Numero Uno—“CHAPTER I
Whether the utilitarian or the intuitive theory of the moral sense be upheld, it is beyond question that there are a few subtle-souled persons with whom the absolute gratuitousness of an act of reparation is an inducement to perform it; while exhortation as to its necessity would breed excuses for leaving it undone. The case of Mr. Millborne and Mrs. Frankland particularly illustrated this, and perhaps something more.
There were few figures better known to the local crossing-sweeper than Mr. Millborne’s, in his daily comings and goings along a familiar and quiet London street, where he lived inside the door marked eleven, though not as householder. In age he was fifty at least, and his habits were as regular as those of a person can be who has no occupation but the study of how to keep himself employed. He turned almost always to the right on getting to the end of his street, then he went onward down Bond Street to his club, whence he returned by precisely the same course about six o’clock, on foot; or, if he went to dine, later on in a cab. He was known to be a man of some means, though apparently not wealthy. Being a bachelor he seemed to prefer his present mode of living as a lodger in Mrs. Towney’s best rooms, with the use of furniture which he had bought ten times over in rent during his tenancy, to having a house of his own.
None among his acquaintance tried to know him well, for his manner and moods did not excite curiosity or deep friendship. He was not a man who seemed to have anything on his mind, anything to conceal, anything to impart. From his casual remarks it was generally understood that he was country-born, a native of some place in Wessex; that he had come to London as a young man in a banking-house, and had risen to a post of responsibility; when, by the death of his father, who had been fortunate in his investments, the son succeeded to an income which led him to retire from a business life somewhat early.
One evening, when he had been unwell for several days, Doctor Bindon came in, after dinner, from the adjoining medical quarter, and smoked with him over the fire. The patient’s ailment was not such as to require much thought, and they talked together on indifferent subjects.
‘I am a lonely man, Bindon—a lonely man,’ Millborne took occasion to say, shaking his head gloomily. ‘You don’t know such loneliness as mine . . . And the older I get the more I am dissatisfied with myself. And to-day I have been, through an accident, more than usually haunted by what, above all other events of my life, causes that dissatisfaction—the recollection of an unfulfilled promise made twenty years ago. In ordinary affairs I have always been considered a man of my word and perhaps it is on that account that a particular vow I once made, and did not keep, comes back to me with a magnitude out of all proportion (I daresay) to its real gravity, especially at this time of day. You know the discomfort caused at night by the half-sleeping sense that a door or window has been left unfastened, or in the day by the remembrance of unanswered letters. So does that promise haunt me from time to time, and has done to-day particularly.’
There was a pause, and they smoked on. Millborne’s eyes, though fixed on the fire, were really regarding attentively a town in the West of England.
‘Yes,’ he continued, ‘I have never quite forgotten it, though during the busy years of my life it was shelved and buried under the pressure of my pursuits. And, as I say, to-day in particular, an incident in the law-report of a somewhat similar kind has brought it back again vividly. However, what it was I can tell you in a few words, though no doubt you, as a man of the world, will smile at the thinness of my skin when you hear it . . . I came up to town at one-and-twenty, from Toneborough, in Outer Wessex, where I was born, and where, before I left, I had won the heart of a young woman of my own age. I promised her marriage, took advantage of my promise, and—am a bachelor.’
‘The old story.’
The other nodded.
‘I left the place, and thought at the time I had done a very clever thing in getting so easily out of an entanglement. But I have lived long enough for that promise to return to bother me—to be honest, not altogether as a pricking of the conscience, but as a dissatisfaction with myself as a specimen of the heap of flesh called humanity. If I were to ask you to lend me fifty pounds, which I would repay you next midsummer, and I did not repay you, I should consider myself a shabby sort of fellow, especially if you wanted the money badly. Yet I promised that girl just as distinctly; and then coolly broke my word, as if doing so were rather smart conduct than a mean action, for which the poor victim herself, encumbered with a child, and not I, had really to pay the penalty, in spite of certain pecuniary aid that was given. There, that’s the retrospective trouble that I am always unearthing; and you may hardly believe that though so many years have elapsed, and it is all gone by and done with, and she must be getting on for an old woman now, as I am for an old man, it really often destroys my sense of self-respect still.’
‘O, I can understand it. All depends upon the temperament. Thousands of men would have forgotten all about it; so would you, perhaps, if you had married and had a family. Did she ever marry?’
‘I don’t think so. O no—she never did. She left Toneborough, and later on appeared under another name at Exonbury, in the next county, where she was not known. It is very seldom that I go down into that part of the country, but in passing through Exonbury, on one occasion, I learnt that she was quite a settled resident there, as a teacher of music, or something of the kind. That much I casually heard when I was there two or three years ago. But I have never set eyes on her since our original acquaintance, and should not know her if I met her.’
‘Did the child live?’ asked the doctor.
‘For several years, certainly,’ replied his friend. ‘I cannot say if she is living now. It was a little girl. She might be married by this time as far as years go.’
‘And the mother—was she a decent, worthy young woman?’
‘O yes; a sensible, quiet girl, neither attractive nor unattractive to the ordinary observer; simply commonplace. Her position at the time of our acquaintance was not so good as mine. My father was a solicitor, as I think I have told you. She was a young girl in a music-shop; and it was represented to me that it would be beneath my position to marry her. Hence the result.’
‘Well, all I can say is that after twenty years it is probably too late to think of mending such a matter. It has doubtless by this time mended itself. You had better dismiss it from your mind as an evil past your control. Of course, if mother and daughter are alive, or either, you might settle something upon them, if you were inclined, and had it to spare.’
‘Well, I haven’t much to spare; and I have relations in narrow circumstances—perhaps narrower than theirs. But that is not the point. Were I ever so rich I feel I could not rectify the past by money. I did not promise to enrich her. On the contrary, I told her it would probably be dire poverty for both of us. But I did promise to make her my wife.’
‘Then find her and do it,’ said the doctor jocularly as he rose to leave.
‘Ah, Bindon. That, of course, is the obvious jest. But I haven’t the slightest desire for marriage; I am quite content to live as I have lived. I am a bachelor by nature, and instinct, and habit, and everything. Besides, though I respect her still (for she was not an atom to blame), I haven’t any shadow of love for her. In my mind she exists as one of those women you think well of, but find uninteresting. It would be purely with the idea of putting wrong right that I should hunt her up, and propose to do it off-hand.’
‘You don’t think of it seriously?’ said his surprised friend.
‘I sometimes think that I would, if it were practicable; simply, as I say, to recover my sense of being a man of honour.’
‘I wish you luck in the enterprise,’ said Doctor Bindon. ‘You’ll soon be out of that chair, and then you can put your impulse to the test. But—after twenty years of silence—I should say, don’t!’
The doctor’s advice remained counterpoised, in Millborne’s mind, by the aforesaid mood of seriousness and sense of principle, approximating often to religious sentiment, which had been evolving itself in his breast for months, and even years.
The feeling, however, had no immediate effect upon Mr. Millborne’s actions. He soon got over his trifling illness, and was vexed with himself for having, in a moment of impulse, confided such a case of conscience to anybody.
But the force which had prompted it, though latent, remained with him and ultimately grew stronger. The upshot was that about four months after the date of his illness and disclosure, Millborne found himself on a mild spring morning at Paddington Station, in a train that was starting for the west. His many intermittent thoughts on his broken promise from time to time, in those hours when loneliness brought him face to face with his own personality, had at last resulted in this course.
The decisive stimulus had been given when, a day or two earlier, on looking into a Post-Office Directory, he learnt that the woman he had not met for twenty years was still living on at Exonbury under the name she had assumed when, a year or two after her disappearance from her native town and his, she had returned from abroad as a young widow with a child, and taken up her residence at the former city. Her condition was apparently but little changed, and her daughter seemed to be with her, their names standing in the Directory as ‘Mrs. Leonora Frankland and Miss Frankland, Teachers of Music and Dancing.’
Mr. Millborne reached Exonbury in the afternoon, and his first business, before even taking his luggage into the town, was to find the house occupied by the teachers. Standing in a central and open place it was not difficult to discover, a well-burnished brass doorplate bearing their names prominently. He hesitated to enter without further knowledge, and ultimately took lodgings over a toyshop opposite, securing a sitting-room which faced a similar drawing or sitting-room at the Franklands’, where the dancing lessons were given. Installed here he was enabled to make indirectly, and without suspicion, inquiries and observations on the character of the ladies over the way, which he did with much deliberateness.
He learnt that the widow, Mrs. Frankland, with her one daughter, Frances, was of cheerful and excellent repute, energetic and painstaking with her pupils, of whom she had a good many, and in whose tuition her daughter assisted her. She was quite a recognized townswoman, and though the dancing branch of her profession was perhaps a trifle worldly, she was really a serious-minded lady who, being obliged to live by what she knew how to teach, balanced matters by lending a hand at charitable bazaars, assisting at sacred concerts, and giving musical recitations in aid of funds for bewildering happy savages, and other such enthusiasms of this enlightened country. Her daughter was one of the foremost of the bevy of young women who decorated the churches at Easter and Christmas, was organist in one of those edifices, and had subscribed to the testimonial of a silver broth-basin that was presented to the Reverend Mr. Walker as a token of gratitude for his faithful and arduous intonations of six months as sub-precentor in the Cathedral. Altogether mother and daughter appeared to be a typical and innocent pair among the genteel citizens of Exonbury.
As a natural and simple way of advertising their profession they allowed the windows of the music-room to be a little open, so that you had the pleasure of hearing all along the street at any hour between sunrise and sunset fragmentary gems of classical music as interpreted by the young people of twelve or fourteen who took lessons there. But it was said that Mrs. Frankland made most of her income by letting out pianos on hire, and by selling them as agent for the makers.
The report pleased Millborne; it was highly creditable, and far better than he had hoped. He was curious to get a view of the two women who led such blameless lives.
He had not long to wait to gain a glimpse of Leonora. It was when she was standing on her own doorstep, opening her parasol, on the morning after his arrival. She was thin, though not gaunt; and a good, well-wearing, thoughtful face had taken the place of the one which had temporarily attracted him in the days of his nonage. She wore black, and it became her in her character of widow. The daughter next appeared; she was a smoothed and rounded copy of her mother, with the same decision in her mien that Leonora had, and a bounding gait in which he traced a faint resemblance to his own at her age.
For the first time he absolutely made up his mind to call on them. But his antecedent step was to send Leonora a note the next morning, stating his proposal to visit her, and suggesting the evening as the time, because she seemed to be so greatly occupied in her professional capacity during the day. He purposely worded his note in such a form as not to require an answer from her which would be possibly awkward to write.
No answer came. Naturally he should not have been surprised at this; and yet he felt a little checked, even though she had only refrained from volunteering a reply that was not demanded.
At eight, the hour fixed by himself, he crossed over and was passively admitted by the servant. Mrs. Frankland, as she called herself, received him in the large music-and-dancing room on the first-floor front, and not in any private little parlour as he had expected. This cast a distressingly business-like colour over their first meeting after so many years of severance. The woman he had wronged stood before him, well-dressed, even to his metropolitan eyes, and her manner as she came up to him was dignified even to hardness. She certainly was not glad to see him. But what could he expect after a neglect of twenty years!
