Tuesday, October 16, 2007



Gennem de Mange til En!
When the knell of my thirtieth birthday sounded, I suddenly
realised, with a desolate feeling at the heart, that I was alone
in the world. It was true I had many and good friends, and I was
blessed with interests and occupations which I had often declared
sufficient to satisfy any not too exacting human being.
Moreover, a small but sufficient competency was mine, allowing me
reasonable comforts, and the luxuries of a small but choice
library, and a small but choice garden. These heavenly blessings
had seemed mere than enough for nearly five years, during which
the good sister and I had kept house together, leading a life of
tranquil happy days. Friends and books and flowers! It was, we
said, a good world, and I, simpleton,--pretty and dainty as
Margaret was,--deemed it would go on forever. But, alas! one day
came a Faust into our garden,--a good Faust, with no friend
Mephistopheles,--and took Margaret from me. It is but a month
since they were married, and the rice still lingers in the
crevices of the pathway down to the quaint old iron-work gate.
Yes! they have gone off to spend their honeymoon, and Margaret
has written to me twice to say how happy they are together in the
Hesperides. Dear happiness! Selfish, indeed, were he who would
envy you one petal of that wonderful rose--Rosa Mundi--God has
given you to gather.
But, all the same, the reader will admit that it must be lonely
for me, and not another sister left to take pity on me, all
somewhere happily settled down in the Fortunate Isles.
Poor lonely old house! do you, too, miss the light step of your
mistress? No longer shall her little silken figure flit up and
down your quiet staircases, no more deck out your silent rooms
with flowers, humming the while some happy little song.
The little piano is dumb night after night, its candles
unlighted, and there is no one to play Chopin to us now as the
day dies, and the shadows stoop out of their corners to listen in
vain. Old house, old house! We are alone, quite alone,--there
is no mistake about that,--and the soul has gone out of both of
us. And as for the garden, there is no company there; that is
loneliest of all. The very sunlight looks desolation, falling
through the thick-blossoming apple-trees as through the chinks
and crevices of deserted Egyptian cities.
While as for the books--well, never talk to me again about the
companionship of books! For just when one needs them most of all
they seem suddenly to have grown dull and unsympathetic, not a
word of comfort, not a charm anywhere in them to make us forget
the slow-moving hours; whereas, when Margaret was here--but it is
of no use to say any more! Everything was quite different when
Margaret was here: that is enough. Margaret has gone away to the
Fortunate Isles. Of course she'll come to see us now and again;
but it won't be the same thing. Yes! old echoing silent House of
Joy that is Gone, we are quite alone. Now, what is to be done?
Though I have this bad habit of soliloquising, and indeed am
absurd enough to attempt conversation with a house, yet the
reader must realise from the beginning that I am still quite a
young man. I talked a little just now as though I were an
octogenarian. Actually, as I said, I am but just gone thirty, and
I may reasonably regard life, as the saying is, all before me. I
was a little down-hearted when I wrote yesterday. Besides, I
wrote at the end of the afternoon, a melancholy time. The
morning is the time to write. We are all--that is, those of us
who sleep well--optimists in the morning. And the world is sad
enough without our writing books to make it sadder. The rest of
this book, I promise you, shall be written of a morning. This
book! oh, yes, I forgot!--I am going to write
a book. A book about what? Well, that must be as God wills.
But listen! As I lay in bed this morning between sleeping and
waking, an idea came riding on a sunbeam into my room,--a mad,
whimsical idea, but one that suits my mood; and put briefly, it
is this: how is it that I, a not unpresentable young man, a man
not without accomplishments or experience, should have gone all
these years without finding that
"Not impossible she
Who shall command my heart and me,"--
without meeting at some turning of the way the mystical Golden
Girl,--without, in short, finding a wife?
"Then," suggested the idea, with a blush for its own absurdity,
"why not go on pilgrimage and seek her? I don't believe you'll
find her. She isn't usually found after thirty. But you'll no
doubt have good fun by the way, and fall in with many pleasant
"A brave idea, indeed!" I cried. "By Heaven, I will take
stick and knapsack and walk right away from my own front door,
right away where the road leads, and see what happens. "And
now, if the reader please, we will make a start.
"Marry! an odd adventure!" I said to myself, as I stepped along
in the spring morning air; for, being a pilgrim, I was
involuntarily in a mediaeval frame of mind, and "Marry! an odd
adventure!" came to my lips as though I had been one of that
famous company that once started from the Tabard on a day in
It had been the spring, it will be remembered, that had prompted
them to go on pilgrimage; and me, too, the spring was filling
with strange, undefinable longings, and though I flattered myself
that I had set out in pursuance of a definitely taken resolve, I
had really no more freedom in the matter than the children who
followed at the heels of the mad piper.
A mad piper, indeed, this spring, with his wonderful lying
music,--ever lying, yet ever convincing, for when was Spring
known to keep his word? Yet year after year we give eager belief
to his promises. He may have consistently broken them for fifty
years, yet this year he will keep them. This year the dream will
come true, the ship come home. This year the very dead we have
loved shall come back to us again: for Spring can even lie like
that. There is nothing he will not promise the poor hungry human
heart, with his innocent-looking daisies and those practised
liars the birds. Why, one branch of hawthorn against the sky
promises more than all the summers of time can pay, and a pond
ablaze with yellow lilies awakens such answering splendours and
enchantments in mortal bosoms,--blazons, it would seem, so august
a message from the hidden heart of the world,--that ever
afterwards, for one who has looked upon it, the most fortunate
human existence must seem a disappointment.
So I, too, with the rest of the world, was following in the wake
of the magical music. The lie it was drawing me by is perhaps
Spring's oldest, commonest lie,--the lying promise of the Perfect
Woman, the Quite Impossible She. Who has
not dreamed of her,--who that can dream at all? I suppose that
the dreams of our modern youth are entirely commercial. In the
morning of life they are rapt by intoxicating visions of some
great haberdashery business, beckoned to by the voluptuous
enticements of the legal profession, or maybe the Holy Grail they
forswear all else to seek is a snug editorial chair. These
quests and dreams were not for me. Since I was man I have had
but one dream,--namely, Woman. Alas! till this my thirtieth year
I have found only women. No! that is disloyal, disloyal to my
First Love; for this is sadly true,--that we always find the
Golden Girl in our first love, and lose her in our second.
I wonder if the reader would care to hear about my First Love, of
whom I am naturally thinking a good deal this morning, under the
demoralising influences of the fresh air, blue sky, and various
birds and flowers. More potent intoxicants these than any that
need licenses for their purveyance, responsible-- see the
poets--for no end of human foolishness.
I was about to tell the story of my First Love, but on second
thoughts I decide not. It will keep, and I feel hungry, and
yonder seems a dingle where I can lie and open my knapsack, eat,
drink, and doze among the sun-flecked shadows.
The girl we go to meet is the girl we have met before. I evolved
this sage reflection, as, lost deep down in the green alleys of
the dingle, having fortified the romantic side of my nature with
sandwiches and sherry, I lazily put the question to myself as to
what manner of girl I expected the Golden Girl to be. A man who
goes seeking should have some notion of what he goes out to seek.
Had I any ideal by which to test and measure the damsels of the
world who were to pass before my critical choosing eye? Had I
ever met any girl in the past who would serve approximately as a
model,--any girl, in fact, I would very much like to meet again?
I was very sleepy, and while trying to make up my mind I fell
asleep; and lo! the sandwiches and sherry brought me a dream that
I could not but consider of good omen. And this was the dream.
I thought my quest had brought me into a strange old haunted
forest, and that I had thrown myself down to rest at the gnarled
mossy root of a great oak-tree, while all about me was nought but
fantastic shapes and capricious groups of gold-green bole and
bough, wondrous alleys ending in mysterious coverts, and green
lanes of exquisite turf that seemed to have been laid down in
expectation of some milk-white queen or goddess passing that way.
And so still the forest was you could have heard an acorn drop or
a bird call from one end of it to the other. The exquisite
silence was evidently waiting for the exquisite voice, that
presently not so much broke as mingled with it, like a swan
swimming through a lake.
"Whom seek you?" said, or rather sung, a planetary voice right
at my shoulder. But three short unmusical Saxon words, yet it
was as though a mystical strain of music had passed through the
"Whom seek you?" and again the lovely speech flowered upon the
silence, as white water-lilies on the surface of some shaded
"The Golden Girl," I answered simply, turning my head, and
looking half sideways and half upwards; and behold! the tree at
whose foot I lay had opened its rocky side, and in the cleft,
like a long lily-bud sliding from its green sheath, stood a
dryad, and my speech failed and my breath went as I looked upon
her beauty, for which mortality has no simile. Yet was there
something about her of the earth-sweetness that clings even to
the loveliest, star-ambitious, earth- born thing. She was not
all immortal, as man is not all mortal. She was the sweetness of
the strength of the oak, the soul born of the sun kissing its
green leaves in the still Memnonian mornings, of moon and stars
kissing its green leaves in the still Trophonian nights.
"The maid you seek," said she, and again she broke the silence
like the moon breaking through the clouds, "what manner of maid
is she? For a maid abides in this wood, maybe it is she whom you
seek. Is she but a lovely face you seek? Is she but a lofty
mind? Is she but a beautiful soul?"
"Maybe she is all these, though no one only, and more besides,"
I answered.
"It is well," she replied, "but have you in your heart no
image of her you seek? Else how should you know her should you
some day come to meet her?"
"I have no image of her," I said. "I cannot picture her; but
I shall know her, know her inerrably as these your wood children
find out each other untaught, as the butterfly that has never
seen his kindred knows his painted mate, passing on the wing all
others by. Only when the lark shall mate with the nightingale,
and the honey-bee and the clock-beetle keep house together, shall
I wed another maid. Fair maybe she will not be, though fair to
me. Wise maybe she will not be, though wise to me. For riches I
care not, and of her kindred I have no care. All I know is that
just to sit by her will be bliss, just to touch her bliss, just
to hear her speak bliss beyond all mortal telling."
Thereat the Sweetness of the Strength of the Oak smiled upon me
and said,--
"Follow yonder green path till it leads you into a little grassy
glade, where is a crystal well and a hut of woven boughs hard by,
and you shall see her whom you seek."
And as she spoke she faded suddenly, and the side of the oak was
once more as the solid rock. With hot heart I took the green
winding path, and presently came the little grassy glade, and the
bubbling crystal well, and the hut of wattled boughs, and,
looking through the open door of the hut, I saw a lovely girl
lying asleep in her golden hair. She smiled sweetly in her sleep,
and stretched out her arms softly, as though to enfold the dear
head of her lover. And, ere I knew, I was bending over her, and
as her sweet breath came and went I whispered: "Grace o' God, I
am here. I have sought you through the world, and found you at
last. Grace o' God, I have come."
And then I thought her great eyes opened, as when the sun sweeps
clear blue spaces in the morning sky. "Flower o' Men," then
said she, low and sweet,--"Flower o' Men, is it you indeed? As
you have sought, so have I waited, waited . . ." And thereat
her arms stole round my neck, and I awoke, and Grace o' God was
suddenly no more than a pretty name that my dream had given me.
"A pretty dream," said my soul, "though a little boyish for
thirty." "And a most excellent sherry," added my body.
As I once more got under way, my thoughts slowly loitered back to
the theme which had been occupying them before I dropped asleep.
What was my working hypothesis of the Perfect Woman, towards whom
I was thus leisurely strolling? She might be defined, I
reflected, as The Woman Who Is Worthy Of Us; but the
improbability which every healthily conceited young man must feel
of ever finding such a one made the definition seem a little
unserviceable. Or, if you prefer, since we seem to be dealing
with impossibles, we might turn about and more truly define her
as The Woman of Whom We are Worthy, for who dare say that she
exists? If, again, she were defined as the Woman our More
Fortunate Friend Marries, her unapproachableness would rob the
definition of any practical value. Other generalisations proving
equally unprofitable, I began scientifically to consider in
detail the attributes of the supposititious paragon,--attributes
of body and mind and heart. This was soon done; but again, as I
thus conned all those virtues which I was to expect united in one
unhappy woman, the result was still unsatisfying, for I began to
perceive that it was really not perfection that I was in search
of. As I added virtue after virtue to the female monster in my
mind, and the result remained still inanimate and unalluring, I
realised that the lack I was conscious of was not any new
perfection, but just one or two honest human imperfections. And
this, try as I would, was just what I could not imagine.
For, if you reflect a moment, you will see that, while it is easy
to choose what virtues we would have our wife possess, it is all
but impossible to imagine those faults we would desire in her,
which I think most lovers would admit add piquancy to the loved
one, that fascinating wayward imperfection which paradoxically
makes her perfect.
Faults in the abstract are each and all so uninviting, not to say
alarming, but, associated with certain eyes and hair and tender
little gowns, it is curious how they lose their terrors; and, as
with vice in the poet's image, we end by embracing what we began
by dreading. You see the fault becomes a virtue when it is hers,
the treason prospers; wherefore, no doubt, the impossibility of
imagining it. What particular fault will suit a particular
unknown girl is obviously as difficult to determine as in what
colours she will look her best.
So, I say, I plied my brains in vain for that becoming fault. It
was the same whether I considered her beauty, her heart, or her
mind. A charming old Italian writer has laid down the canons of
perfect feminine beauty with much nicety in a delicious
discourse, which, as he delivered it in a sixteenth- century
Florentine garden to an audience of beautiful and noble ladies,
an audience not too large to be intimate and not too small to be
embarrassing, it was his delightful good fortune and privilege to
illustrate by pretty and sly references to the characteristic
beauties of the several ladies seated like a ring of roses around
him. Thus he would refer to the shape of Madonna Lampiada's
sumptuous eyelids, and to her shell-like ears, to the correct
length and shape of Madonna Amororrisca's nose, to the lily tower
of Madonna Verdespina's throat; nor would the unabashed old
Florentine shrink from calling attention to the unfairness of
Madonna Selvaggia's covering up her dainty bosom, just as he was
about to discourse upon "those two hills of snow and of roses
with two little crowns of fine rubies on their peaks. "How
could a man lecture if his diagrams were going to behave like
that! Then, feigning a tiff, he would close his manuscript, and
all the ladies with their birdlike voices would beseech him with
"Oh, no, Messer Firenzuola, please go on again; it's SO
charming!" while, as if by accident, Madonna Selvaggia's
moonlike bosom would once more slip out its heavenly silver,
perceiving which, Messer Firenzuola would open his manuscript
again and proceed with his sweet learning.
Happy Firenzuola! Oh, days that are no more!
By selecting for his illustrations one feature from one lady and
another from another, Messer Firenzuola builds up an ideal of the
Beautiful Woman, which, were she to be possible, would probably
be as faultily faultless as the Perfect Woman, were she possible.
Moreover, much about the same time as Firenzuola was writing,
Botticelli's blonde, angular, retrousse women were breaking every
one of that beauty- master's canons, perfect in beauty none the
less; and lovers then, and perhaps particularly now, have found
the perfect beauty in faces to which Messer Firenzuola would have
denied the name of face at all, by virtue of a quality which
indeed he has tabulated, but which is far too elusive and
undefinable, too spiritual for him truly to have understood,--a
quality which nowadays we are tardily recognising as the first
and last of all beauty, either of nature or art,--the supreme,
truly divine, because materialistically unaccountable, quality of
"Beauty that makes holy earth and heaven May have faults from
head to feet."
O loveliest and best-loved face that ever hallowed the eyes that
now seek for you in vain! Such was your strange lunar magic,
such the light not even death could dim. And such may be the
loveliest and best- loved face for you who are reading these
pages,--faces little understood on earth because they belong to
There is indeed only one law of beauty on which we may
rely,--that it invariably breaks all the laws laid down for it by
the professors of aesthetics. All the beauty that has ever been
in the world has broken the laws of all previous beauty, and
unwillingly dictated laws to the beauty that succeeded it,--laws
which that beauty has no less spiritedly broken, to prove in turn
dictator to its successor.
The immortal sculptors, painters, and poets have always done
exactly what their critics forbade them to do. The obedient in
art are always the forgotten.
Likewise beautiful women have always been a law unto themselves.
Who could have prophesied in what way any of these inspired
law-breakers would break the law, what new type of perfect
imperfection they would create?
So we return to the Perfect Woman, having gained this much
knowledge of her,--that her perfection is nothing more or less
than her unique, individual, charming imperfection, and that she
is simply the woman we love and who is fool enough to love us.
"But come," I imagine some reader complaining, "isn't it high
time for something to happen?" No doubt it is, but what am I to
do? I am no less discontented. Is it not even more to my
interest than to the reader's for something to happen? Here have
I been tramping along since breakfast-time, and now it is late in
the afternoon, but never a feather of her dove's wings, never a
flutter of her angel's robes have I seen. It is disheartening,
for one naturally expects to find anything we seek a few minutes
after starting out to seek it, and I confess that I expected to
find my golden mistress within a very few hours of leaving home.
However, had that been the case, there would have been no story,
as the novelists say, and I trust, as he goes on, the reader may
feel with me that that would have been a pity. Besides, with that
prevision given to an author, I am strongly of opinion that
something will happen before long. And if the worst comes to the
worst, there is always that story of my First Love wherewith to
fill the time. Meanwhile I am approaching a decorative old
Surrey town, little more than a cluster of ripe old inns, to one
of which I have much pleasure in inviting the reader to dinner.
Is there a more beautiful word in the language?
Let the beautiful word come as a refrain to and fro this chapter.
Just eating and drinking, nothing more, but so much!
Drinking, indeed, has had its laureates. Yet would I offer my
mite of prose in its honour. And when I say "drinking," I
speak not of smuggled gin or of brandy bottles held fiercely by
the neck till they are empty.
Nay, but of that lonely glass in the social solitude of the
tavern,--alone, but not alone, for the glass is sure to bring a
dream to bear it company, and it is a poor dream that cannot
raise a song. And what greater felicity than to be alone in a
tavern with your last new song, just born and yet still a
tingling part of you.
Drinking has indeed been sung, but why, I have heard it asked,
have we no "Eating Songs?"--for eating is, surely, a fine
pleasure. Many practise it already, and it is becoming more
general every day.
I speak not of the finicking joy of the gourmet, but the joy of
an honest appetite in ecstasy, the elemental joy of absorbing
quantities of fresh simple food,--mere roast lamb, new potatoes,
and peas of living green.
It is, indeed, an absorbing pleasure. It needs all our
attention. You must eat as you kiss, so exacting are the joys of
the mouth,--talking, for example. The quiet eye may be allowed
to participate, and sometimes the ear, where the music is played
upon a violin, and that a Stradivarius. A well-kept lawn, with
six-hundred-years-old cedars and a twenty-feet yew hedge, will
add distinction to the meal. Nor should one ever eat without a
seventeenth-century poet in an old yellow-leaved edition upon the
table, not to be read, of course, any more than the flowers are
to be eaten, but just to make music of association very softly to
our thoughts.
Some diners have wine too upon the table, and in the pauses of
thinking what a divine mystery dinner is, they eat.
For dinner IS a mystery,--a mystery of which even the greatest
chef knows but little, as a poet knows not,
"with all his lore,
Wherefore he sang,
or whence the mandate sped."
"Even our digestion is governed by angels," said Blake; and if
you will resist the trivial inclination to substitute "bad
angels," is there really any greater mystery than the process by
which beef is turned into brains, and beer into beauty? Every
beautiful woman we see has been made out of beefsteaks. It is a
solemn thought,--and the finest poem that was ever written came
out of a grey pulpy mass such as we make brain sauce of.
And with these grave thoughts for grace let us sit down to
What wine shall we have? I confess I am no judge of wines,
except when they are bad. To-night I feel inclined to allow my
choice to be directed by sentiment; and as we are on so pretty a
pilgrimage, would it not be appropriate to drink Liebfraumilch?
Hock is full of fancy, and all wines are by their very nature
full of reminiscence, the golden tears and red blood of summers
that are gone.
Forgive me, therefore, if I grow reminiscent. Indeed, I fear that
the hour for the story of my First Love has come. But first,
notice the waitress. I confess, whether beautiful or plain,--not
too plain,--women who earn their own living have a peculiar
attraction for me.
I hope the Golden Girl will not turn out to be a duchess. As old
Campion sings,--
"I care not for those ladies
Who must be wooed and prayed;
Give me kind Amaryllis,
The wanton country-maid."
Town-maids too of the same pattern. Whether in town or country,
give me the girls that work. The Girls That Work! But evidently
it is high time woe began a new chapter.
Yes, I blush to admit it, my First Love was a housemaid. So was
she known on this dull earth of ours, but in heaven--in the
heaven of my imagination, at all events--she was, of course, a
goddess. How she managed to keep her disguise I never could
understand. To me she was so obviously dea certe. The nimbus was
so apparent. Yet no one seemed to see it but me. I have heard
her scolded as though she were any ordinary earthly housemaid,
and I have seen the butcher's boy trying to flirt with her
without a touch of reverence.
Maybe I understood because I saw her in that early hour of the
morning when even the stony Memnon sings, in that mystical light
of the young day when divine exiled things, condemned to rough
bondage through the noon, are for a short magical hour their own
celestial selves, their unearthly glory as yet unhidden by any
earthly disguise.
Neither fairies nor fauns, dryads nor nymphs of the forest pools,
have really passed away from the world. You have only to get up
early enough to meet them in the meadows. They rarely venture
abroad after six. All day long they hide in uncouth enchanted
forms. They change maybe to a field of turnips, and I have seen
a farmer priding himself on a flock of sheep that I knew were
really a most merry company of dryads and fauns in disguise. I
had but to make the sign of the cross, sprinkle some holy water
upon them, and call them by their sweet secret names, and the
whole rout had been off to the woods, with mad gambol and song,
before the eyes of the astonished farmer.
It was so with Hebe. She was really a little gold-haired
blue-eyed dryad, whose true home was a wild white cherry-tree
that grew in some scattered woodland behind the old country-house
of my boyhood. In spring- time how that naughty tree used to
flash its silver nakedness of blossom for miles across the furze
and scattered birches!
I might have known it was Hebe.
Alas! it no longer bares its bosom with so dazzling a
prodigality, for it is many a day since it was uprooted. The
little dryad long since fled away weeping,--fled away, said evil
tongues, fled away to the town.
Well do I remember our last meeting. Returning home one evening,
I met her at the lodge-gate hurrying away. Our loves had been
discovered, and my mother had shuddered to think that so pagan a
thing had lived so long in a Christian house. I vowed--ah! what
did I not vow?--and then we stole sadly together to comfort our
aching hearts under cover of the woodland. For the last time the
wild cherry-tree bloomed,--wonderful blossom, glittering with
tears, and gloriously radiant with stormy lights of wild passion
and wilder hopes.
My faith lived valiantly till the next spring. It was Hebe who
was faithless. The cherry-tree was dead, for its dryad had
gone,--fled, said evil tongues, fled away to the town!
But as yet, in the time to which my thoughts return, our sweet
secret mornings were known only to ourselves. It was my custom
then to rise early, to read Latin authors,--thanks to Hebe, still
unread. I used to light my fire and make tea for myself, till
one rapturous morning I discovered that Hebe was fond of rising
early too, and that she would like to light my fire and make my
tea. After a time she began to sweeten it for me. And then she
would sit on my knee, and we would translate Catullus
together,--into English kisses; for she was curiously interested
in the learned tongue.
How lovely she used to look with the morning sun turning her hair
to golden mist, and dancing in the blue deeps of her eyes; and
once when by chance she had forgotten to fasten her gown, I
caught glimpses of a bosom that was like two happy handfuls of
wonderful white cherries . . .
She wore a marvellous little printed gown. And here I may say
that I have never to this day understood objections which were
afterwards raised against my early attachment to print. The only
legitimate attachment to print stuff, I was told, was to print
stuff in the form of blouse, tennis, or boating costume. Yet,
thought I, I would rather smuggle one of those little print gowns
into my berth than all the silks a sea-faring friend of mine
takes the trouble to smuggle from far Cathay. However, every one
to his taste; for me,
No silken madam, by your leave,
Though wondrous, wondrous she be,
Can lure this heart--upon my sleeve--
From little pink-print Hebe.
For I found beneath that pretty print such a heart as seldom
beats beneath your satin, warm and wild as a bird's. I used to
put my ear to it sometimes to listen if it beat right. Ah,
reader, it was like putting your ear to the gate of heaven.
And once I made a song for her, which ran like this:--
There grew twin apples high on a bough
Within an orchard fair;
The tree was all of gold, I vow,
And the apples of silver were.
And whoso kisseth those apples high,
Who kisseth once is a king,
Who kisseth twice shall never die,
Who kisseth thrice--oh, were it I!--
May ask for anything.
Hebe blushed, and for answer whispered something too sweet
to tell.
"Dear little head sunning over with curls," were I to meet you
now, what would happen? Ah! to meet you now were too painfully
to measure the remnant of my youth.
Next morning I was afoot early, bent on my quest in right good
earnest; for I had a remorseful feeling that I had not been
sufficiently diligent the day before, had spent too much time in
dreaming and moralising, in which opinion I am afraid the reader
will agree.
So I was up and out of the town while as yet most of the
inhabitants were in the throes of getting up. Somewhere too SHE,
the Golden One, the White Woman, was drowsily tossing the
night-clothes from her limbs and rubbing her sleepy eyes.
William Morris's lovely song came into my mind,--
`And midst them all, perchance, my love
Is waking, and doth gently move
And stretch her soft arms out to me,
Forgetting thousand leagues of sea."
Perhaps she was in the very town I was leaving behind. Perhaps
we had slept within a few houses of each other. Who could tell?
Looking back at the old town, with its one steep street climbing
the white face of the chalk hill, I remembered what wonderful
exotic women Thomas Hardy had found eating their hearts out
behind the windows of dull country high streets, through which
hung waving no banners of romance, outwardly as unpromising of
adventure as the windows of the town I had left. And then
turning my steps across a wide common, which ran with gorse and
whortleberry bushes away on every side to distant hilly horizons,
swarthy with pines, and dotted here and there with stone granges
and white villages, I thought of all the women within that
circle, any one of whom might prove the woman I sought,--from
milkmaids crossing the meadows, their strong shoulders straining
with the weight of heavy pails, to fine ladies dying of ennui in
their country-houses; pretty farmers' daughters surreptitiously
reading novels, and longing for London and "life;" passionate
young farmers' wives already weary of their doltish lords;
bright- eyed bar-maids buried alive in country inns, and
wondering "whatever possessed them" to leave Manchester,--for
bar-maids seem always to come from Manchester,--all longing
modestly, said I, to set eyes on a man like me, a man of romance,
a man of feeling, a man, if you like, to run away with.
My heart flooded over with tender pity for these poor sweet
women--though perhaps chiefly for my own sad lot in not
encountering them,--and I conceived a great comprehensive
love-poem to be entitled "The Girls that never can be Mine."
Perhaps before the end of our tramp together, I shall have a few
verses of it to submit to the elegant taste of the reader, but at
present I have not advanced beyond the title.
While occupying myself with these no doubt wanton reflections on
the unfair division of opportunities in human life, I was
leisurely crossing the common, and presently I came up with a
pedestrian who, though I had little suspected it as I caught
sight of him ahead, was destined by a kind providence to make
more entertaining talk for me in half an hour than most people
provide in a lifetime.
He was an oldish man, turned sixty, one would say, and belonging,
to judge from his dress and general appearance, to what one might
call the upper labouring class. He wore a decent square felt
hat, a shabby respectable overcoat, a workman's knitted
waistcoat, and workman's corduroys, and he carried an umbrella.
His upper part might have belonged to a small well-to-do
tradesman, while his lower bore marks of recent bricklaying.
Without its being remarkable, he had what one calls a good face,
somewhat aquiline in character, with a refined forehead and nose.
His cheeks were shaved, and his whitening beard and moustache
were worn somewhat after the fashion of Charles Dickens. This
gave a slight touch of severity to a face that was full of quiet
Passing the time of day to each other, we were soon in
conversation, I asking him this and that question about the
neighbouring country-side, of which I gathered he was an old
"Yes," he said presently, "I was the first to put stick or
stone on Whortleberry Common yonder. Fifteen years ago I built
my own wood cottage there, and now I'm rebuilding it of good
Surrey stone."
"Do you mean that you are building it yourself, with your own
hands, no one to help you?" I asked.
"Not so much as to carry a pail of water," he replied. "I'm
my own contractor, my own carpenter, and my own bricklayer, and I
shall be sixty-seven come Michaelmas," he added, by no means
There was pride in his voice,--pardonable pride, I thought, for
who of us would not be proud to be able to build his own house
from floor to chimney?
"Sixty-seven,--a man can see and do a good deal in that time,"
I said, not flattering myself on the originality of the remark,
but desiring to set him talking. In the country, as elsewhere,
we must forego profundity if we wish to be understood.
"Yes, sir," he said, "I have been about a good deal in my
time. I have seen pretty well all of the world there is to see,
and sailed as far as ship could take me."
"Indeed, you have been a sailor too?"
