The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/Some Emotions and a Moral/Part 1 Chapter 4

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

When Cynthia made her appearance at breakfast the next morning, Provence thought she looked the picture of heavenly meekness—but for the spark of inextinguishable fire in her eyes. She wore, too, a white cotton gown of severe simplicity—a simplicity, however, which did full justice to her figure. It was not till long afterwards that he remembered how, from the first day he had seen her, her clothes always seemed part of her nature; how her gowns, her hats, her very slippers and tortoiseshell hairpins, betrayed her mood no less than her eyes—certainly more than her beautiful, misleading mouth. She greeted Provence with an old-fashioned dignity which made him feel almost as though he were meeting her for the first time. He thought of her manner in the garden on that delicious evening when she looked unutterable things at the sky and assembled nature: he would not decide on which occasion she was most interesting.

Cynthia, meanwhile, who appeared to be deeply absorbed in her father's discourse on the tendency of modern poetry, was in reality criticising Provence as she had never criticised him before and would never criticise him again. It was a peculiar process, and she would have called it "making up her mind" about him. It happened he was looking his best; and, ignominious as the thought may be, who can deny that the whole tenor of a life may often depend on the mere turning in or out of one's toes at a critical moment? Provence sat with his face half in shadow—there was something which reminded her of a portrait by Velasquez in the pose of his head and the light on his features. What she chose to call the artistic craving in her nature was satisfied. She could call him picturesque. Picturesque, and with a Future! She drew a sigh of relief, and under pretence of steadying a rose which was half-falling from its vase on a table close by him (for with her, even impulse was well-tempered with a sense of the effective) sat down by his side. He tried to remember afterwards what they had talked of, but he could only recall the sound of her voice, the glance of her eyes, the pleasure he had felt when, in one of her quick, expressive movements, she had touched his arm to call attention to a vine which grew outside the window.

Having once decided that Provence reminded her of a Velasquez, Cynthia plunged into open flirtation. On one pretence and another she encouraged him to spend a good portion of his time at the Rectory every day; after a week or so pretence was dropped altogether, and her family were given to understand that he came solely for the sake of seeing her. This stage or affairs was hailed with undisguised thankfulness by the Rector, whose feeling for harmony had been rudely jarred by the necessity for his acting the blind dragon. He had long lost interest in Cynthia's little comédies â deux—they always ended the same way. "Provence is at least thirty, or he looks it," he said, in a confidential chat with Lady Theodosia; "and if he chooses to make a fool of himself over a mere child like Cynthia—a girl of twenty—I really think it would be positively indelicate on my part to interfere. As for Cynthia, I should consider it a grave error of judgment to notice anything one way or the other. These innocent little affairs all tend to mould a girl's character; they give her self-confidence: the more experience she has of men, the more likely she will be to choose a good husband." Lady Theodosia said nothing. She was waiting for the point of the Rector's observations. "After all, you know," he said, "if anything should happen, Dobbs thinks a lot of him, and Dobbs has any amount of influence. A successful author makes a handsome income nowadays." Lady Theodosia, who could never, even in imagination, condescend to the unpractical, went through a swift mental calculation as to the amount of income necessary for the maintenance of a house in Fitz-John's Avenue—allowing for a bi-monthly dinner party, an evening once a week, a fortnightly afternoon, five servants and a brougham.

"It could be done for six thousand a year," she said, aloud, "and it would mean management, even then. Besides, his brain might give out. Just think what a bore that would be!"

"We won't think anything so uncharitable," said the Rector, kindly. He only liked to contemplate the cheerful—having boundless faith in the law of self-preservation in the human character.

"Cynthia," said Lady Theodosia, one day, when Provence had left them after an unusually long visit, "what do you see in this man?" Now between this lady and her niece there existed a feeling which, though not affection (for there are no Davids and Jonathans among women), might very well be compared pared to the bonhomie of two fellow-artists — two artists who are respectively convinced that their styles are too distinct to clash in disagreeable rivalry. So far as it lay in Cynthia's disposition to be confidential, she was confidential with her aunt; so far as Lady Theodosia spoke her mind, she spoke it to her niece; so far as moral influence went, neither had the presumption to attempt anything of the kind where the other was concerned. Thus they always kept their tempers—a remarkable circumstance in the friendship of two women.

