The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/Some Emotions and a Moral/Part 1 Chapter 3
"Your father is most extraordinary," said Lady Theodosia to her niece, as they sat together on the lawn next morning. "He has invited a man to dinner this evening—a person who writes—and I am told nothing about it till this eleventh hour. Meanwhile I have given all my orders for the day, and Johnny has driven in to market. Your father cannot realize that I have other interests in life besides housekeeping. If I died to-morrow he would expect me to soar into heaven with the store-cupboard on my back."
Lady Theodosia Gore-Jones, third daughter of the Earl of Drumdrosset and widow of the late Admiral Sir Clyfford Gore-Jones, K.C.B., was rather above the average height, with a plump figure which her male acquaintance were wont to describe as "deuced neat." She had very black hair, which she wore parted in the middle and gathered in a knot at the nape of her neck. This simple fashion suited her admirably, and had proved useful on more than one occasion, for it is certainly difficult to believe hard things of a woman who looks like a Sainte Nitouche—in profile. Her nose was small and delicate—an eminently lady-like nose, with curved nostrils; her lips were thin, red, and firmly set—in her own idea chaste, in her late husband's, vixenish. Her skin—for a woman who owned to two and forty—was remarkably clear and fine.
"Who is the man?" said Cynthia.
"His name is Provence. I have heard of the creature—he is an Egyptologist, or a Dissenter, or something equally disagreeable. Heaven knows what the wretch talks about! I wonder if your father has a short, condensed sort of thing about Egypt in his library—one of those convenient books you can get up in half an hour. I cannot imagine what Percival sees in these learned, uncomfortable people—one never knows what to give them for dinner, they have such miserable digestions.... Of course—I knew there was something else. He wants me to ask the Cargills over to help the matter through. It is outrageous at such short notice. Your father has no notion of etiquette."
"And what is etiquette, after all?" said her niece.
"Etiquette, my dear, makes the difference between Man and the Brute Beast," and with that Lady Theodosia hurried—for she was energetic—into the house.
Cynthia waited till she had gone, and then moved her chair in a more direct line with her father's study, which led by French windows on to the lawn. She could then see him at his table. It was the Rector's day for writing his sermon. He was a man who liked system in all things: first because it was philosophical; secondly—and perhaps, in common with many theorists, his secondly was the salt of the whole—he had an idea that it was a nice, gentlemanly sort of thing to cultivate. But although the Hon. and Rev. Percival Heathcote could control his actions, his thoughts were amenable only to the impulse of the moment. Now impulsiveness formed the strongest element in his character; the fact, therefore, that every Thursday morning at ten o'clock found him at his study table, and the further fact that his entire household was wrapped in stillness from that hour till luncheon time, lest a sound should stem the current of his eloquence, merely resulted in this:—if there was a day in the week when the sermon was not written, Thursday was that day. Only one person in the world knew this, however, and that was his daughter Cynthia. She, too, like her father, was impulsive, but she—seeing that she was a woman—saw no need to cultivate much besides her own will. "System," she once told her father, "is an excellent thing if one has no spirit, but spirit will accomplish in five minutes what system cannot do in as many centuries." Her father looked grave and shook his head, but loved her the more. He explained this apparent inconsistency to himself as the natural tenderness of a shepherd for the wandering lamb.
On this particular morning the Rector had taken his chair as usual, arranged his blotting-pad at precisely the right angle, drawn six sheets of writing paper from his desk, dipped his pen into the ink, and—looked through the open window and beyond the green lawn, and beyond that again to a garden seat where Cynthia—Cynthia in a cotton gown and a surprising hat, which the Rector, in his innocence, supposed was the fashion—sat with her aunt. He sighed, dipped his pen in the ink once more, and wrote his text very neatly at the top of his first sheet—"It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing." Then he looked up again, and beheld Lady Theodosia moving towards the kitchen garden. He hesitated a few moments—or was he merely waiting till she was out of sight?—and finally walked to the window and whistled—softly, but with the ease and tunefulness of an accomplished whistler—the opening bars of a Chopin Nocturne. Cynthia lifted her head and laughed. It was a curious laugh, and meant all manner of things: among others, good health, considerable wickedness, and a fellow-feeling for the ungodly. She left her book—for she had been reading—and came towards him.
