Third Time And Still Unlucky
A few words first about Titus Andronicus the Second and then we'll move on to Nelson Weaver. Titus Andronicus the Second was a short-sighted horse. Throughout his racing career, he had never finished better than fifteenth because the wind, he claimed, had always been in the wrong direction. He lived in resentful retirement in a field near Corbridge, convinced that, given another chance, he could run fourteenth in the Northumberland Plate.
'It was the wind, Dobbin,' he would tell his companion in the field, 'except when it was the sun.'
'Moo,' his companion would reply, because she was not, as Titus believed, a donkey, but a cow named Cynthia.
In the nearby farmhouse lived their owner, Nelson Weaver, who spent much of his time under the stairs, scratching his chest, because he was immersed in insecurity. He was a small bachelor with hair growing out of his ears. He dreamed of having a wife one day, if only to cut his right-hand finger nails, but he was frightened of women and had been ever since he had been in love with two beautiful bibliophiles named Ambrosine Lang and Georgette Hudspeth, who had broken his heart in the County Library and Trinity Church hall respectively.
He was crouching under the stairs one morning, having heard light footsteps crossing the farmyard and a sweet voice calling, 'I have come for your rent, Mr Weaver.' He scratched his chest and held his breath, but presently the footsteps entered the house and paused at the stairs, and gazing out he was confronted by the knees of his landlady, Lavinia McInroy. They were the loveliest knees he had ever seen.
A compassionate girl, Lavinia pretended not to notice his diffidence. 'Wormwood blossom is late this year,' she said conversationally. 'My grandfather used to say when wormwood blossom be late arriving, farrowing sows will ne'er be thriving. And he was known far and wide,' she added, 'as an idiot.'
Weaver emerged. Thus encouraged, he allowed his gaze to travel beyond her knees. And so it began.
It had been the same, of course, with Ambrosine Lang, whose knees he had first seen up a ladder among the philosophy shelves. He had reflected then that they were the loveliest knees he had ever seen. It was in the days when he used to spend a lot of time at the County Library, talking earnestly to the young lady assistants, sometimes about books. He was youthful then and very anxious to frequent doctor and saint and hear Great Argument, but up to that time he hadn't met any saints and when he approached the doctor with a view to Great Argument, he was given some ointment for his leg.
'I was thinking of Omar Khayam,' he said.
'This is just as good,' the doctor assured him.
'There's nothing wrong with my leg,' he pointed out.
'You're young yet,' the doctor said. Nelson Weaver came out by that same door wherein he went.
It was Amborsine Lang who came down her ladder and introduced him to Jeremy Bentham in a quiet corner between Philosophy and Political History. "I think you'll find that the test of an institution's utility lies in how far it tends to promote the greatest happiness,' she whispered.
'What was that?' he said.
'Jeremy Bentham said that,' she said.
'Who?' he asked.
'1748-1832,' she breathed.
'I didn't catch that about the test of utility,' he said.
'Sh!' said a man in Political History.
Of course, Nelson Weaver had learned to apprehend more of Ambrosine Lang than her knees. And now it was happening again. In the weeks that followed his emergence from the farmhouse stairs, he took in Lavinia McInroy's elbows. They too were superb. There came a day when, as she marked up his rent book and handed him one-and-sixpence change, their fingers intertwined. 'Lavinia,' he ventured, 'when crab apples dangle on the bough, the milk will flow from dried-up cow.'
'I didn't know that,' said Lavinia.
Weaver lifted his gaze to her chin. It was magnificent.
'I'm a bit of a lonely chap,' he acknowledged.
'So am I, really,' said Lavinia. 'Except, of course, that I'm a girl.'
'That's true,' said Weaver. 'I wonder…'
'I've an awful cheek, I know, and my ears aren't up to much, but would you marry me some time and share my little home - or rather, your little home?'
She had not expected this, or not much. 'Let me say, Collingwood…' she said.
'I'd rather you called me Nelson.'
'All right, Collingwood. But home, you know, is the girl's prison and the woman's workhouse.' She was given to quoting Shaw as well as her grandfather. 'Not to mention,' she added, 'that marriage is an intolerable obstacle to individual evolution.'
At the sound of this bruising received wisdom, all the old insecurity rushed back and Weaver scratched his chest. She regarded this in horror. It was a side to him she had not guessed at. 'Goodbye,' she murmured. 'In any case, I am going around the world on a small patrimony.' And taking £11.13s. 4d in advance, she swept out.
Months went by during which Nelson Weaver scratched his chest uncontrollably. By what right had he approached this cool goddess? A short bachelor with hairy ears and a dismayed expression (we forgot to establish his dismayed expression) could not hope to achieve his heart's desire for a beautiful wife.
And yet he had hoped to marry Ambrosine Lang when she had weaned him from Jeremy Bentham and introduced him to Hegel, with the whispered aphorism that progress resulted from the interaction of two conflicting half-truths.
'I don't understand that,' he had said.
'Neither do I,' she admitted, 'but you must appreciate that my role vis-a-vis yourself is catalystic rather than didactic.'
'Pardon?' he said.
She was an ethereal girl, albeit with voluptuous hips, and he feared that she might well have been wedded to her shelves, but there came an hour in that quiet corner between Philosophy and Political History when, resolved that he must know, he begged her to marry him and explain to him Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.
Amborsine Lang gazed at him for a long moment. 'You must believe,' she said at last, 'that this has nothing to do with the tea-stains on your pullover, but the fact is I have decided to marry a gas engineer and go to Glasgow.'
