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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Green Carnation - Chapter III
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The Green Carnation - Chapter III Post by :E-Bookbiz4u Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Hichens Date :April 2012 Read :562

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The Green Carnation - Chapter III

CHAPTER III

Mr. Amarinth and Lord Reggie did not go to bed so early. After the performance of "Faust" was over they strolled arm in arm towards a certain small club that they much affected, a little house tucked into a corner not far from Covent Garden, with a narrow passage instead of a hall, and a long supper-room filled with tiny tables. They made their way gracefully to their own particular table at the end of the room, where they could converse unheard, and see all that was to be seen. An obsequious waiter--one of the restaurant race that has no native language--relieved them of their coats, and they sat down opposite to each other, mechanically touching their hair to feel if their hats had ruffled its smooth surface.

"What do you think about it, Reggie?" Amarinth said, as they began to discuss their oysters. "Could you commit the madness of matrimony with Lady Locke? You are so wonderful as you are, so complete in yourself, that I scarcely dare to wish it, or anything else for you: and you live so comfortably upon debts, that it might be unwise to risk the possible discomfort of having money. Still, if you ever intend to possess it, you had better not waste time. You know my theory about money."

"No; what is it, Esme?"

"I believe that money is gradually becoming extinct, like the Dodo or 'Dodo.' It is vanishing off the face of the earth. Soon we shall have people writing to the papers to say that money has been seen at Richmond, or the man who always announces the premature advent of the cuckoo to his neighbourhood will communicate the fact that one Spring day he heard two capitalists singing in a wood near Esher. One hears now that money is tight--a most vulgar condition to be in by the way; one will hear in the future that money is not. Then we shall barter, offer glass beads for a lunch, or sell our virtue for a good dinner. Do you want money?"

Reggie was eating delicately, with his fair head drooping on one side, and his blue eyes wandering in a fidgety way about the room.

"I suppose I do," he said. "But, as you say, I am afraid of spoiling myself, of altering myself. And yet marriage has not changed you."

"I have not allowed it to. My wife began by trying to influence me, she has ended by trying not to be influenced by me. She is a good woman, Reggie, and wears large hats. Why do good women invariably wear large hats? To show they have large hearts? No, I am unchanged. That is really the secret of my pre-eminence. I never develop. I was born epigrammatic, and my dying remark will be a paradox. How splendid to die with a paradox upon one's lips! Most people depart in a cloud of blessings and farewells, or give up the ghost arranging their affairs like a huckster, or endeavouring to cut somebody off with a shilling. I at least cannot be so vulgar as to do that, for I have not a shilling in the world. Some one told me the other day that the Narcissus Club had failed, and attributed the failure to the fact that it did not go on paying. Nothing does go on paying. I know I don't."

"I hate offering payment to anybody," said Reggie. "Even when I have the money. There is something so sordid about it. To give is beautiful. I said so to my tailor yesterday. He answered, 'I differ from you, sir, _in toto_.' How horrible this spread of education is! We shall have our valets quoting Horace at us soon. I am told there is a Scotch hairdresser in Bond Street who speaks French like a native."

"Of Scotland or France?"

"Oh! France."

"Then he must have a bad pronunciation. A native's pronunciation of his language is invariably incorrect. That is why the average Parisian is totally unintelligible to the intelligent foreigner. All foreigners are intelligent. Ah! here are our devilled kidneys. I suppose you and I are devilled, Reggie. People say we are so wicked. I wish one could feel wicked; but it is only good people who can manage to do that. It is the one prerogative of virtue that I really envy. The saint always feel like a sinner, and the poor sinner, try as he will, can only feel like a saint. The stars are so unjust. These kidneys are delicious. They are as poetic as one of Turner's later sunsets, or as the curving mouth of La Gioconda. How Walter Pater would love them."

Reggie helped himself to a glass of champagne. A bright spot of red had appeared on each of his cheeks, and his blue eyes began to sparkle.

