The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 14

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XIV

IN WHICH TWO LADIES ACT WITHOUT THINKING.

Sophia had resolved to make some appeal to Wrath before the decisive Monday, but she could not resolve on a grievance. To assign jealousy as the cause of her discontent was out of the question. And, as a matter of fact, she did not want to analyze her feelings: she feared calmness as fire might dread water. She only cared to survey her imaginary wrongs with a poetic contempt for base details; she did not choose to torture her heart with questionings, nor demonstrate her husband's innocence by proving herself a fool. So, on Sunday afternoon, she wrote two notes—one to De Boys, the other to her husband.

This was the one to De Boys, which she gave him with her own hands, between the decorous covers of an hymn-book, the same evening: —

"You must tell them that you intend to walk to Barnet station early to-morrow morning, and leave by the eight o'clock train. Your portmanteau and things can be sent after you later. This will save you from the breakfast-table and tedious good-byes. I will meet you at the cross-roads, and we can discuss our future plans during the journey to London. Leave everything to me. For the present, of course, you must return to Oxford and complete your education. —S. J."

This was the letter to her husband: —

"I have discovered a new meaning in life and a new duty. (Never believe that I will disgrace you.) My weakness—I had almost written my sin—has been my love for yourself. But we were not sent into the world to love. Subjectivity is fatal to Art: all great Art is objective. And love is subjectivity in its lowest phase. I use these philosophical terms because they are convenient, and because they are sufficiently comprehensive to cover all subtle — and perhaps agonizing—distinctions. I hope the Madonna will prove your greatest work. I will write to Margaret from town. Please tell her this.—Your unhappy Sophia.

"P.S.—I shall consult Sir Claretie Mull the moment I reach London. I am perfectly certain that I am consumptive. But do not worry about my health. I feel no pain—only a great sense of approaching peace"

She wept very much over this letter, and felt extremely like the heroine of a psychological romance. To complete the illusion she had taken care to attire herself in flame-coloured silk, made a la sainte martyre, with silver cords knotted round her waist, and opals scattered on her breast. She put out the light, and let the moonbeams stream in upon her. It was a grand situation. Musing on her own sublimity and suffering, she fell sound asleep on the couch. Fortunately, it was in the summer-time.

When she awoke it was morning — Monday morning — and half-past six. At that very moment, De Boys, no doubt, was leaving the house. She threw off her garments, plunged into a cold bath (which, perhaps, was unlike a psychological heroine), and dressed herself in clinging black. A large hat and a thick veil gave the final touches to her unimpeachably correct costume. Any fairly well-read observer would have known at once, that she was a misunderstood and cruelly injured woman, about to elope with her only friend.

She opened her bedroom door and peeped out : there was no one in sight. The servants, too, even did she meet them, were accustomed to the habits of celebrities on a visit. At The Cloisters nothing was remarkable but the commonplace. She passed two maids and an under-footman on her way to the room, which had been temporarily arranged as a studio for Wrath. But neither the maids nor the footman showed the smallest surprise when they saw her.

Sophia left her letter on the mantelpiece, and fled from the room through the French casement. Wrath had done well, she thought, to turn his odious picture to the wall: she could never have passed it else — the fascination of recognizing Margaret's nose was too engrossing. Under its enchantment, hours sped like minutes.

As she crossed the lawn she cast a glance over her shoulder at Wrath's window. The curtains were not yet drawn : he was probably sleeping — sleeping while she———

A sob — and then for the cross-roads, De Boys, and the Ideal. Miss Eliza Bellarmine, having much to say on the burning question of Milton's precise meaning when he spoke of a two-handed engine at the door"(a phrase so beautifully imitated by a modern poet in the striking lines: —

"At the door two hands are knocking —
Hands of locomotive might———")—

Miss Ella Bellarmine, having much to say on this great matter, had arisen at crack of dawn to commit her criticism to foolscap. By half-past seven she had explained Milton for all time, and disposed of his modern imitator as "a person of vigorous imaginative faculty, but no education." Her task finished, she strolled out into the garden. It had been raining during the night, and she found herself observing footmarks on the gravel path. The marks were small, and had undoubtedly been made by Sophia Jenyns. No one else in the house wore such preposterous French shoes.

Now Miss Bellarmine was a lady who could put two and two together, and make any required number. She had not been blind to the sympathetic relations which existed between Mr. De Boys Mauden and Mrs. Wrath. (She was always studiously careful to think of the actress as Mrs. Wrath). As a consequence, she had thought herself prepared to see footprints — anywhere. Eliza had very cynical and, of course, very mistaken ideas about the artistic-temperament. But in her secret heart, and very much against that grim adviser — her better judgment — she was strongly attached to the blithe Sophia, and now she saw that the footmarks had their ridiculous toes pointed towards the carriage-drive, she was filled with an unreasonable, but very real alarm. She hurried into the studio by the same window that Sophia had left it some little time before, and her quick eyes went straight to the letter on the mantelpiece. She read the initials "T. W.," which were written on the envelope in an irresolute, childish hand.

A woman's instinct is rarely at fault; it is only when she attempts to argue with it that she blunders. Fortunately Eliza trusted her instinct at that particular moment. She knew that De Boys had left The Cloisters that morning and after a somewhat mysterious fashion. Had Sophia gone with him ? If she had, she would surely repent before she reached London. She had been unusually erratic lately, and Miss Bellarmine held her own private opinion with regard to Sophia's state of health. It was extremely interesting — no doubt, trying — but not dangerous; Lady Hyde-Bassett had the same private opinion; so, too, had all the women of the household — from the housekeeper to the scullery-maid. But these, not knowing of Miss Jenyns's marriage, could only hope that the Lord would forgive them if they were mistaken — a pious wish which they repeated many times a day, together with their possibly wrong surmise.

Eliza's fingers wandered to the envelope. What folly might it contain? what mischief might it cause, which neither repentance or explanation could unsay or undo? What right had Sophia — in no matter how interesting a condition — to play such dangerous pranks on a man like her husband? Did she deserve to be forgiven? Eliza heard Wrath's voice in the distance, and without further hesitation she slipped the envelope under the clock. She would give the little fool a chance.If she did not return within two — three — at the most, four hours, Eliza knew that she could easily find means of bringing the note to light. And then she left the room, smiling. Perhaps she had been able to render Wrath a small act of friendship, and, although he himself could never know of it,this would be a great happiness for her to remember.

A few minutes later she peeped in at the window. He had entered the room and was looking at a sketch of Sophia which hung on the wall. Eliza stole away, feeling like a conspirator.