‘AND now, Mr. Laurence,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘begin at the beginning, please, and don’t do as Lord Kennington did at the Eton and Harrow match the other day—go talking to me about “overs,” and “long-stops,” and things like that, before I was even quite sure of the difference between “out ”and “in.”’

‘Of course,’ Laurence began, smiling with a little prefatory shyness, ‘we can all understand the difference between a coarse common rustic palate, like that of the burly farmer, for instance, who just enjoys food in a brute way when he is hungry, and drink so long as it is spirituous at all times; and the palate of the true epicure, that is sensitive to taste as the nicest ear is to music, and can discriminate perfectly all the subtle semitones and chords of flavour. Well, transfer this image from the mouth to the mind, and there’s the whole thing in a nutshell. There is culture and no culture. A person is really cultivated when he can taste not only the broad flavours of life—gulping its joys and sorrows down, either with a vulgar grimace of disgust, or an equally vulgar hearty voracity; but when with a delicate self-possession he appreciates all the subtler taste of things, when he discriminates between joy and joy, between sorrow and sorrow, between love and love, between career and career; discerning in all incidents and emotions their beauty, their pathos, their absurdity, or their tragedy, as the case may be.’

‘You mean, then,’ said Miss Merton, ‘that a man of the highest culture is a sort of emotional bon vivant?

‘That surely is hardly a fair way—’ began Laurence.

‘Excuse me, my dear Laurence,’ broke in Mr. Luke, in his most magnificent of manners, ‘it is perfectly fair—it is admirably fair. Emotional bon vivant!’ he exclaimed. ‘I thank Miss Merton for teaching me that word! for it may remind us all,’ Mr. Luke continued, drawing out his words slowly, as if he liked the taste of them, ‘how near our view of the matter is to that of a certain Galilean peasant—of whom Miss Merton has perhaps heard—who described the highest culture by just the same metaphor, as a hunger and a thirst after righteousness. Our notion of it differs only from his, from the Zeitgeist having made it somewhat wider.’

Miss Merton, in her inmost soul, did anything but return Mr. Luke’s compliment, and consider his comment on her words as either admirably or perfectly fair. However, she held her peace. The thoughts of Lady Ambrose had been flowing in a slightly different direction.

‘But what I want to ask,’ she said, ‘is this. I want to know why it is that whenever one hears it said, “Oh, So-and-so is a very cultivated person,” one always expects to find him—well, almost half professional as it were, or at least able to talk of nothing but music, or painting, or books? I mean, a man who’s merely a cultivated person doesn’t seem ever to be quite a man of the world, or to be much good in society, except when one wants him to talk on his own subjects—I hate people myself who have subjects—and then, ten to one, he doesn’t know when to leave off. Now, Mr. Laurence, I see you want to interrupt me; but do let me say my say. A right amount of culture is of course delightful, and personally, I don’t much care for people who haven’t got it. But too much of it—I’m sure, Mr. Laurence, you must agree with me at heart—is a mistake. And that, you know, is all I mean about it; nothing more than that.’

‘Ah,’ said Laurence, smiling, ‘I think I see what it is. You will look on culture as some special kind of accomplishment or taste like music; and you think that in some special way it is bound up with books; and books you look upon as something special also, beginning and ending with themselves; and, unless I am much mistaken, you think that the more books a man has read, the more cultivated you may safely call him.’

‘Not all books,’ said Lady Ambrose in an injured tone. ‘Of course I don’t mean trashy novels, and of course I don’t mean blue-books, or books of history.’

‘But what I want first of all to impress on you,’ said Laurence, ‘is that whatever its relation to books may be, culture is by no means a bookish thing, or a thing that ought to be less in place at Hurlingham than at the South Kensington Museum. Nor is it in any sense a hobby, or a special taste, to be gratified at the expense of anything else. Instead of that, it is the education of all our tastes, of all our powers of enjoying life; and, so far from its being a thing for recluses, and a substitute for society, it is only when naturalised in the best society that it can at all do itself justice in expressing itself outwardly, or even exist in any completeness inwardly.’

Lady Ambrose smiled, and looked more interested, and began to give Laurence her most intelligent attention.

‘Still,’ Laurence went on, ‘culture and books have a good deal to do with one another; and since they are so bound up together in your mind, let us try to see at once what the relation really is. Let us begin, then, with that part of culture which in this sense is most bound up with books—most bound up because it cannot be got without them; the part of culture, I mean, that comes from the knowledge of the past—from a knowledge of history, in short, or parts of history.’

