Read CHAPTER VI of The Green Carnation , free online book, by Robert Smythe Hichens, on

Lady Locke and Lord Reggie were left alone together for the time.  Mrs. Windsor had gone into the cottage to write a note, asking the curate of Chenecote to dine the next day.  She always asked the curate to dine during the Surrey week.  She thought it made things so deliciously rustic.  Lord Reggie was still looking very tired, and eating a great many strawberries.  He did both mechanically, and as if he didn’t know he was doing them.  As Lady Locke glanced at him, she felt that he certainly fulfilled her expectations, so far as being cool and young went.  His round baby collar seemed to take off quite five years from his age, and his straw hat, with its black riband, suited him very well.  Only the glaring green carnation offended her sight.  She longed to ask him why he wore it.  But she felt she had no right to.  So she watched him looking tired and eating strawberries, until he glanced up at her with his pretty blue eyes.

“These strawberries are very good,” he said.  “I should finish them, only I hate finishing anything.  There is something so commonplace about it.  Don’t you think so?  Commonplace people are always finishing off things, and getting through things.  They map out their days, and have special hours for everything.  I should like to have special hours for nothing.  That would be much more original.”

“You are very fond of originality?”

“Are not you?”

“I don’t quite know.  Perhaps I have not met many original people in my life.  You see I have been out of England a great deal, and out of cities.  I have lived almost entirely among soldiers.”

“Soldiers are never original.  They think it is unmanly.  I once spent a week with the commander of one of our armies of occupation, and I never heard the same remarks so often in all my life.  They thought everything was an affectation.  Once, when I mentioned Matthew Arnold at the mess, they thought he was an affectation.”

“Oh, surely not.”

“They did, really.  I explained that he had been a school-inspector.  I thought that might reassure them.  But they evidently did not believe me.  They knew nothing about anything or anybody.  That would have been rather charming, only they thought they knew everything.”

“I think you must have been unfortunate in your experience.”

“Perhaps I was.  I know I tried to be manly.  I talked about Wilson Barrett.  What more could I do?  To talk about Wilson Barrett is generally supposed to show your appreciation of the heroic age.  Of course nobody thinks about him now.  But I was quite a failure.  I went to five dinner-parties, I remember, during that week, and we all conversed about machine-guns at each of them.  I felt as if the whole of life was a machine-gun, and men and women were all quick-firing parties.”

“I suppose we are most of us a little inclined to talk shop, as it is called.”

“But we ought to talk general shop, the shop in which everything is sold from Bibles to cheap cheese.  Only we might leave out the Bibles.  Mrs. Humphrey Ward has created a corner in them.”

“You have finished the strawberries after all.”

Reggie burst into an almost boyish laugh.

“So I have.  We none of us live up to our ideals, I suppose.  But really I have none.  I agree with Esme that nothing is so limited as to have an ideal.”

“And yet you look sometimes as if you might have many,” she said, as if half to herself.  The curious motherly feeling had come upon her again, a kind of tenderness that often leads to preaching.

Reggie glanced up at her quickly, and with a pleased expression.  A veiled tribute to his good looks delighted him, whether it came from man or woman.  Only an unveiled one surpassed it in his estimation.

“Ah! but that means nothing,” he said.  “It is quite a mistake to believe, as many people do, that the mind shows itself in the face.  Vice may sometimes write itself in lines and changes of contour, but that is all.  Our faces are really masks given to us to conceal our minds with.  Of course occasionally the mask slips partly off, generally when we are stupid and emotional.  But that is an inartistic accident.  Outward revelations of what is going on inside of us take place far more seldom than silly people suppose.  No more preposterous theory has ever been put forward than that of the artist revealing himself in his art.  The writer, for instance, has at least three minds his Society mind, his writing mind, and his real mind.  They are all quite separate and distinct, or they ought to be.  When his writing mind and his real mind get mixed up together, he ceases to be an artist.  That is why Swinburne has gone off so much.  If you want to write really fine erotic poetry, you must live an absolutely rigid and entirely respectable life.  The ‘Laus Veneris’ could only have been produced by a man who had a Nonconformist conscience.  I am certain that Mrs. Humphrey Ward is the most strictly orthodox Christian whom we have.  Otherwise, her books against the accepted Christianity could never have brought her in so many thousands of pounds.  I never read her, of course.  Life is far too long and lovely for that sort of thing; but a bishop once told me that she was a great artist, and that if she had a sense of gravity, she would rival George Eliot.  Dickens had probably no sense of humour.  That is why he makes second-rate people die of laughing.  Oscar Wilde was utterly mistaken when he wrote the ‘Picture of Dorian Gray.’  After Dorian’s act of cruelty, the picture ought to have grown more sweet, more saintly, more angelic in expression.”

