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    Chapter 16

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    Chapter 16
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    THE BROWNING SOCIETY

    It all began by Mrs. Hunt Mortimer, the smart little up-to-date wife of the solicitor, saying to Mrs. Beecher, the young bride of the banker, that in a place like Woking it was very hard to get any mental friction, or to escape from the same eternal grooves of thought and conversation. The same idea, it seemed, had occurred to Mrs. Beecher, fortified by a remark from the Lady's Journal that an internal intellectual life was the surest method by which a woman could preserve her youth. She turned up the article--for the conversation occurred in her drawing-room--and she read extracts from it. 'Shakespeare as a Cosmetic' was the title. Maude was very much struck, and before they separated they had formed themselves into a Literary Society which should meet and discuss classical authors every Wednesday afternoon at each other's houses. That one hour of concentrated thought and lofty impulse should give a dignity and a tone to the whole dull provincial week.

    What should they read? It was well that they should decide it before they separated, so as to start fair upon the next Wednesday. Maude suggested Shakespeare, but Mrs. Hunt Mortimer thought that a good deal of it was improper.

    'Does it matter?' said Mrs. Beecher. 'We are all married.'

    'Still I don't think it would be quite nice,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. She belonged to the extreme right on matters of propriety.

    'But surely Mr. Bowdler made Shakespeare quite respectable,' Mrs. Beecher argued.

    'He did his work very carelessly. He left in much that might be dispensed with, and he omitted a good deal which was quite innocent.'

    'How do you know?'

    'Because I once got two copies and read all the omissions.'

    'Why did you do that?' asked Maude mischievously.

    'Because I wanted to make sure that they HAD been omitted,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer severely.

    Mrs. Beecher stooped and picked an invisible hairpin out of the rug. Mrs. Hunt Mortimer continued.

    'There is Byron, of course. But he is so very suggestive. There are passages in his works--'

    'I could never see any harm in them,' said Mrs. Beecher.

    'That is because you did not know where to look,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'If you have a copy in the house, Mrs. Beecher, I will undertake to make it abundantly clear to you that he is to be eschewed by those who wish to keep their thoughts unsullied. Not? I fancy that even quoting from memory I could convince you that it is better to avoid him.'

    'Pass Byron,' said Mrs. Beecher, who was a very pretty little kittenish person, with no apparent need of any cosmetics, literary or otherwise. 'How about Shelley?'

    'Frank raves about Shelley,' observed Maude.

    Mrs. Hunt Mortimer shook her head.

    'His work has some dreadful tendencies. He was, I am informed, either a theist or an atheist, I cannot for the moment recall which-- I think that we should make our little course as improving as possible.'

    'Tennyson,' Maude suggested.

    'I have been told that his meaning is too clear to entitle him to rank among the great thinkers of our race. The lofty thought is necessarily obscure. There is no merit in following a poem which is perfectly intelligible. Which leads us to--'

    'Browning!' cried the other ladies.

    'Exactly. We might form a little Browning Society of our own.'

    'Charming! Charming!'

    And so it was agreed.

    There was only one other point to be settled at this their inaugural meeting, which was, to choose the other ladies who should be admitted into their literary circle. There were to be no men.

    'They do distract one so,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer.

    The great thing was to admit no one save those earnest spirits who would aspire to get the full benefit from their studies. Mrs. Fortescue could not be thought of, she was much too talkative. And Mrs. Jones had such a frivolous mind. Mrs. Charles could think and talk of nothing but her servants. And Mrs. Patt-Beatson always wanted to lay down the law. Perhaps on the whole it would be better to start the society quietly among themselves, and then gradually to increase it. The first meeting should be next Wednesday, at Mrs. Crosse's house, and Mrs. Hunt Mortimer would bring her complete two- volume edition with her. Mrs. Beecher thought that one volume would be enough just at first, but Mrs. Hunt Mortimer said that it was better to have a wide choice. Maude went home and told Frank in the evening. He was pleased, but rather sceptical.

    'You must begin with the simpler things first,' said he. 'I should recommend Herve Riel and Gold Hair.'

    But Maude put on the charming air of displeasure which became her so well.

    'We are serious students, sir,' said she. 'We want the very hardest poem in the book. I assure you, Frank, that one of your little faults is that you always underrate a woman's intelligence. Mrs. Hunt Mortimer says that though we may be less original than men, we are more assim--more assmun--'

    'Assimulative.'