Lady Ambrose here took Laurence fairly aback by the way in which she repeated the word ‘History!’

‘Well, judging from the results I have seen,’ she said, with an amount of decision in her voice that was positively startling, ‘I cannot say, Mr. Laurence, that I agree with you. And I think that on this subject I have a right to speak.’

‘What on earth can the woman be meaning?’ said Mr. Luke to himself.

‘It is not a fortnight ago,’ Lady Ambrose went on, ‘that I sat at dinner by somebody—I won’t tell you his name—who had not only read heaven knows how much history, but had written, I believe, even more than he had read. And what do you think this good man did during all the early part of dinner? Why, he did nothing but fume, and fret, and bluster, so that everyone was made uncomfortable, simply because somebody said that King Harold was not quite so excellent a character as the late Prince Consort; and I heard him muttering, “What monstrous injustice! What monstrous ignorance!” to himself for nearly half an hour. I don’t think I ever saw such a—I was going to say,’ said Lady Ambrose, laughing softly, ‘such a beast —but I won’t; I’ll say a bear instead. At last, however—I don’t know how it came about—he said to me, in a very solemn voice, “What a terrible defeat that was which we had at Bouvines!” I answered timidly—not thinking we were at war with anyone—that I had seen nothing about it in the papers. “H’m!” he said, giving a sort of a grunt that made me feel dreadfully ignorant, “why, I had an Excursus on it myself in the ‘Archæological Gazette,’ only last week.” And, do you know, it turned out that the Battle of Bouvines was fought in the thirteenth century, and had, as far as I could make out, something to do with Magna Charta. Now, Mr. Laurence, if that’s the sort of culture one gets from studying history, I’m glad I’ve forgotten even the names of the twelve Cæsars, and the date of the kings of England. Besides,’ Lady Ambrose added, ‘it makes one think what a serious thing it is to lose a battle, if people are to be made so cross about it six hundred years afterwards.’

‘I quite agree with you,’ said Laurence, ‘that if that’s the sort of culture one gets from history, we had better never open a history book again. But history, Lady Ambrose, has very little to do with the Battle of Bouvines, and nothing with the character of Harold.’

‘Then what has it got to do with?’ asked Lady Ambrose incredulously. ‘It certainly has to do with kings, and wars, and facts, and dates, hasn’t it?’

‘What people call facts,’ said Laurence, ‘are only the dry bones of history. It is quite true that most professed historians have hitherto, instead of painting the face of the past, simply made discrepant notes about the shape of its skull: everything that could give the shape of the skull the least significance they left unthought of, or dismissed it in an occasional chapter. But really the least important of all the world’s events are those that you can localise exactly, and put an exact date to; those which alone most historians see.’

‘But,’ interposed Miss Merton, ‘don’t you call such things as the events in Caesar’s life, for instance, or Hildebrand’s, history?’

‘Looked on simply as events,’ said Laurence, ‘I call them biography, or I call them illustrations of history; but I do not call them history. History, in its true sense, is a travelling in the past; the best of histories would be but the carriage or the steamboat you travelled by; your histories of dates and battles are at best but the Bradshaws and the railway-maps. Our past must be an extension of the present, or it is no real past. Now I expect, Lady Ambrose, that, in its true sense, you know a good deal more history than you are aware of. I saw you reading Saint-Simon yesterday evening, and you alluded to Grammont’s Memoirs at dinner.’

‘Oh, of course,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘books like that! But, then, they really give you such a notion of the times, and quite take you back to them.’

‘Nothing is history that does not,’ said Laurence.

‘Really,’ exclaimed Lady Ambrose, brightening. ‘“II y a plus de vingt ans que je dis de la prose, sans que j’en susse rien.” And so it seems that I have known history without suspecting it, just as M. Jourdain talked prose.’

‘Pardon me,’ cried Mr. Saunders, ‘if I interrupt you for a moment; but, Mr. Laurence, though I admit that there is a great deal of truth in what you say, you have not even alluded to the great function of history, nor have you even hinted at the great use of facts. However, perhaps I had better reserve what I have to say on this, as well as on certain other matters, till by-and-by.’

