John Sherman and Dhoya
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Sherman had never known in early life what is called first love, and now, when he had passed thirty, it came to him that love more of the imagination than of either the senses or affections: it was mainly the eyes that followed him.
It is not to be denied that as this love grew serious it grew mercenary. Now active, now latent, the notion had long been in Sherman’s mind, as we know, that he should marry money. A born lounger, riches tempted him greatly. When those eyes haunted him from the fourteen flies on the ceiling, he would say, “I should be rich; I should have a house in the country; I should hunt and shoot, and have a garden and three gardeners; I should leave this abominable office.” Then the eyes became even more beautiful. It was a new kind of belladonna.
He shrank a little, however, from choosing even this pleasant pathway. He had planned many futures for himself and learnt to love them all. It was this that had made him linger on at Ballah for so long, and it was this that now kept him undecided. He would have to give up the universe for a garden and three gardeners. How sad it was to make substantial even the best of his dreams. How hard it was to submit to that decree which compels every step we take in life to be a death in the imagination. How difficult it was to be so enwrapped in this one new hope as not to hear the lamentations that were going on in dim corners of his mind.
One day he resolved to propose. He examined himself in the glass in the morning; and for the first time in his life smiled to see how good-looking he was. In the evening before leaving the office he peered at himself in the mirror over the mantlepiece in the room where customers were received. The sun was blazing through the window full on his face. He did not look so well. Immediately all courage left him.
That evening he went out after his mother had gone to bed and walked far along the towing-path of the Thames. A faint mist half covered away the houses and factory chimneys on the further side; beside him a band of osiers swayed softly, the deserted and full river lapping their stems. He looked on all these things with foreign eyes. He had no sense of possession. Indeed it seemed to him that everything in London was owned by too many to be owned by any one. Another river that he did seem to possess flowed through his memory with all its familiar sights – boys riding in the stream to the saddle-girths, fish leaping, water-flies raising their small ripples, a swan asleep, the wallflowers growing on the red brick of the margin. He grew very sad. Suddenly a shooting star, fiery and vagabond, leaped from the darkness. It brought his mind again in a moment to Margaret Leland. To marry her, he thought, was to separate himself from the old life he loved so well.
Crossing the river at Putney, he hurried homewards among the market gardens. Nearing home, the streets were deserted, the shops closed. Where King Street joins the Broadway, entirely alone with itself, in the very centre of the road a little black cat was leaping after its shadow.
“Ah!” he thought, “it would be a good thing to be a little black cat.To leap about in the moonlight and sleep in the sunlight, and catch flies, to have no hard tasks to do or hard decisions to come to, to be simple and full of animal spirits.”
At the corner of Bridge Road was a coffee-stall, the only sign of human life. He bought some cold meat and flung it to the little black cat.
Some more days went by. At last, one day, arriving at the Square somewhat earlier than usual, and sitting down to wait for Margaret on the seat among the bushes, he noticed the pieces of a torn-up letter lying about. Beside him on the seat was a pencil, as though some one had been writing there and left it behind them. The pencil-lead was worn very short. The letter had been torn up, perhaps, in a fit of impatience.
In a half-mechanical way he glanced over the scraps. On one of them he read: “My dear Eliza, – What an incurable gossip my mother is. You heard of my misfortune. I nearly died – ” Here he had to search among the scraps; at last he found one that seemed to follow. “Perhaps you will hear news from me soon. There is a handsome young man who pays me attention, and – ” Here another piece had to be found. “I would take him though he had a face like the man in the moon, and limped like the devil at the theatre. Perhaps I am a little in love. Oh! friend of my heart – ” Here it broke off again. He was interested, and searched the grass and the bushes for fragments. Some had been blown to quite a distance. He got together several sentences now. “I will not spend another winter with my mother for anything. All this is, of course, a secret. I had to tell somebody; secrets are bad for my health. Perhaps it will all come to nothing.” Then the letter went off into dress, the last novel the writer had read, and so forth. A Miss Sims, too, was mentioned, who had said some unkind thing of the writer.
