I stopped. I had that distressful feeling I have always had with Margaret, of not being altogether sure she heard, of being doubtful if she understood. I perceived that once again I had struck at her and shattered a thousand unsubstantial pinnacles. And I couldn't get at her, to help her, or touch her mind! I stood up, and at my movement she moved. She produced a dainty little handkerchief, and made an effort to wipe her face with it, and held it to her eyes. "Oh, my Husband!" she sobbed.
"What do you mean to do?" she said, with her voice muffled by her handkerchief.
"We're going to end it," I said.
Something gripped me tormentingly as I said that. I drew a chair beside her and sat down. "You and I, Margaret, have been partners," I began. "We've built up this life of ours together; I couldn't have done it without you. We've made a position, created a work—"
She shook her head. "You," she said.
"You helping. I don't want to shatter it—if you don't want it shattered. I can't leave my work. I can't leave you. I want you to have—all that you have ever had. I've never meant to rob you. I've made an immense and tragic blunder. You don't know how things took us, how different they seemed! My character and accident have conspired—We'll pay—in ourselves, not in our public service."
I halted again. Margaret remained very still.
"I want you to understand that the thing is at an end. It is definitely at an end. We—we talked—yesterday. We mean to end it altogether." I clenched my hands. "She's—she's going to marry Arnold Shoesmith."
I wasn't looking now at Margaret any more, but I heard the rustle of her movement as she turned on me.
"It's all right," I said, clinging to my explanation. "We're doing nothing shabby. He knows. He will. It's all as right—as things can be now. We're not cheating any one, Margaret. We're doing things straight—now. Of course, you know.... We shall—we shall have to make sacrifices. Give things up pretty completely. Very completely.... We shall have not to see each other for a time, you know. Perhaps not a long time. Two or three years. Or write—or just any of that sort of thing ever—"
Some subconscious barrier gave way in me. I found myself crying uncontrollably—as I have never cried since I was a little child. I was amazed and horrified at myself. And wonderfully, Margaret was on her knees beside me, with her arms about me, mingling her weeping with mine. "Oh, my Husband!" she cried, "my poor Husband! Does it hurt you so? I would do anything! Oh, the fool I am! Dear, I love you. I love you over and away and above all these jealous little things!"
She drew down my head to her as a mother might draw down the head of a son. She caressed me, weeping bitterly with me. "Oh! my dear," she sobbed, "my dear! I've never seen you cry! I've never seen you cry. Ever! I didn't know you could. Oh! my dear! Can't you have her, my dear, if you want her? I can't bear it! Let me help you, dear. Oh! my Husband! My Man! I can't bear to have you cry!" For a time she held me in silence.
"I've thought this might happen, I dreamt it might happen. You two, I mean. It was dreaming put it into my head. When I've seen you together, so glad with each other.... Oh! Husband mine, believe me! believe me! I'm stupid, I'm cold, I'm only beginning to realise how stupid and cold, but all I want in all the world is to give my life to you."...
"We can't part in a room," said Isabel.
"We'll have one last talk together," I said, and planned that we should meet for a half a day between Dover and Walmer and talk ourselves out. I still recall that day very well, recall even the curious exaltation of grief that made our mental atmosphere distinctive and memorable. We had seen so much of one another, had become so intimate, that we talked of parting even as we parted with a sense of incredible remoteness. We went together up over the cliffs, and to a place where they fall towards the sea, past the white, quaint-lanterned lighthouses of the South Foreland. There, in a kind of niche below the crest, we sat talking. It was a spacious day, serenely blue and warm, and on the wrinkled water remotely below a black tender and six hooded submarines came presently, and engaged in mysterious manoeuvers. Shrieking gulls and chattering jackdaws circled over us and below us, and dived and swooped; and a skerry of weedy, fallen chalk appeared, and gradually disappeared again, as the tide fell and rose.
We talked and thought that afternoon on every aspect of our relations. It seems to me now we talked so wide and far that scarcely an issue in the life between man and woman can arise that we did not at least touch upon. Lying there at Isabel's feet, I have become for myself a symbol of all this world-wide problem between duty and conscious, passionate love the world has still to solve. Because it isn't solved; there's a wrong in it either way.. .. The sky, the wide horizon, seemed to lift us out of ourselves until we were something representative and general. She was womanhood become articulate, talking to her lover.
"I ought," I said, "never to have loved you."
"It wasn't a thing planned," she said.
"I ought never to have let our talk slip to that, never to have turned back from America."
"I'm glad we did it," she said. "Don't think I repent."
I looked at her.
"I will never repent," she said. "Never!" as though she clung to her life in saying it.
I remember we talked for a long time of divorce. It seemed to us then, and it seems to us still, that it ought to have been possible for Margaret to divorce me, and for me to marry without the scandalous and ugly publicity, the taint and ostracism that follow such a readjustment. We went on to the whole perplexing riddle of marriage. We criticised the current code, how muddled and conventionalised it had become, how modified by subterfuges and concealments and new necessities, and the increasing freedom of women. "It's all like Bromstead when the building came," I said; for I had often talked to her of that early impression of purpose dissolving again into chaotic forces. "There is no clear right in the world any more. The world is Byzantine. The justest man to-day must practise a tainted goodness."
These questions need discussion—a magnificent frankness of discussion—if any standards are again to establish an effective hold upon educated people. Discretions, as I have said already, will never hold any one worth holding—longer than they held us. Against every "shalt not" there must be a "why not" plainly put,—the "why not" largest and plainest, the law deduced from its purpose. "You and I, Isabel," I said, "have always been a little disregardful of duty, partly at least because the idea of duty comes to us so ill-clad. Oh! I know there's an extravagant insubordinate strain in us, but that wasn't all. I wish humbugs would leave duty alone. I wish all duty wasn't covered with slime. That's where the real mischief comes in. Passion can always contrive to clothe itself in beauty, strips itself splendid. That carried us. But for all its mean associations there is this duty....
"Don't we come rather late to it?"
"Not so late that it won't be atrociously hard to do."
"It's queer to think of now," said Isabel. "Who could believe we did all we have done honestly? Well, in a manner honestly. Who could believe we thought this might be hidden? Who could trace it all step by step from the time when we found that a certain boldness in our talk was pleasing? We talked of love.... Master, there's not much for us to do in the way of Apologia that any one will credit. And yet if it were possible to tell the very heart of our story....
"Does Margaret really want to go on with you?" she asked—"shield you—knowing of... THIS?"
"I'm certain. I don't understand—just as I don't understand Shoesmith, but she does. These people walk on solid ground which is just thin air to us. They've got something we haven't got. Assurances? I wonder."...
Then it was, or later, we talked of Shoesmith, and what her life might be with him.
"He's good," she said; "he's kindly. He's everything but magic. He's the very image of the decent, sober, honourable life. You can't say a thing against him or I—except that something—something in his imagination, something in the tone of his voice—fails for me. Why don't I love him?—he's a better man than you! Why don't you? IS he a better man than you? He's usage, he's honour, he's the right thing, he's the breed and the tradition,—a gentleman. You're your erring, incalculable self. I suppose we women will trust this sort and love your sort to the very end of time...."
We lay side by side and nibbled at grass stalks as we talked. It seemed enormously unreasonable to us that two people who had come to the pitch of easy and confident affection and happiness that held between us should be obliged to part and shun one another, or murder half the substance of their lives. We felt ourselves crushed and beaten by an indiscriminating machine which destroys happiness in the service of jealousy. "The mass of people don't feel these things in quite the same manner as we feel them," she said. "Is it because they're different in grain, or educated out of some primitive instinct?"
"It's because we've explored love a little, and they know no more than the gateway," I said. "Lust and then jealousy; their simple conception—and we have gone past all that and wandered hand in hand...."
I remember that for a time we watched two of that larger sort of gull, whose wings are brownish-white, circle and hover against the blue. And then we lay and looked at a band of water mirror clear far out to sea, and wondered why the breeze that rippled all the rest should leave it so serene.
"And in this State of ours," I resumed.
"Eh!" said Isabel, rolling over into a sitting posture and looking out at the horizon. "Let's talk no more of things we can never see. Talk to me of the work you are doing and all we shall do—after we have parted. We've said too little of that. We've had our red life, and it's over. Thank Heaven!—though we stole it! Talk about your work, dear, and the things we'll go on doing—just as though we were still together. We'll still be together in a sense—through all these things we have in common."
