The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/The Sinner's Comedy/Chapter 6
"What is the time, Anna?"
"It is past eleven, uncle. He will not come now. You must wait till morning. Besides, there is no hurry. Won't you try and go to sleep?"
"He said he would come, and he will be here. He always keeps his word. Put the clock where I can see it, dear, and go to bed. If I want anything, I will ring."
"I am not tired enough—to go to bed," said Anna, whose eyes were heavy with watching. "Let me read you to sleep. If Dean Sacheverell comes, I can wake you."
Legge had been ill for nearly a fortnight. They said he had not rested sufficiently after his attack of bronchitis; he had tried his strength too soon: they called his condition a relapse. He knew it was the end, because he felt so happy. "To see you lying in bed and not fretting and grizzling over it, is a perfeck treat!" said Mrs. Grimmage.
"I have no book to finish this time," he said, smiling; "that is all done."
When he told them—for Anna, too, had come to nurse him—that he wished to see a friend, it was regarded as a hopeful sign. There was a touch of the usual and human in the desire which cheered the soul of Sarah Grimmage. "He only wants livening up, bless you!" she said to the doctor.
Anna fell asleep in her chair while Legge watched the clock. At a quarter to twelve Sacheverell arrived.
"I suppose," he said, "you had given me up?"
"No," said Legge, "I knew you would come."
Sacheverell just noticed that a pale woman with grey eyes murmured something to the sick man, and left the room. In some way she seemed a remarkable woman—quite unlike any other woman he had ever seen. As he looked at her, it seemed like reading an unfinished tragedy—with the catastrophe to be written. When she had gone, Legge turned to him and sighed.
"That is my Dearest's niece," he said, "the one whose mother—had a history—you remember. I should feel so glad—if it were not for her. I am not much to her, but when I am gone she will have no one. She has had a terrible life. I wanted to tell you some of it—I am afraid I'm hardly strong enough—to-night." He spoke with great difficulty, and between long pauses. "A brave woman—and good. Strange—you were stopping—with the Vallences. Never mention—Kilcoursie—if you met him. I don't seem able—to say much—now you have come ... a lot of things—good of you to come. I shall not forget. . . . I knew you would. The children——" He closed his eyes, but said presently: "I have been waiting to see my Dearest—so long. She will think I have changed." A faint smile moved his lips. "I am rather sleepy. You don't mind?"
Sacheverell sat down by his side and waited.Mrs. Grimmage and Anna, in the meantime, were talking with some show of blithesomeness in the next room.
"If you want to know my idea of a Man," said Mrs. Grimmage, "the Dean is my idea to the very life. The moment I clapped eyes on him, I said to myself, 'That is a Man'—and meant it. I suppose he's married. He's got a sort of patient, bearing-up look. Perhaps she's a currick's daughter, and a fright. Men are wonderful poor judges of looks. They will pick out girls that you and I wouldn't look at a second time, and go raving cracked after 'em. I know 'em. You can't tell me anything about Men. But I like a man to be manly. Let him be decent, I say, but let him be a Man." She looked wise over this dark utterance.
"A man's way of loving is so different from a woman's," sighed Anna.
"There ain't nothing," said Mrs. Grimmage, "there ain't nothing that makes them so sulky and turns them against you so soon as saying anything like that. And that's a mistake girls always make. They begin the heavenly. It's not a bit of use being heavenly with men. Just you remember that. You must take 'em as they are, or leave 'em."
"I see," said Anna.
"There's many a young woman lost a man's love," observed Mrs. Grimmage, "by coming the heavenly."
"She's better without it," said Anna, "much better.""The most faithfullest man I ever see," said Mrs. Grimmage, "is your poor dear uncle. But then he's eccentrick—ain't he? And he ain't the sort as many 'ud fancy for a sweetheart. He ain't dash-ey enough. Women do like a bit of Dash. I do myself."
At that moment Sacheverell tapped at the door. The room adjoined Legge's.
"It is over," he said, gently.
Mrs. Grimmage entered a cry. "Oh, sir, what do you mean? Whatever do you mean?"
Anna put her hand to her heart. She followed Sacheverell to the bed where Legge was at rest.
"How happy he looks," she said.
"I never know'd he was so handsome," sobbed Mrs. Grimmage.
