The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/The Sinner's Comedy/Chapter 1

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The Sinner's Comedy.


I.


When the ninth Lord Middlehurst lay on his deathbed, he called each of his three children to him in turn. The heir he bade do his duty, and remember that Feudalism under a just lord was the only -Ism for a loyal subject and a patriot.

The second son he implored to give up smoking.

The third child, who was his favourite and a girl, he looked at in silence for a long time. When he spoke, it was in a whisper too low to be heard by the others, who lingered in the room at a distance from the bedside.

"Emily," he said, "all things in life are vanity—save one. That is Love. Find it. It is the philosopher's stone."

He did not speak again till just before he died, when he kissed his wife's hand with singular tenderness and called her "Elizabeth." She had been christened Augusta Frederica; but then, as the doctors explained, dying men often make these mistakes.

The effect produced on each of the three by the good nobleman's last injunctions was curious and significant.

The heir, who would have been very strong-minded had he been born a woman, had a soul above the management of a country estate. Although all his passions were extremely well-bred and gentlemanly, and had never given him one moment's anxiety from the hour of his birth, there was one—no less gentlemanly, however, than the others—which ruled him with something approaching despotism. This was Ambition. He longed to make a mark, or, to express it more vulgarly, cut a figure. Now, fortunately or unfortunately, the number of figures which can be cut in the world is practically unlimited; the only difficulty is to cut precisely the kind of figure one would wish. But that merely illustrates the playfulness of the gods. The kind of figure Lord Middlehurst liked to imagine himself cutting was dignified, important, and frock-coated. That is to say, he was to be the man on all occasions to wear the Frock-coat and represent in one gracious person the literal and symbolic in Frock-coats throughout cultivated Europe.

He scraped together all his available capital, raised his rents, and started a Daily Paper.

The Honourable Robert Haviland, who was the second son, was noted for his serenity. When his brother was oppressed with gloom to think how few people he knew who were sufficiently moral to dine with, Robert reminded him that the most interesting sinners usually preferred a supper. His cheerfulness was indiminishable. He shaved regularly for the week following Lord Middlehurst's death, gave his lounging-coat to an under-groom, and began reading religious novels—in bed—as a first step towards reform. At the end of the tenth day he hinted to the coachman that a rat-hunt might be amusing. Before a fortnight had passed, he was limiting himself to four pipes a day—with fluctuating success. "A fellow can't break off a habit all at once," he said; "it would play the very devil with his nerves, to begin with!"

Emily, who was eighteen at the time of her father's death, married in the following year, at her mother's suggestion, a Mr. Francis Adolphus Prentice, of the firm of Prentice, Rawncliffe, Prentice and Company, bankers, a gentleman of middle age, for whom she cherished the highest respect and esteem. She had met him at six dinners, two tennis-parties, and a court ball. To a young girl marriage only means a trousseau and a honeymoon; the trousseau she can describe to a flounce: she imagines the honeymoon as a flirtation under the blessing of the Church. Emily, not unmindful of her future husband's brief but destroying small-talk, waived the idea of flirtation, and concentrated her thoughts on the trousseau. Just six months after the wedding, the unfortunate gentleman died of an illness which began with a carbuncle and ended in complications. Emily was shocked at his death, and grieved because she could not grieve. He had been so very kind and so very stupid. She went in mournful weeds, and ordered orchids to be placed on his grave twice a week. Her mother suggested, "At all events, for the present"

In stature Mrs. Prentice was rather above the average height. Her symmetry was modern: she was the Venus of the Luxembourg, not the goddess of Milo. Her hair, which was fine and abundant, was of that very light brown which usually accompanies a sallow skin. Emily's complexion was like porcelain, pink and transparent. Her eyes were blue; they had the fire and brilliancy without the coldness of steel. Her nose and mouth were delicately formed; she had a little square chin, with a cleft which looked like a dimple. All her features suggested decision and force: that the decision would be shown at the right moment, that the force would be well-directed, was less certain. "A fine devil spoilt in a saint," said one man of her. His wife was her dearest friend—so he had a right to his opinion.

