Cornelia Discusses an Eligible Young Man
THERE was a wedding at noon in the village church, a couple of miles from our summer community by the lake, and as most of our colony were somewhat interested in the girl we turned out in force. It was an outwardly festive and — to my sense — agreeably solemn little affair. There was a bank of lady’s-slippers and maidenhair ferns before the altar, and the air was heavy with the sweetly mortal scent, of lilies. The clergyman in white vestments had a full consciousness of the finality of his function. He joined in permanent wedlock a white, smiling, tearful bride of twenty to a well-dressed groom of thirty-five, who looked very experienced, very serious, and slightly bald. Cornelia, who is a connoisseur, whispered to me that it was in every respect a ‘most suitable match.’ I made a mental note to ask her at the next opportunity what the essentials of a suitable match are. I happened, however, to ride away from the ceremony in the rear seat of her car, sandwiched between her two children, Dorothy and Oliver Junior; and their comment was less flattering.
‘Bah!’ exclaimed Oliver. ‘Let’s go and have a swim. It made me sick.’
‘Me too,’ said Dorothy. ‘ It made me cold all over to hear her promising to forsake all others and keep herself only for that wizened — stick. Why should she forsake all others, just because she is married? It sounds as if she were going as missionary to the Indians.’
‘Or as trained nurse to an isolation hospital,’Oliver suggested.
‘When I am married,’ said Dorothy, ‘I shall not forsake all others — at least, unless I get a better one than that.’
‘You are severe critics,’ I murmured, secretly delighted to observe that the children were using the dialect of their feelings, rather than that polite language which well-bred youth, like Japanese ladies, habitually employs in the presence of its elders. ‘At what age do you expect to be married, Dorothy? ‘
‘I shall never marry!’ she replied with a deep blush. She is of course at exactly the correct age for saying that. But if you have n’t seen her, you can have no adequate notion how dire and how delicious that, threat is on her lips. She inherits ‘eligibility’ from both her parents. Her mother has a clear, expressive, sunlit loveliness; but Dorothy’s beauty has in it an element of subtlety — from her father — and a suggestion of sorcery and peril. She has her mother’s complexion but her father’s eyes. It is the unexpected combination and contrast that fascinates one; the filleted blond hair and the fluent roses of the fair skin, with the brown eyes, dark yet full of lambent lights — eyes of which the centres seem gleaming paths leading into shadows where a man might easily wander and be lost.
‘And why won’t you marry?’ I pursued; for as we were driving at a good speed over a rough road I was sure the watchful maternal ears could not overhear us. And so was Dorothy.
‘Oh, I don’t like the choice,’ she said, ‘that marriage presents—nowadays.'
‘A choice!’ I repeated with irreverent levity. ‘You have n’t come to that yet, I trust. But what do you think the choice is going to be?’
‘ You may laugh,’ said Dorothy, ‘but we all know well enough. We don’t have to wait till we have made it, to know what the choice is. It is either a “good American husband,” ten or twenty years older than you, who has a fine position and a character and nice middle-aged friends, and can give you a home and a social circle and clothes and things — but has n’t anything to say to you. He simply has n’t anything to say to you.’
‘Why do you keep hollering, “He has n’t anything to say to you”?’ mocked her brother. ‘ Who has n’t anything to say? Who? Who? Who?’
‘Shut up!’ said Dorothy, with more sweetness than the words can carry. ‘You heard. I said, “The good American husband has nothing to say to you.” ‘
‘That is rather a defect,’ I assented wickedly, ‘if you’ve got to be alone with him for the rest of your life. Yes, it’s a rather serious defect in a man with whom, forsaking all others, a girl of twenty expects to spend the next fifty years. But Dorothy, if you don’t take a good American husband, what is the alternative?’
‘Oh, a boy of your own age, of course,’ she answered promptly. ‘A boy that you like — like in all ways, I mean: like his voice, like his eyes, like the temperature of his hands — not like fins. He talks with you about the things that interest you—they are just the same as the things that interest him; and you like to do things with him; and if there is anything perfectly splendid you wish he were there; and whenever you see him coming your heart begins to dance.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘that seems — that seems an attractive sketch. Why not. choose a boy like that?’
