Theodora, a Fragment
By Victoria Cross
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I DID not turn out of bed till ten o’clock the next morning, and
I was still in dressing-gown and slippers, sitting by the fire,
looking over a map, when Digby came in upon me.
” Hullo, Ray, only just up, eh ? as usual ? ” was his first
exclamation as he entered, his ulster buttoned to his chin, and
the snow thick upon his boots. ” What a fellow you are ! I
can’t understand anybody lying in bed till ten o’clock in the
” And I can’t understand anybody driving up at seven,” I
said, smiling, and stirring my coffee idly. I had laid down the
map with resignation. I knew Digby had come round to jaw
for the next hour at least. ” Can I offer you some breakfast ? ”
” Breakfast ! ” returned Digby contemptuously. ” No, thanks.
I had mine hours ago. Well, what do you think of her ? ”
” Of whom ?—this Theodora ? “
” Oh, it’s Theodora already, is it ? ” said Digby, looking at me.
” Well, never mind : go on. Yes, what do you think of her ? ”
“She seems rather clever, I think.”
” Do you ? ” returned Digby, with a distinct accent of regret,
as if I had told him I thought she squinted. ” I never noticed it.
But her looks, I mean ? ”
” She is very peculiar,” I said, merely.
” But you like everything extraordinary. I should have thought
her very peculiarity was just what would have attracted you.”
” So it does,” I admitted ; ” so much so, that I am going to
take the trouble of calling this afternoon expressly to see her
Digby stared hard at me for a minute, and then burst out
laughing. ” By Jove ! You’ve made good use of your time.
Did she ask you ? ”
” She did,” I said.
” This looks as if it would be a case,” remarked Digby lightly,
and then added, ” I’d have given anything to have had her myself.
But if it’s not to be for me, I’d rather you should be the lucky
man than any one else.”
” Don’t you think all that is a little ‘ previous ‘ ? ” I asked
satirically, looking at him over the coffee, which stood on the map
” Well, I don’t know. You must marry some time, Cecil.”
” Really ! ” I said, raising my eyebrows and regarding him with
increased amusement. ” I think I have heard of men remaining
celibates before now, especially men with my tastes.”
” Yes,” said Digby, becoming suddenly as serious and thoughtful
as if he were being called upon to consider some weighty problem,
and of which the solution must be found in the next ten minutes.
” I don’t know how you would agree. She is an awfully religious
” Indeed ? ” I said with a laugh. ” How do you know ? “
Digby thought hard.
“She is,” he said with conviction, at last. ” I see her at church
” Oh then, of course she must be—proof conclusive,” I
Digby looked at me and then grumbled, ” Confounded sneering
fellow you are. Has she been telling you she is not ? ”
I remembered suddenly that I had promised Theodora not to
repeat her opinions, so I only said, ” I really don’t know what she
is ; she may be most devout for all I know—or care.”
“Of course you can profess to be quite indifferent,” said Digby
ungraciously. “But all I can say is, it doesn’t look like it—your
going there this afternoon ; and anyway, she is not indifferent to
you. She said all sorts of flattering things about you.”
” Very kind, I am sure,” I murmured derisively.
” And she sent round to my rooms this morning a thundering
box of Havannahs in recognition of my having won the bet about
I laughed outright. ” That’s rather good biz for you ! The
least you can do is to let me help in the smoking of them, I
” Of course I will. But it shows what she thinks of you,
doesn’t it ? ”
” Oh, most convincingly,” I said with mock earnestness.
” Havannahs are expensive things.”
” But you know how awfully rich she is, don’t you ? ” asked
Digby, looking at me as if he wanted to find out whether I were
really ignorant or affecting to be so.
” My dear Charlie, you know I know nothing whatever about
her except what you tell me—or do you suppose she showed me
her banking account between the dances ? ”
” Don’t know, I am sure,” Digby grumbled back. ” You sat
in that passage long enough to be going through a banking
account, and balancing it too, for that matter ! However, the
point is, she is rich—tons of money, over six thousand a year.”
” Really ? ” I said, to say something.
” Yes, but she loses every penny on her marriage. Seems such
a funny way to leave money to a girl, doesn’t it ? Some old pig of
a maiden aunt tied it up in that way . Nasty thing to do, I think ;
don’t you ? ”
” Very immoral of the old lady, it seems. A girl like that, if
she can’t marry, will probably forego nothing but the cere-
” She runs the risk of losing her money, though, if anything
were known. She only has it dum casta manet, just like a separa-
” Hard lines,” I murmured sympathetically.
” And so of course her people are anxious she should make a
good match—take some man, I mean, with an income equal to
what she has now of her own, so that she would not feel any loss.
Otherwise, you see, if she married a poor man, it would be rather
a severe drop for her.”
” Conditions calculated to prevent any fellow but a millionaire
proposing to her, I should think,” I said.
” Yes, except that she is a girl who does not care about money.
She has been out now three seasons, and had one or two good
chances and not taken them. Now myself, for instance, if she
wanted money and position and so on, she could hardly do better,
could she ? And my family and the rest of it are all right ; but
she couldn’t get over my red hair—I know it was that. She’s
mad upon looks—I know she is ; she let it out to me once, and
I bet you anything, she’d take you and chuck over her money and
everything else, if you gave her the chance.”
” I am
” I am certainly not likely to,” I answered. ” All this you’ve
just told me alone would be enough to choke me off. I have always
thought I could never love a decent woman unselfishly enough,
even if she gave up nothing for me ; and, great heavens ! I should
be sorry to value myself, at—what do you say she has ?—six
thousand a year ? ”
” Leave the woman who falls in love with the cut of your nose
to do the valuation. You’ll be surprised at the figure ! ” said
Digby with a touch of resentful bitterness, and getting up
abruptly. ” I’ll look round in the evening,” he added, buttoning
up his overcoat. ” Going to be in ? ”
” As far as I know,” I answered, and he left.
I got up and dressed leisurely, thinking over what he had said,
and those words ” six thousand ” repeating themselves unpleasantly
in my brain.
