And, slowly taking up his glass, Shelton drank; the sense of well-being was upon him. His superiority to these his fellow-members soothed him. He saw through all the sham of this club life, the meanness of this worship of success, the sham of kid-gloved novelists, "good form," and the terrific decency of our education. It was soothing thus to see through things, soothing thus to be superior; and from the soft recesses of his chair he puffed out smoke and stretched his limbs toward the fire; and the fire burned back at him with a discreet and venerable glow.
Puncutal to his word, Bill Dennant called for Shelton at one o'clock.
"I bet old Benjy's feeling a bit cheap," said he, as they got out of their cab at the church door and passed between the crowded files of unelect, whose eyes, so curious and pitiful, devoured them from the pavement.
The ashen face of a woman, with a baby in her arms and two more by her side, looked as eager as if she had never experienced the pangs of ragged matrimony. Shelton went in inexplicably uneasy; the price of his tie was their board and lodging for a week. He followed his future brother-in-law to a pew on the bridegroom's side, for, with intuitive perception of the sexes' endless warfare, each of the opposing parties to this contract had its serried battalion, the arrows of whose suspicion kept glancing across and across the central aisle.
Bill Dennant's eyes began to twinkle.
"There's old Benjy!" he whispered; and Shelton looked at the hero of the day. A subdued pallor was traceable under the weathered uniformity of his shaven face; but the well-bred, artificial smile he bent upon the guests had its wonted steely suavity. About his dress and his neat figure was that studied ease which lifts men from the ruck of common bridegrooms. There were no holes in his armour through which the impertinent might pry.
"Good old Benjy!" whispered young Dennant; "I say, they look a bit short of class, those Casserols."
Shelton, who was acquainted with this family, smiled. The sensuous sanctity all round had begun to influence him. A perfume of flowers and dresses fought with the natural odour of the church; the rustle of whisperings and skirts struck through the native silence of the aisles, and Shelton idly fixed his eyes on a lady in the pew in front; without in the least desiring to make a speculation of this sort, he wondered whether her face was as charming as the lines of her back in their delicate, skin-tight setting of pearl grey; his glance wandered to the chancel with its stacks of flowers, to the grave, business faces of the presiding priests, till the organ began rolling out the wedding march.
"They're off!" whispered young Dermant.
Shelton was conscious of a shiver running through the audience which reminded him of a bullfight he had seen in Spain. The bride came slowly up the aisle. "Antonia will look like that," he thought, "and the church will be filled with people like this . . . . She'll be a show to them!" The bride was opposite him now, and by an instinct of common chivalry he turned away his eyes; it seemed to him a shame to look at that downcast head above the silver mystery of her perfect raiment; the modest head full, doubtless, of devotion and pure yearnings; the stately head where no such thought as "How am I looking, this day of all days, before all London?" had ever entered; the proud head, which no such fear as "How am I carrying it off?" could surely be besmirching.
He saw below the surface of this drama played before his eyes, and set his face, as a man might who found himself assisting at a sacrifice. The words fell, unrelenting, on his ears: "For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health—" and opening the Prayer Book he found the Marriage Service, which he had not looked at since he was a boy, and as he read he had some very curious sensations.
All this would soon be happening to himself! He went on reading in a kind of stupor, until aroused by his companion whispering, "No luck!" All around there rose a rustling of skirts; he saw a tall figure mount the pulpit and stand motionless. Massive and high-featured, sunken of eye, he towered, in snowy cambric and a crimson stole, above the blackness of his rostrum; it seemed he had been chosen for his beauty. Shelton was still gazing at the stitching of his gloves, when once again the organ played the Wedding March. All were smiling, and a few were weeping, craning their heads towards the bride. "Carnival of second-hand emotions!" thought Shelton; and he, too, craned his head and brushed his hat. Then, smirking at his friends, he made his way towards the door.
In the Casserols' house he found himself at last going round the presents with the eldest Casserol surviving, a tall girl in pale violet, who had been chief bridesmaid.
"Did n't it go off well, Mr. Shelton?" she was saying
"I always think it's so awkward for the man waiting up there for the bride to come."
"Yes," murmured Shelton.
"Don't you think it's smart, the bridesmaids having no hats?"
Shelton had not noticed this improvement, but he agreed.
"That was my idea; I think it 's very chic. They 've had fifteen tea-sets-so dull, is n't it?"
"By Jove!" Shelton hastened to remark.
"Oh, its fearfully useful to have a lot of things you don't want; of course, you change them for those you do."
The whole of London seemed to have disgorged its shops into this room; he looked at Miss Casserol's face, and was greatly struck by the shrewd acquisitiveness of her small eyes.
"Is that your future brother-in-law?" she asked, pointing to Bill Dennant with a little movement of her chin; "I think he's such a bright boy. I want you both to come to dinner, and help to keep things jolly. It's so deadly after a wedding."
And Shelton said they would.
They adjourned to the hall now, to wait for the bride's departure. Her face as she came down the stairs was impassive, gay, with a furtive trouble in the eyes, and once more Shelton had the odd sensation of having sinned against his manhood. Jammed close to him was her old nurse, whose puffy, yellow face was pouting with emotion, while tears rolled from her eyes. She was trying to say something, but in the hubbub her farewell was lost. There was a scamper to the carriage, a flurry of rice and flowers; the shoe was flung against the sharply drawn-up window. Then Benjy's shaven face was seen a moment, bland and steely; the footman folded his arms, and with a solemn crunch the brougham wheels rolled away. "How splendidly it went off!" said a voice on Shelton's right. "She looked a little pale," said a voice on Shelton's left. He put his hand up to his forehead; behind him the old nurse sniffed.
"Dick," said young Dennant in his ear, "this isn't good enough; I vote we bolt."
Shelton assenting, they walked towards the Park; nor could he tell whether the slight nausea he experienced was due to afternoon champagne or to the ceremony that had gone so well.
"What's up with you?" asked Dennant; "you look as glum as any m-monkey."
"Nothing," said Shelton; "I was only thinking what humbugs we all are!"
Bill Dennant stopped in the middle of the crossing, and clapped his future brother-in-law upon the shoulder.
"Oh," said he, "if you're going to talk shop, I 'm off."
The dinner at the Casserols' was given to those of the bride's friends who had been conspicuous in the day's festivities. Shelton found himself between Miss Casserol and a lady undressed to much the same degree. Opposite sat a man with a single diamond stud, a white waistcoat, black moustache, and hawk-like face. This was, in fact, one of those interesting houses occupied by people of the upper middle class who have imbibed a taste for smart society. Its inhabitants, by nature acquisitive and cautious, economical, tenacious, had learnt to worship the word "smart." The result was a kind of heavy froth, an air of thoroughly domestic vice. In addition to the conventionally fast, Shelton had met there one or two ladies, who, having been divorced, or having yet to be, still maintained their position in "society." Divorced ladies who did not so maintain their place were never to be found, for the Casserols had a great respect for marriage. He had also met there American ladies who were "too amusing"—never, of course, American men, Mesopotamians of the financial or the racing type, and several of those gentlemen who had been, or were about to be, engaged in a transaction which might or again might not, "come off," and in conduct of an order which might, or again might not be spotted. The line he knew, was always drawn at those in any category who were actually found out, for the value of these ladies and these gentlemen was not their claim to pity—nothing so sentimental—but their "smartness," clothes, jokes, racing tips, their "bridge parties," and their motors.
In sum, the house was one whose fundamental domesticity attracted and sheltered those who were too "smart" to keep their heads for long above the water.
His host, a grey, clean-shaven city man, with a long upper lip, was trying to understand a lady the audacity of whose speech came ringing down the table. Shelton himself had given up the effort with his neighbours, and made love to his dinner, which, surviving the incoherence of the atmosphere, emerged as a work of art. It was with surprise that he found Miss Casserol addressing him.
"I always say that the great thing is to be jolly. If you can't find anything to make you laugh, pretend you do; it's so much 'smarter to be amusin'. Now don't you agree?"
The philosophy seemed excellent.
"We can't all be geniuses, but we can all look jolly."
Shelton hastened to look jolly.
"I tell the governor, when he 's glum, that I shall put up the shutters and leave him. What's the good of mopin' and lookin' miserable? Are you going to the Four-in-Hand Meet? We're making a party. Such fun; all the smart people!"
The splendour of her shoulders, her frizzy hair (clearly not two hours out of the barber's hands), might have made him doubtful; but the frank shrewdness in her eyes, and her carefully clipped tone of voice, were guarantees that she was part of the element at the table which was really quite respectable. He had never realised before how "smart" she was, and with an effort abandoned himself to a sort of gaiety that would have killed a Frenchman.
And when she left him, he reflected upon the expression of her eyes when they rested on a lady opposite, who was a true bird-of-prey. "What is it," their envious, inquisitive glance had seemed to say, "that makes you so really 'smart'?" And while still seeking for the reason, he noticed his host pointing out the merits of his port to the hawk-like man, with a deferential air quite pitiful to see, for the hawk-like man was clearly a "bad hat." What in the name of goodness did these staid bourgeois mean by making up to vice? Was it a craving to be thought distinguished, a dread of being dull, or merely an effect of overfeeding? Again he looked at his host, who had not yet enumerated all the virtues of his port, and again felt sorry for him.
"So you're going to marry Antonia Dennant?" said a voice on his right, with that easy coarseness which is a mark of caste. "Pretty girl! They've a nice place, the, Dennants. D' ye know, you're a lucky feller!"
The speaker was an old baronet, with small eyes, a dusky, ruddy face, and peculiar hail-fellow-well-met expression, at once morose and sly. He was always hard up, but being a man of enterprise knew all the best people, as well as all the worst, so that he dined out every night.
"You're a lucky feller," he repeated; "he's got some deuced good shootin', Dennant! They come too high for me, though; never touched a feather last time I shot there. She's a pretty girl. You 're a lucky feller!"
"I know that," said Shelton humbly.
"Wish I were in your shoes. Who was that sittin' on the other side of you? I'm so dashed short-sighted. Mrs. Carruther? Oh, ay!" An expression which, if he had not been a baronet, would have been a leer, came on his lips.
Shelton felt that he was referring to the leaf in his mental pocket-book covered with the anecdotes, figures, and facts about that lady. "The old ogre means," thought he, "that I'm lucky because his leaf is blank about Antonia." But the old baronet had turned, with his smile, and his sardonic, well-bred air, to listen to a bit of scandal on the other side.
