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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Green Carnation - Chapter XII
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The Green Carnation - Chapter XII Post by :codend Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Hichens Date :April 2012 Read :1482

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The Green Carnation - Chapter XII

CHAPTER XII

The cottage was full of the curious suppressed rustling that seems to be inseparable from church-going in England. Good people invariably rustle, and so bad people, trying to be good, are inclined to rustle too. At least that was what Madame Valtesi said as she stood in the tiny, sage-green hall hung with fans, and finished buttoning her long Suede gloves. She still wore her big and shady hat. She declared it made her feel religious, and nobody was prepared to dispute the assertion. Tommy was clamouring for his promised green carnation; but Lord Reggie, in obedience to Lady Locke's request, told him that the one he had intended for him had faded away in the night, had faded exquisitely, as the wicked fade after flourishing like green bay trees; and Tommy, though inclined to tears, was soothed by a promise that he should sit on the organ seat and turn over in the anthem. Lady Locke looked rather serious, and Mrs. Windsor strangely dissipated. She always did look particularly dissipated on Sunday mornings, although she was not aware of it; and to-day she was intent on being decisively rustic, and as countrified in her piety as possible. She wore an innocent gown powdered with pimpernels, and a little bonnet that she thought holiness itself, consisting as it did of a very small bow and a very large spike. Lord Reggie and Esme Amarinth honoured the day with frock coats and tall hats; and the former was in a state of considerable excitement about his anthem.

Through the drowsy summer air the five bells of Chenecote Church chimed delicately, and prayer-books were at a premium. Everybody except Lady Locke had come down without one, and Mrs. Windsor was in despair.

"We must have them," she said piteously, "or the congregation will be dreadfully shocked. Congregations are so easily shocked in the country. I wonder if the servants have any? Servants always have prayer-books and that kind of thing, don't they? I will ask."

She rang the bell, and one of the tall footmen appeared.

"Simpson, we want four prayer-books," she said. "Are there any in the house?"

Simpson looked exceedingly doubtful, but said he would go and see. Eventually he returned with three.

"There is one more, ma'am--the upper housemaid's," he said, handing them on a salver. "But she wrote comments in it when she belonged to the Salvation Army, and she can't rub them out, ma'am, so she don't like to show it."

"Really!" said Mrs. Windsor, looking mystified. "Well, never mind, we must try and manage with these. Oh! Lord Reggie, you won't want one, of course, because you will be behind the curtain. I forgot that. We are going to walk. It is only ten minutes or so, and I thought it would be more rustic, especially as the roads are dusty. Now, I think we ought to start. If we are late it will create a scandal, and Mr. Smith will be horrified."

"How dutiful the atmosphere is!" Madame Valtesi said to Amarinth as they set forth. "We are so frightfully punctual that I feel quite like an early Christian. I wonder why the Christians were always so early before we were born? They are generally very late now."

"I suppose they have grown tired," he answered, arranging the carnation in his buttonhole meditatively. "Probably we suffer from the activity of our forefathers. When I feel fatigued I always think that my grandfather must have been what is called an excellent walker. How very Sabbath the morning is!"

There was, in fact, a Sunday air in the quiet country road. The geese had ceased from their mundane proceedings in the pond, and were meditating over their sins in some cloistered nook of the farmyard. The fields looked greenly pious, emptied as they were of labourers. In the flowery hedgerows the birds chirped with a chastened note; and even the summer wind touched the walkers as a bishop touches the heads of kneeling candidates at Confirmation. Or so, at least, Lady Locke thought with a pleasant fancifulness that she kept entirely to herself. The bells chimed on monotonously; and now and then, as they walked, they caught sight of neatly-dressed rustics in front of them, strolling mildly to the church, tricked out in all the black bravery of broadcloth, or decked in sprigged muslins and chip hats.

Mrs. Windsor was quite delighted.

"Is not this novel?" she exclaimed, setting her white veil straight, and spreading a huge parasol to the sun. "I feel so righteous. It is pleasant to feel righteous, isn't it? So much pleasanter than to be good. I hope Mr. Smith will not preach a long sermon; but he looks rather like a man who would. People who have nothing to say always do preach long sermons, don't they? They keep hoping they will have something to say presently, I suppose."

"And they hope out loud," said Madame Valtesi. "People who hope out loud are very trying. I know so many. Dear me, how dusty it is! I feel as if I were drowning. Are we nearly there?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Windsor; "there is the common--that is the common where Mr. Smith has checked the rowdyism. I wish he had not broken up all the idle comers before we came. I should so like to have met one."

"Mr. Smith has decidedly been premature," Amarinth said gravely. "Clergymen often are. They take away our sins before we have had time to sit down with them. There go the school children, I suppose. They look intensely clean. So many people look intensely clean, and nothing else. That is all one can say about them. Half the men I know have absolutely no other characteristic. Their only talent is that they know how to wash. Perhaps that is why men of genius so seldom wash. They are afraid of being mistaken for men of talent. What will happen when we come into church. Will everybody stand up?"

"I hope you will all sit down to hear my anthem," Lord Reggie said rather nervously. "It will be much better. Please, do! Lady Locke, will you promise to sit down? People attend so much more closely when they are sitting. If they stand up they always look about and think all the time about sitting down."

"Just as when people are asking you to stay they are always wondering if you will go," said Madame Valtesi, casting a vicious glance at Tommy, who was delightedly stirring up the dust.