‘ Because,’ she explained, ‘ it seems as if nowadays none of the boys that one really likes is ever going to amount to much. At any rate, you must wait till your doddering old age before you can hope to be married — and what’s the use then? He won’t be interesting to me, and I won’t be nice for him — then. But we’ll just sit around in padded chairs, with ear trumpets in our ears, and yell, “ Whadye say?” at each other; and wish it were bedtime.’
‘I don’t quite understand the reason for this postponement.’
‘If,’ she said, ‘they are boys of your own age, and enjoy the books and music that you do, and are nice to dance with, why, then they think they are going to be poets or composers, and so they don’t work, and they flunk out of school, and your mother asks you why you persist in playing around with “ that worthless fellow ” — does n’t she, Oliver? ‘
‘Yep!’ said her brother, and grinned.
Dorothy, leaning across my knees, first pinched, then patted him, and said: ‘ Poor old Ollie! He’s nicer than almost any boy I know, and yet Dad says he’s a “worthless fellow,” too.’
When I suggested that the only hope was to take one of these nice worthless fellows and put some ‘starch’ into him, the rear seat burst into a peal of conspirant laughter. Possibly that hope had been tried. Cornelia whirled around upon us, and demanded: —
‘What are you children, talking about?’
I answered sedately that we were discussing ‘education for life,’ and that there were certain points on which I should like her opinion. But we were now at the clump of rural free-delivery boxes, where the path comes down from my cottage. Intimating that I might ‘drop around ‘ toward the end of the afternoon, I got out and, having handed up Cornelia’s mail, walked home with my own. It proved rather piquantly amusing.
There was a light rain at lunch-time, but it blew over, leaving the out-ofdoors extraordinarily inviting. After I had written for two or three hours, I found myself walking — and chuckling — up the path through the birches to Cornelia’s place. Under the hemlocks near the house, I passed Dorothy in white tennis-attire with a sketchy sweater the color of California poppies, curled up in a hammock with a book. A young girl alone fills me with awe, like a cardinal building a nest; and I always try to slip past without disturbance — I feel that her mind must be occupied with something beautiful.
‘ What are you reading?’ I called by way of greeting.
‘I’m not reading,’ she replied, ‘I’m waiting for the young man that mother likes to have me play tennis with.’
With an additional chuckle, I proceeded to the front of the house. My original merriment had been occasioned by two letters, in the morning mail, from correspondents at large who desired me to inform them whether Cornelia was ‘real.’ I was also wondering how much of these letters I could discreetly disclose to her.
She met me on the threshold of the wide verandah, standing for an instant tiptoe in a practicable yet perfect sylvan costume, and framed between two tall Chinese vases of wild tiger-lilies, which made a little pattern with the glints in her hair and the knot of soft flame at her breast.
‘Let’s walk!’ she said. ‘Let’s,’ I replied; and we struck briskly into the abandoned road which runs, carpeted with bindweed and bittersweet, for miles and miles skirting the forest, with only a thin curtain of young silver poplars and birches between it and the lake. Cornelia is a light, crisp-footed walker, — at her gayest walking, and good for long distances, — my only complaint being that she has forgotten how to loiter. She seems rather bent upon reaching the terminus ad quem than careful to let me fall a step to the rear, where I may consider with more detachment how like a dryad she expresses and completes the woodland vista.
‘I had a letter this morning,’ I began, ‘from an unknown lady. It would amuse you.’
‘Would it indeed?’ said Cornelia, moving swiftly forward and at the same time calling my attention to the twittering brown flutter of a tree full of cedar-wings.
‘Yes,’ I insisted, ‘I’m sure it’s as interesting as bird study. This lady doubts your existence. Listen to this.’
I pulled forth a delicately tinted letter with a faint scent which died among the pungent fresh odors of the rain-washed air. “‘Tell me,” she writes, “whether Cornelia is real. If she is, I hope you are not in love with her. She is the feminine of Sir Austin Feverel. She has no heart. She is just unfaltering correctness. As a girl, I fancy, she folded her still hands in her lap and calmly waited till her family had consulted the bankers and the genealogists before she decided to care for the man she married. As a woman, she wishes to inspect and authorize every passion before she allows it to peep. I pity her children. She has never done a thing in her life merely because for one rapturous hour it seemed the most desirable thing in the wide world to do. I should hate her.”’
Cornelia brushed me sidelong with the sweep of her gray eyes, of which the effect, when one catches it so, is like that of the cool rays of a May sun bent to a focus under a burning-glass. But she said only: ‘What queer correspondents you have! And what a charming impression of me you have given them! Am I as hateful as that?’