The time was in accordance with strict formality when I found
myself on her steps. The room I was shown into was large,
much too large to be comfortable on such a day ; and I had to
thread my way through a perfect maze of gilt-legged tables and
statuette-bearing tripods before I reached the hearth. Here burnt
a small, quiet, chaste-looking fire, a sort of Vestal flame, whose heat
was lost upon the tesselated tiles, white marble, and polished brass
about it. I stood looking down at it absently for a few minutes,
and then Theodora came in.
She was very simply dressed in some dark stuff that fitted
closely to her, and let me see the harmonious lines of her figure as
she came up to me. The plain, small collar of the dress opened
at the neck, and a delicious, solid, white throat rose from the dull
stuff like an almond bursting from its husk. On the pale, well-
cut face and small head great care had evidently been bestowed.
The eyes were darkened, as last night, and the hair arranged with
infinite pains on the forehead and rolled into one massive coil at
the back of her neck.
She shook hands with a smile—a smile that failed to dispel the
air of fatigue and fashionable dissipation that seemed to cling to
her ; and then wheeled a chair as near to the fender as she
could get it.
As she sat down, I thought I had never seen such splendid
shoulders combined with so slight a hip before.
” Now I hope no one else will come to interrupt us,” she said
simply. ” And don’t let’s bother to exchange comments on the
weather nor last night’s dance. I have done that six times over
this morning with other callers. Don’t let’s talk for the sake of
getting through a certain number of words. Let us talk because
we are interested in what we are saying.”
” I should be interested in anything if you said it,” I
Theodora laughed. ” Tell me something about the East, will
you ? That is a nice warm subject, and I feel so cold.”
And she shot out towards the blaze two well-made feet and
” Yes, in three weeks’ time I shall be in a considerably warmer
climate than this,” I answered, drawing my chair as close to hers
as fashion permits.
Theodora looked at me with a perceptibly startled expression
as I spoke.
” Are you really going out so soon ? ” she said.
” I am, really,” I said with a smile.
” Oh, I am so sorry ! “
” Why ? ” I asked merely.
” Because I was thinking I should have the pleasure of meeting
you lots more times at different functions.”
The Yellow Book— Vol. IV. K
” And would that be a pleasure ? “
” Yes, very great,” said Theodora, with a smile lighting her
eyes and parting faintly the soft scarlet lips.
She looked at me, a seducing softness melting all her face and
swimming in the liquid darkness of the eyes she raised to mine.
A delicious intimacy seemed established between us by that smile.
We seemed nearer to each other after it than before, by many
degrees. A month or two of time and ordinary intercourse may
be balanced against the seconds of such a smile as this.
A faint feeling of surprise mingled with my thoughts, that she
should show her own attitude of mind so clearly, but I believe
she felt instinctively my attraction towards her, and also undoubt-
edly she belonged, and had always been accustomed, to a fast set.
I was not the sort of man to find fault with her for that, and
probably she had already been conscious of this, and felt all the
more at ease with me. The opening-primrose type of woman,
the girl who does or wishes to suggest the modest violet unfolding
beneath the rural hedge, had never had a charm for me. I do not
profess to admire the simple violet ; I infinitely prefer a well-
trained hothouse gardenia. And this girl, about whom there was
nothing of the humble, crooked-neck violet—in whom there was
a dash of virility, a hint at dissipation, a suggestion of a certain
decorous looseness of morals and fastness of manners—could
stimulate me with a keen sense of pleasure, as our eyes or hands
” Why would it be a pleasure to meet me ? ” I asked, holding
her eyes with mine, and wondering whether things would so turn
out that I should ever kiss those parting lips before me.
Theodora laughed gently.
” For a good many reasons that it would make you too con-
ceited to hear,” she answered. ” But one is because you are more
interesting to talk to than the majority of people I meet every
day. The castor of your chair has come upon my dress. Will
you move it back a little, please ? ”
I pushed my chair back immediately and apologised.
” Are you going alone ? ” resumed Theodora.
” Quite alone.”
” Is that nice ? “
” No. I should have been very glad to find some fellow to go
with me, but it’s rather difficult. It is not everybody that one
meets whom one would care to make such an exclusive com-
panion of, as a life like that out there necessitates. Still, there’s
no doubt I shall be dull unless I can find some chum there.”
” Some Englishman, I suppose ? “
” Possibly ; but they are mostly snobs who are out there.”
Theodora made a faint sign of assent, and we both sat silent,
staring into the fire.
” Does the heat suit you ? ” Theodora asked, after a pause.
” Yes, I like it.”
” So do I.”
” I don’t think any woman would like the climate I am going
to now, or could stand it,” I said.
Theodora said nothing, but I had my eyes on her face, which
was turned towards the light of the fire, and I saw a tinge of
mockery come over it.
We had neither said anything farther, when the sound of a
knock reached us, muffled, owing to the distance the sound had to
travel to reach us by the drawing-room fire at all, but distinct in
the silence between us.
Theodora looked at me sharply.
” There is somebody else. Do you want to leave yet ? ” she
asked, and then added in a persuasive tone, ” Come into my own
study, where we shan’t be disturbed, and stay and have tea with
me, will you ? ”
She got up as she spoke.
The room had darkened considerably while we had been sitting
there, and only a dull light came from the leaden, snow-laden sky
beyond the panes, but the firelight fell strongly across her figure
as she stood, glancing and playing up it towards the slight waist,
and throwing scarlet upon the white throat and under-part of the
full chin. In the strong shadow on her face I could see
merely the two seducing eyes. Easily excitable where once a
usually hypercritical or rather hyperfanciful eye has been attracted,
I felt a keen sense of pleasure stir me as I watched her rise and
stand, that sense of pleasure which is nothing more than an
assurance to the roused and unquiet instincts within one, of
future satisfaction or gratification, with, from, or at the expense of
the object creating the sensation. Unconsciously a certainty of
possession of Theodora to-day, to-morrow, or next year, filled me
for the moment as completely as if I had just made her my wife.
