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- A Life's Morning - 4/80 -
'Chiefly German, I think. I have only just begun to read it.'
'And I can't read it at all. Now and then I make a shot at the meaning of a note in a German edition of some classical author, every time fretting at my ignorance. But there is so endlessly much to do, and a day is so short.'
'Isn't it hateful,' he broke forth, 'this enforced idleness of mine? To think that weeks and weeks go by and I remain just where I was, when the loss of an hour used to seem to me an irreparable misfortune. I have such an appetite for knowledge, surely the unhappiest gift a man can be endowed with it leads to nothing but frustration. Perhaps the appetite weakens as one grows in years; perhaps the sphere of one's keener interests contracts; I hope it may be so. At times I cannot work--I mean, I could not--for a sense of the vastness of the field before me. I should like you to see my rooms at Balliol. Shelves have long since refused to take another volume; floor, tables, chairs, every spot is heaped. And there they lie; hosts I have scarcely looked into, many I shall never have time to take up to the end of my days.'
'You have the satisfaction of being able to give your whole time to study.'
'There is precisely the source of dissatisfaction My whole time, and that wholly insufficient. I have a friend, a man I envy intensely; he has taken up the subject of Celtic literature; gives himself to it with single-heartedness, cares for nothing that does not connect itself therewith; will pursue it throughout his life; will know more of it than any man living. My despair is the universality of my interests. I can think of no branch of study to which I could not surrender myself with enthusiasm; of course I shall never master one. My subject is the history of humanity; I would know everything that man has done or thought or felt. I cannot separate lines of study. Philology is a passion with me, but how shall I part the history of speech from the history of thought? The etymology of any single word will hold me for hours; to follow it up I must traverse centuries of human culture. They tell me I have a faculty for philosophy, in the narrow sense of the word; alas! that narrow sense implies an exhaustive knowledge of speculation in the past and of every result of science born in our own time Think of the sunny spaces in the world's history, in each of which one could linger for ever I Athens at her fairest, Borne at her grandest, the glorious savagery of Merovingian courts, the kingdom of Frederick II., the Moors in Spain, the magic of Renaissance Italy--to become a citizen of any one age means a lifetime of endeavour. It is easy to fill one's head with names and years, but that only sharpens my hunger. Then there is the world of art; I would know every subtlest melody of verse in every tongue, enjoy with perfectly instructed taste every form that man has carved or painted. I fear to enter museums and galleries; I am distracted by the numberless desires that seize upon me, depressed by the hopelessness of satisfying them. I cannot even enjoy music from the mere feeling that I do not enjoy it enough, that I have not had time to study it, that I shall never get at its secret.... And when is one to live? I cannot lose myself in other men's activity and enjoyments. I must have a life of my own, outside the walls of a library. It would be easy to give up all ambition of knowledge, to forget all the joy and sorrow that has been and passed into nothingness; to know only the eternity of a present hour. Might one not learn more in one instant of unreflecting happiness than by toiling on to a mummied age, only to know in the end the despair of never having lived?'
He again raised his eyes to her face. It was fixed in a cold, absent gaze; her lips hardened into severity, the pose of her head impressive, noble. Athel regarded her for several moments; she was revealing to him more of her inner self than he had yet divined.
'What are your thoughts?' he asked quietly.
She smiled, recovering her wonted passiveness.
'Have you not often much the same troubles?'
'They arc only for the mind which is strong enough to meet and overcome them,' she replied.
'But look, my mind has given way already! I am imbecile. For ever I shall be on the point of a break-down, and each successive one will bring me nearer to some final catastrophe--perhaps the lunatic asylum--who knows?'
'I should think,' she said gravely, 'that you suggested a truth. Very likely your mind will contract its range and cease to aim at the impossible.'
'But tell me, have you not yourself already attained that wisdom? Why should you make pretences of feebleness which does not mark you? You have a mind as active as my own; I know that perfectly well. What is your secret of contentment? Won't you help me in this miserable plight?'