It is n’t difficult to say complimentary things to Cornelia. The difficulty is not to say them. But I make it a practice not to answer rhetorical questions. They divert one from one’s point. ‘Please remember,’ I said, carving my accents on the air with my crabtree stick and looking straight ahead, ‘ please remember that this is not my portrait of you, but only the comment of one woman upon the image of another woman reflected in the eyes of a man who has worn spectacles for many years. But I have another letter — from a novelist; he has a quite different theory of you.’
‘Is it nice?’ asked Cornelia, with a demipirouette and the instinctive capricious smile of a very pretty woman about to step before a mirror. ‘You should tell me something very nice to offset the spitefulness of that horrid person. But what a silly question! Your letter is from a novelist; so of course it is n’t nice. Is it?’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m afraid it is n’t nice — in your sense of the word; but it is interesting — in my sense of the word. I call a thing interesting, you see, when it seems to be earnestly pointing in the direction where truth, like a rabbit, has just disappeared in the bushes. Now this novelist belongs to the large and productive group of hunters who are leaving the highroad to pursue truth into the underbrush. His theory of you is not a personal reflection upon you; it is only part of his general theory of society and human nature.’
‘Bah! bah! bah!' Cornelia exclaimed. ‘ I’m sick of human nature — their theories of it, I mean. I love people, but I hate what our current writers say about them. Life is so much more decent, when one knows how to live and whom to live with, than any of our novelists will admit. I have the same feeling in the theatre. I go to a play and see nothing in it that can compare with the quality of real experience — if one has any taste and discrimination. But tell me, now, what does this dreadful creature say about me?'
‘Well, I’ll take the risk,’ I said, ‘since you have the courage or the curiosity to insist, on it.’ I pulled out the second letter. ‘What he says is this: “I am afraid your Cornelia is not real. For me, at any rate, she does n’t exist. She is n’t elemental. She is n’t spontaneous. She strikes me as a theoretical construction to please a Victorian grandmother. Or perhaps I had better call her an old bachelor’s pipe dream of a lady. One can’t write modern fiction from that point of view. It’s insubstantial. We realists have been demonstrating now for years that Judith O’Grady and the Colonel’s lady are very much alike beneath the skin. We have destroyed the legend of the lady, and we have destroyed the legend of the gentleman. We have put them out of their misery: they don’t exist any more. We’re just men and women together. If you don’t know Cornelia as a wife, you don’t know her — you don’t know her as a realist. Women are not like her — not inside. Go beneath the surface, and you’ll find the Judith O’Grady in Cornelia.” ‘
‘What nonsense!’ cried Cornelia. ‘What perfect nonsense! Give it to me.’
And, almost snatching the letter from my hand, she tore it into fine shreds, and tossed it showering into a wild-currant bush.
‘Don’t you see,’ she continued, ‘as we came over the brow of a little hill, ‘why I can’t have Dorothy reading these current novels? I don’t wish her to be what this creature calls “elemental” and “spontaneous.” I wish her to be civilized and rational — and not a well-dressed little savage, ready to act at once on whatever passion or fancy circumstances put into her head.
I wish her to associate with people who are rational and civilized, and, when she marries, I wish her to marry a man who is civilized and rational. Do you know that in the course of the last year I have met just one man in fiction who seems to have retained elements of the ideas of a gentleman, — or rather, one man and his father, — I mean the hero of Struthers Burt’s The Interpreter’s House. As for Mr. Burt’s women, they arc almost as uncivilized as anybody’s.’
‘Is n’t there a season of life,’ I suggested, ‘in which almost everyone has some uncivilized promptings?’
‘Is there a season in life,’ countered Cornelia, ‘in which a properly trained person cannot present at least the appearance of discretion?’
‘My dear Cornelia,’ I said, ‘do you ever glance through those columns in our great national fireside magazines in which wise old editors converse with their contributors and advise young girls how to catch a man?’
Cornelia smiled, and then abruptly became very firm and grave. ‘That is it,’she said. ‘That is exactly it —
“ how to catch a man”! And the dreadful thing is that the tone of our entire popular discussion and our popular literature is just about at that level — as if the mere possession of anything in the shape of a man were so unquestionably desirable that no scruple must be raised regarding his family and social position, his religion and principles of personal conduct, his property and prospects and professional standing. We are becoming absurd in our carelessness about such matters.’