"Are you going to get drunk to-night, Esme?" he asked. "You are so splendid when you are drunk."

"I have not decided either way. I never do. I let it come if it will. To get drunk deliberately is as foolish as to get sober by accident. Do you know my brother? When he is not tipsy, he is invariably blind sober. I often wonder the police do not run him in."

"Do they ever run any one in? I thought they were always dismissed the force if they did."

"Probably that is so. The expected always happens, and people in authority are very expected. One always knows that they will act in defiance of the law. Laws are made in order that people in authority may not remember them, just as marriages are made in order that the divorce court may not play about idly. Reggie, are you going to make this marriage?"

"I don't know," said the boy, rather fretfully. "Do you want me to?"

"I never want any one to do anything. And I should be delighted to continue not paying for your suppers. Besides, I am afraid that marriage might cause you to develop, and then I should lose you. Marriage is a sort of forcing house. It brings strange sins to fruit, and sometimes strange renunciations. The renunciations of marriage are like white lilies--bloodless, impurely pure, as anaemic as the soul of a virgin, as cold as the face of a corpse. I should be afraid for you to marry, Reggie! So few people have sufficient strength to resist the preposterous claims of orthodoxy. They promise and vow three things--is it three things you promise and vow in matrimony, Reggie?--and they keep their promise. Nothing is so fatal to a personality as the keeping of promises, unless it be telling the truth. To lie finely is an Art, to tell the truth is to act according to Nature, and Nature is the first of Philistines. Nothing on earth is so absolutely middle-class as Nature. She always reminds me of Clement Scott's articles in the _Daily Telegraph_. No, Reggie, do not marry unless you have the strength to be a bad husband."

"I have no intention of being a good one," Reggie said earnestly.

His blue eyes looked strangely poetic under the frosty gleam of the electric light, and his straight pale yellow hair shone like an aureole round the head of some modern saint. He was eating strawberries rather petulantly, as a child eats pills, and his cheeks were now violently flushed. He looked younger than ever, and it was difficult to believe that he was nearly twenty-five.

"I have no intention of being a good one. It is only people without brains who make good husbands. Virtue is generally merely a form of deficiency, just as vice is an assertion of intellect. Shelley showed the poetry that was in his soul more by his treatment of Harriet than by his writing of 'Adonais;' and if Byron had never broken his wife's heart, he would have been forgotten even sooner than he has been. No, Esme; I shall not make a good husband."

"Lady Locke would make a good wife."

"Yes, it is written in her face. That is the worst of virtues. They show. One cannot conceal them."

"Yes. When I was a boy at school, I remember so well I had a virtue, and I was terribly ashamed of it. I was fond of going to church. I can't tell why. I think it was the music, or the painted windows, or the precentor. He had a face like the face of seven devils, so exquisitely chiselled. He looked as if he were always seeking rest and finding none. He was really a clergyman of some importance, the only one I ever met. I was fond of going to church, and I was in agony lest some strange expression should come into my face and tell my horrible secret. I dreaded above all lest my mother should ever get to know it. It would have made her so happy."

"Did she?"

"No, never. The precentor died, and my virtue died with him. But you are quite right, Reggie; a virtue is like a city set upon a hill, it cannot be hid. We can conceal our vices if we care to, for a time at least. We can take our beautiful purple sin like a candle and hide it under a bushel. But a virtue will out. Virtuous people always have odd noses, or holy mouths, or a religious walk. Nothing in the world is so painful as to see a good man masquerading in the company of sinners. He may drink and blaspheme, he may robe himself in scarlet, and dance the _can-can_, but he is always virtuous. The mind of the _moulin rouge is not his. Wickedness does not sit easily upon him. It looks like a coat that has been paid for."

"Esme, you are getting drunk!"

"What makes you think so, Reggie?"

