The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Bundle of Life/Chapter 6

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VI.


Lady Mallinger came forward half-crying, half-defiant.

"I cannot, I will not believe one word Teresa has said!" exclaimed Wiche. "She is the most honest soul in the world, but she makes mistakes."

"You would be wiser," said Lilian, slowly, "if you believed her."

"So you admit it," he said. "Do you think that Love is a plaything? a mood for a dull afternoon? a frame of mind to jump in and out of just for amusement ? Is it nothing to stake your life on another's, to be faithful when they are faithless, strong when they are weak? Is it so little to love like this? Do you think it is so easy? Do you think it brings much happiness?"

Until that hour, the devotion he had felt for Lady Mallinger was of that unreal kind which is only dangerous so long as its object remains an idea. It was to a great extent theoretic, and based on the dogmas of erotic poetry: in her image he loved a dozen heroines—not one woman. Now that he had kissed her, however, and she had shown herself sufficiently human to rouse his anger, the whole relation changed. He no longer saw her through the mist of sentimental fancy; she was simply a pretty woman who attracted him. He felt vaguely that she might tempt him to say and do much which he would surely repent of. He repeated again, "Do you think such love brings much happiness?"

"Ah! if you only knew me as I know myself," murmured Lady Mallinger. "All that Teresa said of me was true—and yet, not true enough. Everything about me was falsehood and pretence, until—until you seemed to believe in me. Do you understand? Can you not see? Are you so unforgiving, or—are you only blind? Why are you so silent?"

She held out her hand, which he took half-eagerly and half in dread: her lightest touch seemed so much more satisfying than all the wisdom of the ancients.

"If I could only remain silent," said Wiche, passionately; "if I could only keep you—only feel that you were mine—mine—mine at all risks! Yet no—you act too well. I could never know how much I was mistaken."'

"Why should we refuse the happiness this hour gives us, because some other hour might take it away? In the meantime, there can be no better thing than this. No one before has ever cared whether I was in jest or earnest," she faltered; "every other man takes it for granted that I am heartless, brainless, and soulless in any case. When I am serious, they say I am in low spirits; when I am sincere, they praise my hypocrisy. So I take refuge in deceit, and I succeed so well that now I have deceived myself, and I no longer know what I mean, what I want, what I think, or what I am! To judge me fairly, you should have lived my life. My father was not kind; at eighteen I married. The world liked my husband: he ate too much, drank too much, and made too merry with other people's lives. No one knows what I have suffered. I have only found one thing which outweighs disappointment—bitterness—all—all that is harsh, heavy to bear, and terrible. That moment—that one moment when you trusted me. ...It was so unexpected. I had always liked you as a friend; but you seemed so far away, and I thought you could only have contempt for me and my vain, hopeless life. And the end of it all? Do you suppose I never think of that? Every night I say to myself, 'Another day has gone; another day of false hopes, false friends, false loves, false hates, false griefs!' Think of it! Not even a real grief: my life, myself, all — all a sham!"

"Help me to be as honest as you are," said Wiche: "is there no eternity before us? the longest past is but a second in comparison. See!" he said, kissing her, "we have forgotten it already!"

Men may still find oblivion in a kiss, but women of fashion are always—or nearly always—too self-conscious to forget the artificialities of life in the verities of passion.

"Forgotten already?" repeated Lady Mallinger, moving away from him, "I wish it were. Do not be angry with me, but I must be alone a little. There are so many things to think about—so many things. Give me half an hour."

"So much?" said her lover.

"Have we not eternity before us?" she replied.

Wiche laughed, kissed both her hands, and went out on to the Terrace: he found it almost as delightful to obey her whims as to worship her beauty. Only the strong-minded can know the extreme pleasure of self-surrender. Wiche's life had been so hard, so serious, and, in a sense, so wise until this too-enchanting present, that he seized its madness rather as a reward from the gods than a curse. He put all thought of the future from his mind—not because he feared it, but because it possessed no attraction for him. Lady Mallinger was an inexhaustible delight: egoism, which in any other woman seemed intolerable, was, in her case, the most charming thing in the world: selfishness, he argued, where the self was so perfectly bewitching even amounted to a duty: dull, tedious, and unpleasant beings did well to lose sight of themselves, but for Lilian to forget herself would be like a flower forgetting to bloom.

When Wiche had gone Lilian paced the floor and mistook this bodily exercise for deep thought. She was brought to a standstill by finding herself face to face with Teresa, who, not being able to quiet her soul, had returned in the hope of seeing Wiche once more.

"You look depressed," she said to Lady Mallinger: "at luncheon you were all vivacity, epigram, and paradox. If you had not told me I should never have suspected that you considered it your vocation to play the fool!"

"Ah, I am much wiser since our conversation this morning," said Lady Mallinger, " I am sure that the supreme happiness of a woman's life is to devote herself to the man who loves her: to be his friend, his ideal, his good angel!"

Teresa smiled bitterly. "And the supreme difficulty of a woman's life," she said, "is to find the man who desires such devotion, who has an ideal, who wants a good angel! The best of men only ask us to be for ever young and for ever pretty: let your conscience go to the dogs but keep your freshness. Virtue never yet atoned for wrinkles!"

"There I cannot agree with you," said Lady Mallinger. "I am sure that there is nothing so fascinating as sincerity! It is so uncommon. I am going to be the most sincere woman in the world, and I must begin by telling you that I was present just now during your conversation with Mr. Wiche."