"Twenty-two thousand miles of sea," he continued, without
directly answering my remark. "Yes, Vancouver's about as far
as any vessel need want to go; and then I have caught seals off
the coast of Labrador, and walked my way through the raspberry
plains at the back of the White Mountains."
"Vancouver," "Labrador," "The White Mountains," the very
names, thus casually mentioned on a Surrey heath, seemed full of
the sounding sea. Like talismans they whisked one away to
strange lands, across vast distances of space imagination refused
to span. Strange to think that the shabby little man at my side
had them all fast locked, pictures upon pictures, in his brain,
and as we were talking was back again in goodness knows what
remote latitude.
I kept looking at him and saying, "Twenty-two thousand miles of
sea! sixty-seven! and builds his own cottage!"
In addition to all this he had found time to be twenty-one years
a policeman, and to beget and rear successfully twelve children.
He was now, I gathered, living partly on his pension, and spoke
of this daughter married, this daughter in service here, and that
daughter in service there, one son settled in London and another
in the States, with something of a patriarchal pride, with the
independent air too of a man who could honestly say to himself
that, with few advantages from fortune, having had, so to say, to
work his passage, every foot and hour of it, across those
twenty-two thousand miles and those sixty-seven years, he had
made a thoroughly creditable job of his life.
As we walked along I caught glimpses in his vivid and
ever-varying talk of the qualities that had made his success
possible. They are always the same qualities!
A little pile of half-hewn stones, the remains of a ruined wall,
scattered by the roadside caught his eye.
"I've seen the time when I wouldn't have left them stones
lying out there," he said, and presently, "Why, God bless you,
I've made my own boots before to-day. Give me the tops and
I'll soon rig up a pair still."
And with all his success, and his evident satisfaction with his
lot, the man was neither a prig nor a teetotaller. He had
probably seen too much of the world to be either. Yet he had, he
said, been too busy all his life to spend much time in publichouses,
as we drank a pint of ale together in the inn which stood
at the end of the common.
"No, it's all well enough in its way, but it swallows time,"
he remarked. "You see, my wife and I have our own pin at home,
and when I'm a bit tired, I just draw a glass for myself, and
smoke a pipe, and there's no time wasted coming and going, and
drinking first with this and then with the other."
A little way past the inn we came upon a notice-board whereon the
lord of the manor warned all wayfarers against trespassing on the
common by making encampments, lighting fires or cutting firewood
thereon, and to this fortunate circumstance I owe the most
interesting story my companion had to tell.
We had mentioned the lord of the manor as we crossed the common,
and the notice- board brought him once more to the old man's
"Poor gentleman!" he said, pointing to the board as though it
was the lord of the manor himself standing there, "I shouldn't
like to have had the trouble he's had on my shoulders."
"Indeed?" I said interrogatively.
"Well, you see, sir," he continued, instinctively lowering his
voice to a confidential impressiveness, "he married an actress;
a noble lady too she was, a fine dashing merry lady as ever you
saw. All went well for a time, and then it suddenly got
whispered about that she and the village schoolmaster were
meeting each other at nights, in the meadow-bottom at the end of
her own park. It lies over that way,--I could take you to the
very place. The schoolmaster was a noble-looking young man too,
a devil-me-care blade of a fellow, with a turn for poetry, they
said, and a merry man too, and much in request for a song at The
Moonrakers of an evening. Many 's the night I've heard the
windows rattling with the good company gathered round him. Yes,
he was a noble-looking man, a noble-looking man," he repeated
wistfully, and with an evident sympathy for the lovers which, I
need hardly say, won my heart.
"But how, I wonder, did they come to know each other?" I
interrupted, anxious to learn all I could, even if I had to ask
stupid questions to learn it.
"Well, of course, no one can say how these things come about.
She was the lady of the manor and the patroness of his school;
and then, as I say, he was a very noble-looking man, and
probably took her fancy; and, sir, whenever some women set their
hearts on a man there's no stopping them. Have him they will,
whatever happens. They can't help it, poor things! It's just a
freak of nature."
"Well, and how was it found out?" I again jogged him.
"One of Sir William's keepers played the spy on them. He spread
it all over the place how he had seen them on moonlight nights
sitting together in the dingle, drinking champagne, and laughing
and talking as merry as you please; and, of course, it came in
time to Sir William--"
"You see that green lane there," he broke off, pointing to a
romantic path winding along the heath side; "it was along there
he used to go of a night to meet her after every one was in bed;
and when it all came out there was a regular cartload of bottles
found there. The squire had them all broken up, but the pieces
are there to this day.
"Yes," he again proceeded, "it hit Sir William very hard.
He's never been the same man since."
I am afraid that my sympathies were less with Sir William than
better regulated sympathies would have been. I confess that my
imagination was more occupied with that picture of the two lovers
making merry together in the moonlit dingle.
Is it not, indeed, a fascinating little story, with its piquant
contrasts and its wild love-at-all-costs? And how many such
stories are hidden about the country, lying carelessly in rustic
memories, if one only knew where to find them!
At this point my companion left me, and I--well, I confess that I
retraced my steps to the common and rambled up that green lane,
along which the romantic schoolmaster used to steal in the
moonlight to the warm arms of his love. How eagerly he had
trodden the very turf I was treading,--we never know at what
moment we are treading sacred earth! But for that old man, I had
passed along this path without a thrill. Had I not but an hour
ago stood upon this very common, vainly, so it seemed, invoking
the spirits of passion and romance, and the grim old common had
never made a sign. And now I stood in the very dingle where they
had so often and so wildly met; and it was all gone, quite gone
away for ever. The hours that had seemed so real, the kisses
that had seemed like to last for ever, the vows, the tears, all
now as if they had never been, gone on the four winds, lost in
the abysses of time and space.
And to think of all the thousands and thousands of lovers who had
loved no less wildly and tenderly, made sweet these lanes with
their vows, made green these meadows with their feet; and they,
too, all gone, their bright eyes fallen to dust, their sweet
voices for ever put to silence.
To which I would add, for the benefit of the profane, that I
sought in vain for those broken bottles.
I felt lonely after losing my companion, and I met nobody to take
his place. In fact, for a couple of hours I met nothing worth
mentioning, male or female, with the exception of a gipsy
caravan, which I suppose was both; but it was a poor show. Borrow
would have blushed for it. In fact, it is my humble opinion that
the gipsies have been overdone, just as the Alps have been
over-climbed. I have no great desire to see Switzerland, for I
am sure the Alps must be greasy with being climbed.
Besides, the Alps and the gipsies, in common with waterfalls and
ruined castles, belong to the ready-made operatic poetry of the
world, from which the last thrill has long since departed. They
are, so to say, public poetry, the public property of the
emotions, and no longer touch the private heart or stir the
private imagination. Our fathers felt so much about them that
there is nothing left for us to feel. They are as a rose whose
fragrance has been exhausted by greedy and indiscriminate
smelling. I would rather find a little Surrey common for myself
and idle about it a summer day, with the other geese and donkeys,
than climb the tallest Alp.
Most gipsies are merely tenth-rate provincial companies,
travelling with and villainously travestying Borrow's great
pieces of "Lavengro" and "Romany Rye." Dirty, ill-looking,
scowling men; dirty, slovenly, and wickedly ugly women; children
to match, snarling, filthy little curs, with a ready beggar's
whine on occasion. A gipsy encampment to-day is little more than
a moving slum, a scab of squalor on the fair face of the
But there was one little trifle of an incident that touched me as
I passed this particular caravan. Evidently one of the vans had
come to grief, and several men of the party were making a great
show of repairing it. After I had run the gauntlet of the
begging children, and was just out of ear- shot of the group, I
turned round to survey it from a distance. It was encamped on a
slight rise of the undulating road, and from where I stood tents
and vans and men were clearly silhouetted against the sky. The
road ran through and a little higher than the encampment, which
occupied both sides of it. Presently the figure of a young man
separated itself from the rest, stept up on to the smooth road,
and standing in the middle of it, in an absorbed attitude, began
to make a movement with his hands as though winding string round
a top. That in fact was his occupation, and for the next five
minutes he kept thus winding the cord, flinging the top to the
ground, and intently bending down to catch it on his hand, none
of the others, not even the children, taking the slightest notice
of him,--he entirely alone there with his poor little pleasure.
There seemed to me pathos in his loneliness. Had some one spun
the top with him, it would have vanished; and presently, no doubt
at the bidding of an oath I could not hear, he hurriedly thrust
the top into his pocket, and once more joined the straining group
of men. The snatched pleasure must be put by at the call of
reality; the world and its work must rush in upon his dream. I
have often thought about the top and its spinner, as I have noted
the absorbed faces of other people's pleasures in the
streets,--two lovers passing along the crowded Strand with eyes
only for each other; a student deep in his book in the corner of
an omnibus; a young mother glowing over the child in her arms;
the wild-eyed musician dreamily treading on everybody's toes, and
begging nobody's pardon; the pretty little Gaiety Girl hurrying
to rehearsal with no thought but of her own sweet self and
whether there will be a letter from Harry at the stagedoor,--
yes, if we are alone in our griefs, we are no less alone
in our pleasures. We spin our tops as in an enchanted circle,
and no one sees or heeds save ourselves,--as how should they with
their own tops to spin? Happy indeed is he, who has his top and
cares still to spin it; for to be tired of our tops is to be
tired of life, saith the preacher.
As the young gipsy's little holiday came to an end, I turned with
a sigh upon my way; and here, while still on the subject, may I
remark on the curious fact that probably Borrow has lived and
died without a single gipsy having heard of him, just as the
expertest anglers know nothing of Izaak Walton.
Has the British soldier, one wonders, yet discovered Rudyard
Kipling, or is the Wessex peasant aware of Thomas Hardy? It is
odd to think that the last people to read such authors are the
very people they most concern. For you might spend your life,
say, in studying the London street boy, and write never so
movingly and humourously about him, yet would he never know your
name; and though Whitechapel makes novelists, it does so without
knowing it,--makes them to be read in Mayfair,--just as it never
wears the dainty hats and gowns its weary little milliners and
seamstresses make through the day and night. It is Capital and
Labour over again, for in literature also we reap in gladness
what others have sown in tears.
And now, after these admirable reflections, I am about to make
such "art" as I can of another man's tragedy, as will appear in
the next chapter.
My moralisings were cut short by my entering a village, and, it
being about the hour of noon, finding myself in the thick of a
village wedding.
Undoubtedly the nicest way to get married is on the sly, and
indeed it is at present becoming quite fashionable. Many young
couples of my acquaintance, who have had no other reason for
concealing the fact beyond their own whim, have thus slipped off
without saying a word to anybody, and returned full-blown
housekeepers, with "at home" days of their own, and everything
else like real married people,--for, as said an old lady to me,
"one can never be sure of married people nowadays unless you
have been at the wedding."
My friend George Muncaster, who does everything charmingly
different from any one else, hit upon one of the quaintest plans
for his marriage. It was simple, and some may say prosaic
enough. His days being spent at a great office in the city, he
got leave of absence for a couple of hours, met his wife, went
with her to the registrar's, returned to his office, worked the
rest of the day as usual, and then went to his new home to find
his wife and dinner awaiting him,--all just as it was going to
be every night for so many happy years. Prosaic, you say! Not
your idea of poetry, perhaps, but, after a new and growing
fashion in poetry, truly poetic. George Muncaster's marriage is
a type of the new poetry, the poetry of essentials. The old
poetry, as exemplified in the old-fashioned marriage, is a poetry
of externals, and certainly it has the advantage of
There is perhaps more to be said for it than that. Indeed, if I
were ever to get married, I am at a loss to know which way I
should choose,--George Muncaster's way or the old merry fashion,
with the rice and the old shoes and the orange-blossom. No doubt
the old cheery publicity is a little embarrassing to the two most
concerned, and the old marriage customs, the singing of the bride
and bridegroom to their nuptial couch, the frank jests, the
country horse-play, must have fretted the souls of many a lover
before Shelley, who, it will be remembered, resented the choral
celebrations of his Scotch landlord and friends by appearing at
his bedroom door with a brace of pistols.
How like Shelley! The Scotch landlord meant well, we may be
sure, and a very small pinch of humour, or even mere ordinary
humanity, as distinct from humanitarianism, would have taken in
the situation. Of course Shelley's mind was full of the sanctity
of the moment, and indignant that "the hour for which the years
did sigh" should thus be broken in upon by vulgar revelry; but
while we may sympathise with his view, and admit to the full the
sacredness, not to say the solemnity, of the marriage ceremony,
yet it is to be hoped that it still retains a naturally mirthful
side, of which such public merriment is but the crude expression.
With all its sweet and mystical significance, surely the
prevailing feeling in the hearts of bride and bridegroom is, or
should be, that of happiness,--happiness bubbling and dancing,
all sunny ripples from heart to heart.
Surely they can spare a little of it, just one day's sight of it,
to a less happy world,--a world long since married and done for,
and with little happiness in it save the spectacle of other
people's happiness. It is good for us to see happy people, good
for the symbols of happiness to be carried high amidst us on
occasion; for if they serve no other purpose, they inspire in us
the hope that we too may some day be happy, or remind our
discontented hearts that we have been.
If it were only for the sake of those quaint old women for whom
life would be entirely robbed of interest were it not for other
people's weddings and funerals, one feels the public ceremony of
marriage a sort of public duty, the happiness tax, so to say, due
to the somewhat impoverished revenues of public happiness. Other
forms of happiness are taxed; why not marriage?
In a village, particularly, two people who robbed the community
of its perquisites in this respect would be looked upon as
"enemies of the people," and their joint life would begin under
a social ban which it would cost much subsequent hospitality to
remove. The dramatic instinct to which the life of towns is
necessarily unfavourable, is kept alive in the country by the
smallness of the stage and the fewness of the actors. A village
is an organism, conscious of its several parts, as a town is not.
In a village everybody is a public man. The great events of his
life are of public as well as private significance,
appropriately, therefore, invested with public ceremonial. Thus
used to living in the public eye, the actors carry off their
parts at weddings and other dramatic ceremonials, with more
spirit than is easy to a townsman, who is naturally made
self-conscious by being suddenly called upon to fill for a day a
public position for which he has had no training. That no doubt
is the real reason for the growth of quiet marriages; and the
desire for them, I suspect, comes first from the man, for there
are few women who at heart do not prefer the old histrionic
However, the village wedding at which I suddenly found myself a
spectator was, for a village, a singularly quiet one. There was
no bell-ringing, and there were no bridesmaids. The bride drove
up quietly with her father, and there was a subdued note even in
the murmur of recognition which ran along the villagers as they
stood in groups near the church porch. There was an absence of
the usual hilarity which struck me. One might almost have said
that there was a quite ominous silence.
Seating myself in a corner of the transept where I could see all
and be little seen, I with the rest awaited the coming of the
overdue bridegroom. Meanwhile the usual buzzing and bobbing of
heads went on amongst the usual little group near the foot of the
altar. Now and then one caught a glisten of tears through a
widow's veil, and the little bride, dressed quietly in grey,
talked with the usual nervous gaiety to her girl friends, and
made the usual whispered confidences about her trousseau. The
father, in occasional conversation with one and another, appeared
to be avoiding the subject with the usual self-conscious
solemnity, and occasionally he looked, somewhat anxiously, I
thought, towards the church door. The bridegroom did not keep us
waiting long,--I noticed that he had a rather delicate sad
face,--and presently the service began.
I don't know myself what getting married must feel like, but it
cannot be much more exciting than watching other people getting
married. Probably the spectators are more conscious of the
impressive meaning of it all than the brave young people
themselves. I say brave, for I am always struck by the courage of
the two who thus gaily leap into the gulf of the unknown
together, thus join hands over the inevitable, and put their
signatures to the irrevocable. Indeed, I always get something
like a palpitation of the heart just before the priest utters
those final fateful words, "I declare you man and-- wife."
Half a second before you were still free, half a second after you
are bound for the term of your natural life. Half a second
before you had only to dash the book from the priest's hands, and
put your hand over his mouth, and though thus giddily swinging on
the brink of the precipice, you are saved. Half a second after
Not all the king's horses and all the king's men
Can make you a bachelor ever again.
It is the knife-edge moment 'twixt time and eternity.
And, curiously enough, while my thoughts were thus running on
towards the rapids of that swirling moment, the very thing
happened which I had often imagined might happen to myself.
Suddenly, with a sob, the bridegroom covered his face with his
hands, and crying, "I cannot! I cannot!" hurriedly left the
church, tears streaming down his cheeks, to the complete dismay
of the sad little group at the altar, and the consternation of
all present.
"Poor young man! I thought he would never go through with it,"
said an old woman half to herself, who was sitting near me. I
involuntarily looked my desire of explanation.
"Well, you see," she said, "he had been married before. His
first wife died four years ago, and he loved her beyond all
heaven and earth."
That evening, I afterwards heard, the young bridegroom's body was
found by some boys as they went to bathe in the river. As I
recalled once more that sad yearning face, and heard again that
terrible "I cannot! I cannot!" I thought of Heine's son of
Asra, who loved the Sultan's daughter.
"What is thy name, slave?" asked the princess, "and what thy
race and birthplace?"
"My name," the young slave answered, "is Mahomet. I come from
Yemen. My race is that of Asra, and when we love, we die."
And likewise a voice kept saying in my heart, "If ever you find
your Golden Bride, be sure she will die."
The sad thoughts with which this incident naturally left me were
at length and suddenly dispersed, as sad thoughts not
infrequently are, by a petticoat. When I say petticoat, I use
the word in its literal sense, not colloquially as a metaphor for
its usual wearer, meaning thereby a dainty feminine undergarment
seen only by men on rainy days, and one might add washing-days.
It was indeed to the fortunate accident of its being washing-day
at the pretty cottage near which in the course of my morning
wanderings I had set me down to rest, that I owed the sight of
the petticoat in question.
But first allow me to describe a little more fully my
surroundings at the moment. Not indeed that I can hope to put
into words the charm of those embowered cottages, like nests in
the armpits of great trees, tucked snugly in the hollows of those
narrow, winding, almost subterranean lanes which burrow their way
beneath the warm-hearted Surrey woodlands.
Nothing can be straighter and smoother than a Surrey road--when
it is on the king's business; then it is a high-road and behaves
accordingly: but a Surrey bye-road is the most whimsical
companion in the world. It is like a sheep-dog, always running
backwards and forwards, poking into the most out-of-the-way
corners, now climbing at a run some steep hummock of the down,
and now leisurely going miles about to escape an ant-hill; and
all the time (here, by the way, ends the sheep-dog) it is
stopping to gossip with rillets vagabond as itself, or loitering
to bedeck itself with flowers. It seems as innocent of a
destination as a boy on an errand; but, after taking at least six
times as long as any other road in the kingdom for its amount of
work, you usually find it dip down of a sudden into some lovely
natural cul-de-sac, a meadow-bottom surrounded by trees, with a
stream spreading itself in fantastic silver shallows through its
midst, and a cottage half hidden at the end. Had the lane been
going to some great house, it would have made more haste, we may
be sure.
The lane I had been following had finally dropped me down at
something of a run upon just such a scene. The cottage, built
substantially of grey stone, stood upon the side of the slope,
and a broad strip of garden, half cultivated and half wild, began
near the house with cabbages, and ended in a jungle of giant
bulrushes as it touched the stream. Golden patches of ragwort
blazed here and there among a tangled mass of no doubt worthier
herbage,--such even in nature is the power of gold,--and there
were the usual birds.
However, my business is with the week's washing, which in various
shades of white, with occasional patches of scarlet, fluttered
fantastically across a space of the garden, thereby giving
unmistakable witness to human inhabitants, male and female.
As I lounged upon the green bank, I lazily watched these parodies
of humanity as they were tossed hither and thither with humourous
indignity by the breeze, remarking to myself on the quaint
shamelessness with which we thus expose to the public view
garments which at other times we are at such bashful pains to
conceal. And thus philosophising, like a much greater
philosopher, upon clothes, I found myself involuntarily deducing
the cottage family from the family washing. I soon decided that
there must be at least one woman say of the age of fifty, one
young woman, one little child, sex doubtful, and one man probably
young. Further than this it was impossible to conjecture. Thus I
made the rough guess that a young man and his wife, a child, and
a mother-in-law were among the inhabitants of this idyllic
But the clothes-line presented charming evidence of still another
occupant; and here, though so far easy to read, came in something
of a puzzle. Who in this humble out-of-the-way cottage could
afford to wear that exquisite cambric petticoat edged with a fine
and very expensive lace? And surely it was on no country legs
that those delicately clocked and open-worked silk stockings
walked invisible through the world.
Nor was the lace any ordinary expensive English lace, such as any
good shop can supply. Indeed, I recognised it as being of a
Parisian design as yet little known in England; while on the tops
of the stockings I laughingly suspected a border designed by a
certain eccentric artist, who devotes his strange gifts to
decorating with fascinating miniatures the under-world of woman.
I have seen corsets thus made beautiful by him valued at five
hundred pounds, and he never paints a pair of garters for less
than a hundred. His name is not yet a famous one, as, for
obvious reasons, his works are not exhibited at public galleries,
though they are occasionally to be seen at private views.
I am far from despising an honest red-flannel country petticoat.
There is no warmer kinder-looking garment in the world. It
suggests country laps and country breasts, with sturdy country
babes greedy for the warm white milk, and it seems dyed in
country blushes. Yet, for all that, one could not be insensible
to the exotic race and distinction of that frivolous town
petticoat, daintily disporting itself there among its country
cousins, like a queen among milkmaids.
What numberless suggestions of romance it awoke! What strange
perfumes seemed to waft across from it, perfumes laden with
associations of a world so different from the green world where
it now was, a charming world of gay intrigue and wanton pleasure.
No wonder the wind chose it so often for its partner as it danced
through the garden, scorning to notice the heavy homespun things
about it. It was not every day that that washing-day wind met so
fine a lady, and it was charming to see how gently he played
about her stockings. "Ah, wind," I said, "evidently you are a
gallant born; but tell us the name of the lady. It is somewhere
on that pretty petticoat, I'll be bound."
Is she some little danseuse with the whim to be romantically
rustic for a week? or is she somebody else's pretty wife run away
with somebody else's man? or is she some naughty little grisette
with an extravagant lover? or is she just the usual lady
landscape artist, with a more than usual taste in lingerie?
At all events, it was fairly obvious that, for one reason or
another, the wearer of the petticoat and stockings which have now
occupied us for perhaps a sufficient number of pages, was a
visitor at the cottage.
The next thing was to get a look at her. So, remembering how fond
I was of milk from the cow, I pushed open the gate and advanced
to the cottage door.
The door was opened by a comely young woman, with ruddy cheeks
and a bright kind eye that promised conversation. But "H'm,"
said I to myself, as she went to fetch my milk, "evidently not
yours, my dear."
"A nice drying day for your washing," I said, as I slowly
sipped my milk, with a half-inclination of my head towards the
"Very fine, indeed, sir," she returned, with something of a
blush, and a shy deprecating look that seemed to beg me not to
notice the peculiarly quaint antics which the wind, evidently a
humourist, chose at that moment to execute with the female
garments upon the line. However, I was for once cased in triple
brass and inexorable.
"And who," I ventured, smiling, "may be the owner of those
fine things?"
"Not those," I continued, pointing to an odd garment which the
wind was wantonly puffing out in the quaintest way, "but that
pretty petticoat and those silk stockings?"
The poor girl had gone scarlet, scarlet as the petticoat which I
was sure WAS hers, with probably a fellow at the moment keeping
warm her buxom figure.
"You are very bold, sir," she stammered through her blushes,
but I could see that she was not ill-pleased that the finery
should attract attention.
"But won't you tell me?" I urged; "I have a reason for
And here I had better warn the reader that, as the result of a
whim that presently seized me, I must be content to appear mad in
his eyes for the next few pages, till I get an opportunity of
"Well, what if they should be mine?" at length I persuaded her
into saying.
I made the obvious gallant reply, but, "All the same," I added,
"you know they are not yours. They belong to some lady visitor,
who, I'll be bound, isn't half so pretty; now, don't they?"
"Well, they just don't then. They're mine, as I tell you."
"H'm," I continued, a little nonplussed, "but do you really
mean there is no lady staying with you?"
"Certainly," she replied, evidently enjoying my bewilderment.
"Well, then, some lady must have stayed here once," I retorted,
with a sudden inspiration, "and left them behind--"
"You might be a detective after stolen goods," she interrupted.
"I tell you the things are mine; and what I should like to know
does a gentleman want bothering himself about a lady's petticoat!
No wonder you blush," for, in fact, as was easy to foresee, the
situation was becoming a little ridiculous for me.
"Now, look here," I said with an affectation of gravity, "if
you'll tell me how you came by those things, I'll make it worth
your while. They were given to you by a lady who stayed here not
so long ago, now, weren't they?"
"Well, then, they were."
"The lady stayed here with a gentleman?"
"Yes, she did."
"H'm! I thought so," I said. "Yes! that lady, it pains me to
say, was my wife!"
This unblushing statement was not, I could see, without its
effect upon the present owner of the petticoat.
"But she said they were brother and sister," she replied.
"Of course she did," I returned, with a fine assumption of
scorn,--"of course she did. They always do."
"Dear young woman," I continued, when I was able to control my
emotion, "you are happily remote from the sin and wickedness of
the town, and I am sorry to speak of such things in so peaceful a
spot--but as a strange chance has led me here, I must speak, must
tell you that all wives are not so virtuous and faithful as you,
I am sure, are. There are wives who forsake their husbands
and--and go off with a handsomer man, as the poet says; and mine,
mine, alas! was one of them. It is now some months ago that my
wife left me in this way, and since then I have spent every day
in searching for her; but never till this moment have I come upon
the least trace of her. Strange, is it not? that here, in this
peaceful out-of-the- way garden, I should come upon her very
petticoat, her very stockings--"
By this my grief had become such that the kind girl put her hand
on my arm. "Don't take on so," she said kindly, and then
remembering her treasured property, and probably fearing a
counterclaim on my part to its possession, "But how can you be
sure she was here? There are lots of petticoats like that--"
"What was she like?" I asked through my agitation.
"Middle height, slim and fair, with red goldy hair and big blue
eyes; about thirty, I should say."
"The very same," I groaned, "there is no mistake; and now," I
continued, "I want you to sell me that petticoat and those
stockings," and I took a couple of sovereigns from my purse.
"I want to have them to confront her with, when I do find her.
Perhaps it will touch her heart to think of the strange way in
which I came by them; and you can buy just as pretty ones again
with the money," I added, as I noticed the disappointment on her
face at the prospect of thus losing her finery.
"Well, it's a funny business, to be sure," she said, as still
half reluctantly she unpegged the coveted garments from the line;
"but if what you say 's true, I suppose you must have them."
The wanton wind had been so busily kissing them all the morning
that they were quite dry, so I was able to find room for them in
my knapsack without danger to the other contents; and, with a
hasty good-day to their recent possessor, I set off at full speed
to find a secure nook where I could throw myself down on the
grass, and let loose the absurd laughter that was dangerously
bottled up within me; but even before I do that it behoves me if
possible to vindicate my sanity to the reader.
What a sane man should be doing carrying about with him a woman's
petticoat and silk stockings, may well be a puzzle to the most
intelligent reader.
Whim, sir, whim! and few human actions admit of more satisfactory
solution. Like Shylock, I'll say "It is my humour." But no!
I'll be more explanatory. This madcap quest of mine, was it not
understood between us from the beginning to be a fantastic whim,
a poetical wild-goose chase, conceived entirely as an excuse for
being some time in each other's company? To be whimsical,
therefore, in pursuit of a whim, fanciful in the chase of a
fancy, is surely but to maintain the spirit of the game. Now,
for the purpose, therefore, of a romance that makes no pretence
to reasonableness, I had very good reasons for buying that
petticoat, which (the reasons, not the petticoat) I will now lay
before you.
I have been conscious all the way along through this pilgrimage
of its inevitable vagueness of direction, of my need of something
definite, some place, some name, anything at all, however slight,
which I might associate, if only for a time, with the object of
my quest, a definite something to seek, a definite goal for my
Now, when I saw that mysterious petticoat, and realised that its
wearer would probably be pretty and young and generally charming,
and that probably her name was somewhere on the waistband, the
spirit of whim rejoiced within me. "Why not," it said, "buy
the petticoat, find out the name of its owner, and, instead of
seeking a vague Golden Girl, make up your mind doggedly to find
and marry her, or, failing that, carry the petticoat with you, as
a sort of Cinderella's slipper, try it on any girl you happen to
fancy, and marry her it exactly fits?"
Now, I confess, that seemed to me quite a pretty idea, and I
hope the reader will think so too. If not, I'm afraid I can
offer him no better explanation; and in fact I am all impatience
to open my knapsack, and inform myself of the name of her to the
discovery of whom my wanderings are henceforth to be devoted.
