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She was like a fancy picture of a very great lady for which someone who was not a great lady at all had sat. “A dowager duchess people would say of the picture; and the original was a Perpetual Curate's widow, who had never cared for parishes, and a poor grumbling folk, and little dull usefulnesses. And Hessy, with a rebel head bent over her work, was not thinking of it: her fingers were clever enough to do it without any current attention. To her, poverty and dullness and her place in this obscure, forgotten corner of the world were a sheer cage, where she sat beating her youth and vague desires for life up against the harsh bars of inexorable circumstance. And the quiet voice came, like the breathing of a great silence, from one who had turned away from the world, and, folding up its long catalogue of ambitious chances, had chosen that which was Hessy's cage and found in it-everything. Poverty, obscurity, forgottenness, obedience, these four walls had made no prison ; in prison one loses everything but self. Oneself fills it to bursting. Leaving self outside, he had found the Only Greater than self that man has ever known, or will : God and all.
When, three years later, Fernando himself knew that old Cistercian Abbot, he could hardly ever see him without seeing too (as it were behind him) the figures of Hessy Thrush and her mother.
THE MONK'S BOOKS
A pause of two whole years in a boy's school life at just the time when he should be most steadily at work, from fifteen to seventeen, could hardly be made up by any subsequent ardour of study; and poor Fernando never studied arduously. That he was a passionate reader alone saved him from flat ignorance; a scholar he could scarcely become, and a scholar he never did become. As always happens when we realise our neglected chances, he came, much too late, to look back with unavailing regrets to his laziness at school, and especially at his last school; and one good result did accrue from that belated repentance—the determination to go on educating himself throughout life.
The two years at home, when he should have been hard at work at school, were not his own fault; in fact, that he did go away to school again was, as will be shown in its place, his own doing. At the time he was told that the question of expense made it impossible for him to remain at school. And, as he could not help being at home, he simply set about enjoying it, and most thoroughly succeeded. No two years of his life till then had ever been anything like so pleasant. He paid delightful and long visits to the hospitable houses of relations and friends, and at Gracechurch itself he was always happy.
As has been said, it would have been his unenterprising ideal of life to have gone on to the end at Gracechurch. He had no ambition, and no desire for change. Yet he knew instinctively that the Gracechurch days would come to an end, and perhaps the very sense of that inevitable parting cast a wistful and tender halo over those final years at home.
No doubt most lads of his age would have thought life in such a quiet place dull enough. There was only one boy of anything near his own age in the place, and he was away at Eton except during the holidays. Nor were there any young men - which Fernando minded more, for he always got on better with young men than with boys.
Hessy Thrush, a little older than himself, was the only quite young girl, when the Graces were away in London, as they always were from about February to July. Probably most lads of sixteen or so would have considered it their duty to fall in love with Hessy in Fernando's circumstances, and I daresay the old ladies of Gracechurch thought he would-or had already done so. But though boys in their teens are apt enough to fancy themselves in love with young ladies a little senior to themselves, it did not occur to Fernando ; and that was a good thing for him, as Miss Hessy's power of ridicule was considerable. Perceiving no tiresome proclivities that way in him, she treated Fernando with a comfortable, almost young-mannish, intimacy.
On the evening when the Mill on the Floss was interrupted by the little episode of the Abbot's letters, Hessy, who had grown tired of the subject, told Fernando he might, if he liked, take away with him the books the Abbot had sent; and of the permission the lad greedily availed himself.
He sat up in his own room reading them till his candles were burned out, and then lay awake thinking of them.