'No, Mr. Athel, I have none but very ordinary powers of mind, and perhaps it is my recognition of that which keeps me contented. There is indeed one principle of guidance which I have worked out for myself--'
'Ah! And that?'
'It will not enlighten you, for it is only the choice of a natural and easy course, seeing that difficult ones are closed. The literature of learning is out of my reach, so I limit myself to the literature of beauty, and in this I try to keep to the best.'
'You are right, you are right! To know the masterpieces of literature, pure literature, poetry in its widest sense; that is the wise choice. Think; we feed ourselves with the secondhand wisdom of paltry philosophisers and critics, and Shakespeare waits outside the door with the bread of life. From Homer--Alas! you do not read Greek?'
She shook her head.
'And you work at German! In Heaven's name change your language forthwith! Why should you not know Greek? You _must_ know Greek! I will give you books, I will advise you, show you the essentials to begin with. There are still a few days before you go into Yorkshire; you can work during the holidays on lines I shall set you; you can write and tell me your--'
He paused, for her face had lost its smile, and wore again that coldly respectful look which she seldom put off save in her privacy with the children. For the last quarter of an hour he had marked in her quite another aspect; the secret meanings of her face had half uttered themselves in eye and lip. His last words seemed to recall her to the world of fact. She made a slight movement and closed the book on her lap.
'Greek is more than I can undertake, Mr. Athel,' she said in a quietly decided tone. 'I must be content with translations.'
'Translations You would not say that so calmly if you knew what you were renouncing. Everything, everything in literature, I would give up to save my Greek. You will learn it, I know you will; some day I shall hear you read the hexameters as beautifully as you read English poetry to the girls. Will you not begin if I beg you to?'
The elbow on which he rested moved a few inches nearer to her. He saw the pearly shadows waver upon her throat, and her lips tremble into rigidity.
'My time in the holidays will be very limited,' she said. 'I have undertaken to give some help to a friend who is preparing to become a teacher, and'--she tried to smile--'I don't think I must do more work whilst at home than is really necessary.'
'No, that is true,' Wilfrid assented unwillingly. 'Never mind, there is plenty of time. Greek will be overcome, you will see. When we are all back in town and the days are dull, then I shall succeed in persuading you.'
She looked about her as if with thought of quitting her place. Her companion was drawn into himself; he stroked mechanically with his finger-tips the fronds of bracken near him.
'I suppose I shall go up again in October,' he began. 'I wish there were no necessity for it.'
'But surely it is your one desire?' the other replied in genuine surprise.
'Not to return to Oxford. A few months ago it would have been, but this crisis in my life has changed me. I don't think I shall adapt myself again to those conditions. I want to work in a freer way. I had a positive zeal even for examinations; now that seems tame--well, boyish. I believe I have outgrown that stage; I feel a reluctance to go back to school. I suppose I must take my degree, and so on, but it will all be against the grain.'
'Your feeling will most likely alter when you have thoroughly recovered your health.'
'No, I don't think it will. Practically my health is all right. You don't,' he added with a smile, 'regard me as an irresponsible person, whose feeble remarks are to be received with kind allowance?'
'No, I did not mean that.'
He gazed at her, and his face showed a growing trouble.
'You do not take too seriously what I said just now about the weakness of my mind? It would be horrible if you thought I had worked myself into a state of amiable imbecility, and was incapable henceforth of acting, thinking, or speaking with a sound intellect. Tell me, say in plain words that is not your way of interpreting me.'
He had become very much in earnest. Raising himself to a position in which he rested on one hand, lie looked straight into her face.
'Why don't you reply? Why don't you speak?'
'Because, Mr. Athel, it is surely needless to say that I have no such thought.'
'No, it is not needless; and even now you speak in a way which troubles me. Do not look away from me. What has my aunt told you about me?'
She turned her face to him. Her self-command was so complete that not a throb of her leaping heart betrayed itself in vein or muscle. She even met his eyes with a placid gaze which he felt as a new aspect of her countenance.
'Mrs. Rossall has never spoken to me of your health,' she said.
'But my father's jokes; he has a way of humorous exaggeration. You of
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