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- The Solitary Summer - 18/18 -
of a lieutenant, and I went back with my heart hardened against him.
That second evening was worse a great deal than the first. We had said all we ever meant to say to each other, and had lauded all our relations with such hearty goodwill that there was nothing whatever to add. I sat listening to the slow ticking of the clock and asking questions about things I did not in the least want to know, such as the daily work and rations and pay of the soldiers in his regiment, and presently--we having dined at the early hour usual in the country--the clock struck eight. Could I go to bed at eight? No, I had not the courage, and no excuse ready. More slow ticking, and more questions and answers about rations and pipeclay. What a clock! For utter laziness and dull deliberation there surely never was its equal--it took longer to get to the half-hour than any clock I ever met, but it did get there at last and struck it. Could I go? Could I? No, still no excuse ready. We drifted from pipeclay to a discussion on bicycling for women--a dreary subject. Was it becoming? Was it good for them? Was it ladylike? Ought they to wear skirts or--? In Paris they all wore--. Our bringing-up here is so excellent that if we tried we could not induce ourselves to speak of any forked garments to a young man, so we make ourselves understood, when we desire to insinuate such things, by an expressive pause and a modest downward flicker of the eyelids. The clock struck nine. Nothing should keep me longer. I sprang to my feet and said I was exhausted beyond measure by the sharp air driving, and that whenever I had spent an afternoon out, it was my habit to go to bed half an hour earlier than other evenings. Again he looked surprised, but rather less so than the night before, and he was, I think, beginning to get used to me. I retired, firmly determined not to face another such day and to be very ill in the morning and quite unable to rise, he having casually remarked that the next one was an off day; and I would remain in bed, that last refuge of the wretched, as long as he remained here.
I sat by the window in my room till late, looking out at the moonlight in the quiet garden, with a feeling as though I were stuffed with sawdust--a very awful feeling--and thinking ruefully of the day that had begun so brightly and ended so dismally. What a miserable thing not to be able to be frank and say simply, "My good young man, you and I never saw each other before, probably won't see each other again, and have no interests in common. I mean you to be comfortable in my house, but I want to be comfortable too. Let us, therefore, keep out of each other's way while you are obliged to be here. Do as you like, go where you like, and order what you like, but don't expect me to waste my time sitting by your side and making small-talk. I too have to get to heaven, and have no time to lose. You won't see me again. Good-bye."
I believe many a harassed _Hausfrau_ would give much to be able to make some such speech when these young men appear, and surely the young men themselves would be grateful; but simplicity is apparently quite beyond people's strength. It is, of all the virtues, the one I prize the most; it is undoubtedly the most lovable of any, and unspeakably precious for its power of removing those mountains that confine our lives and prevent our seeing the sky. Certain it is that until we have it, the simple spirit of the little child, we shall in no wise discover our kingdom of heaven.
These were my reflections, and many others besides, as I sat weary at the window that cold spring night, long after the lieutenant who had occasioned them was slumbering peacefully on the other side of the house. Thoughts of the next day, and enforced bed, and the bowls of gruel to be disposed of if the servants were to believe in my illness, made my head ache. Eating gruel _pour la galerie_ is a pitiable state to be reduced to--surely no lower depths of humiliation are conceivable. And then, just as I was drearily remembering how little I loved gruel, there was a sudden sound of wheels rolling swiftly round the corner of the house, a great rattling and trampling in the still night over the stones, and tearing open the window and leaning out, there, sitting in a station fly, and apparelled to my glad vision in celestial light, I beheld the Man of Wrath, come home unexpectedly to save me.
"Oh, dear Man of Wrath," I cried, hanging out into the moonlight with outstretched arms, "how much nicer thou art than lieutenants! I never missed thee more--I never longed for thee more--I never loved thee more --come up here quickly that I may kiss thee!--"
October 1st.--Last night after dinner, when we were in the library, I said, "Now listen to me, Man of Wrath."
"Well?" he inquired, looking up at me from the depths of his chair as I stood before him.
"Do you know that as a prophet you are a failure? Five months ago to-day you sat among the wallflowers and scoffed at the idea of my being able to enjoy myself alone a whole summer through. Is the summer over?"
"It is," he assented, as he heard the rain beating against the windows.
"And have I invited any one here?"
"No, but there were all those officers."
"They have nothing whatever to do with it."
"They helped you through one fortnight."
"They didn't. It was a fortnight of horror."
"Well. Go on."
"You said I would be punished by being dull. Have I been dull?"
"My dear, as though if you had been you would ever confess it."
"That's true. But as a matter of fact let me tell you that I never spent a happier summer."
He merely looked at me out of the corners of his eyes.
"If I remember rightly," he said, after a pause, "your chief reason for wishing to be solitary was that your soul might have time to grow. May I ask if it did?"
"Not a bit."
He laughed, and, getting up, came and stood by my side before the fire. "At least you are honest," he said, drawing my hand through his arm.
"It is an estimable virtue."
"And strangely rare in woman."
"Now leave woman alone. I have discovered you know nothing really of her at all. But _I_ know all about her."
"You do? My dear, one woman can never judge the others."
"An exploded tradition, dear Sage."
"Her opinions are necessarily biassed."
"Venerable nonsense, dear Sage."
"Because women are each other's natural enemies."
"Obsolete jargon, dear Sage."
"Well, what do you make of her?"
"Why, that she's a DEAR, and that you ought to be very happy and thankful to have got one of her always with you."
"But am I not?" he asked, putting his arm round me and looking affectionate; and when people begin to look affectionate I, for one, cease to take any further interest in them.
And so the Man of Wrath and I fade away into dimness and muteness, my head resting on his shoulder, and his arm encircling my waist; and what could possibly be more proper, more praiseworthy, or more picturesque?
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