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- Mrs. Falchion, Volume 1. - 5/25 -
"May I accompany you?" I asked.
She inclined her head, and we joined the promenaders. The band was playing, and, for a ship-band, playing very well, the ballet music of Delibes' 'Sylvia'. The musicians had caught that unaccentuated and sensuous swing of the melody which the soft, tropical atmosphere rendered still more languorous. With Mrs. Falchion's hand upon my arm, I felt a sense of capitulation to the music and to her, uncanny in its suddenness. At this distance of time it seems to me absurd. I had once experienced something of the same feeling with the hand of a young medical student, who, skilled in thought-reading, discovered the number of a bank-note that was in my mind.
This woman had an attractiveness compelling and delightful, at least in its earlier application to me. Both professionally and socially I have been brought into contact with women of beauty and grace, but never one who, like Mrs. Falchion, being beautiful, seemed so unconscious of the fact, so indifferent to those about her, so untouched by another's emotion, so lacking in sensitiveness of heart; and who still drew people to her. I am speaking now of the earlier portion of our acquaintance; of her as she was up to this period in her life.
I was not alone in this opinion of her, for, as time went on, every presentable man and woman on the boat was introduced to her; and if some women criticised and some disliked her, all acknowledged her talent and her imperial attraction. Among the men her name was never spoken but with reserve and respect, and her afternoon teas were like a little court. She had no compromising tenderness of manner for man or woman; she ruled, yet was unapproachable through any avenues of sentiment. She had a quiet aplomb, which would be called 'sang-froid' in a man.
"Did you ever see a Spanish-Mexican woman dance?" she asked in one of the pauses of the music.
"Never: never any good dancing, save what one gets at a London theatre."
"That is graceful," she said, "but not dancing. You have heard of music stirring the blood; of savage races--and others--working themselves up to ecstatic fury? Maybe you have seen the Dervishes, or the Fijians, or the Australian aboriginals? No? Well, I have, and I have seen--which is so much more--those Spanish-Mexican women dance. Did you ever see anything so thrilling, so splendid, that you felt you must possess it?"--She asked me that with her hand upon my arm!--"Well, that is it. I have felt that way towards a horse which has won a great race, and to a woman who has carried me with her through the fantastic drama of her dance, until she stood at the climax, head thrown back, face glowing--a statue. It is grand to be eloquent like that, not in words, but in person."
In this was the key to her own nature. Body and mind she was free from ordinary morbidness, unless her dislike of all suffering was morbid. With her this was a dislike of any shock to the senses. She was selfish at all points.
These conclusions were pursued at the expense of speech on my part. At first she did not appear to regard my silence. She seemed to have thoughts of her own; but she shook them off with a little firm motion of the shoulders, and, with the assumption of a demureness of manner and an airy petulance, said: "Well, amuse me."
"Amuse you?" was my reply. "Delighted to do so if I can. How?"
"Talk to me," was the quick response.
"Would that accomplish the purpose?" This in a tone of mock protest.
"Please don't be foolish, Dr. Marmion. I dislike having to explain. Tell me things."
"Oh, about yourself--about people you have met, and all that; for I suppose you have seen a good deal and lived a good deal."
"About hospital cases?" I said a little maliciously.
"No, please, no! I abhor everything that is sick and poor and miserable."
"Well," said I, at idle venture, "if not a hospital, what about a gaol?"
I felt the hand on my arm twitch slightly, and then her reply came.
"I said I hated everything that was wretched and wicked. You are either dense, or purposely irritating."
"Well, then, a college?"
"A college? Yes, that sounds better. But I do not wish descriptions of being 'gated,' or 'sent down,' or 'ploughed,' and that kind of commonplace. I should prefer, unless your vanity leads you irresistibly in that direction, something with mature life and amusement; or, at least, life and incident, and good sport--if you do not dwell on the horrors of killing."
On the instant there came to me the remembrance of Professor Valiant's wife. I think it was not what she wanted; but I had a purpose, and I began:
"Every one at St. Luke's admired and respected Professor Valiant's wife, she was so frank and cordial and prettily downright. In our rooms we all called her a good chap, and a dashed good chap when her husband happened to be rustier than usual. He was our professor in science. It was the general belief that he chose science for his life-work because it gave unusual opportunities for torture. He was believed to be a devoted vivisectionist; he certainly had methods of cruelty, masterly in their ingenuity. He could make a whole class raw with punishment in a few words; and many a scorching bit of Latin verse was written about his hooked nose and fishy eye.