‘How do you do, Mr. Millborne?’ she said cheerfully, as to any chance caller. ‘I am obliged to receive you here because my daughter has a friend downstairs.’
‘Your daughter—and mine.’
‘Ah—yes, yes,’ she replied hastily, as if the addition had escaped her memory. ‘But perhaps the less said about that the better, in fairness to me. You will consider me a widow, please.’
‘Certainly, Leonora . . . ’ He could not get on, her manner was so cold and indifferent. The expected scene of sad reproach, subdued to delicacy by the run of years, was absent altogether. He was obliged to come to the point without preamble.
‘You are quite free, Leonora—I mean as to marriage? There is nobody who has your promise, or—’
‘O yes; quite free, Mr. Millborne,’ she said, somewhat surprised.
‘Then I will tell you why I have come. Twenty years ago I promised to make you my wife; and I am here to fulfil that promise. Heaven forgive my tardiness!’
Her surprise was increased, but she was not agitated. She seemed to become gloomy, disapproving. ‘I could not entertain such an idea at this time of life,’ she said after a moment or two. ‘It would complicate matters too greatly. I have a very fair income, and require no help of any sort. I have no wish to marry . . . What could have induced you to come on such an errand now? It seems quite extraordinary, if I may say so!’
‘It must—I daresay it does,’ Millborne replied vaguely; ‘and I must tell you that impulse—I mean in the sense of passion—has little to do with it. I wish to marry you, Leonora; I much desire to marry you. But it is an affair of conscience, a case of fulfilment. I promised you, and it was dishonourable of me to go away. I want to remove that sense of dishonour before I die. No doubt we might get to love each other as warmly as we did in old times?’
She dubiously shook her head. ‘I appreciate your motives, Mr. Millborne; but you must consider my position; and you will see that, short of the personal wish to marry, which I don’t feel, there is no reason why I should change my state, even though by so doing I should ease your conscience. My position in this town is a respected one; I have built it up by my own hard labours, and, in short, I don’t wish to alter it. My daughter, too, is just on the verge of an engagement to be married, to a young man who will make her an excellent husband. It will be in every way a desirable match for her. He is downstairs now.’
‘Does she know—anything about me?’
‘O no, no; God forbid! Her father is dead and buried to her. So that, you see, things are going on smoothly, and I don’t want to disturb their progress.’
He nodded. ‘Very well,’ he said, and rose to go. At the door, however, he came back again.
‘Still, Leonora,’ he urged, ‘I have come on purpose; and I don’t see what disturbance would be caused. You would simply marry an old friend. Won’t you reconsider? It is no more than right that we should be united, remembering the girl.’
She shook her head, and patted with her foot nervously.
‘Well, I won’t detain you,’ he added. ‘I shall not be leaving Exonbury yet. You will allow me to see you again?’
‘Yes; I don’t mind,’ she said reluctantly.
The obstacles he had encountered, though they did not reanimate his dead passion for Leonora, did certainly make it appear indispensable to his peace of mind to overcome her coldness. He called frequently. The first meeting with the daughter was a trying ordeal, though he did not feel drawn towards her as he had expected to be; she did not excite his sympathies. Her mother confided to Frances the errand of ‘her old friend,’ which was viewed by the daughter with strong disfavour. His desire being thus uncongenial to both, for a long time Millborne made not the least impression upon Mrs. Frankland. His attentions pestered her rather than pleased her. He was surprised at her firmness, and it was only when he hinted at moral reasons for their union that she was ever shaken. ‘Strictly speaking,’ he would say, ‘we ought, as honest persons, to marry; and that’s the truth of it, Leonora.’
‘I have looked at it in that light,’ she said quickly. ‘It struck me at the very first. But I don’t see the force of the argument. I totally deny that after this interval of time I am bound to marry you for honour’s sake. I would have married you, as you know well enough, at the proper time. But what is the use of remedies now?’
They were standing at the window. A scantly-whiskered young man, in clerical attire, called at the door below. Leonora flushed with interest.
‘Who is he?’ said Mr. Millborne.
‘My Frances’s lover. I am so sorry—she is not at home! Ah! they have told him where she is, and he has gone to find her . . . I hope that suit will prosper, at any rate!’
‘Why shouldn’t it?’
‘Well, he cannot marry yet; and Frances sees but little of him now he has left Exonbury. He was formerly doing duty here, but now he is curate of St. John’s, Ivell, fifty miles up the line. There is a tacit agreement between them, but—there have been friends of his who object, because of our vocation. However, he sees the absurdity of such an objection as that, and is not influenced by it.’
‘Your marriage with me would help the match, instead of hindering it, as you have said.’
‘Do you think it would?’
‘It certainly would, by taking you out of this business altogether.’
By chance he had found the way to move her somewhat, and he followed it up. This view was imparted to Mrs. Frankland’s daughter, and it led her to soften her opposition. Millborne, who had given up his lodging in Exonbury, journeyed to and fro regularly, till at last he overcame her negations, and she expressed a reluctant assent.
They were married at the nearest church; and the goodwill—whatever that was—of the music-and-dancing connection was sold to a successor only too ready to jump into the place, the Millbornes having decided to live in London.
Millborne was a householder in his old district, though not in his old street, and Mrs. Millborne and their daughter had turned themselves into Londoners. Frances was well reconciled to the removal by her lover’s satisfaction at the change. It suited him better to travel from Ivell a hundred miles to see her in London, where he frequently had other engagements, than fifty in the opposite direction where nothing but herself required his presence. So here they were, furnished up to the attics, in one of the small but popular streets of the West district, in a house whose front, till lately of the complexion of a chimney-sweep, had been scraped to show to the surprised wayfarer the bright yellow and red brick that had lain lurking beneath the soot of fifty years.
The social lift that the two women had derived from the alliance was considerable; but when the exhilaration which accompanies a first residence in London, the sensation of standing on a pivot of the world, had passed, their lives promised to be somewhat duller than when, at despised Exonbury, they had enjoyed a nodding acquaintance with three-fourths of the town. Mr. Millborne did not criticise his wife; he could not. Whatever defects of hardness and acidity his original treatment and the lapse of years might have developed in her, his sense of a realized idea, of a re-established self-satisfaction, was always thrown into the scale on her side, and out-weighed all objections.
It was about a month after their settlement in town that the household decided to spend a week at a watering-place in the Isle of Wight, and while there the Reverend Percival Cope (the young curate aforesaid) came to see them, Frances in particular. No formal engagement of the young pair had been announced as yet, but it was clear that their mutual understanding could not end in anything but marriage without grievous disappointment to one of the parties at least. Not that Frances was sentimental. She was rather of the imperious sort, indeed; and, to say all, the young girl had not fulfilled her father’s expectations of her. But he hoped and worked for her welfare as sincerely as any father could do.
Mr. Cope was introduced to the new head of the family, and stayed with them in the Island two or three days. On the last day of his visit they decided to venture on a two hours’ sail in one of the small yachts which lay there for hire. The trip had not progressed far before all, except the curate, found that sailing in a breeze did not quite agree with them; but as he seemed to enjoy the experience, the other three bore their condition as well as they could without grimace or complaint, till the young man, observing their discomfort, gave immediate directions to tack about. On the way back to port they sat silent, facing each other.
Nausea in such circumstances, like midnight watching, fatigue, trouble, fright, has this marked effect upon the countenance, that it often brings out strongly the divergences of the individual from the norm of his race, accentuating superficial peculiarities to radical distinctions. Unexpected physiognomies will uncover themselves at these times in well-known faces; the aspect becomes invested with the spectral presence of entombed and forgotten ancestors; and family lineaments of special or exclusive cast, which in ordinary moments are masked by a stereotyped expression and mien, start up with crude insistence to the view.
Frances, sitting beside her mother’s husband, with Mr. Cope opposite, was naturally enough much regarded by the curate during the tedious sail home; at first with sympathetic smiles. Then, as the middle-aged father and his child grew each gray-faced, as the pretty blush of Frances disintegrated into spotty stains, and the soft rotundities of her features diverged from their familiar and reposeful beauty into elemental lines, Cope was gradually struck with the resemblance between a pair in their discomfort who in their ease presented nothing to the eye in common. Mr. Millborne and Frances in their indisposition were strangely, startlingly alike.
The inexplicable fact absorbed Cope’s attention quite. He forgot to smile at Frances, to hold her hand; and when they touched the shore he remained sitting for some moments like a man in a trance.
As they went homeward, and recovered their complexions and contours, the similarities one by one disappeared, and Frances and Mr. Millborne were again masked by the commonplace differences of sex and age. It was as if, during the voyage, a mysterious veil had been lifted, temporarily revealing a strange pantomime of the past.
During the evening he said to her casually: ‘Is your step-father a cousin of your mother, dear Frances?’
‘Oh, no,’ said she. ‘There is no relationship. He was only an old friend of hers. Why did you suppose such a thing?’
He did not explain, and the next morning started to resume his duties at Ivell.
Cope was an honest young fellow, and shrewd withal. At home in his quiet rooms in St. Peter’s Street, Ivell, he pondered long and unpleasantly on the revelations of the cruise. The tale it told was distinct enough, and for the first time his position was an uncomfortable one. He had met the Franklands at Exonbury as parishioners, had been attracted by Frances, and had floated thus far into an engagement which was indefinite only because of his inability to marry just yet. The Franklands’ past had apparently contained mysteries, and it did not coincide with his judgment to marry into a family whose mystery was of the sort suggested. So he sat and sighed, between his reluctance to lose Frances and his natural dislike of forming a connection with people whose antecedents would not bear the strictest investigation.
A passionate lover of the old-fashioned sort might possibly never have halted to weigh these doubts; but though he was in the church Cope’s affections were fastidious—distinctly tempered with the alloys of the century’s decadence. He delayed writing to Frances for some while, simply because he could not tune himself up to enthusiasm when worried by suspicions of such a kind.
Meanwhile the Millbornes had returned to London, and Frances was growing anxious. In talking to her mother of Cope she had innocently alluded to his curious inquiry if her mother and her step-father were connected by any tie of cousinship. Mrs. Millborne made her repeat the words. Frances did so, and watched with inquisitive eyes their effect upon her elder.
‘What is there so startling in his inquiry then?’ she asked. ‘Can it have anything to do with his not writing to me?’
Her mother flinched, but did not inform her, and Frances also was now drawn within the atmosphere of suspicion. That night when standing by chance outside the chamber of her parents she heard for the first time their voices engaged in a sharp altercation.
The apple of discord had, indeed, been dropped into the house of the Millbornes. The scene within the chamber-door was Mrs. Millborne standing before her dressing-table, looking across to her husband in the dressing-room adjoining, where he was sitting down, his eyes fixed on the floor.
‘Why did you come and disturb my life a second time?’ she harshly asked. ‘Why did you pester me with your conscience, till I was driven to accept you to get rid of your importunity? Frances and I were doing well: the one desire of my life was that she should marry that good young man. And now the match is broken off by your cruel interference! Why did you show yourself in my world again, and raise this scandal upon my hard-won respectability—won by such weary years of labour as none will ever know!’ She bent her face upon the table and wept passionately.
There was no reply from Mr. Millborne. Frances lay awake nearly all that night, and when at breakfast-time the next morning still no letter appeared from Mr. Cope, she entreated her mother to go to Ivell and see if the young man were ill.
