A FAIRY TALE AND ITS FAIRY TAILORS
As this is not a realistic novel, I do not hold myself bound, as I have said before, to account reasonably for everything that is done--least of all, said--within its pages. I simply say, So it happened, or So it is, and expect the reader to take my word. If he be uncivil enough to doubt it, we may as well stop playing this game of fancy. It is one of the first conditions of enjoying a book, as it is of all successful hypnotism, that the reader surrenders up his will to the writer, who, of course, guarantees to return it to him at the close of the volume. If you say that no young lady would have behaved as I have presently to relate of Nicolete, that no parents were ever so accommodating in the world of reality, I reply,--No doubt you are right, but none the less what I have to tell is true and really did happen, for all that. And not only did it happen, but to the whimsically minded, to the true children of fancy, it will seem the most natural thing in the world. No doubt they will wonder why I have made such a preamble about it, as indeed, now I think of it, so do I.
Again I claim exemption in this wandering history from all such descriptive drudgery upon second, third, and fourth dramatis personsonae as your thorough-going novelist must undertake with a good grace. Like a host and hostess at a reception, the poor novelist has to pretend to be interested in everybody,--in the dull as in the brilliant, in the bore as in the beauty. I'm afraid I should never do as a novelist, for I should waste all my time with the heroine; whereas the true novelist is expected to pay as much attention to the heroine's parents as though he were a suitor for her hand. Indeed, there is no relative of hero or heroine too humble or stupid for such a novelist as the great Balzac. He will invite the dullest of them to stay with him for quite prolonged visits, and without a murmur set apart a suite of chapters for their accommodation. I'm not sure that the humanity of the reader in these cases is of such comprehensive sympathy as the novelist's, and it may well be that the novelist undertakes all such hard labour under a misapprehension of the desires of the reader, who, as a rule, I fancy, is as anxious to join the ladies as the novelist himself. Indeed, I believe that there is an opportunity for a new form of novel, in which the novelist, as well as the reader, will skip all the dull people, and merely indicate such of them as are necessary to the action by an outline or a symbol, compressing their familiar psychology, and necessary plot-interferences with the main characters, into recognised formulae. For the benefit of readers voracious for everything about everybody, schedule chapters might be provided by inferior novelists, good at painting say tiresome bourgeois fathers, gouty uncles and brothers in the army, as sometimes in great pictures we read that the sheep in the foreground have been painted by Mr. So-and-so, R.A.
The Major-General and his Lady were taking the waters at Wiesbaden. That was all I knew of Nicolete's parents, and all I needed to know; with the exception of one good action,--at her urgent entreaty they had left Nicolete behind them, with no other safeguard than a charming young lady companion, whose fitness for her sacred duties consisted in a temperament hardly less romantic and whimsical than Nicolete's own. She was too charming to deserve the name of obstacle; and as there was no other--
But I admit that the cart has got a little in front of the horse, and I grow suddenly alarmed lest the reader should be suspecting me of an elopement, or some such romantic vulgarity. If he will only put any such thoughts from his mind, I promise to proceed with the story in a brief and business- like manner forthwith.
We are back once more at the close of the last chapter, in Nicolete's book-bower in the wildwood. It is an hour or two later, and the afternoon sun is flooding with a searching glory all the secret places of the woodland. Hidden nooks and corners, unused to observation, suddenly gleam and blush in effulgent exposure,--like lovers whom the unexpected turning on of a light has revealed kissing in the dark,--and are as suddenly, unlike the lovers, left in their native shade again. It was that rich afternoon sunlight that loves to flash into teacups as though they were crocuses, that loves to run a golden finger along the beautiful wrinkles of old faces and light up the noble hollows of age-worn eyes; the sunlight that loves to fall with transfiguring beam on the once dear book we never read, or, with malicious inquisitiveness, expose to undreamed- of detection the undusted picture, or the gold- dusted legs of remote chairs, which the poor housemaid has forgotten.
So in Nicolete's bower it illuminated with strange radiancy the dainty disorder of deserted lunch, made prisms out of the wine-glasses, painted the white cloth with wedge-shaped rainbows, and flooded the cavernous interiors of the half-eaten fowl with a pathetic yellow torchlight.
