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Chapter 5

"GOOD SOCIETY."


We had agreed, rather against the inclination of both of us, to dine the next evening with the Morleys. We should have preferred our own society, but we could not refuse.

"They will be talking to me about my pictures," said my husband, "and that is just what I hate. People that know nothing of art, that can't distinguish purple from black, will yet parade their ignorance, and expect me to be pleased."

"Mr. Morley is a well-bred man, Percivale," I said.

"That's the worst of it,--they do it for good manners; I know the kind of people perfectly. I hate to have my pictures praised. It is as bad as talking to one's face about the nose upon it."

I wonder if all ladies keep their husbands waiting. I did that night, I know, and, I am afraid, a good many times after,--not, however, since Percivale told me very seriously that being late for dinner was the only fault of mine the blame of which he would not take on his own shoulders. The fact on this occasion was, that I could not get my hair right. It was the first time I missed what I had been used to, and longed for the deft fingers of my mother's maid to help me. When I told him the cause, he said he would do my hair for me next time, if I would teach him how. But I have managed very well since without either him or a lady's-maid.

When we reached Bolivar Square, we found the company waiting; and, as if for a rebuke to us, the butler announced dinner the moment we entered. I was seated between Mr. Morley and a friend of his who took me down, Mr. Baddeley, a portly gentleman, with an expanse of snowy shirt from which flashed three diamond studs. A huge gold chain reposed upon his front, and on his finger shone a brilliant of great size. Every thing about him seemed to say, "Look how real I am! No shoddy about me!" His hands were plump and white, and looked as if they did not know what dust was. His talk sounded very rich, and yet there was no pretence in it. His wife looked less of a lady than he of a gentleman, for she betrayed conscious importance. I found afterwards that he was the only son of a railway contractor, who had himself handled the spade, but at last died enormously rich. He spoke blandly, but with a certain quiet authority which I disliked.

"Are you fond of the opera, Mrs. Percivale?" he asked me in order to make talk.

"I have never been to the opera," I answered.

"Never been to the opera? Ain't you fond of music?"

"Did you ever know a lady that wasn't?"

"Then you must go to the opera."

"But it is just because I fancy myself fond of music that I don't think I should like the opera."

"You can't hear such music anywhere else."

"But the antics of the singers, pretending to be in such furies of passion, yet modulating every note with the cunning of a carver in ivory, seems to me so preposterous! For surely song springs from a brooding over past feeling,--I do not mean lost feeling; never from present emotion."

"Ah! you would change your mind after having once been. I should strongly advise you to go, if only for once. You ought now, really."

"An artist's wife must do without such expensive amusements,--except her husband's pictures be very popular indeed. I might as well cry for the moon. The cost of a box at the opera for a single night would keep my little household for a fortnight."

"Ah, well! but you should see 'The Barber,'" he said.

"Perhaps if I could hear without seeing, I should like it better," I answered.

He fell silent, busying himself with his fish, and when he spoke again turned to the lady on his left. I went on with my dinner. I knew that our host had heard what I said, for I saw him turn rather hastily to his butler.

Mr. Morley is a man difficult to describe, stiff in the back, and long and loose in the neck, reminding me of those toy-birds that bob head and tail up and down alternately. When he agrees with any thing you say, down comes his head with a rectangular nod; when he does not agree with you, he is so silent and motionless that he leaves you in doubt whether he has heard a word of what you have been saying. His face is hard, and was to me then inscrutable, while what he said always seemed to have little or nothing to do with what he was thinking; and I had not then learned whether he had a heart or not. His features were well formed, but they and his head and face too small for his body. He seldom smiled except when in doubt. He had, I understood, been very successful in business, and always looked full of schemes.

"Have you been to the Academy yet?" he asked.

"No; this is only the first day of it."

"Are your husband's pictures well hung?"

"As high as Haman," I answered; "skied, in fact. That is the right word, I believe."

"I would advise you to avoid slang, my dear cousin,--professional slang especially; and to remember that in London there are no professions after six o clock."

"Indeed!" I returned. "As we came along in the carriage,--cabbage, I mean,--I saw no end of shops open."

"I mean in society,--at dinner,--amongst friends, you know."

"My dear Mr. Morley, you have just done asking me about my husband's pictures; and, if you will listen a moment, you will hear that lady next my husband talking to him about Leslie and Turner, and I don't know who more,--all in the trade."

"Hush! hush! I beg," he almost whispered, looking agonized. "That's Mrs. Baddeley. Her husband, next to you, is a great picture-buyer. That's why I asked him to meet you."

"I thought there were no professions in London after six o'clock."

"I am afraid I have not made my meaning quite clear to you."

"Not quite. Yet I think I understand you."

"We'll have a talk about it another time."

"With pleasure."

It irritated me rather that he should talk to me, a married woman, as to a little girl who did not know how to behave herself; but his patronage of my husband displeased me far more, and I was on the point of committing the terrible blunder of asking Mr. Baddeley if he had any poor relations; but I checked myself in time, and prayed to know whether he was a member of Parliament. He answered that he was not in the house at present, and asked in return why I had wished to know. I answered that I wanted a bill brought in for the punishment of fraudulent milkmen; for I couldn't get a decent pennyworth of milk in all Camden Town. He laughed, and said it would be a very desirable measure, only too great an interference with the liberty of the subject. I told him that kind of liberty was just what law in general owed its existence to, and was there on purpose to interfere with; but he did not seem to see it.

The fact is, I was very silly. Proud of being the wife of an artist, I resented the social injustice which I thought gave artists no place but one of sufferance. Proud also of being poor for Percivale's sake, I made a show of my poverty before people whom I supposed, rightly enough in many cases, to be proud of their riches. But I knew nothing of what poverty really meant, and was as yet only playing at being poor; cherishing a foolish, though unacknowledged notion of protecting my husband's poverty with the ęgis of my position as the daughter of a man of consequence in his county. I was thus wronging the dignity of my husband's position, and complimenting wealth by making so much of its absence. Poverty or wealth ought to have been in my eyes such a trifle that I never thought of publishing whether I was rich or poor. I ought to have taken my position without wasting a thought on what it might appear in the eyes of those about me, meeting them on the mere level of humanity, and leaving them to settle with themselves how they were to think of me, and where they were to place me. I suspect also, now that I think of it, that I looked down upon my cousin Judy because she had a mere man of business for her husband; forgetting that our Lord had found a collector of conquered taxes,--a man, I presume, with little enough of the artistic about him,--one of the fittest in his nation to bear the message of his redemption to the hearts of his countrymen. It is his loves and his hopes, not his visions and intentions, by which a man is to be judged. My father had taught me all this; but I did not understand it then, nor until years after I had left him.

"Is Mrs. Percivale a lady of fortune?" asked Mr. Baddeley of my cousin Judy when we were gone, for we were the first to leave.

"Certainly not. Why do you ask?" she returned.

"Because, from her talk, I thought she must be," he answered.

Cousin Judy told me this the next day, and I could see she thought I had been bragging of my family. So I recounted all the conversation I had had with him, as nearly as I could recollect, and set down the question to an impertinent irony. But I have since changed my mind: I now judge that he could not believe any poor person would joke about poverty. I never found one of those people who go about begging for charities believe me when I told him the simple truth that I could not afford to subscribe. None but a rich person, they seem to think, would dare such an excuse, and that only in the just expectation that its very assertion must render it incredible.


George MacDonald