It was May-time, and never did the Temple wear a more gracious aspect. The river was full of hay-boats, the gardens were green with summer hours. Through the dim sky, above the conical roof of the dear church, the pigeons fled in rapid quest, and in Garden Court, beneath the plane-trees, old folk dozed, listening to the rippling tune of the fountain and the shrilling of the sparrows. In King's Bench Walk the waving branches were full of their little brown bodies. Sparrows everywhere, flying from the trees to the eaves, hopping on the golden gravel, beautifully carpeted with the rich shadows of the trees—unabashed little birds, scarcely deigning to move out of the path of the young men as they passed to and fro from their offices to the library. "That sweet, grave place where we weave our ropes of sand," so Mike used to speak of it.
The primness of the books, the little galleries guarded by brass railings, here and there a reading-desk, the sweet silence of the place, the young men reading at the polished oak tables, the colour of the oak and the folios, the rich Turkey carpets, lent to the library that happy air of separation from the brutalities of life which is almost sanctity. These, the familiar aspects of the Temple, moved him with all their old enchantments; he lingered in the warm summer mornings when all the Temple was astir, gossiping with the students, or leaning upon the balustrades in pensive contemplation of the fleet river.
But these moods of passive happiness were interrupted more frequently than they had been in earlier years by the old whispering voice, now grown strangely distinct, which asked, but no longer through laughing lips, if it were possible to discern any purpose in life, and if all thoughts and things were not as vain as a little measure of sand. The dark fruit that hangs so alluringly over the wall of the garden of life now met his eyes frequently, tempting him, and perforce he must stay to touch and consider it. Then, resolved to baffle at all costs the disease which he now knew pursued him, he plunged in the crowd of drunkenness and debauchery which swelled the Strand at night. He was found where prize-fighters brawled, and card-sharpers cajoled; where hall singers fed on truffled dishes, and courtesans laughed and called for champagne. He was seen in Lubini's sprawling over luncheon tables till late in the afternoon, and at nightfall lingering about the corners of the streets, talking to the women that passed. In such low form of vice he sought escape. He turned to gambling, risking large sums, sometimes imperilling his fortune for the sake of the assuagement such danger brought of the besetting sin. But luck poured thousands into his hands; and he applied himself to the ruin of one seeking to bring about his death.
"Before I kill myself," he said, "I will kill others; I'm weary of playing at Faust, now I'll play at Mephistopheles."
Henceforth all men who had money, or friends who had money, were invited to Temple Gardens. You met there members of both Houses of Parliament—the successors of Muchross and Snowdown; and men exquisitely dressed, with quick, penetrating eyes, assembled there, actors and owners of race-horses galore, and bright-complexioned young men of many affections. Rising now from the piano one is heard to say reproachfully, "You never admire anything I wear," to a grave friend who had passed some criticism on the flower in the young man's button-hole.
It was still early in the evening, and the usual company had not yet arrived. Harding stood on the white fur hearthrug, his legs slightly apart, smoking. Mike lay in an easy-chair. His eyes were upon Harding, whom he had not seen for some years, and the sight of him recalled the years when they wrote the Pilgrim together.
He thought how splendid were then his enthusiasms and how genuine his delight in life. It was in this very room that he kissed Lily for the first time. That happy day. Well did he remember how the sun shone upon the great river, how the hay-boats sailed, how the city rose like a vision out of the mist. But Lily lies asleep, far away in a southern land; she lies sleeping, facing Italy—that Italy which they should have seen and dreamed together. At that moment, he brushed from his book a little green insect that had come out of the night, and it disappeared in faint dust.
It was in this room he had seen Lady Helen for the last time; and he remembered how, when he returned to her, after having taken Lily back to the dancing-room, he had found her reading a letter, and almost the very words of the conversation it had given rise to came back to him, and her almost aggressive despair. No one could say why she had shot herself. Who was the man that had deserted her? What was he like? Was it Harding? It was certainly for a lover who had tired of her; and Mike wondered how it were possible to weary of one so beautiful and so interesting, and he believed that if she had loved him they both would have found content.
"Do you remember, Harding, that it was in this room we saw Lady Helen alive for the last time? What a tragedy that was! Do you remember the room in the Alexandra Hotel, the firelight, with the summer morning coming through the Venetian blinds? Somehow there was a sense of sculpture, even without the beautiful body. Seven years have passed. She has enjoyed seven years of peace and rest; we have endured seven years of fret and worry. Life of course was never worth living, but the common stupidity of the nineteenth century renders existence for those who may see into the heart of things almost unbearable. I confess that every day man's stupidity seems to me more and more miraculous. Indeed it may be said to be divine, so inherent and so unalterable is it; and to understand it we need not stray from the question in hand—suicide. A man is houseless, he is old, he is friendless, he is starving, he is assailed in every joint by cruel disease; to save himself from years of suffering he lights a pan of charcoal; and, after carefully considering all the circumstances, the jury returns a verdict of suicide while in a state of temporary insanity. Out of years of insanity had sprung a supreme moment of sanity, and no one understands it. The common stupidity, I should say the common insanity, of the world on the subject of suicide is quite comic. A man may destroy his own property, which would certainly be of use to some one, but he may not destroy his own life, which possibly is of use to no one; and if two men conspire to commit suicide and one fails, the other is tried for murder and hanged. Can the mind conceive more perfect nonsense?"
"I cannot say I agree with you," said Harding; "man's aversion to suicide seems to me perfectly comprehensible."
"Does it really! Well, I should like to hear you develop that paradox."
"Your contention is that it is inconceivable that in an already over-crowded society men should not look rather with admiration than with contempt on those who, convinced that they block the way, surrender their places to those better able to fill them; and it is to you equally inconceivable that a man should be allowed to destroy his property and not his person. Your difficulty seems to me to arise from your not taking into consideration the instinctive nature of man. The average man may be said to be purely instinctive. In popular opinion—that is to say, in his own opinion—he is supposed to be a reasonable being; but a short acquaintance shows him to be illumined with no faintest ray of reason. His sense of right and wrong is purely instinctive; talk to him about it, and you will see that you might as well ask a sheep-dog why he herds the sheep."
