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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Kenelm and Lily

By Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873)

From ‘Kenelm Chillingly’

THE CHILDREN have come,—some thirty of them, pretty as English children generally are, happy in the joy of the summer sunshine, and the flower lawns, and the feast under cover of an awning suspended between chestnut-trees and carpeted with sward.

No doubt Kenelm held his own at the banquet, and did his best to increase the general gayety, for whenever he spoke the children listened eagerly, and when he had done they laughed mirthfully.

“The fair face I promised you,” whispered Mrs. Braefield, “is not here yet. I have a little note from the young lady to say that Mrs. Cameron does not feel very well this morning, but hopes to recover sufficiently to come later in the afternoon.”

“And pray who is Mrs. Cameron?”

“Ah! I forgot that you are a stranger to the place. Mrs. Cameron is the aunt with whom Lily resides. Is it not a pretty name, Lily?”

“Very! emblematic of a spinster that does not spin, with a white head and a thin stalk.”

“Then the name belies my Lily; as you will see.”

The children now finished their feast and betook themselves to dancing, in an alley smoothed for a croquet-ground and to the sound of a violin played by the old grandfather of one of the party. While Mrs. Braefield was busying herself with forming the dance, Kenelm seized the occasion to escape from a young nymph of the age of twelve, who had sat next to him at the banquet and taken so great a fancy to him that he began to fear she would vow never to forsake his side,—and stole away undetected.

There are times when the mirth of others only saddens us, especially the mirth of children with high spirits, that jar on our own quiet mood. Gliding through a dense shrubbery, in which, though the lilacs were faded, the laburnum still retained here and there the waning gold of its clusters, Kenelm came into a recess which bounded his steps and invited him to repose. It was a circle, so formed artificially by slight trellises, to which clung parasite roses heavy with leaves and flowers. In the midst played a tiny fountain with a silvery murmuring sound; at the background, dominating the place, rose the crests of stately trees, on which the sunlight shimmered, but which rampired out all horizon beyond. Even as in life do the great dominant passions—love, ambition, desire of power, or gold, or fame, or knowledge—form the proud background to the brief-lived flowerets of our youth, lift our eyes beyond the smile of their bloom, catch the glint of a loftier sunbeam, and yet—and yet—exclude our sight from the lengths and the widths of the space which extends behind and beyond them.

Kenelm threw himself on the turf beside the fountain. From afar came the whoop and the laugh of the children in their sports or their dance. At the distance their joy did not sadden him—he marveled why; and thus, in musing reverie, thought to explain the why to himself.

“The poet,” so ran his lazy thinking, “has told us that ‘distance lends enchantment to the view,’ and thus compares to the charm of distance the illusion of hope. But the poet narrows the scope of his own illustration. Distance lends enchantment to the ear as well as to the sight; nor to these bodily senses alone. Memory, no less than hope, owes its charm to ‘the far away.’

“I cannot imagine myself again a child when I am in the midst of yon noisy children. But as their noise reaches me here, subdued and mellowed; and knowing, thank Heaven! that the urchins are not within reach of me, I could readily dream myself back into childhood and into sympathy with the lost playfields of school.

“So surely it must be with grief: how different the terrible agony for a beloved one just gone from earth, to the soft regret for one who disappeared into heaven years ago! So with the art of poetry: how imperatively, when it deals with the great emotions of tragedy, it must remove the actors from us, in proportion as the emotions are to elevate, and the tragedy is to please us by the tears it draws! Imagine our shock if a poet were to place on the stage some wise gentleman with whom we dined yesterday, and who was discovered to have killed his father and married his mother. But when Œdipus commits those unhappy mistakes nobody is shocked. Oxford in the nineteenth century is a long way off from Thebes three thousand or four thousand years ago.

“And,” continued Kenelm, plunging deeper into the maze of metaphysical criticism, “even where the poet deals with persons and things close upon our daily sight—if he would give them poetic charm he must resort to a sort of moral or psychological distance; the nearer they are to us in external circumstance, the farther they must be in some internal peculiarities. Werter and Clarissa Harlowe are described as contemporaries of their artistic creation, and with the minutest details of an apparent realism; yet they are at once removed from our daily lives by their idiosyncrasies and their fates. We know that while Werter and Clarissa are so near to us in much that we sympathize with them as friends and kinsfolk, they are yet as much remote from us in the poetic and idealized side of their natures as if they belonged to the age of Homer; and this it is that invests with charm the very pain which their fate inflicts on us. Thus, I suppose, it must be in love. If the love we feel is to have the glamor of poetry, it must be love for some one morally at a distance from our ordinary habitual selves; in short, differing from us in attributes which, however near we draw to the possessor, we can never approach, never blend, in attributes of our own; so that there is something in the loved one that always remains an ideal—a mystery—‘a sun-bright summit mingling with the sky!’”…

From this state, half comatose, half unconscious, Kenelm was roused slowly, reluctantly. Something struck softly on his cheek—again a little less softly; he opened his eyes—they fell first upon two tiny rosebuds, which, on striking his face, had fallen on his breast; and then looking up, he saw before him, in an opening of the trellised circle, a female child’s laughing face. Her hand was still uplifted, charged with another rosebud; but behind the child’s figure, looking over her shoulder and holding back the menacing arm, was a face as innocent but lovelier far—the face of a girl in her first youth, framed round with the blossoms that festooned the trellis. How the face became the flowers! It seemed the fairy spirit of them.

