A Christmas Garland/Euphemia Clashthought
AN IMITATION OF MEREDITH
In the heart of insular Cosmos, remote by some scores of leagues of Hodge-trod arable or pastoral, not more than a snuff-pinch for gaping tourist nostrils accustomed to inhalation of prairie winds, but enough for perspective, from those marginal sands, trident-scraped, we are to fancy, by a helmeted Dame Abstract familiarly profiled on discs of current bronze—price of a loaf for humbler maws disdainful of Gallic side-dishes for the titillation of choicer palates—stands Clashthought Park, a house of some pretension, mentioned at Runnymede, with the spreading exception of wings given to it in later times by Daedalean masters not to be baulked of billiards or traps for Terpsichore, and owned for unbroken generations by a healthy line of procreant Clashthoughts, to the undoing of collateral branches eager for the birth of a female. Passengers through cushioned space, flying topspeed or dallying with obscure stations not alighted at apparently, have had it pointed out to them as beheld dimly for a privileged instant before they sink back behind crackling barrier of instructive paper with a "Thank you, Sir," or "Madam," as the case may be. Guide-books praise it. I conceive they shall be studied for a cock-shy of rainbow epithets slashed in at the target of Landed Gentry, premonitorily. The tintinnabulation's enough. Periodical footings of Clashthoughts into Mayfair or the Tyrol, signalled by the slide from its mast of a crested index of Aeolian caprice, blazon of their presence, give the curious a right to spin through the halls and galleries under a cackle of housekeeper guideship—scramble for a chuck of the dainties, dog fashion. There is something to be said for the rope's twist. Wisdom skips.
It is recorded that the goblins of this same Lady Wisdom were all agog one Christmas morning between the doors of the house and the village church, which crouches on the outskirt of the park, with something of a lodge in its look, you might say, more than of celestial twinkles, even with Christmas hoar-frost bleaching the grey of it in sunlight, as one sees imaged on seasonable missives for amity in the trays marked "sixpence and upwards," here and there, on the counters of barter.
Be sure these goblins made obeisance to Sir Peter Clashthought, as he passed by, starched beacon of squirearchy, wife on arm, sons to heel. After him, certain members of the household—rose-chapped males and females, bearing books of worship. The pack of goblins glance up the drive with nudging elbows and whisperings of "Where is daughter Euphemia? Where Sir Rebus, her affianced?"
Off they scamper for a peep through the windows of the house. They throng the sill of the library, ears acock and eyelids twittering admiration of a prospect. Euphemia was in view of them—essence of her. Sir Rebus was at her side. Nothing slips the goblins.
"Nymph in the Heavy Dragoons" was Mrs. Cryptic-Sparkler's famous definition of her. The County took it for final—an uncut gem with a fleck in the heart of it. Euphemia condoned the imagery. She had breadth. Heels that spread ample curves over the ground she stood on, and hands that might floor you with a clench of them, were hers. Grey eyes looked out lucid and fearless under swelling temples that were lost in a ruffling copse of hair. Her nose was virginal, with hints of the Iron Duke at most angles. Square chin, cleft centrally, gave her throat the look of a tower with a gun protrudent at top. She was dressed for church evidently, but seemed no slave to Time. Her bonnet was pushed well back from her head, and she was fingering the ribbons. One saw she was a woman. She inspired deference.
"Forefinger for Shepherd's Crook" was what Mrs. Cryptic-Sparkler had said of Sir Rebus. It shall stand at that.
"You have Prayer Book?" he queried.
She nodded. Juno catches the connubial trick.
"Ancient and Modern."
"I may share with you?"
"I know by heart. Parrots sing."
"Philomel carols," he bent to her.
"Complaints spoil a festival."
He waved hand to the door. "Lady, your father has started."
"He knows the adage. Copy-books instil it."
"Inexorable truth in it."
"We may dodge the scythe."
"To be choked with the sands?"
She flashed a smile. "I would not," he said, "that my Euphemia were late for the Absolution."
She cast eyes to the carpet. He caught them at the rebound.
"It snows," she murmured, swimming to the window.
"A flake, no more. The season claims it."
"I have thin boots."