"Quite so; but I do not see how that explains his aversion to suicide."
"I think it does. There are two forces in human nature—instinct and reason. The first is the very principle of life, and exists in all we see—give it a philosophic name, and call it the 'will to live.' All acts, therefore, proceed from instinct or from reason. Suicide is clearly not an instinctive act, it is therefore a reasonable act; and being of all acts the least instinctive, it is of necessity the most reasonable; reason and instinct are antagonistic; and the extreme point of their antagonism must clearly be suicide. One is the assertion of life, the other is the denial of life. The world is mainly instinctive, and therefore very tolerant to all assertions of the will to live; it is in other words full of toleration for itself; no one is reproved for bringing a dozen children into the world, though he cannot support them, because to reprove him would involve a partial condemnation of the will to live; and the world will not condemn itself.
"If suicide merely cut the individual thread of life our brothers would rejoice. Nature is concerned in the preservation of the species, not in the preservation of the individual; but suicide is more than the disappearance of an individual life, it is a protest against all life, therefore man, in the interest of the life of the race, condemns the suicide. The struggle for life is lessened by every death, but the injury inflicted on the desire of life is greater; in other words, suicide is such a stimulant to the exercise of reason (which has been proved antagonistic to life), that man, in defence of instinct, is forced to condemn suicide.
"And it is curious to note that of all the manners of death which may bring them fortune, men like suicide the least; a man would prefer to inherit a property through his father falling a prey to a disease that tortured him for months rather than he should blow his brains out. If he were to sound his conscience, his conscience would tell him that his preference resulted from consideration for his father's soul. For as man acquired reason, which, as I have shown, endangers the sovereignty of the will to live, he developed notions of eternal life, such notions being necessary to check and act as a drag upon the new force that had been introduced into his life. He says suicide clashes with the principle of eternal life. So it does, so it does, he is quite right, but how delightful and miraculously obtuse. We must not take man for a reasoning animal; ants and bees are hardly more instinctive and less reasonable than the majority of men.
"But far more than with any ordinary man is it amusing to discuss suicide with a religionist. The religionist does not know how to defend himself. If he is a Roman Catholic he says the Church forbids suicide, and that ends the matter; but other churches have no answer to make, for they find in the Old and New Testament not a shred of text to cover themselves with. From the first page of the Bible to the last there is not a word to say that a man does not hold his life in his hands, and may not end it when he pleases."
"Why don't you write an article on suicide? It would frighten people out of their wits!" said Mike.
"I hope he'll do nothing of the kind," said a man who had been listening with bated breath. "We should have every one committing suicide all around us—the world would come to an end."
"And would that matter much?" said Mike, with a scornful laugh. "You need not be afraid. No bit of mere scribbling will terminate life; the principle of life is too deeply rooted ever to be uprooted; reason will ever remain powerless to harm it. Very seldom, if ever, has a man committed suicide for purely intellectual reasons. It nearly always takes the form of a sudden paroxysm of mind. The will to live is an almost unassailable fortress, and it will remain impregnable everlastingly."
The entrance of some men, talking loudly of betting and women, stopped the conversation. The servants brought forth the card-tables. Mike played several games of ecarte, cheating openly, braving detection. He did not care what happened, and almost desired the violent scene that would ensue on his being accused of packing the cards. But nothing happened, and about one o'clock, having bade the last guest good-night, he returned to the dining-room. The room in its disorder of fruit and champagne looked like a human being—Mike thought it looked like himself. He drank a tumbler of champagne and returned to the drawing-room, his pockets full of the money he had swindled from a young man. He threw himself on a sofa by the open window and listened to the solitude, terribly punctuated by the clanging of the clocks. All the roofs were defined on the blue night, and he could hear the sound of water falling. The trees rose in vague masses indistinguishable, and beyond was the immense brickwork which hugs the shores. In the river there were strange reflections, and above the river there were blood-red lamps.
"If I were to fling myself from this window! ... I shouldn't feel anything; but I should be a shocking sight on the pavement.... Great Scott! this silence is awful, and those whispering trees, and those damned clocks—another half-hour of life gone. I shall go mad if something doesn't happen."
There came a knock. Who could it be? It did not matter, anything was better than silence. He threw open the door, and a pretty girl, almost a child, bounded into the room, making it ring with her laughter.
"Oh, Mike! darling Mike, I have left home; I couldn't live without you; ... aren't you glad to see me?"
"Of course I'm glad to see you."
"Then why don't you kiss me?" she said, jumping on his knees and throwing her arms about his neck.
"What a wicked little girl you are!"
"Wicked! It is you who make me wicked, my own darling Mike. I ran away from home for you, all for you; I should have done it for nobody else.... I ran away the day—the day before yesterday. My aunt was annoying me for going out in the lane with some young fellows. I said nothing for a long time. At last I jumps up, and I says that I would stand it no longer; I told her straight; I says you'll never see me again, never no more; I'll go away to London to some one who is awfully nice. And of course I meant you, my own darling Mike." And the room rang with girlish laughter.
"But where are you staying?" said Mike, seriously alarmed.
"Where am I staying? I'm staying with a young lady friend of mine who lives in Drury Lane, so I'm not far from you. You can come and see me," she said, and her face lit with laughter. "We are rather hard up. If you could lend me a sovereign I should be so much obliged."
"Yes, I'll lend you a sovereign, ten if you like; but I hope you'll go back to your aunt. I know the world better than you, my dear little Flossy, and I tell you that Drury Lane is no place for you."
"I couldn't go back to aunt; she wouldn't take me back; besides, I want to remain in London for the present."
Before she left Mike filled the astonished child's hands with money, and as she paused beneath his window he threw some flowers towards her, and listened to her laughter ringing through the pale morning. Now the night was a fading thing, and the town and Thames lay in the faint blue glamour of the dawn. Another day had begun, and the rattle of a morning cart was heard. Mike shut the window, hesitating between throwing himself out of it, and going to bed.