The two men to Shelton's left were talking.
"What! You don't collect anything? How's that? Everybody collects something. I should be lost without my pictures."
"No, I don't collect anything. Given it up; I was too awfully had over my Walkers."
Shelton had expected a more lofty reason; he applied himself to the Madeira in his glass. That, had been "collected" by his host, and its price was going up! You couldn't get it every day; worth two guineas a bottle! How precious the idea that other people couldn't get it, made it seem! Liquid delight; the price was going up! Soon there would be none left; immense! Absolutely no one, then, could drink it!
"Wish I had some of this," said the old baronet, "but I have drunk all mine."
"Poor old chap!" thought Shelton; "after all, he's not a bad old boy. I wish I had his pluck. His liver must be splendid."
The drawing-room was full of people playing a game concerned with horses ridden by jockeys with the latest seat. And Shelton was compelled to help in carrying on this sport till early in the morning. At last he left, exhausted by his animation.
He thought of the wedding; he thought over his dinner and the wine that he had drunk. His mood of satisfaction fizzled out. These people were incapable of being real, even the smartest, even the most respectable; they seemed to weigh their pleasures in the scales and to get the most that could be gotten for their money.
Between the dark, safe houses stretching for miles and miles, his thoughts were of Antonia; and as he reached his rooms he was overtaken by the moment when the town is born again. The first new air had stolen down; the sky was living, but not yet alight; the trees were quivering faintly; no living creature stirred, and nothing spoke except his heart. Suddenly the city seemed to breathe, and Shelton saw that he was not alone; an unconsidered trifle with inferior boots was asleep upon his doorstep.
The individual on the doorstep had fallen into slumber over his own knees. No greater air of prosperity clung about him than is conveyed by a rusty overcoat and wisps of cloth in place of socks. Shelton endeavoured to pass unseen, but the sleeper woke.
"Ah, it's you, monsieur!" he said "I received your letter this evening, and have lost no time." He looked down at himself and tittered, as though to say, "But what a state I 'm in!"
The young foreigner's condition was indeed more desperate than on the occasion of their first meeting, and Shelton invited him upstairs.
"You can well understand," stammered Ferrand, following his host, "that I did n't want to miss you this time. When one is like this—" and a spasm gripped his face.
"I 'm very glad you came," said Shelton doubtfully.
His visitor's face had a week's growth of reddish beard; the deep tan of his cheeks gave him a robust appearance at variance with the fit of, trembling which had seized on him as soon as he had entered.
"Sit down-sit down," said Shelton; "you 're feeling ill!"
Ferrand smiled. "It's nothing," said he; "bad nourishment."
Shelton left him seated on the edge of an armchair, and brought him in some whisky.
"Clothes," said Ferrand, when he had drunk, "are what I want. These are really not good enough."
The statement was correct, and Shelton, placing some garments in the bath-room, invited his visitor to make himself at home. While the latter, then, was doing this, Shelton enjoyed the luxuries of self-denial, hunting up things he did not want, and laying them in two portmanteaus. This done, he waited for his visitor's return.
The young foreigner at length emerged, unshaved indeed, and innocent of boots, but having in other respects an air of gratifying affluence.
"This is a little different," he said. "The boots, I fear"—and, pulling down his, or rather Shelton's, socks he exhibited sores the size of half a crown. "One does n't sow without reaping some harvest or another. My stomach has shrunk," he added simply. "To see things one must suffer. 'Voyager, c'est plus fort que moi'!"
Shelton failed to perceive that this was one way of disguising the human animal's natural dislike of work—there was a touch of pathos, a suggestion of God-knows-what-might-have-been, about this fellow.
"I have eaten my illusions," said the young foreigner, smoking a cigarette. "When you've starved a few times, your eyes are opened. 'Savoir, c'est mon metier; mais remarquez ceci, monsieur': It 's not always the intellectuals who succeed."
"When you get a job," said Shelton, "you throw it away, I suppose."
"You accuse me of restlessness? Shall I explain what I think about that? I'm restless because of ambition; I want to reconquer an independent position. I put all my soul into my trials, but as soon as I see there's no future for me in that line, I give it up and go elsewhere. 'Je ne veux pas etre rond de cuir,' breaking my back to economise sixpence a day, and save enough after forty years to drag out the remains of an exhausted existence. That's not in my character." This ingenious paraphrase of the words "I soon get tired of things" he pronounced with an air of letting Shelton into a precious secret.
"Yes; it must be hard," agreed the latter.
Ferrand shrugged his shoulders.
"It's not all butter," he replied; "one is obliged to do things that are not too delicate. There's nothing I pride myself on but frankness."
Like a good chemist, however, he administered what Shelton could stand in a judicious way. "Yes, yes," he seemed to say, "you'd like me to think that you have a perfect knowledge of life: no morality, no prejudices, no illusions; you'd like me to think that you feel yourself on an equality with me, one human animal talking to another, without any barriers of position, money, clothes, or the rest—'ca c'est un peu trop fort'! You're as good an imitation as I 've come across in your class, notwithstanding your unfortunate education, and I 'm grateful to you, but to tell you everything, as it passes through my mind would damage my prospects. You can hardly expect that."
In one of Shelton's old frock-coats he was impressive, with his air of natural, almost sensitive refinement. The room looked as if it were accustomed to him, and more amazing still was the sense of familiarity that he inspired, as, though he were a part of Shelton's soul. It came as a shock to realise that this young foreign vagabond had taken such a place within his thoughts. The pose of his limbs and head, irregular but not ungraceful; his disillusioned lips; the rings of smoke that issued from them—all signified rebellion, and the overthrow of law and order. His thin, lopsided nose, the rapid glances of his goggling, prominent eyes, were subtlety itself; he stood for discontent with the accepted.
"How do I live when I am on the tramp?" he said, "well, there are the consuls. The system is not delicate, but when it's a question of starving, much is permissible; besides, these gentlemen were created for the purpose. There's a coterie of German Jews in Paris living entirely upon consuls." He hesitated for the fraction of a second, and resumed: "Yes, monsieur; if you have papers that fit you, you can try six or seven consuls in a single town. You must know a language or two; but most of these gentlemen are not too well up in the tongues of the country they represent. Obtaining money under false pretences? Well, it is. But what's the difference at bottom between all this honourable crowd of directors, fashionable physicians, employers of labour, ferry-builders, military men, country priests, and consuls themselves perhaps, who take money and give no value for it, and poor devils who do the same at far greater risk? Necessity makes the law. If those gentlemen were in my position, do you think that they would hesitate?"
Shelton's face remaining doubtful, Ferrand went on instantly: "You're right; they would, from fear, not principle. One must be hard pressed before committing these indelicacies. Look deep enough, and you will see what indelicate things are daily done by the respectable for not half so good a reason as the want of meals."
Shelton also took a cigarette—his own income was derived from property for which he gave no value in labour.
"I can give you an instance," said Ferrand, "of what can be done by resolution. One day in a German town, 'etant dans la misere', I decided to try the French consul. Well, as you know, I am a Fleming, but something had to be screwed out somewhere. He refused to see me; I sat down to wait. After about two hours a voice bellowed: 'Has n't the brute gone?' and my consul appears. 'I 've nothing for fellows like you,' says he; 'clear out!'
"'Monsieur,' I answered, 'I am skin and bone; I really must have assistance.'
"'Clear out,' he says, 'or the police shall throw you out!'
"I don't budge. Another hour passes, and back he comes again.
"'Still here?' says he. 'Fetch a sergeant.'
"The sergeant comes.
"'Sergeant,' says the consul, 'turn this creature out.'
"'Sergeant,' I say, 'this house is France!' Naturally, I had calculated upon that. In Germany they're not too fond of those who undertake the business of the French.
"'He is right,' says the sergeant; 'I can do nothing.'
"'Absolutely.' And he went away.
"'What do you think you'll get by staying?' says my consul.
"'I have nothing to eat or drink, and nowhere to sleep,' says I.
"'What will you go for?'
"'Here, then, get out!' I can tell you, monsieur, one must n't have a thin skin if one wants to exploit consuls."
His yellow fingers slowly rolled the stump of his cigarette, his ironical lips flickered. Shelton thought of his own ignorance of life. He could not recollect ever having gone without a meal.
"I suppose," he said feebly, "you've often starved." For, having always been so well fed, the idea of starvation was attractive.
"Four days is the longest," said he. "You won't believe that story. . . . It was in Paris, and I had lost my money on the race-course. There was some due from home which didn't come. Four days and nights I lived on water. My clothes were excellent, and I had jewellery; but I never even thought of pawning them. I suffered most from the notion that people might guess my state. You don't recognise me now?"
"How old were you then?" said Shelton.
"Seventeen; it's curious what one's like at that age."
By a flash of insight Shelton saw the well-dressed boy, with sensitive, smooth face, always on the move about the streets of Paris, for fear that people should observe the condition of his stomach. The story was a valuable commentary. His thoughts were brusquely interrupted; looking in Ferrand's face, he saw to his dismay tears rolling down his cheeks.
"I 've suffered too much," he stammered; "what do I care now what becomes of me?"
Shelton was disconcerted; he wished 'to say something sympathetic,' but, being an Englishman, could only turn away his eyes.
"Your turn 's coming," he said at last.
"Ah! when you've lived my life," broke out his visitor, "nothing 's any good. My heart's in rags. Find me anything worth keeping, in this menagerie."
Moved though he was, Shelton wriggled in his chair, a prey to racial instinct, to an ingrained over-tenderness, perhaps, of soul that forbade him from exposing his emotions, and recoiled from the revelation of other people's. He could stand it on the stage, he could stand it in a book, but in real life he could not stand it. When Ferrand had gone off with a portmanteau in each hand, he sat down and told Antonia:
. . . The poor chap broke down and sat crying like a child; and instead of making me feel sorry, it turned me into stone. The more sympathetic I wanted to be, the gruffer I grew. Is it fear of ridicule, independence, or consideration, for others that prevents one from showing one's feelings?