The instinct that demanded her was immediately answered by a
mechanical process of the brain, not with doubt or fear, but
simple confidence. ” This is a pleasant and delightful object to
you—as others have been. Later it will be a source of enjoy-
ment to you—as others have been.” And the lulling of this
painful instinct is what we know as pleasure. And this instinct
and its answer are exactly that which we should not feel within us
for any beloved object. It is this that tends inevitably to degrade
the loved one, and to debase our own passion. If the object is
worthy and lovely in any sense, we should be ready to love it as
being such, for itself, as moralists preach to us of Virtue, as
theologians preach to us of the Deity. To love or at least to
strive to love an object for the object’s sake, and not our own
sake, to love it in its relation to its pleasure
and not in its relation
to our own pleasure, is to feel the only love which is worthy of
offering to a fellow human being, the one which elevates—and
the only one—both giver and receiver. If we ever learn this
lesson, we learn it late. I had not learnt it yet.
I murmured a prescribed ” I shall be delighted,” and followed
Theodora behind a huge red tapestry screen that reached half-way
up to the ceiling.
We were then face to face with a door which she opened, and
we both passed over the threshold together.
She had called the room her own, so I glanced round it with a
certain curiosity. A room is always some faint index to the
character of its occupier, and as I looked a smile came to my face.
This room suggested everywhere, as I should have expected, an
intellectual but careless and independent spirit. There were two
or three tables, in the window, heaped up with books and strewn
over with papers. The centre-table had been pushed away, to
leave a clearer space by the grate, and an armchair, seemingly of
unfathomable depths, and a sofa, dragged forward in its place.
Within the grate roared a tremendous fire, banked up half-way
to the chimney, and a short poker was thrust into it between the
bars. The red light leapt over the whole room and made it
brilliant, and glanced over a rug, and some tumbled cushions on
the floor in front of the fender, evidently where she had been
lying. Now, however, she picked up the cushions, and tossed
them into the corner of the couch, and sat down herself in the
” Do you prefer the floor generally ? ” I asked, taking the
armchair as she indicated it to me.
” Yes, one feels quite free and at ease lying on the floor,
whereas on a couch its limits are narrow, and one has the con-
straint and bother of taking care one does not go to sleep and
” But suppose you did, you would then but be upon the
” Quite so ; but I should have the pain of falling.”
Our eyes met across the red flare of the firelight.
Theodora went on jestingly : ” Now, these are the ethics of
the couch and the floor. I lay myself voluntarily on the floor,
knowing it thoroughly as a trifle low, but undeceptive and favourable
to the condition of sleep which will probably arise, and suitable to
my requirements of ease and space. I avoid the restricted and
uncertain couch, recognising that if I fall to sleep on that raised
level, and the desire to stretch myself should come, I shall awake
with pain and shock to feel the ground, and see above me the
couch from which I fell—do you see ? ”
She spoke lightly, and with a smile, and I listened with one.
But her eyes told me that these ethics of the couch and floor
covered the ethics of life.
” No, you must accept the necessity of the floor, I think, unless
you like to forego your sleep and have the trouble of taking care to
stick upon your couch ; and for me the difference of level between
the two is not worth the additional bother.”
She laughed, and I joined her.
” What do you think ? ” she asked.
I looked at her as she sat opposite me, the firelight playing all
over her, from the turn of her knee just marked beneath her skirt
to her splendid shoulders, and the smooth soft hand and wrist
supporting the distinguished little head. I did not tell her what
I was thinking ; what I said was : ” You are very logical. I am
quite convinced there’s no place like the ground for a siesta.”
Theodora laughed, and laid her hand on the bell.
A second or two after, a door, other than the one we had entered
by, opened, and a maid appeared.
” Bring tea and pegs,” said Theodora, and the door shut again.
” I ordered pegs for you because I know men hate tea,” she
said. ” That’s my own maid. I never let any of the servants
answer this bell except her ; she has my confidence, as far as one
ever gives confidence to a servant. I think she likes me. I like
making myself loved,” she added impulsively.
” You’ve never found the least difficulty in it, I should think,”
I answered, perhaps a shade more warmly than I ought, for the
colour came into her cheek and a slight confusion into her eyes.
The servant’s re-entry saved her from replying.
” Now tell me how you like your peg made, and I’ll make it,”
said Theodora, getting up and crossing to the table when the
servant had gone.
I got up, too, and protested against this arrangement.
Theodora turned round and looked up at me, leaning one hand
on the table.
” Now, how ridiculous and conventional you are ! ” she said.
” You would think nothing of letting me make you a cup of tea,
and yet I must by no means mix you a peg ! ”
She looked so like a young fellow of nineteen as she spoke
that half the sense of informality between us was lost, and there
was a keen, subtle pleasure in this superficial familiarity with her
that I had never felt with far prettier women. The half of nearly
every desire is curiosity, a vague, undefined curiosity, of which we
are hardly conscious ; and it was this that Theodora so violently
stimulated, while her beauty was sufficient to nurse the other half.
This feeling of curiosity arises, of course, for any woman who
may be new to us, and who has the power to move us at all. But
generally, if it cannot be gratified for the particular one, it is more
or less satisfied by the general knowledge applying to them all ;
but here, as Theodora differed so much from the ordinary feminine
type, even this instinctive sort of consolation was denied me. I
looked down at her with a smile.
” We shan’t be able to reconcile Fashion and Logic, so it’s no
use,” I said. ” Make the peg, then, and I’ll try and remain in the
fashion by assuming it’s tea.”
” Great Scott ! I hope you won’t fancy it’s tea while you are
drinking it ! ” returned Theodora laughing.
She handed me the glass, and I declared nectar wasn’t in it with
that peg, and then she made her own tea and came and sat
down to drink it, in not at all an indecorous, but still informal
” Did you collect anything in the East ? ” she asked me, after a
minute or two.
” Yes ; a good many idols and relics and curiosities of sorts,” I
answered. ” Would you like to see them ? ”
” Very much,” Theodora answered. ” Where are they ? “
” Well, not in my pocket,” I said smiling. ” At my chambers.
