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The decayed and disfranchised borough of Calcombe Pomeroy, or Calcombe-on-the-Sea, is one of the prettiest and quietest little out-of-the-way watering-places in the whole smiling southern slope of the county of Devon. Thank heaven, the Great Western Railway, when planning its organised devastations along the beautiful rural region of the South Hams, left poor little Calcombe out in the cold; and the consequence is that those few people who still love to linger in the uncontaminated rustic England of our wiser forefathers can here find a beach unspoiled by goat-carriages or black-faced minstrels, a tiny parade uninvaded by stucco terraces or German brass bands, and an ancient stone pier off which swimmers may take a header direct, in the early morning, before the sumptuary edicts of his worship the Mayor compel them to resort to the use of bathing-machines and the decent covering of an approved costume, between the hours of eight and eight. A board beside the mouth of the harbour, signed by a Secretary of State to his late Majesty King William the Fourth, still announces to a heedless world the tolls to be paid for entry by the ships that never arrive; and a superannuated official in a wooden leg and a gold cap-band retains the honourable sinecure of a harbour-mastership, with a hypothetical salary nominally payable from the non-existent fees and port dues. The little river Cale, at the bottom of whose combe the wee town nestles snugly, has cut itself a deep valley in the soft sandstone hills; and the gap in the cliffs formed by its mouth gives room for the few hundred yards of level on which the antiquated little parade is warmly ensconced. On either hand tall bluffs of brilliant red marl raise their honeycombed faces fronting the sea; and in the distance the sheeny grey rocks of the harder Devonian promontories gleam like watered satin in the slant rays of the afternoon sun. Altogether a very sleepy little old-world place is Calcombe Pomeroy, specially reserved by the overruling chance of the universe to be a summer retreat for quiet, peace-loving, old-world people.
The Londoner who escapes for a while from the great teeming human ant-hill, with its dark foggy lanes and solid firmament of hanging smoke, to draw in a little unadulterated atmosphere at Calcombe Pomeroy, finds himself landed by the Plymouth slow train at Calcombe Road Station, twelve miles by cross-country highway from his final destination. The little grey box, described in the time-tables as a commodious omnibus, which takes him on for the rest of his journey, crawls slowly up the first six miles to the summit of the intervening range at the Cross Foxes Inn, and jolts swiftly down the other six miles, with red hot drag creaking and groaning lugubriously, till it seems to topple over sheer into the sea at the clambering High Street of the old borough. As you turn to descend the seaward slope at the Cross Foxes, you appear to leave modern industrial England and the nineteenth century well behind you on the north, and you go down into a little isolated primaeval dale, cut off from all the outer world by the high ridge that girds it round on every side, and turned only on the southern front towards the open Channel and the backing sun. Half-way down the steep cobble-paved High Street, just after you pass the big dull russet church, a small shop on the left-hand side bears a signboard with the painted legend, 'Oswald, Family Grocer and Provision Dealer.' In the front bay window of that red-brick house, built out just over the shop, Harry Oswald, Fellow and Lecturer of Oriel College, Oxford, kept his big oak writing-desk; and at that desk he might be seen reading or writing on most mornings during the long vacation, after the end of his three weeks' stay at a London West-end lodging-house, from which he had paid his first visit to Max Schurz's Sunday evening receptions.
'Two pounds of best black tea, good quality--yours is generally atrocious, Mrs. Oswald--that's the next thing on the list,' said poor trembling, shaky Miss Luttrell, the Squire's sister, a palsied old lady with a quavering, querulous, rasping voice. 'Two pounds of best black tea, and mind you don't send it all dust, as you usually do. No good tea to be got nowadays, since they took the duties off and ruined the country. And I see a tall young man lounging about the place sometimes, and never touching his hat to me as he ought to do. Young people have no manners in these times, Mrs. Oswald, as they used to have when you and I were young. Your son, I suppose, come home from sea or something? He's in the fish-curing line, isn't he, I think I've heard you say?'
'I don't rightly know who 'ee may mean, Miss Luttrell,' replied the mother proudly, 'by a young man lounging about the place; but my son's at home from Oxford at present for his vacations, and he isn't in the fish-curing line at all, ma'am, but he's a Fellow of his college, as I've told 'ee more than once already; but you're getting old, I see, Miss Luttrell, and your memory isn't just what it had used to be, dost know.'
