POINT COUNTER POINT
Oh, wearisome condition of humanity,
Born under one law, to another bound,
Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity,
Created sick, commanded to be sound.
What meaneth nature by these diverse laws,
Passion and reason, self-division's cause?
'You won't be late?' There was anxiety in Marjorie Carling's voice, there was something like entreaty.
'No, I won't be late,' said Walter, unhappily and guiltily certain that he would be. Her voice annoyed him. It drawled a little, it was too refined - even in misery.
'Not later than .' She might have reminded him of the time when he never went out in the evening without her. She might have done so; but she wouldn't; it was against her principles; she didn't want to force his love in any way.
'Well, call it one. You know what these parties are.' But as a matter of fact, she didn't know, for the good reason that, not being his wife, she wasn't invited to them. She had left her husband to live with Walter Bidlake; and Carling, who had Christian scruples, was feebly a sadist and wanted to take his revenge, refused to divorce her. It was two years now since they had begun to live together. Only two years; and now, already, he had ceased to love her, he had begun to love someone else. The sin was losing its own excuse, the social discomfort its sole palliation. And she was with child.
'Half-past twelve,' she implored, though she knew that her importunity would only annoy him, only make him lover her the less. But she could not prevent herself from speaking; she loved him too much, she was too agonizingly jealous. The words broke out in spite of her principles. It would have been better for her, and perhaps for Walter too, if she had had fewer principles and given her feelings the violent expression they demanded. But she had been well brought up in habits of the strictest self-control. Only the uneducated, she knew, made 'scenes'. An imploring 'Half-past twelve, Walter' was all that managed to break through her principles. Too weak to move him, the feeble outburst would only annoy. She knew it, and yet she could not hold her tongue.
'If I can possibly manage it.' (There; she had done it. There was exasperation in his tone.) 'But I can't guarantee it; don't expect me too certainly.' For of course, he was thinking (with Lucy Tantamount's image unexorcizably haunting him), it certainly wouldn't be half-past twelve.
He gave the final touches to his white tie. From the mirror her face looked out at him, close beside his own. It was a pale face and so thin that the down-thrown light of the electric lamp hanging above them made a shadow in the hollows below the cheekbones. Her eyes were darkly ringed. Rather too long at the best of times, her straight nose protruded bleakly from the unfleshed face. She looked ugly, tired and ill. Six months from now her baby would be born. Something that had been a single cell, a cluster of cells, a little sac of tissue, a kind of worm, a potential fish with gills, stirred in her womb and would one day become a man - a grown man, suffering and enjoying, loving and hating, thinking, remembering, imagining. And what had been a blob of jelly within her body would invent a god and worship; what had been a kind of fish would create and, having created, would become the battleground good and evil; what had blindly lived in her as a parasitic worm would look at the stars, would listen to music, would read poetry. A thing would grow into a person, a tiny lump of stuff would become a human body, a human mind. The astounding process of creation was going on within her; but Marjorie was conscious only of sickness and lassitude; the mystery for her meant nothing but fatigue and ugliness and a chronic anxiety about the future, pain of the mind as well as discomfort of the body. She had been glad, or at least she had tried to be glad, in spite of her haunting fears of physical and social consequences, when she first recognized the symptoms of her pregnancy. The child, she believed, would bring Walter closer; (he had begun to fade away from her even then). It would arouse in him new feelings which would make up for whatever element it was that seemed to be lacking in his love for her. She dreaded the pain, she dreaded the inevitable difficulties and embarrassments. But the pains, the difficulties would have been worth while if they purchased a renewal, a strengthening of Walter's attachment. In spite of everything, she was glad. And at first her previsions had seemed to be justified. The news that she was going to have a child had quickened his tenderness. For two or three weeks she was happy, she was reconciled to the pains and discomforts. Then, from one day to another, everything was changed; Walter had met that woman. He still did his best, in the intervals of running after Lucy, to keep up a show of solicitude. But she could feel that the solicitude was resentful, that he was tender and attentive out of a sense of duty, that he hated the child for compelling him to be so considerate to its mother. And because he hated it, she too began to hate it. No longer overlaid by happiness, her fears came to the surface, filled her mind. Pain and discomfort - that was all the future held. And meanwhile ugliness, sickness, fatigue. How could she fight her battle when she was in this state?'
'Do you love me, Walter?' she suddenly asked.
Walter turned his brown eyes for a moment from the reflected tie and looked into the image of her sad, intently gazing grey ones. He smiled. But if only, he was thinking, she would leave me in peace! He pursed his lips and parted them again in the suggestion of a kiss. But Marjorie did not return his smile. Her face remained unmovingly sad, fixed in an intent anxiety. Her eyes took on a tremulous brightness, and suddenly there were tears on her lashes.
'Couldn't you stay here with me this evening?' she begged, in the teeth of all her heroic resolutions not to apply any sort of exasperating compulsion to his love, to leave him free to do what he wanted.
At the sight of those tears, at the sound of that tremulous and reproachful voice, Walter was filled with an emotion that was at once remorse and resentment; anger, pity, and shame.
'But can't you understand,' that was what he would have liked to say, what he would have said if he had had the courage, 'can't you understand that it isn't the same as it was, that it can't be the same? And perhaps, if the truth be told, it never was what you believed it was - our love, I mean - it never was what I tried to pretend it was. Let's be friends, let's be companions. I like you, I'm very fond of you. But for goodness sake don't envelop me in love, like this; don't force love on me. If you knew how dreadful love seems to somebody who doesn't love, what a violation, what an outrage ...'
But she was crying. Through her closed eyelids the tears were welling out, drop after drop. Her face was trembling into the grimace of agony. And he was the tormentor. He hated himself. 'But why should I let myself be blackmailed by her tears?' he asked, and, asking, he hated her also. A drop ran down her long nose. 'She has no right to do this sort of thing, no right to be so unreasonable. Why can't she be reasonable?'
'Because she loves me.'
'But I don't want her love, I don't want it.' He felt the anger mounting up within him. She had no business to love him like that; not now, at any rate. 'It's a blackmail,' he repeated inwardly, 'a blackmail. Why must I be blackmailed by her love and the fact that once I loved too - or did I ever love her, really?'
Marjorie took out a handkerchief and began to wipe her eyes. He felt ashamed of his odious thoughts. But she was the cause of his shame; it was her fault. She ought to have stuck to her husband. They could have had an affair. Afternoons in a studio. It would have been romantic.
'But after all, it was I who insisted on her coming away with me.'
'But she ought to have had the sense to refuse. She ought to have known that it couldn't last for ever.'
But she had done what he had asked her; she had given up everything, accepted social discomfort for his sake. Another piece of blackmail. She blackmailed him with sacrifice. He resented the appeal which her sacrifices made to his sense of decency and honour.
'But if she had some decency and honour,' he thought, 'she wouldn't exploit mine.'
But there was the baby.
'Why on earth did she ever allow it to come into existence?'
He hated it. It increased his responsibility towards its mother, increased his guiltiness in making her suffer. He looked at her wiping her tear-wet face. Being with child had made her so ugly, so old. How could a woman expect...? But no, no no! Walter shut his eyes, gave an almost imperceptible shuddering shake of the head. The ignoble thought must be shut out, repudiated.
'How can I think such things?' he asked himself.
'Don't go,' he heard her repeating. How that refined and drawling shrillness got on his nerves! 'Please don't go, Walter.'
There was a sob in her voice. More blackmail. Ah, how could he be so base? And yet, in spite of his shame and, in a sense, because of it, he continued to feel that shameful emotions with an intensity that seemed to increase rather than diminish. His dislike of her grew because he was ashamed of it; the painful feelings of shame and self-hatred, which she caused him to feel, constituted for him yet another ground of dislike. Resentment bred shame, and shame in its turn bred more resentment.
'Oh, why can't she leave me in peace?' He wished it furiously, intensely, with an exasperation that was all the more savage for being suppressed. (For he lacked the brutal courage to give it utterance; he was sorry for her, he was fond of her in spite of everything; he was incapable of being openly and frankly cruel - he was cruelly only out of weakness, against his will.)
'Why can't she leave me in peace?' He would like her so much more if only she left him in peace; and she herself would be so much happier. Ever so much happier. It would be for her own good ... But suddenly he saw through his own hypocrisy. 'But all the same, why the devil can't she let me do what I want?'
What he wanted? But what he wanted was Lucy Tantamount. And he wanted her against reason, against all his ideals and principles, madly, against his own wishes, even against his own feelings - for he didn't like Lucy; he really hated her. A noble end may justify shameful means. But when the end is shameful, what then? It was for Lucy that he was making Marjorie suffer - Marjorie who loved him, who had made sacrifices for him, who was unhappy. But her unhappiness was blackmailing him.
'Stay with me this evening,' she implored once more.
There was a part of his mind that joined in her entreaties, that wanted him to give up the party and stay at home. But the other part was stronger. He answered her with lies - half lies, that were worse, for the hypocritically justifying element of truth in them, than frank whole lies.
He put his arm round her. The gesture was in itself a falsehood.
'But my darling,' he protested in the cajoling tone of one who implores a child to behave reasonably, 'I really must go. You see, my father's going to be there.' That was true. Old Bidlake was always at the Tantamount's parties. 'And I must have a talk with him. About business,' he added vaguely and importantly, releasing with the magical word a kind of smoke-screen of masculine interests between himself and Marjorie. But the lie, he reflected, must be transparently visible through the smoke.
'Couldn't you see him some other time?'
'It's important,' he answered, shaking
his head. 'And besides,' he added,
forgetting that several excuses are always less convincing than one, 'Lady
Edward's inviting an American editor specially for my sake. He might be useful; you know how enormously
they pay.' Lady Edward had told him that
she would invite the man if he hadn't started back to
'I'm not crying,' she answered. But her cheek was wet and cold to his lips.
'Marjorie, I won't go, if you don't want me to.'
'But I do want you to,' she answered, still keeping her face averted.
'You don't. I'll stay.'
'You mustn't.' Marjorie looked at him and made an effort to smile. 'It's only my silliness. It would be stupid to miss your father and that American man.' Returned to him like this, his excuses sounded peculiarly vain and improbable. He winced with a kind of disgust.
'They can wait,' he answered, and there was a note of anger in his voice. He was angry with himself for having made such lying excuses (why couldn't he have told her the crude and brutal truth straight out? she knew it, after all); and he was angry with her for reminding him of them. He would have liked them to fall directly into the pit of oblivion, to be as though they had never been uttered.
'No, no; I insist. I was only being silly. I'm sorry.'
He resisted her at first, refused to go, demanded to stay. Now that there was no danger of his having to stay, he could afford to insist. For Marjorie, it was clear, was serious in her determination that he should go. It was an opportunity for him to be noble and self-sacrificing at a cheap rate, gratis even. What an odious comedy! But he played it. In the end he consented to go, as though he were doing her a special favour by not staying. Marjorie tied his scarf for him, brought him his silk hat and his gloves, kissed him goodbye lightly, with a brave show of gaiety. She had her pride and her code of amorous honour; and in spite of unhappiness, in spite of jealousy, she stuck to her principles - he ought to be free; she had no right to interfere with him. And besides it was the best policy not to interfere. At least, she hoped it was the best policy.
Walter shut the door behind him and stepped out into the cool of the night. A criminal escaping from the scene of his crime, escaping from the spectacle of the victim, escaping from compassion and remorse, could not have felt more profoundly relieved. In the street he drew a deep breath. He was free. Free from recollection and anticipation. Free, for an hour or two, to refuse to admit the existence of past or future. Free to live only now and here, in the place where his body happened at each instant to be. Free - but the boast was idle; he went on remembering. Escape was not so easy a matter. Her voice pursued him. 'I insist on your going.' His crime had been a fraud as well as a murder. 'I insist.' How nobly he had protested! How magnanimously given in at last! It was card-sharping on top of cruelty.
'God!' he said almost aloud. 'How could I?' He was astonished at himself as well as disgusted. 'But if only she'd leave me in peace!' he went on. 'Why can't she be reasonable?' The weak and futile anger exploded again within him.
He thought of the time when his wishes
had been different. Not to be left in
peace by her had once been his whole ambition.
He had encouraged her devotion.
He remembered the cottage they had lived in, alone with one another,
month after month, among the bare downs.
What a view over
'One shouldn't take art too literally.' He remembered what his brother-in-law, Philip Quarles, had said one evening, when they were talking about poetry. 'Particularly where love is concerned.'
'Not even if it's true?' Walter had asked.
'It's apt to be too true. Unadulterated, like distilled water. When truth is nothing but the truth, it's unnatural, it's an abstraction that resembles nothing in the real world. In nature there are always so many other irrelevant things mixed up with the essential truth. That's why art moves you - precisely because it's unadulterated with all the irrelevancies of real life. Real orgies are never so exciting as pornographic books. In a volume by Pierre Louys all the girls are young and their figures perfect; there's no hiccoughing or bad breath, no fatigue or boredom, no sudden recollections of unpaid bills or business letters unanswered, to interrupt the raptures. Art gives you the sensation, the thought, the feeling quite pure - chemically pure, I mean,' he had added with a laugh, 'not morally.'
'But Epipsychidion isn't pornography,' Walter had objected.
'No, but it's equally pure from the chemist's point of view. How does that sonnet of Shakespeare's go?
'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses demask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
And so on. He'd taken the poets too literally and was reacting. Let him be a warning to you.'
Philip had been right, of course. Those months in the cottage hadn't been at all like Epipsychidion or La Maison du Berger. What with the well and the walk to the village ... But even if there hadn't been the well and the walk, even if he had had Marjorie unadulterated, would it have been any better? It might even have been worse. Marjorie unadulterated might have been worse than Marjorie tempered by irrelevancies.
That refinement of hers, for example, that rather cold virtuousness, so bloodless and spiritual - from a distance and theoretically he admired. But in practice and close at hand? It was with that virtue, that refined, cultured, bloodless spirituality that he had fallen in love - with that and with her unhappiness; for Carling was unspeakable. Pity made him a knight errant. Love, he had then believed (for he was only twenty-two at the time, ardently pure, with the adolescent purity of sexual desires turned inside out, just down from Oxford and stuffed with poetry and the lucubrations of philosophers and mystics), love was talk, love was spiritual communion and companionship. That was real love. The sexual business was only an irrelevancy, unavoidable, because unfortunately human beings had bodies, but to be kept as far as possible in the background. Ardently pure with the ardour of young desires taught artificially to burn on the side of the angels, he had admired that refined and quiet purity which, in Marjorie, was the product of a natural coldness, a congenitally low vitality.
'You're so good,' he had said. 'It seems to come to you so easily. I wish I could be good, like you.'
It was the equivalent, but he did not realize it, of wishing himself half dead. Under the shy, diffident, sensitive skin of him, he was ardently alive. It was indeed hard for him to be good, as Marjorie was good. But he tried. And meanwhile, he admired her goodness and purity. And he was touched - at least until it bored and exasperated him - by her devotion to him, he was flattered by her admiration.
Walking now towards Chalk Farm station he suddenly remembered that story his father used to tell about an Italian chauffeur he had once talked to about love. (The old man had a genius for getting people to talk; all sorts of people, even servants, even workmen. Walter envied him the talent.) Some women, according to the chauffeur, are like wardrobes. Sono come cassettoni. How richly old Bidlake used to tell the anecdote! They may be as lovely as you like; but what's the point of a lovely wardrobe in your arms? What on earth's the point? (And Marjorie, Walter reflected, wasn't even really good looking.) 'Give me,' said the chauffeur, 'the other kind, even if they're ugly. My girl,' he had confided, 'is the other kind. É un frullino, proprio un frullino - a regular egg-whisk.' And the old man would twinkle like a jovial, wicked old satyr behind his monocle. Stiff wardrobes or lively egg-whisks? Walter had to admit that his preferences were the same as the chauffeur's. At any rate, he knew by personal experience that (whenever 'real' love was being tempered by the sexual irrelevancies) he didn't much like the wardrobe kind of woman. At a distance, theoretically, purity and goodness and refined spirituality were admirable. But in practice and close to they were less appealing. And from someone who does not appeal to one, even devotion, even the flattery of admiration are unbearable. Confusedly and simultaneously he hated Marjorie for her patient, martyred coldness; he accused himself of swinish sensuality. His love for Lucy was mad and shameful, but Marjorie was bloodless and half dead. He was at once justified and without excuse. But more without excuse, all the same; more without excuse. They were low, those sensual feelings; they were ignoble. Egg-whisk and chest of drawers - could anything be more base and ignoble than such a classification? In imagination he heard his father's rich and fleshy laugh. Horrible! Walter's whole conscious life had been orientated in opposition to his father, in opposition to the old man's jolly, careless sensuality. Consciously he had always been on the side of his mother, on the side of purity, refinement, the spirit. But his blood was at least half his father's. And now two years of Marjorie had made him consciously dislike cold virtue. He consciously disliked it, even though at the same time he was still ashamed of his dislike, ashamed of what he regarded as his beastly sensual desires, ashamed of his love for Lucy. But oh, if only Marjorie would leave him in peace! If only she'd refrain from clamouring for a return to the unwelcome love she persisted in forcing on him! If only she'd stop being so dreadfully devoted. He'd be glad of her friendship in return. But love - that was suffocating. And when, imagining she was fighting the other woman with her own weapons, she did violence to her own virtuous coldness and tried to win him back by the ardour of her caresses - oh, it was terrible, really terrible.
And then, he went on to reflect, she was really rather a bore with her heavy, insensitive earnestness. Really rather stupid in spite of her culture - because of it perhaps. The culture was genuine all right; she had read the books, she remembered them. But did she understand them? Could she understand them? The remarks with which she broke her long, long silences, the cultured, earnest remarks - how heavy they were, how humourless and without understanding! She was wise to be so silent; silence is as full of potential wisdom and with as the unhewn marble of great sculpture. The silent bear no witness against themselves. Marjorie knew how to listen well and sympathetically. And when she did break silence, her half utterances were quotations. For Marjorie had a retentive memory and had formed the habit of learning the great thoughts and the purple passages by heart. It had taken Walter some time to discover the heavy, pathetically uncomprehending stupidity that underlay the silence and the quotations. And when he discovered, it was too late.
He thought of Carling. A drunkard and religious. Always chattering away about chasubles and saints and the Immaculate Conception, and at the same time a nasty drunken pervert. If the man hadn't been quite so detestably disgusting, if he hadn't made Marjorie quite so wretched - what then? Walter imagined his freedom. He wouldn't have pitied, he wouldn't have loved. He remembered Marjorie's red and swollen eyes after one of those disgusting scenes with Carling. The dirty brute!
'And what about me?' he suddenly thought.
He knew that the moment the door had shut behind him, Marjorie had started to cry. Carling at least had the excuse of whiskey. Forgive them, for they know not what they do. He himself was never anything but sober. At this moment, he knew, she was crying.
'I ought to go back,' he said to himself. But instead, he quickened his pace till he was almost running down the street. If was a flight from his conscience and at the same time a hastening towards his desire.
'I ought to go back, I ought.'
He hurried on, hating her because he had made her so unhappy.
A man looking into a tobacconist's window suddenly stepped backwards as he was passing. Walter violently collided with him.
'Sorry,' he said automatically, and hurried on without looking round.
'Where yer going?' the man shouted after
him angrily. 'Wotcher think you're
doing?' Being a bloody
Two loitering street boys whooped with ferociously derisive mirth.
'You in yer top 'at,' the man pursued contemptuously, hating the uniformed gentleman.
The right thing would have been to turn round and give the fellow back better than he gave. His father would have punctured him with a word. But for Walter there was only flight. He dreaded these encounters, he was frightened of the lower classes. The noise of the man's abuse faded in his ears.
Odious! He shuddered. His thoughts returned to Marjorie.
'Why can't she be reasonable?' he said to himself. 'Just reasonable. If only at least she had something to do, something to keep her occupied.'
She had too much time to think, that was the trouble with Marjorie. Too much time to think about him. Though after all it was his fault; it was he who had robbed her of her occupation and made her focus her mind exclusively on himself. She had taken a partnership in a decorator's shop when he first knew her; one of those lady-like, artistic, amateurish decorating establishments in Kensington. Lampshades and the companionship of the young women who painted them and above all devotion to Mrs Cole, the senior partner, were Marjorie's compensations for a wretched marriage. She had created a little world of her own, apart from Carling; a feminine world, with something of the girls' school about it, where she could talk about clothes and shops, and listen to gossip, and indulge in what schoolgirls call a 'pash' for an elder woman, and imagine in the intervals that she was doing part of the world's work and helping on the cause of Art.
Walter had persuaded her to give it all up. Not without difficulty, however. For her happiness in being devoted to Mrs Cole, in having a sentimental 'pash' for her, was almost a compensation for her misery with Carling. But Carling turned out to be more than Mrs Cole could compensate for. Walter offered what the lady perhaps could not, and certainly did not wish to, provide - a place of refuge, protection, financial support. Besides, Walter was a man, and a man ought, by tradition, to be loved, even when, as Walter had finally concluded about Marjorie, one doesn't really like men and is only naturally attuned to the company of women. (The effect of literature again! He remembered Philip Quarles's comments on the disastrous influence which art can exercise on life.) Yes, he was a man; but 'different', as she had never tired of telling him, from ordinary men. He had accepted his 'difference' as a flattering distinction, then. But was it? He wondered. Anyhow, 'different' she had then found him and so was able to get the best of both worlds - a man who yet wasn't a man. Charmed by Walter's persuasions, driven by Carling's brutalities, she had consented to abandon the shop and with it Mrs Cole, whom Walter detested as a bullying, slave-driving, blood-sucking embodiment of female will.
'You're too good to be an amateur upholsterer,' he had flattered her out of the depths of a then genuine belief in her intellectual capacities.
She should help him in some unspecified way with his literary work, she should write herself. Under his influence she had taken to writing essays and short stories. But they were obviously no good. From having been encouraging, he became reticent; he said no more about her efforts. In a little while Marjorie abandoned the unnatural and futile occupation. She had nothing after that but Walter. He became the reason for her existence, the foundation on which her whole life was established. The foundation was moving away from under her.
'If only,' thought Walter, 'she'd leave me in peace!'
He turned into the Underground
station. At the entrance a man was
selling the evening papers. SOCIALIST ROBBERY SCHEME. FIRST
'The ruffians,' thought Walter as he read it. The article evoked in him a stimulating enthusiasm for all that it assailed, a delightful hatred for Capitalists and Reactionaries. The barriers of his individuality were momentarily thrown down, the personal complexities were abolished. Possessed by the joy of political battle, he overflowed his boundaries, he became, so to speak, larger than himself - larger and simpler.
'The ruffians,' he repeated, thinking of the oppressors, the monopolizers.
'One should be loyal to one's tastes and instincts,' Philip Quarles used to say. 'What's the good of a philosophy with a major premiss that isn't the rationalzation of your feelings? If you've never had a religious experience, it's folly to believe in God. You might as well believe in the excellence of oysters, when you can't eat them without being sick.'
A whiff of state sweat came up with the nicotine fumes to Walter's nostrils. 'The Socialists call it Nationalization,' he read in his paper; 'but the rest of us have a shorter and homelier name for what they propose to do. That name is Theft.' But at least it was theft from thieves and for the benefit of their victims. The little old man leaned forward and spat, cautiously and perpendicularly, between his feet. With the heel of his boot he spread the gob over the floor. Walter looked away; he wished that he could personally liked the oppressed and personally hate the rich oppressors. One should be loyal to one's tastes and instincts. But one's tastes and instincts were accidents. There were eternal principles. But if the axiomatic principles didn't happen to be your personal major premiss ...?
And suddenly he was nine years old and walking with his mother in the fields near Gattenden. Each of them carried a bunch of cowslips. They must have been up to Batt's Corner; it was the only place where cowslips grew in the neighbourhood.
'We'll stop for a minute and see poor Wetherington,' his mother said. 'He's very ill.' She knocked at a cottage door.
Wetherington had been the under-gardener at the Hall; but for the past month he had not been working. Walter remembered him as a pale, thin man with a cough, not at all communicative. He was not much interested in Wetherington. A woman open the door. 'Good afternoon, Mrs Wetherington.' They were shown in.
Wetherington was lying in bed propped up with pillows. His face was terrible. A pair of enormous, large-pupilled eyes stared out of cavernous sockets. Stretched over the starting bones, the skin was white and clammy with sweat. But almost more appalling even than the face was the neck, the unbelievably thin neck. And from the sleeves of his nightshirt projected two knobbed sticks, his arms, with a pair of immense skeleton hands fastened to the end of them, like rakes at the end of their slender hafts. And then the smell in that sickroom! The windows were tightly shut, a fire burned in the little grate. The air was hot and heavy with a horrible odour of stale sick breath and the exhalations of a sick body - an old inveterate smell that seemed to have grown sickeningly sweetish with long ripening in the pent-up heat. A new, fresh smell, however pungently disgusting, would have been less horrible. It was the inveterateness, the sweet decaying over-ripeness of this sickroom smell that made it so peculiarly unbearable. Walter shuddered even now to think of it. He lit a cigarette to disinfect his memory. He had been brought up on baths and open windows. The first time that, as a child, he was taken to church, the stuffiness, the odour of humanity made him sick; he had to be hurried out. His mother did not take him to church again. Perhaps we're brought up too wholesomely and asceptically, he thought. An education that results in one's feeling sick in the company of one's fellow-men, one's brothers - can it be good? He would have liked to love them. But love does not flourish in an atmosphere that nauseates the lover with an uncontrollable disgust.
In Wetherington's sickroom even pity found it hard to flourish. He sat there, while his mother talked to the dying man and his wife, gazing, reluctant but compelled by the fascination of horror, at the ghastly skeleton in the bed and breathing through his bunch of cowslips the warm and sickening air. Even through the fresh delicious scent of the cowslips he could smell the inveterate odours of the sickroom. He felt almost no pity, only horror, fear and disgust. And even when Mrs Wetherington began to cry, turning her face away so that the sick man should not see her tears, he felt not pitiful so much as uncomfortable, embarrassed. The spectacle of her grief only made him more urgently long to escape, to get out of that horrible room into the pure enormous air and the sunshine.
He felt ashamed of these emotions as he remembered them. But that was how he had felt, how he still felt. 'One should be loyal to one's instincts.' No, not at all, not to the bad ones; one should resist these. But they were not so easily overcome. The old man in the next seat relit his pipe. He remembered that he had held every breath for as long as he possibly could, so as not to have to draw in and smell the tainted air too often. A deep breath through the cowslips; then he counted forty before he let it out again and inhaled another. The old man once more leaned forward and spat. 'The idea that nationalization will increase the prosperity of the workers is entirely fallacious. During the past years the tax-payer has learned to his cost the meaning of bureaucratic control. If the workers imagine ...' He shut his eyes and saw the sickroom. When the time came to say goodbye, he had shaken the skeleton hand. It lay there, unmoving, on the bedclothes; he slipped his fingers underneath those dead and bony ones, lifted the hand a moment and let it fall again.
It was cold and wettish to the touch. Turning away, he surreptitiously wiped his palm on his coat. He let out his long-contained breath with an explosive sigh and inhaled another lungful of the sickening air. It was the last he had to take; his mother was already moving towards the door. Her little Pekingese frisked round her, barking.
'Be quiet, T'ang!' she said in her clear, beautiful voice. She was perhaps the only person in England, he now reflected, who regularly pronounced the apostrophe T'ang.
They walked home by the footpath across the fields. Fantastic and improbable as a little Chinese dragon, T'ang ran on ahead of them bounding lightly over what were to him enormous obstacles. His feathery tail fluttered in the wind. Sometimes, when the grass was very long he sat up on his little flat rump as though he were begging for sugar, and looked out with his round bulgy eyes over the tussocks, taking his bearings.
Under the bright dappled sky Walter had felt like a reprieved prisoner. He ran, he shouted. His mother walked slowly, without speaking. Every now and then she halted for a moment and shut her eyes. It was a habit she had, when she felt pensive or perplexed. She was often perplexed, Walter reflected, smiling tenderly to himself. Poor Wetherington must have perplexed her a great deal. He remembered how often she had halted on their way home.
'Do hurry up, mother,' he had shouted impatiently. 'We shall be late for tea.'
Cook had baked scones for tea and there was yesterday's plum cake and a newly opened pot of Tiptree's cherry jam.
'One should be loyal to one's tastes and instincts.' But an accident of birth had determined them for him. Justice was eternal; charity and brotherly love were beautiful in spite of the old man's pipe and Wetherington's sickroom. Beautiful precisely because of such things. The train slowed down. Leicester Square. He stepped out on to the platform and made his way towards the lifts. But the personal major premiss, he was thinking, is hard to deny; and the major premiss that isn't personal is hard, however excellent, to believe in. Honour, fidelity - these were good things. But the personal major premiss of his present philosophy was that Lucy Tantamount was the most beautiful, the most desirable ...
'All tickets, please!'
The debate threatened to start again. Deliberately he stifled it, the liftman slammed the gates. The lift ascended. In the street he hailed a taxi.
'Tantamount House, Pall Mall.'
Italian ghosts unobtrusively haunt the eastern end of Pall Mall. The wealth of newly industrialized England
and the enthusiasm, the architectural genius, of Charles Barry called them up
out of the past and their native sunshine.
Under the encrusting grime of the Reform Club the eye of faith
recognizes something agreeably reminiscent of the Farnese Palace. A few yards further down the street, Sir
Charles's recollections of the house that Raphael designed for the Pandolfini
loom up through the filmy
Barry designed it in 1839. A hundred workmen laboured for a year or
two. And the third marquess paid the
bills. They were heavy; but the suburbs
The corn was sown, grew and was
harvested, again and again. The beasts
were born, fattened and went to the slaughter.
The ploughmen, the shepherds, the cowherds laboured from before dawn
till sunset, year after year, until they died.
Their children took their places.
Tantamount succeeded Tantamount.
The interior of Tantamount House is as nobly Roman as its façade. Round a central quadrangle run two tiers of open arcades with an attic, lit by small square windows, above. But instead of being left open to the sky, the quadrangle is covered by a glass roof, which converts it into an immense hall rising the whole height of the building. With its arcades and gallery it makes a very noble room - but too large, too public, too much like a swimming bath or a roller-skating rink to be much lived in. Tonight, however, it was justifying its existence. Lady Edward Tantamount was giving one of her musical parties. The floor was crowded with seated guests and in the hollow architectural space above them the music intricately pulsed.
'What a pantomime!' said old John Bidlake to his hostess. 'My dear Hilda, you really must look.'
'Sh-sh!' Lady Edward protested behind her feather fan. 'You mustn't interrupt the music. Besides I am looking.'
Her whisper was colonial and the r's of
'interrupt' were rolled far back in the throat; for Lady Edward came from
'Believe me,' Hilda had once confided to a friend, 'I never took so much interest in osmosis before or since.'
The interest in osmosis roused Lord Edward's attention. He became aware of a fact which he had not previously noticed; that Hilda was exceedingly pretty. Hilda also knew her woman's business. Her task was not difficult. At forty Lord Edward was in all but intellect a kind of child. In the laboratory, at his desk, he was as old as science itself. But his feelings, his intuitions, his instincts were those of a little boy. Unexercised, the greater part of his spiritual being had never developed. He was a kind of child, but with his childish habits ingrained by forty years of living. Hilda helped him over his paralysing twelve-year-old shyness, and whenever terror prevented him from making the necessary advances, came half or nearly all the way to meet him. His ardours were boyish - at once violent and timid, desperate and dumb. Hilda talked for two and was discreetly bold. Discreetly - for Lord Edward's notions of how young girls should behave were mainly derived from the Pickwick Papers. Boldness undisguised would have alarmed him, would have driven him away. Hilda kept up all the appearance of Dickensian young-girlishness, but contrived at the same time to make all the advances, create all the opportunities and lead the conversation into all the properly amorous channels. She had her reward. In the spring of 1898 she was Lady Edward Tantamount.
'But I assure you,' she had once said to John Bidlake, quite angrily - for he had been making fun of poor Edward, 'I'm genuinely fond of him, genuinely.'
'In your own way, no doubt,' mocked Bidlake. 'In your own way. But you must admit it's a good thing it isn't everybody's way. Just look at yourself in that mirror.'
She looked and saw the reflection of her naked body lying, half sunk in deep cushions, on a divan.
'Beast!' she said. 'But it doesn't make any difference to my being fond of him.'
'Oh, not to your particular way of being fond, I'm sure.' He laughed. 'But I repeat that it's perhaps a good thing that -'
She put her hand over his mouth. That was a quarter of a century ago. Hilda had been married five years and was thirty. Lucy was a child of four. John Bidlake was forty-seven, at the height of his powers and reputation as a painter; handsome, huge, exuberant, careless; a great laugher, a great worker, a great eater, drinker and taker of virginities.
'Painting's a branch of sensuality,' he retorted to those who reproved him for his way of life. 'Nobody can paint a nude who hasn't learnt the human body by heart with his hands and his lips and his own body. I take my art seriously. I'm unremitting in my preliminary studies.' And the skin would tighten in laughing wrinkles round his monocle, his eyes would twinkle like a genial satyr's.
To Hilda, John Bidlake brought the revelation of her own body, her physical potentialities. Lord Edward was only a kind of child, a fossil boy preserved in the frame of a very large middle-aged man. Intellectually, in the laboratory, he understood the phenomena of sex. But in practice and emotionally he was a child, a fossil mid-Victorian child, preserved intact, with all the natural childish timidities and al the taboos acquired from the two beloved and very virtuous maiden aunts, who had taken the place of his dead mother, all the amazing principles and prejudices sucked in with the humours of Mr Pickwick and Micawber. He loved his young wife, but loved her as a fossil child of the 'sixties might love - timidly and very apologetically; apologizing for his ardours, apologizing for his body, apologizing for hers. Not in so many words, of course; for the fossil child was dumb with shyness; but by a silent ignoring, a silent pretending that the bodies weren't really involved in the ardours, which anyhow didn't really exist. His love was one long tacit apology for itself; and being nothing more than an apology was therefore quite inexcusable. Love must justify itself by its results in intimacy of mind and body, in warmth, in tender contact, in pleasure. If it has to be justified from outside, it is thereby proved a thing without justification. John Bidlake made no apologies for the kind of love he had to offer. So far as it went, it entirely justified itself. A healthy sensualist, he made his love straightforwardly, naturally, with the good animal gusto of a child of nature.
'Don't expect me to talk about the stars and madonna lilies and the cosmos,' he said. 'They're not my line. I don't believe in them. I believe in -' And his language became what a mysterious convention had decreed to be unprintable.
It was a love without pretensions, but warm, natural, and, being natural, good so far as it went - a decent, good-humoured, happy sensuality. To Hilda, who had never known anything but a fossil child's reticent apology for love, it was a revelation. Things which had been dead in her came alive. She discovered herself, rapturously. But not too rapturously. She never lost her head. If she had lost her head, she might have lost Tantamount House and the Tantamount millions and the Tantamount title as well. She had not intention of losing these things. So she kept her head, coolly and deliberately; kept it high and secure above the tumultuous raptures, like a rock above the waves. She enjoyed herself, but never to the detriment of her social position. She could look on at her own enjoyment; her cool head, her will to retain her social position remained apart from and above the turmoil. John Bidlake approved the way she made the best of both worlds.
'Thank God, Hilda,' he had often said, 'you're a sensible woman.'
Women who believed the world well lost for love were apt to be a terrible nuisance, as he knew only too well by personal experience. He liked women; love was an indispensable enjoyment. But nobody was worth involving oneself in tiresome complications for, nothing was worth messing up one's life for. With the women who hadn't been ruthlessly cruel. It was the battle of 'all for love' against 'anything for a quiet life.' John Bidlake always won. Fighting for his quiet life, he drew the line at no sort of frightfulness.
Hilda Tantamount was as much attached to the quiet life as John himself. Their affair had lasted, pleasantly enough, for a space of years and slowly faded out of existence. They had been good lovers, they remained good friends - conspirators, even, people called them, mischievous conspirators leagued together to amuse themselves at the world's expense. They were laughing now. Or rather old John, who hated music, was laughing alone. Lady Edward was trying to preserve the decorums.
'You simply must be quiet,' she whispered.
'But you're not realizing how incredibly comic it is,' Bidlake insisted.
'But I'm whispering.' This continual slushing annoyed him.
'Like a lion.'
'I can't help that,' he answered crossly. When he took the trouble to whisper, he assumed that his voice was inaudible to all but the person to whom his remarks were addressed. He did not like to be told that what he chose to assume as true was not true. 'Lion, indeed!' he muttered indignantly. But his face suddenly brightened again. 'Look!' he said. 'Here's another late arrival. What's the betting she'll do the same as all the others?'
'Sh-sh,' Lady Edward repeated.
But John Bidlake paid no attention to her. He was looking in the direction of the door, where the latest of the late-comers was still standing, torn between the desire to disappear unobtrusively into the silent crowd and the social duty of making her arrival known to her hostess. She looked about her in embarrassment. Lady Edward hailed her over the heads of the intervening crowd with a wave of her long feather and a smile. The late arrival smiled back, blew a kiss, laid a finger to her lips, pointed to an empty chair at the other side of the room, threw out both hands in a little gesture that was meant to express apologies for being late and despairing regret at being unable in the circumstances to come and speak to Lady Edward, then shrugging up her shoulders and shrinking into herself so as to occupy the smallest possible amount of space, tiptoed with extraordinary precautions down the gangway towards the vacant seat.
Bidlake was in ecstasies of
merriment! He had echoed the poor lady's
every gesture as she made it. Her blown
kiss he had returned with extravagant interest, and when she laid a finger to
her lips, he had covered his mouth with a whole hand. He had repeated her gesture of regret, grotesquely
magnifying it until it expressed a ludicrous despair. And when she tiptoed away, he began to count
on his fingers, to make the gestures that, in
'I told you so,' he whispered, and his
whole face was wrinkled with suppressed laughter. 'It's like being in a dead and dumb
asylum. Or talking to
Lady Edward flapped her ostrich at him.
Meanwhile the music played on - Bach's Suite in B minor, for flute and strings. Young Tolley conducted with his usual inimitable grace, bending in swan-like undulations from the loins, and tracing luscious arabesques on the air with his waving arms, as though he were dancing to the music. A dozen anonymous fiddlers and 'cellists scraped at his bidding. And the great Pongileoni glueily kissed his flute. He blew across the mouth hole and a cylindrical air column vibrated; Bach's meditation filled the Roman quadrangle. In the opening largo John Sebastian had, with the help of Pongileoni's snout and air column, made a statement: There are grand things in the world, noble things; there are men born kingly; there are real conquerors, intrinsic lords of the earth. But of an earth that is, oh! complex and multitudinous, he had gone on to reflect in the fugal allegro. You seem to have found the truth; clear, definite, unmistakable, it is announced by the violins; you have it, you triumphantly hold it. But it slips out of your grasp to present itself in a new aspect among the 'cellos and yet again in terms of Pongileoni's vibrating air column. The parts live their separate lives; they touch, their paths cross, they combine for a moment, only to break apart again. Each is always alone and separate and individual. 'I am I,' asserts the violin; 'the world revolves round me.' 'Round me,' calls the 'cello. 'Round me,' the flute insists. And all are equally right and equally wrong; and none of them will listen to the others.
In the human fugue there are eighteen hundred million parts. The resultant noise means something perhaps to the statistician, nothing to the artist. It is only by considering one or two parts at a time that the artist can understand anything. Here, for example, is one particular part; and John Sebastian puts the case. The Rondeau begins exquisitely and simply melodious, almost a folk-song. It is a young girl singing to herself of love, in solitude, tenderly mournful. A young girl singing among the hills, with the clouds drifting overhead. But solitary as one of the floating clouds, a poet had been listening to her song. The thoughts that it provoked in him are the Sarabande that follows the Rondeau. His is a slow and lovely meditation on the beauty (in spite of squalor and stupidity), the profound goodness (in spite of all the evil) of the world. It is a beauty, a goodness, a unity that no intellectual research can discover, that analysis dispels, but of whose reality the spirit is from time to tome suddenly and overwhelmingly convinced. A girl singing to herself under the clouds suffices to create the certitude. Even a fine morning is enough. Is it illusion or the revelation of profoundest truth? Who knows? Pongileoni blew, the fiddlers drew their rosined horsehair across the stretched intestines of lambs; through the long Sarabande the poet slowly meditated his lovely and consoling certitude.
'This music is beginning to get rather tedious,' John Bidlake whispered to his hostess. 'Is it going to last much longer?'
Old Bidlake had no taste or talent for music, and he had the frankness to say so. He could afford to be frank. When one can paint as well as John Bidlake, why should one pretend to like music, when in fact one doesn't? He looked over the seated audience and smiled.
'They look as though they were in church,' he said.
Lady Edward raised a fan protestingly.
'Who's that little woman in black,' he went on, 'rolling her eyes and swaying her body like St Teresa in an ecstasy?'
'Fanny Logan,' Lady Edward whispered back. 'But do keep quiet.'
'People talk of the tribute vice pays to virtue,' John Bidlake went on, incorrigibly. 'But everything's permitted nowadays - there's no more need of moral hypocrisy. There's only intellectual hypocrisy now. The tribute philistinism pays to art, what? Just look at them all paying it - in pious grimaces and religious silence!'
'You can be thankful they pay you in guineas,' said Lady Edward. 'And now I absolutely insist that you should hold your tongue.'
Bidlake made a gesture of mock terror and put his hand over his mouth. Tolley voluptuously waved his arms; Pongileoni blew, the fiddlers scraped. And Bach, the poet, meditated of truth and beauty.
Fanny Logan felt the tears coming into her eyes. She was easily moved, especially by music; and when she felt an emotion, she did not try to repress it, but abandoned herself whole-heartedly to it. How beautiful this music was, how sad, and yet how comforting! She felt it within her, as a current of exquisite feeling, running smoothly but irresistibly through all the labyrinthine intricacies of her being. Even her body shook and swayed in time with the pulse and undulation of the melody. She thought of her husband; the memory of him came to her on the current of the music, of darling, darling Eric, dead now almost two years; dead, and still so young. The tears came faster. She wiped them away. The music was infinitely sad; and yet it consoled. It admitted everything, so to speak - poor Eric's dying before his time, the pain of his illness, his reluctance to go - it admitted everything. It expressed the whole sadness of the world, and from the depths of that sadness it was able to affirm - deliberately, quietly, without protesting too much - that everything was in some way right, acceptable. It included the sadness within some vaster, more comprehensive happiness. The tears kept welling up into Mrs Logan's eyes; but they were somehow happy tears, in spite of her sadness. She would have liked to telly Polly, her daughter, what she was feeling. But Polly was sitting in another row. Mrs Logan could see the back of her head, two rows further forward, and her slim little neck with the pearls that darling Eric had given her on her eighteenth birthday, only a few months before he died. And suddenly, as though she had felt that her mother was looking at her, as though she understood what she was feeling, Polly turned round and gave her a quick smile. Mrs Logan's sad and musical happiness was complete.
Her mother's were not the only eyes that
looked in Polly's direction.
Advantageously placed behind and to one side of her, Hugo Brockle
admiringly studied her profile. How
lovely she was! He was wondering whether
he would have the courage to tell her that they had played together in
Looking restlessly round the room, John Bidlake had suddenly caught sight of Mary Betterton. Yes, Mary Betterton - that monster! He put his hand under his chair, he touched wood. Whenever John Bidlake saw something unpleasant, he always felt safer if he could touch wood. He didn't believe in God, of course; he liked to tell disobliging stories about the clergy. But wood, wood - there was something about wood ... And to think that he had been in love with her, wildly, twenty, twenty-two, he dared not think how many years ago. How fat, how old and hideous! His hand crept down again to the chair leg. He averted his eyes and tried to think of something that wasn't Mary Betterton. But the memories of the time when Mary had been young imposed themselves upon him. He still used to ride then. The image of himself on a black horse, of Mary on a bay, rose up before him. They had often gone riding in those days. It was the time he was painting the third and best of his groups of 'Bathers'. What a picture, by God! Mary was already a little too plump for some tastes, even then. Not for his; he had never objected to plumpness. These women nowadays, wanting to look like drainpipes ... He looked at her again for a moment and shuddered. He hated her for being so repulsive, for having once been so charming. And he was the best part of twenty years her senior.
Two flights up, between the piano nobile and the servants' quarters under the roof, Lord Edward Tantamount was busy in his laboratory.
The younger Tantamounts were generally military. But the heir being a cripple, Lord Edward's father had destined him for the political career, which the eldest sons had always traditionally begin in the Commons and continued majestically in the Lords. Hardly had Lord Edward come of age, when he was given a constituency to nurse. He nursed it dutifully. But oh, how he hated public speaking! And when one met a potential voter, what on earth was one to say? And he couldn't even remember the main items in the Conservative party programme, much less feel enthusiastic about them. Decidedly, politics were not his line.
'But what are you interested in?' his father had asked. And the trouble was that Lord Edward didn't know. Going to concerts was about the only thing he thoroughly enjoyed. But obviously, one couldn't spend one's life going to concerts. The fourth marquess could not conceal his anger and disappointment. 'The boy's an imbecile,' he said, and Lord Edward himself was inclined to agree. He was good for nothing, a failure; the world had no place for him. There were times when he thought of suicide.
'If only he'd sow a few wild oats!' his father had complained. But the young man was, if possible, even less interested in debauchery than in politics. 'And he's not even a sportsman,' the accusation continued. It was true. The massacre of birds, even in the company of the Prince of Wales, left Lord Edward quite unmoved, except perhaps by a faint disgust. He preferred to sit at home and read, vaguely, desultorily, a little of everything. But even reading seemed to him unsatisfactory. The best that could be said of it was that it kept his mind from brooding and killed time. But what was the good of that? Killing time with a book was not intrinsically much better than killing pheasants and time with a gun. He might go on reading like this for the rest of his days; but it would never help him to achieve anything.
On the afternoon of April 18th, 1887, he
was sitting in the library at Tantamount House, wondering whether life was
worth living and whether drowning were preferable, as a mode of dying, to
shooting. It was the day that The
Times had published the forged letter, supposed to be Parnell's, condoning
'The living being does not form an exception to the great natural harmony which makes things adapt themselves to one another; it breaks no concord; it is neither in contradiction to, nor struggling against, general cosmic forces. Far from that, it is a member of the universal concert of things, and the life of the animal, for example, is only a fragment of the total life of the universe.'
