Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter vii.

La Cordifiamma.

This chapter shall begin, good reader, with one of those startling bursts of “illustration,” with which our most popular preachers are wont now to astonish and edify their hearers, and after starting with them at the opening of the sermon from the north-pole, the Crystal Palace, or the nearest cabbage-garden, float them safe, upon the gushing stream of oratory, to the safe and well-known shores of doctrinal commonplace, lost in admiration at the skill of the good man who can thus make all roads lead, if not to heaven, at least to strong language about its opposite. True, the logical sequence of their periods may be, like that of the coming one, somewhat questionable, reminding one at moments of Fluellen’s comparison between Macedon and Monmouth, Henry the Fifth and Alexander: but, in the logic of the pulpit, all’s well that ends well, and the end must needs sanctify the means. There is, of course, some connection or other between all things in heaven and earth, or how would the universe hold together? And if one has not time to find out the true connection, what is left but to invent the best one can for oneself? Thus argues, probably, the popular preacher, and fills his pews, proving thereby clearly the excellence of his method. So argue also, probably, the popular poets, to whose “luxuriant fancy” everything suggests anything, and thought plays leap-frog with thought down one page and up the next, till one fancies at moments that they had got permission from the higher powers, before looking at the universe, to stir it all up a few times with a spoon. It is notorious, of course, that poets and preachers alike pride themselves upon this method of astonishing; that the former call it, “seeing the infinite in the finite;” the latter —“pressing secular matters into the service of the sanctuary,” and other pretty phrases which, for reverence’ sake, shall be omitted. No doubt they have their reasons and their reward. The style takes; the style pays; and what more would you have? Let them go on rejoicing, in spite of the cynical pedants in the Saturday Review, who dare to accuse (will it be believed?) these luminaries of the age of talking merely irreverent nonsense. Meanwhile, so evident is the success (sole test of merit) which has attended the new method, that it is worth while trying whether it will not be as taking in the novel as it is in the chapel; and therefore the reader is requested to pay special attention to the following paragraph, modelled carefully after the exordiums of a famous Irish preacher, now drawing crowded houses at the West End of Town. As thus; —“It is the pleasant month of May, when, as in old Chaucer’s time, the —

“Smale foules maken melodie,

That slepen alle night with open eye

So priketh hem nature in their corages.

Then longen folk to goe on pilgrimages,

And specially from every shire’s end

Of Englelond, to Exeter-hall they wend,”

till the low places of the Strand blossom with white cravats, those lilies of the valley, types of meekness and humility, at least in the pious palmer — and why not of similar virtues in the undertaker, the concert-singer, the groom, the tavern-waiter, the croupier at the gaming-table, and Frederick Augustus Lord Scoutbush, who, white-cravated like the rest, is just getting into his cab at the door of the Never-mind-what Theatre, to spend an hour at Kensington before sauntering in to Lady M——‘s ball?

Why not, I ask, at least in the case of little Scoutbush? For Guardsman though he be, coming from a theatre and going to a ball, there is meekness and humility in him at this moment, as well as in the average of the white-cravated gentlemen who trotted along that same pavement about eleven o’clock this forenoon. Why should not his white cravat, like theirs, be held symbolic of that fact? However, Scoutbush belongs rather to the former than the latter of Chaucer’s categories; for a “smale foule” he is, a little bird-like fellow, who maketh melodie also, and warbles like a cock-robin; we cannot liken him to any more dignified songster. Moreover, he will sleep all night with open eye; for he will not be in bed till five to-morrow morning; and pricked he is, and that sorely, in his courage; for he is as much, in love as his little nature can be, with the new actress, La Signora Cordifiamma, of the Never-mind-what Theatre.

How exquisitely, now (for this is one of the rare occasions in which a man is permitted to praise himself), is established hereby an unexpected bond of linked sweetness long drawn out between things which had, ere they came beneath the magic touch of genius, no more to do with each other than this book has with the Stock Exchange. Who would have dreamed of travelling from the Tabard in Southwark to the last new singer, viâ Exeter-hall and the lilies of the valley, and touching en passant on to cardinal virtues and an Irish Viscount? But see; given only a little impudence, and less logic, and hey presto! the thing is done; and all that remains to be done is to dilate (as the Rev. Dionysius O’Blareaway would do at this stage of the process) upon the moral question which has been so cunningly raised, and to inquire, firstly — how the virtues of meekness and humility could be predicated of Frederick Augustus St. Just, Viscount Scoutbush and Baron Torytown, in the peerage of Ireland; and secondly — how those virtues were called into special action by his questionably wise attachment to a new actress, to whom he had never spoken a word in his life.