"What do you see in this man?" repeated Lady Theodosia. To do her justice, she had not the smallest concern for her niece: she was thinking of Provence, for whom—in spite of his shoes—she had conceived a liking which only required a large balance at his banker's to develop into auntly affection. "But he is not the man for Cynthia," she thought; "he has not enough of the brute about him. A John Knox might be able to manage her; and then a good deal would depend on his tailor." Here she was mistaken. Cynthia could excuse considerable eccentricity in the dress of a person of note.

She blushed a little when her aunt asked her what she saw in Provence. She felt it almost a slur on her taste. Few women care to feel the necessity of justifying their preferences—least of all a woman in whom the desire to be thought more than humanly infallible was the master passion.

"Don't you care about him?" she said at last. Her tone was almost apologetic.

"I think he is quite charming," said Lady Theodosia, "an interesting person in every way. But I may as well say at once that I don't think you ought to flirt with him—he takes it much too seriously. Things cannot remain as they are for ever; there must be a climax. For the present he has put you on a pedestal and worships you afar off, but sooner or later he will remember that you are flesh. Man, after all, is not a spirit."

Cynthia laughed or—to be truthful at the expense of euphony—chuckled. "How you exaggerate!" she said. "Mr. Provence has come here for his health, and naturally wishes to be amused. Besides, when a man has been ordered complete rest, he likes to imagine himself in love with some woman. It is marmalade for the pill. If I had not appeared he would have discovered unique attractions in his landlady."

"Why did he not choose Agatha?" said Lady Theodosia.

Cynthia gave her answer unconsciously by looking into the mirror which faced them. "My dear aunt," she said, "Agatha is dutiful, and thinks of others and reads Hooker—she will no doubt get a kind husband. But he will never be her lover. Men do not love these still women—they have a high opinion of them."

"I have no more to say," said Lady Theodosia, "except this—these literary and artistic people are very dangerous. You never find two alike, and the only certain thing about them is that ultimately they will do something to make everybody uncomfortable."

But she was not pleased with her niece that day. She herself was no doubt very worldly, very cynical and very heartless, but she had not always been so; and although her more generous instincts often perished, like weak chickens from sheer inability to break through their shell, they did occasionally struggle into evidence. She liked Provence, and where she liked she could—at a pinch—be loyal. "Cynthia shall not make a fool of him, if I can help it," she said to herself, with a vicious snap of her teeth. "She is altogether too self-confident. She would be much improved by an occasional failure. She is too used to success." If the jealousy, the natural jealousy of a woman who had outlived her own days of desperate flirtation, added a zest to her purpose, the purpose itself was none the less a kind one so far as her intentions went and Provence was concerned. As a rule, there can be no better adviser for a man than a woman who has a passionless affection for him: she can under these circumstances almost succeed in being impartial; she can even see where he may be in fault; she can bring herself to face his shortcomings—nay, more, she can deal with them. If Lady Theodosia had been asked just why she liked Provence, she would not have been able to say. She could not possibly tell people that he reminded her of her first lover—about the legs.

The morning after her conversation with Cynthia she walked to the cottage where he lodged, for the ostensible reason of inquiring after his landlady's baby, who was cutting teeth. It was a significant fact that she put on her most becoming bonnet and mantle. That a ministering angel should of necessity be dowdy was no part of her creed. When she had finished with the landlady she strolled into the garden, where she saw Provence reading. He was surprised, but rather pleased than otherwise, to see her: first, because she was Cynthia's aunt; secondly, because she was an attractive-looking woman.

"I have come to have a chat with you," she began—with a directness she was capable of when it appeared expedient; "you won't think me a bore?" She smiled at him with her large brown eyes. "Let us walk down this path," she continued, "we can talk better." With one hand she caught up her silk skirt: she laid the other—covered in light grey kid—very lightly on his arm. The movement was perfectly spontaneous, and probably the nearest approach to a motherly caress she could think of. She had never felt so nearly sorry for any one in her life as she did for him. "He reminds me more than ever of Talbot!" she sighed to herself.

"I am coming straight to the point," she said, "because I know you like candour. I want to tell you—you will forgive me, I know—I want to tell you that you are growing too fond of my niece. Pray don't look so distressed. I am sorry to have to say it—it is so difficult to put these things—you know what I mean. I don't think you ever tried to disguise your admiration for her—there has been no necessity for anything of the kind. If I have misunderstood you, however, you will tell me so."

Provence, who had at first turned red, was now very pale.

