« PreviousContinue »
of every different style of blonde and brunette, tall or small, statuesque or kittenish, as they chanced to chase one another in and out of his capacious heart.
"She is a little darling!" he swore, earnestly, as we drove homewards, "and certainly the very prettiest woman I have ever seen."
"Rather overdone that, Curly," said De Vigne, dryly, "considering all the regular beauties you have fallen down before and worshipped, and that poor little Alma is no regular beauty at all." "Where's your
"No, she's much better," said Curly decidedly.
regular beauty that's worth that little dear's grace, and vivacity, and lovely colouring ?"
De Vigne put up his eyebrows as if he would not give much for the praise of such a universal admirer as Curly was of all degrees and orders of the beau sexe.
LE CHAT QUI DORMAIT.
"WHO is that Little Tressillian they were talking of at De Vigne's the other night?" Sabretasche asked me one morning, in the window at White's his club, par excellence, where he was referee and criterion on all things of art, fashion, and society, and where his word could crush a belle, sell a picture, and condemn a coterie.
He shrugged his shoulders as I told him, and stroked his moustaches : Very little good will come of that; at least for her; for him there will be an amusement for a time, then a certain regret-remorse, perhaps, as he is very generous-hearted-and then a separation, and-oblivion." "Do you think so? I fancy De Vigne paid too heavy a price for passion to have any fancy to let its reins loose again."
"Mon cher, mon cher!" cried Sabretasche impatiently, "if Phaeton had not been killed by that thunderbolt, do you suppose that the bouleversement and the conflagration would have deterred him from driving his father's chariot as often as Sol would have let him had it?"
Possibly not; but I mean that De Vigne is thoroughly steeled against all female humanity. The sex of the Trefusis cannot possibly, he thinks, have any good in it; and I believe he only takes what notice he does of Alma Tressillian from friendship for her old grandfather, and pity for her desolate position."
"Friendship-pity? For Heaven's sake, Arthur, do not you, a man of the world, talk such nonsense. To what, pray, do friendship and pity invariably bring men and women? De Vigne and his protégée are walking upon mines."
"Which will explode beneath them?" "Sans doute.
We are, unhappily, mortal, mon ami! I will go down and see this Alma Tressillian some day when I have nothing to do. Let me see; she is painting that little picture for me, of course, that I ordered of him from his unknown artist. He must take me down: I shall soon see how the land lies between them."
Accordingly, Sabretasche one day, when De Vigne and he were driving down to a dinner at the Castle, took out his watch, and found they would be there twenty minutes too early, from De Vigne's clocks having been too fast.
"We shall be there half an hour too soon, my dear fellow. Turn aside, and take me to see this little friend of yours with the pretty name and the pretty pictures. If you refuse, I shall think Vane Castleton is right, and that you are like the famed dog in the manger. I have a right to see the artist that is executing my own order."
De Vigne nodded, and turned the horses' heads towards St. Crucis, not with an over good grace, though, for he knew Sabretasche's reputation was that he was as cruel as he was winning to the fair sex; and the Colonel, with his fascination and his bonnes fortunes, was not exactly the man that, whether dog in the manger or not, De Vigne thought a very safe friend for his "Little Tressillian." But he did not care enough about it to make an excuse, if he had had one, and there was no possibility of resisting Sabretasche when he had set his mind upon anything. Very quietly, very gently, but very securely, he kept his hold upon it till he had it yielded up to him. I believe it was that quality, more than even his beauty and his attractions, which gave him his Juanesque reputation
So De Vigne had to introduce the Colonel to little Alma, who received them with her usual ease and grace, so singularly free alike from gêne or boldness, awkwardness or freedom. Sabretasche dropped into an easychair beside her, with his eye-glass up, and began to talk to her. He was a great adept in the art of "bringing out." He had a way of hovering over a woman, and fixing his beautiful eyes on her, and talking softly and pleasantly, so that the subject under his skilful mesmerism developed talent that might otherwise never have gleamed out; and with Alma, who could talk with any and everybody on all subjects under the sun, from metaphysics and ethics to her kitten's collar, and who would discuss philosophies with you as readily as she would chatter nonsense to her parrot, it is needless to say Sabretasche had little difficulty.
De Vigne, Sabretasche's only rival at club and mess-rooms in wit, and repartee, and varied, original conversation, let the Colonel have all the talk to himself, half irritated-he scarcely knew why—at the sight of his immovable and inquiring eye-glass, and the sound of his low, traînante, musical voice. Now and then, amidst his conversation, the Colonel shot a glance at him, and went on with his criticisms on art, sacred, legendary, and historic; on painting in the medieval and the modern styles, with such a deep knowledge and refined appreciation of his subject as few presidents of the R. A. have ever shown in their lectures.
