Ernest Temple Thurston.

The city of beautiful nonsense online

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I never foresaw that it was going to lead to this.
What a child ! My heavens ! What a child ! He was
a child ! She's a child ! I'm a child, too ! We're a
family of children, not fit for one of the responsibili-
ties of life."

" Do you think you're any the worse for that? "
she asked softly.

I don't Imow," he shrugged his shoulders.
Upon my soul, it seems now the greatest crime
a man can commit. In a world of grown-up men
and women who can pay their rents and taxes,
meet their bills and save their money, to be a child
is a monstrous, a heinous crime."

^ Only to those who don't understand," she an-

" Well — and who does? "

"I do."

**you do? Yes^ I know that — ^but how can you

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help? You've done more than a thousand women
would have done. You helped me to make his pass-
ing a happy one; you can't do more than that.
You're even going to stay on a few days longer to
help this fool of a child still more. That proves
you imderstand. I know you understand — God bless

He shrank into himself despairingly. His whole
body seemed to contract in the pain of self-con-
demnation, and he pressed his hands violently over
his eyes. Suddenly, he felt her move. He took his
hands away and found her kneeling at his feet, that
white face of ivory turned up to his, her eyes dimmed
with tears.

** Do you call it understanding if I leave you now
— ^little child? " she whispered, and her voice was like
the sound in a long-dreamt dream which, on the
morning, he had forgotten and striven to remember
ever since.

Slowly, he took away his hands. Now he recalled
the voice. The whole dream came back. It was sum-
mer — summer in England. They were in a field
where cattle grazed imder the warm shadows of high
elm trees. Cowslips grew there, standing up through
the grass with their thin, white, velvet stems; here
and there an orchid with spotted leaves, a group of
scabii bending their feathered heads in the heat of
the day. Jill sat sewing little garments, and he lay
idle, stretched upon his back, gazing up into the end-
less blue where the white clouds sailed like little ships,
making for distant harbours. And as she sewed, she
talked of things more wonderful than God had made

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the day; of things that women, in the most sacred
moments of their life, sometimes reveal to men.

This was the dream he had forgotten. In his
sleep, he had known that it was a dream ; had known
that he must remember it all his life; yet in the
morning, but faintly recollected he had dreamt at
all. Now, those two words of hers — ^little child — and
the summer day, the browsing cattle, the white flut-
ter of the tiny garments, the scent of the fields and
the sound of her voice had all returned in one swift
rush of memory.

" What do you mean? '* he asked slowly — ^^ if you
leave me now, what do you mean.? What do you
mean by — little child? ''

Both hands, she put out ; both hands to clasp on
his. The tears ceased gathering in her eyes. Be-
fore God and in great moments, the eyes forget their
tears; there is no trembling of the lips; the voice
is clear and true.

" Don't you remember what he said? " she asked.
" * Make your lives out of love, as I have made mine.
Make your children out of love as I have made
mine.' Did you think I could hear that from him
without knowing what you yourself have said just
now, that there is no such thing as Duty? "

John stared at her. He dared not interpose. He
dared not even answer the question she had asked,
for fear his voice should break the linking of her

** Can you hear him saying — ^ Make your lives
out of duty, as I have made mine. Make your
children out of duty as I have made mine?' Can

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you imagine him saying that? Can you feel how it
would have grated on your ears? Yet that's just
what I'm going to do; but I didn't realise it till

** What is it you're going to say? " he asked be-
low his breath. "What is it you're leading to?
All this is leading to something. What is it? "

"That I'm not going to leave you, little child.
That if, after all, there is such a thing as Duty, he
has shown me what it is."

The gondola bumped against the steps. The voice
of the gondolier called out that their destination was
reached. John rose quickly to his feet.

" Go back," he said. " Go back to the hotel."

Away they started again and as he plied his oar,
the gondolier gazed up at the stars, and hummed a
muffled tune.

