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

“Well, what would you all like to do with yourselves to-day?” asked Mrs. Windsor on the following morning after breakfast, which was over at half-past ten, for they all got up early as a mark of respect to the country air; and indeed, Mr. Amarinth declared that he had been awake before five, revelling in the flame-coloured music of the farmyard cocks.

“I should like to go out shopping,” remarked Madame Valtesi, who was dressed in a white serge dress, figured with innocent pink flowers.

“But, my dear, there are no shops!”

“There is always a linen-draper’s in every village,” said Madame Valtesi; “and a grocer’s.”

“But what would you buy there?”

“That is just what I wish to know.  May I have the governess cart?  I want to try and feel like a governess.”

“Of course.  I will order it.  Will you drive yourself?”

“Oh no, I am too blind.  Lady Locke, won’t you come with me?  I am sure you can drive.  I can always tell by looking at people what they can do.  I could pick you out a dentist from a crowd of a hundred people.”

“Or a driver?” said Lady Locke.  “I think I can manage the white pony.  Yes, I will come with pleasure.”

“I shall go into the drawing-room and compose my anthem for Sunday,” said Lord Reggie.  “I am unlike Saint Saens.  I always compose at the piano.”

“And I will go into the rose-garden,” said Esme, “and eat pink roses.  There is nothing more delicious than a ripe La France.  May I, Mrs. Windsor?  Please don’t say ‘this is liberty hall,’ or I shall think of Mr. Alexander, the good young manager who never dies but may I?”

“Do.  And compose some Ritualistic epigrams to say to Mr. Smith to-night.  How delightfully rustic we all are!  So naïve!  I am going to order dinner, and add up the household accounts for yesterday.”

She rustled away with weary grace, rattling delicately a large bunch of keys that didn’t open any thing in particular.  They were a part of her get up as a country hostess.

A few moments later some simple chords, and the sound of a rather obvious sequence, followed by intensely Handelian runs, announced that Lord Reggie had begun to compose his anthem, and Madame Valtesi and Lady Locke were mounting into the governess cart, which was rather like a large hip bath on wheels.  They sat opposite to each other upon two low seats, and Lady Locke drove sideways.

As they jogged along down the dusty country road, between the sweet smelling flowery banks, Madame Valtesi said

“Do governesses always drive in tubs?  Is it part of the system?”

“I don’t know,” answered Lady Locke, looking at the hunched white figure facing her, and at the little shrewd eyes peering from beneath the shade of the big and aggressively garden hat.  “What system do you mean?”

“The English governess system; simple clothes, no friends, no society, no money, no late dinner, supper at nine, all the talents, and bed at ten whether you are inclined to sleep or not.  Do they invariably go about in tubs as well?”

“I suppose very often.  These carts are always called governess carts.”

Madame Valtesi nodded enigmatically.

“I am glad I have never had to be a governess,” said Lady Locke thoughtfully.  “From a worldly point of view, I suppose I have been born under a lucky star.”

“There is no such thing as luck in the world,” Madame Valtesi remarked, putting up a huge white parasol that abruptly extinguished the view for miles.  “There is only capability.”

“But some capable people are surely unlucky.”

“They are incapable in one direction or another.  Have you not noticed that whenever a man is a failure his friends say he is an able man.  No man is able who is unable to get on, just as no woman is clever who can’t succeed in obtaining that worst, and most necessary, of evils a husband.”

“You are very cynical,” said Lady Locke, flicking the pony’s fat white back with the whip.

“All intelligent people are.  Cynicism is merely the art of seeing things as they are instead of as they ought to be.  If one says that Christianity has never converted the Christians, or that love has ruined more women than hate, or that virtue is an accident of environment, one is sure to be dubbed a cynic.  And yet all these remarks are true to absolute absurdity.”

“I scarcely think so.”

“But, then, you have been in the Straits Settlements for eight years.  They are true in London.  And there are practically not more than about five universal truths in the world.  One must always locate a truth if one wishes to be understood.  What is true in London is often a lie in the country.  I believe that there are still many good Christians in the country, but they are only good Christians because they are in the country most of them.  Our virtues are generally a fortunate, or unfortunate, accident, and the same may be said of our vices.  Now, think of Lord Reggie.  He is one of the most utterly vicious young men of the day.  Why?  Because, like the chameleon, he takes his colour from whatever he rests upon, or is put near.  And he has been put near scarlet instead of white.”

Lady Locke felt a strange thrill of pain at her heart.

“I am sure Lord Reggie has a great deal of good in him!” she exclaimed.

“Not enough to spoil his charm,” said Madame Valtesi.  “He has no real intention of being either bad or good.  He lives like Esme Amarinth, merely to be artistic.”

