The Quest of the Golden Girl
Part 2 out of 4
But, alas! as he talked on, with lighted face and chin in the
air, how cruelly I realised how little I had fulfilled mine.
And how hard it was to talk to him, without crushing some flower
of his fancy or casting doubt upon his dreams. Oh, the gulf
between twenty and thirty! I had never quite comprehended it
before. And how inexpressibly sad it was to hear him prattling
on of the ideal life, of socialism, of Walt Whitman and what
not,--all the dear old quackeries,--while I was already settling
down comfortably to a conservative middle age. He had no hope
that had not long been my despair, no aversion that I had not
accepted among the more or less comfortable conditions of the
universe. He was all for nature and liberty, whereas I had now
come to realise the charm of the artificial, and the social value
"Young man," I cried in my heart, "what shall I do to inherit
The gulf between us was further revealed when, at length coming
to our inn, we sat down to dinner. To me it seemed the most
natural thing in the world to call for the wine-list and consult
his choice of wine; but, will you believe me, he asked to be
allowed to drink water! And when he quoted the dear old stock
nonsense out of Thoreau about being able to get intoxicated on a
glass of water, I could have laughed and cried at the same time.
"Happy Boy!" I cried, "still able to turn water into wine by
the divine power of your youth"; and then, turning to the
waiter, I ordered a bottle of No. 37.
"Wine is the only youth granted to middle age," I
continued,--"in vino juventus, one might say; and may you, my
dear young friend, long remain so proudly independent of that
great Elixir--though I confess that I have met no few young men
under thirty who have been excellent critics of the wine-list."
As the water warmed him, he began to expand into further
confidence, and then he told me the story of his Shelley, if a
story it can be called. For, of course, it was simple enough,
and the reader has long since guessed that the reason why he
wouldn't lose his Shelley for the world was the usual simple
I listened to his rhapsodies of HER and HER and HER with an
aching heart. How good it was to be young! No wonder men had so
desperately sought the secret of Eternal Youth! Who would not be
young for ever, for such dreams and such an appetite?
Here of course was the very heaven-sent confidant for such an
enterprise as mine. I told him all about my whim, just for the
pleasure of watching his face light up with youth's generous
worship of all such fantastic nonsense. You should have seen his
enthusiasm and heard all the things he said. Why, to encounter
such a whimsical fellow as myself in this unimaginative age was
like meeting a fairy prince, or coming unexpectedly upon Don
Quixote attacking the windmill. I offered him the post of Sancho
Panza; and indeed what would he not give, he said, to leave all
and follow me! But then I reminded him that he had already found
his Golden Girl.
"Of course, I forgot," he said, with I'm afraid something of a
sigh. For you see he was barely twenty, and to have met your
ideal so early in life is apt to rob the remainder of the journey
of something of its zest.
I asked him to give me his idea of what the Blessed Maid should
be, to which he replied, with a smile, that he could not do
better than describe Her, which he did for the sixth time. It
was, as I had foreseen, the picture of a Saint, a Goddess, a
Dream, very lovely and pure and touching; but it was not a woman,
and it was a woman I was in search of, with all her imperfections
on her head. I suppose no boy of twenty really loves a WOMEN,
but loves only his etherealised extract of woman, entirely free
from earthy adulteration. I noticed the words "pure" and
"natural" in constant use by my young friend. Some lines went
through my head, but I forbore to quote them:--
Alas I your so called purity
Is merely immaturity,
And woman's nature plays its part
Sincerely but in woman's art.
But I couldn't resist asking him, out of sheer waggery, whether
he didn't think a touch of powder, and even, very judiciously
applied, a touch of rouge, was an improvement to woman. His
answer went to my heart.
"Paint--a WOMAN!" he exclaimed.
It was as though you had said--paint an angel!
I could bear no more of it. The gulf yawned shiveringly wide at
remarks like that; so, with the privilege of an elder, I declared
it time for bed, and yawned off to my room.
Next morning we bade good-bye, and went our several ways. As we
parted, he handed me a letter which I was not to open till I was
well on my journey. We waved good-bye to each other till the
turnings of the road made parting final, and then, sitting down
by the roadside, I opened the letter. It proved to be not a
letter, but a poem, which he had evidently written after I had
left him for bed. It was entitled, with twenty's love for a tag
of Latin, Ad Puellam Auream, and it ran thus:--
The Golden Girl in every place
Hides and reveals her lovely face;
Her neither skill nor strength may find--
'T is only loving moves her mind.
If but a pretty face you seek,
You'll find one any day or week;
But if you look with deeper eyes,
And seek her lovely, pure, and wise,
Then must you wear the pilgrim's shoon
For many a weary, wandering moon.
Only the pure in heart may see
That lily of all purity,
Only in clean unsullied thought
The image of her face is caught,
And only he her love may hold
Who buys her with the spirit's gold.
Thus only shall you find your pearl,
O seeker of the Golden Girl!
She trod but now the grassy way,
A vision of eternal May.
The devil take his impudence! "Only the pure in heart,"
"clean, unsullied thought." How like the cheek of twenty! And
all the same how true! Dear lad, how true! Certainly, the child
is father to the man. Dirige nos! O sage of the Golden
As I meditatively folded up the pretty bit of writing, I made a
resolution; but it was one of such importance that not only is
another chapter needed to do it honour, but it may well
inaugurate another book of this strange uneventful history.
IN WHICH I DECIDE TO BE YOUNG AGAIN
Yes, I said to myself, the lad is quite right; I will follow his
advice. I'm afraid I was in danger of developing into a sad
cynic, with a taste for the humour of this world. What should
have been a lofty high-souled pilgrimage, only less
transcendental than that of the Holy Grail itself, has so far
failed, no doubt, because I have undertaken it too much in the
wanton spirit of a troubadour.
I will grow young and serious again. Yes, why not? I will take a
vow of Youth. One's age is entirely a matter of the imagination.
From this moment I am no longer thirty. Thirty falls from me
like a hideous dream. My back straightens again at the thought;
my silvering hair blackens once more; my eyes, a few moments ago
lacklustre and sunken, grow bright and full again, and the whites
are clear as the finest porcelain. Veni, veni, Mephistophile!
your Faust is young again,--young, young, and, with a boy's
heart, open once more to all the influences of the mighty world.
I bring down my stick upon the ground with a mighty ring of
resolution, and the miracle is done. Who would take me for
thirty now? From this moment I abjure pessimism and cynicism in
all their forms, put from my mind all considerations of the
complexities of human life, unravel all by a triumphant optimism
which no statistics can abash or criticism dishearten. I
likewise undertake to divest myself entirely of any sense of
humour that may have developed within me during the baneful
experiences of the last ten years, and, in short, will consent
for the future to be nothing that is not perfectly perfect and
pure. These, I take it, are the fundamental conditions of being
And as for the Quest, it shall forthwith be undertaken in an
entirely serious and high-minded spirit. From this moment I am
on the look-out for a really transcendental attachment. No
"bright-eyed bar-maids," however "refined," need apply.
Ladies who are prodigal of their white petticoats are no longer
fit company for me. Indeed I shall no longer look upon a
petticoat, unless I am able first entirely to spiritualise it.
It must first be disinfected of every earthly thought.
Yes, I am once more a young man, sound in wind and limb, with not
a tooth or an illusion lost, my mind tabula rasa, my heart to be
had for the asking. Oh, come, ye merry, merry maidens! The
fairy prince is on the fairy road.
Incipit vita nuova!
So in the lovely rapture of a new-born resolution--and is there
any rapture like it? --nature has no more intoxicating illusion
than that of turning over a new leaf, or beginning a new life
from to-day--I sprang along the road with a carolling heart;
quite forgetting that Apuleius and Fielding and Boccaccio were
still in my knapsack--not to speak of the petticoat.
AT THE SIGN OF THE SINGING STREAM
Apuleius and Fielding and Boccaccio, bad companions for a
petticoat, I'm afraid, bad companions too for so young a man as
I had now become. However, as I say, I had for the time
forgotten that pagan company, or, in my puritanic zeal, I might
have thrown them all to be washed clean in the upland stream,
whose pure waters one might fancy were fragrant from their sunny
day among the ferns and the heather, fragrant to the eye, indeed,
if one may so speak, with the shaken meal of the meadowsweet.
This stream had been the good angel of my thoughts all the day,
keeping them ever moving and ever fresh, cleansing and burnishing
them, quite an open-air laundry of the mind.
We were both making for the same little town, it appeared, and as
the sun was setting we reached it together. I entered the town
over the bridge, and the stream under it, washing the walls of
the high-piled, many-gabled old inn where I proposed to pass the
night. I should hear it still rippling on with its gentle
harpsichord tinkle, as I stretched myself down among the cool
lavendered sheets, and little by little let slip the multifarious
The inn windows beamed cheerily, a home of ruddy rest. Having
ordered my dinner and found my room, I threw down my knapsack and
then came out again to smoke an ante-prandial pipe, listen to the
evensong of the stream, and think great thoughts. The stream was
still there, and singing the same sweet old song. You could hear
it long after it was out of sight, in the gathering darkness,
like an old nurse humming lullabies in the twilight.
The dinner was good, the wine was old, and oh! the rest was
sweet! Nothing fills one with so exquisite a weariness as a day
spent in good resolutions and great thoughts. There is something
perilously sensuous in the relaxation of one's muscles, both of
mind and body, after a day thus well spent.