He went on to tell her of Ferrand's starving four days sooner than face a pawnbroker; and, reading the letter over before addressing it, the faces of the three ladies round their snowy cloth arose before him—Antonia's face, so fair and calm and wind-fresh; her mother's face, a little creased by time and weather; the maiden aunt's somewhat too thin-and they seemed to lean at him, alert and decorous, and the words "That's rather nice!" rang in his ears. He went out to post the letter, and buying a five-shilling order enclosed it to the little barber, Carolan, as a reward for delivering his note to Ferrand. He omitted to send his address with this donation, but whether from delicacy or from caution he could not have said. Beyond doubt, however, on receiving through Ferrand the following reply, he felt ashamed and pleased.
3, BLANK Row, WESTMINSTER.
From every well-born soul humanity is owing. A thousand thanks. I received this morning your postal order; your heart henceforth for me will be placed beyond all praise.
A few days later he received a letter from Antonia which filled him with excitement:
. . . Aunt Charlotte is ever so much better, so mother thinks we can go home-hurrah! But she says that you and I must keep to our arrangement not to see each other till July. There will be something fine in being so near and having the strength to keep apart . . . All the English are gone. I feel it so empty out here; these people are so funny-all foreign and shallow. Oh, Dick! how splendid to have an ideal to look up to! Write at once to Brewer's Hotel and tell me you think the same . . . . We arrive at Charing Cross on Sunday at half-past seven, stay at Brewer's for a couple of nights, and go down on Tuesday to Holm Oaks.
Always your ANTONIA.
"To-morrow!" he thought; "she's coming tomorrow!" and, leaving his neglected breakfast, he started out to walk off his emotion. His square ran into one of those slums that still rub shoulders with the most distinguished situations, and in it he came upon a little crowd assembled round a dogfight. One of the dogs was being mauled, but the day was muddy, and Shelton, like any well-bred Englishman, had a horror of making himself conspicuous even in a decent cause; he looked for a policeman. One was standing by, to see fair play, and Shelton made appeal to him. The official suggested that he should not have brought out a fighting dog, and advised him to throw cold water over them.
"It is n 't my dog," said Shelton.
"Then I should let 'em be," remarked the policeman with evident surprise.
Shelton appealed indefinitely to the lower orders. The lower orders, however, were afraid of being bitten.
"I would n't meddle with that there job if I was you," said one.
"Nasty breed o' dawg is that."
He was therefore obliged to cast away respectability, spoil his trousers and his gloves, break his umbrella, drop his hat in the mud, and separate the dogs. At the conclusion of the "job," the lower orders said to him in a rather shamefaced spanner:
"Well, I never thought you'd have managed that, sir"; but, like all men of inaction, Shelton after action was more dangerous.
"D——n it!" he said, "one can't let a dog be killed"; and he marched off, towing the injured dog with his pocket-handkerchief, and looking scornfully at harmless passers-by. Having satisfied for once the smouldering fires within him, he felt entitled to hold a low opinion of these men in the street. "The brutes," he thought, "won't stir a finger to save a poor dumb creature, and as for policemen—" But, growing cooler, he began to see that people weighted down by "honest toil" could not afford to tear their trousers or get a bitten hand, and that even the policeman, though he had looked so like a demi-god, was absolutely made of flesh and blood. He took the dog home, and, sending for a vet., had him sewn up.
He was already tortured by the doubt whether or no he might venture to meet Antonia at the station, and, after sending his servant with the dog to the address marked on its collar, he formed the resolve to go and see his mother, with some vague notion that she might help him to decide. She lived in Kensington, and, crossing the Brompton Road, he was soon amongst that maze of houses into the fibre of whose structure architects have wrought the motto: "Keep what you have—wives, money, a good address, and all the blessings of a moral state!"
Shelton pondered as he passed house after house of such intense respectability that even dogs were known to bark at them. His blood was still too hot; it is amazing what incidents will promote the loftiest philosophy. He had been reading in his favourite review an article eulogising the freedom and expansion which had made the upper middle class so fine a body; and with eyes wandering from side to side he nodded his head ironically. "Expansion and freedom," ran his thoughts: "Freedom and expansion!"
Each house-front was cold and formal, the shell of an owner with from three to five thousand pounds a year, and each one was armoured against the opinion of its neighbours by a sort of daring regularity. "Conscious of my rectitude; and by the strict observance of exactly what is necessary and no more, I am enabled to hold my head up in the world. The person who lives in me has only four thousand two hundred and fifty-five pounds each year, after allowing for the income tax." Such seemed the legend of these houses.
Shelton passed ladies in ones and twos and threes going out shopping, or to classes of drawing, cooking, ambulance. Hardly any men were seen, and they were mostly policemen; but a few disillusioned children were being wheeled towards the Park by fresh-cheeked nurses, accompanied by a great army of hairy or of hairless dogs.
There was something of her brother's large liberality about Mrs. Shelton, a tiny lady with affectionate eyes, warm cheeks, and chilly feet; fond as a cat of a chair by the fire, and full of the sympathy that has no insight. She kissed her son at once with rapture, and, as usual, began to talk of his engagement. For the first time a tremor of doubt ran through her son; his mother's view of it grated on him like the sight of a blue-pink dress; it was too rosy. Her splendid optimism, damped him; it had too little traffic with the reasoning powers.
"What right," he asked himself, "has she to be so certain? It seems to me a kind of blasphemy."
"The dear!" she cooed. "And she is coming back to-morrow? Hurrah! how I long to see her!"
"But you know, mother, we've agreed not to meet again until July."
Mrs. Shelton rocked her foot, and, holding her head on one side like a little bird, looked at her son with shining eyes.
"Dear old Dick!" she said, "how happy you must be!"
Half a century of sympathy with weddings of all sorts—good, bad, indifferent—beamed from her.
"I suppose," said Shelton gloomily, "I ought not to go and see her at the station."
"Cheer up!" replied the mother, and her son felt dreadfully depressed.
That "Cheer-up!"—the panacea which had carried her blind and bright through every evil—was as void of meaning to him as wine without a flavour.
"And how is your sciatica?" he asked.
"Oh, pretty bad," returned his mother; "I expect it's all right, really. Cheer up!" She stretched her little figure, canting her head still more.
"Wonderful woman!" Shelton thought. She had, in fact, like many of her fellow-countrymen, mislaid the darker side of things, and, enjoying the benefits of orthodoxy with an easy conscience, had kept as young in heart as any girl of thirty.
Shelton left her house as doubtful whether he might meet Antonia as when he entered it. He spent a restless afternoon.
The next day—that of her arrival—was a Sunday. He had made Ferrand a promise to go with him to hear a sermon in the slums, and, catching at any diversion which might allay excitement, he fulfilled it. The preacher in question—an amateur, so Ferrand told him—had an original method of distributing the funds that he obtained. To male sheep he gave nothing, to ugly female sheep a very little, to pretty female sheep the rest. Ferrand hazarded an inference, but he was a foreigner. The Englishman preferred to look upon the preacher as guided by a purely abstract love of beauty. His eloquence, at any rate, was unquestionable, and Shelton came out feeling sick.
It was not yet seven o'clock, so, entering an Italian restaurant to kill the half-hour before Antonia's arrival, he ordered a bottle of wine for his companion, a cup of coffee for himself, and, lighting a cigarette, compressed his lips. There was a strange, sweet sinking in his heart. His companion, ignorant of this emotion, drank his wine, crumbled his roll, and blew smoke through his nostrils, glancing caustically at the rows of little tables, the cheap mirrors, the hot, red velvet, the chandeliers. His juicy lips seemed to be murmuring, "Ah! if you only knew of the dirt behind these feathers!" Shelton watched him with disgust. Though his clothes were now so nice, his nails were not quite clean, and his fingertips seemed yellow to the bone. An anaemic waiter in a shirt some four days old, with grease-spots on his garments and a crumpled napkin on his arm, stood leaning an elbow amongst doubtful fruits, and reading an Italian journal. Resting his tired feet in turn, he looked like overwork personified, and when he moved, each limb accused the sordid smartness of the walls. In the far corner sat a lady eating, and, mirrored opposite, her feathered hat, her short, round face, its coat of powder, and dark eyes, gave Shelton a shiver of disgust. His companion's gaze rested long and subtly on her.
"Excuse me, monsieur," he said at length. "I think I know that lady!" And, leaving his host, he crossed the room, bowed, accosted her, and sat down. With Pharisaic delicacy, Shelton refrained from looking. But presently Ferrand came back; the lady rose and left the restaurant; she had been crying. The young foreigner was flushed, his face contorted; he did not touch his wine.
"I was right," he said; "she is the wife of an old friend. I used to know her well."
He was suffering from emotion, but someone less absorbed than Shelton might have noticed a kind of relish in his voice, as though he were savouring life's dishes, and glad to have something new, and spiced with tragic sauce, to set before his patron.
"You can find her story by the hundred in your streets, but nothing hinders these paragons of virtue"—he nodded at the stream of carriages—"from turning up their eyes when they see ladies of her sort pass. She came to London—just three years ago. After a year one of her little boys took fever—the shop was avoided—her husband caught it, and died. There she was, left with two children and everything gone to pay the debts. She tried to get work; no one helped her. There was no money to pay anyone to stay with the children; all the work she could get in the house was not enough to keep them alive. She's not a strong woman. Well, she put the children out to nurse, and went to the streets. The first week was frightful, but now she's used to it—one gets used to anything."
"Can nothing be done?" asked Shelton, startled.
"No," returned his companion. "I know that sort; if they once take to it all's over. They get used to luxury. One does n't part with luxury, after tasting destitution. She tells me she does very nicely; the children are happy; she's able to pay well and see them sometimes. She was a girl of good family, too, who loved her husband, and gave up much for him. What would you have? Three quarters of your virtuous ladies placed in her position would do the same if they had the necessary looks."
It was evident that he felt the shock of this discovery, and Shelton understood that personal acquaintance makes a difference, even in a vagabond.
"This is her beat," said the young foreigner, as they passed the illuminated crescent, where nightly the shadows of hypocrites and women fall; and Shelton went from these comments on Christianity to the station of Charing Cross. There, as he stood waiting in the shadow, his heart was in his mouth; and it struck him as odd that he should have come to this meeting fresh from a vagabond's society.