‘Very well,’ said Laurence, ‘if history, then, is a travelling in the past—what else it is, as Mr. Saunders says, we can talk of afterwards—don’t you see what it does for us, Lady Ambrose, in the way of culture—does for us, not as students, but as men and women of the world? Just think for a moment what our own age would seem to us if all the past, beyond the memories of our grandfathers, was a blank to us; and then think how infinitely our minds are enlarged, how a freer air, as it were, seems to blow through them, even from that vague knowledge of the past afloat in the world, which we pick up here and there as we go along. Even that has an effect upon us. It prevents us being, as we else should be, merely temporal people who are just as narrow-minded and dull as those merely local people—the natives of a neighbourhood—who wear gorgeous ribands at flower-shows in the country. Don’t you remember last year, when I was staying with you, how you pointed some of them out to me, and how amused you were at their ways and their finery?’

Lady Ambrose smiled and nodded.

‘Go on, Mr. Laurence—I can understand all this,’ she said. ‘But I want to hear a little more.’

‘Well,’ said Laurence, ‘your own knowledge of the history of France and England during the last two hundred years—you know well enough how that has made you, in a certain sense, more a woman of the world. What would you be, for instance, if you never knew that there had been a French Revolution, or an English Revolution—a Cromwell, or a Louis Quatorze, or a Mirabeau? But your knowledge of history does not end here. You know something, at any rate, of the feudal times. You know what a castle was like, what a knight was like, what a monk was like. You know something, too, Of Roman and Greek history; and, come—to go no farther—you know the Bible.’

‘I hope,’ said Lady Ambrose, in a voice of reproving solemnity, ‘that one would not call that history.’

‘Certainly not,’ said Mr. Saunders, with a small suppressed chuckle.

‘At all events,’ proceeded Laurence, ignoring these interruptions, ‘you know something of Rome, and Greece, and Palestine, and Egypt; and each of these names is really a little aërial chariot which carries your imagination back as you pronounce it into some remote age, when life was different from what it is now. So is the mind widened by even a little vague history. Or, just repeat to yourself such words as France and Italy, and think for a moment of the effect of them. They are not mere names—mere geographical expressions; but they are spells which evoke, whether you will or no, hosts of subtle associations, rising up like spirits out of the past centuries, and hovering in the air round you with their unbidden influence, and mixing with all your notions of Europe as it is now. Or, would you feel the matter more strongly yet, think, when you are travelling, what but for history would Venice be, or Athens, or Jerusalem? If it were not for history, be it never so vaguely understood, would you find the same indescribable fascination in Rome?’

‘I never was at Rome,’ said Lady Ambrose. ‘We’re going there next winter with the Kenningtons.’

This piece of intelligence brought Laurence to a stop. Mr. Rose, however, whose imagination had been fired by all this talk about history, suddenly broke forth.

‘And also,’ he exclaimed, ‘is it not by history alone that we can in our day learn anything of the more subtle and gorgeous dyes that life is capable of taking—how fair a thing it may be, how rich in harmonious freedom, and beauty of form, and love, and passionate friendship? Why, but for history, what should we be now but a flock of listless barbarians, ὀνειράτων ἀλίγκιοι μορφαισι φύρόντες εἰκη πάντα ? Would not all life’s choicer and subtler pleasures be lost to us, if Athens did not still live to redeem us from the bondage of the middle age, and if the Italian Renaissance—that strange child of Aphrodite and Tannhaüser, did not still live to stimulate us out of the torpor of the present age? What, but for history, should we know,’ cried Mr. Rose, ‘of the χάρις of Greece, of the lust of Rome, of the strange secrets of the Borgias? Consider, too, the bowers of quiet, full of sweet dreams, that history will always keep for us—how it surrounds the house of the present with the boundless gardens of the past—gardens rich in woods, and waters, and flowers, and outlooks on illimitable seas. Think of the immortal dramas which history sets before us; of the keener and profounder passions which it shows in action, of the exquisite groups and figures it reveals to us, of nobler mould than ours—Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, our English Edward and the fair Piers Gaveston, ἅμα τ’ ὠκύμορος καὶ ὀϊζυρὸς περὶ πάντων, or, above all, those two by the agnus castus and the plane-tree where Ilyssus flowed,’—Mr. Rose’s voice gradually subsided,—‘and where the Attic grasshoppers chirped in shrill summer choir.’