    'That's what I say--assimulative. Now, you always talk as if--oh yes, you do! No, you mustn't! How absurd you are, Frank! Whenever I try to speak seriously to you, you always do that and spoil everything. How would you like to discuss Browning if at the end of every sentence somebody came and kissed you? You wouldn't mind! No, I dare say not. But you would feel that you were not being taken seriously. Wait till the next time YOU are in earnest about anything--you'll see!'

    The meeting was to be at three o'clock, and at ten minutes to the hour Mrs. Hunt Mortimer arrived with two large brown volumes under her arm. She had come early, she said, because there was to be a rehearsal of the amateur theatricals at the Dixons' at a quarter-past four. Mrs. Beecher did not appear until five minutes after the hour. Her cook had quarrelled with the housemaid, and given instantaneous notice, with five people coming to dinner on Saturday. It had upset the lady very much, and she explained that she would not have come if she had not promised. It was so difficult to follow poetry when you were thinking about the entree all the time.

    'Why the entree?' asked Mrs. Hunt Mortimer, looking up from the book which she held open in front of her.

    'My dear,' said Mrs. Beecher, who had the art of saying the most simple things as if they were profoundly confidential secrets,--'My dear, my parlourmaid is really an excellent cook, and I shall rely upon her if Martha really goes. But she is limited, very limited, and entrees and savouries are the two things in which I cannot entirely trust her. I must, therefore, find some dish which is well within her capacity.'

    Mrs. Hunt Mortimer prided herself upon her housekeeping, so the problem interested her. Maude also began to feel the meeting less dull than she had expected.

    'Of course there are many things to be considered,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer, with the air of a Q.C. giving an opinion. 'Oyster patties or oyster vol-au-vents--'

    'Oysters are out of season,' said Maude.

    'I was about to say,' Mrs. Hunt Mortimer continued, with admirable presence of mind, 'that these entrees of oysters are inadmissible because they are out of season. Now curried prawns--'

    'My husband loathes them.'

    'Well, well! What do you say to sweetbreads en caisse? All you want are chopped mushrooms, shalots, parsley, nutmeg, pepper, salt, breadcrumb, bacon fat--'

    'No, no,' cried Mrs. Beecher despairingly. 'Anne would never remember all that.'

    'Cutlets a la Constance,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'I am sure that they are simple enough. Cutlets, butter, fowls' livers, cocks' combs, mushrooms--'

    'My dear, my dear, remember that she is only a parlourmaid. It is unreasonable.'

    'Ragout of fowl, chicken patties, croquettes of veal with a little browning--'

    'We've got back to Browning after all,' cried Maude.

    'Dear me,' said Mrs. Beecher, 'it is all my fault, and I am so sorry. Now, Mrs. Hunt Mortimer, do please read us a little of that delightful poetry.'

    'You can always get small entrees sent down from the Stores,' cried Maude, as a happy thought.

    'You dear, good girl, how sweet of you to think of it. Of course one can. That is really an admirable idea. There now, we may consider the entree as being removed, so we proceed to--'

    'The piece de resistance,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer solemnly, glancing down the index of the first volume. 'I confess that my acquaintance with the poet has up to now been rather superficial. Our ambition must be to so master him that he becomes from this time forward part and parcel of ourselves. I fancy that the difficulties in understanding him have been very much exaggerated, and that with goodwill and perseverance we shall manage to overcome them.'

    It was a relief to Mrs. Beecher and to Maude to realise that Mrs. Hunt Mortimer knew no more about the matter than themselves. They both ventured upon a less diffident air now that it was clear that it might be done in safety. Maude frowned thoughtfully, and Mrs. Beecher cast up her pretty brown eyes at the curtain-rod, as if she were running over in her memory the whole long catalogue of the poet's works.

    'I will tell you what we should do,' said she. 'We must make a vow that we shall never pass a line until we understand it. We will go over it again and again until we grasp its meaning.'

    'What an excellent idea!' cried Maude, with one of her little bursts of enthusiasm. 'Now that is really splendid, Mrs. Beecher.'

    'My friends always call me Nellie,' said the little brunette.

    'How nice of you to say so! I should love to call you so, if you don't mind. It is such a pretty name too. Only you must call me Maude.'

    'You look like a Maude,' said Mrs. Beecher. 'I always picture a Maude as bright and pretty and blonde. Isn't it strange how names associate themselves with characters. Mary is always domestic, and Rose is a flirt, and Elizabeth is dutiful, and Evelyn is dashing, and Alice is colourless, and Helen is masterful--'

    'And Matilda is impatient,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer, laughing. 'Matilda has reason to be, seated here with an index in front of her while you two are exchanging compliments.'

