The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 4

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One afternoon, in the following long vacation, a lady was gathering honeysuckle from a hedge in a field near St. Albans. She wore a pink cambric confection, artfully relieved with old Honiton: with one hand she held up her skirt and discovered a most elaborate silk petticoat; on the ground by her side was a lace parasol and a pair of long kid gloves. A hat, garnished with velvet orchids and silk dandelions, shaded her face, and was tied under her chin with pale green ribbons; her hair, which was black and very abundant, was loosely caught up by a silver comb. In figure she was tall and gracious, but one could have wished that her hips had more of a jut and her shoulders less an air of almost masculine resolution. She had too much distinction to be fashionable and too much style to be stylish: beyond any doubt she was a personage.

She had filled her basket with the flowers when her eyes fell on a fine spray just beyond her reach. The branch of a tree hung over the hedge, and, by supporting herself on this, she thought it might be possible to clutch at the prize. She was about to spring, when she was startled by the sight of a young man running towards her from the adjoining paddock. Unobserved, he had been watching her for some indefinite space of time.

"Pardon me," he said, lifting his hat, "but I fear you do not see that the bough is broken."

"No," she said, with a baffling smile, "I only saw the honeysuckle!"

He looked at her, knit his brows, bit his lips, and then laughed. "So you only saw the honeysuckle," he said; "your point of view is magnificent!" He had not intended to speak so familiarly, but she reminded him so strangely, yet with so little reason, of a certain Jane Shannon he knew of, that he felt they were already well acquainted. The lady, however, unaware of her resemblance to Jane Shannon, gave him a severe look.

"I never thought I could meet any one," she said; "I did not know that there was any one in Whetstone to meet. Besides, this is not the high-road." There was a note of haughtiness in her tone, and her large black eyes wandered, apparently by chance, to a large notice which faced them both—"Trespassers will be Prosecuted."

"I am a stranger here," said the youth, flushing; "they told me at the station that I could get to The Cloisters by crossing these fields. I saw you were in danger, so I spoke."

He took off his hat and turned ever so slightly to go on. When a man is at most pains to conceal his admiration for a woman, he can be most sure that she appreciates his struggle to her finger-tips. The lady instinctively pushed back her hat, and gave him a longer, perhaps a kinder, glance; he remained.

She had a face of such spiritual liveliness that its merely natural charms of feature and colouring, only seized on second thoughts. They were the thin veil over a sparkling radiance, which, whether it were due to virtue, or wit, or coquetry, was too dazzling for Speculation—aged twenty-one and a son of Adam.

"Did I understand you to say," she said, "that you were on your way to The Cloisters?"

"Yes," he replied.

"Then you must be De Boys Mauden." (He bowed.) "I am Sophia Jenyns."

"What!" he exclaimed, "the new Lady Macbeth?"

"The newest," she said, drily. "You must know," she continued, wondering at Mauden's extreme astonishment, yet pleased, for she could translate all things into flattery—"you must know that I came out to gather honeysuckle this afternoon, because I wanted to see whether I would be happier if I were more like the primitive woman. Every one is talking about nature, so I thought I would try it. I have been so bored: I longed to be at home reading Hardy, or St. Augustine, or Hegel, or somebody."

"Do you read Hegel?" he said.

"I read everything," she replied, "don't you?"

"No," he said, and looked gratefully at heaven.

This young lady who was so far from philosophy that she tried nature, and so far from nature that she longed for philosophy, chuckled and picked up her flower basket.

"You Oxford men," she said, "are more proud of what you have not read than of what you have read. Come, we can walk to The Cloisters together. I hope you like Lady Hyde-Bassett as well as I do."

"I should like her better if I thought she had a heart: no woman with a heart could have married Sir Benjamin."

"Did you know him?" said Sophia.

"No," said De Boys; "but every one says he was the most disagreeable man in the world; so forbidding and curt and unapproachable."

"I thought so once," said Sophia, "till one day, when I was a child, I heard him talking to Lady Hyde-Bassett. I suppose they thought I was too little to understand them. They were walking in the garden and he asked her whether she would rather be a pussy cat or a catty puss, and she pinched his arm, and said he was a good little thing, and it was a pity that some of the old fossils he knew could not hear him. And he said, very solemnly, 'God forbid!' and she kissed his hand and said he was an angel, but she wished he would buy a new hat, although he could only look lovely if he wore pyjamas and a billy-cock! And he said, 'For God's sake, don't talk so loud!' and she said, 'Let us both say Damn with all our might, and then I will be quiet.' And they said Damn, and she was quiet, and then they began to talk about Aristotle. That," she wound up, "is a real celebrity really At Home. So you see all scholars do not talk like Casaubon in 'Middle-march'; they have their flippant moments, and get horribly tired of being great!"