‘At any rate, Lady Ambrose,’ Laurence resumed briskly, ‘you now see something of the way in which history gives us culture; and you see, too,—this is the chief point I want to impress upon you,—that in history, and many other things as well, books are only the telescopes through which we see distant facts; and we no more become bookish by such a use of books than you became optical when you looked through your telescope in Gloucestershire, and saw Captain Audley, at the bottom of the park, proposing to your under-keeper’s daughter.’

‘I really do believe,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘that that man is a little off his head. However,’ she went on laughing, ‘I give up about the bookishness, Mr. Laurence, and I dare say one really is the better for knowing something about history; but still, I can’t help thinking that the chief thing to know about is, after all, the life about one, and that knowledge, just like charity, should begin at home.’

‘There,’ said Laurence, ‘we quite agree; and that, if I managed to express myself clearly, was the very thing that I set out with saying. It is with the life about us that all our concern lies; and culture’s double end is simply this—to make us appreciate that life, and to make that life worth appreciating. We only study the past to adorn our present, or to make our view of it clearer. And now, since we have at any rate suggested how this is done, let us put the past, and the distant too—everything, in fact, to which books are only the telescopes—out of our minds altogether, and merely consider the real heart of the matter—culture and the present. I tried to explain just now that we meant by a man of culture one on whom none of the finer flavours of life are lost—who can appreciate, sympathise with, criticise, all the scenes, situations, sayings, or actions around him—a sad or happy love-affair, a charm of manner and conversation, a beautiful sunset, or a social absurdity. I declare,’ said Laurence, ‘I could tell better whether a man was really cultivated, from the way in which he talked gossip, or told a story; than from the way in which he discussed a poem or a picture.’

‘Certainly,’ said Leslie. ‘I don’t call a woman cultivated who bothers me at dinner first with discussing this book and then that—whose one perpetual question is, “Have you read So-and-so?” But I call a woman cultivated who responds and who knows what I mean as we pass naturally from subject to subject—who by a flash or a softness in her eyes, by a slight gesture of the hand, by a sigh, by a flush in the cheek, makes me feel as I talk of some lovely scene that she too could love it—as I speak of love or sorrow, makes me feel that she herself has known them; as I speak of ambition, or ennui or hope, or remorse, or loss of character, makes me feel that all these are not mere names to her, but things.’

‘Do you call me cultivated, Mr. Leslie?’ whispered Mrs. Sinclair, in a soft parenthesis.

‘I mean,’ said Leslie, finishing, ‘I like to hear each key I touch make, not a dead thud as on a piece of wood, but strike a musical string.’

‘Good,’ murmured Mr. Rose; ‘that is good! Yes,’ he continued, ‘the aim of culture, if Mr. Leslie will lend me his nice metaphor, is indeed to make the soul a musical instrument, which may yield music either to itself or to others, at any appulse from without; and the more elaborate a man’s culture is, the richer and more composite can this music be. The minds of some men are like a simple pastoral reed. Only single melodies, and these unaccompanied, can be played upon them—glad or sad; whilst the minds of others, who look at things from countless points of view, and realise, as Shakespeare did, their composite nature—their minds become, as Shakespeare’s was, like a great orchestra. Or sometimes,’ said Mr. Rose dreamily, as if his talk was lapsing into a soliloquy—‘when he is a mere passive observer of things, letting impressions from without move him as they will, I would compare the man of culture to an Æolian harp, which the winds at will play through—a beautiful face, a rainbow, a ruined temple, a death-bed, or a line of poetry, wandering in like a breath of air amongst the chords of his soul, touching note after note into soft music, and at last gently dying away into silence.’