He had the face his wife knew, and was young again.
The settlement of poor Legge's affairs proved a very small matter. Beyond his few books and pictures and a little plain furniture he had nothing in the world. He had always spent his money as he earned it: sometimes he could have spent rather more than he earned, and still lacked much which many men would have considered necessary to existence. His two little girls whom he kept at a happier and more cheerful home in the country than he could give them in his lodgings, had all his income save the two pounds a week he kept—unwillingly—for his own use. He never allowed himself to think how he longed for his children and the brightness they might have brought into his life. He only thought of what was best for them. They were left totally unprovided for: the sale of his effects produced, as Sacheverell told Anna, two hundred pounds. As he was the purchaser, he probably knew. Lord Middlehurst, out of consideration for his services to The Argus, paid his funeral expenses and the doctor's bill; he also gave him a short obituary, in which he referred very handsomely to his brilliant talent and excessive modesty, "which alone kept him from that high place in the public regard," &c., &c., &c.
"I will take care of the children," said Anna.
"You?" said Sacheverell. She seemed so very young for the burden. But she smiled.
"I am getting on pretty well, you know," she said. "I am more fortunate in my publishers than my poor uncle. I—I draw a little."
Her white face—her slight form—it was all so childish and pathetic. "The artistic profession is the hardest in the world for a woman—in fact, any artistic profession is hard for anybody," he said. "Art means labour—hard, ceaseless, unsatisfying labour. Her service is work, and her reward—the strength for more work."
"I have drawn ever since I can remember," said Anna; "it came to me like speaking. When I was old enough I studied hard. I made up my mind that painting was to be my work in life. 'Tis no sin, you know, to follow one's vocation. They called me a fool, and they said I would starve. I did starve for a time. I could wish I had starved a little longer. But I married. I forgot my work." She coloured. "I soon remembered it again. I decided to study quietly by myself for a year or two — any number of years, for that matter—I did not care how many, so long as I could see hope at the end. I was working when—when I came to nurse my uncle. I think I must win—perhaps not yet, but some day. Every failure will only make me stronger when I succeed. I am so hard to discourage! Pain and despair and heartache—they cast you down for a while, but afterwards—they help you to understand." It did not seem at all strange then that she talked to him so openly, but it was very wonderful to remember in later days.
Sacheverell listened with almost painful interest. Her story with its suggestion of a tragedy in little was sad enough; what he feared was her mistaken confidence in her own ability seemed to him even sadder. Genius is so rare, and ambition is so common.
"I should like to see some of your work," he said, at last.
"If you can call at my studio to-morrow," said Anna, laughing, "I will show you my masterpiece!"
He did not go immediately, however, but stayed an hour longer. They sat in the window of Mrs. Grimmage's drawing-room, and talked very happily, if inconsequently, on many subjects, from Browning and Bach to Mazzini and Plato. They were very cultured, indeed.
"Did you see that woman who passed just now?" said Anna, suddenly.
"She had beautiful hair—Venetian red."
"I saw it."She looked at him with something like gratitude. The artistic sympathy is very subtle—terribly irresistible. "How lovely," she said, "to be with somebody who does see things. I could tell you the whole history of that woman," she went on, "just from her walk. She does not care for that tramp—he doesn't understand her—he doesn't even know that her hair is magnificent. But she wants to Belong to somebody."
"When a man suspects that his God is not taking him seriously, he changes his religion," said Sacheverell; "are women less philosophical?"
"Gods are so scarce," sighed Anna; "if a woman finds even a false one—she thinks herself fortunate."
For the next twenty minutes they played at disagreeing. Such flat disagreement was never heard within those peaceful walls. "I shall have more to say on the subject to-morrow," said Sacheverell, when he left.
"I could say miles at this minute," said Anna.
After he had gone she drew him, from memory. The result was such a miserable failure in her eyes that she burnt it—with a refinement of cruelty—by inches. Nor did she ever attempt to draw him again. It may be that a suggestion, a hint of him, cropped out occasionally in the turn of a head, in an arm, or in a look round the brows, but that was all. She kept the Man to herself: he could not be chopped into illustrations.
