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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Green Carnation - Chapter XIII
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The Green Carnation - Chapter XIII Post by :toycruiser Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Hichens Date :April 2012 Read :3723

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The Green Carnation - Chapter XIII

CHAPTER XIII

Sunday afternoon is always a characteristic time. Even irreligious people, who have no principles to send them to sleep, or to cause them to take a weekly walk, or to induce them to write an unnecessary letter to New Zealand--why are unnecessary letters to New Zealand invariably written on Sunday afternoons?--even irreligious people are generally in an unusual frame of mind on the afternoon of the day of rest. They don't feel week-day. There is a certain atmosphere of orthodoxy which affects them. Possibly it causes them to feel peculiarly unorthodox. Still, it affects them. In the country, in summer especially, Sunday afternoon lays a certain spell upon everybody. It goes to their heads. They fall under its strange influence, even against their will, and become, in a measure, different from themselves. Solemn people are often unnaturally flippant on Sunday afternoon, and flippant people frequently retire to bed on the verge of tears. The hearty bow-wow girl is conscious of being unpleasantly chastened by some invisible power; and the stupid young man sinks into a strange apoplectic condition, with his chin sunk on his waistcoat, and his mind drowned in the waters of forgetfulness. Sloth is in the air, and a decorous desultoriness pervades humanity. It is as if thunder was in the social atmosphere. The repose is not quite natural. Those who are in high positions, and therefore have something to live down to, long to imitate the hapless rustic, and wander forth among the fields, sucking a straw, and putting their arm round a waist. Unmelodious persons are almost throttled by a desire to whistle; but the true singer feels as dumb as a tree. Lunch pervades the human consciousness, and the prospect of tea engages the mind to an extent which is neither quite normal nor entirely free from a suspicion of greediness. Dogs snore much louder than usual, and the confirmed sufferer from insomnia sleeps with an indecent soundness never attained by the beauty in the fairy tale. Undoubtedly, Sunday throws the world entirely out of gear, and that is one of its chief worldly charms. It is well to be out of gear at least once in the week.

This particular Sunday afternoon had not left the party at the cottage unscathed, as the acute observer would have immediately seen on penetrating into the pretty shady garden, with its formal rose walks, and its delightful misshapen yew trees. Madame Valtesi, for instance, was knitting, a thing she had scarcely ever been noticed to do within the memory of man. Mrs. Windsor was going about in garden gloves, with a spud and a pair of clippers, damaging the flower-beds, with an air of duty and almost sacred responsibility. Mr. Amarinth was reading the newspaper like a married man; and Lord Reggie was lying in a hammock, trying to kill flies by clapping his hands together. Lady Locke was indoors, writing the unnecessary letter to New Zealand, which has already been referred to; and Tommy, fatigued to tears by luncheon, had gone to bed, and was dreaming in an angry manner about black beetles, unable quite to attain the dignity of a nightmare, and yet deprived of the sweet repose which is popularly believed to shut the door on the nose of the doctor.

Yes, decidedly, it was Sunday afternoon!

The weather was very hot and languid, and the bees kept on buzzing all the time. Bung was engaged in investigating the coal-hole, apparently under the impression that hidden treasure was not foreign to its soil; and conversation entirely languished. Madame Valtesi dropped her stitches, Lord Reggie failed to kill his flies, and Mr. Amarinth misunderstood the drift of leading articles. The Sabbath mind was very much in evidence, and the Sabbath mind verges on imbecility. The bells chiming for afternoon service rose on the still air, and died away; but nobody moved. Evidently enthusiasm for rusticity combined with religion was fading away. A silence reigned, and the hour for tea drew slowly on. But presently Amarinth, after reading all the advertisements on the cover of his newspaper, put it down slowly and glanced around, with the puffy expression of a person suppressing a grown-up yawn.

His eyes wandered about, to Mrs. Windsor immersed in amateur gardening of the destructive kind, to Lord Reggie in his hammock, to Madame Valtesi dropping stitches in her low chair. He sighed and spoke--

"Newspapers are very enervating," he said. "I wonder what a journalist is like? I always imagine him a person with a very large head--with the particular sort of large head, you know, that is large because it contains absolutely nothing."

"I thought journalists were the people who sell newspapers at the street corners," said Lord Reggie.

"Oh! I don't fancy they are so picturesque as that," said Esme, again suppressing a yawn. "Madame Valtesi, you ought to know; you run a theatre, and people who run theatres always know journalists. It seems to be in the blood."

"How can I talk?" she replied. "Don't you see that I am knitting?"

