The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Bundle of Life/Chapter 5

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V.

Lady Mallinger re-entered the room a few moments later, in all her bravery of blue muslin, ribbons, and lace. She was cooing to the love-birds when Wiche came in. His acquaintance with Lady Mallinger had extended over some four years: from her point of view it might have been called a dinner-party friendship—that is to say, they could discuss people and subjects of the hour with a freedom which passes well enough for intimacy in the vagueness, bustle, and gigantic pettiness of a London season. But to Wiche their occasional meetings and interchange of ideas had meant much more; the man of letters is not a man of letters if he accepts life and the circumstances of life as they appear at first sight—it is the prime instinct of his nature to reject what seems and to clutch—or die in failing to clutch—things not as they are, but as his imagination would have them. To be brief, our friend had fallen in love with the idea of loving Lady Mallinger.

"Do I disturb you?" he said, and took a seat near her. She smiled at him and made a charming grimace at her pets.

"There is a bazaar at the Bishop's this afternoon," he continued, "and I believe I was expected to go, but as Van Huyster enjoys these things and I do not, I have asked Lady Twacorbie to take him in my stead. I hope she will not be offended, but I really wanted to get a quiet hour with you.

Her heart jumped and she studied him with a new interest. There is one glory of the friend, and another glory of the possible lover. For the first time she discovered that he had a certain intensity, a masterful air, a look of determination—all of which she admired.

"We have so few opportunities to speak to each other," he said.

"You have changed since I first knew you," cried Lady Mallinger: "we were such good friends once, and now—when we meet—I hardly know how to describe it—there is a coldness, a restraint. I have feared that you did not like me. But I am saying too much."

"If I told you that there was indeed a reason for my restraint, would you care?"

She put her lips to the cage and piped, apparently to the birds—"Tell me the reason!"

"Have you never guessed it? was I so hard to understand?"

"I could never understand any man, but then a man never seems able to explain himself, does he?

"It may be that he dare not try," said Wiche.

" What could he fear?" she asked; "can it be that men know how unstable they are? I always thought they could not, because they never try to be firmer. And I love firmness! Now we women know only too well that we are very weak, very foolish, very shallow, and we wonder what men can see in us! We must be so tiresome! such burdens! such unnecessary evils! such tedious, provoking creatures! Some of us may have some beauty; yet that soon goes, and then there is nothing left of us but a headache! Oh, do not look surprised: I fear I am growing cynical. I am beginning to agree with many of your views on the soul, and death, and marriage, and things of that order!"

"Ah! never trust a man's opinion on any subject until he has been in love," said Wiche. "Love is the only thing which can make life as clear as noon-day."

"Then I suppose you still find it dark and perplexing! Dear me! how idly I talk. I meant to say— but would it be impertinent? I was only thinking that a day, an hour, perhaps a few words might make all the difference in your ideas!"

"If I told you," said Wiche, "that sleeping and waking I heard but one voice, saw but one face."

"Does it bore you?" she said, "would you rather not see it?"

"Each day," he continued, " it grows dearer to me, more beautiful, more—ah! if I waited until I were more eloquent I would never speak, never tell you my one hope, my one aim, my one ambition—above all things, beyond all things, before all things. Just—to gain you; to gain you —just that. I would not own it was impossible, I only saw you, loved you and waited. You passed me by, you hardly knew me. I was only one in a crowded world. A friend? Yes, when you remembered me? was that often? Sometimes we talked together: once I wrapped you in your opera cloak, have you forgotten? I touched your cheek—it was an accident."

"As you say," murmured Lilian, "it only happened once."

"Another time you leant for a moment on my arm."

"That was a year ago!"

"In March," he said, "it was a perfect night."

" Oh, no! it rained."

"A perfect night," he repeated, moving nearer, "and you never guessed how much I loved you: how much you were to me; how much I loved you! How beautiful, how very beautiful——" He kissed her.