But in the county it was whispered that Mrs. Prentice was a flirt; no harm in her, of course (the "Of Course" always), yet still—a flirt. A certain estate, some eight miles away from Hurst Place (where the lady lived for three months of the year with her mother), belonged to a certain baronet, Sir Richard Kilcoursie by name: said Baronet, a bachelor. Would it be human to suppose that the fair Emily's eyes had not rolled Kilcoursie-wards; that, remembering their colour and man's weakness, they had rolled vainly? The county—with marriageable daughters—hoped for the best in the case of the Honourable Mrs. Prentice.

Sir Richard Kilcoursie, of St. Simon's Close, in the county of Mertfordshire, started in life as the younger son of a younger son. Before he was out of his short-clothes, his family decided that he should enter the Civil Service. "Then," said they, "if he only lives to be sixty-three he will have a pension!" When Richard arrived at years of discretion, he saw no reason for quarrelling with their plan. Every day of his life brought him nearer the pension, and every day he had the pleasure of spending it in advance. When Fate made him a baronet, and dropped the hoard of two respectable bachelors into his pocket, he had something like ruin staring him in the face. He never forgot the vision. It sobered his philosophy. He began to take an interest in the workings of Providence. For the rest, he was a man who found no fault with the facts of life so long as they were expressed in picturesque metaphor. The agreeable system of ethics condensed in the axiom that all vices are but exaggerated virtues, seemed to him to breathe a more benevolent spirit than the "Imitatio Christi." He believed that Man was the measure of all things; that Man was Sir Richard Kilcoursie. His views on woman were, perhaps, more remarkable for their chivalry than their reverence; that she lost her youth was a blot on creation: that she could lose her virtue made life worth living. As his nature was sensuous rather than sensual, however, the refinement of his taste did for him what the fear of God has hardly done for few. He waited for his Eve: she was to be Guinevere, not Molly Seagrim. He met her when he was twenty-three and she nineteen. Her name was Anna Christian: she was studying Art in Jasper Street, Bloomsbury. At seventeen she had married an actor—a gentleman with strong feelings and a limp backbone. He was an unspeakable man; and, having endured all things, she left him. It was a bad beginning, but two years' companionship with the Impossible had taught her to bear the Necessary with patience. She was a woman who perchance could not have learnt that lesson in any other school. "I believe," she told her confessor (she was a Catholic), " I really believe I am almost meek." The holy man looked a little doubtful. "At any rate," she faltered, "I am meeker than I was." He said nothing, but there was a certain eloquence about his eyebrows which appealed so strongly to her sense of humour that she even woke up in the night to smile over it. "I don't care, I am meeker," she murmured, and fell asleep again.

Anna was not born, she was made: she had no inherited prejudices, only a consciousness of privilege: she was used to the wilderness, and snuffed up the wind at her pleasure. The men and women she moved among had no philosophy of the artistic temperament: they were its unconscious data; they lived, not as they reasoned, but as they felt. And Feeling with them was no psychological problem; they accepted their moods with their skin as part of the human economy. In their simplicity they were like the philosopher who wrote the whole tragedy of life in the sentence: "Appetite, with an opinion of attaining, is Hope; the same, without such opinion, is Despair." Anna found in Richard Kilcoursie a man who, though not of her world, showed an immense appreciation for it. If he had no Art, he had at least a Temperament. In his enthusiasm, his impulsiveness, and buoyant sense of irresponsibility, he was like the men of her own people; he was only unlike them where the difference seemed, in her eyes, immeasurably to his advantage. He had a grace of manner and bearing common enough, it may be, among well-born Irishmen, but exceedingly rare among the art students, journalists, and actors of Jasper Street, Bloomsburv. Furthermore, he was handsome in the chaste and classic style. In Anna's thoughts he figured chiefly as a work of art: that was the first impression he left, and the one which remained when all others were dispelled or forgotten. Richard loved her—or thought so; she loved him, and thought nothing at all about it. A little close reasoning would have shown her that it was affection and good-fellowship she bore him, and no more. Marriage—even viewed as an impossibility—or the commoner relation in Jasper Street, never occurred to her. Her experience of the married state had been so terrible that she could not trust herself to remember it; to anticipate even the risk of another such made her pale.