‘Well, now,’ said Laurence, in a very matter-of-fact tone, for he saw that Mr. Rose’s dreamy manner always tended to confuse Lady Ambrose, ‘since we are now clear that the aim of culture is to make us better company as men and women of the world, let us consider a little farther how culture is attained. We have just spoken of histories and other books, which merely bring us face to face with facts that would else be out of our reach. We now come to two other things—the facts of the life about us, the facts which experience teaches us, and to which all other facts are secondary; and, farther, to the way in which all this knowledge—the knowledge of the living present especially—is (for we have really not talked of this at all yet) turned into culture. Mere acquaintance with facts will not do it; mere experience of facts will not do it. A woman, for instance may have had all kinds of experience—society, sorrow, love, travel, remorse, distraction—and yet she may not be cultivated. She may have gone through everything only half consciously. She may never have recognised what her life has been. What is needed to teach her—to turn this raw material into culture? Here, Lady Ambrose, we come to our friends the books again—not, however to such books as histories, but to books of art, to poetry, and books akin to poetry. The former do but enlarge our own common experience. The latter are an experience in themselves, and an experience that interprets all former experiences. The mind, if I may borrow an illustration from photography, is a sensitised plate, always ready to receive the images made by experience on it. Poetry is the developing solution, which first makes these images visible. Or, to put it in another way, if some books are the telescopes with which we look at distant facts, poetry—I use the word in its widest sense—is a magic mirror which shows us the facts about us reflected in it as no telescope or microscope could show them to us. Let a person of experience look into this, and experience then becomes culture. For in that magic mirror we see our life surrounded with issues viewless to the common eye. We see it compassed about with chariots of fire and with horses of fire. Then we know the real aspect of our joys and sorrows. We see the lineaments, we look into the eyes of thoughts, and desires, and associations, which had been before unseen and scarcely suspected presences—dim swarms clustering around our every action. Then how all kinds of objects and of feelings begin to cling together in our minds! A single sense or a single memory is touched, and a thrill runs through countless others. The smell of autumn woods, the colour of dying fern, may turn by a subtle transubstantiation into pleasures and faces that will never come again—a red sunset and a windy sea-shore into a last farewell, and the regret of a lifetime.’

Laurence had chosen these illustrations of his quite at random; but he was fortunate in the last in a way which he never dreamt of. Lady Ambrose, in her early and unwise days, had actually had a love-affair. She had been engaged to a handsome young Guardsman, with only eleven hundred a year, and no prospects but debts; and though she had successfully exchanged him for Sir George and his million of money, she still sometimes recalled him, and the wild September evening when she had seen her last of him upon Worthing pier.

‘Ah,’ she exclaimed, with some emotion in her voice, ‘I know exactly what you mean now. Why, there have been poems at one time or another of one’s life, that one could really hardly bear to hear repeated. Now, there’s that of Byron’s, “When we two parted.” I don’t even know if it is right to think it a good poem—but still, do you know, there was a time when, just because it was connected with something—it almost made me cry if anyone repeated or sang it—one of my brothers, I know, who had a beautiful voice, was always—’ Lady Ambrose here grew conscious that she was showing more feeling than she thought at all becoming. She blushed, she stammered a little, and then, making a rush at another topic, ‘But what is Mr. Rose,’ she exclaimed, ‘saying about the Clock-tower and the Thames Embankment?’

‘I was merely thinking,’ said Mr. Rose, who had been murmuring to himself at intervals for some time, ‘of a delicious walk I took last week, by the river side, between Charing Cross and Westminster. The great clock struck the chimes of midnight; a cool wind blew; and there went streaming on the wide wild waters with long vistas of reflected lights wavering and quivering in them; and I roamed about for hours, hoping I might see some unfortunate cast herself from the Bridge of Sighs. It was a night I thought well in harmony with despair. Fancy,’ exclaimed Mr. Rose, ‘the infinity of emotions which the sad sudden splash in the dark river would awaken in one’s mind—and all due to that one poem of Hood’s!’

‘Yes,’ said Laurence, not having listened to Mr. Rose, who spoke, indeed, somewhat low, ‘Yes,’ he said, continuing the same train of thought he had left off with, and looking first at Lady Ambrose and then at Miss Merton, ‘is it not poetry that does all this for the world? I use poetry in its widest sense, and include in it all imaginative literature, and other art as well. Is it not the poet that gives our existence all its deepest colours, or enables us to give them to it ourselves? Is it not—if I may quote a translation of Goethe that I made myself—

