The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Bundle of Life/Chapter 1
The dining-room in Arden Lodge was superbly furnished with a silver chandelier. This splendid object was of such incomparable interest that Lord Twacorbie, who was a man of taste no less than an economist, had the walls which formed its background, bare, the floor beneath covered with a plain drugget, and the tables and chairs in the apartment of the simplest design. On the same artistic principle, he gave large dinners, at which the rarest, indeed, unheard-of delicacies, (which were as disagreeable to the palate as they were interesting to the explorer and antiquarian), formed the brief but sufficient menu.
On a certain evening in the early spring of 189-, one of these dinners had taken place with unusual success, possibly because most of the thirty guests were persons of importance, probably because some roast mutton had, by a new cook's judicious mistake, formed a vulgar but stimulating addition to the choice viands of the banquet. The ladies had left the table, and the fifteen men who remained sighed, some with relief, some with regret, some from the force of example, and some because they could dine no more that day.
Lord Twacorbie was a gentleman whom food did not nourish, and whose airy shapelessness made him seem in some way symbolic of the universe when it was without form, and void. To-night he fluttered a smile like the sun's on a March morning, and surveyed the company with the feverish gaiety of one who is too seriously bored to risk showing languor. He was of all men the last to entertain a table, yet few attempted the task so often, and no one could have been more ignorant of his failures. He started a conversation on the Early Marriages Bill, and quoted, with inspired inaccuracy, a speech recently made on that subject by his friend, Sidney Wiche. Wiche, who happened to be present, endured his host's recital with the air of one accustomed to suffering; at its close his countenance had something humorous, pathetic, and sublime—St. Lawrence on the gridiron saying, "Turn me! This side is done!' must have looked just so. The editor of The Watchman was a man of slender frame and with fewer inches than the ordinary; a small mortal whose boundless spirit—imprisoned yet not impatient for release—gazed through his eyes. His pale face, dull brown hair and duller beard, and the absence in his manner of all that marks the creature of many fashions and one epoch, had made him more famous for his insignificance than any of his contemporaries for their distinction. He was about seven-and-thirty, and hard work had made him look much older.
Two men who sat at the far end of the table seized the advantage of their position, and, talking in undertones, studied him with lively interest.
"Of course, he is clever," said the elder of the two; "or, at least, he is a great man for the mob. There is a distinction between greatness and being great in the eyes of a certain class." The speaker, Sir Ventry Coxe, had the so-called aristocratic air sometimes found in men of middle-class extraction, but unknown amongst the old nobility. Very young girls, sentimental women, and men of his own stamp, thought him extremely handsome: his features were bold and well-defined, his dark eyes could express any drawing-room emotion with really excellent effect; his thin, straight lips suggested his refined tastes to those who understand culture as leanness and vulgarity as curves.
"What do they think of Wiche in America?" continued the Baronet.
"They wonder that he does not marry" replied his companion; "there are so many pretty women in England."
Mr. Nicholas T. Van Huyster was a young man about eight-and-twenty, tall, slight, dark, and clean-shaven. His face was not at first sight sympathetic, but, on the other hand, he did not have the aggressive air of one who is conscious that he must be known to be appreciated.
"Wiche is not popular in society," said Sir Ventry.
"He has no presence, no manners, no small talk."
"No," answered the American, "he is not that modern of each May so beloved of dining London."
"His family is nothing," said Sir Ventry. "His mother was a person of no education, who lived with an art-critic called Wiche. By-the-by, can you imagine a more miserable occupation than this scribbling about art? What is Art? Madness in most cases, and mere frippery in others. And only one man here and there makes it pay. Look at Nature, I say, if you want beautiful pictures. But I was telling you about this fellow. It seems he was christened Sidney Wiche; his mother said that his name was at least Christian if it was not legal! I am thankful to say I never met her. I do not pretend to be a saint, but a woman without a conscience strikes me dumb! I feel that there is nothing more to say!"
"Conscience is the name which the orthodox give to their prejudices," said Van Huyster. "But have you ever heard," he went on, drawing out his pocketbook, "that Wiche's father left a very eccentric will? I received this from New York last night." He handed a newspaper cutting to Sir Ventry, who read the following:—
"Sidney Wiche was to be first a Christum, then a scholar, and in course of time a philosophical politician. He was not to marry, ' but,' ran the strange document, 'should he feel drawn towards the married state let him give the matter his best consideration for a no less term than five years, since marriage is of all subjects the one most darkened by fallacy, falsehood, and false sentiment.' During this period of prayer and reflection he was to read 'neither poets nor romancers, but St. Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Newman, and the great historians, who, between them, would so satisfy his soul, his manliness, and his common-sense that after their company any feminine prattler would seem a plague rather than a treasure?' He was to shun 'as he would the devil, learned ladies, ladies with artistic gifts, ladies who talked religion, and ladies who were not ladies! 'In conclusion, he was earnestly exhorted to practise the pious exercise of meditating for two hours daily on his own nothingness!" "Very interesting," remarked Sir Ventry; "but interesting things are never true."
