The Final Unchastity
It all begins so innocently, and the end is so irremediably disastrous both to the man and the woman! People say it is one of the crying injustices of society that the woman should suffer and the man go 'scot-free.' But does he?
The confirmed profligate, perhaps, is not capable of further degradation; but the man who falls for the first time loses his future as certainly as the woman, if less obviously. He may escape public disgrace, but he never gets over the loss of power, purpose, and integrity which accompanies the loss of purity. He is handicapped for life, though he may himself have forgotten why; and should he at last marry, his children too often repeat their father's sin.
It is worth while to follow the history of a seduction as Mrs. Gaskell gives it to us in Ruth. Ruth is a friendless orphan who is apprenticed to a milliner, and is distinguished among her fellow-apprentices by her quiet, lady-like manners and her beauty. "'I could not help knowing that I am pretty,' answered she simply, 'for many people have told me so.'" She accompanies Mrs. Mason, her employer, to the shire ball, together with some other apprentices, that they might be at hand to mend rents in the ball dresses and the like; and a lady comes with her fiancé to have a tear mended. She is arrogant to the young apprentice, and "Mr. Bellingham looked grave," and, at the end picking up a camellia, he said: "Allow me, Miss Dunscombe, to give this in your name to this young lady as thanks for her dexterous help."
The reader admires Mr. Bellingham for his act of courtesy: and so, alas! does Ruth; the camellia becomes a treasure, and the girl's thoughts dwell on the courteous gentleman. Again she meets him, by accident, in romantic circumstances. She is trying to rescue a child from drowning, and he rides up and succeeds in saving the boy. This leads to further intercourse: he leaves his purse with Ruth to buy what is necessary for the child, and of course she has to see him again and account for what she has spent. Then there are accidental meetings at church––and still no wrong is intended. Next, the novelist introduces us to Mr. Bellingham at home:
"His thoughts had been far more occupied by Ruth than hers by him, although his appearance upon the scene of her life was more an event to her than to him . . . He did not analyse the nature of his feelings, but simply enjoyed them with the delight which youth takes in experiencing new and strong emotion . . . The fact of his being an only child had given him, as it does to many, a sort of inequality in those parts of the character which are usually formed by the number of years a person has lived. The unevenness of discipline to which only children are subjected: the thwarting resulting from over-anxiety: the indiscreet indulgence arising from a love centred in one object––had been exaggerated in his education." In these few words the author gives us a key to the situation, and we begin to suspect what is to follow. Steerforth, too, in David Copperfield, was the only son of a proud, indulgent, and wayward mother; and Arthur Donnithorne, in Adam Bede––he, too, is the only son of a fond and imperious father. It would seem as if only children had more need than others to walk circumspectly; perhaps this is a fact, because in a commonwealth of brothers and sisters it is not quite easy to follow devious ways; and the devious ways are the danger, whether to one of a large family or to the only child. Young Bellingham finds himself fascinated, he does not know why, and all the more so because "there was a spell in the shyness which made her avoid and shun all admiring approaches to acquaintance . . . By no over-bold admiration or rash, passionate word would he startle her . . . In accordance with his determination, he resisted the strong temptation of walking by her side the whole distance home after church. He spoke a few words about the weather, bowed, and was gone. Ruth believed she should never see him again; and, in spite of sundry self-upbraidings for her folly, she could not help feeling as if a shadow had fallen on her life." Then comes a Sunday when Mr. Bellingham walks home from church with her through the fields.
"'How strange it is,' she thought that evening,' that I should feel as if this charming afternoon's walk were somehow, not exactly wrong, but yet as if it were not right!"' Other Sunday afternoon rambles follow. The miseries she endures at Mrs. Mason's are fully confided; and then Bellingham wishes to see her old home, Milham Grange, only six miles off. A fine Sunday comes, and they go. He watched her with admiration as she "wound in and out in natural, graceful, wavy lines, between the luxuriant and overgrown shrubs." All goes merrily until Mrs. Mason, who is also out for a Sunday holiday, finds Ruth in the young man's company, and tells her she must never enter her doors again. Her lover, who had left Ruth for a few minutes, found her crying; and she told him what had happened in the interval.
"Her eyes were so blinded by the fast-falling tears, she did not see (nor, had she seen, would she have been able to interpret) the change in Mr. Bellingham's countenance, as he stood silently watching her. He was silent so long, that even in her sorrow she began to wonder that he did not speak, and to wish to hear his soothing words once more. 'It is very unfortunate,' he began, at last; and then he stopped; then he began again, 'It is very unfortunate; for, you see, I did not like to name it to you before, but I believe––I have business, in fact, which obliges me to go to town to-morrow––to London, I mean; and I don't know when I shall be able to return."' Hitherto, perhaps, no more than dalliance had been intended; but such dalliance is like the play of a little child on the brink of a precipice. The novelist delicately marks the moment, that moment of silence, when lust awoke as a rage in the blood of the young man. Such a moment of lust in the fairly right-meaning Arthur Donnithorne led to the ruin of Hetty Sorrel and the tragedy that followed it. The particular moment of Steerforth's abandonment to his passions is not indicated; but it is well that every young man and young woman should know that there is for them, as well as for everyone else, the possibility of being at death-grapple with that monster of our nature which we know as Lust. Self-indulgence prepares the way, dalliance offers a flowery by-path, and then, behold, before a person is aware, lust is upon him, and two lives are ruined. Safety lies, not in any immunity we may claim because we are refined, superior to common temptations; but in the strenuous, vigorous life of one who can say with St Paul, "I keep under my body and bring it into subjection." The primrose path of dalliance has only one end.