    'Why, we were waiting for you to begin,' said Mrs. Beecher reproachfully. 'Do let us have something, for really the time is slipping away.'

    'It would be a pity to begin at the beginning, because that represents his immature genius,' remarked Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'I think that on this the opening day of the Society, we should have the poet at his best.'

    'How are we to know which IS his best?' Maude asked.

    'I should be inclined to choose something with a title which suggests profundity--"A Pretty Woman," "Love in a Life," "Any Wife to any Husband"--'

    'Oh, what DID she say to him?' cried Maude.

    'Well, I was about to say that all these subjects rather suggested frivolity.'

    'Besides, it really is a very absurd title,' remarked Mrs. Beecher, who was fond of generalising from her six months' experience of matrimony. '_A_ husband to _A_ wife' would be intelligible, but how can you know what ANY husband would say to ANY wife? No one can really foretell what a man will do. They really are such extraordinary creatures.'

    But Mrs. Hunt Mortimer had been married for five years, and felt as competent to lay down the law about husbands as about entrees.

    'When you have had a larger experience of them, dear, you will find that there is usually a reason, or at least a primitive instinct of some sort, at the root of their actions. But, seriously, we must really concentrate our attention upon the poet, for my other engagement will call me away at four, which only leaves me ten minutes to reach Maybury.'

    Mrs. Beecher and Maude settled down with anxious attention upon their faces.

    'Do please go on!' they cried.

    'Here is "The Pied Piper of Hamelin."'

    'Now that interests me more than I can tell,' cried Maude, with her eyes shining with pleasure. 'Do please read us everything there is about that dear piper.'

    'Why so?' asked her two companions.

    'Well, the fact is,' said Maude, 'Frank--my husband, you know--came to a fancy-dress at St. Albans as the Pied Piper. I had no idea that it came from Browning.'

    'How did he dress for it?' asked Mrs. Beecher. 'We are invited to the Aston's dress ball, and I want something suitable for George.'

    'It was a most charming dress. Red and black all over, something like Mephistopheles, you know, and a peaked hat with a bell at the top. Then he had a flute, of course, and a thin wire from his waist with a stuffed rat at the end of it.'

    'A rat! How horrid!'

    'Well, that was the story, you know. The rats all followed the Pied Piper, and so this rat followed Frank. He put it in his pocket when he danced, but once he forgot, and so it got stood upon, and the sawdust came out all over the floor.'

    Mrs. Hunt Mortimer was also invited to the dress ball, and her thoughts flew away from the book in front of her.

    'How did you go, Mrs. Crosse?' she asked.

    'I went as "Night."'

    'What! you with your brown hair!'

    'Well, father said that I was not a very dark night. I was in black, you know, just my ordinary black silk dinner-dress. Then I had a silver half-moon over my head, and black veils round my hair, and stars all over my bodice and skirt, with a long comet right across the front. Father upset a cup of milk over me at supper, and said afterwards that it was the milky way.'

    'It is simply maddening how men WILL make jokes about the most important subjects,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'But I have no doubt, dear, that your dress was an exceedingly effective one. Now, for my own part, I had some idea of going as the "Duchess of Devonshire."'

    'Charming!' cried Mrs. Beecher and Maude.

    'It is not a very difficult costume, you know. I have some old Point d'Alencon lace which has been in the family for a century. I make it the starting-point of my costume. The gown need not be very elaborate--'

    'Silk?' asked Mrs. Beecher.

    'Well, I thought that perhaps a white-flowered brocade--'

    'Oh yes, with pearl trimming.'

    'No, no, dear, with my lace for trimming.'

    'Of course. You said so.'

    'And then a muslin fichu coming over here.'

    'How perfectly sweet!' cried Maude.

    'And the waist cut high, and ruffles at the sleeves. And, of course, a picture hat--you know what I mean--with a curling ostrich feather.'

    'Powdered hair, of course?' said Mrs. Beecher.

    'Powdered in ringlets.'

    'It will suit you admirably--beautifully. You are tall enough to carry it off, and you have the figure also. How I wish I was equally certain about my own!'

    'What had you thought of, dear?'

    'Well, I had some idea about "Ophelia." Do you think that it would do?'

    'Certainly. Had you worked it out at all?'

