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Chapter 9 A Confirmed Spinster

I am in danger, I see, of being included among the whimsical fellows, which I so little desire that I have got me into my writing-chair to combat the charge, but, having sat for an unconscionable time with pen poised, I am come agitatedly to the fear that there may be something in it.

So long a time has elapsed, you must know, since I abated of the ardours of self-inquiry that I revert in vain (through many rusty doors) for the beginning of this change in me, if changed I am; I seem ever to see this same man until I am back in those wonderful months which were half of my life, when, indeed, I know that I was otherwise than I am now; no whimsical fellow then, for that was one of the possibilities I put to myself while seeking for the explanation of things, and found to be inadmissible. Having failed in those days to discover why I was driven from the garden, I suppose I ceased to be enamoured of myself, as of some dull puzzle, and then perhaps the whimsicalities began to collect unnoticed.

It is a painful thought to me to-night, that he could wake up glorious once, this man in the elbow-chair by the fire, who is humourously known at the club as a “confirmed spinster.” I remember him well when his years told four and twenty; on my soul the proudest subaltern of my acquaintance, and with the most reason to be proud. There was nothing he might not do in the future, having already done the biggest thing, this toddler up club-steps to-day.

Not, indeed, that I am a knave; I am tolerably kind, I believe, and most inoffensive, a gentleman, I trust, even in the eyes of the ladies who smile at me as we converse; they are an ever-increasing number, or so it seems to me to-night. Ah, ladies, I forget when I first began to notice that smile and to be made uneasy by it. I think I understand it now, and in some vague way it hurts me. I find that I watch for it nowadays, but I hope I am still your loyal, obedient servant.

You will scarcely credit it, but I have just remembered that I once had a fascinating smile of my own. What has become of my smile? I swear I have not noticed that it was gone till now; I am like one who revisiting his school feels suddenly for his old knife. I first heard of my smile from another boy, whose sisters had considered all the smiles they knew and placed mine on top. My friend was scornful, and I bribed him to mention the plebiscite to no one, but secretly I was elated and amazed. I feel lost to-night without my smile. I rose a moment ago to look for it in my mirror.

I like to believe that she has it now. I think she may have some other forgotten trifles of mine with it that make the difference between that man and this. I remember her speaking of my smile, telling me it was my one adornment, and taking it from me, so to speak, for a moment to let me see how she looked in it; she delighted to make sport of me when she was in a wayward mood, and to show me all my ungainly tricks of voice and gesture, exaggerated and glorified in her entrancing self, like a star calling to the earth: “See, I will show you how you hobble round,” and always there was a challenge to me in her eyes to stop her if I dared, and upon them, when she was most audacious, lay a sweet mist.

They all came to court, as is the business of young fellows, to tell her what love is, and she listened with a noble frankness, having, indeed, the friendliest face for all engaged in this pursuit that can ever have sat on woman. I have heard ladies call her coquette, not understanding that she shone softly upon all who entered the lists because, with the rarest intuition, she foresaw that they must go away broken men and already sympathised with their dear wounds. All wounds incurred for love were dear to her; at every true utterance about love she exulted with grave approval, or it might be with a little “ah!” or “oh!” like one drinking deliciously. Nothing could have been more fair, for she was for the first comer who could hit the target, which was her heart.

She adored all beautiful things in their every curve and fragrance, so that they became part of her. Day by day, she gathered beauty; had she had no heart (she who was the bosom of womanhood) her thoughts would still have been as lilies, because the good is the beautiful.

And they all forgave her; I never knew of one who did not forgive her; I think had there been one it would have proved that there was a flaw in her. Perhaps, when good-bye came she was weeping because all the pretty things were said and done with, or she was making doleful confessions about herself, so impulsive and generous and confidential, and so devoid of humour, that they compelled even a tragic swain to laugh. She made a looking-glass of his face to seek wofully in it whether she was at all to blame, and when his arms went out for her, and she stepped back so that they fell empty, she mourned, with dear sympathy, his lack of skill to seize her. For what her soft eyes said was that she was always waiting tremulously to be won. They all forgave her, because there was nothing to forgive, or very little, just the little that makes a dear girl dearer, and often afterward, I believe, they have laughed fondly when thinking of her, like boys brought back. You ladies who are everything to your husbands save a girl from the dream of youth, have you never known that double-chinned industrious man laugh suddenly in a reverie and start up, as if he fancied he were being hailed from far-away?

I hear her hailing me now. She was so light-hearted that her laugh is what comes first across the years; so high-spirited that she would have wept like Mary of Scots because she could not lie on the bare plains like the men. I hear her, but it is only as an echo; I see her, but it is as a light among distant trees, and the middle-aged man can draw no nearer; she was only for the boys. There was a month when I could have shown her to you in all her bravery, but then the veil fell, and from that moment I understood her not. For long I watched her, but she was never clear to me again, and for long she hovered round me, like a dear heart willing to give me a thousand chances to regain her love. She was so picturesque that she was the last word of art, but she was as young as if she were the first woman. The world must have rung with gallant deeds and grown lovely thoughts for numberless centuries before she could be; she was the child of all the brave and wistful imaginings of men. She was as mysterious as nigh............

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