So imagine me seated in a grassy corner, with my knapsack open on
the ground and my petticoat and silk stockings spread out in
front of me,--an odd picture, to be sure, for any passer by to
come upon. I suppose I could have passed for a pedlar, but
undoubtedly it would have been very embarrassing. However, as it
happened, I remained undisturbed, and was able to examine my
purchases at leisure. I had never seen a petticoat so near
before,--at all events I had never given one such close
attention. What delicious dainty things they are! How
essentially womanly--as I hope no one would call a pair of
trousers essentially manly.
How pretty it looked spread out on the grass in front of me! How
soft! how wondrously dainty the finish
of every little seam! And the lace! It almost tempts one to
change one's sex to wear such things. There was a time indeed,
and not so long ago, when brave men wore garments no less dainty.
Rupert's Cavaliers were every bit as particular about their lace
collars and frills as the lady whose pretty limbs once warmed
this cambric.
But where is the name? Ah! here it is! What sweet writing!
"Sylvia Joy, No. 6."
Sylvia Joy! What a perfectly enchanting name! and as I repeated
it enthusiastically, it seemed to have a certain familiarity for
my ear,--as though it were the name of some famous beauty or some
popular actress,--yet the exact association eluded me, and
obviously it was better it should remain a name of mystery.
Sylvia Joy! Who could have hoped for such a pretty name!
Indeed, to tell the truth, I had dreaded to find a "Mary Jones"
or an "Ann Williams"-- but Sylvia Joy! The name was a romance
in itself. I already felt myself falling in love with its unseen
owner. With such a petticoat and such a name, Sylvia herself
could not be otherwise than delightful too. Already, you see, I
was calling her by her Christian name! And the more I thought of
her, the stronger grew the conviction-- which has no doubt
already forced itself upon the romantic reader--that we were born
for each other.
But who is Sylvia, who is she? and likewise where is Sylvia,
where is she? Obviously they were questions not to be answered
off-hand. Was not my future--at all events my immediate
future--to be spent in answering them?
Indeed, curiously enough, my recent haste to have them answered
had suddenly died down. A sort of matrimonial security possessed
me. I felt as I imagine a husband may feel on a solitary
holiday--if there are husbands unnatural enough to go holidaying
without their wives--pleasantly conscious of a home tucked
somewhere beneath the distant sunset, yet in no precipitate hurry
to return there before the appointed day.
In fact, a chill tremor went through me as I realised that, to
all intent, I was at length respectably settled down, with quite
a considerable retrospect of happy married life. To come to a
decision is always to bring something to an end. And, with
something of a pang, resolutely stifled, I realised for a moment
the true blessedness of the single state I was so soon to leave
behind. At all events, a little golden fragment of bachelorhood
remained. There was yet a fertile strip of time wherein to sow
my last handful of the wild oats of youth. So festina lente, my
destined Sylvia, festina lente!
As I once more shouldered my pack and went my way, the character
of the country side began to change, and, from a semi- pastoral
heathiness and furziness, took on a wildness of aspect, which if
indeed melodramatic was melodrama carried to the point of genius.
It was a scene for which the nineteenth century has no worthy
use. It finds ignoble occupation as a gaping-ground for the
vacuous tourist,--somewhat as Heine might have imagined Pan
carrying the gentleman's luggage from the coach to the hotel. It
suffers teetotal picnic-parties to encamp amid its savage
hollows, and it humbly allows itself to be painted by the worst
artists. Like a lion in a menagerie, it is a survival of the
extinct chaos entrapped and exhibited amid the smug parks and
well-rolled downs of England.
I came upon it by a winding ledge of road, which clung to the
bare side of the hill like the battlements of some huge castle.
Some two hundred feet below, a brawling upland stream stood for
the moat, and for the enemy there was on the opposite side of the
valley a great green company of trees, settled like a cloud slope
upon slope, making all haste to cross the river and ascend the
heights where I stood. Some intrepid larches waved green pennons
in the very midst of the turbulent water, here and there a
veteran lay with his many-summered head abased in the rocky
course of the stream, and here was a young foolhardy beech that
had climbed within a dozen yards of the rampart. All was wild
and solitary, and one might have declared it a scene untrodden by
the foot of man, but for the telegraph posts and small piles of
broken "macadam" at punctual intervals, and the ginger-beer
bottles and paper bags of local confectioners that lent an air of
civilisation to the road.
It was a place to quote Alastor in, and nothing but a bad memory
prevented my affrighting the oaks and rills with declamation. As
it was, I could only recall the lines
"The Poet wandering on, through Arabie
And Persia, and the wild Carmanian waste,
And o'er the aerial mountains which pour down
Indus and Oxus from their icy caves--"
and that other passage beginning
"At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore
He paused--"
This last I mouthed, loving the taste of its thunder; mouthed
thrice, as though it were an incantation,--and, indeed, from what
immediately followed, it might reasonably have seemed so.
"At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore
He paused--"
I mouthed for the fourth time. And lo! advancing to me eagerly
along the causeway seemed the very sprite of Alastor himself!
There was a star upon his forehead, and around his young face
there glowed an aureole of gold and roses--to speak figuratively,
for the star upon his brow was hope, and the gold and roses
encircling his head, a miniature rainbow, were youth and health.
His longish golden hair had no doubt its share in the effect, as
likewise the soft yellow silk tie that fluttered like a flame in
the speed of his going. His blue eyes were tragically fresh and
clear,--as though they had as yet been little used. There were
little wings of haste upon his feet, and he came straight to me,
with the air of the Angel Gabriel about to make his divine
announcement. For a moment I thought that he was an apparition
of prophecy charged to announce the maiden of the Lord for whom I
was seeking. However, his brief flushed question was not of
these things. He desired first to ask the time of day, and
next--here, after a bump to the earth, one's thoughts ballooned
again heavenwards--"had I seen a green copy of Shelley lying
anywhere along the road?"
Nothing so good had happened to me, I replied--but I believed
that I had seen a copy of Alastor! For a moment my meaning was
lost on him; then he flushed and smiled, thanked me and was off
again, saying that he must find his Shelley, as he wouldn't lose
it for the world!
He had presently disappeared as suddenly as he had come, but he
had left me a companion, a radiant reverberant name; and for some
little space the name of Shelley clashed silvery music among the
Its seven letters seemed to hang right across the clouds like the
Seven Stars, an apocalyptic constellation, a veritable sky sign;
and again the name was an angel standing with a silver trumpet,
and again it was a song. The heavens opened, and across the blue
rift it hung in a glory of celestial fire, while from behind and
above the clouds came a warbling as of innumerable larks.
How strange was this miracle of fame, I pondered, this strange
apotheosis by which a mere private name becomes a public symbol!
Shelley was once a private person whose name had no more
universal meaning than my own, and so were Byron and Cromwell and
Shakespeare; yet now their names are facts as stubborn as the
Rocky Mountains, or the National Gallery, or the circulation of
the blood. From their original inch or so of private handwriting
they have spread and spread out across the world, and now whole
generations of men find intellectual accommodation within
them,--drinking fountains and other public institutions are
erected upon them; yea, Carlyle has become a Chelsea
swimming-bath, and "Highland Mary" is sold for whiskey, while
Mr. Gladstone is to be met everywhere in the form of a bag.
Does Mr. Gladstone, I wonder, instruct his valet "to pack his
Gladstone"? How strange it must seem! Try it yourself some day
and its effect on your servant. Ask him, for example, to "pack
your ----" and see how he'll stare.
Coming nearer and nearer to earth, I wondered if Colonel Boycott
ever uses the word "boycott," and how strange it must have
seemed to the late MacAdam to walk for miles and miles upon his
own name, like a carpet spread out before him.
Then I once more rebounded heavenwards, at the vision of the
eager dreamy lad whose question had set going all this odd
clockwork of association. He wouldn't lose his Shelley for the
world! How like twenty! And how many things that he wouldn't
lose for the world will he have to give up before he is thirty, I
reflected sententiously,--give up at last, maybe, with a stony
indifference, as men on a sinking ship take no thought of the
gold and specie in the hold.
And then, all of a sudden, a little way up the ferny grassy
hillside, I caught sight of the end of a book half hidden among
the ferns. I climbed up to it. Of course it was that very green
Shelley which the young stranger wouldn't lose for the world.
Picking up the book, I opened it involuntarily at the titlepage,
and then--I resisted a great temptation! I shut it again. A
little flowery plot of girl's handwriting had caught my eye, and
a girl's pretty name. When Love and Beauty meet, it is hard not
to play the eavesdropper, and it was easy to guess that Love and
Beauty met upon that page. St. Anthony had no harder fight with
the ladies he was unpolite enough to call demons, than I in
resisting the temptation to take another look at that pen-and-ink
love making. Now, as I look back, I think it was sheer
priggishness to resist so human and yet so reverent an impulse.
There is nothing sacred from reverence, and love's lovers have a
right to regard themselves as the confidants of lovers, whenever
they may chance to surprise either them or their letters.
While I was still hesitating, and wondering how I could get the
book conveyed to its romantic owner, suddenly a figure turned the
corner of the road, and there was Alastor coming back again. I
slipped the book, in distracted search for which he was evidently
still engaged, under the ferns, and, leisurely lighting a pipe,
prepared to tease him. He was presently within hail, and,
looking up, caught sight of me.
"Have you found your Shelley yet?" I called down to him, as he
stood a moment in the road.
He shook his head. No! But he meant to find it, if he had to
hunt every square foot of the valley inch by inch.
Wouldn't any other book do, I asked him. Would he take a
Boccaccio, or a "Golden Ass," or a "Tom Jones," in
exchange?--for of such consisted my knapsack library. He laughed
a negative, and it seemed a shame to tease him.
"It is not so much the book itself," he said.
"But the giver?" I suggested.
"Of course," he blushingly replied.
"Well, suppose I have found it?" I continued.
"You don't mean it--"
"But suppose I have--I'm only supposing-- will you give me the
pleasure of your company at dinner at the next inn and tell me
its story?"
"Indeed I will, gladly," he replied.
"Well, then," I said, "catch, for here it is!"
The joy with which he recovered it was pretty to behold, and the
eagerness with which he ran through the leaves, to see that the
violets and the primroses and a spray of meadowsweet, young
love's bookmarkers, were all in their right places, touched my
He could not thank me enough; and as we stepped out to the inn,
some three or four miles on the road, I elicited something of his
He was a clerk in a city office, he said, but his dreams were not
commercial. His one dream was to be a great poet, or a great
writer of some sort, and this was one of his holidays. As I
looked at his sensitive young face, unmarred by pleasure and
unscathed by sorrow, bathed daily, I surmised, in the may-dew of
high philosophies--ah, so high! washed from within by a constant
radiancy of pure thoughts, and from without by a constant basking
in the shine of every beautiful and noble and tender thing,--I
thought it not unlikely that he might fulfil his dream.
But, alas! as he talked on, with lighted face and chin in the
air, how cruelly I realised how little I had fulfilled mine.
And how hard it was to talk to him, without crushing some flower
of his fancy or casting doubt upon his dreams. Oh, the gulf
between twenty and thirty! I had never quite comprehended it
before. And how inexpressibly sad it was to hear him prattling
on of the ideal life, of socialism, of Walt Whitman and what
not,--all the dear old quackeries,--while I was already settling
down comfortably to a conservative middle age. He had no hope
that had not long been my despair, no aversion that I had not
accepted among the more or less comfortable conditions of the
universe. He was all for nature and liberty, whereas I had now
come to realise the charm of the artificial, and the social value
of constraint.
"Young man," I cried in my heart, "what shall I do to inherit
Eternal Youth?"
The gulf between us was further revealed when, at length coming
to our inn, we sat down to dinner. To me it seemed the most
natural thing in the world to call for the wine-list and consult
his choice of wine; but, will you believe me, he asked to be
allowed to drink water! And when he quoted the dear old stock
nonsense out of Thoreau about being able to get intoxicated on a
glass of water, I could have laughed and cried at the same time.
"Happy Boy!" I cried, "still able to turn water into wine by
the divine power of your youth"; and then, turning to the
waiter, I ordered a bottle of No. 37.
"Wine is the only youth granted to middle age," I
continued,--"in vino juventus, one might say; and may you, my
dear young friend, long remain so proudly independent of that
great Elixir--though I confess that I have met no few young men
under thirty who have been excellent critics of the wine-list."
As the water warmed him, he began to expand into further
confidence, and then he told me the story of his Shelley, if a
story it can be called. For, of course, it was simple enough,
and the reader has long since guessed that the reason why he
wouldn't lose his Shelley for the world was the usual simple
I listened to his rhapsodies of HER and HER and HER with an
aching heart. How good it was to be young! No wonder men had so
desperately sought the secret of Eternal Youth! Who would not be
young for ever, for such dreams and such an appetite?
Here of course was the very heaven-sent confidant for such an
enterprise as mine. I told him all about my whim, just for the
pleasure of watching his face light up with youth's generous
worship of all such fantastic nonsense. You should have seen his
enthusiasm and heard all the things he said. Why, to encounter
such a whimsical fellow as myself in this unimaginative age was
like meeting a fairy prince, or coming unexpectedly upon Don
Quixote attacking the windmill. I offered him the post of Sancho
Panza; and indeed what would he not give, he said, to leave all
and follow me! But then I reminded him that he had already found
his Golden Girl.
"Of course, I forgot," he said, with I'm afraid something of a
sigh. For you see he was barely twenty, and to have met your
ideal so early in life is apt to rob the remainder of the journey
of something of its zest.
I asked him to give me his idea of what the Blessed Maid should
be, to which he replied, with a smile, that he could not do
better than describe Her, which he did for the sixth time. It
was, as I had foreseen, the picture of a Saint, a Goddess, a
Dream, very lovely and pure and touching; but it was not a woman,
and it was a woman I was in search of, with all her imperfections
on her head. I suppose no boy of twenty really loves a WOMEN,
but loves only his etherealised extract of woman, entirely free
from earthy adulteration. I noticed the words "pure" and
"natural" in constant use by my young friend. Some lines went
through my head, but I forbore to quote them:--
Alas I your so called purity
Is merely immaturity,
And woman's nature plays its part
Sincerely but in woman's art.
But I couldn't resist asking him, out of sheer waggery, whether
he didn't think a touch of powder, and even, very judiciously
applied, a touch of rouge, was an improvement to woman. His
answer went to my heart.
"Paint--a WOMAN!" he exclaimed.
It was as though you had said--paint an angel!
I could bear no more of it. The gulf yawned shiveringly wide at
remarks like that; so, with the privilege of an elder, I declared
it time for bed, and yawned off to my room.
Next morning we bade good-bye, and went our several ways. As we
parted, he handed me a letter which I was not to open till I was
well on my journey. We waved good-bye to each other till the
turnings of the road made parting final, and then, sitting down
by the roadside, I opened the letter. It proved to be not a
letter, but a poem, which he had evidently written after I had
left him for bed. It was entitled, with twenty's love for a tag
of Latin, Ad Puellam Auream, and it ran thus:--
The Golden Girl in every place
Hides and reveals her lovely face;
Her neither skill nor strength may find--
'T is only loving moves her mind.
If but a pretty face you seek,
You'll find one any day or week;
But if you look with deeper eyes,
And seek her lovely, pure, and wise,
Then must you wear the pilgrim's shoon
For many a weary, wandering moon.
Only the pure in heart may see
That lily of all purity,
Only in clean unsullied thought
The image of her face is caught,
And only he her love may hold
Who buys her with the spirit's gold.
Thus only shall you find your pearl,
O seeker of the Golden Girl!
She trod but now the grassy way,
A vision of eternal May.
The devil take his impudence! "Only the pure in heart,"
"clean, unsullied thought." How like the cheek of twenty! And
all the same how true! Dear lad, how true! Certainly, the child
is father to the man. Dirige nos! O sage of the Golden
As I meditatively folded up the pretty bit of writing, I made a
resolution; but it was one of such importance that not only is
another chapter needed to do it honour, but it may well
inaugurate another book of this strange uneventful history.
Yes, I said to myself, the lad is quite right; I will follow his
advice. I'm afraid I was in danger of developing into a sad
cynic, with a taste for the humour of this world. What should
have been a lofty high-souled pilgrimage, only less
transcendental than that of the Holy Grail itself, has so far
failed, no doubt, because I have undertaken it too much in the
wanton spirit of a troubadour.
I will grow young and serious again. Yes, why not? I will take a
vow of Youth. One's age is entirely a matter of the imagination.
From this moment I am no longer thirty. Thirty falls from me
like a hideous dream. My back straightens again at the thought;
my silvering hair blackens once more; my eyes, a few moments ago
lacklustre and sunken, grow bright and full again, and the whites
are clear as the finest porcelain. Veni, veni, Mephistophile!
your Faust is young again,--young, young, and, with a boy's
heart, open once more to all the influences of the mighty world.
I bring down my stick upon the ground with a mighty ring of
resolution, and the miracle is done. Who would take me for
thirty now? From this moment I abjure pessimism and cynicism in
all their forms, put from my mind all considerations of the
complexities of human life, unravel all by a triumphant optimism
which no statistics can abash or criticism dishearten. I
likewise undertake to divest myself entirely of any sense of
humour that may have developed within me during the baneful
experiences of the last ten years, and, in short, will consent
for the future to be nothing that is not perfectly perfect and
pure. These, I take it, are the fundamental conditions of being
young again.
And as for the Quest, it shall forthwith be undertaken in an
entirely serious and high-minded spirit. From this moment I am
on the look-out for a really transcendental attachment. No
"bright-eyed bar-maids," however "refined," need apply.
Ladies who are prodigal of their white petticoats are no longer
fit company for me. Indeed I shall no longer look upon a
petticoat, unless I am able first entirely to spiritualise it.
It must first be disinfected of every earthly thought.
Yes, I am once more a young man, sound in wind and limb, with not
a tooth or an illusion lost, my mind tabula rasa, my heart to be
had for the asking. Oh, come, ye merry, merry maidens! The
fairy prince is on the fairy road.
Incipit vita nuova!
So in the lovely rapture of a new-born resolution--and is there
any rapture like it? --nature has no more intoxicating illusion
than that of turning over a new leaf, or beginning a new life
from to-day--I sprang along the road with a carolling heart;
quite forgetting that Apuleius and Fielding and Boccaccio were
still in my knapsack--not to speak of the petticoat.
Apuleius and Fielding and Boccaccio, bad companions for a
petticoat, I'm afraid, bad companions too for so young a man as
I had now become. However, as I say, I had for the time
forgotten that pagan company, or, in my puritanic zeal, I might
have thrown them all to be washed clean in the upland stream,
whose pure waters one might fancy were fragrant from their sunny
day among the ferns and the heather, fragrant to the eye, indeed,
if one may so speak, with the shaken meal of the meadowsweet.
This stream had been the good angel of my thoughts all the day,
keeping them ever moving and ever fresh, cleansing and burnishing
them, quite an open-air laundry of the mind.
We were both making for the same little town, it appeared, and as
the sun was setting we reached it together. I entered the town
over the bridge, and the stream under it, washing the walls of
the high-piled, many-gabled old inn where I proposed to pass the
night. I should hear it still rippling on with its gentle
harpsichord tinkle, as I stretched myself down among the cool
lavendered sheets, and little by little let slip the multifarious
The inn windows beamed cheerily, a home of ruddy rest. Having
ordered my dinner and found my room, I threw down my knapsack and
then came out again to smoke an ante-prandial pipe, listen to the
evensong of the stream, and think great thoughts. The stream was
still there, and singing the same sweet old song. You could hear
it long after it was out of sight, in the gathering darkness,
like an old nurse humming lullabies in the twilight.
The dinner was good, the wine was old, and oh! the rest was
sweet! Nothing fills one with so exquisite a weariness as a day
spent in good resolutions and great thoughts. There is something
perilously sensuous in the relaxation of one's muscles, both of
mind and body, after a day thus well spent.
Lighting up my pipe once more, and drawing to the fire, I
suddenly realised a sense of loneliness. Of course, I was lonely
for a book,--Apuleius or Fielding or Boccaccio!
An hour ago they had seemed dangerous companions for so lofty a
mood; but now, under the gentle influences of dinner, the mood
had not indeed changed--but mellowed. So to say, we would split
the difference between the ideal and the human, and be, say,
It was in this genial attitude of mind that I strode up the
quaint circular staircase to fetch Fielding from my room, and,
shade of Tom Jones! what should be leaving my room, as I advanced
to enter it, but--well, it's no use, resolutions are all very
well, but facts are facts, especially when they're natural, and
here was I face to face with the most natural little natural
fact, and withal the most charming and merry-eyed, that-- well,
in short, as I came to enter my room I was confronted by the
roundest, ruddiest little chambermaid ever created for the trial
of mortal frailty.
And the worst of it was that her merry eye was in partnership
with a merry tongue. Indeed, for some unexplained reason, she was
bubbling over with congested laughter, the reason for which mere
embarrassment set one inquiring. At last, between little gushes
of laughter which shook her plump shoulders in a way that aroused
wistful memories of Hebe, she archly asked me, with mock
solemnity, if I should need a lady's maid.
"Certainly," I replied with inane promptitude, for I had no
notion of her drift; but then she ran off in a scurry of
laughter, and still puzzled I turned into my room, TO FIND,
neatly hung over the end of the bed, nothing less than the dainty
petticoat and silk stockings of Sylvia Joy.
You can imagine the colour of my cheeks at the discovery. No
doubt I was already the laughing-stock of the whole inn. What
folly! What a young vixen! Oh, what's to be done? Pay my bill
and sneak off at once to the next town; but how pass through the
grinning line of boots, and waiter, and chambermaid, and
ironically respectful landlord and landlady, in the hall . . .
But while I thus deliberated, something soft pressed in at the
door; and, making a sudden dart, I had the little baggage who had
brought about my dilemma a prisoner in my arms.
I stayed some days at this charming old inn, for Amaryllis--oh,
yes, you may be sure her name was Amaryllis--had not betrayed me;
and indeed she may have some share in my retrospect of the inn as
one of the most delightful which I encountered anywhere in my
journeying. Would you like to know its name? Well, I know it as
The Singing Stream. If you can find it under that name, you are
welcome. And should you chance to be put into bedroom No. 26,
you can think of me, and how I used to lie awake, listening to
the stream rippling beneath the window, with its gentle
harpsichord tinkle, and little by little letting slip the
multifarious world.
And if anything about this chapter should seem to contradict the
high ideals of the chapter preceding it, I can only say that,
though the episode should not rigidly fulfil the conditions of
the transcendental, nothing could have been more characteristic
of that early youth to which I had vowed myself. Indeed, I
congratulated myself, as I looked my last at the sign of The
Singing Stream, that this had been quite in my early manner.
Though I had said good-bye to the inn, the stream and I did not
part company at the inn-door, but continued for the best part of
a morning to be fellow-travellers. Indeed, having led me to one
pleasant adventure, its purpose, I afterwards realised, was to
lead me to another, and then to go about its own bright business.
I don't think either of us had much idea where we were or whither
we were bound. Our guiding principle seemed to be to get as much
sunshine as possible, and to find the easiest road. We avoided
dull sandy levels and hard rocky places, with the same
instinctive dexterity. We gloomed together through dark dingles,
and came out on sunny reaches with the same gilded magnificence.
There are days when every stream is Pactolus and every man is
Croesus, and thanks to that first and greatest of all alchemists,
the sun, the morning I write of was a morning when to breathe was
gold and to see was silver. And to breathe and see was all one
asked. It was the first of May, and the world shone like a great
illuminated letter with which that father of artists, the sun,
was making splendid his missal of the seasons.
The month of May was ever his tour de force. Each year he has
strained and stimulated his art to surpass himself, seeking ever
a finer and a brighter gold, a more celestial azure. Never had
his gold been so golden, his azure so dazzlingly clear and deep
as on this particular May morning; while his fancy simply ran
riot in the marginal decorations of woodland and spinney, quaint
embroidered flowers and copses full of exquisitely painted and
wonderfully trained birds of song. It was indeed a day for
nature to be proud of. So seductive was the sunshine that even
the shy trout leapt at noonday, eager apparently to change his
silver for gold.
O silver fish in the silver stream,
O golden fish in the golden gleam,
Tell me, tell me, tell me true,
Shall I find my girl if I follow you?
I suppose the reader never makes nonsense rhymes from sheer
gladness of heart,--nursery doggerel to keep time with the
rippling of the stream, or the dancing of the sun, or the beating
of his heart; the gibberish of delight. As I hummed this
nonsense, a trout at least three pounds in weight, whom you would
know again anywhere, leapt a yard out of the water, and I took
it, in my absurd, sun-soaked heart, as a good omen, as though he
had said, "Follow and see."
I had no will but to follow, no desire but to see. All the same,
though I affected to take him seriously, I had little suspicion
how much that trout was to mean to me,--yes, within the course
of a very few moments. Indeed, I had hardly strolled on for
another quarter of a mile, when I was suddenly aroused from
wool-gathering by his loud cries for help. Looking up, I saw him
flashing desperately in mid-air, a lovely foot of writhing
silver. In another second he was swung through the sunlight, and
laid out breathing hard in a death-bed of buttercups and daisies.
There was not a moment to be lost, if I were to repay the debt of
gratitude which in a flash I had seen that I owed him.
"Madam," I said, breathlessly springing forward, as a heavenly
being was coldly tearing the hook from the gills of the unlucky
trout, "though I am a stranger, will you do me a great favour?
It is a matter of life or death . . ."
She looked up at me with some surprise, but with a fine fearless
glance, and almost immediately said, "Certainly, what can I
"Spare the life of that trout--"
"It is a singular request," she replied, "and one," she
smiled, "self-sacrificing indeed for an angler to grant, for he
weighs at least three pounds. However, since he seems a friend
of yours, here goes--" And with the gladdest, most grateful
sound in the world, the happy smack of a fish back home again in
the water, after an appalling three minutes spent on land, that
prophetic trout was once more an active unit in God's populous
"Now that's good of you," I said, with thankful eyes, "and
shows a kind heart."
"And kind hearts, they say, are more than coronets," she
replied merrily, indulging in that derisive quotation which seems
to be the final reward of the greatest poets.
For a moment there was a silence, during which I confess to
wondering what I should say next. However, she supplied my
"But of course," she said, "you owe it to me, after this
touching display of humanitarianism, to entertain me with your
reason for interposing between me and my just trout. Was it one
of those wonderful talking fishes out of the Arabian Nights, or
are you merely an angler yourself, and did you begrudge such a
record catch to a girl?"
"I see," I replied, "that you will understand me. That trout
was, so to speak, out of the Arabian Nights. Only five minutes
ago it was a May-day madness of mine to think that he leaped out
of the water and gave me a highly important message. So I begged
his life from a mere fancy. It was just a whim, which I trust
you will excuse."
"A whim! So you are a follower of the great god Whim," she
replied, with somewhat of an eager interest in her voice. "How
nice it is to meet a fellow-worshipper!"
"Do women ever have whims?" I respectfully asked.
"I don't know about other women," she replied. "Indeed, I'm
afraid I'm unnatural enough to take no interest in them at all.
But, as for me,--well, what nonsense! Tell me some more about
the trout. What was the wonderful message he seemed to give you?
Or perhaps I oughtn't to ask?"
"I'm afraid," I said, "it would hardly translate into
anything approaching common-sense."
"Did I ask for common-sense?" she retorted. It was true, she
hadn't. But then I couldn't, with any respect for her, tell
her the trout's message, or, with any respect for myself, recall
those atrocious doggerel lines. In my dilemma, I caught sight of
a pretty book lying near her fishing-basket, and diverted the
talk by venturing to ask its name.
" 'T is of Aucassin and Nicolete," she replied, with something
in her voice which seemed to imply that the tender old story
would be familiar to me. My memory served me for once gallantly.
I answered by humming half to myself the lines from the
"Sweet the song, the story sweet,
There is no man hearkens it,
No man living 'neath the sun,
So outwearied, so foredone,
Sick and woful, worn and sad,
But is healed, but is glad
'T is so sweet."
"How charming of you to know it!" she laughed. "You are the
only man in this county, or the next, or the next, who knows it,
I'm sure."
"Are the women of the county more familiar with it?" I replied.
"But tell me about the trout," she once more persisted.
At the same moment, however, there came from a little distance
the musical tinkle of a bell that sounded like silver, a
fairy-like and almost startling sound.
"It is my lunch," she explained. "I'm a worshipper of the
great god Whim too, and close by here I have a little
summer-house, full of books and fishing-lines and other
childishness, where, when my whim is to be lonely, I come and
play at solitude. If you'll be content with rustic fare, and
promise to be amusing, it would be very pleasant if you'd join
O! most prophetic and agreeable trout! Was it not like the old
fairy tales, the you-help-us and we'll-help-you of Psyche and the
It had been the idlest whim for me to save the life of that poor
trout. There was no real pity in it. For two pins, I had been
just as ready to cut it open, to see if by chance it carried in
its belly the golden ring wherewith I was to wed the Golden--
However, such is the gratitude of nature to man, that this little
thoughtless act of kindness had brought me face to face with
--was it the Golden Girl?