No written account of Miss Sophia Jenyns's artless prattle could convey her melodious voice, grace of gesture, dramatic force, and facial expression. De Boys watched her, entranced; it was his first direct encounter with spontaneous genius. And then her fatal, too delicious resemblance to Jane! he could adore her for that alone. She led the way and he followed: a Will o' the Wisp would have been a safer guide.

Lady Hyde-Bassett was an American by birth, and had received her education in France. After much travelling and many flirtations she had married, at the age of two-and-twenty, the distinguished invalid and philologist, Sir Benjamin Bassett.

The Hyde was an inspiration attached to a small property which he had inherited towards the close of his last illness. The marriage had been eminently happy, but before the Society of Antiquaries had ceased to wonder at the devotion of so young and modish a woman to the apparently grim, the certainly middle-aged, and, by inference, dull hieroglyphic, he died. His widow's grief was of the desperate order, but, possessing ample means, she was able to wreak it by building a marble tomb over his bones, and founding a Hyde-Bassett Scholarship for Greek Verse. To perpetuate the deceased gentleman's tolerant and unprejudiced temper she also endowed, with equal generosity, a Roman Catholic School, a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, and a Mission for the Suppression of Secret Societies. When pressed to give her reason for subscribing to the latter, she said that Sir Benjamin, to his sorrow, had belonged to one. "But," she added, "the rest is silence." With accomplishments which only wanted an occasion to reorganize Europe—or destroy it—she preferred to live in retirement and make matches, comparable only to Diocletian, who found (if we may believe him) greater happiness in planting cabbages than in ruling the Empire of Rome. Her country house, known as "The Cloisters, near St. Albans," was, as it were, a home of rest for the most eminent in science, politics, art, and literature of her day, for, from her intimate knowledge of one genius, she never committed the error of making them seem common, by entertaining more than one—of his particular sphere—at a time. The distinguished person, therefore, who accepted her hospitality, never laboured under the unspeakable apprehension of encountering either his nearest match, or worse, his horrid better.

Now while Miss Sophia Jenyns, of the Parnassus, was gathering honeysuckle, her ladyship was reading "The Logic of Hegel." The room in which she sat was large, and breathed a sweet odour of peace and good housewifery. Its furniture, hangings, and decoration, though rich, were of a modest and even severe character, forasmuch as the cushions, coverings, footstools, screens, lampshades, photographs, and gew-gaws appurtenant to a modern boudoir were comfortable and pleasing by their absence.

"Man is evil by nature" she read, "and it is an error to imagine that he could ever be otherwise. To such extent as man is and acts like a creature of nature to that extent his whole position and behaviour is wrong. Nature is for man only the starting point which he must transform to something better. The theological doctrine of Original Sin is a profound truth."

She sighed, and looked up from her book to gaze into a small silver-framed mirror which stood on the table by her side. Her complexion was pale, her eyes brown, and her hair prematurely grey. Some of her lady friends said they believed she thought she looked like Marie Antoinette. Her years were thirty-five, but a life of assiduous self-discipline and self-culture (glorified selfishness, in fact) had given her the calmness and dignity associated with the idea—if not the reality—of old age. A woman so finished in manner, dress, and bearing could only be called artificial in comparison with the ordinary type, in the sense that one might so describe a sonnet as differing from a folk-song.

Meanwhile, the leaves of Hegel were fluttering. Margaret, with a sigh, wrenched her eyes from the mirror and fastened them once more on "Original Sin." But again she read no further, for a lady entered the room.

Miss Bellarmine was not a maiden lady of that pathetic type who pour out tea and who have once loved. She was tall and of commanding appearance: her figure was considered purely Greek. (Perhaps this was because she had the good taste to drape it with Parisian millinery of modern date.) She had really beautiful features if one examined them separately, but as a whole they appeared out of drawing, as though they had been picked off various antique divinities, and stuck on her face at random. Thus, her nose began too soon, and her mouth ended too late; whilst her eyes, charming in colour and shape, were so placed that they offered one a constant temptation to shift them either higher or lower. Her expression was neutral, for her character, like that of many Englishwomen, slumbered behind her countenance like a dog in its kennel, to come out growling or amiable as circumstances might demand. She was highly accomplished, and spoke five languages with one well-bred accent. Theology was her recreation, but Villon the serious study of her life. Her notes on this poet promised to be the most exhaustive possible, and "Bellarmine on Villon," it was said, would be read like Coke on Lyttleton, as much for the commentary as the text.