“But what in Heaven’s name does that word mean?” asked Lady Locke.  “It seems almost the only modern word.  I hear it everywhere like a sort of refrain.”

“I cannot tell you.  I am too old.  Ask Lord Reggie.  He would tell you anything.”

The last words were spoken with slow intention.

“What do you mean?” said Lady Locke hastily.

“Here we are at the post-office.  Would it not be the proper thing to do to get some stamps?  No?  Then let us stop at the linen-draper’s.  I feel a strong desire to buy some village frilling.  And there are some deliciously coarse-looking pocket-handkerchiefs in the window, about a yard square.  I must get a dozen of those.”

At lunch that day Lord Reggie announced that he had composed a beautiful anthem on the words

“Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely; thy temples are like a piece of pomegranate within thy locks.”

“They sound exactly like something of Esme’s,” he said, “but really they are taken from the ‘Song of Solomon.’  I had no idea that the Bible was so intensely artistic.  There are passages in the Book of Job that I should not be ashamed to have written.”

“You remind me of a certain lady writer who is very popular in kitchen circles,” said Esme, “and whose husband once told me that she had founded her style upon Mr. Ruskin and the better parts of the Bible.  She brings out about seven books every year, I am told, and they are all about sailors, of whom she knows absolutely nothing.  I am perpetually meeting her, and she always asks me to lunch, and says she knows my brother.  She seems to connect my poor brother with lunch in some curious way.  I shall never lunch with her, but she will always ask me.”

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” Mrs. Windsor said, with a little air of aptness.

“That is one of the greatest fallacies of a melancholy age,” Esme answered, arranging the huge moonstone in his tie with a plump hand; “suicide would be the better word.  ‘The Second Mrs. Tanqueray’ has made suicide quite the rage.  A number of most respectable ladies, without the vestige of a past among them, have put an end to themselves lately, I am told.  To die naturally has become most unfashionable, but no doubt the tide will turn presently.”

“I wonder if people realise how dangerous they may be in their writings,” said Lady Locke.

“One has to choose between being dangerous and being dull.  Society loves to feel itself upon the edge of a precipice, I assure you.  To be harmless is the most deadly enemy to social salvation.  Strict respectability would even handicap a rich American nowadays, and rich Americans are terribly respectable by nature.  That is why they are always so anxious to get into the Prince of Wales’ set.”

“I suppose Ibsen is responsible for a good deal,” Mrs. Windsor said rather vaguely.  Luncheon always rendered her rather vague, and after food her intellect struggled for egress, as the sun struggles to emerge from behind intercepting clouds.

“I believe Mr. Clement Scott thinks so,” said Amarinth; “but then it does not matter very much what Mr. Clement Scott thinks, does it?  The position of the critics always strikes me as very comic.  They are for ever running at the back of public opinion, and shouting ‘come on!’ or ‘go back!’ to those who are in front of them.  If half of them had their way, our young actors and actresses would play in Pinero’s pieces as Mrs. Siddons or Charles Kean played in the pieces of Shakespeare long ago.  A good many of them found their claims to attention on the horrible fact that they once knew Charles Dickens, a circumstance of which they ought rather to be ashamed.  They are monotonous dwellers in an unenlightened past like Mr. Sala, who is even more commonplace than the books of which he is for ever talking.  Mr. Joseph Knight is their oracle at first nights, and some of them even labour under the wild impression that Mr. Robert Buchanan can write good English, and that Mr. George R. Sims what would he be without the initial? is a minor poet.”

“Dear me!  I am afraid we are all wrong,” said Mrs. Windsor, still rather vaguely; “but do you know, we ought really to be thinking of our walk up Leith Hill.  It is a lovely afternoon.  Will you attempt it, Madame Valtesi?”

“No, thank you.  I think I must have been constructed, like Providence, with a view to sitting down.  Whoever thinks of the Deity as standing?  I will stay at home and read the last number of ‘The Yellow Disaster.’  I want to see Mr. Aubrey Beardsley’s idea of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He has drawn him sitting in a wheelbarrow in the gardens of Lambeth Palace, with underneath him the motto, ‘J’y suis, j’y reste.’  I believe he has on a black mask.  Perhaps that is to conceal the likeness.”

“I have seen it,” Mrs. Windsor said; “it is very clever.  There are only three lines in the whole picture, two for the wheelbarrow and one for the Archbishop.”

“What exquisite simplicity!” said Lord Reggie, going out into the hall to get his straw hat.

