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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Green Carnation - Chapter XI
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The Green Carnation - Chapter XI Post by :pandj Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Hichens Date :April 2012 Read :1624

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The Green Carnation - Chapter XI

CHAPTER XI

Lord Reggie had quite made up his mind to ask Lady Locke to marry him. He didn't in the least wish to be married, and felt that he never should. But he also felt that marriage did not matter much either way. In modern days it is a contract of no importance, as Esme Amarinth often said, and therefore a contract that can be entered into without searching of heart or loss of perfect liberty. To him it simply meant that a good-natured woman, who liked to kiss him, would open an account for him at her banker's, and let him live with her when he felt so disposed. He considered that such an arrangement would not be a bad one, especially as the good-natured woman would in course of time cease to like kissing him, and so free him from the one awkwardness that walked in the train of matrimony. He told Esme Amarinth of his decision.

Esme sighed.

"So you are to be a capitalist, Reggie," he said. "Will you sing in the woods near Esher? Will you flute to the great god whom stockbrokers vulgarly worship? I wonder what a stockbroker is like. I don't think I have ever seen one. I go out in Society too much, I suppose. Society has its drawbacks. You meet so few people in it nowadays, and Royalties are of course strictly tabooed. I was dining with Lady Murray last week and mentioned the Prince by mistake. She got quite red all down her neck and snorted--you know how she snorts, as if she had been born a Baroness!--'One must draw the line somewhere.' The old aristocracy draws it at Princes now, and who can blame them? Vulgarity has become so common that it has lost its charm, and I shall really not be surprised if good manners and chivalry come into vogue again. How strange it will feel being polite once more, like wearing a long curled wig, and making a leg and carrying a sword. You would look perfectly charming in a wig, Reggie, and a cloak of carnation velvet with rosy shadows in the folds. You would wear it beautifully, as you wear your sins, floating negligently over your shoulders. Yes, you will be a strange and unique capitalist. The average capitalist has the face of a Gentile, and the stupidity of a Jew. I wonder how the fallacy that the Jews are a clever race grew up? It is not the man who makes money that is clever, it is the man who spends it. The intelligent pauper is the real genius. I am an intelligent pauper."

"You are marvellous, Esme. You are like some heavy scent that hangs in clouds upon the air. You make people aware of you, who have never seen you, or read you. You are like a fifth element."

"What shall I give you for a wedding present, Reggie? I think I will give you the book of Common Prayer in the vulgar tongue. One would think it was something written by a realist. The adjectives would apply to the productions of George Moore, which are boycotted by Smith on account of their want of style or something of the sort. If George Moore could only learn the subtle art of indecency he might be tolerable. As it is, he is, like Miss Yonge, merely tedious and domesticated. He ought to associate more with educated people, instead of going perpetually to the dependent performances of the independent theatre, whose motto seems to be, 'If I don't shock you, I'm a Dutchman!' How curiously archaic it must feel to be a Dutchman. It must be like having been born in Iceland, or educated in a Grammar School. I would give almost anything to feel really Dutch for half-an-hour."

Reggie was looking a little pensive. The performance of his anthem on the morrow weighed slightly upon his mind. He had an uneasy feeling that Jimmy Sands and his followers would throw nuances to the winds when they found themselves in the public eye. When the critical morning was over he meant to propose to Lady Locke, and in the meanwhile he supposed that he ought to woo her, or court her, or do something of the kind. He was not in the least shy, but he had not the faintest idea how to woo a woman. The very notion of such a proceeding struck him as highly ridiculous and almost second-rate. It was like an old-fashioned notion.

"Esme," he said, "what do people do before they propose? I suppose they lead up to it in some absurd way. If I were a rustic I could go and sit upon a stile with a straw in my mouth, and whistle at Lady Locke, while she stood staring at me and giggling. But I am not a rustic--I am an artist. Really, I don't see what I can do. Will she expect something?"

"My dear Reggie, women always expect something. Women are like minors, they live upon their expectations."

"Well, then," Reggie said petulantly, "what am I to do? Shall I ask her to take a walk, or what? I really can't put my arm round her waist. One owes something to oneself in spite of all the nonsense that Ibsen talks."

"One owes everything to oneself, and I also owe a great deal to other people--a great deal that I hope to live long enough never to repay. A debt of honour is one of the finest things in the world. The very name recalls a speech out of 'Guy Livingstone.' By the way, I sometimes wish that I had been born swart as he was. I should have pleased Miss Rhoda Broughton, and she is so deliciously prosaic. Is she not the woman who said that she was always inspired to a pun by the sight of a cancer hospital? or am I thinking of Helen Mathers? I can never tell them apart--their lack of style is so marvellously similar. Why do women always write in the present tense, Reggie? Is it because they have no past? To go about without a past, must be like going about without one's trousers. I should feel positively indecent."