‘But that,’ I protested, ‘is just what makes the beauty of life in America.’
‘That,’ said Cornelia, ‘is what makes American life so ugly — no respect for any of the things that make people respectable, no sense for the substantial basis of social distinctions, no regard for the hedges and barriers behind which one tries to cultivate the flowers of a finer garden.’
‘That,’ I said, ‘is the really decisive evidence of our freedom from snobbishness.’
‘It is the decisive evidence,’ said Cornelia, ‘of our deficiency in taste.’
‘You lack patience,’ I persisted. ‘It is the new social wisdom of democracy.’
’It is the new social idiocy of democracy,’ she replied; ‘and let me assure you there is none of it in my house. If I lack patience, I possess some experience.
I was taught by my mother to be kind and considerate to servants — my old nurse loved me like a daughter. And I was taught at home and in church to be charitable to poor people and ignorant people and people without advantages and without manners. But I was also brought up to believe that a nice girl had better be dead than form a sentimental relationship with one who was not in her class — not a gentleman.’
‘Don’t you think that is a rather silly prejudice?’ I ventured.
‘I certainly do not,’ she replied. ‘I think the salvation of a girl is her pride
— legitimate pride in her family, her position, her connections. I have conscientiously striven to train my daughter to feel that, so far as her personal fortunes are concerned, common people— that is, vulgar ordinary people
— simply are not in the world. Call it snobbishness, if you like; I am proud of it.’
‘But Cornelia,’ I said, ‘can’t you concede that, in the relation we are discussing, there is something more elemental and imperative than can be governed by such considerations as you put foremost?’
‘Yes — to the sense of animals and savages. Yes — to the sense of vulgar and ignorant people. To the sense of what my mother used to call gentlefolk — emphatically, No. To them there can be nothing more elemental and imperative than just those considerations which distinguish them from the ignorant and the vulgar.’
‘You yourself have half apologized for the old word, “gentlefolk,”’ I nagged. ‘Please toll me what gentlefolk were, or rather what a gentleman is. Must he belong to the Church and be a member of the militia? For how many generations must he be able to trace his family? How much money must he have in the bank? How much of the Decalogue and how many rules for perfect behavior may he break in a day, without losing caste? Are you quite clear about all this?’
‘ You have a very irritating way,’ said Cornelia, ‘of trying to make the most sensible and obvious positions absurd to maintain. But you know I am right. You know that there is nothing absurd in being conscious of the claims of the Church and the State and the established system of morals and manners. You know there is nothing absurd in being conscious of the significance of money in enabling one to take and maintain a position of dignity and influence. A man has no dignity nor influence until he enters relations with the instituted and continuing forms of society. And though silly little girls may think they could spend a happy lifetime “traipsing” after a gypsy minstrel, a wife knows better. Every married woman knows that a husband without dignity or influence is a perpetual humiliation.’
‘ Very possibly,’ I said; ‘ but you were going to define a gentleman.’
‘Why, a gentleman,’ said Cornelia,
‘ is a man so well-bred and so intelligent that he knows what I have just been saying without being told; consequently he does n’t ask a nice girl to marry him if he is aware that he can offer her nothing but perpetual humiliation. A gentleman is a man whose character has been formed by the standards of civilized and rational people. To him these considerations are so elementary and so familiar that he acts upon them spontaneously.’
‘Then you would admit,’ I suggested, a little petulantly, ‘that what a man is, after he is a vestryman, an officer in the militia, and a property-holder, may have a certain remote bearing on — on the felicity of a marriage, if you think that of any importance?’
‘Of course I think that of importance,’ responded Cornelia. ‘Don’t be foolish. I am discussing the conditions in which felicity begins to be possible. You recall what Henry James says so beautifully: “The object of money is to enable one to forget it.” In the whole course of my life, I believe I was never before hectored into saying so flatly what the prerequisites of a decent marriage are. But you and your novelist friends — you realists, as you call yourselves — have filled the world with the glorification of merely instinctive and utterly irrational “matings,” or with childish sentimentality about them; so that now, when I talk with Dorothy about suitable and unsuitable marriages, I find myself obliged to reconstruct for her the very rudiments of common sense.’
I do not consider Cornelia subtle, but sometimes she says the same things that she would say if she were subtle.