For a few moments, John remained standing. She
was not going to leave him. She was never going
to leave him. That was the big thought, triumphant
in his mind. But a thousand little thoughts, like
grains of dust in a great sunbeam, danced and
whirled about it. He thought of those rooms of his
in Fetter Lane ; of his own improvidence, of the dis-
reputable appearance of Mrs. Morrell on Saturday
mornings when she cleaned the stairs of the house,
and conversed, in language none too refined, with
Miss Morrell. He thought of the impudence of Mrs.
Brown, when she appeared in curling papers and
made remarks about her neighbours with a choice of
words that can only be said to go with that particu-
lar adornment of the hair.

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But these were only cavilling considerations, which
made the big thought real. He could change his
address. Now, indeed, he could go down to Hare-
field. He could work twice as hard; he could make
twice as mudi money. All these things, ambition
will easily overcome in the face of so big a thought
as this. She was never going to leave him.

He took her hands as he sat down.

" Do you think you realise everything? '* he said;
for the first instinct of the grateful recipient is
to return the gift. He does not mean to give it
back; but neither does be quite know how to
take it.

She nodded her head.

"All my circimistances? How poor I am?'*

«* Everything."

"AndstiU ?''

** And still," she replied. " Nothing but your ask-
ing could change me."

He sat gazing at her, just holding her hands.
Only in real stories do people at such a moment fall
into each other's arms. When the matter is really
nonsense, then people act differently — ^perhaps they
are more reserved — ^possibly the wonder of it all is
greater then.

John sat silently beside her and tried to under-
stand. It was so unexpected. He had scarcely even
wished that it might be so.

** When did you think this? " he asked presently.

**Just — before he died."

"When he blessed us?"


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"Why haven't you said so before?'*

" I couldn't. I haven't been able to speak. I've
suddenly seen things real ^"

" In the midst of all this nonsense ^^

"Yes — and it's taken my breath away. All in
a few hours, I've seen death and love, and I don't
know what the change is in me, but I'm different.
I've grown up. I understand. You say I have un-
derstood before; but I've understood nothing. I
should never have come here last year, if I had un-
derstood. I should never have continued meeting you
in Kensington Gardens, if I had understood. Women
don't understand as a rule ; no girl understands. She
would never play with love, if she did. I know, sud-
denly, that I belong to you; that I have no right
to marry anyone else. In these last few hours, I've
felt that a force outside me determines the giving
of my life, and it has frightened me. I couldn't say
anything. When you said you were a child, then I
suddenly found my tongue. I wasn't afraid any
more. I knew you were a child, my child — ^my little
child — ^not my master. There's no mastery in it;
you're just my child."

Suddenly she closed her arms round him; she
buried her head on his shoulder.

"I can't explain any more!" she whispered —
" It's something I can't explain — ^I haven't any
words for it."

And, as he held her to him, John thought of the
dream he had dreamt, of the field and the cattle,
and the white fluttering of the tiny garemnts, and the
clouds sailing in the sky, and again came to him

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the note in her voice as she told him the most won-
derful thing in the whole world. Then, leaning
out from the hood, he called out to the gondolier:

" Just take us out on the Lagoon before we go

And they swung round again to his oar.

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The very best of us have a strain of selfishness.
The most understanding of us are unable to a nicety
to grasp the other person's point of view ; and there
will always be some little thing, some subtle matter,
which it is not in the nature of us to perceive in
the nature of someone else. Perhaps this is the
surest proof of the existence of the soul.

When, on the steps of the hotel, John bid good-
night to Jill, there was but one rgret in the minds
of both of them, that that blessing which they had
received at the hands of the old gentleman had
come too soon; that in the receipt of it, they had
been impostors, unworthy of so close a touch with
the Infinite.

There is nothing quite so distressing to the honest
mind as this and, to avoid it, to mitigate the of-
fence, it is quite a simple process for the honest mind
to project itself into some further evil of selfishness,
so long as it may gain peace and a free conscience.

** There is only one thing that we can do,'* said
John, and, if good intentions weigh, however lightly,
in the sensitive scales of justice, let one be here
placed in the balance for him.