First, then, “Little Freddy Scoutbush,” as his compeers irreverently termed him, was, by common consent of her Majesty’s Guards, a “good fellow.” Whether the St. James’ Street definition of that adjective be the perfect one or not, we will not stay to inquire; but in the Guards’ club-house it meant this: that Scoutbush had not an enemy in the world, because he deserved none; that he lent, and borrowed not; gave, and asked not again; envied not; hustled not; slandered not; never bore malice, never said a cruel word, never played a dirty trick, would hear a fellow’s troubles out to the end, and if he could not counsel, at least would not laugh at them, and at all times and in all places lived and let live, and was accordingly a general favourite. His morality was neither better nor worse than the average of his companions; but if he was sensual, he was at least not base; and there were frail women who blessed “little Freddy,” and his shy and secret generosity, from having saved them from the lowest pit.

Au reste, he was idle, frivolous, useless; but with these two palliating facts, that he knew it and regretted it; and that he never had a chance of being aught else. His father and mother had died when he was a child. He had been sent to Eton at seven, where he learnt nothing, and into the Guards at seventeen, where he learnt less than nothing. His aunt, old Lady Knockdown, who was a kind old Irish woman, an ex-blue and ex-beauty, now a high Evangelical professor, but as worldly as her neighbours in practice, had tried to make him a good boy in old times: but she had given him up, long before he left Eton, as a “vessel of wrath” (which he certainly was, with his hot Irish temper); and since then she had only spoken of him with moans, and to him just as if he and she had made a compact to be as worldly as they could, and as if the fact that he was going, as she used to tell her private friends, straight to the wrong place, was to be utterly ignored before the pressing reality of getting him and his sisters well married. And so it befell, that Lady Knockdown, like many more, having begun with too high (or at least precise) a spiritual standard, was forced to end practically in having no standard at all; and that for ten years of Scoutbush’s life, neither she nor any other human being had spoken to him as if he had a soul to be saved, or any duty on earth save to eat, drink, and be merry.

And all the while there was a quaint and pathetic consciousness in the little man’s heart that he was meant for something better; that he was no fool, and was not intended to be one. He would thrust his head into lectures at the Polytechnic and the British Institution, with a dim endeavour to guess what they were all about, and a good-natured envy of the clever fellows who knew about “science, and all that.” He would sit and listen, puzzled and admiring, to the talk of statesmen, and confide his woe afterwards to some chum. —“Ah, if I had had the chance now that my cousin Chalkclere has! If I had had two or three tutors, and a good mother, too, keeping me in a coop, and cramming me with learning, as they cram chickens for the market, I fancy I could have shown my comb and hackles in the House as well as some of them. I fancy I could make a speech in parliament now, with the help of a little Irish impudence, if I only knew anything to speak about.”

So Scoutbush clung, in a childish way, to any superior man who would take notice of him, and not treat him as the fribble which he seemed. He had taken to that well-known artist, Claude Mellot, of late, simply from admiration of his brilliant talk about art and poetry; and boldly confessed that he preferred one of Mellot’s orations on the sublime and beautiful, though he didn’t understand a word of them, to the songs and jokes (very excellent ones in their way) of Mr. Hector Harkaway, the distinguished Irish novelist, and boon companion of her Majesty’s Life Guards Green. His special intimate and Mentor, however, was a certain Major Campbell, of whom more hereafter; who, however, being a lofty-minded and perhaps somewhat Pharisaic person, made heavier demands on Scoutbush’s conscience than he had yet been able to meet; for fully as he agreed that Hercules’ choice between pleasure and virtue was the right one, still he could not yet follow that ancient hero along the thorny path, and confined his conception of “duty” to the minimum guard and drill. He had estates in Ireland, which had almost cleared themselves during his long minority, but which, since the famine, had cost him about as much as they brought him in; and estates in the West, which, with a Welsh slate-quarry, brought him in some seven or eight thousand a-year; and so kept his poor little head above water, to look pitifully round the universe, longing for the life of him to make out what it all meant, and hoping that somebody would come and tell him.

