The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/The Sinner's Comedy/Chapter 3

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Two ladies and two gentlemen were seated in the library of a country-house one afternoon in September. One of the gentlemen wore the gaiters of a Dean. One of the ladies looked as though she would like to wear them, if only for half an hour. As it happened, however, she was dressed in a very tight and evidently very new grey silk, embellished with strings of beads. These jangled and danced with all her movements, to her evident satisfaction and the men's secret despair. She was a small woman and extremely slight, yet, in spite of her slimness, there was not the faintest sign of bone about he; in fact, it was said that the Dean's sister had not a bone in her body. She was composed of flesh, blood, and spirit.

The other lady, Mrs. Digby Vallence, was tall and spare, with a small face, big eyes, and a large mouth. Digby was fond of saying that his wife's face was geometrically impossible. The parts were greater than the whole. She was a very amiable, intelligent woman, who played Schumann with a weak wrist and was noted for her cookery recipes. Her husband would not have given her for a seraglio of houris.

He himself was a man about fifty, with a clean-shaven face and handsome clearly-cut features. The ends of his pale yellow necktie were tied with artistic abandon, his short serge coat was of the finest texture, and his loose trousers, of the same material, hung with an idea of drapery about his elegant legs. He wore the self-satisfied air of the criticised turned critic; his general expression conveyed that life was one long struggle with his own fastidiousness—that he practised toleration as the saints did self-denial. Mr. Digby Vallence was a gentleman of some fame, who had translated Theocritus out of honesty into English, discovered a humourist in Jeremy Taylor, damned Rousseau, and, in his leisure, bred canaries. His celebrated paradox, "There is nothing so natural as Art," was perhaps even more famous than he.

"You have never told us," he said, addressing the Dean, "what you think of Mrs. Prentice."

The Dean, who sat in the corner, had a fine, expressive face which suggested his mobile disposition. The type was too unusual to strike a thoughtless observer as anything more than severe; women, without exception, called him odd-looking, and were silent. He did not appeal to them—to begin with, he betrayed no desire to appeal to them. An unpardonable insult. The melancholy which clouded his countenance was neither gentle nor resigned; on the contrary, rather fierce and self-mocking. This fierceness was intensified by a pair of heavy eyebrows and very piercing brown eyes. ("One can never lie to Sacheverell with any degree of comfort," said the plaintive Vallence.) He was tall and well-made, although he stooped a little and looked some years older than he really was. In point of fact he was forty. But a man's age depends on his history. His history had been dull, grey, and unromantic—an even saunter into success which only seemed to him a crueller name for failure. "Sacheverell promised to be brilliant," said his college tutor once, "but I am afraid he is only solid. He will be a rock for other men to sharpen their wits on." To guess a man's fate is comparatively easy: to perceive its necessity, its why and wherefore, is given only to the man himself, and then after much seeking and through a mist.

The Dean's sister, Mrs. Molle, was the widow of an Irish major, who had left her his lame hunter, four very healthy little boys, and a dying command that she should do her duty by the children. Sacheverell awoke one morning to find the pitiful group on his doorstep in St. Thomas's-in-the-Lanes, where he held a small living.

"I knew you would be glad to have us," said Eleanor.

The next day his study was referred to as the drawing-room, and he was moved to the attic away from the children's noise. Eleanor soon complained, however, that the neighbourhood was dull, and the house far too small for comfort. She had no boudoir, and the nursery chimney smoked. She gave his old housekeeper notice, and lectured him on his want of ambition. As a means of advancement she advised that he should get a better living, in a decent neighbourhood; take pupils, and preach Somebody's funeral sermon. "A man is not supposed to keep a family on a Fellowship," she said. He glanced guiltily at his violin; it represented half a year's income.

"That," said Eleanor, "will lead to nothing but liver-complaint. Providence sent me to you at the right moment. You do nothing all day but play and dream and scribble. You surely spend a fortune on music-paper. I hope you get it at the Stores?"