But I have all this time left the reader without any formal
descriptive introduction to this whimsical young lady angler.
Not without reason, for, like any really charming personality,
she was very difficult to picture. Paint a woman! as our young
friend Alastor said.
Faces that fall into types you can describe, or at all events
label in such a way that the reader can identify them; but those
faces that consist mainly of spiritual effect and physical bloom,
that change with everything they look upon, the light in which
ebbs and flows with every changing tide of the soul,--these you
have to love to know, and to worship to portray.
Now the face of Nicolete, as I learnt in time to call her, was
just soul and bloom, perhaps mainly bloom. I never noticed
whether she had any other features except her eyes. I suppose
she had a nose; a little lace pocket-handkerchief I have by me at
the moment is almost too small to be evidence on that important
As I walked by her side that May morning, I was only conscious of
her voice and her exquisite girlhood; for though she talked with
the APLOMB of a woman of the world, a passionate candour and
simple ardour in her manner would have betrayed her, had her face
not plainly declared her the incarnation of twenty. But if she
were twenty years young, she was equally twenty years OLD; and
twenty years old, in some respects, is the greatest age attained
to by man or woman. In this she rather differed from Alastor, of
whom otherwise she was the female counterpart. Her talk, and
something rather in her voice than her talk, soon revealed her as
a curious mixture of youth and age, of dreamer and desillusionee.
One soon realised that she was too young, was hoping too much
from life, to spend one's days with. Yet she had just
sufficiently that touch of languor which puts one at one's ease,
though indeed it was rather the languor of waiting for what was
going to happen than the weariness of experience gone by. She
was weary, not because of the past, but because the fairy theatre
of life still kept its curtain down, and forced her to play over
and over again the impatient overture of her dreams.
I have no doubt that it was largely nervousness that kept the
mysterious playwright so long fumbling behind the scenes, for it
was obvious that it would be no ordinary sort of play, no
every-day domestic drama, that would satisfy this young lady, to
whom life had given, by way of prologue, the inestimable blessing
of wealth, and the privilege, as a matter of course, of choosing
as she would among the grooms (that is, the bride-grooms) of the
romantic British aristocracy.
She had made youth's common mistake of beginning life with books,
which can only be used without danger by those who are in a
position to test their statements. Youth naturally believes
everything that is told it, especially in books.
Now, books are simply professional liars about life, and the
books that are best worth reading are those which lie the most
beautifully. Yet, in fairness, we must add that they are liars,
not with intent to mislead, but merely with the tenderest purpose
to console. They are the good Samaritans that find us robbed of
all our dreams by the roadside of life, bleeding and weeping and
desolate; and such is their skill and wealth and goodness of
heart, that they not only heal up our wounds, but restore to us
the lost property of our dreams, on one condition,--that we
never travel with them again in the daylight.
A library is a better world, built by the brains and hearts of
poets and dreamers, as a refuge from the real world outside; and
in it alone is to be found the land of milk and honey which it
"Milk and honey" would have been an appropriate inscription for
the delicious little library which parents who, I surmised, doted
on Nicolete in vain, had allowed her to build in a wild woodland
corner of her ancestral park, half a mile away from the great
house, where, for all its corridors and galleries, she could
never feel, at all events, spiritually alone. All that was most
sugared and musical and generally delusive in the old library of
her fathers had been brought out to this little woodland library,
and to that nucleus of old leather-bound poets and romancers,
long since dead, yet as alive and singing on their shelves as any
bird on the sunny boughs outside, my young lady's private purse
had added all that was most sugared and musical and generally
delusive in the vellum bound Japanese-paper literature of our own
luxurious day. Nor were poets and romancers from over sea--in
their seeming simple paper covers, but with, oh, such complicated
and subtle insides!--absent from the court which Nicolete held
here in the greenwood. Never was such a nest of singing-birds.
All day long, to the ear of the spirit, there was in this little
library a sound of harping and singing and the telling of
tales,--songs and tales of a world that never was, yet shall ever
be. Here day by day Nicolete fed her young soul on the
nightingale's-tongues of literature, and put down her book only
to listen to the nightingale's- tongues outside. Yea, sun, moon,
and stars were all in the conspiracy to lie to her of the
loveliness of the world and the good intentions of life. And
now, thus unexpectedly, I found myself joining the nefarious
conspiracy. Ah, well! was I not twenty myself, and full of
Thus it was that we lunched together amid the books and birds, in
an exquisite solitude a deux; for the ringer of the silver bell
had disappeared, having left a dainty meal in readiness--for two.
"You see you were expected," said Nicolete, with her pretty
laugh. "I dreamed I should have a visitor to-day, and told
Susan to lay the lunch for two. You mustn't be surprised at
that," she added mischievously; "it has often happened before.
I dream that dream every other night, and Susan lays for two
every day. She knows my whims,--knows that the extra knife and
fork are for the fairy knight that may turn up any afternoon, as
I tell her--"
"To find the sleepless princess," I added, thinking at the same
time one of those irrelevant asides that will go through the
brain of thirty, that the woman who would get her share of kisses
nowadays must neither slumber nor sleep.
A certain great poet, I think it was Byron, objected to seeing
women in the act of eating. He thought their eating should be
done in private. What a curiously perverse opinion! For surely
woman never shows to better advantage than in the dainty
exercises of a dainty repast, and there is nothing more thrilling
to man than a meal alone with a woman he loves or is about to
love. Perhaps, deep down, the reason is that there still
vibrates in the masculine blood the thrilling surprise of the
moment when man first realised that the angel woman was built
upon the same carnivorous principles as his grosser self.
That is one of the first heart-beating surprises that come upon
the boy Columbus, as he sets out to discover the New World of
woman; and indeed his surprise has not seldom deepened into
admiration, as he has found that not only does woman eat, but
frequently eats a lot.
This privilege of seeing woman eat is the earliest granted of
those delicate animal intimacies, the fuller and fuller confiding
of which plays not the least important part, and ever such a
sweet one, even in a highly transcendental affection. It is this
gradual humanising of the divine female that brings about the
spiritualising of the unregenerate male.
In the earliest stages of love the services are small that we are
privileged to do for the loved one. But if we are allowed to sit
at meat with her,--ever a royal condescension,--it is ours at
least to pass her the salt, to see that she is never kept waiting
a moment for the mustard or the pepper, to cut the bread for her
with geometrical precision, and to lean as near her warm shoulder
as we dare to pour out for her the sacred wine.
Yes! for sure I was twenty again, for the performance of these
simple services for Nicolete gave me a thrill of pure boyish
pleasure such as I had never expected to feel again. And did she
not make a knight of me by gently asking if I would be so kind as
to carve the chicken, and how she laughed quite disproportionally
at my school-boy story of the man who, being asked to carve a
pigeon, said he thought they had better send for a wood-carver,
as it seemed to be a wood pigeon.
And while we ate and drank and laughed and chatted, the books
around us were weaving their spells. Even before the invention
of printing books were "love's purveyors." Was it not a book
that sent Paolo and Francesca for ever wandering on that stormy
wind of passion and of death? And nowadays the part played by
books in human drama is greater than we perhaps realise. Apart
from their serious influence as determining destinies of the
character, what endless opportunities they afford to lovers, who
perhaps are denied all other meeting-places than may be found on
the tell-tale pages of a marked volume. The method is so easy
and so unsuspect. You have only to put faint pencil-marks
against the tenderest passages in your favourite new poet, and
lend the volume to Her, and She has only to leave here and there
the dropped violet of a timid confirmatory initial, for you to
know your fate. And what a touchstone books thus become! Indeed
they simplify love- making, from every point of view. With books
so inexpensive and accessible to all as they are to-day, no one
need run any risks of marrying the wrong woman. He has only to
put her through an unconscious examination by getting her to read
and mark a few of his favourite authors, and he is thus in
possession of the master clues of her character. With a list of
her month's reading and a photograph, a man ought to be able to
make up his mind about any given woman, even though he has never
spoken to her. "Name your favourite writer" should be one of
the first questions in the Engagement Catechism.
There is, indeed, no such short cut to knowledge of each other as
a talk about books. One short afternoon is enough for any two
book-lovers, though they may have met for the first time in the
morning, to make up their minds whether or not they have been
born for each other. If you are agreed, say, in admiring
Meredith, Hardy, Omar Khayyam, and Maeterlinck,--to take four
particularly test-authors,--there is nothing to prevent your
marrying at once. Indeed, a love for any one of these
significant writers will be enough, not to speak of an admiration
for "Aucassin and Nicolete."
Now, Nicolete and I soon found that we had all these and many
another writer in common, and before our lunch was ended we were
nearer to each other than many old friends. The heart does not
more love the heart that loves it than the brain loves the brain
that comprehends it; and, whatever else was to befall us,
Nicolete and I were already in love with each other's brains.
Whether or not the malady would spread till it reached the heart
is the secret of some future chapter.
As this is not a realistic novel, I do not hold myself bound, as
I have said before, to account reasonably for everything that is
done--least of all, said--within its pages. I simply say, So it
happened, or So it is, and expect the reader to take my word. If
he be uncivil enough to doubt it, we may as well stop playing
this game of fancy. It is one of the first conditions of
enjoying a book, as it is of all successful hypnotism, that the
reader surrenders up his will to the writer, who, of course,
guarantees to return it to him at the close of the volume. If
you say that no young lady would have behaved as I have presently
to relate of Nicolete, that no parents were ever so accommodating
in the world of reality, I reply,--No doubt you are right, but
none the less what I have to tell is true and really did happen,
for all that. And not only did it happen, but to the whimsically
minded, to the true children of fancy, it will seem the most
natural thing in the world. No doubt they will wonder why I have
made such a preamble about it, as indeed, now I think of it, so
do I.
Again I claim exemption in this wandering history from all such
descriptive drudgery upon second, third, and fourth dramatis
personsonae as your thorough-going novelist must undertake with a
good grace. Like a host and hostess at a reception, the poor
novelist has to pretend to be interested in everybody,--in the
dull as in the brilliant, in the bore as in the beauty. I'm
afraid I should never do as a novelist, for I should waste all my
time with the heroine; whereas the true novelist is expected to
pay as much attention to the heroine's parents as though he were
a suitor for her hand. Indeed, there is no relative of hero or
heroine too humble or stupid for such a novelist as the great
Balzac. He will invite the dullest of them to stay with him for
quite prolonged visits, and without a murmur set apart a suite of
chapters for their accommodation. I'm not sure that the
humanity of the reader in these cases is of such comprehensive
sympathy as the novelist's, and it may well be that the novelist
undertakes all such hard labour under a misapprehension of the
desires of the reader, who, as a rule, I fancy, is as anxious to
join the ladies as the novelist himself. Indeed, I believe that
there is an opportunity for a new form of novel, in which the
novelist, as well as the reader, will skip all the dull people,
and merely indicate such of them as are necessary to the action
by an outline or a symbol, compressing their familiar psychology,
and necessary plot-interferences with the main characters, into
recognised formulae. For the benefit of readers voracious for
everything about everybody, schedule chapters might be provided
by inferior novelists, good at painting say tiresome bourgeois
fathers, gouty uncles and brothers in the army, as sometimes in
great pictures we read that the sheep in the foreground have been
painted by Mr. So-and-so, R.A.
The Major-General and his Lady were taking the waters at
Wiesbaden. That was all I knew of Nicolete's parents, and all I
needed to know; with the exception of one good action,--at her
urgent entreaty they had left Nicolete behind them, with no other
safeguard than a charming young lady companion, whose fitness for
her sacred duties consisted in a temperament hardly less romantic
and whimsical than Nicolete's own. She was too charming to
deserve the name of obstacle; and as there was no other--
But I admit that the cart has got a little in front of the horse,
and I grow suddenly alarmed lest the reader should be suspecting
me of an elopement, or some such romantic vulgarity. If he will
only put any such thoughts from his mind, I promise to proceed
with the story in a brief and business- like manner forthwith.
We are back once more at the close of the last chapter, in
Nicolete's book-bower in the wildwood. It is an hour or two
later, and the afternoon sun is flooding with a searching glory
all the secret places of the woodland. Hidden nooks and corners,
unused to observation, suddenly gleam and blush in effulgent
exposure,--like lovers whom the unexpected turning on of a light
has revealed kissing in the dark,--and are as suddenly, unlike
the lovers, left in their native shade again. It was that rich
afternoon sunlight that loves to flash into teacups as though
they were crocuses, that loves to run a golden finger along the
beautiful wrinkles of old faces and light up the noble hollows of
age-worn eyes; the sunlight that loves to fall with transfiguring
beam on the once dear book we never read, or, with malicious
inquisitiveness, expose to undreamed- of detection the undusted
picture, or the gold- dusted legs of remote chairs, which the
poor housemaid has forgotten.
So in Nicolete's bower it illuminated with strange radiancy the
dainty disorder of deserted lunch, made prisms out of the
wine-glasses, painted the white cloth with wedge-shaped rainbows,
and flooded the cavernous interiors of the half-eaten fowl with a
pathetic yellow torchlight.
Leaving that melancholy relic of carnivorous appetite, it turned
its bold gold gaze on Nicolete. No need to transfigure her! But,
heavens! how grandly her young face took the great kiss of the
god! Then it fell for a tender moment on the jaundiced page of
my old Boccaccio,--a rare edition, which I had taken from my
knapsack to indulge myself with the appreciation of a
connoisseur. Next minute "the unobstructed beam" was shining
right into the knapsack itself, for all the world like one of
those little demon electric lights with which the dentist makes a
momentary treasure-cave of your distended jaws, flashing with
startled stalactite. At the same moment Nicolete's starry eyes
took the same direction; then there broke from her her lovely
laughter, merry and inextinguishable.
Once more, need I say, my petticoat had played me false--or
should I not say true? For there was its luxurious lace border, a
thing for the soft light of the boudoir, or the secret moonlight
of love's permitted eyes, alone to see, shamelessly brazening it
out in this terrible sunlight. Obviously there was but one way
out of the dilemma, to confess my pilgrimage to Nicolete, and
reveal to her all the fanciful absurdity to which, after all, I
owed the sight of her.
"So that is why you pleaded so hard for that poor trout," she
said, when I had finished. "Well, you are a fairy prince
indeed! Now, do you know what the punishment of your nonsense is
to be?"
"Is it very severe and humiliating?" I asked.
"You must judge of that. It is--to take me with you!"
"You,--what do you mean?"
"Yes,--not for good and all, of course, but just for, say, a
fortnight, just a fortnight of rambles and adventures, and then
to deliver me safe home again where you found me--"
"But it is impossible," I almost gasped in surprise. "Of
course you are not serious?"
"I am, really, and you will take me, won't you?" she continued
pleadingly. "You don't know how we women envy you men those
wonderful walking-tours we can only read about in Hazlitt or
Stevenson. We are not allowed to move without a nurse or a
footman. From the day we are born to the day we die, we are
never left a moment to ourselves. But you--you can go out into
the world, the mysterious world, do as you will, go where you
will, wander here, wander there, follow any bye-way that takes
your fancy, put up at old inns, make strange acquaintances, have
all kinds of romantic experiences-- Oh, to be a man for a
fortnight, your younger brother for a fortnight!"
"It is impossible!" I repeated.
"It isn't at all," she persisted, with a fine blush. "If you
will only be nice and kind, and help me to some Rosalind's
clothes. You have only to write to your tailors, or send home for
a spare suit of clothes,--with a little managing yours would just
fit me, you're not so much taller,--and then we could start,
like two comrades, seeking adventures. Oh, how glorious it would
It was in vain that I brought the batteries of common-sense to
bear upon her whim. I raised every possible objection in vain.
I pointed out the practical difficulties. There were her parents.
Weren't they drinking the waters at Wiesbaden, and weren't they
to go on drinking them for another three weeks? My fancy made a
picture of them distended with three weeks' absorption of mineral
springs. Then there was her companion. Nicolete was confident
of her assistance. Then I tried vilifying myself. How could she
run the risk of trusting herself to such intimate companionship
with a man whom she hadn't known half a dozen hours? This she
laughed to scorn. Presently I was silent from sheer lack of
further objections; and need I say that all the while there had
been a traitor impulse in my heart, a weak sweetness urging me on
to accept the pretty chance which the good genius of my
pilgrimage had so evidently put in my way,--for, after all, what
harm could it do? With me Nicolete was, indeed, safe,--that, of
course, I knew,--and safely she should come back home again
after her little frolic. All that was true enough. And how
charming it would be to have such a dainty companion! then the
fun, the fancy, the whim of it all. What was the use of setting
out to seek adventures if I didn't pursue them when found.
Well, the long and short of it was that I agreed to undertake the
adventure, provided that Nicolete could win over the lady whom at
the beginning of the chapter I declared too charming to be
described as an obstacle.
By nine o'clock the following morning the fairy tailors, as
Nicolete called them, were at work on the fairy clothes, and, at
the end of three days, there came by parcel-post a bulky
unromantic-looking brown-paper parcel, which it was my business
to convey to Nicolete under cover of the dark.
I quite realise that this book is written perhaps only just in
time for the motive of these two or three chapters to be
appreciated in its ancient piquancy. Very soon, alas! the sexes
will be robbed of one of the first and most thrilling motives of
romance, the motive of As You Like It, the romance of wearing
each other's clothes. Alas, that every advance of reason should
mean a corresponding retreat of romance! It is only reasonable
that woman, being--have you yet realised the fact?--a biped like
her brothers, should, when she takes to her brothers'
recreations, dress as those recreations demand; and yet the death
of Rosalind is a heavy price to pay for the lady bicyclist. So
soon as the two sexes wear the same clothes, they may as well
wear nothing; the game of sex is up. In this matter, as in
others, we cannot both have our cake and eat it. All romance,
like all temptation, is founded on the Fascination of the
Exception. So soon as the exception becomes, instead of merely
proving, the rule, that particular avenue of romance is closed.
The New Woman of the future will be the woman with the
petticoats, she who shall restore the ancient Eleusinian
mysteries of the silk skirt and the tea-gown.
Happily for me, my acquaintance among the Rosalinds of the
bicycle, at this period of my life, was but slight, and thus no
familiarity with the tweed knickerbocker feminine took off the
edge of my delight on first beholding Nicolete clothed in like
manhood with ourselves, and yet, delicious paradox! looking more
like a woman than ever.
During those three days while the fairy tailors were at work our
friendship had not been idle. Indeed, some part of each day we
had spent diligently learning each other, as travellers to
distant lands across the Channel work hard at phrase-book and
Baedeker the week before their departure. Meanwhile too I had
made the acquaintance of the charming lady Obstacle,--as it
proved so unfair to call her,--and by some process of natural
magnetism we had immediately won each other's hearts, so that on
the moonlight night on which I took the river path with my
brown-paper parcel there was no misgiving in my heart,--nothing
but harping and singing, and blessings on the river that seemed
all silver with the backs of magic trout. As I thought of all I
owed that noble fish, I kneeled by the river's bearded lip, among
the nettles and the meadowsweet, and swore by the inconstant moon
that trout and I were henceforth kinsmen, and that between our
houses should be an eternal amity. The chub and the dace and the
carp, not to speak of that Chinese pirate the pike, might still
look to it, when I came forth armed with rod and line; but for me
and my house the trout is henceforth sacred. By the memory of the
Blessed Saint Izaak, I swore it!
My arrival at Beaucaire was one of great excitement. Nicolete
and the Obstacle were both awaiting me, for the mysteries of
masculine attire were not to be explored alone. The parcel was
snatched quite unceremoniously from my hands, the door shut upon
me, and I laughingly bidden go listen to the nightingale. I was
not long in finding one, nor, being an industrious phrase-maker,
did I waste my time, for, before I was summoned to behold
Nicolete in all her boyhood, I had found occasion and moonlight
to remark to my pocket-book that, Though all the world has heard
the song of the Nightingale to the Rose, only the Nightingale has
heard the answer of the Rose. This I hurriedly hid in my heart
for future conversation, as the pre-arranged tinkle of the silver
bell called me to the rose.
Would, indeed, that I were a nightingale to sing aright the
beauty of that rose with which, think of it, I was to spend a
whole fortnight,--yes, no less than fourteen wonderful days.
The two girls were evidently proud of themselves at having
succeeded so well with the mysterious garments. There were one
or two points on which they needed my guidance, but they were
unimportant; and when at last Nicolete would consent to stand up
straight and let me have a good look at her,--for, poor child!
she was as shy and shrinking as though she had nothing on,--she
made a very pretty young man indeed.
She didn't, I'm afraid, look like a young man of our degenerate
day. She was far too beautiful and distinguished for that.
Besides, her dark curling hair, quite short for a woman, was too
long, and her eyes-- like the eyes of all poets--were women's
eyes. She looked, indeed, like one of those wonderful boys of
the Italian Renaissance, whom you may still see at the National
Gallery, whose beauty is no denial, but rather the stamp of their
slender, supple strength, young painters and sculptors who held
the palette for Leonardo, or wielded the chisel for Michelangelo,
and anon threw both aside to take up sword for Guelf or
Ghibelline in the narrow streets of Florence.
Her knapsack was already packed, and its contents included a
serge skirt "in case of emergencies." Already, she naughtily
reminded me, we possessed a petticoat between us.
The brief remainder of the evening passed in excited chatter and
cigarettes, and in my instructing Nicolete in certain tricks of
masculine deportment. The chief difficulty I hardly like
mentioning; and if the Obstacle had not been present, I certainly
dare not have spoken of it to Nicolete. I mean that she was so
shy about her pretty legs. She couldn't cross them with any
successful nonchalance.
"You must take your legs more for granted, dear Nicolete," I
summoned courage to say. "The nonchalance of the legs is the
first lesson to be learnt in such a masquerade as this. You must
regard them as so much bone and iron, rude skeleton joints and
shins, as though they were the bones of the great elk or other
extinct South Kensington specimen,"--"not," I added in my
heart, "as the velvet and ivory which they are."
We had agreed to start with the sun on the morrow, so as to get
clear of possible Peeping Toms; and when good-nights had been
said, and I was once more swinging towards my inn, it seemed but
an hour or two, as indeed it was, before I heard four o'clock
drowsily announced through my bedroom door, and before I was once
more striding along that river-bank all dew- silvered with last
night's moonlight, the sun rubbing his great eye on the horizon,
the whole world yawning through dainty bed-clothes of mist, and
here and there a copse-full of birds congratulating themselves on
their early rising.
Nicolete was not quite ready, so I had to go listen to the lark,
about whom, alas! I could find nothing to say to my pocket-book,
before Nicolete, armed cap-a-pie with stick and knapsack,
appeared at the door of her chalet.
The Obstacle was there to see us start. She and Nicolete
exchanged many kisses which were hard to bear, and the first
quarter of an hour of our journey was much obstructed by the
farewells of her far-fluttering handkerchief. When at last we
were really alone, I turned and looked at Nicolete striding
manfully at my side, just to make sure that it was really true.
"Well, we're in for it now," I said; "aren't you
"Oh, it's wonderful," she replied; "don't spoil it by
And I didn't; for who could hope to compete with the sun, who
was making the whole dewy world shake with laughter at his
brilliancy, or with the birds, any one of whom was a poet at
least equal to Herrick?
Presently we found ourselves at four crossroads, with a
four-fingered post in the centre. We had agreed to leave our
destination to chance. We read the sign-post.
"Which shall we choose?" I said,--
"Aucassin, true love and fair,
To what land do we repair?"
"Don't you think this one," she replied. "this one?--To the
"Certainly, we couldn't find a prettier place; but it's a long
way," I replied, looking up at the sky, all roses and
pearls,--"a long way from the Morning Star to the Moon."
"All the longer to be free," cried Nicolete, recklessly.
"So be it," I assented. "Allons--to the Moon!"
Two friends of my youth, with whom it would be hopeless to
attempt competition, have described the star-strewn journey to
the moon. It is not for me to essay again where the ingenious M.
Jules Verne and Mr. William Morris have preceded me. Besides, the
journey is nowadays much more usual, and therefore much less
adventurous, than when those revered writers first described it.
In the middle ages a journey to the moon with a woman you loved
was a very perilous matter indeed. Even in the last century the
roads were much beset with danger; but in our own day, like most
journeys, it is accomplished with ease and safety in a few hours.
However, to the latter-day hero, whose appetite for dragons is
not keen, this absence of adventure is perhaps rather pleasurable
than otherwise; and I confess that I enjoyed the days I spent on
foot with Nicolete none the less because they passed in tranquil
uneventfulness,--that is, without events of the violent kind. Of
course, all depends on what you call an event. We were not
waylaid by robbers, we fed and slept unchallenged at inns, we
escaped collision with the police, and we encountered no bodily
dangers of any kind; yet should I not call the journey
uneventful, nor indeed, I think, would Nicolete.
To me it was one prolonged divine event, and, with such daily
intercourse with Nicolete, I never dreamed of craving for any
other excitement. To walk from morning to evening by her side,
to minister to her moods, to provide such entertainment as I
might for her brain, and watch like a father over her physical
needs; to note when she was weary and too proud to show it, and
to pretend to be done up myself; to choose for her the easiest
path, and keep my eyes open for wayside flowers and every country
surprise,--these, and a hundred other atten- tions, kept my heart
and mind in busy service.
To picnic by some lonely stream-side on a few sandwiches, a flask
of claret, and a pennyworth of apples; to talk about the books we
loved; to exchange our hopes and dreams,--we asked nothing better
than this simple fare.
And so a week went by. But, though so little had seemed to
happen, and though our walking record was shamefully modest, yet,
imperceptible as the transition had been, we were, quite
insensibly indeed, and unacknowledged, in a very different
relation to each other than when we had started out from the
Morning Star. In fact, to make no more words about it, I was
head over heels in love with Nicolete, and I think, without
conceit, I may say that Nicolete was rapidly growing rather fond
of me. Apart from anything else, we were such excellent chums.
We got along together as if indeed we had been two brothers,
equable in our tempers and one in our desires.
At last the feeling on my side became so importunate that I could
no longer keep silence.
We were seated together taking tea at a small lonely inn, whose
windows looked out over a romantic little lake, backed by
Salvator Rosa pine-woods. The sun was beginning to grow dreamy,
and the whole world to wear a dangerously sentimental expression.
I forget exactly what it was, but something in our talk had set
us glowing, had touched tender chords of unexpected sympathy, and
involuntarily I stretched out my hand across the corner of the
table and pressed Nicolete's hand as it rested on the cloth. She
did not withdraw it, and our eyes met with a steady gaze of love.
"Nicolete," I said presently, when I could speak, "it is time
for you to be going back home."
"Why?" she asked breathlessly.
"Because," I answered, "I must love you if you stay."
"Would you then bid me go?" she said.
"Nicolete," I said, "don't tempt me. Be a good girl and go
"But supposing I don't want to go home," she said;
"supposing--oh, supposing I love you too? Would you still bid
me go?"
"Yes," I said. "In that case it would be even more
"It is true, it is true, dear Nicolete."
"Then, Aucassin," she replied, almost sternly, in her great
girlish love, "this is true also,--I love you. I have never
loved, shall never love, any man but you!"
There were no more words spoken between us for a full hour that
I knew deep down in my heart that it couldn't last, yet how deny
myself these roses, while the opportunity of gathering them was
mine!--the more so, as I believed it would do no harm to
Nicolete. At all events, a day or two more or less of moonshine
would make no matter either way. And so all next day we walked
hand in hand through Paradise.
It has been said by them of old time, and our fathers have told
us, that the kiss of first love, the first kiss of the first
woman we love, is beyond all kisses sweet; and true it is. But
true is it also that no less sweet is the first kiss of the last
woman we love.
Putting my faith in old saws, as a young man will, I had never
dreamed to know again a bliss so divinely passionate and pure as
came to me with every glance of Nicolete's sweet eyes, with every
simple pressure of her hand; and the joy that was mine when
sometimes, stopping on our way, we would press together our lips
ever so gravely and tenderly, seems too holy even to speak of.
The holy angels could not have loved Nicolete with a purer love,
a love freer from taint of any earthly thought, than I, a man of
thirty, blase, and fed from my youth upon the honeycomb of woman.
It was curious that the first difficulty of our pilgrimage should
befall us the very next day. Coming towards nightfall to a small
inn in a lonely unpopulated countryside, we found that the only
accommodation the inn afforded was one double-bedded room, and
there was no other inn for at least ten miles. I think I was
more troubled than Nicolete. When, after interviewing the
landlady, I came and told her of the dilemma, where she sat in
the little parlour wearied out with the day's walk, she blushed,
it is true, but seemed little put about. Indeed, she laughed,
and said it was rather fun, "like something out of Sterne,"
--of such comfort is a literary reference in all seasons and
circumstances,--and then she added, with a sweet look that sent
the blood rioting about my heart, "It won't matter so much, will
it, love, NOW?"
There proved nothing for it but to accept the situation, and we
made the arrangement that Nicolete was to slip off to bed first,
and then put out the light and go to sleep. However, when I
followed her, having sat up as long as the landlady's patience
would endure, I found that, though she had blown out the candle,
she had forgotten to put out the moon, which shone as though it
were St. Agnes' Eve across half the room.
