The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 18
Many hours of pain and several weeks of dangerous illness were the result of Sophia's bite at the Ideal—a result which must not surprise us, since the psychological mystery she tasted is, as all pious souls know, the modern development of the antediluvian apple. But Sophia was young and had much to live for—much, too, to atone for. Tears had washed the dust from her eyes as only tears can, and, as she wept over her own folly, she knew that she was really crying for the first time in her life. Crystal drops shed over our own excellence are nothing in the world. They may, however, have their use in the city that is paved with good intentions.
Wrath watched day and night by the bedside of his wife. Their relationship was no longer concealed, for Nature, who hates false appearances, and is, in fact, a very blab to those who have ears to hear, had made straightforwardness necessary. And Wrath, in spite of his anxiety, was happier than he had been, even at his happiest moments, since the day of the secret marriage. He held his breath at the shortness of time before him in which to retrieve the two past years of dissimulation, of double-facedness. As all penitents, he longed to be born again, that he might wage a new life with the arts of an old experience. He blamed himself less for keeping his promise to Sophia than for making it. The weakness, the moral cowardice of the matter lay, in his judgment, in the submitting to such a condition. It brought him no ease of mind to remember that the lunatic, the lover, and the poet were admitted by a charitable world to be more or less irresponsible for their follies. With all his faults he was not a man to lie pleasantly to his own conscience. He had acted wrongly and he knew it; what was more, he had been perfectly aware that he was acting wrongly when he gave the miserable promise. He had made up his mind to marry Sophia, and he had not been willing to run any risk of losing her. There was no condition so unwise, so ill-considered, or so desperate but he would have accepted it, rather than forfeit even one of her smiles. Such was the truth. (If a man cannot be a hero to his hired valet, we must not wonder if he looks small in the presence of his free conscience.) Fear, for the enormities he might have committed, was the other side of his remorse for the wrong, he had actually done. It was an awkward subject viewed from any point of consideration. But awkward as it was, it was even grateful in comparison with another matter, which haunted him constantly, and which seemed past forgiveness or hope. This matter was his conversation with Lady Hyde-Bassett on that never-to-be-forgotten Monday morning. It was contemptible enough, God knew, to have suspected his saintly wife of having eloped with Mauden; but to have expressed the despicable thought in words, to have allowed the curbed jealousy of a lifetime to break away from all bounds just when control was most necessary—what could he call himself? To think of all this in the long hours of the night, when Sophia was lying half-unconscious, or in pain, was a terrible punishment for his injustice, but he would not own that it was terrible enough.
One afternoon Sophia woke up from a sleep and found Wrath watching her. It was a daily experience, but on that particular afternoon she seemed to see him more distinctly than usual. He was looking old and careworn, and was so changed, that she found herself wondering whether she had not lost all idea of time, and whether her illness had lasted—not a few weeks as she imagined—but many years. She asked Wrath for a hand-glass, —she thought her hair must be grey.
He gave it to her in silence. She looked from the mirror to her husband, and from her husband to the mirror. Her face had not suffered so much from illness as his, from anxiety. She was pale in the cheeks, and a little dark round the eyes, but otherwise she seemed even younger for her suffering. She might have been a girl in her first teens.
"Tom," she said, "are you very tired?"
"Tired? Oh, no."
"Then talk to me. Tell me what you are thinking about."
"I am thinking of you," he said, quietly.
"Don't think about me—I am horrid."
This was quite in her old manner, and for a moment he smiled. It was a long-established custom between them, that she should call herself names, while he expressed his horror at the blasphemy. It was the usual prelude to most of their conversations.
"But I really mean it today," she said. This guileless and unconscious admission of the usual insincerity of her self-depreciation made them both laugh. It was Sophia's saving grace that she could, at times, survey herself from a distance. When she was not the first, she would at least be the second, to mock at her own extravagancies. But it may be that she carried this self-ridicule to excess, and saw her actions in a ludicrous light when they were rather sad than funny. Thus she had gradually lost all belief in her own earnestness. Sometimes it seemed that her love for Wrath was a jest, that life and death were alike jests, that the world itself was the Creator's big joke with mankind. Everything was so grotesque, so badly rehearsed. The curtain went up too soon and came down too late; parts were mumbled, or shouted, or gabbled, or left unspoken; cues were disregarded; heroes were knock-kneed, and heroines had thick ankles; fools made mirth with such a solemn air, and the wise were solemn so foolishly; men and women seemed not themselves, but their caricatures; it was all wildly comic, farcical, unnatural, and inartistic. The only sad part was, that one ached from laughing till one cried at the pain. But this, too, was a joke.
