The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 10

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GIVEN two young people, idleness, and a week, and the sum total is Folly; add the artistic temperament and a pretty gift for philosophic discussion, and you get Sympathy; multiply by a sound knowledge of the Classic amorists, and the result is Romance.

De Boys had been at The Cloisters one week when he received tidings of Jane's altered position. He felt at once that whatever hopes he had formed with regard to their marriage, would now be idle, nay, more—presumptuous. Such instant surrender, it may be, showed modesty and good taste, but for a lover he was, perhaps, resigned too soon. Resignation is an heroic virtue, but it best displays its spirit after a sharp tussle with despair. In this instance, however, it seemed as though the two giants had merely yawned at each other. Mauden had not the smallest doubt of his great love for Jane, notwithstanding he wrote so seldom and a cold tone had crept into her replies—all that sort of thing could be put right in a single interview, when the time came for a serious understanding,—or, at least, it might have been put right, if she had not inherited this beastly money—and the beastlier title. He had already made up his mind not to enter the Church, and had his eyes fixed on a professorial chair. Professor Mauden and Lady Jane Mauden did not, in his opinion, sound well. By a confusion of ideas, too, Jane Shannon seemed the shadow and Sophia Jenyns the reality, and while he composed his pretty speeches to Jane, he rehearsed them (with appropriate expression) to Sophia. It must be remembered, he was quite unaware that the actress was Wrath's wife.

Wrath had begun his Madonna, and when he was not painting, he would sit in rapturous thought. The Madonna, too, not to speak irreverently, had Margaret's nose—and Sophia's nose had a far finer shape than Lady Hyde-Bassett's. Sophia shed bitter tears over the agonizing pettiness of the whole trouble; but, in the first place, she was feeling ill, and secondly, as she told herself, straws show which way the wind blows. That her husband made his picture like Margaret, against his will—indeed, unconsciously — was a significant and appalling fact: his very St. Joseph had a look of her. Yet Wrath fondly imagined that his work was purely ideal, flatly opposed to realism, all composed from the unearthly material of his religious instinct. These reflections and a constant headache were as frank in their villainy as the stage-direction—"Enter, attendant, with two murderers." No creatures for compromise, these!

Sophia was strolling in the garden with De Boys one afternoon, and found herself thinking that love was a mistake—it made one too unhappy; friendship, on the other hand, was soothing and agreeable.

"Social conventions," De Boys was saying, "are the greatest nuisance. I would banish them with a fiery sword. There were none such in the Garden of Eden!"

"Ah, but in the Garden of Eden there was only one woman!" sighed Sophia.

"Why," he said, in an injured voice, "do you always pretend to be so cynical? I do not see why we cannot go back to—to the sort of existence—I mean the idyllic and perfect state of Adam and Eve before the Fall. Merely viewed as a philosophical experiment it might at least be attempted. If it proved successful, it would encourage others——"

"But if it failed——" said Sophia.

He cleared his throat. "You must let me translate for you some tremendous passages from the 'Phaedrus,'" he replied. "Plato deals with the whole question as only a poet can—for he was a poet. And I think you will say with me that it is a poet's subject; its philosophy is not of this world, but is, as it were, a figure of the True, and musical, as is Apollo's lute. I cannot agree with Browning when he speaks of—

"'The heroic for earth too hard,

The passion that left the world to lose itself in the sky.'

Why give so much consolation to those who have failed to realize their ideals—who have merely aspired, and utter no word of praise to those who have actually attained to Higher Things? All the teaching of the present day seems to assume that no man or woman ever yet accomplished a purpose, or thoroughly believed in anything or anybody!" It is so delightful to be young, and long-winded, and able to believe, at least, in oneself! "A hero, nowadays," he went on, "need not fight: he has only to say he would like to fight if he could!"

"You have so much moral courage," said Sophia, "and I have none!"

"If I may say so, I think you are the most courageous woman I have ever met. You have not only the power to Will—but to Do."

"I fear you are mistaken. I have too much Do and too little Will—if you understand me."

"A little impulsive, perhaps."

"I can only resist one impulse by yielding to another," said Sophia. "I know my own character too well. I need a restraining force."

De Boys drew himself up, and would have made a fine allegorical study for any of the heroic virtues.

"You," he said, "may need a restraining force in the same way that a highly poetical imagination requires discipline: noble desires and fine thoughts must not be wasted on that 'chartered libertine,' the air." The breeze stirred a maddening curl which fluttered on the nape of Sophia's neck, and the young man sighed. So far, air had the advantage of philosophy.