I stole in very shyly, kept my eyes sternly from Nicolete's white
bed, though, as I couldn't shut my ears, the sound of her
breathing came to me with indescribable sweetness. After I had
lain among the sheets some five or ten minutes, I was suddenly
startled by a little voice within the room saying,--
"I'm not asleep."
"Well, you should be, naughty child. Now shut your eyes and go
to sleep,--and fair dreams and sweet repose," I replied.
"Won't you give me one little good-night kiss?"
"I gave you one downstairs."
"Is it very wicked to want another?"
There was not a foot between our two beds, so I bent over and
took her soft white shoulders in my arms and kissed her. All the
heaped-up sweetness of the whitest, freshest flowers of the
spring seemed in my embrace as I kissed her, so soft, so
fragrant, so pure; and as the moonlight was the white fire in our
blood. Softly I released her, stroked her brown hair, and turned
again to my pillow. Presently the little voice was in the room
"Mayn't I hold your hand? Somehow I feel lonely and
So our hands made a bridge across which our dreams might pass
through the night, and after a little while I knew that she
As I lay thus holding her hand, and listening to her quiet
breathing, I realised once more what my young Alastor had meant
by the purity of high passion. For indeed the moonlight that
fell across her bosom was not whiter than my thoughts, nor could
any kiss--were it even such a kiss as Venus promised to the
betrayer of Psyche--even in its fiercest delirium, be other than
dross compared with the wild white peace of those silent hours
when we lay thus married and maiden side by side.
My sleeplessness while Nicolete slept had not been all ecstasy,
for I had come to a bitter resolution; and next morning, when we
were once more on our way, I took a favourable opportunity of
conveying it to Nicolete.
"Nicolete," I said, as we rested awhile by the roadside, "I
have something serious to say to you."
"Yes, dear," she said, looking rather frightened.
"Well, dear, it is this,--our love must end with our holiday.
No good can come of it."
"But oh, why? I love you."
"Yes, and I love you,--love you as I never thought I could love
again. Yet I know it is all a dangerous dream,--a trick of our
brains, an illusion of our tastes."
"But oh, why? I love you."
"Yes, you do to-day, I know; but it couldn't last. I believe I
could love you for ever; but even so, it wouldn't be right. You
couldn't go on loving me. I am too old, too tired, too
desillusione, perhaps too selfish."
"I will love you always!" said girl Nicolete.
"Whereas you," I continued, disregarding the lovely refrain of
her tear-choked voice, "are standing on the wonderful threshold
of life, waiting in dreamland for the dawn. And it will come, and
with it the fairy prince, with whom you shall wander hand in hand
through all its fairy rose-gardens; but I, dear Nicolete,--I am
not he."
Nicolete did not speak.
"I know," I continued, pressing her hand, "that I may seem
young enough to talk like this, but some of us get through life
quicker than others, and when we say, `It is done,' it is no use
for onlookers to say, `Why, it is just beginning!' Believe me,
Nicolete, I am not fit husband for you."
"Then shall I take no other," said Nicolete, with set face.
"Oh, yes, you will," I rejoined; "let but a month or two pass,
and you will see how wise I was, after all. Besides, there are
other reasons, of which there is no need to speak--"
"What reasons?"
"Well," I said, half laughing, "there is the danger that,
after all, we mightn't agree. There is nothing so perilously
difficult as the daily intercourse of two people who love each
other. You are too young to realise its danger. And I couldn't
bear to see our love worn away by the daily dropping of tears,
not to speak of its being rent by the dynamite of daily quarrels.
We know each other's tastes, but we know hardly anything of each
other's natures."
Nicolete looked at me strangely. 'Troth, it was a strange way to
make love, I knew.
"And what else?" she asked somewhat coldly.
"Well, then, though it's not a thing one cares to speak of,
I'm a poor man--"
Nicolete broke through my sentence with a scornful exclamation.
"You," I continued straight on,--"well, you have been
accustomed to a certain spaciousness and luxury of life. This it
would be out of my power to continue for you. These are real
reasons, very real reasons, dear Nicolete, though you may not
think so now. The law of the world in these matters is very
right. For the rich and the poor to marry is to risk, terribly
risk, the very thing they would marry for --their love. Love is
better an unmarried than a married regret."
Nicolete was silent again.
"Think of your little woodland chalet, and your great old trees
in the park,--you couldn't live without them. I have, at most,
but one tree worth speaking of to offer you--"
I purposely waived the glamour which my old garden had for my
mind, and which I wouldn't have exchanged for fifty parks.
"Trees!" retorted Nicolete,--"what are trees?"
"Ah, my dear girl, they are a good deal,--particularly when
they are genealogical, as my one tree is not."
"Aucassin," she said suddenly, almost fiercely, "can you
really jest? Tell me this,--do you love me?"
"I love you," I said simply; "and it is just because I love
you so much that I have talked as I have done. No man situated
as I am who loved you could have talked otherwise."
"Well, I have heard it all, weighed it all," said Nicolete,
presently; "and to me it is but as thistledown against the love
within my heart. Will you cast away a woman who loves you for
theories? You know you love me, know I love you. We should have
our trials, our ups and downs, I know; but surely it is by those
that true love learns how to grow more true and strong. Oh, I
cannot argue! Tell me again, do you love me?"
And there she broke down and fell sobbing into my arms. I
consoled her as best I might, and presently she looked up at me
through her tears.
"Tell me again," she said, "that you love me, just as you did
yesterday, and promise never to speak of all those cruel things
again. Ah! have you thought of the kind of men you would give me
up to?"
At that I confess I shuddered, and I gave her the required
"And you won't be wise and reasonable and ridiculous any more?"
"No," I answered; adding in my mind, "not, at all events, for
the present."
Had we only been able to see a day into the future, we might have
spared ourselves this agonising, for all our doubts and fears
were suddenly dispersed in an entirely unexpected manner.
Happily these interior problems are not infrequently resolved by
quite exterior forces.
We were sitting the following afternoon in one of those broad bay
windows such as one finds still in some old country inns, just
thinking about starting once more on our way, when suddenly
Nicolete, who had been gazing out idly into the road, gave a
little cry. I followed her glance. A carriage with arms on its
panels had stopped at the inn, and as a smart footman opened the
door, a fine grey-headed military-looking man stepped out and
strode hurriedly up the inn steps.
"Aucassin," gasped Nicolete, "it is my father!"
It was too true. The old man's keen eye had caught sight of
Nicolete at the window also, and in another moment we were all
three face to face. I must do the Major- General the justice of
saying that he made as little of a "scene" of it as possible.
"Now, my girl," he said, "I have come to put an end to this
nonsense. Have you a petticoat with you? Well, go upstairs and
get it on. I will wait for you here . . . On you, sir, I shall
waste no words. From what I have heard, you are as moonstruck as
my daughter."
"Of course," I stammered, "I cannot expect you to understand
the situation, though I think, if you would allow me, I could in
a very few words make it somewhat clearer,--make you realise
that, after all, it has been a very innocent and childish
escapade, in which there has been no harm and a great deal of
But the Major-General cut me short.
"I should prefer," he said, "not to discuss the matter. I may
say that I realise that my daughter has been safe in your hands,
however foolish,"--for this I thanked him with a bow,--"but I
must add that your eccentric acquaintance must end here--"
I said him neither yea nor nay; and while we stood in armed and
embarrassed silence, Nicolete appeared with white face at the
door, clothed in her emergency petticoat. Alas! it was for no
such emergency as this that it had been destined that merry night
when she had packed it in her knapsack. With a stern bow her
father turned from me to join her; but she suddenly slipped past
him, threw her arms round me, and kissed me one long passionate
"Aucassin, be true," she cried, "I will never forget you,--no
one shall come between us; "and then bursting into tears, she
buried her face in her hands and followed her father from the
In another moment she had been driven away, and I sat as one
stupefied in the inn window. But a few short minutes ago she had
been sitting merrily prattling by my side, and now I was once
more as lonely as if we had never met. Presently I became
conscious in my reverie of a little crumpled piece of paper on
the floor. I picked it up. It was a little note pencilled in her
bedroom at the last moment. "Aucassin," it ran, just like her
last passionate words, "be true. I will never forget you. Stay
here till I write to you, and oh, write to me soon!-- Your
broken-hearted Nicolete."
As I read, I saw her lovely young face, radiant with love and
sorrow as I had last seen it, and pressing the precious little
letter to my lips, I said fervently, "Yes, Nicolete, I will be
No doubt the youthful reader will have but a poor opinion of me
after the last two chapters. He will think that in the scene
with the Major-General I acted with lamentably little spirit, and
that generally my friend Alastor would have proved infinitely
more worthy of the situation. It is quite true, I confess it.
The whole episode was made for Alastor. Nicolete and he were
born for each other. Alas! it is one of the many drawbacks of
experience that it frequently prevents our behaving with spirit.
I must be content to appeal to the wiser and therefore sadder
reader, of whom I have but a poor opinion if he too fails to
understand me. He, I think, will understand why I didn't
promptly assault the Major- General, seize Nicolete by the waist,
thrust her into her ancestral carriage, haul the coachman from
his box, and, seizing the reins, drive away in triumph before
astonishment had time to change into pursuit. Truly it had been
but the work of a moment, and there was only one consideration
which prevented my following this now-I-call-that-heroic course.
It is a consideration I dare hardly venture to write, and the
confession of which will, I know, necessitate my changing my age
back again to thirty on the instant. Oh, be merciful, dear
romantic reader! I didn't strike the Major-General, because,
oh, because I AGREED WITH HIM!
I loved Nicolete, you must have felt that. She was sweet to me as
the bunch of white flowers that, in their frail Venetian vase,
stand so daintily on my old bureau as I write, doing their best
to sweeten my thoughts. Dear was she to me as the birds that out
in the old garden yonder sing and sing their best to lift up my
leaden heart. She was dear as the Spring itself, she was only
less dear than Autumn.
Yes, black confession! after the first passion of her loss, the
immediate ache of her young beauty had passed, and I was able to
analyse what I really felt, I not only agreed with him, I thanked
God for the Major-General! He had saved me from playing the
terrible part of executioner. He had just come in time to behead
the Lady Jane Grey of our dreams.
I should have no qualms about tightening the rope round the neck
of some human monster, or sticking a neat dagger or bullet into a
dangerous, treacherous foe, but to kill a dream is a sickening
business. It goes on moaning in such a heart-breaking fashion,
and you never know when it is dead. All on a sudden some night
it will come wailing in the wind outside your window, and you
must blacken your heart and harden your face with another
strangling grip of its slim appealing throat, another blow upon
its angel eyes. Even then it will recover, and you will go on
being a murderer, making for yourself day by day a murderer's
face, without the satisfaction of having really murdered.
But what of Nicolete? do you exclaim. Have you no thought for
her, bleeding her heart away in solitude? Can you so soon forget
those appealing eyes? Yes, I have thought for her. Would God
that I could bear for her those growing pains of the heart! and I
shall never forget those farewell eyes. But then, you see, I had
firmly realised this, that she would sooner recover from our
separation than from our marriage; that her love for me, pretty
and poignant and dramatic while it lasted, was a book- born,
book-fed dream, which must die soon or late,--the sooner the
better for the peace of the dreams that in the course of nature
would soon spring up to take its place.
But while I realised all this, and, with a veritable aching of
the heart at the loss of her, felt a curious satisfaction at the
turn of events, still my own psychology became all the more a
puzzle to me, and I asked myself, with some impatience, what I
would be at, and what it was I really wanted.
Here had I but a few moments ago been holding in my hands the
very dream I had set out to find, and here was I secretly
rejoicing to be robbed of it! If Nicolete did not fulfil the
conditions of that mystical Golden Girl, in professed search for
whom I had set out that spring morning, well, the good genius of
my pilgrimage felt it time to resign. Better give it up at once,
and go back to my books and my bachelorhood, if I were so
difficult to please. No wonder my kind providence felt provoked.
It had provided me with the sweetest pink- and-porcelain dream of
a girl, and might reasonably have concluded that his labours on
my behalf were at an end.
But, really, there is no need to lecture me upon the charms and
virtues of Nicolete, for I loved them from the first moment of
our strange introduction, and I dream of them still. There was
indeed only one quality of womanhood in which she was lacking,
and in which, after much serious self- examination, I discovered
the reason of my instinctive self-sacrifice of her,--SHE HAD
NEVER SUFFERED. As my heart had warned me at the beginning,
"she was hoping too much from life to spend one's days with."
She lacked the subtle half-tones of experience. She lacked all
that a pretty wrinkle or two might have given. There was no
shadowy melancholy in her sky-clear eyes. She was gay indeed,
and had a certain childish humour; but she had none of that
humour which comes of the resigned perception that the world is
out of joint, and that you were never born to set it right.
These characteristics I had yet to find in woman. There was
still, therefore, an object to my quest. Indeed my experience had
provided me with a formula. I was in search of a woman who, in
addition to every other feminine charm and virtue, was a woman
who had suffered.
With this prayer I turned once more to the genius of my
pilgrimage. "Grant me," I asked, "but this--A WOMAN WHO HAS
SUFFERED!" and, apparently as a consequence, he became once more
quite genial. He seemed to mean that a prayer so easy to grant
would put any god into a good temper; and possibly he smiled with
a deeper meaning too.
And so when the days of my mourning for Nicolete were ended (and
in this sentence I pass over letters to and fro,--letters wild
from Nicolete, letters wise from Aucassin, letters explanatory
and apologetic from the Obstacle--how the Major-General had
suddenly come home quite unexpectedly and compelled her to
explain Nicolete's absence, etc., etc. Dear Obstacle! I should
rather have enjoyed a pilgrimage with her too)--I found myself
one afternoon again upon the road. The day had been very warm
and dusty, and had turned sleepy towards tea-time.
I had now pretty clearly in my mind what I wanted. This time it
was, all other things equal, to be "a woman who had suffered,"
and to this end, I had, before starting out once more, changed my
age back again at the inn and written "Aetat. 30" after my name
in the visitors' book. As a young man I was an evident failure,
and so, having made the countersign, I was speedily transformed
to my old self; and I must say that it was a most comfortable
feeling, something like getting back again into an old coat or an
old pair of shoes. I never wanted to be young again as long as I
lived. Youth was too much like the Sunday clothes of one's
boyhood. Moreover, I had a secret conviction that the woman I
was now in search of would prefer one who had had some experience
at being a man, who would bring her not the green plums of his
love, but the cunningly ripened nectarines, a man to whom love
was something of an art as well as an inspiration.
It was in this frame of mind that I came upon the following
The lane was a very cloistral one, with a ribbon of gravelly
road, bordered on each side with a rich margin of turf and a
scramble of blackberry bushes, green turf banks and dwarf
oak-trees making a rich and plenteous shade. My attention was
caught firstly by a bicycle lying carelessly on the turf, and
secondly and lastly by a graceful woman's figure, recumbent and
evidently sleeping against the turf bank, well tucked in among
the afternoon shadows. My coming had not aroused her, and so I
stole nearer to her on tiptoe.
She was a pretty woman, of a striking modern type, tall,
well-proportioned, strong, I should say, with a good complexion
that had evidently been made just a little better. But her most
striking feature was an opulent mass of dark red hair, which had
fallen in some disorder and made quite a pillow for her head.
Her hat was off, lying in its veil by her side, and a certain
general abandon of her figure,--which was clothed in a short
cloth skirt, cut with that unmistakable touch which we call
style--betokened weariness that could no longer wait for rest.
Poor child! she was tired out. She must never be left to sleep
on there, for she seemed good to sleep till midnight.
I turned to her bicycle, and, examining it with the air of a man
who had won silver cups in his day, I speedily discovered what
had been the mischief. The tire of the front wheel had been
pierced, and a great thorn was protruding from the place.
Evidently this had been too much for poor Rosalind, and it was
not unlikely that she had cried herself to sleep.
I bent over her to look--yes, there were traces of tears. Poor
thing! Then I had a kindly human impulse. I would mend the
tire, having attended ambulance classes, do it very quietly so
that she wouldn't hear, like the fairy cobblers who used to mend
people's boots while they slept, and then wait in ambush to watch
the effect upon her when she awoke.
What do you think of the idea?
But one important detail I have omitted from my description of
the sleeper. Her left hand lay gloveless, and of the four rings
on her third finger one was a wedding-ring.
"Such red hair,--and a wedding-ring!" I exclaimed inwardly.
"How this woman must have suffered!"
Moving the bicycle a little away, so that my operations upon it
might not arouse her, I had soon made all right again, and when I
laid it once more where she had left it, she was still sleeping
as sound as ever. She had only to sleep long enough, a sly
thought suggested, to necessitate her ending her day's journey at
the same inn as myself, some five miles on the road. One virtue
at least the reader will allow to this history,--we are seldom
far away from an inn in its pages. When I thought of that I sat
stiller than ever, hardly daring to turn over the pages of
Apuleius, which I had taken from my knapsack to beguile the time,
and, I confess, to give my eyes some other occupation than the
dangerous one of gazing upon her face, dangerous in more ways
than one, but particularly dangerous at the moment, because, as
everybody knows, a steady gaze on a sleeping face is apt to awake
the sleeper. And she wasn't to be disturbed!
"No! she mustn't waken before seven at the latest," I said to
myself, holding my breath and starting in terror at every noise.
Once a great noisy bee was within an ace of waking her, but I
caught him with inspired dexterity, and he buzzed around her head
no more.
But despite the providential loneliness of the road, there were
one or two terrors that could not be disposed of so summarily.
The worst of all was a heavy miller's cart which one could hardly
crush to silence in one's handkerchief; but it went so slowly,
and both man and horses were so sleepy, that they passed unheard
and unnoticing.
A sprightly tramp promised greater difficulty, and nothing but
some ferocious pantomime and a shilling persuaded him to forego a
choice fantasia of cockney humour.
A poor tired Italian organ-grinder, tramping with an equally
tired monkey along the dusty roads, had to be bought off in a
similar manner,--though he only cost sixpence. He gave me a
Southern smile and shrug of comprehension, as one acquainted with
affairs of the heart,--which was a relief after the cockney
tramp's impudent expression of, no doubt, a precisely similar
And then at last, just as my watch pointed to 6.50 (how well I
remember the exact moment!) Rosalind awoke suddenly, as women
and children do, sitting straight up on the instant, and putting
up her hands to her tousled hair, with a half-startled "Where am
I?" When her hair was once more "respectable," she gave her
skirts a shake, bent sideways to pull up her stockings and
tighten her garters, looked at her watch, and then with an
exclamation at the lateness of the hour, went over, with an air
of desperate determination, to her bicycle.
"Now for this horrid puncture!" were the first words I was to
hear fall from her lips.
She sought for the wound in the india- rubber with growing
"Goodness!" was her next exclamation, "why, there's nothing
wrong with it. Can I have been dreaming?"
"I hope your dreams have been pleasanter than that," I ventured
at this moment to stammer, rising, a startling apparition, from
my ambush behind a mound of brambles; and before she had time to
take in the situation I added that I hoped she'd excuse my
little pleasantry, and told her how I had noticed her and the
wounded bicycle, et cetera, et cetera, as the reader can well
imagine, without giving me the trouble of writing it all out.
She was sweetness itself on the instant.
"Excuse you!" she said, "I should think so. Who wouldn't?
You can't tell the load you've taken off my mind. I'm sure I
must have groaned in my sleep--for I confess I cried myself to
sleep over it."
"I thought so," I said with gravity, and eyes that didn't dare
to smile outright till they had permission, which, however, was
not long withheld them.
"How did you know?"
"Oh, intuition, of course--who wouldn't have cried themselves
to sleep, and so tired too!"
"You're a nice sympathetic man, anyhow," she laughed; "what a
pity you don't bicycle!"
"Yes," I said, "I would give a thousand pounds for a bicycle
at this moment."
"You ought to get a good one for that," she laughed,--"all
bright parts nickel, I suppose; indeed, you should get a real
silver frame and gold handle-bars for that, don't you think?
Well, it would be nice all the same to have your company a few
miles, especially as it's growing dark," she added.
"Especially as it's growing dark," I repeated.
"You won't be going much farther to- night. Have you fixed on
your inn?" I continued innocently. She had--but that was in a
town too far to reach to-night, after her long sleep.
"You might have wakened me," she said.
"Yes, it was stupid of me not to have thought of it," I
answered, offering no explanation of the dead bee which at the
moment I espied a little away in the grass, and saying nothing of
the merry tramp and the melancholy musician.
Then we talked inns, and thus she fell beautifully into the pit
which I had digged for her; and it was presently arranged that
she should ride on to the Wheel of Pleasure and order a dinner,
which she was to do me the honour of sharing with me.
I was to follow on foot as speedily as might be, and it was with
a high heart that I strode along the sunset lanes, hearing for
some time the chiming of her bell in front of me, till she had
wheeled it quite out of hearing, and it was lost in the distance.
I never did a better five miles in my life.
When I reached the Wheel of Pleasure, I found Rosalind awaiting
me in the coffee- room, looking fresh from a traveller's
toilette, and with the welcome news that dinner was on the way.
By the time I had washed off the day's dust it was ready, and a
merry meal it proved. Rosalind had none of Alastor's objections
to the wine-list, so we drank an excellent champagne; and as
there seemed to be no one in the hotel but ourselves, we made
ourselves at home and talked and laughed, none daring to make us
At first, on sitting down to table, we had grown momentarily shy,
with one of those sudden freaks of self-consciousness which
occasionally surprise one, when, midway in some slightly
unconventional situation to which the innocence of nature has led
us, we realise it--"for an instant and no more."
Positively, I think that in the embarrassment of that instant I
had made some inspired remark to Rosalind about the lovely
country which lay dreamy in the afterglow outside our window.
Oh, yes, I remember the very words. They were "What a heavenly
landscape!" or something equally striking.
"Yes," Rosalind had answered, "it is almost as beautiful as
the Strand!"
If I'd known her better, I should have exclaimed, "You dear!"
and I think it possible that I did say something to that
effect,--perhaps "You dear woman!" At all events, the veil of
self-consciousness was rent in twain at that remark, and our
spirits rushed together at this touch of London nature thus
unexpectedly revealed.
London! I hadn't realised till this moment how I had been
missing it all these days of rustication, and my heart went out
to it with a vast homesickness.
"Yes! the Strand," I repeated tenderly, "the Strand--at
"Indeed, yes! what is more beautiful in the whole world?" she
joined in ardently.
"The wild torrents of light, the passionate human music, the
hansoms, the white shirts and shawled heads, the theatres--"
"Don't speak of them or you'll make me cry," said Rosalind.
"The little suppers after the theatre--"
"Please don't," she cried, "it is cruel;" and I saw that her
eyes were indeed glistening with tears.
"But, of course," I continued, to give a slight turn aside in
our talk, "it is very wrong of us to have such sophisticated
tastes. We ought to love these lonely hills and meadows far more.
The natural man revels in solitude, and wants no wittier company
than birds and flowers. Wordsworth made a constant companion of
a pet daisy. He seldom went abroad without one or two trotting
at his side, and a skylark would keep Shelley in society for a
"But they were poets," retorted Rosalind; "you don't call
poets natural. Why, they are the most unnatural of men. The
natural person loves the society of his kind, whereas the poet
runs away from it."
"Well, of course, there are poets and poets, poets sociable and
poets very unsociable. Wordsworth made the country, but Lamb
made the town; and there is quite a band of poets nowadays who
share his distaste for mountains, and take London for their muse.
If you'll promise not to cry again, I'll recall some lines by a
friend of mine which were written for town-tastes like ours. But
perhaps you know them?"
It will gratify my friend to learn that Rosalind had the verses I
refer to by heart, and started off humming,--
"Ah, London, London, our delight,
Great flower that opens but at night,
Great city of the midnight sun,
Whose day begins when day is done . . .
Like dragon-flies the hansoms hover
With jewelled eyes to catch the lover;"
and so on, with a gusto of appreciation that must have been very
gratifying to the author had he been present.
Thus perceiving a taste for a certain modern style of poetry in
my companion, I bethought me of a poem which I had written on the
roadside a few days before, and which, I confess, I was eager to
confide to some sympathetic ear. I was diffident of quoting it
after such lines as Rosalind had recalled, but by the time we had
reached our coffee, I plucked up courage to mention it. I had,
however, the less diffidence in that it would have a technical
interest for her, being indeed no other than a song of cycling a
deux which had been suggested by one of those alarmist
danger-posts always placed at the top of the pleasantest hills,
sternly warning the cyclist that "this hill is
dangerous,"--just as in life there is always some minatory
notice-board frowning upon us in the direction we most desire to
But I omit further preface and produce the poem:--
"This hill is dangerous," I said,
As we rode on together
Through sunny miles and sunny miles
Of Surrey heather;
"This hill is dangerous--don't you think
We'd better walk it?"
"Or sit it out--more danger still!"
She smiled--"and talk it?"
"Are you afraid?" she turned and cried
So very brave and sweetly,--
Oh that brave smile that takes the heart
Captive completely!
"Afraid?" I said, deep in her eyes
Recklessly gazing;
"For you I'd ride into the sun
And die all blazing!"
"I never yet saw hill," I said,
"And was afraid to take it;
I never saw a foolish law,
And feared to break it.
Who fears a hill or fears a law
With you beside him?
Who fears, dear star, the wildest sea
With you to guide him?"
Then came the hill--a cataract,
A dusty swirl, before us;
The world stood round--a village world--
In fearful chorus.
Sure to be killed! Sure to be killed!
O fools, how dare ye!
Sure to be killed--and serve us right!
Ah I love, but were we?
The hill was dangerous, we knew,
And knew that we must take it;
The law was strong,--that too we knew
Yet dared to break it.
And those who'd fain know how we fared
Follow and find us,
Safe on the hills, with all the world
Safely behind us.
Rosalind smiled as I finished. "I'm afraid," she said, "the
song is as dangerous as the hill. Of course it has more meanings
than one?"
"Perhaps two," I assented.
"And the second more important than the first."
"Maybe," I smiled; "however, I hope you like it."
Rosalind was very reassuring on that point, and then said
musingly, as if half to herself, "But that hill is dangerous,
you know; and young people would do well to pay attention to the
Her voice shook as she spoke the last two or three words, and I
looked at her in some surprise.
"Yes, I know it," she added, her voice quite broken; and before
I realised what was happening, there she was with her beautiful
head down upon the table, and sobbing as if her heart would
"Forgive me for being such a fool," she managed to wring out.
Now, usually I never interrupt a woman when she is crying, as it
only encourages her to continue; but there was something so
unexpected and mysterious about Rosalind's sudden outburst that
it was impossible not to be sympathetic. I endeavoured to soothe
her with such words as seemed fitting; and as she was crying
because she really couldn't help it, she didn't cry long.
These tears proved, what certain indications of manner had
already hinted to me, that Rosalind was more artless than I had
at first supposed. She was a woman of the world, in that she
lived in it, and loved its gaieties, but there was still in her
heart no little of the child, as is there not in the hearts of
all good women--or men?
And this you will realise when I tell you the funny little story
which she presently confided to me as the cause of her tears.
For Rosalind was no victim of the monster man, as you may have
supposed her, no illustration of his immemorial perfidies. On the
contrary, she was one half of a very happy marriage, and, in a
sense, her sufferings at the moment were merely theoretical, if
one may so describe the sufferings caused by a theory. But no
doubt the reader would prefer a little straightforward narrative.
Well, Rosalind and Orlando, as we may as well call them, are two
newly married young people who've been married, say, a year, and
who find themselves at the end of it loving each other more than
at the beginning,--for you are to suppose two of the tenderest,
most devoted hearts that ever beat as one. However, they are
young people of the introspective modern type, with a new theory
for everything.
About marriage and the law of happiness in that blessed estate,
they boasted the latest philosophical patents. To them, among
other matters, the secret of unhappy marriages was as simple as
can be. It was in nothing more or less than the excessive
"familiarity" of ordinary married life, and the lack of
personal freedom allowed both parties to the contract. Thus love
grew commonplace, and the unhappy ones to weary of each other by
excessive and enforced association. This was obvious enough, and
the remedy as obvious,--separate bedrooms, and a month's holiday
in each year to be spent apart (notoriously all people of quality
had separate bedrooms, and see how happy they were!). These and
similar other safeguards of individual liberty they had in
mock-earnest drawn up and signed on their marriage eve, as a sort
of supplemental wedding service.
It would not be seemly to inquire how far certain of these
conditions had been kept,--how often, for example, Orlando's
little hermit's bed had really needed remaking during those
twelve months! Answer, ye birds of the air that lie in your snug
nests, so close, so close, through the tender summer nights, and
maybe with two or three little ones besides,--unless, indeed, ye
too have felt the influence of the Zeit-geist, and have taken to
sleeping in separate nests.
