The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/The Sinner's Comedy/Chapter 5


"You must have loved somebody else once?"

"Never. In the first place, it is impossible to really love—more than once."

"To really love, perhaps—but men have fancies!"

It was in the music-room at the Vallences'. Emily was taking off her gloves. Sir Richard was watching her. They had both called on Carlotta by appointment to discuss a forthcoming bazaar: Carlotta, with a magnificent instinct, was detained at the Vicarage. The gentle Digby was engaged in his study reviving an old dramatist. He could not be disturbed.

"Men have died and worms have eaten them" said Sir Richard; "these things will happen."

"Then you have had fancies," she said, with just a note of disappointment in her voice (she, too, had a mind for Exceptions)—"was it very long ago?"

For one brief, too brief moment, he felt tempted to tell her the truth. She was a woman who could hear the truth, and even speak it. It never affected her disagreeably in either case. He thought he might hint something of a youthful madness, and Emily, true to her sex, would no doubt forgive it all with divine generosity, and hate the woman at the bottom of it like the devil.

"I have never had any fancies," he said, at last, and (theoretically) tore up Anna's last note, at that moment in his pocket. But even this did not make her easier to forget.

Emily sighed contentedly. He was reinstated as the Exceptional Man.

"I think that is very nice of you," she said, frankly. "I didn't really, in my heart, believe that you had. I was almost afraid—you are so dreadfully honest—that you were going to confess to—perhaps one."

"What do you think of the Dean?" said Richard, after a pause.

"I don't think he was born to preach to people who want their Heaven to be full of Mansions."

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I said. It was not a spontaneous criticism. I thought him out this morning when Hawkins was doing my hair. I always reserve that half-hour of the day for sober reflection." She blushed. "I suppose you think I am very frivolous. Women have to be; no one will take them seriously—not even other women. It is very hard. But what was I saying about the Dean? Oh—well, there isn't an ounce of Dean about him. He's much too natural."

"What an extraordinary idea! Don't be angry, but I'm afraid you are not a good judge of character." He coloured as he said it. He had too excellent reasons for doubting her discernment. "I never saw any one so stern and unbending as Sacheverell in my life."

"That sternness is merely self-restraint," said Emily; "how much self-restraint do you think the Dean uses to endure Mrs. Molle?"

"I should say she managed him very well."

"How little men understand each other," said Emily, "how very little. Mrs. Molle is helpless and unhelpful. I shall never forget his expression when Mr. Vallence quoted one day, 'It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop than with a brawling woman in a wide house.' And she," added Emily, "she is so unconscious. She thinks she governs him completely."

"How intolerable! I should hate to think I was being governed. I would do anything for—the woman I loved." (This he said softly, and uttered the word "woman" as though it were something too sacred for his lips—a piece of subtle flattery by no means lost on the sensitive being by his side.) "I would do anything," he repeated, "but it would be knowingly and for love."

"The secret of managing a man," said the Guileless One, "is to let him have his way in little things. He will change his plan of life when he won't change his bootmaker!"

"How much you know!"

"Don't I?"

He picked up the tassel of her girdle. "That is very pretty," he said; "those little stones——"

He walked away from her and began to pace the floor. "How long is this to go on?" he said. "What is the limit to a man's patience?"

"What do you mean?" said Emily. "What are you talking about?"

"I mean—what are we waiting for?"

"I suppose," said Emily, "we are waiting for Carlotta—and tea." Women have boundless faith in the sobering effect of commonplace. It is the remedy they administer to disordered passions.

Sir Richard looked at her with something like anger. "This is not a subject which can be changed that way. I must speak. I should despise myself if I did not. Do you care—a rap for me?"

"Yes," said Emily, at once, "I like you very much. I think you have a great deal in you. But I want you to use your talents. I suppose I am ambitious for you. A woman likes a man to be her master. That's a secret. I want you to be what people say you could be—if you chose. I hate an idler."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Be of some service to your country. Be a serious politician."

He could not help smiling. "What! make speeches and all that sort of thing?"

"If necessary—yes."

"Are you in earnest?"

"In earnest!" said Emily. "If I could only tell you a tenth part of all I would have you do! But I cannot. Some thoughts belong to a language we can't speak." She was wishing that his eyes were dark and earnest—like Sacheverell's: that his face had the nobility of Sacheverell's—that he was Sacheverell.

"Don't dream about me, Emily," said Sir Richard; "that sort of ambition is called dreaming. I shall only grieve you when you wake up. I live to amuse myself. I think life is the most lively thing going. I want to enjoy every hour of it. But I must enjoy it my way. And it is such a different way from yours—so very, very different. If you care for me ever so little, let it be for me as I am. I should always be jealous of the imaginary me. I would know I was only his shadow."

"I do—like you as you are," murmured Emily. "I am sure I am not mistaken."

"Do you like me well enough to be my wife?"

"I don't know—I—you see—I—don't want to be anybody's wife—just yet."

"I will wait—I will wait as long as you wish. I only want to know that some day——"

Some day sounded a lifetime distant. "Who knows—what might happen—some day?" she said.

He drew a long breath. "Will you promise?"

To promise that something would happen some day seemed even childish in its simplicity. "If you like," she said, half-laughing.

"My love for you," he said, "is a power outside myself. I cannot control it—it controls me. It is for you to decide whether for good or evil." Dimly it occurred to him that he had said something of the kind once before—to Anna. "I will try to be worthy of you," he added. She was a very pretty woman. He stooped and kissed her hand.

Just then Sacheverell entered the room.

"They told me you were here," he said; "I have come to say good-bye. I have just received a telegram which calls me back to town. I must catch the 5.40."

He looked so unlike himself that Emily faltered, "I hope it is not bad news?"

"A very old friend is dying," he said; "he has sent for me. That is all."

"I am sorry," said Emily.

"If he lived it would be sadder."

"How is that?" said Sir Richard, who was admiring Emily's mouth.

"Because," said Sacheverell, sternly, "his life has been all work and suffering."

"I am sorry," murmured Emily again.

"Do not pity him. He has chosen the good part. Good-bye." He shook hands with them both and went out.

"He is very depressing," said Sir Richard, after a pause. Emily did not hear. She was listening to the echo of Sacheverell's footsteps as it grew fainter and finally ceased.

"I believe you rather like him," said Sir Richard, jealously.

"He was interesting. He has made me forget three headaches!"

"Yes? A man may give his whole life to a woman, and it won't mean so much to her as if he had once jawed her out of neuralgia!"

"And a woman," said Emily, "may give her soul for a man, and he won't think so much of her as if—she had jilted him for somebody else."

Sir Richard laughed. "We must not take human nature too seriously! That is the mistake which lies at the root of all the misery and discontent in the world!"

Then Carlotta came in—apologetic but smiling.