"A woman like you," he said, "so extraordinarily gifted—I speak quite impersonally—might do so much by refusing to accept the low standard of existing morality. We want some beautiful and witty saint: what Wrath might call 'a saint in drawing.' It is such a cruel wrong to give people the idea that only sinners are amusing or good-looking. There is sublime beauty, no doubt, in the mere expression of a pure-minded being: but when a fine spirit is set in fair material, and she can flavour her chaste conversation with Attic salt, her influence must undoubtedly cover a larger field than if she looked dowdy and talked banalities. And, I take it, a woman who did not accept life in its vanity, would find no possible pleasure in the adornment of her own person: she would simply regard it as a duty which she owed to society—one which, I think, would come under the head of honouring the king!"

Sophia felt her enthusiasm rising towards sainthood: De Boys had a perfectly charming view of moral obligations.

"You think," she quavered, "it is a duty to try—and look—decent!" Two hours and a half spent over her toilette that morning needed some slight justification.

De Boys's eyes wandered over her face and figure.

"Unquestionably," he said, with what resembled, but was not, calmness; "unquestionably, a duty."

"How," said Sophia, "should one begin if one wished to rebel against existing low standards of morality?"

"By the silent but convincing force of example," he replied—"by your actions."

"What kind of actions?" she asked. "You know—I have—" she blushed—"a soup kitchen."

Delicious simpleton! and with it all, a genius!

"Soup kitchens," he said gravely, "are excellent; but, morally speaking, they do not convey anything but soup."

Their eyes met, and the result was a duet in laughter.

"You shall not make fun of me," she said at last.

"Make fun of you! As if I could make fun of you!"

"I often laugh at myself," she said. "I am always ridiculous; even when I am unhappy I am perfectly absurd. All my tragedy is in my acting; my real life is a burlesque."

"But when are you unhappy?" he said, in a voice of unfeigned concern, and with a fierce glance at the imaginary offender. "When are you unhappy?"

"Often," said Sophia; "in fact, always. I am so tired of being treated like a buffoon! Even Wrath himself—even Wrath, my first and dearest friend——" she paused.

"Of course," said De Boys, swallowing envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness at one gulp, "he must be your dearest friend."

"All my life," she faltered—"all my life—my friend; but even he tells me that I act well only because I must. And is not that in itself sufficient to prove that he regards me as an irresponsible being—a marionette with a faculty of speech? I know my words are often very silly, but my thoughts are terribly serious. Oh, if he knew how serious!"

De Boys himself was surprised at her change of manner—although it had never occurred to him that she was absolutely flippant. He had explained away her whimsicalities and nonsense as the vagaries of genius. What would have looked like affectation in a woman of commonplace attainments, seemed, at least, pardonable in one who had so many atoning qualities; she was not, however, attractive because of her foolishness, but in spite of it. Young and inexperienced as Mauden was, he felt all this no less than the middle-aged Wrath, who had loved Sophia too long, and loved her too deeply, not to love also with wisdom. The difference between these two men—the one who loved her and the one who thought he loved her—was shown in the fact that, while Wrath helped her, as delicately as he could, to overcome her faults, Mauden encouraged them. Yet such is the contrariety between effects and intentions, that neither Wrath nor Mauden, nor, be it said, any human creature, could give Sophia the one thing needful—peace of heart. She chafed alike under praise or blame: no one understood her, no one knew what she really meant or really wanted; even her nearest, best, and dearest misconstrued her ten times a day.

"If he only knew," she repeated, "how serious I am!"

"You must remember," said Mauden, "there are a great many years between you; Wrath probably regards you still as a small child. It was and is exactly the same in my own home: my uncle—the kindest and most generous man in the world—never can understand that my days for leading-strings are past."

Sophia caught her breath: De Boys had plucked up the very root of the matter. She was no companion for Wrath: he thought her too young—perhaps she wearied him, just as children occasionally tire even the fondest of their relatives. It was only natural that he should find Margaret Hyde-Bassett's society so pleasant: they were nearer in years, they had both lost their sensitiveness to mere impressions, and were now rather re-colouring their old experiences than gaining fresh ones.

"I never thought of that before," she said, "but now you speak of it, I see the reasonableness of the idea. It explains everything."

"But," said De Boys, "we are both young: we can never seem children to each other. We both know that we are responsible beings, that we are masters of our fate: that we are under the law of liberty."

"Masters of our fate," repeated Sophia; "do you believe that?"

"How can I disbelieve it," he said, "when I live and have the evidence of each day to convince me."