So much for his meekness and humility in general; as for the particular display of those virtues which he has shown to-day, it must be understood that he has given a promise to Mrs. Mellot not to make love to La Cordifiamma; and, on that only condition, has been allowed to meet her to-night at one of Claude Mellot’s petits soupers.

La Cordifiamma has been staying, ever since she came to England, with the Mellots in the wilds of Brompton; unapproachable there, as in all other places. In public, she is a very Zenobia, who keeps all animals of the other sex at an awful distance; and of the fifty young puppies who are raving about her beauty, her air, and her voice, not one has obtained an introduction; while Claude, whose studio used to be a favourite lounge of young Guardsmen, has, as civilly as he can, closed his doors to those magnificent personages ever since the new singer became his guest.

Claude Mellot seems to have come into a fortune of late years, large enough, at least, for his few wants. He paints no longer, save when he chooses; and has taken a little old house in one of those back lanes of Brompton, where islands of primaeval nursery garden still remain undevoured by the advancing surges of the brick and mortar deluge. There he lives, happy in a green lawn, and windows opening thereon; in three elms, a cork, an ilex, and a mulberry, with a great standard pear, for flower and foliage the queen of all suburban trees. There he lies on the lawn, upon strange skins, the summer’s day, playing with cats and dogs, and making love to his Sabina, who has not lost her beauty in the least, though she is on the wrong side of five-and-thirty. He deludes himself, too, into the belief that he is doing something, because he is writing a treatise on the “Principles of Beauty;” which will be published, probably, about the time the Thames is purified, in the season of Latter Lammas and the Greek Kalends; and the more certainly so, because he has wandered into the abyss of conic sections and curves of double curvature, of which, if the truth must be spoken, he knows no more than his friends of the Life Guards Green.

To this charming little nest has Lord Scoutbush procured an evening’s admission after abject supplication to Sabina, who pets him because he is musical, and solemn promises neither to talk or look any manner of foolishness.

“My dearest Mrs. Mellot,” says the poor wretch, “I will be good, indeed I will; I will not even speak to her. Only let me sit and look — and — and — why, I thought you understood all about such things, and could pity a poor fellow who was spoony.”

And Sabina, who prides herself much on understanding such things, and on having, indeed, reduced them to a science in which she gives gratuitous lessons to all young gentlemen and ladies of her acquaintance, receives him pityingly, in that delicious little back drawing-room, whither whosoever enters is in no hurry to go out again.

Claude’s house is arranged with his usual defiance of all conventionalities. Dining or drawing-room proper there is none; the large front room is the studio, where he and Sabina eat and drink, as well as work and paint but out of it opens a little room, the walls of which are so covered with gems of art (where the rogue finds money to buy them is a puzzle), that the eye can turn nowhere without taking in some new beauty, and wandering on from picture to statue, from portrait to landscape, dreaming and learning afresh after every glance. At the back, a glass bay has been thrown out, and forms a little conservatory, for ever fresh and gay with tropic ferns and flowers; gaudy orchids dangle from the roof, creepers hide the framework, and you hardly see where the room ends, and the winter-garden begins; and in the centre an ottoman invites you to lounge. It costs Claude money, doubtless; but he has his excuse — “Having once seen the tropics, I cannot live without some love-tokens from their lost paradises; and which is the wiser plan, to spend money on a horse and brougham, which we don’t care to use, and on scrambling into society at the price of one great stupid party a year, or to make our little world as pretty as we can, and let those who wish to see us, take us as they find us?”

In this “nest,” as Claude and Sabina call it, sacred to the everlasting billing and cooing of that sweet little pair of human love-birds who have built it, was supper set. La Cordifiamma, all the more beautiful from the languor produced by the excitement of acting, lay upon a sofa; Claude attended, talking earnestly; Sabina, according to her custom, was fluttering in and out, and arranging supper with her own hands; both husband and wife were as busy as bees; and yet any one accustomed to watch the little ins and outs of married life, could have seen that neither forgot for a moment that the other was in the room, but basked and purred, like two blissful cats, each in the sunshine of the other’s presence; and he could have seen, too, that La Cordifiamma was divining their thoughts, and studying all their little expressions, perhaps that she might use them on the stage; perhaps, too, happy in sympathy with their happiness: and yet there was a shade of sadness on her forehead.

