Let me be careful to do justice to a man whom I personally disliked. My senior pupil began well: he produced a decidedly favorable impression on the persons attached to my little household.
The women, especially, admired his beautiful light hair, his crisply-curling beard, his delicate complexion, his clear blue eyes, and his finely shaped hands and feet. Even the inveterate reserve in his manner, and the downcast, almost sullen, look which had prejudiced me against him, aroused a common feeling of romantic enthusiasm in my servants' hall. It was decided, on the high authority of the housekeeper herself, that 'the new gentleman' was in love - and, more interesting still, that he was the victim of an unhappy attachment which had driven him away from his friends and his home.
For myself, I tried hard, and tried vainly, to get over my first dislike to the senior pupil.
I could find no fault with him. All his habits were quiet and regular; and he devoted himself conscientiously to his reading. But, little by little, I became satisfied that his heart was not in his studies. More than this, I had my reasons for suspecting that he was concealing something from me, and that he felt painfully the reserve on his own part which he could not, or dared not, break through. There were moments when I almost doubted whether he had not chosen my remote country rectory as a safe place of refuge from some person or persons of whom he stood in dread.
For example, his ordinary course of proceeding, in the matter of his correspondence, was, to say the least of it, strange.
He received no letters at my house. They waited for him at the village post office. He invariably called for them himself, and invariably forbore to trust any of my servants with his own letters for the post. Again, when we were out walking together, I more than once caught him looking furtively over his shoulder, as if he suspected some person of following him, for some evil purpose. Being constitutionally a hater of mysteries, I determined, at an early stage of our intercourse, on making an effort to clear matters up. There might be just a chance of my winning the senior pupil's confidence, if I spoke to him while the last days of the summer vacation still left us alone together in the house.
'Excuse me for noticing it,' I said to him one morning, while we were engaged over our books - 'I cannot help observing that you appear to have some trouble on your mind. Is it indiscreet, on my part, to ask if I can be of any use to you?'
He changed color - looked up at me quickly - looked down again at his book - struggled hard with some secret fear or secret reluctance that was in him - and suddenly burst out with this extraordinary question: 'I suppose you were in earnest when you preached that sermon in London?'
'I am astonished that you should doubt it,' I replied.
He paused again; struggled with himself again; and startled me by a second outbreak, even stranger than the first.
'I am one of the people you preached at in your sermon,' he said. 'That's the true reason why I asked you to take me for your pupil. Don't turn me out! When you talked to your congregation of tortured and tempted people, you talked of Me.'
I was so astonished by the confession, that I lost my presence of mind. For the moment, I was unable to answer him.
'Don't turn me out!' he repeated. 'Help me against myself. I am telling you the truth. As God is my witness, I am telling you the truth!'
'Tell me the whole truth,' I said; 'and rely on my consoling and helping you - rely on my being your friend.'
In the fervor of the moment, I took his hand. It lay cold and still in mine; it mutely warned me that I had a sullen and a secret nature to deal with.
'There must be no concealment between us,' I resumed. 'You have entered my house, by your own confession, under false pretenses. It is your duty to me, and your duty to yourself, to speak out.'
The man's inveterate reserve - cast off for the moment only - renewed its hold on him. He considered, carefully considered, his next words before he permitted them to pass his lips.
'A person is in the way of my prospects in life,' he began slowly, with his eyes cast down on his book. 'A person provokes me horribly. I feel dreadful temptations (like the man you spoke of in your sermon) when I am in the person's company. Teach me to resist temptation. I am afraid of myself, if I see the person again. You are the only man who can help me. Do it while you can.'
He stopped, and passed his handkerchief over his forehead.
'Will that do?' he asked - still with his eyes on his book.
'It will not do,' I answered. 'You are so far from really opening your heart to me, that you won't even let me know whether it is a man or a woman who stands in the way of your prospects in life. You used the word 'person,' over and over again - rather than say 'he' or 'she' when you speak of the provocation which is trying you. How can I help a man who has so little confidence in me as that?'
My reply evidently found him at the end of his resources. He tried, tried desperately, to say more than he had said yet. No! The words seemed to stick in his throat. Not one of them would pass his lips.
'Give me time,' he pleaded piteously. 'I can't bring myself to it, all at once. I mean well. Upon my soul, I mean well. But I am slow at this sort of thing. Wait till to-morrow.'
To-morrow came - and again he put it off.
'One more day!' he said. 'You don't know how hard it is to speak plainly. I am half afraid; I am half ashamed. Give me one more day.'
I had hitherto only disliked him. Try as I might (and did) to make merciful allowance for his reserve, I began to despise him now.