The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 6
IN WHICH A LADY LOOKS GRATEFUL.
Wrath had been playing in ineffable contentment for some thirty minutes, when the door was opened softly and Lady Hyde-Bassett walked in. Her gait was peculiar—not goddess-like, defiant, and untrammelled in the manner of Sophia, but agreeably suggestive of moneyed leisure, a certain feminine timidity, and clinging draperies. She was already dressed for dinner, and was looking her best in violet silk and amethysts. Here it may be a fitting opportunity to mention that she was ever attired in beautiful garments: "How can I make myself a fright," she told Eliza Bellarmine, "when I know that my dearest is watching me from heaven? It would make him so unhappy to see me growing dowdy!" Which, Eliza thought, would have been impious had it not been American.
Margaret and Wrath had known each other for many years. She had often given him motherly advice in his attempt to bring up Sophia(who was her junior by some ten birthdays), and their friendship, which had been somewhat solemn during Sir Benjamin's lifetime, was now stepping the enchanting measures of an intellectual jig. It may be that if Lady Hyde-Bassett had not vowed perpetual widowhood, and if Miss Jenyns had not suddenly grown from a tiresome schoolgirl into a maddening but all-compelling woman——but why dwell on might-have-beens? Wrath, however, had very nearly loved her once, and as he was not a man who cast his affection on what was unlovely, where he bestowed it, there it remained. He was quite conscious that he had a kind regard for Margaret, but the difference between that kind regard and his overmastering, limitless devotion to his wife was so immeasurable that it never even occurred to him to compare them. One woman occupied his life, and the other an occasional thought, and even that thought would be, as it were, a ripple on a whole ocean of Sophia.
"It is wicked to interrupt you," said her ladyship, as she entered, "but I must steal a moment just to tell you about my new genius——young Mauden."
"A new genius?" he said, lifting his eyebrows.
"I am not overrating him, I assure you. Once you had more confidence in my judgment!"
"Naturally," said Wrath. "That was when I was your new genius."
"Ah, why refer to my past follies?" said Margaret, which was certainly an adroit way of suggesting them. She was a coquette before she was a widow.
"I own," he said, "it is not pleasant to be reminded of one's mistakes."
"I never mistook you" she murmured: "I was only mistaken in myself."
"I can remember," he began—"I can remember——"
"Do not remind me," said Margaret. She was wondering how she could ever have allowed herself to even vaguely contemplate the impossible possibility of marrying again. It was her only consolation to think, that for at least six months after Sir Benjamin's death she had not been in her perfect mind: chaos was come and the reign of irresponsibility. "It wanted a Shakespeare," she thought, "to make the Lady Ann accept Richard III. over her husband's coffin: it must have been then or never!"
"Do not remind me," she said again.
"Is it only men who should have the burden of remembering?" said Wrath, surprised at his unusual power of repartee, and deciding that it was inspired by the twilight.
"I remember too well too many errors," she sighed.
"Ah!" said he, "women only confess the sins they have left undone!"
"It was a man who prayed for a talent of forgetting!"
"He prayed in vain," said Wrath, now thoroughly exhausted and wishing to Goodness that Sophia would come in and "do the talking." Half-unconsciously he turned an ivory button in the wall, and lo! the room was illuminated by the discerning beams of the electric light.
"What a useful invention!" he exclaimed.
"Most useful!" said her ladyship, no less heartily.
"By the bye," he said, "Sophia has retracted her promise that I might announce our marriage. She is sublime! As she is suffering from neuralgia," he went on, "I did not tell her——"
"I will be as silent as the grave," said Margaret, divining his whole difficulty at a guess.
He could only gaze his gratitude, admiration, and wonder. "I never tease her when she is studying a new part," he explained; "she is much too sensitive to be able to do good work under the stress of annoyance. And to a woman of her nervous temperament a small fret is more distressing than a serious calamity: her patience is too mighty for trivialities. Paper boats cannot sail in the north wind!" He smiled, and was evidently fully alive to what the world called the cussedness of the divine Sophia: only he did not call it cussedness; it was to him the last magnificent touch to her colossal spirit.
"But when do you try her patience?" said Lady Hyde-Bassett. "If every woman of genius had such a husband! I do not wonder that she worships the ground you walk on: that is a secret which she cannot keep. Oh, when a man is unselfish, no woman—not even the best——can compare with him. Splendid! splendid! I have only known one man like you, and that was Sir Benjamin." The sudden remembrance of her own desolation was so afflicting that her eyes filled with tears.
"Do not mention us in the same breath," said Wrath; "you know what I think about him."
It had been his appreciation for Sir Benjamin which had assailed her heart so perilously in what we call the If period. "It is such a comfort to me," she said, "to know that at least one of my husband's friends had some conception of the man apart from his attainments. I must have loved him, if he had only been a sausage-seller!"It was, no doubt, very touching, and perhaps an occasion when her ladyship could throw an affectionate glance at her guest with perfect propriety.
But Sophia, who happened to come into the room at that moment, and who had not heard the preceding remark, did not understand it.
"Oh," she said, lightly, "I am looking for young Mauden. Such an intelligent boy! I promised to show him the conservatory."
Without looking at Wrath—or at least, without appearing to look, for we may be quite sure that she had nicely observed every line of his countenance—she wheeled round and went out.
"How lovely she looks in that yellow crêpe!" said Margaret, not enviously, yet with a sigh. "It is nice to be young!"
Wrath felt that it would ill become him to be unreservedly enthusiastic on the subject, seeing his close relation to the lady. But he walked to the door and watched the incomparable creature sail down the corridor.
As he went upstairs to dress for dinner, he wondered what he had done to deserve the love of such a woman, and, lest any cynical reader should assume that so excellent and kind-hearted a man was thanking Heaven for a blessing which he did not possess, let us hasten to add that Sophia was no less often astonished, on her part, that she was blessed with such a husband. For, to do her justice, she knew his strength and her own weakness: if he indulged her beyond reason, the fact was due to his magnanimity and not her superior will. He might have crushed her but did not. Hence, his charm.
But on that particular afternoon Sophia's heart was usurped by feeling very unlike gratitude: vague anger, clear discontent, and motherless desperation—the three witches of a woman's soul—were doing their best to work mischief. To be suspicious of Margaret was unfriendly; to distrust Wrath was something not very far removed from base—so kind a husband, so devoted a lover, so upright a man—yet she could not forego the luxury of a grievance. Besides, in spite of all argument, common sense, and justice, she really was jealous.Why should her husband paint Margaret Hyde-Bassett as the Madonna, and why should Margaret Hyde-Bassett roll her eyes at Wrath?