“I never read that book.”

“Then you have gained a great deal.  Poor Oscar!  He is terribly truthful.  He reminds me so much of George Washington.”

“Shall we walk round the garden if you have really finished tea?” said Lady Locke, rising.  “What a delicious afternoon it is, so quiet, so detached from the rest of the year, as Mr. Amarinth might say.  I am glad to be away from London.  It is only habit that makes London endurable.”

“But surely habit makes nothing endurable.  Otherwise we should like politics, and get accustomed to the presence of solicitors in Society.”

“I do like politics,” Lady Locke said, laughing.  “How beautiful these roses are!  Ah, there is Tommy.  You don’t know my little boy, do you?” Tommy, in fact, now came bounding towards them along a rose alley.  His cheeks were flushed with excitement, and, as he drew nearer, they saw that his brown eyes were sparkling with a dimmed lustre behind a large pair of spectacles, that were set rakishly upon his straight little nose.

“My dear boy,” exclaimed his mother, “what on earth are you doing?  How hideous you are!”

“Harry Smith has lent them to me,” cried Tommy exultantly.  “He says I look splendid in them.”

“That is all very fine, but Harry Smith requires them, and you don’t.  His father won’t like it.  You must give them back, Tommy.  Shake hands with Lord Reginald Hastings.  He has come to stay here.”

Tommy shook hands scrutinisingly, and at once broke conversational ground with

“Do you know who the great Athanasius was?”

“He was an excellent person, who will always be widely known to fame for his omissions.  He did not write the Athanasian creed.  For that reason he will always be deserving of our respect.”

Tommy listened to these remarks with profound attention, and expressed himself very well satisfied with this addition to his youthful knowledge.  He thrust his hot hand into Lord Reggie’s with the artless remark

“You are more clever than Cousin Betty!” and invited him to join forthwith in a game of ball upon the bowling-green.  To Lady Locke’s surprise, Lord Reggie did not resist the alluring temptation, but ran off with the boy quite light-heartedly.  She stood watching them as they disappeared across the smooth, green lawn.

“I can’t understand him,” she thought to herself.  “He seems to be talented, and yet an echo of another man, naturally good-hearted, full of horrible absurdities, a gentleman, and yet not a man at all.  He says himself that he commits every sin that attracts him, but he does not look wicked.  What is he?  Is he being himself, or is he being Mr. Amarinth, or is he merely posing, or is he really hateful, or is he only whimsical, and clever, and absurd?  What would he have been if he had never seen Mr. Amarinth?”

She began vaguely to dislike Mr. Amarinth, vaguely to like Lord Reggie.  Her boy had taken a fancy to him, and she was an unreasonably motherly mother.  People who are unreasonably motherly like by impulse wholly very often, and hate by impulse.  Their mind has no why or wherefore with which to bolster up their heart.  She went slowly towards the cottage to dress for dinner, and all the time that she was walking, she continued, rather strenuously, to like Lord Reggie.

That evening, after dinner, there was music in the small drawing-room, which was exquisitely done up in Eastern style, with an arched roof, screens of wonderfully carved wood brought from Upper Egypt, Persian hangings and embroideries, divans and prayer rugs, on which nobody ever prayed.  Lord Reggie and Mr. Amarinth both played the piano in an easy, tentative sort of way, making excess of expression do duty for deficiencies of execution, and covering occasional mistakes with the soft rather than with the loud pedal.  Lord Reggie played a hymn of his own, which he frankly acknowledged was very beautiful.  He described it as a hymn without words, which, he said softly, all hymns should be.  There was archaic simplicity, not to say baldness, about it which sent Mrs. Windsor into exotic raptures, and, as it was exceedingly short, it made its definite mark.

There was a moon in the night, full, round, and serene, and the French windows stood open to the quiet garden.  The drawing-room was very dimly lighted, and as Reggie played, he was in shadow.  His white, sensitive face was only faintly to be seen.  It looked pure and young, Lady Locke thought, as she watched him.  He was so enamoured of his hymn that he played it over and over again, and, from his touch, it seemed as if he were trying to make the Steinway grand sound as much like a spinet as possible.

Madame Valtesi sat on a sofa with her long, slim feet supported upon an embroidered cushion.  She was smoking a cigarette with all the complete mastery of custom.  Mrs. Windsor stood near the window, idly following with her eyes the perambulations of Bung, who was flitting about the garden like a ghost with a curled tail and a turned-up nose.  Mr. Amarinth leaned largely upon the piano, in an attitude of rapt attention.  His clever, clean-shaved face wore an expression of seraphic sensuality.

Lady Locke listened quietly.  She had never heard any hymn so often before, and yet she did not feel bored.

