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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Green Carnation - Chapter I
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The Green Carnation - Chapter I Post by :nennito Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Hichens Date :April 2012 Read :3417

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The Green Carnation - Chapter I

CHAPTER I

He slipped a green carnation into his evening coat, fixed it in its place with a pin, and looked at himself in the glass, the long glass that stood near the window of his London bedroom. The summer evening was so bright that he could see his double clearly, even though it was just upon seven o'clock. There he stood in his favourite and most characteristic attitude, with his left knee slightly bent, and his arms hanging at his sides, gazing, as a woman gazes at herself before she starts for a party. The low and continuous murmur of Piccadilly, like the murmur of a flowing tide on a smooth beach, stole to his ears monotonously, and inclined him insensibly to a certain thoughtfulness. Floating through the curtained window the soft lemon light sparkled on the silver backs of the brushes that lay on the toilet-table, on the dressing-gown of spun silk that hung from a hook behind the door, on the great mass of gloire de Dijon roses, that dreamed in an ivory-white bowl set on the writing-table of ruddy-brown wood. It caught the gilt of the boy's fair hair and turned it into brightest gold, until, despite the white weariness of his face, the pale fretfulness of his eyes, he looked like some angel in a church window designed by Burne-Jones, some angel a little blase from the injudicious conduct of its life. He frankly admired himself as he watched his reflection, occasionally changing his pose, presenting himself to himself, now full face, now three-quarters face, leaning backward or forward, advancing one foot in its silk stocking and shining shoe, assuming a variety of interesting expressions. In his own opinion he was very beautiful, and he thought it right to appreciate his own qualities of mind and of body. He hated those fantastic creatures who are humble even in their self-communings, cowards who dare not acknowledge even to themselves how exquisite, how delicately fashioned they are. Quite frankly he told other people that he was very wonderful, quite frankly he avowed it to himself. There is a nobility in fearless truthfulness, is there not? and about the magic of his personality he could never be induced to tell a lie.

It is so interesting to be wonderful, to be young, with pale gilt hair and blue eyes, and a face in which the shadows of fleeting expressions come and go, and a mouth like the mouth of Narcissus. It is so interesting to oneself. Surely one's beauty, one's attractiveness, should be one's own greatest delight. It is only the stupid, and those who still cling to Exeter Hall as to a Rock of Ages, who are afraid, or ashamed, to love themselves, and to express that love, if need be. Reggie Hastings, at least, was not ashamed. The mantel-piece in his sitting-room bore only photographs of himself, and he explained this fact to inquirers by saying that he worshipped beauty. Reggie was very frank. When he could not be witty, he often told the naked truth; and truth, without any clothes on, frequently passes for epigram. It is daring, and so it seems clever. Reggie was considered very clever by his friends, but more clever by himself. He knew that he was great, and he said so often in Society. And Society smiled and murmured that it was a pose. Everything is a pose nowadays, especially genius.

This evening Reggie stood before the mirror till the Sevres clock on the chimneypiece gently chimed seven. Then he drew out of their tissue paper a pair of lavender gloves, and pressed the electric bell.

"Call me a hansom, Flynn," he said to his valet.

He threw a long buff-coloured overcoat across his arm, and went slowly downstairs. A cab was at the door, and he entered it and told the man to drive to Belgrave Square. As they turned the corner of Half Moon Street into Piccadilly, he leant forward over the wooden apron and lazily surveyed the crowd. Every second cab he passed contained an immaculate man going out to dinner, sitting bolt upright, with a severe expression of countenance, and surveying the world with steady eyes over an unyielding rampart of starched collar. Reggie exchanged nods with various acquaintances. Presently he passed an elderly gentleman with a red face and small side whiskers. The elderly gentleman stared him in the face, and sniffed ostentatiously.

"What a pity my poor father is so plain," Reggie said to himself with a quiet smile. Only that morning he had received a long and vehement diatribe from his parent, showering abuse upon him, and exhorting him to lead a more reputable life. He had replied by wire--

"What a funny little man you are.--Reggie."

The funny little man had evidently received his message.

As his cab drew up for a moment at Hyde Park corner to allow a stream of pedestrians to cross from the Park, he saw several people pointing him out. Two well-dressed women looked at him and laughed, and he heard one murmur his name to the other. He let his blue eyes rest upon them calmly as they peacocked across to St. George's Hospital, still laughing, and evidently discussing him. He did not know them, but he was accustomed to being known. His life had never been a cautious one. He was too modern to be very reticent, and he liked to be wicked in the eye of the crowd. Secret wickedness held little charm for him. He preferred to preface his failings with an overture on the orchestra, to draw up the curtain, and to act his drama of life to a crowded audience of smart people in the stalls. When they hissed him, he only pitied them, and wondered at their ignorance. His social position kept him in Society, however much Society murmured against him; and, far from fearing scandal, he loved it. He chose his friends partly for their charm, and partly for their bad reputations; and the white flower of a blameless life was much too inartistic to have any attraction for him. He believed that Art showed the way to Nature, and worshipped the abnormal with all the passion of his impure and subtle youth.