Lady Mallinger started away in a sudden panic. "I did not mean to say so much," she said. " I did not mean—but hark!" She put her finger to her lips and flew across the room into a large chair with wide arms. These concealed her from Teresa Warcop who now entered. She was evidently much agitated in spite of her quiet manner. "I am so glad to find you alone," she said to Wiche, "because I must speak to you. But first let me say, in justice to myself, that I am not a mischief-maker. If I ever seem meddlesome it is only because I am so interested in my friends that I cannot remain silent when speech would be of service to them."

"You have too much heart," said Wiche.

"I cannot bear to see a man deceived, trifled with, made a jest for chattering vixens!" said Teresa, passionately.

"The worst of it is that he rarely shows gratitude if one endeavours to enlighten him."

"A thankless task, I know," said Teresa; "but if we only do our duty for the sake of being thanked, we are miserable creatures....O Sidney! never trust a woman! At least, never trust blue eyes! Oh! when I think of it, I lose all patience, almost all charity. That such a man should be duped by such a woman! Woman, did I say? No, a mere bundle of fire and frivolity!"

"How much more promising than mere flesh-and-blood," exclaimed Wiche.

"She made a bargain," said Teresa, "a kind of wager—that she would force you into a flirtation. And she thinks she is succeeding: she-even began her machinations at luncheon. I saw it all: her looks, laughs, sighs. Oh, it was insupportable!"

"Are you speaking of poor little Felicia?' said Wiche.

"Felicia?" said Teresa. "Felicia? When I speak of a creature with neither heart, morals, mind, nor beauty—a heap of lies, vanity, and affectation—I mean Lady Mallinger."

Wiche grew so pale that Teresa—half with jealousy and half with fright—grew even paler. She held out both her trembling hands, and stumbled blindly towards him.

"My heart has been with you," she stammered. "I feel it all, see it all, know it all."

What she meant she hardly knew. He neither looked nor uttered a reply; but, brushing past her with a gesture hard to translate, walked to the window. A stillness almost like some grim and living presence filled the room. Teresa remained in her rigid attitude, staring, with despairing tenderness, not at the man, but at the place where he had stood.

"A wager! a bargain!" said Wiche, at last. "I do not understand."

"Nor did I when I first heard it," said Teresa. "I could scarcely believe anything so odious, even of her. And I have heard a good many stories, too! But Charlotte explained the matter only too clearly. Lilian was to distract you. That was the expression: her own words." She paused a moment. Wiche never stirred, but kept one unchanging expression, which betrayed nothing save its unchangeableness. "Have I been wrong to tell you?" she went on; "have I been wrong? But friendship, my sense of justice, and you—the noblest man I know, the one above all others I—I respect."

"I do not understand you—or her," said Wiche, at last.

"My dear friend, men only understand the kind of woman who is more masculine than a man!...But, Sidney, are you vexed with me ? Have I been too zealous ? You know, you surely believe I meant no malice? Yet I cannot say that I feel any kindness for Lady Mallinger; that would be impossible. I despise her!"

"Is that necessary?" said Wiche.

"Can I forgive her conduct towards yourself? Not that she has succeeded in fooling you. But the attempt—I cannot forgive the attempt. What impudence! what presumption!"

"Ah, there you are unjust! The feat was well within her power: I was only too willing to be fooled."

"Willing!" cried Teresa. "Where is your spirit? How weak a man is, after all! What a mercy that she cannot hear you: it would make her even vainer than she is by nature."

"I fear we are growing too old and prosaic," said Wiche, bitterly; "no wonder these young people try to rouse us."

"Sidney!...Do I seem old?"

"No one would guess your age," he said, without looking at her.

"Unfortunately, you know it!" said Teresa.

"Would you have forgiven me, if I had made such a bargain as this other woman? I think not."

Wiche did not hear the remark, or if he did, he made no reply.

She swallowed a sob and left the room.