The interview, like all other good things had to come to an end; the days were short, and Mrs Allaby had a six miles' drive to Crampsford. When she was muffled up and had taken her seat, Mr Allaby's factotum, James, could perceive no change in her appearance, and little knew what a series of delightful visions he was driving home along with his mistress.
Professor Cowey had published works through Theobald's father, and Theobald had on this account been taken in tow by Mrs Cowey from the beginning of his University career. She had had her eye upon him for some time past, and almost as much felt it her duty to get him off her list of young men for whom wives had to be provided, as poor Mrs Allaby did to try and get a husband for one of her daughters. She now wrote and asked him to come and see her, in terms that awakened his curiosity. When he came she broached the subject of Mr Allaby's failing health, and after the smoothing away of such difficulties as were only Mrs Cowey's due, considering the interest she had taken, it was allowed to come to pass that Theobald should go to Crampsford for six successive Sundays and take the half of Mr Allaby's duty at half a guinea a Sunday, for Mrs Cowey cut down the usual stipend mercilessly, and Theobald was not strong enough to resist.
Ignorant of the plots which were being prepared for his peace of mind and with no idea beyond that of earning his three guineas, and perhaps of astonishing the inhabitants of Crampsford by his academic learning, Theobald walked over to the Rectory one Sunday morning early in December—a few weeks only after he had been ordained. He had taken a great deal of pains with his sermon, which was on the subject of geology—then coming to the fore as a theological bugbear. He showed that so far as geology was worth anything at all—and he was too liberal entirely to pooh-pooh it—it confirmed the absolutely historical character of the Mosaic account of the Creation as given in Genesis. Any phenomena which at first sight appeared to make against this view were only partial phenomena and broke down upon investigation. Nothing could be in more excellent taste, and when Theobald adjourned to the rectory, where he was to dine between the services, Mr Allaby complimented him warmly upon his debut, while the ladies of the family could hardly find words with which to express their admiration.
Theobald knew nothing about women. The only women he had been thrown in contact with were his sisters, two of whom were always correcting him, and a few school friends whom these had got their father to ask to Elmhurst. These young ladies had either been so shy that they and Theobald had never amalgamated, or they had been supposed to be clever and had said smart things to him. He did not say smart things himself and did not want other people to say them. Besides, they talked about music—and he hated music—or pictures—and he hated pictures—or books—and except the classics he hated books. And then sometimes he was wanted to dance with them, and he did not know how to dance, and did not want to know.
At Mrs Cowey's parties again he had seen some young ladies and had been introduced to them. He had tried to make himself agreeable, but was always left with the impression that he had not been successful. The young ladies of Mrs Cowey's set were by no means the most attractive that might have been found in the University, and Theobald may be excused for not losing his heart to the greater number of them, while if for a minute or two he was thrown in with one of the prettier and more agreeable girls he was almost immediately cut out by someone less bashful than himself, and sneaked off, feeling as far as the fair sex was concerned, like the impotent man at the pool of Bethesda.
What a really nice girl might have done with him I cannot tell, but fate had thrown none such in his way except his youngest sister Alethea, whom he might perhaps have liked if she had not been his sister. The result of his experience was that women had never done him any good and he was not accustomed to associate them with any pleasure; if there was a part of Hamlet in connection with them it had been so completely cut out in the edition of the play in which he was required to act that he had come to disbelieve in its existence. As for kissing, he had never kissed a woman in his life except his sister—and my own sisters when we were all small children together. Over and above these kisses, he had until quite lately been required to imprint a solemn flabby kiss night and morning upon his father's cheek, and this, to the best of my belief, was the extent of Theobald's knowledge in the matter of kissing, at the time of which I am now writing. The result of the foregoing was that he had come to dislike women, as mysterious beings whose ways were not as his ways, nor their thoughts as his thoughts.
With these antecedents Theobald naturally felt rather bashful on finding himself the admired of five strange young ladies. I remember when I was a boy myself I was once asked to take tea at a girls' school where one of my sisters was boarding. I was then about twelve years old. Everything went off well during tea-time, for the Lady Principal of the establishment was present. But there came a time when she went away and I was left alone with the girls. The moment the mistress's back was turned the head girl, who was about my own age, came up, pointed her finger at me, made a face and said solemnly, "A na-a-sty bo-o-y!" All the girls followed her in rotation making the same gesture and the same reproach upon my being a boy. It gave me a great scare. I believe I cried, and I know it was a long time before I could again face a girl without a strong desire to run away.
Theobald felt at first much as I had myself done at the girls' school, but the Miss Allabys did not tell him he was a nasty bo-o-oy. Their papa and mamma were so cordial and they themselves lifted him so deftly over conversational stiles that before dinner was over Theobald thought the family to be a really very charming one, and felt as though he were being appreciated in a way to which he had not hitherto been accustomed.
With dinner his shyness wore off. He was by no means plain, his academic prestige was very fair. There was nothing about him to lay hold of as unconventional or ridiculous; the impression he created upon the young ladies was quite as favourable as that which they had created upon himself; for they knew not much more about men than he about women.
As soon as he was gone, the harmony of the establishment was broken by a storm which arose upon the question which of them it should be who should become Mrs Pontifex. "My dears," said their father, when he saw that they did not seem likely to settle the matter among themselves, "Wait till to-morrow, and then play at cards for him." Having said which he retired to his study, where he took a nightly glass of whisky and a pipe of tobacco.