The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Bundle of Life/Chapter 9

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IX.

Teresa sat alone in the drawing-room before dinner that evening. The lamps were lit and their hazy light fell on the orange velvet draperies, the vases of blue Sevres, the Chinese embroideries on scarlet satin, the copper bowls, the tiger skins and the Indian shawls. Teresa loved colour, gorgeous sunsets, the blare of trumpets, loud music—all that could send some note of the tremendous into the undramatic tragedy of her existence. To-night she wore a gown of silver brocade: lace concealed her neck, and long sleeves her arms, but neither brocade nor lace could hide the slight, almost angular figure of their wearer. She held a book of devotions in her lap, the leaves of which she turned at random, but her glance fell now on the clock, and now on the mirror—rarely on the volume and its grotesque old woodcuts of saints and ecstatic virgins. At last the sound of footsteps in the corridor without, and the opening of a door, marred the disquieting repose of her vigil. She let fall the book of prayers; the little crash it made on striking the floor and the rustle of her silk petticoat drowned the words of greeting which she addressed to Wiche, who now entered.

He chose a chair near hers, but she, half-unconsciously, shrank back. He was too engrossed in his own thoughts, however, to notice the movement.

"I fear I seemed most ungrateful this afternoon," he said, "but I felt quite sure that you would one day understand Lady Mallinger, and know, as I do, the real woman. Perhaps I should say the real child."

"When I spoke," said Teresa, in a low-voice, "I did not know that you loved her. And she has charmed away my prejudice since then. I will frankly admit that I did not wish to discover anything bewitching either in her face or in her manner. I only wanted to have the right to detest her with a clear conscience !"

"Yet, in spite of all this, she conquered you?"

"She conquered me," repeated Teresa, "but let me say one thing—she is too romantic: she lives by moonlight."

Wiche laughed."She has seen a great deal of the world," he said, " and I have often been struck by her extraordinary, almost terrible common-sense. She may have a certain amount of sentimentalism in her brain, but at heart she is cold and critical. This ache to be amused, this longing to hear music in the air, to see beauty on all sides, to find life one ever-new, yet ever-abiding pleasure, these are the fierce, never-gratified desires of those who love only themselves. But to him who loves others—even one other" —he found himself looking into Teresa's eyes—"even one other—the commonest things seem rare, the blackest shadows have a radiance indescribable, and the harshest notes are heavenly melodies: disappointment, bitterness, and desolation have no part in his existence!"

"These exalted moods are brief—terribly brief," said Teresa, "and they show us just enough of our lost divinity to make us ever more wretched as mere mortals and children of Adam. It is the day after, the days after, the weeks, months, years after when we can only remember that once we were happy for half-an-hour!" She seemed to have forgotten Wiche's presence, and he felt that she was thinking of something in her own experience in which he bore no part. It was certain that she could have no knowledge of his love-adventure with Lady Mallinger, and he could not make up his mind to tell the news just then.

"I wonder," he said, abruptly, "I have often wondered why you are the only one in the world I can talk to without the dread of saying either more or less than I mean."

"I will tell you why," she answered: "I could never misunderstand you, Sidney, because I love you." Although she was a woman in whom the coquette was, at all events, slumbering, her primmest, least emotional manner had the mysterious charm of those things which we note unmoved and remember with passionate interest. She made her declaration of love so quietly that Wiche saw neither its oddness, nor, indeed, its full meaning: he coloured a little, however, at the sense her words might have conveyed.

"Do not think I am choosing phrases at random," she went on, "I meant what I said. There is only one thing in my life which I can be grateful for—that is my love for yourself. Many people would think it very unwomanly on my part to tell you this: I am only proud to know that I am capable of loving any one. All affection seems to have been laughed out of the world: when it is not ridiculous, it is thought hysterical. To me it remains and always must remain, the greatest—the only perfect gift—that God has given us. So I have told you." Her lips trembled a little as she added, "I suppose, too, you have heard it already from Lady Mallinger?"

"What could I hear from Lady Mallinger," he asked, growing more and more bewildered. Teresa's expression was so frigid though her words were so kind. "I am sure we are talking at cross purposes."

"Do you mean to say," she stammered, "that she never told you all—all I said to her this afternoon?"

"She has never uttered your name."

Teresa hid her face in her hands and forced back her tears. She had needlessly betrayed her secret.

"I will explain," she said, at last. "Lady Mallinger told me this afternoon that she was going to marry you: we had some words and I—I confessed quite plainly what I—I said just now. And I thought she would surely repeat it—so— in order to avoid any misapprehension—I decided to let you hear it from me also. It needed courage, but now all my courage has gone—I had only enough for that. It wanted so much. Do not say a word: please go."

"Lady Mallinger is not going to marry me," he said, quietly.

He touched Teresa's hand, and conquered his impulse to kiss it: that was not the moment, nor indeed could he imagine a time when it might be the moment. She seemed to stand in an enchanted circle. Suddenly, he saw that she was crying. This touch of weakness seemed to supply the one thing he had always missed in her character. Teresa had, as a rule, a self-command which was almost forbidding—even her occasional indiscretions had something well- considered and reasonable. She lacked that inconsequence, that capriciousness, that delicious nonsense which most men and all strong natures find so alluring and adorable. To see her weeping, therefore, was to behold a new creature. Wiche was uncertain how to reply, when she herself, brushing the tears from her cheeks, asked him a question.

"Why?" she said, "why are you not going to marry Lady Mallinger?"

"I want to tell you about that," he said. "I am afraid there is not time to tell the whole story now. But Lady Mallinger discovered that she had made a mistake, she loved some one else, and I—I have been such a fool, Teresa, such a fool! I do not know whether I love you or not. I only know that I hate my life when you are not near me!" This truth, which had been sleeping so long, woke at the first whisper of its name: he realized how pitiably little would remain to him if Teresa were taken from his memory: it was her very oneness with his own mind which had made him overlook her: when he imagined that he was thinking of himself he was thinking of Teresa also.

"I only know," he said once more, "that I hate my life when you are not near me!"

She could have wished that he had expressed himself with less egoism; if he cared for her at all it was because she was necessary to his peace of soul: at least, so it sounded. But she was a woman who found her happiness in giving and loving: she made no demands; she looked neither for gratitude, nor homage, nor appreciation; she only asked the right to give and to love. So she gave Wiche her hand; her heart had been his from the beginning.

"Without you," she said, "I have no life to hate!"

This may have been weak, but Teresa was not strong-minded. And perhaps it is as well for those of us who are proud and self-reliant that just such simple, undignified, and affectionate creatures are to be found here and there. They may speak for us on Judgment Day, which will be the longest, darkest, and coldest, this world has seen.