He read the word, idly first, then more
carefully, then several times with a strained attention. 'The life of the animal is only a fragment of
the total life of the universe.' Then
what about suicide? A fragment of the
universe would be destroying itself? No,
not destroying; it couldn't destroy itself even if it tried. It would be changing its mode of
existence. Changing ... Bits of animals
and plants became human beings. What was
one day a sheep's hind leg and leaves of spinach was the next part of the hand
that wrote, the brain that conceived the slow movement of the Jupiter Symphony. And another day had come when thirty-six
years of pleasures, pains, hungers, loves, thoughts, music, together with
infinite unrealized potentialities of melody and harmony had manured an unknown
corner of a Viennese cemetery, to be
transformed into grass and dandelions, which in their turn had been transformed
into sheep, whose hind legs had in their turn been transformed into other
musicians, whose bodies in their turn ... It was all obvious, but to Lord
Edward an apocalypse. Suddenly and for
the first time he realized his solidarity with the world. The realization was extraordinarily exciting;
he rose from his chair and began to walk agitatedly up and down the room. His thoughts were confused, but the muddle
was bright and violent, not dim, not foggily languid as at ordinary times. 'Perhaps when I was at
Lord Edward was filled with an extraordinary exultation; he had never felt so happy in his life before.
That evening he told his father that he was not going to stand for Parliament. Still agitated by the morning's revelations of Parnellism, the old gentleman was furious. Lord Edward was entirely unmoved; his mind was made up. The next day he advertised for a tutor. In the spring of the following year he was in Berlin working under Du Bois Reymond.
Forty years had passed since then. The studies of osmosis, which had indirectly given him a wife, had also given him a reputation. His work on assimilation and growth was celebrated. But what he regarded as the real task of his life - the great theoretical treatise on physical biology - was still unfinished. 'The life of the animal is only a fragment of the total life of the universe.' Claude Bernard's words had been his life-long theme as well as his original inspiration. The book on which he had been working all these years was but an elaboration, a quantitative and mathematical illustration of them.
Upstairs in the laboratory the day's work had just begun. Lord Edward preferred to work at night. He found the daylight hours disagreeably noisy. Breakfasting at half-past one, he would work for an hour or two in the afternoon and return to read or write till lunchtime at eight. At nine or half-past he would do some practical work with his assistant, and when that was over they would sit down to work on the great book or to discussion of its problems. At one, Lord Edward had his supper, and at about four or five he would go to bed.
Diminished and in fragments, the B minor Suite came floating up from the great hall to the ears of the two men in the laboratory. They were too busy to realize that they were hearing it.
'Forceps,' said Lord Edward to his assistant. He had a very deep voice, indistinct and without, so to speak, a clearly defined contour. 'A furry voice,' his daughter Lucy had called it, when she was a child.
Illidge handed him the fine bright instrument. Lord Edward made a deep noise that signified thanks and turned back with the forceps to the anaesthetized newt that lay stretched out on the diminutive operating table. Illidge watched him critically, and approved. The Old Man was doing the job extraordinarily well. Illidge was always astonished by Lord Edward's skill. You would never have expected a huge, lumbering creature like the Old Man to be so exquisitely neat. His big hands could do the finest work; it was a pleasure to watch them.
'There!' said Lord Edward at last and straightened himself up as far as his rheumatically bent back would allow him. 'I think that's all right, don't you?'
Illidge nodded. 'Perfectly all right,' he said in an accent that had certainly not been formed in any of the ancient and expensive seats of learning. It hinted of Lancashire origin. He was a small man, with a boyish-looking freckled face and red hair.
The newt began to wake up. Illidge put it away in a place of safety. The animal had not tail; it had lost that eight days ago, and tonight the little bud of regenerated tissue which would normally have grown into a new tail had been removed and grafted on to the stump of its amputated right foreleg. Transplanted to its new position, would the bud turn into a foreleg, or continue incongruously to grow as a tail? Their first experiment had been with a tail-bud only just formed; it had duly turned into a leg. In the next, they had given the bud time to grow to a considerable size before they transplanted it; it had proved too far committed to tailhood to be able to adapt itself to the new conditions; they had manufactured a monster with a tail where an arm should have been. Tonight they were experimenting on a bud of intermediate age.
Lord Edward took a pipe out of his pocket and began to fill it, looking meditatively meanwhile at the newt. 'Interesting to see what happens this time,' he said in his profound indistinct voice. 'I should think that we must be just about on the border line between ...' He left the sentence unfinished; it was always difficult for him to find the words to express his meaning. 'The bud will have a difficult choice.'
'To be or not to be,' said Illidge facetiously, and started to laugh; but seeing that Lord Edward showed no signs of having been amused, he checked himself. Almost put his foot in it again. He felt annoyed with himself and also, unreasonably, with the Old Man.
Lord Edward filled his pipe. 'Tail becomes leg,' he said meditatively. 'What's the mechanism? Chemical peculiarities in the neighbouring ...? It can't obviously be the blood. Or do you suppose it has something to do with the electric tension? It does vary, of course, in different parts of the body. Though why we don't all just vaguely proliferate like cancers ... Growing in a definite shape is very unlikely, when you come to think of it. Very mysterious and ...' His voice trailed off into a deep and husky murmur.
Illidge listened disapprovingly. When the Old Man started off like this about the major and fundamental problems of biology, you never knew where he'd be getting to. Why, as likely as not he'd begin talking about God. It really made one blush. He was determined to prevent anything so discreditable happening this time. 'The next step with these newts,' he said in his most briskly practical tone, 'is to tinker with the nervous system and see whether that has any influence on the grafts. Suppose, for example, we excised a piece of the spine ...'
But Lord Edward was not listening to his assistant. He had taken his pipe out of his mouth, he had lifted his head and at the same time slightly cocked it on one side. He was frowning, as though making an effort to seize and remember something. He raised his hand in a gesture that commanded silence; Illidge interrupted himself in the middle of his sentence and also listened. A pattern of melody faintly traced itself upon the silence.
'Bach?' said Lord Edward in a whisper.
Pongileoni's blowing and the scraping of the anonymous fiddlers had shaken the air in the great hall, had set the glass of the windows looking on to it vibrating; and this in turn had shaken the air in Lord Edward's apartment on the further side. The shaking air rattled Lord's Edward's membrana tympani; the interlocked malleus, incus and stirrup bones were set in motion so as to agitate the membrane of the oval window and raise an infinitesimal storm in the fluid of the labyrinth. The hairy endings of the auditory nerve shuddered like weeds in a rough sea; a vast number of obscure miracles were performed in the brain, and Lord Edward ecstatically whispered 'Bach!' He smiled with pleasure, his eyes lit up. The young girl was singing to herself in solitude under the floating clouds. And then the cloud-solitary philosopher began poetically to meditate. 'We must really go downstairs and listen,' said Lord Edward. He got up. 'Come,' he said. 'Work can wait. One doesn't hear this sort of thing every night.'
'But what about the clothes,' said Illidge doubtfully. 'I can't come down like this.' He looked down at himself. It had been a cheap suit at the best of times. Age had not improved it.
'Oh, that doesn't matter.' A dog with the smell of rabbits in his nostrils could hardly have shown a more indecent eagerness than Lord Edward at the sound of Pongileoni's flute. He took his assistant's arm and hurried him out of the door and along the corridor towards the stairs. 'It's just a little party,' he went on. 'I seem to remember my wife having said ... Quite informal. And besides,' he added, inventing new excuses to justify the violence of his musical appetite, 'we can just slip in without ... Nobody will notice.'
Illidge had his doubts. 'I'm afraid it's not a very small party,' he began; he had seen the motors arriving.
'Never mind, never mind,' interrupted Lord Edward, lusting irrepressibly for Bach.
Illidge abandoned himself. He would look like a horrible fool, he reflected, in his shiny blue serge suit. But perhaps, on second thoughts, it was better to appear in shiny blue - straight from the laboratory, after all, and under the protection of the master of the house (himself in a tweed jacket), than in that old and, as he had perceived during previous excursions into Lady Edward's luscious world, deplorably shoddy and ill-made evening suit of his. It was better to be totally different from the rich and smart - a visitor from another intellectual planet - than a fourth-rate and snobbish imitator. Dressed in blue, one might be stared at as an oddity; in badly cut black (like a waiter) one was contemptuously ignored, one was despised for trying without success to be what one obviously wasn't.
Illidge braced himself to play the part of the Martian visitor with firmness, even assertively.
Their entrance was even more embarrassingly conspicuous than Illidge had anticipated. The great staircase at Tantamount House comes down from the first floor in two branches with join, like a pair of equal rivers, to precipitate themselves in a single architectural cataract of Verona marble into the hall. It debouches under the arcades, in the centre of one of the sides of the covered quadrangle, opposite the vestibule and the front door. Coming in from the street, one looks across the hall and sees through the central arch of the opposite arcade the wide stairs and shining balustrades climbing up to a landing on which a Venus by Canova, the pride of the third marquess's collection, stands pedestalled in an alcove, screening with a modest but coquettish gesture of her two hands, or rather failing to screen, her marble charms. It was at the foot of this triumphal slope of marble that Lady Edward had posted the orchestra; her guests were seated in serried rows confronting it. When Illidge and Lord Edward turned the corner in front of Canova's Venus, tiptoeing, as they approached the music and the listening crowd, with steps ever more laboriously conspiratorial, they found themselves suddenly at the focus of a hundred pairs of eyes. A gust of curiosity stirred the assembled guests. The apparition from a world so different from theirs of this huge bent old man, pipe-smoking and tweed-jacketed, seemed strangely portentous. He had a certain air of the skeleton in the cupboard - broken loose; or of one of those monsters which haunt the palaces of only the best and most aristocratic families. The Beastie of Glamis, the Minotaur itself could hardly have aroused more interest than did Lord Edward. Lorgnons were raised, there was a general craning to left and right, as people tried to look round the well-fed obstacles in front of them. Becoming suddenly aware of so many inquisitive glances, Lord Edward took fright. A consciousness of social sin possessed him; he took his pipe out of his mouth and put it away, still smoking, into the pocket of his jacket. He halted irresolutely. Flight or advance? He turned this way and that, pivoting his whole bent body from the hips with a curious swinging motion, like the slow ponderous balancing of a camel's neck. For a moment he wanted to retreat. But love of Bach was stronger than his terrors. He was the bear whom the smell of molasses constrains in spite of all his fears to visit the hunters' camp; the lover who is ready to face an armed and outraged husband and the divorce court for the sake of an hour in his mistress's arms. He went forward, tiptoeing down the stairs more conspiratorially than ever - Guy Fawkes discovered, but yet irrationally hoping that he might escape notice by acting as though the Gunpowder Plot were still unrolling itself according to plan. Illidge followed him. His face had gone very red with the embarrassment of the first moment; but in spite of this embarrassment, or rather because of it, he came downstairs after Lord Edward with a kind of swagger, one hand in his pocket, a smile on his lips. He turned his eyes coolly this way and that over the crowd. The expression on his face was one of contemptuous amusement. Too busy being the Martian to look where he was going, Illidge suddenly missed his footing on this unfamiliarly regal staircase with its inordinate treads and dwarfishly low risers. His foot slipped, he staggered wildly on the brink of a fall, waving his arms, to come to rest, however, still miraculously on his feet, some two or three steps lower down. He resumed his descent with such dignity as he could muster up. He felt exceedingly angry, he hated Lady Edward's guests one and all, without exception.
Pongileoni surpassed himself in the final Badinerie. Euclidean axioms made holiday with the formulae of elementary statics. Arithmetic held a wild saturnalian kermess; algebra cut capers. The music came to an end in an orgy of mathematical merry-making. There was applause. Tolley bowed, with all his usual grace; Pongileoni bowed, even the anonymous fiddlers bowed. The audience pushed back its chairs and got up. Torrents of pent-up chatter broke loose.
'Wasn't the Old Man too mar-vellously funny?' Polly Logan had found a friend.
'And the little carroty man with him.'
'Like Mutt and Jeff.'
'I thought I should die of laughing,' said Norah.
'Such an old magician!' Polly spoke in a thrilling whisper, leaning forward and opening her eyes very wide, as though to express in dramatic pantomime as well as words the mysteriousness of the magical old man. 'A wizard.'
'But what does he do up there?'
'Cuts up toads and salamanders and all that,' Polly answered.
'Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog ...'
She recited with gusto, intoxicated by the words. 'And he takes guinea-pigs and makes them breed with serpents. Can you image it - a cross between a cobra and a guinea-pig?'
'Ugh!' the other shuddered. 'But why did he ever marry her, if that's the only sort of thing he's interested in? That's what I always wonder.'
'Why did she marry him?' Polly's voice dropped again to a stage whisper. She liked to make everything sound exciting - as exciting as she still felt everything to be. She was only twenty. 'There were very good reasons for that.'
'Yes, I suppose so.'
'And she was a Canadian, remember, which made the reasons even more cogent.'
'One wonders how Lucy ever ...'
The other looked round. 'Wasn't Pongileoni splendid,' she exclaimed very loudly, and with altogether too much presence of mind.
'Too wonderful!' Polly bawled back, as though she were on the stage at Drury Lane. 'Ah, there's Lady Edward.' They were both enormously surprised and delighted. 'We were just saying how mar-vellous Pongileoni's playing was.'
'Were you?' said Lady Edward, smiling and looking from one to the other. She had a deep rich voice and spoke slowly, as though everything she said were very serious and important. 'That was very nice of you.' The 'r' was most emphatically rolled. 'He's an Italian,' she added, and her face was now quite grave and unsmiling. 'Which makes it even more wonderful.' And she passed on, leaving the two young girls haggardly looking into one another's blushing face.
Lady Edward was a small, thin woman, with an elegance of figure that, in a low-cut dress, was visibly beginning to run to bones and angles, as were also the aquiline good looks of a rather long and narrow face. A French mother and perhaps, in these later days, the hairdresser's art accounted for the jetty blackness of her hair. Her skin was whitely opaque. Under arched black eyebrows her eyes had that boldness and insistence of regard which is the characteristic of all very dark eyes set in a pale face. To this generic boldness Lady Edward added a certain candid impertinence of fixed gaze and bright ingenuous expression that was entirely her own. They were the eyes of a child, mais d'un enfant terrible,' as John Bidlake had warned a French colleague whom he had taken to see her. The French colleague had occasion to make the discovery on his own account. At the luncheon table he found himself sitting next to the critic who had written of his pictures that they were the work either of an imbecile or of a practical joker. Wide-eyed and innocent, Lady Edward had started a discussion on art ... John Bidlake was furious. He drew her aside when the meal was over and gave her a piece of his mind.
'Damn it all,' he said, 'the man's my friend. I bring him to see you. And this is how you treat him. It's a bit thick.'
Lady Edward's bright black eyes had never been more candid, nor her voice more disarmingly French-Canadian (for she could modify her accent at will, making it more or less colonial according as it suited her to be the simple-hearted child of the North American steppe or the English aristocrat). 'But what's too thick?' she asked. 'What have I done this time?'
'None of your comedy with me,' said Bidlake.
'But it isn't a comedy. I've no idea what's thick. No idea.'
Bidlake explained about the critic. 'You know as well as I do,' he said. 'And now I come to think of it, we were talking about his article only last week.'
Lady Edward frowned, as though trying to recapture a vanished memory. 'Se we were!' she cried at last, and looked at him with an expression of horror and repentance. 'Too awful! But you know what a hopeless memory I have.'
'You have the best memory of any person I know,' said Bidlake.
'But I always forget,' she protested.
'Only what you know you ought to remember. It's a damned sight too regular to be accidental. You deliberately remember to forget.'
'What nonsense!' cried Lady Edward.
'If you had a bad memory,' Bidlake went on, 'you might occasionally forget that husbands oughtn't to be asked to meet the notorious lovers of their wives; you might sometimes forget that anarchists and leader writers in the Morning Post aren't likely to be the best of friends, and that pious Catholics don't much enjoy listening to blasphemy from professional atheists. You might occasionally forget, if your memory were bad. But, I assure you, it needs a first-class memory to forget every time. A first-class memory and a first-class love of mischief.'
For the first time since the conversation had begun Lady Edward relaxed her ingenuous seriousness. She laughed. 'You're too absurd, my dear John.'
Talking, Bidlake had recovered his good humour; he echoed her laughter. 'Mind you,' he said, 'I don't in the least object to your playing practical jokes on other people. I enjoy it. But I do draw the line at having them played on me.'
'I'll do my best to remember next time,' she said meekly and looked at him with an ingenuousness that was so impertinent that he had to laugh.
That had been many years before; she had kept her word and played no more tricks on him. But with other people, she was just as embarrassingly innocent and forgetful as ever. Throughout the world in which she moved her exploits were proverbial. People laughed. But there were too many victims; she was feared, she was not liked. But her parties were always thronged; her cook, her wine merchant and caterer were of the first class. Much was forgiven her for her husband's wealth. Besides, the company of Tantamount House was always variously and often eccentrically distinguished. People accepted her invitations and took their revenge by speaking ill of her behind her back. They called her, among other things, a snob and a lion hunter. But a snob, they had to admit to her defenders, who laughed at the pomps and grandeurs for which she lived. A hunter who collected lions in order that she might bait them. Where a middle-class Englishwoman would have been serious and abject, Lady Edward was mockingly irreverent. She hailed from the New World; for her the traditional hierarchies were a joke - but a picturesque joke and one worth living for.
'She might have been the heroine of that anecdote,' old Bidlake had once remarked of her, 'that anecdote about the American and the two English peers. You remember? He got into conversation with two Englishmen in the train, liked them very much, wanted to renew the acquaintance later and asked their names. "My name," says one of them, "is the Duke of Hampshire and this is my friend the Master of Ballantrae." "Glad to meet you," says the American. "Allow me to present my son Jesus Christ." That's Hilda all over. And yet her whole life consists precisely in asking and being asked out by the people whose titles seem to her so comic. Queer.' He shook his head. 'Very queer indeed.'
Turning away from the two discomfited young girls, Lady Edward was almost run down by a very tall and burly man, who was hurrying with dangerous speed across the crowded room.
'Sorry,' he said without looking down to see who it was he had almost knocked over. His eyes were following the movements of somebody at the other end of the room' he was only aware of a smallish obstacle, presumably human, since all the obstacles in the neighbourhood were human. He checked himself in mid career and took a step to the side, so as to get round the obstacle. But the obstacle was not of the kind one circumvents as easily as that.
Lady Edward reached out and caught him by the sleeve. 'Webley!' Pretending not to have felt the hand on his sleeve, not to have heard the calling of his name, Edward Webley still moved on; he had no wish and no leisure to talk to Lady Edward. But Lady Edward would not be shaken off; she suffered herself to be dragged along, still tugging, at his side.
'Webley!' she repeated. 'Stop! Whoa!' And her imitation of a country carter was so loud and so realistically rustic that Webley was compelled to listen, for fear of attracting the laughing attention of his fellow guests.
He looked down at her. 'Oh, it's you,' he said gruffly. 'Sorry I hadn't noticed.' The annoyance, expressed in his frown and his ill-mannered words, was partly genuine, partly assumed. Many people, he had found, are frightened of anger; he cultivated his natural ferocity. It kept people at a distance, saved him from being bothered.
'Goodness!' exclaimed Lady Edward with an expression of terror that was frankly a caricature.
'Did you want anything?' he demanded in the tone in which he might have addressed an importunate beggar in the street.
'You do look cross.'
'If that was all you wanted to say to me, I think I might as well ...'
Lady Edward, meanwhile, had been examining him critically out of her candidly impertinent eyes.
'You know,' she said, interrupting him in the middle of his sentence, as though unable to delay for a moment longer the announcement of her great and sudden discovery, 'you ought to play the part of Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Yes, really. You have the ideal face for a pirate king. Hasn't he, Mr Babbage?' She caught at Illidge as he was passing, disconsolately alien, through the crowd of strangers.
'Good evening,' he said. The cordiality of Lady Edward's smile did not entirely make up for the insult of his unremembered name.
'Webley, this is Mr Babbage, who helps my husband with his work.' Webley nodded a distant acknowledgment of Illidge's existence. 'But don't you think he's like a pirate king, Mr Babbage?' Lady Edward went on. 'Look at him now.'
Illidge uncomfortably laughed. 'Not that I'd seen many pirate kings,' he said.
'But of course,' Lady Edward cried out, 'I'd forgotten; he is a pirate king. In real life. Aren't you Webley?'
Everard Webley laughed. 'Oh, certainly, certainly.'
'Because, you see,' Lady Edward explained, turning confidentially to Illidge, 'this is Mr Everard Webley. The head of the British Freemen. You know those men in the green uniform? Like the male chorus at a musical comedy.'
Illidge smiled maliciously and nodded. So this, he was thinking, was Everard Webley. The founder and the head of the Brotherhood of British Freemen - the B.B.F's, the B----y, b--ing, f--s,' as their enemies called them. Inevitably; for as the extremely well-informed correspondent of the Figaro once remarked in an article devoted to the Freemen, 'les initiales B.B.F. ont, pour le public anglais, une signification plutôt péjorative.' Webley had not thought of that, when he gave his Freemen their name. It pleased Illidge to reflect that he must be made to think of it very often now.
'If you've finished being funny,' said Everard, 'I'll take my leave.'
Tinpot Mussolini, Illidge was thinking. Looks his part, too. (He had a special personal hatred of anyone who was tall and handsome, or who looked in any way distinguished. He himself was small and had the appearance of a very intelligent street Arab, grown up.) Great lout!
'But you're not offended by anything I said, are you?' Lady Edward asked with a great show of anxiety and contrition.
Illidge remembered a cartoon in the Daily Herald. 'The British Freemen,' Webley had had the insolence to say, 'exist to keep the world safe for intelligence.' The cartoon showed Webley and half a dozen of his uniformed bandits kicking and bludgeoning a workman to death. Behind them a top-hatted company-director looked on approvingly. Across his monstrous belly sprawled the word: INTELLIGENCE.
'Not offended, Webley?' Lady Edward repeated.
'Not in the least. I'm only rather busy. You see,' he explained in his silkiest voice, 'I have things to do. I work, if you know what that means.'
Illidge wished that the hit had been scored by someone else. The dirty ruffian! He himself was a communist.
Webley left them. Lady Edward watched him ploughing his way through the crowd. 'Like a steam engine,' she said. 'What energy! But so touchy. These politicians - worse than actresses. Such vanity! And dear Webley hasn't got much sense of humour. He wants to be treated as though he were his own colossal statue, erected by an admiring and grateful nation.' (The r's roared like lions.) 'Posthumously, if you see what I mean. As a great historical character. I can never remember, when I see him, that he's really Alexander the Great. I always make the mistake of thinking it's just Webley.'
Illidge laughed. He found himself positively liking Lady Edward. She had the right feelings about things. She seemed even to be on the right side, politically.
'Not but what his Freemen aren't a very good thing,' Lady Edward went on. Illidge's sympathy began to wane as suddenly as it had shot up. 'Don't you think so, Mr Babbage?'
He made a little grimace. 'Well ...' he began.
'By the way,' said Lady Edward, cutting short what would have been an admirably sarcastic comment on Webley's Freemen, 'you must really be careful coming down those stairs. They're terribly slippery.'
Illidge blushed. 'Not at all,' he muttered and blushed still more deeply - a beetroot to the roots of his carrot-coloured hair - as he realized the imbecility of what he had said. His sympathy declined still further.
'Well, rather slippery all the same,' Lady Edward politely insisted, with an emphatic rolling in the throat. 'What were you working at with Edward this evening?' she went on. 'It always interests me so much.'
Illidge smiled. 'Well, if you really want to know,' he said, 'we were working at the regeneration of lost parts in newts.' Among the newts he felt more at ease; a little of his liking for Lady Edward returned.
'Newts? Those things that swim?' Illidge nodded. 'But how do they lose their parts?'
'Well, in the laboratory,' he explained, 'they lose them because we cut them off.'
'And they grow again?'
'They grow again.'
'Dear me,' said Lady Edward. 'I never knew that. How fascinating these things are. Do tell me some more.'
She wasn't so bad after all. He began to explain. Warming to his subject, he warmed also to Lady Edward. He had just reached the crucial, the important and significant point in the proceedings - the conversion of the transplanted tail-bud into a leg - when Lady Edward, whose eyes had been wandering, laid her hand on his arm.
'Come with me,' she said, 'and I'll introduce you to General Knoyle. Such an amusing old man - if only unintentionally some times.'
Illidge's exposition froze suddenly in his throat. He realized that she had not taken the slightest interest in what he had been saying, had not even troubled to pay the least attention. Detesting her, he followed in resentful silence.
General Knoyle was talking with another military-looking gentleman. His voice was martial and asthmatic. '"My dear fellow," I said to him' (they heard him as they approached), '"my dear fellow, don't enter the horse now. It would be a crime," I said. "It would be sheer madness. Scratch him," I said, "scratch him." And he scratched him.'
Lady Edward made her presence known. The two military gentlemen were overwhelmingly polite; they had enjoyed their evening immensely.
'I chose the Bach specially for you, General Knoyle,' said Lady Edward with something of the charming confusion of a young girl confessing an amorous foible.
'Well - er - really, that was very kind of you.' General Knoyle's confusion was genuine; he did not know what to do with the musical present she had made him.
'I hesitated,' Lady Edward went on in the same significantly intimate tone, 'between Handel's Water Music and the B minor Suite with Pongileoni. Then I remembered you and decided on the Bach.' Her eyes took in the signs of embarrassment on the General's ruddy face.
'That was very kind of you,' he protested. 'Not that I can pretend to understand much about music. But I know what I like, I know what I like.' The phrase seemed to given him confidence. He cleared his throat and started again. 'What I always say is ...'
'And now,' Lady Edward concluded triumphantly, 'I want to introduce Mr Babbage, who helps Edward with his work and who is a real expert on newts. Mr Babbage, this is General Knoyle and this is Colonel Pilchard.' She gave a last smile and was gone.
'Well, I'm damned!' exclaimed the General, and the Colonel said she was a holy terror.
'One of the holiest,' Illidge feelingly agreed.
The two military gentlemen looked at him for a moment and decided that from one so obviously beyond the pale the comment was an impertinence. Good Catholics may have their little jokes about the saints and the habits of the clergy; but they are outraged by the same little jokes on the lips of infidels. The General made no verbal comment and the Colonel contented himself with looking his disapproval. But they way in which they turned to one another and continued their uninterrupted discussion of racehorses, as though they were alone, was so intentionally offensive, that Illidge wanted to kick them.
* * * *
'Lucy, my child!'
'Uncle John!' Lucy Tantamount turned round and smiled at her adopted uncle. She was of middle height and slim, like her mother, with short dark hair, oiled to complete blackness and brushed back from her forehead. Naturally pale, she wore no rouge. Only her thin lips were painted and there was a little blue round the eyes. A black dress emphasized the whiteness of her arms and shoulders. It was more than two years now since Henry Tantamount had died - for Lucy had married her second cousin. But she still mourned in her dress, at any rate by artificial light. Black suited her so well. 'How are you?' she added, thinking as she spoke the words that he was beginning to look very old.
'Perishing,' said John Bidlake. Her took her arm familiarly, grasping it just above the elbow with a big, blue-veined hand. 'Give me an excuse for going to have supper. I'm ravenously hungry.'
'But I'm not.'
'No matter,' said John Bidlake. 'My need is great than thine, as Sir Philip Sidney so justly remarked.'
'But I don't want to eat.' She objected to being domineered, to following instead of leading. But Uncle John was too much for her.
'I'll do all the eating,' he declared. 'Enough for two.' And jovially laughing, he continued to lead her along towards the dining-room.
Lucy abandoned the struggle. They edged their way through the crowd. Greenish-yellow and freckled, the orchid in John Bidlake's buttonhole resembled the face of a yawning serpent. His monocle glittered in his eye.
'Who's that old man with Lucy?' Polly Logan enquired as they passed.
'That's old Bidlake.'
'Bidlake? The man who ... who painted the pictures?' Polly spoke hesitatingly, in the tone of one who is conscious of a hole in her education and is afraid of making a ridiculous mistake. 'Do you mean that Bidlake?' Her companion nodded. She felt enormously relieved. 'Well I never,' she went on, raising her eyebrows and opening her eyes very wide. 'I always thought he was an Old Master. But he must be about a hundred by this time, isn't he?'
'I should think he must be.' Norah was also under twenty.
'I must say,' Polly handsomely admitted, 'he doesn't look it. He's still quite a beau, or a buck, or a Champagne Charlie, or whatever people were in his young days.'
'He's had about fifteen wives,' said Norah.
It was at this moment that Hugo Brockle found the courage to present himself. 'You don't remember me. We were introduced in our perambulators.' How idiotic it sounded! He felt himself blushing all over.
The third and finest of John Bidlake's 'Bathers' hung over the mantelpiece in the dining-room of Tantamount House. It was a gay and joyous picture, very light in tone, the colouring very pure and brilliant. Eight plump and pearly bathers grouped themselves in the water and on the banks of a stream so as to form with their moving bodies and limbs and kind of garland (completed above by the foliage of a tree) round the central point of the canvas. Through the wreath of nacreous flesh (and even their faces were just smiling flesh, not a trace of spirit to distract you from the contemplation of the lovely forms and their relations) the eye travelled on towards a pale bright landscape of softly swelling downland and clouds.
Plate in hand and munching caviar sandwiches, old Bidlake stood with his companion, contemplating his own work. An emotion of mingled elation and sadness possessed him.
'It's good,' he said, 'it's enormously good. Look at the way it's composed. Perfect balance, and yet there's no suggestion of repetition or artificial arrangement.' The other thoughts and feelings which the picture evoked in his mind he left unexpressed. They were too many and too confused to be easily put into words. Too melancholy above all; he did not care to dwell on them. He stretched out a finger and touched the sideboard; it was mahogany, genuine wood. 'Look at the figure on the right with the arms up.' He went on with his technical exposition in order that he might keep down, might drive away the uninvited thoughts. 'See how it compensates for the big stooping one there on the left. Like a long lever lifting a heavy weight.' But the figure with the arms up was Jenny Smith, the loveliest model he had ever had. Incarnation of beauty, incarnation of stupidity and vulgarity. A goddess as long as she was naked, kept her mouth shut, or had it kept shut for her with kisses; but oh, when she opened it, when she put on her clothes, her frightful hats! He remembered the time he had taken her to Paris with him. He had to send her back after a week. 'You ought to be muzzled, Jenny,' he told her, and Jenny cried. 'It was a mistake going to Paris,' he went on. 'Too much sun in Paris, too many artificial lights. Next time, we'll go to Spitzbergen. In winter. The nights are six months long up there.' That had made her cry still more loudly. The girl had treasures of sensuality as well as of beauty. Afterwards she took to drink and decayed, came round begging and drank up the charity. And finally what was left of her died. But the real Jenny remained here in the picture with her arms up and the pectoral muscles lifting her little breasts. What remained of John Bidlake, the John Bidlake of five and twenty years ago, was there in the picture too. Another John Bidlake still existed to contemplate his own ghost. Soon even he would have disappeared. And in any case, was he the real Bidlake, any more than the sodden and bloated woman who died had been the real Jenny? Real Jenny lived among the pearly bathers. And real Bidlake, their creator, existed by implication in his creatures.
'It's good,' he said again, when he had finished his exposition, and his tone was mournful; his face as he looked at his picture was sad. 'But after all,' he added, after a little pause and with a sudden explosion of voluntary laughter, 'after all, everything I do is good; damn good even.' It was a bidding of defiance to the stupid critics who had seen a falling off in his later paintings; it was a challenge to his own past, to time and old age, to the real John Bidlake who had painted real Jenny and kissed her into silence.
'Of course it's good,' said Lucy, and wondered why the old man's painting had fallen off so much of late. This last exhibition - it was deplorable. He himself, after all, had remained so young, comparatively speaking. Though of course, she reflected, as she looked at him, he had certainly aged a good deal during the last few months.
'Of course,' he repeated. 'That's the right spirit.'
'Though I must confess,' Lucy added, to change the subject, 'I always find your bathers rather an insult.'
'Speaking as a woman, I mean. Do you really find us so profoundly silly as you paint us?'
'Yes, do you?' another voice enquired. 'Do you really?' It was an intense, emphatic voice, and the words came out in gushes, explosively, as though they were being forced through a narrow aperture under emotional pressure.
Lucy and John Bidlake turned and saw Mrs Betterton, massive in dove grey, with arms, old Bidlake reflected, like thighs, and hair that was, in relation to the fleshy cheeks and chins, ridiculously short, curly, and auburn. Her nose, which had tilted up so charmingly in the days when he had ridden the black horse and she the bay, was now preposterous, an absurd irrelevance in the middle-aged face. Real Bidlake had talked about art with a naïve, schoolgirlish earnestness which he had found laughable and charming. He had cured her, he remembered, of a passion for Burne-Jones, but never, alas, of her prejudice in favour of virtue. It was with all the old earnestness and a certain significant sentimentality as of one who remembers old times and would like to exchange reminiscences as well as general ideas, that she now addressed him. Bidlake had to pretend that he was pleased to see her after all these years. It was extraordinary, he reflected as he took her hand, how completely he had succeeded in avoiding her; he could not remember having spoken to her more than three or four times in all the quarter of a century which had turned Mary Betterton into a momento mori.
'Dear Mrs Betterton!' he exclaimed. 'This is delightful.' But he disguised his repugnance very badly. And when she addressed him by his Christian name - 'Now, John,' she said, 'you must give us an answer to our question,' and she laid her hand on Lucy's arm, so as to associate her in the demand - old Bidlake was positively indignant. Familiarity from a momento mori - it was intolerable. He'd give her a lesson. The question, it happened, was well chosen for his purposes; it fairly invited the retort discourteous. Mary Betterton had intellectual pretensions, was tremendously keen on the soul. Remembering this, old Bidlake asserted that he had never known a woman who had anything worth having beyond a pair of legs and a figure. Some of them, he added, significantly, lacked even those indispensables. True, many of them had interesting faces; but that meant nothing. Bloodhounds, he pointed out, have the air of learned judges, oxen when they chew the cud seem to meditate the problems of metaphysics, the mantis looks as though it were praying; but these appearances are entirely deceptive. It was the same with women. He had preferred to paint his bathers unmasked as well as naked, to give them faces that were merely extensions of their charming bodies and not deceptive symbols of a non-existent spirituality. It seemed to him more realistic, truer to the fundamental facts. He felt his good humour returning as he talked, and, as it came back, his dislike for Mary Betterton seemed to wane. When one is in high spirits, memento mori's cease to remind.
'John, you're incorrigible,' said Mrs Betterton, indulgently. She turned to Lucy, smiling. 'But he doesn't mean a word he says.'
'I should have thought, on the contrary, that he meant it all,' objected Lucy. 'I've noticed that men who like women very much are the ones who express the greatest contempt for them.'
Old Bidlake laughed.
'Because they're the ones who know women most intimately.'
'Or perhaps because they resent our power over them.'
'But I assure you,' Mrs Betterton insisted, 'he doesn't mean it. I knew him before you were born, my dear.'
The gaiety went out of John Bidlake's face. The momento mori grinned for him again behind Mary Betterton's flabby mask.
'Perhaps he was different then,' said Lucy. 'He's been infected by the cynicism of the younger generation, I suppose. We're dangerous company, Uncle John. You ought to be careful.'
She had started one of Mrs Betterton's favourite hares. That lady dashed off in serious pursuit. 'It's the upbringing,' she explained. 'Children are brought up so stupidly nowadays. No wonder they're cynical.' She proceeded eloquently. Children were given too much, too early. They were satiated with amusements, inured to all the pleasures from the cradle. 'I never saw the inside of a theatre till I was eighteen,' she declared, with pride.
'My poor dear lady!'
'I began going when I was six,' said Lucy.
'And dances,' Mrs Betterton continued. 'The hunt ball - what an excitement! Because it only happened once a year.' She quoted Shakespeare.
'Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,
Since seldom coming, in the long year set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are ...
'They're a row of pearls nowadays.'
'And false ones at that,' said Lucy.
Mrs Betterton was triumphant. 'False ones - you see? But for us they were genuine, because they were rare. We didn't "blunt the fine point of seldom pleasure" by daily wear. Nowadays young people are bored and world-weary before they come of age. A pleasure too often repeated produces numbness; it's no more felt as a pleasure.'
'And what's your remedy?' enquired John Bidlake. 'If a member of the congregation may be permitted to ask questions,' he added ironically.
'Naughty!' cried Mrs Betterton with an appalling playfulness. Then, becoming serious, 'The remedy,' she went on, 'is fewer diversions.'
'But I don't want them fewer,' objected John Bidlake.
'In that case,' said Lucy, 'they must be stronger - progressively.'
'Progressively?' Mrs Betterton repeated. 'But where would that sort of progress end?'
'In bull fighting?' suggested John Bidlake. 'Or gladiatorial shows? Or public executions, perhaps? Or the amusements of the Marquis de Sade? Where?'
Lucy shrugged her shoulders. 'Who knows?'
* * * *
Hugo Brockle and Polly were already quarrelling.
'I think it's detestable,' Polly was saying - and her face was flushed with anger, 'to make war on the poor.'
'But the Freemen don't make war on the poor.'
'They don't,' said Hugo. 'Read Webley's speeches.'
'I only read about his actions.'
'But they're in accordance with his words.'
'They are not.'
'They are. All he's opposed to is dictatorship of a class.'
'Of the poor class.'
'Of any class,' Hugo earnestly insisted. 'That's his whole point. The classes must be equally strong. A strong working class clamouring for high wages keeps the professional middle class active.'
'Like flies on a dog,' suggested Polly and laughed with a return towards good humour. When a ludicrous thought occurred to her she could never prevent herself from giving utterance to it, even when she was supposed to be serious, or, as in this case, in a rage.
'They've jolly well got to be inventive and progressive,' Hugo continued, struggling with the difficulties of lucid exposition. 'Otherwise they wouldn't be able to pay the workers what they demand and make a profit for themselves. And at the same time a strong and intelligent middle class is good for the workers, because they get good leadership and good organization. Which means better wages and peace and happiness.'
'Amen,' said Polly.
'So the dictatorship of one class is nonsense,' continued Hugo. 'Webley wants to keep all the classes and strengthen them. He wanted them to live in a condition of tension, so that the state is balanced by each pulling as hard as it can its own way. Scientists say that the different organs of the body are like that. They live in a state -' he hesitated, he blushed - 'of hostile symbiosis.'
'I'm sorry,' Hugo apologized.
'All the same,' said Polly, 'he doesn't want to allow men to strike.'
'Because strikes are stupid.'
'He's against democracy.'
'Because it allows such awful people to get power. He wants the best to rule.'
'Himself, for example,' said Polly sarcastically.
'Well, why not? If you knew what a wonderful chap he was.' Hugo became enthusiastic. He had been acting as one of Webley's aides-de-camp for the last three months. 'I never met anyone like him,' he said.
Polly listened to his outpourings with a smile. She felt old and superior. At school she herself had felt and talked like that about the domestic economy mistress. All the same, she liked him for being so loyal.
A jungle of innumerable trees and dangling creepers - it was in this form that parties always presented themselves to Walter Bidlake's imagination. A jumble of noise; and he was lost in the jungle, he was trying to clear a path for himself through its tangled luxuriance. The people were the roots of the trees and their voices were the stems and waving branches and festooned lianas - yes, and the parrots and the chattering monkeys as well.
The trees reached up to the ceiling and from the ceiling they were bent back again, like mangroves, towards the floor. But in this particular room, Walter reflected, in this queer combination of a Roman courtyard and the Palm House at Kew, the growths of sound shooting up, uninterrupted, through the height of three floors, would have gathered enough momentum to break clean through the flimsy glass roof that separated them from the outer night. He pictured them going up and up, like the magic beanstalk of the Giant Killer, into the sky. Up and up, loaded with orchids and bright cocatoos, up through the perennial mist of London, into the clear moonlight beyond the smoke. He fancied them waving up there in the moonlight, the last thin aerial twigs of noise. That loud laugh, for example, that exploding guffaw from the fat man on the left - it would mount and mount, diminishing as it rose, till it no more than delicately tinkled up there under the moon. And all these voices (what were they saying? '... made an excellent speech ...'; '... no idea how comfortable those rubber reducing belts are till you've tried them ...'; '... such a bore ...'; '... eloped with the chauffeur ...'), all these voices - how exquisite and tiny they'd be up there! But meanwhile down here, in the jungle .... Oh, loud, stupid, vulgar, fatuous.
Looking over the heads of the people who surrounded him, he saw Frank Illidge, alone, leaning against a pillar. His attitude, his smile were Byronic, at once world-weary and contemptuous; he glanced about him with a languid amusement, as though he were watching the drolleries of a group of monkeys. Unfortunately, Walter reflected, as he made his way through the crowd towards him, poor Illidge hadn't the right physique for being Byronically superior. Satirical romantics should be long, slow-moving, graceful and handsome. Illidge was small, alert and jerky. And what a comic face! Like a street Arab's, with its upturned nose and wide slit of a mouth; a very intelligent, sharp-witted street Arab's face, but not exactly one to be languidly contemptuous with. Besides, who can be superior with freckles? Illidge's complexion was sandy with them. Protectively coloured, the sandy-brown eyes, the sandy-orange eyebrows and lashes disappeared, at a little distance, into the skin, as a lion dissolves into the desert. From across a room his face seemed featureless and unregarding, like the face of a statue carved out of a block of sandstone. Pool Illidge! The Byronic part made him look rather ridiculous.
'Hullo,' said Walter, as he got within speaking distance. The two young men shook hands. 'How science?' What a silly question! thought Walter as he pronounced the words.
Illidge shrugged his shoulders. 'Less fashionable than the arts, to judge by this party.' He looked round him. 'I've seen half the writing and painting section of Who's Who this evening. The place fairly stinks of art.'
'Isn't that rather a comfort for science?' said Walter. 'The arts don't enjoy being fashionable.'
'Oh, don't they! Why are you here, then?'
'Why indeed?' Walter parried the question with a laugh. He looked round, wondering where Lucy could have gone. He had not caught sight of her since the music stopped.
'You've come to do your tricks and have your head patted,' said Illidge, trying to get a little of his own back; the memory of that slip on the stairs, of Lady Edward's lack of interest in newts, of the military gentlemen's insolence, still rankled. 'Just look at that girl there with the frizzy hair, in cloth of silver. The one like a little white negress. What about her, for example? It'd be pleasant to have one's head patted by that sort of thing - eh?'
'Well, would it?'
Illidge laughed. 'You take the high philosophical line, do you? But, my dear chap, admit it's all humbug. I take it myself, so I ought to know. To tell you the truth, I envy you art-mongers your success. It makes me really furious when I see some silly, half-witted little writer ...'
'Like me, for example.'
'No, you're a cut above most of them,' conceded Illidge. 'But when I see some wretched little scribbler with a tenth of my intelligence, making money and being cooed over, while I'm disregarded, I do get furious sometimes.'
'You ought to regard it as a compliment. If they coo over us, it's because they can understand, more or less, what we're after. They can't understand you; you're above them. Their neglect is a compliment to your mind.'
'Perhaps; but it's a damned insult to my body.' Illidge was painfully conscious of his appearance. He knew that he was ugly and looked undistinguished. And knowing, he liked to remind himself of the unpleasant fact, like a man with an aching tooth, who is forever fingering the source of his pain, just to make sure it is still painful. 'If I looked like that enormous lout, Webley, they wouldn't neglect me, even if my mind were like Newton's. The fact is,' he said, giving the aching tooth a good tug this time, 'I look like an anarchist. You're lucky, you know. You look like a gentleman, or at least like an artist. You've no idea what a nuisance it is to look like an intellectual of the lower classes.' The tooth was responding excruciatingly; he pulled at it the harder. 'It's not merely that the women neglect you - these women, at any rate. That's bad enough. But the police refuse to neglect you; they take a horrid inquisitive interest. Would you believe it, I've been twice arrested, simply because I look like the sort of man who makes infernal machines.'
'It's a good story,' said Walter sceptically.
'But true, I swear. Once it was in this country. Near Chesterfield. They were having a coal strike. I happened to be looking on at a fight between strikers and blacklegs. The police didn't like my face and grabbed me. It took me hours to get out of their clutches. The other time was in Italy. Somebody had just been trying to blow up Mussolini, I believe. Anyhow, a gang of black-shirted bravoes made me get out of the train at Genoa and searched me from top to toe. Intolerable! Simply because of my subversive face.'
'Which corresponds, after all, to your ideas.'
'Yes, but a face isn't evidence, a face isn't a crime. Well, yes,' he added parenthetically, 'perhaps some faces are crimes. Do you know General Knoyle?' Walter nodded. 'His is a capital offence. Nothing short of hanging would do for a man like that. God! how I'd like to kill them all!' Had he not slipped on the stairs and been snubbed by a stupid man-butcher? 'How I loathe the rich! Loathe them! Don't you think they're horrible?'
'More horrible than the poor?' The recollection of Wetherington's sickroom made him almost at once feel rather ashamed of the question.
'Yes, yes. There's something peculiarly base and ignoble and diseased about the rich. Money breeds a kind of gangrened insensitiveness. It's inevitable. Jesus understood. That bit about the camel and the needle's eye is a mere statement of fact. And remember that other bit about loving your neighbours. You'll be thinking I'm a Christian at this rate,' he added with parenthetic apology. 'But honour where honour is due. The man had sense; he saw what was what. Neighbourliness is the touchstone that shows up the rich. The rich haven't got any neighbours.'
'But, damn it, they're not anchorites.'
'But they have no neighbours in the sense that the poor have neighbours. When my mother had to go out, Mrs Cradock from next door on the right kept an eye on us children. And my mother did the same for Mrs Cradock when it was her turn to go out. And when somebody had broken a leg, or lost his job, people helped with money and food. And how well I remember, as a little boy, being sent running round the village after the nurse, because young Mrs Foster from next door on the left had suddenly been taken with birth pains before she expected! When you live on less than four pounds a week, you've damned well got to behave like a Christian and love your neighbour. To begin with, you can't get away from him; he's practically in your backyard. There can be no refined and philosophical ignoring of his existence. You must either hate or love; and on the whole you'd better make a shift to love, because you may need his help in emergencies and he may need yours - so urgently, very often, that there can be no question of refusing to give it. And since you must give, since, if you're a human being, you can't help giving, it's better to make an effort to like the person you've anyhow got to give to.'