"It is a pity," she said, coming in at the window and seating herself in a low armchair, "that it is your sermon day, or we might have had some music."
There was just a shade of amiable malice in her tone. The Rector looked wistful. He had a nice touch for Chopin.
"I suppose Agatha is at home?" he said.
Agatha was his eldest daughter and the mainstay of his parish. He was, perhaps, somewhat afraid of Agatha, but she copied his sermons in a beautiful hand, was an adept at hunting references, and simply unequalled at tying a cravat.
"Yes, Agatha is at home," said Cynthia.
"I wonder if she is going out," sighed the Rector, allowing his fingers to wander Chopin-wise on the writing-table.
"She is designing morning-gowns for the poor heathen," said Cynthia. "She certainly won't stir out of the house to-day. But we can talk."
The Rector dropped his pen, stretched out his long, elegant legs, and leant back in his chair. He experienced a strange delight in hearing gossip, or talking it, on Thursdays.
"I want you to tell me," began Cynthia, "about the man who is coming to dinner. What does Aunt Theodosia mean by calling him an Egyptologist?"
"Provence the Egyptologist has been dead for years—this man is his son. To tell the truth, I don't know much about him, except that he is by way of being literary. I think he once wrote a poem—a pretty enough thing about despair and the soul and the function of art. Just what one would expect from the son of a French savant and an English woman with yearnings. His father—Professor Provence—was a very singular character, and had all manner of theories about women and the state of Ireland and papyri. The mother was one of the Golightlys—very decent family too: she was something of the British maid and a good deal of the enfant terrible when she married. I remember the marriage created a small sensation at the time; they were foolish enough to elope, and she was cut by her family. You see, Provence had no private income; he depended entirely on what he earned, and the Golightlys could hardly be expected to smile at an alliance of that kind—especially as he earned very little."
"But where did you meet the man who is coming to dinner," said Cynthia.
"Dobbs introduced him to me," said the Rector—"Dobbs of The Present Age. He thinks a lot of him—calls him the 'makings of a success,' and pays him for his contributions with something approaching liberality. Of course I could hardly do less than ask him to dinner when I met him at the station the other night. He is down for his health—been overworking, I suppose. God knows what he works at; even Dobbs admits that he has very little to show for his promise. In case he's a trifle dull, I have asked the Cargills to come as well."
"Edward is so dull himself," said Cynthia.
"I don't know so much about that," said the Rector. "Edward is a man of sound common sense and good-wearing, everyday ability. I have always thought you were too severe in your judgment of Edward."
Mr. Heathcote, in spite of his touch for Chopin and fine eye for water-colours, was sufficiently of this world to see that it would not be altogether amiss if Cynthia could be brought to regard with some kindness the son of his neighbour Sir James Cargill. He knew that independence and force of will like hers were scarcely fitted to the married state; was well aware, moreover, that her force was wholly beyond the range of mathematical calculations—her impetuosity, a decided wilfulness, and a fatal obstinacy rendered her moods peculiarly various: if she married at all, her husband should not be too much given to mental analysis. Now Edward Cargill was the son of a rich baronet, was a man of quiet tastes and iron nerves. He held few opinions, and these were of the general-principles order; he thought the natural instincts extremely natural, and had no Theory of Life beyond that of taking the world as he found it. He could sympathize with A, who pulled down temples, and admire B, who raised them up again, but he never gave more than a smile—and perhaps a guinea subscription—to either. Thus he was an extremely forbearing, mild-tempered young fellow, who struck the Rector as peculiarly adapted to a woman of Cynthia's disposition. It was a patent truth that Edward was only too anxious to prove his adaptability: Cynthia alone was inscrutable, gloomy, and reserved in the matter.
"I detest sound common sense," said that young lady, in reply to her father's remark, "particularly in Edward. Beef and common sense and Edward are to me synonymous terms. What a capital husband he would make Agatha!"