"My maid buttons. She is at church."
"Ten on each."
"Five," he corrected.
"I beg your pardon."
She saw opportunity. She swam to the bell-rope and grasped it for a tinkle. The action spread feminine curves to her lover's eyes. He was a man.
Obsequiousness loomed in the doorway. Its mistress flashed an order for port—two glasses. Sir Rebus sprang a pair of eyebrows on her. Suspicion slid down the banisters of his mind, trailing a blue ribbon. Inebriates were one of his hobbies. For an instant she was sunset.
"Medicinal," she murmured.
"Forgive me, Madam. A glass, certainly. 'Twill warm us for worshipping."
The wine appeared, seemed to blink owlishly through the facets of its decanter, like some hoary captive dragged forth into light after years of subterraneous darkness—something querulous in the sudden liberation of it. Or say that it gleamed benignant from its tray, steady-borne by the hands of reverence, as one has seen Infallibility pass with uplifting of jewelled fingers through genuflexions to the Balcony. Port has this in it: that it compels obeisance, master of us; as opposed to brother and sister wines wooing us with a coy flush in the gold of them to a cursory tope or harlequin leap shimmering up the veins with a sly wink at us through eyelets. Hussy vintages swim to a cosset. We go to Port, mark you!
Sir Rebus sipped with an affectionate twirl of thumb at the glass's stem. He said "One scents the cobwebs."
"Catches in them," Euphemia flung at him.
"I take you. Bacchus laughs in the web."
"Unspun but for Pallas."
"A lady's jealousy."
"Brewed in the paternal pate. Grant it!"
"For a spring in accoutrements."
Sir Rebus inclined gravely. Port precludes prolongment of the riposte.
She replenished glasses. Deprecation yielded. "A step," she said, "and we are in time for the First Lesson."
"This," he agreed, "is a wine."
"There are blasphemies in posture. One should sit to it."
"Perhaps." He sank to commodious throne of leather indicated by her finger.
Again she filled for him. "This time, no heel-taps," she was imperative. "The Litany demands basis."
"True." He drained, not repelling the decanter placed at his elbow.
"It is a wine," he presently repeated with a rolling tongue over it.
"Laid down by my great-grandfather. Cloistral."
"Strange," he said, examining the stopper, "no date. Antediluvian. Sound, though."
He drew out his note-book. "The senses," he wrote, "are internecine. They shall have learned esprit de corps before they enslave us." This was one of his happiest flings to general from particular. "Visual distraction cries havoc to ultimate delicacy of palate" would but have pinned us a butterfly best a-hover; nor even so should we have had truth of why the aphorist, closing note-book and nestling back of head against that of chair, closed eyes also.
As by some such law as lurks in meteorological toy for our guidance in climes close-knit with Irony for bewilderment, making egress of old woman synchronise inevitably with old man's ingress, or the other way about, the force that closed the aphorist's eye-lids parted his lips in degree according. Thus had Euphemia, erect on hearth-rug, a cavern to gaze down into. Outworks of fortifying ivory cast but denser shadows into the inexplorable. The solitudes here grew murmurous. To and fro through secret passages in the recesses leading up deviously to lesser twin caverns of nose above, the gnomes Morphean went about their business, whispering at first, but presently bold to wind horns in unison—Rolandwise, not less.
Euphemia had an ear for it; whim also to construe lord and master relaxed but reboant and soaring above the verbal to harmonic truths of abstract or transcendental, to be hummed subsequently by privileged female audience of one bent on a hook-or-crook plucking out of pith for salvation.
She caught tablets pendent at her girdle. "How long," queried her stilus, "has our sex had humour? Jael hammered."
She might have hitched speculation further. But Mother Earth, white-mantled, called to her.
Casting eye of caution at recumbence, she paddled across the carpet and anon swam out over the snow.
Pagan young womanhood, six foot of it, spanned eight miles before luncheon.
- It were not, as a general rule, well to republish after a man's death the skit you made of his work while he lived. Meredith, however, was so transcendent that such skits must ever be harmless, and so lasting will his fame be that they can never lose what freshness they may have had at first. So I have put this thing in with the others, making improvements that were needed.—M.B.