"Lord Reginald Hastings," cried Mrs. Windsor's impressive butler, and Reggie entered the big drawing-room in Belgrave Square with the delicate walk that had led certain Philistines to christen him Agag. There were only two ladies present, and one tall and largely built man, with a closely shaved, clever face, and rather rippling brown hair.

"So sweet of you to come, dear Lord Reggie," said Mrs. Windsor, a very pretty woman of the preserved type, with young cheeks and a middle-aged mouth, hair that was scarcely out of its teens, and eyes full of a weary sparkle. "But I knew that Mr. Amarinth would prove a magnet. Let me introduce you to my cousin, Lady Locke--Lord Reginald Hastings."

Reggie bowed to a lady dressed in black, and shook hands affectionately with the big man, whom he addressed as Esme. Five minutes later dinner was announced, and they sat down at a small oval table covered with pale pink roses.

"The opera to-night is 'Faust,'" said Mrs. Windsor. "Ancona is Valentine, and Melba is Marguerite. I forget who else is singing, but it is one of Harris' combination casts, a constellation of stars."

"The evening stars sang together!" said Mr. Amarinth, in a gently elaborate voice, and with a sweet smile. "I wonder Harris does not start morning opera; from twelve till three for instance. One could drop in after breakfast at eleven, and one might arrange to have luncheon parties between the acts."

"But surely it would spoil one for the rest of the day," said Lady Locke, a fresh-looking woman of about twenty-eight, with the sort of face that is generally called sensible, calm observant eyes, and a steady and simple manner. "One would be fit for nothing afterwards."

"Quite so," said Mr. Amarinth, with extreme gentleness. "That would be the object of the performance, to unfit one for the duties of the day. How beautiful! What a glorious sight it would be to see a great audience flocking out into the orange-coloured sunshine, each unit of which was thoroughly unfitted for any duties whatsoever. It makes me perpetually sorrowful in London to meet with people doing their duty. I find them everywhere. It is impossible to escape from them. A sense of duty is like some horrible disease. It destroys the tissues of the mind, as certain complaints destroy the tissues of the body. The catechism has a great deal to answer for."

"Ah! now you are laughing at me," said Lady Locke calmly.

"Mr. Amarinth never laughs at any one, Emily," said Mrs. Windsor. "He makes others laugh. I wish I could say clever things. I would rather be able to talk in epigrams, and hear Society repeating what I said, than be the greatest author or artist that ever lived. You are luckier than I, Lord Reggie. I heard a _bon mot of yours at the Foreign Office last night."

"Indeed. What was it?"

"Er--really I--oh! it was something about life, you know, with a sort of general application, one of your best. It made me smile, not laugh. I always think that is such a test of merit. We smile at wit; we laugh at buffoonery."

"The highest humour often moves me to tears," said Mr. Amarinth musingly. "There is nothing so absolutely pathetic as a really fine paradox. The pun is the clown among jokes, the well turned paradox is the polished comedian, and the highest comedy verges upon tragedy, just as the keenest edge of tragedy is often tempered by a subtle humour. Our minds are shot with moods as a fabric is shot with colours, and our moods often seem inappropriate. Everything that is true is inappropriate."

Lady Locke ate her salmon calmly. She had not been in London for ten years. Her husband had had a military appointment in the Straits Settlements, and she had been with him. Two years ago he had died at his post of duty, and since then she had been living quietly in a German town. Now she was entering the world again, and it seemed to her odd and altered. She was interested in all she saw and heard. To-night she found herself studying a certain phase of modernity. That it sometimes struck her as maniacal did not detract from its interest. The mad often fascinate the sane.

"I know," said Reggie Hastings, holding his fair head slightly on one side, and crumbling his bread with a soft, white hand--"I know. That is why I laughed at my brother's funeral. My grief expressed itself in that way. People were shocked, of course, but when are they not shocked? There is nothing so touching as the inappropriate. I thought my laughter was very beautiful. Anybody can cry. That was what I felt. I forced my grief beyond tears, and then my relations said that I was heartless."

"But surely tears are the natural expression of sad feelings," said Lady Locke. "We do not weep at a circus or at a pantomime; why should we laugh at a funeral?"

"I think a pantomime is very touching," said Reggie. "The pantaloon is one of the most luridly tragic figures in art or in life. If I were a great actor, I would as soon play the pantaloon as 'King Lear.'"