Could you and Mrs. Long spare an afternoon and honour me with
a visit there ? ”
” I should like it immensely. I know Helen will come if I
” When you have seen them I must pack them up, and send
them to my agents. One can’t travel about with those things.”
A sort of tremor passed over Theodora’s face as I spoke, and
her glance met mine, full of demands and questionings, and a very
distinct assertion of distress. It said distinctly, ” I am so sorry
you are going.” The sorrow in her eyes touched my vanity
deeply, which is the most responsive quality we have. It is
difficult to reach our hearts or our sympathies, but our vanity is
always available. I felt inclined to throw my arm round that
supple-looking waist—and it was close to me—and say, ” Don’t
be sorry ; come too.” I don’t know whether my looks were as
plain as hers, but Theodora rose carelessly, apparently to set her
teacup down, and then did not resume her seat by me, but went
back to the sofa on the other side of the rug. This, in the state
of feeling into which I had drifted, produced an irritated sensation,
and I was rather pleased than not when a gong sounded some-
where in the house and gave me a graceful opening to rise.
” May I hope to hear from you, then, which day you will like
to come ? ” I asked, as I held out my hand.
Now this was the moment I had been expecting, practically,
ever since her hand had left mine last night, the moment when it
should touch it again. I do not mean consciously, but there are
a million slight, vague physical experiences and sensations within
us of which the mind remains unconscious. Theodora’s white
right hand rested on her hip, the light from above struck upon it,
and I noted that all the rings had been stripped from it ; her left
was crowded with them, so that the hand sparkled at each
movement, but not one remained on her right. I coloured violently
for the minute as I recollected my last night’s pressure, and the
idea flashed upon me at once that she had removed them expressly
to avoid the pain of having them ground into her flesh.
The next second Theodora had laid her hand confidently in
mine. My mind, annoyed at the thought that had just shot
through it, bade me take her hand loosely and let it go, but
Theodora raised her eyes to me, full of a soft disappointment
which seemed to say, ” Are you not going to press it, then, after
all, when I have taken off all the rings entirely that you may ? “
That look seemed to push away, walk over, ignore my reason, and
appeal directly to the eager physical nerves and muscles.
Spontaneously, whether I would or not, they responded to it, and
my fingers laced themselves tightly round this morsel of velvet-
We forgot in those few seconds to say the orthodox good-byes ;
she forgot to answer my question. That which we were both
saying to each other, though our lips did not open, was, ” So I
should like to hold and embrace you ; ” and she, ” So I should like
to be held and embraced.”
Then she withdrew her hand, and I went out by way of the
drawing-room where we had entered.
In the hall her footman showed me out with extra obsequiousness.
My three-hours’ stay raised me, I suppose, to the rank of more
than an ordinary caller.
It was dark now in the streets, and the temperature must have
been somewhere about zero. I turned my collar up and started
to walk sharply in the direction of my chambers. Walking always
induces in me a tendency to reflection and retrospection, and now,
removed from the excitement of Theodora’s actual presence, my
thoughts lapped quietly over the whole interview, going through it
backwards, like the calming waves of a receding tide, leaving
lingeringly the sand. There was no doubt that this girl attracted
me very strongly, that the passion born yesterday was nearing
adolescence ; and there was no doubt, either, that I ought to strangle
it now before it reached maturity. My thoughts, however, turned
impatiently from this question, and kept closing and centring round
the object itself, with maddening persistency. I laughed to myself
as Schopenhauer’s theory shot across me that all impulse to love is
merely the impulse of the genius of the genus to select a fitting
object which will help in producing a Third Life. Certainly the
genius of the genus in me was weaker than the genius of my own
individuality, in this instance, for Theodora was as unfitted,
according to the philosopher’s views, to become a co-worker with
me in carrying out Nature’s aim, as she was fitted to give me as
an individual the strongest personal pleasure.
I remember Schopenhauer does admit that this instinct in man
to choose some object which will best fulfil the duty of the race,
is apt to be led astray, and it is fortunate he did not forget to make
this admission, if his theory is to be generally applied, considering
how very particularly often we are led astray, and that our strongest,
fiercest passions and keenest pleasures are constantly not those
suitable to, nor in accordance with, the ends of Nature. The
sharpest, most violent stimulus, we may say, the true essence of
pleasure, lies in some gratification which has no claim whatever, in
any sense, to be beneficial or useful, or to have any ulterior motive,
conscious or instinctive, or any lasting result, or any fulfilment of
any object, but which is simple gratification and dies naturally in
its own excess.
As we admit of works of pure genius that they cannot claim
utility, or motive, or purpose, but simply that they exist as joy-
giving and beautiful objects of delight, so must we have done with
utility, motive, purpose, and the aims of Nature, before we can
reach the most absolute degree of positive pleasure. To choose an
admissible instance, a naturally hungry man, given a slice of bread,
will he or will he not devour it with as great a pleasure as the
craving drunkard feels in swallowing a draught of raw brandy ?
In the first case a simple natural desire is gratified, and the aim
of Nature satisfied ; but the individual’s longing and subsequent
pleasure cannot be said to equal the furious craving of the
drunkard, and his delirious sense of gratification as the brandy
burns his throat.
My inclination towards Theodora could hardly be the simple,
natural instinct, guided by natural selection, for then surely I
should have been swayed towards some more womanly individual,
some more vigorous and at the same time more feminine physique.
In me, it was the mind that had first suggested to the senses, and
the senses that had answered in a dizzy pleasure, that this passionate,
sensitive frame, with its tensely-strung nerves and excitable pulses,
promised the height of satisfaction to a lover. Surely to Nature it
promised a poor if possible mother, and a still poorer nurse. And
these desires and passions that spring from that border-land between
mind and sense, and are nourished by the suggestions of the one
and the stimulus of the other, have a stronger grip upon our
organisation, because they offer an acuter pleasure, than those
simple and purely physical ones in which Nature is striving after
her own ends and using us simply as her instruments.
I thought on in a desultory sort of way, more or less about
Theodora, and mostly about the state of my own feelings, until I
reached my chambers. There I found Digby, and in his society,
with his chaff and gabble in my ears, all reflection and philosophy
fled, without leaving me any definite decision made.