For two years Richard was perfectly happy in her friendship—or, at least, possessed by the excitement which passes so readily for happiness; for one he was contented; at the beginning of the fourth year he came into his title. Then life took at once a wider and a narrower meaning: wider, because his interests covered a larger field, narrower, because his own personality—the figure of Sir Richard Kilcoursie—blocked up the way. Not that his egoism was loud-voiced or swaggering—it was merely constant: if his intellect had possessed an equal stability he would, no doubt, have achieved greatness. As it was, his pleasure-loving mind found satisfaction—if nothing better presented itself—in the unsatisfactory: he endeavoured to elude disappointment with the same persistence as the metaphysician seeks for truth. If his love-bird proved a sparrow, he would discover unimagined charms in the sparrow—not the least of them being that it had been clever enough to deceive him. His companionship with Anna was the one really serious element in his life. Although her attitude towards the world was one of indifference, it was only because she saved her earnestness for her work; she lived for it and, as it were, in it. To be in daily association with a woman so determined and so studious, who, though often mistaken in her opinions, had always the courage of them, gave him a wholesome reverence for those who labour to other ends than cakes and ale. She lived very frugally in two little rooms, and supported herself by illustrating: what time she could spare from that, she devoted to practice in oils. Her Masterpiece, as she called it, was only waiting to be painted: it was all in her mind's eye. The pleasures of her life, outside her work, were few and simple: they mostly consisted in going to the theatre, when she had orders, and exploring London. She and Richard would tramp for hours through squares and terraces, crescents, streets, and roads—S.E., S.W., and W., N., and N.W., and N.E.—they were never tired till they reached home, and then there would still be something to talk over, to laugh about and plan for the next day. When the change came in Richard's fortune her tastes remained the same, but, when they went to the theatre, they had a box and a chaperon. In Jasper Street, Bloomsbury, where nature was more in vogue than respectability, a chaperon was considered an unnecessary and tedious addition to the ordinary plagues of life, but Richard explained that Society which bought pictures was very different from Society which painted them: he pointed out, with all possible delicacy, that although she might not care for the whims of the polite world, he, from the habit of his early training, did and must.

"Do you think, then, you have been doing wrong all this time?" said Anna, quietly; "have we sinned in dining together, and talking together, and walking together?"

"Of course not," said Sir Richard, flushing; "but one has no right to thrust the details of their private life and their most sacred convictions. … They wouldn't be understood, to begin with. People would misunderstand us altogether."

"What does that matter so long as we understand ourselves?" said Anna.

"I could not bear to place you in a false position. I have been far too careless of appearances as it is. In that respect I have been abominably selfish."

The subject dropped: they never returned to it again. But Society never heard his most sacred convictions.

