IN WHICH ONCE MORE I BECOME OCCUPIED IN MY OWN AFFAIRS
During a pause in my matrimonial lecture, Orlando had written a little farewell note to Sylvia,--a note which, of course, I didn't read, but which it is easy to imagine "wild with all regret." This I undertook to have delivered to her the same night, and promised to call upon her on the morrow, further to illuminate the situation, and to offer her every consolation in my power. To conclude the history of Orlando and his Rosalind, I may say that I saw them off from Yellowsands by the early morning coach. There was a soft brightness in their faces, as though rain had fallen in the night; but it was the warm sweet rain of joy that brings the flowers, and is but sister to the sun. They are, at the time of my writing, quite old friends of mine, and both have an excessive opinion of my wisdom and good-nature.
"That lie," Orlando once said to me long after, "was the truest thing I ever said in my life,"--a remark which may not give the reader a very exalted idea of his general veracity.
As the coach left long before pretty young actresses even dreamed of getting up, I had to control my impatient desire to call on Mademoiselle Sylvia Joy till it was fully noon. And even then she was not to be seen. I tried again in the afternoon with better success.
Rain had been falling in the night with her too, I surmised, but it had failed to dim her gay eyes, and had left her complexion unimpaired. Of course her little affair with Orlando had never been very serious on her side. She genuinely liked him. "He was a nice kind boy," was the height of her passionate expression, and she was, naturally, a little disappointed at having an affectionate companion thus unexpectedly whisked off into space. Her only approach to anger was on the subject of his deceiving her about his wife. Little Sylvia Joy had no very long string of principles; but one generous principle she did hold by,--never, if she knew it, to rob another woman of her husband. And that did make her cross with Orlando. He had not played the game fair.
There is no need to follow, step by step, the progression by which Sylvia Joy and I, though such new acquaintances, became in the course of a day or two even more intimate than many old friends. We took to each other instinctively, even on our first rather difficult interview, and very gently and imperceptibly I bid for the vacant place in her heart.
That night we dined together.
The next day we lunched and dined together.
The next day we breakfasted, lunched, and dined together.
And on the next I determined to venture on the confession which, as you may imagine, it had needed no little artistic control not to make on our first meeting.
She looked particularly charming this evening, in a black silk gown, exceedingly simple and distinguished in style, throwing up the lovely firm whiteness of her throat and bosom, and making a fine contrast with her lurid hair.
It was sheer delight to sit opposite her at dinner, and quietly watch her without a word. Shall I confess that I had an exceedingly boyish vanity in thus being granted her friendship? It is almost too boyish to confess at my time of life. It was simply in the fact that she was an actress,--a real, live, famous actress, whose photographs made shop windows beautiful,--come right out of my boy's fairyland of the theatre, actually to sit eating and drinking, quite in a real way, at my side. This, no doubt, will seem pathetically naive to most modern young men, who in this respect begin where I leave off. An actress! Great heavens! an actress is the first step to a knowledge of life. Besides, actresses off the stage are either brainless or soulful, and the choice of evils is a delicate one. Well, I have never set up for a man of the world, though sometimes when I have heard the Lovelaces of the day hinting mysteriously at their secret sins or boasting of their florid gallantries, I have remembered the last verse of Suckling's "Ballad of a Wedding," which, no doubt, the reader knows as well as I, and if not, it will increase his acquaintance with our brave old poetry to look it up.
"You are very beautiful to-night," I said, in one of the meditative pauses between the courses.
"Thank you, kind sir," she said, making a mock courtesy; "but the compliment is made a little anxious for me by your evident implication that I didn't look so beautiful this morning. You laid such a marked emphasis on to-night."
"Nay," I returned, " `for day and night are both alike to thee.' I think you would even be beautiful--well, I cannot imagine any moment or station of life you would not beautify."
"I must get you to write that down, and then I'll have it framed. It would cheer me of a morning when I curl my hair," laughed Sylvia.
"But you are beautiful," I continued, becoming quite impassioned.
"Yes, and as good as I'm beautiful."
And she was too, though perhaps the beauty occasionally predominated.
When the serious business of dining was dispatched, and we were trifling with our coffee and liqueurs, my eyes, which of course had seldom left her during the whole meal, once more enfolded her little ivory and black silk body with an embrace as real as though they had been straining passionate arms; and as I thus nursed her in my eyes, I smiled involuntarily at a thought which not unnaturally occurred to me.
"What is that sly smile about?" she asked. Now I had smiled to think that underneath that stately silk, around that tight little waist, was a dainty waistband bearing the legend "Sylvia Joy," No. 4, perhaps, or 5, but NOT No. 6; and a whole wonderful underworld of lace and linen and silk stockings, the counterpart of which wonders, my clairvoyant fancy laughed to think, were at the moment--so entirely unsuspected of their original owner--my delicious possessions.