Presently, amongst the stream of travellers, he saw Antonia. She was close to her mother, who was parleying with a footman; behind them were a maid carrying a bandbox and a porter with the travelling-bags. Antonia's figure, with its throat settled in the collar of her cape, slender, tall, severe, looked impatient and remote amongst the bustle. Her eyes, shadowed by the journey, glanced eagerly about, welcoming all she saw; a wisp of hair was loose above her ear, her cheeks glowed cold and rosy. She caught sight of Shelton, and bending her neck, stag-like, stood looking at him; a brilliant smile parted her lips, and Shelton trembled. Here was the embodiment of all he had desired for weeks. He could not tell what was behind that smile of hers—passionate aching or only some ideal, some chaste and glacial intangibility. It seemed to be shining past him into the gloomy station. There was no trembling and uncertainty, no rage of possession in that brilliant smile; it had the gleam of fixedness, like the smiling of a star. What did it matter? She was there, beautiful as a young day, and smiling at him; and she was his, only divided from him by a space of time. He took a step; her eyes fell at once, her face regained aloofness; he saw her, encircled by mother, footman, maid, and porter, take her seat and drive away. It was over; she had seen him, she had smiled, but alongside his delight lurked another feeling, and, by a bitter freak, not her face came up before him but the face of that lady in the restaurant—short, round, and powdered, with black-circled eyes. What right had we to scorn them? Had they mothers, footmen, porters, maids? He shivered, but this time with physical disgust; the powdered face with dark-fringed eyes had vanished; the fair, remote figure of the railway-station came back again.
He sat long over dinner, drinking, dreaming; he sat long after, smoking, dreaming, and when at length he drove away, wine and dreams fumed in his brain. The dance of lamps, the cream-cheese moon, the rays of clean wet light on his horse's harness, the jingling of the cab bell, the whirring wheels, the night air and the branches—it was all so good! He threw back the hansom doors to feel the touch of the warm breeze. The crowds on the pavement gave him strange delight; they were like shadows, in some great illusion, happy shadows, thronging, wheeling round the single figure of his world.
With a headache and a sense of restlessness, hopeful and unhappy, Shelton mounted his hack next morning for a gallop in the Park.
In the sky was mingled all the languor and the violence of the spring. The trees and flowers wore an awakened look in the gleams of light that came stealing down from behind the purple of the clouds. The air was rain-washed, and the passers by seemed to wear an air of tranquil carelessness, as if anxiety were paralysed by their responsibility of the firmament.
Thronged by riders, the Row was all astir.
Near to Hyde Park Corner a figure by the rails caught Shelton's eye. Straight and thin, one shoulder humped a little, as if its owner were reflecting, clothed in a frock-coat and a brown felt hat pinched up in lawless fashion, this figure was so detached from its surroundings that it would have been noticeable anywhere. It belonged to Ferrand, obviously waiting till it was time to breakfast with his patron. Shelton found pleasure in thus observing him unseen, and sat quietly on his horse, hidden behind a tree.
It was just at that spot where riders, unable to get further, are for ever wheeling their horses for another turn; and there Ferrand, the bird of passage, with his head a little to one side, watched them cantering, trotting, wheeling up and down.
Three men walking along the rails were snatching off their hats before a horsewoman at exactly the same angle and with precisely the same air, as though in the modish performance of this ancient rite they were satisfying some instinct very dear to them.
Shelton noted the curl of Ferrand's lip as he watched this sight. "Many thanks, gentlemen," it seemed to say; "in that charming little action you have shown me all your souls."
What a singular gift the fellow had of divesting things and people of their garments, of tearing away their veil of shams, and their phylacteries! Shelton turned and cantered on; his thoughts were with Antonia, and he did not want the glamour stripped away.
He was glancing at the sky, that every moment threatened to discharge a violent shower of rain, when suddenly he heard his name called from behind, and who should ride up to him on either side but Bill Dennant and—Antonia herself!
They had been galloping; and she was flushed—flushed as when she stood on the old tower at Hyeres, but with a joyful radiance different from the calm and conquering radiance of that other moment. To Shelton's delight they fell into line with him, and all three went galloping along the strip between the trees and rails. The look she gave him seemed to say, "I don't care if it is forbidden!" but she did not speak. He could not take his eyes off her. How lovely she looked, with the resolute curve of her figure, the glimpse of gold under her hat, the glorious colour in her cheeks, as if she had been kissed.
"It 's so splendid to be at home! Let 's go faster, faster!" she cried out.
"Take a pull. We shall get run in," grumbled her brother, with a chuckle.
They reined in round the bend and jogged more soberly down on the far side; still not a word from her to Shelton, and Shelton in his turn spoke only to Bill Dennant. He was afraid to speak to her, for he knew that her mind was dwelling on this chance forbidden meeting in a way quite different from his own.
Approaching Hyde Park Corner, where Ferrand was still standing against the rails, Shelton, who had forgotten his existence, suffered a shock when his eyes fell suddenly on that impassive figure. He was about to raise his hand, when he saw that the young foreigner, noting his instinctive feeling, had at once adapted himself to it. They passed again without a greeting, unless that swift inquisition; followed by unconsciousness in Ferrand's eyes, could so be called. But the feeling of idiotic happiness left Shelton; he grew irritated at this silence. It tantalised him more and more, for Bill Dennant had lagged behind to chatter to a friend; Shelton and Antonia were alone, walking their horses, without a word, not even looking at each other. At one moment he thought of galloping ahead and leaving her, then of breaking the vow of muteness she seemed to be imposing on him, and he kept thinking: "It ought to be either one thing or the other. I can't stand this." Her calmness was getting on his nerves; she seemed to have determined just how far she meant to go, to have fixed cold-bloodedly a limit. In her happy young beauty and radiant coolness she summed up that sane consistent something existing in nine out of ten of the people Shelton knew. "I can't stand it long," he thought, and all of a sudden spoke; but as he did so she frowned and cantered on. When he caught her she was smiling, lifting her face to catch the raindrops which were falling fast. She gave him just a nod, and waved her hand as a sign for him to go; and when he would not, she frowned. He saw Bill Dennant, posting after them, and, seized by a sense of the ridiculous, lifted his hat, and galloped off.
The rain was coming down in torrents now, and every one was scurrying for shelter. He looked back from the bend, and could still make out Antonia riding leisurely, her face upturned, and revelling in the shower. Why had n't she either cut him altogether or taken the sweets the gods had sent? It seemed wicked to have wasted such a chance, and, ploughing back to Hyde Park Corner, he turned his head to see if by any chance she had relented.
His irritation was soon gone, but his longing stayed. Was ever anything so beautiful as she had looked with her face turned to the rain? She seemed to love the rain. It suited her—suited her ever so much better than the sunshine of the South. Yes, she was very English! Puzzling and fretting, he reached his rooms. Ferrand had not arrived, in fact did not turn up that day. His non-appearance afforded Shelton another proof of the delicacy that went hand in hand with the young vagrant's cynicism. In the afternoon he received a note.
. . . You see, Dick [he read], I ought to have cut you; but I felt too crazy—everything seems so jolly at home, even this stuffy old London. Of course, I wanted to talk to you badly—there are heaps of things one can't say by letter—but I should have been sorry afterwards. I told mother. She said I was quite right, but I don't think she took it in. Don't you feel that the only thing that really matters is to have an ideal, and to keep it so safe that you can always look forward and feel that you have been—I can't exactly express my meaning.
Shelton lit a cigarette and frowned. It seemed to him queer that she should set more store by an "ideal" than by the fact that they had met for the first and only time in many weeks.
"I suppose she 's right," he thought—"I suppose she 's right. I ought not to have tried to speak to her!" As a matter of fact, he did not at all feel that she was right.
AN "AT HOME"
On Tuesday morning he wandered off to Paddington, hoping for a chance view of her on her way down to Holm Oaks; but the sense of the ridiculous, on which he had been nurtured, was strong enough to keep him from actually entering the station and lurking about until she came. With a pang of disappointment he retraced his steps from Praed Street to the Park, and once there tried no further to waylay her. He paid a round of calls in the afternoon, mostly on her relations; and, seeking out Aunt Charlotte, he dolorously related his encounter in the Row. But she found it "rather nice," and on his pressing her with his views, she murmured that it was "quite romantic, don't you know."
"Still, it's very hard," said Shelton; and he went away disconsolate.
As he was dressing for dinner his eye fell on a card announcing the "at home" of one of his own cousins. Her husband was a composer, and he had a vague idea that he would find at the house of a composer some quite unusually free kind of atmosphere. After dining at the club, therefore, he set out for Chelsea. The party was held in a large room on the ground-floor, which was already crowded with people when Shelton entered. They stood or sat about in groups with smiles fixed on their lips, and the light from balloon-like lamps fell in patches on their heads and hands and shoulders. Someone had just finished rendering on the piano a composition of his own. An expert could at once have picked out from amongst the applauding company those who were musicians by profession, for their eyes sparkled, and a certain acidity pervaded their enthusiasm. This freemasonry of professional intolerance flew from one to the other like a breath of unanimity, and the faint shrugging of shoulders was as harmonious as though one of the high windows had been opened suddenly, admitting a draught of chill May air.
Shelton made his way up to his cousin—a fragile, grey-haired woman in black velvet and Venetian lace, whose starry eyes beamed at him, until her duties, after the custom of these social gatherings, obliged her to break off conversation just as it began to interest him. He was passed on to another lady who was already talking to two gentlemen, and, their volubility being greater than his own, he fell into the position of observer. Instead of the profound questions he had somehow expected to hear raised, everybody seemed gossiping, or searching the heart of such topics as where to go this summer, or how to get new servants. Trifling with coffee-cups, they dissected their fellow artists in the same way as his society friends of the other night had dissected the fellow—"smart"; and the varnish on the floor, the pictures, and the piano were reflected on all the faces around. Shelton moved from group to group disconsolate.
A tall, imposing person stood under a Japanese print holding the palm of one hand outspread; his unwieldy trunk and thin legs wobbled in concert to his ingratiating voice.
"War," he was saying, "is not necessary. War is not necessary. I hope I make myself clear. War is not necessary; it depends on nationality, but nationality is not necessary." He inclined his head to one side, "Why do we have nationality? Let us do away with boundaries—let us have the warfare of commerce. If I see France looking at Brighton"—he laid his head upon one side, and beamed at Shelton,—"what do I do? Do I say 'Hands off'? No. 'Take it,' I say—take it!'" He archly smiled. "But do you think they would?"
And the softness of his contours fascinated Shelton.