"There is no such thing as indecency, Esme, just as there are no such things as right and wrong. There are only art and imbecility. But how shall I prepare for my proposal? What did you do?"

"I did nothing. My wife proposed to me, and I refused her. Then she went and put up some things called banns, I believe. Afterwards she sent me a white waistcoat in a brown paper parcel, and told me to meet her at a certain church on a certain day. I declined. She came in a hired carriage--a thing like a large deep bath, with two enormously fat parti-coloured horses--to fetch me. To avoid a scene I went with her, and I understand that we were married. But the colour of the window behind the altar was so atrocious, and the design--of Herodias carrying about the head of John the Baptist on a dish--so inartistically true to life, that I could not possibly attend to the service."

"Poor Esme," said Lord Reggie, in a tone charged with pathos, "I must trust in my intuitions, then?"

"That is like trusting in one's convictions, Reggie. For the sake of the stars do not be sensible. I would far rather see you lying in your grave. Trust rather in your emotions."

"But I have none about Lady Locke. How could you suppose so?"

"I never suppose. I leave that to the heads of departments when they are answering questions in the House. It is the privilege of incompetence to suppose. The artist will always know. But there is Lady Locke, Reggie, being sensible in the rose garden. What must the roses think of her? Go to her, Reggie, tell her that you do not love her, and will marry her. That is what a true woman loves to hear."

As Lord Reggie went away, walking very delicately, with his head drooping towards his left shoulder, and his hands dangling in a dilettante manner at his sides, Madame Valtesi appeared at the French window of the drawing-room, refusing to join Tommy in some boyish game. After a parleying, which she conducted in profile, she turned her full face round, and having shaken her tormentor off, she proceeded slowly towards Amarinth, with an expression of extreme and illimitable irritability.

"Children are more lacking in discernment than the beasts of the field," she said, as she came up to him. "That boy is actually vexed because I will not go and play at Tom Tiddler's Ground with him. He positively expected that I would be Tiddler! Tiddler! Did you ever hear of such a name? It sounds like one of Dickens' characters. He says that all you have to do is to run about! Give me the long chair, please. He has almost succeeded in making me feel like Tiddler. It is a dreadful sensation."

She fanned herself slowly and looked round.

"Who is that in the rose garden?" she asked, putting up her eyeglass. "Oh! Lady Locke and Lord Reggie--an ill-assorted couple. They ought to marry."

"Why, dear lady?" said Esme.

"Because they are ill-assorted. Affinities never marry nowadays. They always run away together and live on the Continent, waiting for decrees nisi. We repent of what we do so hastily nowadays. People divorce each other almost on sight. Will Lady Locke accept him?"

"Do widows ever refuse?"

"I am a widow."

"Indeed! I did not know it, or, if I ever knew it, I had forgotten. You are so delightfully married in your conduct."

"Was it Whistler who said that first?"

"No, I believe it comes originally from the Dutch. But it is my own adaptation, and I am too modest to put my name on a programme. Ah! Madame Valtesi, why have I never set the world in a blaze? I have plied the bellows most industriously, and I have made the twigs crackle, yet the fire splutters a good deal. Perhaps I have too much genius. Can it be that? My good things are in everybody's mouth."

"That's just it. You ought to have swallowed a cork years and years ago."

"Like Mr. Henry James. I always know when he has thought of a clever thing at a party."

"How?"

"By his leaving it immediately, and in total silence. He rushes home to write his thought down. His memory is treacherous."

"And does he often have to leave a party?"

"Pretty often. About once a year, I believe."

"It must be very trying socially to be so clever. So Lord Reggie is actually serious?"

"I hope he is never that. He will marry, as he sins, prettily, with the gaiety of a young Greek god."

"Marry and not settle down, as we all do now? We have improved upon the old code."

"We have practically abolished codes in London. In the country I fancy they continue to think of the commandments. How many commandments are there?"

"I forget! Seven, I think, or is it seventeen? Probably seventeen. I know there are a great many. I heard of a clergyman in a Northern parish who took twenty minutes to read them, although he left out all the h's. Lady Locke and Lord Reggie have wandered away. It is like the garden scene of 'Faust.' Martha ought to come on now with Mephistopheles. Ah! here are Mrs. Windsor and tea. They will have to do instead."