Kenelm started and rose to his feet. The child, the one whom he had so ungallantly escaped from, ran towards him through a wicket in the circle. Her companion disappeared.

“Is it you?” said Kenelm to the child—“you who pelted me so cruelly? Ungrateful creature! Did I not give you the best strawberries in the dish, and all my own cream?”

“But why did you run away and hide yourself when you ought to be dancing with me?” replied the young lady, evading, with the instinct of her sex, all answer to the reproach she had deserved.

“I did not run away; and it is clear that I did not mean to hide myself, since you so easily found me out. But who was the young lady with you? I suspect she pelted me too, for she seems to have run away to hide herself.”

“No, she did not pelt you; she wanted to stop me, and you would have had another rosebud—oh, so much bigger!—if she had not held back my arm. Don’t you know her—don’t you know Lily?”

“No; so that is Lily? You shall introduce me to her.”

By this time they had passed out of the circle through the little wicket opposite the path by which Kenelm had entered, and opening at once on the lawn. Here at some distance the children were grouped; some reclined on the grass, some walking to and fro, in the interval of the dance….

Before he had reached the place, Mrs. Braefield met him.

“Lily is come!”

“I know it—I have seen her.”

“Is not she beautiful?”

“I must see more of her if I am to answer critically; but before you introduce me, may I be permitted to ask who and what is Lily?”

Mrs. Braefield paused a moment before she answered, and yet the answer was brief enough not to need much consideration: “She is a Miss Mordaunt, an orphan; and as I before told you, resides with her aunt, Mrs. Cameron, a widow. They have the prettiest cottage you ever saw on the banks of the river, or rather rivulet, about a mile from this place. Mrs. Cameron is a very good, simple-hearted woman. As to Lily, I can praise her beauty only with safe conscience, for as yet she is a mere child—her mind quite unformed.”

“Did you ever meet any man, much less any woman, whose mind was formed?” muttered Kenelm. “I am sure mine is not, and never will be on this earth.”

Mrs. Braefield did not hear this low-voiced observation. She was looking about for Lily; and perceiving her at last as the children who surrounded her were dispersing to renew the dance, she took Kenelm’s arm, led him to the young lady, and a formal introduction took place.

Formal as it could be on those sunlit swards, amidst the joy of summer and the laugh of children. In such scene and such circumstance, formality does not last long. I know not how it was, but in a very few minutes Kenelm and Lily had ceased to be strangers to each other. They found themselves seated apart from the rest of the merry-makers, on the bank shadowed by lime-trees; the man listening with downcast eyes, the girl with mobile shifting glances, now on earth, now on heaven, and talking freely, gayly—like the babble of a happy stream, with a silvery dulcet voice and a sparkle of rippling smiles.

No doubt this is a reversal of the formalities of well-bred life and conventional narrating thereof. According to them, no doubt, it is for the man to talk and the maid to listen; but I state the facts as they were, honestly. And Lily knew no more of the formalities of drawing-room life than a skylark fresh from its nest knows of the song-teacher and the cage. She was still so much of a child. Mrs. Braefield was right—her mind was still so unformed.

What she did talk about in that first talk between them that could make the meditative Kenelm listen so mutely, so intently, I know not; at least I could not jot it down on paper. I fear it was very egotistical, as the talk of children generally is—about herself and her aunt and her home and her friends—all her friends seemed children like herself, though younger—Clemmy the chief of them. Clemmy was the one who had taken a fancy to Kenelm. And amidst all the ingenuous prattle there came flashes of a quick intellect, a lively fancy—nay, even a poetry of expression or of sentiment. It might be the talk of a child, but certainly not of a silly child.

But as soon as the dance was over, the little ones again gathered round Lily. Evidently she was the prime favorite of them all; and as her companions had now become tired of dancing, new sports were proposed, and Lily was carried off to “Prisoner’s Base.”

“I am very happy to make your acquaintance, Mr. Chillingly,” said a frank, pleasant voice; and a well-dressed, good-looking man held out his hand to Kenelm.

“My husband,” said Mrs. Braefield with a certain pride in her look.

