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OXFORD is not always a cheerful place in late September. To Irvine Dale, who was alone in lodgings, the town seemed as dreary as himself. He derived a melancholy pleasure from the consciousness of its sympathetic dismalness. He drew the pall about him, as it were, and was still. The colleges were empty of all but an occasional echo. The crumbling grey stone, which by green gardens and in the summer sun is beautiful, seemed cold and dead beneath a sky of its own colour. Even the river, for all its fulness, had a leaden and a sluggish air. The roads, which pass out of the town flat and featureless between mean buildings, were made doubly stagnant by paddled mud and muddy puddle. Farther afield the land was heavy and damp, and the paths which climb the sloping
hills were tracks of slime. It was a wet season, dull, steamy, and listless. The very rain was slow and sullen, soaking a man before he knew that it was raining, and dying out slowly as if for weariness.
With such weather about him, Irvine having renounced his kind, betook himself doggedly to his books. He read, because he dared not think. He was glad to be alone, but was conscious of no other pleasure or hope in life. He nursed his torpor, fearing that some pain might follow; and yet he hardly cared if it did. So he lived through the hours, clinging numbly to a dull routine. Any treadmill was better than the maddening thought of himself, of the woman whom he loved, of the friend whom he had thrust aside. The one good was oblivion. Some remnant of a prejudice, at which he smiled, kept him from opium; perhaps, too, the disinclination to face the shopman. The slavey who brought him food embarrassed him, and made him hide his face behind the book which he pretended to read. The country and the town were sodden; and so was he. Through dark days and lengthening nights he lived a vegetable life, very like a cabbage, save for the dim consciousness that he was such, and the faint hope that such he might remain. But it was not to be. One day his repose was interrupted by an unwelcome visitor. There was a mincing step in the passage, a sharp tap at the door, and the free-thinking Blogg entered. He had passed the whole vacation at Oxford, and at the first rumour of an acquaintance, he tripped forth to boast of his solitude. Such is sometimes the reward of the hermit life.
"I am independent of people,” he said, pluming himself on the hearth-rug. Irvine groaned. His visitor had been with him an hour, and had made the same remark three times before. “I have abandoned myself to French novels,” continued the little man, fingering the hair about his temple. “Fancy me alone for three months, with all the latest refinements of vice!”
“I wonder the earth did not swallow you!” said Irvine, grimly ; “or at least a sewer engulf you!"
Blogg laughed his little laugh. “A modern Abiram," he said. He had not talked for weeks, and had a great deal to say. He was in a Parisian vein, ambitious of esprit. He postured in body and in speech. His remarks had a false air of epigram. He darted his borrowed plumes against all things in heaven and earth, till his auditor, awakened from his lethargy, felt the pain of an intense loathing.
The instinct of a gentleman is strong, and Irvine did not say, “For God's sake, go.” Only when his persistent visitor had gone, he hurriedly locked the door behind him. He looked at the window, where the rain was making dirty marks. Is Blogg all that we can produce ? he asked. He thought of this hermit's course of novels, and pulled down from the shelf the Confessions' of De Musset. He read a page, and let the book slip from his hand. Then he laid himself down on the floor, closed his eyes, and pressed his forehead hard against the cheap tawdry carpet. He thought that if the house were falling he would not care to move. He seemed to have nothing to say, but there came with a groan the words, “ O God!” So there he lay exhausted, half alive, while the rain dripped from a broken pipe, and the shadows deepened, and the dismal day sank imperceptibly into the more dismal night. To know everything is to know that everything is vanity. To cultivate the taste is to grow weary of beauty. To love is a folly, if not a foulness. To live is weariness, if not agony. But yet it is something to close tired eyes, and to press heavy head against the irritating carpet. So Irvine Dale lay crushed against that dingy floor, and the shadows weighed upon him. At last he remembered that he had been indoors all day, and, obedient to habit, stumbled to his feet, pulled a soft hat over his eyes, and went out into the damp. He could not tell if it were raining or no. The air was heavy and thick with moisture. The few lights seemed to swim in vapour. There was gravel and pool in the yard, and wide watery slush in the street. Fearful of meeting Blogg, Irvine turned towards the darker part of the town. He went down a long street, wherein the lamps struggled feebly with fog and night. Here and there was a sickly glimmer before his feet, and the debauched brilliancy of the gin-palace at a corner seemed to hint horrors which the darkness would have hidden. There was no sound save of much dismal dripping, and now and then a coarse laugh or oath prompted by drink. For perfume was a pervading smell of vegetable stuff, and here and there a fiery breath of gin. It was not a pleasant street, nor was the shop before which Irvine paused its most pleasant ornament. Perhaps it was closed for the night. Certainly two shutters were up, and probably there were no more in stock. The uncovered part of the window had been roughly mended with paste and brown paper. Within, a tallow candle was guttering, and lending a flatter