At last Lord Reggie stopped, and said, “Esme, the curate comes to dine to-morrow.  Remember to be very sweet to him.  I want to play the organ on Sunday morning, and he must let us do an anthem.  I will compose one.  We can get up a choir practice on Friday night, if Mrs. Windsor does not mind.”

“Oh, charming!” Mrs. Windsor cried from the window.  “I love a choir practice above all things.  Choir boys are so pretty.  They must come to the practice in their nightgowns, of course.  I am sure Mr. Smith will be delighted.  But you must remember to be very high church to-morrow night.  Mr. Smith is terribly particular about that.”

“I don’t think I know how to be High Church,” said Madame Valtesi very gravely.  “Does one assume any special posture of body, or are one’s convictions to be shown only in attitude of mind?”

“Oh, there is no difficulty,” said Lord Reggie.  “All one has to do is to abuse the Evangelical party.  Speak disrespectfully of the Bishop of Liverpool, and say that Father Staunton and the Bishop of Lincoln are the only preachers of true doctrine in England.  The Ritualists are very easily pleased.  They put their faith in preachers and in postures.  If I were anything, I would be a Roman Catholic.”

“Should you like to confess all your sins?” asked Lady Locke, in some surprise.

“Immensely.  There is nothing so interesting as telling a good man or woman how bad one has been.  It is intellectually fascinating.  One of the greatest pleasures of having been what is called wicked is, that one has so much to say to the good.  Good people love hearing about sin.  Haven’t you noticed that although the sinner takes no sort of interest in the saint, the saint has always an uneasy curiosity about the doings of the sinner?  It is a case of the County Council and Zaeo’s back over and over again.”

“Yes, we love examining each other’s backs,” said Madame Valtesi.

Esme Amarinth sighed musically and very loudly, and remarked

“Faith is the most plural thing I know.  We are all supposed to believe in the same thing in different ways.  It is like eating out of the same dish with different coloured spoons.  And we beat each other with the spoons, like children.”

“And the dish gives us indigestion,” said Madame Valtesi.  “I once spent a week with an aunt who had taken to Litany, as other people take to dram-drinking, you know.  We went to Litany every day, and I never had so much dyspepsia before in my life.  Litany, taken often, is more indigestible than lobster at midnight.”

“How exquisite the moon is!” said Lady Locke, rising and going towards the window.

“The moon is the religion of the night,” said Esme.  “Go out into the garden all of you, and I will sing to you a song of the moon.  It is very beautiful.  I shall give it to Jean de Reszke, I think.  My voice will sound better from a distance.  Good voices always do.”

He sat down at the piano, and they strolled out through the French windows into the green and silent pleasaunce.

His voice was clear and open, and he spoke rather than sang the following verses, while they stood listening till the rippling accompaniment trickled away into silence:

    Oh! beautiful moon with the ghostly face,
      Oh! moon with the brows of snow,
    Rise up, rise up from your slumbering place,
      And draw from your eyes the veil,
    Lest my wayward heart should fail
      In the homage it fain would bestow
    Oh! beautiful moon with the ghostly face,
      Oh! moon with the brows of snow.

    Oh! beautiful mouth like a scarlet flow’r,
      Oh! mouth with the wild, soft breath,
    Kiss close, kiss close in the dream-stricken bow’r,
      And whisper away the world;
    Till the wayward wings are furled,
      And the shadow is lifted from death
    Oh! beautiful mouth like a scarlet flow’r,
      Oh! mouth with the wild, soft breath!

    Oh! beautiful soul with the outstretched hands,
      Oh! soul with the yearning eyes,
    Lie still, lie still in the fairy lands
      Where never a tear may fall;
    Where no voices ever call
      Any passion-act, strange or unwise
    Oh! beautiful soul with the outstretched hands,
      Oh! soul with the yearning eyes!

The song was uttered with so much apparent passion that Lady Locke felt tears standing in her eyes when the last words ceased on the cool air of the night.

“How beautiful,” she said involuntarily to Lord Reggie, who happened to be standing beside her.  “And how wrong!”

“Surely that is a contradiction in terms,” the boy said.  “Nothing that is beautiful can possibly be wrong.”

“Then how exquisitely right some women have been whom Society has hounded out of its good graces,” Madame Valtesi remarked.

“Yes,” said Reggie.  “And how exquisitely happy in their rectitude.”

“But not in their punishment,” said Mrs. Windsor.  “I think it is so silly to give people the chance of whipping you for what they do themselves.”

“Society only loves one thing more than sinning,” said Madame Valtesi, examining the moon magisterially through her tortoise shell eyeglass.

“And what is that?” said Lady Locke.

“Administering injustice.”