Sherman was greatly amused. It did not seem to him wrong to read – we do not mind spying on one of the crowd, any more than on the personages of literature. It never occurred to him that he, or any friend of his, was concerned in these pencil scribblings.
Suddenly he saw this sentence: “Heigho! your poor Margaret is falling in love again; condole with her, my dear.”
He started. The name “Margaret,” the mention of Miss Sims, the style of the whole letter, all made plain the authorship. Very desperately ashamed of himself, he got up and tore each scrap of paper into still smaller fragments and scattered them far apart.
That evening he proposed, and was accepted.
For several days there was a new heaven and a new earth. Miss Leland seemed suddenly impressed with the seriousness of life. She was gentleness itself; and as Sherman sat on Sunday mornings in his pocket-handkerchief of a garden under the one tree, with its smoky stem, watching the little circles of sunlight falling from the leaves like a shower of new sovereigns, he gazed at them with a longer and keener joy than heretofore – a new heaven and a new earth, surely!
Sherman planted and dug and raked this pocket-handkerchief of a garden most diligently, rooting out the docks and dandelions and mouse-ear and the patches of untimely grass. It was the point of contact between his new life and the old. It was far too small and unfertile and shaded in to satisfy his love of gardener’s experiments and early vegetables.
Perforce this husbandry was too little complex for his affections to gather much round plant and bed. His garden in Ballah used to touch him like the growth of a young family.
Now he was content to satisfy his barbaric sense of colour; right round were planted alternate holyhock and sunflower, and behind them scarlet-runners showed their inch-high cloven shoots.
One Sunday it occurred to him to write to his friends on the matter of his engagement. He numbered them over. Howard, one or two less intimate, and Mary Carton. At that name he paused; he would not write just yet.
One Saturday there was a tennis party. Miss Leland devoted herself all day to a young Foreign Office clerk. She played tennis with him, talked with him, drank lemonade with him, had neither thoughts nor words for any one else. John Sherman was quite happy. Tennis was always a bore, and now he was not called upon to play. It had not struck him there was occasion for jealousy.
As the guests were dispersing, his betrothed came to him. Her manner seemed strange.
“Does anything ail you, Margaret?” he asked, as they left the Square.
“Everything,” she answered, looking about her with ostentatious secrecy. “You are a most annoying person. You have no feeling; you have no temperament; you are quite the most stupid creature I was ever engaged to.”
“What is wrong with you?” he asked, in bewilderment.
“Don’t you see,” she replied, with a broken voice, “I flirted all day with that young clerk? You should have nearly killed me with jealousy. You do not love me a bit! There is no knowing what I might do!”
“Well, you know,” he said, “it was not right of you. People might say, ‘Look at John Sherman; how furious he must be!’ To be sure I wouldn’t be furious a bit; but then they’d go about saying I was. It would not matter, of course; but you know it is not right of you.”
“It is no use pretending you have feeling. It is all that miserable little town you come from, with its sleepy old shops and its sleepy old society. I would give up loving you this minute,” she added, with a caressing look, “if you had not that beautiful bronzed face. I will improve you. To-morrow evening you must come to the opera.” Suddenly she changed the subject. “Do you see that little fat man coming out of the Square and staring at me? I was engaged to him once. Look at the four old ladies behind him, shaking their bonnets at me. Each has some story about me, and it will be all the same in a hundred years.”
After this he had hardly a moment’s peace. She kept him continually going to theatres, operas, parties. These last were an especial trouble; for it was her wont to gather about her an admiring circle to listen to her extravagancies, and he was no longer at the age when we enjoy audacity for its own sake.
Gradually those bright eyes of his imagination, watching him from letters and from among the fourteen flies on the ceiling, had ceased to be centres of peace. They seemed like two whirlpools, wherein the order and quiet of his life were absorbed hourly and daily.
He still thought sometimes of the country house of his dreams and of the garden and the three gardeners, but somehow they had lost half their charm.
He had written to Howard and some others, and commenced, at last, a letter to Mary Carton. It lay unfinished on his desk; a thin coating of dust was gathering upon it.
