Penelope's English Experiences

Part Second—In the country.

Chapter XV. Penelope dreams.

West Belvern, Holly House
August 189-.

I am here alone. Salemina has taken her little cloth bag and her notebook and gone to inspect the educational and industrial methods of Germany. If she can discover anything that they are not already doing better in Boston, she will take it back with her, but her state of mind regarding the outcome of the trip might be described as one of incredulity tinged with hope. Francesca has accompanied Salemina. Not that the inspection of systems is much in her line, but she prefers it to a solitude a deux with me when I am in a working mood, and she comforts herself with the anticipation that the German army is very attractive. Willie Beresford has gone with his mother to Aix-les-Bains, like the dutiful son that he is. They say that a good son makes a good— But that subject is dismissed to the background for the present, for we are in a state of armed neutrality. He has agreed to wait until the autumn for a final answer, and I have promised to furnish one by that time. Meanwhile, we are to continue our acquaintance by post, which is a concession I would never have allowed if I had had my wits about me.

After paying my last week's bill in Dovermarle Street, including fees to several servants whom I knew by sight, and several others whose acquaintance I made for the first time at the moment of departure, I glanced at my ebbing letter of credit and felt a season of economy setting in upon me with unusual severity; accordingly, I made an experiment of coming third-class to Belvern. I handed the guard a shilling, and he gave me a seat riding backwards in a carriage with seven other women, all very frumpish, but highly respectable. As he could not possibly have done any worse for me, I take it that he considered the shilling a graceful tribute to his personal charms, but as having no other bearing whatever. The seven women stared at me throughout the journey. When one is really of the same blood, and when one does not open one's lips or wave the stars and stripes in any possible manner, how do they detect the American? These women looked at me as if I were a highly interesting anthropoidal ape. It was not because of my attire, for I was carefully dressed down to a third-class level; yet when I removed my plain Knox hat and leaned my head back against my travelling-pillow, an electrical shudder of intense excitement ran through the entire compartment. When I stooped to tie my shoe another current was set in motion, and when I took Charles Reade's White Lies from my portmanteau they glanced at one another as if to say, 'Would that we could see in what language the book is written!' As a travelling mystery I reached my highest point at Oxford, for there I purchased a small basket of plums from a boy who handed them in at the window of the carriage. After eating a few, I offered the rest to a dowdy elderly woman on my left who was munching dry biscuits from a paper bag. 'What next?' was the facial expression of the entire company. My neighbour accepted the plums, but hid them in her bag; plainly thinking them poisoned, and believing me to be a foreign conspirator, conspiring against England through the medium of her inoffensive person. In the course of the four-hours' journey, I could account for the strange impression I was making only upon the theory that it is unusual to comport oneself in a first-class manner in a third-class carriage. All my companions chanced to be third-class by birth as well as by ticket, and the Englishwoman who is born third-class is sometimes deficient in imagination.

Upon arriving at Great Belvern (which must be pronounced 'Bevern') I took a trap, had my luggage put on in front, and start on my quest for lodgings in West Belvern, five miles distant. Several addresses had been given me by Hilda Mellifica, who has spent much time in this region, and who begged me to use her name. I told the driver that I wished to find a clean, comfortable lodging, with the view mentioned in the guide-book, and with a purple clematis over the door, if possible. The last point astounded him to such a degree that he had, I think, a serious idea of giving me into custody. (I should not be so eccentrically spontaneous with these people, if they did not feed my sense of humour by their amazement.)

We visited Holly House, Osborne, St. James, Victoria, and Albert houses, Tank Villa, Poplar Villa, Rose, Brake, and Thorn Villas, as well as Hawthorn, Gorse, Fern, Shrubbery, and Providence Cottages. All had apartments, but many were taken, and many more had rooms either dark and stuffy or without view. Holly House was my first stopping-place. Why will a woman voluntarily call her place by a name which she can never pronounce? It is my landlady's misfortune that she is named 'Obbs, and mine that I am called 'Amilton, but Mrs. 'Obbs must have rushed with eyes wide open on 'Olly 'Ouse. I found sitting-room and bedroom at Holly House for two guineas a week; everything, except roof, extra. This was more than, in my new spirit of economy I desired to pay, but after exhausting my list I was obliged to go back rather than sleep in the highroad. Mrs. Hobbs offered to deduct two shillings a week if I stayed until Christmas, and said she should not charge me a penny for the linen. Thanking her with tears of gratitude, I requested dinner. There was no meat in the house, so I supped frugally off two boiled eggs, a stodgy household loaf, and a mug of ale, after which I climbed the stairs, and retired to my feather-bed in a rather depressed frame of mind.