"As long as I can remember, I have had these fits of depression, but now they never leave me; I seem more than ever incapable of shaking them off."
Then he thought of the wickedness he had done, not of the wickedness of his life—that seemed to him unlimited,—but of the wickedness accomplished within the last few hours, and he wondered if he had done worse in cheating the young man at cards or giving the money he had won to Flossy. "Having tasted of money, she will do anything to obtain more. I suppose she is hopelessly lost, and will go from bad to worse. But really I don't see that I am wholly responsible. I advised her to go home, I could do no more. But I will get her aunt's address and write to her. Or I will inform some of the philanthropic people."
A few days after, he came in contact with some. Their fervour awakened some faint interest in him, and now, as weary of playing at Mephistopheles as he was of playing at Faust, he followed the occupation of his new friends. But his attempts at reformation were vain, they wore out the soul, and left it only more hopeless than before; and he remembered John Norton's words, that faith is a gift from God which we must cherish, or He will take it from us utterly; and sighing, Mike recognized the great truth underlying a primitive mode of expression. He had drifted too far into the salt sea of unfaith and cynicism, ever to gain again the fair if illusive shores of aspiration—maybe illusive, but no more illusive than the cruel sea that swung him like a wreck in its current, feeding upon him as the sea feeds. Nor could he make surrender of his passion of life, saying—
"I see into the heart of things, I know the truth, and in the calm possession of knowledge am able to divest myself of my wretched individuality, and so free myself of all evils, seeking in absorption, rather than by violent ends, to rid myself of consciousness."
But this, the religion of the truly wise, born in the sublime East, could find no roothold in Mike Fletcher—that type and epitome of Western grossness and lust of life. Religions being a synthesis of moral aspirations, developed through centuries, are mischievous and untrue except in the circumstances and climates in which they have grown up, and native races are decimated equally by the importation of a religion or a disease. True it is that Christianity was a product of the East, but it was an accidental and inferior offshoot from the original religion of the race, not adapted to their needs, and fitted only for exportation. And now, tainted and poisoned by a thousand years of habitation in the West, Christianity returns to the East, virulent and baneful as small-pox, a distinctly demoralizing influence, having power only to change excellent Buddhists into prostitutes and thieves. And in such a way, according to the same laws, Mike had observed, since he had adopted pessimism, certain unmistakable signs in himself of moral degeneracy.
He had now exhausted all Nature's remedies, save one—Drink, and he could not drink. Drink has often rescued men, in straits of mental prostration, from the charcoal-pan, the pistol, and the river. But Mike could not drink, and Nature sought in vain to re-adjust again, and balance anew, forces which seemed now irretrievably disarranged. All the old agencies were exhausted, and the new force, which chance, co-operating with natural disposition, had introduced, was dominant in him. Against it women were now powerless, and he turned aside from offered love.
It is probable that the indirect influences to which we have been subjected before birth outweigh the few direct influences received by contagion with present life. But the direct influences, slight as they may be, are worth considering, they being the only ones of which we have any exact knowledge, even if in so doing we exaggerate them; and in striving to arrive at a just estimation of the forces that had brought about his present mind, Mike was in the habit of giving prominence to the thought of the demoralizing influence of the introduction of Eastern pessimism into a distinctly Western nature. He remembered very well indeed the shock he had received when he had heard John say for the first time that it was better that human life should cease.
"For man's history, what is it but the history of crime? Man's life, what is it but a disgraceful episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets? Let us be thankful that time shall obliterate the abominable, and that once again the world shall roll pure through the silence of the universe."
So John had once spoken, creating consternation in Mike's soul, casting poison upon it. But John had buried himself in Catholicism for refuge from this awful creed, leaving Mike to perish in it. Then Mike wondered if he should have lived and died a simple, honourable, God-fearing man, if he had not been taken out of the life he was born in, if he had married in Ireland, for instance, and driven cattle to market, as did his ancestors.
One day hearing the organ singing a sweet anthem, he stayed to listen. It being midsummer, the doors of the church were open, the window was in his view, and the congregation came streaming out into the sunshine of the courts, some straying hither and thither, taking note of the various monuments. In such occupation he spoke to one whom he recognized at once as a respectable shop-girl. He took her out to dinner, dazzled and delighted her with a present of jewelry, enchanted her with assurances of his love. But when her manner insinuated an inclination to yield, he lost interest, and wrote saying he was forced to leave town. Soon after, he wrote to a certain actress proposing to write a play for her. The proposal was not made with a view to deceiving her, but rather in the intention of securing their liaison against caprice, by involving in it various mutual advantages. For three weeks they saw each other frequently; he wondered if he loved her, he dreamed of investing his talents in her interest, and so rebuilding the falling edifice of his life.
"I could crush an affection out of my heart as easily as I could kill a fly," she said.
"Ah!" he said, "my heart is as empty as a desert, and no affection shall enter there again."
An appointment was made to go out to supper, but he wrote saying he was leaving town to be married. Nor was his letter a lie. After long hesitations he had decided on this step, and it seemed to him clear that no one would suit him so well as Mrs. Byril. By marrying an old mistress, he would save himself from all the boredom of a honeymoon. And sitting in the drawing-room, in the various pauses between numerous licentious stories, they discussed their matrimonial project.
Dear Emily, who said she suffered from loneliness and fear of the future as acutely as he, was anxious to force the matter forward. But her eagerness begot reluctance in Mike, and at the end of a week, he felt that he would sooner take his razor and slice his head off, than live under the same roof with her.