And so we talked of politics and our outlook. We were interested to the pitch of self-forgetfulness. We weighed persons and forces, discussed the probabilities of the next general election, the steady drift of public opinion in the north and west away from Liberalism towards us. It was very manifest that in spite of Wardenham and the EXPURGATOR, we should come into the new Government strongly. The party had no one else, all the young men were formally or informally with us; Esmeer would have office, Lord Tarvrille, I... and very probably there would be something for Shoesmith. "And for my own part," I said, "I count on backing on the Liberal side. For the last two years we've been forcing competition in constructive legislation between the parties. The Liberals have not been long in following up our Endowment of Motherhood lead. They'll have to give votes and lip service anyhow. Half the readers of the BLUE WEEKLY, they say, are Liberals....
"I remember talking about things of this sort with old Willersley," I said, "ever so many years ago. It was some place near Locarno, and we looked down the lake that shone weltering—just as now we look over the sea. And then we dreamt in an indistinct featureless way of all that you and I are doing now."
"I!" said Isabel, and laughed.
"Well, of some such thing," I said, and remained for awhile silent, thinking of Locarno.
I recalled once more the largeness, the release from small personal things that I had felt in my youth; statecraft became real and wonderful again with the memory, the gigantic handling of gigantic problems. I began to talk out my thoughts, sitting up beside her, as I could never talk of them to any one but Isabel; began to recover again the purpose that lay under all my political ambitions and adjustments and anticipations. I saw the State, splendid and wide as I had seen it in that first travel of mine, but now it was no mere distant prospect of spires and pinnacles, but populous with fine-trained, bold-thinking, bold-doing people. It was as if I had forgotten for a long time and now remembered with amazement.
At first, I told her, I had been altogether at a loss how I could do anything to battle against the aimless muddle of our world; I had wanted a clue—until she had come into my life questioning, suggesting, unconsciously illuminating. "But I have done nothing," she protested. I declared she had done everything in growing to education under my eyes, in reflecting again upon all the processes that had made myself, so that instead of abstractions and blue-books and bills and devices, I had realised the world of mankind as a crowd needing before all things fine women and men. We'd spoilt ourselves in learning that, but anyhow we had our lesson. Before her I was in a nineteenth-century darkness, dealing with the nation as if it were a crowd of selfish men, forgetful of women and children and that shy wild thing in the hearts of men, love, which must be drawn upon as it has never been drawn upon before, if the State is to live. I saw now how it is possible to bring the loose factors of a great realm together, to create a mind of literature and thought in it, and the expression of a purpose to make it self-conscious and fine. I had it all clear before me, so that at a score of points I could presently begin. The BLUE WEEKLY was a centre of force. Already we had given Imperialism a criticism, and leavened half the press from our columns. Our movement consolidated and spread. We should presently come into power. Everything moved towards our hands. We should be able to get at the schools, the services, the universities, the church; enormously increase the endowment of research, and organise what was sorely wanted, a criticism of research; contrive a closer contact between the press and creative intellectual life; foster literature, clarify, strengthen the public consciousness, develop social organisation and a sense of the State. Men were coming to us every day, brilliant young peers like Lord Dentonhill, writers like Carnot and Cresswell. It filled me with pride to win such men. "We stand for so much more than we seem to stand for," I said. I opened my heart to her, so freely that I hesitate to open my heart even to the reader, telling of projects and ambitions I cherished, of my consciousness of great powers and widening opportunities....
Isabel watched me as I talked.
She too, I think, had forgotten these things for a while. For it is curious and I think a very significant thing that since we had become lovers, we had talked very little of the broader things that had once so strongly gripped our imaginations.
"It's good," I said, "to talk like this to you, to get back to youth and great ambitions with you. There have been times lately when politics has seemed the pettiest game played with mean tools for mean ends—and none the less so that the happiness of three hundred million people might be touched by our follies. I talk to no one else like this.... And now I think of parting, I think but of how much more I might have talked to you."...
Things drew to an end at last, but after we had spoken of a thousand things.
"We've talked away our last half day," I said, staring over my shoulder at the blazing sunset sky behind us. "Dear, it's been the last day of our lives for us.... It doesn't seem like the last day of our lives. Or any day."
"I wonder how it will feel?" said Isabel.
"It will be very strange at first—not to be able to tell you things."
"I've a superstition that after—after we've parted—if ever I go into my room and talk, you'll hear. You'll be—somewhere."
"I shall be in the world—yes."
"I don't feel as though these days ahead were real. Here we are, here we remain."
"Yes, I feel that. As though you and I were two immortals, who didn't live in time and space at all, who never met, who couldn't part, and here we lie on Olympus. And those two poor creatures who did meet, poor little Richard Remington and Isabel Rivers, who met and loved too much and had to part, they part and go their ways, and we lie here and watch them, you and I. She'll cry, poor dear."
"She'll cry. She's crying now!"
"Poor little beasts! I think he'll cry too. He winces. He could—for tuppence. I didn't know he had lachrymal glands at all until a little while ago. I suppose all love is hysterical—and a little foolish. Poor mites! Silly little pitiful creatures! How we have blundered! Think how we must look to God! Well, we'll pity them, and then we'll inspire him to stiffen up again—and do as we've determined he shall do. We'll see it through,—we who lie here on the cliff. They'll be mean at times, and horrid at times; we know them! Do you see her, a poor little fine lady in a great house,—she sometimes goes to her room and writes."
"She writes for his BLUE WEEKLY still."
"Yes. Sometimes—I hope. And he's there in the office with a bit of her copy in his hand."
"Is it as good as if she still talked it over with him before she wrote it? Is it?"
"Better, I think. Let's play it's better—anyhow. It may be that talking over was rather mixed with love-making. After all, love-making is joy rather than magic. Don't let's pretend about that even.... Let's go on watching him. (I don't see why her writing shouldn't be better. Indeed I don't.) See! There he goes down along the Embankment to Westminster just like a real man, for all that he's smaller than a grain of dust. What is running round inside that speck of a head of his? Look at him going past the Policemen, specks too—selected large ones from the country. I think he's going to dinner with the Speaker—some old thing like that. Is his face harder or commoner or stronger?—I can't quite see.... And now he's up and speaking in the House. Hope he'll hold on to the thread. He'll have to plan his speeches to the very end of his days—and learn the headings."
"Isn't she up in the women's gallery to hear him?"
"No. Unless it's by accident."
"She's there," she said.
"Well, by accident it happens. Not too many accidents, Isabel. Never any more adventures for us, dear, now. No!... They play the game, you know. They've begun late, but now they've got to. You see it's not so very hard for them since you and I, my dear, are here always, always faithfully here on this warm cliff of love accomplished, watching and helping them under high heaven. It isn't so VERY hard. Rather good in some ways. Some people HAVE to be broken a little. Can you see Altiora down there, by any chance?"
"She's too little to be seen," she said.
"Can you see the sins they once committed?"
"I can only see you here beside me, dear—for ever. For all my life, dear, till I die. Was that—the sin?"...
I took her to the station, and after she had gone I was to drive to Dover, and cross to Calais by the night boat. I couldn't, I felt, return to London. We walked over the crest and down to the little station of Martin Mill side by side, talking at first in broken fragments, for the most part of unimportant things.
"None of this," she said abruptly, "seems in the slightest degree real to me. I've got no sense of things ending."
"We're parting," I said.
"We're parting—as people part in a play. It's distressing. But I don't feel as though you and I were really never to see each other again for years. Do you?"
I thought. "No," I said.
"After we've parted I shall look to talk it over with you."
"So shall I."
"I feel as if you'd always be there, just about where you are now. Invisible perhaps, but there. We've spent so much of our lives joggling elbows."...
"Yes. Yes. I don't in the least realise it. I suppose I shall begin to when the train goes out of the station. Are we wanting in imagination, Isabel?"
"I don't know. We've always assumed it was the other way about."
"Even when the train goes out of the station—! I've seen you into so many trains."
"I shall go on thinking of things to say to you—things to put in your letters. For years to come. How can I ever stop thinking in that way now? We've got into each other's brains."
"It isn't real," I said; "nothing is real. The world's no more than a fantastic dream. Why are we parting, Isabel?"
"I don't know. It seems now supremely silly. I suppose we have to. Can't we meet?—don't you think we shall meet even in dreams?"
"We'll meet a thousand times in dreams," I said.
"I wish we could dream at the same time," said Isabel.... "Dream walks. I can't believe, dear, I shall never have a walk with you again."
"If I'd stayed six months in America," I said, "we might have walked long walks and talked long talks for all our lives."
"Not in a world of Baileys," said Isabel. "And anyhow—"
She stopped short. I looked interrogation.
"We've loved," she said.
I took her ticket, saw to her luggage, and stood by the door of the compartment. "Good-bye," I said a little stiffly, conscious of the people upon the platform. She bent above me, white and dusky, looking at me very steadfastly.
"Come here," she whispered. "Never mind the porters. What can they know? Just one time more—I must."
She rested her hand against the door of the carriage and bent down upon me, and put her cold, moist lips to mine.