The next afternoon but one found myself and Digby standing
at the windows of my chambers awaiting Theodora’s arrival. I
had invited him to help me entertain the two women, and also to
help me unearth and dust my store of idols and curiosities, and
range them on the tables for inspection. There were crowds of
knick-knacks picked up in the crooked streets and odd corners of
Benares, presents made to me, trifles bought in the Cairo bazaars,
and vases and coins discovered below the soil in the regions of the
Tigris. Concerning several of the most typical objects Digby
and I had had considerable difference of opinion. One highly
interesting bronze model of the monkey-god at Benares he had
declared I could not exhibit on account of its too pronounced
realism and insufficient attention to the sartorial art. I had
insisted that the god’s deficiencies in this respect were not more
striking than the objects in flesh-tints, hung at the Academy, that
Theodora viewed every season.
” Perhaps not,” he answered. ” But this is not in
white, and hung on the Academy walls for the public to stare at,
and therefore you can’t let her see it.”
This was unanswerable. I yielded, and the monkey-god was
wheeled under a side-table out of view.
Every shelf and stand and table had been pressed into the
service, and my rooms had the appearance of a corner in an
Egyptian bazaar, now when we had finished our preparations.
” There they are,” said Digby, as Mrs. Long’s victoria came
Theodora was leaning back beside her sister, and it struck me
then how representative she looked, as it were, of herself and her
position. From where we stood we could see down into the
victoria, as it drew up at our door. Her knees were crossed
under the blue carriage-rug, on the edge of which rested her two
small pale-gloved hands. A velvet jacket, that fitted her as its
skin fits the grape, showed us her magnificent shoulders, and the
long easy slope of her figure to the small waist. On her head, in
the least turn of which lay the acme of distinction, amongst the
black glossy masses of her hair, sat a small hat in vermilion velvet,
made to resemble the Turkish fez. As the carriage stopped, she
glanced up ; and a brilliant smile swept over her face, as she
bowed slightly to us at the window. The handsome painted
eyes, the naturally scarlet lips, the pallor of the oval face, and each
well-trained movement of the distinguished figure, as she rose
and stepped from the carriage, were noted and watched by our
four critical eyes.
” A typical product of our nineteenth-century civilisation,” I
said, with a faint smile, as Theodora let her fur-edged skirt draw
over the snowy pavement, and we heard her clear cultivated tones,
with the fashionable drag in them, ordering the coachman not to
let the horses get cold.
” But she’s a splendid sort of creature, don’t you think ? ” asked
Digby. ” Happy the man who——eh ? ”
I nodded. ” Yes,” I assented. ” But how much that man
should have to offer, old chap, that’s the point ; that six thousand
of hers seems an invulnerable protection.”
” I suppose so,” said Digby with a nervous yawn. ” And to
think I have more than double that and yet— It’s a pity. Funny
it will be if my looks and your poverty prevent either of us having
” My own case is settled,” I said decisively. ” My position
and hers decide it for me.”
” I’d change places with you this minute if I could,” muttered
Digby moodily, as steps came down to our door, and we went
forward to meet the women as they entered.
It seemed to arrange itself naturally that Digby should be
occupied in the first few seconds with Mrs. Long, and that I
should be free to receive Theodora.
Of all the lesser emotions, there is hardly any one greater than
that subtle sense of pleasure felt when a woman we love crosses
for the first time our own threshold. We may have met her a
hundred times in her house, or on public ground, but the sensa-
tion her presence then creates is altogether different from that
instinctive, involuntary, momentary and delightful sense of
ownership that rises when she enters any room essentially our
It is the very illusion of possession.
With this hatefully egoistic satisfaction infused through me, I
drew forward for her my own favourite chair, and Theodora
sank into it, and her tiny, exquisitely-formed feet sought my
fender-rail. At a murmured invitation from me, she unfastened
and laid aside her jacket. Beneath, she revealed some purplish,
silk-like material, that seemed shot with different colours as
the firelight fell upon it. It was strained tight and smooth
upon her, and the swell of a low bosom was distinctly defined
below it. There was no excessive development, quite the con-
trary, but in the very slightness there was an indescribably
sensuous curve, and a depression, rising and falling, that seemed
as if it might be the very home itself of passion. It was a
breast with little suggestion of the duties or powers of Nature,
but with infinite seduction for a lover.
” What a marvellous collection you have here,” she said throw-
ing her glance round the room. ” What made you bring home
all these things ? ”
” The majority were gifts to me—presents made by the different
natives whom I visited or came into connection with in various
ways. A native is never happy, if he likes you at all, until he has
made you some valuable present.”
” You must be very popular with them indeed,” returned
Theodora, glancing from a brilliant Persian carpet, suspended on
the wall, to a gold and ivory model of a temple, on the console by
” Well, when one stays with a fellow as his guest, as I have
done with some of these small rajahs and people, of course one tries
to make oneself amiable.”
” The fact is, Miss Dudley,” interrupted Digby, ” Ray
admires these fellows, and that is why they like him. Just look
at this sketch-book of his—what trouble he has taken to make
portraits of them.”
And he stretched out a limp-covered pocket-album of mine.
I reddened slightly and tried to intercept his hand.
” Nonsense, Digby. Give the book to me,” I said ; but
Theodora had already taken it, and she looked at me as I spoke
with one of those delicious looks of hers that could speak so clearly.
Now it seemed to say, ” If you are going to love me, you must
have no secrets from me.” She opened the book and I was
subdued and let her. I did not much care, except that it was
some time now since I had looked at it, and I did not know what
she might find in it. However, Theodora was so different from
girls generally, that it did not greatly matter.
” Perhaps these are portraits of your different conquests amongst
the Ranees, are they ? ” she said. ” I don’t see ‘ my victims,’
though, written across the outside as the Frenchmen write on
” No,” I said, with a smile, ” I think these are only portraits of
men whose appearance struck me. The great difficulty is to
persuade any Mohammedan to let you draw him.”
