The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/The Sinner's Comedy/Chapter 2

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In a small studio in Chelsea—a studio furnished with severe and comfortless simplicity—a man and a woman were talking. The man was Sir Richard Kilcoursie; the woman was Anna Christian. There was something in her bearing which was even majestic; something in her expression which was childlike and yet not young—a worldly wisdom more elfish than mortal. Her pale, delicate face seemed to peep out from the cloud of black hair which overshadowed her brows and hung in a large knot at her neck. A mouth which seemed too firm to be passionate, and was too pretty to be austere, grey eyes, full of a tenderness which was half mockery, emphasized the contradiction in terms which was the strange characteristic of the whole woman. Sir Richard looked at her furtively, and very often with what was plainly unwilling admiration. He would rather not have admired her that day.

They had been discussing for more than an hour various practical matters relating to his private affairs: the management of his estate, certain poor cousins, the wages he was going to give his new coachman. Every moment he grew more startled at her intimate knowledge of all that concerned him: he realized, with dismay, that there had been, that there was, nothing too trivial or too deep in his life for her regard.

"There is something you want to tell me," she said, suddenly; "what is it?"

He laughed uneasily. "I never can hide anything from you. I suppose—there is—something."

"Tell me then." Her voice was singularly rich and well-modulated.

"Do you remember——" he began, and then stopped. "Well?"

"Of course you remember that the Middlehursts are my neighbours. Did I ever mention—Mrs. Prentice? She is Lady Middlehurst's daughter."

"I don't think you mentioned her," she said, drily; "the name doesn't sound familiar. Prentice, Prentice. No, you certainly never told me anything about an old lady named Prentice."

"I wonder whether you would like her; but—she's young."

"Young?" said Anna.

"Well, she's twenty-two, or so."

"I was nineteen when you met me! Is she pretty?"

"In a way, yes. In fact, I suppose—decidedly." He pressed his temples.

"Dark, or fair?"

"Neither one nor the other. There is nothing extreme about her."

"I understand. Tepid! What sort of figure?"

"She is tall and statuesque," said Sir Richard. "I always feel that she ought to have been called Diana. Can you imagine her now?"

The corners of her mouth just curved. "I think I can."

"The fact is—can't you guess?"

"Why should I trouble to make guesses when you are going to tell me everything?" She fixed her eyes upon his; he could not look away.

"It is hard—in so many words," he stammered. "You are so like a man! … I never thought you were chicken-hearted. You did not seem so when I loved you. Perhaps I should say—when you loved me."

"I tell you," he said, springing to his feet, "Emily bores me. Do you think I love her? Do you think she is like you?" He put his hand with some roughness on her shoulder, and undoubtedly gave her a shake. There was something in his violence, however, which convinced her far more than his protestations that Emily Prentice very possibly did bore him—or would. Her heart softened.

"You never wanted to call me Diana," she sighed.

"I shouldn't dream of her," he said, walking up and down the room— "I shouldn't dream of her if it were not for the estate, and all that. I must have an heir. You see, I really owe it to my people. It's only common decency on my part."

"I thought you did not believe in marriage?"

"I didn't at one time. I had no responsibilities then—no means. It was very different. A younger son cannot be expected to believe in anything."

"And is no one expected to believe in a younger son?" It was seldom she was betrayed into bitterness—a fact which most people attributed to her want of feeling.

"I thought you would make a scene. Women are so unreasonable. I have told you that Emily cannot compare with you. What more can I say? Even now," he added, a little unsteadily, "I would let my family go to the devil if you would give up your extraordinary ideas and——"

"Richard," she said, gravely, "I will forgive what you were going to say."

"If you cared for me you would not think you had anything to forgive," he answered with a harsh laugh. "There is no crime in being Real. But there is so much mawkish, false sentiment about women, that a man is driven to hypocrisy in spite of himself."

"If you want a creature who will love you in your Real moments—if this is one—and in spite of them, you must look for her among the Pollies and Sallies. With them, what they call love is the only feeling—they have no others to offend."

Sir Richard looked at her, and wondered. "The truth is," he said, "men can't follow your way of loving. You see, they don't understand it. It's so—so——" he paused for the word—"well, it's so self-possessed."

"When are you going to be married?" she asked, presently.

He felt the awkwardness of the question: Emily had given no promise yet.

"There is nothing definitely arranged—at present."

"Well, I hope you will be happy."

A feeling not wholly unlike disappointment crept over him. For the first time in their history he doubted her love. The thought brought a gnawing loneliness.

"Do you quite understand it all, Anna?"

"Perfectly. She will be the mother of your heir; you will be faithful to her—in your better moments."

He blushed and said, "You know where to stab."

He could not see her; she touched the back of his coat with the tip of her fingers. That brought her some comfort.

"There is nothing more to be said," he went on.

"Let me see her portrait," said Anna, suddenly.

He pulled a small leather-case out of his breast-pocket.

"How did you know I had it?" he asked.

"I guessed," she said, with a faint smile; "you used to carry mine!" She studied the photograph for some minutes and then returned it. "You will be very glad," she said, "to remember me."

He looked at her more than half-credulously. She nodded her head. He laughed and went to kiss her.

Anna stepped back: her eyes blazed.

"Never do that again," she said.

A china vase—the one ornament in that bare room—stood near the doorway. Sir Richard lifted his cane and struck it. It fell in a dozen pieces.

"You have no heart," he said, "not an atom. You don't care for me in the least. You never did."

"Yes, I did" she answered.

"I will write."

"Yes, write." "I suppose I must go now." "Very well." She followed him into the hall. "Richard."

"What?"

"Say—you don't care a damn!"

His lips moved, but he uttered no word.

And so he left her.

Her life with Sir Richard had been one of self- self-abnegation. She had danced to his piping and wept at his mourning: she had been his companion—he had never been hers. At first she had asked nothing better—a peculiarity in woman's love—at first; but, as time went on, the desire to pipe a note or two and mourn just a sigh or so on her own account was often fierce, not to be subdued, a little desperate. Still, he had been kind to her, and faithful according to his lights. She glanced at her easel, but she was in no mood for work that day. She amused herself looking through an old sketch-book. She found page after page of Richard smoking, Richard sleeping, Richard laughing, Richard scowling, Richard standing, Richard sitting, Richard reading, Richard profile, Richard full-face, Richard three-quarters, Richard back-view. Four of them she rubbed out. She was about to rub out a fifth, when she burst into tears.