Is’t not the harmony that from his bosom springs,
And back into itself the whole world brings?
When Nature round her spindle, cold and strong,
Winds on and on the endless threads of things;
When all existences, a timeless throng,
Make discord as with jangling strings,
Whose life-breath bids the flux of blind creation
Move to a rhythmic music of his own?
Who calls each single thing to the common consecration,
When rapturously it trembles into tone?
Who sets our wild moods and the storms in time?
Our sad moods, and the still eve’s crimson glow?
Who showers down all the loveliest flowers of June,
Where she, the heart’s beloved, will go?
Who, of a few green leaves in silly twine,
Makes toil’s immortal guerdon, art’s reward,
Raises the mortal, draws down the divine?
The power of man incarnate in the bard.
And so,’ Laurence went on, ‘if it is to the bard that we owe all these fine things, we need surely not fear that we shall be thought bookish if we say that a society cannot be really good that does not as a body draw a large amount of its nourishment from the bard’s work. Of course in one sense poetry exists unwritten; but in the general run of people this will never properly awake itself, make itself available, but at the spell of written poetry. Nay, this is true even of the poet himself. Why else does he externalise his feelings—give them a body? As I say, however, the general catholic use of poetry is not to make us admire the poetry of poems but discern the poetry of life. I myself,’ Laurence went on, ‘am devoted to literature as literature, to poetry as poetry. I value it not only because it makes me appreciate the originals of the things it deals with, but for itself. I often like the description of a sunset better than I like a sunset; I don’t care two straws about Liberty, but my mind is often set all aglow by a good ode to her. I delight in, I can talk over, I can brood over, the form of a stanza, the music of a line, the turn of a phrase, the flavour of an epithet. Few things give me such pleasure for the moment as an apt quotation from Horace or Shakespeare. But this, I admit, is a hobby—a private hobby—this distinct literary taste, just as a taste for blue china is, and must certainly not be confused with culture in its deeper and wider sense.’

‘Ah,’ said Mr. Rose earnestly, ‘don’t despise this merely literary culture, as you call it, or the pleasure it is to have at command a beautiful quotation. As I have been lying on the bank here, this afternoon, and looking up into the trees, and watching the blue sky, glancing between the leaves of them—as I have been listening to the hum of the insects, or looking out with half-shut eyes towards the sea across the green rustling shrubs, and the red rose-blossoms, fragments of poetry have been murmuring in my memory like a swarm of bees, and have been carrying my fancy hither and thither in all manner of swift luxurious ways. The “spreading favour,” for instance, of these trees that we sit under, brought just now into my mind those magical words of Virgil’s—

   O qui me gelidis in vallibus Haemi
Sistat, et ingenti ramorum protegat umbrâ!
What a picture there! What a thrill it sent all through me, like a rush of enchanted wind! In another moment the verse that goes just before, also came to me—
      Virginibus bacchata Lacaenis
and into the delicious scene now around me —this beautiful modern garden—mixed instantly visions of Greek mountains, and ragged summits, and choirs of Laconian maidens maddened with a divine enthusiasm, and with fair white vesture wildly floating. Again, another line from the same poem, from the same passage, touched my memory, and changed, in a moment, the whole complexion of my feelings—
Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.
Think of that! The spirit is whirled away in a moment of time, and set amongst quite new images, quite other sources of excitement. But again, in an instant, the splash of the fountain caught my ear, and awoke, I scarcely know how, the memory of some lines in one of Petrarch’s Epistles—
  Soporifero clausam qui murmure vallem
Implet inexhausto descendens alveus amne—
and my imagination, on the wings of the verses, was borne away floating towards Vaucluse. Think, then, within the space of five minutes how many thoughts and sensations, composite and crowded, can, by the agency of mere literature, enrich the mind, and make life intenser.’

‘And I—’ said Laurence, smiling,—‘do you see that far-away sail out—on the horizon line?—well, I caught myself murmuring over a scrap of Milton, only two minutes ago—

As when afar at sea a fleet descried
Hangs in the clouds, by equinoctial gales
Close sailing from Bengala.
Why, I could go on capping verses with you the whole afternoon, if we had nothing else to do. But besides this, a knowledge of books as books has got another use. How it enriches conversation, by enabling us to talk by hints and allusions, and to convey so many more meanings than our actual words express. I came across an exquisite instance of this the other day, in a book of anecdotes about the poet Rogers, which shows how a familiarity with the scenes even of Greek poetry may give a brilliance to fashionable talk in the nineteenth century. One evening at Miss Lydia White’s—she was a Tory, and well known then in society—a guest who was a Whig, said à propos of the depressed state of his own party at the time, “There is nothing left for us but to sacrifice a Tory virgin.” “Yes,” said Miss Lydia White, “I believe there’s nothing the Whigs wouldn’t do to raise the wind.” But yet, after all, this is not the important thing, and I hope Lady Ambrose will forgive us for having talked so long about it.’

‘And so one must read a great deal, after all, to be really cultivated,’ said Lady Ambrose, in a disappointed tone. ‘You’ve made culture seem so nice, that I feel positively quite ashamed to think how seldom now I look at a line of poetry, except, of course, when anything new comes out, that everybody must read.’