Scoutbush enters, is introduced, and receives a salutation from the actress haughty and cold enough to check the forwardest; puts on the air of languid nonchalance which is considered (or was before the little experiences of the Crimea) fit and proper for young gentlemen of rank and fashion. So he sits down, and feasts his foolish eyes upon his idol, hoping for a few words before the evening is over. Did I not say well, then, that there was as much meekness and humility under Scoutbush’s white cravat as under others? But his little joy is soon dashed; for the black boy announces (seemingly much to his own pleasure) a tall personage, whom, from his dress and his moustachio, Scoutbush takes for a Frenchman, till he hears him called Stangrave. The intruder is introduced to Lord Scoutbush, which ceremony is consummated by a microscopic nod on either side; he then walks straight up to La Cordifiamma; and Scoutbush sees her cheeks flush as he does so. He takes her hand, speaks to her in a low voice, and sits down by her, Claude making room for him; and the two engage earnestly in conversation.

Scoutbush is much inclined to walk out of the room; — was he brought there to see that? Of course, however, he sits still, keeps his own counsel, and makes himself agreeable enough all the evening, like a good-natured kind-hearted little man, as he is. Whereby he is repaid; for the conversation soon becomes deep, and even too deep for him; and he is fain to drop out of the race, and leave it to his idol and to the new-comer, who seems to have seen, and done, and read everything in heaven and earth, and probably bought everything also; not to mention that he would be happy to sell the said universe again, at a very cheap price, if any one would kindly take it off his hands. Not that he boasts, or takes any undue share of the conversation; he is evidently too well bred for that; but every sentence shows an acquaintance with facts of which Eton has told Scoutbush nothing, the barrack-room less, and after which he still craves, the good little fellow, in a very honest way, and would soon have learnt, had he had a chance; for of native Irish smartness he had no lack.

“Poor Flake was half mad about you, Signora, in the stage-box to-night,” said Sabina. “He says that he shall not sleep till he has painted you.”

“Do let him!” cried Scoutbush: “what a picture he will make!”

“He may paint a picture, but not me; it is quite enough, Lord Scoutbush, to be some one else for two hours every night, without going down to posterity, as some one else for ever. If I am painted, I will be painted by no one who cannot represent my very self.”

“You are right!” said Stangrave: “and you will do the man himself good by refusing; he has some notion still of what a portrait ought to be. If he once begins by attempting passing expressions of passion, which is all stage portraits can give, he will find them so much easier than honest representations of character, that he will end, where all our moderns seem to do, in merest melodrama.”

“Explain!” said she.

“Portrait painters now depend for their effect on the mere accidents of the entourage; on dress, on landscape, even on broad hints of a man’s occupation, putting a plan on the engineer’s table, and a roll in the statesman’s hands, like the old Greek who wrote ‘this is an ox’ under his picture. If they wish to give the face expression, though they seldom aim so high, all they can compass is a passing emotion; and one sitter goes down to posterity with an eternal frown, another with an eternal smile.”

“Or, if he be a poet,” said Sabina, “rolls his eye for ever in a fine frenzy.”

“But would you forbid them to paint passion?”

“Not in its place; when the picture gives the causes of the passion, and the scene tells its own story. But then let us not have merely Kean as Hamlet, but Hamlet’s self; let the painter sit down and conceive for himself a Hamlet, such as Shakspeare conceived; not merely give us as much of him as could be pressed at a given moment into the face of Mr. Kean. He will be only unjust to both actor and character. If Flake paints Marie as Lady Macbeth, he will give us neither her nor Lady Macbeth; but only the single point at which their two characters can coincide.”

“How rude!” said Sabina, laughing; “what is he doing but hinting that La Signora’s conception of Lady Macbeth is a very partial and imperfect one?”

“And why should it not be?” asked the actress, humbly enough.

“I meant,” he answered warmly, “that there was more, far more in her than in any character which she assumes; and I do not want a painter to copy only one aspect, and let a part go down to posterity as a representation of the whole.”

“If you mean that, you shall be forgiven. No; when she is painted, she shall be painted as herself, as she is now. Claude shall paint her.”

“I have not known La Signora long enough,” said Claude, “to aspire to such an honour. I paint no face which I have not studied for a year.”

“Faith!” said Scoutbush, “you would find no more in most faces at the year’s end, than you did the first day.”

“Then I would not paint them. If I paint a portrait, which I seldom do, I wish to make it such a one as the old masters aimed at — to give the sum total of the whole character; traces of every emotion, if it were possible, and glances of every expression which have passed over it since it was born into the world. They are all here, the whole past and future of the man; and every man, as the Mohammedans say, carries his destiny on his forehead.”

