Ideala

Produced by Joshua Hutchinson, Tom Allen, David Moynihan, Charles Franks
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.

IDEALA

BY SARAH GRAND

“L’esprit ne nous garantit pas
des sottises de notre humeur.”—VAUVENARGUES

PREFACE

You will ask me, perhaps, even you who are all charity, why parts of
this book are what they are. I can only answer with another question:
Why are we what we are? But I warn you that it would not be fair to
take any of Ideala’s opinions, here given, as final. Much of what she
thought was the mere effervescence of a strong mind in a state of
fermentation, a mind passing successively through the three stages of
the process; the vinous, alcoholic, or excitable stage; the
acetous, jaundiced, or embittered stage; and the putrefactive,
or unwholesome stage; and also embodying, at different times, the
characteristics of all three. But, even during its worst phase, it was
an earnest mind, seeking the truth diligently, and not to be blamed
for stumbling upon good and bad together by the way. It is, in fact,
not a perfect, but a transitional state which I offer for your
consideration, a state which has its repulsive features, but which, it
may be hoped, would result in a beautiful deposit, when at last the
inevitable effervescence had subsided.

But why exhibit the details of the process, you may ask. To encourage
others, of course. What help is there in the contemplation of
perfection ready made? It only disheartens us. We should lay down our
arms, we should struggle no longer, we should be hopeless, despairing,
reckless, if we never had a glimpse of growth, of those “stepping-
stones of their dead selves” upon which men mount to higher things. The
imperfections must be studied, because it is only from the details of
the process that anything can be learned. Putting aside the people who
criticise, not with a view to mending matters, but because a

    … low desire

  Not to seem lowest makes them level all;

the people who judge, who condemn, who have no mercy on any faults and
failings but their own, and who,

  … if they find

  Some stain or blemish in a name of note,

  Not grieving that their greatest are so small,

  Inflate themselves with some insane delight,

and would ostracise a neighbour for the first offence by ruling that
one mistake must mar a life—anybody’s life but their own, of course;
who have no peace in themselves, no habit of sweet thought; whose lives
are one long agony of excitement, objection, envy, hate, and unrest;
the decently clad devils of society who may be known by their eternal
carping, and who are already in torment, and doing their utmost to drag
others after them. Putting them aside, as any one may who has the
courage to face them—for they are terrible cowards—and taking the
best of us, and the best intentioned among us, we find that all are apt
to make some one trait in the characters, some one trick in the
manners, some one incident in the lives of people we meet the text of
an objection to the whole person. And a state of objection is a
miserable state, and a dangerous one, because it stops our growth by
robbing us of half our power to love, in which lies all our strength,
and which, with the delight of being loved, is the one thing worth
living for. When we know in ourselves that love is heaven, and hate is
hell, and all the intervals of like and dislike are antechambers to
either, we possess the key to joy and sorrow, by which alone we can
attain to the mystery that may not be mentioned here, but beyond which
ecstasy awaits us.

This is why such details are necessary.

Doctors-spiritual must face the horrors of the dissecting-room, and
learn before they can cure or teach; and even we, poor feeble
creatures, who have no strength, however great our desire, to do
either, can help at least a little by not hindering, if we attend to
our own mental health, which we shall do all the better for knowing
something of our moral anatomy, and the diseases to which it is liable.
We hate and despise in our ignorance, and grow weak; but love and pity
thrive on knowledge, and to love and pity we owe all the beauty of
life, and all our highest power.

“It is that life of custom and accident in which many of us pass
much of our time in this world; that life in which we do what we have
not purposed, and speak what we do not mean, and assent to what we do
not understand; that life which is overlaid by the weight of things
external to it, and is moulded by them, instead of assimilating them;
that which, instead of growing and blossoming under any wholesome dew,
is crystallised over with it, as with hoar frost, and becomes to the
true life what an arborescence is to a tree, a candied agglomeration of
thoughts and habits foreign to it, brittle, obstinate, and icy, which
can neither bend nor grow, but must be crushed and broken to bits if it
stands in our way. All men are liable to be in some degree frost-bitten
in this sort; all are partly encumbered and crusted over with idle
matter; only, if they have real life in them, they are always breaking
this bark away in noble rents, until it becomes, like the black strips
upon the birch tree, only a witness of their own inward strength.”

—RUSKIN.

IDEALA

CHAPTER I.

