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Chapter VII 


I quite realise that this book is written perhaps only just in time for the motive of these two or three chapters to be appreciated in its ancient piquancy. Very soon, alas! the sexes will be robbed of one of the first and most thrilling motives of romance, the motive of As You Like It, the romance of wearing each other's clothes. Alas, that every advance of reason should mean a corresponding retreat of romance! It is only reasonable that woman, being--have you yet realised the fact?--a biped like her brothers, should, when she takes to her brothers' recreations, dress as those recreations demand; and yet the death of Rosalind is a heavy price to pay for the lady bicyclist. So soon as the two sexes wear the same clothes, they may as well wear nothing; the game of sex is up. In this matter, as in others, we cannot both have our cake and eat it. All romance, like all temptation, is founded on the Fascination of the Exception. So soon as the exception becomes, instead of merely proving, the rule, that particular avenue of romance is closed. The New Woman of the future will be the woman with the petticoats, she who shall restore the ancient Eleusinian mysteries of the silk skirt and the tea-gown.

Happily for me, my acquaintance among the Rosalinds of the bicycle, at this period of my life, was but slight, and thus no familiarity with the tweed knickerbocker feminine took off the edge of my delight on first beholding Nicolete clothed in like manhood with ourselves, and yet, delicious paradox! looking more like a woman than ever.

During those three days while the fairy tailors were at work our friendship had not been idle. Indeed, some part of each day we had spent diligently learning each other, as travellers to distant lands across the Channel work hard at phrase-book and Baedeker the week before their departure. Meanwhile too I had made the acquaintance of the charming lady Obstacle,--as it proved so unfair to call her,--and by some process of natural magnetism we had immediately won each other's hearts, so that on the moonlight night on which I took the river path with my brown-paper parcel there was no misgiving in my heart,--nothing but harping and singing, and blessings on the river that seemed all silver with the backs of magic trout. As I thought of all I owed that noble fish, I kneeled by the river's bearded lip, among the nettles and the meadowsweet, and swore by the inconstant moon that trout and I were henceforth kinsmen, and that between our houses should be an eternal amity. The chub and the dace and the carp, not to speak of that Chinese pirate the pike, might still look to it, when I came forth armed with rod and line; but for me and my house the trout is henceforth sacred. By the memory of the Blessed Saint Izaak, I swore it!

My arrival at Beaucaire was one of great excitement. Nicolete and the Obstacle were both awaiting me, for the mysteries of masculine attire were not to be explored alone. The parcel was snatched quite unceremoniously from my hands, the door shut upon me, and I laughingly bidden go listen to the nightingale. I was not long in finding one, nor, being an industrious phrase-maker, did I waste my time, for, before I was summoned to behold Nicolete in all her boyhood, I had found occasion and moonlight to remark to my pocket-book that, Though all the world has heard the song of the Nightingale to the Rose, only the Nightingale has heard the answer of the Rose. This I hurriedly hid in my heart for future conversation, as the pre-arranged tinkle of the silver bell called me to the rose.

Would, indeed, that I were a nightingale to sing aright the beauty of that rose with which, think of it, I was to spend a whole fortnight,--yes, no less than fourteen wonderful days.

The two girls were evidently proud of themselves at having succeeded so well with the mysterious garments. There were one or two points on which they needed my guidance, but they were unimportant; and when at last Nicolete would consent to stand up straight and let me have a good look at her,--for, poor child! she was as shy and shrinking as though she had nothing on,--she made a very pretty young man indeed.

She didn't, I'm afraid, look like a young man of our degenerate day. She was far too beautiful and distinguished for that. Besides, her dark curling hair, quite short for a woman, was too long, and her eyes-- like the eyes of all poets--were women's eyes. She looked, indeed, like one of those wonderful boys of the Italian Renaissance, whom you may still see at the National Gallery, whose beauty is no denial, but rather the stamp of their slender, supple strength, young painters and sculptors who held the palette for Leonardo, or wielded the chisel for Michelangelo, and anon threw both aside to take up sword for Guelf or Ghibelline in the narrow streets of Florence.

Her knapsack was already packed, and its contents included a serge skirt "in case of emergencies." Already, she naughtily reminded me, we possessed a petticoat between us.

The brief remainder of the evening passed in excited chatter and cigarettes, and in my instructing Nicolete in certain tricks of masculine deportment. The chief difficulty I hardly like mentioning; and if the Obstacle had not been present, I certainly dare not have spoken of it to Nicolete. I mean that she was so shy about her pretty legs. She couldn't cross them with any successful nonchalance.

"You must take your legs more for granted, dear Nicolete," I summoned courage to say. "The nonchalance of the legs is the first lesson to be learnt in such a masquerade as this. You must regard them as so much bone and iron, rude skeleton joints and shins, as though they were the bones of the great elk or other extinct South Kensington specimen,"--"not," I added in my heart, "as the velvet and ivory which they are."

We had agreed to start with the sun on the morrow, so as to get clear of possible Peeping Toms; and when good-nights had been said, and I was once more swinging towards my inn, it seemed but an hour or two, as indeed it was, before I heard four o'clock drowsily announced through my bedroom door, and before I was once more striding along that river-bank all dew- silvered with last night's moonlight, the sun rubbing his great eye on the horizon, the whole world yawning through dainty bed-clothes of mist, and here and there a copse-full of birds congratulating themselves on their early rising.

Nicolete was not quite ready, so I had to go listen to the lark, about whom, alas! I could find nothing to say to my pocket-book, before Nicolete, armed cap-a-pie with stick and knapsack, appeared at the door of her chalet.

The Obstacle was there to see us start. She and Nicolete exchanged many kisses which were hard to bear, and the first quarter of an hour of our journey was much obstructed by the farewells of her far-fluttering handkerchief. When at last we were really alone, I turned and looked at Nicolete striding manfully at my side, just to make sure that it was really true.

"Well, we're in for it now," I said; "aren't you frightened?"

"Oh, it's wonderful," she replied; "don't spoil it by talking."

And I didn't; for who could hope to compete with the sun, who was making the whole dewy world shake with laughter at his brilliancy, or with the birds, any one of whom was a poet at least equal to Herrick?

Presently we found ourselves at four crossroads, with a four-fingered post in the centre. We had agreed to leave our destination to chance. We read the sign-post.

"Which shall we choose?" I said,--

"Aucassin, true love and fair, To what land do we repair?"

"Don't you think this one," she replied. "this one?--To the Moon!"

"Certainly, we couldn't find a prettier place; but it's a long way," I replied, looking up at the sky, all roses and pearls,--"a long way from the Morning Star to the Moon."

"All the longer to be free," cried Nicolete, recklessly.

"So be it," I assented. "Allons--to the Moon!"

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