The very first leaf she turned seemed to give the lie to my
words. Against a background of yellow sand and blue sky, stood
out a slight figure in white, bending a little backward, and holding
in its hands, extended on either side, the masses of its black hair
that fell through them, till they touched the sand by its feet.
Theodora threw a side-glance full of derision on me, as she raised
her eyes from the page.
” I swear it isn’t,” I said hastily, colouring, for I saw she
thought it was a woman. ” It’s a young Sikh I bribed to let
me paint him.”
” Oh, a young Sikh, is it ? ” said Theodora, bending over the
book again. ” Well it’s a lovely face ; and what beautiful hair ! ”
” Yes, almost as beautiful as yours,” I murmured, in safety, for
the others were wholly occupied in testing the limits of the
flexibility of the soapstone.
Not for any consideration in this world could I have restrained
the irresistible desire to say the words, looking at her sitting
sideways to me, noting that shining weight of hair lying on the
white neck, and that curious masculine shade upon the upper lip.
A faint liquid smile came to her face.
” Mine is not so long as that when you see it undone,” she said,
looking at me.
” How long is it? ” I asked mechanically, turning over the
leaves of the sketch-book, and thinking in a crazy sort of way
what I would not give to see her with that hair unloosed, and have
the right to lift a single strand of it.
” It would not touch the ground,” she answered, ” it must be
about eight inches off it, I think.”
” A marvellous length for a European,” I answered in a con-
ventional tone, though it was a difficulty to summon it.
Within my brain all the dizzy thoughts seemed reeling together
till they left me hardly conscious of anything but an acute painful
sense of her proximity.
” Find me the head of a Persian, will you ? ” came her voice next.
” A Persian ? ” I repeated mechanically.
Theodora looked at me wonderingly and I recalled myself.
” Oh, yes,” I answered, ” I’ll find you one. Give me the
I took the book and turned over the leaves towards the end.
As I did so, some of the intermediate pages caught her eye, and
she tried to arrest the turning leaves.
” What is that ? Let me see.”
” It is nothing,” I said, passing them over. ” Allow me to find
you the one you want.”
The Yellow Book—Vol. IV. L
Theodora did not insist, but her glance said : ” I will be re-
venged for this resistance to my wishes ! ”
When I had found her the portrait, I laid the open book back
upon her knees. Theodora bent over it with an unaffected ex-
clamation of delight. ” How exquisite ! and how well you have
done it ! What a talent you must have ! ”
” Oh no, no talent,” I said hastily. ” It’s easy to do a thing
like that when your heart is in it.”
Theodora looked up at me and said simply, ” This is a
And I looked back in her eyes and said as simply, ” Yes, it is a
Theodora was silent, gazing at the open leaf, absorbed. And
half-unconsciously my eyes followed hers and rested with hers on
Many months had gone by since I had opened the book ; and
many, many cigars, that according to Tolstoi deaden every mental
feeling, and many, many pints of brandy that do the same thing,
only more so, had been consumed, since I had last looked upon
that face. And now I saw it over the shoulder of this woman.
And the old pain revived and surged through me, but it was dull—
dull as every emotion must be in the near neighbourhood of a
new object of desire—every emotion except one.
” Really it is a very beautiful face, isn’t it ? ” she said at last,
with a tender and sympathetic accent, and as she raised her head
our eyes met.
I looked at her and answered, ” I should say yes, if we were not
looking at it together, but you know beauty is entirely a question
Her face was really not one-tenth so handsome as the mere
shadowed, inanimate representation of the Persian girl, beneath
our hands. I knew it and so did she. Theodora herself would
have been the first to admit it. But nevertheless the words were
ethically true. True in the sense that underlay the society com-
pliment, for no beauty of the dead can compare with that of the
living. Such are we, that as we love all objects in their relation
to our own pleasure from them, so even in our admiration, the
greatest beauty, when absolutely useless to us, cannot move us as
a far lesser degree has power to do, from which it is possible to
hope, however vaguely, for some personal gratification. And to
this my words would come if translated. And I think Theodora
understood the translation rather than the conventional form of
them, for she did not take the trouble to deprecate the flattery.
I got up, and, to change the subject, said, ” Let me wheel up
that little table of idols. Some of them are rather curious.”
I moved the tripod up to the arm of her chair.
Theodora closed the sketch-book and put it beside her, and
looked over the miniature bronze gods with interest. Then she
stretched out her arm to lift and move several of them, and her
soft fingers seemed to lie caressingly—as they did on everything
they touched—on the heads and shoulders of the images. I
watched her, envying those senseless little blocks of brass.
” This is the Hindu equivalent of the Greek Aphrodite,” I said,
lifting forward a small, unutterably hideous, squat female figure,
with the face of a monkey, and two closed wings of a dragon on
” Oh, Venus,” said Theodora. ” We must certainly crown
her amongst them, though hardly, I think, in this particular case,
for her beauty ! ”
And she laughingly slipped off a diamond half-hoop from her
middle finger, and slipped the ring on to the model’s head. It
fitted exactly round the repulsive brows of the deformed and
stunted image, and the goddess stood crowned in the centre of the
table, amongst the other figures, with the circlet of brilliants,
flashing brightly in the firelight, on her head. As Theodora
passed the ring from her own warm white finger on to the forehead
of the misshapen idol, she looked at me. The look, coupled with
the action, in my state, went home to those very inner cells of the
brain where are the springs themselves of passion. At the same
instant the laughter and irresponsible gaiety and light pleasure on
the face before me, the contrast between the delicate hand and the
repellent monstrosity it had crowned—the sinister, allegorical
significance—struck me like a blow. An unexplained feeling of
rage filled me. Was it against her, myself, her action, or my own
desires ? It seemed for the moment to burn against them all.
On the spur of it, I dragged forward to myself another of the
images from behind the Astarte, slipped oft” my own signet-ring,
and put it on the head of the idol.
” This is the only one for me to crown,” I said bitterly, with a
laugh, feeling myself whiten with the stress and strain of a host
of inexplicable sensations that crowded in upon me, as I met
Theodora’s lovely inquiring glance.
