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- Philistia - 5/74 -
from me, Mrs. Oswald, and mind you don't send the tea dusty. Two pounds of your best, if you please, as soon as you can send it. Good-morning.' And Miss Luttrell, having discovered the absolute truth of the shocking rumour which had reached her about Edith's projected visit, the confirmation of which was the sole object of her colloquy, wagged her way out of the shop again successfully, and was duly assisted by the page-boy into her shambling little palsied donkey-chair.
'That was all the old cat came about, you warr'nt you,' muttered Mr. Oswald himself from behind his biscuit-boxes. 'Must have heard it from the Rector's wife, and wanted to find out if it was true, to go and tell Mrs. Walters o' such a bit o' turble presumptiousness.'
Meanwhile, in the little study with the bow-window over the shop, Harry and Edie Oswald were busily discussing the necessary preparations for Edie's long-promised visit to the University.
'I hope you've got everything nice in the way of dress, you know, Edie,' said Harry. 'You'll want a decent dinner dress, of course, for you'll be asked out to dine at least once or twice; and I want you to have everything exceedingly proper and pretty.'
'I think I've got all I need in that way, Harry; I've my dark poplin, cut square in the bodice, for one dinner dress, and my high black silk to fall back upon for another. Worn open in front, with a lace handkerchief and a locket, it does really very nicely. Then I've got three afternoon dresses, the grey you gave me, the sage-greeny aesthetic one, and the peacock-blue with the satin box-pleats. It's a charming dress, the peacock-blue; it looks as if it might have stepped straight out of a genuine Titian. It came home from Miss Wells's this morning. Wait five minutes, like a dear boy, and I'll run and put it on and let you see me in it.'
'That's a good girl, do. I'm so anxious you should have all your clothes the exact pink of perfection, Popsy. Though I'm afraid I'm a very poor critic in that matter--if you were only a problem in space of four dimensions, now! Yet, after all, every man or woman is more of a problem than anything in x square plus y square you can possibly set yourself.'
Edie ran lightly up into her own room, and soon reappeared clad resplendent in the new peacock-blue dress, with hat and parasol to match, and a little creamy lamb's-wool scarf thrown with artful carelessness around her pretty neck and shoulders. Harry looked at her with unfeigned admiration. Indeed, you would not easily find many lighter or more fairly-like little girls than Edie Oswald, even in the beautiful half-Celtic South Hams of Devon. In figure she was rather small than short, for though she was but a wee thing, her form was so exactly and delicately modelled that she might have looked tall if she stood alone at a little distance. She never walked, but seemed to dance about from place to place, so buoyant and light, that Harry doubted whether in her case gravitation could really vary as the square of the distance--it seemed, in fact, to be almost diminished in the proportions of the cube. Her hair and eyes--such big bright eyes!--were dark; but her complexion was scarcely brunette, and the colour in her cheeks was rich and peach-like, after the true Devonian type. She was dimpled whenever she smiled, and she smiled often; her full lips giving a peculiar ripe look to her laughing mouth that suited admirably with her light and delicate style of beauty. Perhaps some people might have thought them too full; certainly they irresistibly suggested to a critical eye the distinct notion of kissability. As she stood there, faintly blushing, waiting to be admired by her brother, in her neatly fitting dainty blue dress, her lips half parted, and her arms held carelessly at her side, she looked about as much like a fairy picture as it is given to mere human flesh and blood to look.
'It's delicious, Edie,' said Harry, surveying her from, head to foot with a smile of satisfaction which made her blush deepen; 'it's simply delicious. Where on earth did you get the idea of it?'
'Well, it's partly the present style,' said Edie; 'but I took the notion of the bodice partly too from that Vandyck, you know, in the Palazzo Bossi at Genoa.'
'I remember, I remember,' Harry answered, contemplating her with an admiring eye. 'Now just turn round and show me how it sits behind, Edie. You recollect Théophile Gautier says the one great advantage which a beautiful woman possesses over a beautiful statue is this, that while a man has to walk round the beautiful statue in order to see it from every side, he can ask the beautiful woman to turn herself round and let him see her, without requiring to take that trouble.'
'Théophile Gautier was a horrid man, and if anybody but my brother quoted such a thing as that to me I should be very angry with him indeed.'
'Théophile Gautier was quite as horrid as you consider him to be, and if you were anybody but my sister it isn't probable I should have quoted him to you. But if there is any statue on earth prettier or more graceful than you are in that dress at this moment, Edie, then the Venus of Milo ought immediately to be pulverised to ultimate atoms for a rank artistic impostor.'