Walter nodded. 'Obviously.'
'But you rich,' the other went on, 'you have no real neighbours. You never perform a neighbourly action or expect your neighbours to do you a kindness in return. It's unnecessary. You can pay people to look after you. You can hire servants to simulate kindness for three pounds a month and board. Mrs Cradock from next door doesn't have to keep an eye on your babies when you go out. You have nurses and governesses doing it for money. No, you're generally not even aware of your neighbours. You live at a distance from them. Each of you is boxed up in his own secret house. There may be tragedies going on behind the shutters; but the people next door don't know anything about it.'
'Thank God!' ejaculated Walter.
'Thank him by all means. Privacy's a great luxury. Very pleasant, I agree. But you pay for luxuries. People aren't moved by misfortunes they don't know about. Ignorance is insensitive bliss. In a poor street misfortune can't be hidden. Life's too public. People have their neighbourly feeling kept in constant training. But the rich never have a chance of being neighbourly to their equals. The best they can do is to feel mawkish about the sufferings of their inferiors, which they can never begin to understand, and to be patronizingly kind. Horrible! And that's when they're doing their best. When they're at their worst, they're like this.' He indicated the crowded room. 'They're Lady Edward - the lowest hell! They're that daughter of hers ...' He made a grimace, he shrugged his shoulders.
Walter listened with a strained and agonized attention.
'Damned, destroyed, irrevocably corrupted,' Illidge went on like a denouncing prophet. He had only spoken to Lucy Tantamount, casually, for a moment. She had seemed hardly to notice that he was there.
It was true, Walter was thinking. She was all that people enviously or disapprovingly called her, and yet the most exquisite and marvellous of beings. Knowing all, he could listen to anything that might be said about her. And the more atrocious the words the more desperately he loved her. Credo quia absurdum. Amo quia turpe, quia indignum ...
'What a putrefaction!' Illidge continued grandiloquently. 'The consummate flower of this charming civilization of ours - that's what she is. A refined and perfumed imitation of a savage or an animal. The logical conclusion, so far as most people are concerned, of having money and leisure.'
Walter listened, his eyes shut, thinking of Lucy. 'A perfumed imitation of a savage or an animal.' The words were true and an excruciation; but he loved her all the more because of the torment and because of the odious truth.
'Well,' said Illidge in a changed voice, 'I must go and see if the Old Man wants to go on working tonight. We don't generally knock off before half-past one or two. It's rather pleasant living upside down like this. Sleeping till lunch-time, starting work after tea. Very pleasant, really.' He held out his hand. 'So long.'
'We must dine together one evening,' said Walter without much conviction.
Illidge nodded. 'Let's fix it up one of these days,' he said and was gone.
Walter edged his way through the crowd, searching.
* * * *
Everard Webley had got Lord Edward into a corner and was trying to persuade him to support the British Freemen.
'But I'm not interested in politics,' the Old Man huskily protested. 'I'm not interested in politics ...' Obstinately, mulishly, he repeated the phrase, whatever Webley might say.
Webley was eloquent. Men of good will, men with a stake in the country ought to combine to resist the forces of destruction. It was not only property that was menaced, not only the material interests of a class; it was the English tradition, it was personal initiative, it was intelligence, it was all natural distinction of any kind. The Freemen were banded to resist the dictatorship of the stupid; they were armed to protect individuality from the mass man, the mob; they were fighting for the recognition of natural superiority in every sphere. The enemies were many and busy.
But forewarned was forearmed; when you saw the bandits approaching, you formed up in battle order and drew your swords. (Webley had a weakness for swords; he wore one when the Freemen paraded, his speeches were full of them, his home bristled with panoplies.) Organization, discipline, force were necessary. The battle could no longer be fought constitutionally. Parliamentary methods were quite adequate when the two parties agreed about fundamentals and disagreed only about trifling details. But where fundamental principles were at stake, you couldn't allow politics to go on being treated as a Parliamentary game. You had to resort to direct action or the threat of it.
'I was five years in Parliament,' said Webley. 'Long enough to convince myself that there's nothing to be done in these days by Parliamentarism. You might as well try to talk a fire out. England can only be saved by direct action. When it's saved we can begin to think about Parliament again. (Something very unlike the present ridiculous collection of mob-elected rich men it'll have to be.) Meanwhile, there's nothing for it but to prepare for fighting. And preparing for fighting, we may conquer peacefully. It's the only hope. Believe me, Lord Edward, it's the only hope.'
Harassed, like a bear in a pit set upon by dogs, Lord Edward turned uneasily this way and that, pivoting his bent body from the loins. 'But I'm not interested in pol ...' He was too agitated to be able to finish the word.
'But even if you're not interested in politics,' Webley persuasively continued, 'you must be interested in your fortune, your position, the future of your family. Remember, all those things will go down in the general destruction.'
'Yes, but ... No ...' Lord Edward was growing desperate. 'I ... I'm not interested in money.'
Once, years before, the head of the firm of solicitors to whom he left the entire management of his affairs, had called, in spite of Lord Edward's express injunction that he was never to be troubled with matters of business, to consult his client about a matter of investments. There were some eighty thousand pounds to be disposed of. Lord Edward was dragged from the fundamental equations of the statics of living systems. When he learned the frivolous cause of the interruption, the ordinarily mild Old Man became unrecognizably angry. Mr Figgis, whose voice was loud and whose manner confident, had been used, in previous interviews, to having things all his own way. Lord Edward's fury astonished and appalled him. It was as though, in his rage, the Old Man had suddenly thrown back atavistically to the feudal past, had remembered that he was a Tantamount, talking to a hired servant. He had given orders; they had been disobeyed and his privacy unjustifiably disturbed. It was insufferable. If this sort of thing should ever happen again, he would transfer his affairs to another solicitor. And with that he wished Mr Figgis a very good afternoon.
'I'm not interested in money,' he now repeated.
Illidge, who had approached and was hovering in the neighbourhood, waiting for an opportunity to address the Old Man, overheard the remark and exploded with inward laughter. 'These rich!' he thought. 'These bloody rich!' They were all the same.
'But if not for your own sake,' Webley insisted, attacking from another quarter, 'for the sake of civilization, of progress.'
Lord Edward started at the word. It touched a trigger, it released a flood of energy. 'Progress!' he echoed, and the tone of misery and embarrassment was exchanged for one of confidence. 'Progress! You politicians are always talking about it. As though it were going to last. Indefinitely. More motors, more babies, more food, more advertising, more money, more everything, for ever. You ought to take a few lessons in my subject. Physical biology. Progress, indeed! What do you propose to do about phosphorus, for example?' His question was a personal accusation.
'But all this in entirely beside the point,' said Webley impatiently.
'On the contrary,' retorted Lord Edward, 'it's the only point.' His voice had become loud and severe. He spoke with a much more than ordinary degree of coherence. Phosphorus had made a new man of him; he felt very strongly about phosphorus and, feeling strongly, he was strong. The worried bear had become the worrier. 'With your intensive agriculture,' he went on, 'you're simply draining the soil of phosphorus. More than half of one per cent. a year. Going clean out of circulation. And then the way you throw away hundreds of thousands of tons of phosphorus pentoxide in your sewage! Pouring it into the sea. And you call that progress. Your modern sewage systems!' His tone was witheringly scornful. 'You ought to be putting it back where it came from. On the land.' Lord Edward shook an admonitory finger and frowned. 'On the land, I tell you.'
'But all this has nothing to do with me,' protested Webley.
'Then it ought to,' Lord Edward answered sternly. 'That's the trouble with you politicians. You don't even think of the important things. Talking about progress and votes and Bolshevism and every year allowing a million tons of phosphorus pentoxide to run away into the sea. It's idiotic, it's criminal, it's ... it's fiddling while Rome is burning.' He saw Webley opening his mouth to speak and made haste to anticipate what he imagined was going to be his objection. 'No doubt,' he said, 'you think you can make good the loss with phosphate rocks. But what'll you do when the deposits are exhausted?' He poked Everard in the shirt front. 'What then? Only two hundred years and they'll be finished. You think we're being progressive because we're living on our capital. Phosphates, coal, petroleum, nitre - squander them all. That's your policy. And meanwhile you go round trying to make our flesh creep with talk about revolutions.'
'But damn it all,' said Webley, half angry, half amused, 'your phosphorus can wait. This other danger's imminent. Do you want a political and social revolution?'
'Will it reduce the population and check production?' asked Lord Edward.
'Then certainly I want a revolution.' The Old Man thought in terms of geology and was not afraid of logical conclusions. 'Certainly.' Illidge could hardly contain his laughter.
'Well, if that's your view ...' began Webley; but Lord Edward interrupted him.
'The only result of your progress,' he said, 'will be that in a few generations there'll be a real revolution - a natural, cosmic revolution. You're upsetting the equilibrium. And in the end, nature will restore it. And the process will be very uncomfortable for you. Your decline will be as quick as your rise. Quicker, because you'll be bankrupt, you'll have squandered your capital. It takes a rich man a little time to realize all his resources. But when they've all been realized, it takes him almost no time to starve.'
Webley shrugged his shoulders. 'Dotty old lunatic!' he said to himself, and aloud, 'Parallel straight lines never meet, Lord Edward. So I'll bid you goodnight.' He took his leave.
A minute later the Old Man and his assistant were making their way up the triumphal staircase to their world apart.
'What a relief!' said Lord Edward, as he opened the door of his laboratory. Voluptuously, he sniffed the faint smell of the absolute alcohol in which the specimens were picked. 'These parties! One's thankful to get back to science. Still, the music was really ...' His admiration was inarticulate.
Illidge shrugged his shoulders. 'Parties, music, science - alternative entertainments for the leisured. You pays your money and you takes your choice. The essential is to have the money to pay.' He laughed disagreeably.
Illidge resented the virtues of the rich much more than their vices. Gluttony, sloth, sensuality and all the less comely products of leisure and an independent income could be forgiven, precisely because they were discreditable. But disinterestedness, spirituality, incorruptibility, refinements of feeling and exquisiteness of taste - these were commonly regarded as qualities to be admired; that was why he so specially disliked them. For these virtues, according to Illidge, were as fatally the product of wealth as were chronic guzzling and breakfast at eleven.
'These bourgeois,' he complained, 'they go about handing one another bouquets for being so disinterested - that is to say, for having enough to live on without being compelled to work or be preoccupied about money. Then there's another bouquet for being able to afford to refuse a tip. And another for having enough money to buy the apparatus of cultured refinement. And yet another for having the time to spare for art and reading and elaborate long-drawn love-making. Why can't they be frank and say outright what they're all the time implying - that the root of all their virtue is a five per cent. guilt-edged security?'
The amused affection which he felt for Lord Edward was tempered by a chronic annoyance at the thought that the Old Man's intellectual and moral virtues, all his endearing eccentricities and absurdities were only made possible by the really scandalous state of his bank balance. And this latent disapproval became acute whenever he heard Lord Edward being praised, admired or even laughed at by others. Laughter, liking and admiration were permitted to him, because he understood and could forgive. Other people did not even realize that there was anything to forgive. Illidge was always quick to inform them.
'If the Old Man wasn't the descendant of monastery-robbers,' he would say to the praisers or admirers, 'he'd be in the workhouse or the loony asylum.'
And yet he was genuinely fond of the Old Man, he genuinely admired his talents and his character. The world, however, might be excused for not realizing the fact. 'Unpleasant' was the ordinary comment on Lord Edward's assistant.
But being unpleasant to and about the rich, besides a pleasure, was also, in Illidge's eyes, a sacred duty. He owed it to his class, to society at large, to the future, to the cause of justice. Even the Old Man himself was not spared. He had only to breathe a word in favour of the soul (for Lord Edward had what his assistant could only regard as a shameful and adulterous passion for idealistic metaphysics); Illidge would at once leap out at him with a sneer about capitalist philosophy and bourgeois religion. An expression of distaste for hard-headed businessmen, of indifference to material interests, of sympathy for the poor, would bring an immediate reference, more or less veiled, but always sarcastic, to the Tantamount millions. There were days (and owing to the slip on the stairs and that snub from the General, this day was one of them) when even a reference to pure science elicited its ironic comment. Illidge was an enthusiastic biologist; but as a class-conscious citizen he had to admit that pure science, like good taste and boredom, perversity and platonic love, is a product of wealth and leisure. He was not afraid of being logical and deriding even his own idol.
'Money to pay,' he repeated. 'That's the essential.'
The Old Man looked rather guiltily at his assistant. These implied reproofs made him feel uncomfortable. He tried to change the subject. 'What about our tadpoles?' he asked. 'The asymmetrical ones.' They had a brood of tadpoles hatched from eggs that had been kept abnormally warm on one side and abnormally cold on the other. He moved towards the glass tank in which they were kept. Illidge frowned.
'Asymmetrical tadpoles!' he repeated. 'Asymmetrical tadpoles! What a refinement! Almost as good as playing Bach on the flute or having a palate for wine.' He thought of his brother Tom, who had weak lungs and worked a broaching machine in a motor factory at Manchester. He remembered washing days and the pink crinkled skin of his mother's water-sodden hands. 'Asymmetrical tadpoles!' he said once more and laughed.
* * * *
'Strange,' said Mrs Betterton, 'strange that a great artist should be such a cynic.' In Burlap's company she preferred to believe that John Bidlake had meant what he said. Burlap on cynicism was uplifting and Mrs Betterton liked to be uplifted. Uplifting too on greatness, not to mention art. 'For you must admit,' she added, 'he is a great artist.'
Burlap nodded slowly. He did not look directly at Mrs Betterton, but kept his eyes averted and downcast as though he were addressing some little personage invisible to everyone but himself, standing to one side of her - his private daemon, perhaps; an emanation from himself, a little doppelgänger. He was a man of middle height with a stoop and a rather slouching gait. His hair was dark, thick and curly, with a natural tonsure as big as a medal showing pink on the crown of his head. His grey eyes were very deeply set, his nose and chin pronounced but well shaped, his mouth full-lipped and rather wide. A mixture, according to old Bidlake, who was a caricaturist in words as well as with the pencil, of a movie villain and St Anthony of Padua by a painter of the baroque, of a card-sharping Lothario and a rapturous devotee.
'Yes, a great artist,' he agreed, 'but not one of the greatest.' He spoke slowly, ruminatively, as though he were talking to himself. All his conversation was a dialogue with himself or that little doppelgänger which stood invisibly to one side of the people he was supposed to be talking to; Burlap was unceasingly and exclusively self-conscious. 'Not one of the greatest,' he repeated slowly. As it happened, he had just been writing an article about the subject-matter of art for next week's number of the Literary World. 'Precisely because of that cynicism.' Should he quote himself? he wondered.
'How true that is!' Mrs Betterton's applause exploded perhaps a little prematurely; her enthusiasm was always on the boil. She clapped her hands together. 'How true!' She looked at Burlap's averted face and thought it so spiritual, so beautiful in its way.
'How can a cynic be a great artist?' Burlap went on, having decided that he'd spout his own article at her and take the risk of her recognizing it in print next Thursday. And even if she did recognize it, that wouldn't efface the personal impression he'd made by spouting it. 'Though why you want to make an impression,' a mocking devil had put in, 'unless it's because she's rich and useful, goodness knows!' The devil was pitchforked back to where he came from. 'One has responsibilities,' an angel hastily explained. 'The lamp mustn't be hidden under a bushel. One must let it shine, especially on people of good will.' Mrs Betterton was on the side of the angels; her loyalty should be confirmed. 'A great artist,' he went on aloud, 'is a man who synthesizes all experience. The cynic sets out by denying half the facts - the fact of the soul, the fact of ideals, the fact of God. And yet we're aware of spiritual facts just as directly and indubitably as we're aware of physical facts.'
'Of course, of course!' exclaimed Mrs Betterton.
'It's absurd to deny either class of facts.' 'Absurd to deny me,' said the demon, poking out his head into Burlap's consciousness.
'The cynic confines himself to only half the world of possible experience. Less than half. For there are more spiritual than bodily experiences.'
'He may handle his limited subject-matter very well. Bidlake, I grant you, does. Extraordinarily well. He has all the sheer ability of the most consummate artists. Or had, at any rate.'
'Had,' Mrs Betterton sighed. 'When I first knew him.' The implication was that it was her influence that had made him paint so well.
'But he always applied his powers to something small. What he synthesizes in his art was limited, comparatively unimportant.'
'That's what I always told him,' said Mrs Betterton, reinterpreting those youthful arguments about Pre-Raphaelitism in a new and, for her own reputation, favourable light. 'Consider Burne-Jones, I used to say.' The memory of John Bidlake's huge and Rabelaisian laughter reverberated in her ears. 'Not that Burne-Jones was a particularly good painter,' she hastened to add. ('He painted,' John Bidlake had said - and how shocked she had been, how deeply offended! - 'as though he had never seen a pair of buttocks in the whole of his life.') 'But his subjects were noble. If you had his dreams, I used to tell John Bidlake, if you had his ideals, you'd be a really great artist.'
Burlap nodded, smiling in agreement. Yes, she's on the side of the angels, he was thinking; she needs encouraging. One has a responsibility. The demon winked. There was something in his smile, Mrs Betterton reflected, that reminded one of a Leonardo or a Sodoma - something mysterious, subtle, inward.
'Though, mind you,' he said, regurgitating his article slowly, phrase by phrase, 'the subject doesn't make the work of art. Whittier and Longfellow were fairly stuffed with Great Thoughts. But what they wrote was very small poetry.'
'The only generalization one can risk is that the greatest works of art have had great subjects; and that works with small subjects, however accomplished, are never so good as ...'
'There's Walter,' said Mrs Betterton, interrupting him. 'Wandering like an unlaid ghost. Walter!'
At the sound of his name, Walter turned. The Betterton - good Lord! And Burlap! He assumed a smile. But Mrs B. and his colleague on the Literary World were among the last people he wanted at this moment to see.
'We were just discussing greatness in art,' Mrs Betterton explained. 'Mr Burlap was saying such profound things.'
She began to reproduce the profundities for Walter's benefit.
He meanwhile was wondering why Burlap's manner towards him had been so cold, so distant, shut, even hostile. That was the trouble with Burlap. You never knew where you stood with him. Either he loved you, or he hated. Life with him was a series of scenes - scenes of hostility or, even more trying in Walter's estimation, scenes of affection. One way or the other, the motion was always flowing. There were hardly any intervals of comfortably slack water. The tide was always running. Why was it running now towards hostility?
Mrs Betterton went on with her exposition of the profundities. To Walter they sounded curiously like certain paragraphs in that article of Burlap's, the proof of which he had only that morning been correcting for the printers. Reproduced - explosion after enthusiastic explosion - from Burlap's spoken reproduction, the article did sound rather ridiculous. A light dawned. Could that be the reason? He looked at Burlap. His face was stony.
'I'm afraid I must go,' said Burlap abruptly, when Mrs Betterton paused.
'But no,' she protested. 'But why?'
He made an effort and smiled his Sodoma smile. 'The world is too much with us,' he quoted mysteriously. He liked saying mysterious things, dropping them surprisingly into the middle of the conversation.
'But you're not enough with us,' flattered Mrs Betterton.
'It's the crowd,' he explained. 'After a time, I get into a panic. I feel they're crushing my soul to death. I should begin to scream if I stayed.' He took his leave.
'Such a wonderful man!' Mrs Betterton exclaimed before he was well out of earshot. 'It must be wonderful for you to work with him.'
'He's a very good editor,' said Walter.
'But I was thinking of his personality. How shall I say? The spiritual quality of the man.'
Walter nodded and said, 'Yes,' rather vaguely. The spiritual quality of Burlap was just the thing he wasn't very enthusiastic about.
'In an age like ours,' Mrs Betterton continued, 'he's an oasis in the desert of stupid frivolity and cynicism.'
'Some of his ideas are first rate,' Walter cautiously agreed.
He wondered how soon he could decently make his escape.
* * * *
'There's Walter,' said Lady Edward.
'Walter who?' asked Bidlake. Borne by the social currents, they had drifted together again.
'Oh, mine.' He was not much interested, but he followed the direction of her glance. 'What a weed!' he said. He disliked his children for growing up; growing, they pushed him backwards, year after year, backwards towards the gulf and the darkness. There was Walter; it was only yesterday he was born. And yet the fellow must be five-and-twenty, if he was a day.
'Poor Walter; he doesn't look at all well.'
'Looks as though he had worms,' said Bidlake ferociously.
'How's that deplorable affair of his going?' she asked.
Bidlake shrugged his shoulders. 'As usual, I suppose.'
'I never met the woman.'
'I did. She's awful.'
'No, no. I wish she were,' protested Bidlake. 'She's refined, terribly refined. And she speaks like this.' He spoke into a drawling falsetto that was meant to be an imitation of Marjorie's voice. 'Like a sweet little innocent girlie. And so serious, such a highbrow.' He interrupted the imitation with his own deep laugh. 'Do you know what she said to me once? I may mention that she always talks to me about Art. Art with a capital A. She said': (his voice went up again to the babyish falsetto) ' "I think there's a place for Fra Angelico and Rubens." ' He laughed again, homerically. 'What an imbecile! And she has a nose that's at least three inches too long.'
* * * *
Marjorie had opened the box in which she kept her private papers. All Walter's letters. She untied the ribbon and looked them over one by one. 'Dear Mrs Carling, I enclose under separate cover that volume of Keats's Letters I mentioned today. Please do not trouble to return it. I have another copy, which I shall re-read for the pleasure of accompanying you, even at a distance, through the same spiritual adventure.'
That was the first of them. She read it through and recaptured in memory something of the pleased surprise which that passage about the spiritual adventure had originally evoked in her. In conversation he had always seemed to shrink from the direct and personal approach, he was painfully shy. She hadn't expected him to write like that. Later, when he had written to her often, she became accustomed to his peculiarities. She took it for granted that he should be bolder with the pen than face to face. All his love - all of it, at any rate, that was articulate and all of it that, in the days of his courtship, was in the least ardent - was in his letters. The arrangement suited Marjorie perfectly. She would have liked to go on indefinitely making cultured and verbally burning love by post. She liked the idea of love; what she did not like was lovers, except at a distance and in imagination. A correspondence course of passion was, for her, the perfect and ideal relationship with a man. Better still were personal relationships with women; for women had all the good qualities of men at a distance, with the added advantage of being actually there. They could be in the room with you and yet demand no more than a man at the other end of a system of post-offices. With his face-to-face shyness and his postal freedom and ardour, Walter had seemed in Marjorie's eyes to combine the best points of both sexes. And then he was so deeply, so flatteringly interested in everything she did and thought and felt. Poor Marjorie was not much used to having people interested in her.
'Sphinx,' she read in the third of his letters. (He had called her that because of her enigmatic silences. Carling, for some reason, had called her Turnip or Dumb-Bell.) 'Sphinx, why do you hide yourself inside such a shell of silence? One would think you were ashamed of your goodness and sweetness and intelligence. But they pop their heads out all the same and in spite of you.'
The tears came into her eyes. He had been so king to her, so tender and gentle. And now ...
'Love,' she read dimly, through the tears, in the next letter, 'love can transform physical into spiritual desire; it has the magic power to turn the body into pure soul ...'
Yes, he had had those desires too. Even he. All men had, she supposed. Rather dreadful. She shuddered, remembering Carling, remembering even Walter with something of the same horror. Yes, even Walter, though he had been so gentle and considerate. Walter had understood what she felt. That made it all the more extraordinary that he should be behaving as he was behaving now. It was as though he had suddenly become somebody else, become a kind of wild animal, with the animal's cruelty as well as the animal's lusts.
'How can he be so cruel?' she wondered. 'How can he, deliberately? Walter?' Her Walter, the real Walter, was so gentle and understanding and considerate, so wonderfully unselfish and good. It was for that goodness and gentleness that she had loved him, in spite of his being a man and having 'those' desires; her devotion was to that tender, unselfish, considerate Walter, whom she had got to know and appreciate after they had begun to live together. She had loved even the weak and unadmirable manifestations of his considerateness; he loved him even when he let himself be overcharged by cabmen and porters, when he gave handfuls of silver to tramps with obviously untrue stories about jobs at the other end of the country and no money to pay the fare. He was too sensitively quick to see the other person's point of view. In his anxiety to be just to others he was often prepared to be unjust to himself. He was always ready to sacrifice his own rights rather than run any risk of infringing the rights of others. It was a considerateness, Marjorie realized, that had become a weakness, that was on the point of turning into a vice; a considerateness, moreover, that was due to his timidity, his squeamish and fastidious shrinking from every conflict, even every disagreeable contact. All the same, she loved him for it, loved him even when it led him to treat her with something less than justice. For having come to regard her as being on the hither side of the boundary between himself and the rest of the world, he had sometimes in his excessive considerateness for the rights of others, sacrificed not only his own rights, but also hers. How often, for example, she had told him that he was being underpaid for his work on the Literary World! She thought of the latest of their conversations on what was to him the most odious of topics.
'Burlap's sweating you, Walter,' she had said.
'That paper's very hard up.' He always had excuses for the shortcomings of other people towards himself.
'But why should you let yourself be swindled?'
'I'm not being swindled.' There was a note of exasperation in his voice, the exasperation of a man who knows he is in the wrong. 'And even if I were, I prefer being swindled to haggling for my pound of flesh. After all, it's my business.'
'And mine!' She held up the account book on which she had been busy when the conversation began. 'If you knew the price of vegetables!'
He had flushed up and left the room without answering. The conversation, the case were typical of many others. Walter had never been deliberately unkind to her, only by mistake, out of excessive consideration for other people and while he was being unkind to himself. She had never resented these injustices. They proved how closely he associated her with himself. But now, now there was nothing accidental about his unkindness. The gentle considerate Walter had disappeared and somebody else - somebody ruthless and full of hate - was deliberately making her suffer.
* * * *
Lady Edward laughed. 'One wonders what he saw in her, if she's so deplorable as you make out.'
'What does one ever see in anyone?' John Bidlake spoke in a melancholy tone. Quite suddenly he had begun to feel rather ill. An oppression in the stomach, a feeling of sickness, a tendency to hiccough. It often happened now. Just after eating. Bicarbonate didn't seem to do much good. 'In these matters,' he added, 'we're all equally insane.'
'Thanks!' said Lady Edward, laughing.
Making an essay to be gallant, 'Present company excepted,' he said with a smile and a little bow. He stifled another hiccough. How miserable he was feeling! 'Do you mind if I sit down?' he asked. 'All this standing about ...' He dropped heavily into his chair.
Lady Edward looked at him with a certain solicitude, but said nothing. She knew how much he hated all references to age, or illness, or physical weakness.
'It must have been that caviar,' he was thinking. 'That beastly caviar.' He violently hated caviar. Every sturgeon in the Black Sea was his personal enemy.
'Poor Walter!' said Lady Edward, taking up the conversation where it had been dropped. 'And he has such a talent.'
John Bidlake snorted contemptuously.
Lady Edward perceived that she had said the wrong thing - by mistake, genuinely by mistake, this time. She changed the subject.
'And Elinor and Quarles?'
'Leaving Bombay tomorrow,' John Bidlake answered telegraphically. He was too busy thinking of the caviar and his visceral sensations to be more responsive.
'De Indians drank deir liberalism at your fountains,' said Mr Sita Ram, quoting from one of his own speeches in the Legislative Assembly. He pointed an accusing finger at Philip Quarles. The drops of sweat pursued one another down his brown and pouchy cheeks; he seemed to be weeping for Mother India. One drop had been hanging, an iridescent jewel in the lamplight, at the end of his nose. It flashed and trembled while he spoke, as if responsive to patriotic sentiments. There came a moment when the sentiments were too much for it. At the word 'fountain', it gave a last violent shudder and fell among the broken morsels of fish on Mr Sita Ram's plate.
'Burke and Bacon,' Mr Sita Ram went on sonorously, 'Milton and Macaulay ...'
'Oh, look!' Elinor Quarles's voice was shrill with alarm. She got up so suddenly that her chair fell over backwards. Mr Sita Ram turned towards her.
'What's de matter?' he asked in a tone of annoyance. It is vexatious to be interrupted in the middle of a peroration.
Elinor pointed. A very large grey toad was laboriously hopping across the veranda. In the silence its movements were audible - a soft thudding, as though a damp sponge were being repeatedly dropped.
'De toad can do no harm,' said Mr Sita Ram, who was accustomed to the tropical fauna.
Elinor looked beseechingly at her husband. The glance that he returned was one of disapproval.
'Really, my darling,' he protested. He himself had a strong dislike for squashy animals. But he knew how to conceal his disgust, stoically. It was the same with the food. There had been (the right, the fully expressive word now occurred to him) a certain toad-like quality about the fish. But he had managed, nonetheless, to eat it. Elinor had left hers, after the first mouthful, untouched.
'Perhaps you wouldn't mind driving it away,' she whispered. Her face expressed her inward agony. 'You know how much I detest them.'
Her husband laughed and, apologizing to Mr Sita Ram, got up, very tall and slim, and limped across the veranda. With the toe of his clumsy surgical boot he manoeuvred the animal to the edge of the platform. It flopped down heavily into the garden below. Looking out, he caught a glimpse of the sea shining between the palm stems. The moon was up and the tufted foliage stood out black against the sky. Not a leaf stirred. It was enormously hot and seemed to be growing hotter as the night advanced. Heat under the sun was not so bad; one expected it. But this stifling darkness ... Philip mopped his face and went back to his seat at the table.
'You were saying, Mr Sita Ram?'
But Mr Sita Ram's first fine careless rapture had evaporated. 'I was re-reading some of de works of Morley today,' he announced.
'Golly!' said Philip Quarles, who liked on occasion, very deliberately, to bring out a piece of schoolboy slang. It made such an effect in the middle of a serious conversation.
But Mr Sita Ram could hardly be expected to catch the full significance of that 'Golly'. 'What a tinker!' he pursued. 'What a great tinker! And de style is so chaste.'
'I suppose it is.'
'Dere are some good phrases,' Mr Sita Ram went on. 'I wrote dem down.' He searched his pockets, but failed to discover his notebook. 'Never mind,' he said. 'But dey were good phrases. Sometimes one reads a whole book without finding a single phrase one can remember or quote. What's de good of such a book, I ask you?'
Four or five untidy servants came out of the house and changed the plates. A dish of dubious rissoles made its appearance. Elinor glanced despairingly at her husband, then turned to Mr Sita Ram to assure him that she never ate meat. Himself stoically eating, Philip approved her wisdom. They drank sweet champagne that was nearly as warm as tea. The rissoles were succeeded by sweetmeats - large, pale balls (much fingered, one felt sure, long and lovingly rolled between the palms) of some equivocal substance, at once slimy and gritty, and tasting hauntingly through their sweetness of mutton fat.
Under the influence of the champagne, Mr Sita Ram recovered his eloquence. His latest oration re-uttered itself.
'Dere is one law for de English,' he said, 'and another for de Indians, one for de oppressors and another for de oppressed. De word justice as eider disappeared from your vocabulary, or else it has changed its meaning.'
'I'm inclined to think that it has changed its meaning,' said Philip.
Mr Sita Ram paid no attention. He was filled with a sacred indignation, the more violent for being so hopelessly impotent. 'Consider de case,' he went on (and his voice trembled out of his control) 'of de unfortunate stationmaster of Bhowanipore.'
But Philip refused to consider it. He was thinking of the way in which the word justice changes its meaning. Justice for India had meant one thing before he visited the country. It meant something very different now, when he was on the point of leaving it.
The stationmaster of Bhoranipore, it appeared, had had a spotless record and nine children.
'But why don't you teach them birth control, Mr Sita Ram?' Elinor had asked. These descriptions of enormous families always made her wince. She remembered what she had suffered when little Phil was born. And after all, and had had chloroform and two nurses and Sir Claude Aglet. Whereas the wife of the stationmaster of Bhowanipore ... She had heard accounts of Indian midwives. She shuddered. 'Isn't it the only hope for India?'
Mr Sita Ram, however, thought that the only hope was universal suffrage and self-government. He went on with the stationmaster's history. The man had passed all his examinations with credit; his qualifications were the highest possible. And yet he had been passed over for promotion no less than four times. Four times, and always in favour of Europeans or Eurasians. Mr Sita Ram's blood boiled when he thought of the five thousand years of Indian civilization, Indian spirituality, Indian moral superiority, cynically trampled, in the person of the stationmaster of Bhowanipore, under English feet ...
'Is dat justice, I ask?' He banged the table.
Who knows?' Philip wondered. Perhaps it is.
Elinor was still thinking of the nine children. To obtain a quick delivery, the midwives, she had heard, stamp on their patients. And, instead of ergot, they use a paste made of cow-dung and powdered glass.
'Do you call dat justice?' Mr Sita Ram repeated.
Realizing that he was expected to make some response, Philip shook his head and said, 'No.'
'You ought to write about it,' said Mr Sita Ram, 'you ought to show de scandal up.'
Philip excused himself; he was only a writer of novels, not a politician, not a journalist. 'Do you know old Daulat Singh?' he added with apparent irrelevance. 'The one who lives at Ajmere?'
'I have met de man,' said Mr Sita Ram, in a tone that made it quite clear that he didn't like Daulat Singh, or perhaps (more probably, thought Philip) hadn't been liked or approved by him.
'A fine man, I thought,' said Philip. For men like Daulat Singh justice would have to mean something very different from what it meant for Mr Sita Ram or the stationmaster of Bhowanipore. He remembered the noble old face, the bright eyes, the restrained passion of his words. If only he could have refrained from chewing pan ...
The time came for them to go. At last. They said goodbye with an almost excessive cordiality, climbed into the waiting car and were driven away. The ground beneath the palm trees of Joohoo was littered with a mintage of shining silver, splashed with puddles of mercury. They rolled through a continuous flickering of light and dark - the cinema film of twenty years ago - until, emerging from under the palm trees, they found themselves in the full glare of the enormous moon.
'Three-formed Hecate,' he thought, blinking at the round brilliance. 'But what about Sita Ram and Daulat Singh and the stationmaster, what about old appalling India, what about justice and liberty, what about progress and the future? The fact is, I don't care. Not a pin. It's disgraceful. But I don't. And the forms of Hecate aren't three. They're a thousand, they're millions. The tides. The Nemorensian goddess, the Tifatinian. Varying directly as the product of the masses and inversely as the square of the distances. A florin at arm's length, but as big as the Russian Empire. Bigger than India. What a comfort it will be to be back in Europe again! And to think there was a time when I read books about yoga and did breathing exercises and tried to persuade myself that I didn't really exist! What a fool! It was a result of talking with that idiot Burlap. But luckily people don't leave much trace on me. They make an impression easily, like a ship in water. But the water closes up again. I wonder what this Italian ship will be like tomorrow? The Lloyd Triestino boats are always supposed to be good. "Luckily," I said; but oughtn't one to be ashamed of one's indifference? That parable of the sower. The seed that fell in shallow ground. And yet, obviously, it's no use pretending to be what one isn't. One sees that results of that in Burlap. What a comedian! But he takes in a lot of people. Including himself, I suppose. I don't believe there's such a thing as a conscious hypocrite, except for special occasions. You can't keep it up all the time. All the same, it would be good to know what it's like to believe in something to the point of being prepared to kill people or get yourself killed. It would be an experience ...'
Elinor had lifted her face towards the same bright disc. Moon, full moon ... And instantly she had changed her position in space and time. She dropped her eyes and turned towards her husband; she took his hand and leaned tenderly against him.
'Do you remember those evenings?' she asked. 'In the garden, at Gattenden. Do you remember, Phil?'
Elinor's words came to his ears from a great distance and from a world in which, for the moment, he felt no interest. He roused himself with reluctance. 'Which evenings?' he asked, speaking across gulfs, and in the rather flat and colourless voice of one who answers an importunate telephone.
At the sound of that telephone voice Elinor quickly drew away from him. To press yourself against someone who turns out simply not to be there is not only disappointing; it is also rather humiliating. Which evenings, indeed!
'Why don't you love me any more?' she asked despairingly. As if she could have been talking about any other evenings than those of that wonderful summer they had spent, just after their marriage, at her mother's house. 'You don't even take any interest in me now - less than you would in a piece of furniture, much less than in a book.'
'But, Elinor, what are you talking about?' Philip put more astonishment into his voice than he really felt. After the first moment, when he had had time to come to the surface, so to speak, from the depths of his reverie, he had understood what she meant, he had connected this Indian moon with that which had shone, eight years ago, on the Hertfordshire garden. He might have said so, of course. It would have made things easier. But he was annoyed at having been interrupted, he didn't like to be reproached, and the temptation to score a debater's point against his wife was strong. 'I ask a simple question,' he went on, 'merely wanting to know what you mean. And you retort by complaining that I don't love you. I fail to see the logical connection.'
'But you know quite well what I was talking about,' said Elinor. 'And besides, it is true - you don't love me any more.'
'I do, as it happens,' said Philip and, still skirmishing (albeit vainly, as he knew) in the realm of dialectic, went on like a little Socrates with his cross-examination. 'But what I really want to know is how we ever got to this point from the place where we started. We began with evenings and now ...'
But Elinor was more interested in love than in logic. 'Oh, I know you don't want to say you don't love me,' she interrupted. 'Not in so many words. You don't want to hurt my feelings. But it would really hurt them less if you did so straight out, instead of just avoiding the whole question, as you do now. Because this avoiding is really just as much of an admission as a bald statement. And it hurts more because it lasts longer, because there's suspense and uncertainty and repetition of pain. So long as the words haven't been definitely spoken, there's always just a chance that they mayn't have been tacitly implied. Always a chance, even when one knows that they have been implied. There's still room for hope. And where there's hope there's disappointment. It isn't really kinder to evade the question, Phil; it's crueller.'
'But I don't evade the question,' he retorted. 'Why should I, seeing that I love you?'
'Yes, but how? How do you love me? Not in the way you used to, at the beginning. Or perhaps you've forgotten. You didn't even remember the time when we were first married.'
'But, my dear child,' Philip protested, 'do be accurate. You just said "those evenings" and expected me to guess which.'
'Of course I expected,' said Elinor. 'You ought to have known. You would have known, if you took any interest. That's what I complain of. You care so little now that the time when you did care means nothing to you. Do you think I can forget those evenings?'
She remembered the garden with its invisible and perfumed flowers, the huge black Wellingtonia on the lawn, the rising moon, and the two stone griffins at either end of the low terrace wall, where they had sat together. She remembered what he had said and his kisses, the touch of his hands. She remembered everything - remembered with the minute precision of one who loves to explore and reconstruct the past, of one who is for ever turning over and affectionately verifying each precious detail of recollected happiness.
'It's all simply faded out of your mind,' she added, mournfully reproachful. For her, those evenings were still more real, more actual than much of her contemporary living.
'But of course I remember,' said Philip impatiently. 'Only one can't readjust one's mind instantaneously. At the moment, when you spoke, I happened to be thinking of something else; that was all.'
Elinor sighed. 'I wish I had something else to think about,' she said. 'That's the trouble; I haven't. Why should I love you so much? Why? It isn't fair. You're protected by an intellect and a talent. You have your work to retire into, your ideas to shield you. But I have nothing - no defence against my feelings, no alternative to you. And it's I who need the defence and the alternative. For I'm the one who really cares. You've got nothing to be protected from. You don't care. No, it isn't fair, it isn't fair.'
And after all, she was thinking, it had always been like this. He hadn't ever really loved her, even at the beginning. Not profoundly and entirely, not with abandonment. For even at the beginning he had evaded her demands, he had refused to give himself completely to her. On her side she had offered everything, everything. And he had taken, but without return. His soul, the intimacies of his being, he had always withheld. Always, even from the first, even when he had loved her most. She had been happy then - but only because she had not known better than to be happy, because she had not realized, in her inexperience, that love could be different and better. She took a perverse pleasure in the retrospective disparagement of her felicity, in laying waste her memories. The moon, the dark and perfumed garden, the huge black tree and its velvet shadow on the lawn ... She denied them, she rejected the happiness which they symbolized in her memory.
Philip Quarles, meanwhile, said nothing. There was nothing, really, to say. He put his arm round her and drew her towards him; he kissed her forehead and her fluttering eyelids; they were wet with tears.
The sordid suburbs of Bombay slid past them - factories and little huts and huge tenements, ghastly and bone-white under the moon. Brown, thin-legged pedestrians appeared for a moment in the glare of the headlights, like truths apprehended intuitively and with immediate certainty, only to disappear again almost instantly into the void of the outer darkness. Here and there, by the roadside, the light of a fire mysteriously hinted at dark limbs and faces. The inhabitants of a world of thought starrily remote from theirs peered at them, as the car flashed past, from creaking bullock carts.
'My darling,' he kept repeating, 'my darling ...'
Elinor permitted herself to be comforted. 'You love me a little?'
She actually laughed, rather sobbingly, it is true; but still, it was a laugh. 'You do your best to be nice to me.' And after all, she thought, those days at Gattenden had really been blissful. 'You make such efforts. It's sweet of you.'
'It's silly to talk like that,' he protested. 'You know I love you.'
'Yes, I know you do.' She smiled and stroked his cheek. 'When you have time and then by wireless across the Atlantic.'
'No, that isn't true.' But secretly he knew that it was. All his life long he had walked in a solitude, in a private void, into which nobody, not his mother, not his friends, not his lovers had ever been permitted to enter. Even when he held her thus, pressed close to him, it was by wireless, as she had said, and across an Atlantic that he communicated with her.
'It isn't true,' she echoed, tenderly mocking. 'But, my poor old Phil, you couldn't even take in a child. You don't know how to lie convincingly. You're too honest. That's one of the reasons why I love you. If you knew how transparent you were!'
Philip was silent. These discussions of personal relations always made him uncomfortable. They threatened his solitude - that solitude which, with a part of his mind, he deplored (for he felt himself cut off from much he would have liked to experience), but in which alone, nevertheless, his spirit could live in comfort, in which alone he felt himself free. At ordinary times he took this inward solitude for granted, as one accepts the atmosphere in which one lives. But when it was menaced, he became only too painfully aware of its importance to him; he fought for it, as a choking man fights for air. But it was a fight without violence, a negative battle of retirement and defence. He entrenched himself now in silence, in that calm, remote, frigid silence, which he was sure that Elinor would not attempt, knowing the hopelessness of the venture, to break through. He was right; Elinor glanced at him for an instant, and then, turning away, looked out at the moonlit landscape. Their parallel silences flowed on through time, unmeeting.
They were driven on through the Indian darkness. Almost cool against their faces, the moving air smelt now of tropical flowers, now of sewage, or curry, or burning cow-dung.
'And yet,' said Elinor suddenly, unable any longer to contain her resentful thoughts, 'you couldn't do without me. Where would you be if I left you, if I went to somebody who was prepared to give me something in return for what I give? Where would you be?'
The question dropped into the silence. Philip made no answer. But where would he be? He too wondered. For in the ordinary daily world of human contacts he was curiously like a foreigner, uneasily not at home among his fellows, finding it difficult or impossible to enter into communication with any but those who could speak his native intellectual language of ideas. Emotionally, he was a foreigner. Elinor was his interpreter, his dragoman. Like her father, Elinor Bidlake had been born with a gift of intuitive understanding and social ease. She was quickly at home with anybody. She knew, instinctively, as well as old John himself, just what to say to every type of person - to every type except, perhaps, her husband's. It is difficult to know what to say to someone who does not say anything in return, who answers the impersonal world with the personal, the particular and feeling word with an intellectual generalization. Still, being in love with him, she persisted in her efforts to lure him into direct contact; and though the process was rather discouraging - like singing to deaf-mutes or declaiming poetry to an empty hall - she went on giving him her intimacies of thought and feeling. There were occasions when, making a great effort, he did his best, in exchange, to admit her into his own personal privacies. But whether it was that the habit of secrecy had made it impossible for him to give utterance to his inward feelings, or whether the very capacity to feel had actually been atrophied by consistent silence and repression, Elinor found these rare intimacies disappointing. The holy of holies into which he so painfully ushered her was almost as naked and empty as that which astonished the Roman invaders, when they violated the temple of Jerusalem. Still, she was grateful to Philip for his good intentions in at least wanting to admit her to his emotional intimacy, even though there mightn't be much of an emotional life to be intimate with. A kind of Pyrrhonian indifference, tempered by a consistent gentleness and kindness, as well as by the more violent intermittences of physical passion - this was the state of being which nature and second nature had made normal for him. Elinor's reason told her that this was so; but her feelings would not accept in practice what she was sure of in theory. What was living and sensitive and irrational in her was hurt by his indifference, as though it were a personal coldness directed only against herself. And yet, whatever she might feel, Elinor knew all the time that his indifference wasn't personal, that he was like that with everybody, that he loved her as much as it was possible for him to love, that his love for her hadn't diminished, because it had never really been greater - more passionate once perhaps, but never more emotionally rich in intimacies and self-giving, even at its most passionate, than it was now. But all the same her feelings were outraged; he oughtn't to be like this. He oughtn't to be; but there, he was. After an outburst, she would settle down and try to love him as reasonably as she could, making the best of his kindness, his rather detached and separate passion, his occasional and laborious essays at emotional intimacy, and finally his intelligence - that quick, comprehensive, ubiquitous intelligence that could understand everything, including the emotions it could not feel and the instincts it took care not to be moved by.
Once, when he had been telling her about Koehler's book on the apes, 'You're like a monkey on the superman side of humanity,' she said. 'Almost human, like those poor chimpanzees. The only difference is that they're trying to think up with their feelings and instincts, and you're trying to feel down with your intellect. Almost human. Trembling on the verge, my poor Phil.'
He understood everything so perfectly. That was why it was such fun being his dragoman and interpreting other people for him. (It was less amusing when one had to interpret oneself.) All that the intelligence could seize upon he seized. She reported her intercourse with the natives of the realm of emotion and he understood at once, he generalized her experience for her, he related it with other experiences, classified it, found analogies and parallels. From single and individual it became in his hands part of a system. She was astonished to find that she and her friends had been, all unconsciously, substantiating a theory, or exemplifying some interesting generalization. Her functions as dragoman were not confined to mere scouting and reporting. She acted also directly as personal interpreter between Philip and any third party he might wish to get into touch with, creating the atmosphere in which alone the exchange of personalities is possible, preserving the conversation from intellectual desiccation. Left to himself Philip would never have been able to establish personal contact or preserve it when once established. But when Elinor was there to make and keep the contact for him, he could understand, he could sympathize, with his intelligence, in a way which Elinor assured him was all but human. In his subsequent generalizations from the experience she had made possible for him he became once more undisguisedly the overman.
