The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 11
The Dowager Countess of Warbeck found Jane more interesting each day; she was so quiet in manner, so sweet-tempered, so thoughtful, so sensible—in fact, the Dowager's letters to her dear friends the Marchioness of Dayme and the Lady Dundry, were always overweight during that period. Her notes to her grandson, however, were brief, telling much of her own ill-health and very little of Jane. The Countess never made the fatal mistake of supposing that the rest of mankind were fools, and she alone had wisdom; she gave every creature credit for a certain amount of perception and a great deal of cunning. For this reason her machinations usually proved successful. She was extremely careful not to drop a word which might excite Warbeck's suspicion of her darling scheme; she even wrote him a glowing account of a new debutante who, she declared, had exactly the kind of beauty he admired. Her heart swelled with a diplomatist's pride when she received a telegram from the young peer announcing his sudden return to England. "Let him once see Jane," she thought, "and the rest is inevitable."
In the meantime, his portrait (painted by Wrath, the Academician) was placed in a better light, and Jane was occasionally reminded that although the work in question was an excellent likeness, it did not do the original full justice. "No artist," said the Dowager, "could ever catch his smile!"
"He is certainly very handsome," said Jane. "Grandfather's nephew," she added, after a little pause, "is also handsome. The one, you know, who is so clever and who is now at Oxford. Would you like to see his photograph?"
"I would," said her ladyship, drily. To her horror, Jane unfastened her gown at the throat and displayed a small locket and chain. She opened the locket and handed it, with a blush, to her grandmama.
"Not a bad-looking person—for his kind," said the Dowager, not at all bad-looking. He has a look of Spence" (Spence was the head footman). "I am sure he is most worthy. But I would not wear him in a locket! It might give stupid people the idea that you were in love with him—and there are so many stupid people! Besides, if it came to his ears he might think the same thing. Young men are so conceited."
"Oh!" said Jane, "I should not like him to think that. I—I do not see how he could. He—he isn't conceited, and—and he is not a bit like Spence!"
"My dear," said her ladyship, "what would you say yourself, if you saw a young girl wearing a man's photograph on her neck? It is not maidenly—in fact, with no desire to hurt your feelings, it is immodest. I appreciate your childish and innocent sentiment in the matter—affection and gratitude are always charming, even when sadly misplaced; but you are no longer a little girl running wild in the fields. The only person you could wear in that fashion would be your husband, or, in conceivable circumstances, your future husband. But as you have neither one nor the other at present, it is more seemly that your neck should be unfettered. Enjoy your liberty while you may." She smiled her sweetest—and the Dowager could smile like an angel when she chose—but Jane sighed. The chain, however, and the photograph were slipped into her pocket; she could not be immodest, and, no doubt, her grandmama had spoken sound sense.
"Play me that exquisite Presto," said the Countess. "I doat on Beethoven when he escapes from that terrible diddledy-diddledy-diddledy in the bass. The Brentmore person really taught you extremely well. Take it at a good pace."
One has not much time to muse on the absent if one is playing a Presto, and an active lady marks the time with her cane.
Warbeck was expected to luncheon that same day, and the Countess had given orders that he was to be shown into the library, as she wished a few moments' private conversation with him. Jane, therefore, was half-way through the Presto when his lordship's arrival was announced.
"Don't stop playing, my dear," said the Dowager. "I so like to hear music in the distance."
Then she went down to her grandson.
The young man came forward as she entered the room, and seemed surprised, delighted, and relieved to see her walking.