"I know what you are going to say,'' replied


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Of course she knew. They had begun to think
alike ahready.

"We must tell her.''

She nodded her head.

** We can't deceive her,'* he went on — ^* It's bad
enough to have deceived him. And now — ^well, it's
such a different matter now. She must understand.
Don't you think she will? "

With a gentle pressure of his hand, she agreed.

They both pictured her glad of the knowledge,
because in the hearts of them both, they were so glad
to be able to tell. For this is how the honest deceive
themselves, by super-imposing upon another, that
state of mind which is their own. With all belief,
they thought the little old white-haired IfiwJy must
be glad when she heard; with all innocence and ig-
norance of human nature, they conceived of her
gratitude that such an ending had been brought

" When shall we tell her? '* asked Jill.

"Oh — ^not at once. In a day or so. The day
you go, perhaps."

" And you think shell forgive me? "

He. smiled at her tenderly for her question.

*^Do you think you know anything about the
little old white-haired lady when you ask that?
I'll just give you an example. She abominates
drunkenness — ^loathes it — ^in theory has no pity for
it, finds no excuse. Well, they had a gardener once,
when they were better off. There's not a school for
the trade in Venice, as you can imagine. Tito knew
absolutely nothing. He was worthless. He was as

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likely as not to pull up the best plant in the gar-
den and think it was a weed. But there he was.
Well, one day Claudina reported he was drunk.
Drunk! Tito drunk! In their garden! Oh, but it
was honible — ^it was disgusting ! She could scarcely
believe that it was true. But Claudina's word had
to be taken and Tito must go. She could not even
bear to think he was still about the place.

" Tito — ^I have heard so and so — ^is it true? '* she

Well — ^Tito talked about not feeKng well and
things disagreeing with him. At last he admitted it.

*^ Then you must go," said she — " I give you a
week's wages.'*

But a piteous look came into Tito's face and
he bent his head and he begged — ^^ Oh, don't send
me away, egregia signoral ** and that cry of his
went so much to her heart, that she almost took
his head on her shoulder in her pity for him. And
you say — will she forgive you? Why, her capacity
for forgiveness is infinite ! I often think, when they
talk of the sins that God cannot pardon, I often
think of her."

She looked up and smiled.

** Do you always tell a little story when you want
to explain something? " she asked.

** Always," said he—" to Uttle children."

She shut her eyes to feel the caress in the words.

**Well, then," she said, opening them again —
** we tell her the day after to-morrow."

"That is the day you go?"

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"Yes — ^I must go then. And may I say one
thing? "

**May you? You may say everything but one."

"What is that?" ^

**That I have been dreaming all this to-night."

"No, you haven't been dreaming. It was all

" Then — ^what do you want to say? "

" That the little old white-haired lady is not to
live alone. I'm going to live with her as much of
the year as you'll let me — all of it if you will/*

For one moment, ^e was silent — a moment of reali-
sation, not of doubt.

"God seems to have given me so much in this
last hour," he said, " that nothing I could offer
would appear generous after such a gift. It shall
be all the year, if you wish it. I owe her that and
more. But for her, perhaps, this would never have

He took her hand and pressed his lips to it.

" Good-night, sweetheart. And the day after to-
morrow then, we tell her everything."

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When the little door had closed behmd them, the
old lady stood with head inclined, listening to the
sound of their footsteps. Then, creeping to the
high window that looked over the Rio Marin, —
that same window at which, nearly a year before,
she had stood with her husband watching Jill's
departure — she pressed her face against the glass,
straining her eyes to see them to the end.

It was very dark. For a moment, as John helped
Jill into the gondola, she could distinguish their
separate figures ; but then, the deep shadow beneath
the hood enveloped them and hid them from her gaze.
Yet still she stayed there; still she peered out over
the water as, with that graceful sweeping of the
oar, they swung round and swayed forward into the
mystery of the shadow beyond.