"And the truth is only convincing when it is told by an experienced liar," observed Nicholas.
"Old Wiche has been dead for some time," said Sir Ventry, "and I never heard that he left Sidney either means of support or instructions; it ought to be made known if he did. One likes to hear that a man has behaved like a gentleman in such matters. Unfortunately, he died abroad, and his affairs were managed by these Italian scoundrels. One can get nothing out of them. I must say I like English straightforwardness."
"The Watchman must bring in a large income," said Van Huyster.
"Undoubtedly," replied Sir Ventry. "But what a rag the paper is! These Radicals are ruining the nation."
"I thought Wiche was a member of your own party."
"My own party," said Sir Ventry, "is not necessarily my own politics! As a man," he went on, after a pause, "I like the fellow well enough, and now that he has pushed his way into the world we all try to forget his origin. But with every desire to be fair, I cannot bring myself to regard him as a suitable match for any relative of my own. It is only too well-known that he admires my sister's step-daughter, Miss Gorm."
"That does not surprise me," said Van Huyster, fetching a deep sigh, "she is lovely. Her face is so bright yet so delicate—a star wrapped in gauze!"
Sir Ventry dropped his lower jaw, but recovered it on remembering that the millionaire wrote poetry, very bad poetry, too. "Felicia is certainly good-looking," he said; "perhaps you are aware that her mother, the former Lady Twacorbie, was an American. She made Twacorbie an excellent wife, however, greatly improved the estate and was very much liked by the Royalties. She died young."
"Good wives so often do" murmured Van Huyster, "perhaps that is one of their brightest virtues."
Sir Ventry abhorred anything in the nature of satire—it seemed to him a convenient name for offensive and unmistakable allusions to his own character and career. On this occasion he wondered whether Van Huyster was aware that he, too, Sir Ventry Coxe, had in his day buried some sixty-three inches of weary perfection. He decided to ignore the remark.
"One can see," he said, "that Felicia is extremely un-English: her manners are a little crude. But I like a woman who can talk: a man wants to be amused, he does not want to wear his brains out amusing a wife!"
At this point Lord Twacorbie rose up from the table.
The pantry was immediately behind the dining-room—and here, at the close of the dinner, Spalding, the butler, the head-gardener, Luffy, and Mrs. Danby, the housekeeper, were engaged in conversation of an even more instructive nature than that indulged by Lord Twacorbie and his distinguished company.
"Who came down from town this evening?" asked Luffy. "Sir Ventry, Mr. Wiche, Captain Rookes, and this new American, Mr. Van Huyster," said the housekeeper.
"And who are the women?" continued Luffy.
"Miss Warcop for one," said Mrs. Danby. "Between ourselves her ladyship is on the matchmaking hop again. But there—when did she ever pull anything off what you may call satisfactory? She's too hopeful. And say what you like, Luffy, it doesn't do to be hopeful in this world. Expect nothing, I say! "The widow shook her head, and heaved her breast, and hurled a poignant glance at Spalding, who had been shuddering on the brink of matrimony for twelve and a half years.
"It might be a very good thing for Sir Ventry if Miss Warcop would have him," said Spalding; "but the question arises in my mind, will she? If she would take my advice she would stay single!"
"Everybody is not so wrapt up in theirselves as you are," said Mrs. Danby, tartly.
"If I was a woman," murmured Spalding, in a weak voice, "the man doesn't live that I would sacrifice my peace of mind for. Men are not worth so much thought. The devotion of women is something awful to think of."
"It is," sighed Luffy, whose wife had a jealous temperament, "it is."
"I can say this much," said Mrs. Danby: "when Miss Warcop marries she will not choose a conceited, self-seeking, cold-hearted, unfeeling half-a-man like Sir Ventry! I would not look at him—no, not if he draped me in diamonds from head to foot! Mr. Wiche is the man for her."
"Not he," said Spalding, "he's got his eye on Lady Mallinger."
"If he was to roll his eyes at Lady Mallinger from now till Doomsday," said Mrs. Danby, "I should still say that he and Miss Warcop were made for each other. And, what is more, they will marry. Whoever lives longest will see the most. I know what I know. If God Almighty intends a couple to marry that marriage will come off". The man can't help himself. Just you bear that in mind!"
She left them, and neither of the men had the courage to smile. They talked instead of the new Cemetery, and grew cheerful on the subject of coffins.