"Are you doing a stitch in time, the sort of stitch that is supposed to rhyme with nine? I wonder why it is that we always give ourselves up to occupations that we dislike on Sunday. I have not read a newspaper for years. One learns so much more about what is happening in the world if one never opens a newspaper. I once wrote an article for a newspaper, but that was before I had met Sala. Ever since then I have been haunted by the fear that if I did it again I might grow like him. I believe he has lived in Mexico. His style always strikes me as decidedly Mexican. I met him at dinner, and he told me facts that I did not previously know, all the time I was trying to eat. Afterwards in the drawing-room he gave a lecture. I rather forget the subject, but I think it was, 'Eggs I have known.' He knew a great many. It was very instructive and uninteresting. I think he said he had patented it. How does one patent a lecture?"

"Esme, you are talking nonsense!" Madame Valtesi said, dropping two more stitches with an air of purpose.

"I hope I am. People who talk sense are like people who break stones in the road: they cover one with dust and splinters. What is Mrs. Windsor doing?"

"Looking for slugs," said Lord Reggie.

"Why?"

"To kill them."

"How dreadful! They live such gentle lives among the roses. Do let us talk about religion. I want to try and feel appropriate. Ah! here is Lady Locke. Lady Locke, we were just going to begin talking about religion."

"Indeed!" she said, coming forward slowly, and looking a little colonial after the completion of her task. "Do you know anything about the subject?"

"No. That is why I want to talk about it. Vivacious ignorance is so artistic."

"It is too common to be that," said Madame Valtesi. "Ignorant people are always vivacious, just as really clever men never wear spectacles. Wearing spectacles is the most played-out pose I know. I wonder the Germans still keep it up."

"A nation that keeps up their army would keep up anything," said Esme. "Germans always talk about foreign politics and native beer. Oh! Mrs. Windsor has just permitted a slug to live. I can see that by the way in which she is taking off her gloves and trying not to look magnanimous. Is it nearly tea-time, Mrs. Windsor?" he added, as she came up, a little flushed with under exertion. "I only ask because I am not thirsty. Tea is one of those delightful things that one takes because one does not want it. That is why we are all so passionately fond of it. It is like death, exquisitely unnecessary."

"I have found several slugs," she answered triumphantly; "but I can't kill them. They move so fast, at least when they are frightened. You would never believe it. I came upon one under a leaf just now, and it started just like a person disturbed in a nap. It fell right off the leaf, and I couldn't find it again."

"I suppose slugs have nerves, then," Reggie said, getting up out of his hammock, "and get strung up like people who over-work. Just think of a strung-up slug! There is something weird in the idea. A slug that started at its own shadow. Here is tea! Oh, Mrs. Windsor, where are the tents to be for the school treat to-morrow?"

"At the end of the croquet lawn. Mr. Smith says the children are terribly excited about it. Esme, you must address the children before they sing their hymn on going away. They always end with a hymn. Mr. Smith thinks it quiets them."

"I wonder if singing a hymn would quiet me when I am excited," said Esme, musing over his tea-cup.

"Are you ever excited?" asked Lady Locke.

"Sometimes, when I have invented a perfect paradox. A perfect paradox is so terribly great. It makes one feel like a trustee. Can you understand the sensation? Have you ever felt like a trustee?"

"I don't think I have," Lady Locke said, laughing.

"Then, dear lady, you have never yet really lived. To-morrow I shall feel like a trustee, for I am going to invent some marvellous pale paradoxes for the children--paradoxes like early dewdrops with the sun upon them. Mrs. Windsor, I shall address the children upon the art of folly, upon the wonderful art of being foolishly beautiful. After they are tired with their games and their graceful Arcadian frolics, gather them in an irregular group under that cedar tree, and while the absurd sun goes down, endeavouring, as the sun nearly always does in country places, to imitate Turner's later pictures, I will speak to them wonderful words of strange and delicate meaning, words that they can easily forget. The only things worth saying are those that we forget, just as the only things worth doing are those that the world is surprised at!"

"The world is surprised at nearly everything," said Lord Reggie. "It was surprised when Miss Margot Tennant married only a Home Secretary! A world that could be surprised at that could be surprised at anything. The world is surprised at Esme because he does not know how to make a pun, and because he dares to show the French what can be done with their drama. The world is surprised at me because I never go to Hurlingham, and because I have never read Mrs. Humphrey Ward's treatises! The world is even surprised when Mr. Gladstone is found to have been born in several places at the same time--as if he would be born at different times!--and M. Zola turns out to be crazily respectable. When is the world not surprised?"