    'Well, my dear,' said Mrs. Beecher, relapsing into her pleasant confidential manner. 'I had some views, but, of course, I should be so glad to have your opinion about it. I only saw Hamlet once, and the lady was dressed in white, with a gauzy light nun's-veiling over it. I thought that with white pongee silk as an under-dress, and then some sort of delicate--'

    'Crepe de Chine,' Maude suggested.

    'But in Ophelia's day such a thing had never been heard of,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'A net of silver thread--'

    'Exactly,' cried Mrs. Beecher, 'with some sort of jewelling upon it. That was just what I had imagined. Of course it should be cut classically and draped--my dressmaker is such a treasure--and I should have a gold embroidery upon the white silk.'

    'Crewel work,' said Maude.

    'Or a plain cross-stitch pattern. Then a tiara of pearls on the head. Shakespeare--'

    At the name of the poet their three consciences pricked simultaneously. They looked at each other and then at the clock with dismay.

    'We must--we really MUST go on with our reading,' cried Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'How did we get talking about these dresses?'

    'It was my fault,' said Mrs. Beecher, looking contrite.

    'No, dear, it was mine,' said Maude. 'You remember it all came from my saying that Frank had gone to the ball as the Pied Piper.'

    'I am going to read the very first poem that I open,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer remorselessly. 'I am afraid that it is almost time that I started, but we may still be able to skim over a few pages. Now then! There! Setebos! What a funny name!'

    'What DOES it mean?' asked Maude.

    'We shall find out, no doubt, as we proceed,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'We shall take it line by line and draw the full meaning from it. The first line is -

    'Will sprawl now that the heat of day is best--'

    'Who will?' asked Mrs. Beecher.

    'I don't know. That's what it says.'

    'The next line will explain, no doubt.'

    'Flat on his--'

    'Dear me, I had no idea that Browning was like this!'

    'Do read it, dear.'

    'I couldn't possibly think of doing so. With your permission we will pass on to the next paragraph.'

    'But we vowed not to skip.'

    'But why read what cannot instruct or elevate us. Let us begin this next stanza, and hope for something better. The first line is--I wonder if it really can be as it is written.'

    'Do please read it!'

    'Setebos and Setebos and Setebos.'

    The three students looked sadly at each other. 'This is worse than anything I could have imagined,' said the reader.

    'We mast skip that line.'

    'But we are skipping everything.'

    'It's a person's name,' said Mrs. Beecher.

    'Or three persons.'

    'No, only one, I think.'

    'But why should he repeat it three times?'

    'For emphasis!'

    'Perhaps,' said Mrs. Beecher, 'it was Mr. Setebos, and Mrs. Setebos, and a little Setebos.'

    'Now, if you are going to make fun, I won't read. But I think we were wrong to say that we would take it line by line. It would be easier sentence by sentence.'

    'Quite so.'

    'Then we will include the next line, which finishes the sentence. It is, "thinketh he dwelleth in the cold of the moon."'

    'Then it WAS only one Setebos!' cried Maude.

    'So it appears. It is easy to understand if one will only put it into ordinary language. This person Setebos was under the impression that his life was spent in the moonlight.'

    'But what nonsense it is!' cried Mrs. Beecher. Mrs. Hunt Mortimer looked at her reproachfully. 'It is very easy to call everything which we do not understand "nonsense,"' said she. 'I have no doubt that Browning had a profound meaning in this.'

    'What was it, then?'

    Mrs. Hunt Mortimer looked at the clock.

    'I am very sorry to have to go,' said she, 'but really I have no choice in the matter. Just as we were getting on so nicely--it is really most vexatious. You'll come to my house next Wednesday, Mrs. Crosse, won't you? And you also, Mrs. Beecher. Good-bye, and thanks for SUCH a pleasant afternoon!'

    But her skirts had hardly ceased to rustle in the passage before the Browning Society had been dissolved by a two-thirds' vote of the total membership.

    'What is the use?' cried Mrs. Beecher. 'Two lines have positively made my head ache, and there are two volumes.'

    'We must change our poet.'

    'His verbosity!' cried Mrs. Beecher.

    'His Setebosity!' cried Maude.

    'And dear Mrs. Hunt Mortimer pretending to like him! Shall we propose Tennyson next week?'

    'It would be far better.'

    'But Tennyson is quite simple, is he not?'

    'Perfectly.'

    'Then why should we meet to discuss him if there is nothing to discuss?'

    'You mean that we might as well each read him for herself.'

    'I think it would be easier.'

    'Why, of course it would.'

    And so after one hour of precarious life, Mrs. Hunt Mortimer's Mutual Improvement Society for the elucidation of Browning came to an untimely end.
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