Visions of Salemina and Francesca driving under the linden-trees in Berlin flitted across my troubled reveries, with glimpses of Willie Beresford and his mother at Aix-les-Bains. At this distance, and in the dead of night, my sacrifice in coming here seemed fruitless. Why did I not allow myself to drift for ever on that pleasant sea which has been lapping me in sweet and indolent content these many weeks? Of what use to labour, to struggle, to deny myself, for an art to which I can never be more than the humblest handmaiden? I felt like crying out, as did once a braver woman's soul than mine, 'Let me be weak! I have been seeming to be strong so many years!' The woman and the artist in me have always struggled for the mastery. So far the artist has triumphed, and now all at once the woman is uppermost. I should think the two ought to be able to live peaceably in the same tenement; they do manage it in some cases; but it seems a law of my being that I shall either be all one or all the other.

The question for me to ask myself now is, "Am I in love with loving and with being loved, or am I in love with Willie Beresford?" How many women have confounded the two, I wonder?

In this mood I fell asleep, and on a sudden I found myself in a dear New England garden. The pillow slipped away, and my cheek pressed a fragrant mound of mignonette, the self-same one on which I hid my tear-stained face and sobbed my heart out in childish grief and longing for the mother who would never hold me again. The moon came up over the Belvern Hills and shone on my half-closed lids; but to me it was a very different moon, the far-away moon of my childhood, with a river rippling beneath its silver rays. And the wind that rustled among the poplar branches outside my window was, in my dream, stirring the pink petals of a blossoming apple-tree that used to grow beside the bank of mignonette, wafting down sweet odours and drinking in sweeter ones. And presently there stole in upon this harmony of enchanting sounds and delicate fragrances, in which childhood and womanhood, pleasure and pain, memory and anticipation, seemed strangely intermingled, the faint music of a voice, growing clearer and clearer as my ear became familiar with its cadences. And what the dream voice said to me was something like this:—

'If thou wouldst have happiness, choose neither fame, which doth not long abide, nor power, which stings the hand that wields it, nor gold, which glitters but never glorifies; but choose thou Love, and hold it for ever in thy heart of hearts; for Love is the purest and the mightiest force in the universe, and once it is thine all other gifts shall be added unto thee. Love that is passionate yet reverent, tender yet strong, selfish in desiring all yet generous in giving all; love of man for woman and woman for man, of parent for child and friend for friend—when this is born in the soul, the desert blossoms as the rose. Straightway new hopes and wishes, sweet longings and pure ambitions, spring into being, like green shoots that lift their tender heads in sunny places; and if the soil be kind, they grow stronger and more beautiful as each glad day laughs in the rosy skies. And by and by singing-birds come and build their nests in the branches; and these are the pleasures of life. And the birds sing not often, because of a serpent that lurketh in the garden. And the name of the serpent is Satiety. He maketh the heart to grow weary of what it once danced and leaped to think upon, and the ear to wax dull to the melody of sounds that once were sweet, and the eye blind to the beauty that once led enchantment captive. And sometimes—we know not why, but we shall know hereafter, for life is not completely happy since it is not heaven, nor completely unhappy since it is the road thither—sometimes the light of the sun is withdrawn for a moment, and that which is fairest vanishes from the place that was enriched by its presence. Yet the garden is never quite deserted. Modest flowers, whose charms we had not noted when youth was bright and the world seemed ours, now lift their heads in sheltered places and whisper peace. The morning song of the birds is hushed, for the dawn breaks less rosily in the eastern skies, but at twilight they still come and nestle in the branches that were sunned in the smile of love and watered with its happy tears. And over the grave of each buried hope or joy stands an angel with strong comforting hands and patient smile; and the name of the garden is Life, and the angel is Memory.'

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