The Optimist by Logan Pearsall Smith

What was he doing there? why didn't he ride on? Mrs. Ross wondered, as she watched with some astonishment the tall young man who was staring in at the gate. But in a moment her husband left the hedge he was trimming, and waved his shears at the stranger, who thereupon came in, pushing his bicycle with him along the drive. When the two young men met, they seemed to greet each other like old acquaintances. Probably he was one of George's Oxford friends, she thought, beginning to feel a little shy, as they walked towards her across the grass. The bicyclist was thin and very tall; his shadow, in the late sunshine, seemed to stretch endlessly over the grass. His face was bathed in perspiration; he was grey with dust, and altogether he looked very shabby by the side of her good-looking husband.

"Mary, I want to introduce my friend, Mr. Allen, to you." Mrs. Ross was always a little afraid of her husband's friends; then Allen was a don at Oxford, and she knew he was considered extremely clever. However she greeted him in her friendly, charming way. He would have tea, of course?

Allen gripped her hand, smiling awkwardly. No, he wouldn't have tea, and he was afraid it was very late for calling; he must apologize; indeed, when he got to the gate, he had hesitated about coming in.

Oh, no! it wasn't late, she assured him; and her husband declared he must stay to dinner. He had never seen the Grange before and, of course, they must show him everything.

"Oh, I don't think I can stay to dinner," Allen murmured, looking through his spectacles at his dusty clothes. But at last he consented though doubtfully; he was staying at Sunbridge, he explained, and it was rather a long ride over.

Ross took him to the house; soon he reappeared, well brushed, his pale and thoughtful face pink with scrubbing. They walked with him about the gardens, then they went to their little farm, showing him the cows and horses, and the new-built hayrick.

George Ross was a young land agent who, not long after leaving Oxford, had had the luck to get a good appointment; and for more than a year he and his young wife had been living here in the most absurdly happy way. Now and then his Oxford friends would come to visit him, and it filled Ross with delight and pride to show them over his new domain.

As they came back from the farm through the garden, Ross stopped a moment. "Doesn't the house look well from here!" he said to Allen. The roofs, gables, and trees stood out dark against the golden west; the garden, with its old red walls, sweet peas, and roses, was filled with mellow light.

Allen gazed at the view through his spectacles, and expressed a proper admiration. But of himself he seemed to notice nothing, and Mrs. Ross was rather hurt by the way he went past her borders of flowers without ever looking at them.

"You see it's just the kind of life that suits me—suits both of us," Ross explained; "I don't see how I could have found anything better. Of course," he added modestly, "of course some men might not think much of work like this. But I consider myself tremendously fortunate—I didn't really deserve such luck."

"Quite so," Allen assented in a way that Mrs. Ross thought rather odd, till she decided that it was merely absent-mindedness. Every now and then she would look at Allen—the tall, thin, threadbare young man puzzled her a little; he seemed so extremely dull and embarrassed; and yet there was a thoughtful, kind look in his eyes that she liked. And anyhow he was George's friend; so, as they walked rather silently and awkwardly about, waiting for dinner, she tried to talk to him, making remarks in her eager way, and glancing sometimes at her husband for fear he might be laughing at her. Such subjects as bicycling, the roads, the weather, and life in Oxford, were started, and they both talked to their guest with the exaggerated politeness of newly married people, who would much rather be talking to each other. Yes, the road over was very pretty, Allen agreed. But was there a river? He remembered noticing how pretty the road was, but he had not noticed that it ran by any river. And all their questions he answered with a certain eagerness, but in a way that somehow made the subject drop.

"Well, I finished the hedge," Ross said at last, turning to his wife. "You said I wouldn't."

"Oh, but wait till I see it for myself!"

The young man looked at her gloomily. "You see how it is, Allen, she doesn't believe her husband's word!"

"Oh, hush, George," she said, and they both began to laugh like children. Then they turned to Allen again. Was he comfortable where he was staying? she asked.

Well no, honestly, it wasn't very comfortable, Allen replied. To tell the truth, he was rather disappointed in the place. He had gone there after hearing some undergraduates describe it, and tell how amusing they had found the people. But, somehow, he had not found the people different from people anywhere else. But then he had only made the acquaintance of one man—

"Well, didn't he turn out to be an old poacher, or a gipsy, or something romantic?" asked Mrs. Ross.

"No, not at all—he was a Methodist Calvinist deacon, who gave me a lift one wet afternoon, and lectured me all the way about Temperance. And, of course," Allen added, with rather a comic smile, "and, of course, I was already a total abstainer." They all laughed at this.

What was he working at over there? Ross asked him a few minutes afterwards. He was writing a paper, Allen replied; but what it was about Mrs. Ross did not understand. She hoped her husband would ask something more, but he merely said, "I see," without much interest, adding that he had not read any philosophy for years.

When they sat down to dinner, the lady's evening dress, the silver and flowers on the table, seemed to make Allen all the more awkward and conscious of his appearance. However, he plainly meant to do his best to talk, and, after a moment's silence, he remarked that he supposed the theory of farming was very interesting.

"Yes, it is," said Mrs. Ross, "and it's such fun ploughing in the autumn, and in the spring seeing the young green things come up."

"I suppose the climate is a great factor in the problem."

"Oh, of course, everything depends on that; suppose it comes on to rain just when you've cut your hay!"

Ross began to laugh. "I believe my wife thinks of nothing but hay now."

"You farm yourself, don't you?" Allen asked, looking at her rather timidly.