CHAPTER THE THIRD ~~ THE BREAKING POINT
And then we broke down. We broke our faith with both Margaret and Shoesmith, flung career and duty out of our lives, and went away together.
It is only now, almost a year after these events, that I can begin to see what happened to me. At the time it seemed to me I was a rational, responsible creature, but indeed I had not parted from her two days before I became a monomaniac to whom nothing could matter but Isabel. Every truth had to be squared to that obsession, every duty. It astounds me to think how I forgot Margaret, forgot my work, forgot everything but that we two were parted. I still believe that with better chances we might have escaped the consequences of the emotional storm that presently seized us both. But we had no foresight of that, and no preparation for it, and our circumstances betrayed us. It was partly Shoesmith's unwisdom in delaying his marriage until after the end of the session—partly my own amazing folly in returning within four days to Westminster. But we were all of us intent upon the defeat of scandal and the complete restoration of appearances. It seemed necessary that Shoesmith's marriage should not seem to be hurried, still more necessary that I should not vanish inexplicably. I had to be visible with Margaret in London just as much as possible; we went to restaurants, we visited the theatre; we could even contemplate the possibility of my presence at the wedding. For that, however, we had schemed a weekend visit to Wales, and a fictitious sprained ankle at the last moment which would justify my absence....
I cannot convey to you the intolerable wretchedness and rebellion of my separation from Isabel. It seemed that in the past two years all my thoughts had spun commisures to Isabel's brain and I could think of nothing that did not lead me surely to the need of the one intimate I had found in the world. I came back to the House and the office and my home, I filled all my days with appointments and duty, and it did not save me in the least from a lonely emptiness such as I had never felt before in all my life. I had little sleep. In the daytime I did a hundred things, I even spoke in the House on two occasions, and by my own low standards spoke well, and it seemed to me that I was going about in my own brain like a hushed survivor in a house whose owner lies dead upstairs.
I came to a crisis after that wild dinner of Tarvrille's. Something in that stripped my soul bare.
It was an occasion made absurd and strange by the odd accident that the house caught fire upstairs while we were dining below. It was a men's dinner—"A dinner of all sorts," said Tarvrille, when he invited me; "everything from Evesham and Gane to Wilkins the author, and Heaven knows what will happen!" I remember that afterwards Tarvrille was accused of having planned the fire to make his dinner a marvel and a memory. It was indeed a wonderful occasion, and I suppose if I had not been altogether drenched in misery, I should have found the same wild amusement in it that glowed in all the others. There were one or two university dons, Lord George Fester, the racing man, Panmure, the artist, two or three big City men, Weston Massinghay and another prominent Liberal whose name I can't remember, the three men Tarvrille had promised and Esmeer, Lord Wrassleton, Waulsort, the member for Monckton, Neal and several others. We began a little coldly, with duologues, but the conversation was already becoming general—so far as such a long table permitted—when the fire asserted itself.
It asserted itself first as a penetrating and emphatic smell of burning rubber,—it was caused by the fusing of an electric wire. The reek forced its way into the discussion of the Pekin massacres that had sprung up between Evesham, Waulsort, and the others at the end of the table. "Something burning," said the man next to me.
"Something must be burning," said Panmure.
Tarvrille hated undignified interruptions. He had a particularly imperturbable butler with a cadaverous sad face and an eye of rigid disapproval. He spoke to this individual over his shoulder. "Just see, will you," he said, and caught up the pause in the talk to his left.
Wilkins was asking questions, and I, too, was curious. The story of the siege of the Legations in China in the year 1900 and all that followed upon that, is just one of those disturbing interludes in history that refuse to join on to that general scheme of protestation by which civilisation is maintained. It is a break in the general flow of experience as disconcerting to statecraft as the robbery of my knife and the scuffle that followed it had been to me when I was a boy at Penge. It is like a tear in a curtain revealing quite unexpected backgrounds. I had never given the business a thought for years; now this talk brought back a string of pictures to my mind; how the reliefs arrived and the plundering began, how section after section of the International Army was drawn into murder and pillage, how the infection spread upward until the wives of Ministers were busy looting, and the very sentinels stripped and crawled like snakes into the Palace they were set to guard. It did not stop at robbery, men were murdered, women, being plundered, were outraged, children were butchered, strong men had found themselves with arms in a lawless, defenceless city, and this had followed. Now it was all recalled.
"Respectable ladies addicted to district visiting at home were as bad as any one," said Panmure. "Glazebrook told me of one—flushed like a woman at a bargain sale, he said—and when he pointed out to her that the silk she'd got was bloodstained, she just said, 'Oh, bother!' and threw it aside and went back...."
We became aware that Tarvrille's butler had returned. We tried not to seem to listen.
"Beg pardon, m'lord," he said. "The house IS on fire, m'lord."
"Just overhead, m'lord."
"The maids are throwing water, m'lord, and I've telephoned FIRE."
"No, m'lord, no immediate danger."
"It's all right," said Tarvrille to the table generally. "Go on! It's not a general conflagration, and the fire brigade won't be five minutes. Don't see that it's our affair. The stuff's insured. They say old Lady Paskershortly was dreadful. Like a harpy. The Dowager Empress had shown her some little things of hers. Pet things—hidden away. Susan went straight for them—used to take an umbrella for the silks. Born shoplifter."
It was evident he didn't want his dinner spoilt, and we played up loyally.
"This is recorded history," said Wilkins,—"practically. It makes one wonder about unrecorded history. In India, for example."
But nobody touched that.
"Thompson," said Tarvrille to the imperturbable butler, and indicating the table generally, "champagne. Champagne. Keep it going."
"M'lord," and Thompson marshalled his assistants.
Some man I didn't know began to remember things about Mandalay. "It's queer," he said, "how people break out at times;" and told his story of an army doctor, brave, public-spirited, and, as it happened, deeply religious, who was caught one evening by the excitement of plundering—and stole and hid, twisted the wrist of a boy until it broke, and was afterwards overcome by wild remorse.
I watched Evesham listening intently. "Strange," he said, "very strange. We are such stuff as thieves are made of. And in China, too, they murdered people—for the sake of murdering. Apart, so to speak, from mercenary considerations. I'm afraid there's no doubt of it in certain cases. No doubt at all. Young soldiers fresh from German high schools and English homes!"
"Did OUR people?" asked some patriot.
"Not so much. But I'm afraid there were cases.... Some of the Indian troops were pretty bad."
Gane picked up the tale with confirmations.
It is all printed in the vividest way as a picture upon my memory, so that were I a painter I think I could give the deep rich browns and warm greys beyond the brightly lit table, the various distinguished faces, strongly illuminated, interested and keen, above the black and white of evening dress, the alert menservants with their heavier, clean-shaved faces indistinctly seen in the dimness behind. Then this was coloured emotionally for me by my aching sense of loss and sacrifice, and by the chance trend of our talk to the breaches and unrealities of the civilised scheme. We seemed a little transitory circle of light in a universe of darkness and violence; an effect to which the diminishing smell of burning rubber, the trampling of feet overhead, the swish of water, added enormously. Everybody—unless, perhaps, it was Evesham—drank rather carelessly because of the suppressed excitement of our situation, and talked the louder and more freely.
"But what a flimsy thing our civilisation is!" said Evesham; "a mere thin net of habits and associations!"
"I suppose those men came back," said Wilkins.
"Lady Paskershortly did!" chuckled Evesham.
"How do they fit it in with the rest of their lives?" Wilkins speculated. "I suppose there's Pekin-stained police officers, Pekin-stained J. P.'s—trying petty pilferers in the severest manner."...
Then for a time things became preposterous. There was a sudden cascade of water by the fireplace, and then absurdly the ceiling began to rain upon us, first at this point and then that. "My new suit!" cried some one. "Perrrrrr-up pe-rr"—a new vertical line of blackened water would establish itself and form a spreading pool upon the gleaming cloth. The men nearest would arrange catchment areas of plates and flower bowls. "Draw up!" said Tarvrille, "draw up. That's the bad end of the table!" He turned to the imperturbable butler. "Take round bath towels," he said; and presently the men behind us were offering—with inflexible dignity—"Port wine, Sir. Bath towel, Sir!" Waulsort, with streaks of blackened water on his forehead, was suddenly reminded of a wet year when he had followed the French army manoeuvres. An animated dispute sprang up between him and Neal about the relative efficiency of the new French and German field guns. Wrassleton joined in and a little drunken shrivelled Oxford don of some sort with a black-splashed shirt front who presently silenced them all by the immensity and particularity of his knowledge of field artillery. Then the talk drifted to Sedan and the effect of dead horses upon drinking-water, which brought Wrassleton and Weston Massinghay into a dispute of great vigour and emphasis. "The trouble in South Africa," said Weston Massinghay, "wasn't that we didn't boil our water. It was that we didn't boil our men. The Boers drank the same stuff we did. THEY didn't get dysentery."