Sacheverell had guessed from Legge's remark that Anna was none other than the mysterious artist who looked like Vittoria Colonna. It was strange that he should have met her—very strange. Having met her, he was quite certain that the love had been all on Sir Richard's side: that the story was all on Sir Richard's side. That such a woman could care for such a man was impossible. It was easy to understand, however, why Mrs. Prentice might care for him. He had given very little thought to Emily since the evening she had played in the church. He remembered her as one remembers some certain night in June—that it was perfect for June—that a year of such would be unhealthy. He had mistaken la grande passion for passion. It consoled him to call to mind that Marcus Aurelius had also fallen into some fits of love, "but was soon cured." Emily's face came upon him—it was less lovely than Anna's, more bewitching, more human, less spiritual. He thought he had read her character very truly at first sight. She was Circe. Reconsidering his decision, however, at a distance of four weeks and sixty miles, he saw that there were weak points in the Circe theory. Emily was the Popian—merely Popian—coquette: perhaps too fond of admiration: decidedly weak. Pretty? yes, if one admired the opal—set in brilliants. Her hair always smelt of violets. (Scent got into one's brains.) There was none of that mincing sensuality about Anna.
When he saw her at her studio the next day, she was very quiet and grave. The only canvas in the room had its face to the wall.
"I am very nervous about showing it to you," she said; "no one else has seen it. I am so afraid you will think it is rubbish. If you do," she added, "I shall cut it up—and start afresh."
"Even if I think," he said, awkwardly, "that you have hardly had experience enough yet—you see, you are very young——"
He felt he could never flatter her—never pay her mere formal compliments. If her work were bad, he would have to say so.She went slowly towards the canvas. He was anxious himself, and could not understand the anxiety. It was a new sensation. He dreaded to see her failure; the suspense was intolerable.
"Is the light good?" he began.
"Excellent," said Anna. Neither of them knew what they were saying. "There," she said, placing the picture on the easel. "The subject is 'The Flight of Pompilia.'" She quoted Browning's lines very softly—half-unconsciously:—
"Between midnight and morn
Began a whiteness in the distance, waxed
Whiter and whiter, near grew and more near,
Till it was she; there did Pompilia come;
The white I saw shine through her was her soul's,
Certainly, for the body was one black,
Black from head down to foot."
"You were right to work," he said, at last.
"Shall I go on—working?"
"By all means."
"That is all I want to know," said Anna.
"There are many things I should like to say," said Sacheverell, "You have great power. . . . You know what I think—what I must think."
She blushed and smiled.
"I have worked very hard," she said. "If you could see the yards of canvas I have burnt! I have been painting and burning ever since I was six. . . . So you like it? Of course, it is not quite finished. I work very slowly. Lately I have accomplished so little—so very little. The illustrations take all my time, and when they are done I am too tired to paint."
"Then why don't you give up the illustrating?"
She smiled at him sadly. "I must keep body and soul together, and—I have some one dependent on me." This was the first reference she had ever made to her husband. Sacheverell felt at once, by a sort of intuition, that the some one else was the always-absent, always-present Christian. "I made one great mistake in my life," she said, gravely. "Some day I may tell you about it." Then they talked of other things.
"I know—about your book," said Anna, at last: "my uncle told me. Why won't you finish it?"
"That is nothing in the world," he said, briefly. "Why did Legge tell you?"
"One day, when he was ill, I went to his desk—I was the only one he allowed to touch his papers—and I found a manuscript. I was unhappy at the time, but I read it, and somehow, my despair went away. I felt I might yet do something with my life. I asked who wrote it. Then he told me it was yours, that it belonged to your book, and how you put it aside when your sister—when you became a rector—somewhere."
"You see," he said, with an attempt at a laugh, "I, too, have some one dependent on me, and I—like you—work slowly. Still, as a matter of fact I write now, when I feel in the mood. I have a certain amount of leisure. Just now I am supposed to be resting. I have had rather a hard year, but next year may not bring so much care, and then——"
"But—you are not happy," she said.
"Perhaps not. I don't think that matters. I will finish my work some day. I shall finish it for you."
"Promise me," said Anna.
"I promise."She held out her hand to say good-bye.
"Not that hand," he said, "the other. You give your right hand to every one."The extraordinary thing was that this did not seem extraordinary to either of them. They had seen a great deal of each other—though the length of their friendship could be reckoned by days.