There was a shade of apprehensiveness in her voice as she said,
” What is that one ? ”
” Shiva,” I said curtly, looking her straight in the eyes. ” The
god of self-denial.”
I saw the colour die suddenly out of her face, and I knew I had
hurt her. But I could not help it. With her glance she had
summoned me to approve or second her jesting act. It was a
challenge I could not pass over. I must in some correspondingly
joking way either accept or reject her coronation. And to reject
it was all I could do, since this woman must be nothing to me.
There was a second’s blank pause of strained silence. But, super-
ficially, we had not strayed off the legitimate ground of mere
society nothings, whatever we might feel lay beneath them.
And Theodora was trained thoroughly in the ways of fashion.
The next second she leant back in her chair, saying lightly,
” A false, absurd, and unnatural god ; it is the greatest error to
strive after the impossible ; it merely prevents you accomplishing
the possible. Gods like these,” and she indicated the abominable
squint-eyed Venus, “are merely natural instincts personified, and
one may well call them gods since they are invincible. Don’t
you remember the fearful punishments that the Greeks represented
as overtaking mortals who dared to resist nature’s laws, that they
chose to individualise as their gods ? You remember the fate of
Hippolytus who tried to disdain Venus, of Pentheus who tried to
subdue Bacchus ? These two plays teach the immortal lesson
that if you have the presumption to try to be greater than nature
she will in the end take a terrible revenge. The most we can do
is to guide her. You can never be her conqueror. Consider
yourself fortunate if she allows you to be her charioteer.”
It was all said very lightly and jestingly, but at the last phrase
there was a flash in her eye, directed upon me—yes, me—as if
she read down into my inner soul, and it sent the blood to my
As the last word left her lips, she stretched out her hand and
deliberately took my ring from the head of Shiva, put it above her
own diamonds on the other idol, and laid the god I had chosen,
the god of austerity and mortification, prostrate on its face, at the
feet of the leering Venus.
Then, without troubling to find a transition phrase, she got up
and said, ” I am going to look at that Persian carpet.”
It had all taken but a few seconds ; the next minute we were
over by the carpet, standing in front of it and admiring its hues in
the most orthodox terms. The images were left as she had
placed them. I could do nothing less, of course, than yield to a
woman and my guest. The jest had not gone towards calming
my feelings, nor had those two glances of hers—the first so tender
and appealing as she had crowned the Venus, the second so virile
and mocking as she had discrowned the Shiva. There was a
strange mingling of extremes in her. At one moment she seemed
will-less, deliciously weak, a thing only made to be taken in one’s
arms and kissed. The next, she was full of independent uncon-
trollable determination and opinion. Most men would have found
it hard to be indifferent to her. When beside her you must either
have been attracted or repelled. For me, she was the very worst
woman that could have crossed my path.
As I stood beside her now, her shoulder only a little below my
own, her neck and the line of her breast just visible to the side
vision of my eye, and heard her talking of the carpet, I felt there
was no price I would not have paid to have stood for one half-hour
in intimate confidence with her, and been able to tear the veils
from this irritating character.
From the carpet we passed on to a table of Cashmere work and
next to a pile of Mohammedan garments. These had been packed
with my own personal luggage, and I should not have thought of
bringing them forth for inspection. It was Digby who, having
seen them by chance in my portmanteau, had insisted that they
would add interest to the general collection of Eastern trifles.
” Clothes, my dear fellow, clothes ; why, they will probably please
her more than anything else.”
Theodora advanced to the heap of stuffs and lifted them.
” What is the history of these ? ” she said laughing. ” These
were not presents to you ! ”
” No,” I murmured. ” Bought in the native bazaars.”
” Some perhaps,” returned Theodora, throwing her glance over
them. ” But a great many are not new.”
It struck me that she would not be a woman very easy to
deceive. Some men value a woman in proportion to the ease with
which they can impose upon her, but to me it is too much trouble
to deceive at all, so that the absence of that amiable quality did
not disquiet me. On the contrary, the comprehensive, cynical,
and at the same time indulgent smile that came so readily to
Theodora’s lips charmed me more, because it was the promise of
even less trouble than a real or professed obtuseness.
” No,” I assented merely.
” Well, then ? ” asked Theodora, but without troubling to seek
a reply. ” How pretty they are and how curious ! this one, for
instance.” And she took up a blue silk zouave, covered with gold
embroidery, and worth perhaps about thirty pounds. ” This has
been a good deal worn. It is a souvenir, I suppose ? ”
I nodded. With any other woman I was similarly anxious to
please I should have denied it, but with her I felt it did not
” Too sacred perhaps, then, for me to put on ? ” she asked with
her hand in the collar, and smiling derisively.
” Oh dear no ! ” I said, ” not at all. Put it on by all means.”
” Nothing is sacred to you, eh ? I see. Hold it then.”
She gave me the zouave and turned for me to put it on her.
A glimpse of the back of her white neck, as she bent her head
forward, a convulsion of her adorable shoulders as she drew on the
jacket, and the zouave was fitted on. Two seconds perhaps,
but my self-control wrapped round me had lost one of its skins.
” Now I must find a turban or fez,” she said, turning over
gently, but without any ceremony, the pile. ” Oh, here’s one ! “
She drew out a white fez, also embroidered in gold, and, removing
her hat, put it on very much to one side, amongst her black hair,
with evident care lest one of those silken inflected waves should be
disturbed ; and then affecting an undulating gait, she walked over
to the fire.
” How do you like me in Eastern dress, Helen ? ” she said,
addressing her sister, for whom Digby was deciphering some old
coins. Digby and I confessed afterwards to each other the
impulse that moved us both to suggest it was not at all complete
without the trousers. I did offer her a cigarette, to enhance
” Quite passable, really,” said Mrs. Long, leaning back and
surveying her languidly.
Theodora took the cigarette with a laugh, lighted and smoked
it, and it was then, as she leant against the mantel-piece with her
eyes full of laughter, a glow on her pale skin, and an indolent
relaxation in the long, supple figure, that I first said, or rather an
involuntary, unrecognised voice within me said, ” It is no good ;
whatever happens I must have you.”