Although Lord Reggie was such a novice in wooing, and would very much have preferred being wooed, he managed to convey to the mind of Lady Locke the notion that he had some vague intentions towards her. And that evening, as she dressed for dinner, she asked herself plainly what they were. That he loved her, she did not even for a moment imagine. She was not much given to self-deception. That he loved her money, a far more reasonable supposition as she mentally allowed--she did not really and honestly believe. For Lord Reggie, whatever were his faults, always conveyed the impression of being entirely thoughtless and improvident about worldly affairs. He had everything he wanted, naturally. Any other condition would have been wholly impossible to him, and would have seemed painfully out of place, and foreign to the scheme of the world, to those who knew him. But he never appeared to bother about any means for obtaining things, and Lady Locke thought him the last boy in the universe to lay a plot for the obtaining of a fortune. Had he, then, conceived a light passing fancy for her? She thought this possible, though a little unlikely. He was so different from the other men whom she had known, that she could never "place" him, or feel that she knew at all what his mind was likely to do under given conditions, or in cut and dried situations. Undoubtedly he had begun to think about her as well as about himself, an unusual conjunction, which no one would have anticipated. But exactly how he thought about her, Lady Locke could not tell; nor could she precisely tell either how she thought about him. He began to mean something to her. That was all she could say even to herself. She dressed for dinner very slowly that evening. Her window was open, and as she was pinning some yellow roses in the front of her gown, having dismissed her maid, she heard the piping, excited voice of Tommy asking a question of some hidden companion in the garden below.

"How does it get like that?" he exclaimed, with the penetrating squeak of a very young child. "I don't see. Does it grow?"

"No, Tommy," replied the soft voice of Lord Reggie, "nothing grows like that. It is too strange and beautiful to have grown."

"Well, then, Reggie, do they paint it?"

"Never mind how it is done. That is the mistake we continually make. If the dolls dance exquisitely we should ignore the man who pulls the wires. Results are everything. When we see you in that pretty ivory-coloured suit we are content that you are pretty; we don't wish to learn how every button is buttoned, how every string is tied."

"There aren't any strings," cried Tommy. "Boys don't have strings."

"We don't care to find out how the tailor cuts and fashions, how he sews and stitches. He does all this in order that you may be beautiful. And we have only to think of you. Do you love this carnation, Tommy, as I love it? Do you worship its wonderful green? It is like some exquisite painted creature with dyed hair and brilliant eyes. It has the supreme merit of being perfectly unnatural. To be unnatural is often to be great. To be natural is generally to be stupid. To-morrow I will give you a carnation, Tommy, and you shall wear it at church when you go to hear my beautiful anthem."

Tommy gave vent to ecstatic cries of joy.

Lady Locke, standing by the window, reddened all over her face, and a fire flashed suddenly in her usually calm and gentle eyes. She threw the yellow roses roughly down upon her dressing-table and went hastily out of the room, leaving the door open behind her. When she reached the drawing-room she called her boy in from the garden.

"Tommy," she said, "it is past eight. Run away to bed. You were very late last night."

The child immediately began to protest; but she cut him short.

"Off with you," she cried. "Make haste. I can see you are looking tired."

"I am not tired, mother," said the boy, preparing to whimper.

"Tired or not, you must go when I say it," answered Lady Locke, with a harshness such as she had never displayed before. "Don't dispute about the matter, but go straight off. My boy must be like a soldier and obey the orders of his superior officer. I am your superior officer."

She pointed to the door, and Tommy departed reluctantly, with a very red face, and the menacing expression of an angry, governed child.

Lord Reggie came in from the garden. He found Lady Locke apparently immersed in the foreign intelligence of the _Times Supplement.

* * * * *

That evening, after dinner, Lady Locke said to Lord Reggie--

"I don't wish my little boy to wear flowers. He is too young. I heard you promising him a carnation for to-morrow. You mustn't think me rude, but, please, don't give him one."

Lord Reggie looked rather surprised.

"I am afraid he will be disappointed," he said.

"I cannot help that. And he will have forgotten it in five minutes. Children are as volatile as--as----"

"As lovers," said Madame Valtesi, who was smoking a cigarette in a chair by the window. "And forget as soon."

"Every one forgets," Esme Amarinth said, with a gracious smile that illuminated his large features with slow completeness. "It is only when we have learned to love forgetfulness that we have learned the art of living. I wish people would forget me; but somehow they never do. Long after I have completely forgotten them they remember me. Then I have to pretend that I remember them, and that is so fatiguing."