However, if I was being instructed over the head of her daughter, I did not propose to acknowledge it. ‘My dear Cornelia,’I remonstrated, ‘do you forget that I am not Dorothy?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘ but I often think you are just as sentimental.'
The old road dips here into a hollow, where an extensive thicket of wild roses encroaches upon it and diminishes it. to a narrow and thorny footpath. We picked our way through it single-file and in silence. Cornelia, emerging some steps ahead, turned and waited, waisthigh behind the briars, smiling — with a rose in her hand and its hue in her face. Suddenly she seemed a long way off — twenty years off. The breeze had brought youth into her eyes if not into her mind. She was very lovely, and I wished the wind might have loosened a wisp — why could n’t it? — of her sunlit hair; but that was too much for the wind. Her arrangements had been complete.
She fixed the rose in my coat.
‘Cornelia,’ I said, as we footed it again together over the vivid green gloss of dewberry leaves, ‘you remind me of an old sweetheart of the seventeenth century — who also married a diplomat. I mean Dorothy Osborne. When Temple was courting her, she wrote to him, oh quite delicious letters — one in particular, in which she says she has been crying over the story of Baucis and Philemon. “Methinks,” she says, “they were the perfectest characters of a contented marriage, where piety and love were all their wealth, and in their poverty feasted the gods when rich men shut them out.” But in that identical letter she warns her lover that "this is the world; would you and I were out on’t!” And in the next letter she derides the foolish young people who marry for love, and pointedly reminds poor Temple that all the world must be informed “what fortune you have, and upon what terms I marry you, that both may not be made to appear ten times worse than they are.’”
‘Yes — yes; I remember,’ Cornelia said, with — I thought — a faint note of reverie. ‘Love and wit met in that encounter, and both came away much improved. I must give that book to my Dorothy. She was a sensible girl — Dorothy Osborne was a very sensible girl. It is a book that will help a young girl to understand that she need n’t be an idiot.’
‘At heart,’ I said, ‘even the sweetest women are as hard as nails, arc n’t they?’
‘Someone has to be,’ said Cornelia.
‘You mean,’ I interpreted, ‘if young lovers are n’t to make fools of themselves.’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘or old ones, either.’
‘H’m,’ I resumed; ‘what I was getting at was this: when I was a young fellow, with even less experience than I have now, I used rather to revel in reading tragedies and tales of dismally bitter and disillusioned men. All young fellows do. I suppose it intensifies the sense of their own existence. In the presence of dark and disastrous things — sin, crime, murder for love, and so on — they persuade themselves that they are drawing close to the “throbbing heart of reality.” ‘
‘Yes,’ said Cornelia, ‘I remember. I remember that you used to like tragedy.’
‘But now,’ I said, ‘ I am following an entirely different clue. I have a theory that the only matter that is really worth investigating is happiness. And so I haunt the trails of people who are reputed to be happy, or who act as if they were happy; and I pester them for their secrets.’
‘An odious habit,’ she said. ‘Besides, you won’t learn anything.’
‘Cornelia,’ I continued, — not solemnly, you understand, but with my lightest touch, — ‘are you as entirely happy as we all think you are?’
‘You don’t imagine I should tell you if I were not, do you?’ she said — also with the light touch. ‘Of course I am!’
‘Then I suppose that if I asked you to outline the personal characteristics of, let us say, the sort of man one’s daughter should choose in order to have a high prospect of a happy marriage — why, then you would just hand me back a quick sketch of His Excellency, your husband, would n’t you?’
‘Of course I should,’ she replied without hesitation. ‘I am proud of Oliver. He has made a place for himself in public life. Men like him — he has hosts of men friends; and his relatives are all suitable people. He has been able to provide amply and even lavishly for the comfort of his family, and has given us the advantage of years of foreign travel and residence. He cares a good deal for appearances; but so do I. He likes to live expensively; but he knows how to live. And he is never, like so many men with careers, too busy to live or to let other people live — unless they can be swept into the stream of the monster’s ambition. He is never too busy to enjoy what he is doing.’
‘Astonishing virtue, in the circumstances ! ‘ groaned my envy.