"What conversation?" said Teresa.

"Let us both be sincere, dear Miss Warcop! I was sitting in that green chair when you mentioned my name. My first impulse was to rush forward: curiosity, however, intervened and I remained in my corner. Perhaps this was wrong, but my position was difficult: to begin with, I agreed perfectly with every word you said: you were only too charitable. I assured Mr. Wiche of this afterwards, but he would not believe me. When I told him that I had indeed neither mind, morals, heart, nor beauty, he looked so incredulous, and was so deaf to all argument that I despair of convincing him! Men are so prejudiced. What would you advise me to do?"

"This sarcasm does not cut!"

"Sarcasm!" cried Lilian, "I was never more candid, more natural, more absolutely transparent in my life. Why should I dissemble when I have found that you know me even better than I know myself?"

"This innocent air may deceive some infatuated man—for a time," said Teresa, "but I understand it too well. How can you dare to look so amiable when you know that you hate me. . . . You must hate me."

"Not at all: I think you are indiscreet and perhaps too impulsive, but, on the whole, I admire your character: it has a stability, a doggedness, a courage which mine lacks. I would never have the audacity, for instance, to discuss your faults with Sir Ventry. He would, I hope, be quite as blind with regard to you as my future husband is where I am concerned."

"Your future husband?" said Teresa.

"Yes," said Lady Mallinger. "Sidney was foolish enough to ask me to be his wife—at least, in so many words—and I was wise enough to accept him! If he will only trust me and believe in me always—if he will only see me—not as I am, but as I should be—I am sure we shall be happy!"

"It is not hard to be good when you have love and sympathy and encouragement," said Teresa, warmly, "but to be good when not one soul cares whether you live or die, when your kindest thoughts, your least selfish acts, your dearest sacrifices are treated alike with insult, cruelty, and contempt—to be good then, that is the great achievement. Stand alone, be indifferent to smiles and frowns, keep our eyes steadily fixed on one unattainable ideal and condemn in yourself all that falls short of it, do that and I will call you happy! Defy slander, defy the malice of evil tongues and false hearts, defy even one rule of etiquette!"

"No woman has anything to fear except the truth," said Lady Mallinger, "so long as the truth will bear telling, she can laugh at lies. They may for a time work mischief, but only for a time."

"I, too, could have such a faith in the triumph of virtue if I had such a lover as Sidney!" said Teresa, "but live my life for a month and then tell me your philosophy!"

"You look cold," murmured Lilian, after a shiver and a slight pause.

"Cold! I am always cold: feel my hand."

Lady Mallinger held it to her own pink cheeks. "You make me like you," she said; "as a rule I do not care for women, and you are almost as spiteful as the rest. But there is something about you. . . . You believe me, when I say I like you?"

"Yet you have robbed me of my one friend," cried Teresa, "you—you who have so much already. You are young and he thinks you are beautiful: I shall soon be old and I was always plain: many men have loved my money, but no one has ever loved me. In the Convent—I was brought up in a Convent—the sisters taught me how to live in Heaven: they forgot I had to get through the world first. My parents are dead and now I have nothing in this life except my wretched, hopeless interest in a man who has never given me a thought. Perhaps I need not say that. He is the only man I know who has not asked me to marry him, so I think he must like me a little. And he comes to see me very often. But you only care for him because he flatters you, you are proud of him because he is distinguished, but I was proud of him when he was poor and obscure, when every one thought him an outcast, when it was almost a crime in our miserable little corner of society to be seen even bowing to him. You do not understand him as I do: you cannot help him as I could: you play on all his weaknesses: every hour he spends with you will be a step backwards. Oh! he is no hero in my eyes, no passionless, faultless machine, but a Man.…Go! tell him all I have said, laugh at me, pity me, say 'Poor woman! That so plain and dull a creature should fall in love. How pathetic! how ridiculous!'"

Before Lilian could reply, Teresa rushed out of the room. Lady Mallinger rubbed her eyes: she, too, had once loved like this and she had been deceived. The mere remembrance of Saville drove all other thoughts from her mind: she forgot Wiche, she forgot Teresa, she forgot everything—the universe contained but two beings—herself and Rookes. Fate brought him to her at that critical moment.

"I have been for a stroll with Sir Ventry," he began awkwardly." I—I am wretched. Are you still angry?"

"I do not think we can have anything to say to each other, Saville," she said; " the last words were spoken this morning. I could wish they had been kinder: I should like to remember that we parted, at least as friends. We were so much to each other once—once we thought it could never come to this.…Please leave me."

"No, I have been longing for a chance to speak to you; now I have found it, you must listen. I will not attempt to defend myself—I——"

"You cannot: how could you? You might perhaps say that you became desperate about your debts, and so—in a sort of madness—thought to marry Felicia for her money. You might say—ah, a thousand things, but they could make no difference. It is too late to think of them."

"Too late?" said Rookes. "How can it be too late when you are there and I am here." He knelt down by her side and, custom proving too strong for him, kissed her cheek. Custom was, perhaps, too strong for her also: at all events, she made no resistance. "You know my faults," he went on, "you could never have loved me for my perfection."

"I loved the man you might have been," she murmured, "not you at all." She glanced down and found her hand lying in his. "Not you at all," she repeated. "Besides...it really is too late. I——I have lost the right to listen to you."