Lighting up my pipe once more, and drawing to the fire, I
suddenly realised a sense of loneliness. Of course, I was lonely
for a book,--Apuleius or Fielding or Boccaccio!
An hour ago they had seemed dangerous companions for so lofty a
mood; but now, under the gentle influences of dinner, the mood
had not indeed changed--but mellowed. So to say, we would split
the difference between the ideal and the human, and be, say,
It was in this genial attitude of mind that I strode up the
quaint circular staircase to fetch Fielding from my room, and,
shade of Tom Jones! what should be leaving my room, as I advanced
to enter it, but--well, it's no use, resolutions are all very
well, but facts are facts, especially when they're natural, and
here was I face to face with the most natural little natural
fact, and withal the most charming and merry-eyed, that-- well,
in short, as I came to enter my room I was confronted by the
roundest, ruddiest little chambermaid ever created for the trial
of mortal frailty.
And the worst of it was that her merry eye was in partnership
with a merry tongue. Indeed, for some unexplained reason, she was
bubbling over with congested laughter, the reason for which mere
embarrassment set one inquiring. At last, between little gushes
of laughter which shook her plump shoulders in a way that aroused
wistful memories of Hebe, she archly asked me, with mock
solemnity, if I should need a lady's maid.
"Certainly," I replied with inane promptitude, for I had no
notion of her drift; but then she ran off in a scurry of
laughter, and still puzzled I turned into my room, TO FIND,
neatly hung over the end of the bed, nothing less than the dainty
petticoat and silk stockings of Sylvia Joy.
You can imagine the colour of my cheeks at the discovery. No
doubt I was already the laughing-stock of the whole inn. What
folly! What a young vixen! Oh, what's to be done? Pay my bill
and sneak off at once to the next town; but how pass through the
grinning line of boots, and waiter, and chambermaid, and
ironically respectful landlord and landlady, in the hall . . .
But while I thus deliberated, something soft pressed in at the
door; and, making a sudden dart, I had the little baggage who had
brought about my dilemma a prisoner in my arms.
I stayed some days at this charming old inn, for Amaryllis--oh,
yes, you may be sure her name was Amaryllis--had not betrayed me;
and indeed she may have some share in my retrospect of the inn as
one of the most delightful which I encountered anywhere in my
journeying. Would you like to know its name? Well, I know it as
The Singing Stream. If you can find it under that name, you are
welcome. And should you chance to be put into bedroom No. 26,
you can think of me, and how I used to lie awake, listening to
the stream rippling beneath the window, with its gentle
harpsichord tinkle, and little by little letting slip the
And if anything about this chapter should seem to contradict the
high ideals of the chapter preceding it, I can only say that,
though the episode should not rigidly fulfil the conditions of
the transcendental, nothing could have been more characteristic
of that early youth to which I had vowed myself. Indeed, I
congratulated myself, as I looked my last at the sign of The
Singing Stream, that this had been quite in my early manner.
IN WHICH I SAVE A USEFUL LIFE
Though I had said good-bye to the inn, the stream and I did not
part company at the inn-door, but continued for the best part of
a morning to be fellow-travellers. Indeed, having led me to one
pleasant adventure, its purpose, I afterwards realised, was to
lead me to another, and then to go about its own bright business.
I don't think either of us had much idea where we were or whither
we were bound. Our guiding principle seemed to be to get as much
sunshine as possible, and to find the easiest road. We avoided
dull sandy levels and hard rocky places, with the same
instinctive dexterity. We gloomed together through dark dingles,
and came out on sunny reaches with the same gilded magnificence.
There are days when every stream is Pactolus and every man is
Croesus, and thanks to that first and greatest of all alchemists,
the sun, the morning I write of was a morning when to breathe was
gold and to see was silver. And to breathe and see was all one
asked. It was the first of May, and the world shone like a great
illuminated letter with which that father of artists, the sun,
was making splendid his missal of the seasons.
The month of May was ever his tour de force. Each year he has
strained and stimulated his art to surpass himself, seeking ever
a finer and a brighter gold, a more celestial azure. Never had
his gold been so golden, his azure so dazzlingly clear and deep
as on this particular May morning; while his fancy simply ran
riot in the marginal decorations of woodland and spinney, quaint
embroidered flowers and copses full of exquisitely painted and
wonderfully trained birds of song. It was indeed a day for
nature to be proud of. So seductive was the sunshine that even
the shy trout leapt at noonday, eager apparently to change his
silver for gold.
O silver fish in the silver stream,
O golden fish in the golden gleam,
Tell me, tell me, tell me true,
Shall I find my girl if I follow you?
I suppose the reader never makes nonsense rhymes from sheer
gladness of heart,--nursery doggerel to keep time with the
rippling of the stream, or the dancing of the sun, or the beating
of his heart; the gibberish of delight. As I hummed this
nonsense, a trout at least three pounds in weight, whom you would
know again anywhere, leapt a yard out of the water, and I took
it, in my absurd, sun-soaked heart, as a good omen, as though he
had said, "Follow and see."
I had no will but to follow, no desire but to see. All the same,
though I affected to take him seriously, I had little suspicion
how much that trout was to mean to me,--yes, within the course
of a very few moments. Indeed, I had hardly strolled on for
another quarter of a mile, when I was suddenly aroused from
wool-gathering by his loud cries for help. Looking up, I saw him
flashing desperately in mid-air, a lovely foot of writhing
silver. In another second he was swung through the sunlight, and
laid out breathing hard in a death-bed of buttercups and daisies.
There was not a moment to be lost, if I were to repay the debt of
gratitude which in a flash I had seen that I owed him.
"Madam," I said, breathlessly springing forward, as a heavenly
being was coldly tearing the hook from the gills of the unlucky
trout, "though I am a stranger, will you do me a great favour?
It is a matter of life or death . . ."
She looked up at me with some surprise, but with a fine fearless
glance, and almost immediately said, "Certainly, what can I
"Spare the life of that trout--"
"It is a singular request," she replied, "and one," she
smiled, "self-sacrificing indeed for an angler to grant, for he
weighs at least three pounds. However, since he seems a friend
of yours, here goes--" And with the gladdest, most grateful
sound in the world, the happy smack of a fish back home again in
the water, after an appalling three minutes spent on land, that
prophetic trout was once more an active unit in God's populous
"Now that's good of you," I said, with thankful eyes, "and
shows a kind heart."
"And kind hearts, they say, are more than coronets," she
replied merrily, indulging in that derisive quotation which seems
to be the final reward of the greatest poets.
For a moment there was a silence, during which I confess to
wondering what I should say next. However, she supplied my
"But of course," she said, "you owe it to me, after this
touching display of humanitarianism, to entertain me with your
reason for interposing between me and my just trout. Was it one
of those wonderful talking fishes out of the Arabian Nights, or
are you merely an angler yourself, and did you begrudge such a
record catch to a girl?"
"I see," I replied, "that you will understand me. That trout
was, so to speak, out of the Arabian Nights. Only five minutes
ago it was a May-day madness of mine to think that he leaped out
of the water and gave me a highly important message. So I begged
his life from a mere fancy. It was just a whim, which I trust
you will excuse."
"A whim! So you are a follower of the great god Whim," she
replied, with somewhat of an eager interest in her voice. "How
nice it is to meet a fellow-worshipper!"
"Do women ever have whims?" I respectfully asked.
"I don't know about other women," she replied. "Indeed, I'm
afraid I'm unnatural enough to take no interest in them at all.
But, as for me,--well, what nonsense! Tell me some more about
the trout. What was the wonderful message he seemed to give you?
Or perhaps I oughtn't to ask?"
"I'm afraid," I said, "it would hardly translate into
anything approaching common-sense."
"Did I ask for common-sense?" she retorted. It was true, she
hadn't. But then I couldn't, with any respect for her, tell
her the trout's message, or, with any respect for myself, recall
those atrocious doggerel lines. In my dilemma, I caught sight of
a pretty book lying near her fishing-basket, and diverted the
talk by venturing to ask its name.
" 'T is of Aucassin and Nicolete," she replied, with something
in her voice which seemed to imply that the tender old story
would be familiar to me. My memory served me for once gallantly.
I answered by humming half to myself the lines from the
"Sweet the song, the story sweet,
There is no man hearkens it,
No man living 'neath the sun,
So outwearied, so foredone,
Sick and woful, worn and sad,
But is healed, but is glad
'T is so sweet."
"How charming of you to know it!" she laughed. "You are the
only man in this county, or the next, or the next, who knows it,
"Are the women of the county more familiar with it?" I replied.
"But tell me about the trout," she once more persisted.
At the same moment, however, there came from a little distance
the musical tinkle of a bell that sounded like silver, a
fairy-like and almost startling sound.
"It is my lunch," she explained. "I'm a worshipper of the
great god Whim too, and close by here I have a little
summer-house, full of books and fishing-lines and other
childishness, where, when my whim is to be lonely, I come and
play at solitude. If you'll be content with rustic fare, and
promise to be amusing, it would be very pleasant if you'd join
O! most prophetic and agreeable trout! Was it not like the old
fairy tales, the you-help-us and we'll-help-you of Psyche and the
It had been the idlest whim for me to save the life of that poor
trout. There was no real pity in it. For two pins, I had been
just as ready to cut it open, to see if by chance it carried in
its belly the golden ring wherewith I was to wed the Golden--
However, such is the gratitude of nature to man, that this little
thoughtless act of kindness had brought me face to face with
--was it the Golden Girl?