‘And then he is generous to us all — and reasonably tolerant, and really kind-hearted and sympathetic with people that he likes; and he and the children positively adore each other. I like that in him. His temper has its stormy seasons, but for the most part it is gay; and even when he is very angry he is rather entertaining. He has so much humor that he seldom bores himself, and so much intelligence that he seldom bores anyone else. Everything in the world and at home seems to interest him vividly. He thinks of something new to do or to say every morning of his life. Whatever man or woman he meets seems to be the one person in the world that he was hoping to meet at that moment; but I think he actually does n’t care very much for women, except in their purely decorative aspects. Sometimes he is a little exacting, but he is generally appreciative; and he has very nice ways of remembering birthdays and anniversaries. And then, in tight places, he always does the right thing; in a crisis one can rely on him.’
‘Cornelia,’ I said, clipping a row of flame-weed with my stick, as we quickened our pace, ‘ I have just passed through a terrible minute. You know that Oliver is the only man in the world that I envy. I have been checking off each trait of his against my own, and absolutely the only trait that I have in common with this happinessproducing paragon is that my temper, too, has “stormy seasons.’”
‘That’s too bad,’ Cornelia said maliciously, ‘for I don’t consider Oliver’s temper his best trait.’
‘No, nor do I; you omitted the finest virtue of the perfect American husband. What I admire most of all in Oliver is his sending you into the country for the summer — and his sublime confidence that he will get you back again in the fall.’
‘The quiet is nice here, is n’t it?’ she said; ‘but had n’t we better turn about? The sun is slipping into that indigo cloud-bank.’
We plunged over the ridge by a steep path to the lake, in order to make the short return by the shore. The wind was now blowing hard and the waves running high. I began to feel like taking it easy, but Cornelia is indefatigable. She drew up her shoulders, threw back her head, took a deep breath, and went cutting into the wind like a gallant yacht.
‘Oh let’s slow down a bit,’ I called. ‘I’ve only just begun to understand something. Something very important about happiness. It flashed into my mind — literally flashed — as you struck that Samothracian pace northward.’
‘If it’s as important as that — ‘ she said, relenting a little in her stride. ‘But don’t you like to walk fast? Nothing makes me so happy.’
‘I have a theory,’ I said. ‘One can’t walk fast when one has a theory. It’s a theory for which you are partly, perhaps mainly, responsible.’
‘Then it is n’t horrid, is it?’
‘Oh no! It is very nice indeed. But even now, while we delay, it has grown into three theories. In the first place, there are no perfect husbands, and there is probably only one perfect wife. In the second place, happiness is in neither wives nor husbands, but only in the relation between. In the third place, people who are unhappy in marriage are so, usually, because they don’t know how to give themselves to each other. In the fourth place, — it’s four now, — that unhappy ignorance is chiefly due to erroneous conceptions of the self.’
‘Just what do you mean by the self?’ she said. ‘My metaphysical brains are weak.’
‘Well, the traditional, romantic, and generally popular conception is that the self is a very deep and precious mystery of “the buried life,” an elusive being hidden away inside, — always inside, — in a secret garden of the personality, where it murmurs to itself the most delightful and ineffable secrets, which can be communicated to any other self only in a mystical physical fusion of selves — or confusion of selves.’
‘Yes,’ said Cornelia, ‘I understand that. It is something like the religious or sacramental theory of marriage, is n’t it?’
‘Something like some people’s notion of it, I replied. ‘But please follow this argument. Under the illusion that the self is such a being, and only so to be come at, romantic lovers fret themselves to a fever, and decadent heroes and heroines tear each other to bits, and ignorant contemporary husbands and wives separate with bitter recriminations, each charging that the mysteriously rewarding self sought in the other was not to be found.’
‘ Well, the reason it was not found is that it was not there. There is no such secret garden; there is no such mysterious self to reward the mystics of the romantic quest.’
‘Don’t you think so?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I think, up to a certain point, our brutal modern naturalists have followed truth much more faithfully than the poets. And I believe that in educating our young people we had better follow them to the same point. My novelist friend is right in holding to his theory that Judith O’Grady and the Colonel’s lady are much the same beneath the skin.’
‘Bah!’ cried Cornelia. ‘If you say that again, I shall hate you.’
‘And I shall ask to be forgiven,’ I said, ‘and you will forgive me so graciously that I shall sin again. But I’m very serious about this. Judith and the lady are very much the same — beneath the skin.’
‘I hate you!’ Cornelia cried. ‘I could stick you full of pins.’
‘ Beneath the skin,’ I continued, ‘Judith and the lady consist of closely similar metabolic apparatus and so forth, and a certain amount of vacant space — and nothing else. And since the apparatus is the same, there is every reason to believe that it functions in essentially the same way in performing the duties assigned to it by biological destiny.’