She came among us without flourish of trumpets. She just slipped into
her place, almost unnoticed, but once she was settled there it seemed
as if we had got something we had wanted all our lives, and we should
have missed her as you would miss the thrushes in the spring, or any
other sweet familiar thing. But what the secret of her charm was I
cannot say. She was full of inconsistencies. She disliked ostentation,
and never wore those ornamental fidgets ladies delight in, but she
would take a piece of priceless lace to cover her head when she went
to water her flowers. And she said rings were a mistake; if your hands
were ugly they drew attention to them, if pretty they hid their
beauty; yet she wore half-a-dozen worthless ones habitually for the
love of those who gave them, to her. It was said that she was striking
in appearance, but cold and indifferent in manner. Some, on whom she
had never turned her eyes, called her repellent. But it was noticed
that men who took her down to dinner, or had any other opportunity of
talking to her, were never very positive in, what they said of her
afterwards. She made every one, men and women alike, feel, and she did
it unconsciously. Without effort, without eccentricity, without
anything you could name or define, she impressed you, and she held you
—or at least she held me, always—expectant. Nothing about her ever
seemed to be of the present. When she talked she made you wonder what
her past had been, and when she was silent you began to speculate
about her future. But she did not talk much as a rule, and when she
did speak it was always some subject of interest, some fact that she
wanted to ascertain accurately, or some beautiful idea, that occupied
her; she had absolutely no small talk for any but her most intimate
friends, whom she was wont at times to amuse with an endless stock of
anecdotes and quaint observations; and this made people of limited
capacity hard on her. Some of these called her a cold, ambitious,
unsympathetic woman; and perhaps, from their point of view, she was
so. She certainly aspired to something far above them, and had nothing
but scorn for the dead level of dull mediocrity from which they would
not try to rise.

“To be distinguished among these people,” she once said, “it is only
necessary to have one’s heart

  Dowered with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn,

    The love of love.

There is no need to do anything; if you have the right feeling you
may be as passive as a cow, and still excel them all, for they never
thrill to a noble thought.”

“Then, pity them,” I said.

“No, despise them,” she answered. “Pity is for affliction, for such
shortcomings as are hereditary and can hardly be remedied—for the
taint in nature which is all but hopeless. But these people are not
afflicted. They could do better if they would. They know the higher
walk, and deliberately pursue the lower. Their whole feeling is for
themselves, and such things as have power to move them through the
flesh only. I would almost rather sin on the impulse of a generous but
misguided nature, and have the power to appreciate and the will to be
better, than live a perfect, loveless woman, caring only for myself,
like these. I should do more good.”

They called Ideala unsympathetic, yet I have known her silent from
excess of sympathy. She could walk with you, reading your heart and
soul, sorrowing and rejoicing with you, and make you feel without a
word that she did so. It was this power to sympathise, and the longing
she had to find good in everything, that made her forgive the faults
that were patent in a nature with which she was finally brought into
contact, for the sake of the virtues which she discovered hidden away
deep down under a slowly hardening crust of that kind of self-
indulgence which mars a man.

But her own life was set to a tune that admitted of endless variations.
Sometimes it was difficult even for those who knew her best to detect
the original melody among the clashing cords that concealed it; but,
let it be hidden as it might, one felt that it would resolve itself
eventually, through many a jarring modulation and startling cadence,
perhaps, back to the perfect key.

I saw her first at a garden party. She scarcely noticed me when we were
introduced. There were great masses of white cloud drifting up over the
blue above the garden, and she was wholly occupied with them when she
could watch them without rudeness to those about her; and even when she
was obliged to look away, I could see that she was still thinking of
the sky. “Do you live much in cloudland?” I asked, and felt for a
moment I had said a silly thing; but she turned to me quickly, and
looked at me for the first time as if she saw me—and when I say she
looked at me, I mean something more than an ordinary look, for Ideala’s
eyes were a wonder, affecting you as a poem does which has power to
exalt.

“Ah, you feel it too,” she said. “Are they not beautiful? Will you sit
beside me here? You can see the river as well—down there, beneath the
trees.”

I thought she would have talked after that, but she did not. When I
spoke to her once or twice she answered absently; and presently she
forgot me altogether, and began to sing to herself softly:

  Flow down, cold rivulet, to the sea,

    Thy tribute wave deliver;

  No more by thee my steps shall be

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