That argument went on for some time. I was attacked across the table by a man named Burshort about my Endowment of Motherhood schemes, but in the gaps of that debate I could still hear Weston Massinghay at intervals repeat in a rather thickened voice: "THEY didn't get dysentery."
I think Evesham went early. The rest of us clustered more and more closely towards the drier end of the room, the table was pushed along, and the area beneath the extinguished conflagration abandoned to a tinkling, splashing company of pots and pans and bowls and baths. Everybody was now disposed to be hilarious and noisy, to say startling and aggressive things; we must have sounded a queer clamour to a listener in the next room. The devil inspired them to begin baiting me. "Ours isn't the Tory party any more," said Burshort. "Remington has made it the Obstetric Party."
"That's good!" said Weston Massinghay, with all his teeth gleaming; "I shall use that against you in the House!"
"I shall denounce you for abusing private confidences if you do," said Tarvrille.
"Remington wants us to give up launching Dreadnoughts and launch babies instead," Burshort urged. "For the price of one Dreadnought—"
The little shrivelled don who had been omniscient about guns joined in the baiting, and displayed himself a venomous creature. Something in his eyes told me he knew Isabel and hated me for it. "Love and fine thinking," he began, a little thickly, and knocking over a wine-glass with a too easy gesture. "Love and fine thinking. Two things don't go together. No philosophy worth a damn ever came out of excesses of love. Salt Lake City—Piggott—Ag—Agapemone again—no works to matter."
"Got to rec'nise these facts," said my assailant. "Love and fine think'n pretty phrase—attractive. Suitable for p'litical dec'rations. Postcard, Christmas, gilt lets, in a wreath of white flow's. Not oth'wise valu'ble."
I made some remark, I forget what, but he overbore me.
Real things we want are Hate—Hate and COARSE think'n. I b'long to the school of Mrs. F's Aunt—"
"What?" said some one, intent.
"In 'Little Dorrit,'" explained Tarvrille; "go on!"
"Hate a fool," said my assailant.
Tarvrille glanced at me. I smiled to conceal the loss of my temper.
"Hate," said the little man, emphasising his point with a clumsy fist. "Hate's the driving force. What's m'rality?—hate of rotten goings on. What's patriotism?—hate of int'loping foreigners. What's Radicalism?—hate of lords. What's Toryism?—hate of disturbance. It's all hate—hate from top to bottom. Hate of a mess. Remington owned it the other day, said he hated a mu'll. There you are! If you couldn't get hate into an election, damn it (hic) people wou'n't poll. Poll for love!—no' me!"
He paused, but before any one could speak he had resumed.
"Then this about fine thinking. Like going into a bear pit armed with a tagle—talgent—talgent galv'nometer. Like going to fight a mad dog with Shasepear and the Bible. Fine thinking—what we want is the thickes' thinking we can get. Thinking that stands up alone. Taf Reform means work for all, thassort of thing."
The gentleman from Cambridge paused. "YOU a flag!" he said. "I'd as soon go to ba'ell und' wet tissue paper!"
My best answer on the spur of the moment was:
"The Japanese did." Which was absurd.
I went on to some other reply, I forget exactly what, and the talk of the whole table drew round me. It was an extraordinary revelation to me. Every one was unusually careless and outspoken, and it was amazing how manifestly they echoed the feeling of this old Tory spokesman. They were quite friendly to me, they regarded me and the BLUE WEEKLY as valuable party assets for Toryism, but it was clear they attached no more importance to what were my realities than they did to the remarkable therapeutic claims of Mrs. Eddy. They were flushed and amused, perhaps they went a little too far in their resolves to draw me, but they left the impression on my mind of men irrevocably set upon narrow and cynical views of political life. For them the political struggle was a game, whose counters were human hate and human credulity; their real aim was just every one's aim, the preservation of the class and way of living to which their lives were attuned. They did not know how tired I was, how exhausted mentally and morally, nor how cruel their convergent attack on me chanced to be. But my temper gave way, I became tart and fierce, perhaps my replies were a trifle absurd, and Tarvrille, with that quick eye and sympathy of his, came to the rescue. Then for a time I sat silent and drank port wine while the others talked. The disorder of the room, the still dripping ceiling, the noise, the displaced ties and crumpled shirts of my companions, jarred on my tormented nerves....
It was long past midnight when we dispersed. I remember Tarvrille coming with me into the hall, and then suggesting we should go upstairs to see the damage. A manservant carried up two flickering candles for us. One end of the room was gutted, curtains, hangings, several chairs and tables were completely burnt, the panelling was scorched and warped, three smashed windows made the candles flare and gutter, and some scraps of broken china still lay on the puddled floor.
As we surveyed this, Lady Tarvrille appeared, back from some party, a slender, white-cloaked, satin-footed figure with amazed blue eyes beneath her golden hair. I remember how stupidly we laughed at her surprise.
I parted from Panmure at the corner of Aldington Street, and went my way alone. But I did not go home, I turned westward and walked for a long way, and then struck northward aimlessly. I was too miserable to go to my house.
I wandered about that night like a man who has discovered his Gods are dead. I can look back now detached yet sympathetic upon that wild confusion of moods and impulses, and by it I think I can understand, oh! half the wrongdoing and blundering in the world.
I do not feel now the logical force of the process that must have convinced me then that I had made my sacrifice and spent my strength in vain. At no time had I been under any illusion that the Tory party had higher ideals than any other party, yet it came to me like a thing newly discovered that the men I had to work with had for the most part no such dreams, no sense of any collective purpose, no atom of the faith I held. They were just as immediately intent upon personal ends, just as limited by habits of thought, as the men in any other group or party. Perhaps I had slipped unawares for a time into the delusions of a party man—but I do not think so.
No, it was the mood of profound despondency that had followed upon the abrupt cessation of my familiar intercourse with Isabel, that gave this fact that had always been present in my mind its quality of devastating revelation. It seemed as though I had never seen before nor suspected the stupendous gap between the chaotic aims, the routine, the conventional acquiescences, the vulgarisations of the personal life, and that clearly conscious development and service of a collective thought and purpose at which my efforts aimed. I had thought them but a little way apart, and now I saw they were separated by all the distance between earth and heaven. I saw now in myself and every one around me, a concentration upon interests close at hand, an inability to detach oneself from the provocations, tendernesses, instinctive hates, dumb lusts and shy timidities that touched one at every point; and, save for rare exalted moments, a regardlessness of broader aims and remoter possibilities that made the white passion of statecraft seem as unearthly and irrelevant to human life as the story an astronomer will tell, half proven but altogether incredible, of habitable planets and answering intelligences, suns' distances uncounted across the deep. It seemed to me I had aspired too high and thought too far, had mocked my own littleness by presumption, had given the uttermost dear reality of life for a theoriser's dream.
All through that wandering agony of mine that night a dozen threads of thought interwove; now I was a soul speaking in protest to God against a task too cold and high for it, and now I was an angry man, scorned and pointed upon, who had let life cheat him of the ultimate pride of his soul. Now I was the fool of ambition, who opened his box of gold to find blank emptiness, and now I was a spinner of flimsy thoughts, whose web tore to rags at a touch. I realised for the first time how much I had come to depend upon the mind and faith of Isabel, how she had confirmed me and sustained me, how little strength I had to go on with our purposes now that she had vanished from my life. She had been the incarnation of those great abstractions, the saving reality, the voice that answered back. There was no support that night in the things that had been. We were alone together on the cliff for ever more!—that was very pretty in its way, but it had no truth whatever that could help me now, no ounce of sustaining value. I wanted Isabel that night, no sentiment or memory of her, but Isabel alive,—to talk to me, to touch me, to hold me together. I wanted unendurably the dusky gentleness of her presence, the consolation of her voice.
We were alone together on the cliff! I startled a passing cabman into interest by laughing aloud at that magnificent and characteristic sentimentality. What a lie it was, and how satisfying it had been! That was just where we shouldn't remain. We of all people had no distinction from that humanity whose lot is to forget. We should go out to other interests, new experiences, new demands. That tall and intricate fabric of ambitious understandings we had built up together in our intimacy would be the first to go; and last perhaps to endure with us would be a few gross memories of sights and sounds, and trivial incidental excitements....