Yes, it was fun to serve as dragoman to such an exceptionally intelligent tourist in the realm of feeling. But it was more than fun; it was also, in Elinor's eyes, a duty. There was his writing to consider.
'Ah, if you were a little less of an overman, Phil,' she used to say, 'what good novels you'd write!'
Rather ruefully he agreed with her. He was intelligent enough to know his own defects. Elinor did her best to supply them - gave him first-hand information about the habits of the natives, acted as go-between when he wanted to come into personal contact with one of them. Not only for her own sake, but for the sake of the novelist he might be, she wished he could break his habit of impersonality and learn to live with the intuitions and feelings and instincts as well as with the intellect. Heroically, she had even encouraged him in his velleities of passion for other women. It might do him good to have a few affairs. So anxious was she to do him good as a novelist, that on more than one occasion, seeing him look admiringly at some young woman or other, she had gone out of her way to establish for him the personal contact which he would never have been able to establish for himself. It was risky, of course. He might really fall in love; he might forget to be intellectual and become a reformed character, but for some other woman's benefit. Elinor took the risk, partly because she thought that his writing ought to come before everything else, even her own happiness, and partly because she was secretly convinced that there was in reality no risk at all, that he would never lose his head so wholly as to want to run off with another woman. The cure by affairs, if it worked at all, would be gentle in its action; and if it did not work, she was sure she would know how to profit by its good effects on him. Anyhow, it hadn't worked so far. Philip's infidelities amounted to very little and had had no appreciable effect on him. He remained depressingly, even maddeningly the same - intelligent to the point of being almost human, remotely kind, separately passionate and sensual, impersonally sweet. Maddening. Why did she go on loving him? She wondered. One might almost as well go on loving a bookcase. One day she would really leave him. There was such a thing as being too unselfish and devoted. One should think of one's own happiness sometimes. To be loved for a change, instead of having to do all the loving oneself; to receive instead of perpetually giving ... Yes, one day she really would leave him. She had herself to think about. Besides, it would be a punishment for Phil. A punishment - for she was sure that, if she left him, he would be genuinely unhappy, in his way, as much as it lay in him to be unhappy. And perhaps the unhappiness might achieve the miracle she had been longing and working for all these years; perhaps it would sensitize him, personalize him. Perhaps it might be the making of him as a writer. Perhaps it was even her duty to make him unhappy, the most sacred of her duties ...
The sight of a dog running across the road just in front of the car aroused her from her reverie. How suddenly, how startlingly it had dashed into the narrow universe of the headlamps! It existed for a fraction of a second, desperately running, and was gone again into the darkness on the other side of the luminous world. Another dog was suddenly in its place, pursuing.
'Oh!' cried Elinor. 'It'll be ...' The headlights swerved and swung straight again, there was a padded jolt, as though one of the wheels had passed over a stone; but the stone yelped. '...run over,' she concluded.
'It has been run over.'
The Indian chauffeur looked round at them, grinning. They could see the flash of his teeth. 'Dog!' he said. He was proud of his English.
'Poor beast!' Elinor shuddered.
'It was his fault,' said Philip. 'He wasn't looking. That's what comes of running after the females of one's species.'
There was a silence. It was Philip who broke it.
'Morality'd be very queer,' he reflected aloud, 'if we loved seasonally, not all the year round. Moral and immoral would change from one month to another. Primitive societies are apt to be more seasonal than cultivated ones. Even in Sicily there are twice as many births in January as in August. Which proves conclusively that in the spring the young man's fancy ... But nowhere only in the spring. There's nothing human quite analogous to heat in mares or she-dogs. Except,' he added, 'except perhaps in the moral sphere. A bad reputation in a woman allures like the signs of heat in a bitch. Ill-fame announces accessibility. Absence of heat is the animal's equivalent of the chaste woman's habits and principles ...'
Elinor listened with interest and at the same time a kind of horror. Even the squashing of a wretched animal was enough to set that quick untiring intelligence to work. A poor starved pariah dog had its back broken under the wheels and the incident evoked from Philip a selection from the vital statistics of Sicily, a speculation about the relativity of morals, a brilliant psychological generalization. It was amusing, it was unexpected, it was wonderfully interesting; but oh! she almost wanted to scream.
Mrs Betterton had been shaken off, his father and Lady Edward distantly waved to and avoided; Walter was free to continue his search. And at last he found what he was looking for. Lucy Tantamount had just emerged from the dining-room and was standing under the arcades, glancing in indecision this way and that. Against the mourning of her dress the skin was luminously white. A bunch of gardenias was pinned to her bodice. She raised a hand to touch her smooth black hair, and the emerald of her ring shot a green signal to him across the room. Critically, with a kind of cold intellectual hatred, Walter looked at her and wondered why he loved. Why? There was no reason, no justification. All the reasons were against his loving her.
Suddenly she moved, she walked out of sight. Walter followed. Passing the entrance to the dining-room, he noticed Burlap, no longer the anchorite, drinking champagne and being talked to by the Comtesse d'Exergillod. Gosh! thought Walter, remembering his own experiences with Molly d'Exergillod. 'But Burlap probably adores her. He would ... He ...' But there she was again, talking - damnation! - with General Knoyle. Walter hung about at a little distance, waiting impatiently for an opportunity to address her.
'Caught at last,' said the General, patting her hand. 'Been looking for you the whole evening.'
Half satyr, half uncle, he had an old man's weakness for Lucy. 'Charming little girl!' he would assure all those who wanted to hear. 'Charming little figure! Such eyes!' For the most part he preferred them rather younger. 'Nothing like youth!' he was fond of saying. His life-long prejudice against America and Americans had been transformed into enthusiastic admiration ever since, at the age of sixty-five, he had visited California and seen the flappers of Hollywood and the bathing beauties on the Pacific beaches. Lucy was nearly thirty; but the General had known her for years; he continued to regard her as hardly more than the young girl of his first memories. For him, she was still about seventeen. He patted her hand again. 'We'll have a good talk,' he said.
'That will be fun,' said Lucy with sarcastic politeness.
From his post of observation Walter looked on. The General had been handsome once. Corseted, his tall figure still preserved its military bearing. The gallant and the gentleman, he smiled; he fingered his white moustache. The next moment he was the playful, protective and confidential old uncle. Faintly smiling, Lucy looked at him out of her pale grey eyes with a detached and unmerciful amusement. Walter studied her. She was not even particularly good-looking. So why, why? He wanted reasons, he wanted justification. Why? The question persistently reverberated. There was no answer. He had just fallen in love with her - that was all; insanely, the first time he set eyes on her.
Turning her head, Lucy caught sight of him. She beckoned and called his name. He pretended to be surprised and delightfully astonished.
'I hope you've not forgotten our appointment,' he said.
'Do I ever forget? Except occasionally on purpose,' she qualified with a little laugh. She turned to the General. 'Walter and I are going to see your stepson this evening,' she announced in the tone and with the smile which one employs when one talks to people about those who are dear to them. But between Spandrell and his stepfather the quarrel, she knew very well, was mortal. Lucy had inherited all her mother's fondness for the deliberate social blunder and with it a touch of her father's detached scientific curiosity. She enjoyed experimenting, not with frogs and guinea-pigs, but with human beings. You did unexpected things to people, you put them in curious situations and waited to see what would happen. It was the method of Darwin and Pasteur.
What happened in this case was that General Knoyle's face became extremely red. 'I haven't seen him for some time,' he said stiffly.
'Good,' she said to herself. 'He's reacting.'
'But he's such good company,' she said aloud.
The General grew redder and frowned. What he hadn't done for that boy! And how ungratefully the boy had responded, how abominably he had behaved! Getting himself kicked out of every job the General had wrangled him into. A waster, an idler; drinking and drabbing; making his mother miserable, sponging on her, disgracing the family name. And the insolence of the fellow, the things he had ventured to say the last time they had met and, as usual, had a scene together! The General was never likely to forget being called 'an impotent old fumbler.'
'And so intelligent,' Lucy was saying. With an inward smile she remembered Spandrell's summary of his stepfather's career. 'Superannuated from Harrow,' it began, 'passed out from Sandhurst at the bottom of the list, he had a most distinguished career in the Army, rising during the War to a high post in the Military Intelligence Department.' The way he rolled out this anticipated obituary was really magnificent. He was the Times made audible. And then his remarks on Military Intelligence in general! 'If you look up "Intelligence" in the new volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica,' he had said, 'you'll find it classified under the following three heads: Intelligence, Human; Intelligence, Animal; Intelligence, Military. My stepfather's a perfect specimen of Intelligence, Military.'
'So intelligent,' Lucy repeated.
'Some people think so, I know,' said General Knoyle very stiffly. 'But personally ...' He cleared his throat with violence. That was his personal opinion.
A moment later, still rigid, still angrily dignified, he took his leave. He felt that Lucy had offended him. Even her youth and her bare shoulders did not compensate him for those laudatory references to Maurice Spandrell. Insolent, bad-blooded young cub! His existence was the General's standing grievance against his wife. A woman had no right to have a son like that, no right. Poor Mrs Knoyle had often atoned to her second husband for the offences of her son. She was there, she could be punished, she was too weak to resist. The exasperated General visited the sins of the child on his parent.
Lucy glanced after the retreating figure, then turned to Walter. 'I can't risk that sort of thing happening again,' she said. 'It would be bad enough even if it didn't smell so unpleasant. Shall we go away?'
Walter desired nothing better. 'But what about your mother and the social duties?' he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders. 'After all, mother can look after her own bear garden.'
'Bear garden's the word,' said Walter, feeling suddenly hopeful. 'Let's sneak away to some place where it's quiet.'
'My poor Walter!' Her eyes were derisive. 'I never knew anybody with such a mania for quietness as you. But I don't want to be quiet.'
His hope evaporated, leaving a feeble little bitterness, an ineffective anger. 'Why not stay here then?' he asked with an attempt at sarcasm. 'Isn't it noisy enough?'
'Ah, but noisy with the wrong sort of noise,' she explained. 'There's nothing I hate more than the noise of cultured, respectable, eminent people, like those creatures.' She waved a hand comprehensively. The words evoked, for Walter, the memory of hideous evenings passed with Lucy in the company of the disreputable and uncultured - tipsy after that. Lady Edward's guests were bad enough. But the others were surely worse. How could she tolerate them?
Lucy seemed to divine his thoughts. Smiling, she laid a hand reassuringly on his arm. 'Cheer up!' she said. 'I'm not taking you into low company this time. There's Spandrell ...'
'Spandrell,' he repeated and made a grimace.
'And if Spandrell isn't classy enough for you, we shall probably find Mark Rampion and his wife, if we don't arrive too late.'
At the name of the painter and writer, Walter nodded approvingly.
'No, I don't mind listening to Rampion's noise,' he said. And then, making an effort to overcome the timidity which always silenced him when the moment came to give words to his feelings, 'but I'd much rather,' he added jocularly, so as to temper the boldness of his words, 'I'd much rather listen to your noise, in private.'
Lucy smiled, but said nothing. He flinched away in a kind of terror from her eyes. They looked at him calmly, coldly, as though they had seen everything before and were not much interested - only faintly amused, very faintly and coolly amused.
'All right,' he said, 'let's go.' His tone was resigned and wretched.
'We must do a creep,' she said. 'Furtive's the word. No good being caught and headed back.'
But they did not escape entirely unobserved. They were approaching the door, when there was a rustle and a sound of hurrying steps behind them. A voice called Lucy's name. They turned round and saw Mrs Knoyle, the General's wife. She laid a hand on Lucy's arm.
'I've just heard that you're going to see Maurice this evening,' she said, but did not explain that the General had told her so only because he wanted to relieve his feelings by saying something disagreeable to somebody who couldn't resent the rudeness. 'Give him a message from me, will you?' She leaned forward appealingly. 'Will you?' There was something pathetically young and helpless about her manner, something very young and soft even about her middle-aged looks. To Lucy, who might have been her daughter, she appealed as though to someone older and stronger than herself. 'Please.'
'But of course,' said Lucy.
Mrs Knoyle smiled gratefully. 'Tell him I'll come to see him tomorrow afternoon,' she said.
'Between four and half-past. And don't mention it to anyone else,' she added after a moment of embarrassed hesitation.
'Of course I won't.'
'I'm so grateful to you,' said Mrs Knoyle, and with a sudden shy impulsiveness she leaned forward and kissed her. 'Good night, my dear.' She slipped away into the crowd.
'One would think,' said Lucy, as they crossed the vestibule, 'that it was an appointment with her lover she was making, not her son.'
Two footmen let them out, obsequiously automatic. Closing the door, one winked to the other significantly. For an instant, the machines revealed themselves disquietingly as human beings.
Walter gave the address of Sbisa's restaurant to the taxi driver and stepped into the enclosed darkness of the cab. Lucy had already settled into her corner.
Meanwhile, in the dining-room, Molly d'Exergillod was still talking. She prided herself on her conversation. Conversation was in the family. Her mother had been one of the celebrated Miss Geoghegans of Dublin. Her father was that Mr Justice Brabant, so well known for his table talk and his witticisms from the bench. Moreover she had married into conversation. D'Exergillod had been a disciple of Robert de Montesquiou and had won the distinction of being mentioned in Sodome et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust. Molly would have had to be a talker by marriage, if she had not already been one by birth. Nature and environment had conspired to make her a professional athlete of the tongue. Like all conscientious professionals, she was not content to be merely talented. She was industrious, she worked hard to develop her native powers. Malicious friends said that she could be heard practising her paradoxes in bed, before she got up in the morning. She herself admitted that she kept diaries in which she recorded, as well as the complicated history of her own feelings and sensations, every trope and anecdote and witticism that caught her fancy. Did she refresh her memory with a glance at these chronicles each time she dressed to go out to dinner? The same friends who had heard her practising in bed had also found her, like an examinee the night before her ordeal, laboriously mugging up Jean Cocteau's epigrams about art and Mr Birrell's after-dinner stories and W.B. Yeats's anecdotes about George Moore and what Charlie Chaplin had said to and of her last time she was in Hollywood. Like all professional talkers Molly was very economical with her wit and wisdom. There are not enough bons mots in existence to provide any industrious conversationalist with a new stock for every social occasion. Though extensive, Molly's repertory was, like that of other more celebrated talkers, limited. A good housewife, she knew how to hash up the conversational remains of last night's dinner to furnish out this morning's lunch. Monday's funeral baked meats did service for Tuesday's wedding.
To Denis Burlap she was at this moment serving up the talk that had already been listened to with such appreciation by Lady Benger's lunch party, by the weekenders at Gobley, by Tommy Fitton, who was one of her young men, and Vladimir Pavloff, who was another, by the American Ambassador and Baron Benito Cohen. The talk turned on Molly's favourite topic.
'Do you know what Jean said about me?' she was saying (Jean was her husband). 'Do you?' she repeated insistently, for she had a curious habit of demanding answers to merely rhetorical questions. She leaned towards Burlap, offering dark eyes, teeth, a décolleté.
Burlap duly replied that he didn't know.
'He said that I wasn't quite human. More like an elemental than a woman. A sort of fairy. Do you think it's a compliment or an insult?'
'That's depends on one's tastes,' said Burlap, making his face look arch and subtle as though he had said something rather daring, witty and at the same time profound.
'But I don't feel that it's even true,' Molly went on. 'I don't strike myself as at all elemental or fairy-like. I've always considered myself a perfectly simple, straightforward child of nature. A sort of peasant, really.' At this point in Molly's performance all her other auditors had burst into laughing protestation. Baron Benito Cohen had vehemently declared that she was 'one of Nature'th Roman Empreththeth.'
Burlap's reaction was unexpected different from that of the others. He wagged his head, he smiled with a far-away, whimsical sort of expression. 'Yes,' he said, 'I think that's true. A child of nature, malgré tout. You wear disguises, but the simple genuine person shows through.'
Molly was delighted by what she felt was the highest compliment Burlap could pay her. She had been equally delighted by the others' denials of her peasanthood. Denial had been their highest compliment. The flattering intention, the interest in her personality were the things that mattered. About the actual opinions of her admirers she cared little.
Burlap, meanwhile, was developing Rousseau's antithesis between the Man and the Citizen. She cut him short and brought the conversation back to the original theme.
'Human beings and fairies - I think it's a very good classification, don't you?' She leaned forward with offered face and bosom, intimately. 'Don't you?' she repeated the rhetorical question.
'Perhaps.' Burlap was annoyed at having been interrupted.
'The ordinary human - yes, let's admit it - all too human being on the one hand. And the elemental on the other. The one so attached and involved and sentimental - I'm terribly sentimental, I may say.' ('About ath thentimental ath the Thirenth in the Odyththey,' had been Baron Benito's classical comment.) 'The other, the elemental, quite free and apart from things, like a cat; coming and going - and going just as lightheartedly as it came; charming, but never charmed; making other people feel, but never really feeling itself. Oh, I envy them their free airiness.'
'You might as well envy a balloon,' said Burlap, gravely. He was always on the side of the heart.
'But they have such fun.'
'They haven't got enough feelings to have fun with. That's what I should have thought.'
'Enough to have fun,' she qualified; 'but perhaps not enough to be happy. Certainly not enough to be unhappy. That's where they're so enviable. Particularly if they're intelligent. Take Philip Quarles, for example. There's a fairy if ever there was one.' She launched into her regular description of Philip. 'Zoologist of fiction,' 'learnedly elfish,' 'a scientific Puck' were a few of her phrases. But the best of them had slipped her memory. Desperately she hunted it,, but it eluded her. Her Theophrastian portrait had to go out into the world robbed this time of its most brilliantly effective passage, and a little marred as a whole by Molly's consciousness of the loss and her desperate efforts, as she poured forth, to make it good. 'Whereas his wife,' she concluded, rather painfully aware that Burlap had not smiled as frequently as he should have done, 'is quite the opposite of a fairy. Neither elfish, nor learned, nor particularly intelligent.' Molly smiled rather patronizingly. 'A man like Philip must find her a little inadequate sometimes, to say the least.' The smile persisted, a smile now of self-satisfaction. Philip had had a faible for her, still had. He wrote such amusing letters, almost as amusing as her own. ('Quand je veux briller dans le monde,' Molly was fond of quoting her husband's compliments, 'je cite des phrases de tes lettres.') Poor Elinor! 'A little bit of a bore sometimes,' Molly went on. 'But mind you, a most charming creature. I've known her since we were children together. Charming, but not exactly a Hypatia.' Too much of a fool even to realize that Philip was bound to be attracted by a woman of his own mental stature, a woman he could talk to on equal terms. Too much of a fool to notice, when she had brought them together, how thrilled he had been. Too much of a fool to be jealous. Molly had felt the absence of jealousy as a bit of an insult. Not that she ever gave real cause for jealousy. She didn't sleep with husbands; she only talked to them. Still, they did do a lot of talking; there was no doubt of that. And wives had been jealous. Elinor's ingenuous confidingness had piqued her into being more than ordinarily gracious to Philip. But he had started to go round the world before much conversation had taken place. The talk, she anticipated, would be agreeably renewed by his return. Poor Elinor, she thought pityingly. Her feelings might have been a little less Christian, if she had realized that poor Elinor had noticed the admiring look in Philip's eye even before Molly had noticed it herself, and, noticing, had conscientiously proceeded to act the part of dragoman and go-between. Not that she had much hope or fear that Molly would achieve the transforming miracle. One does not fall very desperately in love with a loud speaker, however pretty, however firmly plump (for Philip's tastes were rather old-fashioned), however attractively callipygous. Her only hope was that the passions aroused by the plumpness and prettiness would be so very inadequately satisfied by the talking (for talk was all, according to report, that Molly ever conceded) that poor Philip would be reduced to a state of rage and misery most conducive to good writing.
'But of course,' Molly went on, 'intelligence ought never to marry intelligence. That's why Jean is always threatening to divorce me. He says I'm too stimulating. "Tu ne m'ennuies pas assez," he says; and that what he needs is une femme sédative. And I believe he's really right. Philip Quarles has been wise. Imagine an intelligent fairy of a man like Philip married to an equally fairyish intelligent woman - Lucy Tantamount, for example. It would be a disaster, don't you think?'
'Lucy'd be rather a disaster for any man, wouldn't she, fairy or no fairy?'
'No, I must say, I like Lucy.' Molly turned to her inner storehouse of Theophrastian phrases. 'I like the way she floats through life instead of trudging. I like the way she flits from flower to flower - which is perhaps a rather too botanical and poetical description of Bentley and Jim Conklin and poor Reggie Tantamount and Maurice Spandrell and Tom Trivet and Poniatovsky and that young Frenchman who writes plays, what is his name? and the various others one has forgotten or never heard about.' Burlap smiled; they all smiled at this passage. 'Anyhow, she flits. Doing a good deal of damage to the flowers, I must admit.' Burlap smiled again. 'But getting nothing but fun out of it herself. I must say, I rather envy her. I wish I were a fairy and could float.'
'She has much more reason to envy you,' said Burlap, looking deep, subtle and Christian once more, and wagging his head.
'Envy me for being unhappy?'
'Who's unhappy?' asked Lady Edward breaking in on them at this moment. 'Good evening, Mr Burlap,' she went on without waiting for an answer. Burlap told her how much he had enjoyed the music.
'We were just talking about Lucy,' said Molly d'Exergillod, interrupting him. 'Agreeing that she was like a fairy. So light and detached.'
'Fairy!' repeated Lady Edward, emphatically rolling the 'r' far back in her throat. 'She's like a leprechaun. You've no idea, Mr Burlap, how hard it is to bring up a leprechaun.' Lady Edward shook her head. 'She used really to frighten me sometimes.'
'Did she?' said Molly. 'But I should have thought you were a bit of a fairy yourself, Lady Edward.'
'A bit,' Lady Edward admitted. 'But never to the point of being a leprechaun.'
* * * *
'Well?' said Lucy, as Walter sat down beside her in the cab. She seemed to be uttering a kind of challenge. 'Well?'
The cab started. He lifted her hand and kissed it. It was his answer to her challenge. 'I love you. That's all.'
'Do you, Walter?' She turned towards him and, taking his face between her two hands, looked at him intently in the half-darkness. 'Do you?' she repeated; and as she spoke, she shook her head slowly and smiled. Then, leaning forward, she kissed him on the mouth. Walter put his arms round her; but she disengaged herself from the embrace. 'No, no,' she protested and dropped back into her corner. 'No.'
He obeyed her and drew away. There was a silence. Her perfume was of gardenias; sweet and tropical, the perfumed symbol of her being enveloped him. 'I ought to have insisted,' he was thinking. 'Brutally. Kissed her again and again. Compelled her to love me. Why didn't I? Why?' He didn't know. Nor why she had kissed him, unless it was just provocatively, to make him desire her more violently, to make him more hopelessly her slave. Nor why, knowing this, he still loved her. Why, why? he kept repeating to himself. And echoing his thoughts out loud her voice suddenly spoke.
'Why do you love me?' she asked from her corner.
He opened his eyes. They were passing a street lamp. Through the window of the moving cab the light of it fell on her face. It stood out for a moment palely against the darkness, then dropped back into invisibility - a pale mask that had seen everything before and whose expression was one of amused detachment and a hard, rather weary languor. 'I was just wondering,' Walter answered. 'And wishing I didn't.'
'I might say that same, you know. You're not particularly amusing when you're like this.'
How tiresome, she reflected, these men who imagined that nobody had ever been in love before! All the same, she liked him. He was attractive. No, 'attractive' wasn't the word. Attractive, as a possible lover, was just what he wasn't. 'Appealing' was more like it. An appealing lover? It wasn't exactly her style. But she liked him. There was something very nice about him. Besides, he was clever, he could be a pleasant companion. And tiresome as it was, his love-sickness did at least make him very faithful. That, for Lucy, was important. She was afraid of loneliness and needed her cavalier servants in constant attendance. Walter attended with a dog-like fidelity. But why did he look so like a whipped dog sometimes? So abject. What a fool! She felt suddenly annoyed by his abjection.
'Well, Walter,' she said mockingly, laying her hand on his, 'why don't you talk to me?'
He did not reply.
'Or is mum the word?' Her fingers brushed electrically along the back of his hand and closed round his wrist. 'Where's your pulse?' she asked after a moment. 'I can't feel it anywhere.' She groped over the soft skin for the throbbing of the artery. He felt the touch of her fingertips, light and thrilling and rather cold against his wrist. 'I don't believe you've got a pulse,' she said. 'I believe your blood stagnates.' The tone of her voice was contemptuous. What a fool! she was thinking. What an abject fool! 'Just stagnates!' she repeated and suddenly, with sudden malice, she drove her sharp file-pointed nails into his flesh. Walter cried out in surprise and pain. 'You deserved it,' she said and laughed in his face.
He seized her by the shoulders and began to kiss her, savagely. Anger had quickened his desire; his kisses were a vengeance. Lucy shut her eyes and abandoned herself unresistingly, limply. Little premonitions of pleasure shot with a kind of panic flutter, like fluttering moths, through her skin. And suddenly sharp fingers seemed to pluck, pizzicato, at the fiddle-strings of her nerves; Walter could feel her whole body starting involuntarily within his arms, starting as though it had been suddenly hurt. Kissing her, he found himself wondering if she had expected him to react in this way to her provocation, if she had hoped he would. He took her slender neck in his two hands. His thumbs were on her windpipe. He pressed gently. 'One day,' he said between his clenched teeth, 'I shall strangle you.'
Lucy only laughed. He bent forward and kissed her laughing mouth. The touch of his lips against her own sent a thin, sharp sensation that was almost pain running unbearably through her. The panic moth-wings fluttered over her body. She hadn't expected such fierce and savage ardours from Walter. She was agreeably surprised.
The taxi turned into Soho Square, slowed down, came to a halt. They had arrived. Walter let fall his hands and drew away from her.
She opened her eyes and looked at him. 'Well?' she asked challengingly, for the second time that evening. There was a moment's silence.
'Lucy,' he said, 'let's go somewhere else. Not here; not this horrible place. Somewhere where we can be alone.' His voice trembled, his eyes were imploring. The fierceness had gone out of his desire; it had become abject again, dog-like. 'Let's tell the man to drive on,' he begged.
She smiled and shook her head. Why did he implore, like that? Why was he so abject? The fool, the whipped dog!
'Please, please!' he begged. But he should have commanded. He should simply have ordered the man to drive on, and taken her in his arms again.
'Impossible,' said Lucy and stepped out of the cab. If he behaved like a whipped dog, he could be treated like one.
Walter followed her, abject and miserable.
Sbisa himself received them on the threshold. He bowed, he waved his fat white hands, and his expanding smile raised a succession of waves in the flesh of his enormous cheeks. When Lucy arrived, the consumption of champagne tended to rise. She was an honoured guest.
'Mr Spandrell here?' she asked. 'And Mr and Mrs Rampion?'
'Oo yez, oo yez,' old Sbisa repeated with Neapolitan, almost oriental emphasis. The implication was that they were not only there, but that if it had been in his power, he would have provided two of each of them for her benefit. 'And you? Quaite well, quaite well, I hope? Sooch lobster we have tonight, sooch lobster ...' Still talking, he ushered them into the restaurant.
'What I complain of,' said Mark Rampion, 'is the horrible unwholesome tameness of our world.'
Mary Rampion laughed wholeheartedly from the depths of her lungs. 'You wouldn't say that,' she said, 'if you'd been your wife instead of you. Tame? I could tell you something about tameness.'
There was certainly nothing very tame about Mark Rampion's appearance. His profile was steep, with a hooked fierce nose like a cutting instrument and a pointed chin. The eyes were blue and piercing, and the very fine hair, a little on the reddish side of golden, fluttered up at every movement, every breath of wind, like wisps of blown flame.
'Well, you're not exactly a sheep either,' said Rampion. 'But two people aren't the world. I was talking about the world, not us. It's tame, I say. Like one of those horrible big gelded cats.'
'Did you find the War so tame?' asked Spandrell, speaking from the half-darkness outside the little world of pink-tinged lamplight in which their table stood. He sat leaning backwards, his chair tilted on his hind legs against the wall.
'Even the War,' said Rampion. 'It was a domesticated outrage. People didn't go and fight because their blood was up. They went because they were told to; they went because they were good citizens. "Man is a fighting animal," as your stepfather is so fond of saying in his speeches. But what I complain of is that he's a domestic animal.'
'And getting more domestic every day,' said Mary Rampion, who shared her husband's opinions - or perhaps it would be truer to say, shared most of his feelings and, consciously or unconsciously, borrowed his opinions when she wanted to express them. 'It's factories, it's Christianity, it's science, it's respectability, it's our education,' she explained. 'They weigh on the modern soul. They suck the life out of it. They ...'
'Oh, for God's sake shut up!' said Rampion.
'But isn't that what you say?'
'What I say is what I say. It becomes quite different when you say it.'
The expression of irritation which had appeared on Mary Rampion's face cleared away. She laughed. 'Ah, well,' she said good-humouredly, 'ratiocination was never my strongest point. But you might be a little more polite about it in public.'
'I don't suffer fools gladly.'
'You'll suffer one very painfully, if you're not careful,' she menaced laughingly.
'If you'd like to throw a plate at him,' said Spandrell, pushing one over to her as he spoke, 'don't mine me.'
Mary thanked him. 'It would do him good,' she said. 'He gets so bumptious.'
'And it would do you no harm,' retorted Rampion, 'if I gave you a black eye in return.'
'You just try. I'll take you on with one hand tied behind my back.'
They all burst out laughing.
'I put my money on Mary,' said Spandrell, tilting back his chair. Smiling with a pleasure which he would have found it hard to explain, he looked from one to the other - from the thin, fierce, indomitable little man to the big golden woman. Each separately was good; but together, as a couple, they were better still. Without realizing it, he had quite suddenly begun to feel happy.
'We'll have it out one of these days,' said Rampion and laid his hand for a moment on hers. It was a delicate hand, sensitive and expressive. An aristocrat's hand if ever there was one, thought Spandrell. And hers, so blunt and strong and honest, was a peasant's. And yet by birth it was Rampion who was the peasant and she the aristocrat. Which only showed what nonsense the genealogies talked.
'Ten rounds,' Rampion went on. 'No gloves.' He turned to Spandrell.
'You ought to get married, you know,' he said.
Spandrell's happiness suddenly collapsed. It was though he had come with a jolt to his senses. He felt almost angry with himself. What business had he to go and sentimentalize over a happy couple?
'I can't box,' he answered; and Rampion detected a bitterness in his jocularity, an inward hardening.
'No, seriously,' he said, trying to make out the expression on the other's face. But Spandrell's head was in the shadow, and the light of the interposed lamp on the table between them dazzled him.
'Yes, seriously,' echoed Mary. 'You ought. You'd be a changed man.'
Spandrell uttered a brief and snorting laugh, and letting his chair fall back on to its four legs, leaned forward across the table. Pushing aside his coffee cup and his half emptied liqueur glass, he planted his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands. His face came into the light of the rosy lamp. Like a gargoyle, Mary thought, a gargoyle in a pink boudoir. There was one on Notre Dame in just that attitude, leaning forward with his demon's face between his claws. Only the gargoyle was a comic devil, so extravagantly diabolical that you couldn't take his devilishness very seriously. Spandrell was a real person, not a caricature; that was why his face was so much more cynical and tragical. It was a gaunt face. Cheekbone and jaw showed in hard outline through the tight skin. The grey eyes were deeply set. In the cadaverous mask only the mouth was fleshy - a wide mouth, with lips that stood out from the skin like two thick weals.
'When he smiles,' Lucy Tantamount had once said of him, 'it's like an appendicitis operation with ironical corners.' The red scar was sensual, but firm at the same time and determined, as was the round chin below. There were lines round the eyes and at the corners of his lips. The thick brown hair had begun to retreat from the forehead.
'He might be fifty, to look at him,' Mary Rampion was thinking. 'And yet, what is his age?' She made calculations and decided that he couldn't be more than thirty-two or thirty-three. Just the right age for settling down.'
'A changed man,' she repeated.
'But I don't particularly want to be changed.'
Mark Rampion nodded. 'Yes, that's the trouble with you, Spandrell. You like stewing in your disgusting suppurating juice. You don't want to be made healthy. You enjoy your unwholesomeness. You're rather proud of it, even.'
'Marriage would be the cure,' persisted Mary, indefatigably enthusiastic in the cause of the sacrament to which she herself owed all her life and happiness.
'Unless, of course, it merely destroyed the wife,' said Rampion. 'He might infect her with his own gangrene.'
Spandrell through back his head and laughed profoundly, but, as was his custom, almost inaudibly, a muted explosion. 'Admirable!' he said. 'Admirable! The first really good argument in favour of matrimony I ever heard. Almost thou persuadest me, Rampion. I've never actually carried it as far as marriage.'
'Carried what?' asked Rampion, frowning a little. He disliked the other's rather melodramatically cynical way of talking. So damned pleased with his naughtinesses! Like a stupid child, really.
'The process of infection. I'd always stopped this side of the registry office. But I'll cross the threshold next time.' He drank some more brandy. 'I'm like Socrates,' he went on. 'I'm divinely appointed to corrupt the youth, the female youth more particularly. I have a mission to educate them in the way they shouldn't go.' He threw back his head to emit that voiceless laugh of his. Rampion looked at him distastefully. So theatrical. It was as though the man were overacting in order to convince himself he was there at all.
'But if you only knew what marriage could mean,' Mary earnestly put in. 'If you only knew ...'
'But, my dear woman, of course he knows,' Rampion interrupted with impatience.
'We've been married more than fifteen years now,' she went on, the missionary spirit strong within her. And I assure you ...'
'I wouldn't waste my breath, if I were you.'
Mary glanced enquiringly at her husband. Wherever human relationships were concerned, she had an absolute trust in Rampion's judgement. Through those labyrinths he threaded his way with a sure tact which she could only envy, not imitate. 'He can smell people's souls,' she used to say of him. She herself had but an indifferent nose for souls. Wisely then, she allowed herself to be guided by him. She glanced at him. Rampion was staring into his coffee cup. His forehead was puckered into a frown; he had evidently spoken in earnest. 'Oh, very well,' she said and lit another cigarette.
Spandrell looked from one to the other almost triumphantly. 'I have a regular technique with the young ones,' he went on in the same too cynical manner. Mary shut her eyes and thought of the time when she and Rampion had been young.
'What a blotch!' said the young Mary, as they topped the crest of the hill and looked down into the valley. Stanton-in-Teesdale lay below them, black with its slate roofs and its sooty chimneys and its smoke. The moors rose up and rolled away beyond it, bare as far as the eye could reach. The sun shone, the clouds trailed enormous shadows. 'Our poor view! It oughtn't to be allowed. It really oughtn't.
'Every prospect pleases and only man is vile,' quoted her brother George.
The other young man was more practically minded. 'If one could plant a battery here,' he suggested, 'and drop a few hundred rounds onto the place ...'
'It would be a good thing,' said Mary emphatically. 'A really good thing.'
Her approval filled the military young man with happiness. He was desperately in love. 'Heavy howitzers,' he added, trying to improve on his suggestion. But George interrupted him.
'Who the devil is that?' he asked.
The others looked round in the direction he was pointing. A stranger was walking up the hill towards them.
'No idea,' said Mary, looking at him.
The stranger approached. He was a young man in the early twenties, hook-nosed, with blue eyes and silky pale hair that blew about in the wind - for he wore no hat. He had on a Norfolk jacket, ill cut and of cheap material, and a pair of baggy grey flannel trousers. His tie was red; he walked without a stick.
'Looks as if he wanted to talk to us,' said George.
And indeed, the young man was coming straight towards them. He walked rapidly and with an air of determination, as though he were on some very important business.
'What an extraordinary face!' thought Mary, as he approached. 'But how ill he looks! So thin, so pale.' But his eyes forbade her to feel pity. They were bright with power.
He came to a halt in front of them drawing up his thin body very rigidly, as though he were on parade. There was defiance in the attitude, and earnest defiance in the expression of his face. He looked at them fixedly with his bright eyes, turning from one to the other.
'Good afternoon,' he said. It was costing him an enormous effort to speak. But speak he must, just because of that insolent unawareness in their blank rich faces.
Mary answered for the others. 'Good afternoon.'
'I'm trespassing here,' said the stranger. 'Do you mind?' The seriousness of his defiance deepened. He looked at them sombrely. The young men were examining him from the other side of the bars, from a long way off, from the vantage ground of another class. They had noticed his clothes. There was hostility and contempt in their eyes. There was also a kind of fear. 'I'm a trespasser,' he repeated. His voice was rather shrill, but musical. His accent was of the country.
'One of the local cads,' George had been thinking.
'A trespasser.' It would have been much easier, much pleasanter to sneak out unobserved. That was why he had to affront them.
There was a silence. The military man turned away. He dissociated himself from the whole unpleasant business. It had nothing to do with him, after all. The park belonged to Mary's father. He was only a guest. 'I've gotta motta: Always merry and bright,' he hummed to himself, as he looked out over the black town in the valley.
It was George who broke the silence. 'Do we mind?' he said, repeating the stranger's words. His face had gone very red.
'How absurd he looks!' thought Mary, as she glanced at him. 'Like a bull calf. A blushing bull calf.'
'Do we mind?' Damned insolent little bounder! George was working up a righteous indignation. 'I should just think we do mind. And I'll trouble you to ...'
Mary broke out into laughter. 'We don't mind at all,' she said. 'Not in the least.'
Her brother's face became even redder. 'What do you mean, Mary?' he asked furiously. ('Always merry and bright,' hummed the military man, more starrily detached than ever.) 'The place is private.'
'But we don't mind a bit,' she said, not looking at her brother, but at the stranger. 'Not a bit, when people come and are frank about it, like you.' She smiled at him; but the young man's face remained as proudly serious as ever. Looking into those serious bright eyes, she too suddenly became serious. It was no joke, she saw all at once, no joke. Grave issues were involved, important issues. But why grave and in what way important she did not know. She was only obscurely and profoundly aware that it was no joke. 'Goodbye,' she said in an altered voice, and held out her hand.
The stranger hesitated for a second, then took it. 'Goodbye,' he said. 'I'll get out of the park as quick as I can.' And turning round, he walked rapidly away.
'What the devil!' George began, turning angrily on his sister.
'Oh, hold your tongue!' she answered impatiently.
'Shaking hands with the fellow,' he went on protesting.
'A bit of a pleb, wasn't he?' put in the military friend.
She looked from one to the other without speaking and walked away. What louts they were! The two young men followed.
'I wish to God Mary would learn how to behave herself properly,' said George, still fuming.
The military young man made deprecating noises. He was in love with her; but he had to admit that she was rather embarrassingly unconventional sometimes. It was her only defect.
'Shaking that bounder's hand!' George went on grumbling.
That was their first meeting. Mary then was twenty-two and Mark Rampion was a year younger. He had finished his second year at Sheffield University and was back at Stanton for the summer vacation. His mother lived in one of a row of cottages near the station. She had a little pension - her husband had been a postman - and made a few extra shillings by sewing. Mark was a scholarship boy. His younger and less talented brothers were already at work.
'A very remarkable young man,' the Rector insisted more than once in the course of his sketch of Mark Rampion's career, some few days later.
The occasion was a church bazaar and charitable garden party at the Rectory. Some of the Sunday School children had acted a little play in the open air. The dramatist was Mark Rampion.
'Quite unassisted,' the Rector assured the assembled gentry. 'And what's more, the lad can draw. They're a little eccentric perhaps, his pictures, a little ... ah ...' he hesitated.
'Weird,' suggested his daughter, with an upper middle-class smile, proud of her incomprehension.
'But full of talent,' the Rector continued. 'The boy's a real cygnet of Tees,' he added with a self-conscious, almost guilty laugh. He had a weakness for literary allusions. The gentry smiled perfunctorily.
The prodigy was introduced. Mary recognized the trespasser.
'I've met you before,' she said.
'Poaching your view.'
'You're welcome to it.' The words made him smile, a little ironically it seemed to her. She blushed, fearful lest she had said something that might have sounded rather patronizing. 'But I suppose you'd go on poaching whether you were welcome or not,' she added with a nervous little laugh.
He said nothing, but nodded, still smiling.
Mary's father stepped in with congratulations. His praises went trampling over the delicate little play like a herd of elephants. Mary writhed. It was all wrong, hopelessly wrong. She could feel that. But the trouble, as she realized, was that she couldn't have said anything better herself. The ironic smile still lingered about his lips. 'What fools he must think us all!' she said to herself.
And now it was her mother's turn. 'Jolly good' was replaced by 'too charming'. Which was just as bad, just as hopelessly beside the point.
When Mrs Felpham asked him to tea, Rampion wanted to refuse the invitation - but to refuse it without being boorish or offensive. After all, she meant well enough, poor woman. She was only rather ludicrous. The village Maecenas, in petticoats, patronizing art to the extent of two cups of tea and a slice of plum cake. The rôle was a comic one. While he was hesitating, Mary joined in the invitation.
'Do come,' she insisted. And her eyes, her smile expressed a kind of rueful amusement and an apology. She saw the absurdity of the situation. 'But I can't do anything about it,' she seemed to say. 'Nothing at all. Except apologize.'
'I should like to come very much,' he said, turning back to Mrs Felpham.
The appointed day came. His tie as red as ever, Rampion presented himself. The men were out fishing; he was received by Mary and her mother. Mrs Felpham tried to rise to the occasion. The village Shakespeare, it was obvious, must be interested in the drama.
'Don't you love Barrie's plays?' she asked. 'I'm so fond of them.' She talked on; Rampion made no comment. It was only later, when Mrs Felpham had given him up as a bad job and had commissioned Mary to show him round the garden, that he opened his lips.
'I'm afraid your mother thought me very rude,' he said, as they walked along the smooth flagged paths between the roses.
'Of course not,' Mary protested with an excessive heartiness.
Rampion laughed. 'Thank you,' he said. 'But of course she did. Because I was rude in order that I shouldn't be ruder. Better say nothing than say what I thought about Barrie.'
'Don't you like his plays?'
'Do I like them? I?' He stopped and looked at her. The blood rushed up into her cheeks; what had she said? 'You can ask that here.' He waved his hand at the flowers, the little pool with the fountain, the high terrace, with the stonecrops and the aubretias growing from between the stones, the grey, severe Georgian house beyond. 'But come down with me into Stanton and ask me there. We're sitting on the hard reality down there, not with an air cushion between us and the facts. You must have an assured five pounds a week at least, before you can begin to enjoy Barrie. If you're sitting on the bare facts, he's an insult.'
There was a silence. They walked up and down among the roses - those roses which Mary was feeling that she ought to disclaim, to apologize for. But a disclaimer, an apology would be an offence. A big retriever puppy came frisking clumsily along the path towards them. She called its name; the beast stood up on its hind legs and pawed at her.
'I think I like animals better than people,' she said, as she protected herself from its ponderous playfulness.
'Well, at least they're genuine, they don't live on air cushions like the sort of people you have to do with,' said Rampion, bringing out the obscure relevance of her remark to what had been said before. Mary was amazed and delighted by the way he understood.
'I'd like to know more of your sort of people,' she said; 'genuine people, people without air cushions.'
'Well, don't imagine I'm going to do the Cook's guide for you,' he answered ironically. 'We're not a Zoo, you know; we're not natives in quaint costume, or anything of that sort. If you want to go slumming, apply to the Rector.'
She flushed very red. 'You know I wasn't meaning that,' she protested.
'Are you sure?' he asked her. 'When one's rich, it's difficult not to mean that. A person like you simply can't imagine what it is not to be rich. Like a fish. How can a fish imagine what life out of the water is like?'
'But can't one discover, if one tries?'
'There's a great gulf,' he answered.
'It can be crossed.'
'Yes, I suppose it can be crossed.' But his tone was dubious.
They walked and talked among the roses for a few minutes longer; then Rampion looked at his watch and said he must be going.
'But you'll come again?'
'Would there be much point in my coming again?' he asked. 'It's rather like interplanetary visiting, isn't it?'
'I hadn't felt it like that,' she answered, and added, after a little pause, 'I suppose you find us all very stupid, don't you?' She looked at him. He had raised his eyebrows, he was about to protest. She wouldn't allow him to be merely polite. 'Because, you know, we are stupid. Terribly stupid.' She laughed, rather ruefully. With people of her own kind stupidity was rather a virtue than a defect. To be too intelligent was to risk not being a gentleman. Intelligence wasn't altogether safe. Rampion had made her wonder whether there weren't better things than gentlemanly safety. In his presence she didn't feel at all proud of being stupid.
Rampion smiled at her. He liked her frankness. There was something genuine about her. She hadn't been spoilt - not yet, at any rate.
'I believe you're an agent provocateur,' he bantered, 'trying to tempt me to say rude and subversive things about my betters. But as a matter of fact, my opinions aren't a bit rude. You people aren't stupider than anyone else. Not naturally stupider. You're victims of your way of living. It's put a shell round you and blinkers over your eyes. By nature a tortoise may be no stupider than a bird. But you must admit that its way of living doesn't exactly encourage intelligence.'
They met again several times in the course of that summer. Most often they walked together over the moors. 'Like a force of nature,' he thought as he watched her with bent head tunnelling her way through the damp wind. A great physical force. Such energy, such strength and health - it was magnificent. Rampion himself had been a delicate child, constantly ailing. He admired the physical qualities he did not himself possess. Mary was a sort of berserker Diana of the moors. He told her as much one day. She liked the compliment.
'Wass für ein Atavismus! That was what my old German governess used to say about me. She was right, I think. I am a bit of an Atavismus.'
Rampion laughed. 'It sounds ridiculous in German. But it isn't at all absurd in itself. An atavismus - that's what we all ought to be. Atavismuses with all modern conveniences. Intelligent primitives. Big game with a soul.'
It was a wet cold summer. On the morning of the day fixed for their next meeting, Mary received a letter from him. 'Dear Miss Felpham,' she read, and this first sight of his handwriting gave her a strange pleasure. 'I've idiotically gone and caught a chill. Will you be more forgiving than I am - for I can't tell you how inexpressibly disgusted and angry I am with myself - and excuse me for putting you off till today week?'