The condition with which alone we have here to concern ourselves
was one which provided that each of the two lovers, hereafter to
be called the husband of the one part and the wife of the other
part, solemnly bound themselves to spend one calendar month of
each year out of each other's society, with full and free liberty
to spend it wheresoever, with whomsoever, and howsoever they
pleased; and that this condition was rigidly to be maintained,
whatever immediate effort it might cost, as the parties thereto
believed that so would their love the more likely maintain an
enduring tenderness and an unwearied freshness. And to this did
Orlando and his Rosalind set their hands and hearts and lips.
Now, wisdom is all very well till the time comes to apply it; and
as that month of June approached in which they had designed to
give their love a holiday, they had found their courage growing
less and less. Their love didn't want a holiday; and when
Orlando had referred to the matter during the early days of May,
Rosalind had burst into tears, and begged him to reconsider a
condition which they had made before they really knew what wedded
love was. But Orlando, though in tears himself (so Rosalind
averred), had a higher sense of their duty to their ideal, and
was able, though in tears, to beg her look beyond the moment, and
realise what a little self-denial now might mean in the years to
come. They hadn't kept any other of their resolutions,--thus
Rosalind let it out!--this must be kept.
And thus it had come about that Orlando had gone off for his
month's holiday with a charming girl, who, with the cynic, will
no doubt account for his stern adherence to duty; and Rosalind
had gone off for hers with a pretty young man whom she'd liked
well enough to go to the theatre and to supper with,--a young man
who was indeed a dear friend, and a vivacious, sympathetic
companion, but whom, as a substitute for Orlando, she immediately
began to hate. Such is the female heart!
The upshot of the experiment, so far as she was concerned, was
that she had quarrelled with her companion, and had gone off in
search of her husband, on which search she was embarked at the
moment of my encountering her. The tears, therefore,--that is,
the first lot of tears by the roadside,--had not been all on
account of the injured bicycle, you see.
Now the question was, How had Orlando been getting on? I had an
intuition that in his case the experiment had proved more
enjoyable, but I am not one to break the bruised reed by making
such a suggestion. On the contrary, I expressed my firm
conviction that Orlando was probably even more miserable than she
"Do you really think so?" she asked eagerly, her poor miserable
face growing bright a moment with hope and gratitude.
"Undoubtedly," I answered sententiously. "To put the case on
the most general principles, apart from Orlando's great love for
you, it is an eternal truth of masculine sentiment that man
always longs for the absent woman."
"Are you quite sure?" asked Rosalind, with an unconvinced
"I thought," she continued, "that it was just the other way
about; that it was presence and not absence that made the heart
of man grow fonder, and that if a man's best girl, so to say, was
away, he was able to make himself very comfortable with his
"In some cases, of course, it's true," I answered, unmoved;
"but with a love like yours and Orlando's, it's quite
"Oh, do you really mean it?"
"Certainly I do; and your mistake has been in supposing that an
experiment which no few every-day married couples would be only
too glad to try, was ever meant for two such love-birds as you.
Laws and systems are meant for the unhappy and the untractable,
not for people like you, for whom Love makes its own laws."
"Yes, that is what we used to say; and indeed, we thought that
this was one of love's laws,--this experiment, as you call it."
"But it was quite a mistake," I went on in my character as
matrimonial oracle. "Love never made a law so cruel, a law that
would rob true lovers of each other's society for a whole month
in a year, stretching them on the rack of absence--" There my
period broke down, so I began another less ambitiously planned.
"A whole month in a year! Think what that would mean in a
lifetime. How long do you expect to live and love together? Say
another fifty years at the most. Well, fifty ones are fifty.
Fifty months equal--four twelves are forty-eight and two
over--four years and two months. Yes, out of the short life God
allows even for the longest love you would voluntarily throw away
four years and two months!"
This impressive calculation had a great effect on poor Rosalind;
and it is a secondary matter that it and its accompanying wisdom
may have less weight with the reader, as for the moment Rosalind
was my one concern.
"But, of course, we have perfect trust in each other," said
Rosalind presently, with charming illogicality.
"No doubt," I said; "but Love, like a good householder
(ahem!), does well not to live too much on trust."
"But surely love means perfect trust," said Rosalind.
"Theoretically, yes; practically, no. On the contrary, it means
exactly the opposite. Trust, perfect trust, with loved ones far
away! No, it is an inhuman ideal, and the more one loves the
less one lives up to it. If not, what do these tears mean?"
"Oh, no!" Rosalind retorted, with a flush, "you mustn't say
that. I trust Orlando absolutely. It isn't that; it's simply
that I can't bear to be away from him."
What women mean by "trusting" might afford a subject for an
interesting disquisition. However, I forbore to pursue the
matter, and answered Rosalind's remark in a practical spirit.
"Well, then," I said, "if that's all, the thing to do is to
find Orlando, tell him that you cannot bear it, and spend the
rest of your holiday, you and he, together."
"That's what I thought," said Rosalind.
"Unfortunately," I continued, "owing to your foolish
arrangement not to tell each other where you were going and not
to write, as being incompatible with Perfect Trust, you don't
know where Orlando is at the present moment."
"No; but I have a good guess," said Rosalind. "There's a
smart little watering- place, not so many miles from here, called
Yellowsands, a sort of secret little Monaco, which not many
people know of, a wicked-innocent gay little place, where we've
often talked of going. I think it's very likely that Orlando has
gone there; and that's just where I was going when we met."
I will tell the reader more about Yellowsands in the next
chapter. Meanwhile, let us complete Rosalind's arrangements.
The result of our conversation was that she was to proceed to
Yellowsands on the morrow, and that I was to follow as soon as
possible, so as to be available should she chance to need any
advice, and at all events to give myself the pleasure of meeting
her again.
This arranged, we said good-night, Rosalind with ever such a
brightened-up face, of which I thought for half an hour and then
fell asleep to dream of Yellowsands.
On the morrow, at the peep of day, Rosalind was off to seek her
lord. An hour or so after I started in leisurely pursuit.
Yellowsands! I had heard in a vague way of the place, as a whim
of a certain young nobleman who combined brains with the pursuit
of pleasure. Like most ideas, it was simple enough when once
conceived. Any one possessing a mile or two of secluded seaboard,
cut off on the land side by precipitous approaches, and including
a sheltered river mouth ingeniously hidden by nature, in the form
of a jutting wall of rock, from the sea, might have made as good
use of these natural opportunities as the nobleman in question,
had they only been as wise and as rich. William Blake proposed
to rebuild Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land. My lord
proposed to erect a miniature Babylon amid similar pleasant
surroundings, a little dream-city by the sea, a home for the
innocent pleasure-seeker stifled by the puritanism of the great
towns, refugium peccatorum in this island of the saints.
"Once it was the Puritan Fathers who left our coasts," he is
recorded to have said; "nowadays it is our Prodigal Sons."
No doubt it was in further elaboration of this aphorism that the
little steamboat that sailed every other day from Yellowsands to
the beckoning shores of France was called "the Mayflower."
My lord's plan had been simple. By the aid of cunning architects
he had first blasted his harbour into shape, then built his
hotels and pleasure-palaces, and then leased them to dependants
of his who knew the right sort of people, and who knew that it
was as much as their lease was worth to find accommodation for
teetotal amateur photographers or wistful wandering Sunday-school
treats. As, unfortunately, the Queen's highway ran down in
tortuous descent to the handful of fishermen's cottages that had
clung there limpet-like for ages, there was always a chance of
such a stray visitation; but it was remote, and the whole place,
hand and heart, was in the pocket of my lord.
So much to give the reader some idea of the secret watering-place
of Yellowsands, situated at the mouth of that romantic little
torrent, the river Sly. Such further description as may be
needed may be kept till we come within sight of its gilded roofs
and marble terraces.
I reckoned that it would take me two or three days, leisurely
walking, to reach Yellowsands. Rosalind would, of course, arrive
there long before me; but that I did not regret, as I was in a
mood to find company in my own thoughts.
Her story gave me plenty to think of. I dwelt particularly on
the careless extravagance of the happy. Here were two people to
whom life had given casually what I was compelled to go seeking
lonely and footsore through the world, and with little hope of
finding it at the end; and yet were they so little aware of their
good fortune as to risk it over a trumpery theory, a shadow of
pseudo-philosophy. Out of the deep dark ocean of life Love had
brought them his great moon-pearl, and they sat on the boat's
edge carelessly tossing it from one to the other, unmindful of
the hungry fathoms on every side. A sudden slip, and they had
lost it for ever, and might only watch its shimmering fall to the
bottom of the world. Theories! Theories are for the unknown and
the unhappy. Who will trouble to theorise about Heaven when he
has found Heaven itself? Theories are for the poor- devil
outcast,--for him who stands outside the confectioner's shop of
life without a penny in his pocket, while the radiant purchasers
pass in and out through the doors,--for him who watches with
wistful eyes this and that sugared marvel taken out of the window
by mysterious hands, to bless some happy customer inside. He is
not fool enough even to hope for one of those glistering
masterpieces of frosted sugar and silk flowers, which rise to
pinnacles of snowy sweetness, white mountains of blessedness,
rich inside, they say, with untold treasures for the tooth that
is sweet. No! he craves nothing but a simple Bath-bun of
happiness, and even that is denied him.
Would I ever find my Bath-bun? I disconsolately asked myself. I
had been seeking it now for some little time, and seemed no
nearer than when I set out. I had seen a good many Bath-buns on
my pilgrimage, it is true. Some I have not had space to confide
to the reader; but somehow or other they had not seemed the
unmistakably predestined for which I was seeking.
And oh, how I could love a girl, if she would only give me the
chance,--that is, be the right girl! Oh, Sylvia Joy! where art
thou? Why so long dost thou remain hidden "in shady leaves of
"Seest thou thy lover lowly laid,
Hear'st thou the sighs that rend his breast?"
And then, as the novelists say, "a strange thing happened."
The road I was tramping at the moment was somewhat desolate. It
ran up from a small market town through a dreary undulating
moorland, forking off here and there to unknown villages of which
the horizon gave no hint. Its cheerless hillocks were all but
naked of vegetation, for a never very flourishing growth of
heather had recently been burnt right down to the unkindlylooking
earth, leaving a dwarf black forest of charred sticks
very grim to the eye and heart; while the dull surface of a small
lifeless-looking lake added the final touch to the Dead-Sea
mournfulness of the prospect.
Suddenly I became aware of the fluttering of a grey dress a
little ahead of me. Unconsciously I had been overtaking a tall
young woman walking in the same direction as myself, with a fine
athletic carriage of her figure and a noble movement of her
She walked manfully, and as I neared her I could hear the sturdy
ring of her well-shod feet upon the road. There was an air of
expectancy about her walk, as though she looked to be met
presently by some one due from the opposite direction.
It was curious that I had not noticed her before, for she must
have been in sight for some time. No doubt my melancholy
abstraction accounted for that, and perhaps her presence there
was to be explained by a London train which I had listlessly
observed come in to the town an hour before. This surmise was
confirmed, as presently,--over the brow of a distant undulation
in the road, I descried a farmer's gig driven by another young
woman. The gig immediately hoisted a handkerchief; so did my
pedestrian. At this moment I was within a yard or two of
overtaking her. And it was then the strange thing happened.
Distance had lent no enchantment which nearness did not a hundred
times repay. The immediate impression of strength and distinction
which the first glimpse of her had made upon me was more and more
verified as I drew closer to her. The carriage of her head was
no whit less noble than the queenly carriage of her limbs, and
her glorious chestnut hair, full of warm tints of gold, was
massed in a sumptuous simplicity above a neck that would have
made an average woman's fortune. This glowing description,
however, must be lowered or heightened in tone by the association
of these characteristics with an undefinable simplicity of mien,
a certain slight rusticity of effect. The town spoke in her
well-cut gown and a few simple adornments, but the dryad still
moved inside.
I suppose most men, even in old age, feel a certain anxiety,
conscious or not, as they overtake a woman whose back view is in
the least attractive. I confess that I felt a more than usual,
indeed a quite irrational, perturbation of the blood, as, coming
level with her, I dared to look into her face. As I did so she
involuntarily turned to look at me--turned to look at me, did I
say? "To look" is a feeble verb indeed to express the
unexpected shock of beauty to which I was suddenly exposed. I
cannot describe her features, for somehow features always mean
little to me. They were certainly beautifully moulded, and her
skin was of a lovely pale olive, but the life of her face was in
her great violet eyes and her wonderful mouth. Thus suddenly to
look into her face was like unexpectedly to come upon moon and
stars reflected in some lonely pool. I suppose the look lasted
only a second or two; but it left me dazzled as that king in the
Eastern tale, who seemed to have lived whole dream-lives between
dipping his head into a bowl of water and taking it out again.
Similarly in that moment I seemed to have dived into this unknown
girl's eyes, to have walked through the treasure palaces of her
soul, to have stood before the flaming gates of her heart, to
have gathered silver flowers in the fairy gardens of her dreams.
I had followed her white-robed spirit across the moonlit meadows
of her fancy, and by her side had climbed the dewy ladder of the
morning star, and then suddenly I had been whirled up again to
the daylight through the magic fountains of her eyes.
I'll tell you more about that look presently! Meanwhile the gig
approached, and the two girls exchanged affectionate greetings.
"Tom hasn't come with you, then?" said the other girl, who was
evidently her sister, and who was considerably more rustic in
style and accent. She said it with a curious mixture of anxiety
and relief.
"No," answered the other simply, and I thought I noticed a
slight darkening of her face. Tom was evidently her husband. So
she was married!
"Yes!" said a fussy hypocrite of reason within me, "and
what's that to do with you?"
"Everything, you fool!" answered a robuster voice in my soul,
kicking the feeble creature clean out of my head on the instant.
For, absurd as it may sound, with that look into those Arabian
Nights' eyes, had come somewhere out of space an overwhelming
intuition, nay, an unshakable conviction, that the woman who was
already being rolled away from me down the road in that Dis's car
of a farmer's gig, was now and for ever and before all worlds the
woman God had created for me, and that, unless I could be hers
and she mine, there would be no home, no peace for either of us
so long as we lived.
And yet she was being carried away further and further every
moment, while I gazed after her, aimlessly standing in the middle
of the road. Why did I not call to her, overtake her? In a few
moments she would be lost to me for ever--
Though I was unaware of it, this hesitation was no doubt owing to
a stealthy return of reason by the back-door of my mind. In
fact, he presently dared to raise his voice again. "I don't
deny," he ventured, ready any moment to flee for his life,
"that she is written yours in all the stars, and particularly do
I see it written on the face of the moon; but you mustn't forget
that many are thus meant for each other who never meet, not to
speak of marrying. It is such contradictions between the
purposes and performance of the Creator that make life--life;
you'll never see her again, so make your mind easy--"
At that moment the gig was on the point of turning a corner into
a dark pine-wood; but just ere it disappeared,--was it fancy?--I
seemed to have caught the flash of a momentarily fluttering
handkerchief. "Won't I? you fool!" I exclaimed, savagely
smiting reason on the cheek, as I sprang up wildly to wave mine;
but the road was already blank.
At this a sort of panic possessed me, and like a boy I raced down
the road after her. To lose her like this, at the very moment
that she had been revealed to me. It was more than I could bear.
Past the dreary lake, through the little pine-wood I ran, and
then I was brought to a halt, panting, by cross-roads and a
finger-post. An involuntary memory of Nicolete sang to me as I
read the quaint names of the villages to one of which the Vision
was certainly wending. Yes! I was bound on one more journey to
the moon, but alas! there was no heavenly being by my side to
point the way. Oh, agony, which was the road she had taken?
It never occurred to me till the following day that I might have
been able to track her by the wheel-marks of the gig on the dusty
summer road. Instead I desperately resorted to the time-honoured
expedient of setting up a stick and going in the direction of its
fall. Like most ancient guide-posts, it led me quite wrong, down
into a pig's-trough of a hamlet whither I felt sure she couldn't
have been bound. Then I ran back in a frenzy, and tried the
other road,--as if it could be any use, with at least three
quarters of an hour gone since I had lost sight of her. Of
course I had no luck; and finally, hot and worn out with absurd
excitement, I threw myself down in a meadow and called myself an
ass,--which I undoubtedly was.
For of all the fancies that had obsessed my moonstruck brain,
this was surely the maddest. Suppose I had overtaken the girl,
what could I have said to her? And, suppose she had listened to
me, how did I know she was the girl I imagined her to be? But
this was sheer reason again, and has no place in a fantastic
romance. So I hasten to add that the mood was one of brief
duration, and that no cold-water arguments were able to quench
the fire which those eyes had set aflame within me, no daylight
philosophy had any power to dispel the dream of a face which was
now my most precious possession, as I once more took up my stick
and listlessly pursued my way to Yellowsands.
For I had one other reason than my own infatuation, or thought I
had. Yes, brief and rapid as our glance at each other had been,
I had fancied in her eyes a momentary kindling as they met mine,
a warm summer- lightning which seemed for a second to light up
for me the inner heaven of her soul.
Of one feeling, however, I was sure,--that on my side this
apocalyptic recognition of her, as it had seemed, was no mere
passionate correspondence of sex, no mere spell of a beautiful
face (for such passion and such glamour I had made use of
opportunities to study), but was indeed the flaming up of an
elemental affinity, profounder than sex, deeper than reason, and
ages older than speech.
But it was a fancy, for all that? Yes, one of those fancies that
are fancies on earth, but facts in heaven. Perhaps you don't
believe in them. Well, I'm afraid that cannot be helped.
Nothing further happened to me till I reached Yellowsands, except
an exciting ride on the mail-coach, which connected it with the
nearest railway-station some twenty miles away. For the last
three or four miles the road ran along the extreme precipitous
verge of cliffs that sloped, a giant's wall of grassy mountain,
right away down to a dreamy amethystine floor of sea, miles and
miles, as it seemed, below. To ride on that coach, as it
gallantly staggered betwixt earth and heaven, was to know all the
ecstasy of flying, with an added touch of danger, which birds and
angels, and others accustomed to fly, can never experience. And
then at length the glorious mad descent down three plunging
cataracts of rocky road, the exciting rattling of the harness,
the grinding of the strong brakes, the driver's soothing calls to
his horses, and the long burnished horn trailing wild music
behind us, like invisible banners of aerial brass,--oh, it
stirred the dullest blood amongst us thus as it were to tear down
the sky towards the white roofs of Yellowsands, glittering here
and there among the clouds of trees which filled the little
valley almost to the sea's edge, while floating up to us came
soft strains of music, silken and caressing, as though the sea
itself sang us a welcome. Had you heard it from aboard the Argo,
you would have declared it to be the sirens singing, and it would
have been found necessary to lash you to the mast. But there
were no masts to lash you to in Yellowsands--and of the sirens it
is not yet time to speak.
It was the golden end of afternoon as the coach stopped in front
of the main hotel, The Golden Fortune; and for the benefit of any
with not too long purses who shall hereafter light on
Yellowsands, and be alarmed at the name and the marble
magnificence of that delightful hotel, I may say that the charges
there were surprisingly "reasonable," owing to one other wise
provision of the young lord and master of that happy place, who
had had the wit to realise that the nicest and brightest and
prettiest people were often the poorest. Yellowsands, therefore,
was carried on much like a club, to which you had only to be the
right sort of person to belong. I was relieved to find that the
hotel people evidently considered me the right sort of person,
and didn't take me for a Sunday-school treat,--for presently I
found myself in a charming little corner bedroom, whence I could
survey the whole extent of the little colony of pleasure. The
Golden Fortune was curiously situated, perched at the extreme
sea-end of a little horse-shoe bay hollowed out between two
headlands, the points of which approached each other so closely
that the river Sly had but a few yards of rocky channel through
which to pour itself into the sea. The Golden Fortune, therefore,
backed by towering woodlands, looked out to sea at one side,
across to the breakwater headland on another, and on its land
side commanded a complete view of the gay little haven, with its
white houses built terrace on terrace upon its wooded slopes,
connected by flights of zigzag steps, by which the apparently
inaccessible shelves and platforms circulated their gay life down
to the gay heart of the place,--the circular boulevard,
exquisitely leafy and cool, where one found the great casino and
the open-air theatre, the exquisite orchestra, into which only
the mellowest brass and the subtlest strings were admitted, and
the Cafe du Ciel, charmingly situated among the trees, where the
boulevard became a bridge, for a moment, at the mouth of the
river Sly. Here one might gaze up the green rocky defile through
which the Sly made pebbly music, and through which wound romantic
walks and natural galleries, where far inland you might wander
"From dewy dawn to dewy night,
And have one with you wandering,"
or where you might turn and look across the still lapping
harbour, out through the little neck of light between the
headlands to the shimmering sea beyond,--your ears filled with a
melting tide of sweet sounds, the murmur of the streams and the
gentle surging of the sea, the rippling of leaves, the soft
restless whisper of women's gowns, and the music of their
vowelled voices. It was here I found myself sitting at sunset,
alone, but so completely under the spell of the place that I
needed no companion. The place itself was companion enough. The
electric fairy lamps had popped alight; and as the sun sank
lower, Yellowsands seemed like a glowing crown of light floating
upon the water.
I had as yet failed to catch any sight of Rosalind; so I sat
alone, and so far as I had any thoughts or feelings, beyond a
consciousness of heavenly harmony with my surroundings, they were
for that haunting unknown face with the violet eyes and the heavy
chestnut hair.
Presently, close by, the notes of a guitar came like little gold
butterflies out of the twilight, and then a woman's voice rose
like a silver bird on the air. It was a gay wooing measure to
which she sang. I listened with ears and heart. "All ye," it
All ye who seek for pleasure,
Here find it without measure--
No one to say
A body nay,
And naught but love and leisure.
All ye who seek forgetting,
Leave frowns and fears and fretting,
Here by the sea
Are fair and free
To give you peace and petting.
All ye whose hearts are breaking
For somebody forsaking,
We'll count you dear,
And heal you here,
And send you home love-making."
"Bravo!" I cried involuntarily, as the song ended amid
multitudinous applause; and I thus attracted the attention of
another who sat near me as lonely as myself, but evidently quite
at home in the place.
"You haven't heard our sirens sing before?" he said, turning
to me with a pleasant smile, and thus we fell into talk of the
place and its pleasures.
"There's one feature of the place I might introduce you to if
you care for a stroll," he said presently. "Have you heard of
The Twelve Golden-Haired Bar-maids?" I hadn't, but the
fantastic name struck my fancy. It was, he explained, the name
given to a favourite buffet at the Hotel Aphrodite, which was
served by twelve wonderful girls, not one under six feet in
height, and all with the most glorious golden hair. It was a
whim of the management, he said.
So, of course, we went.
Now it was not without some boyish nervousness that I followed my
newly made friend, for I confess that I have ever been a poor
hand at talking to bar-maids. It is, I am convinced, an art
apart, an art like any other,--needing first the natural gift,
then the long patient training, and finally the courageous
practice. Alas for me, I possessed neither gift, training, nor
courage. Courage I lacked most of all. It was in vain that I
said to myself that it was like swimming,--all that was needed
was "confidence." That was the very thing I couldn't muster.
No doubt I am handicapped by a certain respectful homage which I
always feel involuntarily to any one in the shape of woman, for
anything savouring of respect is the last thing to win the
bar-maid heart divine. The man to win her is he who calls loudly
for his drink, without a "Please" or a "Thank you," throws
his hat at the back of his head, gulps down half his glass, and,
while drawing breath for the other half, takes a hard,
indifferent look at her, and in an off-hand voice throws her some
fatuous, mirthless jest.
Now, I've never been able to do this in the convincing grand
manner of the British male; and whatever I have said, the effect
has been the same. I've talked about theatres and music-halls,
of events of the day, I've even--Heaven help me--talked of
racing and football, but I might as well have talked of Herbert
Spencer. I suppose I didn't talk about them in the right way.
I'm sure it must be my fault somewhere, for certainly they seem
easy enough to please, poor things! However, my failure remains,
and sometimes even I find it extremely hard to attract their
attention in the ordinary way of business. I don't mind my
neighbour being preferred before me, but I do object to his being
served before me!
So, I say, I couldn't but tremble at the vision of those
golden-haired goddesses, standing with immobile faces by their
awful altars. Indeed, had I realised how superbly impressive they
were going to be, I think I must have declined the adventure
altogether,--for, robed in lustrous ivory-white linen were those
figures of undress marble, the wealth of their glorious bodies
pressing out into bosoms magnificent as magnolias (nobler lines
and curves Greece herself has never known), towering in throats
of fluted alabaster, and flowering in coiffures of imperial gold.
Nor was their temple less magnificent. To make it fair, Ruskin
had relit the seven lamps of architecture, and written the seven
labours of Hercules; for these windows through a whole youth
Burne Jones had worshipped painted glass at Oxford, and to
breathe romance into these frescos had Rossetti been born, and
Dante born again. Men had gone to prison and to death that this
temple of Whiskey-and-Soda might be fair.
Strange, in truth, are the ministrations to which Beauty is
called. Out of the high heaven is she summoned, from mystic
communion with her own perfection, from majestic labours in the
Sistine Chapel of the Stars,--yea, she must put aside her
gold-leaf and purples and leave unfinished the very panels of the
throne of God,--that Circe shall have her palace, and her
worshippers their gilded sty.
As there were at least a score of "worshippers" round each
Circe, my nervousness became unimportant, and therefore passed.
Thus, as my companion and I sat at one of the little tables, from
which we might gaze upon the sea without and Aphrodite within, my
eyes were able to fly like bees from one fair face to another.
Finally, they settled upon a Circe less besieged of the hoarse
and grunting mob. She was conspicuously less in height, her hair
was rather bright red than golden, and her face had more meanings
than the faces of her fellows.
"Why," in a flash it came to me, "it's Rosalind!" and clean
forgetting to be shy, or polite to my companion, I hastened
across to her, to be greeted instantly in a manner so exclusively
intimate that the little crowd about her presently spread itself
among the other crowds, and we were left to talk alone.
"Well," I said, "you're a nice girl! Whatever are you doing
"Yes, I'm afraid you'll have but a strange opinion of me,"
she said; "but I love all experience,--it's such fun,--and when
I heard that there was a sudden vacancy for a golden-haired
beauty in this place, I couldn't resist applying, and to my
surprise they took me--and here I am! Of course I shall only
stay till Orlando appears--which," she added mournfully--"he
hasn't done yet."
Her hours were long and late, but she had two half-days free in
the week, and for these of course I engaged myself.
Meanwhile I spent as much time as I decently could at her side;
but it was impossible to monopolise her, and the rest of my time
there was no difficulty in filling up, you may be sure, in so gay
a place.
Two or three nights after this, a little before dinner-time,
while I was standing talking to her, she suddenly went very
white, and in a fluttering voice gasped, "Look yonder!" I
looked. A rather slight dark- haired young man was entering the
bar, with a very stylish pretty woman at his side. As they sat
down and claimed the waiter, some distance away, Rosalind
whispered, "That's my husband!"
"Oh!" I said; "but that's no reason for your fainting. Pull
yourself together. Take a drop of brandy." But woman will
never take the most obvious restorative, and Rosalind presently
recovered without the brandy. She looked covertly at her husband,
with tragic eyes.
"He's much younger than I imagined him," I said,--reserving
for myself the satisfaction which this discovery had for me.
"Oh, yes, he's really quite a boy," said Rosalind; adding
under her breath, "Dear fellow! how I love him!"
"And hate him too!" she superadded, as she observed his evident
satisfaction with his present lot. Indeed the experiment
appeared to be working most successfully with him; nor, looking
at his companion, could I wonder. She was a sprightly young
woman, very smart and merry and decorously voluptuous, and of
that fascinating prettiness that wins the hearts of boys and
storms the footlights. One of her characteristics soothed the
heart of Rosalind. She had splendid red hair, almost as good as
her own.
"He's been faithful to my hair, at all events," she said,
trying to be nonchalant.
"And the eyes are not unlike," I added, meaning well.
"I'm sorry you think so," said Rosalind, evidently piqued.
"Well, never mind," I tried to make peace, "she hasn't your
hands,"--I knew that women cared more about their hands than
their faces.
"How do you know?" she retorted; "you cannot see through her
"Would any gloves disguise your hands?" I persisted. "They
would shine through the mittens of an Esquimau."
"Well, enough of that! See--I know it's wickedly mean of
me--but couldn't you manage to sit somewhere near them and hear
what they are saying? Of course you needn't tell me anything it
would be mean to hear, but only what--"
"You would like to know."
But this little plot died at its birth, for that very minute the
threatened couple arose, and went out arm in arm, apparently as
absurdly happy as two young people can be.
As they passed out, one of Rosalind's fellow bar-maids turned to
her and said,--
"You know who that was?"
"Who?" said Rosalind, startled.
"That pretty woman who went out with that young Johnny just
"No; who is she?"
"Why, that's"--and readers with heart- disease had better
brace themselves up for a great shock--"that's
SYLVIA JOY, the famous dancer!"
Sylvia Joy! And I hadn't so much as looked at her petticoat for
weeks! But I would now. The violet eyes and the heavy chestnut
hair rose up in moralising vision. Yes! God knows, they were
safe in my heart, but petticoats were another matter. Sylvia Joy!