” Do you know that it is past six, Theo ? ” said Mrs. Long.
” You will let me give you a cup of tea before you go ? ” I said.
” Tea ! ” repeated Theodora. ” I thought you were going to
say haschisch or opium, at the least, after such an Indian
” I have both,” I answered, “would you like some ? ” thinking,
” By Jove, I should like to see you after the haschisch.”
” No,” replied Theodora, ” I make it a rule not to get
intoxicated in public.”
When the women rose to go, Theodora, to my regret, divested
herself of the zouave without my aid, and declined it also for
putting on her own cloak. As they stood drawing on their gloves
I asked if they thought there was anything worthy of their
acceptance amongst these curiosities. Mrs. Long chose from the
table near her an ivory model of the Taj, and Digby took it up
to carry for her to the door. As he did so his eye caught the table
” This is your ring, Miss Dudley, I believe,” he said.
I saw him grin horridly as he noted the arrangement of the
figures. Doubtless he thought it was mine.
I took up my signet-ring again, and Theodora said carelessly,
without the faintest tinge of colour rising in her cheek, ” Oh, yes,
I had forgotten it. Thanks.”
She took it from him and replaced it.
I asked her if she would honour me as her sister had done.
” There is one thing in this room that I covet immensely,” she
said, meeting my gaze.
” It is yours, of course, then,” I answered. ” What is it ? “
Theodora stretched out her open hand. ” Your sketch-book.”
For a second I felt the blood dye suddenly all my face. The
request took me by surprise, for one thing ; and immediately after
the surprise followed the vexatious and embarrassing thought that
she had asked for the one thing in the room that I certainly did
not wish her to have. The book contained a hundred thousand
memories, embodied in writing, sketching, and painting, of those
years in the East. There was not a page in it that did not reflect
the emotions of the time when it had been filled in, and give a
chronicle of the life lived at the date inscribed on it. It was a
sort of diary in cipher, and to turn over its leaves was to re-live
the hours they represented. For my own personal pleasure I liked
the book and wanted to keep it, but there were other reasons too why
I disliked the idea of surrendering it. It flashed through me, the
question as to what her object was in possessing herself of it.
Was it jealousy of the faces or any face within it that prompted her,
and would she amuse herself, when she had it, by tearing out the
leaves or burning it ? To give over these portraits merely to be
sacrificed to a petty feminine spite and malice, jarred upon me.
Involuntarily I looked hard into her eyes to try and read her
intentions, and I felt I had wronged her. The eyes were full of
the softest, tenderest light. It was impossible to imagine them
vindictive. She had seen my hesitation and she smiled faintly.
” Poor Herod with your daughter of Herodias,” she said, softly.
” Never mind, I will not take it.”
The others who had been standing with her saw there was some
embarrassment that they did not understand, and Mrs. Long
turned to go slowly down the corridor. Digby had to follow.
Theodora was left standing alone before me, her seductive figure
framed in the open doorway. Of course she was irresistible. Was
she not the new object of my desires ?
I seized the sketch-book from the chair. What did anything
” Yes,” I said hastily, putting it into that soft, small hand
before it could draw back. ” Forgive me the hesitation. You
know I would give you anything.”
If she answered or thanked me, I forget it. 1 was sensible of
nothing at the moment but that the blood seemed flowing to my
brain, and thundering through it, in ponderous waves. Then I
knew we were walking down the passage, and in a few minutes
more we should have said good-bye, and she would be gone.
An acute and yet vague realisation came upon me that the
corridor was dark, and that the others had gone on in front, a
confused recollection of the way she had lauded Nature and its
domination a short time back, and then all these were lost again
in the eddying torrent of an overwhelming desire to take her in
my arms and hold her, control her, assert my will over hers, this
exasperating object who had been pleasing and seducing every
sense for the last three hours, and now was leaving them all
unsatisfied. That impulse towards some physical demonstration,
that craving for physical contact, which attacks us suddenly with
its terrific impetus, and chokes and stifles us, ourselves, beneath it,
blinding us to all except itself, rushed upon me then, walking
beside her in the dark passage ; and at that instant Theodora
” I am tired,” she said languidly. ” May I take your arm ? “
and her hand touched me.
I did not offer her my arm, I flung it round her neck, bending
back her head upon it, so that her lips were just beneath my own
as I leant over her, and I pressed mine on them in a delirium of
Everything that should have been remembered I forgot.
Knowledge was lost of all, except those passive, burning lips
under my own. As I touched them, a current of madness
seemed to mingle with my blood, and pass flaming through all my
I heard her moan, but for that instant I was beyond the reach
of pity or reason, I only leant harder on her lips in a wild,
unheeding, unsparing frenzy. It was a moment of ecstasy that I
would have bought with years of my life. One moment, the
next I released her, and so suddenly, that she reeled against the
wall of the passage. I caught her wrist to steady her. We
dared neither of us speak, for the others were but little ahead of
us ; but I sought her eyes in the dusk.
They met mine, and rested on them, gleaming through the
darkness. There was no confusion nor embarrassment in them,
they were full of the hot, clear, blinding light of passion ; and I
knew there would be no need to crave forgiveness.
The next moment had brought us up to the others, and to the
end of the passage.
Mrs. Long turned round, and held out her hand to me.
” Good-bye,” she said. ” We have had a most interesting
It was with an effort that I made some conventional remark.
Theodora, with perfect outward calm, shook hands with myself
and Digby, with her sweetest smile, and passed out.
I lingered some few minutes with Digby, talking ; and then he
went off to his own diggings, and I returned slowly down the
passage to my rooms.
My blood and pulses seemed beating as they do in fever, my
ears seemed full of sounds, and that kiss burnt like the brand of
hot iron on my lips. When I reached my rooms, I locked the
door and flung both the windows open to the snowy night. The
white powder on the ledge crumbled and drifted in.
. . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . .
Cross, Victoria [Annie Sophie Cory]. “Theodora, a Fragment.” The Yellow Book, vol. 4, January 1895, pp. 156-188. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/YBV4_cross_theodora/