"The soldier," the person underneath the print resumed, "is necessarily on a lower plane—intellectually—oh, intellectually—than the philanthropist. His sufferings are less acute; he enjoys the compensations of advertisement—you admit that?" he breathed persuasively. "For instance—I am quite impersonal—I suffer; but do I talk about it?" But, someone gazing at his well-filled waistcoat, he put his thesis in another form: "I have one acre and one cow, my brother has one acre and one cow: do I seek to take them away from him?"
Shelton hazarded, "Perhaps you 're weaker than your brother."
"Come, come! Take the case of women: now, I consider our marriage laws are barbarous."
For the first time Shelton conceived respect for them; he made a comprehensive gesture, and edged himself into the conversation of another group, for fear of having all his prejudices overturned. Here an Irish sculptor, standing in a curve, was saying furiously, "Bees are not bhumpkins, d—-n their sowls!" A Scotch painter, who listened with a curly smile, seemed trying to compromise this proposition, which appeared to have relation to the middle classes; and though agreeing with the Irishman, Shelton felt nervous over his discharge of electricity. Next to them two American ladies, assembled under the tent of hair belonging to a writer of songs, were discussing the emotions aroused in them by Wagner's operas.
"They produce a strange condition of affairs in me," said the thinner one.
"They 're just divine," said the fatter.
"I don't know if you can call the fleshly lusts divine," replied the thinner, looking into the eyes of the writer of the songs.
Amidst all the hum of voices and the fumes of smoke, a sense of formality was haunting Shelton. Sandwiched between a Dutchman and a Prussian poet, he could understand neither of his neighbours; so, assuming an intelligent expression, he fell to thinking that an assemblage of free spirits is as much bound by the convention of exchanging their ideas as commonplace people are by the convention of having no ideas to traffic in. He could not help wondering whether, in the bulk, they were not just as dependent on each other as the inhabitants of Kensington; whether, like locomotives, they could run at all without these opportunities for blowing off the steam, and what would be left when the steam had all escaped. Somebody ceased playing the violin, and close to him a group began discussing ethics. Aspirations were in the air all round, like a lot of hungry ghosts. He realised that, if tongue be given to them, the flavour vanishes from ideas which haunt the soul.
Again the violinist played.
"Cock gracious!" said the Prussian poet, falling into English as the fiddle ceased: "Colossal! 'Aber, wie er ist grossartig'!"
"Have you read that thing of Besom's?" asked shrill voice behind.
"Oh, my dear fellow! too horrid for words; he ought to be hanged!"
"The man's dreadful," pursued the voice, shriller than ever; "nothing but a volcanic eruption would cure him."
Shelton turned in alarm to look at the authors of these statements. They were two men of letters talking of a third.
"'C'est un grand naif, vous savez,'" said the second speaker.
"These fellows don't exist," resumed the first; his small eyes gleamed with a green light, his whole face had a look as if he gnawed himself. Though not a man of letters, Shelton could not help recognising from those eyes what joy it was to say those words: "These fellows don't exist!"
"Poor Besom! You know what Moulter said . . ."
Shelton turned away, as if he had been too close to one whose hair smelt of cantharides; and, looking round the room, he frowned. With the exception of his cousin, he seemed the only person there of English blood. Americans, Mesopotamians, Irish, Italians, Germans, Scotch, and Russians. He was not contemptuous of them for being foreigners; it was simply that God and the climate had made him different by a skin or so.
But at this point his conclusions were denied (as will sometimes happen) by his introduction to an Englishman—a Major Somebody, who, with smooth hair and blond moustache, neat eyes and neater clothes, seemed a little anxious at his own presence there. Shelton took a liking to him, partly from a fellow-feeling, and partly because of the gentle smile with which he was looking at his wife. Almost before he had said "How do you do?" he was plunged into a discussion on imperialism.
"Admitting all that," said Shelton, "what I hate is the humbug with which we pride ourselves on benefiting the whole world by our so-called civilising methods."
The soldier turned his reasonable eyes.
"But is it humbug?"
Shelton saw his argument in peril. If we really thought it, was it humbug? He replied, however:
"Why should we, a small portion of the world's population, assume that our standards are the proper ones for every kind of race? If it 's not humbug, it 's sheer stupidity."
The soldier, without taking his hands out of his pockets, but by a forward movement of his face showing that he was both sincere and just, re-replied:
"Well, it must be a good sort of stupidity; it makes us the nation that we are."
Shelton felt dazed. The conversation buzzed around him; he heard the smiling prophet saying, "Altruism, altruism," and in his voice a something seemed to murmur, "Oh, I do so hope I make a good impression!"
He looked at the soldier's clear-cut head with its well-opened eyes, the tiny crow's-feet at their corners, the conventional moustache; he envied the certainty of the convictions lying under that well-parted hair.
"I would rather we were men first and then Englishmen," he muttered; "I think it's all a sort of national illusion, and I can't stand illusions."
"If you come to that," said the soldier, "the world lives by illusions. I mean, if you look at history, you'll see that the creation of illusions has always been her business, don't you know."
This Shelton was unable to deny.
"So," continued the soldier (who was evidently a highly cultivated man), "if you admit that movement, labour, progress, and all that have been properly given to building up these illusions, that—er—in fact, they're what you might call—er—the outcome of the world's crescendo," he rushed his voice over this phrase as if ashamed of it—"why do you want to destroy them?"
Shelton thought a moment, then, squeezing his body with his folded arms, replied:
"The past has made us what we are, of course, and cannot be destroyed; but how about the future? It 's surely time to let in air. Cathedrals are very fine, and everybody likes the smell of incense; but when they 've been for centuries without ventilation you know what the atmosphere gets like."
The soldier smiled.
"By your own admission," he said, "you'll only be creating a fresh set of illusions."
"Yes," answered Shelton, "but at all events they'll be the honest necessities of the present."
The pupils of the soldier's eyes contracted; he evidently felt the conversation slipping into generalities; he answered:
"I can't see how thinking small beer of ourselves is going to do us any good!"
An "At Home!"
Shelton felt in danger of being thought unpractical in giving vent to the remark:
"One must trust one's reason; I never can persuade myself that I believe in what I don't."
A minute later, with a cordial handshake, the soldier left, and Shelton watched his courteous figure shepherding his wife away.
"Dick, may I introduce you to Mr. Wilfrid Curly?" said his cousin's voice behind, and he found his hand being diffidently shaken by a fresh-cheeked youth with a dome-like forehead, who was saying nervously:
"How do you do? Yes, I am very well, thank you!"
He now remembered that when he had first come in he had watched this youth, who had been standing in a corner indulging himself in private smiles. He had an uncommon look, as though he were in love with life—as though he regarded it as a creature to whom one could put questions to the very end—interesting, humorous, earnest questions. He looked diffident, and amiable, and independent, and he, too, was evidently English.
"Are you good at argument?" said Shelton, at a loss for a remark.
The youth smiled, blushed, and, putting back his hair, replied:
"Yes—no—I don't know; I think my brain does n't work fast enough for argument. You know how many motions of the brain-cells go to each remark. It 's awfully interesting"; and, bending from the waist in a mathematical position, he extended the palm of one hand, and started to explain.
Shelton stared at the youth's hand, at his frowns and the taps he gave his forehead while he found the expression of his meaning; he was intensely interested. The youth broke off, looked at his watch, and, blushing brightly, said:
"I 'm afraid I have to go; I have to be at the 'Den' before eleven."
"I must be off, too," said Shelton. Making their adieux together, they sought their hats and coats.
THE NIGHT CLUB
"May I ask," said Shelton, as he and the youth came out into the chilly street, "What it is you call the 'Den'?"
His companion smilingly answered:
"Oh, the night club. We take it in turns. Thursday is my night. Would you like to come? You see a lot of types. It's only round the corner."
Shelton digested a momentary doubt, and answered:
They reached the corner house in an angle of a, dismal street, through the open door of which two men had just gone in. Following, they ascended some wooden, fresh-washed stairs, and entered a large boarded room smelling of sawdust, gas, stale coffee, and old clothes. It was furnished with a bagatelle board, two or three wooden tables, some wooden forms, and a wooden bookcase. Seated on these wooden chairs, or standing up, were youths, and older men of the working class, who seemed to Shelton to be peculiarly dejected. One was reading, one against the wall was drinking coffee with a disillusioned air, two were playing chess, and a group of four made a ceaseless clatter with the bagatelle.
A little man in a dark suit, with a pale face, thin lips, and deep-set, black-encircled eyes, who was obviously in charge, came up with an anaemic smile.
"You 're rather late," he said to Curly, and, looking ascetically at Shelton, asked, without waiting for an introduction: "Do you play chess? There 's young Smith wants a game."
A youth with a wooden face, already seated before a fly-blown chess-board, asked him drearily if he would have black or white. Shelton took white; he was oppressed by the virtuous odour of this room.
The little man with the deep blue eyes came up, stood in an uneasy attitude, and watched:
"Your play's improving, young Smith," he said; "I should think you'd be able to give Banks a knight." His eyes rested on Shelton, fanatical and dreary; his monotonous voice was suffering and nasal; he was continually sucking in his lips, as though determined to subdue 'the flesh. "You should come here often," he said to Shelton, as the latter received checkmate; "you 'd get some good practice. We've several very fair players. You're not as good as Jones or Bartholomew," he added to Shelton's opponent, as though he felt it a duty to put the latter in his place. "You ought to come here often," he repeated to Shelton; "we have a lot of very good young fellows"; and, with a touch of complacence, he glanced around the dismal room. "There are not so many here tonight as usual. Where are Toombs and Body?"
Shelton, too, looked anxiously around. He could not help feeling sympathy with Toombs and Body.
"They 're getting slack, I'm afraid," said the little deep-eyed man. "Our principle is to amuse everyone. Excuse me a minute; I see that Carpenter is doing nothing." He crossed over to the man who had been drinking coffee, but Shelton had barely time to glance at his opponent and try to think of a remark, before the little man was back. "Do you know anything about astronomy?" he asked of Shelton. "We have several very interested in astronomy; if you could talk to them a little it would help."
Shelton made a motion of alarm.
"Please-no," said he; "I—"
"I wish you'd come sometimes on Wednesdays; we have most interesting talks, and a service afterwards. We're always anxious to get new blood"; and his eyes searched Shelton's brown, rather tough-looking face, as though trying to see how much blood there was in it. "Young Curly says you 've just been around the world; you could describe your travels."
"May I ask," said Shelton, "how your club is made up?"