At last De Vigne rose, impatient past endurance, though he could hardly have told you why.
"It is half-past six, Sabretasche; the turbot and turtle will be cold." The Colonel smiled:
"Thank you, my dear fellow; there are a few things in life more attractive than turtle or turbot. The men will wait; they would be the last to hurry us if they knew our provocation to delay."
De Vigne could have found it in his heart to have kicked the Colonel for that speech, and the soft sweet glance accompanying it. "He will spoil that little thing," he thought, angrily. "No woman's head is strong enough to stand his and Curly's flattery."
"I like your little lady, De Vigne," said Sabretasche, as they drove away. "She is really very charming, good style, and strikingly clever." "She is not mine," said De Vigne, with a haughty stare of surprise.
"Well! she will be, I dare say."
"Indeed no. I did not suppose your notions of my honour, or rather dishonour, were like Vane Castleton's."
"Nor are they, cher ami," said the Colonel, with that grave gentleness which occasionally replaced his worldly wit and gay ordinary tone. "But like him I know the world; and I know, as you would, too, if you thought a moment, that a man of your age cannot have that sort of friendly intercourse with a girl of hers without its surely ripening into something infinitely warmer and more dangerous. You would be the first to sneer at an attempt at platonics in another; you are the last man in the world to dream of such follies yourself. Tied as you are by the cruelty and absurdity of Church and Law, you cannot frequent the society of a girl as fascinating as your little friend yonder without danger for her; and for you, with your generous nature, probably regret and remorse, or, at the least, satiety and regret. With nine men out of ten the result would be love and a liaison lightly formed and as lightly broken; but you have an uncommon nature, and a young girl like Little Tressillian your own warmth of heart would never let you desert and leave unprotected. I hate advising; I never do it to anybody. My life has left me little title to counsel men against sins and follies which I daily commit myself, nor do I count as sins many things the world condemns as such. Only here I see so plainly what will come of it, that I do not like you to rush into it blindfold and repent of it afterwards. Because you have had fifty such loves which cost you nothing, that is no reason that the fifty-first may not cost you some pain, some very great pain, in its formation or its
"You mean very kindly, Sabretasche, but there is no question of 'love' here," interrupted De Vigne, with his impatient hauteur. "In the first place, you, so well read in woman's character, might know she is far too frank and familiar with me for any fear of the kind in another. I have paid too much for passion ever to risk it again. I am not a boy to fall into a thing whether I like it or not, and I hope I know too well what is due from honour and generosity to win the love of a young and unprotected girl like Alma while I am by my own folly fettered and cursed by marriage ties. Sins enough I have upon my soul, God knows, but there is no danger of my erring here. I have no temptation; but if I had I should resist it; to take advantage of her innocence and ignorance of my history would be a blackguard's act, to which no madness, even if I felt it, would ever make me condescend to stoop!"
De Vigne spoke with all the sternness and impatience natural to him when roused, spoke in overstrong terms, as men do of a fault they are sure they shall never commit themselves. Sabretasche listened, an unusual angry shadow gathering in his large soft eyes, and a bitter sneer on his pale delicate features, as he leaned back and folded his arms to silence and dolce.
"Most immaculate pharisee! Remember a divine injunction, 'Let him that standeth take heed lest he fall.'”
De Vigne cut his horses impatiently with the whip.
"I am no pharisee, but I am, with all my faults and vices, a man of honour still."
Sabretasche answered nothing, but annoyance was still in his eyes, and
a sneer still on his lips. In a few minutes they had reached the Castle, and over their Rhenish and entremets De Vigne and Sabretasche laughed and talked as though they had quite forgotten their approach to a quarrel. They were too wise men, and too attached to one another, to split upon straws. Sabretasche was really a very sweet temper. He was wont to say anger was such a trouble and exertion that no man who knew how to enjoy life would allow himself to feel it. De Vigne was a hot and fiery temper, but if he was wrong he would own it with frank grace; and if he had been in a fury and passion with you, he never by any chance bore you malice, and, as his poor mother used to say, the sun shone all the sweeter for the momentary tempest.