“But who has eyes to see it?”

“The old masters had; some of them at least. Raphael had; Sebastian del Piombo had; and Titian, and Giorgione. There are portraits painted by them which carry a whole life-history concentrated into one moment.”

“But they,” said Stangrave, “are the portraits of men such as they saw around them; natures who were strong for good and evil, who were not ashamed to show their strength. Where will a painter find such among the poor, thin, unable mortals who come to him to buy immortality at a hundred and fifty guineas apiece, after having spent their lives in religiously rubbing off their angles against each other, and forming their characters, as you form shot, by shaking them together in a bag till they have polished each other into dullest uniformity?”

“It’s very true,” said Scoutbush, who suffered much at times from a certain wild Irish vein, which stirred him up to kick over the traces. “People are horribly like each other; and if a poor fellow is bored, and tries to do anything spicy or original, he has half-a-dozen people pooh-poohing him down on the score of bad taste.”

“Men can be just as original now as ever,” said La Signora, “if they had but the courage, even the insight. Heroic souls in old times had no more opportunities than we have: but they used them. There were daring deeds to be done then — are there none now? Sacrifices to be made — are there none now? Wrongs to be redressed — are there none now? Let any one set his heart, in these days, to do what is right, and nothing else; and it will not be long ere his brow is stamped with all that goes to make up the heroical expression — with noble indignation, noble self-restraint, great hopes, great sorrows; perhaps, even, with the print of the martyr’s crown of thorns.”

She looked at Stangrave as she spoke, with an expression which Scoutbush tried in vain to read. The American made no answer, and seemed to hang his head awhile. After a minute he said tenderly:—

“You will tire yourself if you talk thus, after the evening’s fatigue. Mrs. Mellot will sing to us, and give us leisure to think over our lesson.”

And Sabina sang; and then Lord Scoutbush was made to sing; and sang his best, no doubt.

So the evening slipt on, till it was past eleven o’clock, and Stangrave rose. “And now,” said he, “I must go to Lady M——‘s ball; and Marie must rest.”

As he went, he just leaned over La Cordifiamma.

“Shall I come in to-morrow morning? We ought to read over that scene together before the rehearsal.”

“Early then, or Sabina will be gone out; and she must play soubrette to our hero and heroine.”

“You will rest? Mrs. Mellot, you will see that she does not sit up.”

“It is not very polite to rob us of her, as soon as you cannot enjoy her yourself.”

“I must take care of people who do not take care of themselves;” and Stangrave departed.

Great was Scoutbush’s wrath when he saw Marie rise and obey orders. “Who was this man? what right had he to command her?”

He asked as much of Sabina the moment La Cordifiamma had retired.

“Are you not going to Lady M—— ‘s, too?”

“No; that is, I won’t go yet; not till you have explained all this to me.”

“Explained what?” asked Sabina, looking as demure as a little brown mouse.

“Why, what did you ask me here for?”

“Lord Scoutbush should recollect that he asked himself.”

“You cruel venomous creature! do you think I would have come, if I had known that I was to see another man making love to her before my very eyes? I could kill the fellow; — who is he?”

“A New York merchant, unworthy of your aristocratic powder and ball.”

“The confounded Yankee!” muttered Scoutbush.

“If people swear in my house, I fine them a dozen of kid gloves. Did you not promise me that you would not make love to her yourself?”

“Well — but, it is too cruel of you, before my very eyes.”

“I saw no love-making to-night.”

“None? Were you blind?”

“Not in the least; but you cannot well see a thing making which has been made long ago.”

“What! Is he her husband?”

“No.”

“Engaged to her?”

“No.”

“What then!”

“Don’t you know already that this is a house of mystery, full of mysterious people? I tell you this only, that if she ever marries any one, she will marry him; and that if I can, I will make her.”

“Then you are my enemy after all.”

“I! Do you think that Sabina Mellot can see a young viscount loose upon the universe, without trying to make up a match for him? No; I have such a prize for you — young, handsome, better educated than any woman whom you will meet to-night. True, she is a Manchester girl: but then she has eighty thousand pounds.”

“Eighty thousand nonsense? I’d sooner have that divine creature without a penny, than —”

“And would my lord viscount so far debase himself as to marry an actress?”