'T IS OF NICOLETE AND HER BOWER IN THE WILDWOOD
But I have all this time left the reader without any formal
descriptive introduction to this whimsical young lady angler.
Not without reason, for, like any really charming personality,
she was very difficult to picture. Paint a woman! as our young
friend Alastor said.
Faces that fall into types you can describe, or at all events
label in such a way that the reader can identify them; but those
faces that consist mainly of spiritual effect and physical bloom,
that change with everything they look upon, the light in which
ebbs and flows with every changing tide of the soul,--these you
have to love to know, and to worship to portray.
Now the face of Nicolete, as I learnt in time to call her, was
just soul and bloom, perhaps mainly bloom. I never noticed
whether she had any other features except her eyes. I suppose
she had a nose; a little lace pocket-handkerchief I have by me at
the moment is almost too small to be evidence on that important
As I walked by her side that May morning, I was only conscious of
her voice and her exquisite girlhood; for though she talked with
the APLOMB of a woman of the world, a passionate candour and
simple ardour in her manner would have betrayed her, had her face
not plainly declared her the incarnation of twenty. But if she
were twenty years young, she was equally twenty years OLD; and
twenty years old, in some respects, is the greatest age attained
to by man or woman. In this she rather differed from Alastor, of
whom otherwise she was the female counterpart. Her talk, and
something rather in her voice than her talk, soon revealed her as
a curious mixture of youth and age, of dreamer and desillusionee.
One soon realised that she was too young, was hoping too much
from life, to spend one's days with. Yet she had just
sufficiently that touch of languor which puts one at one's ease,
though indeed it was rather the languor of waiting for what was
going to happen than the weariness of experience gone by. She
was weary, not because of the past, but because the fairy theatre
of life still kept its curtain down, and forced her to play over
and over again the impatient overture of her dreams.
I have no doubt that it was largely nervousness that kept the
mysterious playwright so long fumbling behind the scenes, for it
was obvious that it would be no ordinary sort of play, no
every-day domestic drama, that would satisfy this young lady, to
whom life had given, by way of prologue, the inestimable blessing
of wealth, and the privilege, as a matter of course, of choosing
as she would among the grooms (that is, the bride-grooms) of the
romantic British aristocracy.
She had made youth's common mistake of beginning life with books,
which can only be used without danger by those who are in a
position to test their statements. Youth naturally believes
everything that is told it, especially in books.
Now, books are simply professional liars about life, and the
books that are best worth reading are those which lie the most
beautifully. Yet, in fairness, we must add that they are liars,
not with intent to mislead, but merely with the tenderest purpose
to console. They are the good Samaritans that find us robbed of
all our dreams by the roadside of life, bleeding and weeping and
desolate; and such is their skill and wealth and goodness of
heart, that they not only heal up our wounds, but restore to us
the lost property of our dreams, on one condition,--that we
never travel with them again in the daylight.
A library is a better world, built by the brains and hearts of
poets and dreamers, as a refuge from the real world outside; and
in it alone is to be found the land of milk and honey which it
"Milk and honey" would have been an appropriate inscription for
the delicious little library which parents who, I surmised, doted
on Nicolete in vain, had allowed her to build in a wild woodland
corner of her ancestral park, half a mile away from the great
house, where, for all its corridors and galleries, she could
never feel, at all events, spiritually alone. All that was most
sugared and musical and generally delusive in the old library of
her fathers had been brought out to this little woodland library,
and to that nucleus of old leather-bound poets and romancers,
long since dead, yet as alive and singing on their shelves as any
bird on the sunny boughs outside, my young lady's private purse
had added all that was most sugared and musical and generally
delusive in the vellum bound Japanese-paper literature of our own
luxurious day. Nor were poets and romancers from over sea--in
their seeming simple paper covers, but with, oh, such complicated
and subtle insides!--absent from the court which Nicolete held
here in the greenwood. Never was such a nest of singing-birds.
All day long, to the ear of the spirit, there was in this little
library a sound of harping and singing and the telling of
tales,--songs and tales of a world that never was, yet shall ever
be. Here day by day Nicolete fed her young soul on the
nightingale's-tongues of literature, and put down her book only
to listen to the nightingale's- tongues outside. Yea, sun, moon,
and stars were all in the conspiracy to lie to her of the
loveliness of the world and the good intentions of life. And
now, thus unexpectedly, I found myself joining the nefarious
conspiracy. Ah, well! was I not twenty myself, and full of
'T IS OF AUCASSIN AND NICOLETE
Thus it was that we lunched together amid the books and birds, in
an exquisite solitude a deux; for the ringer of the silver bell
had disappeared, having left a dainty meal in readiness--for two.
"You see you were expected," said Nicolete, with her pretty
laugh. "I dreamed I should have a visitor to-day, and told
Susan to lay the lunch for two. You mustn't be surprised at
that," she added mischievously; "it has often happened before.
I dream that dream every other night, and Susan lays for two
every day. She knows my whims,--knows that the extra knife and
fork are for the fairy knight that may turn up any afternoon, as
I tell her--"
"To find the sleepless princess," I added, thinking at the same
time one of those irrelevant asides that will go through the
brain of thirty, that the woman who would get her share of kisses
nowadays must neither slumber nor sleep.
A certain great poet, I think it was Byron, objected to seeing
women in the act of eating. He thought their eating should be
done in private. What a curiously perverse opinion! For surely
woman never shows to better advantage than in the dainty
exercises of a dainty repast, and there is nothing more thrilling
to man than a meal alone with a woman he loves or is about to
love. Perhaps, deep down, the reason is that there still
vibrates in the masculine blood the thrilling surprise of the
moment when man first realised that the angel woman was built
upon the same carnivorous principles as his grosser self.
That is one of the first heart-beating surprises that come upon
the boy Columbus, as he sets out to discover the New World of
woman; and indeed his surprise has not seldom deepened into
admiration, as he has found that not only does woman eat, but
frequently eats a lot.
This privilege of seeing woman eat is the earliest granted of
those delicate animal intimacies, the fuller and fuller confiding
of which plays not the least important part, and ever such a
sweet one, even in a highly transcendental affection. It is this
gradual humanising of the divine female that brings about the
spiritualising of the unregenerate male.
In the earliest stages of love the services are small that we are
privileged to do for the loved one. But if we are allowed to sit
at meat with her,--ever a royal condescension,--it is ours at
least to pass her the salt, to see that she is never kept waiting
a moment for the mustard or the pepper, to cut the bread for her
with geometrical precision, and to lean as near her warm shoulder
as we dare to pour out for her the sacred wine.
Yes! for sure I was twenty again, for the performance of these
simple services for Nicolete gave me a thrill of pure boyish
pleasure such as I had never expected to feel again. And did she
not make a knight of me by gently asking if I would be so kind as
to carve the chicken, and how she laughed quite disproportionally
at my school-boy story of the man who, being asked to carve a
pigeon, said he thought they had better send for a wood-carver,
as it seemed to be a wood pigeon.
And while we ate and drank and laughed and chatted, the books
around us were weaving their spells. Even before the invention
of printing books were "love's purveyors." Was it not a book
that sent Paolo and Francesca for ever wandering on that stormy
wind of passion and of death? And nowadays the part played by
books in human drama is greater than we perhaps realise. Apart
from their serious influence as determining destinies of the
character, what endless opportunities they afford to lovers, who
perhaps are denied all other meeting-places than may be found on
the tell-tale pages of a marked volume. The method is so easy
and so unsuspect. You have only to put faint pencil-marks
against the tenderest passages in your favourite new poet, and
lend the volume to Her, and She has only to leave here and there
the dropped violet of a timid confirmatory initial, for you to
know your fate. And what a touchstone books thus become! Indeed
they simplify love- making, from every point of view. With books
so inexpensive and accessible to all as they are to-day, no one
need run any risks of marrying the wrong woman. He has only to
put her through an unconscious examination by getting her to read
and mark a few of his favourite authors, and he is thus in
possession of the master clues of her character. With a list of
her month's reading and a photograph, a man ought to be able to
make up his mind about any given woman, even though he has never
spoken to her. "Name your favourite writer" should be one of
the first questions in the Engagement Catechism.
There is, indeed, no such short cut to knowledge of each other as
a talk about books. One short afternoon is enough for any two
book-lovers, though they may have met for the first time in the
morning, to make up their minds whether or not they have been
born for each other. If you are agreed, say, in admiring
Meredith, Hardy, Omar Khayyam, and Maeterlinck,--to take four
particularly test-authors,--there is nothing to prevent your
marrying at once. Indeed, a love for any one of these
significant writers will be enough, not to speak of an admiration
for "Aucassin and Nicolete."
Now, Nicolete and I soon found that we had all these and many
another writer in common, and before our lunch was ended we were
nearer to each other than many old friends. The heart does not
more love the heart that loves it than the brain loves the brain
that comprehends it; and, whatever else was to befall us,
Nicolete and I were already in love with each other's brains.
Whether or not the malady would spread till it reached the heart
is the secret of some future chapter.