He looked pale and thin, when she next saw him, and was still troubled by a cough. When she enquired about his health, he cut her short almost with anger. 'I'm quite all right,' he said sharply, and changed the subject.
'I've been re-reading Blake,' he said. And he began to speak about the Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
'Blake was civilized,' he insisted, 'civilized. Civilization is a harmony and completeness. Reason, feeling, instinct, the life of the body - Blake managed to include and harmonize everything. Barbarism is being lopsided. You can be a barbarian of the intellect as well as of the body. A barbarian of the soul and the feelings as well as of sensuality. Christianity made us barbarians of the soul, and now science is making us barbarians of the intellect. Blake was the last civilized man.'
He spoke of the Greeks and those naked sunburnt Etruscans in the sepulchral wall paintings. 'You've seen the originals?' he said. 'My word, I envy you.'
Mary felt terribly ashamed. She had seen the painted tombs at Tarquinia; but how little she remembered of them! They had just been curious old works of art like all those other innumerable old works of art she had dutifully seen in company with her mother on their Italian journey the year before. They had really been wasted on her. Whereas if he could have afforded to go to Italy ...
'They were civilized,' he was saying, 'they knew how to live harmoniously and completely, with their whole being.' He spoke with a kind of passion, as though he were angry - with the world, with himself, perhaps. 'We're all barbarians,' he began; but was interrupted by a violent fit of coughing. Mary waited for the paroxysm to subside. She felt anxious and at the same time embarrassed and ashamed, as one feels when one has come upon a man off his guard and displaying a weakness which at ordinary times he is at pains to conceal. She wondered whether she ought to say something sympathetic about the cough, or pretend that she hadn't noticed it. He solved her problem by referring to it himself.
'Talk of barbarism,' he said, when the fit was over. He spoke in a tone of disgust, his smile was wry and angry. 'Have you ever heard anything more barbarous than that cough? A cough like that wouldn't be allowed in a civilized society.'
Mary proffered solicitude and advice. He laughed impatiently.
'My mother's very words,' he said. 'Word for word. You women are all the same. Clucking like hens after their chickens.'
'But think how miserable you'd be if we didn't cluck!'
A few days later - with some misgivings - he took her to see his mother. The misgivings were groundless; Mary and Mrs Rampion seemed to find no difficulties in making spiritual contact. Mrs Rampion was a woman of about fifty, still handsome and with an expression on her face of calm dignity and resignation. Her speech was slow and quiet. Only once did Mary see her manner change and that was when, Mark being out of the room preparing the tea, she began to talk about her son.
'What do you think of him?' she asked, leaning forward towards her guest with a sudden brightening of the eyes.
'What do I think?' Mary laughed. 'I'm not impertinent enough to set up as a judge of my betters. But he's obviously somebody, somebody that matters.'
Mrs Rampion nodded, smiling with pleasure. 'He's somebody,' she repeated. 'That's what I've always said.' Her face became grave. 'If only he were stronger! If I could only have afforded to bring him up better. He was always delicate. He ought to have been brought up more carefully than I could do. No, not more carefully. I was as careful as I could be. More comfortably, more healthily. But there, I couldn't afford it.' She shook her head. 'There you are.' She gave a little sigh and, leaning back in her chair, sat there in silence, with folded arms, looking at the floor.
Mary made no comment; she did not know what to say. Once more she felt ashamed, miserable and ashamed.
'What did you think of my mother?' Rampion asked later, when he was escorting her home.
'I liked her,' Mary answered. 'Very much indeed. Even though she did make me feel so small and petty and bad. Which is another way of saying that I admired her, and liked her because of my admiration.'
Rampion nodded. 'She is admirable,' he said. 'She's courageous and strong and enduring. But she's too resigned.'
'But I thought that was one of the wonderful things about her.'
'She has no right to be resigned,' he answered, frowning. 'No right. When you've had a life like hers, you oughtn't to be resigned. You ought to be rebellious. It's this damned religion. Did I tell you she was religious?'
'No; but I guessed it, when I saw her,' Mary answered.
'She's a barbarian of the soul,' he went on. 'All soul and future. No present, no past, no body, no intellect. Only the soul and the future and in the meantime resignation. Could anything be more barbarous? She ought to rebel.'
'I should leave her as she is,' said Mary. 'She'll be happier. And you can rebel enough for two.'
Rampion laughed. 'I'll rebel enough for millions,' he said.
At the end of the summer, Rampion returned to Sheffield, and a little later the Felphams moved southwards to their London house. It was Mary who wrote the first letter. She had expected to hear from him; but he did not write. Not that there was any good reason why he should. But somehow she had expected that he would write; she was disappointed when he did not. The weeks passed. In the end she wrote to ask him the name of a book about which he had spoken in one of their conversations. The pretext was flimsy; but it served. He answered; she thanked him; the correspondence became an established fact.
At Christmas Rampion came up to London; he had had some things accepted by the newspapers and was unprecedentedly rich - he had ten pounds to do what he liked with. He did not let Mary know of his proximity till the day before his departure.
'But why didn't you tell me before?' she asked reproachfully, when she heard how many days he had already been in London.
'I didn't want to inflict myself on you,' he answered.
'But you know I should have been delighted.'
'You have your own friends.' Rich friends, the ironical smile implied.
'But aren't you one of my friends?' she asked, ignoring the implication.
'Thank you for saying so.'
'Thank you for being so,' she answered without affectation or coquetry.
He was moved by the frankness of her avowal, the genuineness and simplicity of her sentiment. He knew, of course, that she liked and admired him; but to know and to be told are different things.
'I'm sorry, then, I didn't write to you before,' he said, and then regretted his words. For they were hypocritical. The real reason why he had kept away from her was not a fear of being badly received; it was pride. He could not afford to take her out; he did not want to accept anything.
They spent the afternoon together and were unreasonably, disproportionately happy.
'If only you'd told me before,' she repeated when it was time for her to go. 'I wouldn't have made this tiresome engagement for the evening.'
'You'll enjoy it,' he assured her with a return of that ironical tone in which all his references to her life as a member of the monied class were made. The expression of happiness faded from his face. He felt suddenly rather resentful at having been so happy in her company. It was stupid to feel like that. What was the point of being happy on opposite sides of the gulf? 'You'll enjoy it,' he repeated, more bitterly. 'Good food and wine, distinguished people, witty conversation, the theatre afterwards. Isn't it the ideal evening?' His tone was savagely contemptuous.
She looked at him with sad, pained eyes, wondering why he should suddenly have started thus to lay waste retrospectively to their afternoon. 'I don't know why you talk like that,' she said. 'Do you know yourself?'
The question reverberated in his mind long after they had parted. 'Do you know yourself?' Of course he knew. But he also knew that there was a gulf.
They met again at Stanton in Easter week. In the interval they had exchanged many letters, and Mary had received a proposal of marriage from the military friend who had wanted to obliterate Stanton with howitzers. To the surprise and somewhat to the distress of her relations, she refused him.
'He's such a nice boy,' her mother had insisted.
'I know. But one simply can't take him seriously, can one?'
'And then,' Mary continued, 'he doesn't really exist. He isn't completely there. Just a lump; nothing more. One can't marry someone who isn't there.' She thought of Rampion's violently living face; it seemed to burn, it seemed to be sharp and glowing. 'One can't marry a ghost, even when it's tangible and lumpy - particularly when it's lumpy.' She burst out laughing.
'I don't know what you're talking about,' said Mrs Felpham with dignity.
'But I do,' Mary answered. 'I do. And after all, that's what chiefly matters in the circumstances.'
Walking with Rampion on the moors, she told him of the laying of this too, too solid military phantom. He made no comment. There was a long silence. Mary felt disappointed and at the same time ashamed of her disappointment. 'I believe,' she said to herself, 'I believe I was trying to get him to propose to me.'
The days passed; Rampion was silent and gloomy. When she asked him the reason, he talked unhappily about his future prospects. At the end of the summer, he would have finished his university course; it would be time to think of a career. The only career that seemed to be immediately open - for he could not afford to wait - was teaching.
'Teaching,' he repeated with emphatic horror, 'teaching! Does it surprise you that I should feel depressed?' But his misery had other causes besides the prospect of having to teach. 'What she laugh at me, if I asked her?' he was wondering. He didn't think she would. But if she wasn't going to refuse, was it fair on his part to ask? Was it fair to let her in for the kind of life she would have to lead with him? Or perhaps she had money of her own; and in that case his own honour would be involved.
'Do you see me as a pedagogue?' he asked aloud. The pedagogue was his scapegoat.
'But why should you be a pedagogue, when you can write and draw? You can live on your wits.'
'But can I? At least pedagogy's safe.'
'What do you want to be safe for?' she asked, almost contemptuously.
Rampion laughed. 'You wouldn't ask if you'd had to live on a weekly wage, subject to a week's notice. Nothing like money for promoting courage and self-confidence.'
'Well then, to that extent money's a good thing. Courage and self-confidence are virtues.'
They walked on for a long time in silence. 'Well, well,' said Rampion at last, looking up at her, 'you've brought it on yourself.' He made an attempt at laughter. 'Courage and self-confidence are virtues; you said so yourself. I'm only trying to live up to your moral standards. Courage and self-confidence! I'm going to tell you that I love you.' There was another long silence. He waited; his heart was beating as though with fear.
'Well?' he questioned at last. Mary turned towards him and, taking his hand, lifted it to her lips.
Before and after their marriage Rampion had many occasions of admiring those wealth-fostered virtues. It was she who made him give up all thought of teaching and trust exclusively to his wits for a career. She had confidence for both.
'I'm not going to marry a schoolmaster,' she insisted. And she didn't; she married a dramatist who had never had a play performed, except at the Stanton-in-Teesdale church bazaar, a painter who had never sold a picture.
'We shall starve,' he prophesied. The spectre of hunger haunted him; he had seen it too often to be able to ignore its existence.
'Nonsense,' said Mary, strong in the knowledge that people didn't starve. Nobody that she knew had ever been hungry. 'Nonsense.' She had her way in the end.
What made Rampion the more reluctant to take the unsafe course was the fact that it could only be taken at Mary's expense.
'I can't live on you,' he said. 'I can't take your money.'
'But you're not taking my money,' she insisted, 'you're simply an investment. I'm putting up capital in the hope of getting a good return. You shall live on me for a year or two, so that I may live on you for the rest of my life. It's business; it's positively sharp practice.'
He had to laugh.
'And in any case,' she continued, 'you won't live very long on me. Eight hundred pounds won't last for ever.'
He agreed at last to borrow her eight hundred pounds at the current rate of interest. He did it reluctantly, feeling that he was somehow betraying his own people. To start life with eight hundred pounds - it was too easy, it was a shirking of difficulties, a taking of unfair advantages. If it had not been for that sense of responsibility which he felt towards his own talents, he would have refused the money and either desperately risked the career of literature without a penny, or gone the safe and pedagogical way. When at last he consented to take the money, he made it a condition that she should never accept anything from her relations. Mary agreed.
'Not that they'll be very anxious to give me anything.' she added with a laugh.
She was right. Her father's horror at the misalliance was as profound as she had expected. Mary was in no danger, so far as he was concerned, of becoming rich.
They were married in August and immediately went abroad. They took the train as far as Dijon and from there began to walk south-east, towards Italy. Rampion had never been out of England before. The strangeness of France was symbolical to him of the new life he had just begun, the new liberty he had acquired. And Mary herself was no less symbolically novel than the country through which they travelled. She had not only self-confidence, but a recklessness which was altogether strange and extraordinary in his eyes. Little incidents impressed him. There was that occasion, for example, when she left her spare pair of shoes behind in the farm where they had spent the night. It was only late in the afternoon that she discovered her loss. Rampion suggested that they should walk back and reclaim them. She would not hear of it.
'They're gone,' she said. 'It's no use bothering. Let the boots bury their boots.' He got quite angry with her. 'Remember you're not rich any more,' he insisted. 'You can't afford to throw away a good pair of shoes. We shan't be able to buy a new pair till we get home.' They had taken a small sum with them for their journey and had vowed that in no circumstances would they spend more. 'Not till we get home,' he repeated.
'I know, I know,' she answered impatiently. 'I shall learn to walk barefoot.'
And she did.
'I was born to be a tramp,' she declared one evening when they were lying on hay in a barn. 'I can't tell you how I enjoy not being respectable. It's the Atavismus coming out. You bother too much, Mark. Consider the lilies of the field.'
'And yet,' Rampion meditated, 'Jesus was a poor man. Tomorrow's bread and boots must have mattered a great deal in his family. How was it that he could talk about the future like a millionaire?'
'Because he was one of nature's dukes,' she answered. 'That's why. He was born with the title; he felt he had a divine right, like a king. Millionaires who make their money are always thinking about money; they're terribly preoccupied about tomorrow. Jesus had the real ducal feeling that he could never be let down. None of your titled financiers or soap boilers. A genuine aristocrat. And besides, he was an artist, he was a genius. He had more important things to think about than bread and boots and tomorrow.' She was silent for a little and then added, as an afterthought: 'And what's more, he wasn't respectable. He didn't care about appearances. They have their reward. But I don't mind if we do look like scarecrows.'
'You've paid yourself a nice lot of compliments,' said Rampion. But he meditated her words and her spontaneous, natural, untroubled way of living. He envied her her Atavismus.
It was not merely tramping that Mary liked. She got almost as much enjoyment out of the more prosaic settled life they led, when they returned to England. 'Marie-Antoinette at the Trianon,' was what Rampion called her, when he saw her cooking the dinner; she did it with such child-like enthusiasm.
'Think carefully,' he had warned her before they married. 'You're going to be poor. Really poor; not poor on a thousand a year like your impecunious friends. There'll be no servants. You'll have to cook and mend and do housework. You won't find it pleasant.'
Mary only laughed. 'You'll be the one who won't find it pleasant,' she answered, 'at any rate until I've learnt to cook.'
She had never so much as friend an egg when she married him.
Strangely enough that child-like, Marie-Antoinette-ish enthusiasm for doing things - for cooking on a real range, using a real carpet sweeper, a real sewing machine - survived the first novel and exciting months. She went on enjoying herself.
'I could never go back to being a perfect lady,' she used to say. 'It would bore me to death. Goodness knows, housework and managing and looking after the children can be boring and exasperating enough. But being quite out of touch with all the ordinary facts of existence, living in a different planet from the world of daily, physical reality - that's much worse.'
Rampion was of the same opinion. He refused to make art and thought excuses for living a life of abstraction. In the intervals of painting and writing he helped Mary with the housework.
'You don't expect flowers to grow in nice clean vacuums.' That was his argument. 'They need mould and clay and dung. So does art.'
For Rampion, there was also a kind of moral compulsion to live the life of the poor. Even when he was making quite a reasonable income, they kept only one maid and continued to do a great part of the housework themselves. It was a case, with him, of noblesse oblige - or rather roture oblige. To live like the rich, in a comfortable abstraction from material cares would be, he felt, a kind of betrayal of his class, his own people. If he sat still and paid servants to work for him, he would somehow be insulting his mother's memory, he would be posthumously telling her that he was too good to lead the life she had led.
There were occasions when he hated this moral compulsion, because he felt that it was compelling him to do foolish and ridiculous things; and hating, he would try to rebel against it. How absurdly shocked he had been, for example, by Mary's habit of lying in bed of a morning. When she felt lazy, she didn't get up; and there was an end of it. The first time it happened, Rampion was really distressed.
'But you can't stay in bed all the morning,' he protested.
'Why not? Because you can't.'
'But I can,' said Mary calmly. 'And I do.'
It shocked him. Unreasonably, as he perceived when he tried to analyse his feelings. But all the same, he was shocked. He was shocked because he had always got up early himself, because all his people had had to get up early. It shocked him that one should lie in bed while other people were up and working. To get up late was somehow to add insult to injury. And yet, obviously, getting up early oneself, unnecessarily, did nothing to help those who had to get up early. Getting up, when one wasn't compelled to get up, was just a tribute of respect, like taking off one's hat in a church. And at the same time it was an act of propitiation, a sacrificial appeasement of the conscience.
'One oughtn't to feel like that,' he reflected. 'Imagine a Greek feeling like that!'
It was unimaginable. And yet the fact remained that, however much he might disapprove of the feeling, he did in fact feel like that.
'Mary's healthier than I am,' he though; and he remembered those lines of Walt Whitman about the animals. ''They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.' Mary was like that and it was good. To be a perfect animal and a perfect human - that was the ideal. All the same, he was shocked when she didn't get up in the morning. He tried not to be; but he was shocked. Rebelling, he would sometimes lie in bed himself till noon, on principle. It was a duty not to be a barbarian of the conscience. But it was a very long time before he could genuinely enjoy his laziness.
Slug-abed habits were not the only things in Mary that distressed him. During those first months of their marriage he was often, secretly and against his own principles, shocked by her. Mary soon learnt to recognize the signs of his unexpressed disapproval and made a point, when she saw that she had shocked him, of shocking him yet more profoundly. The operation, she thought, did him nothing but good.
'You're such an absurd old puritan,' she told him.
The taunt annoyed him, because he knew it was well founded. By birth, to some extent, and yet more by training, he was half a puritan. His father had died when he was only a child and he had been brought up exclusively by a virtuous and religious mother who had done her best to abolish, to make him deny the existence of all the instinctive and physical components of his being. Growing up, he had revolted against her teaching, but with the mind only, not in practice. The conception of life against which he had rebelled was a part of him; he was at war against himself. Theoretically, he approved of Mary's easy aristocratic tolerance of behaviour which his mother had taught him was horribly sinful; he admired her unaffected enjoyment of food and wine and kisses, of dancing and singing, fairs and theatres and every kind of jollification. And yet, whenever, in those early days, she began to talk in her calm matter-of-fact way of what he had only heard of, portentously, as fornication and adultery, he felt a shock, not in his reason (for that, after a moment's reflection, approved), but in some deeper layer of his being. And the same part of him obscurely suffered from her great and wholeheartedly expressed capacity for pleasure and amusement, from her easy laughter, her excellent appetite, her unaffected sensuality. It took him a long time to unlearn the puritanism of his childhood. There were moments when his love for his mother turned almost to hatred.
'She had no right to bring me up like that,' he said. 'Like a Japanese gardener deliberately stunting a tree. No right.'
And yet he was glad that he had not been born a noble savage, like Mary. He was glad that circumstances had compelled him laboriously to learn his noble savagery. Later, when they had been married several years and had achieved an intimacy impossible in those first months of novelties, shocks and surprises, he was able to talk to her about these matters.
'Living comes to you too easily,' he tried to explain. 'You live by instinct. You know what to do quite naturally, like an insect when it comes out of the pupa. It's too simple, too simple.' He shook his head. 'You haven't earned your knowledge, you've never realized the alternatives.'
'In other words,' said Mary, 'I'm a fool.'
'No, a woman.'
'Which is your polite way of saying the same thing. But I'd like to know,' she went on with an irrelevance that was only apparent, 'where you'd be without me. I'd like to know what you'd be doing if you'd never met me.' She moved from stage to stage of an emotionally coherent argument.
'I'd be where I am and be doing exactly what I'm doing now.' He didn't mean it, of course; for he knew, better than anyone, how much he owed to her, how much he had learnt from her example and precept. But it amused him to annoy her.
'You know that's not true,' Mary was indignant.
'It is true.'
'It's a lie. And to prove it,' she added, 'I've a very good mind to go away with the children and leave you for a few months to stew in your own juice. I'd like to see how you get on without me.'
'I should get on perfectly well,' he assured her with exasperating calmness.
Mary flushed; she was beginning to be genuinely annoyed. 'Very well then,' she answered, 'I'll really go. This time I really will.' She had made the threat before; they quarrelled a good deal, for both were quick-tempered.
'Do,' said Rampion. 'But remember that two can play at that going-away game. When you go away from me, I go away from you.'
'We'll see how you get on without me,' she continued menacingly.
'And you?' he asked.
'What about me?'
'Do you imagine that you can get on any better without me than I can get on without you?'
They looked at one another for a little time in silence and then, simultaneously, burst out laughing.
'A regular technique,' Spandrell repeated. 'One chooses them unhappy, or dissatisfied, or wanting to go on the stage, or trying to write for the magazines and being rejected and consequently thinking they're âmes incomprises.' He was boastfully generalizing from the case of poor little Harriet Watkins. If he had just badly recounted his affair with Harriet, it wouldn't have sounded such a very grand exploit. Harriet was such a pathetic, helpless little creature; anybody could have done her down. But generalized like this, as though her case was only one of hundreds, told in a language of the cookery book ('one chooses them unhappy' - it was one of Mrs Beeton's recipes), the history sounded, he thought, more cynically impressive. 'And one starts by being very, very kind, and so wise, and perfectly pure, an elder brother, in fact. And they think one's really wonderful, because, of course, they've never met anybody who wasn't just a city man, with city ideas and city ambitions. Simply wonderful, because one knows all about art and has met all the celebrities and doesn't think exclusively about money and in terms of the morning paper. And they're a little in awe of one too,' he added, remembering little Harriet's expression of scared admiration; 'one's so unrespectable and yet so high-class, so at ease and at home among the great works and the great men, so wicked but so extraordinarily good, so learned, so well travelled, so brilliantly cosmopolitan and West-End (have you ever heard a suburban talking of the West-End?), like that gentleman with the order of the Golden Fleece in the advertisements for De Reszke cigarettes. Yes, they're in awe of one; but at the same time they adore. One's so understanding, one knows so much about life in general and their souls in particular, and one isn't a bit flirtatious or saucy like ordinary men, not a bit. They feel they could trust one absolutely; and so they can, for the first weeks. One has to get them used to the trap; quite tame and trusting, trained not to shy at an occasional brotherly pat on the back or an occasional chaste uncle-ish kiss on the forehead. And meanwhile one coaxes out their little confidences, one makes them talk about love, one talks about it oneself in a man-to-man sort of way, as though they were one's own age and as sadly disillusioned and bitterly knowing as oneself - which they find terribly shocking (though of course they don't say so), but oh, so thrilling, so enormously flattering. They simply love you for that. Well then, finally, when the moment seems ripe and their thoroughly domesticated and no more frightened, one stages the dénouement. Tea in one's rooms - one's got them absolutely used to coming with absolute impunity to one's rooms - and they're going to go out to dinner with one, so that there's no hurry. The twilight deepens, one talks disillusionedly and yet feelingly about the amorous mysteries, one produces cocktails - very strong - and goes on talking so that they ingurgitate them absentmindedly without reflection. And sitting on the floor at their feet, one begins very gently stroking their ankles in an entirely platonic way, still talking about amorous philosophy, as though one were quite unconscious of what one's hand were doing. If that's not resented and the cocktails have done their work, the rest shouldn't be difficult. So at least I've always found.' Spandrell helped himself to more brandy and drank. 'But it's then, when they've become one's mistress, that the fun really begins. It's then one deploys all one's Socratic talents. One develops their little temperaments, one domesticates them - still so wisely and sweetly and patiently - to every outrage of sensuality. It can be done, you know; the more easily, the more innocent they are. They can be brought in perfect ingenuousness to the most astonishing pitch of depravity.'
'I've no doubt they can,' said Mary indignantly. 'But what's the point of doing it?'
'It's an amusement,' said Spandrell with theatrical cynicism. 'It passes the time and relieves the tedium.'
'And above all,' Mark Rampion went on, without looking up from his coffee cup, 'above all it's a vengeance. It's a way of getting one's own back on women, it's a way of punishing them for being women and so attractive, it's a way of expressing one's hatred of them and of what they represent, it's a way of expressing one's hatred of oneself. The trouble with you, Spandrell,' he went on, suddenly and accusingly raising his bright pale eyes to the other's face, 'is that you really hate yourself. You hate the very source of your life, its ultimate basis - for there's no denying it, sex is fundamental. And you hate it, hate it.'
'Me?' It was a novel accusation. Spandrell was accustomed to having himself blamed for his excessive love of women and the sensual pleasures.
'Not only you. All these people.' With a jerk of his head he indicated the other diners. 'And all the respectable ones too. Practically everyone. It's the disease of modern man. I call it Jesus's disease on the analogy of Bright's disease. Or rather Jesus's and Newton's disease; for the scientists are as much responsible as the Christians. So are the big business men, for that matter. It's Jesus's and Newton's and Henry Ford's disease. Between them, the three have pretty well killed us. Ripped the life out of our bodies and stuffed us with hatred.'
Rampion was full of his subject. He had been busy all day on a drawing that symbolically illustrated it. Jesus, in the loincloth of the execution morning, and an overalled surgeon were represented, scalpel in hand, one on either side of an operating table, on which, foreshortened, the soles of his feet presented to the spectator, lay crucified a half-dissected man. From the horrible wound in his belly escaped a coil of entrails which, falling to the earth, mingled with those of the gashed and bleeding woman lying in the foreground, to be transformed by an allegorical metamorphosis into a whole people of living snakes. In the background receded a landscape of hills, dotted with black collieries and chimneys. On one side of the picture, behind the figure of Jesus, two angels - the spiritual product of the vivisectors' mutilations - were trying to rise on their outspread wings. Vainly, for their feet were entangled in the coils of the serpents. For all their efforts, they could not leave the earth.
'Jesus and the scientists are vivisecting us,' he went on, thinking of his picture. 'Hacking our bodies to bits.'
'But after all, why not?' objected Spandrell. 'Perhaps they're meant to be vivisected. The fact of shame is significant. We feel spontaneously ashamed of the body and its activities. That's a sign of the body's absolute and natural inferiority.'
'Absolute and natural rubbish!' said Rampion indignantly. 'Shame isn't spontaneous, to begin with. It's artificial, it's acquired. You can make people ashamed of anything. Agonizingly ashamed of wearing brown boots with a black coat, of speaking with the wrong sort of accent, or having a drop at the end of their noses. Of absolutely anything, including the body and its functions. But that particular shame's just as artificial as any other. The Christians invented it, just as the tailors in Savile Row invented the shame of wearing brown boots with a black coat. There was precious little of it before Christian times. Look at the Greeks, the Etruscans.'
The antique names transported Mary back to the moors above Stanton. He was just the same. Stronger now, that was all. How ill he had looked that day! Had she loved him then as much as she loved him now?
Spandrell had lifted a long and bony hand. 'I know, I know. Noble and nude and antique. But I believe they're entirely a modern invention, those Swedish-drill pagans of ours. We trot them out whenever we want to bait the Christians. But did they ever exist? I have my doubts.'
'But look at their art,' put in Mary, thinking of the paintings at Tarquinia. She had seen them a second time with Mark - really seen them on that occasion.
'Yes, and look at ours,' retorted Spandrell. 'When the Royal Academy sculpture room is dug up three thousand years hence, they'll say that twentieth-century Londoners wore fig-leaves, suckled their babies in public and embraced one another in the parks, stark naked.'
'I only wish they did,' said Rampion.
'But they don't. And then - leaving this question of shame on one side for the moment - what about asceticism as the preliminary condition of the mystical experience?'
Rampion brought his hands together with a clap and, leaning back in his chair, turned up his eyes. 'Oh, my sacred aunt!' he said. 'So it's come to that, has it? Mystical experience and asceticism. The fornicator's hatred of life in a new form.'
'But seriously ...' the other began.
'No, seriously, have you read Anatole France's Thaïs?'
Spandrell shook his head.
'Read it,' said Rampion. 'Read it. It's elementary, of course. A boy's book. But one mustn't grow up without having read all the boys' books. Read it and then come and talk to me again about asceticism and mystical experiences.'
'I'll read it,' said Spandrell. 'Meanwhile, all I wanted to say is that there are certain states of consciousness known to ascetics that are unknown to people who aren't ascetics.'
'No doubt. And if you treat your body in the way nature meant you to, as an equal, you attain to states of consciousness unknown to the vivisecting ascetics.'
'But the states of the vivisectors are better than the states of the indulgers.'
'In other words, lunatics are better than sane men. Which I deny. The sane, harmonious, Greek man gets as much as he can of both sets of states. He's not such a fool as to want to kill part of himself. He strikes a balance. It isn't easy of course; it's even damnably difficult. The forces to be reconciled are intrinsically hostile. The conscious soul resents the activities of the unconscious, physical, instinctive part of the total being. The life of the one is the other's death and vice versa. But the sane man at least tries to strike a balance. The Christians, who were sane, told people that they'd got to throw half of themselves in the wastepaper basket. And now the scientists and business men come and tell us that we must throw away half of what the Christians left us. But I don't want to be three-quarters dead. I prefer to be alive, entirely alive. It's time there was a revolt in favour of life and wholeness.'
'But from your point of view,' said Spandrell, 'I should have thought this epoch needed no reforming. It's the golden age of guzzling, sport and promiscuous love-making.'
'But if you know what a puritan Mark really was!' Mary Rampion laughed. 'What a regular old puritan!'
'Not a puritan,' said her husband. 'Merely sane. You're like everyone else,' he went on, addressing himself to Spandrell. 'You seem to imagine that the cold, modern, civilized lasciviousness is the same as the healthy - what shall I call it? - phallism (that gives the religious quality of the old way of life; you've read the Acharnians?) phallism, then, of the ancients.'
Spandrell groaned and shook his head. 'Spare us the Swedish exercisers.'
'But it isn't the same,' the other went on. 'It's just Christianity turned inside out. The ascetic contempt for the body expressed in a different way. Contempt and hatred. That was what I was saying just now. You hate yourselves, you hate life. Your only alternatives are promiscuity or asceticism. Two forms of death. Why, the Christians themselves understood phallism a great deal better than this godless generation. What's that phrase in the marriage service? "With my body I thee worship." Worshipping with the body - that's the genuine phallism. And if you imagine it has anything to do with the umimpassioned civilized promiscuity of our advanced young people, you're very much mistaken indeed.'
'Oh, I'm quite ready to admit the deathliness of our civilized entertainments,' Spandrell answered. 'There's a certain smell,' he went on speaking in snatches between sucks at the half-smoked cigar he was trying to relight, 'of cheap scent ... and stale unwashedness ... I often think ... the atmosphere of hell ... must be composed of it.' He threw the match away. 'But the other alternative - there's surely no death about that. No death in Jesus or St Francis, for example.'
'In spots,' said Rampion. 'They were dead in spots. Very much alive in others, I quite agree. But they simply left half of existence out of account. 'No, no, they won't do. It's time people stopped talking about them. I'm tired of Jesus and Francis, terribly tired of them.'
'Well, then, the poets,' said Spandrell. 'You can't say that Shelley's a corpse.'
'Shelley?' exclaimed Rampion. 'Don't talk to me of Shelley.' He shook his head emphatically. 'No, no. There's something very dreadful about Shelley. Not human, not a man. A mixture between a fairy and a white slug.'
'Come, come,' Spandrell protested.
'Oh, exquisite and all that. But what a bloodless kind of slime inside! No blood, no real bones and bowels. Only pulp and a white juice. And oh, that dreadful lie in the soul! The way he was always pretending for the benefit of himself and everybody else that the world wasn't really the world, but either heaven or hell. And that going to bed with women wasn't really going to bed with them, but just two angels holding hands. Ugh! Think of his treatment of women - shocking, really shocking. The women loved it of course - for a little. It made them feel so spiritual - that is, until it made them feel like committing suicide. So spiritual. And all the time he was just a young schoolboy with a sensual itch like anybody's elses, but persuading himself and other people that he was Dante and Beatrice rolled into one, only much more so. Dreadful, dreadful! The only excuse is that, I suppose, he couldn't help it. He wasn't born a man; he was only a kind of fairy slug with the sexual appetites of a schoolboy. And then, think of that awful incapacity to call a spade a spade. He always had to pretend it was an angel's harp or a platonic imagination. Do you remember the Ode to the Skylark? "Hail to thee, blithe spirit! Bird thou never wert!"' Rampion recited with a ludicrous parody of an elocutionist's 'expression'. 'Just pretending, just lying to himself, as usual. The lark couldn't be allowed to be a mere bird, with blood and feathers and a nest and an appetite for caterpillars. Oh no! That wasn't nearly poetical enough, that was much too coarse. It had to be a disembodied spirit. Bloodless, boneless. A kind of ethereal flying slug. It was only to be expected. Shelley was a kind of flying slug himself; and, after all, nobody can really write about slugs, even though your subject is supposed to be a skylark. But I wish to God,' Rampion added, with a sudden burst of comically extravagant fury, 'I wish to God the bird had had as much sense as those sparrows in the book of Tobit and dropped a good large mess in his eye. It would have served him damned well right for saying it wasn't a bird. Blithe spirit, indeed! Blithe spirit!'
In Lucy's neighbourhood life always tended to become exceedingly public. The more the merrier was her principle; or if 'merrier' were too strong a word, at least the noisier, the more tumultuously distracting. Within five minutes of her arrival, the corner in which Spandrell and Rampion had been sitting all evening in the privacy of quiet conversation was invaded and in a twinkling overrun by a loud and alcoholic party from the inner room. Cuthbert Arkwright was the noisiest and the most drunken - on principle and for the love of art as well as for that of alcohol. He had an idea that by bawling and behaving offensively, he was defending art against the Philistines. Tipsy, he felt himself arrayed on the side of the angels, of Baudelaire, of Edgar Allan Poe, of De Quincey, against the dull unspiritual mob. And if he boasted of his fornications, it was because respectable people had thought Blake a madman, because Bowdler had edited Shakespeare, and the author of Madame Bovary had been prosecuted, because when one asked for the Earl of Rochester's Sodom at the Bodleian, the librarians would give it unless one had a certificate that one was engaged on bona fide literary research. He made his living, and in the process convinced himself that he was serving the arts, by printing limited and expensive editions of the more scabrous specimens of the native and foreign literatures. Blond, beer-red, with green and bulging eyes, his large face shining, he approached vociferating greetings. Willie Weaver jauntily followed, a little man perpetually smiling, spectacles astride his long nose, bubbling with good humour and an inexhaustible verbiage. Behind him, his twin in height and also spectacled, but grey, dim, shrunken and silent, came Peter Slipe.
'They look like the advertisement of a patent medicine,' said Spandrell as they approached. 'Slipe's the patient before, Weaver's the same after one bottle, and Cuthbert Arkwright illustrates the appalling results of taking the complete cure.'
Lucy was still laughing at the joke when Cuthbert took her hand. 'Lucy!' he shouted. 'My angel! But why in heaven's name do you always writer in pencil? I simply cannot read what you write. It's a mere chance that I'm here tonight.'
So she'd written to tell him to meet her here, thought Walter. That vulgar, stupid lout.
Willie Weaver was shaking hands with Mary Rampion and Mark. 'I had no idea I was to meet the great,' he said. 'Not to mention the fair.' He bowed towards Mary, who broke into loud and masculine laughter. Willie Weaver was rather pleased than offended. 'Positively the Mermaid Tavern!' he went on.
'Still busy with the bric-à-brac?' asked Spandrell, leaning across the table to address Peter Slipe, who had taken the seat next to Walter's. Peter was an Assyriologist employed at the British Museum.
'But why in pencil, why in pencil?' Cuthbert was roaring.
'I get my fingers so dirty when I use a pen.'
'I'll kiss the ink away,' protested Cuthbert, and bending over the hand he was still holding, he began to kiss the thin fingers.
Lucy laughed. 'I think I'd rather buy a stylo,' she said.
Walter looked on in misery. Was it possible? A gross and odious clown like that?
'Ungrateful!' said Cuthbert. 'But I simply must talk to Rampion.'
And turning away, he gave Rampion a clap on the shoulder and simultaneously waved his other hand at Mary.
'What an agape!' Willie Weaver simmered on, like a tea kettle. The spout was now turned towards Lucy, 'What a symposium! What a -' he hesitated for a moment in search of the right, the truly staggering phrase - 'what Athenian enlargements! What a more than Platonic orgy!'
'What is an Athenian enlargement?' asked Lucy.
Willie sat down and began to explain. 'Enlargements, I mean, by contrast with our bourgeois and Pecksniffian smuggeries ...'
'Why don't you give me something of yours to print?' Cuthbert was persuasively enquiring.
Rampion looked at him with distaste. 'Do you think I'm ambitious of having my books sold in the rubber shops?'
'They'd be in good company,' said Spandrell. 'The Works of Aristotle ...' Cuthbert roared in protest.
'Compare an eminent Victorian with an eminent Periclean,' said Willie Weaver. He smiled, he was happy and eloquent.
On Peter Slipe the burgundy had acted as a depressant, not a stimulant. The wine had only enhanced his native dimness and melancholy.
'What about Beatrice?' he said to Walter, 'Beatrice Gilway?' he hiccoughed and tried to pretend that he had coughed. 'I suppose you see her often, now that she works on the Literary World.'
Walter saw her three times a week and always found her well.
'Give her my love, when you see her next,' said Slipe.
'The stertorous borborygms of the dyspeptic Carlyle!' declaimed Willie Weaver, and beamed through his spectacles. The mot, he flattered himself, could hardly have been more exquisitely juste. He gave a little cough which was his invariable comment on the best of his phrases. 'I would laugh, I would applaud,' the little cough might be interpreted; 'but modesty forbids.'
'Stertorous what?' asked Lucy. 'Do remember that I've never been educated.'
'Warbling your native woodnotes wild!' said Willie. 'May I help myself to some of that noble brandy? The blushful Hippocrene.'
'She treated me badly, extremely badly.' Peter Slipe was plaintive. 'But I don't want her to think that I bear her any grudge.'
Willie Weaver smacked his lips over the brandy. 'Solid joys and liquid pleasures none but Zion's children know,' he misquoted and repeated his little cough of self-satisfaction.
'The trouble with Cuthbert,' Spandrell was saying,' is that he's never quite learnt to distinguish art from pornography.'
'Of course,' continued Peter Slipe, 'she had a perfect right to do what she liked with her own house. But to turn me out at such short notice.'
At another time Walter would have been delighted to listen to poor little Slipe's version of that curious story. But with Lucy on his other hand, he found it difficult to take much interest.
'But I sometimes wonder if the Victorians didn't have more fun than we did,' she was saying. 'The more prohibitions, the greater the fun. If you want to see people drinking with real enjoyment, you must go to America. Victorian England was dry in every department. For example, there was a nineteenth amendment about love. They must have made it as enthusiastically as the Americans drink whiskey. I don't know that I really believe in Athenian enlargements - that is, if we're one of them.'
'You prefer Pecksniff to Alcibiades,' Willie Weaver concluded.
Lucy shrugged her shoulders. 'I've had no experience of Pecksniff.'
'I don't know,' Peter Slipe was saying, 'whether you've ever been pecked by a goose.'
'Been what?' asked Walter, recalling his attention.
'Been pecked by a goose?'
'Never, that I can remember.'
'It's a hard, dry sensation.' Slipe jabbed the air with a tobacco-stained forefinger. 'Beatrice is like that. She pecks; she enjoys pecking. But she can be very kind at the same time. She insists on being kind in her way, and she pecks if you don't like it. Pecking's part of the kindness; so I always found. I never objected. But why should she have turned me out of the house as though I were a criminal? And rooms are so difficult to find now. I had to stay in a boarding house for three weeks. The food ...' He shuddered.
Walter could not help smiling.
'She must have been in a great hurry to install Burlap in your place.'
'But why in such a hurry as all that?'
'When it's a case of off with the old love and on with the new ...'
'But what has love to do with it?' asked Slipe. 'In Beatrice's case.'
'A great deal,' Willie Weaver broke in. 'Everything. These superannuated virgins - always the most passionate.'
'But she's never had a love affair in her life.'
'Hence the violence,' concluded Willie triumphantly. 'Beatrice has a nigger sitting on the safety valve. And my wife assures me that her underclothes are positively Phrynean. That's most sinister.'
'Perhaps she likes being well dressed,' suggested Lucy.
Willie Weaver shook his head. The hypothesis was too simple.
'That woman's unconscious as a black hole.' Willie hesitated a moment. 'Full of batrachian grapplings in the dark,' he concluded and modestly coughed to commemorate his achievement.
* * * *
Beatrice Gilray was mending a pink silk camisole. She was thirty-five, but seemed younger, or rather seemed ageless. Her skin was clear and fresh. From shallow and unwrinkled orbits the eyes looked out, shining. In a sharp, determined way her face was not unhandsome, but with something intrinsically rather comic about the shape and tilt of the nose, something slightly absurd about the bright beadiness of the eyes, the pouting mouth and round defiant chin. But one laughed with as well as at her; for the set of her lips was humorous and the expression of her round astonished eyes was mocking and mischievously inquisitive.
She stitched away. The clock ticked. The moving instant which, according to Sir Isaac Newton, separates the infinite past from the infinite future advance inexorably through the dimension of time. Or, if Aristotle was right, a little more of the possible was every instant made real; the present stood still and drew into itself the future, as a man might suck for ever at an unending piece of macaroni. Every now and then Beatrice actualized a potential yawn. In a basket by the fireplace a black she-cat lay on her side purring and suckling four blind and parti-coloured kittens. The walls of the room were primrose yellow. On the top shelf of the bookcase the dust was thickening on the textbooks of Assyriology which she had bought when Peter Slips was the tenant of her upper floor. A volume of Pascal's Thoughts, with pencil annotations by Burlap, lay open on the table. The clock continued to tick.
Suddenly the front door banged. Beatrice put down her pink silk camisole and sprang to her feet.
'Don't forget that you must drink your hot milk, Denis,' she said, looking out into the hall. Her voice was clear, sharp and commanding.
Burlap hung up his coat and came to the door. 'You oughtn't to have sat up for me,' he said, with tender reproachfulness, giving her one of his grave and subtle Sodona smiles.
'I had some work I simply had to get finished,' Beatrice lied.
'Well, it was most awfully sweet of you.' These pretty colloquialisms, with which Burlap liked to pepper his conversation, had for sensitive ears a most curious ring. 'He talks slang,' Mark Rampion once said, 'as though he were a foreigner with a perfect command of English - but a foreigner's command. I don't know if you've ever heard an Indian calling anyone a "jolly good sport",. Burlap's slang reminds me of that.'
For Beatrice, however, that 'awfully sweet' sounded entirely natural and un-alien. She flushed with a young-girlishly timid pleasure. But, 'Come in and shut the door,' she rapped out commandingly. Over that soft young timidity the outer shell was horny, there was a part of her being that pecked and was efficient. 'Sit down there,' she ordered; and while she was briskly busy over the milk-jug, the saucepan, the gas-ring, she asked him if he had enjoyed the party.
Burlap shook his head. 'Fascinatio nugacitatis,' he said. Fascinatio nugacitatis.' He had been ruminating the fascination of nugacity all the way from Piccadilly Circus.
Beatrice did not understand Latin; but she could see from his face that the words connoted disapproval. 'Parties are rather a waste of time, aren't they?' she said.
Burlap nodded. 'A waste of time,' he echoed in his slow ruminant's voice, keeping his blank preoccupied eyes fixed on the invisible daemon standing a little to Beatrice's left. 'One's forty, one has lived more than half one's life, the world is marvellous and mysterious. And yet one spends four hours chattering about nothing at Tantamount House. Why should triviality be so fascinating. Or is there something else besides the triviality that draws one? Is it some vague fantastic hope that one may meet the messianic person one's always been looking for, or hear the revealing word?' Burlap wagged his head as he spoke with a curious loose motion, as though the muscles of his neck were going limp. Beatrice was so familiar with the motion that she saw nothing strange in it any more. Waiting for the milk to boil, she listened admiringly, she watched him with a serious church-going face. A man whose excursions into the drawing-rooms of the rich were episodes in a lifelong spiritual quest might justifiably be regarded as the equivalent of Sunday morning church.
'All the same,' Burlap added, glancing up at her with a sudden mischievous, gutter-snipish grin, most startlingly unlike the Sodoma smile of a moment before, 'the champagne and the caviar were really marvellous.' It was the demon that had suddenly interrupted the angel at his philosophic ruminations. Burlap had allowed him to speak out loud. Why not? It amused him to be baffling. He looked at Beatrice.
Beatrice was duly baffled. 'I'm sure they were,' she said, readjusting her church-going face to make it harmonize with the grin. She laughed rather nervously and turned away to pour out the milk into a cup. 'Here's your milk,' she rapped out, taking refuge from her bafflement in officious command. 'Mind you drink it while it's hot.'
There was a long silence. Burlap sipped slowly at his steaming milk and, seated on a pouf in front of the empty fireplace, Beatrice waited, rather breathlessly, she hardly knew for what.
'You look like little Miss Muffett sitting on her tuffet,' said Burlap at last.
Beatrice smiled. 'Luckily there's no big spider.'
'Thanks for the compliment, if it is one.'
'Yes it is,' said Beatrice. That was the really delightful thing about Denis, she reflected; he was so trustworthy. Other men were liable to pounce on you and try to paw you about and kiss you. Dreadful that was, quite dreadful. Beatrice had never really got over the shock she received as a young girl, when her Aunt Maggie's brother-in-law, whom she had always looked up to as an uncle, had started pawing her about in a hansom. The incident so scared and disgusted her that when Tom Field, whom she really did like, asked her to marry him, she refused, just because he was a man, like that horrible Uncle Ben, and because she was so terrified of being made love to, she had such a panic fear of being touched. She was over thirty now and had never allowed anyone to touch her. The soft quivering little girl underneath the business-like shell of her had often fallen in love. But the terror of being pawed about, of being even touched, had always been stronger than the love. At the first sign of danger, she had desperately pecked, she had hardened her shell, she had fled. Arrived in safety, the terrified little girl had drawn a long breath. Thank Heaven! But a little sigh of disappointment was always included in the big sigh of relief. She wished she hadn't been frightened, she wished that the happy relationship that had existed before the pawing could have gone on for ever, indefinitely. Sometimes she was angry with herself; more often she thought there was something fundamentally wrong with love, something fundamentally dreadful about men. That was the wonderful thing about Denis Burlap; he was so reassuringly not a pouncer or a pawer. Beatrice could adore him without a qualm.
'Susan used to sit on poufs, like little Miss Muffett,' Burlap resumed after a pause. His voice was melancholy. He had spent the last minutes in ruminating the theme of his dead wife. It was nearly two years now since Susan had been carried off in the influenza epidemic. Nearly two years: but the pain, he assured himself, had not diminished, the sense of loss had remained as overwhelming as ever. Susan, Susan, Susan - he had repeated the name to himself over and over again. He would never see her any more, even if he lived for a million years. A million years, a million years. Gulfs opened all round the words. 'Or on the floor,' he went on, reconstructing her image as vividly as he could. 'I think she liked sitting on the floor best. Like a child.' A child, a child, he repeated to himself. So young.
