The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Prologue

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A Study in Temptations.


PROLOGUE.


WHICH CONTAINS ALL THE TRAGEDY OF THE BOOK.


"MARY CECILIA, aged seventeen, with whom lies buried all the hope, all the belief in God and goodness of her husband, Charles Sydney Jenyns."

The grave-digger who spelled out this inscription on the coffin, nudged his companion, and they clambered up the sides of the grave to stare after a man, who, with dragging steps and bent head, was slowly groping his way out of the cemetery. He avoided the path, and slunk round and among the numerous mounds and monuments, frequently stumbling, and often halting outright.

"Did you see 'is face?" said the elder of the gravediggers; "'e ain't a day more'n two-and-twenty. 'Tain't every one as marries so fool'ardy young as gits out of it so easy!"

His assistant, less philosophical but more kindly, blinked his eyes and gave a cheerless laugh. "'E pro'bly thinks," he said, "as 'e's the 'ardest done-by in the 'ole world. 'E don't see as it all stands to reason, as you and me do, bless yer. 'E only thinks as when 'e gits 'ome there won't be nobody there!"

"I knows some," said his senior, with a grim smile, "as 'ud thank the Almighty if they could go 'ome and find the 'ouse empty! They wouldn't say nothink agin the goodness of Gord, they wouldn't. They wouldn't be writin' none of this 'ere. They would be foldin' their 'ands and sayin' as Gord's will is for the best, and be-yaving theirselves like Christians!"

Then they resumed their work, and in working forgot to moralize.

The object of their remarks, meanwhile, having refused to drive home in the solitary mourning coach which with the hearse had formed the funeral procession, found his strength so unequal to the task of walking, that he sank on a bench outside a public house, which stood conveniently near the entrance to the cemetery. He was, as the grave-digger had observed, quite young and certainly not more than two-and-twenty. He was tall, but somewhat bent—not that he stooped, there was rather a leaning forward of his whole body. His brilliant eyes seemed to have burnt deep into their sockets, and they cast a flickering light on the pallor of his cheeks, which looked the more pale in contrast with his dark hair.

He was at an early stage of grief, and he felt as though he were two beings—one, speechless and stricken; the other, a mere spectator, who philosophized, and mocked, and wept, and laughed by starts and was only constant in watching. That he was sorrowful, he guessed—but what was sorrow? He knew that he had loved—yet what was love? He lived—and what was life? Mary was dead. Immortality might be, but she once was. O lovely fact to weigh against the ghost-like possibility!

To whatever end his thoughts were tending (and the way was broad), they were diverted, for the moment at least, by the potman, who, moved by compassion, or following his invariable custom in dealing with mourners, came out to tell him that there was a private room within, where he would find a fire, writing materials, and the daily papers. Jenyns, to his own amazement, but as the potman had foreseen, acted on the hint and followed him into a small, musty room which barely atoned for its stale odour, its dismal light, and oppressive warmth, by being empty. The potman poked the fire, smoothed out the Sportsman, stirred the ink with the one quill in the pen-tray, and, while thus exercising his hands, had his eyes and his wits concentrated on the mysterious and melancholy wayfarer.

The interest Jenyns had created in the minds of the grave-diggers, was slight compared with the sensation he had unconsciously produced among the patrons of the "Jolly Nell." (The original sign had been the "Jolly Knell," but this having been repudiated by the present proprietor—an Irishman—as Dutch spelling, the K was painted out.) Jenyns's bearing, appearance and expression were so unusual, and his features so handsome, that had the same gossips met him under the most commonplace conditions, they would still have paused to guess his calling, or to wonder what path lay before him. On this occasion, however, the despair on his countenance, the possible romance connected with it, and the unlikeness between himself and the mean—almost abject—circumstances of the funeral, gave him a prominence far greater, than if he had buried his dead with every elegant sign of still more elegant grief.

As the landlady pointed out, had he been really poor, he would have driven home in the carriage—a poor man could not afford to miss such chances; further, he would not have been alone, for his family, or at least his neighbours, would have seized the opportunity for a breath of fresh air and a nice change: they would have made it, in fact, a chastened holiday-jaunt. She did not use that particular phrase, but her nod was to that effect. Her crowning observation that he was a student, or something of that, who had got some young woman into trouble, and the poor thing had died of a broken heart, and he was being eat up by remorse, was made in a whisper so thrilling, that it pierced through the thin door and reached Jenyns's sensitive ear. He waited to hear no more, but leaving half-a-crown (his last) on the table, walked so quickly and noiselessly out of the house, that the group in the bar-room, who were so eagerly discussing him, did not notice his departure.

Once on the main road, he seemed to gain a certain composure and his strength of limb; he walked hurriedly and was, in fact, racing against the thoughts which threatened every moment to outstrip and overcome him. When he finally halted it was nearly evening, and he had reached a dingy dwelling in one of the streets near King's Cross. The neighbourhood was poor and the door of the house stood open—as doors may, when there is little to offer friends and nothing to tempt the thieving.

A small boy and his mother stood by the area railings, and they both looked after Jenyns as he passed in.

"Mother," said the boy, tugging at the woman's apron—"mother, next time a lodger dies may I have another half-holiday?"

Jenyns heard the question, and, smiling faintly, walked slowly up the creaking staircase till he reached a room on the fourth landing. He crept in and gazed stupidly around it: noticed that there was a cupboard door half-open, a few medicine bottles on the mantelpiece, a pile of women's garments on a chair, a white straw hat, trimmed with ribbons, on the chest of drawers. Inch by inch his eyes travelled from the chair to the table, from the table to the floor, from the floor to a pair of small, muddy shoes with ridiculous French heels, from the shoes to the bed, and there, as it seemed to him, he saw her lying as she had been for two days past, before they lifted her into the coffin.