They go to London; but we next meet with them in North Wales. "Indeed, and she's not his wife,' thought Jenny (the landlady of the inn); 'that's as clear as day."' Still Ruth enjoyed the revelation, new to her, of mountain beauty, and "her admiration and her content made him angry"; she sighed a little "at her own want of power to amuse and occupy him she loved." The people at the inn comment upon the pair. "She's a very lovely creature," said one gentleman; "not above sixteen, I should think, very modest and innocent-looking in her white gown"; and his wife answered, "Well, I do think it's a shame such people should be allowed to come here." So thought others, and Ruth's lonely walks came to be annoyed by hostile notice. Next, Mr. Bellingham falls ill of a fever, and his mother is sent for to nurse him; poor Ruth is thrown upon the scant kindness of the busy landlady, and endures days and nights of terrible anxiety; and when he mends, there is a long discussion with his mother as to Ruth. He is weakly sorry, but chiefly sorry for himself; and without seeing Ruth, without a word of farewell, he says, "Could we not leave to-night? I should not be so haunted by this annoyance in another place. I dread seeing her again because I fear a scene; and yet I believe I ought to see her in order to explain." This was all he had to give for a ruined life and for the unbounded devotion of a loving heart. Ruth was so young and unsophisticated that we may believe the full meaning of her offence had hardly dawned upon her. The tale goes on, how mother and son depart in great state, and he never seeks to see her, or explain, or say a common farewell. A good and grievously deformed man finds her afterwards, crouching in a lonely place; "and she said low and mournfully, 'He has left me, sir!––sir, he has indeed!––he has gone and left me!' Before he could speak a word to comfort her, she had burst into the wildest, dreariest crying ever mortal cried. The settled form of the event, when put into words, went sharp to her heart; her moans and sobs wrung his soul; but, as no speech of his could be heard, if he had been able to decide what best to say, he stood by her in apparent calmness, while she, wretched, wailed and uttered her woe. But when she lay worn out, and stupefied into silence, she heard him say to himself in a low voice, 'Oh, my God! for Christ's sake, pity her!"' This good man and his sister nurse her through a perilous illness, and at last take the poor girl and her child with them to their home in Lancashire, where he is the minister of a small chapel. Ruth went through the bitter waters of repentance, and a life of penitence and humble service gave her the beauty of Christian character; all the more readily, no doubt, because her sin was rather the consequence of loneliness, despair and affliction than of lust.
David, we know, discovered that there was forgiveness even for sins of lust; but they would seem to leave ineradicable marks in the character. So we find it in Mr. Bellingham. Years after, when she was doing valued service in a subordinate position, Ruth met him again. "He was changed, she knew not how; in fact, the expression which had been only occasional formerly, when his worst self predominated, had become permanent. He looked restless and dissatisfied . . . He thought that Mrs. Denbigh" (the assumed name she went under) "was certainly like poor Ruth; but this woman was far handsomer . . . Poor Ruth! and for the first time for several years he wondered what had become of her, though of course there was but one thing that could have happened; and perhaps it was as well he did not know her end, for most likely it would have made him very uncomfortable." This is Mr. Bellingham as we get him after the lapse of years. Ruth, the sinned-against, was able to behave with Christian dignity and composure; while he, who was let off 'scot-free,' appears again in middle life––a man without aim, without conscience, and without heart, but a prey to consuming lust.
We need not follow the story to the end. It is well worth reading, the more so if the reader asks, with the Twelve, 'Lord, is it I?' Is this misery, or worse, this degradation of character, possible to me? Is there anything in me which could bring about so shameful a fall? Be assured there is. Dark rumours reach our ears from time to time of white men in African wilds who have escaped from the restraints of civilisation and have broken out in acts of detestable cruelty. When we hear these things, too, let us say, 'Lord, is it I?' For it is true that, once we escape from the bonds of duty, our duty towards God and our duty towards our neighbour, lust and hate become rampant in us, and there is no fall of which we are not capable.
But let us take courage. No last fall can overtake him who keeps his soul from the first fall; who preserves his chastity as in that fabled tower of brass, and allows no image of uncleanness to sully his imagination; who keeps his mind, too, full of healthy interests and worthy employment; who keeps under his body, by self-compelled labours, and noble restraint as regards all laxity of eating and drinking, lounging and sleeping.
Such an one, knowing the perils that beset his way, prays steadfastly day by day, "Our Father which art in heaven, . . . lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen"; and, having prayed, he thinks no more of the matter, but goes on his way fearless and rejoicing in his life––
"So keep I fair through faith and prayer
A virgin heart in work and will."