"My dear child, that is a little unkind," said the Rector, with a curious twitch of his upper lip. "Agatha is a dear, good girl—far too good for any ordinary man. If you really think that Edward is so utterly uninteresting, why should you be willing to couple his name with your sister's?"
Cynthia's eyes began to dance. "Because," she said, "he is so tremendously appreciative, and Agatha likes to be appreciated. If I married, I should want to do some of the appreciating myself; it would be just possible for Agatha to forego that luxury."
At that moment a footstep was heard outside, the door opened, and Agatha herself walked into the room. She was very tall and slim—decidedly elegant. Next to her elegance one would notice her placidity. Then in their order one would naturally admire her blue eyes, her pink and white skin, and her beautiful smooth braids of yellow hair. She started a little—ever so little, of course —as her eyes fell on Cynthia's hat, but her smile, which was sweet, patient, and habitual, never wavered.
"I am sorry to interrupt your work, papa," she began. The Rector looked confused, and dipped his pen with immense energy into the ink-pot. "But Aunt Theodosia has asked me to tell you that she has heard from Lady Cargill, and they are all coming."
"What on earth shall I wear?" said Cynthia. "I wonder whether I can make something between now and seven."
"Your clothes are always in such sad need of repair," said Agatha. "If you remember, I begged you to get a new dinner-dress weeks ago. I think, though, we need not trouble papa with these small matters."
The Rector blamed himself for wishing that Agatha were a shade less respectful and considerate. He could scarcely admit to his own conscience—much less confide the melancholy truth to his eldest daughter—that he was more in the mood for discussing gowns than writing a sermon. But such indeed was the case. He dimly felt that there were disadvantages in living with a creature who had too keen a sense of duty and the fitness of things.
"I am glad for your sake, papa, that they can come," said Agatha, sweetly; "it will be such a complete change for you after your hard morning."
The Hon. and Rev. gentleman glanced nervously at the blank sheet before him and the "It is the spirit that quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing."
"Yes," he said, "it will be pleasant, certainly."
Agatha moved to the door and held it open for a few seconds, hoping that Cynthia would accept the hint and leave the Rector in peace. But Cynthia never stirred.
"Are you coming, dear?" said Agatha, with the merest touch of reproach in her voice. "I was just thinking," said Cynthia, dreamily, "how hideous I shall look in my old Pongee!" But she followed her sister out of the room.
Provence, meanwhile, by discreet questioning had learnt from his landlady that the flat house was the Rectory: that the Rector's daughters were considered beauties: that their names were respectively Miss Agatha and Miss Cynthia; that Miss Agatha was a good, Christian young lady; that Miss Cynthia was fascinating but not altogether what a clergyman's daughter ought to be. She was too gay-hearted, and never joined in the hymns at church. He longed to ask more, but was afraid lest he might seem over-interested, so he changed the subject with unnecessary haste to market-gardening, and listened patiently, if unhappily, to a long account of potato blight.
He found himself at the Rectory gate that evening with a large and entirely new kindliness in his heart for the whole human race, and a generous (and also new) tolerance for human failings in general. It seemed to him that so far as life was concerned the darkness was made light and the crooked straight. To feel this and yet not know why he felt it was delightful and sufficient. This mood, however, did not last—possibly because Cynthia was not in sight, probably because he was a man whose passion for analysis would make him pick a rainbow to pieces. The horrid suspicion seized him that he might be deceiving himself—that he was not after all so anxious to see his newly-found goddess—that he had not in reality been counting the hours since he had first seen her till the time drew near to meet her again. He decided to forget—if possible—his folly and cool his disordered imagination by a rigid course of vegetable diet—that is to say when he returned to his lodgings on Monday! By this time he was not only inside the house but had his foot on the threshold of the drawing-room—he heard the hum of several voices—he was conscious of some half-dozen figures—he saw but one. She wore a gown of less artless design than her white muslin of the night before: her hair was more fashionably arranged, there was a franker suggestion of the world, the flesh, and the devil about her whole person: her eyes gleamed with mischief, with confidence in her own beauty and again more mischief. She had been anxiously watching the door for his arrival; she knew quite well that he was the stranger of the night before—strangers were rare in Little Speenham—yet now he was present she wondered why she had wished for the meeting. She was afraid he would look too pleased to see her! The thought crossed her mind that he must be weak—and she hated weakness. A man of strong will would have struggled longer against her fascination. The mischief in her eyes died away—she felt dissatisfied with human nature. But as she approached Provence she saw that his expression was cold, even stern; she found no trace of enthusiasm in his bearing. He eyed her beauty with calm; her toilette with indifference: his bow and smile were courteous—frigidly courteous—nothing more. At first she was relieved—then piqued—finally humiliated, but he rose mountains high in her respect. The reason for Provence's manner was briefly this: He had suddenly grown self-conscious; he had practised restraint too long to give way gracefully to the sway of impulse. To conceal his embarrassment, therefore, he had assumed an unfelt stoicism—not so much to deceive Cynthia as himself.