"You are quite right," he said, proudly. "I have not tried to disguise my feelings—it may be I could not. But I have not been foolish enough to hope that—that Miss Heathcote had the smallest interest in me—if that is what you mean."

"You are not being sincere with yourself," said Lady Theodosia. "Cynthia has given you every encouragement—you must feel it—whether you admit it is another matter. You are too modest—a sure sign you are very much in love. It is just because Cynthia has led you to believe in every possible way that she cares for your society quite as much as you care for hers, that I am here to-day. Don't contradict me and say she hasn't: I am a woman of the world and know what I am talking about. Now when Cynthia takes it into her head to flirt, she is absolutely without principle; she forgets everything—except herself. Let me entreat you to leave this place—you are only making misery for yourself by staying. She will never love you: it isn't in her to love any one. I am fond of her; I know her fascination—she fascinates me: but she is made of granite. You may like her, you may admire her to your heart's content, but you must not love her."

"Lady Theodosia," he said, "I know you mean to be kind; I know you believe every word you say: but as you have been straightforward with me I will be perfectly plain with you. I cannot think as you do with regard to—Miss Heathcote. She would not be granite to the right man. That I do not happen to be that man is not at all extraordinary. You know," he added, "every man cannot be Mark Anthony, that a Cleopatra should love him—it is enough for an ordinary mortal that he may have the inestimable privilege of breaking his heart for a Cleopatra."

"You are a fool," said Lady Theodosia, "and of course I like you better for it. I did not expect you to believe me as a matter of fact, but I have done what I honestly thought was my duty. I have warned you, and I can do no more. As for this nonsense about the right man, don't make excuses for her on that ground. The right man for her is he who has the most money and the biggest position. She was born for noise, not love. We won't return to this subject again. As I said just now, I have done what I could, and the rest lies with yourself. Naturally you will hate me after this, but I knew what I was bringing upon myself when I started. I will say this," she added, after a pause: "if Cynthia should prove different to what I have said (but she won't), I should be glad for her sake, because I like you, and I think—this is the truth—you are far too good for her. Good-bye." Then she pressed his hand and hurried away.

Cynthia sat at home in the meantime, pondering her aunt's sayings in her heart. Until Lady Theodosia had spoken, she had lived her amusement with Provence from day to day, taking small thought for the morrow, and having still less for the yesterday. Now she felt she ought to prepare in some way for a climax. It was a revelation to her to find that preparation was necessary. She usually left climaxes to the hour, her mood and fate. But she liked Provence; she could not persuade herself that all the climax would be on his side. This was awkward. Apart, however, from any mere personal attraction he may have had for her, he had once told her—after a great deal of ingenious cross-questioning on her part—that the great Dobbs—Dobbs mighty in literature, in Fleet Street, and the New Criticism—had offered him the editorship of "The Present Age," a monthly organ devoted to the propaganda of piquant (but not necessarily original) theories of life. It made a feature of unsigned articles, which were commonly supposed to be written by the Great (and perhaps Improper) of the earth.

A woman need not be in the market-place to show her talent for marketing. Cynthia saw at once that the editor of a periodical so justly reverenced as "The Present Age" would enjoy a reputation, and something in the way of income not totally unworthy of a Veiled Prophet. Now if there was one thing she respected far above titles and riches, it was success; if she had one cherished ambition, it was to be the wife of a successful man, a man who painted much talked-of pictures, or wrote conspicuous books, or preached to big congregations, or, in fact, was able in any way, either by his ability or impudence, to push himself into a prominent position. She naturally preferred a genius to a quack, she liked what is considered the best of everything; but geniuses were rare, and although one could never mistake a genius for a quack, it was quite possible to mistake a quack for a genius. Provence, she feared, was a great deal too much in earnest to care for applause just for its own sake, but she saw no reason why, under the influence of an ambitious woman, he should not make a considerable buzz about his name with comparatively little trouble. Left to himself, he would probably spend his life trying to realize some crazy ideal, and in the end accomplish nothing. That was always the way with a sort of genius, a man whose mind was pitched higher than his voice. "I could make something of him," she said to herself, "if I could get certain notions out of his head." For he, in his vainglory, had spoken lightly of "The Present Age;" had laughed at the idea of being its editor; had announced his intention of sticking to his novel—an incomprehensible manuscript which Cynthia could not understand, and which he did not seem able to explain.

That evening she went into the garden as usual, and as usual found Provence in the arbour. He always came after dinner, at the Rector's kind invitation, to run through a little music. He looked very pale and very determined. Cynthia was more than ever convinced that he was quite the most interesting of all her lovers—and she had had a number.