'Thank you, Harry, for the compliment. What pretty things you must be capable of saying to somebody else's sister, when you're so polite and courtly to your own.'
'On the contrary, Popsy, when it comes to somebody else's sister I'm much too nervous and funky to say anything of the kind. But you must at least do Gautier the justice to observe that if I had described a circle round you, instead of allowing you to revolve once on your own axis, I shouldn't have been able to get the gloss on the satin in the sunlight as I do now that you turn the panniers toward the window. That, you must admit, is a very important aesthetic consideration.'
'Oh, of course it's essentially a sunshiny dress,' said Edie, smiling. 'It's meant to be worn out of doors, on a fine afternoon, when the light is falling slantwise, you know, just as it does now through the low window. That's the light painters always choose for doing satin in.'
'It's certainly very pretty,' Harry went on, musing; 'but I'm afraid Le Breton would say it was a serious piece of economic hubris.'
'Piece of what?' asked Edie quickly.
'Piece of hubris--an economical outrage, don't you see; a gross anti-social and individualist demonstration. Hubris, you know, is Greek for insolence; at least, not quite insolence, but a sort of pride and overweening rebelliousness against the gods, the kind of arrogance that brings Nemesis after it, you understand. It was hubris in Agamemnon and Xerxes to go swelling about and ruffling themselves like turkey-cocks, because they were great conquerors and all that sort of thing; and it was their Nemesis to get murdered by Clytemnestra, or jolly well beaten by the Athenians at Salamis. Well, Le Breton always uses the word for anything that he thinks socially wrong--and he thinks a good many things socially wrong, I can tell you--anything that partakes of the nature of a class distinction, or a mere vulgar ostentation of wealth, or a useless waste of good, serviceable, labour-gotten material. He would call it hubris to have silver spoons when electroplate would do just as well; or to keep a valet for your own personal attendant, making one man into the mere bodily appanage of another; or to buy anything you didn't really need, causing somebody else to do work for you which might otherwise have been avoided.'
'Which Mr. Le Breton--the elder or the younger one?'
'Oh, the younger--Ernest. As for Herbert, the Fellow of St. Aldate's, he's not troubled with any such scruples; he takes the world as he finds it.'
'They've both gone in for their degrees, haven't they?'
'Yes, Herbert has got a fellowship; Ernest's up in residence still looking about for one.'
'It's Ernest that would think my dress a piece of what-you-may-call-it?'
'Then I'm sure I shan't like him. I should insist upon every woman's natural right to wear the dress or hat or bonnet that suits her complexion best.'
'You can't tell, Edie, till you've met him. He's a very good fellow; and of one thing I'm certain, whatever he thinks right he does, and sticks to it.'
'But do YOU think, Harry, I oughtn't to wear a new peacock-blue camel-hair dress on my first visit up to Oxford?'
'Well, Edie dear, I don't quite know what my own opinions are exactly upon that matter. I'm not an economist, you see, I'm a man of science. When I look at you, standing there so pretty in that pretty dress, I feel inclined to say to myself, "Every woman ought to do her best to make herself look as beautiful as she can for the common delectation of all humanity." Your beauty, a Greek would have said, is a gift from the gods to us all, and we ought all gratefully to make the most of it. I'm sure _I_ do.'
'Thank you, Harry, again. You're in your politest humour this afternoon.'
'But then, on the other hand, I know if Le Breton were here he'd soon argue me over to the other side. He has the enthusiasm of humanity so strong upon him that you can't help agreeing with him as long as he's talking to you.'
'Then if he were here you'd probably make me put away the peacock-blue, for fear of hubris and Nemesis and so forth, and go up to Oxford a perfect fright in my shabby old Indian tussore!'
'I don't know that I should do that, even then, Edie. In the first place, nothing on earth could make you look a perfect fright, or anything like one, Popsy dear; and in the second place, I don't know that I'm Socialist enough myself ever to have the courage of my opinions as Le Breton has. Certainly, I should never attempt to force them unwillingly upon others. You must remember, Edie, it's one thing for Le Breton to be so communistic as all that comes to, and quite another thing for you and me. Le Breton's father was a general and a knight, you see; and people will never forget that his mother's Lady Le Breton still, whatever he does. He may do what he likes in the way of social eccentricities, and the world will only say he's such a very strange advanced young fellow. But
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