"Oh, a little; I always say I manage our little farm, and I'm going to learn to plough. And I keep chickens—this is one of mine—poor little thing!" she added.

"She pretends to be sorry now, but when she has a chance to sell her chickens I never saw anyone so bloodthirsty."

"Oh, George, how can you say such things? Don't believe him, Mr. Allen. And anyhow," she added (it seemed a platitude, but platitudes were better than absolute silence), "anyhow, I suppose it is what the chickens are meant for."

To her surprise this mild remark led to an animated argument. For Allen, in agreeing with her, said something about "the general scheme of things." Ross began to laugh at this, and asked Allen if he still held to that old system of his. Allen answered this question so earnestly, that the lady looked at him with wonder.

Yes! he held to it more firmly than ever; he was sure it could be maintained! Indeed, seriously he had come to feel more and more that you must accept something of the kind. Ross dissented in a joking way, but Allen would not be put off; he began talking rapidly and eagerly, almost forgetting his dinner as he argued. He drank a great deal of cold water, and his thin face grew quite flushed with excitement.

Mrs. Ross looked from one to the other with puzzled eyes; probably that was the way they had been used to talk at Oxford, but what it was about she could not understand. She only felt sorry for Allen, he evidently cared so much, was as anxious to prove his point as if his whole life depended on it, while her husband seemed to treat the whole thing rather as a joke.

Soon she gave up trying to listen, and though the sound of their voices was in her ears, her mind wandered out into the garden, to the farm and meadows. But Allen's voice, appealing to her, called her suddenly back. "I'm sure you agree with me, Mrs. Ross," he said, without the least shyness. He plainly looked on her now as nothing but a mind which might agree or disagree. "I'm sure you must regard it as existing for rational ends."

"But what do you mean by 'It,' Mr. Allen?" she asked, very much puzzled.

"Why, the universe, of course."

"Oh, I don't know," she said, shaking her head and laughing. "It makes me dizzy to think of it. As for George, I wouldn't mind what he says, Mr. Allen; he believes all sorts of dreadful things, and he's always making fun—look how he's laughing at me now. George, will you have your coffee in here, or in the drawing-room?"

"Oh, in the drawing-room—we'll come in a minute, when we've settled the universe." As she went out, she heard them still arguing.

And they had not ended it when they came into the drawing-room a little later.

"But I deny that pain is an evil. I appeal to you," Allen said, turning to Mrs. Ross; "don't you think that pain is necessary?"

"But necessary for what, Mr. Allen?"

"Why, if we want to be really happy, I mean," he went on, trying to make himself quite clear, "I mean, suppose we lived as they do in the Tropics, sitting under trees all day."

Ross also turned to her, "Well, Mary, tell us what you think?"

Mrs. Ross laughed. "I'm afraid I'm not a fair judge, Mr. Allen, I'm so fond of sitting under trees, and I must say I think it sounds rather nice. Do you have sugar in your coffee?"

"No sugar, thanks. But surely," he went on as if he had an argument now that would be certain to convince a lady. "Surely a certain amount of discomfort is an advantage! Now, take a child for instance, to educate it you have to make it suffer."

"Oh, indeed you don't, Mr. Allen," she said so promptly, and in such a voice, that Allen seemed a little disconcerted.

Ross begged for a little music. She sat down to the piano and began to play—with a little emotion at first, which soon died out of the quiet sounds. The window was open on the lawn; the faint light, the odours of the garden, mingled with the soft music.

They sat in silence for a moment. At last Allen rose; he must be going, he said, he had his paper to finish.

"But it is nice here," he added, with half a sigh, as if vaguely aware, for a moment, of the romantic happiness about him. Then his mind seemed to revert to the argument; if Ross would only read Hegel's Logic

"Well, we might read it aloud in the evenings perhaps," the young man answered, laughing. "Have you got a lamp on your machine?" "Yes, I think there is." They went out to the gate and, lighting his lamp, they sent him off into the twilight. Then they walked slowly back towards the house. A few stars were kindled above the dim trees; the air was fragrant with the scent of the hay, and through the stillness the faint noise of life came across the meadows—a woman singing, the voices of children, and sleepy sounds of cattle.

"How good it is!" the young man said, drawing his companion closer to him. "But people are always coming, aren't they? It's dreadful! we never do seem to see anything of each other."

"No, do we! But he's a nice man, Mr. Allen. I liked him."

"Oh, old Allen's a good sort."

"What does he do—how does he live in Oxford?"

"He teaches philosophy, and lives on bread and tea in little lodgings."

"It sounds awfully dreary—"

"Well, it is rather dreary for him, poor man. I wouldn't be there for a good deal."

"But, tell me, what was that he was arguing about?"

"Oh, that's his philosophy; he's always arguing about it. He believes in a kind of Hegelianism."

"What is that?"

"Oh, it's a view of things; he's what you call an Optimist."

"But I thought an Optimist was a person who was very happy?"

"No; it only means a man who believes that you ought to be happy, that you are meant to enjoy life—that the world is good."

"But you don't mean that he was trying to prove that?"

"Why, yes, you heard him; he's always at it when you give him a chance. He thinks it must be so, that you can deduce it from the first principles of things."

But Mrs. Ross could not be made to understand it. To her it seemed that either you were happy or you weren't. "And, then, fancy trying to prove it to us!" she kept saying.

At last she took her husband's arm to go in; but still stood for a moment in silence thinking it over. "That poor Mr. Allen!" she exclaimed at last, "an Optimist, you said he was?"