He shook his head. There was a small shop near—it was so much more convenient; he could not say what they charged him; it would be on the bill, no doubt, but when he was in a hurry———

"That is not the sort of thing one is ever likely to want in a hurry," said Eleanor; "if you send a postcard to the Stores———"

He was, it may be, a little quick-tempered. "I could never order anything—connected with my work—in the same list with soap and Gregory powder and beef-extract. It may be ridiculous, but that is my feeling. Nothing will change it."

But all this happened when Sacheverell was a young man, as the world counts youth, when his dream was to write Masses on Mount Athos. Now he was a Dean, and visited country-houses. "I have made him what he is," Mrs. Molle told her friends; "no wife could have done more for him!"

Men heap together the mistakes of their lives and create a monster which they call Destiny. Some take a mournful joy in contemplating the ugliness of the idol. These are called Stoics. Others build it a temple like Solomon's, and worship the temple. These are called Epicureans. The Dean of Tenchester was a Stoic.

"You have never told us," repeated Vallence, "what you think of Mrs. Prentice."

"I suppose," said Sacheverell, "she would be called pretty."

"I have seen her look pretty sometimes," said his sister, at once. "She varies very much. Her hats don't always suit her." He tried to feel that this was not disturbing.

"Well," said Vallence, leaning back in his chair, with his eyes scanning, as it were, the hidden truths of criticism, "she is not, properly speaking, a pretty woman at all. She is a Manner. To call such a work of exquisite cunning pretty, or even beautiful, is only an attempt at appreciation."

"She is very subtle," said his wife.

"Next time I see her I will look at her more carefully," said Mrs. Molle. She paused, and then asked very suddenly, "Do you think she will ever marry Sir Richard Kilcoursie?"

"She likes Kilcoursie, no doubt," said Vallence.

"He is certainly amouraché, and she accepts the situation. I don't suppose he wants her to do more. It is only a very unselfish man who cares to be loved; the majority prefer to love—it lays them under fewer obligations."

"Do you think they would ever be happy together?" said Sacheverell,slowly.

Vallence shrugged his shoulders. "She must be disappointed in some man. To see men as they are not and never could be, is the peculiar privilege of the feminine nature. You see," he went on, "love comes to man through his senses—to woman through her imagination. I might even say, taking the subject on broad lines, that women love men for their virtue; while men, very often, love women for the absence of it."

"A woman would no doubt need a great deal of imagination to love a man for his virtue," said Carlotta, meekly.

But Vallence was lost in meditation. He had conceived a magazine article to be called "The Pleasing of a Lute," and beginning thus: The poet in his artificial passion expresses what man feels naturally and needs all his reason to repress....

"I have heard, as one does hear such things," said Mrs. Molle, "that Sir Richard almost married an actress."

"I think she was an artist," said Carlotta; "but pray never speak of it before Emily."

The actress who might have been an artist was grateful to Sacheverell's fancy. He had a fine Bohemian instinct. "Indeed," he said, and looked at Vallence.

"Ah," said that gentleman, ever ready to discuss one friend with another—in fact, it was chiefly for this pleasure that he made them—"ah, a curious affair altogether. But it merely illustrates the great law of infidelity in human nature. A man must be faithless to something—either to a woman, or his God, or his firmest belief. Kilcoursie certainly appeared very devoted to the other lady—whoever she was. I have heard from several people that they were always together at one time. No one knows her name. They tell me that she looks like Vittoria Colonna."

"Dear me," said Eleanor, thinking that she must hunt out Vittoria in the Classical Dictionary.

Sacheverell strolled to the window. "It has stopped raining," he said. "I think I will go out."