In Regent Street one evening he met Frank Escott. After a few preliminary observations Mike asked him if he had heard lately from Lord Mount Rorke. Frank said that he had not seen him. All was over between them, but his uncle had, however, arranged to allow him two hundred a year. He was living at Mortlake, "a nice little house; our neighbour on the left is a city clerk at a salary of seventy pounds a year, on the right is a chemist's shop; a very nice woman is the chemist's wife; my wife and the chemist's wife are fast friends. We go over and have tea with them, and they come and have tea with us. The chemist and I smoke our pipes over the garden wall. All this appears very dreadful to you, but I assure you I have more real pleasure, and take more interest in my life, than ever I did before. My only trouble is the insurance policy—I must keep that paid up, for the two hundred a year's only an annuity. It makes a dreadful hole in our income. You might come down and see us."
"And be introduced to the chemist's wife!"
"There's no use in trying to come it over me; I know who you are. I have seen you many times about the roads in a tattered jacket. You mustn't think that because all the good luck went your way, and all the bad luck my way, that I'm any less a gentleman, or you any less a ——"
"My dear Frank, I'm really very sorry for what I said; I forgot. I assure you I didn't mean to sneer. I give you my word of honour."
They walked around Piccadilly Circus, edging their way through the women, that the sultry night had brought out in white dresses. It was a midnight of white dresses and fine dust; the street was as clean as a ball-room; like a pure dream the moon soared through the azure infinities, whitening the roadway; the cabmen loitered, following those who showed disposition to pair; groups gathered round the lamp-posts, and were dispersed by stalwart policemen. "Move on, move on, if you please, gentlemen!"
Frank told Mike about the children. He had now a boy five years old, "such a handsome fellow, and he can read as well as you or I can. He's down at the sea-side now with his mother. He wrote me such a clever letter, telling me he had just finished Robinson Crusoe, and was going to make a start on Gulliver's Travels. I'm crazy about my boy. Talk of being tired of living, my trouble is that I shall have to leave him one day."
Mike thought Frank's love of his son charming, and he regretted he could find in his own heart no such simple sentiments! Every now and then he turned to look after a girl, and pulling his moustache, muttered—
"Well, don't let's say anything more about it. When will you come and see us?"
"What day will suit you—some day next week?"
"Yes, I'm always in in the evening; will you come to dinner?"
Mike replied evasively, anxious not to commit himself to a promise for any day. Then seeing that Frank thought he did not care to dine with him, he said—
"Very well, let us say Wednesday."
He bade his friend good-night, and stood on the edge of the pavement watching him make his way across the street to catch the last omnibus. Mike's mind filled with memories of Frank. They came from afar, surging over the shores of youth, thundering along the cliffs of manhood. Out of the remote regions of boyhood they came, white crests uplifted, merging and mingling in the waters of life. It seemed to Mike that, like sea-weed, he and Frank had been washed together, and they then had been washed apart. That was life, and that was the result of life, that and nothing more. And of every adventure Frank was the most distinctly realizable; all else, even Lily, was a little shadow that had come and gone. John had lost himself in religion, Frank had lost himself in his wife and child. To lose yourself, that is the end to strive for; absorption in religion or in the family. They had attained it, he had failed. All the love and all the wealth fortune had poured upon him had not enabled him to stir from or change that entity which he knew as Mike Fletcher. Ten years ago he had not a shilling to his credit, to-day he had several thousands, but the irreparable had not altered—he was still Mike Fletcher. He had wandered over the world; he had lain in the arms of a hundred women, and nothing remained of it all but Mike Fletcher. There was apparently no escape; he was lashed to himself like the convict to the oar. For him there was nothing but this oar, and all the jewelry that had been expended upon it had not made it anything but an oar. There was a curse upon it all.
He saw Frank's home—the little parlour with its bits of furniture, scraggy and vulgar, but sweet with the presence of the wife and her homely occupations; then the children—the chicks—cooing and chattering, creating such hope and fond anxiety! Why then did he not have wife and children? Of all worldly possessions they are the easiest to obtain. Because he had created a soul that irreparably separated him from these, the real and durable prizes of life; they lay beneath his hands, but his soul said no; he desired, and was powerless to take what he desired.
For a moment he stood, in puzzled curiosity, listening to the fate that his thoughts were prophesying; then, as if in answer antiphonal, terrible as the announcing of the chorus, came a quick thought, quick and sharp as a sword, fatal as a sword set against the heart. He strove to turn its point aside, he attempted to pass it by, but on every side he met its point, though he reasoned in jocular and serious mood. Then his courage falling through him like a stone dropped into a well, he crossed the street, seeking the place Flossy had told him of, and soon after saw her walking a little in front of him with another girl. She beckoned him, leading the way through numerous by-streets. Something in the sound of certain footsteps told him he was being followed; his reason warned him away, yet he could not but follow. And in the shop below and on the stairs of the low eating-house where they had led him, loud voices were heard and tramping of feet. Instantly he guessed the truth, and drew the furniture across the doorway. The window was over twenty feet from the ground, but he might reach the water-butt. He jumped from the window-sill, falling into the water, out of which he succeeded in drawing himself; hence he crawled along the wall, dropped into the lane, hearing his pursuers shouting to him from the window. There were only a few children in the lane; he sped quickly past, gained a main street, hailed a cab, and was driven safely to the Temple.
He flung off his shoes, which were full of water; his trousers were soaking, and having rid himself of them, he wrapped himself in a dressing-gown, and went into the sitting-room in his slippers. It was the same as when it was Frank's room. There was the grand piano and the slender brass lamps; he had lit none, but stood uncertain, his bed-room candle in his hand. And listening, he could hear London along the Embankment—all occasional cry, the rattle of a cab, the hollow whistle of a train about to cross the bridge at Blackfriars, the shrill whistle of a train far away in the night. He had escaped from his pursuers, but not from himself.
"How horribly lonely it is here," he muttered. Then he thought of how narrowly he had escaped disgraceful exposure of his infamy. "If those fellows had got hold of my name it would have been in the papers the day after to-morrow. What a fool I am! why do I risk so much? and for what?" He turned from the memory as from sight of some disgustful deformity or disease. Going to the mirror he studied his face for some reflection of the soul; but unable to master his feelings, in which there was at once loathing and despair, he threw open the window and walked out of the suffocating room into the sultry balcony.