"I am so glad to find you alone," she said. "Sophia Jenyns has gone out for what she calls a prowl, and Wrath is playing Bach in the music room. What a gifted man! What is the relationship between them, dear? I have heard every impossible explanation."

Eliza Bellarmine was a discreet, cold-blooded person who could meet Nature face to face without blushing, and wink at the frailties of Culture. Lady Hyde-Bassett, on the other hand, would only see evil where she wished to see it: when she met unpleasant truths she rode off on what she called her instincts, and they carried her like Barbara mares. She did not reply to her friend's question immediately.

"There is no truth in the story," she said, at last.

"I have heard," said Miss Bellarmine, "that there is more than truth—there are diamonds!"

"I thought, Eliza, you were above such littlenesses! Sophia Jenyns is the most pure-minded woman I know. She is not like other geniuses—she is different."

"They are all different—with a sameness. I have known thirty, and they were all pure-minded, and had, at least, three husbands and an episode!"

"We must not judge them," murmured her ladyship; "they are so fascinating, and their husbands are always so brutal."

"The artistic temperament," said Miss Bellarmine, in measured tones—"the artistic temperament is only faithful for the purposes of local colour—to experience fidelity, in fact. Then the next step is to gain some insight into infidelity. Unless a genius is extremely religious she is foredoomed to impropriety!

"Eliza," said Lady Hyde-Bassett, "you have neither humour nor imagination."

"None," said that lady, with conscious pride.

"And yet you are editing a poet!"

The commentator smiled, which the poet, could he have been present, would not have done.

"But," said Miss Bellarmine, who never left a subject unsifted, "you have not explained the relationship."

"Wrath adopted Sophia when she was only four days old: her father committed suicide, and her mother died when she was born. I blush for human nature when I hear a man so maligned for a kind action. He must have been very poor at the time, for he had only just sold his 'Antigone.'"

"I know all that," said Eliza; "and it was very noble on his part, and all the rest of it. But Sophia is no longer four days old!"

"If they cared for each other, is there any earthly reason why they should not marry?"

"Certainly. He may have a lunatic wife locked away somewhere, or, in his extreme youth, he may have married some low person who is too respectable to divorce: nothing is more likely. I am very sorry for Sophia Jenyns, and more sorry for him; but I think they should either be frank, or separate. If they think they are wrong, they should bid each other good-bye, but if they feel they are right, they should have the courage of their opinion. I could respect them then, although I might disagree with their conscience. As it is—well, they evidently know they are doing wrong, since they dare not be candid. And they must be wretched! He is far too honest a man not to be miserable in a false position."

"I have listened, dear," said Lady Hyde-Bassett, "because your sentiments are so excellent. But—first swear you will never tell!"

"I cannot give my word blindly."

"Then I will not tell you."

"Have I ever betrayed your confidence?"

"Never," said her ladyship; "but—this is a most profound secret."

"In that case perhaps you ought not to repeat it."

"You are so aggravating, Eliza! Shall I tell you?"

"That is a matter for your own judgment."

"Never breathe it to a soul! Wrath and Sophia have been married for two years."

"You astonish me," said Eliza, at last, but without moving a muscle—"you astonish me greatly. . . .But I am inexpressibly relieved to hear it. . . .Any children?"

"No," said Lady Hyde-Bassett; "so it could not have been on that account. . . .But now," she went on, "we must talk of something else: it would be very awkward if either of them came suddenly in. Have I told you about De Boys Mauden? He has just won my scholarship: a most brilliant young fellow; they say he will be another Porson. But he has been overworking, and the doctor has insisted on his taking a rest. So I have made him come here. I sent the brougham for him, but he told Biffin he preferred to walk. He cannot know the way, and, manlike, would probably rather perish than ask any one to direct him!"

"I shall be most interested to make his acquaintance—most interested. I know his name quite well." She did not as a matter of fact, but as a matter of principle a commentator and an occasional contributor to the learned reviews, could not be ignorant of the existence of a future Porson.

"He is very handsome," said her ladyship; adding, after a pause, "when he has got his degree I shall let him revise and augment all Benjamin's unpublished manuscripts. I began them myself, but my Greek is too Homeric!"

"Mr. Mauden," announced the footman.