"You look like Prometheus defying the Furies —you remember in Shelley!" she said, as she came up to him. "Are you angry—with me?"

"I have come to say good-bye—to you all," he said abruptly; "l am going to London to-night."

"To-night ? " said Cynthia, "to-night? Have you heard any bad news? How rude I am—but it is so sudden." She seemed, and was in reality, dismayed and disappointed. Was this the climax? This, the supreme situation of the third act ? Would there be no one but that dull Edward Cargill for the remainder of the summer? No wonder her heart sank.

"It is necessary for me to go," said Provence; "I have stayed too long already." Some faint inkling of his meaning dawned upon her, and her spirits brightened.

"It must be very dull for you," she said, with a melancholy little sigh, "very, very dull." This was more than he could bear.

"Oh, Cynthia," he said, "you know it has not been dull."

"Then why are you going?" she said.

"Because I dare not stay."

She hesitated, looked down, and blushed. She was about to take a bold step. She really did not want him to go. She moved nearer to him, so near that a lock of her hair, loosened by the wind, blew across his face.

"What shall I do when you have gone ?" she said.

He could scarcely trust himself to speak. "You would not care?"

"How could I help—caring?"

"It was so nice of him," she said to herself when she was going to sleep that night," not to try and kiss me. Men don't understand, as a rule, that a woman likes to get used to them by degrees. It is rather amusing to be engaged, for a change. He makes love very prettily, and yet is always a man."

It was Cynthia's wish that the engagement should be kept secret. "It is so uncomfortable to have the outside world in one's confidence," she said. He urged in vain that her father at least was not the outside world." The only thing that can possibly concern papa," she answered, "are your prospects. When you have settled everything with Dobbs, it will be time to speak to him." She did not add that unless everything was settled with Dobbs, and in her way, the necessity for interviewing her father on the subject of a formal betrothal would never arise—such candour was far removed from her method of gaining a point. At first he told her decidedly that nothing on earth would induce him to take up journalism, and the editor's work for "The Present Age" would mean journalism in its most aggravated form. He cared nothing for income and hated notoriety. Cynthia liked him for appearing a little obstinate: it would add lustre to her triumph. For she scented triumph in the distance; patience, a few more smiles, once or twice the suspicion of a tear, sometimes the mere worldly wisdom of "What shall we live on?", the pressure of her cheek against his shoulder—"To please me, Godfrey." There was never a Samson so strong but he met his Delilah: it is only by the mercy of God that Delilah has occasionally a conscience. Provence surrendered one evening. The next morning, however, he told her he had thought better of it: he renounced Dobbs and all his works for ever.

"Very well," said Cynthia, quietly. "When I have made a mistake I am generally strong enough to own it. I have made a mistake in you. It does not console me to remember that women are usually mistaken—in men."

"Have I ever tried to give you a false impression of me?"

"I don't know. But I will own, if you like, that it did not require much trying. I was only too willing to be deceived. That is a humiliating confession—not that I ought to mind humiliation— now."

"Cynthia! What are you saying? "

"You have disappointed me. That I feel the disappointment so much is perhaps amusing—for you. It is only an additional bitterness to me."

"Is this because I have broken a foolish promise I made to you last night—and before I have suggested any compromise?"

"I despise a man who breaks his word and makes explanations afterwards."

"I thought you were just."

"Do not talk to me of justice! Have I not loved you? was I not, am I not still, ambitious for you? And you have failed me. If I did not know that you had ability I would say nothing—I would not have cared for you in the first place. It is because I see you so indolent, so satisfied to grovel among the nobodies whose only metier is to grovel, that I am heartsick. I admit I like to see brains in a man or a woman: it may be weakness on my part."

"Will you not give me time to prove what I can do?"

"You have been all your life proving, and this offer from Dobbs seems to be the proof. It is the only thing I pin my faith to."

"That is to say," said Provence, "you believe in me because Dobbs does."

"You may attribute any meanness to me you please."

"Do you wish me to close with him?"

"My wishes can have no interest for you—now."

"You know your wishes are everything to me."

"You think more of your unfinished novel! And—you would not do it if I did wish it."

"But do you ?"

"Am I not crying my eyes out—because you won't."

"Then you do wish it, after all I have said?"

"This is childish. Well—yes—I suppose I do."