Mrs. Millborne went, returning the same day. Frances, anxious and haggard, met her at the station.
Was all well? Her mother could not say it was; though he was not ill.
One thing she had found out, that it was a mistake to hunt up a man when his inclinations were to hold aloof. Returning with her mother in the cab Frances insisted upon knowing what the mystery was which plainly had alienated her lover. The precise words which had been spoken at the interview with him that day at Ivell Mrs. Millborne could not be induced to repeat; but thus far she admitted, that the estrangement was fundamentally owing to Mr. Millborne having sought her out and married her.
‘And why did he seek you out—and why were you obliged to marry him?’ asked the distressed girl. Then the evidences pieced themselves together in her acute mind, and, her colour gradually rising, she asked her mother if what they pointed to was indeed the fact. Her mother admitted that it was.
A flush of mortification succeeded to the flush of shame upon the young woman’s face. How could a scrupulously correct clergyman and lover like Mr. Cope ask her to be his wife after this discovery of her irregular birth? She covered her eyes with her hands in a silent despair.
In the presence of Mr. Millborne they at first suppressed their anguish. But by and by their feelings got the better of them, and when he was asleep in his chair after dinner Mrs. Millborne’s irritation broke out. The embittered Frances joined her in reproaching the man who had come as the spectre to their intended feast of Hymen, and turned its promise to ghastly failure.
‘Why were you so weak, mother, as to admit such an enemy to your house—one so obviously your evil genius—much less accept him as a husband, after so long? If you had only told me all, I could have advised you better! But I suppose I have no right to reproach him, bitter as I feel, and even though he has blighted my life for ever!’
‘Frances, I did hold out; I saw it was a mistake to have any more to say to a man who had been such an unmitigated curse to me! But he would not listen; he kept on about his conscience and mine, till I was bewildered, and said Yes! . . . Bringing us away from a quiet town where we were known and respected—what an ill-considered thing it was! O the content of those days! We had society there, people in our own position, who did not expect more of us than we expected of them. Here, where there is so much, there is nothing! He said London society was so bright and brilliant that it would be like a new world. It may be to those who are in it; but what is that to us two lonely women; we only see it flashing past! . . . O the fool, the fool that I was!’
Now Millborne was not so soundly asleep as to prevent his hearing these animadversions that were almost execrations, and many more of the same sort. As there was no peace for him at home, he went again to his club, where, since his reunion with Leonora, he had seldom if ever been seen. But the shadow of the troubles in his household interfered with his comfort here also; he could not, as formerly, settle down into his favourite chair with the evening paper, reposeful in the celibate’s sense that where he was his world’s centre had its fixture. His world was now an ellipse, with a dual centrality, of which his own was not the major.
The young curate of Ivell still held aloof, tantalizing Frances by his elusiveness. Plainly he was waiting upon events. Millborne bore the reproaches of his wife and daughter almost in silence; but by degrees he grew meditative, as if revolving a new idea. The bitter cry about blighting their existence at length became so impassioned that one day Millborne calmly proposed to return again to the country; not necessarily to Exonbury, but, if they were willing, to a little old manor-house which he had found was to be let, standing a mile from Mr. Cope’s town of Ivell.
They were surprised, and, despite their view of him as the bringer of ill, were disposed to accede. ‘Though I suppose,’ said Mrs. Millborne to him, ‘it will end in Mr. Cope’s asking you flatly about the past, and your being compelled to tell him; which may dash all my hopes for Frances. She gets more and more like you every day, particularly when she is in a bad temper. People will see you together, and notice it; and I don’t know what may come of it!’
‘I don’t think they will see us together,’ he said; but he entered into no argument when she insisted otherwise. The removal was eventually resolved on; the town-house was disposed of; and again came the invasion by furniture-men and vans, till all the movables and servants were whisked away. He sent his wife and daughter to an hotel while this was going on, taking two or three journeys himself to Ivell to superintend the refixing, and the improvement of the grounds. When all was done he returned to them in town.
The house was ready for their reception, he told them, and there only remained the journey. He accompanied them and their personal luggage to the station only, having, he said, to remain in town a short time on business with his lawyer. They went, dubious and discontented—for the much-loved Cope had made no sign.
‘If we were going down to live here alone,’ said Mrs Millborne to her daughter in the train; ‘and there was no intrusive tell-tale presence! . . . But let it be!’
The house was a lovely little place in a grove of elms, and they liked it much. The first person to call upon them as new residents was Mr. Cope. He was delighted to find that they had come so near, and (though he did not say this) meant to live in such excellent style. He had not, however, resumed the manner of a lover.
‘Your father spoils all!’ murmured Mrs. Millborne.
But three days later she received a letter from her husband, which caused her no small degree of astonishment. It was written from Boulogne.
It began with a long explanation of settlements of his property, in which he had been engaged since their departure. The chief feature in the business was that Mrs. Millborne found herself the absolute owner of a comfortable sum in personal estate, and Frances of a life-interest in a larger sum, the principal to be afterwards divided amongst her children if she had any. The remainder of his letter ran as hereunder:—
‘I have learnt that there are some derelictions of duty which cannot be blotted out by tardy accomplishment. Our evil actions do not remain isolated in the past, waiting only to be reversed: like locomotive plants they spread and re-root, till to destroy the original stem has no material effect in killing them. I made a mistake in searching you out; I admit it; whatever the remedy may be in such cases it is not marriage, and the best thing for you and me is that you do not see me more. You had better not seek me, for you will not be likely to find me: you are well provided for, and we may do ourselves more harm than good by meeting again.
Millborne, in short, disappeared from that day forward. But a searching inquiry would have revealed that, soon after the Millbornes went to Ivell, an Englishman, who did not give the name of Millborne, took up his residence in Brussels; a man who might have been recognized by Mrs. Millborne if she had met him. One afternoon in the ensuing summer, when this gentleman was looking over the English papers, he saw the announcement of Miss Frances Frankland’s marriage. She had become the Reverend Mrs. Cope.
‘Thank God!’ said the gentleman.
But his momentary satisfaction was far from being happiness. As he formerly had been weighted with a bad conscience, so now was he burdened with the heavy thought which oppressed Antigone, that by honourable observance of a rite he had obtained for himself the reward of dishonourable laxity. Occasionally he had to be helped to his lodgings by his servant from the Cercle he frequented, through having imbibed a little too much liquor to be able to take care of himself. But he was harmless, and even when he had been drinking said little. …
The shouts of the village-boys came in at the window, accompanied by broken laughter from loungers at the inn-door; but the brothers Halborough worked on.
They were sitting in a bedroom of the master-millwright’s house, engaged in the untutored reading of Greek and Latin. It was no tale of Homeric blows and knocks, Argonautic voyaging, or Theban family woe that inflamed their imaginations and spurred them onward. They were plodding away at the Greek Testament, immersed in a chapter of the idiomatic and difficult Epistle to the Hebrews.
The Dog-day sun in its decline reached the low ceiling with slanting sides, and the shadows of the great goat’s-willow swayed and interchanged upon the walls like a spectral army manoeuvring. The open casement which admitted the remoter sounds now brought the voice of some one close at hand. It was their sister, a pretty girl of fourteen, who stood in the court below.
‘I can see the tops of your heads! What’s the use of staying up there? I like you not to go out with the street-boys; but do come and play with me!’
They treated her as an inadequate interlocutor, and put her off with some slight word. She went away disappointed. Presently there was a dull noise of heavy footsteps at the side of the house, and one of the brothers sat up. ‘I fancy I hear him coming,’ he murmured, his eyes on the window.
A man in the light drab clothes of an old-fashioned country tradesman approached from round the corner, reeling as he came. The elder son flushed with anger, rose from his books, and descended the stairs. The younger sat on, till, after the lapse of a few minutes, his brother re-entered the room.
‘Did Rosa see him?’
‘What have you done with him?’
‘He’s in the straw-shed. I got him in with some trouble, and he has fallen asleep. I thought this would be the explanation of his absence! No stones dressed for Miller Kench, the great wheel of the saw-mills waiting for new float-boards, even the poor folk not able to get their waggons wheeled.’
‘What is the use of poring over this!’ said the younger, shutting up Donnegan’s Lexicon with a slap. ‘O if we had only been able to keep mother’s nine hundred pounds, what we could have done!’
‘How well she had estimated the sum necessary! Four hundred and fifty each, she thought. And I have no doubt that we could have done it on that, with care.’
This loss of the nine hundred pounds was the sharp thorn of their crown. It was a sum which their mother had amassed with great exertion and self-denial, by adding to a chance legacy such other small amounts as she could lay hands on from time to time; and she had intended with the hoard to indulge the dear wish of her heart—that of sending her sons, Joshua and Cornelius, to one of the Universities, having been informed that from four hundred to four hundred and fifty each might carry them through their terms with such great economy as she knew she could trust them to practise. But she had died a year or two before this time, worn out by too keen a strain towards these ends; and the money, coming unreservedly into the hands of their father, had been nearly dissipated. With its exhaustion went all opportunity and hope of a university degree for the sons.
‘It drives me mad when I think of it,’ said Joshua, the elder. ‘And here we work and work in our own bungling way, and the utmost we can hope for is a term of years as national schoolmasters, and possible admission to a Theological college, and ordination as despised licentiates.’
The anger of the elder was reflected as simple sadness in the face of the other. ‘We can preach the Gospel as well without a hood on our surplices as with one,’ he said with feeble consolation.
‘Preach the Gospel—true,’ said Joshua with a slight pursing of mouth. ‘But we can’t rise!’
‘Let us make the best of it, and grind on.’
The other was silent, and they drearily bent over their books again.
The cause of all this gloom, the millwright Halborough, now snoring in the shed, had been a thriving master-machinist, notwithstanding his free and careless disposition, till a taste for a more than adequate quantity of strong liquor took hold of him; since when his habits had interfered with his business sadly. Already millers went elsewhere for their gear, and only one set of hands was now kept going, though there were formerly two. Already he found a difficulty in meeting his men at the week’s end, and though they had been reduced in number there was barely enough work to do for those who remained.
The sun dropped lower and vanished, the shouts of the village children ceased to resound, darkness cloaked the students’ bedroom, and all the scene outwardly breathed peace. None knew of the fevered youthful ambitions that throbbed in two breasts within the quiet creeper-covered walls of the millwright’s house.
In a few months the brothers left the village of their birth to enter themselves as students in a training college for schoolmasters; first having placed their young sister Rosa under as efficient a tuition at a fashionable watering-place as the means at their disposal could command.
A man in semi-clerical dress was walking along the road which led from the railway-station into a provincial town. As he walked he read persistently, only looking up once now and then to see that he was keeping on the foot track and to avoid other passengers. At those moments, whoever had known the former students at the millwright’s would have perceived that one of them, Joshua Halborough, was the peripatetic reader here.
What had been simple force in the youth’s face was energized judgment in the man’s. His character was gradually writing itself out in his countenance. That he was watching his own career with deeper and deeper interest, that he continually ‘heard his days before him,’ and cared to hear little else, might have been hazarded from what was seen there. His ambitions were, in truth, passionate, yet controlled; so that the germs of many more plans than ever blossomed to maturity had place in him; and forward visions were kept purposely in twilight, to avoid distraction.