"I am so glad you were able to come," said Lady Theodosia. "My brother has told me so much about you that I quite feel as though we had met before in some other state—the sort of delightful thing, you know, these wicked, charming Buddhists tell us about. Or am I confusing Buddhists with Platonists?—it would be so like me. What a thing it is to be an unlearned woman!" Lady Theodosia had many methods in conversation; the artless and ignorant style she found most useful for the subjection of Elderly Science. Provence was not elderly—she was not altogether certain that he was scientific, but she classed him among abnormals, and from her point of view it came to the same thing. "One point," she said to herself, "is a blessing. Neither of the girls could fancy a man who wore such shoes," so she left him with Cynthia and turned to Lady Cargill. The Baronet's wife was a very erect, well-covered woman about fifty or thereabouts, with a mild gaze and agreeable manners. She did not convey the irritating impression of having been a beauty in her youth, but looked as though she had been born with placid blonde hair, a pince-nez, and an elderly expression.
" I hope you are not delaying dinner for Edward, my dear Lady Theodosia," she said, "because that would distress him greatly. He only arrived from Speenham as we left, and of course we could not wait for him. He has been to see about the new cottages."
"Ah yes," chimed in Sir James, who stood with the Rector in front of the fireplace and concealed Lady Theodosia's careful summer arrangement of ferns, Virginia cork, and red art-pots, "my boy is becoming an idealist. Now my experience of idealists is this—they think very high but act on the whole rather low, and make uncommonly bad landlords. I don't believe in these Oxford lads, all theory and no experience. This is an age of immature cause and premature result." Sir James had not the smallest idea of what he meant, but he thought it sounded so tersely put and so much like a leading article that he repeated it again. "Yes—immature cause and premature result. We eat the blossom in preference to the fruit, and no wonder we feel empty." (He rather prided himself on his graceful gift for metaphor.) "Our universities have become mere forcing grounds to supply an unnatural appetite for the insipid and costly. Let my boy stick to his boat-club and Roman Law—that's all he's good for—and leave model cottages alone. What on earth is the use of bath-rooms and patent drains to the agricultural labourer—what does he know about microbes?" It must not be supposed that Sir James's impassioned rhetoric was due to the inspiration of the moment: all his sentiments were darkly pondered and duly packed down into top-heavy sentences in a Commonplace Book before he delivered them to the world. This evening, however, his discourse was interrupted by the entrance of his son—the ostensible object of his remarks. Young Cargill was undeniably well-favoured, and bore himself like a gentleman—although he lacked the air of distinction which characterized Godfrey Provence. After Lady Theodosia and the Rector had greeted him he seated himself by Cynthia, who blushed with annoyance at the undisguised admiration in his eyes. Provence, however, saw the blush and already saw himself miserably presenting congratulations at their wedding. In despair he left them together and turned to Agatha, who certainly looked extremely well in black lace and yellow roses.