It was hardly night; the transparent obscurity of the summer midnight was dissolving; the slight film of darkness which had wrapped the world was evanescent. "Is it day or night?" he asked. "Oh, it is day! another day has begun; I escaped from my mortal enemies, but not from the immortal day. Like a gray beast it comes on soft velvet paws to devour. Stay! oh, bland and beautiful night, thou that dost so charitably hide our misfortunes, stay!
"I shudder when I think of the new evils and abominations that this day will bring. The world is still at rest, lying in the partial purity of sleep. But as a cruel gray beast the day comes on soundless velvet paws. Light and desire are one; light and desire are the claws that the gray beast unsheathes; a few hours' oblivion and the world's torment begins again!" Then looking down the great height, he thought how he might spring from consciousness into oblivion—the town and the river were now distinct in ghastly pallor—"I should feel nothing. But what a mess I should make; what a horrible little mess!"
After breakfast he sat looking into space, wondering what he might do. He hoped for a visitor, and yet he could not think of one that he desired to see. A woman! the very thought was distasteful. He rose and went to the window. London implacable lay before him, a morose mass of brick, fitting sign and symbol of life. And the few hours that lay between breakfast and dinner were narrow and brick-coloured; and longing for the vast green hours of the country, he went to Belthorpe Park. But in a few weeks the downs and lanes fevered and exasperated him, and perforce he must seek some new distraction. Henceforth he hurried from house to house, tiring of each last abode more rapidly than the one that had preceded it. He read no books, and he only bought newspapers to read the accounts of suicides; and his friends had begun to notice the strange interest with which he spoke of those who had done away with themselves, and the persistency with which he sought to deduce their motives from the evidence; and he seemed to be animated by a wish to depreciate all worldly reasons, and to rely upon weariness of life as sufficient motive for their action.
The account of two young people engaged to be married, who had taken tickets for some short journey and shot themselves in the railway carriage. "Here," he said, "was a case of absolute sanity, a quality almost undiscoverable in human nature. Two young people resolve to rid themselves of the burden; but they are more than utilitarians, they are poets, and of a high order; for, not only do they make most public and emphatic denial of life, but they add to it a measure of Aristophanesque satire—they engage themselves to marry. Now marriage is man's approval and confirmation of his belief in human existence—they engage themselves to marry, but instead of putting their threat into execution, they enter a railway carriage and blow out their brains, proving thereby that they had brains to blow out."
When, however, it transpired that letters were found in the pockets of the suicides to the effect that they had hoped to gain such notoriety as the daily press can give by their very flagrant leave-taking of this world, Mike professed much regret, and gravely assured his astonished listeners that, in the face of these letters which had unhappily come to light, he withdrew his praise of the quality of the brains blown out. In truth he secretly rejoiced that proof of the imperfect sanity of the suicides had come to light and assured himself that when he did away with Mike Fletcher, that he would revenge himself on society by leaving behind him a document which would forbid the usual idiotic verdict, "Suicide while in a state of temporary insanity," and leave no loophole through which it might be said that he was impelled to seek death for any extraneous reasons whatever. He would go to death in the midst of the most perfect worldly prosperity the mind could conceive, desiring nothing but rest, profoundly convinced of the futility of all else, and the perfect folly of human effort.
In such perverse and morbid mind Mike returned to London. It was in the beginning of August, and the Temple weltered in sultry days and calm nights. The river flowed sluggishly through its bridges; the lights along its banks gleamed fiercely in the lucent stillness of a sulphur-hued horizon. Like a nightmare the silence of the apartment lay upon his chest; and there was a frightened look in his eyes as he walked to and fro. The moon lay like a creole amid the blue curtains of the night; the murmur of London hushed in stray cries, and only the tread of the policeman was heard distinctly. About the river the night was deepest, and out of the shadows falling from the bridges the lamps gleamed with strange intensity, some flickering sadly in the water. Mike walked into the dining-room. He could see the sward in the darkness that the trees spread, and the lilies reeked in the great stillness. Then he thought of the old days when the Pilgrim was written in these rooms, and of the youthfulness of those days; and he maddened when he recalled the evenings of artistic converse in John Norton's room—how high were then their aspirations! The Temple, too, seemed to have lost youth and gaiety. No longer did he meet his old friends in the eating-houses and taverns. Everything had been dispersed or lost. Some were married, some had died.
Then the solitude grew more unbearable and he turned from it, hoping he might meet some one he knew. As he passed up Temple Lane he saw a slender woman dressed in black, talking to the policemen. He had often seen her about the Courts and Buildings, and had accosted her, but she had passed without heeding. Curious to hear who and what she was, Mike entered into conversation with one of the policemen.
"She! we calls her old Specks, sir."
"I have often seen her about, and I spoke to her once, but she didn't answer."
"She didn't hear you, sir; she's a little deaf. A real good sort, sir, is old Jenny. She's always about here. She was brought out in the Temple; she lived eight years with a Q.C., sir. He's dead. A strapping fine wench she was then, I can tell you."
"And what does she do now?"
"She has three or four friends here. She goes to see Mr.—I can't think of his name—you know him, the red-whiskered man in Dr. Johnson's Buildings. You have seen him in the Probate Court many a time." And then in defence of her respectability, if not of her morals, the policeman said, "You'll never see her about the streets, sir, she only comes to the Temple."
Old Jenny stood talking to the younger member of the force. When she didn't hear him she cooed in the soft, sweet way of deaf women; and her genial laugh told Mike that the policeman was not wrong when he described her as a real good sort. She spoke of her last 'bus, and on being told the time gathered up her skirts and ran up the Lane.
Then the policemen related anecdotes concerning their own and the general amativeness of the Temple.
"But, lor, sir, it is nothing now to what it used to be! Some years ago, half the women of London used to be in here of a night; now there's very little going on—an occasional kick up, but nothing to speak of."
"What are you laughing at?" said Mike, looking from one to the other.
