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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Thomas Anstey Guthrie (F. Anstey) (1856–1934)

Venus Visits the Hair-Dresser

From “The Tinted Venus”

LEANDER had the house to himself after nightfall, and he remembered that his private door could not be opened now without a special key, and yet he could not help a fancy that some one was groping his way up the staircase outside.

“It’s only the boards creaking, or the pipes leaking through,” he thought. “I must have the place done up. But I’m as nervous as a cat to-night.”

The steps were nearer and nearer; they stopped at the door; there was a loud, commanding blow on the panels.

“Who’s here at this time of night?” cried Leander aloud. “Come in, if you want to!”

But the door remained shut, and there came another rap, even more imperious.

“I shall go mad if this goes on!” he muttered, and making a desperate rush to the door, threw it wide open, and then staggered back, panic-stricken.

Upon the threshold stood a tall figure in classical drapery. His eyes might have deceived him in the omnibus; but here, in the crude gas-light, he could not be mistaken. It was the statue he had last seen in Rosherwich Gardens—now, in some strange and wondrous way, moving—alive!

With slow and stately tread the statue advanced toward the centre of the hair-dresser’s humble sitting-room, and stood there awhile, gazing about her with something of scornful wonder in her calm, cold face. As she turned her head, the wide, deeply cut sockets seemed the home of shadowy eyes. Her face, her bared arms, and the long straight folds of her robe were all of the same grayish-yellow hue. The boards creaked under her sandalled feet, and Leander felt that he had never heard of a more appallingly massive ghost—if ghost indeed she were.

He had retired step by step before her to the hearth-rug, where he now stood shivering, with the fire hot at his back, and his kettle still singing on undismayed. He made no attempt to account for her presence there on any rationalising theory. A statue had suddenly come to life, and chosen to pay him a nocturnal visit; he knew no more than that, except that he would have given worlds for courage to show it the door.

The spectral eyes were bent upon him, as if in expectation that he would begin the conversation, and at last, with a very unmanageable tongue, he managed to observe, “Did you want to see me on—on business, mum?” But the statue only relaxed her lips in a haughty smile.

“For goodness’ sake, say something!” he cried wildly, “unless you want me to jump out of winder! What is it you’ve come about?”

It seemed to him that in some way a veil had lifted from the stone face, leaving it illumined by a strange light, and from the lips came a voice which addressed him in solemn, far-away tones, as of one talking in sleep. He could not have said with certainty that the language was his own, though somehow he understood her perfectly.

“You know me not?” she said, with a kind of sad indifference.

“Well,” Leander admitted, as politely as his terror would allow, “you certainly have the advantage of me for the moment, mum.”

“I am Aphrodite the foam-born, the matchless seed of Ægis-bearing Zeus. Many names have I among the sons of men, and many temples, and I sway the hearts of all lovers; and gods—yea, and mortals—have burned for me, a goddess, with an unconsuming, unquenchable fire!”

“Lor!” said Leander. If he had not been so much flurried, he might have found a remark worthier of the occasion, but the announcement that she was a goddess took his breath away; he had quite believed that goddesses were long since “gone out.”

“You know wherefore I am come hither?” she said.

“Not at this minute I don’t,” he replied. “You’ll excuse me, but you can’t be the statue out of those gardens? You really are so surprisingly like, that I couldn’t help asking you.”

“I am Aphrodite, and no statue. Long—how long I know not—have I lain entranced in slumber in my sea-girt isle of Cyprus, and now again has the living touch of a mortal hand upon one of my sacred images called me from my rest and given me power to animate this marble shell. Some hand has placed this ring upon my finger. Tell me, was it yours?”

Leander was almost reassured. After all, he could forgive her for terrifying him so much, since she had come on so good-natured an errand.

“Quite correct, mum—miss!” He wished he knew the proper form for addressing a goddess. “That ring is my property. I’m sure it’s very civil and friendly of you to come all this way about it,” and he held out his hand for it eagerly.

“And think you it was for this that I have visited the face of the earth and the haunts of men, and followed your footsteps hither by roads strange and unknown to me? You are too modest, youth.”

“I don’t know what there is modest in expecting you to behave honest!” he said, rather wondering at his own audacity.

“How are you called?” she inquired suddenly on this; and after hearing the answer, remarked that the name was known to her as that of a goodly and noble youth who had perished for the sake of Hero.

“The gentleman may have been a connection of mine, for all I know,” he said. “The Tweddles have always kep’ themselves respectable. But I’m not a hero myself. I’m a hair-dresser.”

She repeated the word thoughtfully, though she did not seem to quite comprehend it; and indeed it is likely enough that, however intelligible she was to Leander, the understanding was far from being entirely reciprocal.

She extended her hand to him, smiling not ungraciously. “Leander,” she said, “cease to tremble, for a great happiness is yours. Bold have you been; yet am I not angered, for I come. Cast then away all fear, and know that Aphrodite disdains not to accept a mortal’s plighted troth!”

Leander intrenched himself promptly behind the armchair. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he said. “How can I help fearing when you come down on me like this? Ask yourself.”

“Can you not understand that your prayer is heard?” she demanded.

“What prayer?” cried Leander.