"I feel I ought to ask you," she said, "whether you found your journey down very tiresome. Our train-service is so bad, and I always think that unnecessary waste of time almost amounts to physical suffering if one has an active mind. I hope you provided yourself with books." She had gathered from Cynthia's random remarks made in the intervals of dressing for dinner that Mr. Provence was a writer and probably learned. She thought that her little speech would fall agreeably on his ears—that it would be a delicate way of showing that his fame and cultured tastes were not unknown to her.
"I amused myself by looking out of the window," he replied, innocently, "although I did just glance at a very diverting tale about a French poodle and a bishop in The Piccadilly News. Have you seen it?"
Agatha was too lady-like to stare, too calm to gasp, but she felt grateful to the parlour-maid for announcing dinner.
At the dinner-table, which was round for the occasion, Provence, who had taken in Lady Theodosia, found himself next to Cynthia and Edward Cargill. The more he tried to convince himself that she and Edward were desperately and mutually in love, the more beautiful and desirable she appeared. "And what can she see in him?" he thought, and took a savage pleasure in picturing Edward some twenty years hence, fat, red-faced and hearty—the replica of his worthy father who sat opposite—the typical country-gentleman of ancient lineage, good cellar, and moderate views.
"I once read a Greek play, you know, with a crib," Lady Theodosia was explaining, "skipping the particles, of course, and those awfully fascinating choruses. I found them too engrossing—and it does not do for a woman to get too absorbed in one particular thing. Her social duties demand that her interests should be scattered."
Conversation wended its blithesome way through Lord Todhunter's new conservatories, paused at the disgraceful state of the high-road, brightened considerably at Farmer Drew's prize oxen, but came to a stand-still at the Future of England. Perhaps this was due to Sir James, who took a just pride in his power of concentration, and had no mind for the Future of anything, with stewed sweet-breads on his plate. The Present, with a near background of champignons à la crême was all sufficient. So he relapsed into silence and the unspeakable joy of mastication. Cynthia peeped at Provence from under her lashes. She caught his eye and found it sympathetic. In a moment the whole aspect of things was changed for both of them. Provence found a mysterious joy in being bored since she was bored too. Cynthia—more moderate in her emotions—felt that the evening might not prove so dull as she had first feared it would be. To their common satisfaction, general conversation girded up its loins once more and attacked the local County Council.
"I was listening to the nightingales when you passed last night," she said, when the Rector, and Sir James, and Lady Theodosia were fairly started on their campaign; "they have been silent for weeks."
"I thought that this part of the world was noted for its nightingales," said Provence, wondering if it was profane to admire a goddess's throat.
"I believe there is some such boast," she said; "but have you never noticed that places, like people, find their reputation—particularly if it is good—sufficiently useful without the fatigue of living up to it?" Provence did not see the highest type of feminine excellence in the Miltonian Eve, but he thought a woman should believe easily. In Cynthia's case he began to fear that this bewitching characteristic was entirely absent.
"I see you are a cynic," he said.
"Oh no," she said, quickly, "I haven't got a label. I'm afraid I'm too much guided by what somebody—I forget who—calls a 'feeling in the bones,' to make a pretence to the feeblest kind of philosophy." Then she sighed. "Don't you think," she said, with an expression of touching simplicity, "it would be much easier to be good if we left everything to our instincts? Reason—what learned people call reason—seems so much more artificial."
Provence felt an admiration for that feminine daring; which will rush in where a bishop might fear to tread, but his mental habits did not allow him to answer her in a hurry. He had his own ideas on the subject, no doubt, but would have required several sheets of foolscap on which to express them—inadequately and with the meaning between the lines.
"You are plunging into deep water," he said, "and that is dangerous." This he was well aware was just what any one else might have said. The thought was irritating, since, for some reason, he was extremely anxious to appear rather different from the ordinary diner-out—to her. He did not think himself different, nor did he have the mean ambition to seem what he was not; he only knew that if he could find favour in her sight even in a small degree—and he had heard that women in their delicious generosity could, under given conditions, discover what was best in a man when the majority of his fellows saw little but the indifferent—it would be something to find courage in.
"Do you know," said Cynthia, suddenly, "I made sure I should see you again—when you asked me the way to East Sheerwell yesterday?"