Again a look of complacency, and blessed assuagement, visited the little man.
"Oh," he said, "we take anybody, unless there 's anything against them. The Day Society sees to that. Of course, we shouldn't take anyone if they were to report against them. You ought to come to our committee meetings; they're on Mondays at seven. The women's side, too—"
"Thank you," said Shelton; "you 're very kind—"
"We should be pleased," said the little man; and his face seemed to suffer more than ever. "They 're mostly young fellows here to-night, but we have married men, too. Of course, we 're very careful about that," he added hastily, as though he might have injured Shelton's prejudices—"that, and drink, and anything criminal, you know."
"And do you give pecuniary assistance, too?"
"Oh yes," replied the little man; "if you were to come to our committee meetings you would see for yourself. Everything is most carefully gone into; we endeavour to sift the wheat from the chaff."
"I suppose," said Shelton, "you find a great deal of chaff?"
The little man smiled a suffering smile. The twang of his toneless voice sounded a trifle shriller.
"I was obliged to refuse a man to-day—a man and a woman, quite young people, with three small children. He was ill and out of work; but on inquiry we found that they were not man and wife."
There was a slight pause; the little man's eyes were fastened on his nails, and, with an appearance of enjoyment, he began to bite them. Shelton's face had grown a trifle red.
"And what becomes of the woman and the children in a case like that?" he said.
The little man's eyes began to smoulder.
"We make a point of not encouraging sin, of course. Excuse me a minute; I see they've finished bagatelle."
He hurried off, and in a moment the clack of bagatelle began again. He himself was playing with a cold and spurious energy, running after the balls and exhorting the other players, upon whom a wooden acquiescence seemed to fall.
Shelton crossed the room, and went up to young Curly. He was sitting on a bench, smiling to himself his private smiles.
"Are you staying here much longer?" Shelton asked.
Young Curly rose with nervous haste.
"I 'm afraid," he said, "there 's nobody very interesting here to-night."
"Oh, not at all!" said Shelton; "on the contrary. Only I 've had a rather tiring day, and somehow I don't feel up to the standard here."
His new acquaintance smiled.
"Oh, really! do you think—that is—"
But he had not time to finish before the clack of bagatelle balls ceased, and the voice of the little deep-eyed man was heard saying: "Anybody who wants a book will put his name down. There will be the usual prayer-meeting on Wednesday next. Will you all go quietly? I am going to turn the lights out."
One gas-jet vanished, and the remaining jet flared suddenly. By its harder glare the wooden room looked harder too, and disenchanting. The figures of its occupants began filing through the door. The little man was left in the centre of the room, his deep eyes smouldering upon the backs of the retreating members, his thumb and finger raised to the turncock of the metre.
"Do you know this part?" asked young Curly as they emerged into the street. "It 's really jolly; one of the darkest bits in London—it is really. If you care, I can take you through an awfully dangerous place where the police never go." He seemed so anxious for the honour that Shelton was loath to disappoint him. "I come here pretty often," he went on, as they ascended a sort of alley rambling darkly between a wall and row of houses.
"Why?" asked Shelton; "it does n't smell too nice."
The young man threw up his nose and sniffed, as if eager to add any new scent that might be about to his knowledge of life.
"No, that's one of the reasons, you know," he said; "one must find out. The darkness is jolly, too; anything might happen here. Last week there was a murder; there 's always the chance of one."
Shelton stared; but the charge of morbidness would not lie against this fresh-cheeked stripling.
"There's a splendid drain just here," his guide resumed; "the people are dying like flies of typhoid in those three houses"; and under the first light he turned his grave, cherubic face to indicate the houses. "If we were in the East End, I could show you other places quite as good. There's a coffee-stall keeper in one that knows all the thieves in London; he 's a splendid type, but," he added, looking a little anxiously at Shelton, "it might n't be safe for you. With me it's different; they 're beginning to know me. I've nothing to take, you see."
"I'm afraid it can't be to-night," said Shelton; "I must get back."
"Do you mind if I walk with you? It's so jolly now the stars are out."
"Delighted," said Shelton; "do you often go to that club?"
His companion raised his hat, and ran his fingers through his hair.
"They 're rather too high-class for me," he said. "I like to go where you can see people eat—school treats, or somewhere in the country. It does one good to see them eat. They don't get enough, you see, as a rule, to make bone; it's all used up for brain and muscle. There are some places in the winter where they give them bread and cocoa; I like to go to those."
"I went once," said Shelton, "but I felt ashamed for putting my nose in."
"Oh, they don't mind; most of them are half-dead with cold, you know. You see splendid types; lots of dipsomaniacs . . . . It 's useful to me," he went on as they passed a police-station, "to walk about at night; one can take so much more notice. I had a jolly night last week in Hyde Park; a chance to study human nature there."
"And do you find it interesting?" asked Shelton.
His companion smiled.
"Awfully," he replied; "I saw a fellow pick three pockets."
"What did you do?"
"I had a jolly talk with him."
Shelton thought of the little deep-eyed man; who made a point of not encouraging sin.
"He was one of the professionals from Notting Hill, you know; told me his life. Never had a chance, of course. The most interesting part was telling him I 'd seen him pick three pockets—like creeping into a cave, when you can't tell what 's inside."
"He showed me what he 'd got—only fivepence halfpenny."
"And what became of your friend?" asked Shelton.
"Oh, went off; he had a splendidly low forehead."
They had reached Shelton's rooms.
"Will you come in," said the latter, "and have a drink?"
The youth smiled, blushed, and shook his head.
"No, thank you," he said; "I have to walk to Whitechapel. I 'm living on porridge now; splendid stuff for making bone. I generally live on porridge for a week at the end of every month. It 's the best diet if you're hard up"; once more blushing and smiling, he was gone.
Shelton went upstairs and sat down on his bed. He felt a little miserable. Sitting there, slowly pulling out the ends of his white tie, disconsolate, he had a vision of Antonia with her gaze fixed wonderingly on him. And this wonder of hers came as a revelation—just as that morning, when, looking from his window, he had seen a passer-by stop suddenly and scratch his leg; and it had come upon him in a flash that that man had thoughts and feelings of his own. He would never know what Antonia really felt and thought. "Till I saw her at the station, I did n't know how much I loved her or how little I knew her"; and, sighing deeply, he hurried into bed.
POLE TO POLE
The waiting in London for July to come was daily more unbearable to Shelton, and if it had not been for Ferrand, who still came to breakfast, he would have deserted the Metropolis. On June first the latter presented himself rather later than was his custom, and announced that, through a friend, he had heard of a position as interpreter to an hotel at Folkestone.
"If I had money to face the first necessities," he said, swiftly turning over a collection of smeared papers with his yellow fingers, as if searching for his own identity, "I 'd leave today. This London blackens my spirit."
"Are you certain to get this place," asked Shelton.
"I think so," the young foreigner replied; "I 've got some good enough recommendations."
Shelton could not help a dubious glance at the papers in his hand. A hurt look passed on to Ferrand's curly lips beneath his nascent red moustache.
"You mean that to have false papers is as bad as theft. No, no; I shall never be a thief—I 've had too many opportunities," said he, with pride and bitterness. "That's not in my character. I never do harm to anyone. This"—he touched the papers—"is not delicate, but it does harm to no one. If you have no money you must have papers; they stand between you and starvation. Society, has an excellent eye for the helpless—it never treads on people unless they 're really down." He looked at Shelton.
"You 've made me what I am, amongst you," he seemed to say; "now put up with me!"
"But there are always the workhouses," Shelton remarked at last.
"Workhouses!" returned Ferrand; "certainly there are—regular palaces: I will tell you one thing: I've never been in places so discouraging as your workhouses; they take one's very heart out."
"I always understood," said Shelton coldly; "that our system was better than that of other countries."
Ferrand leaned over in his chair, an elbow on his knee, his favourite attitude when particularly certain of his point.
"Well," he replied, "it 's always permissible to think well of your own country. But, frankly, I've come out of those places here with little strength and no heart at all, and I can tell you why." His lips lost their bitterness, and he became an artist expressing the result of his experience. "You spend your money freely, you have fine buildings, self-respecting officers, but you lack the spirit of hospitality. The reason is plain; you have a horror of the needy. You invite us—and when we come you treat us justly enough, but as if we were numbers, criminals, beneath contempt—as if we had inflicted a personal injury on you; and when we get out again, we are naturally degraded."
Shelton bit his lips.
"How much money will you want for your ticket, and to make a start?" he asked.
The nervous gesture escaping Ferrand at this juncture betrayed how far the most independent thinkers are dependent when they have no money in their pockets. He took the note that Shelton proffered him.
"A thousand thanks," said he; "I shall never forget what you have done for me"; and Shelton could not help feeling that there was true emotion behind his titter of farewell.
He stood at the window watching Ferrand start into the world again; then looked back at his own comfortable room, with the number of things that had accumulated somehow—the photographs of countless friends, the old arm-chairs, the stock of coloured pipes. Into him restlessness had passed with the farewell clasp of the foreigner's damp hand. To wait about in London was unbearable.
He took his hat, and, heedless of direction, walked towards the river. It was a clear, bright day, with a bleak wind driving showers before it. During one of such Shelton found himself in Little Blank Street. "I wonder how that little Frenchman that I saw is getting on!" he thought. On a fine day he would probably have passed by on the other side; he now entered and tapped upon the wicket.
No. 3 Little Blank Street had abated nothing of its stone-flagged dreariness; the same blowsy woman answered his inquiry. Yes, Carolan was always in; you could never catch him out—seemed afraid to go into the street! To her call the little Frenchman made his appearance as punctually as if he had been the rabbit of a conjurer. His face was as yellow as a guinea.
"Ah! it's you, monsieur!" he said.
"Yes," said Shelton; "and how are you?"
"It 's five days since I came out of hospital," muttered the little Frenchman, tapping on his chest; "a crisis of this bad atmosphere. I live here, shut up in a box; it does me harm, being from the South. If there's anything I can do for you, monsieur, it will give me pleasure."
"Nothing," replied Shelton, "I was just passing, and thought I should like to hear how you were getting on."
"Come into the kitchen,—monsieur, there is nobody in there. 'Brr! Il fait un froid etonnant'!"
"What sort of customers have you just now?" asked Shelton, as they passed into the kitchen.