If Anna had been true to herself, however, at that crisis she would have passed out of his life for ever and begun the world afresh, unfriended. But while she could face the world, she could not face the loneliness: solitude à deux makes solitude only one of two things—perfect rest or complete destruction. In her case she feared it would mean destruction. Richard, with all his shortcomings, had grown, as it were, part of her nature; losing him would mean losing her dearest weakness. She knew, too, that her influence and affection were more to him than all the moon-swearing passion in the world; that if he could or might love a dozen others for their ears or their eyebrows, or their way of eating bread-and-butter, he would always look to her in trouble and perplexity. She would not desert him. Matters were at this stage when Mrs. Prentice came to Hurst Place on a long visit. Sir Richard then discovered that he was feeling tired of his scheme for happiness. He decided that purity like Anna's appealed to the sentiment of a man, but did not touch his sympathy. Purity itself was too unsympathetic: it had no Past. Anna had a heart, many tender and lovely traits—but she had no passion. He was quite sure she had no passion. It was a pity. Emily Prentice was beautiful; she was young; she was witty; she was a widow—and rich. He fell in love with the Notion of her. About the same time Emily began to wish that he could meet some woman (she was afraid she could not think of just the woman) who would lead him into the path of peace. For she had heard rumours of a certain recklessness, of a cynical desperation, of a hey-day philosophy, of a young eagle playing the jackdaw. She felt concerned: she could not sleep for concern. When she happened to meet him on the high-road one morning, she probably blushed for the same reason. He blushed too. Emily said she was quite sure he would be glad to hear that her mother's cold was much better. (The Lady Middlehurst always had a cold when there was nothing more amusing to catch.) He expressed his delight at the tidings. Then, by an odd coincidence, they both began together.

"I think——" said Emily.

"I was wondering——" said Sir Richard.

"I beg your pardon," said she.

"Not at all—I interrupted you."

"I forget what I was going to say."

"So do I."

"Isn't the sky blue?'" she said, after a pause;

"isn't it beautiful?"

"Very beautiful," said Sir Richard.

"But you are not looking," said Emily, severely.

"I can always see the sky." This was bold. He waited to see the effect.

"Yes, but it isn't always that colour," said Emily, glancing heavenward. For an Angel, it may be, she was a shade subtle.

"Would you be angry if I said something?" said the Mortal.

"How can I tell?" she murmured.

"Do you think I would willingly make you angry?"

" I am sure you wouldn't—willingly. And, in any case, I shouldn't feel anger. I might be hurt, or vexed, or——," she smiled at him with beguiling sweetness, "simply amused."

"It might amuse you, for instance, if I made a fool of myself." Enamoured man is alternately the lover and the turkey-cock.

"Well," said Emily, "after all, you need not make a fool of yourself. You are not obliged to amuse me that way, are you?"

"I don't know," he said, impetuously. "I don't know. I only know one thing just at present." He caught her hand. (A country road has its advantages.)

"Only one thing, Emily!"

"Oh! … That's a stupid thing to know. Forget it!"

"Never."

"Please forget it."

"Never! never!"

"But there are other women—much nicer than I am—better worth loving—who would love you."

"I don't want any other woman to love me. I only want to love you. May I?"

She looked at him and owned to herself that he was a lover any woman would be proud of. Honest love, or its semblance, will always gain a woman's sympathy even if it fails to win her heart. To Emily, who doubted whether she had a heart to lose, it had the added fascination of mystery. She envied him his gift of loving. Next to it, she thought the gift of surrendering were most to be desired. But she could not make up her mind to surrender. Freedom, too, was not without its sweetness.

"Love is not for me," she said, with a gentle sigh; "don't think of it—don't speak of it. There is nothing in the world for me but to grow old and die. That is my future." She sighed once more and glanced down at her half-mourning—designed by Worth. "Let us talk of something else."

But his blood was up. The ancestral Paddy (on his mother's side) was tugging at his heart-strings. "Why did God put you in the world—if you are not to be loved and worshipped and—oh, Emily!"

She laughed in spite of herself. "I am afraid," she said, "God has something else to think of besides my love-affairs!"

"Emily!"

"Yes, Richard." (He hardly liked the Richard—it had a sisterly inflection.)

"When may I see you again? Here are those beastlv lodge-gates. I must see you soon. Say tomorrow."

"Well, if you call, you are not to say—the things you have said to-day. … In the first place, they are not true."

He saw his opportunity. "Not true that I love you; not true that I would give my life to even kiss your hand" (which he did on the spot, without moving an eyelid; "not true that you are the most beautiful——"

"Don't be silly" she said, blushing.

"Do you believe me?"

"I dare say—you think—you are in earnest." She would not say more. He, considering it well afterwards, decided that it was enough. He had some knowledge of the sex.