Read CHAPTER XXV of The Daughters of Danaus , free online book, by Mona Caird, on ReadCentral.com.

Hadria thought that Professor Theobald had not spoken at random, when he said that the sweetest tribute a woman can receive is that paid to her personal charm. This unwilling admission was dragged out of her by the sight of Valeria Du Prel, as the central figure of an admiring group, in the large drawing-room at Craddock Place.

She was looking handsome and animated, her white hair drawn proudly off her brow, and placed as if with intention beside the silken curtains, whose tint of misty pale green was so becoming to her beauty.

Valeria was holding her little court, and thoroughly enjoying the admiration.

“If we have had to live by our looks for all these centuries, surely the instinct that Professor Theobald thinks himself so penetrating to have discovered in clever women, is accounted for simply enough by heredity,” Hadria said to herself, resentfully.

Professor Theobald was bending over Miss Du Prel with an air of devotion. Hadria wished that she would not take his compliments so smilingly. Valeria would not be proof against his flattery. She kindled with a child’s frankness at praise. It stung Hadria to think of her friend being carelessly classed by the Professor among women whose weakness he understood and could play upon. He would imagine that he had discovered the mystery of the sun, because he had observed a spot upon it, not understanding the nature of the very spot. Granted that a little salve to one’s battered and scarified self-love was soft and grateful, what did that prove of the woman who welcomed it, beyond a human craving to keep the inner picture of herself as bright and fine as might be? The man who, out of contempt or irreverence, set a bait for the universal appetite proved himself, rather than his intended victim, of meagre quality. Valeria complimented him generously by supposing him sincere.

Occasional bursts of laughter came from her court. Professor Theobald looked furtively round, as if seeking some one, or watching the effect of his conduct on Mrs. Temperley.

Could he be trying to make her jealous of Valeria?

Hadria gave a sudden little laugh while Lord Engleton a shy, rather taciturn man was shewing her his wife’s last picture. Hadria had to explain the apparent discourtesy as best she could.

The picture was of English meadows at sunset.

“They are the meadows you see from your windows,” said Lord Engleton. “That village is Masham, with the spire shewing through the trees. I daresay you know the view pretty well.”

“I doubt,” she answered, with the instinct of extravagance that annoyed Hubert, “I doubt if I know anything else.”

Lord Engleton brought a portfolio full of sketches for her to see.

“Lady Engleton has been busy.”

As Hadria laid down the last sketch, her eyes wandered round the softly-lighted, dimly beautiful room, and suddenly she was seized with a swift, reasonless, overpowering sense of happiness that she felt to be atmospheric and parenthetical in character, but all the more keen for that reason, while it lasted. The second black inexorable semicircle was ready to enclose the little moment, but its contents had the condensed character of that which stands within limits, and reminded her, with a little sting, as of spur to horse, of her sharp, terrible aptitude for delight and her hunger for it. Why not, why not? What pinched, ungenerous philosophy was it that insisted on voluntary starvation? One saw its offspring in the troops of thin white souls that hurry, like ghosts, down the avenues of Life.

Again Professor Theobald’s stealthy glance was directed towards Mrs. Temperley.

“He is as determined to analyse me as if I were a chemical compound,” she said to herself.

“Perhaps we may as well join the group,” suggested Lord Engleton.

It opened to admit the new comers, disclosing Miss Du Prel, in a gown of pale amber brocade, enthroned upon a straight-backed antique sofa. The exquisiteness of the surroundings which Lady Engleton had a peculiar gift in arranging, the mellow candle-light, the flowers and colours, seem to have satisfied in Valeria an inborn love of splendour that often opened hungry and unsatisfied jaws.

She had never looked so brilliant or so handsome.

Professor Theobald’s face cleared. He explained to Mrs. Temperley that they had been discussing the complexity of human character, and had come to the conclusion that it was impossible to really understand even the simplest man or woman alive. Professor Theobald said that it was a dispensation of Providence which intended the human race for social life. Lady Engleton upbraided the author of the cynical utterance.

“Which of us can dare to face his own basest self?” the culprit demanded. “If any one is so bold, I fear I must accuse him (or even her) of lack of self-knowledge rather than give praise for spotlessness.”

“Oh, I don’t believe all these dreadful things about my fellows!” cried Miss Du Prel, flinging up her fine head defiantly; “one is likely to find in them more or less what one expects. It’s the same everywhere. If you go seeking mole-hills and worms, and put nose to ground on the scent for carrion, you will find them all, with the range of snow-capped Alps in full view, and the infinite of blue above your blind head!”