Beatrice sat in silence, looking into the empty grate. To have looked at Burlap, she felt, would have been indiscreet, indecent almost. Poor fellow! When she turned towards him at last, she saw that there were tears on his cheeks. The sight filled her with a sudden passion of maternal pity. 'Like a child,' he had said. But he was like a child himself. Like a poor unhappy child. Leaning forward she drew her fingers caressingly along the back of his limply hanging hand.
* * * *
'Batrachian grapplings!' Lucy repeated and laughed. 'That was a stroke of genius, Willie.'
'All my strokes are strokes of genius,' said Willie modestly. He acted himself; he was Willie Weaver in the celebrated rôle of Willie Weaver. He exploited artistically that love of eloquence, that passion for the rotund and reverberating phrase with which, more than three centuries too late, he had been born. In Shakespeare's youth he would have been a literary celebrity. Among his contemporaries, Willie's euphemisms only raised a laugh. But he enjoyed applause, even when it was derisive. Moreover, the laughter was never malicious; for Willie Weaver was so good-natured and obliging that everybody liked him. It was to a hilariously approving audience that he played his part; and, feeling the approval through the hilarity, he played it for all it was worth. 'All my strokes are strokes of genius.' The remark was admirably in character. And perhaps true? Willie jested, but with a secret belief. 'And mark my words,' he added, 'one of these days the batrachians will erupt, they'll break out.'
'But why batrachians?' asked Slipe. 'Anything less like a batrachian than Beatrice ...'
'And why should they break out?' put in Spandrell.
'Frogs don't peck.' But Slipe's thin voice was drowned by Mary Rampion's.
'Because things do break out,' she cried. 'They do.'
'Moral,' Cuthbert concluded: 'don't shut anything up. I never do.'
'But perhaps the fun consists in breaking out,' Lucy speculated.
;'Perverse and paradoxical prohibitionist!'
'But obviously,' Rampion was saying, 'you get revolutions occurring inside as well as outside. It's poor against rich in the state. In the individual, it's the oppressed body and instincts against the intellect. The intellect's been exalted as the spiritual upper classes; the spiritual lower classes rebel.'
'Hear, hear!' shouted Cuthbert, and banged the table.
Rampion frowned. He felt Cuthbert's approbation as a personal insult.
'I'm a counter-revolutionary,' said Spandrell. 'Put the spiritual lower classes in their place.'
'Except in your own case, eh?' said Cuthbert grinning.
'Mayn't one theorize?'
'People have been forcibly putting them in their place for centuries,' said Rampion; 'and look at the result. You, among other things.' He looked at Spandrell, who threw back his head and noiselessly laughed. 'Look at the result,' he repeated. 'Inward personal revolution and consequent outward and social revolution.'
'Come, come,' said Willie Weaver. 'You talk as though the thermidorian thumbrils were already rumbling. England still stands very much where it did.'
'But what do you know of England and Englishmen?' Rampion retorted. 'You've never been out of London or your class. Go to the North.'
'God forbid!' Willie piously interjected.
'Go to the coal and iron country. Talk a little with the steel workers. It isn't revolution for a cause. It's a revolution as an end in itself. Smashing for smashing's sake.'
'Rather sympathetic it sounds,' said Lucy.
'It's terrifying. It simply isn't human. Their humanity has all been squeezed out of them by civilized living, squeezed out of them by the weight of coal and iron. It won't be a rebellion of men. It'll be a revolution of elementals, monsters, pre-human monsters. And you just shut your eyes and pretend everything's too perfect.'
* * * *
'Think of the disproportion,' Lord Edward was saying, as he smoked his pipe. 'It's positively ...' His voice failed. 'Take coal, for example. Man's using a hundred and ten times as much as he used in 1800. But the population's only two and a half times what it was. With other animals ... Surely quite different. Consumption's proportionate to numbers.'
Illidge objected. 'But if animals can get more than they actually require to subsist, they take it, don't they? If there's been a battle or a plague, the hyenas and vultures take advantage of the abundance to overeat. Isn't it the same with us? Forests died in great quantities some millions of years ago. Man has unearthed their corpses, finds he can use them and is giving himself the luxury of a real good guzzle while the carrion lasts. When the supplies are exhausted, he'll go back to short rations, as the hyenas do in the intervals between wars and epidemics.' Illidge spoke with gusto. Talking about human beings as though they were indistinguishable from maggots filled him with a peculiar satisfaction. 'A coalfield's discovered; oil's struck. Towns spring up, railways are built, ships come and go. To a long-lived observer on the moon, the swarming and crawling must look like the pollulation of ants and flies round a dead dog. Chilean nitre, Mexican oil, Tunisians phosphates - at every discovery another scurrying of insects. One can imagine the comments of the lunar astronomers. "These creatures have a remarkable and perhaps unique tropism towards fossilized carrion.'
* * * *
'Like ostriches,' said Mary Rampion. 'You live like ostriches.'
'And not about revolutions only,' said Spandrell, while Willie Weaver was heard to put in something about 'strouthocamelian philosophies'. 'About all the important things that happen to be disagreeable. There was a time when people didn't go about pretending that death and sin didn't exist. "Au détour d'un sentier une charogne infâme,"' he quoted. 'Baudelaire was the last poet of the Middle Ages as well as the first modern. "Et pourtant,"' he went on, looking with a smile to Lucy and raising his glass,
'"Et pourtant vous serez semblable à cette ordure,
A cette horrible infection,
Etoile de mes yeux, soleil de ma nature,
Vous, mon ange et ma passion!
Alors, ô ma beauté, dites à la vermine
Qui vous mangera de baisers ..."'
'My dear Spandrell!' Lucy held up her hand protestingly.
'Really too necrophilous,' said Willie Weaver.
'Always the same hatred of life,' Rampion was thinking. 'Different kinds of death - the only alternatives.' He looked observantly into Spandrell's face.
* * * *
'And when you come to think of it,' Illidge was saying, 'the time it took to form the coal measures divided by the length of a human life isn't so hugely different from the life of a sequoia divided by a generation of decay bacteria.'
* * * *
Cuthbert looked at his watch. 'But good God!' he shouted. 'It's twenty-five to one.' He jumped up. 'And I promised we'd put in an appearance at Widdicombe's party. Peter, Willie! Quick march.'
'But you can't go,' protested Lucy. 'Not so absurdly early.'
'The call of duty,' Willie Weaver explained. 'Stern Daughter of the Voice of God.' He uttered his little cough of self-approbation.
'But it's ridiculous, it's not permissible.' She looked from one to another with a kind of angry anxiety. The dread of solitude was chronic with her. And it was always possible, if one sat up another five minutes, that something really amusing might happen. Besides, it was insufferable that people should do things she didn't want them to do.'
'And we too, I'm afraid,' said Mary Rampion rising.
Thank Heaven, thought Walter. He hoped that Spandrell would follow the general example.
'But this is impossible!' cried Lucy. 'Rampion, I simply cannot allow it.'
Mark Rampion only laughed. These professional sirens! he thought. She left him entirely cold, she repelled him. In desperation Lucy even appealed to the woman of the party.
'Mrs Rampion, you must stay. Five minutes more. Only five minutes,' she coaxed.
In vain. The waiter opened the side door. Furtively they slipped out into the darkness.
'Why will they insist on going?' asked Lucy, plaintively.
'Why will we insist on staying?' echoed Spandrell. Walter's heart sank; that meant the man didn't intend to go. 'Surely, that's much more incomprehensible.'
Utterly incomprehensible! On Walter the heat and alcohol were having their usual effects. He was feeling ill as well as miserable. What was the point of sitting on, hopelessly, in this poisonous air? Why not go home at once. Marjorie would be pleased.
'You, at least, are faithful, Walter.' Lucy gave him a smile. He decided to postpone his departure. There was a silence.
* * * *
Cuthbert and his companions had taken a cab. Refusing all invitations, the Rampions had preferred to walk.
'Thank heaven!' said Mary as the taxi drove away. 'That dreadful Arkwright!'
'Ah, but that woman's worse,' said Rampion. 'She gives me the creeps. That poor silly little Bidlake boy. Like a rabbit in front of a weasel.'
'That's male trade unionism. I rather like her for making you men squirm a bit. Serves you right.'
'You might as well like cobras.' Rampion's zoology was wholly symbolical.
'But if it's a matter of creeps,' what about Spandrell? He's like a gargoyle, a demon.'
'He's like a silly schoolboy,' said Rampion emphatically. 'He's never grown up. Can't you see that? He's a permanent adolescent. Bothering his head about all the things that preoccupy adolescents. Not being able to live, because he's too busy thinking about death and God and truth and mysticism and all the rest of it; too busy thinking about sins and trying to commit them and being disappointed because he's not succeeding. It's deplorable. The man's a sort of Peter Pan - much worse even than Barrie's disgusting little abortion, because he's got stuck at a sillier age. He's Peter Pan à la Dostoevsky-cum-de Musset-cum-the-Nineties-cum-Bunyan-cum-Byron and the Marquis de Sade. Really deplorable. The more so as he's potentially a very decent human being.'
Mary laughed. 'I suppose I shall have to take your word for it.'
* * * *
'By the way,' said Lucy, turning to Spandrell. 'I had a message from your mother.' She gave it. Spandrell nodded, but made no comment.
'And the General? he enquired as soon as she had finished speaking. He wanted no more said about his mother.
'Oh, the General!' Lucy made a grimace. 'I had at least half an hour of Military Intelligence this evening. Really, he oughtn't to be allowed. What about a Society for the Prevention of Generals?'
'I'm an honorary and original member.'
'Or why not the Prevention of the Old, while one was about it?' Lucy went on. 'The old really aren't possible. Except your father, Walter. He's perfect. Really perfect. The only possible old man.'
'One of the few completely impossible, if you only knew.' Among the Bidlake's of Walter's generation the impossibility of old John was almost axiomatic. 'You wouldn't find him quite so perfect if you'd been his wife or his daughter.' As he uttered the words, Walter suddenly remembered Marjorie. The blood rushed to his cheeks.
'Oh, of course, if you will go and choose him as a husband or a father,' said Lucy, 'what can you expect? He's a possible old man just because he's been such an impossible husband and father. Most old people have had the life crushed out of them by their responsibilities. Your father never allowed himself to be squashed. He's had wives and children and all the rest. He's always lived as though he were a boy on the spree. Not very pleasant for the wives and children, I grant. But how delightful for the rest of us!'
'I suppose so,' said Walter. He had always thought of himself as so utterly unlike his father. But he was acting just as his father had acted.
'Think of him unfilially,'
'I'll try.' How should he think of himself?
'Do, and you'll see that I'm right. One of the few possible old men. Compare him with the others.' She shook her head. 'It's no good; you can't have any dealings with them.'
Spandrell laughed. 'You speak of the old as though they were Kaffirs or Eskimos.'
'Well, isn't that just about what they are? Hearts of gold, and all that. And wonderfully intelligent - in their way, and all things considered. But they don't happen to belong to our civilization. They're aliens. I shall always remember the time I went to tea with some Arab ladies in Tunis. So kind they were, so hospitable. But they would make me eat such uneatable cakes, and they talked French so badly, and there was nothing whatever to say to them, and they were so horrified by my short skirts and my lack of children. Old people always remind me of an Arab tea party. Do you suppose we shall be an Arab tea party when we're old?'
'Yes, and probably a death's head into the bargain,' said Spandrell. 'It's a question of thickening arteries.'
'But what makes the old such an Arab tea party is their ideas. I simply cannot believe that thick arteries will ever make me believe in God and morals and all the rest of it. I came out of the chrysalis during the War, when the bottom had been knocked out of everything. I don't see how our grandchildren could possibly knock it out any more thoroughly than it was knocked then. So where would the misunderstanding come in?'
'They might have put the bottom in again,' suggested Spandrell.
She was silent for a moment. 'I never thought of that.'
'Or else you might have put it in yourself. Putting the bottom in again is one of the traditional occupations of the aged.'
* * * *
The clock struck one and, like the cuckoo released from the bell, Simmons popped into the library, carrying a tray. Simmons was middle-aged and had that statesman-like dignity of demeanour which the necessity of holding the tongue and keeping the temper, of never speaking one's real mind and preserving appearances tends always to produce in diplomats, royal personages, high government officials and butlers. Noiselessly, he laid the table for two, and, announcing that his lordship's supper was served, retired. The day had been Wednesday; two grilled mutton chops were revealed when Lord Edward lifted the silver cover. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were chop days. On Tuesdays and Thursdays there was steak and chips. On Saturdays, as a treat, Simmons prepared a mixed grill. On Sundays he went out; Lord Edward had to be content with cold ham and tongue, and a salad.
'Curious,' said Lord Edward, as he handed Illidge his chop, 'curious that the sheep population doesn't rise. Not at the same rate as the human population. One would have expected ... seeing that the symbiosis is such a close ...' He chewed in silence.
'Mutton must be going out of fashion,' said Illidge. 'Like God,' he added provocatively, 'and the immortal soul.' Lord Edward was not to be baited. 'Not to mention the Victorian novelists,' Illidge went on. He had slipped on the stairs; and the only literature Lord Edward ever read was Dickens and Thackeray. But the Old Man calmly masticated. 'And innocent young girls.' Lord Edward took a scientific interest in the sexual activities of axolotls and chickens, guinea-pigs and frogs; but any reference to the corresponding activities of humans made him painfully uncomfortable. 'And purity,' Illidge continued, looking sharply into the Old Man's face, 'and virginities, and ...' He was interrupted and Lord Illidge saved from further persecution by the ringing of the telephone bell.
'I'll deal with it,' said Illidge jumping up from his place.
He put the receiver to his ear. 'Hullo!'
'Edward, is that you?' said a deep voice, not unlike Lord Edward's own. 'This is me, Edward, I've just this moment discovered a most extraordinary mathematical proof of the existence of God, or rather of ...'
'But this isn't Lord Edward,' shouted Illidge. 'Wait. I'll ask him to come.' He turned back to the Old Man. 'It's Lord Gattenden,' he said. 'He's just discovered a new proof of the existence of God.' He did not smile, his tone was grave. Gravity in the circumstances was the wildest derision. The statement made fun of itself. Laughing comment made it less, not more, ridiculous. Marvellous old imbecile! Illidge felt himself revenged for all the evening's humiliations. 'A mathematical proof,' he added, more seriously than ever.
'Oh dear!' exclaimed Lord Edward, as though something deplorable had happened. Telephoning always made him nervous. He hurried to the instrument. 'Charles, is that ...'
'Ah, Edward,' cried the disembodied voice of the head of the family from forty miles away at Gattenden. 'Such a really remarkable discovery. I wanted your opinion on it. About God. You know the formula, m over nought equals infinity, m being any positive number? Well, why not reduce the equation to a simpler form by multiplying both sides by nought? In which case you have m equals infinity times nought. That is to say that a positive number is the product of zero and infinity. Doesn't that demonstrate the creation of the universe by an infinite power out of nothing? Doesn't it?' The diaphragm of the telephone receiver was infected by Lord Gattenden's excitement, forty miles away. It talked with breathless speed; its questions were earnest and insistent. 'Doesn't it, Edward?' All his life the fifth marquess had been looking for the absolute. It was the only sort of hunting possible to a cripple. For fifty years he had trundled in his wheelchair at the hands of the elusive quarry. Could it be that he had now caught it, so easily, and in such an unlikely place as an elementary schoolbook on the theory of limits? It was something that justified excitement. 'What's your opinion, Edward?'
'Well,' began Lord Edward, and at the other end of the electrified wire, forty miles away, his brother knew, from the tone in which that single word was spoken, that it was no good. The Absolute's tail was still unsalted.
* * * *
'Talking about elders,' said Lucy, 'did I ever tell either of you that really marvellous story about my father?'
'The one about the conservatories.' The mere thought of the story made her smile.
'No, I never remember hearing about the conservatories,' said Spandrell, and Walter also shook his head.
'It was during the War,' Lucy began. 'I was getting on for eighteen, I suppose. Just launched. And by the way, somebody did almost literally break a bottle of champagne over me. Parties were rather feverish in those days, if you remember.'
Spandrell nodded and, though as a matter of fact he had been at school during the War, Walter also nodded, knowingly.
'One day,' Lucy continued, 'I got a message: Would I go upstairs and see his Lordship? It was unprecedented. I was rather alarmed. You know how the old imagine one lives. And how upset they are when they discover they've been wrong. The usual Arab tea party.' She laughed and, for Walter, her laughter laid waste to all the years before he had known her. To elaborate the history of their young and innocent loves had been one of his standing consolations. She had laughed; and now not even fancy could take pleasure in that comforting romance.
Spandrell nodded. 'So you went upstairs, feeling as though you were climbing a scaffold ...'
'And found my father in his library, pretending to read. My arrival really terrified him. Poor man! I never saw anyone so horribly embarrassed and distressed. You can imagine how his terrors increased mine. Such strong feelings must surely have an adequate cause. What could it be? Meanwhile, he suffered agonies. If his sense of duty hadn't been so strong, I believe he would have told me to go away again at once. You should have seen his face!' The comic memories were too much for her. She laughed.
His elbow on the table, his head in his hand, Walter stared into his wine-glass. The bright little bubbles came rushing to the surface one by one, purposively, as though determined at all costs to be free and happy. He did not dare to raise his eyes. The sight of Lucy's laughter-distorted face, he was afraid, might make him do something stupid - cry aloud, or burst into tears.
'Poor man!' repeated Lucy, and the words came out on a puff of explosive mirth. 'He could hardly speak for terror.' Suddenly changing her tone, she mimicked Lord Edward's deep blurred voice bidding her sit down, telling her (stammeringly and with painful hesitations) that he had something to talk to her about. The mimicry was admirable. Lord Edward's embarrassed phantom was sitting at their table.
'Admirable!' Spandrell applauded. And even Walter had to laugh; but the depths of his unhappiness remained undisturbed.
'It must have taken him a good five minutes,' Lucy went on, 'to screw himself up to the talking point. I was in an agony, as you can imagine. But guess what it was he wanted to say?'
'Guess.' And all at once Lucy began to laugh again, uncontrollably. She covered her face with her hands, her whole body shook, as though she were passionately weeping. 'It's too good,' she gasped, dropping her hands and leaning back in her chair. Her face still worked with laughter; there were tears on her cheeks. 'Too good.' She opened the little beaded bag that lay on the table in front of her and, taking out a handkerchief, began to wipe her eyes. A gust of perfume came out with the handkerchief, reinforcing those faint memories of gardenias that surrounded her, that moved with her wherever she went like a second ghastly personality. Walter looked up; the strong gardenia perfume was in his nostrils; he was breathing what was for him the very essence of her being, the symbol of her power, of his own insane desires. He looked at her with a kind of terror.
'He told me,' Lucy went on, still laughing spasmodically, still dabbing at her eyes, 'he told me that he had heard that I sometimes allowed young men to kiss me at dances, in conservatories. Conservatories!' she repeated. 'What a wonderful touch! So marvellously in period. The 'eighties. The old Prince of Wales. Zola's novels. Conservatories! Poor dear man! He said he hoped I wouldn't let it happen again. My mother'd be so dreadfully distressed if she knew. Oh dear, oh dear!' She drew a deep breath. The laughter finally died down.
Walter looked at her and breathed her perfume, breathed his own desires and the terrible power of her attraction. And it seemed to him that he was seeing her for the first time. Now for the first time - with the half-emptied glass in front of her, the bottle, the dirty ashtray; now, as she leaned back in her chair, exhausted with laughter, and wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes.
'Conservatories,' Spandrell was repeating. 'Conservatories. Yes, that's very good. That's very good indeed.'
'Marvellous,' said Lucy. 'The old are really marvellous. But hardly possible, you must admit. Except, of course, Walter's father.'
* * * *
John Bidlake climbed slowly up the stairs. He was very tired. 'These awful parties,' he was thinking. He turned on the light in his bedroom. Over the mantelpiece one of Degas's realistically unlovely women sat in her round tin bath trying to scrub her back. On the opposite wall a little girl by Renoir played the piano between a landscape of his own and one of Walter Sickert's visions of Dieppe. Above the bed hung two caricatures of himself by Max Beerbohm and another by Rouveyre. There was a decanter of brandy on the table, with a siphon and a glass. Two letters were propped conspicuously against the edge of the tray. He opened them. The first contained press cuttings about his latest show. The Daily Mail called him 'the veteran of British Art' and assured its readers that 'his hand has lost nothing of its cunning'. He crumpled up the cutting and threw it angrily into the fireplace. The next was from one of the superior weeklies. The tone was almost contemptuous. He was judged by his own earlier performances and condemned. 'It is difficult to believe that works so cheap and flashy - ineffectively flashy, at that - as those collected in the present exhibition should have been produced by the painter of the Tate Gallery 'Haymakers' and the still more magnificent 'Bathers', now at Tantamount House. In these empty and trivial pictures we look in vain for those qualities of harmonious balance, of rhythmic calligraphy, of three-dimensional plasticity which ...' What a rigmarole! What tripe! He threw the whole bunch of cuttings after the first. But his contempt for the critics could not completely neutralize the effects of their criticism. 'Veteran of British Art' - it was the equivalent of 'poor old Bidlake'. And when they complimented him on his hand having lost none of its cunning, they were patronizingly assuring him that he still painted wonderfully well for an old dotard in his second childhood. The only difference between the hostile and the favourable critic was that one said brutally in so many words what the other implied in his patronizing compliment. He almost wished that he had never painted those Bathers.
He opened the other envelope. It contained a letter from his daughter Elinor. It was dated from Lahore:
'The bazaars are the genuine article - maggoty. What with the pollulations and the smells, it is like burrowing through a cheese. From the artist's point of view, the distressing thing about all this oriental business is that it's exactly like that painting of Eastern scenes they did in France in the middle of the last century [19th]. You know the stuff, smooth and shiny, like those pictures that used to be painted on tea canisters. When you're here, you see that the style is necessary. The brown skin makes the faces uniform and the sweat puts a polish on the skin. One would have to paint with a surface at least as slick as an Ingres.'
He read on with pleasure. The girl always had something amusing to say in her letters. She saw things with the right sort of eye. But suddenly he frowned.
'Yesterday, who should come to see us but John Bidlake Junior. We had imagined him in Waziristan; but he was down here on leave. I hadn't seen him since I was a little girl. You can imagine my surprise when an enormous military gentleman with a grey moustache stalked in and called me by my Christian name. He had never seen Phil, of course. We killed such fatted calves as this hotel can offer in honour of the prodigal brother.'
John Bidlake leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. The enormous military man with the grey moustache was his son. Young John was fifty. Fifty. There had been a time when fifty seemed a Methusalem age. 'If Manet hadn't died prematurely ...' He remembered the words of his old teacher at the art school in Paris. 'But did Manet die so young?' The old man had shaken his head. (Old? John Bidlake reflected. He had seemed very old then. But probably he wasn't more than sixty.) 'Manet was only fifty-one,' the teacher had answered. He had found it difficult to restrain his laughter. And now his own son was the age of Manet when Manet died. An enormous military gentleman with a grey moustache. And his brother was dead and buried at the other side of the world, in California. Cancer of the intestine. Elinor had met his son at Santa Barbara - a young man with a rich young wife, evading the Prohibition laws to the tune of a bottle of gin a day between them.
John Bidlake thought of his first wife, the mother of the military gentleman and the Californian who had died of cancer of the intestine. He was only twenty-two when he married for the first time. Rose was not yet twenty. They loved one another frantically, with a tigerish passion. They quarrelled too, quarrelled rather enjoyably at first, when the quarrels could be made up in effusions of sensuality as violent as the furies they assuaged. But the charm began to wear off when the children arrived, two of them within twenty-five months. There was not enough money to keep the brats at a distance, to hire professionals to do the tiresome and dirty work. John Bidlake's paternity was no sinecure. His studio became a nursery. Very soon, the results of passion - the yelling and the wetted diapers, the broken sleep, the smells - disgusted him of passion. Moreover, the object of his passion was no longer the same. After the babies were born, Rose began to put on fat. Her face became heavy; her body swelled and sagged. The quarrels, now, were not so easily made up. At the same time, they were more frequent; paternity got on John Bidlake's nerves. His art provided him with a pretext for going to Paris. He went for a fortnight and stayed away four months. The quarrels began again on his return. Rose now frankly disgusted him. His models offered him facile consolations; he had a more serious love affair with a married woman who had come to him to have her portrait painted. Life at home was a dreariness tempered by scenes. After a particularly violent scene Rose packed up and went to live with her parents. She took the children with her; John Bidlake was only too delighted to be rid of them. The elder of the squalling diaper-wetters was now an enormous military gentleman with a grey moustache. And the other was dead of cancer of the intestine. He had not seen either of them since they were boys of five-and-twenty. The sons had stuck to their mother. She too was dead, had been in the grave these fifteen years.
Once bitten, twice shy. After his divorce John Bidlake had promised himself that he would never marry again. But when one falls desperately in love with a virtuous young woman of good family, what can one do? He had married, and those two brief years with Isabel had been the most extraordinary, the most beautiful, the happiest of all his life. And then she had died in childbirth, pointlessly. He did his best never to think of her. The recollection was too painful. Between her remembered image and the moment of remembering, the abysses of time and separation were vaster than any other gulf between the present and the past. And by comparison with the past which he had shared with Isabel every present seemed dim; and her death was a horrible reminder of the future. He never spoke of her, and all that might remind him of her - her letters, her books, the furniture of her room - he destroyed or sold. He wished to ignore all but here and now, to be as though he had only just entered the world and were destined to be eternal. But his memory survived, even though he never deliberately made use of it; and though the things which had been Isabel's were destroyed, he could not guard against chance reminders. Chance had found many gaps in his defences this evening. The widest breach was opened by this letter of Elinor's. Sunk in his armchair, John Bidlake sat for a long time, unmoving.
* * * *
Polly Logan sat in front of the looking-glass. As she drew the comb through her hair there was a fine small crackling of electric sparks.
'Little sparks, like a tiny battle, tiny, tiny ghosts shooting. Tiny battle, tiny ghost of a battle-rattle.'
Polly pronounced the words in a sonorous monotone, as though she were reciting to an audience. She lingered lovingly over them, rolling the r's, hissing on the s's, humming like a bee on the m's, drawing out the long vowels and making them round and pure. 'Ghost rattle of ghost rifles, in-fin-it-es-imal ghost cannonade.' Lovely words! It gave her a peculiar satisfaction to be able to roll them out, to listen with an appreciative, a positively gluttonous ear, to the rumble of the syllables as they were absorbed into the silence. Polly had always liked talking to herself. It was a childish habit which she would not give up. 'But if it amuses me,' she protested, when people laughed at her for it, 'why shouldn't I? It does nobody any harm.'
She refused to let herself be laughed out of the habit.
'Electric, electric,' she went on, dropping her voice, and speaking in a dramatic whisper. 'Electrical musketry, metrical biscuitry. Ow!' The comb had caught in a tangle. She leaned forward to see more clearly in the glass what she was doing. The reflected face approached. 'Ma chère,' exclaimed Polly in another tone, 'tu as l'air fatigué. Tu es vieille. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. At your age. Tz, tz!' She clicked her tongue disapprovingly against her teeth and shook her head. 'This won't do, this won't do. Still, you looked all right tonight. "My dear, how sweet you look in white!"' She imitated Mrs Betterton's emphatic voice. 'Same to you and many of them. Do you think I shall look like an elephant when I'm sixty? Still, I suppose one ought to be grateful even for an elephant's compliments. "Count your blessings, count them one by one."' she chanted softly, '"and it will surprise you what the Lord has done." Oh, heavens, heavens!' She put down her comb, she violently shuddered and covered her face with her hands. 'Heavens!' She felt the blood rushing up into her cheeks. 'The gaffe! The enormous and ghastly floater!' She had thought suddenly of Lady Edward. Of course she had overheard. 'How could I have risked saying that about her being a Canadian?' Polly moaned, overwhelmed with retrospective shame and embarrassment. 'That's what comes of wanting to say something clever at any cost. And then think of wasting attempted cleverness on Norah! Norah! Oh Lord, oh Lord!' She jumped up and pulling her dressing-gown round her as she went, hurried down the corridor to her mother's room. Mrs Logan was already in bed and had turned out the light. Polly opened the door and stepped into darkness.
'Mother,' she called, 'mother!' Her tone was urgent and agonized.
'What is it?' Mrs Logan answered anxiously out of the dark. She sat up and fumbled for the electric switch by the bed. 'What is it?' The light went on with a click. 'What is it, my darling?'
Polly threw herself down on the bed and hid her face against her mother's knees. 'Oh, mother, if you knew what a terrible floater I made with Lady Edward! If you knew! I forgot to tell you.'
Mrs Logan was almost angry that her anxiety had been for nothing. When one has put forth all one's strength to raise what seems an enormous weight, it is annoying to find that the dumbbell is made of cardboard and could have been lifted between two fingers. 'Was it necessary to come and wake me up out of my first sleep to tell me?' she asked crossly.
Polly looked up at her mother. 'I'm sorry, mother,' she said repentantly. 'But if you knew what an awful floater it was!'
Mrs Logan could not help laughing.
'I couldn't have gone to sleep if I hadn't told you,' Polly went on.
'And I mayn't go to sleep until you have.' Mrs Logan tried to be severe and sarcastic. But her eyes, her smile betrayed her.
Polly took her mother's hand and kissed it. 'I knew you wouldn't mind,' she said.
'I do mind. Very much.'
'It's no good trying to bluff me,' said Polly. 'But now I must tell you about the floater.'
Mrs Logan heaved the parody of a sigh of resignation and, pretending to be overwhelmed with sleepiness, closed her eyes. Polly talked. It was after half-past two before she went back to her room. They had discussed, not only the floater and Lady Edward, but the whole party, and everyone who was there. Or rather Polly had discussed and Mrs Logan had listened, had laughed and laughingly protested when her daughter's comments became too exuberantly high-spirited.
'But Polly, Polly,' she had said, 'you really mustn't say that people look like elephants.'
'But Mrs Betterton does look like an elephant,' Polly had replied. 'It's the truth.' And in her dramatic stage whisper she had added, rising from fancy to still more preposterous fancy: 'Even her nose is like a trunk.'
'But she's got a short nose.'
Polly's whisper had become more gruesome. 'An amputated trunk. They bit it off when she was a baby. Like puppies' tails.'
For valued clients, Sbisa never closed his restaurant. They could sit there, in spite of the law, and consume intoxicating poisons as far into the small hours as they liked. An extra waiter came on at midnight to attend to the valued clients who wished to break the law. Old Sbisa saw to it that their value, to him, was very high. Alcohol was cheaper at the Ritz than at Sbisa's.
It was about half-past one - 'only half-past one,' Lucy complained - when she and Walter and Spandrell left the restaurant.
'Still young,' was Spandrell's comment on the night. 'Young and rather insipid. Nights are like human beings - never interesting till they're grown up. Round about midnight they reach puberty. At a little after one they come of age. Their prime is from two to half-past. An hour later they're growing rather desperate, like those man-eating women and waning middle-aged men who hop around twice as violently as they ever did in the hope of persuading themselves that they're not old. After four their in full decay. And their death is horrible. Really horrible at sunrise, when the bottles are empty and people look like corpses and desire's exhausted itself into disgust. I have rather a weakness for the deathbed scenes, I must confess,' Spandrell added.
'I'm sure you have,' said Lucy.
'And it's only in the light of ends that you can judge beginnings and middles. The night has just come of age. It remains to be seen how it will die. Till then, we can't judge it.'
Walter knew how it would die for him - in the midst of Marjorie's tears and his own complicated misery and exasperation, in an explosion of self-hatred and hatred for the woman to whom he had been cruel. He knew, but would not admit his knowledge; nor that it was already half-past one and that Marjorie would be awake and anxiously wondering why he hadn't returned.
At five to one Walter had looked at his watch and declared that he must go. What was the good of staying? Spandrell was immovable. There was no prospect of his having a moment alone with Lucy. He lacked even the justification for making Marjorie suffer. He was torturing her, not that he might be happy, but that he might feel bored, ill, exasperated, impatiently wretched..
'I must really go,' he had said, standing up.
But Lucy had protested, cajoled, commanded. In the end he sat down again. That had been more than half an hour ago and now they were out in Soho Square, and the evening, according to Lucy and Spandrell, had hardly begun.
'I think it's time,' Spandrell had said to Lucy, 'that you saw what a revolutionary communist looked like.'
Lucy demanded nothing better.
'I belong to a sort of club,' Spandrell explained. He offered to take them in with him.
'There'll still be a few enemies of society on view, I expect,' he went on, as they stepped out into the refreshing darkness. 'Good fellows mostly. But absurdly childish. Some of them seem genuinely to believe that a revolution would make people happier. It's charming, it's positively touching.' He uttered his noiseless laugh. 'But I'm an aesthete in these matters. Dynamite for dynamite's sake.'
'But what's the point of dynamite, if you don't believe in Utopia?' asked Lucy.
'The point? But haven't you eyes?'
Lucy looked round her. 'I see nothing particularly frightful.'
'They have eyes and see not.' He halted, took her arm with one hand and with the other pointed round the square. 'The deserted pickle factory, transformed into a dance hall; the lying-in hospital; Sbisa's; the publishers of Who's Who. And once,' he added, 'the Duke of Monmouth's palace. You can imagine the ghosts.
'Whether inspired by some diviner lust,
His father got him with a keener gust ...'
And so forth. You know the portrait of him after the execution, lying on a bed, with the sheet up to his chin, so that you can't see the place where the neck was cut through? By Kneller. Or was it Lely? Monmouth and pickles, lying-in and Who's Who, and dancing and Sbisa's champagne - think of them a little, think of them.'
'I'm thinking of them,' said Lucy. 'Hard.'
They walked on. At the door of a little house in St Giles's Spandrell called a halt. 'Wait a moment,' he said, beckoning the others back into the darkness. He rang. The door opened at once. There was a brief parleying in the shadows; then Spandrell turned and called to his companions. They followed him into a dark hall, up a flight of stairs and into a brightly-lighted room on the first floor. Two men were standing near the fireplace, a turbaned Indian and a little man with red hair. At the sound of footsteps they turned round. The red-haired man was Illidge.
'Spandrell? Bidlake?' he raised his invisibly sandy eyebrows in astonishment. And what's that woman doing here? he wondered.
Lucy came forward with outstretched hand. 'We're old acquaintances,' she said with a smile of friendly recognition.
Illidge, who was preparing to make his face look coldly hostile, found himself smiling back at her.
* * * *
A taxi turned into the street, suddenly and startlingly breaking the silence. Marjorie sat up in bed, listening. The hum of the engine grew louder and louder. It was Walter's taxi; this time she felt sure of it, she knew. Nearer it came and nearer. At the bottom of the little hill on the right of the house, the driver changed down to a lower gear; the engine hummed more shrilly, like an angry wasp. Nearer and nearer. She was possessed by an anxiety that was of the body as well as of the mind. She felt breathless, her heart beat strongly and irregularly - beat, beat, beat and then it seemed to fail; the expected beat did not make itself felt; it was as though a trapdoor had been opened beneath her into the void; she knew the terror of emptiness, of falling, falling - and the next retarded beat was the impact of her body against solid earth. Nearer, nearer. She almost dreaded, though she had so unhappily longed for, his return. She dreaded the emotions she would feel at the sight of him; the tears she would shed, the reproaches she would find herself uttering, in spite of herself. And what would he say and do, what would be his thoughts? She was afraid of imagining. Nearer; the sound was just below her windows; it retreated, it diminished. And she had been so certain that it was Walter's taxi. She lay down again. If only she could have slept. But that physical anxiety of her body would not allow her. The blood thumped in her ears. Her skin was hot and dry. Her eyes ached. She lay quite still, on her back, her arms crossed on her breast, like a dead woman laid out for burial. Sleep, sleep, she whispered to herself; she imagined herself relaxed, smoothed out, asleep. But suddenly, a malicious hand seemed to pluck at her taut nerves. A violent tic contracted the muscles of her limbs; she started as though with terror. And the physical reaction of fear evoked an emotion of terror in her mind, quickening and intensifying the anxiety of unhappiness which, all the time, had underlain her conscious efforts to achieve tranquillity. 'Sleep, sleep, relax' - it was useless to go on trying to be calm, to forget, to sleep. She allowed her misery to come to the surface of her mind. 'Why should he want to make me so unhappy?' She turned her head. The luminous hands of the clock on the little table beside her bed marked a quarter to three. A quarter to three - and he knew she could never go to sleep before he came in. 'He knows I'm ill,' she said aloud. 'Doesn't he care?'
A new thought suddenly occurred to her. 'Perhaps he wants me to die.' To die, not to be, not to see his face any more, to leave him with that other woman. The tears came into her eyes. Perhaps he was deliberately trying to kill her. It was not in spite of her being ill that he treated her like this; it was because she suffered so much, it was precisely because she was ill. He was cruel with a purpose. He hoped, he intended that she should die; die and leave him in peace with that other woman. She pressed her face against the pillow and sobbed. Never see him again, never any more. Darkness, loneliness, death, for ever. For ever and ever. And on top of everything, it was all so unfair. Was it her fault that she couldn't afford to dress well?
'If I could afford to buy the clothes she buys.' Chanel, Lanvin, - the pages of Vogue floated before her eyes - Molyneux, Groult ... At one of those cheap-smart shops where cocottes buy their clothes, off Shaftsbury Avenue, there was a model for sixteen guineas. 'He likes her because she's attractive. But if I had the money ...' It wasn't fair. He was making her pay for not being well off. She had to suffer because he didn't earn enough to buy her good clothes.
And then there was the baby. He was making her pay for that. His child. He was bored with her, because she was always tired and ill; he didn't like her any more. That was the greatest injustice of all.
A cell had multiplied itself and become a worm, the worm had become a fish, the fish was turning into the foetus of a mammal. Marjorie felt sick and tired. Fifteen years hence a boy would be confirmed. Enormous in his robes, like a full-rigged ship, the Bishop would say: 'Do ye here in the presence of God, and of this congregation, renew the solemn promise and vow that was made in your name at your Baptism?' And the ex-fish would answer with passionate conviction: 'I do.'
For the thousandth time she wished she were not pregnant. Walter might not succeed in killing her now. But perhaps it would happen in any case, when the child was born. The doctor had said it would be difficult for her to have the baby. The pelvis was narrow. Death reappeared before her, a great pit at her feet.
A sound made her start violently. The outside door of the flat was being furtively opened. The hinges squeaked. There were muffled footsteps. Another squeak, the hardly perceptible click of the spring latch being carefully let back into place, then more footsteps. Another click and simultaneously the light showed yellow under the door that separated her room from his. Did he mean to go to bed without coming to bid her goodnight? She lay quite still, quiveringly awake, her eyes wide open, listening to the noises that came from the other room and to the quick terrified beating of her own heart.
Walter sat on the bed unlacing his shoes. He was wondering why he had not come home three hours before, why he had ever gone out at all. He hated a crowd; alcohol disagreed with him and the twice-breathed air, the smell, the smoke of restaurants acted on him like a depressing poison. He had suffered to no purpose; except for those painful exasperating moments in the taxi, he had not been alone with Lucy the whole evening. The hours he had spent with her had been hours of boredom and impatience - endlessly long, minute after minute of torture. And the torture of desire and jealousy had been reinforced by the torture of self-conscious guilt. Every minute they lingered at Sbisa's, every minute among the revolutionaries, was a minute that retarded the consummation of his desire and that, increasing Marjorie's unhappiness, increased at the same time his own remorse and shame. It was after three when finally they left the club. Would she dismiss Spandrell and let him drive her home? He looked at her; his eyes were eloquent. He willed, he commanded.
'There'll be sandwiches and drinks at my house,' said Lucy, when they were in the street.
'That's very welcome news,' said Spandrell.
'Come along,' Walter darling. 'She took his hand, she pressed it affectionately.'
Walter shook his head. 'I must go home.' If misery could kill, he would have died there in the street.
'But you can't desert us now,' she protested. 'Now that you've got thus far, you really must see it through. Come along.' She tugged at his hand.
'No, no.' But what she said was true. He could hardly make Marjorie any more wretched than he had certainly done already. If she weren't there, he thought, if she were to die - a miscarriage, bloodpoisoning ...
Spandrell looked at his watch. 'Half-past three. The death rattle has almost started.' Walter listened in horror; was the man reading his thoughts? 'Munie des conforts de notre sainte religion. Your place is at the bedside, Walter. You can't go and leave the night to die like a dog in a ditch.'
Like a dog in a ditch. The words were terrible, they condemned him. 'I must go.' He was firm, three hours too late. He walked away. In Oxford Street he found a taxi. Hoping, he knew vainly, to come home unobserved, he paid off the cab at Chalk Farm station and walked the last furlong to the door of the house in which he and Marjorie occupied the two upper floors. He had crept upstairs, he had opened the door with the precautions of a murderer. No sound from Marjorie's room. He undressed, he washed as though he were performing a dangerous operation. He turned out the light and got into bed. The darkness was utterly silent. He was safe.
It was with the feelings of a condemned criminal when the warders come to wake him on the morning of his execution that he answered, putting an imitation of astonishment into his voice. 'Are you awake, Marjorie?' He got up and walked, as though from the condemned cell to the scaffold, into her room.
'Do you want to make me die, Walter?'
Like a dog in a ditch, alone. He made as if to take her in his arms. Marjorie pushed him away. Her misery had momentarily turned to anger, her love to a kind of hatred and resentment. 'Don't be a hypocrite on top of everything else,' she said. 'Why can't you tell me frankly that you hate me, that you'd like to get rid of me, that you'd be glad if I died? Why can't you be honest and tell me?'
'But why should I tell you what isn't true?' he protested.
'Are you going to tell me that you love me, then?' she asked sarcastically.
He almost believed it while he said so; and besides it was true, in a way.
'But I do, I do. This other thing's a kind of madness. I don't want to. I can't help it. If you knew how wretched I felt, what an unspeakable brute.' All that he had ever suffered from thwarted desire, from remorse and shame and self-hatred seemed to be crystallized by his words into a single agony. He suffered and he pitied his own sufferings. 'If you knew, Marjorie.' And suddenly something in his body seemed to break. An invisible hand took him by the throat, his eyes were blinded with tears and a power within him that was not himself shook his whole frame and wrenched from him, against his will, a muffled and hardly human cry.
At the sound of this dreadful sobbing in the darkness beside her, Marjorie's anger suddenly fell. She only knew that he was unhappy, that she loved him. She even felt remorse for her anger, for the bitter words she had spoken.
'Walter. My darling.' She stretched out her hands, she drew him down towards her. He lay there like a child in the consolation of her embrace.
* * * *
'Do you enjoy tormenting him?' Spandrell enquired, as they walked towards the Charing Cross Road..
'Tormenting whom?' said Lucy. 'Walter? But I don't.'
'But you don't let him sleep with you?' said Spandrell. Lucy shook her head. 'And then you say you don't torment him! Poor wretch!'
'But why should I have him, if I don't want to?'
'Why indeed? Meanwhile, however, keeping him dangling's mere torture.'
'But I like him,' said Lucy. 'He's such good company. Too young, of course; but really rather perfect. And I assure you, I don't torment him. He torments himself.'
Spandrell delayed his laughter long enough to whistle for the taxi he had seen at the end of the street. The cab wheeled round and came to a halt in front of them. 'Still, he only gets what's due to him,' Spandrell went on from his dark corner. 'He's the real type of murderee.'
'It takes two to make a murder. There are born victims, born to have their throats cut, as the cut-throats are born to be hanged. You can see it in their faces.. There's a victim type as well as a criminal type. Walter's the obvious victim; he fairly invites maltreatment.'
'And it's one's duty,' Spandrell went on, 'to see that he gets it.'
'Why not to see that he doesn't get it, poor lamb?'
'One should always be on the side of destiny. Walter's manifestly born to catch it. It's one's duty to give his fate a helping hand. Which I'm glad to see you're already doing.'
'But I tell you, I'm not. Have you a light?' Spandrell struck a match. The cigarette between her thin lips, she leaned forward to drink the flame. He had seen her leaning like this, with the same swift, graceful and ravenous movement, leaning towards him to drink his kisses. And the face that approached him now was focused and intent on the flame, as he had seen it focused and intent upon the inner illumination of approaching pleasure. There are many thoughts and feelings, but only a few gestures; and the mask has only half-a-dozen grimaces to express a thousand meanings. She drew back; Spandrell threw the match out of the window. The red cigarette end brightened and faded in the darkness.
'Do you remember that curious time of ours in Paris?' he asked, still thinking of her intent and eager face. Once, three years before, he had been in love for perhaps a month.
Lucy nodded. 'I remember it as rather perfect, while it lasted. But you were horribly fickle.'
'In other words I didn't make as much of an outcry as you hoped I would, when you went off with Tom Trivet.'
'That's a lie!' Lucy was indignant. 'You'd begun to fade away long before I even dreamt of Tom.'
'Well, have it your own way. As a matter of fact you weren't enough of a murderee for my taste.' There was nothing of the victim about Lucy; not much even, he had often reflected, of the ordinary woman. She could pursue her pleasure as a man pursues his, remorselessly, single-mindedly, without allowing her thoughts and feelings to be in the least involved. Spandrell didn't like to be used and exploited for someone else's entertainment. He wanted to be the user. But with Lucy there was no possibility of slave-holding. 'I'm like you,' he added. 'I need victims.'
'The implication being that I'm one of the criminals?'
'I thought we'd agreed to that long ago, my dear Lucy.'
'I've never agreed to anything in my life,' she protested, 'and never will. Not for more than half an hour at a time, at any rate.'
'It was in Paris, do you remember? At the Chaumière. There was a young man painting his lips at the next table.'
'Wearing a platinum and diamond bracelet.' She nodded, smiling. 'And you called me an angel, or something.'
'A bad angel,' he qualified, 'a born bad angel.'
'For an intelligent man, Maurice, you talk a lot of drivel. Do you genuinely believe that some things are right and some wrong?'
Spandrell took her hand and kissed it. 'Dear Lucy,' he said, 'you're magnificent. And you must never bury your talents. Well done, thou good and faithful succubus!' He kissed her hand again. 'Go on doing your duty as you've already done it. That's all heaven asks of you.'