In the evening, when they assembled in the drawing-room for dinner, it was found that both Mrs. Windsor and Madame Valtesi had put on simple black dresses in honour of the curate.  Lady Locke, although she never wore widow’s weeds, had given up colours since her husband’s death.  As they waited for Mr. Smith’s advent there was an air of decent expectation about the party.  Mr. Amarinth looked serious to heaviness.  Lord Reggie was pale, and seemed abstracted.  Probably he was thinking of his anthem, whose tonic and dominant chords, and diatonic progressions, he considered most subtly artistic.  He would like to have written in the Lydian mode, only he could not remember what the Lydian mode was, and he had forgotten to bring any harmony book with him.  He glanced into the mirror over the fireplace, smoothed his pale gold hair with his hand, and prepared to be very sweet to the curate in order to obtain possession of the organ on the ensuing Sunday.

“Mr. Smith,” said one of the tall footmen, throwing open the drawing-room, and a tall, thin, ascetic looking man, with a shaved, dark face, and an incipient tonsure, entered the room very seriously.

“Dinner is served.”

The two announcements followed one upon the other almost without a pause.  Mrs. Windsor requested the curate to take her in, after introducing him to her guests in the usual rather muddled and perfunctory manner.  When they were all seated, and Mr. Amarinth was beginning to hold forth over the clear soup, she murmured confidentially to her companion

“So good of you to take pity upon us.  You will not find us very gay.  We are really down here to have a quiet, serious week a sort of retreat, you know.  Mr. Amarinth is holding it.  I hope nobody will have a fit this time.  Ah! of course you did not come last year.  Do you like Chenecote?  A sweet village, isn’t it?”

“Very sweet indeed, outwardly.  But I fear there is a good deal to be done inwardly; much sweeping and scouring of minds before the savour of the place will be quite acceptable on high.”

“Dear me!  I am sorry to hear that.  One can never tell, of course.”

“I have put a stop to a good deal already, I am thankful to say.  I have broken up the idle corners permanently, and checked the Sunday evening rowdyism upon the common.”

“Indeed!  I am so glad.  Mr. Smith has broken up the idle corners, Madame Valtesi.  Is it not a mercy?”

Madame Valtesi looked enigmatical, as indeed she always did when she was ignorant.  She had not the smallest idea what an idle corner might be, nor how it could be broken up.  She therefore peered through her eyeglasses and said nothing.  Mr. Amarinth was less discreet.

“An idle corner,” he said.  “What a delicious name.  It might have been invented by Izaac Walton.  It suggests a picture by George Morland.  I love his canvases, rustics carousing ”

But before he could get any further, Reggie caught his eye and formed silently with his lips the words, “Remember my anthem.”

“He idealises so much,” Amarinth went on easily.  “Of course a real carouse is horribly inartistic.  Excess always is, although Oscar Wilde has said that nothing succeeds like it.”

“Excess is very evil,” Mr. Smith said rather rigidly.  “Excess in everything seems to be characteristic of our age.  I could wish that many would return to the ascetic life.  No wine, thank you.”

“Indeed, yes,” said Mrs. Windsor, “that is what I always think.  There is something so beautiful in not eating and drinking, and not marrying, and all that; but at least we must acknowledge that celibacy is quite coming into fashion.  Our young men altogether refuse to marry nowadays.  Let us hope that is a step in the right direction.”

“If they married more and drank less, I don’t fancy their morals would suffer much,” Madame Valtesi remarked with exceeding dryness, looking at Mr. Smith’s budding tonsure through her tortoise-shell eyeglass.

“The monastic life is very beautiful,” said Lord Reggie.  “I always find when I go to a monastery, that the monks give me very excellent wine.  I suppose they keep all their hair shirts for their own private use.”

“That is the truest hospitality, isn’t it,” said Lady Locke.

“The high church party are showing us the right way,” Mr. Amarinth remarked impressively, with a side-anthem glance at Lord Reggie which spoke volumes.  “They understand the value of aestheticism in religion.  They recognise the fact that a beautiful vestment uplifts the soul far more than a dozen bad chants by Stainer, or Barnby, or any other unmusical Christian.  The average Anglican chant is one of the most unimaginative, unpoetical things in the world.  It always reminds me of the cart-horse parade on Whit Monday.  A brown Gregorian is so much more devotional.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. Smith, who had been listening to these remarks with acquiescence, but who now manifested some obvious confusion.

“A brown Gregorian,” Mr. Amarinth repeated.  “All combinations of sounds convey a sense of colour to the mind.  Gregorians are obviously of a rich and sombre brown, just as a Salvation Army hymn is a violent magenta.”

“I think the Bishops are beginning to understand Gregorian music a little better.  No plover’s eggs, thank you,” said Mr. Smith, who was totally without a sense of melody, but who assumed a complete musical authority, based on the fact that he intoned in church.

“The Bishops never go on understanding anything,” said Mr. Amarinth.  “They conceal their intelligence, if they have any, up their lawn sleeves.  I once met a Bishop.  It was at a garden party at Lambeth Palace.  He took me aside into a small shrubbery, and informed me that he was really a Buddhist.  He added that nearly all the Bishops were.”

