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Having in the last two chapters related my first boyhood experience in love, I think it will equal any to be found in works of greater fame, but I do not intend to weary you with any further relations of my early successes on the Venusian warpath.
I pass over the period of my youth and very early manhood, leaving you to imagine that my first lesson with Emma and my father as joint instructors was by no means thrown away. Yet I found at the age of thirty that I was only on the threshold of mysteries far more entrancing. I had up to that time been a mere man of pleasure, whose ample fortune (for my father, who had grown rich, did not disinherit me when he died) sufficed to procure any of those amorous delights without which the world would be a blank to me. But further than the ordinary pleasures of the bed I had not penetrated.
The moment was, however, approaching when all these would sink into insignificance before those greater sensual joys which wholesome and well-applied flagellation will always confer upon its devotees.' I quote the last sentence from a well-known author, but I'm far from agreeing with it in theory or principle.
I was emerging one summer's evening from the Café Royal in Regent Street, when De Vaux, a friend of long standing whom I was with, nodded to a gentleman passing in a hansom who at once stopped the cab and got out.
'Who is it?' I said, for I felt a sudden and inexplicable interest in his large lustrous eyes, eyes such as I have never before seen in any human being.
'That is Father Peter, of St Martha of the Angels. He is a bircher, my boy, and one of the best in London.'
At this moment we were joined by the Father and a formal introduction took place.
I had frequently seen admirable cartes of Father Peter, or rather, as he preferred to be called, Monsignor Peter, in the shop windows of the leading photographers, and at once accused myself of being a dolt not to have recognised him at first sight.
Descriptions are wearisome at the best, yet were I a clever novelist given to the art, I think I might even interest those of the sterner sex in Monsignor Peter, but although in the following paragraph I faithfully delineate him, I humbly ask his pardon if he should perchance in the years to come glance over these pages and think I have not painted his portrait in colours sufficiently glowing, for I must assure my readers that Father Peter is no imaginary Apollo, but one who in the present year of grace, 1883, lives, moves, eats, drinks, fucks and flagellates with all the verae and dash he possessed at the date I met him first, now twenty-five years ago.
Slightly above the middle height and about my own age, or possibly a year my senior, with finely chiselled features and exquisite profile, Father Peter was what the world would term an exceedingly handsome man. It is true that perfectionists have pronounced the mouth a trifle too sensual and the cheeks a thought too plump for a standard of perfection, but the women would have deemed otherwise for the grand dreamy Oriental eyes, which would have outrivalled those of Byron's Gazelle, made up for any shortcoming.
The tonsure had been sparing in its dealings with his hair, which hung in thick but well-trimmed masses round a classic head, and as the slight summer breeze blew aside one lap of his long clerical coat, I noticed the elegant shape of his cods which, in spite of the tailor's art, displayed their proportions to the evident admiration of one or two ladies who, pretending to look in at the windows of a draper near which we were standing, seemed riveted to the spot, as the zephyrs revealed the tantalising picture.
'I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr Clinton,' said Father Peter, shaking me cordially by the hand. 'Any friend of Mr De Vaux is a friend of mine. May I ask if either of you have dined yet?'
We replied in the negative.
'Then in that case, unless you have something better to do, I shall be glad if you will join me at my own home. I dine at seven, and am already rather late. I feel half-famished and was proceeding to Kensington, where my humble quarters are, when the sight of De Vaux compelled me to discharge the cab. What say you?'
'With all my heart,' replied De Vaux, and since I knew him to be a perfect sybarite at the table, and that his answer was based on a knowledge of Monsignor's resources, I readily followed suit. To hail a four-wheeler and get to the doors of Father Peter's handsome but somewhat secluded dwelling, which was not very far from the south end of the long walk in Kensington Gardens, did not occupy more than twenty minutes.
En route I discovered that Father Peter possessed a further charm which, added to those I have already mentioned, must have made him (as I thought even then and I know now) perfectly invincible among womankind. He was the most fascinating conversationalist I had ever listened to. It was not so much the easy winning way in which he framed his sentences, but the rich musical intonation, and the luscious laughing method he had of suggesting an infinity of things without, as a respectable member of an eminently respectable church, committing himself in words.
No one, save at exceptional intervals, could ever repeat any actual phrase of Monsignor's which might not pass in a drawing-room, yet there was an instinctive craving on the part of his audience to hear more because they imagined he meant something which was going to lead up to something further, yet the something further never came.
Father Peter was wont to say when questioned upon this annoying peculiarity -
'Am I to be held answerable for other people's imaginations?'
But then Father Peter was a sophist of the first water, and a clever reasoner could have proved that his innuendoes had created the imaginings in the first place. Daudet, Belot, and other leaders of the French fictional school, have at times carefully analysed those fine nuances which distinguish profligate talk from delicate suggestiveness. Monsignor had read these works, and adapted their ideas with success.
'My chef' said Monsignor as we entered the courtyard of his residence, 'tyrannises over me worse than any Nero. I am only five minutes behind and yet I dare not ask him for an instant's grace. You are both dressed. I suppose if I hadn't met you it would have been the Royalty front row; Florina, they say, has taken to forgetting her unmentionables lately.'
We both denied the soft impeachment and assured him that information about Florina was news to us.
Monsignor professed to be surprised at this, and rushed off to his dressing-room to make himself presentable.