The policemen consulted each other, and then one said—
"You didn't hear about the little shindy we had here last night, sir? It was in Elm Court, just behind you, sir. We heard some one shouting for the police; we couldn't make out where the shouting came from first, we were looking about—the echo in these Courts makes it very difficult to say where a voice comes from. At last we saw the fellow at the window, and we went up. He met us at the door. He said, 'Policemen, the lady knocked at my door and asked for a drink; I didn't notice that she was drunk, and I gave her a brandy-and-soda, and before I could stop her she undressed herself!' There was the lady right enough, in her chemise, sitting in the arm-chair, as drunk as a lord, humming and singing as gay, sir, as any little bird. Then the party says, 'Policeman, do your duty!' I says, 'What is my duty?' He says, 'Policeman, I'll report you!' I says, 'Report yourself. I knows my duty.' He says, 'Policeman, remove that woman!' I says, 'I can't remove her in that state. Tell her to dress herself and I'll remove her.' Well, the long and the short of it, sir, is, that we had to dress her between us, and I never had such a job."
The exceeding difficulties of this toilette, as narrated by the stolid policeman, made Mike laugh consummately. Then alternately, and in conjunction, the policemen told stories concerning pursuits through the areas and cellars with which King's Bench Walk abounds.
"It was from Paper Buildings that the little girl came from who tried to drown herself in the fountain."
"Oh, I haven't heard about her," said Mike. "She tried to drown herself in the fountain, did she? Crossed in love; tired of life; which was it?"
"Neither, sir; she was a bit drunk, that was about it. My mate could tell you about her, he pulled her out. She's up before the magistrate to-day again."
"Just fancy, bringing a person up before a magistrate because she wanted to commit suicide! Did any one ever hear such rot? If our own persons don't belong to us, I don't know what does. But tell me about her."
"She went up to see a party that lives in Pump Court. We was at home, so she picks up her skirts, runs across here, and throws herself in. I see her run across, and follows her; but I had to get into the water to get her out; I was wet to the waist—there's about four feet of water in that 'ere fountain."
"She had fainted. We had to send for a cab to get her to the station, sir."
At that moment the presence of the sergeant hurried the policemen away, and Mike was left alone. The warm night air was full of the fragrance of the leaves, and he was alive to the sensation of the foliage spreading above him, and deepening amid the branches of the tall plane-trees that sequestered and shadowed the fountain. They grew along the walls, forming a quiet dell, in whose garden silence the dripping fountain sang its song of falling water. Light and shade fell picturesquely about the steps descending to the gardens, and the parapeted buildings fell in black shadows upon the sward, and stood sharp upon the moon illuminated blue. Mike sat beneath the plane-trees, and the suasive silence, sweetly tuned by the dripping water, murmured in his soul dismal sorrowings. Over the cup, whence issued the jet that played during the day, the water flowed. There were there the large leaves of some aquatic plant, and Mike wondered if, had the policeman not rescued the girl, she would now be in perfect peace, instead of dragged before a magistrate and forced to promise to bear her misery.
"A pretty little tale," he thought, and he saw her floating in shadowy water in pallor and beauty, and reconciliation with nature. "Why see another day? I must die very soon, why not at once? Thousands have grieved as I am grieving in this self-same place, have asked the same sad questions. Sitting under these ancient walls young men have dreamed as I am dreaming—no new thoughts are mine. For five thousand years man has asked himself why he lives. Five thousand years have changed the face of the world and the mind of man; no thought has resisted the universal transformation of thought, save that one thought—why live? Men change their gods, but one thought floats immortal, unchastened by the teaching of any mortal gods. Why see another day? why drink again the bitter cup of life when we may drink the waters of oblivion?"
He walked through Pump Court slowly, like a prisoner impeded by the heavy chain, and at every step the death idea clanked in his brain. All the windows were full of light, and he could hear women's voices. In imagination he saw the young men sitting round the sparely furnished rooms, law-books and broken chairs—smoking and drinking, playing the piano, singing, thinking they were enjoying themselves. A few years and all would be over for them as all was over now for him. But never would they drink of life as he had drunk, he was the type of that of which they were but imperfect and inconclusive figments. Was he not the Don Juan and the poet—a sort of Byron doubled with Byron's hero? But he was without genius; had he genius, genius would force him to live.
He considered how far in his pessimism he was a representative of the century. He thought how much better he would have done in another age, and how out of sympathy he was with the utilitarian dullness of the present time; how much more brilliant he would have been had he lived at any other period of the Temple's history. Then he stopped to study the style of the old staircase, the rough woodwork twisting up the wall so narrowly, the great banisters full of shadow lighted by the flickering lanterns. The yellowing colonnade—its beams and overhanging fronts were also full of suggestion, and the suggestion of old time was enforced by the sign-board of a wig-maker.
"The last of an ancient industry," thought Mike. "The wig is representative of the seventeenth as the silk hat is of the nineteenth century. I wonder why I am so strongly fascinated with the seventeenth century?—I, a peasant; atavism, I suppose; my family were not always peasants."
Turning from the old Latin inscription he viewed the church, so evocative in its fortress form of an earlier and more romantic century. The clocks were striking one, two hours would bring the dawn close again upon the verge of the world. Mike trembled and thought how he might escape. The beauty of the cone of the church was outlined upon the sky, and he dreamed, as he walked round the shadow-filled porch, full of figures in prayer and figures holding scrolls, of the white-robed knights, their red crosses, their long swords, and their banner called Beauseant. He dreamed himself Grand Master of the Order; saw himself in chain armour charging the Saracen. The story of the terrible idol with the golden eyes, the secret rites, the knight led from the penitential cell and buried at daybreak, the execution of the Grand Master at the stake, turned in his head fitfully; cloud-shapes that passed, floating, changing incessantly, suddenly disappearing, leaving him again Mike Fletcher, a strained, agonized soul of our time, haunted and hunted by an idea, overpowered by an idea as a wolf by a hound.