“Is it true that Mr. Haweis introduced his congregation to a Mahatma in the vestry after service last Sunday?” said Madame Valtesi.  “I heard so, and that he has persuaded Little Tich to read the lessons for the rest of the season.  I think it is rather hard upon the music halls.  There is really so much competition nowadays!”

“I know nothing about Mr. Haweis,” said Mr. Smith, drinking some water from a wineglass.  “I understood he was a conjurer, or an entertainer, or something of that kind.”

“Oh no, he is quite a clergyman,” exclaimed Mrs. Windsor.  “Quite; except when he is in the pulpit, of course.  And then I suppose he thinks it more religious to drop it.”

“Since I have been away there has been a great change in services,” said Lady Locke.  “They are so much brighter and more cheerful.”

“Yes, Christians are getting very lively,” said Madame Valtesi, helping herself to a cutlet in aspic.  “They demand plenty of variety in their devotional exercises, and what Arthur Roberts, or somebody, calls ’short turns.’  The most popular of all the London clergymen invariably has an anthem that lasts half-an-hour, and preaches for five minutes by a stop watch.”

“I scarcely think that music should entirely oust doctrine,” began Mr. Smith, refusing an entree with a gentle wave of his hand.

“The clergyman I sit under,” said Mrs. Windsor, “always stops for several minutes before his sermon, so that the people can go out if they want to.”

“How inconsiderate,” said Mr. Amarinth; “of course no one dares to move.  English people never dare to move, except at the wrong time.  They think it is less noticeable to go out at a concert during a song than during an interval.  The English labour under so many curious delusions.  They think they are respectable, for instance, if they are not noticed, and that to be talked about is to be fast.  Of course the really fast people are never talked about at all.  Half the young men in London, whose names are by-words, are intensely and hopelessly virtuous.  They know it, and that is why they look so pale.  The consciousness of virtue is a terrible thing, is it not, Mr. Smith?”

“I am afraid I hardly caught what you were saying.  No pudding, thank you,” said that gentleman.

“I was saying that we moderns are really all much better than we seem.  There is far more hypocrisy of vice nowadays than hypocrisy of virtue.  The amount of excellence going about is positively quite amazing, if one only knows where to look for it; but good people in Society are so terribly afraid of being found out.”

“Really!  Can that be the case?”

“Indeed, it can.  Society is absolutely frank about its sins, but absolutely secretive about its lapses into goodness, if I may so phrase it.  I once knew a young nobleman who went twice to church on Sunday in the morning and the afternoon.  He managed to conceal it for nearly five years, but one day, to his horror, he saw a paragraph in the Star the Star is a small evening paper which circulates chiefly among members of the Conservative party who desire to know what the aristocracy are doing revealing his exquisite secret.  He fled the country immediately, and is now living in retirement in Buenos Ayres, which is, I am told, the modern equivalent of the old-fashioned purgatory.”

“Good gracious!  London must be in a very sad condition,” said Mr. Smith, in considerable excitement.  “No, thank you, I never touch fruit.  Things used to be very different, I imagine, although I have never been in town except for the day, and then merely to call upon my dentist.”

“Yes, this is an era of change,” murmured Lord Reggie, who had spoken little and eaten much.  “Good women have taken to talking about vice, and, in no long time, bad men will take to talking about virtue.”

“I think you are wronging good women, Lord Reggie,” said Lady Locke rather gravely.

“It is almost impossible to wrong a woman now,” he answered pensively.  “Women are so busy in wronging men, that they have no time for anything else.  Sarah Grand has inaugurated the Era of women’s wrongs.”

“I am so afraid that she will drive poor, dear Mrs. Lynn Linton mad,” said Mrs. Windsor, drawing on her gloves for she persisted in believing that the presence of Mr. Smith constituted a dinner party.  “Mrs. Linton’s articles are really getting so very noisy.  Don’t you think they rather suggest Bedlam?”

“To me they suggest nothing whatever,” said Amarinth wearily.  “I cannot distinguish one from another.  They are all like sheep that have gone astray.”

“I must say I prefer them to Lady Jeune’s,” said Mrs. Windsor.

“Lady Jeune catches society by the throat and worries it,” said Madame Valtesi.

“She worries it very inartistically,” added Lord Reggie.

“Ah!” said Amarinth, as the ladies rose to go into the drawing-room; “she makes one great mistake.  She judges of Society by her own parties, and looks at life through the spectacles of a divorce court judge.  No wonder she is the bull terrier of modern London life.”

Mrs. Windsor paused at the dining-room door and looked back.

“We are going to have coffee in the garden,” she said.  “Will you join us there?  Don’t stay too long over your water, Mr. Smith,” she added, with pious archness.

“No; but I never take coffee, thank you,” he answered solemnly.