"You are sure? You do not care how ashamed I may be afterwards?"

"That is an absurd way of putting it. I do not consider you a competent judge of your own work."

"That may or may not be. But would you care for me—even a little—if I did this to please you?"

"I could not care for you—a little."

"Cynthia! Do you mean that?"

"Yes, I mean it. Women are weak, and after all I am only a woman. Why do you try me so and make me say things—in anger? Do you think I enjoy saying them?"

"But—dearest—I cannot say yes to Dobbs."

"Are you trying an experiment with me to see how long my patience will last! When it fails I think you will be sorry—at least, if you love me as you pretend to do."

"You are using hard words."

"Not too hard. Is it a noble amusement, to torment a woman who loves you?"

"I would die for you—but I cannot say yes to Dobbs."

"I thought only women were obstinate."

"It is not a question of obstinacy, but of right."

"That implies I am urging you to do wrong."

"No—but you do not understand."

"Then I am a fool? I prefer, on the whole, to be a knave. I must decline to squabble like this. It is not only wearying, but vulgar. So far as I am concerned the subject shall drop for ever. Say no to Dobbs, by all means."

"Cynthia, you will see that I am right—some day."

"Possibly. When I do see it I will own I was wrong—I can promise no more; but till then—till then—I will never willingly set eyes upon you again."

"Is this the end, Cynthia?"

"The end? Yes. I wish there had never been a beginning. I am sick of you, but most of all sick of myself."

"I will go, then."

"It is certainly best that you should."

It seemed as though the sound of her own voice had barely died away when he was out of sight. She waited a few moments, not so much in the hope that he would return, but because she felt that to stand there alone—determined if sorrowful—was not only the most artistic, but the most picturesque thing to do.

He returned, however. It was not so easy to leave her—with some of her tears on his sleeve. "It shall be as you say," he said. He felt as though he had signed away his soul.

Cynthia laughed with the gaiety of a child. "You goose! "she said, "you goose! Why couldn't you have given in sooner?"

*****

Cynthia felt she had done well: the prospect of marrying a successful writer became daily more pleasing to her. As to the novelty of "being engaged," she had classed it in her list of tried-and-found-wanting experiments before the end of the first fortnight. She found her lover's interest in all that concerned her a decided nuisance: he asked her questions which were often difficult to answer: he was too anxious to take upon his own shoulders the burden of her future. She had proposed to manage him—it was far from her intention that he should ever dream of managing her. He recommended her, kindly, but with an air of authority, the authors he would like her to read—among others Thomas a Kempis; he gave her volumes of Scarlatti—old editions with a figured bass and not so much as a pedal mark; he borrowed her Rhapsodies Hongroises, and always forgot to return them: he told her that Nature was better than Botticelli (which, to be honest, she thought herself— but the Rectory culture did not allow her to say so); in fact, he showed that he did not consider her taste—on all points—as perfect as it might be. When the day arrived for his departure for town, she felt positively relieved. "He is charming, of course," she confided to Lady Theodosia, whom she had told of the engagement unknown to Provence, for, in spite of her determination to keep the matter secret, she had felt the need of a pair of ears for her bursts of dissatisfaction. She had Reached that ripeness of experience when silent suffering seems misdirected energy. "Yes, he is charming," she repeated, "only—I hardly know how to express it—when I have been with him a whole afternoon I feel as though I had been for a picnic with the Twelve Apostles and Peter left early! I always thought that Peter was the most interesting."

The parting was a very different matter to Provence. He kissed her once—he was always afraid of wearying her with his kisses—and fairly fled out of her presence, not daring to linger over his good-bye. It was one of his faults, no doubt, to take things too seriously. When he was quite out of sight and hearing, Cynthia rushed into the drawing-room—which was empty—and executed a wild but extremely graceful war-dance in front of the long mirror. When she was quite breathless she flung open the piano—even lifted the top to let out its full volume, and with her foot firmly planted on the pedal she thumped with all her might a barbarian valse by a barbarian and unpronounceable composer. Lady Theodosia ran into the room with her small white hands held over her ears.

"My dear Cynthia, what discord! Even the Russian person at the concert did not make such a noise."

"I am so tired of being cultured," said Cynthia, as she wound up her performance with shrieking chromatics in contrary motion. "A woman sacrifices a good deal when she undertakes to steer a possible genius. I shall go into the woods this afternoon with that stupid Edward Cargill and read him "Three Men in a Boat!''