"Always the same clientele," replied the little man; "not so numerous, of course, it being summer."
"Could n't you find anything better than this to do?"
The barber's crow's-feet radiated irony.
"When I first came to London," said he, "I secured an engagement at one of your public institutions. I thought my fortune made. Imagine, monsieur, in that sacred place I was obliged to shave at the rate of ten a penny! Here, it's true, they don't pay me half the time; but when I'm paid, I 'm paid. In this, climate, and being 'poitrinaire', one doesn't make experiments. I shall finish my days here. Have you seen that young man who interested you? There 's another! He has spirit, as I had once—'il fait de la philosophie', as I do—and you will see, monsieur, it will finish him. In this world what you want is to have no spirit. Spirit ruins you."
Shelton looked sideways at the little man with his sardonic, yellow, half-dead face, and the incongruity of the word "spirit" in his mouth struck him so sharply that he smiled a smile with more pity in it than any burst of tears.
"Shall we 'sit down?" he said, offering a cigarette.
"Merci, monsieur, it is always a pleasure to smoke a good cigarette. You remember, that old actor who gave you a Jeremiad? Well, he's dead. I was the only one at his bedside; 'un vrai drole'. He was another who had spirit. And you will see, monsieur, that young man in whom you take an interest, he'll die in a hospital, or in some hole or other, or even on the highroad; having closed his eyes once too often some cold night; and all because he has something in him which will not accept things as they are, believing always that they should be better. 'Il n'y a riens de plus tragique'!"
"According to you, then," said Shelton—and the conversation seemed to him of a sudden to have taken too personal a turn—"rebellion of any sort is fatal."
"Ah!" replied the little man, with the eagerness of one whose ideal it is to sit under the awning of a cafe, and talk life upside down, "you pose me a great problem there! If one makes rebellion; it is always probable that one will do no good to any one and harm one's self. The law of the majority arranges that. But I would draw your attention to this"—and he paused; as if it were a real discovery to blow smoke through his nose—"if you rebel it is in all likelihood because you are forced by your nature to rebel; this is one of the most certain things in life. In any case, it is necessary to avoid falling between two stools—which is unpardonable," he ended with complacence.
Shelton thought he had never seen a man who looked more completely as if he had fallen between two stools, and he had inspiration enough to feel that the little barber's intellectual rebellion and the action logically required by it had no more than a bowing acquaintanceship.
"By nature," went on the little man, "I am an optimist; it is in consequence of this that I now make pessimism. I have always had ideals; seeing myself cut off from them for ever, I must complain; to complain, monsieur, is very sweet!"
Shelton wondered what these ideals had been, but had no answer ready; so he nodded, and again held out his cigarettes, for, like a true Southerner, the little man had thrown the first away, half smoked.
"The greatest pleasure in life," continued the Frenchman, with a bow, "is to talk a little to a being who is capable of understanding you. At present we have no one here, now that that old actor's dead. Ah! there was a man who was rebellion incarnate! He made rebellion as other men make money, 'c'etait son metier'; when he was no longer capable of active revolution, he made it getting drunk. At the last this was his only way of protesting against Society. An interesting personality, 'je le regrette beaucoup'. But, as you see, he died in great distress, without a soul to wave him farewell, because as you can well understand, monsieur, I don't count myself. He died drunk. 'C'etait un homme'!"
Shelton had continued staring kindly at the little man; the barber added hastily:
"It's difficult to make an end like that one has moments of weakness."
"Yes," assented Shelton, "one has indeed."
The little barber looked at him with cynical discretion.
"Oh!" he said, "it 's to the destitute that such things are important. When one has money, all these matters—"
He shrugged his shoulders. A smile had lodged amongst his crow's-feet; he waved his hand as though to end the subject.
A sense of having been exposed came over Shelton.
"You think, then," said he, "that discontent is peculiar to the destitute?"
"Monsieur," replied the little barber, "a plutocrat knows too well that if he mixes in that 'galere' there 's not a dog in the streets more lost than he."
"The rain is over. I hope you 'll soon be better; perhaps you 'll accept this in memory of that old actor," and he slipped a sovereign into the little Frenchman's hand.
The latter bowed.
"Whenever you are passing, monsieur," he said eagerly, "I shall be charmed to see you."
And Shelton walked away. "'Not a dog in the streets more lost,'" thought he; "now what did he mean by that?"
Something of that "lost dog" feeling had gripped his spirit. Another month of waiting would kill all the savour of anticipation, might even kill his love. In the excitement of his senses and his nerves, caused by this strain of waiting, everything seemed too vivid; all was beyond life size; like Art—whose truths; too strong for daily use, are thus, unpopular with healthy people. As will the, bones in a worn face, the spirit underlying things had reached the surface; the meanness and intolerable measure of hard facts, were too apparent. Some craving for help, some instinct, drove him into Kensington, for he found himself before his, mother's house. Providence seemed bent on flinging him from pole to pole.
Mrs. Shelton was in town; and, though it was the first of June, sat warming her feet before a fire; her face, with its pleasant colour, was crow's-footed like the little barber's, but from optimism, not rebellion. She, smiled when she saw her son; and the wrinkles round her eyes twinkled, with vitality.
"Well, my dear boy," she said, "it's lovely to see you. And how is that sweet girl?"
"Very well, thank you," replied Shelton.
"She must be such a dear!"
"Mother," stammered Shelton, "I must give it up."
"Give it up? My dear Dick, give what up? You look quite worried. Come and sit down, and have a cosy chat. Cheer up!" And Mrs. Shelton; with her head askew, gazed at her son quite irrepressibly.
"Mother," said Shelton, who, confronted by her optimism, had never, since his time of trial began, felt so wretchedly dejected, "I can't go on waiting about like this."
"My dear boy, what is the matter?";
"Everything is wrong!"
"Wrong?" cried Mrs. Shelton. "Come, tell me all, about it!"
But Shelton, shook his head.
"You surely have not had a quarrel——"
Mrs. Shelton stopped; the question seemed so vulgar—one might have asked it of a groom.
"No," said Shelton, and his answer sounded like a groan.
"You know, my dear old Dick," murmured his mother, "it seems a little mad."
"I know it seems mad."
"Come!" said Mrs. Shelton, taking his hand between her own; "you never used to be like this."
"No," said Shelton, with a laugh; "I never used to be like this."
Mrs. Shelton snuggled in her Chuda shawl.
"Oh," she said, with cheery sympathy, "I know exactly how you feel!"
Shelton, holding his head, stared at the fire, which played and bubbled like his mother's face.
"But you're so fond of each other," she began again. "Such a sweet girl!"
"You don't understand," muttered Shelton gloomily; "it 's not her—it's nothing—it's—myself!"
Mrs. Shelton again seized his hand, and this time pressed it to her soft, warm cheek, that had lost the elasticity of youth.
"Oh!" she cried again; "I understand. I know exactly what you 're feeling." But Shelton saw from the fixed beam in her eyes that she had not an inkling. To do him justice, he was not so foolish as to try to give her one. Mrs. Shelton sighed. "It would be so lovely if you could wake up to-morrow and think differently. If I were you, my dear, I would have a good long walk, and then a Turkish bath; and then I would just write to her, and tell her all about it, and you'll see how beautifully it'll all come straight"; and in the enthusiasm of advice Mrs. Shelton rose, and, with a faint stretch of her tiny figure, still so young, clasped her hands together. "Now do, that 's a dear old Dick! You 'll just see how lovely it'll be!" Shelton smiled; he had not the heart to chase away this vision. "And give her my warmest love, and tell her I 'm longing for the wedding. Come, now, my dear boy, promise me that's what you 'll do."
And Shelton said: "I'll think about it."
Mrs. Shelton had taken up her stand with one foot on the fender, in spite of her sciatica.
"Cheer up!" she cried; her eyes beamed as if intoxicated by her sympathy.
Wonderful woman! The uncomplicated optimism that carried her through good and ill had not descended to her son.
From pole to pole he had been thrown that day, from the French barber, whose intellect accepted nothing without carping, and whose little fingers worked all day, to save himself from dying out, to his own mother, whose intellect accepted anything presented with sufficient glow, but who, until she died, would never stir a finger. When Shelton reached his rooms, he wrote to Antonia:
I can't wait about in London any longer; I am going down to Bideford to start a walking tour. I shall work my way to Oxford, and stay there till I may come to Holm Oaks. I shall send you my address; do write as usual.
He collected all the photographs he had of her—amateur groups, taken by Mrs. Dennant—and packed them in the pocket of his shooting-jacket. There was one where she was standing just below her little brother, who was perched upon a wall. In her half-closed eyes, round throat, and softly tilted chin, there was something cool and watchful, protecting the ragamuffin up above her head. This he kept apart to be looked at daily, as a man says his prayers.
THE INDIAN CIVILIAN
One morning then, a week later, Shelton found himself at the walls of Princetown Prison.
He had seen this lugubrious stone cage before. But the magic of his morning walk across the moor, the sight of the pagan tors, the songs of the last cuckoo, had unprepared him for that dreary building. He left the street, and, entering the fosse, began a circuit, scanning the walls with morbid fascination.
This, then, was the system by which men enforced the will of the majority, and it was suddenly borne in on him that all the ideas and maxims which his Christian countrymen believed themselves to be fulfilling daily were stultified in every cellule of the social honeycomb. Such teachings as "He that is without sin amongst you" had been pronounced unpractical by peers and judges, bishops, statesmen, merchants, husbands—in fact, by every truly Christian person in the country.
"Yes," thought Shelton, as if he had found out something new, "the more Christian the nation, the less it has to do with the Christian spirit."
Society was a charitable organisation, giving nothing for nothing, little for sixpence; and it was only fear that forced it to give at all!
He took a seat on a wall, and began to watch a warder who was slowly paring a last year's apple. The expression of his face, the way he stood with his solid legs apart, his head poked forward and his lower jaw thrust out, all made him a perfect pillar of Society. He was undisturbed by Shelton's scrutiny, watching the rind coil down below the apple; until in a springing spiral it fell on the path and collapsed like a toy snake. He took a bite; his teeth were jagged; and his mouth immense. It was obvious that he considered himself a most superior man. Shelton frowned, got down slowly, from the wall, and proceeded on his way.
A little further down the hill he stopped again to watch a group of convicts in a field. They seemed to be dancing in a slow and sad cotillon, while behind the hedge on every side were warders armed with guns. Just such a sight, substituting spears could have been seen in Roman times.