Hadria, in justice, could not refuse to acknowledge that Professor Theobald was open-minded.

“True,” he said, “it is dangerous to seek for evil, unless you naturally love it, and then

“You are past praying for,” said Professor Fortescue.

“Or at least you never pray,” added Hadria.

Both Professors looked at her, each with an expression of enquiry. It was difficult to understand from exactly what sources of experience or intuition the singular remark could have sprung.

The conversation took a slight swerve.

Professor Theobald contended that all our fond distinctions of vice and virtue, right and wrong, were mere praise and blame of conditions and events.

“We like to fancy the qualities of character inherent, while really they are laid on by slow degrees, like paint, and we name our acquaintance by the colour of his last coat.”

This view offended Miss Du Prel. Joseph Fleming and Lord Engleton rallied round her. Hubert Temperley joined them. Man, the sublime, the summit of the creation, the end and object of the long and painful processes of nature; sin-spotted perhaps, weak and stumbling, but still the masterpiece of the centuries was this great and mysterious creature to be thought of irreverently as a mere plain surface for paint? Only consider it! Professor Theobald’s head went down between his shoulders as he laughed.

“The sublime creature would not look well unpainted, believe me.”

“He dare not appear in that plight even to himself, if Theobald be right in what he stated just now,” said Professor Fortescue.

“Life to a character is like varnish to wood,” asserted Miss Du Prel; “it brings out the grain.”

“Ah!” cried Professor Theobald, “Then you insist on varnish, I on paint.”

“There is a difference.”

“And it affects your respective views throughout,” added Professor Fortescue, “for if the paint theory be correct, then it is true that to know one’s fellows is impossible, you can only know the upper coat; whereas if the truth lies in varnish, the substance of the nature is revealed to you frankly, if you have eyes to trace the delicacies of the markings, which tell the secrets of sap and fibre, of impetus and check: all the inner marvels of life and growth that go forward in that most botanic thing, the human soul.”

“Professor Fortescue is eloquent, but he makes one feel distressingly vegetable,” said Temperley.

“Oh! not unless one has a human soul,” Lady Engleton reassured him.

“Am I to understand that you would deprive me of mine?” he asked, with a courtly bow.

“Not at all; souls are private property, or ought to be.”

“I wish one could persuade the majority of that!” cried Professor Fortescue.

“Impossible,” said Theobald. “The chief interest of man is the condition of his neighbour’s soul.”

“Could he not be induced to look after his own?” Hadria demanded.

“All fun would be over,” said Professor Fortescue.

“I wish one could have an Act of Parliament, obliging every man to leave his neighbour’s soul in peace.”

“You would sap the very source of human happiness and enterprise,” Professor Fortescue asserted, fantastically.

“I should be glad if I could think the average human being had the energy to look after any business; even other people’s!” cried Lady Engleton.

“I believe that, as a matter of fact, the soul is a hibernating creature,” said Theobald, with a chuckle.

“It certainly has its drowsy winters,” observed Hadria.

“Ah! but its spring awakenings!” cried Miss Du Prel.

The chime of a clock startled them with its accusation of lingering too long. The hostess remonstrated at the breaking up the party. Why should they hurry away?

“The time when we could lay claim to have ‘hurried’ has long since passed, Lady Engleton,” said Hubert, “we can only plead forgiveness by blaming you for making us too happy.”

Professor Theobald went to the window. “What splendid moonlight! Lady Engleton, don’t you feel tempted to walk with your guests to the end of the avenue?”

The idea was eagerly adopted, and the whole party sallied forth together into the brilliant night. Long black shadows of their forms stalked on before them, as if, said Valeria, they were messengers from Hades come to conduct each his victim to the abode of the shades.

Professor Theobald shuddered.

“I hate that dreadful chill idea of the Greeks. I have much too strong a hold on this pleasant earth to relish the notion of that gloomy under-world yet a while. What do you say, Mrs. Temperley?”

She made some intentionally trite answer.

Professor Theobald’s quick eyes discovered a glow-worm, and he shouted to the ladies to come and see the little green lantern of the spring. The mysterious light was bright enough to irradiate the blades of grass around it, and even to cast a wizard-like gleam on the strange face of the Professor as he bent down close to the ground.

“Fancy being a lamp to oneself!” cried Lady Engleton.

“It’s as much as most of us can do to be a lamp to others,” commented Hadria.

