The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 7



It is an obvious truism that love in all human relations is, in the very nature of things, selfish; those who love unselfishly only do so by living in a state of constant warfare with their meaner instincts. The natural desire is to absorb every thought and moment of the loved being; to begrudge every interest, and dislike all things and anything which would seem to distract the You from incessant dependence on the Me. This is the undisciplined, raw desire: many conquer it—Wrath, for instance; more, like Sophia, do not.

Yet she was not an exacting woman—the self-repression was by no means all on his side; she suffered her husband's interest in his pictures with silent heroism; she oftened remained away from his studio lest she should interrupt his work; she concealed many of her professional worries for fear of causing him needless anxiety—for a creature so wayward and naturally heedless of others, her thoughtfulness where he was concerned was even pathetic. But it is only one more paradox from that nest of paradoxes—the human heart—that only love is strong enough to subdue love, and affection had worked its great miracle in Sophia's wilful nature. When Wrath was in question she was capable of any sacrifice, could have made herself as though she were not, would have renounced all things and followed him gladly—did he wish it—into obscurity and the suburbs. It was because she honestly believed that his social position would suffer if their marriage were made known, that she pretended to hold such eccentric and unfeminine views on the subject of a fair name. How the poor creature winced and ached under the looks and whisperings she daily noted and overheard, it would be impossible to say. A woman who is really living an immoral life always feels, like a condemned criminal, that the verdict is, if hard to bear, certainly just. But to Sophia, conscious of her innocence and only too proud to be the wife of the man she loved and honoured above all others, the mud pellets aimed at her reputation, stuck like knives in her heart. That she was suffering for an absurd reason has nothing to do with it: death in grotesque circumstances is none the less death, and the martyr to a fool's cause is still a martyr. As we have said before, it is the heart that makes the occasion.

It had transpired, after Wrath was elected a Royal Academician, that his family was most distinguished: his uncle the Cabinet Minister, his cousins the Wrath-Havilands of Wrath, his mother's aunt, the Marchioness of Welby, and his connections, the Granville-Coxes of Somerset, to say nothing of his step-brother, General Gorm-Gorm, and his step sister-in-law, Lady Gertrude Gorm-Gorm, &c., &c. To Wrath himself the whole thing was too ludicrous to be contemptible, but Sophia—poor Sophia—was undeniably impressed. The early teaching of a certain excellent governess, whose papa was a retired colonel, had done its work, and the gods of Sophia's childhood, (beginning with a Duke and ending with a Chancery Barrister), remained her gods, although she had seen their altars destroyed, and themselves profanely called humanity. She would not have it said, that Wrath had married beneath him; she could not see the Duchesses who now flattered him, presently shooting cold glances because he had married an actress. Possibly Sophia did not reason without syllogisms, although the word itself would have caused her considerable alarm.

Her fight for success, (and she did not wake up one morning to find herself famous—she had served her dreary apprenticeship with the rest}, had been waged more in the hope of making herself, at least in some small degree, his intellectual equal, than because she had great ideas about Art, or a longing for public applause. She loved her profession, of course, and would have been an accomplished actress had she never known Wrath——for talent does not rest on the accident of forming a certain friendship or meeting such and such a person, but he was her audience, the historic one in a vast multitude, whom every artist singles out as the critic of all others to please. If Wrath approved of her performance all was well; but if he found fault, not all the praises of the world could have given her the encouragement she needed. Perhaps this was not as it should be from an aesthetic point of view, but Sophia's art was not the result of cultivation but instinctive: she was, in fact, most artistic when she was least scholarly. The poet Gray once wrote of a tragedy that Aristotle's best rules were observed in it, in a manner which showed the author had never heard of Aristotle. Miss Jenyns's acting had the same unpremeditated excellence. The polite world, however, was doing its best to make her think that her readings were the result of laborious thought, that she spent hours over the nice lifting of an eyelid and devoted months to the right inflexion of a syllable, but Wrath, with his usual bluntness, having declared that "all such twaddle made him sick," she dared not assume prodigious airs in his presence. But she found it humiliating to reflect that she had so very little to do with her own ability—that she was, after all, a sort of puppet controlled by an invisible power, who made her do wonderful things when she thought she was simply acting on a chance idea.

Now young Mauden, fresh from Oxford, with much learning and no wisdom, with Plato in his brain, the Odyssey next his heart, and Aristophanes in his portmanteau—Mauden, who could find the whole of Aristotle in a pause, was exactly the sort of clever youth to persuade a fresh woman into a dull pedant. Already, after one conversation with De Boys on the Irony of Shakespeare contrasted with the Irony of Sophocles, a brief discussion on the respective characters of Lear and Œdipus, with hints at Dumas, so local but so witty, and Augier, whose humour deserted him in a big situation, Sophia was beginning to feel, that Wrath as a dramatic critic lacked culture: he talked too much about work and common sense, and not enough about the True, the Universal, and Objectivity. Yet he, too, was an Oxford man, and well read: so differently do men apply their knowledge.

And here let us judge kindly of Sophia; she had been much spoiled, she was young, beautiful, and had great talents. For even less cause many poor mortals have been led into vainglory, and have suffered much vexation of spirit. She had not yet that great gift of self-knowledge which, though a painful blessing, is still our greatest and the one to be prayed for beyond all others; for the man who knows himself in all his great imperfections and small virtues, suffers more under praise than he ever could under censure—which, at worst, can only remind him of what his too willing conscience has forgotten.

We have said that when Sophia left the music-room she was, in spite of all reason and duty, jealous; it followed therefore that her vanity was all the more sensitive. The long glance of reverential but intense admiration which fell from the fine eyes of Mr. De Boys Mauden, when she met him in the conservatory, warmed her chilled soul. She smiled divinely, blushed celestially, and murmured, for no earthly reason, "I am late!"

De Boys, reconsidering the meeting afterwards, wondered how he found strength to resist the impulse to cry out "Jane!" and kiss her. Her likeness to Jane—Jane, whom he passionately worshipped, and whom, in all devotion, he hoped to make his adoring wife—was too bewildering.

It is just possible that Odysseus would have gone to greater lengths than the faithful Penelope, on the reasonable argument of a strong resemblance.