While he thus stood looking, a man, walking, rapidly, stopped beside him, and asked how many miles it was to Exeter. His round visage; and long, brown eyes, sliding about beneath their, brows, his cropped hair and short neck, seemed familiar.
"Your name is Crocker, is n't it?"
"Why! it's the Bird!" exclaimed the traveller; putting out his hand. "Have n't seen you since we both went down."
Shelton returned his handgrip. Crocker had lived above his head at college, and often kept him, sleepless half the night by playing on the hautboy.
"Where have you sprung from?"
"India. Got my long leave. I say, are you going this way? Let's go together."
They went, and very fast; faster and faster every minute.
"Where are you going at this pace?" asked Shelton.
"Oh! only as far as London?"
"I 've set myself to do it in a week."
"Are you in training?"
"You 'll kill yourself."
Crocker answered with a chuckle.
Shelton noted with alarm the expression of his eye; there was a sort of stubborn aspiration in it. "Still an idealist!" he thought; "poor fellow!" "Well," he inquired, "what sort of a time have you had in India?"
"Oh," said the Indian civilian absently, "I've, had the plague."
Crocker smiled, and added:
"Caught it on famine duty."
"I see," said Shelton; "plague and famine! I suppose you fellows really think you 're doing good out there?"
His companion looked at him surprised, then answered modestly:
"We get very good screws."
"That 's the great thing," responded Shelton.
After a moment's silence, Crocker, looking straight before him, asked:
"Don't you think we are doing good?"
"I 'm not an authority; but, as a matter of fact, I don't."
Crocker seemed disconcerted.
"Why?" he bluntly asked.
Shelton was not anxious to explain his views, and he did not reply.
His friend repeated:
"Why don't you think we're doing good in India?"
"Well," said Shelton gruffly, "how can progress be imposed on nations from outside?"
The Indian civilian, glancing at Shelton in an affectionate and doubtful way, replied:
"You have n't changed a bit, old chap."
"No, no," said Shelton; "you 're not going to get out of it that way. Give me a single example of a nation, or an individual, for that matter, who 's ever done any good without having worked up to it from within."
Crocker, grunting, muttered, "Evils."
"That 's it," said Shelton; "we take peoples entirely different from our own, and stop their natural development by substituting a civilisation grown for our own use. Suppose, looking at a tropical fern in a hothouse, you were to say: 'This heat 's unhealthy for me; therefore it must be bad for the fern, I 'll take it up and plant it outside in the fresh air.'"
"Do you know that means giving up India?" said the Indian civilian shrewdly.
"I don't say that; but to talk about doing good to India is—h'm!"
Crocker knitted his brows, trying to see the point of view his friend was showing him.
"Come, now! Should we go on administering India if it were dead loss? No. Well, to talk about administering the country for the purpose of pocketing money is cynical, and there 's generally some truth in cynicism; but to talk about the administration of a country by which we profit, as if it were a great and good thing, is cant. I hit you in the wind for the benefit of myself—all right: law of nature; but to say it does you good at the same time is beyond me."
"No, no," returned Crocker, grave and anxious; "you can't persuade me that we 're not doing good."
"Wait a bit. It's all a question of horizons; you look at it from too close. Put the horizon further back. You hit India in the wind, and say it's virtuous. Well, now let's see what happens. Either the wind never comes back, and India gasps to an untimely death, or the wind does come back, and in the pant of reaction your blow—that's to say your labour—is lost, morally lost labour that you might have spent where it would n't have been lost."
"Are n't you an Imperialist?" asked Crocker, genuinely concerned.
"I may be, but I keep my mouth shut about the benefits we 're conferring upon other people."
"Then you can't believe in abstract right, or justice?"
"What on earth have our ideas of justice or right got to do with India?"
"If I thought as you do," sighed the unhappy Crocker, "I should be all adrift."
"Quite so. We always think our standards best for the whole world. It's a capital belief for us. Read the speeches of our public men. Does n't it strike you as amazing how sure they are of being in the right? It's so charming to benefit yourself and others at the same time, though, when you come to think of it, one man's meat is usually another's poison. Look at nature. But in England we never look at nature—there's no necessity. Our national point of view has filled our pockets, that's all that matters."
"I say, old chap, that's awfully bitter," said Crocker, with a sort of wondering sadness.
"It 's enough to make any one bitter the way we Pharisees wax fat, and at the same time give ourselves the moral airs of a balloon. I must stick a pin in sometimes, just to hear the gas escape." Shelton was surprised at his own heat, and for some strange reason thought of Antonia—surely, she was not a Pharisee.
His companion strode along, and Shelton felt sorry for the signs of trouble on his face.
"To fill your pockets," said Crocker, "is n't the main thing. One has just got to do things without thinking of why we do them."
"Do you ever see the other side to any question?" asked Shelton. "I suppose not. You always begin to act before you stop thinking, don't you?"
"He's a Pharisee, too," thought Shelton, "without a Pharisee's pride. Queer thing that!"
After walking some distance, as if thinking deeply, Crocker chuckled out:
"You 're not consistent; you ought to be in favour of giving up India."
Shelton smiled uneasily.
"Why should n't we fill our pockets? I only object to the humbug that we talk."
The Indian civilian put his hand shyly through his arm.
"If I thought like you," he said, "I could n't stay another day in India."
And to this Shelton made no reply.
The wind had now begun to drop, and something of the morning's magic was stealing again upon the moor. They were nearing the outskirt fields of cultivation. It was past five when, dropping from the level of the tors, they came into the sunny vale of Monkland.
"They say," said Crocker, reading from his guide-book—"they say this place occupies a position of unique isolation."
The two travellers, in tranquil solitude, took their seats under an old lime-tree on the village green. The smoke of their pipes, the sleepy air, the warmth from the baked ground, the constant hum, made Shelton drowsy.
"Do you remember," his companion asked, "those 'jaws' you used to have with Busgate and old Halidome in my rooms on Sunday evenings? How is old Halidome?"
"Married," replied Shelton.
Crocker sighed. "And are you?" he asked.
"Not yet," said Shelton grimly; "I 'm—engaged."
Crocker took hold of his arm above the elbow, and, squeezing it, he grunted. Shelton had not received congratulations that pleased him more; there was the spice of envy in them.
"I should like to get married while I 'm home," said the civilian after a long pause. His legs were stretched apart, throwing shadows on the green, his hands deep thrust into his pockets, his head a little to one side. An absent-minded smile played round his mouth.
The sun had sunk behind a tor, but the warmth kept rising from the ground, and the sweet-briar on a cottage bathed them with its spicy perfume. From the converging lanes figures passed now and then, lounged by, staring at the strangers, gossiping amongst themselves, and vanished into the cottages that headed the incline. A clock struck seven, and round the shady lime-tree a chafer or some heavy insect commenced its booming rushes. All was marvellously sane and slumbrous. The soft air, the drawling voices, the shapes and murmurs, the rising smell of wood-smoke from fresh-kindled fires—were full of the spirit of security and of home. The outside world was far indeed. Typical of some island nation was this nest of refuge—where men grew quietly tall, fattened, and without fuss dropped off their perches; where contentment flourished, as sunflowers flourished in the sun.
Crocker's cap slipped off; he was nodding, and Shelton looked at him. From a manor house in some such village he had issued; to one of a thousand such homes he would find his way at last, untouched by the struggles with famines or with plagues, uninfected in his fibre, his prejudices, and his principles, unchanged by contact with strange peoples, new conditions, odd feelings, or queer points of view!
The chafer buzzed against his shoulder, gathered flight again, and boomed away. Crocker roused himself, and, turning his amiable face, jogged Shelton's arm.
"What are you thinking about, Bird?" he asked.
Shelton continued to travel with his college friend, and on Wednesday night, four days after joining company, they reached the village of Dowdenhame. All day long the road had lain through pastureland, with thick green hedges and heavily feathered elms. Once or twice they had broken the monotony by a stretch along the towing-path of a canal, which, choked with water-lily plants and shining weeds, brooded sluggishly beside the fields. Nature, in one of her ironic moods, had cast a grey and iron-hard cloak over all the country's bland luxuriance. From dawn till darkness fell there had been no movement in the steely distant sky; a cold wind ruffed in the hedge-tops, and sent shivers through the branches of the elms. The cattle, dappled, pied, or bay, or white, continued grazing with an air of grumbling at their birthright. In a meadow close to the canal Shelton saw five magpies, and about five o'clock the rain began, a steady, coldly-sneering rain, which Crocker, looking at the sky, declared was going to be over in a minute. But it was not over in a minute; they were soon drenched. Shelton was tired, and it annoyed him very much that his companion, who was also tired, should grow more cheerful. His thoughts kept harping upon Ferrand: "This must be something like what he described to me, tramping on and on when you're dead-beat, until you can cadge up supper and a bed." And sulkily he kept on ploughing through the mud with glances at the exasperating Crocker, who had skinned one heel and was limping horribly. It suddenly came home to him that life for three quarters of the world meant physical exhaustion every day, without a possibility of alternative, and that as soon as, for some cause beyond control, they failed thus to exhaust themselves, they were reduced to beg or starve. "And then we, who don't know the meaning of the word exhaustion, call them 'idle scamps,'" he said aloud.
It was past nine and dark when they reached Dowdenhame. The street yielded no accommodation, and while debating where to go they passed the church, with a square tower, and next to it a house which was certainly the parsonage.
"Suppose," said Crocker, leaning on his arms upon the gate, "we ask him where to go"; and, without waiting for Shelton's answer, he rang the bell.
The door was opened by the parson, a bloodless and clean-shaven man, whose hollow cheeks and bony hands suggested a perpetual struggle. Ascetically benevolent were his grey eyes; a pale and ghostly smile played on the curves of his thin lips.
"What can I do for you?" he asked. "Inn? yes, there's the Blue Chequers, but I 'm afraid you 'll find it shut. They 're early people, I 'm glad to say"; and his eyes seemed to muse over the proper fold for these damp sheep. "Are you Oxford men, by any chance?" he asked, as if that might throw some light upon the matter. "Of Mary's? Really! I'm of Paul's myself. Ladyman—Billington Ladyman; you might remember my youngest brother. I could give you a room here if you could manage without sheets. My housekeeper has two days' holiday; she's foolishly taken the keys."