A FAIRY TALE AND ITS FAIRY TAILORS
As this is not a realistic novel, I do not hold myself bound, as
I have said before, to account reasonably for everything that is
done--least of all, said--within its pages. I simply say, So it
happened, or So it is, and expect the reader to take my word. If
he be uncivil enough to doubt it, we may as well stop playing
this game of fancy. It is one of the first conditions of
enjoying a book, as it is of all successful hypnotism, that the
reader surrenders up his will to the writer, who, of course,
guarantees to return it to him at the close of the volume. If
you say that no young lady would have behaved as I have presently
to relate of Nicolete, that no parents were ever so accommodating
in the world of reality, I reply,--No doubt you are right, but
none the less what I have to tell is true and really did happen,
for all that. And not only did it happen, but to the whimsically
minded, to the true children of fancy, it will seem the most
natural thing in the world. No doubt they will wonder why I have
made such a preamble about it, as indeed, now I think of it, so
Again I claim exemption in this wandering history from all such
descriptive drudgery upon second, third, and fourth dramatis
personsonae as your thorough-going novelist must undertake with a
good grace. Like a host and hostess at a reception, the poor
novelist has to pretend to be interested in everybody,--in the
dull as in the brilliant, in the bore as in the beauty. I'm
afraid I should never do as a novelist, for I should waste all my
time with the heroine; whereas the true novelist is expected to
pay as much attention to the heroine's parents as though he were
a suitor for her hand. Indeed, there is no relative of hero or
heroine too humble or stupid for such a novelist as the great
Balzac. He will invite the dullest of them to stay with him for
quite prolonged visits, and without a murmur set apart a suite of
chapters for their accommodation. I'm not sure that the
humanity of the reader in these cases is of such comprehensive
sympathy as the novelist's, and it may well be that the novelist
undertakes all such hard labour under a misapprehension of the
desires of the reader, who, as a rule, I fancy, is as anxious to
join the ladies as the novelist himself. Indeed, I believe that
there is an opportunity for a new form of novel, in which the
novelist, as well as the reader, will skip all the dull people,
and merely indicate such of them as are necessary to the action
by an outline or a symbol, compressing their familiar psychology,
and necessary plot-interferences with the main characters, into
recognised formulae. For the benefit of readers voracious for
everything about everybody, schedule chapters might be provided
by inferior novelists, good at painting say tiresome bourgeois
fathers, gouty uncles and brothers in the army, as sometimes in
great pictures we read that the sheep in the foreground have been
painted by Mr. So-and-so, R.A.
The Major-General and his Lady were taking the waters at
Wiesbaden. That was all I knew of Nicolete's parents, and all I
needed to know; with the exception of one good action,--at her
urgent entreaty they had left Nicolete behind them, with no other
safeguard than a charming young lady companion, whose fitness for
her sacred duties consisted in a temperament hardly less romantic
and whimsical than Nicolete's own. She was too charming to
deserve the name of obstacle; and as there was no other--
But I admit that the cart has got a little in front of the horse,
and I grow suddenly alarmed lest the reader should be suspecting
me of an elopement, or some such romantic vulgarity. If he will
only put any such thoughts from his mind, I promise to proceed
with the story in a brief and business- like manner forthwith.
We are back once more at the close of the last chapter, in
Nicolete's book-bower in the wildwood. It is an hour or two
later, and the afternoon sun is flooding with a searching glory
all the secret places of the woodland. Hidden nooks and corners,
unused to observation, suddenly gleam and blush in effulgent
exposure,--like lovers whom the unexpected turning on of a light
has revealed kissing in the dark,--and are as suddenly, unlike
the lovers, left in their native shade again. It was that rich
afternoon sunlight that loves to flash into teacups as though
they were crocuses, that loves to run a golden finger along the
beautiful wrinkles of old faces and light up the noble hollows of
age-worn eyes; the sunlight that loves to fall with transfiguring
beam on the once dear book we never read, or, with malicious
inquisitiveness, expose to undreamed- of detection the undusted
picture, or the gold- dusted legs of remote chairs, which the
poor housemaid has forgotten.
So in Nicolete's bower it illuminated with strange radiancy the
dainty disorder of deserted lunch, made prisms out of the
wine-glasses, painted the white cloth with wedge-shaped rainbows,
and flooded the cavernous interiors of the half-eaten fowl with a
pathetic yellow torchlight.
Leaving that melancholy relic of carnivorous appetite, it turned
its bold gold gaze on Nicolete. No need to transfigure her! But,
heavens! how grandly her young face took the great kiss of the
god! Then it fell for a tender moment on the jaundiced page of
my old Boccaccio,--a rare edition, which I had taken from my
knapsack to indulge myself with the appreciation of a
connoisseur. Next minute "the unobstructed beam" was shining
right into the knapsack itself, for all the world like one of
those little demon electric lights with which the dentist makes a
momentary treasure-cave of your distended jaws, flashing with
startled stalactite. At the same moment Nicolete's starry eyes
took the same direction; then there broke from her her lovely
laughter, merry and inextinguishable.
Once more, need I say, my petticoat had played me false--or
should I not say true? For there was its luxurious lace border, a
thing for the soft light of the boudoir, or the secret moonlight
of love's permitted eyes, alone to see, shamelessly brazening it
out in this terrible sunlight. Obviously there was but one way
out of the dilemma, to confess my pilgrimage to Nicolete, and
reveal to her all the fanciful absurdity to which, after all, I
owed the sight of her.
"So that is why you pleaded so hard for that poor trout," she
said, when I had finished. "Well, you are a fairy prince
indeed! Now, do you know what the punishment of your nonsense is
"Is it very severe and humiliating?" I asked.
"You must judge of that. It is--to take me with you!"
"You,--what do you mean?"
"Yes,--not for good and all, of course, but just for, say, a
fortnight, just a fortnight of rambles and adventures, and then
to deliver me safe home again where you found me--"
"But it is impossible," I almost gasped in surprise. "Of
course you are not serious?"
"I am, really, and you will take me, won't you?" she continued
pleadingly. "You don't know how we women envy you men those
wonderful walking-tours we can only read about in Hazlitt or
Stevenson. We are not allowed to move without a nurse or a
footman. From the day we are born to the day we die, we are
never left a moment to ourselves. But you--you can go out into
the world, the mysterious world, do as you will, go where you
will, wander here, wander there, follow any bye-way that takes
your fancy, put up at old inns, make strange acquaintances, have
all kinds of romantic experiences-- Oh, to be a man for a
fortnight, your younger brother for a fortnight!"
"It is impossible!" I repeated.
"It isn't at all," she persisted, with a fine blush. "If you
will only be nice and kind, and help me to some Rosalind's
clothes. You have only to write to your tailors, or send home for
a spare suit of clothes,--with a little managing yours would just
fit me, you're not so much taller,--and then we could start,
like two comrades, seeking adventures. Oh, how glorious it would
It was in vain that I brought the batteries of common-sense to
bear upon her whim. I raised every possible objection in vain.
I pointed out the practical difficulties. There were her parents.
Weren't they drinking the waters at Wiesbaden, and weren't they
to go on drinking them for another three weeks? My fancy made a
picture of them distended with three weeks' absorption of mineral
springs. Then there was her companion. Nicolete was confident
of her assistance. Then I tried vilifying myself. How could she
run the risk of trusting herself to such intimate companionship
with a man whom she hadn't known half a dozen hours? This she
laughed to scorn. Presently I was silent from sheer lack of
further objections; and need I say that all the while there had
been a traitor impulse in my heart, a weak sweetness urging me on
to accept the pretty chance which the good genius of my
pilgrimage had so evidently put in my way,--for, after all, what
harm could it do? With me Nicolete was, indeed, safe,--that, of
course, I knew,--and safely she should come back home again
after her little frolic. All that was true enough. And how
charming it would be to have such a dainty companion! then the
fun, the fancy, the whim of it all. What was the use of setting
out to seek adventures if I didn't pursue them when found.
Well, the long and short of it was that I agreed to undertake the
adventure, provided that Nicolete could win over the lady whom at
the beginning of the chapter I declared too charming to be
described as an obstacle.
By nine o'clock the following morning the fairy tailors, as
Nicolete called them, were at work on the fairy clothes, and, at
the end of three days, there came by parcel-post a bulky
unromantic-looking brown-paper parcel, which it was my business
to convey to Nicolete under cover of the dark.
FROM THE MORNING STAR TO THE MOON
I quite realise that this book is written perhaps only just in
time for the motive of these two or three chapters to be
appreciated in its ancient piquancy. Very soon, alas! the sexes
will be robbed of one of the first and most thrilling motives of
romance, the motive of As You Like It, the romance of wearing
each other's clothes. Alas, that every advance of reason should
mean a corresponding retreat of romance! It is only reasonable
that woman, being--have you yet realised the fact?--a biped like
her brothers, should, when she takes to her brothers'
recreations, dress as those recreations demand; and yet the death
of Rosalind is a heavy price to pay for the lady bicyclist. So
soon as the two sexes wear the same clothes, they may as well
wear nothing; the game of sex is up. In this matter, as in
others, we cannot both have our cake and eat it. All romance,
like all temptation, is founded on the Fascination of the
Exception. So soon as the exception becomes, instead of merely
proving, the rule, that particular avenue of romance is closed.
The New Woman of the future will be the woman with the
petticoats, she who shall restore the ancient Eleusinian
mysteries of the silk skirt and the tea-gown.
Happily for me, my acquaintance among the Rosalinds of the
bicycle, at this period of my life, was but slight, and thus no
familiarity with the tweed knickerbocker feminine took off the
edge of my delight on first beholding Nicolete clothed in like
manhood with ourselves, and yet, delicious paradox! looking more
like a woman than ever.