"Esme," said Mrs. Windsor, "do sing us your song of the passer-by. That is all about remembering and forgetting, and all that sort of thing. So sweet. I remember it made me cry when I heard it--or was it laugh? Which did you mean it to do?"

"I did not mean it to do anything. The poet who means much is little of a poet. I will sing you the song; but it is dreadfully direct in expression. I wrote it one night at Oxford when I was supremely drunk. I remember I wept as I wrote, great, wonderful tears. Yes, I will sing it. It is full of the sorrow, the white burnished sorrow of youth. How divine the melancholies of youth are! With age comes folly, and with folly comes the appalling merriment of experience. Experienced men are always merry. They see things as they really are. How terrible! until we can see things as they really are not we never truly live."

He went slowly to the piano, sat down, and played a plaintive, fleeting air--an air that was like a wandering moonbeam, the veritable phantom of a melody. Then he sang this song, in a low and almost toneless voice, uttering the notes rather than vocalising them.


THE SONG OF THE PASSER-BY.

Passing, passing--ah! sad heart, sing;
But you cannot keep me beyond to-day,
For I am a wayward bird on the wing--
A wayward waif, who will never stay.
The ivory morn, and the primrose eve,
And the twilight, whispering late and low,
They kiss the hem of the spell I weave;
They tremble, and ask me where I go.

Passing, passing--ah! sweet soul, sigh;
But you cannot keep me beyond to-night,
For I am a wilful wanderer by--
A wilful waif on a fanciful flight.
The shadowy moon, and the crimson star,
And the wind that steals from the Western wave,
They watch the ways where my wild wings are;
They murmur and marvel what I crave.

Passing, passing--ah! passion glow;
But you cannot light me a lasting flame,
By which I may linger, linger and know
My spark and yours from one furnace came.
You whisper and weep, and your words are tears,
And your tears are words I remember yet;
But the flame dies down with the dying years,
And nothing lives that forgets to forget.

Passing, passing--ah! whither? Why?
Does the heart know why? Can the soul say where?
I pass, but I pause to catch ev'ry cry,
To watch ev'ry face, be it foul or fair.
I must hear all the notes of the nightingales--
Do they sing to a God or to graven things--
And not till the last faint flute-note fails
Will I stay my flight, will I fold my wings.

When the last chord died away, Mrs. Windsor's voice was heard saying--

"I remember now, it made me cry. How dismal it is."

"Yes," said Madame Valtesi, "as dismal as a wet Derby or a day at the seaside. I hope your anthem will be more lively, Lord Reggie. But of course it will. We always keep our sorrows for the drawing-room, and our chirpiness for church. For sheer godless merriment commend me to the grand chant. It always reminds me of the conspirators' chorus in the 'Huguenots.' I used to hear it as a child. One hears so many things as a child, doesn't one? Childhood is one long career of innocent eavesdropping, of hearing what one ought not to hear."

"Yes," said Esme, getting up from the piano. "And maturity is one long career of saying what one ought not to say. That is the art of conversation. Only one must always say it with intention, otherwise people think one grossly improper. Intention is everything. Artless impropriety is quite played out. Yvette Guilbert gave it its death-blow. It only lingers now in the writings of Ouida and the poems of Arthur Symonds. Why are minor poets so artless, and why do they fancy they are so wicked? What curious fancies even unintelligent people have. No minor poet has ever been wicked, just as no real artist has ever been good. If one intends to be good, one must take it up as a profession. It is quite the most engrossing one in the world. Have you ever been with a good person who is taking a holiday from being good? It is like falling into the Maelstrom. They carry you off your feet. Their enjoyment terrifies the imagination. They are like a Sunday school let loose in the Moulin Rouge, or Mr. Toole when he has made a pun! Sometimes I wish that I could be good too, in order to have such a holiday. Are you really going to bed, Lady Locke? Eleven! I had no idea it was so early. I am going to sit up all night with Reggie, saying mad scarlet things, such as Walter Pater loves, and waking the night with silver silences. Good-night. Come, Reggie, let us go to the smoking-room, since we are left alone. I will be brilliant for you as I have never been brilliant for my publishers. I will talk to you as no character in my plays has ever talked. Come! The young Endymion stirs in his dreams, and the pale-soul Selene watches him from her pearly car. The shadows on the lawns are violet, and the stars wash the spaces of the sky with primrose and with crimson. The night is old yet. Let me be brilliant, dear boy, or I feel that I shall weep for sheer wittiness, and die, as so many have died, with all my epigrams still in me."

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