The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Bundle of Life/Chapter 7

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VII.

In the meantime Wiche's half-hour had come to an end. The clock was chiming five when he appeared at the drawing-room window. Rookes sprang to his feet: Lady Mallinger affected to laugh. "My cousin is teasing me," she said, "he will not let me tell him that I am really a very serious woman. He—he does not believe in me as you do!" As she spoke she touched Wiche's arm as though to assert her ownership. Neither of the men spoke: a footman entered and announced that tea was served on the lawn.

"We must go then," said Lilian. She led the way, but when she turned, she found that only Wiche had followed her.

"It is as well," she said, in her prettiest manner; "we are happier by ourselves!" This was no doubt charming, and it may have been true. Wiche, however, was no less troubled by the fact than the possibility. Both were distracting, for, at that moment, he wished to overlook her fascination and think only of what was certain. And the one thing certain was, in his judgment, her love for Rookes. This truth—like all truths—had flashed upon him like a message from his guardian angel.

"Do not look so grave," said Lady Mallinger; "we have been serious the whole afternoon, and now I want to rest! Do you like me in pink? Because I have the loveliest pink satin which I am dying to wear this evening."

"How old are you?" he said, suddenly.

"Oh! My dear, dear Sidney! One can see that you have never made love before! How old am I? I forget: I was born so long ago. I must be at least twenty-two. Of course, I look even more, but then my life has been so unhappy. Now it will all be different, and perhaps I shall grow young again. You will be kind to me, will you not? And patient? And you will not expect to find me very good, and very truthful, and very quiet all at once. You will give me time? And you will not often be as cross as you are now, will you?" At length she saw it was useless to ignore the demon who sat between them. "It was not my fault," she said, "it really was not my fault. I told Saville I had lost the right to listen to him. And now you are blaming me. It is so hard that I must always be made miserable—even when I have made up my mind to be contented. I have tried my very best," she added, "to be happy this afternoon!"

"Was it such an effort?" said Wiche.

" All—all is an effort," she answered, "except folly. That seems the only easy, natural, and pleasant thing in the world!"

" What do you call folly?"

"Everything I want to do, everything I want to say, everything I care for—that is what I call folly."

"My dear," said Wiche, "you are in love. And Rookes is the man!"

"Tut! How little you know me ! I admit that I am greatly attached to Saville—in spite of his faults, but then I have known him so long! But in love with him—never! We are the dearest friends possible, and quarrel incessantly—but that is all!"

"Are you sure?" said Wiche, "are you sure that is all?"

She made no answer, but, soothing her lace which fluttered a little in the breeze, hummed without knowing it,

"Virtue how frail it is!
Friendship how rare!
Love, how it sells poor bliss
For proud despair!"

"That," said Wiche, gravely, "is what Rookes was singing last evening."

"Pity me," she murmured.

"Why?"

"I adore him!"

While we exist we can never escape any stage of development; if our infancy be prematurely wise, our years of discretion will have an inappropriate childishness. Lilian was living life backwards, and her sudden moods of immaturity which may have accounted for Rookes's corresponding moods of fickleness, filled Wiche with dismay. Passion in these circumstances was impossible: affection became angelic, and sentiment lost all question of sex.

"I adore Saville," she repeated, and looked at Wiche with so beseeching an air, with such utter helplessness and irresponsibility that he wondered how he could ever have mistaken her for a woman. He still recognized her grace and beauty, but it roused in him the same kind of emotion a man might feel on seeing the child of one he had loved deeply and who was dead. It was a sorrowful task to trace the resemblance: to note the likeness in line, and delicate tones and expression: to say to himself, "Lilian's mouth had that curve, her eyes were that colour, her throat was as white!"

"You must forget," he said, "you must forget—if you have not already forgotten—all that passed this afternoon. It was a great mistake."

It was a great mistake. Lady Mallinger brushed the echo of these words from her ear: she would not believe that they had ever been uttered. "This is what comes," she thought, "of telling a man the truth: he flies!"

"You may have made a mistake," she replied, "but I have said nothing to you which I could ever wish to unsay. Saville told me this morning that men may fall in love dozens of times, but that each experience is new. They can only love once one way. This is true of women also. And it all comes to this: love is precisely the same kind of emotion as religion. Oh, if we would only be as patient with human nature as God is! Some days we are more devout than others: the saint who appeals to you in one mood may repel you in another: this month we devote ourselves to Our Lady, and another to St. Paul; some people, too, mistake incense for dogma, and love of music for love of virtue. But the folly and sensuousness of creatures like myself cannot touch the great unalterable truths. I may never know them as they are, but they have been known. You will wonder what I am trying to tell you. It is hard to say: I believe I mean that my adoration of Saville is not very serious!"

Wiche was a man who had learnt what he knew of human nature through self-discipline and not through self-abandon. Knowing therefore his own character and its possibilities so well, he was astonished to find that Lilian's was so like—subject, of course, to certain feminine modifications. He was acquainted with many men who could give an accurate appraisement of each and all their impulses, thoughts, and emotions, who were such skilled self-analysts that they never by any chance confounded their soul with their body, or their conscience with either. He had never met a woman, however, who possessed this power even in a slight and half-unconscious degree; he looked at Lilian and felt that while she hid cured him of his fit of love, she had never seemed so deeply interesting as a fellow-creature.

"My dear," he said, "you must surely see that we should be wretched if we married."

"Why?" said Lilian, "it would be such a comfort to me to have some one I could really trust and believe in; some one who would help me to be serious; to know one being at least who was not led away by all manner of idle fancies!"

The irony of the situation would have been ludicrous if it had not been so heart-breaking.

"Do not imagine that I am that one being," said Wiche, hastily. "God knows I am flimsy enough. And I am afraid it is always disastrous to pin one's faith to a mere mortal. Even the best of us are miserably imperfect as rocks of defence; you see we are flesh-and-blood, we are not granite."

"Treat me as though I had a mind, Sidney," she said, "and I will follow you to the ends of the earth!"

"I do not think," he stammered, "we could ever be happy together."

"You mean," said Lady Mallinger, "that you do not care for me in the way you thought."

"I will always be your friend," he said, firmly, "but———" Her sense of what was just and meet told her that it only remained now to call her soul into her eyes, gaze mournfully at Wiche, and leave him. Saville after all loved her the best.

Women like Lady Mallinger have to die young in order to be understood: then—and then not always—some onlooker more discerning than the others will see in the cold body some trace of a fiery spirit too ardent and too restless for mortality. Alas! poor soul. Seeking the highest, best, most beautiful, and purest—and finding a Saville Rookes.

The modern is always an unwilling slave to sentiment: if he find himself captivated by a romantic love or a sublime ideal he accepts his state in the shamefaced and hopeless certainty that his common-sense will one day come to the rescue. He cannot believe that what he takes for beauty will always be so fair, or that what seems good for the moment could be inspiring for ever. Satisfaction only makes him restless: he sighs for happiness and, having found it, sighs lest, after all, it should only be a shadow cast by his own desires. Wiche therefore suffered his disappointment with smiling patience and with something even of relief; once he had doubted that all was vanity, had suspected that life yet held much that was precious and desirable, that love was an immortal fact, and endured. He felt now that he need struggle no longer against despair, and, abandoning himself to the intense pleasures of profound melancholy, became agreeably tired of existence. To his unspeakable resentment, however, one shining thought pierced the blackness of his thoughts. Teresa still remained. But she had never been his ideal. Teresa was Teresa—a vivid, distinct personality, a being whom no amount of romantic disguise could make seem other than she was, and who was incomparable, not because of her singular merits, but because no one else had the same faults.