This was probably the most unstudied remark she had made that evening—for she found few things more difficult than giving herself to the world, as it were, unvarnished. The strongest element in her character was that which, for want of a better name, we may call the histrionic instinct. Life to her was a series of situations in which she invariably figured as the heroine—a heroine who was always charming and graceful, with feeling enough to be interesting but not enough to be tiresome. If she wept she was careful to dry her eyes before they grew red—if she laughed it was to show her exquisite teeth, for her sense of humour was more grim than merry; if she talked nonsense, but looked the key to all philosophies, especially those of earth, as she did that evening, she felt she was playing Juliet — a Juliet who had travelled and was the niece of Lady Theodosia, for the bewilderment of a Romeo who, though no longer a youth and certainly not possessed of the romantic air, had at all events a well-built figure, considerable fire in his eyes, and was the "makings of a success." Juliet was a rôle she could rarely indulge in, nor indeed was it a rôle she particularly cared for. It was so hard to find a Romeo worth playing to! With a woman's quickness she saw that Provence was a man of unusual refinement and delicate feeling—he would never take too much for granted. She promised herself some excitement in finding the limit to his self-restraint.
Edward Cargill, meantime, began to feel hardly used. He, after all, had led Cynthia in to dinner, and she had not addressed him directly once, except to ask his opinion of that year's growth of asparagus. Agatha had, no doubt, done her best to atone for her sister's want of manners, and had expressed her views with much propriety and no little erudition on the recent excavations in Asia Minor, to which Edward had replied that excavating and exploring were awfully jolly for those who liked them, but he didn't like them. Here Sir James came puffing to the rescue by inquiring—certainly with some want of relevance—whether any more boys in the church choir were down with the influenza. Nor did he stop there—for the choir reminded him of music, and music reminded him of an article he had read that morning on the increased importation of cat-gut. Cat-gut very naturally suggested cats, and cats brought the Egyptians—whom he had quite forgotten—to his mind. And Lady Theodosia had carefully mentioned in her note that the new man was an Egyptologist. Egypt was plainly the topic of all others for general discussion. He commenced with a loud cough: "Now as to the Egyptians!" he began. The company looked bewildered but attentive. "Now as to the Egyptians. They are an interesting race, if you like." Here he looked at Provence and smiled encouragingly. "I can fully understand a man devoting his life and energy to a close study of their immense Past. I don't pretend to know much about it myself," he added, with magnificent modesty, "it is naturally matter for the specialist; but in a quiet way and in one's library of a morning, I say one would be—well—one would be an ass not to feel a certain amount of awe at the antiquity of the Pyramids." Then he stared so very hard at Provence that he felt constrained to make some remark.
"I fear," he said, "that indifference as to the Past of Egypt is far more common than you suppose. You, no doubt, have studied the subject seriously."
"Merely as a dilettante," said Sir James, lightly, "the merest dilettante." As he had spent some twenty-five minutes that morning skipping through "Egypt" in the Encyclopædia, he felt that in describing himself as a dilettante he had, if anything, underrated his knowledge. To what lengths the ingenuous gentleman would have carried his discourse it is impossible to say; but as Mr. Heathcote's conscience did not allow him to indulge in sleeve-laughter at a guest's expense —particularly when that guest was an estimable, kind-hearted man who owned the finest peach-houses in the county and was a liberal subscriber to the parish charities—he determined to set matters right.
"Sir James is taking it for granted that you have inherited your father's tastes," he said, and looked at Provence with a meaning smile.
"Then I must own at once that I have not," said Provence. "I may not even call myself, with Sir James, a dilettante in the study of Egyptology. I have read everything my father wrote, but my interest has been mainly personal—that is to say, I thought more of the writer than the thing written about."
Cynthia was here just a little reminded of her own attitude towards her father's sermons.
"Then," said Sir James, surprise mingling with relief on his radiant countenance, "you are not an Egyptologist, after all!" Provence could not imagine why Lady Theodosia looked so much happier and begged him to take more cream with his strawberries. It was the first time she had really smiled on him since his arrival.