De Vigne had one fault, which I must have described his character very badly to you if you have not already seen, namely, that if advised not to do a thing, that thing would he go and do straightway; moreover, being a man of strong will and resolve, very fastidious in his own honour, and very reliant on his own strength, he was too apt, as in his fatal marriage, to go headlong, perfectly safe in his own power to guide himself, to judge for himself, and to draw back when it was needful. Therefore, he paid no attention whatever to Sabretasche's counsels, but, as it chanced, went down to see Alma rather more often than he had done before; for she, when talking once of her pictures, had said how much she wished she could exhibit at the Water-Colour Society, which De Vigne, knowing something of the president, and of the society in general, had been able to manage for her, greatly to her own delight, for Alma had all the natural ambition of true talent to make itself known and admired. De Vigne, too, was pleased to be the means of giving her pleasure, for he was by nature formed to do kindnesses where he liked people, and to enjoy seeing his kindness bring fruit of joy for others; and little Alma was now the only one to whom he softened, and hers the only gratitude expressed to him in which he believed.
"What should I do without you?" said Alma, fervently, to him one day, when he went there to tell her her picture was accepted. "Oh! you are so kind to me, Sir Folko!"
"I? Not at all, petite," laughed he. "I have nothing benevolent in my composition, I assure you.""
"Benevolent! No," laughed Alma, indignantly, "that is a horrid word; that means a man who is as kind to his next-door neighbour as to the person he loves best in the world. Benevolent means a Jenkinson with white hair and unctuous words-a man who goes about for other people's destitute orphans or ragged children, and quite forgets to be sweet-tempered to his wife or generous to his own sons. Benevolent is as bad for a man's character as a shabby hat for his appearance. No, Sir Folko, you are much better than benevolent; you are generous, and true, and noble-hearted, and do real kindnesses unseen, not ostentatious ones that men may praise you."
"That is no merit; I dislike praise, and hate to be thanked. But, my dear child, I wish you would not exalt me to such a pinnacle. What will you say when I tumble down one day, and you see nothing of me but worthless shivers?"
"Reverence you still," said Alma, softly. "A fragment of the Parthenon is worth a whole spotless and unbroken modern building. If my
ideal were to fall, I should treasure the dust. The dead prince's heart was valued more than a thousand living ordinary ones of common-place and useless Lowlanders."
By the Douglas, perhaps; scarcely by the poor Lowlanders themselves," said De Vigne, half smiling. But, seriously, I wish you would not get into the habit of rating me so high, Alma. I don't in the least come up to it. You do not guess-how should you?-you cannot even in fancy, picture the life that I, and men like me, lead; you cannot imagine the wild follies with which we drown our past, the reckless pleasures with which we pass our present, our temptations, our weaknesses, our errors; how should you, child as you are, living out of the world in a solitude peopled only with the bright fancies of your own pure imagination, that never incarnates the hideous fauns and beckoning bacchanals which haunt and fever ours?"
"But I can," said Alma, earnestly, looking up to him with her dark blue eyes, in which even he, sceptic as he was in women, could see no guile and no concealment. "I do not go into the world, it is true, but still I know the world to a certain extent; it is not possible to read, as I have done, the broader and freer range of thinkers, which you tell me are défendus to girls of my age, without learning more of the thoughts, temptations, and impulses of men than a young lady can learn by a few waltzes in a ball-room, or the vapid talk of ordinary society. Montaigne, Rochefoucauld, Rabelais, Goethe, Emerson, Bolingbroke, the translated classics, do you not think they teach me the world, or, at least, of what makes the world, Human Nature, better than the few hours at a dinnertable, or the gossip of morning calls, which you tell me is all girls like me, in good society, are allowed to see of life? You know, Sir Folko, it always seems to me, that women, fenced in as they are in educated circles by boundaries which they cannot overstep, except to their own hindrance, screened from all temptations, deprived of all opportunity to wander, if they wished, out of the beaten track, should be all the gentler to your sex, whose whole life is one long temptation, and to whose lips is almost forced that Circean 'cup of life' whose flowers round its brim hide the poisons at its dregs. Women have, if they acknowledged them, passions, ambitions, impatience at their own monotonous rôle, longings for the living life denied to them, but everything tends to crush these down in them, has thus tended through so many generations, that now it has come to be an accepted thing that they must be calm, fair, pulseless, passionless statues, and when here and there a woman dares to acknowledge that her heart beats, and that nature is not wholly dead within her, the world stares at her, and rails at her, for there is no bête noire so terrible to the world as Truth! No, Sir Folko, though I am a girl-a child, as you say, in knowledge and experience, compared with you-I can fancy your temptations, I can picture your errors and your follies, I can understand how you drink your absinthe one hour because you liked its flavour, and drink more the next hour to make you forget your weakness in having yielded to it at all. That my own solitude and imagination are only peopled with shapes bright and fair, I must thank Heaven and not myself. If I had been born in squalor and nursed in vice, what would circumstance and surroundings have made me? Oh, I think, instead of the pharisee's presumptuous I thank God that I am holier than he,' we, with human nature strong within us, and error ready