'Oh, at Oxford, is he?' Miss Luttrell chimed on vacantly, wagging her wrinkled old head in solemn deprecation of tke evil omen. She knew it as well as Mrs. Oswald herself did, having heard the fact at least a thousand times before; but she made it a matter of principle never to encourage these upstart pretensions on the part of the lower orders, and just to keep them rigorously at their proper level she always made a feint of forgetting any steps in advance which they might have been bold enough to take, without humbly obtaining her previous permission, out of their original and natural obscurity. 'Fellow of his college is he, really? Fellow of a college! Dear me, how completely Oxford is going to the dogs. Admitting all kinds of odd people into the University, I understand. Why, my second brother--the Archdeacon, you know--was a Fellow of Magdalen for some time in his younger days. You surprise me, quite. Fellow of a college! You're perfectly sure he isn't a National schoolmaster at Oxford instead, and that you and his father haven't got the two things mixed up together in your heads, Mrs. Oswald?'
'No, ma'am, we'in perfectly sure of it, and we haven't got the things mixed up in our heads at all, no more nor you have, Miss Luttrell. He was a scholar of Trinity first, and now he's got a Fellowship at Oriel. You must mind hearing all about it at the time, only you're getting so forgetful like now, with years and such like.' Mrs. Oswald knew there was nothing that annoyed the old lady so much as any allusion to her increasing age or infirmities, and she took her revenge out of her in that simple retributive fashion.
'A scholar of Trinity, was he? Ah, yes, patronage will do a great deal in these days, for certain. The Rector took a wonderful interest in your boy, I think, Mrs. Oswald. He went to Plymouth Grammar School, I remember now, with a nomination no doubt; and there, I dare say, he attracted some attention, being a decent, hard-working lad, and got sent to Oxford with a sizarship, or something of the sort; there are all kinds of arrangements like that at the Universities, I believe, to encourage poor young men of respectable character. They become missionaries or ushers in the end, and often get very good salaries, considering everything, I'm told.'
'There you're wrong, again, ma'am,' put in Mrs. Oswald, stoutly. 'My husband, he sent Harry to Plymouth School at our own expense; and after that he got an exhibition from the school, and an open scholarship, I think they call it, at the college; and he's been no more beholden to patronage, ma'am, than your brother the Archdeacon was, nor for the matter o' that not so much neither; for I've a'ways understood the old Squire sent him first to the Charterhouse, and afterwards he got a living through Lord Modbury's influence, as the Squire voted regular with the Modbury people for the borough and county. But George was always independent, Miss Luttrell, and beholden to neither Luttrells nor Modburies, and that I tell 'ee to your face, ma'am, and no shame of it either.'
'Well, well, Mrs. Oswald,' said the old lady, shaking her head more violently than ever at this direct discomfiture, 'I don't want to argue with you about the matter. I dare say your son's a very worthy young man, and has worked his way up into a position he wasn't intended for by Providence. But it's no business of mine, thank heaven, it's no business of mine, for I'm not responsible for all the vagaries of all the tradespeople on my brother's estate, nor don't want to be. There's Mrs. Figgins, now, the baker's wife; her daughter has just chosen to get married to a bank clerk in London; and I said to her this morning, "Well, Mrs. Figgins, so you've let your Polly go and pick up with some young fellow from town that you've never seen before, haven't you? And that's the way of all you people. You marry your girls to bank clerks without a reference, for the sake of getting 'em off your hands, and what's the consequence? They rob their employers to keep up a pretty household for their wives, as if they were fine ladies; and then at last the thing's discovered, there comes a smash, they run away to America, and you have your daughters and their children thrown back again penniless upon your hands." That's what I said to her, Mrs. Oswald. And how's your daughter, by the way--Jemima I think you call her; how's she, eh, tell me?'
'I beg your pardon, Miss Luttrell, but her name's not Jemima; it's Edith.'
'Oh, Edith, is it? Well to be sure! The grand names girls have dangling about with them nowadays! My name's plain Catherine, and it's good enough for me, thank goodness. But these young ladies of the new style must be Ediths and Eleanors and Ophelias, and all that heathenish kind of thing, as if they were princesses of the blood or play-actresses, instead of being good Christian Susans and Janes and Betties, like their grandmothers were before them. And Miss Edith, now, what is she doing?'