I had a curious feeling that night that I had lost touch with life for a long time, and had now been reminded of its quality. That infernal little don's parody of my ruling phrase, "Hate and coarse thinking," stuck in my thoughts like a poisoned dart, a centre of inflammation. Just as a man who is debilitated has no longer the vitality to resist an infection, so my mind, slackened by the crisis of my separation from Isabel, could find no resistance to his emphatic suggestion. It seemed to me that what he had said was overpoweringly true, not only of contemporary life, but of all possible human life. Love is the rare thing, the treasured thing; you lock it away jealously and watch, and well you may; hate and aggression and force keep the streets and rule the world. And fine thinking is, in the rough issues of life, weak thinking, is a balancing indecisive process, discovers with disloyal impartiality a justice and a defect on each disputing side. "Good honest men," as Dayton calls them, rule the world, with a way of thinking out decisions like shooting cartloads of bricks, and with a steadfast pleasure in hostility. Dayton liked to call his antagonists "blaggards and scoundrels"—it justified his opposition—the Lords were "scoundrels," all people richer than he were "scoundrels," all Socialists, all troublesome poor people; he liked to think of jails and justice being done. His public spirit was saturated with the sombre joys of conflict and the pleasant thought of condign punishment for all recalcitrant souls. That was the way of it, I perceived. That had survival value, as the biologists say. He was fool enough in politics to be a consistent and happy politician....
Hate and coarse thinking; how the infernal truth of the phrase beat me down that night! I couldn't remember that I had known this all along, and that it did not really matter in the slightest degree. I had worked it all out long ago in other terms, when I had seen how all parties stood for interests inevitably, and how the purpose in life achieves itself, if it achieves itself at all, as a bye product of the war of individuals and classes. Hadn't I always known that science and philosophy elaborate themselves in spite of all the passion and narrowness of men, in spite of the vanities and weakness of their servants, in spite of all the heated disorder of contemporary things? Wasn't it my own phrase to speak of "that greater mind in men, in which we are but moments and transitorily lit cells?" Hadn't I known that the spirit of man still speaks like a thing that struggles out of mud and slime, and that the mere effort to speak means choking and disaster? Hadn't I known that we who think without fear and speak without discretion will not come to our own for the next two thousand years?
It was the last was most forgotten of all that faith mislaid. Before mankind, in my vision that night, stretched new centuries of confusion, vast stupid wars, hastily conceived laws, foolish temporary triumphs of order, lapses, set-backs, despairs, catastrophes, new beginnings, a multitudinous wilderness of time, a nigh plotless drama of wrong-headed energies. In order to assuage my parting from Isabel we had set ourselves to imagine great rewards for our separation, great personal rewards; we had promised ourselves success visible and shining in our lives. To console ourselves in our separation we had made out of the BLUE WEEKLY and our young Tory movement preposterously enormous things-as though those poor fertilising touches at the soil were indeed the germinating seeds of the millennium, as though a million lives such as ours had not to contribute before the beginning of the beginning. That poor pretence had failed. That magnificent proposition shrivelled to nothing in the black loneliness of that night.
I saw that there were to be no such compensations. So far as my real services to mankind were concerned I had to live an unrecognised and unrewarded life. If I made successes it would be by the way. Our separation would alter nothing of that. My scandal would cling to me now for all my life, a thing affecting relationships, embarrassing and hampering my spirit. I should follow the common lot of those who live by the imagination, and follow it now in infinite loneliness of soul; the one good comforter, the one effectual familiar, was lost to me for ever; I should do good and evil together, no one caring to understand; I should produce much weary work, much bad-spirited work, much absolute evil; the good in me would be too often ill-expressed and missed or misinterpreted. In the end I might leave one gleaming flake or so amidst the slag heaps for a moment of postmortem sympathy. I was afraid beyond measure of my derelict self. Because I believed with all my soul in love and fine thinking that did not mean that I should necessarily either love steadfastly or think finely. I remember how I fell talking to God—I think I talked out loud. "Why do I care for these things?" I cried, "when I can do so little! Why am I apart from the jolly thoughtless fighting life of men? These dreams fade to nothingness, and leave me bare!"
I scolded. "Why don't you speak to a man, show yourself? I thought I had a gleam of you in Isabel,—and then you take her away. Do you really think I can carry on this game alone, doing your work in darkness and silence, living in muddled conflict, half living, half dying?"
Grotesque analogies arose in my mind. I discovered a strange parallelism between my now tattered phrase of "Love and fine thinking" and the "Love and the Word" of Christian thought. Was it possible the Christian propaganda had at the outset meant just that system of attitudes I had been feeling my way towards from the very beginning of my life? Had I spent a lifetime making my way back to Christ? It mocks humanity to think how Christ has been overlaid. I went along now, recalling long-neglected phrases and sentences; I had a new vision of that great central figure preaching love with hate and coarse thinking even in the disciples about Him, rising to a tidal wave at last in that clamour for Barabbas, and the public satisfaction in His fate....
It's curious to think that hopeless love and a noisy disordered dinner should lead a man to these speculations, but they did. "He DID mean that!" I said, and suddenly thought of what a bludgeon they'd made of His Christianity. Athwart that perplexing, patient enigma sitting inaudibly among publicans and sinners, danced and gibbered a long procession of the champions of orthodoxy. "He wasn't human," I said, and remembered that last despairing cry, "My God! My God! why hast Thou forsaken Me?"
"Oh, HE forsakes every one," I said, flying out as a tired mind will, with an obvious repartee....
I passed at a bound from such monstrous theology to a towering rage against the Baileys. In an instant and with no sense of absurdity I wanted—in the intervals of love and fine thinking—to fling about that strenuously virtuous couple; I wanted to kick Keyhole of the PEEPSHOW into the gutter and make a common massacre of all the prosperous rascaldom that makes a trade and rule of virtue. I can still feel that transition. In a moment I had reached that phase of weakly decisive anger which is for people of my temperament the concomitant of exhaustion.
"I will have her," I cried. "By Heaven! I WILL have her! Life mocks me and cheats me. Nothing can be made good to me again.... Why shouldn't I save what I can? I can't save myself without her...."
I remember myself—as a sort of anti-climax to that—rather tediously asking my way home. I was somewhere in the neighbourhood of Holland Park....
It was then between one and two. I felt that I could go home now without any risk of meeting Margaret. It had been the thought of returning to Margaret that had sent me wandering that night. It is one of the ugliest facts I recall about that time of crisis, the intense aversion I felt for Margaret. No sense of her goodness, her injury and nobility, and the enormous generosity of her forgiveness, sufficed to mitigate that. I hope now that in this book I am able to give something of her silvery splendour, but all through this crisis I felt nothing of that. There was a triumphant kindliness about her that I found intolerable. She meant to be so kind to me, to offer unstinted consolation, to meet my needs, to supply just all she imagined Isabel had given me.
When I left Tarvrille's, I felt I could anticipate exactly how she would meet my homecoming. She would be perplexed by my crumpled shirt front, on which I had spilt some drops of wine; she would overlook that by an effort, explain it sentimentally, resolve it should make no difference to her. She would want to know who had been present, what we had talked about, show the alertest interest in whatever it was—it didn't matter what.... No, I couldn't face her.
So I did not reach my study until two o'clock.
There, I remember, stood the new and very beautiful old silver candlesticks that she had set there two days since to please me—the foolish kindliness of it! But in her search for expression, Margaret heaped presents upon me. She had fitted these candlesticks with electric lights, and I must, I suppose, have lit them to write my note to Isabel. "Give me a word—the world aches without you," was all I scrawled, though I fully meant that she should come to me. I knew, though I ought not to have known, that now she had left her flat, she was with the Balfes—she was to have been married from the Balfes—and I sent my letter there. And I went out into the silent square and posted the note forthwith, because I knew quite clearly that if I left it until morning I should never post it at all.
I had a curious revulsion of feeling that morning of our meeting. (Of all places for such a clandestine encounter she had chosen the bridge opposite Buckingham Palace.) Overnight I had been full of self pity, and eager for the comfort of Isabel's presence. But the ill-written scrawl in which she had replied had been full of the suggestion of her own weakness and misery. And when I saw her, my own selfish sorrows were altogether swept away by a wave of pitiful tenderness. Something had happened to her that I did not understand. She was manifestly ill. She came towards me wearily, she who had always borne herself so bravely; her shoulders seemed bent, and her eyes were tired, and her face white and drawn. All my life has been a narrow self-centred life; no brothers, no sisters or children or weak things had ever yet made any intimate appeal to me, and suddenly—I verily believe for the first time in my life!—I felt a great passion of protective ownership; I felt that here was something that I could die to shelter, something that meant more than joy or pride or splendid ambitions or splendid creation to me, a new kind of hold upon me, a new power in the world. Some sealed fountain was opened in my breast. I knew that I could love Isabel broken, Isabel beaten, Isabel ugly and in pain, more than I could love any sweet or delightful or glorious thing in life. I didn't care any more for anything in the world but Isabel, and that I should protect her. I trembled as I came near her, and could scarcely speak to her for the emotion that filled me....