“Crass and gross-witted has the world grown!” said she. “A Greek swain would have needed but few words to divine his bliss. Know, then, that your suit is accepted; never yet has Aphrodite turned the humblest from her shrine. By this symbol,” and she lightly touched the ring, “you have given yourself to me. I accept the offering—you are mine!”

Leander was stupefied by such an unlooked-for misconception. He could scarcely believe his ears; but he hastened to set himself right at once.

“If you mean that you were under the impression that I meant anything in particular by putting that ring on, it was all a mistake, mum,” he said; “I shouldn’t have presumed to it!”

“Were you the lowliest of men, I care not,” she replied. “To you I owe the power I now enjoy of life and vision, nor shall you find me ungrateful. But forbear this false humility; I like it not. Come, then, Leander, at the bidding of Cyprus; come, and fear nothing!”

But he feared very much, for he had seen the operas of “Don Giovanni” and “Zampa” and knew that any familiarity with statuary was likely to have unpleasant consequences. He merely strengthened his defences with a chair.

“You must excuse me, mum, you must, indeed,” he faltered; “I can’t come.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I’ve other engagements,” he replied.

“I remember,” she said slowly, “in the grove, when light met my eyes once more, there was a maid with you, one who laughed and was merry. Answer—is she your love?”

“No, she isn’t,” he said shortly. “What if she was?”

“If she were,” observed the goddess, with the air of one who mentioned an ordinary fact, “I should crush her!”

“Lord bless me!” cried Leander in his horror, “what for?”

“Would not she be in my path? and shall any mortal maid stand between me and my desire?”

This was a discovery. She was a jealous and vengeful goddess; she would require to be sedulously humoured, or harm would come.

“Well, well,” he said soothingly, “there’s nothing of that sort about her, I do assure you.”

“Then I spare her,” said the goddess. “But how, then, if this be truly so, do you still shrink from the honour before you?”

Leander felt a natural unwillingness to explain that it was because he was engaged to a young lady who kept the accounts at a florist’s.

“Well, the fact is,” he said awkwardly, “there’s difficulties in the way.”

“Difficulties? I can remove them all!” she said.

“Not these you can’t, mum. It’s like this: You and me, we don’t start, so to speak, from the same basin. I don’t mean it as any reproach to you, but you can’t deny you’re an ’eathen, and worse than that, an ’eathen goddess. Now all my family have been brought up as chapel folk, Primitive Methodists, and I’ve been trained to have a horror of superstition and idolatries, and see the folly of it. So you can see for yourself that we shouldn’t be likely to get on together!”

“You talk words,” she said impatiently; “but empty are they, and meaningless to my ears. One thing I learn from them—that you seek to escape me!”

“That’s putting it too harsh, mum,” he protested. “I’m sure I feel the honour of such a call; and, by the way, do you mind telling me how you got my address—how you found me out, I mean?”

“No one remains long hid from the searching eye of the high gods,” she replied.

“So I should be inclined to say,” agreed Leander. “But only tell me this: wasn’t it you in the omnibus? We call our public conveyances omnibuses, as perhaps you mayn’t know.”

“I, sea-born Aphrodite, I in a public conveyance, an omnibus? There is an impiety in such a question!”

“Well, I only thought it might have been,” he stammered, rather relieved upon the whole that it was not the goddess who had seen his precipitate bolt from the vehicle. Who the female in the corner really was he never knew; though a man of science might account for the resemblance she bore to the statue by ascribing it to one of those preparatory impressions projected occasionally by a strong personality upon a weak one. But Leander was content to leave the matter unexplained.

“Let it suffice you,” she said, “that I am here. Once more, Leander, are you prepared to fill the troth you have plighted?”

“I—I can’t say I am,” he said. “Not that I don’t feel thankful for having had the refusal of so very ’igh-class an opportunity; but, as I’m situated at present—what with the state of trade, and unbelief so rampant, and all—I’m obliged to decline with respectful thanks.”

He trusted that after this she would see the propriety of going.

“Have a care,” she said; “you are young and not uncomely, and my heart pities you. Do nothing rash. Pause ere you rouse the implacable ire of Aphrodite!”

“Thank you,” said Leander; “if you’ll allow me, I will. I don’t want any ill-feeling, I’m sure. It’s my wish to live peaceable with all men.”

“I leave you then. Use the time before you till I come again in thinking well whether he acts wisely who spurns the proffered hand of Idalian Aphrodite. For the present, farewell, Leander.”

He was overjoyed at his coming deliverance. “Good-evening, mum,” he said, as he ran to the door and held it open; “if you’ll allow me, I’ll light you down the staircase—it’s rather dark, I’m afraid.”

“Fool!” she said with scorn, and without stirring from her place; and, as she spoke the word, the veil seemed to descend over her face again, the light faded out, and, with a slight shudder, the figure imperceptibly resumed its normal attitude, the drapery stiffened into chiselled folds again, and the statue was soulless as are statues generally.

For some time after the statue had ceased to give signs of life, the hair-dresser remained gaping, incapable of thought or action. At last he ventured to approach cautiously, and on touching the figure found it perfectly cold and hard. The animating principle had plainly departed and left the statue a stone.

“She’s gone,” he said, “and left her statue behind her! Well, of all the goes!”