"Perhaps his mournful possibilities have been increased since I have been out of England," said Lady Locke. "Ten years ago he was merely a shadowy absurdity."

"Oh! he has not changed," said Mr. Amarinth. "That is so wonderful. He never develops at all. He alone understands the beauty of rigidity, the exquisite serenity of the statuesque nature. Men always fall into the absurdity of endeavouring to develop the mind, to push it violently forward in this direction or in that. The mind should be receptive, a harp waiting to catch the winds, a pool ready to be ruffled, not a bustling busybody, forever trotting about on the pavement looking for a new bun shop. It should not deliberately run to seek sensations, but it should never avoid one; it should never be afraid of one; it should never put one aside from an absurd sense of right and wrong. Every sensation is valuable. Sensations are the details that build up the stories of our lives."

"But if we do not choose our sensations carefully, the stories may be sad, may even end tragically," said Lady Locke.

"Oh! I don't think that matters at all; do you, Mrs. Windsor?" said Reggie. "If we choose carefully, we become deliberate at once; and nothing is so fatal to personality as deliberation. When I am good, it is my mood to be good; when I am what is called wicked, it is my mood to be evil. I never know what I shall be at a particular moment. Sometimes I like to sit at home after dinner and read 'The dream of Gerontius.' I love lentils and cold water. At other times I must drink absinthe, and hang the night hours with scarlet embroideries. I must have music, and the sins that march to music. There are moments when I desire squalor, sinister, mean surroundings, dreariness, and misery. The great unwashed mood is upon me. Then I go out from luxury. The mind has its West End and its Whitechapel. The thoughts sit in the Park sometimes, but sometimes they go slumming. They enter narrow courts and rookeries. They rest in unimaginable dens seeking contrast, and they like the ruffians whom they meet there, and they hate the notion of policemen keeping order. The mind governs the body. I never know how I shall spend an evening till the evening has come. I wait for my mood."

Lady Locke looked at him quite gravely while he was speaking. He always talked with great vivacity, and as if he meant what he was saying. She wondered if he did mean it. Like most other people, she felt the charm that always emanated from him. His face was tired and white, but not wicked, and there was an almost girlish beauty about it. He flushed easily, and was obviously sensitive to impressions. As he spoke now, he seemed to be elucidating some fantastic gospel, giving forth some whimsical revelation; yet she felt that he was talking the most dangerous nonsense, and she rather wanted to say so. Most of her life had been passed among soldiers. Her father had been a general in the Artillery. Her two brothers were serving in India. Her husband had been a bluff and straightforward man of action, full of hard commonsense, and the sterling virtues that so often belong to the martinet. Mr. Amarinth and Lord Reggie were specimens of manhood totally strange to her--until now she had not realised that such people existed. All the opinions which she had hitherto believed herself to hold in common with the rest of sane people, seemed suddenly to become ridiculous in this environment. Her point of view was evidently remarkably different from that attained by her companions. On the whole, she decided not to dispute the doctrine of moods. So she said nothing, and allowed Mrs. Windsor to break in airily--

"Yes, moods are delightful. I have as many as I have dresses, and they cost me nearly as much. I suppose they cost Jimmy a good deal too," she added, with a desultory pensiveness; "but fortunately he is well off, so it doesn't matter. I never go into the slums, though. It is so tiring, and then there is so much infection. Microbes generally flourish most in shabby places, don't they, Mr. Amarinth? A mood that cost one typhoid or smallpox would be really silly, wouldn't it? Shall we go into the drawing-room, Emily? the carriage will be round directly. Yes; do smoke, Mr. Amarinth. You shall have your coffee in here while we put on our cloaks."

She rustled out of the room with her cousin. When she had gone, Esme Amarinth lit a gold-tipped cigarette, and leaned back lazily in his chair.

"How tiring women are," he said. "They always let one know that they are trying to be up to the mark. Isn't it so, Reggie?"

"Yes, unless they have convictions which lead them to hate one's mark. Lady Locke has convictions, I should fancy."

"Probably. But she has a great deal besides."

"Comment?"

"Don't you know why Mrs. Windsor specially wanted you to-night?"

"To polish your wit with mine," said the boy, with his pretty, quick smile.

"No, Reggie. Lady Locke has come into an immense fortune lately. They say she has over twenty thousand a year. Mrs. Windsor is trying to do you a good turn. And I dare say she would not be averse to uniting her first cousin with a future marquis."

"H'm!" said Reggie, helping himself to coffee with a rather abstracted air.

"It is a pity I am already married," added Amarinth, sipping his coffee with a deliberate grace. "I am paying for my matrimonial mood now."

"But I thought Mrs. Amarinth lived entirely upon Cross and Blackwell's potted meats and stale bread," said Reggie seriously.

"Unfortunately that is only a _canard invented by my dearest enemies."

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