"But his highest talents in this direction were reserved for his wife. His distorted idea of his own importance made him view her as a chattel, an inferior being; the more so, I believe, because she brought him little money when he married her. She was too much the woman to pretend to kneel to him, and because she would not be his slave, she had a hard time of it. He began by insisting that she should learn science, that she might assist him in his experiments. She knew that she had no taste for it, that it was no part of her wifely duty, and she did what suited her better--followed the hounds. It was a picture to see her riding across country. She could take a fence with a sound hunter like a bird. And so it happened that, after a time, they went their own ways pretty well; he ignoring her, neglecting her, deprecating her by manner, if not by speech, and making her life more than uncomfortable.
"She was always kind to me. I was the youngest chap in the college, and was known as 'Marmy' by every one; and because I was fonder of science than most other men in the different years, Valiant was more gracious to me than the rest, though I did not like him. One day, when I called, I heard her say to him, not knowing that I was near: 'Whatever you feel, or however you act towards me in private, I will have respect when others are present.'
"It was the custom for the professors to invite each student to luncheon or dinner once during term-time. Being somewhat of a favourite of both Professor and Mrs. Valiant however, I lunched with them often. I need hardly say that I should not have exceeded the regulation once had it not been for Mrs. Valiant. The last time I went is as clear in my memory as if it were yesterday. Valiant was more satirical and cold-blooded than usual. I noticed a kind of shining hardness in his wife's eyes, which gave me a strange feeling; yet she was talkative and even gay, I thought, while I more than once clinched my fist under the table, so much did I want to pummel him; for I was a lover of hers, in a deferential, boyish way.
"At last, knowing that she liked the hunt, I asked her if she was going to the meet on the following Saturday, saying that I intended to follow, having been offered a horse. With a steely ring to her voice, and a further brightening of the eyes, she said: 'You are a stout little sportsman, Marmy. Yes, I am going on Major Karney's big horse, Carbine.'
"Valiant looked up, half sneering, half doubtful, I thought, and rejoined: 'Carbine is a valuable horse, and the fences are stiff in the Garston country.'
"She smiled gravely, then, with her eyes fixed on her husband, said: 'Carbine is a perfect gentleman. He will do what I ask him. I have ridden him.'
"'The devil you have!' he replied.
"'I am sure,' said I, as I hoped, bravely, and not a little enthusiastically, 'that Carbine would take any fence you asked him.'
"'Or not, as the case might be. Thank you, Marmy, for the compliment,' she said.
"'A Triton among minnows,' remarked Valiant, not entirely under his breath; 'horses obey, and students admire, and there is no end to her greatness.'
"'There is an end to everything, Edward,' she remarked a shade sadly and quietly.
"He turned to me and said: 'Science is a great study, Marmion, but it is sardonic too; for you shall find that when you reduce even a Triton to its original elements--'
"'Oh, please let me finish,' she interrupted softly. 'I know the lecture so well. It reads this way: "The place of generation must break to give place to the generated; but the influence spreads out beyond the fragments, and is greater thus than in the mass--neither matter nor mind can be destroyed. The earth was molten before it became cold rock and quiet world." There, you see, Marmy, that I am a fellow-student of yours.'
"Valiant's eyes were ugly to watch; for she had quoted from a lecture of his, delivered to us that week. After an instant he said, with slow maliciousness: 'Oh, ye gods, render me worthy of this Portia, and teach her to do as Brutus's Portia did, ad eternum!'
"She shuddered a little, then said very graciously, and as if he had meant nothing but kindness: 'Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks.' I will leave you now to your cigarettes; and because I must go out soon, and shall not, I fear, see you again this afternoon, good-bye, Marmy, till Saturday--till Saturday.' And she left us.
"I was white and trembling with anger. He smiled coolly, and was careful to choose me one of his best cigars, saying as he handed it: 'Conversation is a science, Marmion. Study it; there is solid satisfaction in it; it is the only art that brings instant pleasure. Like the stage, it gets its immediate applause.'
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