'I merely try to amuse myself.' The cab drew up in front of her little house in Bruton Street. 'God knows,' she added, as she stepped out, 'without much success. Here, I've got money.' She handed the driver a ten-shilling note. Lucy insisted, when she was with men, on doing as much of the paying as possible. Paying, she was independent, she could call her own tune. 'And nobody gives me much help,' she went on, as she fumbled with her latchkey. 'You're all so astonishingly dull.'
In the dining-room a rich still-life of bottles, fruits and sandwiches was awaiting them. Round the polished flanks of the vacuum flask their reflections walked fantastically in a non-Euclidian universe. Professor Dewar had liquefied hydrogen in order that Lucy's soup might be kept hot for her into the small hours. Over the sideboard hung one of John Bidlake's paintings of the theatre. A curve of the gallery, a slope of faces, a corner of the bright proscenium.
'How good that is!' said Spandrell shading his eyes to see it more clearly.
Lucy made no comment. She was looking at herself in an old grey-glassed mirror.
'What shall I do when I'm old?' she suddenly asked.
'Why not die?' suggested Spandrell with his mouth full of bread and Strasbourg goose liver.
'I think I'll take to science, like the Old Man. Isn't there such a thing as human zoology? I'd get a bit tired of frogs. Talking of frogs,' she added, 'I rather liked that little carroty man - what's his name? - Illidge. How he does hate us for being rich!'
'Don't lump me in with the rich. If you knew ...' Spandrell shook his head. 'Let's hope she'll bring some cash when she comes tomorrow,' he was thinking, remembering the message Lucy had brought from his mother. He had written that the case was urgent.
'I like people who can hate,' Lucy went on.
'Illidge knows how to. He's fairly stuffed with theories and bile and envy. He longs to blow you all up.'
'Then why doesn't he? Why won't you? Isn't that what your club's there for?'
Spandrell shrugged his shoulders. 'There's a slight difference between theory and practice, you know. And when one's a militant communist and a scientific materialist and an admirer of the Russian Revolution, the theory's uncommonly queer. You should hear our young friend talking about murder! Political murder is what especially interests him, of course; but he doesn't make much distinction between the different branches of the profession. One kind, according to him, is as harmless and morally indifferent as another. Our vanity makes us exaggerate the importance of human life; the individual is nothing; Nature cares only for the species. And so on and so forth. Queer,' Spandrell commented parenthetically, 'how old-fashioned and even primitive the latest manifestations of art and politics generally are! Young Illidge talks like a mixture of Lord Tennyson in In Memoriam and a Mexican Indian, or a Malay trying to make up his mind to run amok. Justifying the most primitive, savage, animal indifference to life and individuality by means of obsolete scientific arguments. Very queer indeed.'
'But why should the science by obsolete?' asked Lucy. 'Seeing that he's a scientist himself ...'
'But also a communist. Which means he's committed to nineteenth-century materialism. You can't be a true communist without being a mechanist. You've got to believe that the only fundamental realities are space, time, and mass, and that all the rest is nonsense, mere illusion and mostly bourgeois illusion at that. Poor Illidge! He's sadly worried by Einstein and Eddington. And how he hates Henri Poincaré! How furious he gets with old Mach! They're undermining his simple faith. They're telling him that the laws of nature are useful conventions of strictly human manufacture and that space and time and mass themselves, the whole universe of Newton and his successors, are simply our own invention. The idea's as inexpressibly shocking and painful to him as the idea of the non-existence of Jesus would be to a Christian. He's a scientist, but his principles make him fight against any scientific theory that's less than fifty years old. It's exquisitely comic.'
'I'm sure it is,' said Lucy, yawning. 'That is, if you happen to be interested in theories, which I'm not.'
'But I am,' retorted Spandrell; 'so I don't apologize. But if you prefer it, I can give you examples of his practical inconsistencies. I discovered not long ago, quite accidentally, that Illidge has the most touching sense of family loyalty. He keeps his mother, he pays for his younger brother's education, he gave his sister fifty pounds when she married.'
'What's wrong in that?'
'Wrong? But it's disgustingly bourgeois! Theoretically he sees no distinction between his mother and any other female. He knows that, in a properly organized society, she'd be put into the lethal chamber, because of her arthritis. In spite of which he sends her I don't know how much a week to enable her to drag on a useless existence. I twitted him about it the other day. He blushed and was terribly upset, as though he'd been caught cheating at cards. So, to restore his prestige, he had to change the subject and begin talking about political murder and its advantages with the most wonderfully calm, detached, scientific ferocity. I only laughed at him. '"One of these days," I threatened, "I'll take you at your word and invite you to a man-shooting party." And what's more, I will.'
'Unless you just go on chattering, like everybody else.'
'Unless,' Spandrell agreed, 'I just go on chattering.'
'Let me know if you ever stop chattering and do something. It might be lively.'
'Deathly, if anything.'
'But the deathly sort of liveliness is the most lively, really.' Lucy frowned. 'I'm so sick of the ordinary conventional kinds of liveliness. Youth at the prow and pleasure at the helm. You know. It's silly, it's monotonous. Energy seems to have so few ways of manifesting itself nowadays. It was different in the past, I believe.'
'There was violence as well as love-making. Is that what you mean?'
'That's it.' She nodded. 'The liveliness wasn't so exclusively ... so exclusively bitchy, to put it bluntly.'
'They broke the sixth commandment too. There are too many policemen nowadays.'
'Many too many. They don't allow you to stir an eyelid. One ought to have had all the experiences.'
'But if none of them are either right or wrong - which is what you seem to feel - what's the point?'
'The point? But they might be amusing, they might be exciting.'
'They could never be very exciting if you didn't feel they were wrong.' Time and habit had taken the wrongness out of almost all the acts he had once thought sinful. He performed them as unenthusiastically as he would have performed the act of catching the morning train to the city. 'Some people,' he went on meditatively, trying to formulate the vague obscurities of his own feelings, 'some people can only realize goodness by offending against it.' But when the old offences have ceased to be felt as offences, what then? The argument pursued itself internally. The only solution seemed to be to commit new and progressively more serious offences, to have all the experiences, as Lucy would say in her jargon. 'One way of knowing God,' he concluded slowly, 'is to deny Him.'
'My good Maurice!' Lucy protested.
'I'll stop.' He laughed. 'But really, if it's a case of "my good Maurice"' (he imitated her tone), 'if you're equally unaware of goodness and offence against goodness, what is the point of having the sort of experiences the police interfere with?'
Lucy shrugged her shoulders. 'Curiosity. One's bored.'
'Alas, one is.' He laughed again. 'All the same, I do think the cobbler should stick to his task.'
'But what is my task?'
Spandrell grinned. 'Modesty,' he began, 'forbids ...'
Walter travelled down to Fleet Street feeling not exactly happy, but at least calm - calm with the knowledge that everything was now settled. Yes, everything had been settled; everything - for in the course of last night's emotional upheaval, everything had come to the surface. To begin with, he was never going to see Lucy again; that was definitely decided and promised, for his own good as well as for Marjorie's. Next he was going to spend all his evenings with Marjorie. And finally he was going to ask Burlap for more money. Everything was settled. The very weather seemed to know it. It was a day of white insistent mist, so intrinsically calm that all the noises of London seemed an irrelevance. The traffic roared and hurried, but somehow without touching the essential stillness and silence of the day. Everything was settled; the world was starting afresh - not very exultantly, perhaps, not at all brilliantly, but with resignation, with a determined calm that nothing could disturb.
Remembering the incident of the previous evening, Walter had expected to be coldly received at the office. But on the contrary, Burlap was in one of his most genial moods. He too remembered last night and was anxious that Walter should forget it. He called Walter 'old man' and squeezed his arm affectionately, looking up at him from his chair with those eyes that expressed nothing, but were just holes into the darkness inside his skull. His mouth, meanwhile, charmingly and subtly smiled. Walter returned the 'old man' and the smile, but with a painful consciousness of insincerity. Burlap always had that effect on him; in his presence, Walter never felt quite honest or genuine. It was a most uncomfortable sensation. With Burlap he was always, in some obscure fashion, a liar and a comedian. And at the same time all that he said, even when he was speaking his innermost convictions, became a sort of falsehood.
'I liked your article on Rimbaud,' Burlap declared, still pressing Walter's arm, still smiling up at him from his titled swivel chair.
'I'm glad,' said Walter, feeling uncomfortably that the remark wasn't really addressed to him, but to some part of Burlap's own mind which had whispered, 'You ought to say something nice about his article,' and was having its demands duly satisfied by another part of Burlap's mind.
'What a man!' exclaimed Burlap. 'That was someone who believed in Life, if you like!'
Ever since Burlap had taken over the editorship, the leaders of the Literary World had almost weekly proclaimed the necessity of believing in Life. Burlap's belief in Life was one of the things Walter found most disturbing. What did the words mean? Even now he hadn't the faintest idea. Burlap had never explained. You have to understand intuitively; if you didn't, you were as good as damned. He was never likely to forget his first interview with his future chief. 'I hear you're in want of an assistant editor,' he had shyly begun. Burlap nodded. Yes, I am.' And after an enormous and horrible silence, he suddenly looked up with his blank eyes and asked: 'Do you believe in Life?' Walter blushed to the roots of his hair and said, Yes. It was the only possible answer. There was another desert of speechlessness and then Burlap looked up again. 'Are you a virgin?' he enquired. Walter blushed yet more violently, hesitated and at least shook his head. It was only later that he discovered, from one of Burlap's own articles, that the man had been modelling his behaviour on that of Tolstoy - 'going straight to the great simple fundamental things,' as Burlap himself described the old Salvationist's soulful impertinences.
'Yes, Rimbaud certainly believed in Life,' Walter acquiesced feebly, feeling while he spoke the words as he felt when he had to write a formal letter of condolence. Talking about believing in Life was as bad as talking about grieving with you in your great bereavement.
'He believed in it so much,' Burlap went on, dropping his eyes (to Walter's great relief) and nodding as he ruminatively pronounced the words, 'so profoundly that he was prepared to give it up. That's how I interpret his abandonment of literature - as a deliberate sacrifice.' (He uses the big words too easily, thought Walter.) 'He that would save his life must lose it.' (Oh, oh!) 'To be the finest poet of your generation and, knowing it, to give up poetry - that's losing your life to save it. That's really believing in life. His faith was so strong, that he was prepared to lose his life, in the certainty of gaining a new and better one.' (Much too easily! Walter was filled with embarrassment.) 'A life of mystical contemplation and intuition. Ah, if only one knew what he did and thought in Africa, if only one knew!'
'He smuggled guns for the Emperor Menelik,' Walter had the courage to reply. 'And to judge from his letters, he seems to have thought chiefly about making enough money to settle down. He carried forty thousand francs in his belt. A stone and a half of gold round his loins.' Talking of gold, he was thinking, I really ought to speak to him about my screw.
But at the mention of Menelik's rifles and the forty thousand francs, Burlap smiled with an expression of Christian forgiveness. 'But do you really imagine,' he asked, 'that gun-running and money were what occupied his mind in the desert? The author of Les Illuminations?'
Walter blushed, as though he had been guilty of some nasty solecism. 'Those are the only facts we know,' he said self-excusingly.
'But there is an insight that sees deeper than the mere facts.' 'Deeper insight' was Burlap's pet name for his own opinion. 'He was realizing the new life, he was gaining the Kingdom of Heaven.'
'It's a hypothesis,' said Walter, wishing uncomfortably that Burlap had never read the New Testament.
'For me,' retorted Burlap, 'it's certainty. An absolute certainty.' He spoke very emphatically, he wagged his head with violence. 'A complete and absolute certainty,' he repeated, hypnotizing himself by the reiteration of the phrase into a fictitious passion of conviction. 'Complete and absolute.' He was silent; but within, he continued to lash himself with mystical fury. He thought of Rimbaud until he himself was Rimbaud. And then suddenly his devil popped out its grinning face and whispered, 'A stone and a half of gold round his loins.' Burlap exorcized the creature by changing the subject. 'Have you seen the new books for review?' he said, pointing to a double pile of volumes on the corner of the table. 'Yards of contemporary literature.' He became humorously exasperated. 'Why can't author's stop? It's a disease. It's a bloody flux, like what the poor lady suffered from in the Bible, if you remember.'
What Walter chiefly remembered was the fact that the joke was Philip Quarles's.
Burlap got up and began to look through the books. 'Pity the poor reviewer!' he said with a sigh.
The poor reviewer - wasn't that the cue for his little speech about salary? Walter nerved himself, focused his will. 'I was wondering,' he began.
But Burlap had almost simultaneously begun on his own account. 'I'll get Beatrice to come in,' he said and pressed the bell-push three times. 'Sorry. What were you saying?'
'Nothing.' The demand would have to be postponed. It couldn't be made in public, particularly when the public was Beatrice. Damn Beatrice! he thought unjustly. What business had she to do sub-editing and Shorter Notices for nothing? Just because she had a private income and adored Burlap.
'Walter had once complained to her, jokingly, of his miserable six pounds a week.
'But the World's worth making sacrifices for,' she rapped out. 'After all, one has a responsibility towards people; one ought to do something for them.' Echoed in her clear rapping voice, Burlap's Christian sentiments sounded, Walter thought, particularly odd. 'The World does do something; one ought to help.'
The obvious retort was that his own private income was very small and that he wasn't in love with Burlap. He didn't make it, however, but suffered himself to be pecked. Damn her, all the same!
Beatrice entered, a neat, plumply well-made little figure, very erect and business-like. 'Morning, Walter,' she said, and every word she uttered was like a sharp little rap with an ivory mallet over the knuckles. She examined him with her bright, rather protuberant brown eyes. 'You look tired,' she went on. 'Worn out, as though you'd been on the tiles last night.' Peck after peck. 'Were you?'
Walter blushed. 'I slept badly,' he mumbled and engrossed himself in a book.
They sorted out the volumes for the various reviewers. A little heap for the scientific expert, another for the accredited metaphysician, a whole mass for the fiction specialist. The largest pile was of Tripe. Tripe wasn't reviewed, or only got a Shorter Notice.
'Here's a book about Polynesia for you, Walter,' said Burlap generously. 'And a new anthology of French verse. No, one second thoughts, I think I'll do that.' On second thoughts he generally did keep the most interesting books for himself.
'The life of St Francis re-told for the Children by Bella Jukes. Theology or tripe?' asked Beatrice.
'Tripe,' said Walter looking over her shoulder.
'But I'd rather like an excuse to do a little article on St Francis,' said Burlap. In the intervals of editing, he was engaged on a full-length study of the Saint. 'St Francis and the Modern Psyche,' it was to be called. He took the little book from Beatrice and let the pages flick past under his thumb. 'Tripe-ish,' he admitted. 'But what an extraordinary man! Extraordinary!' He began to hypnotize himself, to lash himself up into the Franciscan mood.
'Extraordinary!' Beatrice rapped out, her eyes fixed on Burlap.
Walter looked at her curiously. Her ideas and her pecking goose-billed manner seemed to belong to two different people, between whom the only perceptible link was Burlap. Was there any inward, organic connection?
'What a devastating integrity!' Burlap went on, self-intoxicated. He shook his head and, sighing, sobered himself sufficiently to proceed with the morning's business.
When the opportunity came for Walter to talk (with what diffidence, what a squeamish reluctance!) about his salary, Burlap was wonderfully sympathetic.
'I know, old man,' he said, laying his hand on the other's shoulder with a gesture that disturbingly reminded Walter of the time when, as a schoolboy, he had played Antonio in The Merchant of Venice and the detestable Porter Major, disguised as Bessanio, has been coached to register friendship. 'I know what being hard up is.' His little laugh gave it to be understood that he was a Franciscan specialist in poverty, but was too modest to insist upon the fact. 'I know, old man.' And he really almost believed that he wasn't half owner and salaried editor of the World, that he hadn't a penny invested, that he had been living on two pounds a week for years. 'I wish we could afford to pay you three times as much as we do. You're worth it, old man.' He gave Walter's shoulder a pat.
Walter made a vague mumbling sound of deprecation. That little pat, he was thinking, was the signal for him to begin:
'I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for slaughter.'
'I wish for you sake,' Burlap continued, 'for mine too,' he added, putting himself with a rueful laugh in the same financial boat as Walter, 'that the paper did make more money. If you wrote worse, it might.' The compliment was graceful. Burlap emphasized it with another friendly pat and a smile. But the eyes expressed nothing. Meeting them for an instant, Walter had the strange impression that they were not looking at him at all, that they were not looking at anything. 'The paper's too good. It's largely your fault. One cannot serve God and mammon.'
'Of course not,' Walter agreed; but he felt again that the big words had come too easily.
'I wish one could.' Burlap spoke like a jocular St Francis pretending to make fun of his own principles.
Walter joined mirthlessly in the laughter. He was wishing that he had never mentioned the word 'salary'.
'I'll go and talk to Mr Chivers,' said Burlap. Mr Chivers was the business manager. Burlap made use of him, as the Roman statesman made use of oracles and augers, to promote his own policy. His unpopular decisions could always be attributed to Mr Chivers; and when he made a popular one, it was invariably made in the teeth of the business manager's soulless tyranny. Mr Chivers was a most convenient fiction. 'I'll go this morning.'
'Don't bother,' said Walter.
'If it's humanly possible to scrape up anything more for you ...'
'No, please.' Walter was positively begging not to be given more. 'I know the difficulties. Don't think I want ...'
'But we're sweating you, Walter, positively sweating you.' The more Walter protested, the more generous Burlap became. 'Don't think I'm not aware of it. I've been worrying about it for a long time.'
His magnanimity was infectious. Walter was determined not to take any more money, quite determined, even though he was sure the paper could afford to give it. 'Really, Burlap,' he almost begged, 'I'd much rather you left things as they are.' And then suddenly he thought of Marjorie. How unfairly he was treating her! Sacrificing her comfort to his. Because he found haggling distasteful, because he hated fighting on the one hand and accepting favours on the other, poor Marjorie would have to go without new clothes and a second maid.
But Burlap waved his objections aside. He insisted on being generous. 'I'll go and talk to Chivers at once. I think I can persuade him to let you have another twenty-five a year.'
Twenty-five. That was ten shillings a week. Nothing. Marjorie had said that he ought to stand out for at least another hundred. 'Thank you,' he said and despised himself for saying it.
'It's ridiculously little, I'm afraid. Quite ridiculous.'
That's what I ought to have said, thought Walter.
'One feels quite ashamed of offering it. But what can one do?' 'One' could obviously do nothing, for the good reason that 'one' was impersonal and didn't exist.
Walter mumbled something about being grateful. He felt humiliated and blamed Marjorie for it.
When Walter worked at the office, which was only three days a week, he sat with Beatrice. Burlap, in editorial isolation, sat alone. It was the day of Shorter Notices. Between them, on the table, stood the stacks of Tripe. They helped themselves. It was a Literary Feast - a feast of offal. Bad novels and worthless verses, imbecile systems of philosophy and platitudinous moralizings, insignificant biographies and boring books of travel, pietism so nauseating and children's books so vulgar and so silly that to read them was to feel ashamed for the whole human race - the pile was high, and every week it grew higher. The ant-like industry of Beatrice, Walter's quick discernment and facility were utterly inadequate to stem the rising flood. They settled down to their work 'like vultures,' said Walter, 'in the Towers of Silence.' What he wrote this morning was peculiarly pungent.
On paper Walter was all he failed to be in life. His reviews were epigrammatically ruthless. Poor earnest spinsters, when they read what he has written of their heartfelt poems about God and Passion and the Beauties of Nature, were cut to the quick by his brutal contempt. The big-game shooters who had so much enjoyed their African trip would wonder how the account of anything so interesting could be called tedious. The young novelists who had modelled their styles and their epical conceptions on those of the best authors, who had daringly uncovered the secrets of their most intimate and sexual life, were hurt, were amazed, were indignant to learn that their writing was stilted, their construction non-existent, their psychology unreal, their drama stagey and melodramatic. A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one; it comes as sincerely from the author's soul. But the bad author's soul being, artistically at any rate, of inferior quality, its sincerities will be, if not always intrinsically uninteresting, at any rate uninterestingly expressed, and the labour expended on the expression will be wasted. Nature is monstrously unjust. There is no substitute for talent. Industry and all the virtues are of no avail. Immersed in his Tripe, Walter ferociously commented on lack of talent. Conscious of their industry, sincerity and good artistic intentions, the authors of the Tripe felt themselves outrageously and unfairly treated.
Beatrice's methods of criticism were simple; she tried in every case to say what she imagined Burlap would say. In practice what happened was that she praised all books in which Life and its problems were taken, as she thought, seriously, and condemned all those in which they were not. She would have ranked Bailey's Festus higher than Candide, unless of course Burlap or some authoritative person had previously told her that it was her duty to prefer Candide. As she was never permitted to criticize anything but Tripe, her lack of all critical insight was of little importance.
They worked, they went out to lunch, they returned and set to work again. Eleven new books had arrived in the interval.
'I feel,' said Walter, 'as the Bombay vultures must feel when there's been an epidemic among the Parsees.'
Bombay and the Parsees reminded him of his sister Elinor. She and Philip would be sailing today. He was glad they were coming home. They were almost the only people he could talk to intimately about his affairs. He would be able to discuss his problems with them. It would be a comfort, an alleviation of his responsibility. And then suddenly he remembered that everything was settled, that there were no more problems. No more. And then the telephone bell rang. He lifted the receiver, he hallooed into the mouthpiece.
'Is that you, Walter darling?' The voice was Lucy's.
His heart sank; he knew what was going to happen.
'I've just woken up,' she explained. 'I'm all alone.'
She wanted him to come to tea. He refused. After tea, then.
'I can't,' he persisted.
'Nonsense! Of course you can.'
'But not after six. I insist.'
After all, he thought, perhaps it would be better to see her and explain what he had decided.
'I'll never forgive you if you don't come.'
'All right,' he said, 'I'll make an effort. I'll come if I possibly can.'
'What a flirt you are!' Beatrice mocked, as he hung up the receiver. 'Saying no for the fun of being persuaded!'
And when, at a few minutes after five, he left the office on the pretext that he must get to the London Library before closing time, she sent ironical good wishes after him. Bon amusement!' were her last words.
* * * *
In the editorial room Burlap was dictating letters to his secretary. 'Yours etcetera,' he concluded and picked up another batch of papers. 'Dear Miss Saville,' he began, after glancing at them for a moment. 'No,' he corrected himself. 'Dear Miss Romola Saville. Thank you for your note and for the enclosed manuscripts.' He paused and, leaning back in his chair, closed his eyes in brief reflection. 'It is not my custom to write personal letters to unknown contributors.' He reopened his eyes, to meet the dark bright glance of his secretary from across the table. The expression in Miss Cobbett's eyes was sarcastic; the faintest little smile almost imperceptibly twitched the corners of her mouth. Burlap was annoyed; but he concealed his feelings and continued to stare straight in front of him as though Miss Cobbett were not there at all and he were looking absent-mindedly at a piece of furniture. Miss Cobbett looked back at her notebook.
'How contemptible!' she said to herself. 'How unspeakably vulgar!'
Miss Cobbett was a small woman, black-haired, darkly downy at the corners of her upper lip, with brown eyes disproportionately large for her thin, rather sickly little face. Sombre and passionate eyes in which there was, almost permanently, an expression of reproach that could flash up into sudden anger or, as at this moment, derision. She had a right to look reproachfully on the world. Fate had treated her badly. Very badly indeed. Born and brought up in the midst of a reasonable prosperity, her father's death had left her, from one day to another, desperately poor. She got engaged to Harry Markham. Life promised to begin again. Then came the War. Harry joined up and was killed. His death condemned her to shorthand and typing for the rest of her natural existence. Harry was the only man who had ever loved her, who had been prepared to take the risk of loving her. Other men found her too disquietingly violent and impassioned and serious. She took things terribly seriously. Young men felt uncomfortable and silly in her company. They revenged themselves by laughing at her for having no 'sense of humour', for being a pedant and, as time went on, for being an old maid who was longing for a man. They said she looked like a witch. She had often been in love, passionately, with a hopeless violence. The men had either not noticed; or, if they noticed, had fled precipitately, or had mocked, or, what was almost worst, had been patronizingly kind as though to a poor misguided creature who might be a nuisance but who ought, nonetheless, to be treated with charity. Ethel Cobbett had every right to look reproachful.
She had met Burlap because, as a girl, in the prosperous days, she had been at school with Susan Paley, who had afterwards become Burlap's wife. When Susan died and Burlap exploited the grief he felt, or at any rate loudly said he felt, in a more than usually painful series of these always painfully personal articles which were the secret of his success as a journalist (for the great public has a chronic and cannibalistic appetite for personalities), Ethel wrote him a letter of condolence, accompanying it with a long account of Susan as a girl. A moved and moving answer came back by return of post. Thank you, thank you for your memories of what I have always felt to be the realest Susan, the little girl who survived so beautifully and purely in the woman, to the very end; the lovely child that in spite of chronology she always was, underneath and parallel with the physical Susan living in time. In her heart of hearts, I am sure, she never quite believed in her chronological adult self; she could never quite get it out of her head that she was a little girl playing at being grown up.' And so it went on - pages of a rather hysterical lyricism about the dead child-woman. He incorporated a good deal of the substance of the letter in his next week's article. 'Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven' was its title. A day or two later he travelled down to Birmingham to have a personal interview with this woman who had know the realest Susan when she was chronologically as well as spiritually a child. The impression each made upon the other was favourable. For Ethel, living bitterly and reproachfully between her dismal lodgings and the hateful insurance office where she was a clerk, the arrival first of his letter and now of Burlap himself had been great and wonderful events. A real writer, a man with a mind and a soul. In the state into which he had then worked himself Burlap would have liked any woman who could talk to him about Susan's childhood and into whose warm maternal compassion, a child himself, he could luxuriously sink as into a feather bed. Ethel Cobbett was not only sympathetic and a friend of Susan's; she had intelligence, was earnestly cultured and an admirer. The first impressions were good.
Burlap wept and was abject. He agonized himself with the thought that he could never, never ask Susan's forgiveness for all the unkindness he had ever done her, for all the cruel words he had spoken. He confessed in an agony of contrition that he had once been unfaithful to her. He recounted their quarrels. And now she was dead; he would never be able to ask her pardon. Never, never. Ethel was moved. Nobody, she reflected, would care like that when she was dead. But being cared for when one is dead is less satisfactory than being cared for when one is alive. These agonies which Burlap, by a process of intense concentration on the idea of his loss and grief, had succeeded in churning up within himself were in no way proportionate or even related to his feelings for the living Susan. For every Jesuit novice Loyola prescribed a course of solitary meditation on the passion of Christ; a few days of this exercise, accompanied by fasting, were generally enough to produce in the novice's mind a vivid, mystical and personal realization of the Saviour's real existence and sufferings. Burlap employed the same process; but instead of thinking about Jesus, or even about Susan, he thought of himself, his own agonies, his own loneliness, his own remorses. And duly, at the end of some few days of incessant spiritual masturbation, he had been rewarded by a mystical realization of his own unique and incomparable piteousness. He saw himself in an apocalyptic vision as a man of sorrows. (The language of the New Testament was constantly on Burlap's lips and under his pen. 'To each of us,' he wrote, 'is given a Calvary proportionate to his or her powers of endurance and capabilities of self-perfection.' He spoke familiarly of agonies in the garden and cups.) The vision rent his heart; he was overwhelmed with self-pity. But with the sorrows of this Christ-like Burlap poor Susan had really very little to do. His love for the living Susan had been as much self-induced and self-intensified as his grief at her death. He had loved, not Susan, but the mental image of Susan and the idea of love, fixedly concentrated on, in the best Jesuitical manner, until they became hallucinatingly real. His ardours for this phantom, and the love of love, the passion for passion which he had managed to squeeze out of his inner consciousness, conquered Susan, who imagined that they had some connection with herself. What pleased her most about his feelings was their 'pure' unmasculine quality. His ardours were those of a child for its mother (a rather incestuous child, it is true; but how tactfully and delicately the little dipus!); his love was at once babyish and maternal; his passion was a kind of passive snuggling. Frail, squeamish, less than fully alive and therefore less than adult, permanently under-aged, she adored him as a superior and almost holy lover. Burlap in return adored his private phantom, adored his beautifully Christian conception of matrimony, adored his own adorable husbandliness. His periodical articles in praise of marriage were lyrical. He was, however, frequently unfaithful; but he had such a pure, child-like and platonic way of going to bed with women, that neither they nor he ever considered that the process really counted as going to bed. His life with Susan was a succession of scenes in every variety of emotional key. He would chew and chew on some grievance until he had poisoned himself into a passion of anger or jealousy. Or else he would pore over his own shortcomings and grow abjectly repentant, or roll at her feet in an ecstasy of incestuous adoration for the imaginary mother-baby of a wife with whom he had chosen to identify the corporeal Susan. And then sometimes, very disquietingly for poor Susan, he would suddenly interrupt his emotions with an oddly cynical little laugh and would become for a while somebody entirely different, somebody like the Jolly Miller in the song. 'I care for nobody, no, not I, and nobody cares for me.' 'One's devil' was how he described those moods, when he had worked himself back again into emotional spirituality; and he would quote the Ancient Mariner's words about the wicked whisper that had turned his heart as dry as dust. 'One's devil' - or was it, perhaps the genuine, fundamental Burlap, grown tired of trying to be somebody else and of churning up emotions he did not spontaneously feel, taking a brief holiday?
Susan died; but the prolonged and passionate grief which he felt on that occasion could have been worked up, if Burlap had chosen to imagine her dead and himself desolate and lonely, almost equally well during her lifetime. Ethel was touched by the intensity of his feelings, or rather by the loudness and insistence of their expression. Burlap seemed to be quite broken down, physically and spiritually, by his grief. Her heart bled for him. Encouraged by her sympathy, he plunged into an orgy of regrets, whose vanity made them exasperatingly poignant, of repentences, excruciating for being too late, of unnecessary confessions and self-abasements. Feelings are not separate entities that can be stimulated in isolation from the rest of the mind. When a man is emotionally exalted in one direction, he is liable to become emotionally exalted in others. Burlap's grief made him noble and generous; his self-pity made it easy to feel Christian about other people. 'You're unhappy, too,' he said to Ethel. 'I can see it.' She admitted it; told him how much she hated her work. Hated the place, hated the people; told him her wretched history. Burlap churned up his sympathy. 'But what do my little miseries matter in comparison with yours,' she protested, remembering the violence of his outcry. Burlap talked about the freemasonry of suffering and then, dazzled by the vision of his own generous self, proceeded to offer Miss Cobbett a secretarial job on the staff of the Literary World. Infinitely preferable as London and the Literary World seemed to the insurance office and Birmingham, Ethel hesitated. The insurance job was dull, but it was safe, permanent, pensioned. In another and yet more explosive burst of generous feeling Burlap guaranteed her all the permanence she wanted. He felt warm with goodness.
Miss Cobbett allowed herself to be persuaded. She came. If Burlap had hoped to slide by gradual stages and almost imperceptibly into Ethel's bed, he was disappointed. A broken-hearted child in need of consolation, he would have liked to lure his consoler, even so spirtually and platonically, into a gentle and delicious incest. But to Ethel Cobbett the idea was unthinkable; it never entered her head. She was a woman of principles, as passionate and violent in her moral loyalties as in her love. She had taken Burlap's grief seriously and literally. When they had agreed, with tears, to found a kind of private cult for poor Susan, to raise and keep perpetually illumined and adorned an inward altar to her memory, Ethel had imagined that they were meaning what they were saying. She meant it in any case. It never occurred to her that Burlap did not. His subsequent behaviour had astonished and shocked her. Was this the man, she asked herself as she watched him living his life of disguised and platonic and slimily spiritual promiscuities, was this the man who had vowed to keep the candles for ever burning in front of poor little Susan's altar? She looked, she spoke her disapproval. Burlap cursed himself for his foolishness in having lured her away from the insurance office, his double-dyed idiocy in promising her permanence of tenure. If only she'd go of her own accord! He tried to make her life a misery for her by treating her with a cold, superior impersonality, as though she were just a machine for taking down letters and copying articles. But Ethel Cobbett grimly stuck to her job, had stuck to it for eighteen months now and showed no signs of giving notice. It was intolerable; it couldn't go on. But how should he put an end to it? Of course, he wasn't legally bound to keep her for ever. He had never put down anything in black and white. If the worst came to the worst ...
Stonily ignoring the look in Ethel Cobbett's eyes, the almost imperceptible smile of irony, Burlap went on with his dictation. One doesn't deign to notice machines; one uses them. But still, this sort of thing simply could not go on.
'It is not my custom to write personal letters to unknown contributors,' he repeated in a firm, determined tone. 'But I cannot refrain from telling you - no, no - from thanking you for the great pleasure your poems have given me. The lyrical freshness of your work, its passionate sincerity, its untamed and almost savage brilliance have come as a surprise and a refreshment to me. An editor must read through such quantities of bad literature, that he is almost pathetically grateful to those who - no; say: to the rare and precious spirits who offer him gold instead of the customary dross. Thank you for the gift of ...' he looked again at the papers, 'of "Love in the Greenwood" and "Passion Flowers". Thank you for their bright and turbulent verbal surface. Thank you also for the sensitiveness ... no, the quivering sensibility, the experience of suffering, the ardent spirituality which a deeper insight detects beneath the surface. I am having both poems set up at once and hope to print them early next month.
'Meanwhile, if you ever happen to be passing in the neighbourhood of Fleet Street, I should esteem it a great honour to hear from you personally some account of your poetical projects. The literary aspirant, even of talent, is often balked by material difficulties which the professional man of letters knows how to circumvent. I have always regarded it as one of my greatest privileges and duties as a critic and editor to make smooth the way for literary talent. This must be my excuse for writing to you at such length. Believe me, yours very truly.'
He looked again at the typewritten poems and read a line or two. 'Real talent,' he said to himself several times, 'real talent.' But 'one's devil' was thinking that the girl was remarkably outspoken, must have a temperament, seemed to know a thing or two. He dropped the papers into the basket on his right hand and picked up another letter from the basket on his left.
'To the Reverend James Hitchcock,' he dictated. 'The Vicarage, Tuttleford, Wilts. Dear Sir, I regret very much that I am unable to use your long and very interesting article on the relation between agglutinative languages and agglutinative chimera-forms in symbolic art. Exigencies of space ...'
* * * *
Pink in her dressing-gown like the tulips in the vases, Lucy lay propped on her elbow, reading. The couch was grey, the walls were hung with grey silk, the carpet was rose-coloured. In its gilded cage even the parrot was pink and grey. The door opened.
'Walter, darling! At last!' She threw down her book.
'Already. If you knew all the things I ought to be doing instead of being here.' ('Do you promise?' Marjorie had asked. And he had answered, 'I promise.' But this last visit of explanation didn't count.)
The divan was wide. Lucy moved her feet towards the wall, making place for him to sit down. One of her red Turkish slippers fell.
'That tiresome manicure woman,' she said, raising the bare foot a few inches so that it came into her line of sight. 'She will put that horrible red stuff on my toenails. They look like wounds.'
Walter did not speak. His heart was violently beating. Like the warmth of a body transposed into another sensuous key, the scent of her gardenias enveloped him. There are hot perfumes and cold, stifling and fresh. Lucy's gardenias seemed to fill his throat and lungs with a tropical and sultry sweetness. On the grey silk of the couch, her foot was flower-like and pale, like the pale fleshy buds of lotus flowers. The feet of Indian goddesses walking among their lotuses are themselves flowers. Time flowed in silence, but not to waste, as at ordinary moments. It was as though it flowed, pumped beat after beat by Walter's anxious heart, into some enclosed reservoir of experience to mount and mount behind the dam until at last, suddenly ... Walter suddenly reached out and took her bare foot in his hand. Under the pressure of those silently accumulated seconds, the dam had broken. It was a long foot, long and narrow. His fingers closed round it. He bent down and kissed the instep.
'But, my dear Walter!' She laughed. 'You're becoming quite oriental.'
Walter said nothing, but kneeling on the ground beside the couch, he leaned over her. The face that bent to kiss her was set in a kind of desperate madness. The hands that touched her trembled. She shook her head, she shielded her face with her hand.
'But why not?'
'It wouldn't do,' she said.
'It would complicate things too much for you, to begin with.'
'No, it wouldn't,' said Walter. There were no complications. Marjorie had ceased to exist.
'Besides,' Lucy went on, 'you seem to forget me. I don't want to.'
But his lips were soft, his hands touched lightly. The moth-winged premonitions of pleasure came flutteringly to life under his kisses and caresses. She shut her eyes. His caresses were like a drug, at once intoxicant and opiate. She had only to relax her will; the drug would possess her utterly. She would cease to be herself. She would become nothing but a skin of fluttering pleasure enclosing a void, a warm abysmal darkness.
'Lucy!' Her eyelids fluttered and shuddered under his lips. His hand was on her breast. 'My sweetheart.' She lay quite still, her eyes still closed.
A sudden and piercing shriek made both of them start, broad awake, out of their timelessness. It was as though a murder had been committed within a few feet of them, but on someone who found the process of being slaughtered rather a joke, as well as painful.
Lucy burst out laughing. 'It's Polly.'
Both turned towards the cage. His head cocked a little on one side, the bird was examining them out of one black and circular eye. And while they looked, a shutter of parchment skin passed like a temporary cataract across the bright expressionless regard and was withdrawn. The jocular martyr's dying shriek was once again repeated.
'You'll have to cover his cage with the cloth,' said Lucy.
Walter turned back towards her and angrily began to kiss her. The parrot yelled again. Lucy's laughter redoubled.
'It's no good,' she gasped. 'He won't stop till you cover him.'
The bird confirmed what she had said with another scream of mirthful agony. Feeling furious, outraged and a fool, Walter got up from his knees and crossed the room. At his approach the bird began to dance excitedly on its perch; its crest rose, the feathers of its head and neck stood apart from one another like the scales of a ripened fir-cone. 'Good-morning,' it said in a guttural ventriloquial voice, 'good-morning, Auntie, good-morning, Auntie, good-morning, Auntie ...' Walter unfolded the pink brocade that lay on the table near the cage and extinguished the creature. A last 'Good-morning, Auntie,' came out from under the cloth. Then there was silence.
'He likes his little joke,' said Lucy, as the parrot disappeared. She had lighted a cigarette.
Walter strode back across the room and without saying anything took the cigarette from between her fingers and threw it into the fireplace. Lucy raised her eyebrows, but he gave her no time to speak. Kneeling down again beside her, he began to kiss her, angrily.
'Walter,' she protested. 'No! What's come over you?' She tried to disengage herself, but he was surprisingly strong. 'You're like a wild beast.' His desire was dumb and savage. 'Walter! I insist.' Struck by an absurd idea, she suddenly laughed. 'if you knew how like the movies you were! A great huge grinning close-up.'
But ridicule was as unavailing as protest. And did she really desire it to be anything but unavailing? Why shouldn't she abandon herself? If was only rather humiliating to be carried away, to be compelled instead of to choose. Her pride, her will resisted him, resisted her own desire. But after all, why not? The drug was potent and delicious. Why not? She shut her eyes. But as she was hesitating, circumstances suddenly decided for her. There was a knock at the door. Lucy opened her eyes again. 'I'm going to say come in,' she whispered.
He scrambled to his feet and, as he did so, heard the knock repeated.
The door opened. 'Mr Illidge to see you, madam,' said the maid.
Walter was standing by the window, as though profoundly interested in the delivery van drawn up in front of the opposite house.
'Show him up,' said Lucy.
He turned round as the door closed behind the maid. His face was very pale, his lips were trembling.
'I quite forgot,' she explained. 'I asked him last night; this morning rather.'
He averted his face and without saying a word crossed the room, opened the door and was gone.
'Walter!' she called after him. 'Walter!' But he did not return.
On the stairs he met Illidge ascending behind the maid.
Walter responded to his greetings with a vague salute and hurried past. He could not trust himself to speak.
'Our friend Bidlake seemed to be in a great hurry,' said Illidge, when the preliminary greetings were over. He felt exultantly certain that he had driven the other fellow away.
She observed the triumph on his face. Like a little ginger cock, she was thinking. 'He'd forgotten something,' she vaguely explained.
'Not himself, I hope,' he questioned waggishly. And when she laughed, more at the fatuous masculinity of his expression than at his joke, he swelled with self-confidence and satisfaction. This social business was as easy as playing skittles. Feeling entirely at his ease, he stretched his legs, he looked round the room. Its richly sober elegance impressed him at once as the right thing. He sniffed the perfumed air appreciatively.
'What's under that mysterious red cloth there?' he asked, pointing at the mobled cage.
'That's a cockatoo,' Lucy answered. 'A cock-a-doodle-doo,' she emended, breaking out into a sudden disquieting and inexplicable laughter.
There are confessable agonies, sufferings of which one can positively be proud. Of bereavement, of parting, of the sense of sin and the fear of death the poets have eloquently spoken. They command the world's sympathy. But there are also discreditable anguishes, no less excruciating than the others, but of which the sufferer dare not, cannot speak. The anguish of thwarted desire, for example. That was the anguish which Walter carried with him into the street. It was pain, anger, disappointment, shame, misery all in one. He felt as though his soul were dying in torture. And yet the cause was unavowable, low, even ludicrous. Suppose a friend were now to meet him and to ask why he looked so unhappy.
'I was making love to a woman when I was interrupted, first by the screaming of a cockatoo, then by the arrival of a visitor.'
The comment would be enormous and derisive laughter. His confession would have been a smoking-room joke. And yet he could not be suffering more if he had lost his mother.
He wandered for an hour through the streets, in Regent's Park. The light gradually faded out of the white and misty afternoon; he became calmer. It was a lesson, he thought, a punishment; he had broken his promise. For his own good as well as for Marjorie's, never again. He looked at his watch and seeing that it was after seven, turned homewards. He arrived at the house tired and determinedly repentant. Marjorie was sewing; the lamplight was bright on her thin fatigued face. She too was wearing a dressing-gown. It was mauve and hideous; he had always thought her taste bad. The flat was pervaded with a smell of cooking. He hated kitchen smells, but that was yet another reason why he should be faithful. It was a question of honour and duty. It was not because he preferred gardenia to cabbage that he had a right to make Marjorie suffer.
'You're late,' she said.
'There was a lot to do,' Walter explained. 'And I walked home.' That at least was true. 'How are you feeling?' He laid his hand on her shoulder and bent down. Dropping her sewing, Marjorie threw her hands round his neck. What a happiness, she was thinking, to have him again! Hers once more. What a comfort! But even as she pressed herself against him, she realized that she was once more betrayed. She broke away from him.
'Walter, how could you?'
The blood rushed to his face; but he tried to keep up the pretence. 'How could I what?' he asked.
'You've been to see that woman again.'
'But what are you talking about?' He knew it was useless; but he went on pretending all the same.
'It's no use lying.' She got up so suddenly that her work basket overturned and scattered its contents on the floor. Unheeding, she walked across the room. 'Go away!' she cried, when he tried to follow her. Walter shrugged his shoulders and obeyed. 'How could you?' she went on. 'Coming home reeking of her perfume.' So it was the gardenias. What a fool he was not to have foreseen ... 'After all you said last night. How could you?'
'But if you'd let me explain,' he protested in the tone of a victim - an exasperated victim.
'Explain why you lied,' she said bitterly. 'Explain why you broke your promise.'
Her contemptuous anger evoked an answering anger in Walter. 'Merely explain,' he said with hard and dangerous politeness. What a bore she was with her scenes and jealousies! What an intolerable, infuriating bore!'
'Merely go on lying,' she mocked.
Again he shrugged his shoulders. 'If you like to put it like that,' he said politely.
'Just a despicable liar - that's what you are.' And turning away from him, she covered her face with her hands and began to cry.
Walter was not touched. The sight of her heaving shoulders just exasperated and bored him. He looked at her with a cold and weary anger.
'Go away,' she cried through her tears, 'go away.' She did not want him to be there, triumphing over her, while she cried. 'Go away.'
'Do you really want me to go?' he asked with the same cool, aggravating politeness.
'Yes, go, go.'
'Very well,' he said and opening the door, he went.
At Camden Town he took a cab and was at Bruton Street just in time to find Lucy on the point of going out to dinner.
'You're coming out with me,' he announced very calmly.
'Yes, you are.'
She looked at him curiously and he looked back at her, with steady eyes, smiling, with a queer look of amused triumph and invincible obstinate power, which she had never seen on his face before. 'All right,' she said at last and, ringing for the maid, 'Telephone to Lady Sturlett, will you,' she ordered, 'and say I'm sorry, but I've got a very bad headache and can't come tonight.' The maid retired. 'Well, are you grateful now?'
'I'm beginning to be,' he answered.
'Beginning?' She assumed indignation. 'I like you damned impertinence.'
'I know you do,' said Walter, laughing. And she did. That night Lucy became his mistress.
* * * *
It was between three and four in the afternoon. Spandrell had only just got out of bed. He was still unshaved; over his pyjamas he wore a dressing-gown of rough brown cloth, like a monk's cassock. (The monastic note was studied; he liked to remind himself of the ascetics. He liked, rather childishly, to play the part of the anchorite of diabolism.) He had filled the kettle and was waiting for it to boil on the gas ring. It seemed to be taking an unconscionably long time about it. His mouth was dry and haunted by a taste like the fumes of heated brass. The brandy was having its usual effects.
'Like as the hart desireth the water brooks,' he said to himself, 'so longeth my soul ... With a morning-after thirst. If only Grace could be bottled like Perrier water.'