To the last moment when, melting into the dark-
ness, they became the darkness itself, she remained,
leaning against the sill, watching, as they watch,
who long have ceased to see. And for some time
after they had disappeared, her white face and still
whiter hair were pressed against the high window
in that vast chamber, as if she had forgotten why it
was she was there and stood in waiting for her
memory to return.


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Such an impression she might have given, had you
come upon her, looking so lost and fragile in that
great room. But in her mind, there was no want
of memory. She remembered everything.

It is not always the philosopher who makes the
best out of the saddest moments in life. Women
can be philosophic; the little old white-haired lady
was philosophic then, as she stood gazing out into
the empty darkness. And yet, no woman is really a
philosopher. To begin with, there is no heart in
such matter at all ; it is the dried wisdom of bitter-
ness, from which the burning sun of reason has
sucked all blood, all nourishment. And that which
has no heart in it, is no fit food for a woman. For a
woman is all heart, or she is nothing. If she can
add two and two together, and make a calculation of
it, then let her do it, but not upon one page in your
life, if you value the paper upon which that life
be written. For once she sees that she can add
aright, she brings her pen to all else. The desire
of power, to a woman who has touched it, is a

But it was other than the calculation of philosophy
which sustained the mind of the little old lady at
this, the saddest and the most lonely moment of her

As she leant, gazing out of the window down the
black line of water that lost itself in the silent gath-
ering of the houses, there almost was triumph in
her mind. She had lost everything, but she had done
everything. She was utterly alone; but only be-
cause she had outlived her world. And last of ally

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there was triumph in her heart, because her world
was complete. She could have asked nothing more
of it. Her Romance was rekindled. If there was
anything to live for, it was to see the flames leap-
ing up in some other brazier — ^those flames which
she had given the spark of her life to ignite. And
had she not seen them rising already? Had she not
seen the fire blessed by the only hand to whom the
power of blessing is given? For all she knew, for
all she dared to guess, the old gentleman's blessing
had fallen upon a future, further distant than, per-
haps, he dreamed of. What more had desire to ask
for than that?

She remembered how, in those days of doubt and
troubling, she had counted in fear the time which
was left in which John should take his wife. She
remembered doubting that they might even live ta
see the realisation of such happiness as that.

They were old people. There had no longer been
certainty for them in the counting of the years.
And, as this very day had proved, John's marriage
had come none too soon. Had it been later, had
they not received that blessing to which, with all
such things as the flights of magpies and the turn-
ings ef the moon, this simple soul of hers gave
magic virtue, then, indeed, she might have looked sor-
rowfully out of the high window in the great room.

But no — ^there had been no such mischance as
that. The vivid . sense of completeness filled her
heart and raised the beating of it for a few mo-
ments, as the hope of a dying priest is raised by
the presentation of his beloved cross.

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And this Is the philosophy, the stoicism of women,
who will face the fearsome emptiness of a whole
desert of life, so be it, that their heart is full and

Who, passing below on the black strip of water
and, seeing her pale, white face looking out from
that high window into the night, could have con-
ceived of such wonderful reconciliation as this? Who
could have imagined the whole moment as it was?
An old gentleman lying in a tiny room, the lamp
still burning on the altar at his side, his hands
crossed upon his breast in an unbreaking sleep;
away out upon the water of the Lagoon, two lovers,
young, alight with life, exalted in a sudden realisa-
tion of happiness, and this little old white-haired
lady, alone in that great, high-ceilinged room, with
its heavy, deep-coloured curtains and its massive
pictures hanging on the wall and in the heart of her,
a great uplifting thankfulness in the midst of such
absolute desolation as this, a thankfulness that her
life was a great, an all-comprehending fulfilment,
that her greatest work was done, her highest de-
sire reached — ^who, in the first inspiration of their
imagination, seeing that frail white face pressed close
against the window pane, could have conjured to
their mind such a moment as this?