'Thank God for that,' said the man in Political History.
Avoiding the hurt in Nelson's eye, Ambrosine Lang whispered 'Goodbye,' turned and went off to apply Bentham's Law to Scotland and the gas industry, leaving him with nothing but Immanuel Kant.
As he sat glumly on his homeward bus, he saw alongside him the knees of Georgette Hudspeth. On them lay the complete works of Oliver Goldsmith, and so, in the time it took for the bus to disgorge them at Trinity Church hall play-reading group, he was seduced from philosophy to drama. The many moonlit walks home that followed had little to do, he knew, with the Great Argument, but he barely resisted because she was a lovely young B.A., and he was progressing beyond he knees to her silken hair and the sweet-scented back of her neck.
There was still, be it said, a shred of philosophy left in him. 'The ultimate nature of reality remains forever inaccessible,' he told himself, but, besotted by Georgette Hudspeth, he was in no shape to fathom what Immanuel Kant meant by that, although it was fair to say that he had never fathomed Nietzsche, Descartes or Kierkegaard either. The seasons came and went. It was in the days when the seasons did that. He read plays in a mist.
Now, on the little farm, the seasons had come and gone again. Sadly, he busied himself hoeing the turnips, although he knew full well that when wind be blowing in a rush, turnips be as soft as mush.
Out in the meadow, Titus Andronicus the Second was recalling the time he had failed to clear the first jump at Hexham Steeplechases.
'That was the grandstand, mind you,' said Cynthia the cow.
'Is that so?' said Titus. 'Do you think it's my eyes, Dobbin?'
'I'd rather you called me Cynthia,' said Cynthia.
'All right, Dobbin. I'll race you to that haystack.'
'It's a telegraph pole.'
But Titus was blinking at the sun. Cynthia sighed. She had four stomachs and no upper teeth, and it was worrying her. If she had had the company of an older cow, of course, she might have learned that all cows have four stomachs and no upper teeth, but there she was, stuck in a field with a credulous horse.
Lavinia McInroy had been some way around the world. She had seen Quito, Enugu, Voronezh, Khabarovsk, Ciudad Juares and Wollongong, and would have gone on to the Rann of Kutch if her patrimony had not collapsed. In any case, she was finding, like Sebastion Cabot before her, that too much travel brings on laryngitis. She had thought of Nelson Weaver in Enugu. She had thought of him again in Ciudad Juares, when she had seen a Mexican hoeing turnips, with hair growing out of his ears.
By the time she was homeward bound for Liverpool, she was thinking of him incessantly. Absence, she reflected, makes the heart grow fonder. That's another thing about travel - it brings on platitudes.
Her letter reached the farm as Nelson hoed his last turnip of the season. 'My dear,' she wrote, 'I have seen the Grand Canyon and the Wall of China. I have seen the Acropolis and the Pyramids. But the simple things are best, and I am coming home to you.'
Of course, in their time, Georgette Hudspeth's knees were the most beautiful he had ever seen. And not only was the back of her neck sweet-smelling. He noticed her eyes, her lips, her brow and both her nostrils.
A day arrived when the doctor's prognosis caught up with him and he sprained his leg during a play-reading of Hamlet. The lovely young B.A. rubbed it as he slumped in the wash place. 'That's better than Omar Khayam,' he acknowledged.
He had hair growing out of his ears, tea-stains on his pullover and by now a button off his vest, but he knew that he must assay the bashful virgin's sidelong looks of love; Oliver Goldsmith would have expected it. 'How sweet the back of your neck still smells,' he muttered one night as the lingered after Charley's Aunt. And he had been meaning, he added, to comment on her nostrils.
'Your teeth,' she said. 'Did you know you've got them caught in my silken hair? Goodbye.'
'Goodbye, did you say?' he said. Oh, she had gazed past him into the future and seen what life would be like with a fool who could sprain his leg reciting 'To thine own self be true,' from a sitting position.
In the years afterwards, he resorted in sorry succession to football, lepidoptera-collecting, cookery, solo whist, part singing and on and on to turnip farming.
Well, home to the turnip farm was coming Lavinia McInroy. 'Home to you, my dear,' she wrote. 'As for your chest, I shall overlook it, or at least look the other way. Looking the other way is what makes marriage supportable. My elbows, dear, will tomorrow be yours to do with as you will, and my knees subject to further negotiation. As Shaw remarked, we have no right to consume happiness without producing it. Please telegraph that you will meet me at Corbridge station, as I have a Mexican turnip hoe.'
No sooner had Nelson Weaver read these words than he was out in the field saddling Titus Andronicus the Second. 'To the Post Office,' he cried, 'where we shall surely find happiness promoted by that institution's utility!' And he climbed into the saddle.
Instantly, Titus hurtled across the meadow, through the copse and over the turnip field, under the impression that he was running in the Northumberland Plate at last. On to the road he thundered, galloped through Corbridge, missed the bridge and plunged into the river. 'I would have won by a street,' he told Cynthia the cow afterwards, 'if the course hadn't been waterlogged.'
He recovered from his pneumonia, but only to the realisation that he would never be asked to race again. He champed moodily in his field, his heart's desire abandoned. Nelson Weaver recovered from his pleurisy, nursed by the tender Lavinia. Her gorgeous knees became his for life; so did her hips and nostrils. And we know, don't we, that in time he found it necessary to look the other way? As Shaw remarked, one of life's tragedies is to lose your heart's desire; another is to gain it. If it comes to that, when frogs be croaking all the night, 'twill mean your crops will get the blight.