He walked to the window. Outside a radius of fifty yards everything in the universe had been abolished by the white mist. But how insistently that lamppost thrust itself up in front of the next house on the right, how significantly! The world had been destroyed and only the lamppost, like Noah, preserved from the universal cataclysm. And he had never even noticed there was a lamppost there; it simply hadn't existed until this moment. And now it was the only thing that existed. Spandrell looked at it with a fixed and breathless attention. This lamppost alone in the mist - hadn't he seen something like it before? This queer sensation of being with the sole survivor of the Deluge was somehow familiar. Staring at the lamppost, he tried to remember. Or rather he breathlessly didn't try; he held back his will and his conscious thoughts, as a policeman might hold back the crowd round a woman who had fainted in the street; he held back his consciousness to give the stunned memory a place to stretch itself, to breathe, to come to life. Staring at the lamppost, Spandrell waited, agonized and patient, like a man who feels he is just going to sneeze, tremulously awaiting the anticipated paroxysm; waited for the long-dead memory to revive. And suddenly it sprang up, broad awake, out of its catalepsy and, with a sense of enormous relief, Spandrell saw himself walking up the steep hard-trodden snow of the road leading from Cortina towards the pass of Falzarego. A cold white cloud had descending on to the valley. There were no more mountains. The fantastic coral pinnacles of the Dolomites had been abolished. There were no more heights and depths. The world was only fifty paces wide, white snow on the ground, white cloud around and above. And every now and then, against the whiteness appeared some dark shape of house or telegraph pole, or tree or man or sledge, portentous in its isolation and uniqueness, each one a solitary survivor from the general wreck. It was uncanny, but how thrillingly new and how beautiful in a strange way! The walk was an adventure; he felt excited and a kind of anxiety intensified his happiness till he could hardly bare it.
'But look at that little chalet on the left,' he cried to his mother. 'That wasn't here when I came up last. I swear it wasn't here.'
He knew the road perfectly, he had been up and down it a hundred times and never seen that little chalet. And now it loomed up almost appallingly, the only dark and definite thing in a vague world of whiteness.
'Yes, I've never noticed it, either,' said his mother. 'Which only shows,' she added with that note of tenderness which always came into her voice when she mentioned her dead husband, 'How right your father was. Mistrust all evidence, he used to say, even your own.'
He took her hand and they walked on together in silence, pulling their sledges after them.
Spandrell turned away from the window. The kettle was boiling. He filled the teapot, poured himself out a cup and drank. Symbolically enough, his thirst remained unassuaged. He went on sipping meditatively, remembering and analysing those quite incredible felicities of his boyhood. Winters among the Dolomites. Springs in Tuscany or Provence or Bavaria, summers in the Mediterranean or in Savoy. After his father's death and before he went to school, they lived almost continuously abroad - it was cheaper. And almost all his holidays from school were spent out of England. From seven to fifteen, he had moved from one European beauty spot to another, appreciating their beauty, what was more - genuinely, a precocious Childe Harold. England seemed a little tame afterwards. He thought of another day in winter. Not misty, this time, but brilliant; the sun hot in a cloudless sky; the coral precipices of the Dolomites shining pink and orange and white above the woods and the snow slopes. They were sliding down on skis through the bare larch-woods. Streaked with tree-shadows, the snow was like a immense white and blue tiger-skin beneath their feet. The sunlight was orange among the leafless twigs, sea-green in the hanging beards of moss. The powdery snow sizzled under their skis, the air was at once warm and eager. And when he emerged from the woods the great rolling slopes lay before him like the contours of a wonderful body, and the virgin snow was a smooth skin, delicately grained in the low afternoon sunlight, and twinkling with diamonds and spangles. He had gone ahead. At the outskirts of the wood he halted to wait for his mother. Looking back he watched he coming through the trees. A strong tall figure, still young and agile, the young face puckered into a smile. Down she came towards him, and she was the most beautiful and at the same time the most homely and comforting and familiar of beings.
'Well!' she said, laughing, as she drew up beside him.
'Well!' He looked at her and then at the snow and the tree-shadows and the great bare rocks and the blue sky, then back again at his mother. And all at once he was filled with an intense, inexplicable happiness.
'I shall never be so happy as this again,' he said to himself, when they set off once more 'Never again, even though I live to be a hundred.' He was only fifteen at the time, but that was how he felt and thought.
And his words had been prophetic. That was the last of his happiness. Afterwards ... No, no. He preferred not to think of afterwards. Not at the moment. He poured himself out another cup of tea.
A bell rang startlingly. He went to the door of the flat and opened it. It was his mother.
'You?' Then he suddenly remembered that Lucy had said something.
'Didn't you get my message?' Mrs Knoyle asked anxiously.
'Yes. But I'd clean forgotten.'
'But I thought you needed ...' she began. She was afraid she might have intruded; his face was so unwelcoming.
The corners of his mouth ironically twitched. 'I do need,' he said. He was chronically penniless.
They passed into the other room. The windows, Mrs Knoyle observed at a glance, were foggy with grime. On shelf and mantel the dust lay thick. Sooty cobwebs dangled from the ceiling. She had tried to get Maurice's permission to send a woman to clean up two or three times a week. But, 'None of your slumming,' he had said. I prefer to wallow. Filth's my natural element. Besides, I haven't a distinguished military position to keep up.' He laughed, noiselessly, showing his big strong teeth. That was for her. She never dared to repeat her offer. But the room really did need cleaning.
'Would you like some tea?' he asked. 'It's ready. I'm just having breakfast,' he added, purposely drawing attention to the irregularity of his way of life.
She refused, without venturing any comment on the unusual breakfast hour. Spandrell was rather disappointed that he had not succeeded in drawing her. There was a long silence.
From time to time Mrs Knoyle glanced almost surreptitiously at her son. He was staring fixedly into the empty fireplace. He looked old, she thought, and rather ill and dreadfully uncared for. She tried to recognize the child, the big schoolboy he had been in those far-off times when they were happy, just the two of them together. She remembered how distressed he used to be when she didn't wear what he thought were the right clothes, when she wasn't smart or failed to look her best. He was as jealously proud of her as she was of him. But the responsibility of his upbringing weighed on her heavily. The future had always frightened her; she had always been afraid of taking decisions; she had no trust in her own powers. Besides, after her husband's death, there wasn't much money; and she had no head for affairs, no talent for management. How to afford to send him to the university, how to get him started in life? The questions tormented her. She lay awake at night, wondering what she ought to do. Life terrified her. She had a child's capacity for happiness, but also a child's fears, a child's inefficiency. When existence was a holiday, none could be more rapturously happy; but when there was business to be done, plans to be made, decisions taken, she was simply lost and terrified. And to make matters worse, after Maurice went to school she was very lonely. He was with her only in the holidays. For nine months out of the twelve she was alone, with nobody to love but her old dachshund. And at last even he failed her - fell ill, poor old beast, and had to be put out of his misery. It was shortly after pool old Fritz's death that she first met Major Knoyle, as he then was.
'You say you brought that money?' Spandrell asked, breaking the long silence.
Mrs Knoyle flushed. 'Yes, it's here,' she said and opened her bag. The moment to speak had come. It was her duty to admonish, and the wad of banknotes gave her the right, the power. But the duty was odious and she had no wish to use her power. She raised her eyes and looked at him imploringly. 'Maurice,' she begged, 'why can't you be reasonable? It's such a madness, such a folly.'
Spandrell raised his eyebrows. 'What's a madness?' he asked, pretending not to know what she was talking about.
Embarrassed at being thus compelled to specify her vague reproaches, Mrs Knoyle blushed. 'You know what I mean,' she said. 'This way of living. It's bad and stupid. And such a waste, such a suicide. Besides, you're not happy; I can see that.'
'Mayn't I even by unhappy, if I want to?' he asked ironically.
'But do you want to make me unhappy too?' she asked. 'Because if you do, you succeed, Maurice, you succeed. You make me terribly unhappy.' The tears came into her eyes. She felt in her bag for a handkerchief.
Spandrell got up from his chair and began to walk up and down the room. 'You didn't think much of my happiness in the past,' he said.
His mother did not answer, but went on noiselessly crying.
'When you married that man,' he went on, 'did you think of my happiness?'
'You know I thought it would be for the best,' she answered brokenly. She had explained it so often; she couldn't begin again. 'You know it,' she repeated.
'I only know what I felt and said at the time,' he answered. 'You didn't listen to me, and now you tell me you wanted to make me happy.'
'But you were so unreasonable,' she protested. 'If you had given me any reasons ...'
'Reasons,' he repeated slowly. 'Did you honestly expect a boy of fifteen to tell his mother the reasons why he didn't want her to share her bed with a stranger?'
He was thinking of that book which had circulated surreptitiously among the boys of his house at school. Disgusted and ashamed, but irresistibly fascinated, he had read it at night, by the light of an electric torch, under the bedclothes. A Girl's School in Paris it was called, innocuously enough; but the contents were pure pornography. The sexual exploits of the military were pindarically exalted. A little later his mother wrote to him that she was going to marry Major Knoyle.
'It's no good, mother,' he said aloud. 'Hadn't we better talk about something else?'
Mrs Knoyle drew her breath sharply and with determination, gave her eyes a final wipe and put away the handkerchief. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'It was stupid of me. Perhaps I'd better go.'
Secretly she hoped that he would protest, would beg her to stay. But he said nothing.
'Here's the money,' she added.
He took the folded banknotes and stuffed them into the pocket of his dressing-gown. 'I'm sorry I had to ask you for it,' he said. 'I was in a hole. I'll try not to get into it again.'
He looked at her for a moment, smiling, and suddenly, through the worn mask, she seemed to see him as he was in boyhood. Tenderness like a soft warmth expanded within her, soft but irresistible. It would not be contained. She laid her hands on his shoulders.
'Goodbye, my darling boy,' she said, and Spandrell recognized in her voice that note which used to come into it when she talked to him of his dead father. She leaned forward to kiss him. Averting his face, he passively suffered her lips to touch his cheek.
Miss Fulkes rotated the terrestrial globe until the crimson triangle of India was opposite their eyes.
'That's Bombay,' she said, pointing with her pencil. That's where Daddy and Mummy took the ship. Bombay is a big town in India,' she went on instructively. 'All this is India.'
'Why is India red?' asked little Phil.
'I told you before. Try to remember.'
'Because it's English?' Phil remembered, of course; but the explanation had seemed inadequate. He had hoped for a better one this time.
'There, you see, you can remember if you try,' said Miss Fulkes, scoring a small triumph.
'But why should English things be red?'
'Because red is England's colour. Look, here's little England.' She spun the globe. 'Red too.'
'We live in England, don't we?' Phil looked out of the window. The lawn with its Wellingtonia, the clot-polled elms looked back at him.
'Yes, we live just about here,' and Miss Fulkes poked the red island in the stomach.
'But it's green, where we live,' said Phil. 'Not red.'
Miss Fulkes tried to explain, as she had done so many times before, just precisely what a map was.
In the garden Mrs Bidlake walked among her flowers, weeding and meditating. Her walking-stick had a little pronged spud at the end of it; she could weed without bending. The weeds in the flowerbeds were young and fragile; they yielded without a struggle to the spud. But the dandelions and plantains on the lawn were more formidable enemies. The dandelions' roots were like long tapering white serpents. The plantains, when she tried to pull them up, desperately clawed the earth.
It was the season of tulips. Duc van Thol and Keizers Kroon, Proserpine and Thomas Moore stood at attention in all the beds, glossy in the light. Atoms in the sun vibrated and their trembling filled all space. Eyes felt the pulses as light; the tulip atoms absorbed or reverberated the accorded movements, creating colours for whose sake the burgesses of seventeenth-century Haarlem were prepared to part with hoarded guilders. Red tulips and yellow, white and parti-coloured, smooth and feathery - Mrs Bidlake looked at them, happily. They were like those gay and brilliant young men, she reflected, in Pinturicchio's frescoes at Siena. She halted so as to be able to shut her eyes and think more thoroughly of Pinturicchio. Mrs Bidlake could only think really well when she had her eyes shut. Her face tilted a little upwards towards the sky, her heavy, wax-white eyelids closed against the light, she stood remembering, confusedly thinking. Pinturicchio, Siena, the solemn huge cathedral - the Tuscan Middle Ages marched past her in a rich and confused pageant ... She had been brought up on Ruskin. Watts had painted her portrait as a child. Rebelling against the Pre-Raphaelites, she had thrilled with an admiration that was quickened, at first, by a sense of sacrilege, over the Impressionists. It was because she loved art that she had married John Bidlake. Liking his pictures, she had imagined, when the painter of 'The Haymakers' had paid his court to her, that she adored the man. He was twenty years her senior; his reputation as a husband was bad; her family objected strenuously. She did not care. John Bidlake was embodied Art. His was a sacred function and through his functions he appealed to all her vague, but ardent, idealism.
John Bidlake's reasons for desiring to marry yet again were unromantic. Travelling in Provence he had caught typhoid. ('That's what comes of drinking water,' he used to say afterwards. 'If only I'd stuck to Burgundy and cognac!') After a month in hospital at Avignon he returned to England, a thin and tottering convalescent. Three weeks later influenza, followed by pneumonia, brought him again to death's door. He recovered slowly. The doctor congratulated him on having recovered at all. ''Do you call this recovering?' grumbled John Bidlake. 'I feel as though about three-quarters of me were dead and buried.' Accustomed to being well, he was terrified of illness. He saw himself living miserably, a lonely invalid. Marriage would be an alleviation. He decided to marry. The girl must be good-looking - that went without saying. But serious, not flighty; devoted, a stay-at-home.
In Janet Paston he found all that he had been looking for. She had a face like a saint's; she was serious almost to excess; her adoration for himself was flattering.
They were married, and if John Bidlake had remained the invalid he had imagined himself doomed to be, the marriage might have been a success. Her devotion would have made up for her incompetence as a nurse; his helplessness would have rendered her indispensable to his happiness. But health returned. Six months after his marriage John Bidlake was entirely his old self. The old self began to behave in the old way. Mrs Bidlake took refuge from unhappiness in an endless imaginative meditation, which even her two children were hardly able to interrupt.
It had lasted now for a quarter of a century. A tall imposing lady of fifty all in white, with a white veil hanging from her hat, she stood among the tulips, her eyes shut, thinking of Pinturicchio and the Middle Ages, and time flowing and flowing, and God immobile on the eternal bank.
A shrill barking precipitated her out of her high eternity. She opened her eyes, reluctantly, and looked round. The small and silky parody of an extreme oriental-monster, her little Pekingese was barking at the kitchen cat. Frisking this way and that round the circumference of a circle whose radius was proportionate to his terror of the arched and spitting tabby, he yapped hysterically. His tail waved like a plume in the wind, his eyes goggled out of his black face.
'T'ang!' Mrs Bidlake called. 'T'ang!' All her Pekingese for the last thirty years had had dynastic names. T'ang the First had flourished before her children were born. It was with T'ang the Second that she and Walter had visited the dying Wetherington. The kitchen cat was now spitting at T'ang the Third. In the intervals, little Mings and Sungs had lived, grown decrepit and, in the lethal chamber, gone the way of all pets. 'T'ang, come here.' Even in this emergency Mrs Bidlake was careful to pronounce the apostrophe. Or rather she was not careful to pronounce it; she pronounced it by cultured instinct, because, being what nature and education had made her, she simply could not pronounce the word without the apostrophe even when the fur was threatening to fly.
The little dog obeyed at last. The cat ceased to spit, its fur lay down on its back, it walked away majestically. Mrs Bidlake went on with her weeding and her vague, unending meditation among the flowers. God, Pinturicchio, dandelions, eternity, the sky, the clouds, the early Venetians, dandelions ...
Upstairs in the schoolroom lessons were over. At least they were over as far as little Phil was concerned; for he was doing what he liked best in the world, drawing. Miss Fulkes, it is true, called the process 'Art' and 'Imagination Training', and allotted half an hour to it every morning, from twelve to half-past. But for little Phil it was just fun. He sat bent over his paper, the tip of his tongue between his teeth, his face intent and serious, drawing, drawing with a kind of inspired violence. Wielding a pencil that seemed disproportionately large, his little brown hand indefatigably laboured. At once rigid and wavering, the lines of the childish composition traced themselves on the paper.
Miss Fulkes sat by the window, looking out at the sunny garden, but not consciously seeing it. What she saw was behind the eyes, in a fanciful universe. She saw herself - herself in that lovely Lanvin frock that had been illustrated last month in Vogue, with pearls, dancing at Ciro's, which looked (for she had never been at Ciro's) curiously like the Hammersmith Palais de Danse, where she had been. 'How lovely she looks!' all the people were saying. She walked swayingly, like that actress she had seen at the London Pavilion - what was her name? She held out her white hand; it was young Lord Wonersh who kissed it, Lord Wonersh, who looked like Shelley and lived like Byron and owned half Oxford Street and had come to the house last February with old Mr Bidlake and had perhaps spoken to her twice. And then, all at once, she saw herself riding in the Park. And a couple of seconds later she was on a yacht in the Mediterranean. And then in a motor car. Lord Wonersh had just taken his seat beside her, when the noise of T'ang's shrill barking startlingly roused her to consciousness of the lawn, the gay tulips, the Wellingtonia and, on the other side, the schoolroom. Miss Fulkes felt guilty, she had been neglecting her charge.
'Well, Phil,' she asked, turning round briskly to her pupil, 'what are you drawing?'
'Mr Stokes and Albert pulling the mowlawner,' Phil answered, without looking up from his paper.
'Lawnmower,' Miss Fulkes corrected.
'Lawnmower,' Phil dutifully repeated.
'You never get your compound words right,' Miss Fulkes continued. 'Mowlawner, hopgrasser, cracknutter - it's a sort of mental defect, like mirror-writing, I suppose.' Miss Fulkes had taken a course in educational psychology. 'You must really try to correct it, Phil,' she added, earnestly. After so long and flagrant a dereliction of duty (at Ciro's, on horseback, in the limousine with Lord Wonersh) Miss Fulkes felt it encumbent upon her to be particularly solicitous, scientifically so: she was a very conscientious young woman. 'Will you try?' she insisted.
'Yes, Miss Fulkes,' the child answered. He had no idea what she wanted him to try to do. But it would keep her quiet if he said yes. He was busy on a particularly difficult bit of his drawing.
Miss Fulkes sighed and looked out of the window again. This time she consciously perceived what her eyes saw. Mrs Bidlake wandering among the tulips, dressed flowingly in white, with a white veil hanging from her hat, a sort of Pre-Raphaelitic ghost. Every now and then she paused and looked at the sky. Old Mr Stokes, the gardener, passed carrying a rake; the tips of his white beard fluttered gently in the breeze. The village clock stuck the half-hour. The garden, the trees, the fields, the wooded hills in the distance were always the same. Miss Fulkes felt at once so hopelessly sad that she could have cried.
'Do mowlawners, I mean lawnmowers, have wheels?' asked little Phil, looking up from a frown of effort and perplexity wrinkling his forehead. 'I can't remember.'
'Yes. Or let me think ...' Miss Fulkes also frowned; 'no. They have rollers.'
'Rollers!' cried Phil. 'That's it.' He attacked his drawing again with fury.
Always the same. There seemed to be no escape, no prospect of freedom. 'If I had a thousand pounds,' thought Miss Fulkes, 'a thousand pounds. A thousand pounds.' The words were magical. 'A thousand pounds.'
'There!' cried Phil. 'Come and look.' He held up his paper. Miss Fulkes got up and crossed to the table. 'What a lovely drawing!' she said.
'That's all the little bits of grass flying up,' said Phil, pointing to a cloud of dots and dashes in the middle of his picture. He was particularly proud of the grass.
'I see,' said Miss Fulkes.
'And look how hard Albert is pulling!' It was true; Albert was pulling like mad. And old Mr Stokes, recognizable by the four parallel pencil strokes issuing from his chin, pushed as energetically at the other end of the machine.
For a child of his age, little Phil had an observant eye, and a strange talent for rendering on paper what he had seen - not realistically, of course, but in terms of expressive symbols. Albert and Mr Stokes were, for all their scratchy uncertainty of outline, violently alive.
'Albert's left leg is rather funny, isn't it?' said Miss Fulkes. 'Rather long and thin and ...' She checked herself, remembering what old Mr Bidlake had said. 'On no account is the child to be taught how to draw, in the art-school sense of the word. On no account. I don't want him to be ruined.'
Phil snatched the paper from her. 'No, it isn't,' he said angrily. His pride was hurt, he hated criticism, refused ever to be in the wrong.
'Perhaps it isn't really,' Miss Fulkes made haste to be soothing. 'Perhaps I made a mistake.' Phil smiled again. 'Though why a child,' Miss Fulkes was thinking, 'shouldn't be told when he's drawn a leg that's impossibly long and thin and waggly, I really don't understand.' Still, old Mr Bidlake ought to know. A man in his position, with his reputation, a great painter - she had often heard him called a great painter, read it in newspaper articles, even in books. Miss Fulkes had a profound respect for the Great. Shakespeare, Milton, Michelangelo ...Yes, Mr Bidlake, the Great John Bidlake, ought to know best. She had been wrong in mentioning that left leg.
'It's after half-past twelve,' she went on in a brisk efficient voice. 'Time for you to lie down.' Little Phil always lay down for half an hour before lunch.
'No!' Phil tossed his head, scowled ferociously and made a furious gesture with his clenched fists.
'Yes,' said Miss Fulkes calmly. 'And don't make those silly faces.' She knew, by experience, that the child was not really angry; he was just making a demonstration, in order to assert himself and in the vague hope, perhaps, that he might frighten his adversary into yielding - as Chinese soldiers are said to put on devil's masks and to utter fearful yells when they approach the enemy, in the hope of inspiring terror.
'Why should I?' Phil's tone was already much calmer.
'Because you must.'
The child got up obediently. When the mask and the yelling fail to take effect, the Chinese soldier, being a man of sense and not at all anxious to get hurt, surrenders.
'I'll come and draw the curtains for you,' said Miss Fulkes.
Together, they walked down the passage to Phil's bedroom. The child took off his shoes and lay down. Miss Fulkes drew the folds of orange cretonne across the windows.
'Not too dark,' said Phil, watching her movements through the richly coloured twilight.
'You rest better when it's dark.'
'But I'm frightened,' protested Phil.
'You're not frightened in the least. Besides, it isn't really dark at all.' Miss Fulkes moved towards the door.
'Miss Fulkes!' She paid no attention. 'Miss Fulkes!'
On the threshold Miss Fulkes turned round. 'If you go on shouting,' she said severely, 'I shall be very angry. Do you understand?' She turned and went out, shutting the door behind her.
'Miss Fulkes!' he continued to call, but in a whisper, under his breath. 'Miss Fulkes! Miss Fulkes!' She mustn't hear him, of course; for then she would really be cross. At the same time he wasn't going to obey tamely and without a protest. Whispering her name he rebelled, he asserted his personality, but in complete safety.
Sitting in her own room, Miss Fulkes was reading - to improve her mind. The book was The Wealth of Nations. Adam Smith, she knew, was Great. His book was one of those that one ought to have read. The best that has been thought or said. Her family was poor, but cultured. We needs must love the highest when we see it. But when the highest takes the form of a chapter beginning, 'As it is the power of exchanging that gives occasion to the division of labour, so the extent of this division must always be limited by the extent of that power, or in other words, by the extent of the market,' then, really, it is difficult to love it as ardently as one ought to do. 'When the market is very small, no person can have any encouragement to dedicate himself entirely to one employment, for want of the opportunity to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men's labour as he has occasion for.'
Miss Fulkes read the sentence through; but before she had come to the end of it, she had forgotten what the beginning was about. She began again; ... 'for want of the opportunity to exchange all that surplus ... (I could take the sleeves out of my brown dress, she was thinking; because it's only under the arms that it's begun to go, and wear it for the skirt only with a jumper over it) ... over and above his own consumption for such parts ... (an orange jumper perhaps).' She tried a third time, reading the words out aloud. 'When the market is very small ...' A vision of the cattle market at Oxford floated before her inward eye; it was quite a large market. 'No person can have any encouragement to dedicate himself ...' What was it all about? Miss Fulkes suddenly rebelled against her own conscientiousness. She hated the highest when she saw it. Getting up, she put The Wealth of Nations back on the shelf. It was a row of very high books - 'my treasures,' she called them. Wordsworth, Longfellow, and Tennyson bound in squashy leather and looking with their rounded corners and Gothic titles, like so many Bibles. Sartor Resartus, also Emerson's Essays. Marcus Aurelius in one of those limp leathery artistic little editions that one gives, at Christmas, and in sheer despair, to those to whom one can think of nothing more suitable to give. Macaulay's History. Thomas à Kempis, Mrs Browning. Miss Fulkes did not select any of them. She put her hand behind the best that has been thought or said and withdrew from its secret place a copy of The Mystery of the Castlemaine Emeralds. A ribbon marked her place. She opened and began to read. 'Lady Kitty turned on the lights and walked in. A cry of horror broke from her lips, a sudden faintness almost overcame her. In the middle of the room lay the body of a man in faultless evening dress. The face was almost unrecognizably mangled; there was a red gash in the white shirt front. The rich Turkey carpet was darkly soaked with blood ...' Miss Fulkes read on, avidly. The thunder of the gong brought her back with a start from the world of emeralds and murder. She sprang up. 'I ought to have kept an eye on the time,' she thought, feeling guilty. 'We shall be late.' Pushing The Mystery of the Castlemaine Emeralds back into its place behind the best that has been thought and said, she hurried along to the night nursery. Little Phil had to be washed and brushed.
* * * *
There was no breeze except the wind of the ship's own speed; and that was like a blast from the engine-room. Stretched in their chairs Philip and Elinor watched the gradual diminution against the sky of a jagged island of bare red rock. From the deck above came the sound of people playing shuffleboard. Walking on principle or for an appetite, their fellow passengers passed and re-passed with the predictable regularity of comets.
'The way people take exercise,' said Elinor in a tone positively of resentment; it made her hot to look at them. 'Even in the Red Sea.'
'It explains the British Empire,' he said.
There was a silence. Burnt brown, burnt scarlet, the young men on leave passed laughing, four to a girl. Sun-dried and curry-pickled veterans of the East strolled by with acrimonious words, about the Reforms and the cost of Indian living, upon their lips. Two female missionaries padded past in a rarely broken silence. The French globe-trotters reacted to the oppressively imperial atmosphere by talking very loud. The Indian students slapped one another on the back like stage subalterns in the days of 'Charley's Aunt'; and the slang they talked would have seemed old-fashioned in a preparatory school.
Time flowed. The island vanished; the air was if possible hotter.
'I'm worried about Walter,' said Elinor, who had been ruminating the contents of that last batch of letters she had received just before leaving Bombay.
'He's a fool,' Philip answered. 'After committing one stupidity with that Carling female, he ought to have had the sense not to start again with Lucy.'
'Of course he ought,' said Elinor irritably. 'But the point is that he hasn't had the sense. It's a question of thinking of a remedy.'
'Well, it's no good thinking about it five thousand miles away.'
'I'm afraid he may suddenly rush off and leave poor Marjorie in the lurch. With a baby on the way, too. She's a dreary woman. But he mustn't be allowed to treat her like that.'
'No,' Philip agreed. There was a pause. The sparse procession of exercise lovers marched past. 'I've been thinking,' he went on reflectively, 'that it would make an excellent subject.'
'This business of Walter's.'
'You don't propose to exploit poor Walter as copy?' Elinor was indignant. 'No really, I won't have it. Botanizing on his grave - or at any rate his heart.'
'But of course not!' Philip protested.
'Mais je vous assure,' one of the Frenchwomen was shouting so loud that he had to abandon the attempt to continue, 'aux Galeries Layfayette les camisoles en flanelle pour enfant ne coütent que ...'
'Camisoles en flanelle,' repeated Philip. 'Phew!'
'But seriously, Phil ...'
'But, my dear, I never intended to use more than the situation. The young man who tries to make his life rhyme with his idealizing books and imagines he's having a great spiritual love, only to discover that he's got hold of a bore whom he really doesn't like at all.'
'Poor Marjorie! But why can't she keep her face better powdered? And those artistic beads and earrings she always wears ...'
'And who then goes down like a ninepin,' Philip continued, 'at the mere sight of a Siren. It's the situation that appealed to me. Not the individuals. After all, there are plenty of other nice young men besides Walter. And Marjorie isn't the only bore. Nor Lucy the only man-eater.'
'Well, if it's only the situation,' Elinor grudgingly allowed.
'And besides,' he went on, 'it isn't written and probably never will be. So there's nothing to get upset about, I assure you.'
'All right. I won't say anything more till I see the book.'
There was another pause.
'... such a wonderful time at Gulmerg last summer,' the young lady was saying to her four attentive cavaliers. 'There was golf, and dancing every evening, and ...'
'And in any case,' Philip began again in a meditative tone, 'the situation would only be a kind of ...'
'Mais je lui ai dit les hommes sont comme ça. Une jeune fille bien élevée doit ...'
'... a kind of excuse,' bawled Philip. 'It's like trying to talk in the parrot-house at the Zoo,' he added with parenthetic irritation. 'A kind of excuse, as I was saying, for a new way of looking at things that I want to experiment with.'
'I wish you'd begin by looking at me in a new way,' said Elinor with a little laugh. 'A more human way.'
'But seriously, Elinor ...'
'Seriously,' she mocked. 'Being human isn't serious. Only being clever.'
'Oh, well,' he shrugged his shoulders, 'if you don't want to listen, I'll shut up.'
'No, no, Phil. Please.' She laid her hand on his. 'Please.'
'I don't want to bore you.' He was huffy and dignified.
'I'm sorry, Phil. But you do look so comic when you're more in sorrow than in anger. Do you remember those camels at Bikaner - what an extraordinarily superior expression? But do go on!'
'This year,' one female missionary was saying to the other, as they passed by, 'the Bishop of Kuala Lumpur ordained six Chinese deacons and two Malays. And the Bishop of British North Borneo ...' The quiet voices faded into inaudability.
Philip forgot his dignity and burst out laughing. 'Perhaps he ordained some Orang-utans.'
'But do you remember the wife of the Bishop of Thursday Island?' asked Elinor. 'The woman we met on that awful Australian ship with the cockroaches.'
'The one who would eat pickles at breakfast?'
'Pickled onions at that,' she qualified with a shudder. 'But what about your new way of looking at things? We seem to have wandered rather a long way from that.'
'Well, as a matter of fact,' said Philip, 'we haven't. All these camisoles en flanelle and pickled onions and bishops of cannibal islands are really quite to the point. Because the essence of the new way of looking is multiplicity. Multiplicity of eyes and multiplicity of aspects seen. For instance, one person interprets events in terms of bishops; another in terms of the price of flannel camisoles; another, like that young lady from Gulmerg,' he nodded after the retreating group, 'thinks of it in terms of good times. And then there's the biologist, the chemist, the physicist, the historian. Each sees, professionally, a different aspect of the event, a different layer of reality. What I want to do is look with all those eyes at once. With religious eyes, scientific eyes, economic eyes, homme moyen sensuel eyes ...'
'Loving eyes too.'
He smiled at her and stroked her hand. 'The result ...' he hesitated.
'Yes, what would the result be?' she asked.
'Queer,' he answered. 'A very queer picture indeed.'
'Rather too queer, I should have thought.'
'But it can't be too queer,' said Philip. 'However queer the picture is, it can never be half so odd as the original reality. We take it all for granted; but the moment you start thinking, it becomes queer. And the more you think, the queerer it grows. That's what I want to get in this book - the astonishingness of the most obvious things. Really, any plot of situation would do. Because everything's implicit in anything. The whole book could be written about a walk from Piccadilly Circus to Charing Cross. Or you and I sitting here on an enormous ship in the Red Sea. Really, nothing could be queerer than that. When you reflect on the evolutionary processes, the human patience and genius, the social organization, that have made it possible for us to be here, with stokers having heat apoplexy for our benefit and steam turbines doing five thousand revolutions a minute, and the sea being blue, and the rays of light not flowing round obstacles, so that there's a shadow, and the sun all the time providing us with energy to live and think - when you think of all this and a million other things, you must see that nothing could well be queerer and that no picture can be queer enough to do justice to the facts.'
'All the same,' said Elinor, after a long silence, 'I wish one day you'd write a simple straightforward story about a young man and a young woman who fall in love and get married and have difficulties, but get over them, and finally settle down.'
'Or why not a detective novel?' He laughed. But if, he reflected, he didn't write that kind of story, perhaps it was because he couldn't. In art there are simplicities more difficult than the most serried complications. He could manage the complications as well as anyone. But when it came to the simplicities, he lacked the talent - that talent which is of the heart, no less than of the head, of the feelings, the sympathies, the intuitions, no less than of the analytical understanding. The heart, the heart, he said to himself. 'Perceive ye not, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened?' No heart, no understanding.
'... a terrible flirt!' cried one of the four cavaliers, as the party rounded the corner into hearing.
'I am not!' the young lady indignantly retorted.
'You are!' they all shouted together. It was courtship in chorus and by teasing.
'It's a lie!' But, one could hear, the ticklish impeachment really delighted her.
Like dogs, he thought. But the heart, the heart ... The heart was Burlap's speciality. 'You'll never write a good book,' he had said oracularly, 'unless you write from the heart.' It was true; Philip knew it. But was Burlap the man to say so, Burlap whose books were so heartfelt that they looked as though they had come from the stomach, after an emetic? If he went in for the grand simplicities, the results would be no less repulsive. Better to cultivate his own particular garden for all it was worth. Better to remain rigidly and loyally oneself. Oneself? But this question of identity was precisely one of Philip's chronic problems. It was so easy for him to be almost anybody, theoretically and with his intelligence. He had such a power of assimilation, that he was often in danger of being unable to distinguish the assimilator from the assimilated, of not knowing among the multiplicity of his rôles who was the actor. The amoeba, when it finds a prey, flows round it, incorporates it and oozes on. There was something amoeboid about Philip Quarles's mind. It was like a sea of spiritual protoplasm, capable of flowing in all directions, of engulfing every object in its path, of trickling into every crevice, of filling every mould and, having engulfed, having filled, of flowing on towards other obstacles, other receptacles, leaving the first empty and dry. At different times in his life and even at the same moment he had filled the most various moulds. He had been a cynic and also a mystic, a humanitarian and also a contemptuous misanthrope; he had tried to live the life of detached and stoical reason and another time he had aspired to the unreasonableness of natural and uncivilized existence. The choice of moulds depended at any given moment on the books he was reading, the people he was associating with. Burlap, for example, had redirected the flow of his mind into those mystical channels which it had not filled since he discovered Boehme in his undergraduate days. Then he had seen through Burlap and flowed out again, ready however at any time to let himself trickle back once more, whenever the circumstances seemed to require it. He was trickling back at this moment, the mould was heart-shaped. Where was the self to which he could be loyal?
The female missionaries passed in silence. Looking over Elinor's shoulder he saw that she was reading the Arabian Nights in Mardrus's translation. Burtt's Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science lay on his knees; he picked it up and began looking for his place. Or wasn't there a self at all? he was wondering. No, no, that was untenable, that contradicted immediate experience. He looked over the top of his book at the enormous blue glare of the sea. The essential character of the self consisted precisely in that liquid and undeformable ubiquity; in that capacity to espouse all contours and yet remain unfixed in any form, to take, and with an equal facility efface, impressions. To such moulds as his spirit might from time to time occupy, to such hard and burning obstacles as it might flow round, and, itself cold, penetrate to the fiery heart of, no permanent loyalty was owing. The moulds were emptied as easily as they had been filled, the obstacles were passed by. But the essential liquidness that flowed where it would, the cool indifferent flux of intellectual curiosity - that persisted and to that his loyalty was due. If there was any single way of life he could lastingly believe in, it was that mixture of pyrrhonism and stoicism which had struck him, an enquiring schoolboy among the philosophers, as the height of human wisdom and into whose mould of sceptical indifference he had poured his impassioned adolescence. Against the pyrrhonism suspense of judgement and the stoical imperturbability he had often rebelled. But had the rebellion ever been really serious? Pascal had made him a Catholic - but only so long as the volume of Pensées was open before him. There were moments when, in the company of Carlyle or Whitman or bouncing Browning, he had believed in strenuousness for strenuousness' sake. And then there was Mark Rampion. After a few hours in Mark Rampion's company he really believed in noble savagery; he felt convinced that the proudly conscious intellect ought to humble itself a little and admit the claims of the heart, aye and the bowels, the loins, the bones and skin and muscles, to a fair share of life. The heart again! Burlap had been right, even though he was a charlatan, a sort of swindling thimble-rigger of the emotions. The heart! But always, whatever he might do, he knew quite well in the secret depths of his being that he wasn't a Catholic, or a strenuous liver, or a mystic, or a noble savage. And though he sometimes nostalgically wished he were one or other of these beings, or all of them at once, he was always secretly glad to be none of them and at liberty, even though his liberty was in a strange paradoxical way a handicap and a confinement to his spirit.
'That simple story of yours,' he said aloud; 'it wouldn't do.'
Elinor looked up from the Arabian Nights. 'Which simple story?'
'That one you wanted me to write.'
'Oh, that!' She laughed. 'You've been brooding over it a long time.'
'It wouldn't give me my opportunity,' he explained. 'It would have to be solid and deep. Whereas I'm wide; wide and liquid. It wouldn't be in my line.'
'I could have told you that the first day I met you,' said Elinor, and returned to Scheherazade.
'All the same,' Philip was thinking, 'Mark Rampion's right. In practice, too; which makes it so much more impressive. In his art and his living, as well as in his theories. Not like Burlap.' He thought with disgust of Burlap's emetic leaders in the World. Like a spiritual channel crossing. And such a nasty, slimy sort of life. But Rampion was the proof of his own theories. 'If I could capture something of his secret!' Philip sighed to himself. 'I'll go and see him the moment I get home.'
During the weeks which followed their final scene, Walter and Marjorie lived in relations of a peculiar and unpleasant falsity. They were very considerate to one another, very courteous, and whenever they were left together alone they made a great deal of polite unintimate conversation. The name of Lucy Tantamount was never mentioned and no reference whatsoever was made to Walter's almost nightly absences. There was a tacit agreement to pretend that nothing had happened and that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
In the first outburst of anger Marjorie had actually begun to pack her clothes. She would leave at once, that very night, before he came back. She would show him that there was a limit to the outrages and insults she would put up with. Coming home reeking of that woman's scent! It was disgusting. He seemed to imagine that she was so abjectly devoted to him and materially so dependent on him, that he could go on insulting her without any fear of provoking her to open revolt. She had made a mistake not to put her foot down before. She oughtn't to have allowed herself to be touched by his misery the previous night. But better late than never. This time it was final. She had her self-respect to consider. She pulled out her trunks from the box-room and began to pack.
But where was she going? What was she going to do? What should she live on? The questions asked themselves more and more insistently with every minute. The only relation she had was a married sister, who was poor and had a disapproving husband. Mrs Cole had quarrelled with her. There were no other friends who could or would support her. She had been trained to no profession, she had no particular gifts. Besides, she was going to have a baby, she would never find a job. And after all and in spite of everything she was very fond of Walter, she loved him, she didn't know how she would be able to do without him. And he had loved her, did still love her a little, she was sure. And perhaps this madness would die down of its own accord; or perhaps she would be able to bring him round again gradually. And in any case it was better not to act precipitately. In the end she unpacked her clothes again and dragged the trunks back to the box-room. Next day she started to play her comedy of pretence and deliberately feigned ignorance.
On his side Walter was only too happy to play the part assigned to him in the comedy. To say nothing, to act as though nothing particular had happened, suited him perfectly. The evaporation of his anger, the slaking of his desire had reduced him from momentary strength and ruthlessness to his normal condition of gentle, conscience-stricken timidity. Upon the fibres of the spirit bodily fatigue has a softening effect. He came back from Lucy feeling guiltily that he had done Marjorie a great wrong and looking forward with dread to the outcry she was sure to raise. But she was asleep when he crept to his room. Or at any rate she pretended to be, she didn't call him. And next day it was only the more than ordinarily courteous and formal manner of her greeting that so much as hinted at any untowardness. Enormously relieved, Walter requited portentous silence with silence and politely trivial courtesy with a courtesy that, in his case, was more than merely formal, that came from the heart, that was a genuine attempt (so uneasy was his conscience) to be of service, to make solicitous and affectionate amends for past offences, to beg forgiveness in advance for the offences he had no intention of not committing in the future.
That there had been no outcry, no reproaches, only a polite ignoring silence, was a great relief. But as the days passed, Walter began to find the falsity of their relationship more and more distressing. The comedy got on his nerves, the silence was accusatory. He became more and more polite, solicitous, affectionate, but though he genuinely did like her, though he genuinely desired to make her happy, his nightly visits to Lucy made even his genuine affection for Marjorie seem a lie and his real solicitude had the air an hypocrisy, even to himself, so long as he persisted in doing, in the intervals of his kindness, precisely those things which he knew must make her unhappy. 'But if only,' he said to himself, with impotent complaining anger, 'if only she'd be content with what I can give her and stop distressing herself about what I can't.' (For it was obvious, in spite of the comedy of silence and courtesy, that she was distressing herself. Her thin, haggard face was alone sufficient to belie the studied indifference of her manner.) 'What I can give her is so much. What I can't give is so unimportant. At any rate for her,' he added; for he had no intention of cancelling his unimportant engagement with Lucy that evening.
'Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated.'
Literature, as usual, had been misleading. So far from making him hate and despise, having and enjoying had only made him long for more having and enjoying. True, he was still rather ashamed of his longing. He wanted it to be justified by something higher - by love. ('After all,' he argued, 'there's nothing impossible or unnatural in being in love with two women at the same time. Genuinely in love.') He accompanied his ardours with all the delicate and charming tenderness of his rather weak and still adolescent nature. He treated Lucy, not as the hard, ruthless amusement-hunter he had so clearly recognized her as being before he became her lover, but as an ideally gracious and sensitive being, to be adored as well as desired, a sort of combined child, mother and mistress, whom one should maternally protect and be maternally protected by, as well as virilely and yes! faunishly make love to. Sensuality and sentiment, desire and tenderness are as often friends as they are enemies. There are some people who no sooner enjoy, but they despise what they have enjoyed. But there are others in whom the enjoyment is associated with kindliness and affection. Walter's desire to justify his longings by love was only, on final analysis, the articulately moral expression of his natural tendency to associate the act of sexual enjoyment with a feeling of tenderness, at once chivalrously protective and childishly self-abased. In him sensuality produced tenderness; and conversely, where there was no sensuality, tenderness remained undeveloped. His relations with Marjorie were too sexless and platonic to be fully tender. It was as a hard, angrily cynical sensualist that Walter had conquered Lucy. But put into action, his sensuality sentimentalized him. The Walter who had held Lucy naked in his arms was different from the Walter who had only desired to do so; and this new Walter required, in sheer self-preservation, to believe that Lucy felt no less tenderly under the influence of his caresses than he did himself. Tenderness can only live in an atmosphere of tenderness. To have gone on believing, as the old Walter had believed, that she was hard, selfish, incapable of warm feeling, would have killed the soft tenderness of the new Walter. It was essential for him to believe her tender. He did his best to deceive himself. Every movement of languor and abandonment was eagerly interpreted by him as a symptom of inner softening, of trustfulness and surrender. Every loving word - and Lucy was fashionably free with her 'darlings' and 'angels' and 'beloveds,' her rapturous or complimentary phrases - was treasured as a word come straight from the depths of the heart. To these marks of an imaginary softness and warmth of feeling he responded with a grateful redoubling of his own tenderness; and this redoubled tenderness was doubly anxious to find an answering tenderness in Lucy. Love produced a desire to be loved. Desire to be loved begot a strained precarious belief that he was loved. The belief that he was loved strengthened his love. And so, self-intensified, the circular process began again.
Lucy was touched by his adoring tenderness, touched and surprised. She had had him because she was bored, because his lips were soft and his hands knew how to caress and because, at the last moment, she had been amused and delighted by his sudden conversion from abjectness to conquering impertinence. What a queer evening it had been! Walter sitting opposite to her at dinner with that hard look on his face, as though he were terribly angry and wanted to grind his teeth; but being very amusing, telling the most malicious stories about everybody, producing the most fantastic and grotesque pieces of historical information, the most astonishing quotations from old books. When dinner was over, 'We'll go back to your house,' he said. But Lucy wanted to go and see Nellie Wallace's turn at the Victoria Palace and then drop in at the Embassy for some food and a little dancing, and then perhaps drive round to Cuthbert Arkwright's on the chance that ... Not that she had any real and active desire to go to the music hall, or dance, or listen to Cuthbert's conversation. She only wanted to assert her will against Walter's. She only wanted to dominate, to be the leader and make him do what she wanted, not what he wanted. But Walter was not to be shaken. He said nothing, merely smiled. And when the taxi came to the restaurant door, he gave the address in Bruton Street.
'But this is a rape,' she protested.
Walter laughed. 'Not yet,' he answered. 'But it's going to be.'
And in the grey and rose-coloured sitting-room it almost was. Lucy provoked and submitted to all the violences of sensuality. But what she had not expected to provoke was the adoring and passionate tenderness which succeeded those first violences. The hard look of anger faded from his face and it was as though a protection had been stripped from him and he were left bare, in the quivering, vulnerable nakedness of adoring love. His caresses were like the soothing of pain or terror, like the appeasements of anger, like delicate propitiations. His words were sometimes like whispered and fragmentary prayers to a god, sometimes words of whispered comfort to a sick child. Lucy was surprised, touched, almost put to shame by this passion of tenderness.
'No, I'm not like that, not like that,' she protested in answer to his whispered adorations. She could not accept such love on false pretences. But his soft lips, brushing her skin, his lightly drawn fingertips were soothing and caressing her into tenderness, were magically transforming her into the gentle, loving, warm-hearted object of his adoration, were electrically charging her with all those qualities his whispers had attributed to her and the possession of which she had denied.
She drew his head on to her breast, she ran her fingers through his hair. 'Darling Walter,' she whispered, 'darling Walter.' There was a long silence, a warm still happiness. And then suddenly, just because this silent happiness was so deep and perfect and therefore, in her eyes, intrinsically rather absurd and even rather dangerous in its flawless impersonality, rather menacing to her conscious will. 'Have you gone to sleep, Walter?' she asked and tweaked his ear.
In the days that followed Walter desperately did his best to credit her with the emotions he himself experienced. But Lucy did not make it easy for him. She did not want to feel that deep tenderness which is a surrender of the will, a breaking down of personal separateness. She wanted to be herself, Lucy Tantermount, in full command of the situation, enjoying herself consciously to the last limit, ruthlessly having her fun; free, not only financially and legally, but emotionally too - emotionally free to have him or not to have him. To drop him as she had taken him, at any moment, whenever she liked. She had no wish to surrender herself. And that tenderness of his - why, it was touching, no doubt, and flattering and rather charming in itself, but a little absurd and, in its anxious demand for a response from her side, really rather tiresome. She would let herself go a little way towards surrender, would suffer herself to be charged by his caresses with some of his tenderness; only to suddenly draw herself back from him into a teasing, provocative detachment. And Walter would be woken from his dr