His life had been from the first a series of attempts to escape from the idea. His loves, his poetry, his restlessness were all derivative from this one idea. Among those whose brain plays a part in their existence there is a life idea, and this idea governs them and leads them to a certain and predestined end; and all struggles with it are delusions. A life idea in the higher classes of mind, a life instinct in the lower. It were almost idle to differentiate between them, both may be included under the generic title of the soul, and the drama involved in such conflict is always of the highest interest, for if we do not read the story of our own soul, we read in each the story of a soul that might have been ours, and that passed very near to us; and who reading of Mike's torment is fortunate enough to say, "I know nothing of what is written there."
His steps echoed hollow on the old pavement. Full of shadow the roofs of the square church swept across the sky; the triple lancet windows caught a little light from the gaslight on the buildings; and he wondered what was the meaning of the little gold lamb standing over one doorway, and then remembered that in various forms the same symbolic lamb is repeated through the Temple. He passed under the dining-hall by the tunnel, and roamed through the spaces beneath the plane-trees of King's Bench Walk. "My friends think my life was a perfect gift, but a burning cinder was placed in my breast, and time has blown it into flame."
In the soporific scent of the lilies and the stocks, the night drowsed in the darkness of the garden; Mike unlocked the gate and passed into the shadows, and hypnotized by the heavenly spaces, in which there were a few stars; by the earth and the many emanations of the earth; by the darkness which covered all things, hiding the little miseries of human existence, he threw himself upon the sward crying, "Oh, take me, mother, hide me in thy infinite bosom, give me forgetfulness of the day. Take and hide me away. We leave behind a corpse that men will touch. Sooner would I give myself to the filthy beaks of vultures, than to their more defiling sympathies. Why were we born? Why are we taught to love our parents? It is they whom we should hate, for it was they who, careless of our sufferings, inflicted upon us the evil of life. We are taught to love them because the world is mad; there is nothing but madness in the world. Night, do not leave me; I cannot bear with the day. Ah, the day will come; nothing can retard the coming of the day, and I can bear no longer with the day."
Hearing footsteps, he sprang to his feet, and walking in the direction whence the sound came, he found himself face to face with the policeman.
"Not able to get to sleep sir?"
"No, I couldn't sleep, the night is so hot; I shall sleep presently though."
They had not walked far before the officer, pointing to one of the gables of the Temple gardens, said—
"That's where Mr. Williamson threw himself over, sir; he got out on the roof, on to the highest point he could reach."
"He wanted," said Mike, "to do the job effectually."
"He did so; he made a hole two feet deep."
"They put him into a deeper one."
The officer laughed; and they walked round the gardens, passing by the Embankment to King's Bench Walk. Opening the gate there, the policeman asked Mike if he were coming out, but he said he would return across the gardens, and let himself out by the opposite gate. He walked, thinking of what he and the policeman had been saying—the proposed reduction in the rents of the chambers, the late innovation of throwing open the gardens to the poor children of the neighbourhood, and it was not until he stooped to unlock the gate that he remembered that he was alive.
Then the voice that had been counselling him so long, drew strangely near, and said "Die." The voice sounded strangely clear in the void of a great brain silence. Earth ties seemed severed, and then quite naturally, without any effort of mind, he went up-stairs to shoot himself. No effort of mind was needed, it seemed the natural and inevitable course for him to take, and he was only conscious of a certain faint surprise that he had so long delayed. There was no trace of fear or doubt in him; he walked up the long staircase without embarrassment, and in a heavenly calm of mind hastened to put his project into execution, dreading the passing of the happiness of his present mood, and the return of the fever of living. He stopped for a moment to see himself in the glass, and looking into the depths of his eyes, he strove to read there the story of his triumph over life. Then seeing the disorder of his dress, and the untidy appearance of his unshaven chin, he smiled, conceiving in that moment that it would be consistent to make as careful a toilette to meet death, as he had often done to meet a love.
He was anxious for the world to know that it was not after a drunken bout he had shot himself, but after philosophic deliberation and judicious reflection. And he could far better affirm his state of mind by his dress, than by any written words. Lying on the bed, cleanly shaved, wearing evening clothes, silk socks, patent leather shoes and white gloves? No, that would be vulgar, and all taint of vulgarity must be avoided. He must represent, even in a state of symbol, the young man, who having drunk of life to repletion, and finding that he can but repeat the same love draughts, says: "It is far too great a bore, I will go," and he goes out of life just as if he were leaving a fashionable soiree in Piccadilly. That was exactly the impression he wished to convey. Yes, he would have out his opera hat and light overcoat. He was a little uncertain whether he should die in the night, or wait for the day, and considering the question, he lathered his face. "Curious it is," he thought, "I never was so happy, so joyous in life before.... These walls, all that I see, will in a few minutes disappear; it is this I, this Ego, which creates them; in destroying myself I destroy the world.... How hard this beard is! I never can shave properly without hot water!"
As he pulled on a pair of silk socks and tied his white necktie he thought of Lady Helen. Going to bed was not a bad notion—particularly for a woman, and a woman in love, but it would be ridiculous for a man. He looked at himself again in the long glass in the door of his carved mahogany wardrobe, and was pleased to see that, although a little jaded and worn, he was still handsome. Having brushed his hair carefully, he looked out the revolver; he did not remember exactly where he had put it, and in turning out his drawers he came upon a bundle of old letters. They were mostly from Frank and Lizzie, and in recalling old times they reminded him that if he died without making a will, his property would go to the Crown. It displeased him to think that his property should pass away in so impersonal a manner. But his mind was now full of death; like a gourmet he longed to taste of the dark fruit of oblivion; and the delay involved in making out a will exasperated him, and it was with difficulty that he conquered his selfishness and sat down to write. Fretful he threw aside the pen; this little delay had destroyed all his happiness. To dispose of his property in money and land would take some time; the day would surprise him still in the world. After a few moments' reflection he decided that he would leave Belthorpe Park to Frank Escott.