'She's doing nothing in particular at this moment, Miss Luttrell, leastways not so far as I know of; but she's going up to Oxford part of this term on a visit to her brother.'
'Going up to Oxford, my good woman! Why, heaven bless the girl, she'd much better stop at home and learn her catechism. She should try to do her duty in that station of life to which it has pleased Providence to call her, instead of running after young gentlemen above her own rank and place in society at Oxford. Tell her so 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 Theophile 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.'
'Theophile 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.'
'Theophile 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 if I were to take you up to Oxford badly dressed, or out of the fashion, or looking peculiar in any way, the world wouldn't put it down to our political beliefs, but would say we were mere country tradespeople by birth, and didn't know any better. That makes a lot of difference, you know.'
'You're quite right, Harry; and yet, do you know, I think there must be something, too, in sticking to one's own opinions, like Mr. Le Breton. I should stick to mine, I'm sure, and wear whatever dress I liked, in spite of anybody. It's a sweet thing, really, isn't it?' And she turned herself round, craning over her shoulder to look at the effect, in a vain attempt to assume an objective attitude towards her own back.
'I'm glad I'm going to Oxford at last, Harry,' she said, after a short pause. 'I have so longed to go all these years while you were an undergraduate; and I'm dying to have got there, now the chance has really come at last, after all. I shall glory in the place, I'm certain; and it'll be so nice to make the acquaintance of all your clever friends.'
'Well, Edie,' said her brother, smiling gently at the light, joyous, tremulous little figure, 'I think I've done right in putting it off till now. It's just as well you haven't gone up to Oxford till after your trip on the Continent with me. That three months in Paris, and Switzerland, and Venice, and Florence, did you a lot of good, you see; improved you, and gave you tone, and supplied you with things to talk about.'
'Why, you oughtn't to think I needed any improvement at all, sir,' Edie answered, pouting; 'and as to talking, I'm not aware I had ever any dearth of subjects for conversation even before I went on the Continent. There are things enough to be said about heaven and earth in England, surely, without one having to hurry through France and Italy, like Cook's excursionists, just to hunt up something fresh to chatter about. It's my belief that a person who can't find anything new to say about the every-day world around her won't discover much suggestive matter for conversation in a Continental Bradshaw. It's like that feeble watery lady I met at the table d'hote at Geneva. From something she said I gathered she'd been in India, and I asked her how she liked it. "Oh," she said, "it's very hot." I told her I had heard so before. Presently she said something casually about having been in Brazil. I asked her what sort of place Brazil was. "Oh." she said, "it's dreadfully hot." I told her I'd heard that too. By-and-by she began to talk again about Barbadoes. "What did you think of the West Indies?" I said. "Oh," said she, "they're terribly hot, really." I told her I had gathered as much from previous travellers. And that was positively all in the end I ever got out of her, for all her travels.'
'My dear Edie, I've always admitted that you were simply perfect,' Harry said, glancing at her with visible admiration, 'and I don't think anything on earth could possibly improve you--except perhaps a judicious course of differential and integral calculus, which might possibly serve to tone down slightly your exuberant and excessive vitality. Still, you know, from the point of view of society, which is a force we have always to reckon with--a constant, in fact, that we may call Pi--there can be no doubt in the world that to have been on the Continent is a differentiating factor in one's social position. It doesn't matter in the least what your own private evaluation of Pi may be; if you don't happen to know the particular things and places that Pi knows, Pi's evaluation of you will be approximately a minimum, of that you may be certain.'
'Well, for my part, I don't care twopence about Pi as you call it,' said Edie, tossing her pretty little head contemptuously; 'but I'm very glad indeed to have been on the Continent for my own sake, because of the pictures, and palaces, and mountains, and waterfalls we've seen, and not because of Pi's opinion of me for having seen them. I would have been the same person really whether I'd seen them or not; but I'm so much the richer myself for that view from the top of the Col de Balme, and for that Murillo--oh, do you remember the flood of light on that Murillo?--in the far corner of that delicious gallery at Bologna. Why, mother darling, what on earth has been vexing you?'