Sophia turned her face towards him. "Tell me," she said, "what I must do. I am tired of thinking. The world seems so unreal sometimes, and words and people and things lose all meaning. But I could be obedient, I could do what I was told, and I think—I could be happy that way. I want to escape from my own commands: I—I am too merciless a tyrant."

"Sophia!" said Mauden. He had never called her Sophia before: it was a great step for him, but she was too preoccupied to notice it. "Sophia," he said, again, "can we not both be obedient to our best instincts? can we not follow them—together?"

"What are they?" said Sophia; "and can we trust them?"

Before he could reply, the sound of Wrath's deep, rare laughter came through the windows which opened on the lawn. Was it thus that Madonnas were painted?

"Finish," said Sophia, turning pale—"finish what you were going to say—when he laughed."

I think I could write it better," said De Boys.

"Do you, too, write?" she said. "A—a friend of mine had—a friend who never told her anything, but he wrote beautiful letters—oh, such letters! and then he would walk up and down the room while she read them." Her head drooped and her voice trembled; these reminiscences were heart-breaking. "But," she said, looking up, "you are not at all like the man who did that: you are quite—quite different. I should have thought you could have spoken out."

"I can," cried De Boys, on his mettle—"I can! I will, now that you have told me—I may."

"Of course you may" said Sophia, "because my knowledge of you assures me that you will not say anything—silly. I mean something which ought not to be said—or written."

"Friendship," said De Boys—"perfect friendship casteth out fear. Between friends there ought to be no dread of giving offence."

"N—no!" said Sophia; "but at the same time we must not think that our friends are the only people we can treat rudely, and with unkindness."

"Unkindness!" said De Boys. "How can you so misunderstand me!"

"I was not thinking of you," she said. "At that moment I had other friends in my mind—women friends."

This was only a half-truth, and it flashed across her mind that it was not easy to be saintly even in the course of a most innocent conversation: one could lie in all circumstances and for the most trivial reason—indeed, for no reason in the world.

"The ideal union," began De Boys—"the union we have already discussed——"

"The Before-the-Fall ideal," she said, quickly. "I know."

"Why could not we—would you be willing—I should say—would you mind very much—being called my wife?"

"My dear De Boys!" she murmured, with maternal pity and affection—"My dear De Boys"—and she looked at him, smiling helplessly—"My dear De Boys!"

Anything more chilling to lover-like aspirations is not to be imagined. Long years afterwards the echo of that motherly "My dear De Boys!" could bring an east wind on the warmest day.

"It is my turn," he said, hotly, "to be treated like a buffoon when I am serious!"

"Don't say that," said Sophia; "but—but the idea startled me!"

"Is that all?" he said, eagerly; "because, in that case, you might become accustomed to it."

"First," she murmured, at last, "let us clearly understand what the idea is."

"We should remain, just as we are—friends," said the young man, "only truer friends than the world understands by the term; but,as a concession to propriety, we would go through the ceremony of marriage. It—it is rather difficult to explain in detail: the ideal never does lend itself to definition!"

"There would be no love-making—nothing silly," said Sophia, "nothing commonplace, and ridiculous, and domestic!"

"Certainly not."

"Then," said the lady, "suppose we tried it for a little before we actually bound ourselves by any religious and legal form?"

He saw immediately the countless advantages of this suggestion, and, as they unrolled themselves he grew pale at the disadvantages of his first plan. It is the memory of peril and not peril itself which is so appalling. De Boys looked back at the last ten minutes as he might have glanced at a thunderbolt which had missed him by an inch.

"We must, of course, do nothing rash," he said, "because rashness would mar the harmony of the action. To do things decently and in order is the very rhythm of existence."

"I will think it well over," said Sophia, "and let you know my decision on Monday; but until then do not refer again to the subject. If we talk, it must be as though this conversation had never taken place."

"But on Monday," said De Boys, "I must leave."

"Then," said Sophia, calmly, "I will tell you in good time, so that you may make the necessary preparations—whether I have decided to accompany you."

"But," he stammered, "might not that look odd? Your guardian——"

"I am not Wrath's ward," she said; "I am my own mistress. Leave everything to me."

A long silence followed: they sauntered, one of them quite blindly, towards the house.

"I fancy," he said, "I heard the dressing-gong."

Sophia thought, that although he was a better conversationalist than Wrath he did not wear so well: two hours seemed to exhaust the fund of his ideas. Now Wrath could maintain an interesting silence from year's end to year's end.

"Oh! the difference of man and man!"

Gentler ladies than Goneril have had occasion to utter the same lamentation.