Events so far had been encouraging. Shortly after assuming the mastership of his first school he had obtained an introduction to the Bishop of a diocese far from his native county, who had looked upon him as a promising young man and taken him in hand. He was now in the second year of his residence at the theological college of the cathedral-town, and would soon be presented for ordination.
He entered the town, turned into a back street, and then into a yard, keeping his book before him till he set foot under the arch of the latter place. Round the arch was written ‘National School,’ and the stonework of the jambs was worn away as nothing but boys and the waves of ocean will wear it. He was soon amid the sing-song accents of the scholars.
His brother Cornelius, who was the schoolmaster here, laid down the pointer with which he was directing attention to the Capes of Europe, and came forward.
‘That’s his brother Jos!’ whispered one of the sixth standard boys. ‘He’s going to be a pa’son, he’s now at college.’
‘Corney is going to be one too, when he’s saved enough money,’ said another.
After greeting his brother, whom he had not seen for several months, the junior began to explain his system of teaching geography.
But Halborough the elder took no interest in the subject. ‘How about your own studies?’ he asked. ‘Did you get the books I sent?’
Cornelius had received them, and he related what he was doing.
‘Mind you work in the morning. What time do you get up?’
The younger replied: ‘Half-past five.’
‘Half-past four is not a minute too soon this time of the year. There is no time like the morning for construing. I don’t know why, but when I feel even too dreary to read a novel I can translate—there is something mechanical about it I suppose. Now, Cornelius, you are rather behindhand, and have some heavy reading before you if you mean to get out of this next Christmas.’
‘I am afraid I have.’
‘We must soon sound the Bishop. I am sure you will get a title without difficulty when he has heard all. The sub-dean, the principal of my college, says that the best plan will be for you to come there when his lordship is present at an examination, and he’ll get you a personal interview with him. Mind you make a good impression upon him. I found in my case that that was everything and doctrine almost nothing. You’ll do for a deacon, Corney, if not for a priest.’
The younger remained thoughtful. ‘Have you heard from Rosa lately?’ he asked; ‘I had a letter this morning.’
‘Yes. The little minx writes rather too often. She is homesick—though Brussels must be an attractive place enough. But she must make the most of her time over there. I thought a year would be enough for her, after that high-class school at Sandbourne, but I have decided to give her two, and make a good job of it, expensive as the establishment is.’
Their two rather harsh faces had softened directly they began to speak of their sister, whom they loved more ambitiously than they loved themselves.
‘But where is the money to come from, Joshua?’
‘I have already got it.’ He looked round, and finding that some boys were near withdrew a few steps. ‘I have borrowed it at five per cent. from the farmer who used to occupy the farm next our field. You remember him.’
‘But about paying him?’
‘I shall pay him by degrees out of my stipend. No, Cornelius, it was no use to do the thing by halves. She promises to be a most attractive, not to say beautiful, girl. I have seen that for years; and if her face is not her fortune, her face and her brains together will be, if I observe and contrive aright. That she should be, every inch of her, an accomplished and refined woman, was indispensable for the fulfilment of her destiny, and for moving onwards and upwards with us; and she’ll do it, you will see. I’d half starve myself rather than take her away from that school now.’
They looked round the school they were in. To Cornelius it was natural and familiar enough, but to Joshua, with his limited human sympathies, who had just dropped in from a superior sort of place, the sight jarred unpleasantly, as being that of something he had left behind. ‘I shall be glad when you are out of this,’ he said, ‘and in your pulpit, and well through your first sermon.’
‘You may as well say inducted into my fat living, while you are about it.’
‘Ah, well—don’t think lightly of the Church. There’s a fine work for any man of energy in the Church, as you’ll find,’ he said fervidly. ‘Torrents of infidelity to be stemmed, new views of old subjects to be expounded, truths in spirit to be substituted for truths in the letter . . . ’ He lapsed into reverie with the vision of his career, persuading himself that it was ardour for Christianity which spurred him on, and not pride of place. He had shouldered a body of doctrine, and was prepared to defend it tooth and nail, solely for the honour and glory that warriors win.
‘If the Church is elastic, and stretches to the shape of the time, she’ll last, I suppose,’ said Cornelius. ‘If not—. Only think, I bought a copy of Paley’s Evidences, best edition, broad margins, excellent preservation, at a bookstall the other day for—ninepence; and I thought that at this rate Christianity must be in rather a bad way.’
‘No, no!’ said the other almost, angrily. ‘It only shows that such defences are no longer necessary. Men’s eyes can see the truth without extraneous assistance. Besides, we are in for Christianity, and must stick to her whether or no. I am just now going right through Pusey’s Library of the Fathers.’
‘You’ll be a bishop, Joshua, before you have done!’
‘Ah!’ said the other bitterly, shaking his head. ‘Perhaps I might have been—I might have been! But where is my D.D. or LL.D.; and how be a bishop without that kind of appendage? Archbishop Tillotson was the son of a Sowerby clothier, but he was sent to Clare College. To hail Oxford or Cambridge as alma mater is not for me—for us! My God! when I think of what we should have been—what fair promise has been blighted by that cursed, worthless—’
‘Hush, hush! . . . But I feel it, too, as much as you. I have seen it more forcibly lately. You would have obtained your degree long before this time—possibly fellowship—and I should have been on my way to mine.’
‘Don’t talk of it,’ said the other. ‘We must do the best we can.’
They looked out of the window sadly, through the dusty panes, so high up that only the sky was visible. By degrees the haunting trouble loomed again, and Cornelius broke the silence with a whisper: ‘He has called on me!’
The living pulses died on Joshua’s face, which grew arid as a clinker. ‘When was that?’ he asked quickly.
‘How did he get here—so many miles?’
‘Came by railway. He came to ask for money.’
‘He says he will call on you.’
Joshua replied resignedly. The theme of their conversation spoilt his buoyancy for that afternoon. He returned in the evening, Cornelius accompanying him to the station; but he did not read in the train which took him back to the Fountall Theological College, as he had done on the way out. That ineradicable trouble still remained as a squalid spot in the expanse of his life. He sat with the other students in the cathedral choir next day; and the recollection of the trouble obscured the purple splendour thrown by the panes upon the floor.
It was afternoon. All was as still in the Close as a cathedral-green can be between the Sunday services, and the incessant cawing of the rooks was the only sound. Joshua Halborough had finished his ascetic lunch, and had gone into the library, where he stood for a few moments looking out of the large window facing the green. He saw walking slowly across it a man in a fustian coat and a battered white hat with a much-ruffled nap, having upon his arm a tall gipsy-woman wearing long brass earrings. The man was staring quizzically at the west front of the cathedral, and Halborough recognized in him the form and features of his father. Who the woman was he knew not. Almost as soon as Joshua became conscious of these things, the sub-dean, who was also the principal of the college, and of whom the young man stood in more awe than of the Bishop himself, emerged from the gate and entered a path across the Close. The pair met the dignitary, and to Joshua’s horror his father turned and addressed the sub-dean.
What passed between them he could not tell. But as he stood in a cold sweat he saw his father place his hand familiarly on the sub-dean’s shoulder; the shrinking response of the latter, and his quick withdrawal, told his feeling. The woman seemed to say nothing, but when the sub-dean had passed by they came on towards the college gate.
Halborough flew along the corridor and out at a side door, so as to intercept them before they could reach the front entrance, for which they were making. He caught them behind a clump of laurel.
‘By Jerry, here’s the very chap! Well, you’re a fine fellow, Jos, never to send your father as much as a twist o’ baccy on such an occasion, and to leave him to travel all these miles to find ye out!’
‘First, who is this?’ said Joshua Halborough with pale dignity, waving his hand towards the buxom woman with the great earrings.
‘Dammy, the mis’ess! Your step-mother! Didn’t you know I’d married? She helped me home from market one night, and we came to terms, and struck the bargain. Didn’t we, Selinar?’
‘Oi, by the great Lord an’ we did!’ simpered the lady.
‘Well, what sort of a place is this you are living in?’ asked the millwright. ‘A kind of house-of-correction, apparently?’
Joshua listened abstractedly, his features set to resignation. Sick at heart he was going to ask them if they were in want of any necessary, any meal, when his father cut him short by saying, ‘Why, we’ve called to ask ye to come round and take pot-luck with us at the Cock-and-Bottle, where we’ve put up for the day, on our way to see mis’ess’s friends at Binegar Fair, where they’ll be lying under canvas for a night or two. As for the victuals at the Cock I can’t testify to ’em at all; but for the drink, they’ve the rarest drop of Old Tom that I’ve tasted for many a year.’
‘Thanks; but I am a teetotaller; and I have lunched,’ said Joshua, who could fully believe his father’s testimony to the gin, from the odour of his breath. ‘You see we have to observe regular habits here; and I couldn’t be seen at the Cock-and-Bottle just now.’
‘O dammy, then don’t come, your reverence. Perhaps you won’t mind standing treat for those who can be seen there?’
‘Not a penny,’ said the younger firmly. ‘You’ve had enough already.’
‘Thank you for nothing. By the bye, who was that spindle-legged, shoe-buckled parson feller we met by now? He seemed to think we should poison him!’
Joshua remarked coldly that it was the principal of his college, guardedly inquiring, ‘Did you tell him whom you were come to see?’
His father did not reply. He and his strapping gipsy wife—if she were his wife—stayed no longer, and disappeared in the direction of the High Street. Joshua Halborough went back to the library. Determined as was his nature, he wept hot tears upon the books, and was immeasurably more wretched that afternoon than the unwelcome millwright. In the evening he sat down and wrote a letter to his brother, in which, after stating what had happened, and expatiating upon this new disgrace in the gipsy wife, he propounded a plan for raising money sufficient to induce the couple to emigrate to Canada. ‘It is our only chance,’ he said. ‘The case as it stands is maddening. For a successful painter, sculptor, musician, author, who takes society by storm, it is no drawback, it is sometimes even a romantic recommendation, to hail from outcasts and profligates. But for a clergyman of the Church of England! Cornelius, it is fatal! To succeed in the Church, people must believe in you, first of all, as a gentleman, secondly as a man of means, thirdly as a scholar, fourthly as a preacher, fifthly, perhaps, as a Christian,—but always first as a gentleman, with all their heart and soul and strength. I would have faced the fact of being a small machinist’s son, and have taken my chance, if he’d been in any sense respectable and decent. The essence of Christianity is humility, and by the help of God I would have brazened it out. But this terrible vagabondage and disreputable connection! If he does not accept my terms and leave the country, it will extinguish us and kill me. For how can we live, and relinquish our high aim, and bring down our dear sister Rosa to the level of a gipsy’s step-daughter?’
There was excitement in the parish of Narrobourne one day. The congregation had just come out from morning service, and the whole conversation was of the new curate, Mr. Halborough, who had officiated for the first time, in the absence of the rector.
Never before had the feeling of the villagers approached a level which could be called excitement on such a matter as this. The droning which had been the rule in that quiet old place for a century seemed ended at last. They repeated the text to each other as a refrain: ‘O Lord, be thou my helper!’ Not within living memory till to-day had the subject of the sermon formed the topic of conversation from the church door to church-yard gate, to the exclusion of personal remarks on those who had been present, and on the week’s news in general.
