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Chapter V 


'T IS OF AUCASSIN AND NICOLETE

Thus it was that we lunched together amid the books and birds, in an exquisite solitude a deux; for the ringer of the silver bell had disappeared, having left a dainty meal in readiness--for two.

"You see you were expected," said Nicolete, with her pretty laugh. "I dreamed I should have a visitor to-day, and told Susan to lay the lunch for two. You mustn't be surprised at that," she added mischievously; "it has often happened before. I dream that dream every other night, and Susan lays for two every day. She knows my whims,--knows that the extra knife and fork are for the fairy knight that may turn up any afternoon, as I tell her--"

"To find the sleepless princess," I added, thinking at the same time one of those irrelevant asides that will go through the brain of thirty, that the woman who would get her share of kisses nowadays must neither slumber nor sleep.

A certain great poet, I think it was Byron, objected to seeing women in the act of eating. He thought their eating should be done in private. What a curiously perverse opinion! For surely woman never shows to better advantage than in the dainty exercises of a dainty repast, and there is nothing more thrilling to man than a meal alone with a woman he loves or is about to love. Perhaps, deep down, the reason is that there still vibrates in the masculine blood the thrilling surprise of the moment when man first realised that the angel woman was built upon the same carnivorous principles as his grosser self.

That is one of the first heart-beating surprises that come upon the boy Columbus, as he sets out to discover the New World of woman; and indeed his surprise has not seldom deepened into admiration, as he has found that not only does woman eat, but frequently eats a lot.

This privilege of seeing woman eat is the earliest granted of those delicate animal intimacies, the fuller and fuller confiding of which plays not the least important part, and ever such a sweet one, even in a highly transcendental affection. It is this gradual humanising of the divine female that brings about the spiritualising of the unregenerate male.

In the earliest stages of love the services are small that we are privileged to do for the loved one. But if we are allowed to sit at meat with her,--ever a royal condescension,--it is ours at least to pass her the salt, to see that she is never kept waiting a moment for the mustard or the pepper, to cut the bread for her with geometrical precision, and to lean as near her warm shoulder as we dare to pour out for her the sacred wine.

Yes! for sure I was twenty again, for the performance of these simple services for Nicolete gave me a thrill of pure boyish pleasure such as I had never expected to feel again. And did she not make a knight of me by gently asking if I would be so kind as to carve the chicken, and how she laughed quite disproportionally at my school-boy story of the man who, being asked to carve a pigeon, said he thought they had better send for a wood-carver, as it seemed to be a wood pigeon.

And while we ate and drank and laughed and chatted, the books around us were weaving their spells. Even before the invention of printing books were "love's purveyors." Was it not a book that sent Paolo and Francesca for ever wandering on that stormy wind of passion and of death? And nowadays the part played by books in human drama is greater than we perhaps realise. Apart from their serious influence as determining destinies of the character, what endless opportunities they afford to lovers, who perhaps are denied all other meeting-places than may be found on the tell-tale pages of a marked volume. The method is so easy and so unsuspect. You have only to put faint pencil-marks against the tenderest passages in your favourite new poet, and lend the volume to Her, and She has only to leave here and there the dropped violet of a timid confirmatory initial, for you to know your fate. And what a touchstone books thus become! Indeed they simplify love- making, from every point of view. With books so inexpensive and accessible to all as they are to-day, no one need run any risks of marrying the wrong woman. He has only to put her through an unconscious examination by getting her to read and mark a few of his favourite authors, and he is thus in possession of the master clues of her character. With a list of her month's reading and a photograph, a man ought to be able to make up his mind about any given woman, even though he has never spoken to her. "Name your favourite writer" should be one of the first questions in the Engagement Catechism.

There is, indeed, no such short cut to knowledge of each other as a talk about books. One short afternoon is enough for any two book-lovers, though they may have met for the first time in the morning, to make up their minds whether or not they have been born for each other. If you are agreed, say, in admiring Meredith, Hardy, Omar Khayyam, and Maeterlinck,--to take four particularly test-authors,--there is nothing to prevent your marrying at once. Indeed, a love for any one of these significant writers will be enough, not to speak of an admiration for "Aucassin and Nicolete."

Now, Nicolete and I soon found that we had all these and many another writer in common, and before our lunch was ended we were nearer to each other than many old friends. The heart does not more love the heart that loves it than the brain loves the brain that comprehends it; and, whatever else was to befall us, Nicolete and I were already in love with each other's brains. Whether or not the malady would spread till it reached the heart is the secret of some future chapter.

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