"I had your letter," I said.
"I had yours."
"Where can we talk?"
I remember my lame sentences. "We'll have a boat. That's best here."
I took her to the little boat-house, and there we hired a boat, and I rowed in silence under the bridge and into the shade of a tree. The square grey stone masses of the Foreign Office loomed through the twigs, I remember, and a little space of grass separated us from the pathway and the scrutiny of passers-by. And there we talked.
"I had to write to you," I said.
"I had to come."
"When are you to be married?"
"Well?" I said. "But—can we?"
She leant forward and scrutinised my face with eyes wide open. "What do you mean?" she said at last in a whisper.
"Can we stand it? After all?"
I looked at her white face. "Can you?" I said.
She whispered. "Your career?"
Then suddenly her face was contorted,—she wept silently, exactly as a child tormented beyond endurance might suddenly weep....
"Oh! I don't care," I cried, "now. I don't care. Damn the whole system of things! Damn all this patching of the irrevocable! I want to take care of you, Isabel! and have you with me."
"I can't stand it," she blubbered.
"You needn't stand it. I thought it was best for you.... I thought indeed it was best for you. I thought even you wanted it like that."
"Couldn't I live alone—as I meant to do?"
"No," I said, "you couldn't. You're not strong enough. I've thought of that; I've got to shelter you."
"And I want you," I went on. "I'm not strong enough—I can't stand life without you."
She stopped weeping, she made a great effort to control herself, and looked at me steadfastly for a moment. "I was going to kill myself," she whispered. "I was going to kill myself quietly—somehow. I meant to wait a bit and have an accident. I thought—you didn't understand. You were a man, and couldn't understand...."
"People can't do as we thought we could do," I said. "We've gone too far together."
"Yes," she said, and I stared into her eyes.
"The horror of it," she whispered. "The horror of being handed over. It's just only begun to dawn upon me, seeing him now as I do. He tries to be kind to me.... I didn't know. I felt adventurous before.... It makes me feel like all the women in the world who have ever been owned and subdued.... It's not that he isn't the best of men, it's because I'm a part of you.... I can't go through with it. If I go through with it, I shall be left—robbed of pride—outraged—a woman beaten...."
"I know," I said, "I know."
"I want to live alone.... I don't care for anything now but just escape. If you can help me...."
"I must take you away. There's nothing for us but to go away together."
"But your work," she said; "your career! Margaret! Our promises!"
"We've made a mess of things, Isabel—or things have made a mess of us. I don't know which. Our flags are in the mud, anyhow. It's too late to save those other things! They have to go. You can't make terms with defeat. I thought it was Margaret needed me most. But it's you. And I need you. I didn't think of that either. I haven't a doubt left in the world now. We've got to leave everything rather than leave each other. I'm sure of it. Now we have gone so far. We've got to go right down to earth and begin again.... Dear, I WANT disgrace with you...."
So I whispered to her as she sat crumpled together on the faded cushions of the boat, this white and weary young woman who had been so valiant and careless a girl. "I don't care," I said. "I don't care for anything, if I can save you out of the wreckage we have made together."
The next day I went to the office of the BLUE WEEKLY in order to get as much as possible of its affairs in working order before I left London with Isabel. I just missed Shoesmith in the lower office. Upstairs I found Britten amidst a pile of outside articles, methodically reading the title of each and sometimes the first half-dozen lines, and either dropping them in a growing heap on the floor for a clerk to return, or putting them aside for consideration. I interrupted him, squatted on the window-sill of the open window, and sketched out my ideas for the session.
"You're far-sighted," he remarked at something of mine which reached out ahead.
"I like to see things prepared," I answered.
"Yes," he said, and ripped open the envelope of a fresh aspirant.
I was silent while he read.
"You're going away with Isabel Rivers," he said abruptly.
"Well!" I said, amazed.
"I know," he said, and lost his breath. "Not my business. Only—"
It was queer to find Britten afraid to say a thing.
"It's not playing the game," he said.
"What do you know?"
"Everything that matters."
"Some games," I said, "are too hard to play."
There came a pause between us.
"I didn't know you were watching all this," I said.
"Yes," he answered, after a pause, "I've watched."
"Sorry—sorry you don't approve."
"It means smashing such an infernal lot of things, Remington."
I did not answer.
"You're going away then?"
"There's your wife."
"Shoesmith—whom you're pledged to in a manner. You've just picked him out and made him conspicuous. Every one will know. Oh! of course—it's nothing to you. Honour—"
"All this movement of ours. That's what I care for most.... It's come to be a big thing, Remington."
"That will go on."
"We have a use for you—no one else quite fills it. No one.... I'm not sure it will go on."
"Do you think I haven't thought of all these things?"
He shrugged his shoulders, and rejected two papers unread.
"I knew," he remarked, "when you came back from America. You were alight with it." Then he let his bitterness gleam for a moment. "But I thought you would stick to your bargain."
"It's not so much choice as you think," I said.
"There's always a choice."
"No," I said.
He scrutinised my face.
"I can't live without her—I can't work. She's all mixed up with this—and everything. And besides, there's things you can't understand. There's feelings you've never felt.... You don't understand how much we've been to one another."
Britten frowned and thought.
"Some things one's GOT to do," he threw out.
"Some things one can't do."
"These infernal institutions—"
"Some one must begin," I said.
He shook his head. "Not YOU," he said. "No!"
He stretched out his hands on the desk before him, and spoke again.
"Remington," he said, "I've thought of this business day and night too. It matters to me. It matters immensely to me. In a way—it's a thing one doesn't often say to a man—I've loved you. I'm the sort of man who leads a narrow life.... But you've been something fine and good for me, since that time, do you remember? when we talked about Mecca together."
"Yes. And you'll always be something fine and good for me anyhow. I know things about you,—qualities—no mere act can destroy them.. .. Well, I can tell you, you're doing wrong. You're going on now like a man who is hypnotised and can't turn round. You're piling wrong on wrong. It was wrong for you two people ever to be lovers."
"It gripped us hard," I said.
"Yes!—but in your position! And hers! It was vile!"
"You've not been tempted."
"How do you know? Anyhow—having done that, you ought to have stood the consequences and thought of other people. You could have ended it at the first pause for reflection. You didn't. You blundered again. You kept on. You owed a certain secrecy to all of us! You didn't keep it. You were careless. You made things worse. This engagement and this publicity!—Damn it, Remington!"
"I know," I said, with smarting eyes. "Damn it! with all my heart! It came of trying to patch.... You CAN'T patch."
"And now, as I care for anything under heaven, Remington, you two ought to stand these last consequences—and part. You ought to part. Other people have to stand things! Other people have to part. You ought to. You say—what do you say? It's loss of so much life to lose each other. So is losing a hand or a leg. But it's what you've incurred. Amputate. Take your punishment—After all, you chose it."
"Oh, damn!" I said, standing up and going to the window.
"Damn by all means. I never knew a topic so full of justifiable damns. But you two did choose it. You ought to stick to your undertaking."
I turned upon him with a snarl in my voice. "My dear Britten!" I cried. "Don't I KNOW I'm doing wrong? Aren't I in a net? Suppose I don't go! Is there any right in that? Do you think we're going to be much to ourselves or any one after this parting? I've been thinking all last night of this business, trying it over and over again from the beginning. How was it we went wrong? Since I came back from America—I grant you THAT—but SINCE, there's never been a step that wasn't forced, that hadn't as much right in it or more, as wrong. You talk as though I was a thing of steel that could bend this way or that and never change. You talk as though Isabel was a cat one could give to any kind of owner.... We two are things that change and grow and alter all the time. We're—so interwoven that being parted now will leave us just misshapen cripples.... You don't know the motives, you don't know the rush and feel of things, you don't know how it was with us, and how it is with us. You don't know the hunger for the mere sight of one another; you don't know anything."
Britten looked at his finger-nails closely. His red face puckered to a wry frown. "Haven't we all at times wanted the world put back?" he grunted, and looked hard and close at one particular nail.
There was a long pause.
"I want her," I said, "and I'm going to have her. I'm too tired for balancing the right or wrong of it any more. You can't separate them. I saw her yesterday.... She's—ill.... I'd take her now, if death were just outside the door waiting for us."
I thought. "Yes."
"There isn't," I said.
"If there was?"
I made no answer.
"It's blind Want. And there's nothing ever been put into you to stand against it. What are you going to do with the rest of your lives?"
"No end of things."
"I don't believe you are right," I said. "I believe we can save something—"
Britten shook his head. "Some scraps of salvage won't excuse you," he said.
His indignation rose. "In the middle of life!" he said. "No man has a right to take his hand from the plough!"