Well, did you ever? Well, I'm d----d! Sylvia Joy!
I should have been merely superhuman had I been able to control
the expression of surprise which convulsed my countenance at the
sound of that most significant name.
"The name seems familiar to you," said Rosalind, a little
surprised and a little eagerly; "do you know the lady?"
"Slightly," I prevaricated.
"How fortunate!" exclaimed Rosalind; "you'll be all the
better able to help me!"
"Yes," I said; "but since things have turned out so oddly, I
may say that our relations are of so extremely delicate a nature
that I shall have very carefully to think out what is best to be
done. Meanwhile, do you mind lending me that ring for a few
It was a large oblong opal set round with small diamonds,--a ring
of distinguished design you could hardly help noticing,
especially on a man's hand, for which it was too conspicuously
dainty. I slipped it on the little finger of my left hand, and,
begging Rosalind to remain where she was meanwhile, and to take
no steps without consulting me, I mysteriously, not to say
officiously, departed.
I left the twelfth Golden-Haired Bar-maid not too late to stalk
her husband and her under-study to their hotel, where they
evidently proposed to dine. There was, therefore, nothing left
for me but to dine also. So I dined; and when the courses of my
dining were ended, I found myself in a mellow twilight at the
Cafe du Ciel. And it was about the hour of the sirens' singing.
Presently the little golden butterflies flitted once more through
the twilight, and again the woman's voice rose like a silver bird
on the air.
As I have a partiality for her songs, I transcribe this Hymn of
the Daughters of Aphrodite, which you must try to imagine
transfigured by her voice and the sunset.
Queen Aphrodite's
Daughters are we,
She that was born
Of the morn
And the sea;
White are our limbs
As the foam on the wave,
Wild are our hymns
And our lovers are brave!
Queen Aphrodite,
Born of the sea,
Beautiful dutiful daughters
Are we!
You who would follow,
Fear not to come,
For love is for love
As dove is for dove;
The harp of Apollo
Shall lull you to rest,
And your head find its home
On this beautiful breast.
Queen Aphrodite,
Born of the sea,
Beautiful dutiful daughters
Are we!
Born of the Ocean,
Wave-like are we!
Rising and falling
Like waves of the sea;
Changing for ever,
Yet ever the same,
Music in motion
And marble in flame.
Queen Aphrodite,
Born of the sea,
Beautiful dutiful daughters
Are we!
When I alighted once more upon the earth from the heaven of this
song, who should I find seated within a table of me but the very
couple I was at the moment so unexpectedly interested in? But
they were far too absorbed in each other to notice me, and
consequently I was able to hear all of importance that was said.
I regret that I cannot gratify the reader with a report of their
conversation, for the excuse I had for listening was one that is
not transferable. A woman's happiness was at stake. No other
consideration could have persuaded me to means so mean save an
end so noble. I didn't even tell Rosalind all I heard.
Mercifully for her, the candour of fools is not among my
superstitions. Suffice it for all third persons to know--what
Rosalind indeed has never known, and what I hope no reader will
be fool enough to tell her--that Orlando was for the moment
hopelessly and besottedly faithless to his wife, and that my
services had been bespoken in the very narrowest nick of time.
Having, as the reader has long known, a warm personal interest in
his attractive companion, and desiring, therefore, to think as
well of her as possible, I was pleased to deduce, negatively,
from their conversation, that Sylvia Joy knew nothing of
Rosalind, and believed Orlando to be a free, that is, an
unmarried man. From the point of view, therefore, of her code,
there was no earthly reason why she should not fall in with
Orlando's proposal that they should leave for Paris by the
"Mayflower" on the following morning. Orlando, I could hear,
wished to make more extended arrangements, and references to that
well-known rendezvous, "Eternity," fell on my ears from time to
time. Evidently Sylvia had no very saving belief in Eternity,
for I heard her say that they might see how they got on in Paris
for a start. Then it would be time enough to talk of Eternity.
This and other remarks of Sylvia's considerably predisposed me
towards her. Having concluded their arrangements for the heaven
of the morrow, they rose to take a stroll along the boulevards.
As they did so, I touched Orlando's shoulder and begged his
attention for a moment. Though an entire stranger to him, I had,
I said, a matter of extreme importance to communicate to him, and
I hoped, therefore, that it would suit his convenience to meet me
at the same place in an hour and a half. As I said this, I
flashed his wife's ring in the light so obviously that he was
compelled to notice it.
"Wherever did you get that?" he gasped, no little surprised and
"From your wife," I answered, rapidly moving away. "Be sure
to be here at eleven."
I slipped away into the crowd, and spent my hour and a half in
persuading Rosalind that her husband was no doubt a little
infatuated, but nevertheless the most faithful husband in the
world. If she would only leave all to me, by this time to-morrow
night, if not a good many hours before, he should be in her arms
as safe as in the Bank. It did my heart good to see how happy
this artistic adaptation of the truth made her; and I must say
that she never had a wiser friend.
When eleven came, I was back in my seat at the Cafe du Ciel.
Orlando too was excitedly punctual.
"Well, what is it?" he hurried out, almost before he had sat
"What will you do me the honour of drinking?" I asked calmly.
"Oh, drink be d----d!" he said; "what have you to tell me?"
"I'm glad to hear you rap out such a good honest oath," I
said; "but I should like a drink, for all that, and if I may say
so, you would be none the worse for a brandy and soda, late as it
When the drinks had come, I remarked to him quietly, but not
without significance: "The meaning of this ring is that your
wife is here, and very wretched. By an accident I have been
privileged with her friendship; and I may say, to save time, that
she has told me the whole story.
"What happily she has not been able to tell me, and what I need
hardly say she will never know from me, I overheard, in the
interests of your joint happiness, an hour or so ago."
The man who is telling the story has a proverbial great
advantage; but I hope the reader knows enough of me by this to
believe that I am far from meanly availing myself of it in this
narrative. I am well and gratefully aware that in this interview
with Orlando my advantages were many and fortunate. For example,
had he been bigger and older, or had he not been a gentleman, my
task had been considerably more arduous, not to say dangerous.
But, as Rosalind had said, he was really quite a boy, and I
confess I was a little ashamed for him, and a little piqued, that
he showed so little fight. The unexpectedness of my attack had,
I realised, given me the whip-hand. So I judged, at all events,
from the fact that he forbore to bluster, and sat quite still,
with his head in his hands, saying never a word for what seemed
several minutes. Then presently he said very quietly,--
"I love my wife all the same."
"Of course you do," I answered, eagerly welcoming the
significant announcement; "and if you'll allow me to say so, I
think I understand more about the whole situation than either of
you, bachelor though unfortunately I am. As a famous friend of
mine is fond of saying, lookers-on see most of the game."
Then I rapidly told him the history of my meeting with his wife,
and depicted, in harrowing pigments of phrase, the distress of
her mind.
"I love my wife all the same," he repeated, as I finished;
"and," he added, "I love Sylvia too."
"But not quite in the same way?" I suggested.
"I love Sylvia very tenderly," he said.
"Yes, I know; I don't think you could do anything else. No man
worth his salt could be anything but tender to a dainty little
woman like that. But tenderness, gentleness, affection, even
self-sacrifice,--these may be parts of love; but they are merely
the crude untransformed ingredients of a love such as you feel
for your wife, and such as I know she feels for you."
"She still loves me, then," he said pitifully; "she hasn't
fallen in love with you."
"No fear," I answered; "no such luck for me. If she had, I'm
afraid I should hardly have been talking to you as I am at this
moment. If a woman like Rosalind, as I call her, gave me her
love, it would take more than a husband to rob me of it, I can
tell you."
"Yes," he repeated, "on my soul, I love her. I have never
been false to her, in my heart; but--"
"I know all about it," I said; "may I tell you how it all
was,--diagnose the situation?"
"Do," he replied; "it is a relief to hear you talk."
"Well," I said, "may I ask one rather intimate question? Did
you ever before you were married sow what are known as wild
"Never," he answered indignantly, flashing for a moment.
"Well, you should have done," I said; "that's just the whole
trouble. Wild oats will get sown some time, and one of the arts
of life is to sow them at the right time,--the younger the
better. Think candidly before you answer me."
"I believe you are right," he replied, after a long pause.
"You are a believer in theories," I continued, "and so am I;
but you can take my word that on these matters not all, but some,
of the old theories are best. One of them is that the man who
does not sow his wild oats before marriage will sow them
afterwards, with a whirlwind for the reaping."
Orlando looked up at me, haggard with confession.
"You know the old story of the ring given to Venus? Well, it is
the ruin of no few men to meet Venus for the first time on their
marriage night. Their very chastity, paradoxical as it may seem,
is their destruction. No one can appreciate the peace, the holy
satisfaction of monogamy till he has passed through the wasting
distractions, the unrest of polygamy. Plunged right away into
monogamy, man, unexperienced in his good fortune, hankers after
polygamy, as the monotheistic Jew hankered after polytheism; and
thus the monogamic young man too often meets Aphrodite for the
first time, and makes future appointments with her, in the arms
of his pure young wife. If you have read Swedenborg, you will
remember his denunciation of the lust of variety. Now, that is a
lust every young man feels, but it is one to be satisfied before
marriage. Sylvia Joy has been such a variant for you; and I'm
afraid you're going to have some little trouble to get her off
your nerves. Tell me frankly," I said, "have you had your fill
of Aphrodite? It is no use your going back to your wife till you
have had that."
"I'm not quite a beast," he retorted. "After all, it was an
experiment we both agreed to try."
"Certainly," I answered, "and I hope it may have the result of
persuading you of the unwisdom of experimenting with happiness.
You have the realities of happiness; why should you trouble about
its theories? They are for unhappy people, like me, who must
learn to distil by learned patience the aurum potabile from the
husks of life, the peace which happier mortals find lying like
manna each morn upon the meadows."
"Well," I continued, "enough of the abstract; let us have
another drink, and tell me what you propose to do."
"Poor Sylvia!" sighed Orlando.
"Shall I tell you about Sylvia?" I said. "On second thoughts,
I won't. It would hardly be fair play; but this, I may say,
relying on your honour, that if you were to come to my hotel, I
could show you indisputable proof that I know at least as much
about Sylvia Joy as even such a privileged intimate as
"It is strange, then, that she never recognised you just now,"
he retorted, with forlorn alertness.
"Of course she didn't. How young you are! It is rather too
bad of a woman of Sylvia's experience."
"And I've bought our passages for to- morrow. I cannot let her
go without some sort of good-bye."
"Give the tickets to me. I can make use of them. How much are
they? Let's see."
The calculation made and the money passed across, I said
"Now supposing we go and see your wife."
"You have saved my life," he said hoarsely, pressing my hand as
we rose.
"I don't know about that," I said inwardly; "but I do hope I
have saved your wife."
As I thought of that, a fear occurred to me.
"Look here," I said, as we strolled towards the Twelve
Golden-Haired, "I hope you have no silly notions about
confession, about telling the literal truth and so on. Because I
want you to promise me that you will lie stoutly to your wife
about Sylvia Joy. You must swear the whole thing has been
platonic. It's the only chance for your happiness. Your wife,
no doubt, will lure you on to confession by saying that she
doesn't mind this, that, and the other, so long as you don't keep
it from her; and no doubt she will mean it till you have
confessed. But, however good their theories, women by nature
cannot help confusing body and soul, and what to a man is a mere
fancy of the senses, to them is a spiritual tragedy. Promise me
to lie stoutly on this point. It is, I repeat, the only chance
for your future happiness. As has been wisely said, a lie in
time saves nine; and such a lie as I advise is but one of the
higher forms of truth. Such lying, indeed, is the art of telling
the truth. The truth is that you love her body, soul, and
spirit; any accidental matter which should tend to make her doubt
that would be the only real lie. Promise me, won't you?"
"Yes, I will lie," said Orlando.
"Well, there she is," I said; "and God bless you both."
During a pause in my matrimonial lecture, Orlando had written a
little farewell note to Sylvia,--a note which, of course, I
didn't read, but which it is easy to imagine "wild with all
regret." This I undertook to have delivered to her the same
night, and promised to call upon her on the morrow, further to
illuminate the situation, and to offer her every consolation in
my power. To conclude the history of Orlando and his Rosalind, I
may say that I saw them off from Yellowsands by the early morning
coach. There was a soft brightness in their faces, as though rain
had fallen in the night; but it was the warm sweet rain of joy
that brings the flowers, and is but sister to the sun. They are,
at the time of my writing, quite old friends of mine, and both
have an excessive opinion of my wisdom and good-nature.
"That lie," Orlando once said to me long after, "was the
truest thing I ever said in my life,"--a remark which may not
give the reader a very exalted idea of his general veracity.
As the coach left long before pretty young actresses even dreamed
of getting up, I had to control my impatient desire to call on
Mademoiselle Sylvia Joy till it was fully noon. And even then
she was not to be seen. I tried again in the afternoon with
better success.
Rain had been falling in the night with her too, I surmised, but
it had failed to dim her gay eyes, and had left her complexion
unimpaired. Of course her little affair with Orlando had never
been very serious on her side. She genuinely liked him. "He
was a nice kind boy," was the height of her passionate
expression, and she was, naturally, a little disappointed at
having an affectionate companion thus unexpectedly whisked off
into space. Her only approach to anger was on the subject of his
deceiving her about his wife. Little Sylvia Joy had no very long
string of principles; but one generous principle she did hold
by,--never, if she knew it, to rob another woman of her husband.
And that did make her cross with Orlando. He had not played the
game fair.
There is no need to follow, step by step, the progression by
which Sylvia Joy and I, though such new acquaintances, became in
the course of a day or two even more intimate than many old
friends. We took to each other instinctively, even on our first
rather difficult interview, and very gently and imperceptibly I
bid for the vacant place in her heart.
That night we dined together.
The next day we lunched and dined together.
The next day we breakfasted, lunched, and dined together.
And on the next I determined to venture on the confession which,
as you may imagine, it had needed no little artistic control not
to make on our first meeting.
She looked particularly charming this evening, in a black silk
gown, exceedingly simple and distinguished in style, throwing up
the lovely firm whiteness of her throat and bosom, and making a
fine contrast with her lurid hair.
It was sheer delight to sit opposite her at dinner, and quietly
watch her without a word. Shall I confess that I had an
exceedingly boyish vanity in thus being granted her friendship?
It is almost too boyish to confess at my time of life. It was
simply in the fact that she was an actress,--a real, live, famous
actress, whose photographs made shop windows beautiful,--come
right out of my boy's fairyland of the theatre, actually to sit
eating and drinking, quite in a real way, at my side. This, no
doubt, will seem pathetically naive to most modern young men, who
in this respect begin where I leave off. An actress! Great
heavens! an actress is the first step to a knowledge of life.
Besides, actresses off the stage are either brainless or soulful,
and the choice of evils is a delicate one. Well, I have never
set up for a man of the world, though sometimes when I have heard
the Lovelaces of the day hinting mysteriously at their secret
sins or boasting of their florid gallantries, I have remembered
the last verse of Suckling's "Ballad of a Wedding," which, no
doubt, the reader knows as well as I, and if not, it will
increase his acquaintance with our brave old poetry to look it
"You are very beautiful to-night," I said, in one of the
meditative pauses between the courses.
"Thank you, kind sir," she said, making a mock courtesy; "but
the compliment is made a little anxious for me by your evident
implication that I didn't look so beautiful this morning. You
laid such a marked emphasis on to-night."
"Nay," I returned, " `for day and night are both alike to
thee.' I think you would even be beautiful--well, I cannot
imagine any moment or station of life you would not beautify."
"I must get you to write that down, and then I'll have it
framed. It would cheer me of a morning when I curl my hair,"
laughed Sylvia.
"But you are beautiful," I continued, becoming quite
"Yes, and as good as I'm beautiful."
And she was too, though perhaps the beauty occasionally
When the serious business of dining was dispatched, and we were
trifling with our coffee and liqueurs, my eyes, which of course
had seldom left her during the whole meal, once more enfolded her
little ivory and black silk body with an embrace as real as
though they had been straining passionate arms; and as I thus
nursed her in my eyes, I smiled involuntarily at a thought which
not unnaturally occurred to me.
"What is that sly smile about?" she asked. Now I had smiled to
think that underneath that stately silk, around that tight little
waist, was a dainty waistband bearing the legend "Sylvia Joy,"
No. 4, perhaps, or 5, but NOT No. 6; and a whole wonderful
underworld of lace and linen and silk stockings, the counterpart
of which wonders, my clairvoyant fancy laughed to think, were at
the moment--so entirely unsuspected of their original owner--my
delicious possessions.
Everything a woman wears or touches immediately incarnates
something of herself. A handkerchief, a glove, a flower,--with a
breath she endues them with immortal souls. How much, therefore,
of herself must inhere in a garment so confidential as a
petticoat, or so close and constant a companion as a stocking!
Now that I knew Sylvia Joy, I realised how absolutely true my
instinct had been, when on that far afternoon in that Surrey
garden I had said, "With such a petticoat and such a name,
Sylvia herself cannot be otherwise than charming."
Indeed, now I could see that the petticoat was nothing short of a
portrait of her, and that any one learned in the physiognomy of
clothes would have been able to pick Sylvia out of a thousand by
that spirited, spoilt, and petted garment.
"What is that sly smile about?" she repeated presently.
"I only chanced to think of an absurd little fairy story I read
the other day," I said, "which is quite irrelevant at the
moment. You know the idle way things come and go through one's
"I don't believe you," she replied, "but tell me the story. I
love fairy tales."
"Certainly," I said, for I wasn't likely to get a better
opportunity. "There's nothing much in it; it's merely a
variation of Cinderella's slipper. Well, once upon a time there
was an eccentric young prince who'd had his fling in his day,
but had arrived at the lonely age of thirty without having met a
woman whom he could love enough to make his wife. He was a
rather fanciful young prince, accustomed to follow his whims; and
one day, being more than usually bored with existence, he took it
into his head to ramble incognito through his kingdom in search
of his ideal wife,--`The Golden Girl,' as he called her. He had
hardly set out when in a country lane he came across a peasant
girl hanging out clothes to dry, and he fell to talk with her
while she went on with her charming occupation. Presently he
observed, pegged on the line, strangely incongruous among the
other homespun garments, a wonderful petticoat, so exquisite in
material and design that it aroused his curiosity. At the same
moment he noticed a pair of stockings, round the tops of which
one of the daintiest artists in the land had wrought an exquisite
little frieze. The prince was learned in every form of art, and
had not failed to study this among other forms of decoration. No
sooner did he see this petticoat than the whim seized him that he
would find and marry the wearer, whoever she might be--"
"Rather rash of him," interrupted Sylvia, "for it is usually
old ladies who have the prettiest petticoats. They can best
afford them--"
"He questioned the girl as to their owner," I continued, "and
after vainly pretending that they were her own, she confessed
that they had belonged to a young and beautiful lady who had once
lodged there and left them behind. Then the prince gave her a
purse of gold in exchange for the finery, and on the waistband of
the petticoat he read a beautiful name, and he said, `This and no
other shall be my wife, this unknown beautiful woman, and on our
marriage night she shall wear this petticoat.' And then the
prince went forth seeking--"
"There's not much point in it," interrupted Sylvia.
"No," I said, "I'm afraid I've stupidly missed the point."
"Why, what was it?"
"The name upon the petticoat!"
"Why, what name was it?" she asked, somewhat mystified.
"The inscription upon the petticoat was, to be quite accurate,
`Sylvia Joy, No. 6.' "
"Whatever are you talking about?" she said with quite a stormy
blush. "I'm afraid you've had more than your share of the
As I finished, I slipped out of my pocket a dainty little parcel
softly folded in white tissue paper. Very softly I placed it on
the table. It contained one of the precious stockings; and half
opening it, I revealed to Sylvia's astonished eyes the cunning
little frieze of Bacchus and Ariadne, followed by a troop of
Satyrs and Bacchantes, which the artist had designed to encircle
one of the white columns of that little marble temple which sat
before me.
"You know," I said, "how in fairy tales, when the wandering
hero or the maiden in distress has a guiding dream, the dream
often leaves something behind on the pillow to assure them of its
authenticity. `When you wake up,' the dream will say, `you will
find a rose or an oak-leaf or an eagle's feather, or whatever it
may be, on your pillow.' Well, I have brought this stocking--
for which, if I might but use them, I have at the moment a stock
of the most appropriately endearing adjectives--for the same
purpose. By this token you will know that the fairy tale I have
been telling you is true, and to-morrow, if you will, you shall
see your autograph petticoat."
"Why, wherever did you come across them? And what a mad
creature you must be! and what an odd thing that you should
really meet me, after all!" exclaimed Sylvia, all in a breath.
"Of course, I remember," she said frankly, and with a shade of
sadness passing over her face. "I was spending a holiday with
Jack Wentworth,--why, it must be nearly two years ago. Poor
Jack! he was killed in the Soudan," and poor Jack could have
wished no prettier resurrection than the look of tender memory
that came into her face as she spoke of him, and the soft baby
tears filled her eyes.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "Of course I didn't know. Let's
come for a little stroll. There seems to be a lovely moon."
"Of course you didn't, she said, patting my cheek with a kind
little hand. "Yes, do let us go for a stroll."
This unexpected awakening of an old tenderness naturally
prevented my speaking any more of my mind to Sylvia that evening.
No doubt the reader may be a little astonished to hear that I had
decided to offer her marriage,--not taking my serious view of a
fanciful vow. Doubtless Sylvia was not entirely suitable to me,
and to marry her was to be faithless to that vision of the
highest, that wonderful unknown woman of the apocalyptic
moorland, whose face Sylvia had not even momentarily banished
from my dreams, and whom, with an unaccountable certitude, I
still believed to be the woman God had destined for me; but, all
things considered, Sylvia was surely as pretty an answer to
prayer as a man could reasonably hope for. Many historic vows
had met with sadly less lucky fulfilment.
So, after dinner the following evening, I suggested that we
should for once take a little walk up along the river-side; and
when we were quiet in the moonlight, dappling the lovers' path we
were treading, and making sharp contrasts of ink and silver down
in the river-bed,--I spoke.
"Sylvia," I said, plagiarising a dream which will be found in
Chapter IV.,--"Sylvia, I have sought you through the world and
found you at last; and with your gracious permission, having
found you, I mean to stick to you."
"What do you mean, silly boy?" she said, as an irregularity in
the road threw her soft weight the more fondly upon my arm.
"I mean, dear, that I want you to be my wife."
"Your wife? Not for worlds!--no, forgive me, I didn't mean
that. You're an awful dear boy, and I like you very much, and I
think you're rather fond of me; but-- well, the truth is, I was
never meant to be married, and don't care about it--and when you
think of it, why should I?"
"You mean," I said, "that you are fortunate in living in a
society where, as in heaven, there is neither marrying nor giving
in marriage, where in fact nobody minds whether you're married
or not, and where morals are very properly regarded as a personal
and private matter--"
"Yes, that's what I mean," said Sylvia; "the people I care
about--dear good people--will think no more of me for having a
wedding-ring, and no less for my being without; and why should
one put a yoke round one's neck when nobody expects it? A
wedding-ring is like a top-hat,--you only wear it when you
must--But it's very sweet of you, all the same, and you can kiss
me if you like. Here's a nice sentimental patch of moonlight."
I really felt very dejected at this not of course entirely
unexpected rejection,--if one might use the word for a situation
on which had just been set the seal of so unmistakable a kiss;
but the vision in my heart seemed to smile at me in high and
happy triumph. To have won Sylvia would have been to have lost
her. My ideal had, as it were, held her breath till Sylvia
answered; now she breathed again.
"At all events, we can go on being chums, can't we?" I said.
For answer Sylvia hummed the first verse of that famous song writ
by Kit Marlowe.
"Yes!" she said presently. "I will sing for you, dance for
you, and--perhaps--flirt with you; but marry you--no! it's best
not, for both of us."
"Well, then," I said, "dance for me! You owe me some amends
for an aching heart." As I said this, the path suddenly
broadened into a little circular glade into which the moonlight
poured in a silver flood. In the centre of the space was a
boulder some three or four feet high, and with a flat slab-like
surface of some six feet or so.
"I declare I will," said Sylvia, giving me an impulsive kiss,
and springing on to the stone; "why, here is a ready-made
"And there," I said, "are the nightingale and the nightjar for
"And there is the moon," said she, "for lime-light man."
"Yes," I said; "and here is a handful of glow-worms for the
Then lifting up her heavy silk skirt about her, and revealing a
paradise of chiffons, Sylvia swayed for a moment with her face
full in the moon, and then slowly glided into the movements of a
mystical dance.
It was thus the fountains were dancing to the moon in Arabia; it
was thus the Nixies shook their white limbs on the haunted banks
of the Rhine; it was thus the fairy women flashed their alabaster
feet on the fairy hills of Connemara; it was thus the Houris were
dancing for Mahomet on the palace floors of Paradise.
"It was over such dancing," I said, "that John the Baptist
lost his head."
"Give me a kiss," she said, nestling exhausted in my arms. "I
always want some one to kiss when I have danced with my soul as
well as my body."
"I think we always do," I said, "when we've done anything
that seems wonderful, that gives us the thrill of really
"And a poor excuse is better than none, isn't it, dear?" said
Sylvia, her face full in the cataract of the moonlight.
As a conclusion for this chapter I will copy out a little song
which I extemporised for Sylvia on our way home to Yellowsands--
too artlessly happy, it will be observed, to rhyme correctly:--
Sylvia's dancing 'neath the moon,
Like a star in water;
Sylvia's dancing to a tune
Fairy folk have taught her.
Glow-worms light her little feet
In her fairy theatre;
Oh, but Sylvia is sweet!
Tell me who is sweeter!
As love-making in which we have no share is apt to be either
tantalising or monotonous, I propose to skip the next fortnight
and introduce myself to the reader at a moment when I am once
more alone. It is about six o'clock on a summer afternoon, I am
in Paris, and seated at one of the little marble tables of the
Cafe de la Paix, dreamily watching the glittering tide of gay
folk passing by,--
"All happy people on their way
To make a golden end of day."
Meditatively I smoke a cigarette and sip a pale greenish liquor
smelling strongly of aniseed, which isn't half so interesting as
a commonplace whiskey and soda, but which, I am told, has the
recommendation of being ten times as wicked. I sip it with a
delicious thrill of degeneration, as though I were Eve tasting
the apple for the first time,--for "such a power hath white
simplicity." Sin is for the innocent,--a truth which sinners
will be the first to regret. It was so, I said to myself, Alfred
de Musset used to sit and sip his absinthe before a fascinated
world. It is a privilege for the world to look on greatness at
any moment, even when it is drinking. So I sat, and privileged
the world.
It will readily be surmised from this exordium that--incredible
as it may seem in a man of thirty--this was my first visit to
Paris. You may remember that I had bought Orlando's tickets, and
it had occurred to Sylvia and me to use them. Sylvia was due in
London to fulfil a dancing engagement within a fortnight after
our arrival; so after a tender good-bye, which there was no
earthly necessity to make final, I had remained behind for the
purposes of study. Though, logically, my pilgrimage had ended
with the unexpected discovery of Sylvia Joy, yet there were two
famous feminine types of which, seeing that I was in Paris, I
thought I might as well make brief studies, before I returned to
London and finally resumed the bachelorhood from which I had
started. These were the grisette of fiction and the American
girl of fact. Pending these investigations, I meditated on the
great city in the midst of which I sat.
A city! How much more it was than that! Was it not the most
portentous symbol of modern history? Think what the word
"Paris" means to the emancipated intellect, to the political
government, to the humanised morals, of the world; not to speak
of the romance of its literature, the tradition of its manners,
and the immortal fame of its women. France is the brain of the
world, as England is its heart, and Russia its fist. Strange is
the power, strange are the freaks and revenges, of association,
particularly perhaps of literary association. Here pompous
official representatives may demur; but who can doubt that it is
on its literature that a country must rely for its permanent
representation? The countries that are forgotten, or are of no
importance in the councils of the world, are countries without
literature. Greece and Rome are more real in print than ever
they were in marble. Though, as we know, prophets are not
without honour save in their own countries and among their own
kindred, the time comes when their countries and kindred are
entirely without honour save by reason of those very prophets
they once despised, rejected, stoned, and crucified. Subtract its
great men from a nation, and where is its greatness?
Similarly, everything, however trifling, that has been written
about, so long as it has been written about sufficiently well,
becomes relatively enduring and representative of the country in
which it is found. To an American, for example, the significance
of a skylark is that Shelley sang it to skies where even it could
never have mounted; and any one who has heard the nightingale
must, if he be open-minded, confess its tremendous debt to Keats:
a tenth part genuine song, the rest moon, stars, silence, and
John Keats,--such is the nightingale. The real truth about a
country will never be known till every representative type and
condition in it have found their inspired literary mouthpiece.
Meanwhile one country takes its opinion of another from the
apercus of a few brilliant but often irresponsible or prejudiced
writers,--and really it is rather in what those writers leave out
than in what they put in that one must seek the more reliable
data of national character.