‘You are disgusting,’ said Cornelia.
‘If I dwelt too long on the point, I should be,’ I agreed. ‘Viscera and vacancy: that is what Judith and the lady have beneath the skin. And that is why I think the naturalistic novelists are foolish if they dwell too long there.’
‘Is this your nice theory?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘it is n’t; but it is a sort of basis for my theory. First, we establish the fact that the interesting and precious and desirable self is n’t “inside.” Then, don’t you see, it must be outside. Well, it is outside. It doesn’t exist till it gets outside. All the differentiation, the distinction, the qualities, which you and I value, are outside and are created by means analogous to the means of art. In so far as people — any people, married or otherwise, — really give themselves adequately to each other in love or in friendship, and impart happiness with the gift, they give a self that is externalized, objectified, and tangible — so to speak — in some form of useful or beautiful activity, which occasions no insatiable and consuming fever, but the real joy of benefits given and received and the delight of a loveliness that descends on the contemplative eye like the free grace of God.’
‘Your theory improves,’ said Cornelia; ‘I don’t wholly understand it; but it improves.’
The foam was now running high up the beach. I splashed straight through it, in spite of my shoes. But Cornelia, lighter footed, danced with it like a partner in some fantastic minuet, returning to my side and my argument only when the creamy gliding meander ebbed.
‘A man’s power to impart his best self depends,’ I said, ‘on the woman’s power to receive it.’
‘Of course,’ said Cornelia. ‘All that any man, even a genius, asks of his wife is intelligence enough to appreciate him.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘that is n’t true. That is going by. There was a time when a husband thought of himself as the pianist, and of his wife as standing behind him to turn the pages of his music. But nowadays we begin to think that the ideal concert is by two performers on perfectly synchronized independent instruments — not soloist and accompanist, but, say, organist and pianist, each as important as the other.’
‘ Nonsense! ‘ said Cornelia. ‘ We shall never expect that. But we do like our accompaniment to be applauded when we play well — and especially when we don’t.’
‘If there is one subject in the world,’ I said, veering a point, ‘about which I am more densely ignorant than another, it is women, and what they really like.’
‘But I knew a lady once.’
‘Still another lady?’
‘A most exquisite lady. And I often wondered why, whenever “the idea of her life” came into my “study of imagination” I invariably saw her in a setting, as if the setting were an organic part of herself.’
‘Well, it is, is n’t it — if one puts a little effort into it, to make it right. It is in the setting — is n’t it — that one has one’s opportunity to express what you call the self. It is in one’s husband, children, friends, and one’s home and habits and things and so on.’
‘Yes, but in the case of this lady there was a curious point about the setting. Wherever she was seemed to be the centre of the picture. She always seemed to frame.’
‘What an attitudinizer she must have been!’
‘She was not. It was only, I think, that she seemed to bring out and accentuate everything near her that harmonized with her own vibrant and articulate life. When I saw her in her drawing-room, it framed her; and she appeared as fine and finished as if she had stepped from a canvas of Watteau’s. Her books and pictures and tapestries became as intimately hers as her garments, so that I have felt her almost visibly present in that room even when she was not there. Sometimes, in a perverse mood, I have said, “This is all a pose”; and, trying to go behind the elaborate expressiveness of her artificial surroundings and to tease her out of perfection, I have gone on rough walks with her in woods and in the open, half hoping that she might revert to the inarticulate pathos of Nature. But the instant she stepped from the frame of art she stepped into the frame of the landscape; the greensward spread itself before her like Ralegh’s cloak; groves offered themselves for a background; and I finally concluded that if she came up out of the sea, like Botticelli’s Cytherea, the sea would clothe her and her pearly radiance appear but an extension of the lustrous nacre of some deep-sea shell.’
‘You are fanciful,’ said Cornelia.
‘I am not fanciful,’ I replied. ‘I express just as simply as I can with words my sense of the quite blessed outwardness and availability of this lady’s self.
I don’t think she knew it, but — ‘
‘But that shows how ignorant you are of women,’ she said, and swept me again sidelong with her gray eyes.
‘But whether she knew it or not,’ I reasoned, ‘she possesses a secret of communicating happiness — a kind of happiness which I can describe only as pure serenity at concert pitch. Perhaps she was merely born in tune with some fine instrument which the rest of us rarely hear. Perhaps she is right, after all, in thinking of the art and discipline of the traditional lady and the traditional gentleman as the technique by which the true and precious selves of our fellow creatures are most likely to get themselves expressed.’