And yet, these simple things are life. A face peer-
ing from a window, a hand trembMng at a touch,
a sudden laugh, a sudden silence, they all may hide
the greatest history, if one had but the eyes to

For more than half-an-hour she remained there

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without movement almost, except when she pressed
her hand inquiringly to her breast to feel for the
beating of her heart. At last, with a little shudder,
as though, in that moment, she realised the vast
space of emptiness in the great room behind her, she
moved away.

Still her steps were steady, still her head was high,
as she walked back to the little room where, evening
after evening, year after year, the old gentleman
had sat with her and talked, until the time came
when they must go to bed. For with old people, as
you know, it comes to be a state of — ^must — they
must go to bed. It is not kind to tell them so, but
there it is.

The room was disordered; for a time of sickness
is as a time of siege — the time when Death lays
siege upon a house and there are no moments left
to put things as they were.

On any other occasion, she would have fretted at
the sight. The world is sometimes all compassed
in an old lady's work-basket, and to upset that, is
to turn the world upside down. But now, as she
saw all the untidiness, the little old white-haired
lady only sighed. She took her accustomed chair
and, seating herself, stared quietly at the chair that
was empty, the chair that was still placed, just as
he had left it that morning when, going down to
see to his garden and to speak to Tito, he had fallen
in the great room outside, and they had carried him
straight to his bed.

Now it was empty. The whole room was empty.
She heard sounds, sounds in Venice, sounds that she

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had never realised before. She heard the clock tick-
ing and wondered why she had never heard that.
She heard Claudina moving in the kitchen. She
heard the voice of a gondolier singing on the canal.

Presently, she rose to her feet and walked slowly
to a drawer that had long been closed. Opening it,
she took out some part of an old lace shawl, unfin-
ished, where it had been laid from that moment when
God had withered her hands and she was powerless
to do her work.

Bringing it with her, she came back to her chair ;
sat down and laid it on her lap. This was the only
thing incomplete in her life. Memory became sud-
denly vivid as she looked at it. She almost remem-
bered — ^perhaps pretended that she did recall — the
last stitch where she had left off.

And there, when she came in for her unfailing
ceremony, Claudina found her, gazing towards the
door with the imfinished lace shawl in her hands.

The little white head moved quickly, the eyes
lighted for one sudden moment of relief

" Surely it's after ten o'clock, Claudina," she said.

And Claudina shook her head gravely.

" No, signora. It wants some minutes yet. But
I thought if Giovanino was gone, you ought to go
to bed."

They had prepared another little room for her to
sleep in; but she insisted first upon going to see
him once more.

By the light of the altar lamp, she found her way
to the bed. Without the sound of a cry, or the hesi-
tation of those who are suddenly brought into the

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presence of Death, she lifted the sheet from his face.
It was ahnost as though she had expected to find
that he was asleep.

For a little while, she stood there, looking quietly
at the peacefulness of it all, then she bent over
the bed. Claudina saw her whisper something in his
ear. At the last, she crossed him with trembling
finger, laid back the sheet upon his face and, with-
out a sound, slowly turned away.

In Claudina's hands she was like a little child*
like a little child, she was undressed, like a little
child put into her bed, the clothes pulled warmly
round her, her beads given into her hand to hold.

With candle lighted and held above her head,
Claudina stood at the door before she went out.
The tears rushed warmly to her eyes as she saw the
white head alone upon the pillow, and thought of
the silent figure they had just left in the other

** Buona notte, signora^* she said as bravely as
she could.

" Btwna notte,** replied the little old white-haired

At her accustomed hour of the morning, came
Claudina into the little room. Feeling her way to
the window, she threw open wide the jalousies. A
flood of sunshine beat into the room and made all
dazzling white. Claudina felt thankful for it. It
was a new day. It was a wonderful day.

She turned to the bed. There was the still white
head, alone upon the pillow, the powerless hand just

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showing from beneath the coverlet, still holding its
string of beads.

** Buona GiomOj iignoray* she said, trying to
make the note of some cheerfulness in her voice.

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Online LibraryErnest Temple ThurstonThe city of beautiful nonsense → online text (page 20 of 21)