her, or guessed that the discontent she knew he had so long endured was coming to a point, or feared lest what she had told him might drive him to some ill-considered act, she begged him with all the power of her love to do nothing hasty, or in despair, nothing that would separate them. He threw his arms around her, he pressed her closely to him, he trembled with the passion and the struggle within him.

My lady calls for you, Mademoiselle,” said a voice; it was Aurora’s maid who had kept watch. “She has asked for you some time since. Someone is coming into the garden!”

There was no help for it; Aurora kissed him, and was gone before he could come to himself. How long the interview had lasted (time flies swiftly in such sweet intercourse), or how long he sat there after she left, he could not tell; but when he went out already the dusk was gathering, the sun had gone down, and in the east the as yet pale orb of the moon was rising over the hills. As if in a dream he walked with unsteady steps to the castle stable; his horse had been put back, and the grooms suggested to him that it was better not to attempt the forest at night. But he was determined; he gave them all the coin he had about him, it was not much, but more than they had expected.

They ran beside him to the barrier; advising him as they ran, as he would go, to string his bow and loosen an arrow in the girdle, and above all, not to loiter, or let his horse walk, but to keep him at as sharp a trot as he could. The fact that so many wealthy persons had assembled at the castle for the feast would be sure to be known to the banditti (the outlaws of the cities and the escaped serfs). They were certain to be on the look out for travellers; let him beware.

His ears tingled and his head felt hot, as if the blood had rushed into it (it was the violence of the emotion that he had felt), as he rode from the barrier, hearing, and yet without conscious knowledge of what they said. They watched him up the slope, and saw him disappear from sight under the dark beeches of the forest.