He leant forward on his desk and opened an argumentative palm. "You know, Remington," he said, "and I know, that if this could be fended off for six months—if you could be clapped in prison, or got out of the way somehow,—until this marriage was all over and settled down for a year, say—you know then you two could meet, curious, happy, as friends. Saved! You KNOW it."
I turned and stared at him. "You're wrong, Britten," I said. "And does it matter if we could?"
I found that in talking to him I could frame the apologetics I had not been able to find for myself alone.
"I am certain of one thing, Britten. It is our duty not to hush up this scandal."
He raised his eyebrows. I perceived now the element of absurdity in me, but at the time I was as serious as a man who is burning.
"It's our duty," I went on, "to smash now openly in the sight of every one. Yes! I've got that as clean and plain—as prison whitewash. I am convinced that we have got to be public to the uttermost now—I mean it—until every corner of our world knows this story, knows it fully, adds it to the Parnell story and the Ashton Dean story and the Carmel story and the Witterslea story, and all the other stories that have picked man after man out of English public life, the men with active imaginations, the men of strong initiative. To think this tottering old-woman ridden Empire should dare to waste a man on such a score! You say I ought to be penitent—"
Britten shook his head and smiled very faintly.
"I'm boiling with indignation," I said. "I lay in bed last night and went through it all. What in God's name was to be expected of us but what has happened? I went through my life bit by bit last night, I recalled all I've had to do with virtue and women, and all I was told and how I was prepared. I was born into cowardice and debasement. We all are. Our generation's grimy with hypocrisy. I came to the most beautiful things in life—like peeping Tom of Coventry. I was never given a light, never given a touch of natural manhood by all this dingy, furtive, canting, humbugging English world. Thank God! I'll soon be out of it! The shame of it! The very savages in Australia initiate their children better than the English do to-day. Neither of us was ever given a view of what they call morality that didn't make it show as shabby subservience, as the meanest discretion, an abject submission to unreasonable prohibitions! meek surrender of mind and body to the dictation of pedants and old women and fools. We weren't taught—we were mumbled at! And when we found that the thing they called unclean, unclean, was Pagan beauty—God! it was a glory to sin, Britten, it was a pride and splendour like bathing in the sunlight after dust and grime!"
"Yes," said Britten. "That's all very well—"
I interrupted him. "I know there's a case—I'm beginning to think it a valid case against us; but we never met it! There's a steely pride in self restraint, a nobility of chastity, but only for those who see and think and act—untrammeled and unafraid. The other thing, the current thing, why! it's worth as much as the chastity of a monkey kept in a cage by itself!" I put my foot in a chair, and urged my case upon him. "This is a dirty world, Britten, simply because it is a muddled world, and the thing you call morality is dirtier now than the thing you call immorality. Why don't the moralists pick their stuff out of the slime if they care for it, and wipe it?—damn them! I am burning now to say: 'Yes, we did this and this,' to all the world. All the world!... I will!"
Britten rubbed the palm of his hand on the corner of his desk. "That's all very well, Remington," he said. "You mean to go."
He stopped and began again. "If you didn't know you were in the wrong you wouldn't be so damned rhetorical. You're in the wrong. It's as plain to you as it is to me. You're leaving a big work, you're leaving a wife who trusted you, to go and live with your jolly mistress.... You won't see you're a statesman that matters, that no single man, maybe, might come to such influence as you in the next ten years. You're throwing yourself away and accusing your country of rejecting you."
He swung round upon his swivel at me. "Remington," he said, "have you forgotten the immense things our movement means?"
I thought. "Perhaps I am rhetorical," I said.
"But the things we might achieve! If you'd only stay now—even now! Oh! you'd suffer a little socially, but what of that? You'd be able to go on—perhaps all the better for hostility of the kind you'd get. You know, Remington—you KNOW."
I thought and went back to his earlier point. "If I am rhetorical, at any rate it's a living feeling behind it. Yes, I remember all the implications of our aims—very splendid, very remote. But just now it's rather like offering to give a freezing man the sunlit Himalayas from end to end in return for his camp-fire. When you talk of me and my jolly mistress, it isn't fair. That misrepresents everything. I'm not going out of this—for delights. That's the sort of thing men like Snuffles and Keyhole imagine—that excites them! When I think of the things these creatures think! Ugh! But YOU know better? You know that physical passion that burns like a fire—ends clean. I'm going for love, Britten—if I sinned for passion. I'm going, Britten, because when I saw her the other day she HURT me. She hurt me damnably, Britten.... I've been a cold man—I've led a rhetorical life—you hit me with that word!—I put things in a windy way, I know, but what has got hold of me at last is her pain. She's ill. Don't you understand? She's a sick thing—a weak thing. She's no more a goddess than I'm a god.... I'm not in love with her now; I'm RAW with love for her. I feel like a man that's been flayed. I have been flayed.... You don't begin to imagine the sort of helpless solicitude.... She's not going to do things easily; she's ill. Her courage fails.... It's hard to put things when one isn't rhetorical, but it's this, Britten—there are distresses that matter more than all the delights or achievements in the world.... I made her what she is—as I never made Margaret. I've made her—I've broken her.... I'm going with my own woman. The rest of my life and England, and so forth, must square itself to that...."
For a long time, as it seemed, we remained silent and motionless. We'd said all we had to say. My eyes caught a printed slip upon the desk before him, and I came back abruptly to the paper.
I picked up this galley proof. It was one of Winter's essays. "This man goes on doing first-rate stuff," I said. "I hope you will keep him going."
He did not answer for a moment or so. "I'll keep him going," he said at last with a sigh.
I have a letter Margaret wrote me within a week of our flight. I cannot resist transcribing some of it here, because it lights things as no word of mine can do. It is a string of nearly inconsecutive thoughts written in pencil in a fine, tall, sprawling hand. Its very inconsecutiveness is essential. Many words are underlined. It was in answer to one from me; but what I wrote has passed utterly from my mind....
"Certainly," she says, "I want to hear from you, but I do not want to see you. There's a sort of abstract YOU that I want to go on with. Something I've made out of you.... I want to know things about you—but I don't want to see or feel or imagine. When some day I have got rid of my intolerable sense of proprietorship, it may be different. Then perhaps we may meet again. I think it is even more the loss of our political work and dreams that I am feeling than the loss of your presence. Aching loss. I thought so much of the things we were DOING for the world—had given myself so unreservedly. You've left me with nothing to DO. I am suddenly at loose ends....
"We women are trained to be so dependent on a man. I've got no life of my own at all. It seems now to me that I wore my clothes even for you and your schemes....
"After I have told myself a hundred times why this has happened, I ask again, 'Why did he give things up? Why did he give things up?'...
"It is just as though you were wilfully dead....
"Then I ask again and again whether this thing need have happened at all, whether if I had had a warning, if I had understood better, I might not have adapted myself to your restless mind and made this catastrophe impossible....
"Oh, my dear! why hadn't you the pluck to hurt me at the beginning, and tell me what you thought of me and life? You didn't give me a chance; not a chance. I suppose you couldn't. All these things you and I stood away from. You let my first repugnances repel you....
"It is strange to think after all these years that I should be asking myself, do I love you? have I loved you? In a sense I think I HATE you. I feel you have taken my life, dragged it in your wake for a time, thrown it aside. I am resentful. Unfairly resentful, for why should I exact that you should watch and understand my life, when clearly I have understood so little of yours. But I am savage—savage at the wrecking of all you were to do.
"Oh, why—why did you give things up?
"No human being is his own to do what he likes with. You were not only pledged to my tiresome, ineffectual companionship, but to great purposes. They ARE great purposes....
"If only I could take up your work as you leave it, with the strength you had—then indeed I feel I could let you go—you and your young mistress.... All that matters so little to me....
"Yet I think I must indeed love you yourself in my slower way. At times I am mad with jealousy at the thought of all I hadn't the wit to give you.... I've always hidden my tears from you—and what was in my heart. It's my nature to hide—and you, you want things brought to you to see. You are so curious as to be almost cruel. You don't understand reserves. You have no mercy with restraints and reservations. You are not really a CIVILISED man at all. You hate pretences—and not only pretences but decent coverings....
"It's only after one has lost love and the chance of loving that slow people like myself find what they might have done. Why wasn't I bold and reckless and abandoned? It's as reasonable to ask that, I suppose, as to ask why my hair is fair....
"I go on with these perhapses over and over again here when I find myself alone....
"My dear, my dear, you can't think of the desolation of things—I shall never go back to that house we furnished together, that was to have been the laboratory (do you remember calling it a laboratory?) in which you were to forge so much of the new order....
"But, dear, if I can help you—even now—in any way—help both of you, I mean.... It tears me when I think of you poor and discredited. You will let me help you if I can—it will be the last wrong not to let me do that....
