The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 5

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V.

In Which a Lady Has a Tantrum, and a Gentleman Plays a Fugue.


Sophia Jenyns had parted company with De Boys in the hall, and was now hurrying towards the music room, where Wrath was playing a fugue in masterly style. But Sophia was in no mood for harmony. She burst open the door, flounced in, and put her arms round her husband's neck.

"Tom," she said, "I have been reconsidering what you said this morning about making our marriage public. I know myself so well that I am sure I could never love you again if you did. There is not a correct bone in my body: it would kill me to be called Mrs. Wrath—simply kill me. I adore you and worship you and idolise you, although you are my husband. That I cannot help; but to let other people know it—oh, intolerable! I will not be a British matron. I will not be called virtuous. It is no one's business whether I am married or not—a lot of fussy, prying, evil-minded old women—let them talk! I think of them when I say, 'I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry'—no wonder I make the whole house creep! Buh! And, Tom—you fascinating, lovely, wonderful creature, I have just been flirting with all my might, and by tomorrow I shall be madly in love! Compared with you he is a monster, but in your absence he does very well. He is already quoting Spenser, and his voice is agreeable. Tell me you worship me, and I will tell you the rest!"

"Why don't you flirt with me, dearest, and leave these young fellows to their work?"

"My soul," said his wife, "my heart of hearts, you are the dullest person to flirt with I ever met. I never flirted with you in my life: I half-tried it once by pretending to love you. But I found it too easy to pretend—hence our hideous, inartistic marriage certificate! Never refer to it if you have any regard for my self-respect."

"Sophia, seriously——"

"I will not be glared at, nor frowned at! How handsome you are! If you were not my husband I would elope with you to-morrow. What a mercy I met you before I saw any one else. If I had met you too late—oh, if I had met you too late——" She paused. "I am afraid I would not have called it too late!"

"This is all very pretty," said Wrath, "and you are, no doubt, very adorable. But you must behave yourself; other people do not understand you as I do."

He was about eight-and-forty, and looked older. His features, though fine, were irregular; his poetic brow, his large and eminently practical nose, the unrest in his dark eyes, and the stillness about his mouth betokened him the possessor of an unusually complex disposition. He was an extremely handsome man, yet such was his simplicity, that not all his wife's flatteries could convince him that he was other than plain. The absence of personal vanity in an eminently self-conscious age, when every hero sings his own epic, had the curious effect of making many people accept him at his own estimate: they argued, from their own experience, that a person who was not his own greatest admirer could not possess admirable characteristics.

"But seriously," he said, secretly enjoying his wife's brilliant, ever-varying countenance—from the artistic point of view she was a constant joy—"quite seriously. You must be guided by my knowledge of the world. I must announce the marriage, and so put an end to this revolting gossip!"

"Revolting gossip does not matter: only facts are fatal—simply disastrous. Do not expose me to the humiliation of being publicly branded as an honest woman!"

His mouth twitched: there was always too much sadness in Sophia's jesting to make it downright laughable.

"While people can talk about us," she went on, "we give them an opportunity to show their charitable view of human nature, and so they encourage us; but if they once knew the truth, no one would care to see me act, and your pictures would be called dull, I know!"

"Where," he said, "do you learn this cynicism? It afflicts me beyond words: it is utterly false, utterly corrupt, utterly disgusting. You certainly do not hear it from Lady Hyde-Bassett."

She glanced at him swiftly, and as swiftly glanced away. He had coloured a little—no doubt from annoyance.

"Lady Hyde-Bassett has not lived my life," she said, catching her breath; "she was not a born pauper! Her father was not starved out of his wits, and her mother did not dance herself to death for a pound a week."

"Sophia!"

"Oh, I know you have always been very kind to me. I am not ungrateful."

"Do you talk of gratitude—to me?"

"I will talk of anything I like to anybody! ...Have you asked Margaret to sit for the Madonna?"

"I have asked her to give me a sitting or two—yes. But it is merely for the shape of her face: it would not be a portrait. Pray be careful how you refer to the matter, because I was studiously careful to explain that I could not paint the Madonna from any woman in the world. It merely struck me that Marg——that Lady Hyde-Bassett's face was peculiarly——"

"Fiddlesticks!"

"If you are going to be peevish, I think we had better not talk."

"You are very unkind to me. And I have a frightful headache: I can hardly see. I am sure this place is unhealthy. ...I was only thinking, why trouble Margaret to sit, if you are not going to make the picture like her? What would be her object in sitting?—she might as well be a lay-figure at once. I am afraid she will feel insulted."

