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Book III-Chapter I 


IN WHICH I RETURN TO MY RIGHT AGE AND ENCOUNTER A COMMON OBJECT OF THE COUNTRY

And so when the days of my mourning for Nicolete were ended (and in this sentence I pass over letters to and fro,--letters wild from Nicolete, letters wise from Aucassin, letters explanatory and apologetic from the Obstacle--how the Major-General had suddenly come home quite unexpectedly and compelled her to explain Nicolete's absence, etc., etc. Dear Obstacle! I should rather have enjoyed a pilgrimage with her too)--I found myself one afternoon again upon the road. The day had been very warm and dusty, and had turned sleepy towards tea-time.

I had now pretty clearly in my mind what I wanted. This time it was, all other things equal, to be "a woman who had suffered," and to this end, I had, before starting out once more, changed my age back again at the inn and written "Aetat. 30" after my name in the visitors' book. As a young man I was an evident failure, and so, having made the countersign, I was speedily transformed to my old self; and I must say that it was a most comfortable feeling, something like getting back again into an old coat or an old pair of shoes. I never wanted to be young again as long as I lived. Youth was too much like the Sunday clothes of one's boyhood. Moreover, I had a secret conviction that the woman I was now in search of would prefer one who had had some experience at being a man, who would bring her not the green plums of his love, but the cunningly ripened nectarines, a man to whom love was something of an art as well as an inspiration.

It was in this frame of mind that I came upon the following scene.

The lane was a very cloistral one, with a ribbon of gravelly road, bordered on each side with a rich margin of turf and a scramble of blackberry bushes, green turf banks and dwarf oak-trees making a rich and plenteous shade. My attention was caught firstly by a bicycle lying carelessly on the turf, and secondly and lastly by a graceful woman's figure, recumbent and evidently sleeping against the turf bank, well tucked in among the afternoon shadows. My coming had not aroused her, and so I stole nearer to her on tiptoe.

She was a pretty woman, of a striking modern type, tall, well-proportioned, strong, I should say, with a good complexion that had evidently been made just a little better. But her most striking feature was an opulent mass of dark red hair, which had fallen in some disorder and made quite a pillow for her head. Her hat was off, lying in its veil by her side, and a certain general abandon of her figure,--which was clothed in a short cloth skirt, cut with that unmistakable touch which we call style--betokened weariness that could no longer wait for rest.

Poor child! she was tired out. She must never be left to sleep on there, for she seemed good to sleep till midnight.

I turned to her bicycle, and, examining it with the air of a man who had won silver cups in his day, I speedily discovered what had been the mischief. The tire of the front wheel had been pierced, and a great thorn was protruding from the place. Evidently this had been too much for poor Rosalind, and it was not unlikely that she had cried herself to sleep.

I bent over her to look--yes, there were traces of tears. Poor thing! Then I had a kindly human impulse. I would mend the tire, having attended ambulance classes, do it very quietly so that she wouldn't hear, like the fairy cobblers who used to mend people's boots while they slept, and then wait in ambush to watch the effect upon her when she awoke.

What do you think of the idea?

But one important detail I have omitted from my description of the sleeper. Her left hand lay gloveless, and of the four rings on her third finger one was a wedding-ring.

"Such red hair,--and a wedding-ring!" I exclaimed inwardly. "How this woman must have suffered!"

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