"God! O God!" he called.

But no God answered.

He bent over the imaginary form. "Wake up!" he whispered—"wake up! You are dreaming, that's all. You have often dreamt before. Wake up! Mary! Mary! are you so tired?"

Outside the house he heard a rustling, a strange shrieking and wailing. Was it all the wind? It seemed to the half-crazed man a Presence—a host of Presences swarming in at the windows, down the chimney, and gathering round him.

"I do not fear you," he said; "there is no worse torment than living. Where you are, Hell must be, and you are everywhere. Pain is nothing; everything is nothing ; You are nothing. But—damn you—I will believe in you if you can wake"—he pointed to the empty bed—"if you can wake one of us."

"I cannot," said a sorrowful voice. Jenyns rubbed his eyes, and burst out laughing.

"Oh, is it only you, Wrath?" he said. "What a fool I am; I thought you were the devil."

The man he addressed, and who had followed him into the room unperceived, was of middle height and extraordinarily thin: his features and form looked misty and ill-defined, as though he stood behind a cloud and were trying to pierce through it.

"Would you have your wife live again that she may die again?" he said, quietly—"that you may bury her again?"

"No, no," muttered Jenyns—"no, no, not this again. A jump from the window or a prick at my throat would settle my mind for ever. If there is a hereafter I would know it, and if there isn't—well, I could not feel the disappointment. Clay has no illusions to lose. You see," he added, "I have not called up the devil for nothing!"

Jenyns's idea of religion—picked from street-corners and Ingersoll—began and ended with the doctrine of Eternal Punishment. When he was happy and thought himself an enlightened believer in the possibility of a Supreme Reason, he forgot it; when he was in trouble, he could think of nothing else. Sometimes it filled him with panic, sometimes with desperation: more often than all with a longing to be in the Place of Torment—to know the worst, to put an end to the torturing suspense and doubt.

"If the devil can answer your curses," said Wrath, "why not try whether God will answer prayers?"

"Cursing is quick," said Jenyns, " and prayers are long. Call Satan but under your breath and he comes. But God—you may wear out your knees and your voice before He will answer, and then He will give you not peace but a sword, not ease but a thorn in the flesh, not love but chastisements! The greater the saint, the thicker the scourge! Where's the fool who would pray day and night for such blessings? Have I not grief enough and despair enough but I must entreat for more?"

Wrath groaned. "Human nature is so discontented!" he said: "I have been starving for a month, and I must own that this constant gnawing at one's vitals becomes tedious: I would prefer a newer pain."

"Let us both pray for another sort of anguish," said Jenyns, "the good old monks were artistic: they believed that variety was beauty, so they occasionally skinned a heretic before they boiled him!"

Wrath accepted this as a sign of returning cheerfulness. "The story runs so well," he said, "I will not be pedantic and press for your authority. But it sounds like an evangelical tract." He rose from his seat and began to pace the floor. Life to him was a pilgrimage, and the fortunes and misfortunes of the journey troubled him but a little; he could not understand despair." Perhaps you are best alone," he said; "my mother used to say that to be alone with grief was to live in company with angels. I think she knew; she had a great deal to endure. If I sell my picture we can run over to Venice together; I mean, of course, if you would care to go with me. . . .I do not wonder this room is gloomy; it has stolen the odour of a dozen honest dinners. Let us go down in the kitchen and see the baby. I sketched her this morning; here it is: 'Study of an Infant Genius: aged four days.'"

"Don't talk of her," said Jenyns, fiercely; "I never wish to look upon her face again. She killed her mother. . . .I see no God in nature—only Hell, cruel, relentless, hideous."

"Bah!" said Wrath. "Don't get your nose in an artificial manure heap and think you are studying nature. If you take Zola for your gospel and the gospel for fiction, God must help you. I cannot. Where is your spirit?"

"I do not want to be a hero," said Jenyns, sullenly, "or a saint; I want my wife."

"Heroes and husbands are made by the occasion," said Wrath; "no one is born a husband and no one is born a pious, homicidal hero! At first he is just man—man with a birthright of seven deadly sins and one small conscience. There never was a saint, you may rest perfectly sure, but he might have fallen twenty times a day, if he had not fought the enemy with fine courage. Why don't you howl because the trees are bare? Who would think that such grim skeletons could ever be bright with leaves again, or look just as they did last year? Yet they will; and so, when the time comes, you will see your wife; you have only buried the dead leaves of a soul." At no time an eloquent man but always one to whom speech was even a painful effort, he went out of the room after this outburst. With the inconsequence of the artistic reason he had a sudden idea for a picture he was then designing.

Jenyns was once more alone. He gave a feeble laugh and hurried to the window; it was open; he looked down and shivered. Then he looked up at the dark sky.

"God," he said, "if you are there, and if you know everything, you must be sorry for me."

He climbed up on the sill, held out his arms, and with a sob leapt into the night and eternity.

A second later Wrath re-entered. He was breathless, and was reading a letter.

"Now admit," he said, "there is a God who answers prayers. We can go to Venice. Tooth has sold my 'Antigone.' Three hundred——"

His only answer was a shout of horror, a hum of voices, a sound of hurrying in the street below. He leaned out of the window and understood the confusion.

"Mater Dei!" he cried. "Ah, don't groan! Lift him gently! Take care! Five pounds—twenty—to the man who is quickest with the doctor!"

A man looked up from the crowd. "I should like to see the five pound fust" he said. A faint titter greeted his wisdom; an old woman sobbed.

"Come away!" said a girl, who was hanging on the arm of her sweetheart;" there is always something to spoil my evening out!"

The titter and the sob, the sweetheart's retreating footsteps, and Jenyns's death moan, each gave their note to the great unceasing murmur of the city.