Leaving that melancholy relic of carnivorous appetite, it turned its bold gold gaze on Nicolete. No need to transfigure her! But, heavens! how grandly her young face took the great kiss of the god! Then it fell for a tender moment on the jaundiced page of my old Boccaccio,--a rare edition, which I had taken from my knapsack to indulge myself with the appreciation of a connoisseur. Next minute "the unobstructed beam" was shining right into the knapsack itself, for all the world like one of those little demon electric lights with which the dentist makes a momentary treasure-cave of your distended jaws, flashing with startled stalactite. At the same moment Nicolete's starry eyes took the same direction; then there broke from her her lovely laughter, merry and inextinguishable.
Once more, need I say, my petticoat had played me false--or should I not say true? For there was its luxurious lace border, a thing for the soft light of the boudoir, or the secret moonlight of love's permitted eyes, alone to see, shamelessly brazening it out in this terrible sunlight. Obviously there was but one way out of the dilemma, to confess my pilgrimage to Nicolete, and reveal to her all the fanciful absurdity to which, after all, I owed the sight of her.
"So that is why you pleaded so hard for that poor trout," she said, when I had finished. "Well, you are a fairy prince indeed! Now, do you know what the punishment of your nonsense is to be?"
"Is it very severe and humiliating?" I asked.
"You must judge of that. It is--to take me with you!"
"You,--what do you mean?"
"Yes,--not for good and all, of course, but just for, say, a fortnight, just a fortnight of rambles and adventures, and then to deliver me safe home again where you found me--"
"But it is impossible," I almost gasped in surprise. "Of course you are not serious?"
"I am, really, and you will take me, won't you?" she continued pleadingly. "You don't know how we women envy you men those wonderful walking-tours we can only read about in Hazlitt or Stevenson. We are not allowed to move without a nurse or a footman. From the day we are born to the day we die, we are never left a moment to ourselves. But you--you can go out into the world, the mysterious world, do as you will, go where you will, wander here, wander there, follow any bye-way that takes your fancy, put up at old inns, make strange acquaintances, have all kinds of romantic experiences-- Oh, to be a man for a fortnight, your younger brother for a fortnight!"
"It is impossible!" I repeated.
"It isn't at all," she persisted, with a fine blush. "If you will only be nice and kind, and help me to some Rosalind's clothes. You have only to write to your tailors, or send home for a spare suit of clothes,--with a little managing yours would just fit me, you're not so much taller,--and then we could start, like two comrades, seeking adventures. Oh, how glorious it would be!"
It was in vain that I brought the batteries of common-sense to bear upon her whim. I raised every possible objection in vain.
I pointed out the practical difficulties. There were her parents.
Weren't they drinking the waters at Wiesbaden, and weren't they to go on drinking them for another three weeks? My fancy made a picture of them distended with three weeks' absorption of mineral springs. Then there was her companion. Nicolete was confident of her assistance. Then I tried vilifying myself. How could she run the risk of trusting herself to such intimate companionship with a man whom she hadn't known half a dozen hours? This she laughed to scorn. Presently I was silent from sheer lack of further objections; and need I say that all the while there had been a traitor impulse in my heart, a weak sweetness urging me on to accept the pretty chance which the good genius of my pilgrimage had so evidently put in my way,--for, after all, what harm could it do? With me Nicolete was, indeed, safe,--that, of course, I knew,--and safely she should come back home again after her little frolic. All that was true enough. And how charming it would be to have such a dainty companion! then the fun, the fancy, the whim of it all. What was the use of setting out to seek adventures if I didn't pursue them when found.
Well, the long and short of it was that I agreed to undertake the adventure, provided that Nicolete could win over the lady whom at the beginning of the chapter I declared too charming to be described as an obstacle.
By nine o'clock the following morning the fairy tailors, as Nicolete called them, were at work on the fairy clothes, and, at the end of three days, there came by parcel-post a bulky unromantic-looking brown-paper parcel, which it was my business to convey to Nicolete under cover of the dark.Next