When the women returned to the drawing-room, Agatha expressed a fear that their new acquaintance was a trifle superficial, and certainly a little harsh—she would not say disrespectful —when he referred to his father's noble contributions to learning.
"I don't agree with you," said Cynthia, who was still thinking of the sermons.
"I may be mistaken, dear," murmured Agatha; "it is best not to be over-positive, one way or the other, in judging others. He is not at all bad-looking—for a clever man. I dare say some people would call him handsome, in a peculiar way."
" I should never dream of calling him even passable," said Cynthia, who was perhaps in a teasing mood. "There is a certain refinement about his face, and his eyes are intelligent and rather a nice colour. His mouth has a great deal of character, although it has a suggestion of weakness. His nose and chin suit the rest of him well enough, and there may be a sort of—well, classic grace about his head."
"I didn't notice all that," said Agatha, softly.
"I was sitting next to him, you must remember," said Cynthia, with a cold voice and hot cheeks.
"Well," said Lady Theodosia, "at any rate he seems a pleasant, gentlemanly man, and, I should say, very easy to amuse. It is an immense comfort to find that he is an ordinary mortal with the usual tastes. I wonder if he likes marrow-bones—we might have them for luncheon to-morrow."
"Since he is such an inoffensive person," chimed in Lady Cargill, "I wish dear Edward would take to him. I sometimes fear that he finds home a little dull after Oxford. Oxford must be so cheerful." Lady Cargill had married young, and had spent her life—with the exception of a few brief days at the Great Exhibition, a tour round the Lakes, and a trip to Switzerland—at Northwold Hall, her husband's country seat. An imaginary heart-affection was her excuse for avoiding the gaieties of London and a town house; and as her accomplishments, besides playing "The Minstrel Boy" (with variations) on the piano, lay in the direction of her household and the care of other women's babies, it was perhaps just as well that she confined her calls and advice within a six-mile radius. "For some reasons," she continued, after a pause, "I should not be sorry to see my dear boy engaged to a suitable person." She glanced at Agatha as she spoke, for although she was timidly attached to Cynthia, she was only seized with nervous palpitation when, in nightmares, she beheld her as the possible mistress of Northwold Hall and the model dairy. Besides, putting aside all other considerations, she had a firm conviction that true refinement and good breeding found their only outward and visible expression in sloping shoulders, a straight, thin nose, and an extremely high forehead. Agatha possessed all these qualifications—Cynthia none of them. But Agatha was turning over the leaves of the Classical Review when Lady Cargill spoke, and if she saw the look she did not appear to understand its significance. When, however, Edward came into the room a few minutes later, she smiled at him so prettily that even his mother thought him an oaf for not betraying a little rapture. As it was, he seemed decidedly gloomy, and after threading his way rather aimlessly among the numerous bandy-legged chairs and squat tables which Lady Theodosia had purchased by post through the inspiriting catalogue of an Art Furnisher, he settled himself near Cynthia.
"We were just saying, my boy," said Lady Cargill, with the unconscious guile of a perfectly truthful woman, "how agreeably surprised we are in this Mr. Provence." Edward did not look so overjoyed as he might have done at this piece of intelligence.
"Aunt Theodosia is so rejoiced to find that he is not learned," said Agatha, "and really I cannot imagine how we all managed to get such a mistaken idea of his knowledge. The moment I spoke to him I felt the incongruity between his reputation and—well, his way of expressing himself generally."
Edward could be jealous and could lose his temper, but he was not mean-spirited. "Oh, well," he said, "I dare say he knows a lot, only where should we be if he jawed on big things?" Cynthia liked him so much for this that she looked him straight in the face and smiled—an action which made so much difference to Edward, that he felt almost compensated for her behaviour at dinner.
"I think we might have some music, Cynthia," said the Rector, who entered at that moment, followed by Sir James and Provence, the former of whom had detained them in the conservatory to dilate on the merits of his new head-gardener and some freshly imported guano.