‘I believe,’ said Cornelia, ‘your theory is coming out rather well, and in time for tea.’
‘My only reason for elaborating my theory is that it is based upon the practice of a lady whose theory is infinitely surpassed by her art.’
‘Is it indeed?’ she said.
‘When I got the theory built, I was planning to say that I should wish a daughter to choose for her husband neither one of the sheik-monsters who of late have been devouring our damsels, nor yet the inexpressive and unmodified vestrymen whom you commended to our admiration this morning, but rather a youth who should have a bit of the old bachelor’s conception of what might be in the relation — an old bachelor, I mean, who had known, in his own youth, an exquisite lady.’
‘Why lug in the old bachelor?’ Cornelia asked—a little cruelly; for we were already at her door.
‘ Because,’ I said, as she waited on the step for my leave-taking, ‘ because time and meditation and the naturalistic novelists have convinced him that, almost without a pang, he may resign to Mr. O’Grady and the Colonel the similarities of Judith and the lady, provided only that, from time to time, he may refresh his memory and his senses with the lady’s differences.’
‘Why, meaning that the kind of man whom a girl like Dorothy should choose should know that the passion hymned by the naturalists is naught, sheer naught — ‘
‘You really mean that?’ ‘— in comparison with the quality of love to be had in its high moments of general joyous awareness of the entire radiant life of a fellow being — meeting his perceptions and recorded in his imagination, clothed in color and motion and talk and laughter and fresh air, the head turning with frank gay light in the eyes, the lips parted in speech, while the springing step goes rhythmically over the wide-stretching earth under sunlight and blue heavens.’
‘ It will be a long time,’ said Cornelia, ‘before Dorothy needs to trouble her head with that. Meanwhile we shall occupy ourselves with the rudiments. Shall we see you at mail-time tomorrow ? ‘
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and we’ll take up Oliver’s case, perhaps. There’s going to be a fine sunset. ‘ Voir!'
As I entered the wood path through the birches that run down to my own cottage, I thought I saw a boyish youngish figure slipping among the trees to the eastward. A moment later, I met Dorothy walking demurely up the path, with a book in her hand, closed upon one finger.
‘Watching the sun set?’ I asked, diplomatically.
‘No,’ she said, ‘watching him disappear.’
‘Watching whom disappear?' I inquired, being invited.
‘Oh, a boy that I like. We’ve been reading one of mother’s new books. It’s about a girl, Deirdre, who did n’t want to marry a king, because there was a boy that she liked very much better — in all ways. And so they ran away and lived in the woods — and died happily.’
‘Oh-ho!’ I exclaimed. ‘I suspect the happiness of their death has been greatly exaggerated. It seemed to me rather dreadful. It’s James Stephens’s version, is n’t it?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy and, turning the golden dusk of her eyes full upon mine, she added: ‘How old was my mother when you first knew her?'
‘About your age, Dorothy. Why do you ask?’
‘Was she very different then — from the way she is now?’
‘She was quite a bit like you, then,'
I said, ‘— if I remember. But why do you ask?’
‘Because,’ she said, ‘she has marked the loveliest passage in this book. And I can’t understand why, because she is n’t like that now — not at all like that now.’
‘Is n’t like what?’
‘I mean,’ said Dorothy with perfect lucidity, ‘that this passage expresses just the way this boy and I feel. Shall I read it to you?’
‘That would n’t be quite nice,’I suggested, ‘would it,Dorothy? Good-bye!’
‘Perhaps not,’ she agreed; but as she moved toward the house she turned and called after me: ‘ But if you want to read it, you can find it on page onehundred-and-forty.’
In my own copy of James Stephens’s Deirdre, I have marked, on page 140, this passage: —
Lacking him, what could be returned to her? Her hands went cold and her mouth dry as she faced such a prospect.
The youth who was hers. Who had no terrors for her! Who was her equal in years and frolic! She could laugh with him and at him. She could chide him and love him. She could give to him and withhold. She could be his mother as well as his wife. She could annoy him and forgive him. For between them there was such an equality of time and rights that neither could dream of mastery or feel a grief against the other. He was her beloved, her comrade, the very red of her heart, and her choice choice.