During those three days while the fairy tailors were at work our
friendship had not been idle. Indeed, some part of each day we
had spent diligently learning each other, as travellers to
distant lands across the Channel work hard at phrase-book and
Baedeker the week before their departure. Meanwhile too I had
made the acquaintance of the charming lady Obstacle,--as it
proved so unfair to call her,--and by some process of natural
magnetism we had immediately won each other's hearts, so that on
the moonlight night on which I took the river path with my
brown-paper parcel there was no misgiving in my heart,--nothing
but harping and singing, and blessings on the river that seemed
all silver with the backs of magic trout. As I thought of all I
owed that noble fish, I kneeled by the river's bearded lip, among
the nettles and the meadowsweet, and swore by the inconstant moon
that trout and I were henceforth kinsmen, and that between our
houses should be an eternal amity. The chub and the dace and the
carp, not to speak of that Chinese pirate the pike, might still
look to it, when I came forth armed with rod and line; but for me
and my house the trout is henceforth sacred. By the memory of the
Blessed Saint Izaak, I swore it!
My arrival at Beaucaire was one of great excitement. Nicolete
and the Obstacle were both awaiting me, for the mysteries of
masculine attire were not to be explored alone. The parcel was
snatched quite unceremoniously from my hands, the door shut upon
me, and I laughingly bidden go listen to the nightingale. I was
not long in finding one, nor, being an industrious phrase-maker,
did I waste my time, for, before I was summoned to behold
Nicolete in all her boyhood, I had found occasion and moonlight
to remark to my pocket-book that, Though all the world has heard
the song of the Nightingale to the Rose, only the Nightingale has
heard the answer of the Rose. This I hurriedly hid in my heart
for future conversation, as the pre-arranged tinkle of the silver
bell called me to the rose.
Would, indeed, that I were a nightingale to sing aright the
beauty of that rose with which, think of it, I was to spend a
whole fortnight,--yes, no less than fourteen wonderful days.
The two girls were evidently proud of themselves at having
succeeded so well with the mysterious garments. There were one
or two points on which they needed my guidance, but they were
unimportant; and when at last Nicolete would consent to stand up
straight and let me have a good look at her,--for, poor child!
she was as shy and shrinking as though she had nothing on,--she
made a very pretty young man indeed.
She didn't, I'm afraid, look like a young man of our degenerate
day. She was far too beautiful and distinguished for that.
Besides, her dark curling hair, quite short for a woman, was too
long, and her eyes-- like the eyes of all poets--were women's
eyes. She looked, indeed, like one of those wonderful boys of
the Italian Renaissance, whom you may still see at the National
Gallery, whose beauty is no denial, but rather the stamp of their
slender, supple strength, young painters and sculptors who held
the palette for Leonardo, or wielded the chisel for Michelangelo,
and anon threw both aside to take up sword for Guelf or
Ghibelline in the narrow streets of Florence.
Her knapsack was already packed, and its contents included a
serge skirt "in case of emergencies." Already, she naughtily
reminded me, we possessed a petticoat between us.
The brief remainder of the evening passed in excited chatter and
cigarettes, and in my instructing Nicolete in certain tricks of
masculine deportment. The chief difficulty I hardly like
mentioning; and if the Obstacle had not been present, I certainly
dare not have spoken of it to Nicolete. I mean that she was so
shy about her pretty legs. She couldn't cross them with any
"You must take your legs more for granted, dear Nicolete," I
summoned courage to say. "The nonchalance of the legs is the
first lesson to be learnt in such a masquerade as this. You must
regard them as so much bone and iron, rude skeleton joints and
shins, as though they were the bones of the great elk or other
extinct South Kensington specimen,"--"not," I added in my
heart, "as the velvet and ivory which they are."
We had agreed to start with the sun on the morrow, so as to get
clear of possible Peeping Toms; and when good-nights had been
said, and I was once more swinging towards my inn, it seemed but
an hour or two, as indeed it was, before I heard four o'clock
drowsily announced through my bedroom door, and before I was once
more striding along that river-bank all dew- silvered with last
night's moonlight, the sun rubbing his great eye on the horizon,
the whole world yawning through dainty bed-clothes of mist, and
here and there a copse-full of birds congratulating themselves on
their early rising.
Nicolete was not quite ready, so I had to go listen to the lark,
about whom, alas! I could find nothing to say to my pocket-book,
before Nicolete, armed cap-a-pie with stick and knapsack,
appeared at the door of her chalet.
The Obstacle was there to see us start. She and Nicolete
exchanged many kisses which were hard to bear, and the first
quarter of an hour of our journey was much obstructed by the
farewells of her far-fluttering handkerchief. When at last we
were really alone, I turned and looked at Nicolete striding
manfully at my side, just to make sure that it was really true.
"Well, we're in for it now," I said; "aren't you
"Oh, it's wonderful," she replied; "don't spoil it by
And I didn't; for who could hope to compete with the sun, who
was making the whole dewy world shake with laughter at his
brilliancy, or with the birds, any one of whom was a poet at
least equal to Herrick?
Presently we found ourselves at four crossroads, with a
four-fingered post in the centre. We had agreed to leave our
destination to chance. We read the sign-post.
"Which shall we choose?" I said,--
"Aucassin, true love and fair,
To what land do we repair?"
"Don't you think this one," she replied. "this one?--To the
"Certainly, we couldn't find a prettier place; but it's a long
way," I replied, looking up at the sky, all roses and
pearls,--"a long way from the Morning Star to the Moon."
"All the longer to be free," cried Nicolete, recklessly.
"So be it," I assented. "Allons--to the Moon!"
THE KIND OF THING THAT HAPPENS IN THE MOON
Two friends of my youth, with whom it would be hopeless to
attempt competition, have described the star-strewn journey to
the moon. It is not for me to essay again where the ingenious M.
Jules Verne and Mr. William Morris have preceded me. Besides, the
journey is nowadays much more usual, and therefore much less
adventurous, than when those revered writers first described it.
In the middle ages a journey to the moon with a woman you loved
was a very perilous matter indeed. Even in the last century the
roads were much beset with danger; but in our own day, like most
journeys, it is accomplished with ease and safety in a few hours.
However, to the latter-day hero, whose appetite for dragons is
not keen, this absence of adventure is perhaps rather pleasurable
than otherwise; and I confess that I enjoyed the days I spent on
foot with Nicolete none the less because they passed in tranquil
uneventfulness,--that is, without events of the violent kind. Of
course, all depends on what you call an event. We were not
waylaid by robbers, we fed and slept unchallenged at inns, we
escaped collision with the police, and we encountered no bodily
dangers of any kind; yet should I not call the journey
uneventful, nor indeed, I think, would Nicolete.
To me it was one prolonged divine event, and, with such daily
intercourse with Nicolete, I never dreamed of craving for any
other excitement. To walk from morning to evening by her side,
to minister to her moods, to provide such entertainment as I
might for her brain, and watch like a father over her physical
needs; to note when she was weary and too proud to show it, and
to pretend to be done up myself; to choose for her the easiest
path, and keep my eyes open for wayside flowers and every country
surprise,--these, and a hundred other atten- tions, kept my heart
and mind in busy service.
To picnic by some lonely stream-side on a few sandwiches, a flask
of claret, and a pennyworth of apples; to talk about the books we
loved; to exchange our hopes and dreams,--we asked nothing better
than this simple fare.
And so a week went by. But, though so little had seemed to
happen, and though our walking record was shamefully modest, yet,
imperceptible as the transition had been, we were, quite
insensibly indeed, and unacknowledged, in a very different
relation to each other than when we had started out from the
Morning Star. In fact, to make no more words about it, I was
head over heels in love with Nicolete, and I think, without
conceit, I may say that Nicolete was rapidly growing rather fond
of me. Apart from anything else, we were such excellent chums.
We got along together as if indeed we had been two brothers,
equable in our tempers and one in our desires.
At last the feeling on my side became so importunate that I could
no longer keep silence.
We were seated together taking tea at a small lonely inn, whose
windows looked out over a romantic little lake, backed by
Salvator Rosa pine-woods. The sun was beginning to grow dreamy,
and the whole world to wear a dangerously sentimental expression.
I forget exactly what it was, but something in our talk had set
us glowing, had touched tender chords of unexpected sympathy, and
involuntarily I stretched out my hand across the corner of the
table and pressed Nicolete's hand as it rested on the cloth. She
did not withdraw it, and our eyes met with a steady gaze of love.
"Nicolete," I said presently, when I could speak, "it is time
for you to be going back home."
"Why?" she asked breathlessly.
"Because," I answered, "I must love you if you stay."
"Would you then bid me go?" she said.
"Nicolete," I said, "don't tempt me. Be a good girl and go
"But supposing I don't want to go home," she said;
"supposing--oh, supposing I love you too? Would you still bid
"Yes," I said. "In that case it would be even more
"It is true, it is true, dear Nicolete."
"Then, Aucassin," she replied, almost sternly, in her great
girlish love, "this is true also,--I love you. I have never
loved, shall never love, any man but you!"
There were no more words spoken between us for a full hour that
WRITTEN BY MOONLIGHT
I knew deep down in my heart that it couldn't last, yet how deny
myself these roses, while the opportunity of gathering them was
mine!--the more so, as I believed it would do no harm to
Nicolete. At all events, a day or two more or less of moonshine
would make no matter either way. And so all next day we walked
hand in hand through Paradise.
It has been said by them of old time, and our fathers have told
us, that the kiss of first love, the first kiss of the first
woman we love, is beyond all kisses sweet; and true it is. But
true is it also that no less sweet is the first kiss of the last
woman we love.