Mrs. Leland called continually on Mrs. Sherman. She sentimentalized over the lovers, and even wept over them; each visit supplied the household with conversation for a week.
Every Sunday morning – his letter-writing time – Sherman looked at his uncompleted letter. Gradually it became plain to him he could not finish it. It had never seemed to him he had more than friendship for Mary Carton, yet somehow it was not possible to tell her of this love-affair.
The more his betrothed troubled him the more he thought about the unfinished letter. He was a man standing at the cross-roads.
Whenever the wind blew from the south he remembered his friend, for that is the wind that fills the heart with memory.
One Sunday he removed the dust from the face of the letter almost reverently, as though it were the dust from the wheels of destiny. But the letter remained unfinished.
One Wednesday in June Sherman arrived home an hour earlier than usual from his office, as his wont was the first Wednesday in every month, on which day his mother was at home to her friends. They had not many callers. To-day there was no one as yet but a badly-dressed old lady his mother had picked up he knew not where. She had been looking at his photograph album, and recalling names and dates from her own prosperous times. As she went out Miss Leland came in. She gave the old lady in passing a critical look that made the poor creature very conscious of a threadbare mantle, and went over to Mrs. Sherman, holding out both hands. Sherman, who knew all his mother’s peculiarities, noticed on her side a slight coldness; perhaps she did not altogether like this beautiful dragon-fly.
“I have come,” said Miss Leland, “to tell John that he must learn to paint. Music and society are not enough. There is nothing like art to give refinement.” Then turning to John Sherman – “My dear, I will make you quite different. You are a dreadful barbarian, you know.”
“What ails me, Margaret?”
“Just look at that necktie! Nothing shows a man’s cultivation like his necktie. Then your reading! You never read anything but old books nobody wants to talk about. I will lend you three every one has read this month. You really must acquire small talk and change your necktie.”
Presently she noticed the photograph-book lying open on a chair.
“Oh!” she cried, “I must have another look at John’s beauties.”
It was a habit of his to gather all manner of pretty faces. It came from incipient old bachelorhood, perhaps.
Margaret criticized each photo in turn with, “Ah! she looks as if she had some life in her!” or, “I do not like your sleepy eyelids,” or some such phrase. The mere relations were passed by without a word. One face occurred several times – a quiet face. As Margaret came on this one for the third time, Mrs. Sherman, who seemed a little resentful about something, said —
“That is his friend, Mary Carton.”
“He told me about her. He has a book she gave him. So that is she? How interesting! I pity these poor country people. It must be hard to keep from getting stupid.”
“My friend is not at all stupid,” said Sherman.
“Does she speak with a brogue? I remember you told me she was very good. It must be difficult to keep from talking platitudes when one is very good.”
“You are quite wrong about her. You would like her very much,” he replied.
“She is one of those people, I suppose, who can only talk about their relatives, or their families, or about their friends’ children: how this one has got the hooping-cough, and this one is getting well of the measles!” She kept swaying one of the leaves between her finger and thumb impatiently. “What a strange way she does her hair; and what an ugly dress!”
“You must not talk that way about her – she is my great friend.”
“Friend! friend!” she burst out. “He thinks I will believe in friendship between a man and a woman.”
She got up, and said, turning round with an air of changing the subject, “Have you written to your friends about our engagement? You had not done so when I asked you lately.”
“Well, not all.”
“Your great friend, Miss – what do you call her?”
“Miss Carton. I have not written to her.”
She tapped impatiently with her foot.
“They were really old companions – that is all,” said Mrs. Sherman, wishing to mend matters. “They were both readers; that brought them together. I never much fancied her. Yet she was well enough as a friend, and helped, maybe, with reading, and the gardening, and his good bringing-up, to keep him from the idle young men of the neighbourhood.”
“You must make him write and tell her at once – you must, you must!” almost sobbed out Miss Leland.
“I promise,” he answered.
Immediately returning to herself, she cried, “If I were in her place I know what I would like to do when I got the letter. I know who I would like to kill!” – this with a laugh as she went over, and looked at herself in the mirror over the mantlepiece.