“Some one has compared the glow-worm’s light to Hero’s, when she waited, with trimmed lamp, for her Leander,” said Professor Theobald. “Look here, Mr. Fleming, if you stoop down just here, you will be able to see the little animal.” The Professor resigned his place to him. When Joseph rose from his somewhat indifferent survey of the insect, Professor Theobald had established himself at Mrs. Temperley’s right hand, and the rest of the party were left behind.

“Talking of Greek ideas,” said the Professor, “that wonderful people perceived more clearly than we Christians have ever done, with all our science, the natural forces of Nature. What we call superstitions were really great scientific intuitions or prophecies. Of course I should not dare to speak in this frank fashion to the good people of Craddock Dene, but to you I need not be on my guard.”

“I appreciate your confidence.”

“Ah, now, Mrs. Temperley, you are unkind. It is of no use for you to try to persuade me that you are of as well as in the village of Craddock Dene.”

“I have never set out upon that task.”

“Again I offend!”

Hadria, dropping the subject, enquired whether the Professor was well acquainted with this part of the country.

He knew it by heart. A charming country; warm, luxuriant, picturesque, the pick of England to his mind. What could beat its woodlands, its hills, its relics of the old world, its barns and churches and smiling villages?

“Then it is not only Tudor mansions that attract you?” Hadria could not resist asking.

Tudor mansions? There was no cottage so humble, provided it were picturesque, that did not charm him.

“Really!” exclaimed Hadria, with a faintly emphasized surprise.

“Have I put my luckless foot into it again?”

“May I not be impressed by magnanimity?”

The Professor’s mouth shut sharply.

“Mrs. Temperley is pleased to deride me. Craddock Dene must shrivel under destroying blasts like these.”

“Not so much as one might think.”

The sound of their steps on the broad avenue smote sharply on their ears. Their absurd-looking shadows stretched always in front of them. “A splendid night,” Hadria observed, to break the silence.

“Glorious!” returned her companion, as if waking from thought.

“Spring is our best season here, the time of blossoming.”

“I am horribly tempted to take root in the lovely district, in the hope of also blossoming. Can you imagine me a sort of patriarchal apple-tree laden with snowy blooms?”

“You somewhat burden my imagination.”

“I have had to work hard all my life, until an unexpected legacy from an admirable distant relation put me at the end of a longer tether. I still have to work, but less hard. I have always tried not to ossify, keeping in view a possible serene time to come, when I might put forth blossoms in this vernal fashion that tempts my middle-aged fancy. And where could I choose a sweeter spot for these late efforts to be young and green, than here in this perfect south of England home?”

“It seems large,” said Hadria.

Professor Theobald grinned. “You don’t appear to take a keen interest in my blossoming.”

Why in heaven’s name should she?

“I cannot naturally expect it,” Professor Theobald continued, reading her silence aright, “but I should be really obliged by your counsel on this matter. You know the village; you know from your own experience whether it is a place to live in always. Advise me, I beg.”

“Really, Professor Theobald, it is impossible for me to advise you in a matter so entirely depending on your own taste and your own affairs.”

“You can at least tell me how you like the district yourself; whether it satisfies you as to society, easy access of town, influence on the mind and the spirits, and so forth.”

“We are considered well off as to society. There are a good many neighbours within a radius of five miles; the trains to town are not all that could be wished. There are only two in the day worth calling such.”

“And as to its effect upon the general aspect of life; is it rousing, cheering, inspiring, invigorating?”

Hadria gave a little laugh. “I must refer you to other inhabitants on this point. I think Lady Engleton finds it fairly inspiring.”

“Lady Engleton is not Mrs. Temperley.”

“I doubt not that same speech has already done duty as a compliment to Lady Engleton.”

“You are incorrigible!”

“I wish you would make it when she is present,” said Hadria, “and see us both bow!” The Professor laughed delightedly.

“I don’t know what social treasures may be buried within your radius of five miles, but the mines need not be worked. An inhabitant of the Priory would not need them. Mrs. Temperley is a society in herself.”

“An inhabitant of the Priory might risk disappointment, in supposing that Mrs. Temperley had nothing else to do than to supply her neighbours with society.”

The big jaw closed, with a snap.

“I don’t think, on the whole, that I will take the Priory,” he said, after a considerable pause; “it is, as you say, large.”

Mrs. Temperley made no comment.

“I suppose I should be an unwelcome neighbour,” he said, with a sigh.

“I fear any polite assurance, after such a challenge, would be a poor compliment. As for entreating you to take the Priory, I really do not feel equal to the responsibility.”

“I accept in all humility,” said the Professor, as he opened the gate of the Red House, “a deserved reproof.”