Putting my faith in old saws, as a young man will, I had never
dreamed to know again a bliss so divinely passionate and pure as
came to me with every glance of Nicolete's sweet eyes, with every
simple pressure of her hand; and the joy that was mine when
sometimes, stopping on our way, we would press together our lips
ever so gravely and tenderly, seems too holy even to speak of.
The holy angels could not have loved Nicolete with a purer love,
a love freer from taint of any earthly thought, than I, a man of
thirty, blase, and fed from my youth upon the honeycomb of woman.
It was curious that the first difficulty of our pilgrimage should
befall us the very next day. Coming towards nightfall to a small
inn in a lonely unpopulated countryside, we found that the only
accommodation the inn afforded was one double-bedded room, and
there was no other inn for at least ten miles. I think I was
more troubled than Nicolete. When, after interviewing the
landlady, I came and told her of the dilemma, where she sat in
the little parlour wearied out with the day's walk, she blushed,
it is true, but seemed little put about. Indeed, she laughed,
and said it was rather fun, "like something out of Sterne,"
--of such comfort is a literary reference in all seasons and
circumstances,--and then she added, with a sweet look that sent
the blood rioting about my heart, "It won't matter so much, will
it, love, NOW?"
There proved nothing for it but to accept the situation, and we
made the arrangement that Nicolete was to slip off to bed first,
and then put out the light and go to sleep. However, when I
followed her, having sat up as long as the landlady's patience
would endure, I found that, though she had blown out the candle,
she had forgotten to put out the moon, which shone as though it
were St. Agnes' Eve across half the room.
I stole in very shyly, kept my eyes sternly from Nicolete's white
bed, though, as I couldn't shut my ears, the sound of her
breathing came to me with indescribable sweetness. After I had
lain among the sheets some five or ten minutes, I was suddenly
startled by a little voice within the room saying,--
"I'm not asleep."
"Well, you should be, naughty child. Now shut your eyes and go
to sleep,--and fair dreams and sweet repose," I replied.
"Won't you give me one little good-night kiss?"
"I gave you one downstairs."
"Is it very wicked to want another?"
There was not a foot between our two beds, so I bent over and
took her soft white shoulders in my arms and kissed her. All the
heaped-up sweetness of the whitest, freshest flowers of the
spring seemed in my embrace as I kissed her, so soft, so
fragrant, so pure; and as the moonlight was the white fire in our
blood. Softly I released her, stroked her brown hair, and turned
again to my pillow. Presently the little voice was in the room
"Mayn't I hold your hand? Somehow I feel lonely and
So our hands made a bridge across which our dreams might pass
through the night, and after a little while I knew that she
As I lay thus holding her hand, and listening to her quiet
breathing, I realised once more what my young Alastor had meant
by the purity of high passion. For indeed the moonlight that
fell across her bosom was not whiter than my thoughts, nor could
any kiss--were it even such a kiss as Venus promised to the
betrayer of Psyche--even in its fiercest delirium, be other than
dross compared with the wild white peace of those silent hours
when we lay thus married and maiden side by side.
HOW ONE MAKES LOVE AT THIRTY
My sleeplessness while Nicolete slept had not been all ecstasy,
for I had come to a bitter resolution; and next morning, when we
were once more on our way, I took a favourable opportunity of
conveying it to Nicolete.
"Nicolete," I said, as we rested awhile by the roadside, "I
have something serious to say to you."
"Yes, dear," she said, looking rather frightened.
"Well, dear, it is this,--our love must end with our holiday.
No good can come of it."
"But oh, why? I love you."
"Yes, and I love you,--love you as I never thought I could love
again. Yet I know it is all a dangerous dream,--a trick of our
brains, an illusion of our tastes."
"But oh, why? I love you."
"Yes, you do to-day, I know; but it couldn't last. I believe I
could love you for ever; but even so, it wouldn't be right. You
couldn't go on loving me. I am too old, too tired, too
desillusione, perhaps too selfish."
"I will love you always!" said girl Nicolete.
"Whereas you," I continued, disregarding the lovely refrain of
her tear-choked voice, "are standing on the wonderful threshold
of life, waiting in dreamland for the dawn. And it will come, and
with it the fairy prince, with whom you shall wander hand in hand
through all its fairy rose-gardens; but I, dear Nicolete,--I am
Nicolete did not speak.
"I know," I continued, pressing her hand, "that I may seem
young enough to talk like this, but some of us get through life
quicker than others, and when we say, `It is done,' it is no use
for onlookers to say, `Why, it is just beginning!' Believe me,
Nicolete, I am not fit husband for you."
"Then shall I take no other," said Nicolete, with set face.
"Oh, yes, you will," I rejoined; "let but a month or two pass,
and you will see how wise I was, after all. Besides, there are
other reasons, of which there is no need to speak--"
"Well," I said, half laughing, "there is the danger that,
after all, we mightn't agree. There is nothing so perilously
difficult as the daily intercourse of two people who love each
other. You are too young to realise its danger. And I couldn't
bear to see our love worn away by the daily dropping of tears,
not to speak of its being rent by the dynamite of daily quarrels.
We know each other's tastes, but we know hardly anything of each
Nicolete looked at me strangely. 'Troth, it was a strange way to
make love, I knew.
"And what else?" she asked somewhat coldly.
"Well, then, though it's not a thing one cares to speak of,
I'm a poor man--"
Nicolete broke through my sentence with a scornful exclamation.
"You," I continued straight on,--"well, you have been
accustomed to a certain spaciousness and luxury of life. This it
would be out of my power to continue for you. These are real
reasons, very real reasons, dear Nicolete, though you may not
think so now. The law of the world in these matters is very
right. For the rich and the poor to marry is to risk, terribly
risk, the very thing they would marry for --their love. Love is
better an unmarried than a married regret."
Nicolete was silent again.
"Think of your little woodland chalet, and your great old trees
in the park,--you couldn't live without them. I have, at most,
but one tree worth speaking of to offer you--"
I purposely waived the glamour which my old garden had for my
mind, and which I wouldn't have exchanged for fifty parks.
"Trees!" retorted Nicolete,--"what are trees?"
"Ah, my dear girl, they are a good deal,--particularly when
they are genealogical, as my one tree is not."
"Aucassin," she said suddenly, almost fiercely, "can you
really jest? Tell me this,--do you love me?"
"I love you," I said simply; "and it is just because I love
you so much that I have talked as I have done. No man situated
as I am who loved you could have talked otherwise."
"Well, I have heard it all, weighed it all," said Nicolete,
presently; "and to me it is but as thistledown against the love
within my heart. Will you cast away a woman who loves you for
theories? You know you love me, know I love you. We should have
our trials, our ups and downs, I know; but surely it is by those
that true love learns how to grow more true and strong. Oh, I
cannot argue! Tell me again, do you love me?"
And there she broke down and fell sobbing into my arms. I
consoled her as best I might, and presently she looked up at me
through her tears.
"Tell me again," she said, "that you love me, just as you did
yesterday, and promise never to speak of all those cruel things
again. Ah! have you thought of the kind of men you would give me
At that I confess I shuddered, and I gave her the required
"And you won't be wise and reasonable and ridiculous any more?"
"No," I answered; adding in my mind, "not, at all events, for
HOW ONE PLAYS THE HERO AT THIRTY
Had we only been able to see a day into the future, we might have
spared ourselves this agonising, for all our doubts and fears
were suddenly dispersed in an entirely unexpected manner.
Happily these interior problems are not infrequently resolved by
quite exterior forces.
We were sitting the following afternoon in one of those broad bay
windows such as one finds still in some old country inns, just
thinking about starting once more on our way, when suddenly
Nicolete, who had been gazing out idly into the road, gave a
little cry. I followed her glance. A carriage with arms on its
panels had stopped at the inn, and as a smart footman opened the
door, a fine grey-headed military-looking man stepped out and
strode hurriedly up the inn steps.
"Aucassin," gasped Nicolete, "it is my father!"
It was too true. The old man's keen eye had caught sight of
Nicolete at the window also, and in another moment we were all
three face to face. I must do the Major- General the justice of
saying that he made as little of a "scene" of it as possible.
"Now, my girl," he said, "I have come to put an end to this
nonsense. Have you a petticoat with you? Well, go upstairs and
get it on. I will wait for you here . . . On you, sir, I shall
waste no words. From what I have heard, you are as moonstruck as
"Of course," I stammered, "I cannot expect you to understand
the situation, though I think, if you would allow me, I could in
a very few words make it somewhat clearer,--make you realise
that, after all, it has been a very innocent and childish
escapade, in which there has been no harm and a great deal of
But the Major-General cut me short.