The thrilling periods of the preacher hung about their minds all that day. The parish being steeped in indifferentism, it happened that when the youths and maidens, middle-aged and old people, who had attended church that morning, recurred as by a fascination to what Halborough had said, they did so more or less indirectly, and even with the subterfuge of a light laugh that was not real, so great was their shyness under the novelty of their sensations.
What was more curious than that these unconventional villagers should have been excited by a preacher of a new school after forty years of familiarity with the old hand who had had charge of their souls, was the effect of Halborough’s address upon the occupants of the manor-house pew, including the owner of the estate. These thought they knew how to discount the mere sensational sermon, how to minimize flash oratory to its bare proportions; but they had yielded like the rest of the assembly to the charm of the newcomer.
Mr. Fellmer, the landowner, was a young widower, whose mother, still in the prime of life, had returned to her old position in the family mansion since the death of her son’s wife in the year after her marriage, at the birth of a fragile little girl. From the date of his loss to the present time, Fellmer had led an inactive existence in the seclusion of the parish; a lack of motive seemed to leave him listless. He had gladly reinstated his mother in the gloomy house, and his main occupation now lay in stewarding his estate, which was not large. Mrs. Fellmer, who had sat beside him under Halborough this morning, was a cheerful, straightforward woman, who did her marketing and her alms-giving in person, was fond of old-fashioned flowers, and walked about the village on very wet days visiting the parishioners. These, the only two great ones of Narrobourne, were impressed by Joshua’s eloquence as much as the cottagers.
Halborough had been briefly introduced to them on his arrival some days before, and, their interest being kindled, they waited a few moments till he came out of the vestry, to walk down the churchyard-path with him. Mrs. Fellmer spoke warmly of the sermon, of the good fortune of the parish in his advent, and hoped he had found comfortable quarters.
Halborough, faintly flushing, said that he had obtained very fair lodgings in the roomy house of a farmer, whom he named.
She feared he would find it very lonely, especially in the evenings, and hoped they would see a good deal of him. When would he dine with them? Could he not come that day—it must be so dull for him the first Sunday evening in country lodgings?
Halborough replied that it would give him much pleasure, but that he feared he must decline. ‘I am not altogether alone,’ he said. ‘My sister, who has just returned from Brussels, and who felt, as you do, that I should be rather dismal by myself, has accompanied me hither to stay a few days till she has put my rooms in order and set me going. She was too fatigued to come to church, and is waiting for me now at the farm.’
‘Oh, but bring your sister—that will be still better! I shall be delighted to know her. How I wish I had been aware! Do tell her, please, that we had no idea of her presence.’
Halborough assured Mrs. Fellmer that he would certainly bear the message; but as to her coming he was not so sure. The real truth was, however, that the matter would be decided by him, Rosa having an almost filial respect for his wishes. But he was uncertain as to the state of her wardrobe, and had determined that she should not enter the manor-house at a disadvantage that evening, when there would probably be plenty of opportunities in the future of her doing so becomingly.
He walked to the farm in long strides. This, then, was the outcome of his first morning’s work as curate here. Things had gone fairly well with him. He had been ordained; he was in a comfortable parish, where he would exercise almost sole supervision, the rector being infirm. He had made a deep impression at starting, and the absence of a hood seemed to have done him no harm. Moreover, by considerable persuasion and payment, his father and the dark woman had been shipped off to Canada, where they were not likely to interfere greatly with his interests.
Rosa came out to meet him. ‘Ah! you should have gone to church like a good girl,’ he said.
‘Yes—I wished I had afterwards. But I do so hate church as a rule that even your preaching was underestimated in my mind. It was too bad of me!’
The girl who spoke thus playfully was fair, tall, and sylph-like, in a muslin dress, and with just the coquettish désinvolturewhich an English girl brings home from abroad, and loses again after a few months of native life. Joshua was the reverse of playful; the world was too important a concern for him to indulge in light moods. He told her in decided, practical phraseology of the invitation.
‘Now, Rosa, we must go—that’s settled—if you’ve a dress that can be made fit to wear all on the hop like this. You didn’t, of course, think of bringing an evening dress to such an out-of-the-way place?’
But Rosa had come from the wrong city to be caught napping in those matters. ‘Yes, I did,’ said she. ‘One never knows what may turn up.’
‘Well done! Then off we go at seven.’
The evening drew on, and at dusk they started on foot, Rosa pulling up the edge of her skirt under her cloak out of the way of the dews, so that it formed a great wind-bag all round her, and carrying her satin shoes under her arm. Joshua would not let her wait till she got indoors before changing them, as she proposed, but insisted on her performing that operation under a tree, so that they might enter as if they had not walked. He was nervously formal about such trifles, while Rosa took the whole proceeding—walk, dressing, dinner, and all—as a pastime. To Joshua it was a serious step in life.
A more unexpected kind of person for a curate’s sister was never presented at a dinner. The surprise of Mrs. Fellmer was unconcealed. She had looked forward to a Dorcas, or Martha, or Rhoda at the outside, and a shade of misgiving crossed her face. It was possible that, had the young lady accompanied her brother to church, there would have been no dining at Narrobourne House that day.
Not so with the young widower, her son. He resembled a sleeper who had awaked in a summer noon expecting to find it only dawn. He could scarcely help stretching his arms and yawning in their faces, so strong was his sense of being suddenly aroused to an unforeseen thing. When they had sat down to table he at first talked to Rosa somewhat with the air of a ruler in the land; but the woman lurking in the acquaintance soon brought him to his level, and the girl from Brussels saw him looking at her mouth, her hands, her contour, as if he could not quite comprehend how they got created: then he dropped into the more satisfactory stage which discerns no particulars.
He talked but little; she said much. The homeliness of the Fellmers, to her view, though they were regarded with such awe down here, quite disembarrassed her. The squire had become so unpractised, had dropped so far into the shade during the last year or so of his life, that he had almost forgotten what the world contained till this evening reminded him. His mother, after her first moments of doubt, appeared to think that he must be left to his own guidance, and gave her attention to Joshua.
With all his foresight and doggedness of aim, the result of that dinner exceeded Halborough’s expectations. In weaving his ambitions he had viewed his sister Rosa as a slight, bright thing to be helped into notice by his abilities; but it now began to dawn upon him that the physical gifts of nature to her might do more for them both than nature’s intellectual gifts to himself. While he was patiently boring the tunnel Rosa seemed about to fly over the mountain.
He wrote the next day to his brother, now occupying his own old rooms in the theological college, telling him exultingly of the unanticipated début of Rosa at the manor-house. The next post brought him a reply of congratulation, dashed with the counteracting intelligence that his father did not like Canada—that his wife had deserted him, which made him feel so dreary that he thought of returning home.
In his recent satisfaction at his own successes Joshua Halborough had well-nigh forgotten his chronic trouble—latterly screened by distance. But it now returned upon him; he saw more in this brief announcement than his brother seemed to see. It was the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand.
The following December, a day or two before Christmas, Mrs. Fellmer and her son were walking up and down the broad gravel path which bordered the east front of the house. Till within the last half-hour the morning had been a drizzling one, and they had just emerged for a short turn before luncheon.
‘You see, dear mother,’ the son was saying, ‘it is the peculiarity of my position which makes her appear to me in such a desirable light. When you consider how I have been crippled at starting, how my life has been maimed; that I feel anything like publicity distasteful, that I have ye no political ambition, and that my chief aim and hope lie in the education of the little thing Annie has left me, you must see how desirable a wife like Miss Halborough would be, to prevent my becoming a mere vegetable.’
‘If you adore her, I suppose you must have her!’ replied his mother with dry indirectness. ‘But you’ll find that she will not be content to live on here as you do, giving her whole mind to a young child.’
‘That’s just where we differ. Her very disqualification, that of being a nobody, as you call it, is her recommendation in my eyes. Her lack of influential connections limits her ambition. From what I know of her, a life in this place is all that she would wish for. She would never care to go outside the park-gates if it were necessary to stay within.’
‘Being in love with her, Albert, and meaning to marry her, you invent your practical reasons to make the case respectable. Well, do as you will; I have no authority over you, so why should you consult me? You mean to propose on this very occasion, no doubt. Don’t you, now?’
‘By no means. I am merely revolving the idea in my mind. If on further acquaintance she turns out to be as good as she has hitherto seemed—well, I shall see. Admit, now, that you like her.’
‘I readily admit it. She is very captivating at first sight. But as a stepmother to your child! You seem mighty anxious, Albert, to get rid of me!’
‘Not at all. And I am not so reckless as you think. I don’t make up my mind in a hurry. But the thought having occurred to me, I mention it to you at once, mother. If you dislike it, say so.’
‘I don’t say anything. I will try to make the best of it if you are determined. When does she come?’
All this time there were great preparations in train at the curate’s, who was now a householder. Rosa, whose two or three weeks’ stay on two occasions earlier in the year had so affected the squire, was coming again, and at the same time her younger brother Cornelius, to make up a family party. Rosa, who journeyed from the Midlands, could not arrive till late in the evening, but Cornelius was to get there in the afternoon, Joshua going out to meet him in his walk across the fields from the railway.
Everything being ready in Joshua’s modest abode he started on his way, his heart buoyant and thankful, if ever it was in his life. He was of such good report himself that his brother’s path into holy orders promised to be unexpectedly easy; and he longed to compare experiences with him, even though there was on hand a more exciting matter still. From his youth he had held that, in old-fashioned country places, the Church conferred social prestige up to a certain point at a cheaper price than any other profession or pursuit; and events seemed to be proving him right.
He had walked about half an hour when he saw Cornelius coming along the path; and in a few minutes the two brothers met. The experiences of Cornelius had been less immediately interesting than those of Joshua, but his personal position was satisfactory, and there was nothing to account for the singularly subdued manner that he exhibited, which at first Joshua set down to the fatigue of over-study; and he proceeded to the subject of Rosa’s arrival in the evening, and the probable consequences of this her third visit. ‘Before next Easter she’ll be his wife, my boy,’ said Joshua with grave exultation.
Cornelius shook his head. ‘She comes too late!’ he returned.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Look here.’ He produced the Fountall paper, and placed his finger on a paragraph, which Joshua read. It appeared under the report of Petty Sessions, and was a commonplace case of disorderly conduct, in which a man was sent to prison for seven days for breaking windows in that town.
‘Well?’ said Joshua.
‘It happened during an evening that I was in the street; and the offender is our father.’
‘Not—how—I sent him more money on his promising to stay in Canada?’
‘He is home, safe enough.’ Cornelius in the same gloomy tone gave the remainder of his information. He had witnessed the scene, unobserved of his father, and had heard him say that he was on his way to see his daughter, who was going to marry a rich gentleman. The only good fortune attending the untoward incident was that the millwright’s name had been printed as Joshua Alborough.
‘Beaten! We are to be beaten on the eve of our expected victory!’ said the elder brother. ‘How did he guess that Rosa was likely to marry? Good Heaven Cornelius, you seem doomed to bring bad news always, do you not!’
‘I do,’ said Cornelius. ‘Poor Rosa!’
It was almost in tears, so great was their heart-sickness and shame, that the brothers walked the remainder of the way to Joshua’s dwelling. In the evening they set out to meet Rosa, bringing her to the village in a fly; and when she had come into the house, and was sitting down with them, they almost forgot their secret anxiety in contemplating her, who knew nothing about it.