A quaint example of association occurs to me from the experience
of a friend of mine, "rich enough to lend to the poor." Having
met an American friend newly landed at Liverpool, and a hurried
quarter of an hour being all that was available for lunch, "Come
let us have a pork-pie and a bottle of Bass" he had suggested.
"Pork-pies!" said the American, with a delighted sense of
discovering the country,--"why, you read about them in
Dickens!" Who shall say but that this instinctive association
was an involuntary severe, but not inapplicable, criticism? A
nightingale suggests Keats; a pork-pie, Dickens.
Similarly with absinthe, grisettes, the Latin Quarter, and so on.
Why, you read about them in Murger, in Musset, in Balzac, and in
Flaubert; and the fact of your having read about them is, I may
add, their chief importance.
So rambled my after-dinner reflections as I sat that evening
smoking and sipping, sipping and smoking, at the Cafe de la Paix.
Presently in my dream I became aware of English voices near me,
one of which seemed familiar, and which I couldn't help
overhearing. The voice of the husband said,--you can never
mistake the voice of the husband,--
'T was the voice of the husband,
I heard him complain,--
the voice of the husband said: "Dora, I forbid you! I will NOT
allow my wife to be seen again in the Latin Quarter. I permitted
you to go once, as a concession, to the Cafe d'Harcourt; but once
is enough. You will please respect my wishes!"
"But," pleaded the dear little woman, whom I had an immediate
impulse, Perseus- like, to snatch from the jaws of her monster,
and turning to the other lady of the party of four,--"but Mrs.
---- has never been, and she cannot well go without a chaperone.
Surely it cannot matter for once. It isn't as if I were there
"No!" said the husband, with the absurd pomposity of his tribe.
"I'm very sorry. Mrs. ---- will, of course, act as she pleases;
but I cannot allow you to do it, Dora."
At last the little wife showed some spirit.
"Don't talk to me like that, Will," she said. "I shall go if
I please. Surely I am my own property."
"Not at all!" at once flashed out the husband, wounded in that
most vital part of him, his sense of property. "There you
mistake. You are my property, MY chattel; you promised obedience
to me; I bought you, and you do my bidding!"
"Great heavens!" I ejaculated, and, springing up, found myself
face to face with a well-known painter whom you would have
thought the most Bohemian fellow in London. And Bohemian he is;
but Bohemians are seldom Bohemians for any one save themselves.
They are terrible sticklers for convention and even etiquette in
other people.
We recognised each other with a laugh, and presently were at it,
hammer and tongs. I may say that we were all fairly intimate
friends, and thus had the advantage of entire liberty of speech.
I looked daggers at the husband; he looked daggers at me, and
occasionally looking at his wife, gave her a glance which was
like the opening of Bluebeard's closet. You could see the poor
murdered bodies dangling within the shadowy cupboard of his eye.
Of course we got no further. Additional opposition but further
enraged him. He recapitulated what he would no doubt call his
arguments,--they sounded more like threats,--and as he spoke I
saw dragons fighting for their dams in the primeval ooze, and
heard savage trumpetings of masculine monsters without a name.
I told him so.
"You are," I said,--"and you will forgive my directness of
expression,--you are the Primeval Male! You are the direct
descendant of those Romans who carried off the Sabine women.
Nay! you have a much longer genealogy. You come of those hairy
anthropoid males who hunted their mates through the tangle of
primeval forests, and who finally obtained their consent--shall
we say?--by clubbing them on the head with a stone axe. You talk
a great deal of nonsense about the New Woman, but you, Sir, are
THE OLD MALE; and," I continued, "I have only to obtain your
wife's consent to take her under my protection this instant."
Curiously enough, "The Old Male," as he is now affectionately
called, became from this moment quite a bosom friend. Nothing
would satisfy us but that we should all lodge at the same pension
together, and there many a day we fought our battles over again.
But that poor little wife never, to my knowledge, went to the
Cafe d'Harcourt again.
This meeting with William and Dora was fortunate from the point
of view of my studies; for that very night, as I dined with them
en pension, I found that providence, with his usual foresight,
had placed me next to a very charming American girl of the type
that I was particularly wishful to study. She seemed equally
wishful to be studied, and we got on amazingly from the first
moment of our acquaintance. By the middle of dinner we were
pressing each other's feet under the table, and when coffee and
cigarettes had come, we were affianced lovers. "Why should I
blush to own I love?" was evidently my quaint little companion's
motto; and indeed she didn't blush to own it to the whole table,
and publicly to announce that I was the dearest boy, and
absolutely the most lovable man she had met. There was nothing
she wouldn't do for me. Would she brave the terrors of the
Latin Quarter with me, I asked, and introduce me to the terrible
Cafe d'Harcourt, about which William and Dora had suffered such
searchings of heart? "Why, certainly; there was nothing in
that," she said. So we went.
Nothing is more absurd and unjust than those crude labels of
national character which label one country virtuous and another
vicious, one musical and another literary. Thus France has an
unjust reputation for vice, and England an equally unjust
reputation for virtue.
I had always, I confess, been brought up to think of Paris as a
sort of Sodom and Gomorrah in one. Good Americans might go to
Paris, according to the American theory of a future state; but,
certainly I had thought, no good Englishman ever went
there--except, maybe, on behalf of the Vigilance Society. Well,
it may sound an odd thing to say, but what impressed me most of
all was the absolute innocence of the place.
I mean this quite seriously. For surely one important condition
of innocence is unconsciousness of doing wrong. The poor
despised Parisian may be a very wicked and depraved person, but
certainly he goes about with an absolute unconsciousness of it
upon his gay and kindly countenance.
"Seeing the world" usually means seeing everything in it that
most decent people won't look at; but when you come to look at
these terrible things and places, what do you find? Why,
absolute disappointment!
Have you ever read that most amusing book, "Baedeker on Paris"?
I know nothing more delightful than the notes to the Montmartre
and Latin Quarters. The places to which you, as a smug Briton,
may or may not take a lady! The scale of wickedness allowed to
the waxwork British lady is most charmingly graduated. I had
read that the cafe where we were sitting was one of the most
terrible places in Paris,--the Cafe d'Harcourt, where the
students of the Latin Quarter take their nice little domestic
mistresses to supper. But Baedeker was dreadfully Pecksniffian
about these poor innocent etudiantes, many of whom love their
lovers much more truly than many a British wife loves her
husband, and are much better loved in return. If you doubt it,
dare to pay attention to one of these young ladies, and you will
probably have to fight a duel for it. In fact, these romantic
relations are much more careful of honour than conventional ones;
for love, and not merely law, keeps guard.
I looked around me. Where were those terrible things I had read
of? Where was this hell which I had reasonably expected would
gape leagues of sulphur and blue flame beneath the little marble
table? I mentally resolved to bring an action against Baedeker
for false information. For what did I see? Simply pairs and
groups of young men and women chattering amiably in front of
their "bocks" or their "Americains." Here and there a
student would have his arm round a waist every one else envied
him. One student was prettily trying a pair of new gloves upon
his little woman's hand. Here and there blithe songs would
spring up, from sheer gladness of heart; and never was such a
buzz of happy young people, not even at a Sunday-school treat.
To me it seemed absolutely Arcadian, and I thought of Daphnis and
Chloe and the early world. Nothing indecorous or gross; all
perfectly pretty and seemly.
On our way home Semiramis was so sweet to me, in her innocent,
artless frankness, that I went to bed with an intoxicating
feeling that I must be irresistible indeed, to have so completely
conquered so true a heart in so few hours. I was the more
flattered because I am not a vain man, and am not, like some,
accustomed to take hearts as the Israelites took Jericho with the
blast of one's own trumpet.
But, alas! my dream of universal irresistibility was but
short-lived, for next afternoon, as William and I sat out at some
cafe together, I found myself the object of chaff.
"Well," said William, "how goes the love-affair?"
I flushed somewhat indignantly at his manner with sanctities.
"I see!" he said, "I see! You are already corded and
labelled, and will be shipped over by the next mail,--`To Miss
Semiramis Wilcox, 1001 99th St., Philadelphia, U.S.A. Man
with care.' Well, I did think you'd got an eye in your head.
Look here, don't be a fool! I suppose she said you were the
first and last. The last you certainly were. There are limits
even to the speed of American girls; but the first, my boy! You
are more like the twelfth, to my ocular knowledge. Here comes
Dubois the poet. He can tell you something about Miss Semiramis.
Eh! Dubois, you know Miss Semiramis Wilcox, don't you?"
The Frenchman smiled and shrugged.
"Un peu," he said.
"Don't be an ass and get angry," William continued; "it's all
for your own good."
"The little Semiramis has been seducing my susceptible friend
here. Like many of us, he has been captivated by her
naturalness, her naivete, her clear good eyes,--that look of
nature that is always art! May I relate the idyl of your tragic
passion, dear Dubois, as an object lesson?"
The Frenchman bowed, and signed William to proceed.
"You dined with us one evening, and you thus met for the first
time. You sat together at table. What happened with the fish?"
"She swore I was the most beautiful man she had ever seen,--and
I am not beautiful, as you perceive."
If not beautiful, the poet was certainly true.
"What happened at the entree?"
"Oh, long before that we were pressing our feet under the
"And the coffee--"
"Mon Dieu! we were Tristram and Yseult, we were all the great
lovers in the Pantheon of love."
"And what then?"
"Oh, we went to the Cafe d'Harcourt--mon ami."
"Did she wear a veil?" I asked.
"Oui, certainement!"
"And did you say, `Why do you wear a veil,--setting a black
cloud before the eyes and gates of heaven'?"
"The very words," said the Frenchman.
"And did she say, `Yes, but the veil can be raised?' "
"She did, mon pauvre ami," said the poet.
"And did you raise it?"
"I did," said the poet.
"And so did I," I answered. And as I spoke, there was a crash
of white marble in my soul, and lo! Love had fallen from his
pedestal and been broken into a thousand pieces,--a heavy, dead
thing he lay upon the threshold of my heart.
We had appointed a secret meeting in the salon of the pension
that afternoon. I was not there! (Nor, as I afterwards learnt,
was Semiramis.) When we did meet, I was brutally cold. I evaded
all her moves; but when at last I decided to give her a hearing,
I confess it needed all my cynicism to resist her air of
innocence, of pathetic devotion.
If I couldn't love her, she said, might she go on loving me?
Might she write to me sometimes? She would be content if now and
again I would send her a little word. Perhaps in time I would
grow to believe in her love, etc.
The heart-broken abandonment with which she said this was a sore
trial to me; but though love may be deceived, vanity is ever
vigilant, and vanity saved me. Yet I left her with an aching
sense of having been a brute, and on the morning of my departure
from Paris, as I said good-bye to William and Dora, I spoke
somewhat seriously of Semiramis. Dora, Dora-like, had believed in
her all along,--not having enjoyed William's opportunities of
studying her,--and she reproached me with being rather
"Nonsense," said William, "if she really cared, wouldn't she
have been up to bid you good-bye?"
The words were hardly gone from his lips when there came a little
knock at the door. It was Semiramis; she had come to say goodbye.
Was it in nature not to be touched? "Good-bye," she said,
as we stood a moment alone in the hall. "I shall always think
of you; you shall not be to me as a ship that has passed in the
night, though to me you have behaved very like an iceberg."
We parted in tears and kisses, and I lived for some weeks with
that sense of having been a Nero, till two months after I
received a much glazed and silvered card to the usual effect.
And so I ceased to repine for the wound I had made in the heart
of Semiramis Wilcox.
Of another whom I met and loved in that brief month in Paris, I
cherish tenderer memories. Prim little Pauline Deschapelles! How
clearly I can still see the respectable brass plate on the door
of your little flat-- "Mademoiselle Deschapelles--Modes et
Robes;" and indeed the "modes et robes" were true enough. For
you were in truth a very hard-working little dressmaker, and I
well remember how impressed I was to sit beside you, as you plied
your needle on some gown that must be finished by the evening,
and meditate on the quaint contrast between your almost Puritanic
industry and your innocent love of pleasure. I don't think I
ever met a more conscientious little woman than little Pauline
There was but one drawback to our intercourse. She didn't know a
word of English, and I couldn't speak a word of French. So we
had to make shift to love without either language. But sometimes
Pauline would throw down her stitching in amused impatience, and,
going to her dainty secretaire, write me a little message in the
simplest baby French--which I would answer in French which would
knit her brows for a moment or two, and then send her off in
peals of laughter.
It WAS French! I know. Among the bric-a-brac of my heart I
still cherish some of those little slips of paper with which we
made international love--question and answer.
"Vous allez m'oublier, et ne plus penser a moi--ni me voir. Les
hommes--egoistes-- menteurs, pas dire la verite . . ." so ran
the questions, considerably devoid of auxiliary verbs and such
details of construction.
"Je serais jamais t'oublier," ran the frightful answers!
Dear Pauline! Shall I ever see her again? She was but
twenty-six. She may still live.
So ended my pilgrimage. I had wandered far, had loved many, but
I came back to London without the Golden Girl. I had begun my
pilgrimage with a vision, and it was with a vision that I ended
it. From all my goings to and fro upon the earth, I had brought
back only the image of a woman's face,--the face of that strange
woman of the moorland, still haunting my dreams of the night and
the day.
It was autumn in my old garden, damp and forsaken, and the
mulberry-tree was hung with little yellow shields. My books
looked weary of awaiting me, and they and the whole lonely house
begged me to take them where sometimes they might be handled by
human fingers, mellowed by lamplight, cheered by friendly
The very chairs begged mutely to be sat upon, the chill white
beds to be slept in. Yes, the very furniture seemed even
lonelier than myself.
So I took heed of their dumb appeal.
"I know," I answered them tenderly,--"I too, with you, have
looked on better days, I too have been where bells have knoll'd
to church, I too have sat at many a good man's feast,--yes! I
miss human society, even as you, my books, my bedsteads, and my
side- boards,--so let it be. It is plain our little Margaret is
not coming back, our little Margaret, dear haunted rooms, will
never come back; no longer shall her little silken figure flit up
and down your quiet staircases, her hands filled with flowers,
and her heart humming with little songs. Yes, let us go, it is
very lonely; we shall die if we stay here all so lonely together;
it is time, let us go."
So thereon I wrote to a furniture-remover, and went out to walk
round the mossy old garden for the last time, and say good-bye to
the great mulberry, under whose Dodonaesque shade we had sat half
frightened on starry nights, to the apple-trees whose blossom had
seemed like fairy-land to Margaret and me, town-bred folk, to the
apricots and the peaches and the nectarines that it had seemed
almost wicked to own,--as though we had gone abroad in silk and
velvet,--to the little grassy orchard, and to the little green
corner of it, where Margaret had fallen asleep that summer
afternoon, in the great wicker-chair, and I had brought a dear
friend on tiptoe to gaze on her asleep, with her olive cheeks
delicately flushed, her great eyelids closed like the cheeks of
roses, and her gold hair tumbled about her neck . . .
Well, well, good-bye,--tears are foolish things. They will not
bring Margaret back. Good-bye, old garden, good-bye, I shall
never see you again,--good-bye.
This book is like a woman's letter. The most important part of
it is the postscript
Six years lie between the end of the last chapter and the
beginning of this. Meanwhile, I had moved to sociable chambers
within sound of the city clocks, and had lived the life of a
lonely man about town, sinking more and more into the comfortable
sloth of bachelorhood. I had long come to look back upon my
pilgrimage as a sort of Indian-summer youth, being, as the reader
can reckon for himself, just on thirty-seven. As one will, with
one's most serious experiences, hastening to laugh lest one
should weep, as the old philosopher said, I had made some fun out
of my quest, in the form of a paper for a bookish society to
which I belonged, on "Woman as a Learned Pursuit." It is
printed among the transactions of the society, and is accessible
to the curious only by loan from the members, and I regret that I
am unable to print any extracts here. Perhaps when I am dead the
society will see the criminal selfishness of reserving for itself
what was meant for mankind.
Meanwhile, however, it is fast locked and buried deep in the
archives of the club. I have two marriages to record in the
interval: one that of a young lady whom I must still think of as
`Nicolete' to Sir Marmaduke Pettigrew, Bart., of Dultowers Hall,
and the other the well-known marriage of Sylvia Joy . . .
Sylvia Joy married after all her fine protestations! Yes! but
I'm sure you will forgive her, for she was married to a lord.
When one is twenty and romantic one would scorn a woman who would
jilt us for wealth and position; at thirty, one would scorn any
woman who didn't. Ah me! how one changes! No one, I can
honestly say, was happier over these two weddings than I, and I
sent Sylvia her petticoat as a wedding present.
But it was to tell of other matters that I reopen this book and
once more take up my pen--matters so near to my heart that I
shrink from writing of them, and am half afraid that the attempt
may prove too hard for me after all, and my book end on a broken
cry of pain. Yet, at the same time, I want to write of them, for
they are beautiful and solemn, and good food for the heart.
Besides, though my pilgrimage had been ended so long, they are
really a part, yea, the part for which, though I knew it not, all
the rest has been written--for they tell how I came to find by
accident her whom so long I had sought of design.
How shall I tell of Thee who, first and last of all women, gave
and awoke in me that love which is the golden key of the world,
the mystic revelation of the holy meaning of life, love that
alone may pass through the awful gates of the stars, and gaze
unafraid into the blue abysses beyond?
Ah! Love, it seemed far away indeed from the stars, the place
where we met, and only by the light of love's eyes might we have
found each other--as only by the light of love's eyes . . . But
enough, my Heart, the world waits to hear our story,--the world
once so unloving to you, the world with a heart so hard and anon
so soft for love. When the story is ended, my love, when the
story is ended--
It was a hard winter's night four years ago, lovely and
merciless; and towards midnight I walked home from a theatre to
my rooms in St. James's Street. The Venusberg of Piccadilly
looked white as a nun with snow and moonlight, but the melancholy
music of pleasure, and the sad daughters of joy, seemed not to
heed the cold. For another hour death and pleasure would dance
there beneath the electric lights.
Through the strange women clustering at the corners I took my
way,--women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and
Hittites,--and I thought, as I looked into their poor painted
faces,--faces but half human, vampirish faces, faces already
waxen with the look of the grave,--I thought, as I often did, of
the poor little girl whom De Quincey loved, the good-hearted
little `peripatetic' as he called her, who had succoured him
during those nights, when, as a young man, he wandered homeless
about these very streets,--that good, kind little Ann whom De
Quincey had loved, then so strangely lost, and for whose face he
looked into women's faces as long as he lived. Often have I
stood at the corner of Titchfield Street, and thought how De
Quincey had stood there night after night waiting for her to
come, but all in vain, and how from the abyss of oblivion into
which some cruel chance had swept her, not one cry from her ever
reached him again.
I thought, too, as I often did, what if the face I seek should be
here among these poor outcasts,--golden face hidden behind a mask
of shame, true heart still beating true even amidst this infernal
Thus musing, I had walked my way out of the throng, and only a
figure here and there in the shadows of doorways waited and
waited in the cold.
It was something about one of these waiting figures,--some
movement, some chance posture,--that presently surprised my
attention and awakened a sudden sense of half recognition. She
stood well in the shadow, seeming rather to shrink from than to
court attention. As I walked close by her and looked keenly into
her face, she cast down her eyes and half turned away. Surely, I
had seen that tall, noble figure somewhere before, that haughty
head; and then with the apparition a thought struck me--but, no!
it couldn't be she! not HERE!
"It is," said my soul, as I turned and walked past her again;
"you missed her once, are you going to miss her again?"
"It is," said my eyes, as they swept her for the third time;
"but she had glorious chestnut hair, and the hair of this woman
"It is she," said my heart; "thank God, it is she!"
So it was that I went up to that tall, shy figure.
"It must be very cold here," I said; "will you not join me in
some supper?"
She assented, and we sought one of the many radiating centres of
festivity in the neighbourhood. She was very tired and cold,
--so tired she seemed hardly to have the spirit to eat, and
evidently the cold had taken tight clutch of her lungs, for she
had a cough that went to my heart to hear, and her face was
ghastly pale. When I had persuaded her to drink a little wine,
she grew more animated and spots of suspicious colour came into
her cheeks. So far she had seemed all but oblivious of my
presence, but now she gave me a sweet smile of gratitude, one of
those irradiating transfiguring smiles that change the whole
face, and belong to few faces, the heavenly smile of a pure soul.
Yes, it was she! The woman who sat in front of me was the woman
whom I had met so strangely that day on that solitary moorland,
and whom in prophecy still more strange my soul had declared to
be, "now and for ever and before all worlds the woman God had
created for me, and that unless I could be hers and she mine,
there could be no home, no peace, for either of us so long as we
lived--" and now so strangely met again.
Yes, it was she!
For the moment my mind had room for no other thought. I cared
not to conjecture by what devious ways God had brought her to my
side. I cared not what mire her feet had trodden. She had
carried her face pure as a lily through all the foul and sooty
air. There was a pure heart in her voice. Sin is of the soul,
and this soul had not sinned! Let him that is without sin
amongst you cast the first stone.
"Why did you dye that wonderful chestnut hair?" I asked her
presently--and was sorry next minute for the pain that shot
across her face, but I just wanted to hint at what I designed not
to reveal fully till later on, and thus to hint too that it was
not as one of the number of her defilers that I had sought her.
"Why," she said, "how do you know the colour of my hair? We
have never met before."
"Yes, we have," I said, "and that was why I spoke to you
to-night. I'll tell you where it was another time."
But after all I could not desist from telling her that night,
for, as afterwards at her lodging we sat over the fire, talking
as if we had known each other all our lives, there seemed no
reason for an arbitrary delay.
I described to her the solitary moorland road, and the
grey-gowned woman's figure in front of me, and the gig coming
along to meet her, and the salutation of the two girls, and I
told her all one look of her face had meant for me, and how I had
wildly sought her in vain, and from that day to this had held her
image in my heart.
And as I told her, she sobbed with her head against my knees and
her great hair filling my lap with gold. In broken words she
drew for me the other side of the picture of that long-past
summer day.
Yes, the girl in the gig was her sister, and they were the only
daughters of a farmer who had been rich once, but had come to
ruin by drink and misfortune. They had been brought up from
girls by an old grandmother, with whom the sister was living at
the time of my seeing them. Yes, Tom was her husband. He was a
doctor in the neighbourhood when he married her, and a man, I
surmised, of some parts and promise, but, moving to town, he had
fallen into loose ways, taken to drinking and gambling, and had
finally deserted her for another woman--at the very moment when
their first child was born. The child died "Thank God!" she
added with sudden vehemence, and "I--well, you will wonder how I
came to this, I wonder myself-- it has all happened but six
months ago, and yet I seem to have forgotten--only the brokenhearted
and the hungry would understand, if I could remember--and
yet it was not life, certainly not life I wanted--and yet I
couldn't die--"
The more I came to know Elizabeth and realise the rare delicacy
of her nature, the simplicity of her mind, and the purity of her
soul, the less was I able to comprehend the psychology of that
false step which her great misery had forced her to take. For
hers was not a sensual, pleasure-loving nature. In fact, there
was a certain curious Puritanism about her, a Puritanism which
found a startlingly incongruous and almost laughable expression
in the Scripture almanac which hung on the wall at the end of her
bed, and the Bible, and two or three Sunday-school stories which,
with a copy of "Jane Eyre," were the only books that lay upon
the circular mahogany table.
Once I ventured gently to chaff her about this religiosity of
"But surely you believe in God, dear," she had answered,
"you're not an atheist!"
I think an atheist, with all her experience of human monsters,
was for her the depth of human depravity.
"No, dear," I had answered; "if you can believe in God, surely
I can!"
I repeat that this gap in Elizabeth's psychology puzzled me, and
it puzzles me still, but it puzzled me only as the method of
working out some problem which after all had "come out right"
might puzzle one. It was only the process that was obscure. The
result was gold, whatever the dark process might be. Was it
simply that Elizabeth was one of that rare few who can touch
pitch and not be defiled?--or was it, I have sometimes wondered,
an unconscious and after all a sound casuistry that had saved
Elizabeth's soul, an instinctive philosophy that taught her, so
to say, to lay a Sigurd's sword between her soul and body, and to
argue that nothing can defile the body without the consent of the
In deep natures there is always what one might call a lover's
leap to be taken by those that would love them--something one
cannot understand to be taken on trust, something even that one
fears to be gladly adventured . . . all this, and more, I knew
that I could safely venture for Elizabeth's sake, ere I kissed
her white brow and stole away in the early hours of that winter's
As I did so I had taken one of the sumptuous strands of her hair
into my hand and kissed it too.
"Promise me to let this come back to its own beautiful colour,"
I had said, as I nodded to a little phial labelled "Peroxide of
Hydrogen" on her mantelshelf.
"Would you like to?" she had said.
"Yes, do it for me."
One day some months after I cut from her dear head one long thick
lock, one half of which was gold and the other half chestnut. I
take it out and look at it as I write, and, as when I first cut
it, it seems still a symbol of Elizabeth's life, the sun and the
shadow, only that the gold was the shadow, and the chestnut was
the sun.
The time came when the locks, from crown to tip, were all
chestnut--but when it came I would have given the world for them
to be gold again; for Elizabeth had said a curious thing when she
had given me her promise.
"All right, dear," she had said, "but something tells me that
when they are all brown again our happiness will be at an end."
"How long will that take?" I had said, trying to be gay, though
an involuntary shudder had gone through me, less at her words
than because of the strange conviction of her manner.
"About two years,--perhaps a little more," she said, answering
me quite seriously, as she gravely measured the shining tresses,
half her body's length, with her eye.
One fresh and sunny morning, some months after this night,
Elizabeth and I stood before the simple altar of a little country
church, for the news had come to us that her husband was dead,
and thus we were free to belong to each other before all the
world. The exquisite stillness in the cool old church was as the
peace in our hearts, and the rippling sound of the sunlit leaves
outside seemed like the very murmur of the stream of life down
which we dreamed of gliding together from that hour.
It was one of those moments which sometimes come and go without
any apparent cause, when life suddenly takes a mystical aspect of
completeness, all its discords are harmonised by some unseen hand
of the spirit, and all its imperfections fall away. The lover of
beauty and the lover of God alike know these strange moments, but
none know them with such a mighty satisfaction as a man and a
woman who love as loved Elizabeth and I.
Love for ever completes the world, for it is no future of higher
achievement, no expectation of greater joy. It lives for ever in
a present made perfect by itself. Love can dream of no greater
blessedness than itself, of no heaven but its own. God himself
could have added no touch of happiness to our happy hearts that
grave and sunny morning. You philosophers who go searching for
the meaning of life, thinkers reading so sadly, and let us hope
so wrongly, the riddle of the world--life has but one meaning,
the riddle but one answer--which is Love. To love is to put
yourself in harmony with the spheral music of creation, to stand
in the centre of the universe, and see it good and whole as it
appears in the eye of God.
Even Death himself, the great and terrible King of kings, though
he may break the heart of love with agonies and anguish and slow
tortures of separation, may break not his faith. No one that has
loved will dream even death too terrible a price to pay for the
revelation of love. For that revelation once made can never be
recalled. As a little sprig of lavender will perfume a queen's
wardrobe, so will a short year of love keep sweet a long life.
And love's best gifts death can never take away. Nay, indeed,
death does not so much rob as enrich the gifts of love. The dead
face that was fair grows fairer each spring, sweet memories grow
more sweet, what was silver is now gold, and as years go by, the
very death of love becomes its immortality.
I think I shall never hear Elizabeth's voice again, never look
into her eyes, never kiss her dear lips--but Elizabeth is still
mine, and I am hers, as in that morning when we kissed in that
little chancel amid the flickering light, and passed out into the
sun and down the lanes, to our little home among the
She is still as real to me as the stars,--and, alas, as far
away! I think no thought that does not fly to her, I have no
joys I do not share with her, I tell her when the spring is here,
and we sit beneath the moon and listen to the nightjar together.
Sometimes we are merry together as in the old time, and our
laughter makes nightfaring folk to cross themselves; my work, my
dreams, my loves, are all hers, and my very sins are sinned for
her sake.
Two years did Elizabeth and I know the love that passeth all
understanding, and day by day the chestnut upon her head was more
and the gold less, till the day came that she had prophesied, and
with the day a little child, whose hair had stolen all her
mother's gold, as her heart had drained away her mother's life.
Ah! reader, may it be long before you kneel at the bedside of her
you love best in the world, and know that of all your love is
left but a hundred heart-beats, while opposite sits Death, watch
in hand, and fingers upon her wrist.
"Husband," whispered Elizabeth, as we looked at each other for
the last time, "let her be your little golden girl . . ."
And then a strange sweetness stole over her face, and the dream
of Elizabeth's life was ended.
As I write I hear in the still house the running of little feet,
a fairy patter sweet and terrible to the heart.
Little feet, little feet--perhaps if I follow you I shall find
again our mother that is lost. Perhaps Elizabeth left you with me
that I should not miss the way.
Tout par soullas.

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