‘I don’t think you need be afraid on that score,’ said Leslie. ‘If society is to be cultivated, it must, no doubt, read a good deal, as a body. But all its members need not. With women especially, nothing startles me more than when I find sometimes how very far, if they have had any serious experience of the world and life, a very little poetry will go.’

‘I expect,’ said Miss Merton, ‘that we are naturally more introspective than men, and so, in what concerns ourselves, a very little will make us cultivated; although we don’t certainly get so easily as men that indifferent way of looking on life as a whole, which I suppose is what you call the dramatic spirit, and which people praise so in Shakespeare. But as to what Mr. Leslie says, I have so often myself noticed the same thing in girls—especially at times when they are passing into womanhood, without having made much of a success of youth. I remember one poor friend of mine, whose whole life seemed to become clear to her through just one line of Tennyson’s—

My life has crept so long on a broken wing.
I suppose it was a sort of magic mirror to her as Mr. Laurence was saying just now.’

‘I,’ said Leslie, ‘once knew some one at Baden, who spent half her time at the tables, as much the observed of all observers as Worth and her own strange beauty could make her—she liked being stared at—and who was certainly not a woman who gave much of her time to reading. She was very wretched with her husband, and her name was far from being above the reach of gossip. Talking one day to her in a hardish flippant sort of way—a tone of talk which she affected to like—I alluded by some chance to Francesca di Rimini in Dante; and I shall never forget the tone in which she exclaimed, “Poor Francesca!”—its passion and its pathos. I was surprised that she had even looked into Dante: but she had; and that one passage had lit up her whole life for her—that one picture of the two lovers “going for ever on the accursed air.”’

‘How nice of you, Mr. Leslie,’ said Mrs. Sinclair, ‘to remember my poor verses!’

‘Let us consider, too,’ said Laurence, ‘that poetry does not only enable us to appreciate what we have already experienced, but it puts us in the way of getting new experiences. This was Wordsworth’s special claim for poetry, that it widened our sympathies—widened them in some new direction—that it was ever giving us, in fact, not new quotations, but new culture.’

‘Ah, here,’ said Leslie, ‘is a thing that continually occurs to me. Just consider for moment the wonderful social effect of even so partial a thing as the culture that Wordsworth himself gave us. Consider the effect of it on a common worldly woman—let her be girl or matron—who without it would be nothing but a half mechanical creature, living, as far as her interests went, a wretched hand-to-mouth existence of thin distraction, or eager anxious scheming for herself or her daughters. Cultivate her, I say, just in this one direction—give her but this one fragment of culture, a love of Nature—and all the mean landscape of her mind will be lit up with a sudden beauty, as the beam of ideal sunshine breaks across it, with its “light that never was on sea or land.” I don’t say that such a woman will become better for this, but she will become more interesting. In a girl, however pretty, what is there to interest a man if he reads nothing in her face from night to night but that she is getting daily more worn and jaded in the search for a rich husband? Or even, to go a step higher, in the unthinking, uncultivated flirt, so common in every class of society—what is there in her that a man will not soon discover to be insipid and wearying? ’

‘Surely,’ remonstrated Mrs. Sinclair plaintively, ‘that rather depends on what she is like. I must stand up for my sex.’

‘But give her,’ Leslie went on, ‘one genuine, one disinterested taste, and all is changed. If I had an audience about me of young ladies, whom it was not too late to advise—girls entering on the world, determined to run the worldly course, and to satisfy all the expectations of the most excellent and lowest-minded of chaperons, I would say this to them:—I have no doubt you are all ignorant; of course you are all vain. That to make a brilliant match is your great object, you all avow. A certain sort of flirting, of which the less said the better, is your most disinterested taste. I know all this (I should say), and I can’t help it; nor do I ask you to alter one of these points for the better. But this I do ask you to do. Try to add something else to them. Try to win for yourselves one taste of a truer and deeper sort. Study Wordsworth, and some parts of Shelley; open out your sympathies, by their aid, in just one direction. Learn to love the sea, and the woods, and the wild flowers, with all their infinite changes of scent, and colour, and sound—the purple moor, the brown mountain stream, the rolling mists, the wild smell of the heather. Let these things grow to “haunt you like a passion,” learn in this way the art of

More in this world than any understand.
You’ll perhaps find it a little dull at first; but go on, and don’t be disheartened; and then—by-and-by—by-and-by, go and look in the looking-glass, and study your own face. Hasn’t some new look, child, come into your eyes, and given them an expression—a something that they wanted before? Smile. Hasn’t your smile some strange meaning in it that it never used to have? You are a little more melancholy, perhaps. But no matter. The melancholy is worth its cost. You are now a mystery. Men can’t see through you at a glance as they did; and so, as Sterne says, “you have their curiosity on your side,” and that alone—even that will have increased your value tenfold in our Babylonian marriage-market.’