"Virtue in any form astonishes the world," Madame Valtesi said. "I once did a good action. When I was very young I married the only man who did not love me. I thought he ought to be converted. Every one who knew me was astounded."

"If the world is surprised at good actions," Lady Locke said, "it is our own fault. We have trained it."

"Nothing is more painful to me than to come across virtue in a person in whom I have never previously suspected its existence," said Esme, putting down his tea-cup with a graceful gesture of abnegation. "It is like finding a needle in a bundle of hay. It pricks you. If we have virtue we should warn people of it. I once knew a woman who fell down dead because she found a live mouse in the pocket of her gown. A live virtue is like a live mouse. Indeed the surprises of virtue are far greater than the surprises of vice. We are never surprised when we hear that a man has gone to the bad; but who can fathom our wonderment when we are obliged to believe that he is gone to the good?"

"I hate a good man," Madame Valtesi said, with a certain dignity.

"Then you ought to lead one about with you in a string," said Esme. "It is so splendid to have some one always near to hate. It is like spending the day with a hurricane, or being born an orphan. I once knew a man who had been born an orphan. He had been so fortunate as never to have experienced the tender care of a mother, or the fostering anxiety of a father. There was something great about him, the greatness of a man who has never known trouble. Why are we not all born orphans?"

"I dare say it is a pity," Mrs. Windsor said rather sleepily. "It would save our parents a lot of trouble."

"And our children a great deal of anxiety," said Esme. "I have two boys, and their uneasiness about my past is as keen as my uneasiness about their future. I am afraid they will be good boys. They are fond of cricket, and loathe reading poetry. That is what Englishmen consider goodness in boys."

"And what do they consider goodness in girls?" asked Lady Locke.

"Oh, girls are always good till they are married," said Madame Valtesi. "And after that it isn't supposed to matter."

"English girls are like country butter," said Esme--"fresh. That is all one can say about them."

"And that is saying a good deal," said Lady Locke.

"I don't think so," said Lord Reggie. "Nothing is really worth much till it is a trifle stale. A soul that is fresh is hardly a soul at all. Sensations give the grain to the wood, the depth and dignity to the picture. No fruit is so worthless as the fruit with the bloom upon it."

"Yes," said Esme. "The face must be young, but the soul must be old. The face must know nothing, the soul everything. Then fascination is born."

"Perhaps merely an evil fascination," said Lady Locke.

"Fascination is art. I recognise no good or evil in art," Esme answered. "In England we have no art, just because we do recognise good and evil. Glasgow thinks it is shameful to be naked; yet even the Bible declares that the ideal condition is to be naked and unashamed; and Glasgow, being in Scotland, naturally gives the lead to England. We have no art. We have only the Royal Academy, which is remarkable merely for the badness of its cuisine, and the coiffure of its well-meaning President. Our artists, as they call themselves, are like Mr. Grant Allen: they say that all their failures are 'pot-boilers.' They love that word. It covers so many sins of commission. They set down their incompetence as an assumption, which makes it almost graceful, and stick up the struggle for life as a Moloch requiring the sacrifice of genius. And then people believe in the travesty. Mr. Grant Allen could have been Darwin, no doubt; but Darwin could never have been Mr. Grant Allen. But what is the good of trying to talk about what does not exist. There is no such thing as art in England."

"Shall we talk of the last new novel?" said Madame Valtesi. "Unfortunately I have not read it. I am told it is full of improper epigrams, and has not the vestige of a plot. So like life!"

"Some one said to me the other day that life was like a French farce," said Mrs. Windsor--"so full of surprises."

"Not the surprises of a French farce, I hope," said Madame Valtesi. "Esme, I am quite stiff from knitting so long. Take me to the drawing-room and sing to me a song of France. Let us try to forget England."

"Lady Locke, will you come for a stroll in the yew tree walk?" said Reggie. "I see Mrs. Windsor is trying to read 'Monsieur, Madame, et Bebe!' She always reads that on Sunday!"

Lady Locke assented.

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CHAPTER XIVWhen Lord Reggie asked Lady Locke to come with him into the yew tree walk that Sunday afternoon, he fully intended to tell her that he would be glad to marry her. It seemed to him that Sunday was a very appropriate day for such a confession, and would give to his remarks a solemnity that they might otherwise lack. But somehow the conversation became immediately unmanageable, as conversations have a knack of doing, and turned into channels which had less than nothing to do with marriage. By a series of ingenious modulations Lord Reggie might doubtless have contrived eventually
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CHAPTER XIIThe 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
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