Everything a woman wears or touches immediately incarnates something of herself. A handkerchief, a glove, a flower,--with a breath she endues them with immortal souls. How much, therefore, of herself must inhere in a garment so confidential as a petticoat, or so close and constant a companion as a stocking!
Now that I knew Sylvia Joy, I realised how absolutely true my instinct had been, when on that far afternoon in that Surrey garden I had said, "With such a petticoat and such a name, Sylvia herself cannot be otherwise than charming."
Indeed, now I could see that the petticoat was nothing short of a portrait of her, and that any one learned in the physiognomy of clothes would have been able to pick Sylvia out of a thousand by that spirited, spoilt, and petted garment.
"What is that sly smile about?" she repeated presently.
"I only chanced to think of an absurd little fairy story I read the other day," I said, "which is quite irrelevant at the moment. You know the idle way things come and go through one's head."
"I don't believe you," she replied, "but tell me the story. I love fairy tales."
"Certainly," I said, for I wasn't likely to get a better opportunity. "There's nothing much in it; it's merely a variation of Cinderella's slipper. Well, once upon a time there was an eccentric young prince who'd had his fling in his day, but had arrived at the lonely age of thirty without having met a woman whom he could love enough to make his wife. He was a rather fanciful young prince, accustomed to follow his whims; and one day, being more than usually bored with existence, he took it into his head to ramble incognito through his kingdom in search of his ideal wife,--`The Golden Girl,' as he called her. He had hardly set out when in a country lane he came across a peasant girl hanging out clothes to dry, and he fell to talk with her while she went on with her charming occupation. Presently he observed, pegged on the line, strangely incongruous among the other homespun garments, a wonderful petticoat, so exquisite in material and design that it aroused his curiosity. At the same moment he noticed a pair of stockings, round the tops of which one of the daintiest artists in the land had wrought an exquisite little frieze. The prince was learned in every form of art, and had not failed to study this among other forms of decoration. No sooner did he see this petticoat than the whim seized him that he would find and marry the wearer, whoever she might be--"
"Rather rash of him," interrupted Sylvia, "for it is usually old ladies who have the prettiest petticoats. They can best afford them--"
"He questioned the girl as to their owner," I continued, "and after vainly pretending that they were her own, she confessed that they had belonged to a young and beautiful lady who had once lodged there and left them behind. Then the prince gave her a purse of gold in exchange for the finery, and on the waistband of the petticoat he read a beautiful name, and he said, `This and no other shall be my wife, this unknown beautiful woman, and on our marriage night she shall wear this petticoat.' And then the prince went forth seeking--"
"There's not much point in it," interrupted Sylvia.
"No," I said, "I'm afraid I've stupidly missed the point."
"Why, what was it?"
"The name upon the petticoat!"
"Why, what name was it?" she asked, somewhat mystified.
"The inscription upon the petticoat was, to be quite accurate,
`Sylvia Joy, No. 6.' "
"Whatever are you talking about?" she said with quite a stormy blush. "I'm afraid you've had more than your share of the champagne."
As I finished, I slipped out of my pocket a dainty little parcel softly folded in white tissue paper. Very softly I placed it on the table. It contained one of the precious stockings; and half opening it, I revealed to Sylvia's astonished eyes the cunning little frieze of Bacchus and Ariadne, followed by a troop of Satyrs and Bacchantes, which the artist had designed to encircle one of the white columns of that little marble temple which sat before me.
"You know," I said, "how in fairy tales, when the wandering hero or the maiden in distress has a guiding dream, the dream often leaves something behind on the pillow to assure them of its authenticity. `When you wake up,' the dream will say, `you will find a rose or an oak-leaf or an eagle's feather, or whatever it may be, on your pillow.' Well, I have brought this stocking-- for which, if I might but use them, I have at the moment a stock of the most appropriately endearing adjectives--for the same purpose. By this token you will know that the fairy tale I have been telling you is true, and to-morrow, if you will, you shall see your autograph petticoat."
"Why, wherever did you come across them? And what a mad creature you must be! and what an odd thing that you should really meet me, after all!" exclaimed Sylvia, all in a breath. "Of course, I remember," she said frankly, and with a shade of sadness passing over her face. "I was spending a holiday with Jack Wentworth,--why, it must be nearly two years ago. Poor Jack! he was killed in the Soudan," and poor Jack could have wished no prettier resurrection than the look of tender memory that came into her face as she spoke of him, and the soft baby tears filled her eyes.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "Of course I didn't know. Let's come for a little stroll. There seems to be a lovely moon."
"Of course you didn't, she said, patting my cheek with a kind little hand. "Yes, do let us go for a stroll."Next