‘Well, Mr. Leslie,’ said Lady Ambrose with severe gravity, ‘if that’s the way you’d talk to young ladies, I should be very careful you never spoke to any that I had anything to do with.’

‘Many people, I know,’ Leslie went on, passing by the rebuke, ‘think that books and culture are a kind of substitute for life, and that the real masters in the art of living have no need for this poor pis-aller. They only drive four-in-hand, or shoot, or dance, or run away with their friends’ wives. But no mistake can be greater. Culture is not a substitute for life, but the key to it. It is really to the men of culture, to the men who have read and who have thought, that all exercise, all distractions, mental or bodily, moral or immoral, yield their finer keener pleasures. They are the men that husbands dread for their wives, and that fascinating people find fascinating.’

Lady Ambrose much disapproved of the tone of this speech; but none the less, in a certain mysterious way, did it insidiously increase her appreciation of the value of culture; and she felt that with Laurence at any rate she most thoroughly agreed, when he said by way of summing up,

‘And so now I think we see what culture is, and the reason why it is essential to good society. We see that much as it depends on books, life is really the great thing it has to do with. It is the passions, the interests, the relations, the absurdities of life that it fits us to see into, to taste, to discriminate. And I think we see, too, that not only is culture essential to good society, but good society also is essential to culture, and that there was therefore very good reason for the exclusiveness we began with. For in the first place I expect it requires certain natural advantages of position to look at and overlook life in that sympathetic and yet self-possessed way, which alone can give us a complete view of it. And in the next place, the more we discern in life, the more social polish shall we want to do justice to our discernment; and not polish only, but those far subtler things, tone and balance as well. I think it was the late Lord Lytton who remarked in one of his books, what an offensive thing gaiety was sure to be in any woman except one of the most perfect breeding. So too with humour—the greater sense of humour a well-bred man has, the more delightful he is; the greater sense of humour a vulgar man has, the more intolerable he is.’

The measure of Lady Ambrose’s assent was now almost complete. It remained, however, for Mrs. Sinclair to give the finishing touch.

‘I remember,’ she said softly and regretfully, ‘a friend of mine—he was killed afterwards, poor man, in a duel near Dresden—who once, when he was down for some weeks in the country fishing, fell desperately in love with a certain rector’s daughter, who sang, and painted, and read German, and had a beautiful figure as well. The mother at once saw what was in the wind, and asked him directly to come and lunch at the rectory. And there three things happened. First, the mother began telling him what very superior society there was in the neighbouring local town; “In fact, its tone,” she said, “is almost like that of a cathedral town.” Then the lovely daughter asked him if he was partial to boiled chicken; and then, a little later on—it was this that quite finished him, for the two first shocks he said he might have got over—in answer to some little common joke or other that he made, she told him, with a sort of arch smile—what do you think? why, that he was saucy.’

‘I confess,’ said Miss Merton, laughing, ‘that it would take a very great deal of charm of some sort to make one get over that. At any rate, it’s a comfort to think that the young ladies in our new Republic won’t call their admirers “saucy.”’

‘Well,’ said Laurence, ‘and so we have got thus far—we have made our ideal society as highly bred, as highly educated, as polished, as sparkling, as graceful, as easy, as dignified, as we can possibly imagine it. And now, what next?’

There was a moment’s pause.

‘What I should want in a Utopia,’ Allen broke in abruptly, ‘would be something definite for the people to do, each in his own walk of life. What I should want would be some honest, definite, straightforward, religious belief that we might all live by, and that would connect what we did and went through here with something more important elsewhere. Without this, to start with,’ he said, half sadly and half coldly, ‘all life seems to me a mockery.’

‘And are you quite sure,’ said Laurence, with a slight sigh, ‘that it is not a mockery?’

Mr. Luke here saw an opening for which he had long been waiting.

1 Vide Faust, Prologue for the Theatre.