The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/The Sinner's Comedy/Chapter 4

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All the tenants of Avenue Villas, Clapham, kept a servant; most of them were on visiting terms with the curate's wife: here and there one had been known to dine at the Vicarage; one widow, who lived at the corner, had some rich relations who occasionally called on her in a carriage and pair. She was a Baptist, however, and the curate's wife did not even know her name. She fancied it was Grimmage. Mrs. Grimmage, notwithstanding, was a worthy person, and she had a permanent boarder whom the whole of Avenue Villas held in very just esteem. This boarder was a Mr. Cunningham Legge.

By profession Mr. Legge was a humourist: he also wrote the obituaries in The Argus (Lord Middlehurst's daily paper): he devilled for one or two scholarly authors (being great in grammar and punctuation): he was taster to a poor but eminently respectable firm of publishers: he had written a volume of very graceful Essays himself: "To the Night-winds and the Moon." One critic wrote of them that their style reminded him of Ruskin, the Letters of Cicero and Charles Dickens.

It was generally known that Cunningham was the son of a clergyman, a fact which, apart from his genius and his literary calling, sufficiently explained his poverty; that his wife had died a few years after their marriage; that he had never been the same man since; that he worked from morning till night; that no one had ever heard him complain. To look at he was pale, and, to the unseeing eye, insignificant; a man who could sit for hours anywhere and in any company unobserved and silent—indeed, his silence at all times was tragic. To a woman like Mrs. Grimmage it was even awful and mysterious; she tried to understand him, but could not. He was too dim; he seemed already in the land of shadows.

His two little girls he kept at a school in the country; he had no friends who called to see him—if he had any, he saw them in town: the only creature who ventured to Avenue Villas was, oddly enough, a young and beautiful woman. She was his niece, and Mrs. Grimmage knew her as "Mrs. Christian." She had heard Legge address her as "Anna." But she came very seldom, and he never referred to her. Months would pass, when the good Grimmage could only wonder whether she were dead or gone abroad.

"Mr. Legge," she found courage to say to him one day, "is Mrs. Christian a widow?"

"No," he said, quietly.

Mrs. Grimmage had just nursed him through a very sharp attack of bronchitis; she felt she might safely venture on a little light conversation.

"She don't favour you, sir."

"She is my wife's niece."

"Is she anything like her?"

"No," he said; "my wife was beautiful—I cannot tell you how beautiful." For the lover there is only one glory. He paused and sighed; his eyes seemed to pierce into another world.

"Fancy! " said Mrs. Grimmage, "only fancy! Was she very nice?"

"Nice? Dear God! Where did you learn that word? Nice!" He threw back his head and laughed. But only for a moment. The old dumbness once more took possession of him; he went silently out of the room and shut himself in his study. Mrs. Grimmage, who peeped in a little later as much from nervousness as curiosity, found him hard at work on his humorous sketch for The Gossip.

He had written for more than three hours when he was roused by a sharp tap at the door. He opened it, and Anna, paler and graver than her wont, stood before him.

"Are you busy?" she said. "Shall I disturb you?"

"I am glad you have come," he said, "I was wondering what had become of you."

She sat down, took off her hat and loosened her cloak. "Now I am here I am afraid you will find me very dull. I have been working rather hard lately. I have also been disappointed in one or two things. Not that I should mind disappointment—now.

Legge glanced at his bookshelves. "Stick to the Immortals," he said, "they will never disappoint you. And they are always there—when you want them."

"Ah," said Anna, "but unfortunately before we can love the Immortals and understand them, we must have some experience of the Mortal."

He sighed, and made no answer.

"Have you any news?" said Anna. "How are the children?"

"They are well. They write me very happy letters. Mary has the French prize and Laura has smashed the schoolroom window. They both want new hats."

"Let me choose them," she said; "they would like them much better if they came from London. Children have a great idea of style." She began to laugh—not hysterically, but without mirth. "Richard is going to be married," she said.

Legge's pale face burned with sympathy. He was not altogether surprised at the news—like most people of melancholic temper, he had a quick insight into human nature. He had known from the commencement that Kilcoursie's marriage, with some other woman, would be only a question of time. Anna was bearing it better than he had hoped: her lips quivered and she bit them. In that one movement he saw the whole struggle.

"When did you hear it?" he said, after a long, a painful pause.

"Four days ago. He told me—himself."

"I am afraid it was the only end possible," he said, gently.

"I suppose so."

"Were you—very much—astonished?"

"A little."

"Will it make a great difference in your life?"

"I miss him," she said. For one moment her eyes shone—for even tears have a brief brilliancy, a youth—and then their light was quenched. "It is hard to have no one to talk to. Do you think it will take very long to get used to this—silence?"

"Not long," said Legge: "you will be surprised to find how soon—how very soon you will care for nothing else."

"He was all—I had in the world," said Anna, "the one creature who seemed to love me. I am not going to cry. Tears mean very little. I have cried. But that's nothing."

"Nothing," said Legge, staring into the fire, "nothing."

"This is my birthday," said Anna. "I am twenty-three. I feel very old, much older than you, really, and I—I do feel so tired. I am afraid I have been overworking."

"Work is good," murmured Legge, "the only good—except Hope. I have lots of Hope."

"Oh, yes," said Anna, "there is Hope." She looked hopeless.

"I have been harder hit than you," said Legge. "I died twelve years ago; the only thing about me that lives is my stomach. I remember they fed it with chops—on the day She was buried. Life is certainly humorous."

They were both laughing when Mrs. Grimmage came in with the tea. She wanted to know whether they preferred scones or muffins.