“Humph! Faith, my grandmother was an actress; and we St. Justs are none the worse for that fact, as far as I can see — and certainly none the uglier — the women at least. Oh Sabina — Mrs. Mellot, I mean — only help me this once!”

“This once? Do you intend to marry by my assistance this time, and by your own the next? How many viscountesses are there to be?”

“Don’t laugh at me, you cruel woman: you don’t know; you fancy that I am not in love —” and the poor fellow began pouring out these commonplaces, which one has heard too often to take the trouble of repeating, and yet which are real enough, and pathetic too; for in every man, however frivolous, or even worthless, love calls up to the surface the real heroism, the real depth of character — all the more deep because common to poet and philosopher, guardsman and country clod.

“I’ll leave town to-morrow. I’ll go to the Land’s-end — to Norway — to Africa —”

“And forget her in the bliss of lion-hunting.”

“Don’t, I tell you; here I will not stay to be driven mad. To think that she is here, and that hateful Yankee at her elbow. I’ll go —”

“To Lady M——‘s ball?”

“No, confound it; to meet that fellow there! I should quarrel with him, as sure as there is hot Irish blood in my veins. The self-satisfied puppy! to be flirting and strutting there, while such a creature as that is lying thinking of him.”

“Would you have him shut himself up in his hotel, and write poetry; or walk the streets all night, sighing at the moon?”

“No; but the cool way in which he went off himself, and sent her to bed. Confound him! commanding her. It made my blood boil.”

“Claude, get Lord Scoutbush some iced soda-water.”

“If you laugh at me, I’ll never speak to you again.”

“Or buy any of Claude’s pictures?”

“Why do you torment me so? I’ll go, I say — leave town to-morrow — only I can’t with this horrid depot work! What shall I do? It’s too cruel of you, while Campbell is away in Ireland, too; and I have not a soul but you to ask advice of, for Valencia is as great a goose as I am;” and the poor little fellow buried his hands in his curls, and stared fiercely into the fire, as if to draw from thence omens of his love, by the spodomantic augury of the ancient Greeks; while Sabina tripped up and down the room, putting things to rights for the night, and enjoying his torments as a cat does those of the mouse between her paws; and yet not out of spite, but from pure and simple fun.

Sabina is one of those charming bodies who knows everybody’s business, and manages it. She lives in a world of intrigue, but without a thought of intriguing for her own benefit. She has always a match to make, a disconsolate lover to comfort, a young artist to bring forward, a refugee to conceal, a spendthrift to get out of a scrape; and, like David in the mountains, “every one that is discontented, and every one that is in debt, gather themselves to her.” The strangest people, on the strangest errands, run over each other in that cosy little nest of hers. Fine ladies with over-full hearts, and seedy gentlemen with over-empty pockets, jostle each other at her door; and she has a smile, and a repartee, and good, cunning, practical wisdom for each and every one of them, and then dismisses them to bill and coo with Claude, and laugh over everybody and everything. The only price which she demands for her services is, to be allowed to laugh; and if that be permitted, she will be as busy, and earnest, and tender, as Saint Elizabeth herself. “I have no children of my own,” she says, “so I just make everybody my children, Claude included; and play with them, and laugh at them, and pet them, and help them out of their scrapes, just as I should if they were in my own nursery.” And so it befalls that she is every one’s confidant; and though every one seems on the point of taking liberties with her, yet no one does: partly because they are in her power, and partly because, like an Eastern sultana, she carries a poniard, and can use it, though only in self-defence. So if great people, or small people either (who can give themselves airs as well as their betters), take her plain speaking unkindly, she just speaks a little more plainly, once for all, and goes off smiling to some one else; as a hummingbird, if a flower has no honey in it, whirs away, with a saucy flirt of its pretty little tail, to the next branch on the bush.

“I must know more of this American,” said Scoutbush, at last.

“Well, he would be very improving company for you; and I know you like improving company.”

“I mean — what has he to do with her?”

“That is just what I will not tell you. One thing I will tell you, though, for it may help to quench any vain hopes on your part; and that is, the reason which she gives for not marrying him.”

“Well?”

“Because he is an idler.”

“What would she say of me, then?” groaned Scoutbush.

“Very true; for, you must understand, this Mr. Stangrave is not what you or I should call an idle man. He has travelled over half the world and made the best use of his eyes. He has filled his house in New York, they say, with gems of art gathered from every country in Europe. He is a finished scholar; talks half-a-dozen different languages, sings, draws, writes poetry, reads hard every day, at every subject, from gardening to German metaphysics — altogether, one of the most highly cultivated men I know, and quite an Admirable Crichton in his way.”

