The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/Some Emotions and a Moral/Part 1 Chapter 2

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"My search for new worlds," wrote Provence to George Golightly a few days later," begins at this small village—not a hundred miles from Charing Cross—which I have named the End of all Things. It is described on local guide-posts as Little Speenham. There is a church, a public-house, and a dissenting chapel—one evil brings another—and the rustic maid abounds, a creature of large feet, wide smiles, and limited innocence. This, however, in parenthesis. My quarters might be worse, and are as comfortable as a respectable woman with an unnecessary husband, a voracious child and a barn-yard can make them. When she is not feeding the husband and stirring pap for the babe she mixes pabulum for the pigs: in her leisure she does the washing and prepares food for me. What an existence! The other day I asked her if she did not think that the five wise may have lived to envy the five foolish virgins. She looked at me—as only a woman can look—and mournfully winked! No heroine flopping in elegant collapse and disillusion could match the eloquence of that wink. Sublime!

"I can step from my room on to a lawn where yellow ducklings, a lame hen and some middle-aged cats gambol in imperfect amiability; beyond the lawn, through a gate, is a duck-pond—you walk a little way and behold! another gate—it is generally open—you pass through and find yourself in the poultry-yard.

This yard is by no means uninstructive, and lacks but one thing to reach Nineteenth Century civilization—the Divorce Court. I must not forget the kitchen-garden—rich with gooseberry bushes, mignonette, apple trees and potatoes; odorous with world-weary cabbage and patent fertilizer. A modern Eden, with a dash of the commonplace, and a clothes line extended from the Tree of Knowledge to the Tree of Life; Eve with a bad complexion and no figure—or too much—to speak of, scrubs the kitchen floor and has small leisure for the Tempter; Satan (your obedient servant) loses himself in a vast yawn and is certainly in no mood to tempt; whilst Adam snores the sleep of the unphilosophic, the robust and the over-fed, on the kitchen chair bedstead. To write country idylls one should live in town....

"The air now is delightful—fresh-washed by yesterday's rain and dried by this morning's sun. What a Queen of Washerwomen is Nature! That is a prosaic simile, I know, but it suits my surroundings. It is only a journalist or a genius who can write of ambrosia with his mouth full, nay, poor devil, perhaps only half full, of porridge. I shall try and endure this for a week. Shall I ever learn to bear gracefully what is good for me? ever feel—on the analogy of Virtue being its own reward (a darksome saying en passant)—that the Uncomfortable, the Irksome, the Infinitely Tedious and all the phases of Dead-levelism are better for me than all the other things (thank Heaven, we may leave them to the imagination) which I am not desperate enough—yet—to hope for? But—it is encouraging to remember that there are few things in life which do not sooner or later admit a But—I have had an adventure. This noon I started for a walk over the common with its big board of bye-laws lame in the leg but awful with penalties) and on to the high road. Then, for no other reason than my constitutional love for the crooked, I branched off into a winding lane. I must have walked ten minutes or more when I suddenly found myself facing a gate: curiosity or my guardian angel prompted me to look over it. I saw a small, old-fashioned garden, a broad, flat house of the bungalow type, and a girl sitting on the lawn. At first I noticed that she was bored and what women call untidy; then that she was mysteriously, surprisingly, uncomfortably beautiful. I suppose I stared too hard—she looked up, caught my eye, blushed, tugged her dress, which was certainly short, over her ankles and tried to smooth her hair; for she wore no hat. Well, it was clearly impossible for me to stand any longer at the gate; it was equally impossible for me to walk away—at least from my point of view. I took off my hat, endeavoured to look innocent, and touched the gate. L'inconnue rose from her chair, and with one more tug at her gown walked towards me. 'I beg your pardon,' said I, 'but can you direct me to East Sheerwell? I think I have lost my way.' She began to smile, and looked steadily beyond me. 'You are quite in the wrong direction,' she said; 'East Sheerwell is ten miles from here and lies at your back.' I thanked her, took off my hat again, and went on my way rejoicing. Is that all? you will say. Have I not used the word 'rejoicing,' and applied it to myself? Don't laugh at me—I am laughing at myself enough for both of us.—Yours, G. P.
"P.S.—I have forgotten something. Whom should I meet at the station the day I came down but old Heathcote—the Honourable and Reverend. Do you remember him? It appears he has exchanged rectories with the local apostle, and is down here with Lady Theodosia Gore-Jones and his two daughters. He insisted that I should dine with them to-morrow and stay over Sunday. I have never met any of the women, but they are 'fond of music,' and 'read a little Greek — in a girlish way.' God be merciful to me a sinner! He also introduced me to a lady he was very much assisting into a chariot and pair—an elderly person who shows me what the British Matron might have been before she was shocked. Her name is Cargill, and her husband is a baronet. Into what distinguished company have I fallen! You may depend the devil is not far off in this wilderness."

When Provence had finished this letter he gave it to his landlady for the post-boy, and left the house with the air of a man who had some more definite object in view than a mild jostling for the digestion. It was evening—perhaps nine o'clock, and that peculiar stillness reigned over all things which in the country marks the closing in of day. The moon was bright, the air fresh. Provence felt that he had every excuse for tingling with the joy of being alive, and that his scepticism for one night at least might be the light scum on a deep surface of sentimentality and unspoken quotations from the poets. For one moment he was tempted to think he might lapse into poetry himself: that is to say, if his thoughts would only shape themselves into something more definite than a variety of agreeable impressions which would no more bear analysis—much less the writing on paper—than the sheen of the moon on the duck-pond. Meanwhile he walked on, gradually quickening his steps until he reached the winding lane he had already explored that morning. Then he slackened his pace, and with the not unpleasant consciousness that he was behaving more youngly than he had ever imagined possible in his youth, he smiled kindly at his own folly till he gained a green gate. Here he stopped short, for She was standing there, a vision of loveliness and white muslin—a fair enough sight to make any man's heart (provided that the cook and the counting-house had not reduced that organ to an inferior kind of liver), stand still. She did not seem surprised to see him, but with an indescribable movement of grace and confidence leant a little further over the gate, looked him straight in the eyes for a bewildering moment, and—looked away. The girl was, no doubt, as Provence had said in his letter, uncomfortably beautiful: attractive with a beauty which other women might or might not admire, but would at all events rather not see in a rival. There were faults in her face. The chin, in spite of its dimple, might have been rounder, her mouth with all its fresh redness was a little too wavering, her eyebrows were a shade too straight. She had wonderful hair, neither auburn, nor gold, nor brown, but a suggestion of all three; brown eyes, with the unclouded frankness of a shallow pond—putting aside the unpleasant reflection that a shallow pond may be deceptive; a skin of unusual fairness, and a poise of the head which was positively royal—royal in that sense which, in spite of human experience, human sentiment with that longing to idealize the real (a longing which, by the bye, is more apt to show itself in definitions than deeds)—would fain give the word. In form she was tall and slender—rather too slender, perhaps, for statuesque symmetry.

But before Provence could persuade himself that there was a something in her expression which did not at all events forbid him to draw nearer, a window was heard to open, and a loud voice, feminine, aristocratic, and shrill, drowned the sweetness of the nightingale, "Cynthia! Cynthia!"

The girl sighed, smiled with ineffable graciousness on heaven and earth, glanced at the mortal on the opposite side of the road, and disappeared in the shadow of the garden. Provence felt that the night had grown dark.

But the moon was still shining upon the duckpond.