"You must be much better," he said; "I have been so anxious about you. I hardly dared hope that you were even on the sofa!" "I am almost myself, dear," said his grandmother. "I began to improve from the instant I received your telegram. Sir Claretie says he considers my recovery a miracle. But you are not looking well." He was thinner and paler than he had been a fortnight since, and had, in some way, a new expression, an even greater seriousiness of manner. "You have something on your mind," said her ladyship, suddenly; "you are going to tell me that you are engaged!" Warbeck smiled, but shook his head. "Cherchez la femme is such stale doctrine," he said. "There is no newer doctrine for the old Adam!" said the Dowager; "but if there is no woman in your news, then it has something to do with religion. Do not say that you have been reading Hooker, and Laud, and the rest of them, and have become High Church!" "I read Hooker and Laud long ago," he said, "but I am not a High Churchman." "Then," she said, "you are a Higher Pantheist. Oh dear!" "To save you further suspense," he said, "I am still—nothing. But I have joined a Celibate Brotherhood." The Countess did not look shocked, but her aspect was certainly grave. "It means, of course, the end of everything—from an ambitious point of view," she said, slowly. "I think," said Warbeck, "it means the beginning of everything—from the only point of view worth considering."
"Quite so," said her ladyship—"quite so. But there is neither wisdom nor virtue in renouncing marriage unless you fully realize what marriage is and what it has to offer. In my opinion it is far more difficult to be a married saint than a saint in the cloisters; Bishop Taylor has pointed this out with much eloquence. Do you think you will never wish to marry?"
Warbeck laughed with the buoyancy of a mortal who has never loved. Before he could reply, the Countess checked him.
"I see," she said, "you know nothing about it. I should feel better satisfied if I knew that you had had some romantic experience. Because if it does not come early—it will come late. And then what trouble! I have seen such unhappiness come of people assuming that because they never have cared for any one, they never will."
"You see," said Warbeck, serenely, "if a man knows that he is under a vow of celibacy the question of sex becomes a dead letter. A woman is merely an individual! The effect of a vow is almost miraculous."
The Countess groaned. "The great thing," she said, "is to be saved from oneself, and oneself so easily passes for a great conviction! See how many young people gabble off the marriage vows: and their effect is by no means miraculous.""Well," said Warbeck, naïvely, "when you consider what a large proportion of humanity take them, you must admit that, on the whole, they observe them very faithfully. Society is so small and the world is so large, one must look at the marriages of the world."
"This brotherhood,"she said, "this society, or whatever it is, you have joined, is not, I understand, religious ?"
If it was not religious, she thought, one could wriggle out of its ridiculous regulations, and even if it was, one could, in an emergency, change one's religion! She was a lady who only considered impediments for the purpose of destroying them.
"Oh, no," said Warbreck, "its work is purelysecular. Dawes, of Balliol, founded it you know Dawes, of course?"
"Dawes?" said the Countess."Do you mean the person who lives at Shoreditch and writes to the Times about the Athenian Democracy"
Warbeck nodded his head. "He is a tremendous swell," he said; "he is the sort of genius who lives in seclusion and animates a great public movement.
There must always be a grand character of that kind, who can despise fame and use ambitious men as tools."
"Dear me !" said the Dowager; "so you, I presume, are in this Mr. Dawes's tool-basket?"
This was not the way to express an unselfish young man's devotion to a noble cause; he felt this, and was deeply hurt."If you like to put it that way," he said, flushing a little, "yes I am in Dawes's tool-basket. I hope, however, it is not because I am vulgarly ambitious.I only wish to perform my highest duties in the best way. My only object in taking the vow was this to serve the public well one should have no private interests. In any great governmental crisis one is too often reminded of the man in the parable who had married a wife. It is time some one realized, that self-sacrifice is the only sure foundation for permanent success."
"H'm," said the Dowager; " very high-minded and most interesting. But the British Constitution does not present any opportunities for martyrdom; at present, no politician can be offered a worse humiliation than a peerage! But that is bad enough, I admit! I have once or twice thought very seriously of dropping my title; it has lost all meaning, and now it is so much more distinguished to be a commoner! But come, I want to introduce you to Jane. She will be charmed with your views; she, too, is full of heroic nonsense."
Jane was still playing when the Dowager and Warbeck came upon her.
"This," said the Dowager, "is your cousin Warbeck."