Next day the Fellmers came, and the two or three days after that were a lively time. That the squire was yielding to his impulses—making up his mind—there could be no doubt. On Sunday Cornelius read the lessons, and Joshua preached. Mrs. Fellmer was quite maternal towards Rosa, and it appeared that she had decided to welcome the inevitable with a good grace. The pretty girl was to spend yet another afternoon with the elder lady, superintending some parish treat at the house in observance of Christmas, and afterwards to stay on to dinner, her brothers to fetch her in the evening. They were also invited to dine, but they could not accept owing to an engagement.
The engagement was of a sombre sort. They were going to meet their father, who would that day be released from Fountall Gaol, and try to persuade him to keep away from Narrobourne. Every exertion was to be made to get him back to Canada, to his old home in the Midlands—anywhere, so that he would not impinge disastrously upon their courses, and blast their sister’s prospects of the auspicious marriage which was just then hanging in the balance.
As soon as Rosa had been fetched away by her friends at the manor-house her brothers started on their expedition, without waiting for dinner or tea. Cornelius, to whom the millwright always addressed his letters when he wrote any, drew from his pocket and re-read as he walked the curt note which had led to this journey being undertaken; it was despatched by their father the night before, immediately upon his liberation, and stated that he was setting out for Narrobourne at the moment of writing; that having no money he would be obliged to walk all the way; that he calculated on passing through the intervening town of Ivell about six on the following day, where he should sup at the Castle Inn, and where he hoped they would meet him with a carriage-and-pair, or some other such conveyance, that he might not disgrace them by arriving like a tramp.
‘That sounds as if he gave a thought to our position,’ said Cornelius.
Joshua knew the satire that lurked in the paternal words, and said nothing. Silence prevailed during the greater part of their journey. The lamps were lighted in Ivell when they entered the streets, and Cornelius, who was quite unknown in this neighbourhood, and who, moreover, was not in clerical attire, decided that he should be the one to call at the Castle Inn. Here, in answer to his inquiry under the darkness of the archway, they told him that such a man as he had described left the house about a quarter of an hour earlier, after making a meal in the kitchen-settle. He was rather the worse for liquor.
‘Then,’ said Joshua, when Cornelius joined him outside with this intelligence, ‘we must have met and passed him! And now that I think of it, we did meet some one who was unsteady in his gait, under the trees on the other side of Hendford Hill, where it was too dark to see him.’
They rapidly retraced their steps; but for a long stretch of the way home could discern nobody. When, however, they had gone about three-quarters of the distance, they became conscious of an irregular footfall in front of them, and could see a whitish figure in the gloom. They followed dubiously. The figure met another wayfarer—the single one that had been encountered upon this lonely road—and they distinctly heard him ask the way to Narrobourne. The stranger replied—what was quite true—that the nearest way was by turning in at the stile by the next bridge, and following the footpath which branched thence across the meadows.
When the brothers reached the stile they also entered the path, but did not overtake the subject of their worry till they had crossed two or three meads, and the lights from Narrobourne manor-house were visible before them through the trees. Their father was no longer walking; he was seated against the wet bank of an adjoining hedge. Observing their forms he shouted, ‘I’m going to Narrobourne; who may you be?’
They went up to him, and revealed themselves, reminding him of the plan which he had himself proposed in his note, that they should meet him at Ivell.
‘By Jerry, I’d forgot it!’ he said. ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ His tone was distinctly quarrelsome.
A long conversation followed, which became embittered at the first hint from them that he should not come to the village. The millwright drew a quart bottle from his pocket, and challenged them to drink if they meant friendly and called themselves men. Neither of the two had touched alcohol for years, but for once they thought it best to accept, so as not to needlessly provoke him.
‘What’s in it?’ said Joshua.
‘A drop of weak gin-and-water. It won’t hurt ye. Drin’ from the bottle.’ Joshua did so, and his father pushed up the bottom of the vessel so as to make him swallow a good deal in spite of himself. It went down into his stomach like molten lead.
‘Ha, ha, that’s right!’ said old Halborough. ‘But ’twas raw spirit—ha, ha!’
‘Why should you take me in so!’ said Joshua, losing his self-command, try as he would to keep calm.
‘Because you took me in, my lad, in banishing me to that cursed country under pretence that it was for my good. You were a pair of hypocrites to say so. It was done to get rid of me—no more nor less. But, by Jerry, I’m a match for ye now! I’ll spoil your souls for preaching. My daughter is going to be married to the squire here. I’ve heard the news—I saw it in a paper!’
‘It is premature—’
‘I know it is true; and I’m her father, and I shall give her away, or there’ll be a hell of a row, I can assure ye! Is that where the gennleman lives?’
Joshua Halborough writhed in impotent despair. Fellmer had not yet positively declared himself, his mother was hardly won round; a scene with their father in the parish would demolish as fair a palace of hopes as was ever builded. The millwright rose. ‘If that’s where the squire lives I’m going to call. Just arrived from Canady with her fortune—ha, ha! I wish no harm to the gennleman, and the gennleman will wish no harm to me. But I like to take my place in the family, and stand upon my rights, and lower people’s pride!’
‘You’ve succeeded already! Where’s that woman you took with you—’
‘Woman! She was my wife as lawful as the Constitution—a sight more lawful than your mother was till some time after you were born!’
Joshua had for many years before heard whispers that his father had cajoled his mother in their early acquaintance, and had made somewhat tardy amends; but never from his father’s lips till now. It was the last stroke, and he could not bear it. He sank back against the hedge. ‘It is over!’ he said. ‘He ruins us all!’
The millwright moved on, waving his stick triumphantly, and the two brothers stood still. They could see his drab figure stalking along the path, and over his head the lights from the conservatory of Narrobourne House, inside which Albert Fellmer might possibly be sitting with Rosa at that moment, holding her hand, and asking her to share his home with him.
The staggering whitey-brown form, advancing to put a blot on all this, had been diminishing in the shade; and now suddenly disappeared beside a weir. There was the noise of a flounce in the water.
‘He has fallen in!’ said Cornelius, starting forward to run for the place at which his father had vanished.
Joshua, awaking from the stupefied reverie into which he had sunk, rushed to the other’s side before he had taken ten steps. ‘Stop, stop, what are you thinking of?’ he whispered hoarsely, grasping Cornelius’s arm.
‘Pulling him out!’
‘Yes, yes—so am I. But—wait a moment—’
‘Her life and happiness, you know—Cornelius—and your reputation and mine—and our chance of rising together, all three—’
He clutched his brother’s arm to the bone; and as they stood breathless the splashing and floundering in the weir continued; over it they saw the hopeful lights from the manor-house conservatory winking through the trees as their bare branches waved to and fro.
The floundering and splashing grew weaker, and they could hear gurgling words: ‘Help—I’m drownded! Rosie—Rosie!’
‘We’ll go—we must save him. O Joshua!’
‘Yes, yes! we must!’
Still they did not move, but waited, holding each other, each thinking the same thought. Weights of lead seemed to be affixed to their feet, which would no longer obey their wills. The mead became silent. Over it they fancied they could see figures moving in the conservatory. The air up there seemed to emit gentle kisses.
Cornelius started forward at last, and Joshua almost simultaneously. Two or three minutes brought them to the brink of the stream. At first they could see nothing in the water, though it was not so deep nor the night so dark but that their father’s light kerseymere coat would have been visible if he had lain at the bottom. Joshua looked this way and that.
‘He has drifted into the culvert,’ he said.
Below the foot-bridge of the weir the stream suddenly narrowed to half its width, to pass under a barrel arch or culvert constructed for waggons to cross into the middle of the mead in haymaking time. It being at present the season of high water the arch was full to the crown, against which the ripples clucked every now and then. At this point he had just caught sight of a pale object slipping under. In a moment it was gone.
They went to the lower end, but nothing emerged. For a long time they tried at both ends to effect some communication with the interior, but to no purpose.
‘We ought to have come sooner!’ said the conscience-stricken Cornelius, when they were quite exhausted, and dripping wet.
‘I suppose we ought,’ replied Joshua heavily. He perceived his father’s walking-stick on the bank; hastily picking it up he stuck it into the mud among the sedge. Then they went on.
‘Shall we—say anything about this accident?’ whispered Cornelius as they approached the door of Joshua’s house.
‘What’s the use? It can do no good. We must wait until he is found.’
They went indoors and changed their clothes; after which they started for the manor-house, reaching it about ten o’clock. Besides their sister there were only three guests; an adjoining landowner and his wife, and the infirm old rector.
Rosa, although she had parted from them so recently, grasped their hands in an ecstatic, brimming, joyful manner, as if she had not seen them for years. ‘You look pale,’ she said.
The brothers answered that they had had a long walk, and were somewhat tired. Everybody in the room seemed charged full with some sort of interesting knowledge: the squire’s neighbour and his wife looked wisely around; and Fellmer himself played the part of host with a preoccupied bearing which approached fervour. They left at eleven, not accepting the carriage offered, the distance being so short and the roads dry. The squire came rather farther into the dark with them than he need have done, and wished Rosa good-night in a mysterious manner, slightly apart from the rest.
When they were walking along Joshua said, with desperate attempt at joviality, ‘Rosa, what’s going on?’
‘O, I—’ she began between a gasp and a bound. ‘He—’
‘Never mind—if it disturbs you.’
She was so excited that she could not speak connectedly at first, the practised air which she had brought home with her having disappeared. Calming herself she added, ‘I am not disturbed, and nothing has happened. Only he said he wanted to ask me something, some day; and I said never mind that now. He hasn’t asked yet, and is coining to speak to you about it. He would have done so to-night, only I asked him not to be in a hurry. But he will come to-morrow, I am sure!’
It was summer-time, six months later, and mowers and haymakers were at work in the meads. The manor-house, being opposite them, frequently formed a peg for conversation during these operations; and the doings of the squire, and the squire’s young wife, the curate’s sister—who was at present the admired of most of them, and the interest of all—met with their due amount of criticism.
Rosa was happy, if ever woman could be said to be so. She had not learnt the fate of her father, and sometimes wondered—perhaps with a sense of relief—why he did not write to her from his supposed home in Canada. Her brother Joshua had been presented to a living in a small town, shortly after her marriage, and Cornelius had thereupon succeeded to the vacant curacy of Narrobourne.
These two had awaited in deep suspense the discovery of their father’s body; and yet the discovery had not been made. Every day they expected a man or a boy to run up from the meads with the intelligence; but he had never come. Days had accumulated to weeks and months; the wedding had come and gone: Joshua had tolled and read himself in at his new parish; and never a shout of amazement over the millwright’s remains.
But now, in June, when they were mowing the meads, the hatches had to be drawn and the water let out of its channels for the convenience of the mowers. It was thus that the discovery was made. A man, stooping low with his scythe, caught a view of the culvert lengthwise, and saw something entangled in the recently bared weeds of its bed. A day or two after there was an inquest; but the body was unrecognizable. Fish and flood had been busy with the millwright; he had no watch or marked article which could be identified; and a verdict of the accidental drowning of a person unknown settled the matter.