"I should prefer," he said, "not to discuss the matter. I may
say that I realise that my daughter has been safe in your hands,
however foolish,"--for this I thanked him with a bow,--"but I
must add that your eccentric acquaintance must end here--"
I said him neither yea nor nay; and while we stood in armed and
embarrassed silence, Nicolete appeared with white face at the
door, clothed in her emergency petticoat. Alas! it was for no
such emergency as this that it had been destined that merry night
when she had packed it in her knapsack. With a stern bow her
father turned from me to join her; but she suddenly slipped past
him, threw her arms round me, and kissed me one long passionate
"Aucassin, be true," she cried, "I will never forget you,--no
one shall come between us; "and then bursting into tears, she
buried her face in her hands and followed her father from the
In another moment she had been driven away, and I sat as one
stupefied in the inn window. But a few short minutes ago she had
been sitting merrily prattling by my side, and now I was once
more as lonely as if we had never met. Presently I became
conscious in my reverie of a little crumpled piece of paper on
the floor. I picked it up. It was a little note pencilled in her
bedroom at the last moment. "Aucassin," it ran, just like her
last passionate words, "be true. I will never forget you. Stay
here till I write to you, and oh, write to me soon!-- Your
As I read, I saw her lovely young face, radiant with love and
sorrow as I had last seen it, and pressing the precious little
letter to my lips, I said fervently, "Yes, Nicolete, I will be
IN WHICH I REVIEW MY ACTIONS AND RENEW MY RESOLUTIONS
No doubt the youthful reader will have but a poor opinion of me
after the last two chapters. He will think that in the scene
with the Major-General I acted with lamentably little spirit, and
that generally my friend Alastor would have proved infinitely
more worthy of the situation. It is quite true, I confess it.
The whole episode was made for Alastor. Nicolete and he were
born for each other. Alas! it is one of the many drawbacks of
experience that it frequently prevents our behaving with spirit.
I must be content to appeal to the wiser and therefore sadder
reader, of whom I have but a poor opinion if he too fails to
understand me. He, I think, will understand why I didn't
promptly assault the Major- General, seize Nicolete by the waist,
thrust her into her ancestral carriage, haul the coachman from
his box, and, seizing the reins, drive away in triumph before
astonishment had time to change into pursuit. Truly it had been
but the work of a moment, and there was only one consideration
which prevented my following this now-I-call-that-heroic course.
It is a consideration I dare hardly venture to write, and the
confession of which will, I know, necessitate my changing my age
back again to thirty on the instant. Oh, be merciful, dear
romantic reader! I didn't strike the Major-General, because,
oh, because I AGREED WITH HIM!
I loved Nicolete, you must have felt that. She was sweet to me as
the bunch of white flowers that, in their frail Venetian vase,
stand so daintily on my old bureau as I write, doing their best
to sweeten my thoughts. Dear was she to me as the birds that out
in the old garden yonder sing and sing their best to lift up my
leaden heart. She was dear as the Spring itself, she was only
less dear than Autumn.
Yes, black confession! after the first passion of her loss, the
immediate ache of her young beauty had passed, and I was able to
analyse what I really felt, I not only agreed with him, I thanked
God for the Major-General! He had saved me from playing the
terrible part of executioner. He had just come in time to behead
the Lady Jane Grey of our dreams.
I should have no qualms about tightening the rope round the neck
of some human monster, or sticking a neat dagger or bullet into a
dangerous, treacherous foe, but to kill a dream is a sickening
business. It goes on moaning in such a heart-breaking fashion,
and you never know when it is dead. All on a sudden some night
it will come wailing in the wind outside your window, and you
must blacken your heart and harden your face with another
strangling grip of its slim appealing throat, another blow upon
its angel eyes. Even then it will recover, and you will go on
being a murderer, making for yourself day by day a murderer's
face, without the satisfaction of having really murdered.
But what of Nicolete? do you exclaim. Have you no thought for
her, bleeding her heart away in solitude? Can you so soon forget
those appealing eyes? Yes, I have thought for her. Would God
that I could bear for her those growing pains of the heart! and I
shall never forget those farewell eyes. But then, you see, I had
firmly realised this, that she would sooner recover from our
separation than from our marriage; that her love for me, pretty
and poignant and dramatic while it lasted, was a book- born,
book-fed dream, which must die soon or late,--the sooner the
better for the peace of the dreams that in the course of nature
would soon spring up to take its place.
But while I realised all this, and, with a veritable aching of
the heart at the loss of her, felt a curious satisfaction at the
turn of events, still my own psychology became all the more a
puzzle to me, and I asked myself, with some impatience, what I
would be at, and what it was I really wanted.
Here had I but a few moments ago been holding in my hands the
very dream I had set out to find, and here was I secretly
rejoicing to be robbed of it! If Nicolete did not fulfil the
conditions of that mystical Golden Girl, in professed search for
whom I had set out that spring morning, well, the good genius of
my pilgrimage felt it time to resign. Better give it up at once,
and go back to my books and my bachelorhood, if I were so
difficult to please. No wonder my kind providence felt provoked.
It had provided me with the sweetest pink- and-porcelain dream of
a girl, and might reasonably have concluded that his labours on
my behalf were at an end.
But, really, there is no need to lecture me upon the charms and
virtues of Nicolete, for I loved them from the first moment of
our strange introduction, and I dream of them still. There was
indeed only one quality of womanhood in which she was lacking,
and in which, after much serious self- examination, I discovered
the reason of my instinctive self-sacrifice of her,--SHE HAD
NEVER SUFFERED. As my heart had warned me at the beginning,
"she was hoping too much from life to spend one's days with."
She lacked the subtle half-tones of experience. She lacked all
that a pretty wrinkle or two might have given. There was no
shadowy melancholy in her sky-clear eyes. She was gay indeed,
and had a certain childish humour; but she had none of that
humour which comes of the resigned perception that the world is
out of joint, and that you were never born to set it right.
These characteristics I had yet to find in woman. There was
still, therefore, an object to my quest. Indeed my experience had
provided me with a formula. I was in search of a woman who, in
addition to every other feminine charm and virtue, was a woman
who had suffered.
With this prayer I turned once more to the genius of my
pilgrimage. "Grant me," I asked, "but this--A WOMAN WHO HAS
SUFFERED!" and, apparently as a consequence, he became once more
quite genial. He seemed to mean that a prayer so easy to grant
would put any god into a good temper; and possibly he smiled with
a deeper meaning too.
IN WHICH I RETURN TO MY RIGHT AGE AND ENCOUNTER A COMMON OBJECT
OF THE COUNTRY
And so when the days of my mourning for Nicolete were ended (and
in this sentence I pass over letters to and fro,--letters wild
from Nicolete, letters wise from Aucassin, letters explanatory
and apologetic from the Obstacle--how the Major-General had
suddenly come home quite unexpectedly and compelled her to
explain Nicolete's absence, etc., etc. Dear Obstacle! I should
rather have enjoyed a pilgrimage with her too)--I found myself
one afternoon again upon the road. The day had been very warm
and dusty, and had turned sleepy towards tea-time.
I had now pretty clearly in my mind what I wanted. This time it
was, all other things equal, to be "a woman who had suffered,"
and to this end, I had, before starting out once more, changed my
age back again at the inn and written "Aetat. 30" after my name
in the visitors' book. As a young man I was an evident failure,
and so, having made the countersign, I was speedily transformed
to my old self; and I must say that it was a most comfortable
feeling, something like getting back again into an old coat or an
old pair of shoes. I never wanted to be young again as long as I
lived. Youth was too much like the Sunday clothes of one's
boyhood. Moreover, I had a secret conviction that the woman I
was now in search of would prefer one who had had some experience
at being a man, who would bring her not the green plums of his
love, but the cunningly ripened nectarines, a man to whom love
was something of an art as well as an inspiration.
It was in this frame of mind that I came upon the following
The lane was a very cloistral one, with a ribbon of gravelly
road, bordered on each side with a rich margin of turf and a
scramble of blackberry bushes, green turf banks and dwarf
oak-trees making a rich and plenteous shade. My attention was
caught firstly by a bicycle lying carelessly on the turf, and
secondly and lastly by a graceful woman's figure, recumbent and
evidently sleeping against the turf bank, well tucked in among
the afternoon shadows. My coming had not aroused her, and so I
stole nearer to her on tiptoe.
She was a pretty woman, of a striking modern type, tall,
well-proportioned, strong, I should say, with a good complexion
that had evidently been made just a little better. But her most
striking feature was an opulent mass of dark red hair, which had
fallen in some disorder and made quite a pillow for her head.
Her hat was off, lying in its veil by her side, and a certain
general abandon of her figure,--which was clothed in a short
cloth skirt, cut with that unmistakable touch which we call
style--betokened weariness that could no longer wait for rest.
Poor child! she was tired out. She must never be left to sleep
on there, for she seemed good to sleep till midnight.
I turned to her bicycle, and, examining it with the air of a man
who had won silver cups in his day, I speedily discovered what
had been the mischief. The tire of the front wheel had been
pierced, and a great thorn was protruding from the place.
Evidently this had been too much for poor Rosalind, and it was
not unlikely that she had cried herself to sleep.
I bent over her to look--yes, there were traces of tears. Poor
thing! Then I had a kindly human impulse. I would mend the
tire, having attended ambulance classes, do it very quietly so
that she wouldn't hear, like the fairy cobblers who used to mend
people's boots while they slept, and then wait in ambush to watch
the effect upon her when she awoke.
What do you think of the idea?
But one important detail I have omitted from my description of
the sleeper. Her left hand lay gloveless, and of the four rings
on her third finger one was a wedding-ring.
"Such red hair,--and a wedding-ring!" I exclaimed inwardly.
"How this woman must have suffered!"