“Then why does she call him an idler?”

“Because, she says, he has no great purpose in life. She will marry no one who will not devote himself, and all he has, to some great, chivalrous, heroic enterprise; whose one object is to be of use, even if he has to sacrifice his life to it. She says that there must be such men still left in the world; and that if she finds one, him she will marry, and no one else.”

“Why, there are none such to be found now-a-days, I thought?”

“You heard what she herself said on that very point.”

There was a silence for a minute or two. Scout-bush had heard, and was pondering it in his heart. At last —

“I am not cut out for a hero; so I suppose I must give her up. But I wish sometimes I could be of use, Mrs. Mellot: but what can a fellow do?”

“I thought there was an Irish tenantry to be looked after, my lord, and a Cornish tenantry too.”

“That’s what Campbell is always saying: but what more can I do than I do? As for those poor Paddies, I never ask them for rent; if I did, I should not get it; so there is no generosity in that. And as for the Aberalva people, they have got on very well without me for twenty years; and I don’t know them, nor what they want; nor even if they do want anything, except fish enough, and I can’t put more fish into the sea, Mrs. Mellot?”

“Try and be a good soldier, then,” said she, laughing. “Why should not Lord Scoutbush emulate his illustrious countryman, conquer at a second Waterloo, and die a duke?”

“I’m not cut out for a general, I am afraid; but if — I don’t say if I could marry that woman — I suppose it would be a foolish thing — though I shall break my heart, I believe, if I do not. Oh, Mrs. Mellot, you cannot tell what a fool I have made myself about her; and I cannot help it! It’s not her beauty merely; but there is something so noble in her face, like one of those Greek goddesses Claude talks of; and when she is acting, if she has to say anything grand, or generous — or — you know the sort of thing — she brings it out with such a voice, and such a look, from the very bottom of her heart — it makes me shudder; just as she did when she told that Yankee, that every one could be a hero, or a martyr, if he chose. Mrs. Mellot, I am sure she is one, or she could not look and speak as she does.”

“She is one!” said Sabina; “a heroine, and a martyr too.”

“If I could — that was what I was going to say — if I could but win that woman’s respect — as I live, I ask no more; only to be sure she didn’t despise me. I’d do — I don’t know what I wouldn’t do. I’d — I’d study the art of war: I know there are books about it. I’d get out to the East, away from this depôt work; and if there is no fighting there, as every one says there will not be, I’d go into a marching regiment, and see service. I’d — hang it, if they’d have me — I’d even go to the senior department at Sandhurst, and read mathematics!”

Sabina kept her countenance (though with difficulty) at this magnificent bathos; for she saw that the little man was really in earnest; and that the looks and words of the strange actress had awakened in him something far deeper and nobler than the mere sensual passion of a boy.

“Ah, if I had but gone out to Varna with the rest! I thought myself a lucky fellow to be left here.”

“Do you know that it is getting very late?”

So Frederick Lord Scoutbush went home to his rooms: and there sat for three hours and more with his feet on the fender, rejecting the entreaties of Mr. Bowie, his servant, either to have something, or to go to bed; yea, he forgot even to smoke, by which Mr. Bowie “jaloused” that he was hit very hard indeed: but made no remark, being a Scotchman, and of a cautious temperament.

However, from that night Scoutbush was a changed man, and tried to be so. He read of nothing but sieges and stockades, brigade evolutions, and conical bullets; he drilled his men till he was an abomination in their eyes, and a weariness to their flesh; only every evening he went to the theatre, watched La Cordifiamma with a heavy heart, and then went home to bed; for the little man had good sense enough to ask Sabina for no more interviews with her. So in all things he acquitted himself as a model officer, and excited the admiration and respect of Serjeant Major MacArthur, who began fishing at Bowie to discover the cause of this strange metamorphosis in the rackety little Irishman.

“Your master seems to be qualifying himself for the adjutant’s post, Mr. Bowie. I’m jalousing he’s fired with martial ardour since the war broke out.”

To which Bowie, being a brother Scot, answered Scotticè, by a crafty paralogism.

“I’ve always held it as my opeeeenion, that his lordship is a youth of very good parts, if he was only compelled to employ them.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/two_years_ago/chapter7.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:48