There was something inhuman, almost cruel, in Sophia's humour which made Wrath unhappy—all but fearful. Men, moreover, do not like their wives to have too clear a perception of the ludicrous—it is a masculine theory that laughter must be on the male side only. A man knows when laughter is a spoil-sport; he can postpone it when necessary. But a woman will laugh—if she know how—at the right moment or the wrong, usually, too, when a man would prefer to see her demure.
Although Wrath joined in his wife's merriment on this particular afternoon, it did not seem to him that the occasion was especially amusing.
"Things are still so ridiculous," she said, suddenly, "but they are not ridiculous in quite the same way as they used to be. When I laugh now, I do not feel so much like crying. I know that what looks so absurd at present, will one day be very grand and beautiful. Some kinds of knowledge you cannot study—you find them when you are looking for something else. I have learnt all this by accident. I cannot tell you how. But I have learnt it so well that I can never forget it...I shall never again be so foolish—so obstinate as I was. You will see such a difference in me! And, Tom—I want to tell you about my walk—that morning."
" No, no! " he said; "let me tell you something first. Will you ever forgive me? I—I thought you were with Mauden!"
The clock had never ticked so loudly: Sophia could hear nothing else. Or was it her own heart?
"I thought you were with Mauden," he repeated.
"I thought you had gone to London with him. I—I was brutally jealous——"
"I knew it was infamous. Do you think I will ever forgive myself?"
"But, Tom—" What would he say if he knew the whole truth? She could atone for her folly none the less because he knew nothing about it. Besides, he would lose all respect for her if she told him. He would despise her: perhaps his love would change to dislike. Men, even the best, were not so forgiving as women.
"Tom," she said, desperately, "you—you were quite right. I was with Mauden—I was going to London with him, but—but I changed my mind! It was all a mistake. I thought—you were tired of me!"
She trembled for his answer. He had grown so pale; he looked so stern.
"You were going to London with Mauden?" he said.
"Why did you change your mind?"
"Because—I remembered you."
"You remembered me! That was thoughtful."
He drew his hand across his brow and bowed his head. We have surely never such need to show humiliation as when we are in the presence of a fallen idol.
It is not the god, which was no god, that suffers, but its former worshipper, who sees what appeared divinity, corruption, and what looked strength, rottenness. And, in at least some slight degree, this terrible contemplation must be made by all mortals who place their entire faith in mere flesh-and- blood: who love the creature, which has beauty that we may desire it, more than the Creator whom no man hath at any time seen. One who wrote of human affection with a tenderness and understanding past comparison—who knew its infinite power and no less infinite weakness—one who has taught that by loving man we best learn how to love his Maker, has also warned us—"Keep yourselves from idols."
Wrath, in his hour of disillusion, had no words: the tragedy in common life lies in the thinking—not in the speaking.
The sound at last reached him of a woman, crying; he looked, and though he no longer beheld a heavenly spirit, infallible and sinless, he beheld his wife.
"You forget—the circumstances," sobbed Sophia. "I was not well. And think how ill I have been!"
His frown vanished, but it left its scar. "My dearest," he said, gently, "whatever has happened, I know it has all been my fault! My fault entirely! I shall never cease to reproach myself."
"Let me tell you all about it," said Sophia; and then between laughter and tears she confessed the whole story. "Poor young Mauden is not to blame," she wound up, "because he did not know I was married!"
"My fault entirely!" repeated Wrath. And what a relief it was to shift all her burden on his own shoulders! He was the transgressor—the brute beast with no understanding—she was still his angel of light.
"You are so good to me," she whimpered, "but I will never be so wicked again."
"There shall be no more of these detestable circumstances," he said. "I don't mind them so much, if I know what they mean," said Sophia, "and next time, of course, I shall know! Some day I want to have a son, and I want him to be just like you!"
"It is impossible to look into the future," said Wrath; " but if—by any chance—we had a son, I think he would be rather remarkable." "He would be a genius," said Sophia.
"But he must have your face," said Wrath.
"No," said Sophia, "if he is not exactly like you, I shall be disappointed."
"I think," said Wrath, "we must make him a lawyer. He might become Lord Chancellor."
"Or he might be a Cardinal. Wouldn't that be nicer?"
At which moment, Lady Hyde-Bassett came in with some flowers for the invalid.
"Margaret," said Sophia, "if you had a son, would you rather see him a Cardinal or a Lord Chancellor? Because we were just saying——"
Wrath strode away to the window. And looking out, he saw a fair world. How wrong it was to be cynical! As if there was no such thing as earthly happiness. Away! away! ye philosophers of the mud-heap. The soul of man is a garden where, as he sows, so he shall reap. If ye would gather roses, do not sow rotten seeds. Away! away!