"You had better not get ill. If you do, and I hear of it—I shall come after you with a troupe of doctor's and nurses. If I am a failure as a wife, no one has ever said I was anything but a success as a district visitor...."
There are other sheets, but I cannot tell whether they were written before or after the ones from which I have quoted. And most of them have little things too intimate to set down. But this oddly penetrating analysis of our differences must, I think, be given.
"There are all sorts of things I can't express about this and want to. There's this difference that has always been between us, that you like nakedness and wildness, and I, clothing and restraint. It goes through everything. You are always TALKING of order and system, and the splendid dream of the order that might replace the muddled system you hate, but by a sort of instinct you seem to want to break the law. I've watched you so closely. Now I want to obey laws, to make sacrifices, to follow rules. I don't want to make, but I do want to keep. You are at once makers and rebels, you and Isabel too. You're bad people—criminal people, I feel, and yet full of something the world must have. You're so much better than me, and so much viler. It may be there is no making without destruction, but it seems to me sometimes that it is nothing but an instinct for lawlessness that drives you. You remind me—do you remember?—of that time we went from Naples to Vesuvius, and walked over the hot new lava there. Do you remember how tired I was? I know it disappointed you that I was tired. One walked there in spite of the heat because there was a crust; like custom, like law. But directly a crust forms on things, you are restless to break down to the fire again. You talk of beauty, both of you, as something terrible, mysterious, imperative. YOUR beauty is something altogether different from anything I know or feel. It has pain in it. Yet you always speak as though it was something I ought to feel and am dishonest not to feel. MY beauty is a quiet thing. You have always laughed at my feeling for old-fashioned chintz and blue china and Sheraton. But I like all these familiar USED things. My beauty is STILL beauty, and yours, is excitement. I know nothing of the fascination of the fire, or why one should go deliberately out of all the decent fine things of life to run dangers and be singed and tormented and destroyed. I don't understand...."
I remember very freshly the mood of our departure from London, the platform of Charing Cross with the big illuminated clock overhead, the bustle of porters and passengers with luggage, the shouting of newsboys and boys with flowers and sweets, and the groups of friends seeing travellers off by the boat train. Isabel sat very quiet and still in the compartment, and I stood upon the platform with the door open, with a curious reluctance to take the last step that should sever me from London's ground. I showed our tickets, and bought a handful of red roses for her. At last came the guards crying: "Take your seats," and I got in and closed the door on me. We had, thank Heaven! a compartment to ourselves. I let down the window and stared out.
There was a bustle of final adieux on the platform, a cry of "Stand away, please, stand away!" and the train was gliding slowly and smoothly out of the station.
I looked out upon the river as the train rumbled with slowly gathering pace across the bridge, and the bobbing black heads of the pedestrians in the footway, and the curve of the river and the glowing great hotels, and the lights and reflections and blacknesses of that old, familiar spectacle. Then with a common thought, we turned our eyes westward to where the pinnacles of Westminster and the shining clock tower rose hard and clear against the still, luminous sky.
"They'll be in Committee on the Reformatory Bill to-night," I said, a little stupidly.
"And so," I added, "good-bye to London!"
We said no more, but watched the south-side streets below—bright gleams of lights and movement, and the dark, dim, monstrous shapes of houses and factories. We ran through Waterloo Station, London Bridge, New Cross, St. John's. We said never a word. It seemed to me that for a time we had exhausted our emotions. We had escaped, we had cut our knot, we had accepted the last penalty of that headlong return of mine from Chicago a year and a half ago. That was all settled. That harvest of feelings we had reaped. I thought now only of London, of London as the symbol of all we were leaving and all we had lost in the world. I felt nothing now but an enormous and overwhelming regret....
The train swayed and rattled on its way. We ran through old Bromstead, where once I had played with cities and armies on the nursery floor. The sprawling suburbs with their scattered lights gave way to dim tree-set country under a cloud-veiled, intermittently shining moon. We passed Cardcaster Place. Perhaps old Wardingham, that pillar of the old Conservatives, was there, fretting over his unsuccessful struggle with our young Toryism. Little he recked of this new turn of the wheel and how it would confirm his contempt of all our novelties. Perhaps some faint intimation drew him to the window to see behind the stems of the young fir trees that bordered his domain, the little string of lighted carriage windows gliding southward....
Suddenly I began to realise just what it was we were doing.
And now, indeed, I knew what London had been to me, London where I had been born and educated, the slovenly mother of my mind and all my ambitions, London and the empire! It seemed to me we must be going out to a world that was utterly empty. All our significance fell from us—and before us was no meaning any more. We were leaving London; my hand, which had gripped so hungrily upon its complex life, had been forced from it, my fingers left their hold. That was over. I should never have a voice in public affairs again. The inexorable unwritten law which forbids overt scandal sentenced me. We were going out to a new life, a life that appeared in that moment to be a mere shrivelled remnant of me, a mere residuum of sheltering and feeding and seeing amidst alien scenery and the sound of unfamiliar tongues. We were going to live cheaply in a foreign place, so cut off that I meet now the merest stray tourist, the commonest tweed-clad stranger with a mixture of shyness and hunger.... And suddenly all the schemes I was leaving appeared fine and adventurous and hopeful as they had never done before. How great was this purpose I had relinquished, this bold and subtle remaking of the English will! I had doubted so many things, and now suddenly I doubted my unimportance, doubted my right to this suicidal abandonment. Was I not a trusted messenger, greatly trusted and favoured, who had turned aside by the way? Had I not, after all, stood for far more than I had thought; was I not filching from that dear great city of my birth and life, some vitally necessary thing, a key, a link, a reconciling clue in her political development, that now she might seek vaguely for in vain? What is one life against the State? Ought I not to have sacrificed Isabel and all my passion and sorrow for Isabel, and held to my thing—stuck to my thing?
I heard as though he had spoken it in the carriage Britten's "It WAS a good game." No end of a game. And for the first time I imagined the faces and voices of Crupp and Esmeer and Gane when they learnt of this secret flight, this flight of which they were quite unwarned. And Shoesmith might be there in the house,—Shoesmith who was to have been married in four days—the thing might hit him full in front of any kind of people. Cruel eyes might watch him. Why the devil hadn't I written letters to warn them all? I could have posted them five minutes before the train started. I had never thought to that moment of the immense mess they would be in; how the whole edifice would clatter about their ears. I had a sudden desire to stop the train and go back for a day, for two days, to set that negligence right. My brain for a moment brightened, became animated and prolific of ideas. I thought of a brilliant line we might have taken on that confounded Reformatory Bill....
That sort of thing was over....
What indeed wasn't over? I passed to a vaguer, more multitudinous perception of disaster, the friends I had lost already since Altiora began her campaign, the ampler remnant whom now I must lose. I thought of people I had been merry with, people I had worked with and played with, the companions of talkative walks, the hostesses of houses that had once glowed with welcome for us both. I perceived we must lose them all. I saw life like a tree in late autumn that had once been rich and splendid with friends—and now the last brave dears would be hanging on doubtfully against the frosty chill of facts, twisting and tortured in the universal gale of indignation, trying to evade the cold blast of the truth. I had betrayed my party, my intimate friend, my wife, the wife whose devotion had made me what I was. For awhile the figure of Margaret, remote, wounded, shamed, dominated my mind, and the thought of my immense ingratitude. Damn them! they'd take it out of her too. I had a feeling that I wanted to go straight back and grip some one by the throat, some one talking ill of Margaret. They'd blame her for not keeping me, for letting things go so far.... I wanted the whole world to know how fine she was. I saw in imagination the busy, excited dinner tables at work upon us all, rather pleasantly excited, brightly indignant, merciless.
Well, it's the stuff we are!...
Then suddenly, stabbing me to the heart, came a vision of Margaret's tears and the sound of her voice saying, "Husband mine! Oh! husband mine! To see you cry!"...
I came out of a cloud of thoughts to discover the narrow compartment, with its feeble lamp overhead, and our rugs and hand-baggage swaying on the rack, and Isabel, very still in front of me, gripping my wilting red roses tightly in her bare and ringless hand.
For a moment I could not understand her attitude, and then I perceived she was sitting bent together with her head averted from the light to hide the tears that were streaming down her face. She had not got her handkerchief out for fear that I should see this, but I saw her tears, dark drops of tears, upon her sleeve....
I suppose she had been watching my expression, divining my thoughts.
For a time I stared at her and was motionless, in a sort of still and weary amazement. Why had we done this injury to one another? WHY? Then something stirred within me.
"ISABEL!" I whispered.
She made no sign.
"Isabel!" I repeated, and then crossed over to her and crept closely to her, put my arm about her, and drew her wet cheek to mine.