"I dare say I'm doing him an injury ... but no, there's no time for paradoxes—I'll leave Belthorpe Park to Frank Escott. The aristocrat shall not return to the people. But to whom shall I leave all my money in the funds? To a hospital? No. To a woman? I must leave it to a woman; I hardly know any one but women; but to whom? Suppose I were to leave it to be divided among those who could advance irrefutable proof that they had loved me! What a throwing over of reputation there would be." Then a sudden memory of the girl by whom he had had a child sprang upon him like something out of the dark. He wondered for a moment what the child was like, and then he wrote leaving the interest of his money to her, until his son, the child born in such a year—he had some difficulty in fixing the date—came of age. She should retain the use of the interest of twelve thousand pounds, and at her death that sum should revert to the said child born in ——, and if the said child were not living, his mother should become possessor of the entire monies now invested in funds, to do with as she pleased.
"That will do," he thought; "I dare say it isn't very legal, but it is common sense and will be difficult to upset. Yes, and I will leave all my books and furniture in Temple Gardens to Frank; I don't care much about the fellow, but I had better leave it to him. And now, what about witnesses? The policemen will do."
He found one in King's Bench Walk, another he met a little further on, talking to a belated harlot, whom he willingly relinquished on being invited to drink. Mike led the way at a run up the high steps, the burly officers followed more leisurely.
"Come in," he cried, and they advanced into the room, their helmets in their hands. "What will you take, whiskey or brandy?"
After some indecision both decided, as Mike knew they would, for the former beverage. He offered them soda-water; but they preferred a little plain water, and drank to his very good health. They were, as before, garrulous to excess. Mike listened for some few minutes, so as to avoid suspicion, and then said—
"Oh, by the way, I wrote out my will a night or two ago—not that I want to die yet, but one never knows. Would you mind witnessing it?"
The policemen saw no objection; in a few moments the thing was done, and they retired bowing, and the door closed on solitude and death.
Mike lay back in his chair reading the document. The fumes of the whiskey he had drunk obscured his sense of purpose, and he allowed his thoughts to wander; his eyes closed and he dozed, his head leaned a little on one side. He dreamed, or rather he thought, for it was hardly sleep, of the dear good women who had loved him; and he mused over his folly in not taking one to wife and accepting life in its plain naturalness.
Then as sleep deepened the dream changed, becoming hyperbolical and fantastic, until he saw himself descending into hell. The numerous women he had betrayed awaited him and pursued him with blazing lamps of intense and blinding electric fire. And he fled from the light, seeking darkness like some nocturnal animal. His head was leaned slightly on one side, the thin, weary face lying in the shadow of the chair, and the hair that fell thickly on the moist forehead. As he dreamed the sky grew ghastly as the dead. The night crouched as if in terror along the edges of the river, beneath the bridges and among the masonry and the barges aground, and in the ebbing water a lurid reflection trailed ominously. And as the day ascended, the lamps dwindled from red to white, and beyond the dark night of the river, spires appeared upon faint roseate gray.
Then, as the sparrows commenced their shrilling in the garden, another veil was lifted, and angles and shapes on the warehouses appeared, and boats laden with newly-cut planks; then the lights that seemed to lead along the river turned short over the iron girders, and in white whiffs a train sped across the bridge. The clouds lifted and cleared away, changing from dark gray to undecided purple, and in the blank silver of the east, the spaces flushed, and the dawn appeared in her first veil of rose. And as if the light had penetrated and moved the brain, the lips murmured—
"False fascination in which we are blinded. Night! shelter and save me from the day, and in thy opiate arms bear me across the world."
He turned uneasily as if he were about to awake, and then his eyes opened and he gazed on the spectral pallor of the dawn in the windows, his brain rousing from dreams slowly into comprehension of the change that had come. Then collecting his thoughts he rose and stood facing the dawn. He stood for a moment like one in combat, and then like one overwhelmed retreated through the folding doors, seeking his pistol.
"Another day begun! Twelve more hours of consciousness and horror! I must go!"
* * * * * *
None had heard the report of the pistol, and while the pomp of gold and crimson faded, and the sun rose into the blueness of morning, Mike lay still grasping the revolver, the blood flowing down his face, where he had fallen across the low bed, raised upon lions' claws and hung with heavy curtains. Receiving no answer, the servant had opened the door. A look of horror passed over her face; she lifted his hand, let it fall, and burst into tears.
And all the while the sun rose, bringing work and sorrow to every living thing—filling the fields with labourers, filling the streets with clerks and journalists, authors and actors. And it was in the morning hubbub of the Strand that Lizzie Escott stopped to speak to Lottie, who was going to rehearsal.
"How exactly like his father he is growing," she said, speaking of the little boy by the actress's side. "Frank saw Mike in Piccadilly about a month ago; he promised to come and see us, but he never did."
"Swine.... He never could keep a promise. I hope Willy won't grow up like him."
"Who are you talking of, mother? of father?"
The women exchanged glances.
"He's as sharp as a needle. And to think that that beast never gave me but one hundred pounds, and it was only an accident I got that—we happened to meet in the underground railway. He took a ticket for me—you know he could always be very nice if he liked; he told me a lady had left him five thousand a year, and if I wanted any money I had only to ask him for it. I asked him if he wouldn't like to see the child, and he said I mustn't be beastly; I never quite knew what he meant; but I know he thought it funny, for he laughed a great deal, and I got into such a rage. I said I didn't want his dirty money, and got out at the next station. He sent me a hundred pounds next day. I haven't heard of him since, and don't want to."
"Suicide of a poet in the Temple!" shouted a little boy.
"I wonder who that is," said Lizzie.
"Mike used to live in the Temple," said Lottie.
The women read the reporter's account of the event, and then Lottie said—
"Isn't it awful! I wonder what he has done with his money?"
"You may be sure he hasn't thought of us. He ought to have thought of Frank. Frank was very good to him in old times."
"Well, I don't care what he has done with his money. I never cared for any man but him. I could have forgiven him everything if he had only thought of the child. I hope he has left him something."
"Now I'm sure you are talking of father."