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Chapter XII 


No doubt the youthful reader will have but a poor opinion of me after the last two chapters. He will think that in the scene with the Major-General I acted with lamentably little spirit, and that generally my friend Alastor would have proved infinitely more worthy of the situation. It is quite true, I confess it. The whole episode was made for Alastor. Nicolete and he were born for each other. Alas! it is one of the many drawbacks of experience that it frequently prevents our behaving with spirit.

I must be content to appeal to the wiser and therefore sadder reader, of whom I have but a poor opinion if he too fails to understand me. He, I think, will understand why I didn't promptly assault the Major- General, seize Nicolete by the waist, thrust her into her ancestral carriage, haul the coachman from his box, and, seizing the reins, drive away in triumph before astonishment had time to change into pursuit. Truly it had been but the work of a moment, and there was only one consideration which prevented my following this now-I-call-that-heroic course. It is a consideration I dare hardly venture to write, and the confession of which will, I know, necessitate my changing my age back again to thirty on the instant. Oh, be merciful, dear romantic reader! I didn't strike the Major-General, because, oh, because I AGREED WITH HIM!

I loved Nicolete, you must have felt that. She was sweet to me as the bunch of white flowers that, in their frail Venetian vase, stand so daintily on my old bureau as I write, doing their best to sweeten my thoughts. Dear was she to me as the birds that out in the old garden yonder sing and sing their best to lift up my leaden heart. She was dear as the Spring itself, she was only less dear than Autumn.

Yes, black confession! after the first passion of her loss, the immediate ache of her young beauty had passed, and I was able to analyse what I really felt, I not only agreed with him, I thanked God for the Major-General! He had saved me from playing the terrible part of executioner. He had just come in time to behead the Lady Jane Grey of our dreams.

I should have no qualms about tightening the rope round the neck of some human monster, or sticking a neat dagger or bullet into a dangerous, treacherous foe, but to kill a dream is a sickening business. It goes on moaning in such a heart-breaking fashion, and you never know when it is dead. All on a sudden some night it will come wailing in the wind outside your window, and you must blacken your heart and harden your face with another strangling grip of its slim appealing throat, another blow upon its angel eyes. Even then it will recover, and you will go on being a murderer, making for yourself day by day a murderer's face, without the satisfaction of having really murdered.

But what of Nicolete? do you exclaim. Have you no thought for her, bleeding her heart away in solitude? Can you so soon forget those appealing eyes? Yes, I have thought for her. Would God that I could bear for her those growing pains of the heart! and I shall never forget those farewell eyes. But then, you see, I had firmly realised this, that she would sooner recover from our separation than from our marriage; that her love for me, pretty and poignant and dramatic while it lasted, was a book- born, book-fed dream, which must die soon or late,--the sooner the better for the peace of the dreams that in the course of nature would soon spring up to take its place.

But while I realised all this, and, with a veritable aching of the heart at the loss of her, felt a curious satisfaction at the turn of events, still my own psychology became all the more a puzzle to me, and I asked myself, with some impatience, what I would be at, and what it was I really wanted.

Here had I but a few moments ago been holding in my hands the very dream I had set out to find, and here was I secretly rejoicing to be robbed of it! If Nicolete did not fulfil the conditions of that mystical Golden Girl, in professed search for whom I had set out that spring morning, well, the good genius of my pilgrimage felt it time to resign. Better give it up at once, and go back to my books and my bachelorhood, if I were so difficult to please. No wonder my kind providence felt provoked. It had provided me with the sweetest pink- and-porcelain dream of a girl, and might reasonably have concluded that his labours on my behalf were at an end.

But, really, there is no need to lecture me upon the charms and virtues of Nicolete, for I loved them from the first moment of our strange introduction, and I dream of them still. There was indeed only one quality of womanhood in which she was lacking, and in which, after much serious self- examination, I discovered the reason of my instinctive self-sacrifice of her,--SHE HAD NEVER SUFFERED. As my heart had warned me at the beginning, "she was hoping too much from life to spend one's days with." She lacked the subtle half-tones of experience. She lacked all that a pretty wrinkle or two might have given. There was no shadowy melancholy in her sky-clear eyes. She was gay indeed, and had a certain childish humour; but she had none of that humour which comes of the resigned perception that the world is out of joint, and that you were never born to set it right. These characteristics I had yet to find in woman. There was still, therefore, an object to my quest. Indeed my experience had provided me with a formula. I was in search of a woman who, in addition to every other feminine charm and virtue, was a woman who had suffered.

With this prayer I turned once more to the genius of my pilgrimage. "Grant me," I asked, "but this--A WOMAN WHO HAS SUFFERED!" and, apparently as a consequence, he became once more quite genial. He seemed to mean that a prayer so easy to grant would put any god into a good temper; and possibly he smiled with a deeper meaning too.

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