IN WHICH I HEAL A BICYCLE AND COME TO THE WHEEL OF PLEASURE
Moving the bicycle a little away, so that my operations upon it
might not arouse her, I had soon made all right again, and when I
laid it once more where she had left it, she was still sleeping
as sound as ever. She had only to sleep long enough, a sly
thought suggested, to necessitate her ending her day's journey at
the same inn as myself, some five miles on the road. One virtue
at least the reader will allow to this history,--we are seldom
far away from an inn in its pages. When I thought of that I sat
stiller than ever, hardly daring to turn over the pages of
Apuleius, which I had taken from my knapsack to beguile the time,
and, I confess, to give my eyes some other occupation than the
dangerous one of gazing upon her face, dangerous in more ways
than one, but particularly dangerous at the moment, because, as
everybody knows, a steady gaze on a sleeping face is apt to awake
the sleeper. And she wasn't to be disturbed!
"No! she mustn't waken before seven at the latest," I said to
myself, holding my breath and starting in terror at every noise.
Once a great noisy bee was within an ace of waking her, but I
caught him with inspired dexterity, and he buzzed around her head
But despite the providential loneliness of the road, there were
one or two terrors that could not be disposed of so summarily.
The worst of all was a heavy miller's cart which one could hardly
crush to silence in one's handkerchief; but it went so slowly,
and both man and horses were so sleepy, that they passed unheard
A sprightly tramp promised greater difficulty, and nothing but
some ferocious pantomime and a shilling persuaded him to forego a
choice fantasia of cockney humour.
A poor tired Italian organ-grinder, tramping with an equally
tired monkey along the dusty roads, had to be bought off in a
similar manner,--though he only cost sixpence. He gave me a
Southern smile and shrug of comprehension, as one acquainted with
affairs of the heart,--which was a relief after the cockney
tramp's impudent expression of, no doubt, a precisely similar
And then at last, just as my watch pointed to 6.50 (how well I
remember the exact moment!) Rosalind awoke suddenly, as women
and children do, sitting straight up on the instant, and putting
up her hands to her tousled hair, with a half-startled "Where am
I?" When her hair was once more "respectable," she gave her
skirts a shake, bent sideways to pull up her stockings and
tighten her garters, looked at her watch, and then with an
exclamation at the lateness of the hour, went over, with an air
of desperate determination, to her bicycle.
"Now for this horrid puncture!" were the first words I was to
hear fall from her lips.
She sought for the wound in the india- rubber with growing
"Goodness!" was her next exclamation, "why, there's nothing
wrong with it. Can I have been dreaming?"
"I hope your dreams have been pleasanter than that," I ventured
at this moment to stammer, rising, a startling apparition, from
my ambush behind a mound of brambles; and before she had time to
take in the situation I added that I hoped she'd excuse my
little pleasantry, and told her how I had noticed her and the
wounded bicycle, et cetera, et cetera, as the reader can well
imagine, without giving me the trouble of writing it all out.
She was sweetness itself on the instant.
"Excuse you!" she said, "I should think so. Who wouldn't?
You can't tell the load you've taken off my mind. I'm sure I
must have groaned in my sleep--for I confess I cried myself to
sleep over it."
"I thought so," I said with gravity, and eyes that didn't dare
to smile outright till they had permission, which, however, was
not long withheld them.
"How did you know?"
"Oh, intuition, of course--who wouldn't have cried themselves
to sleep, and so tired too!"
"You're a nice sympathetic man, anyhow," she laughed; "what a
pity you don't bicycle!"
"Yes," I said, "I would give a thousand pounds for a bicycle
at this moment."
"You ought to get a good one for that," she laughed,--"all
bright parts nickel, I suppose; indeed, you should get a real
silver frame and gold handle-bars for that, don't you think?
Well, it would be nice all the same to have your company a few
miles, especially as it's growing dark," she added.
"Especially as it's growing dark," I repeated.
"You won't be going much farther to- night. Have you fixed on
your inn?" I continued innocently. She had--but that was in a
town too far to reach to-night, after her long sleep.
"You might have wakened me," she said.
"Yes, it was stupid of me not to have thought of it," I
answered, offering no explanation of the dead bee which at the
moment I espied a little away in the grass, and saying nothing of
the merry tramp and the melancholy musician.
Then we talked inns, and thus she fell beautifully into the pit
which I had digged for her; and it was presently arranged that
she should ride on to the Wheel of Pleasure and order a dinner,
which she was to do me the honour of sharing with me.
I was to follow on foot as speedily as might be, and it was with
a high heart that I strode along the sunset lanes, hearing for
some time the chiming of her bell in front of me, till she had
wheeled it quite out of hearing, and it was lost in the distance.
I never did a better five miles in my life.
TWO TOWN MICE AT A COUNTRY INN.
When I reached the Wheel of Pleasure, I found Rosalind awaiting
me in the coffee- room, looking fresh from a traveller's
toilette, and with the welcome news that dinner was on the way.
By the time I had washed off the day's dust it was ready, and a
merry meal it proved. Rosalind had none of Alastor's objections
to the wine-list, so we drank an excellent champagne; and as
there seemed to be no one in the hotel but ourselves, we made
ourselves at home and talked and laughed, none daring to make us
At first, on sitting down to table, we had grown momentarily shy,
with one of those sudden freaks of self-consciousness which
occasionally surprise one, when, midway in some slightly
unconventional situation to which the innocence of nature has led
us, we realise it--"for an instant and no more."
Positively, I think that in the embarrassment of that instant I
had made some inspired remark to Rosalind about the lovely
country which lay dreamy in the afterglow outside our window.
Oh, yes, I remember the very words. They were "What a heavenly
landscape!" or something equally striking.
"Yes," Rosalind had answered, "it is almost as beautiful as
If I'd known her better, I should have exclaimed, "You dear!"
and I think it possible that I did say something to that
effect,--perhaps "You dear woman!" At all events, the veil of
self-consciousness was rent in twain at that remark, and our
spirits rushed together at this touch of London nature thus
London! I hadn't realised till this moment how I had been
missing it all these days of rustication, and my heart went out
to it with a vast homesickness.
"Yes! the Strand," I repeated tenderly, "the Strand--at
"Indeed, yes! what is more beautiful in the whole world?" she
joined in ardently.
"The wild torrents of light, the passionate human music, the
hansoms, the white shirts and shawled heads, the theatres--"
"Don't speak of them or you'll make me cry," said Rosalind.
"The little suppers after the theatre--"
"Please don't," she cried, "it is cruel;" and I saw that her
eyes were indeed glistening with tears.
"But, of course," I continued, to give a slight turn aside in
our talk, "it is very wrong of us to have such sophisticated
tastes. We ought to love these lonely hills and meadows far more.
The natural man revels in solitude, and wants no wittier company
than birds and flowers. Wordsworth made a constant companion of
a pet daisy. He seldom went abroad without one or two trotting
at his side, and a skylark would keep Shelley in society for a
"But they were poets," retorted Rosalind; "you don't call
poets natural. Why, they are the most unnatural of men. The
natural person loves the society of his kind, whereas the poet
runs away from it."
"Well, of course, there are poets and poets, poets sociable and
poets very unsociable. Wordsworth made the country, but Lamb
made the town; and there is quite a band of poets nowadays who
share his distaste for mountains, and take London for their muse.
If you'll promise not to cry again, I'll recall some lines by a
friend of mine which were written for town-tastes like ours. But
perhaps you know them?"
It will gratify my friend to learn that Rosalind had the verses I
refer to by heart, and started off humming,--
"Ah, London, London, our delight,
Great flower that opens but at night,
Great city of the midnight sun,
Whose day begins when day is done . . .
Like dragon-flies the hansoms hover
With jewelled eyes to catch the lover;"
and so on, with a gusto of appreciation that must have been very
gratifying to the author had he been present.
Thus perceiving a taste for a certain modern style of poetry in
my companion, I bethought me of a poem which I had written on the
roadside a few days before, and which, I confess, I was eager to
confide to some sympathetic ear. I was diffident of quoting it
after such lines as Rosalind had recalled, but by the time we had
reached our coffee, I plucked up courage to mention it. I had,
however, the less diffidence in that it would have a technical
interest for her, being indeed no other than a song of cycling a
deux which had been suggested by one of those alarmist
danger-posts always placed at the top of the pleasantest hills,
sternly warning the cyclist that "this hill is
dangerous,"--just as in life there is always some minatory
notice-board frowning upon us in the direction we most desire to
But I omit further preface and produce the poem:--
"This hill is dangerous," I said,
As we rode on together
Through sunny miles and sunny miles
Of Surrey heather;
"This hill is dangerous--don't you think
We'd better walk it?"
"Or sit it out--more danger still!"
She smiled--"and talk it?"
"Are you afraid?" she turned and cried
So very brave and sweetly,--
Oh that brave smile that takes the heart
"Afraid?" I said, deep in her eyes
"For you I'd ride into the sun
And die all blazing!"
"I never yet saw hill," I said,
"And was afraid to take it;
I never saw a foolish law,
And feared to break it.
Who fears a hill or fears a law
With you beside him?
Who fears, dear star, the wildest sea
With you to guide him?"
Then came the hill--a cataract,
A dusty swirl, before us;
The world stood round--a village world--
In fearful chorus.
Sure to be killed! Sure to be killed!
O fools, how dare ye!
Sure to be killed--and serve us right!
Ah I love, but were we?
The hill was dangerous, we knew,
And knew that we must take it;
The law was strong,--that too we knew
Yet dared to break it.
And those who'd fain know how we fared
Follow and find us,
Safe on the hills, with all the world
Safely behind us.
Rosalind smiled as I finished. "I'm afraid," she said, "the
song is as dangerous as the hill. Of course it has more meanings
"Perhaps two," I assented.
"And the second more important than the first."
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