Shirley HTML version

7. The Curates at Tea
Caroline Helstone was just eighteen years old, and at eighteen the true narrative
of life is yet to be commenced. Before that time we sit listening to a tale, a
marvellous fiction, delightful sometimes and sad sometimes, almost always
unreal. Before that time our world is heroic, its inhabitants half-divine or semi-
demon; its scenes are dream-scenes; darker woods and stranger hills, brighter
skies, more dangerous waters, sweeter flowers, more tempting fruits, wider
plains, drearier deserts, sunnier fields than are found in nature, over-spread our
enchanted globe. What a moon we gaze on before that time! How the trembling
of our hearts at her aspect bears witness to its unutterable beauty! As to our sun,
it is a burning heaven - the world of gods.
At that time, at eighteen, drawing near the confines of illusive, void dreams, Elf-
land lies behind us, the shores of Reality rise in front. These shores are yet
distant; they look so blue, soft, gentle, we long to reach them. In sunshine we see
a greenness beneath the azure, as of spring meadows; we catch glimpses of
silver lines, and imagine the roll of living waters. Could we but reach this land, we
think to hunger and thirst no more; whereas many a wilderness, and often the
flood of death, or some stream of sorrow as cold and almost as black as death, is
to be crossed ere true bliss can be tasted. Every joy that life gives must be
earned ere it is secured; and how hardly earned, those only know who have
wrestled for great prizes. The heart's blood must gem with red beads the brow of
the combatant, before the wreath of victory rustles over it.
At eighteen we are not aware of this. Hope, when she smiles on us, and
promises happiness to-morrow, is implicitly believed; Love, when he comes
wandering like a lost angel to our door, is at once admitted, welcomed,
embraced. His quiver is not seen; if his arrows penetrate, their wound is like a
thrill of new life. There are no fears of poison, none of the barb which no leech's
hand can extract That perilous passion - an agony ever in some of its phases;
with many, an agony throughout - is believed to be an unqualified good. In short,
at eighteen the school of experience is to be entered, and her humbling,
crushing, grinding, but yet purifying and invigorating lessons are yet to be
Alas, Experience! No other mentor has so wasted and frozen a face as yours,
none wears a robe so black, none bears a rod so heavy, none with hand so
inexorable draws the novice so sternly to his task, and forces him with authority
so resistless to its acquirement. It is by your instructions alone that man or
woman can ever find a safe track through life's wilds; without it, how they
stumble, how they stray! On what forbidden grounds do they intrude, down what
dread declivities are they hurled!
Caroline, having been conveyed home by Robert, had no wish to pass what
remained of the evening with her uncle. The room in which he sat was very
sacred ground to her; she seldom intruded on it; and to-night she kept aloof till
the bell rang for prayers. Part of the evening church service was the form of
worship observed in Mr. Helstone's household. He read it in his usual nasal