Kenelm responded cordially to the civilities of the master of the house, who had just returned from his city office, and left all its cares behind him. You had only to look at him to see that he was prosperous and deserved to be so. There were in his countenance the signs of strong sense, of good-humor—above all, of an active, energetic temperament. A man of broad smooth forehead, keen hazel eyes, firm lips and jaw; with a happy contentment in himself, his house, the world in general, mantling over his genial smile, and outspoken in the metallic ring of his voice.

“You will stay and dine with us, of course,” said Mr. Braefield; “and unless you want very much to be in town to-night, I hope you will take a bed here.”

Kenelm hesitated.

“Do stay at least till to-morrow,” said Mrs. Braefield. Kenelm hesitated still; and while hesitating, his eyes rested on Lily, leaning on the arm of a middle-aged lady, and approaching the hostess—evidently to take leave.

“I cannot resist so tempting an invitation,” said Kenelm, and he fell back a little behind Lily and her companion.

“Thank you much for so pleasant a day,” said Mrs. Cameron to the hostess. “Lily has enjoyed herself extremely. I only regret we could not come earlier.”

“If you are walking home,” said Mr. Braefield, “let me accompany you. I want to speak to your gardener about his heart’s-ease—it is much finer than mine.”

“If so,” said Kenelm to Lily, “may I come too? Of all flowers that grow, heart’s-ease is the one I most prize.”

A few minutes afterward Kenelm was walking by the side of Lily along the banks of a little stream tributary to the Thames; Mrs. Cameron and Mr. Braefield in advance, for the path only held two abreast.

Suddenly Lily left his side, allured by a rare butterfly—I think it is called the Emperor of Morocco—that was sunning its yellow wings upon a group of wild reeds. She succeeded in capturing this wanderer in her straw hat, over which she drew her sun-veil. After this notable capture she returned demurely to Kenelm’s side.

“Do you collect insects?” said that philosopher, as much surprised as it was his nature to be at anything.

“Only butterflies,” answered Lily; “they are not insects, you know; they are souls.”

“Emblems of souls, you mean—at least so the Greeks prettily represented them to be.”

“No, real souls—the souls of infants that die in their cradles unbaptized; and if they are taken care of, and not eaten by birds, and live a year, then they pass into fairies.”

“It is a very poetical idea, Miss Mordaunt, and founded on evidence quite as rational as other assertions of the metamorphosis of one creature into another. Perhaps you can do what the philosophers cannot—tell me how you learned a new idea to be an incontestable fact?”

“I don’t know,” replied Lily, looking very much puzzled: “perhaps I learned it in a book, or perhaps I dreamed it.”

“You could not make a wiser answer if you were a philosopher. But you talk of taking care of butterflies: how do you do that? Do you impale them on pins stuck into a glass case?”

“Impale them! How can you talk so cruelly? You deserve to be pinched by the fairies.”

“I am afraid,” thought Kenelm, compassionately, “that my companion has no mind to be formed; what is euphoniously called ‘an innocent.’”

He shook his head and remained silent.

Lily resumed—“I will show you my collection when we get home—they seem so happy. I am sure there are some of them who know me—they will feed from my hand. I have only had one die since I began to collect them last summer.”

“Then you have kept them a year; they ought to have turned into fairies.”

“I suppose many of them have. Of course I let out all those that had been with me twelve months—they don’t turn to fairies in the cage, you know. Now I have only those I caught this year, or last autumn; the prettiest don’t appear till the autumn.”

The girl here bent her uncovered head over the straw hat, her tresses shadowing it, and uttered loving words to the prisoner. Then again she looked up and around her, and abruptly stopped and exclaimed:—

“How can people live in towns—how can people say they are ever dull in the country? Look,” she continued, gravely and earnestly—“look at that tall pine-tree, with its long branch sweeping over the water; see how, as the breeze catches it, it changes its shadow, and how the shadow changes the play of the sunlight on the brook:—

  • ‘Wave your tops, ye pines;
  • With every plant, in sign of worship wave.’
  • What an interchange of music there must be between Nature and a poet!”

    Kenelm was startled. This “an innocent!”—this a girl who had no mind to be formed! In that presence he could not be cynical; could not speak of Nature as a mechanism, a lying humbug, as he had done to the man poet. He replied gravely:—

    “The Creator has gifted the whole universe with language, but few are the hearts that can interpret it. Happy those to whom it is no foreign tongue, acquired imperfectly with care and pain, but rather a native language, learned unconsciously from the lips of the great mother. To them the butterfly’s wing may well buoy into heaven a fairy’s soul!”

    When he had thus said, Lily turned, and for the first time attentively looked into his dark soft eyes; then instinctively she laid her light hand on his arm, and said in a low voice, “Talk on—talk thus; I like to hear you.”

    But Kenelm did not talk on. They had now arrived at the garden-gate of Mrs. Cameron’s cottage, and the elder persons in advance paused at the gate and walked with them to the house.