As the body was found in Narrobourne parish, there it had to be buried. Cornelius wrote to Joshua, begging him to come and read the service, or to send some one; he himself could not do it. Rather than let in a stranger Joshua came, and silently scanned the coroner’s order handed him by the undertaker:—
‘I, Henry Giles, Coroner for the Mid-Division of Outer Wessex, do hereby order the Burial of the Body now shown to the Inquest Jury as the Body of an Adult Male Person Unknown . . . ,’ etc.
Joshua Halborough got through the service in some way, and rejoined his brother Cornelius at his house. Neither accepted an invitation to lunch at their sister’s; they wished to discuss parish matters together. In the afternoon she came down, though they had already called on her, and had not expected to see her again. Her bright eyes, brown hair, flowery bonnet, lemon-coloured gloves, and flush beauty, were like an irradiation into the apartment, which they in their gloom could hardly bear.
‘I forgot to tell you,’ she said, ‘of a curious thing which happened to me a month or two before my marriage—something which I have thought may have had a connection with the accident to the poor man you have buried to-day. It was on that evening I was at the manor-house waiting for you to fetch me; I was in the winter-garden with Albert, and we were sitting silent together, when we fancied we heard a cry. We opened the door, and while Albert ran to fetch his hat, leaving me standing there, the cry was repeated, and my excited senses made me think I heard my own name. When Albert came back all was silent, and we decided that it was only a drunken shout, and not a cry for help. We both forgot the incident, and it never has occurred to me till since the funeral to-day that it might have been this stranger’s cry. The name of course was only fancy, or he might have had a wife or child with a name something like mine, poor man!’
When she was gone the brothers were silent till Cornelius said, ‘Now mark this, Joshua. Sooner or later she’ll know.’
‘From one of us. Do you think human hearts are iron-cased safes, that you suppose we can keep this secret for ever?’
‘Yes, I think they are, sometimes,’ said Joshua.
‘No. It will out. We shall tell.’
‘What, and ruin her—kill her? Disgrace her children, and pull down the whole auspicious house of Fellmer about our ears? No! May I—drown where he was drowned before I do it! Never, never. Surely you can say the same, Cornelius!’
Cornelius seemed fortified, and no more was said. For a long time after that day he did not see Joshua, and before the next year was out a son and heir was born to the Fellmers. The villagers rang the three bells every evening for a week and more, and were made merry by Mr. Fellmer’s ale; and when the christening came on Joshua paid Narrobourne another visit.
Among all the people who assembled on that day the brother clergymen were the least interested. Their minds were haunted by a spirit in kerseymere in the evening they walked together in the fields.
‘She’s all right,’ said Joshua. ‘But here are you doing journey-work, Cornelius, and likely to continue at it till the end of the day, as far as I can see. I, too, with my petty living—what am I after all? . . . To tell the truth, the Church is a poor forlorn hope for people without influence, particularly when their enthusiasm begins to flag. A social regenerator has a better chance outside, where he is unhampered by dogma and tradition. As for me, I would rather have gone on mending mills, with my crust of bread and liberty.’
Almost automatically they had bent their steps along the margin of the river; they now paused. They were standing on the brink of the well-known weir. There were the hatches, there was the culvert; they could see the pebbly bed of the stream through the pellucid water. The notes of the church-bells were audible, still jangled by the enthusiastic villagers.
‘Why see—it was there I hid his walking-stick!’ said Joshua, looking towards the sedge. The next moment, during a passing breeze, something flashed white on the spot to which the attention of Cornelius was drawn.
From the sedge rose a straight little silver-poplar, and it was the leaves of this sapling which caused the flicker of whiteness.
‘His walking-stick has grown!’ Joshua added. ‘It was a rough one—cut from the hedge, I remember.’
At every puff of wind the tree turned white, till they could not bear to look at it; and they walked away.
‘I see him every night,’ Cornelius murmured . . . ‘Ah, we read our Hebrews to little account, Jos! Υπέμεινε σταυρον, αισχυνης καταφρονησας. To have endured the cross, despising the shame—there lay greatness! But now I often feel that I should like to put an end to trouble here in this self-same spot.’
‘I have thought of it myself,’ said Joshua.
‘Perhaps we shall, some day,’ murmured his brother. ‘Perhaps,’ said Joshua moodily.
With that contingency to consider in the silence of their nights and days they bent their steps homewards.” Thomas Hardy, “For Conscience’ Sake” & “A Tragedy of Two Ambitions;” in Life’s Little Ironies, 1891 & 1888
Numero Dos—“Karl Gjellerup was born in 1857 and died on October 13, 1919. Like Henrik Pontoppidan, he came from a family of ministers. He chose a career in the clergy although he felt no special calling for it; rather his inclinations drew him strongly toward literature, and alongside his ‘bread and butter studies’ he devoted himself to reading the Greek, English, and especially the German classics. In the course of his theological studies, he came gradually to take a purely negative attitude toward theology and became attracted by the literary radicalism led by Georg Brandes. In 1878 he made his literary début under the pseudonym of ‘Epigonos’ with a short novel entitled En idealist [An Idealist]. He published next, in quick succession, a series of tales and poems in which he posed as a fanatic enemy of all theology and as a sworn partisan of Darwin and the doctrine of evolution.After this first period of anti-theological battles, not marked by a profound originality, Gjellerup undertook a trip abroad during which he collected his thoughts and found his intellectual equilibrium. At the same time his literary talent took on more distinct outlines: the description of an era, “Romulus” (1883); the beautiful short story “G-Dur” (1883) [G-Major], a portrait of intimacy; and especially the great drama Brynhild (1884), which marks the peak of his talent during this period. The theme of this drama is the episode of the Volsunga Saga in which Sigurd and Brunhilde, finding themselves on the same mountain, are separated by their destiny but dream of and desire one another. This waiting, full of torment, this quiet desire, imbues with sentiment the tragedy which is presented with strength and with great poetic and pictorial richness. The verse, especially in the choruses composed in the ancient fashion, attains great lyric beauty. The scope of the work is due to its depth and form; through its idealism and moral elevation it contrasts absolutely with the other productions of the naturalistic period during which it was written. In spite of his freedom of thought, Gjellerup had at bottom only a few common bonds with the naturalistic school. He had, on the contrary, many more addresses with German classicism, with the literature of antiquity, and with the wealth of sentiments of Wagner, and when he realized this fact, he broke sharply and publicly with the school of Brandes in his travel book, Vandreaaret (1885) [Wander Year]. His literary production (plays, lyric poems, stories) was henceforth oriented toward idealism, but at the beginning it only barely succeeded from the artistic point of view, even though the richness of his poetic gifts was always visible in it. The best of the books he published during the last years of this period was the charming novel Minna (1889), a truly beautiful love story and a delicate study of feminine psychology which must be classed in the highest rank of Scandinavian novels. Let us cite also that novel with the broadest foundations and a solid construction, Møllen (1896) [The Mill], a curious analysis of the state of mind of a murderer who becomes remorseful and denounces himself; it is a work of tragic grandeur. Less remarkable as works of art, but expressive of Gjellerup’s high moral ideas about marriage and the relationship between the sexes, are his modem bourgeois dramas Herman Vandel (1891) , Wuthhorn (1893), and Hans Excellence (1895). These dramas are not a plea for marriage. Indeed, the author puts the idea of marriage above banal conventions, and precisely because he puts it so high, he does not find it realized in ordinary marriages. He proposes as a purer model the free union, even though it would not have the consecration of church or state, provided that this union is the only one in a human life.
These dramas, whose tendency is religious despite their individualistic revolts, form a transition between the first ideas of the author and those which characterize the last and most significant period of his literary life. It was without doubt the enthusiasm for the musical drama of Wagner, to which he devoted a masterly work, which led him to the study of Buddhist wisdom with its annihilation of the personality in the universal world of Nirvana. Among the works written by Gjellerup in the twentieth century, the best ones are inspired precisely by these speculations on India and place on stage Hindu subjects which he has treated so poetically and idealistically that they have aroused general admiration. This period of his work began with a musical play, Offerildene (1903) [The Sacrificial Fires], the legend of a young disciple of Brahma who in the simplicity of his pious soul discovers wisdom beneath the literal sense of the law, and who wishes to preserve in the world the three sacrificial fires: the fire of the soul, the flame of love, and the fire of the funeral pyre which consumes the body. Philosophical thought is here allied freely and harmoniously with the creative imagination of a poet. In the great mythic novel, Pilgrimen Kamanita (1906), which contains a history of Buddha’s, era, Gjellerup has elucidated the essential characteristics of the Buddhist conception of the world, its doctrine of renunciation, its effort toward perfection, and its dreams of paradise, of Nirvana, and of universal destruction. Kamanita is the man in search of earthly satisfactions who, after seeing the fragility of all things, desires instead eternal treasures. We follow him not only during his earthly life but also during the different transformations he undergoes in the “Western Paradise”, in which the tropical sumptuousness of India is rediscovered. Those who have destroyed themselves awaken here and leave their lotus buds to participate in the dance of the blessed and to undergo new incarnations, following which their souls begin a new existence in the empire of the Buddha of the hundred thousand cycles. In spite of its uninterrupted speculations on Hindu philosophy, this poem exercises a singular fascination. Quite intuitively the poet seems to have penetrated into the spiritual life of a far-off people and to have expressed their dreams of it with the visionary’s gift.
In certain passages of this poem one finds the spirit of the Arabian Nights, and certain parts of the Western Paradise present a penetrating picture of the sumptuous magnificence of the life of the blessed. In the same way the drama Den fuldendtes hustru (1907) [The Wife of the Perfect One], which deals with the purifications that Buddha’s wife must undergo to attain perfection, is a masterpiece. The author has succeeded in permitting his own nature and genius to shine through these dogmatic and philosophical revelations of a millennial philosophy. Gjellerup’s last great work, Verdens vandrerne (1910) [World Wanderers], with its half-Oriental, half-western moral, does not attain the same artistic beauty, but it contains beautiful details and holds our interest through a mysticism full of imagination as much as through the development of the action.