Once in the open air, he threw back his head very much like a dog let loose from his chain. He almost wondered how he had escaped from that close room, the clatter of the teacups, the worse clatter of tongues. As a rule, he fell a too ready victim to circumstances: he helped to build the altar for his own sacrifice. To-day, however, he felt rebellious; he was getting tired; Eleanor had disappointed him. When a man gets an idea into his head about a woman, either to her glory or her damnation, whatever she may say or do only gives him one more reason for sticking to it. It is only when he gets an equally strong idea about some other subject, or some other woman, that he becomes nicely critical. Eleanor's virtues had always seemed to him unique; her faults, numerous certainly, were only those of the Universal (preferably, the Homeric) Woman. That afternoon her judgment had been very shallow; she had shown an incapacity to look higher than millinery. It was vexatious.

He remembered his first meeting with Mrs. Prentice. It was the day after his arrival at the Vallences'; she had called in the afternoon on her dear Carlotta: he had told himself he was interested, choosing that word because he knew no other, for no man knows his language till he has lived it. The possibility of feeling more than an interest in any woman had never entered his head. He had always kept Passion well within covers on his bookshelf. Emily had talked, with a pretty affectation of learning (feeling, no doubt, that a Dean would look for something of the sort), of Heine, and a new poet, and Palestrina; he had noticed the length of her eyelashes, and her beautiful unmusicianly hands; hummed, when she had gone, My love is like a melody, and reflected, having dined indifferently, that some women were like melodies. The indefinite "some women" is an inspiration which comes to every man in his hour of peril. From which it would seem that men and Deans have very much in common.... Their second meeting, too, three days later, when she called again, and was pleased to admire his drawings (in the style of Dürer) illustrative of certain passages in Lucretius. He hastened to explain, however, that the philosophy of that poet was unconvincing. "What is his philosophy?" said Emily.... Then, when he had dined at Hurst Place, how they had disagreed on several points, misunderstood each other with a certain deliberateness, said good-bye coldly. How, the next morning, feeling restless, he had walked on the high-road for no other reason than because it was dusty, unpicturesque, and apparently leading no-whither—suggestive to the Thinking Mind of man's existence; how She had driven past with her mother, bedecked and smiling, disquieting alike to metaphysic and the sober contemplation of telegraph poles. Then at the Tableaux in aid of the New Hospital, when Emily as "Vivien"—under lime-light—had gazed with real sisterly affection on the round and impassive countenance of the Honourable Robert as "Merlin." Sacheverell had felt with some impatience the incompatibility of such trifling with a true appreciation of the seriousness of life; it showed him that Emily was frivolous, also that her hair fell below her waist. Both discoveries were soul-plaguing: the first because it jarred so horribly, the second because he shared it with assembled Mertfordshire. After the performance he had been the last to come forward: the only one who did not offer some tribute (more or less disguised) to her beauty. "I am afraid," she had said, when she wished him good-night, "you don't care for Tennyson!" He made a note in his pocket-book to the following effect: No man can attain the sublimity of the feminine egoist. Frivolity! Egoism! what were such abstracts weighed against that most sweet and tangible Feminine. To have discovered that some woman was Feminine was better than chasing the Absolute through the Libraries of Europe. It was, however, but a momentary rebellion against the ruling Uncertainty of his life. He had dedicated his days (he lived, from his own point of view, for two hours every morning before breakfast, and Eleanor) to the pursuit of the Absolute. His work when finished was to be called "The Metaphysic of Religion": every one said it would make him a bishop. Should he question the glory of the Unseen because one fair woman was in sight? Bitter self-reproach followed his brief moment of exultation.

"All is vanity," he sighed at last, and "discovering it—the greatest vanity." In this frame of mind he looked up, and saw he was near the church. The door was half-open: he heard the organ and recognized the touch. It belonged to no master-hand: and lacked everything that makes a touch—save audacity. He smiled at the childishness of the performance, which was too unaffectedly bad to offend his artistic taste. He pushed open the door and looked in. The player was Emily. She wore a scarlet gown fantastically embroidered in blue and gold; the light from the flaring gas-jet played on her hair and caught the diamonds on her fingers. In the dark, empty church, she looked to him like some evil spirit risen for his destruction. An evil spirit! Emily playing "Cujus Animam," with variations.

Sacheverell closed the door softly—she never heard him—and hurried away.