"Because you are so brilliant. Go on. The night is growing late. Soon the silver dawn will steal along the river, and touch with radiance those monstrosities upon the Thames Embankment. John Stuart Mill's badly fitting frockcoat will glow like the golden fleece, and the absurd needle of Cleopatra will be barred with scarlet and with orange. The flagstaff in the Victoria Tower will glitter like an angel's ladder, and the murmur of Covent Garden will be as the murmur of the flowing tide. Oh! Esme, when you are drunk, I could listen to you for ever. Go on--go on!"

"Remember my epigrams then, dear boy, and repeat them to me to-morrow. I am dining out with Oscar Wilde, and that is only to be done with prayer and fasting. Waiter, open another bottle of champagne, and bring some more strawberries. Yes, it is not easy to be wicked, although stupid people think so. To sin beautifully, as you sin, Reggie, and as I have sinned for years, is one of the most complicated of the arts. There are hardly six people in a century who can master it. Sin has its technique, just as painting has its technique. Sin has its harmonies and its dissonances, as music has its harmonies and its dissonances. The amateur sinner, the mere bungler whom we meet with, alas! so frequently, is perpetually introducing consecutive fifths and octaves into his music, perpetually bringing wrong colour notes into his painting. His sins are daubs or pot boilers, not masterpieces that will defy the insidious action of time. To commit a perfect sin is to be great, Reggie, just as to produce a perfect picture, or to compose a perfect symphony, is to be great. Francesco Cenci should have been worshipped instead of murdered. But the world can no more understand the beauty of sin, than it can understand the preface to 'The Egoist,' or the simplicity of 'Sordello.' Sin puzzles it; and all that puzzles the world frightens the world; for the world is a child, without a child's charm, or a child's innocent blue eyes. How exquisitely coloured these strawberries are, yet if Sargent painted them he would idealise them, would give to them a beauty such as Nature never yet gave to anything. So it is with the artist in sinning. He improves upon the sins that Nature has put, as it were, ready to his hand. He idealises, he invents, he develops. No trouble is too great for him to take, no day is too long for him to work in. The still and black-robed night hours find him toiling to perfect his sin; the weary white dawn, looking into his weary white face through the shimmering window panes, is greeted by a smile that leaps from sleepless eyes. The passion of the creator is upon him. The man who invents a new sin is greater than the man who invents a new religion, Reggie. No Mrs. Humphrey Ward can snatch his glory from him. Religions are the Aunt Sallies that men provide for elderly female venturists to throw missiles at and to demolish. What sin that has ever been invented has ever been demolished? There are always new human beings springing into life to commit it, and to find pleasure in it. Reggie, some day I will write a gospel of strange sins, and I will persuade the S. P. C. K. Society to publish it in dull, misty scarlet, powdered with golden devils."

"Oh, Esme, you are great!"

"How true that is! And how seldom people tell the truths that are worth telling. We ought to choose our truths as carefully as we choose our lies, and to select our virtues with as much thought as we bestow upon the selection of our enemies. Conceit is one of the greatest of the virtues, yet how few people recognise it as a thing to aim at and to strive after. In conceit many a man and woman has found salvation, yet the average person goes on all fours grovelling after modesty. You and I, Reggie, at least have found that salvation. We know ourselves as we are, and understand our own greatness. We do not hoodwink ourselves into the blind belief that we are ordinary men, with the intellects of Cabinet Ministers, or the passions of the proletariat. No, we--closing time, Waiter! How absurd! Why, is it forbidden in England to eat strawberries after midnight, or to go to bed at one o'clock in the day? Come, Reggie! It is useless to protest, as Mr. Max Beerbohm once said in his delicious 'Defence of Cosmetics.' Come, the larks will soon be singing in the clear sky above Wardour Street. I am tired of tirades. How sweet the chilly air is! Let us go to Covent Garden. I love the pale, tender green of the cabbage stalks, and the voices of the costermongers are musical in the dawning. Give me your arm, and, as we go, we will talk of Albert Chevalier and of the mimetic art."

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