"I will sit down certainly," said Lady Locke, "if you wish it; but I could listen equally well standing. I do hope Jimmy Sands will sing his little bit of solo correctly; I shall feel quite nervous till it is over."

Lord Reggie looked at her with earnest pleasure, and even with a momentary affection. He had never liked her so much before.

"Don't any of you stare at him while he is singing," he said, "or he will get sharp. He always does; I have noticed it."

"What a pity staring does not have that effect upon all of us," said Madame Valtesi. "London would be quite brilliant. I have looked at people for hours, but they have never got sharp."

"There goes the five minutes' bell," said Lady Locke; "we are just in time."

When they reached the churchyard Lord Reggie and Tommy went round to the vestry, and the rest of the party made their way to a front pew, amid the suppressed excitement of the rest of the congregation. Mr. Amarinth especially created a sensation; but he always expected to do that. Ever since he had made a name for himself by declaring that he was pleased with the Equator, and desired its further acquaintance, he had been talked about. Whenever the public interest in him showed signs of flagging he wrote an improper story, or published an epigram in one volume, on hand-made paper, with immense margins, or produced a play full of other people's wit, or said something scandalous about the North Pole. He had ruined the reputation of more than one eminently respectable ocean which had previously been received everywhere, and had covered Nature with confusion by his open attacks upon her. Just now he was living upon his green carnation, which had been freely paragraphed in all the papers; and when that went out of vogue he had some intention of producing a revised version of the Bible, with all the inartistic passages cut out, and a rhymed dedication to Mr. Stead, whose _Review of Reviews always struck him as only a degree less comic than the books of that arch-humorist Miss Edna Lyall, or the bedroom imaginings of Miss Olive Schreiner. The villagers of Chenecote gaped open-mouthed at his green carnation and crimped hair; and the exhortation as delivered in a _presto mumble by Mr. Smith was received with general apathy, as the opera of "Faust" is received on an off night in the opera season.

Lord Reggie and Tommy were completely hidden behind the curtain that shielded the organ seat; but the presence and agitation of the former were indicated by the confused perambulations of Jimmie Sands, who was perpetually dodging to and fro in a flushed manner between his place and the organ, receiving instructions, and conveying whispered directions to his youthful colleagues in the choir. The village organist had been deposed from his high estate for the time being, and Lord Reggie commanded the organ entirely--this fact becoming apparent during the service in the abrupt alternations of loud and soft, the general absence of pedal notes, and the continued employment of the _vox humana as a solo stop during the singing of the psalms, to the undoing of the men in the choir, and the extreme astonishment of the unused congregation. At the beginning of the second lesson, too, Lord Reggie made his presence known by the performance of a tumultuous and unexpected obligato, which completely drowned the opening verses of the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, and caused the painted windows at the extreme end of the church to crackle in a manner that suggested earthquakes and the last great day.

"What is he doing?" whispered Madame Valtesi to Amarinth. "Is it in the thirty-nine articles?"

"No," replied Esme; "he is only getting up from his seat. How wonderful he is! I never heard anything more impressive in my life. After all, unpremeditated art is the greatest art. Such an effect as that could never have been produced except impromptu."

The anthem passed off fairly well, although Jimmy Sands went rather flat, perhaps owing to the fact that none of the party from the cottage so much as glanced at him during his performance.

"He evidently made allowance for our staring," Madame Valtesi said afterwards. "However, it can't be helped; we shall know better another time. I thought his singing flat gave a touch of real character to the anthem."

Mrs. Windsor was congratulating Mr. Smith on his charming little service, and condoling with him on having been unable to pronounce the blessing. This formality had been rendered impossible by the ingenious action of Lord Reggie, who had forgotten about it, and evoked continuous music from the organ ever since the amen of the prayer preceding it, finally bursting into a loud fugue by Bach, played without the pedal part, just when the curate was venturing to meekly insert it into a second's interstice of comparative silence, brought about by the solo employment of the _vox humana without accompaniment.

"However," said Mrs. Windsor, "I daresay it won't much matter for once in a way, will it? It is no good making ourselves miserable about comparative trifles."

"He might leave out a curse or two when he next reads the Commination Service, and balance matters in that way," said Madame Valtesi, aside to Amarinth.

"The rusticity of the service was quite delicious," Mrs. Windsor went on graciously. "So appropriate! Everything was so well chosen and in character! Ah, Mr. Smith, although you are a clergyman, I am certain you must have the artistic temperament."

"I trust not," Mr. Smith said very gravely--"I earnestly trust not. The artistic temperament is a sin that should be sternly struggled against, and, if possible, eliminated. In these modern days I notice that every wickedness that is committed is excused on the ground of temperament."

They were walking home across the common as he said this, and Lady Locke turned to Lord Reggie, who was by her side, still rather flushed by his exertions.

"Are you one of those who make a god of their temperament?" she said. "What Mr. Smith says seems to me rather true."

"I think one's temperament should be one's leader in life, certainly," he answered.

"The blind leading the blind."

"It is beautiful to be blind. Those who can see are always avoiding just the very things that would give them most pleasure. Esme says that to know how to be led is a much greater art than to know how to lead."

"I don't care to hear the opinions of Mr. Amarinth," she answered in a low voice. "His epigrams are his opinions. His actions are performed vicariously in conversation. If he were to be silent he would cease to live."

"You don't know Esme at all, really," Reggie said.

"And you know him far too well," she answered.

He looked at her for a moment rather curiously.

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