'Nothing at all, Edie dear; leastways, that is, nothing to speak of,' said her mother, coming up from the shop hot and flurried from her desperate encounter with the redoubtable Miss Luttrell.
'Oh, I know just what it is, darling,' cried the girl, putting her arm around her mother's waist caressingly, and drawing her down to kiss her face half a dozen times over in her outburst of sympathy. 'That horrid old Miss Catherine has been here again, I'm sure, for I saw her going out of the shop just now, and she's been saying something or other spiteful, as she always does, to vex my dearie. What did she say to you to-day, now do tell us, duckie mother?'
'Well, there,' said Mrs. Oswald, half laughing and half crying, 'I can't tell 'ee exactly what she did say, but it was just the kind of thing that she mostly does, impudent like, just to hurt a body's feelings. She said you'd better not go to Oxford, Edie, but stop at home and learn your catechism.'
'You might have pointed out to her, mother dear,' said the young man, smoothing her hair softly with his hand, and kissing her forehead, 'that in the most advanced intellectual centres the Church catechism is perhaps no longer regarded as the absolute ultimatum of the highest and deepest economical wisdom.'
'Bless your heart, Harry, what'd be the good of talking that way to the likes of she? She wouldn't understand a single word of what you were driving at. It must be all plain sailing with her, without it's in the way of spite, and then she sees her chance to tack round the hardest corner with half a wind in her sails only, as soon as look at it. Her sharpness goes all off toward ill-nature, that it do. Why, she said you'd got on at Oxford by good patronage!'
'There, you see, Edie,' cried Harry demonstratively, 'that's an infinitesimal fraction of Pi; that's a minute decimal of this great, sneering, ugly aggregate "society" that we have to deal with whether we will or no, and that rends us and grinds us to powder if only it can once get in the thin end of a chance. Take shaky bitter old Miss Catherine for your unit, multiply her to the nth, and there you see the irreducible power we have to fight against. All one's political economy is very well in its way; but the practical master of the situation is Pi, sitting autocratically in many-headed judgment on our poor solitary little individualities, and crushing us irretrievably with the dead weight of its inexorable cumulative nothingness. And to think that that quivering old mass of perambulating jealousy--that living incarnation of envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness--should be able to make you uncomfortable for a single moment, mother darling, with her petty, dribbling, doddering venom, why, it's simply unendurable.'
'There now, Harry,' said Mrs. Oswald, relenting, 'you mustn't be too hard, neither, on poor old Miss Catherine. She's a bit soured, you see, by disappointments and one thing and another. She doesn't mean it, really, but it's just her nature. Folks can't be blamed for their nature, now, can they?'
'It occurs to me,' said Harry quietly, 'that vipers only sting because it's their nature; and Dr. Watts has made a similar observation with regard to the growling and fighting of bears and lions. But I'm not aware that anybody has yet proposed to get up a Society for the protection of those much-misunderstood creatures, on the ground that they are not really responsible for their own inherited dispositions. Mr. William Sikes had a nature (no doubt congenital) which impelled him to beat his wife--I'm not sure that she was even his wife at all, now I come to think of it, but that's a mere detail--and to kick his familiar acquaintances casually about the head. We, on the other hand, have natures which impel us, when we catch Mr. William Sikes indulging in these innate idiosyncrasies by way of recreation, to clap him promptly into prison, and even, under certain aggravating conditions, to cause him to be hanged by the neck till he be dead. This may be a regrettable incident of our own peculiar dispositions, mother dear, but it has at least the same justification as Mr. Sikes's or the bears' and lions', that 'tis our nature to. And I feel pretty much the same way about old Miss Luttrell.'
'Well, there,' said his mother, kissing him gently, 'you're a bad rebellious boy to be calling names, like a chatter-mag, and I won't listen to you any longer. How pretty Edie do look in her new dress, to be sure, Harry. I'll warr'nt there won't be a prettier girl in Oxford next week than what she is; no, nor a better one and a sweeter one neither.'
Harry put his arms round both their waists at once, with an affectionate pressure; and they went down to their old-fashioned tea together in the little parlour behind the shop, looking out over the garden, and the beach, and the great cliffs beyond on either hand, to the very farthest edge of the distant clear-cut blue horizon.
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