Cynthia went to the piano, and played with much passion and bewildering inaccuracy the noisiest of the Rhapsodies Hongroises. Her enthusiasm and easy familiarity with the loud pedal were almost professional. Until she had finished her remarkable performance Provence held his breath and all but wished himself away. Then he forgot everything—even her want of culture (as he understood it, that is to say, for culture of a sort was a stalled ox at the Rectory) and the wrong notes—in contemplating the beautiful flush which followed her exertions. In common with many who are wise by profession and not a few who are similarly gifted by nature, Provence's wisdom was of far greater service to his friends—when they would avail themselves of it—than to himself. His discernment in reading character, which belonged rather to an almost feminine instinct than to academic logic, and was part of his literary faculty, was completely overbalanced in the case of Cynthia by the strong personal magnetism she had possessed for him from the first. To have discovered the force of physical attraction was a fact in itself so engrossing that all other considerations were, if not forgotten, at least permitted to slumber. Even as she played he was vaguely conscious that she revealed much of her own nature in that strange blending of force and uncertainty with which she rendered music. To have felt this, no matter how dimly, was a step towards imperfect vision. He could never be completely blind. He had no further opportunity to speak with Cynthia that evening, for Edward never left her side. So, obeying his artistic instinct to study, at all hazards, something, he turned to Agatha. He felt bound to admit that this young lady was extremely pretty and plumbable. That is to say, he found no difficulty in reading her amiable character and learning her humbly expressed, feminine, and correct opinions. He did not always agree with her, it is true, but as she never by any possible chance thought anything which was not endorsed by at least two clearly recognized authorities, the cause rested with his idiosyncrasies and not her ignorance. Their differences, therefore, could never be otherwise than polite: he was not at all sure from his brief experience of Cynthia that he could promise so much where she was concerned. To begin with, she, too, had idiosyncrasies, and it is assuredly more difficult to maintain one's equanimity in argument with a young woman whose chief aim in discussion is to prove that somebody, though not herself, must be a fool, than with an intelligent, well-read lady who squeaks musically with touching self-effacement under the colossal mask of Carlyle or Browning.
"That Provence is a very decent fellow," said the Rector, when the Cargills had departed, Provence had been shown to his room, and Lady Theodosia had retired to her bed; "he is a great improvement on his father." Agatha opened her china-blue eyes and wondered whether she ought not to mention the French poodle and the bishop.
"I don't think I like him," said Cynthia ; "he has a way of speaking meekly and looking aggressive. I wonder if he is conceited."
"My dear," said the Rector, " I never saw a man—a man, that is to say, of his ability—who was less of the egoist."
"At all events," said Cynthia, "you must own he is hard to get at. I believe he has a pasha-like contempt for women."
"That never struck me," said Agatha. "I should say he was much too apathetic to have a contempt for anything."
"Apathetic! I should never call you a good judge of faces, Agatha. He probably feels too much— not too little. There is a feminine sensitiveness about his mouth."
"I understood you to say his mouth was weak, when we were talking after dinner." Cynthia was certainly provoking.
"Is not feminine sensitiveness something like weakness in a man?" said Cynthia. "I don't see that I have contradicted myself."
It was not until she found herself in the solitude of her own bedroom that the uncomfortable consciousness seized her of not having been pleasant. She was a long time undressing, and tried to make peace with her conscience by dwelling on Agatha's tiresome habit of magnifying details. "For instance," she said to herself, "if Agatha were the Creator she would make her beetles all legs and no body. One would think there was nothing of Mr. Provence but a mouth." But even then she was not happy, and when her head was fairly aching with sophistry (emphasized by the hair-brush) she marched into Agatha's room, which adjoined her own. The gentle Agatha was already in bed and asleep.
"Agatha," said Cynthia, tapping her shoulder enthusiastically with the bristle-side of her weapon. "Agatha, are you awake?"
Agatha started with pain, and opening her eyes, stared at her sister with something curiously resembling wrath. "I was not awake," she said.
"I only wanted to tell you," said Cynthia, "that I have been a Beast this evening. I am sorry," and then she returned—with the proud sorrow of a fallen angel in her expression—to her own apartment.