"She seemed to perfectly realize what I meant, and was very amiable about it."

"Naturally! She could hardly let you see that she was annoyed—in her own house, and when you are a guest! ... Why can't I sit for you?"

"Your type, you know, dearest, is—is not conventionally religious. You are most beautiful, but——"

"I would do very well, I suppose, for the Woman taken in Adultery!"

"I have never seen you like this before."

"Perhaps not. Thank God, I don't sit with my mouth screwed in one perpetual simper, looking religious, and wondering whether my new gowns will fit! I want you to understand that I have got a soul! and a mind! and individuality!"

He sighed and returned to his playing; but there was no spirit in his performance.

"You are not to tell Margaret of our marriage," said Sophia, suddenly; "when I get ready, I will tell her myself."

He flushed again, and this time more decidedly. Unfortunately, he had informed her ladyship of his happy condition that very afternoon—in a burst or friendly confidence—after she had promised to sit for the Madonna. Could the circumstances be more awkward?

"Do you think she suspects?" said Sophia. But women have a fatal genius for answering their own questions. Before her husband could reply she went on, "I do not see how she can; I have always been very careful."

"Sophia," he began, intending to make a clean breast of the matter, "the fact is——"

She stamped her foot—a beautiful foot, too, another artistic joy. "I loathe facts; I will have my own way about it. You promised me that I could keep it a secret as long as I wished."

"I know that," he replied, "but you said this morning——"

"I am always being told what I said this morning! Never mind what I said six hours ago: it is the afternoon now. I suppose I may change my mind."

"But," he said, "I am heartily sick of all this absurd mystery. I—I am rather proud. I cannot explain it, but it affects your honour. These reports you find so amusing are gross insults. I was mad to make such a fool's promise."

"No," said Sophia, "you were not mad, you were in love with me, that's all. You have promised anything!" It was most indiscreet to remind him of this mournful truth. Wrath received it with sublime (if highly coloured) indignation.

"I was never in love with you," he replied, angrily. "I detest the phrase. Wife to me is a sacred name.... But few women understand a man's best feelings, and least of all on the subject of love. They do not realize that even the vilest of us would rather think that the woman he loves is a bit of divinity. ...But it is very seldom that she will let him think so—very seldom.... Are we quarrelling?" he said, abruptly; "once I thought we could never quarrel. This is terrible!"

"This," she said, "is marriage!"

"You speak as though you regretted——"

"You recognize regret as though you were long acquainted with it!" A woman always handles sarcasm with the point towards her own breast. Sophia turned pale at her own words.

"You do regret," she said.

"I regret anything that makes you unhappy."

"This is equivocation: you never did speak out and you never will. A man so guarded in his words must have very treacherous thoughts. Why do you look at me like that?" she said, passionately. "I repeat, you are very difficult to understand. I have been with you ever since I was born, and I have always done all the talking!" He did not attempt to deny this, but still kept his eyes on her with the patient, touching, and wistful expression of the collie dog in "The Shepherd's Chief Mourner."

"One has to take you on trust or not at all," continued his wife; "the most exasperating man God ever made! It is a most unfortunate thing that we ever met: you are naturally secretive, and I am naturally suspicious. Why did you not let them take me to the workhouse? And why did you make love to me? You know you did: I cannot remember one single word you ever said, but you have got an artful way of implying everything under the sun without uttering a syllable! You never even asked me to marry you: all I know is, that I am married and I wish I wasn't." And she wept. Sophia never exhausted herself by restraining her emotions; tears now sprang to her eyes and rolled down her cheeks so softly and sweetly, that to see her one would have thought that weeping were as easy as breathing. It was a pretty study in highly cultivated sorrow.

"My dearest," said Wrath, "you are not well. But this is all my fault: I have been a beast. How

can you like such a great, clumsy, ill-natured brute? It is a very flimsy excuse, but I think I worked too long this morning. Margaret was reading aloud and I did not like to——"

"What was she reading?" said Sophia.

"Some new novel: I forget the title, but," he added, "the cover was green!"

"What was it about?"

He grabbed at the opportunity to amuse her, and detailed the plot with elaborate care—drawing however rather from his imagination than his memory. The result was an adaptation of "Red Cotton Nightcap Country," "Wilhelm Meister," and "Gil Blas." He might have made some fame as a novelist.

When he had finished, Sophia coughed. "How well you remember it," she said; "you must have listened very attentively!"

Then, remarking that she felt better, she left him. He heard her singing "I know that my Redeemer liveth" as she went up the stairs, and rejoiced that he had cured her headache, and could resume his fugue.

So little do men know their wives.