Karl Gjellerup was that strange combination, a scholar as well as a poet. His inventive imagination and his gifts of visionary poetry were often difficult to harmonize with his specific knowledge and his lively intelligence. His earlier works are characterized by very broad but sometimes clumsy descriptions, philosophical rather than spontaneous. They occasionally neglect artistic form, but they are always rich in ideas and full of promises of originality. Among them are such remarkable works as Brynhild and Minna. A poet who gathers all the flowers; a spirit that seeks tirelessly until it reaches its true domain in the world of Hindu mysticism, in which his profound thought and his ideal effort to clarify the enigmas of truth and life are combined with his artistic instinct: such is the Gjellerup of the second period. Thought charged with emotion, a great knowledge of the soul, a great desire for beauty, and a poetic art have given birth to works of enduring value. The author of Pilgrimen Kamanita and Den fuldendtes hustru has justifiably been called the ‘classic poet of Buddhism.’ Sven Soderman, “Presentation;” Nobel Prize in Literature, 1917
Numero Tres—“The first thing which attracted my attention to the man was the shock of white hair above the lean young face. But for this, I should not have looked twice at him: long, spare, and stooping, a shabby figure, he crouched over a cup of coffee in a corner of the dingy restaurant, at fretful enmity with the world; typical, I should have said, of the furtive London nondescript. But that white hair startled me; it gleamed out, unnaturally cleanly in those not overclean surroundings, and although I had propped my book up against the water-bottle at my own table, where I sat over my solitary dinner, I found my eyes straying from the printed page to the human face which gave the promise of greater interest. Before very long he became conscious of my glances, and returned them when he thought I was not observing him. Inevitably, however, the moment came when our eyes met. We both looked away as though taken in fault, but when, having finished his coffee and laid out the coppers in payment on his table, he rose to make his way out between the tables, he let his gaze dwell on me as he passed; let it dwell on me quite perceptibly, quite definitely, with an air of curious speculation, a hesitation, almost an appeal, and I thought he was about to speak, but instead of that he crushed his hat, an old black wideawake, down over his strange white hair, and hurrying resolutely on towards the swing-doors of the restaurant, he passed out and was lost in the London night.I was uncomfortably haunted, after that evening, by a sense of guilt. I was quite certain, with unjustifiable certainty born of instinct, that the man had wanted to speak to me, and that the smallest response on my part would have encouraged him to do so. Why hadn’t I given the response? A smile would have sufficed; a smile wasn’t much to demand by one human being of another. I thought it very pitiable that the conventions of our social system should persuade one to withhold so small a thing from a fellow-creature who, perhaps, stood in need of it. That smile, which I might have given, but had withheld, became for me a sort of symbol. I grew superstitious about it; built up around it all kinds of extravagant ideas; pictured to myself the splash of a body into the river; and then, recovering my sense of proportion, told myself that one really couldn’t go about London smiling at people. Yet I didn’t get the man’s face out of my head. It was not only the white hair that had made an impression on my mind, but the unhappy eyes, the timidly beseeching look. The man was lonely, I was quite sure of that; utterly lonely. And I had refused a smile.
I don’t know whether to say with more pride than shame, or more shame than pride, that I went back to the restaurant a week later. I had been kept late at my work, and there were few diners; but he was there, sitting at the same table, hunched up as before over a cup of coffee. Did the man live on coffee? He was thin enough, in all conscience, rather like a long, sallow bird, with a snowy crest. And he had no occupation, no book to read; nothing better to do than to bend his long curves over the little table and to stab at the sugar in his coffee with his spoon. He glanced up when I came in, casually, at the small stir I made; then by his suddenly startled look I saw that he had recognised me. I didn’t nod to him, but I returned his look so steadily that it amounted to a greeting. Y ou know those moments, when understanding flickers between people? Well, that was one of those moments.
I sat down at a table, placing myself so that I should face him, and very ostentatiously I took a newspaper out of my pocket, unfolded it, and began to read. But through my reading I was aware of him, and I knew that he was aware of me. At the same time I couldn’t help being touched by what I knew I should read in his face: the same hostility, towards the world at large, and towards myself the same appeal, half fearful, half beseeching. It was as though he said, aloud and distinctly, ‘Let me talk! For God’s sake let me talk it out!’ And this time I was determined that he should; yes, I was quite grim over my determination. I was going to get at the secret that lay behind those hunted eyes.
I was in a queer mood myself; rather a cruel mood, although the starting-point of my intention had been kind. I knew that my mood had something of cruelty in it, because I discovered that I was purposely dawdling over my dinner, in order to keep the man longer than necessary on the rack. Queer, the complexities one unearths in oneself. But probably if I had been an ordinary straightforward kind of fellow, I should never have had the sensibility to recognise in the first instance that the man wanted to talk to me. It’s the reverse of the medal, I suppose.
He had finished his coffee, of course, long before I had finished my dinner; he had squeezed the last drop out of the little coffee-pot, and I wondered with amusement whether he would have the moral courage to remain where he was now that his ostensible pretext was gone and that the waiter was beginning to loiter round his table as a hint that he ought to go. Poor devil, I could see that he was growing uneasy; he shuffled his feet, and the glances he threw at me became yet more furtive and reproachful. Still I gave no sign; I don’t know what spirit of sarcasm and teasing possessed me. He stood it for some time, then he shoved back his chair, reached for his hat, and stood up. It was a sort of defiance that he was throwing at me, an ultimatum that I should either end my cat-and-mouse game, or let him go. As he was about to pass my table on the way out, I spoke to him.
“Care for a look at the evening paper?”
Absurd—isn’t it?—that one should have to cloak one’s interest in a stranger’s soul under such a convention as the offer of a paper. Why couldn’t I have said to him straight out, “Look here, what’s the matter with you?” But our affairs are not so conducted. He accepted my offer, and stood awkwardly reading the City News, which I thought a sure indication of his confusion, as by no stretch of fancy could I imagine him the possessor of stocks or shares. “Sit down,” I said, “while you read.”
He sat down, with a mumble of thanks, laying his old black wideawake beside him on my table. I think he was glad of the paper, for it gave him something to do with his hands and his eyes. I observed him, and he must have known I was observing him. Underneath the thick, snow-white hair the face was young, although so sunken and so sallow, the face of a man of perhaps twenty-seven or eight, sensitive, not at all the face of a criminal escaping from justice, in spite of that hunted look which had been so vividly present to me during the past week. An artist, I thought; perhaps a writer; a romantic face; not blatantly romantic; no, but after you had delved into the eyes and traced the quiver of the mouth you discovered the certain signs of the romantic idealist.
“I saw you here last week,” he muttered suddenly.
The little restaurant was by now almost empty; many of the lights had been turned down, and at most of the tables the chairs had been tipped forward. Being privileged as an old and regular customer, I beckoned to the proprietor, and in a whisper begged that I might not be disturbed, as I had to hold a business conversation of some importance with my companion. At the same time I poured out for the stranger a glass of wine from my own bottle, remarking that the wine here was better than their coffee. This seemed to unloose his tongue a little, for he exclaimed that coffee was very bad for the nerves, especially strong, black coffee, as he drank it; and after this short outburst relapsed again into silence, taking refuge in the paper.
I tried him once more.
“I don’t remember seeing you here before last week?”
He shot me a quick look, and said, “I haven’t been in London.”
“Travelling, perhaps?” I hazarded negligently.
He gave a harsh shout of laughter, succeeded by the same abrupt silence. Would all our conversation, I wondered, be conducted on this spasmodic system? He certainly didn’t second my efforts at small-talk. Was what he had to say too vital, too oppressive?
“I say,” I resumed, leaning forward, “have I seen you anywhere else? I think your face is familiar….” It was a lie; I knew perfectly well that I had never seen him anywhere; his was not an appearance to be lightly forgotten.
“And yet,” I added, as he stared at me without speaking, “I am sure I should remember; one would remember this contrast”—and I touched first my face and then my hair.
“It has only been like that for a fortnight.”
He brought out the words, scowling and lowering at me, and then the fierce look died away, to be replaced by a look of apology and pain; a cowed look, like that of a dog who has been ill-treated. “That is what made you notice me,” he exclaimed; “it brands me, doesn’t it? Yes. A freak. One might as well be piebald.” He spoke with extraordinary vehemence, and, taking a handful of his hair, he tugged at it in a rage of despair; then sinking his face between his hands, he sat shaking his head mournfully from side to side.
“Listen,” I said, “have you any friends?”
He raised his head.
“I had a few stray acquaintances. Nothing would tempt me to go near them now.”
“Anyone to talk to?”
“Not a soul. I haven’t spoken to a soul since—since I came back.”
“Fire ahead, then,” I said, “talk to me. You don’t know my name, I don’t know yours. You’re quite safe. Say whatever you like. Go on. I’m waiting.”
He began, talking in a voice low, rapid, and restrained. He spoke so fluently that I knew he must often have rehearsed the phrases over to himself, muttering them, against the day when he should be granted expression. “I had two friends. They were very good to me. I was homeless, and they told me to look on their home as my own. I hope I didn’t trespass too much on their hospitality, but I fell into the habit of wandering into their house every evening after dinner, and staying there till it was time to go to bed. I really don’t know which I cared for most, in those early days, the man or the woman. It had been with him that I first made acquaintance; we were both engaged on journalistic work, reporting, you know, on different papers—and we came across each other once or twice in that way. He was a saturnine, queer-tempered fellow, taciturn at times, and at other times possessed by a wry sense of humour which made him excellent company, though it kept one in a state of alert disquiet. He would say things with that particular twist to them which made one look up, startled, wondering whether his remark was really intended to be facetious or obscurely sinister. Thanks to this ambiguity he had gained quite a reputation in Fleet Street. You can imagine, therefore, that I was flattered when he singled me out; I listened to all his remarks with a respect I was too proud to betray; although I adopted an off-hand manner towards him, I didn’t lose many opportunities of letting the other fellows know, in a casual way, that I had been practically given the run of his house; and I was never sorry to be seen when we strolled off with his arm in mine.
“They lived, he and his wife, in a tiny house at the end of Cheyne Walk. On misty evenings we used to sit, all three, on the sill of the bow-window, watching the big barges float by, while our legs swung dangling from the high sill, and we talked of many things in the desultory way born of easy intimacy, and I used silently to marvel at the sharpness of his mind and the gentleness of hers. She was very gentle. It even irritated me, faintly, to observe her complete submission to him. Not that he bullied her, not exactly. But he had a way of taking submission for granted, and so, I suppose, most people accorded it to him. It irritated me to see how his wife had subdued her personality to his, she who was of so tender and delicate a fibre, and who more than anyone wanted cherishing, instead of being ridden down, in that debonair, rough-shod way of his, that, although often exasperating, still had something attractive about it. She and I used to discuss it sometimes, in the evenings, when he was kept out late at his job—it’s an uncertain business, reporting—we used to discuss it with the tolerance of fond people, and smile over his weaknesses, and say that he was incorrigible. All the same, it continued to irritate me. Sometimes I could see that he hurt her, when in his impatient way he swung round to devastate her opinions with those sly and unanswerable phrases that placed everything once and for always in a ridiculous light. What a devilish gift he had, that man, of humiliating one! And he did it always in so smiling and friendly a fashion that one could neither take offence nor retaliate. In fact, one didn’t realise that one had been attacked until one felt the blood running warm from one’s wounds, while he had already danced away upon some other quest.
“I can hardly trace the steps by which my admiration of him grew to affection, my affection to uneasiness, and my uneasiness to resentment. I only know that I took to flushing scarlet when I saw her wince, and to making about him, when I was alone with her, remarks that were less and less tolerant and more and more critical. My temper grew readier to bite out at him, my amusement less easily beguiled. I don’t know whether he noticed it. Most probably he did, for he always noticed everything. If he did, then he gave no sign. His friendliness towards me continued unvarying, and there were times when I thought he really bestirred himself to impress me, to seduce me, he who was usually so contemptuous, and seemed to enjoy stirring up people’s dislike. It wasn’t difficult for him to impress me, if that was what he wanted, for he had, of course, a far better brain than my own; the sort of brain that compelled one’s startled admiration, even when one least wanted to accord it. By Jove, how well he used to talk, on those evenings, when we sat and dangled our legs from the window-sill, looking out at the barges! The best talk I ever heard. You could have taken it all down in shorthand, and not a word to alter.
“Then he got a regular job which kept him out for three evenings a week, but he told me that mustn’t make any difference to my habits: I was to drop in just the same, whenever I wanted to; and since I hadn’t anywhere else to go, and since the house had become a home to me, I took him at his word. In a way I missed him, on the evenings he wasn’t there; although I could no longer pretend to myself that I was fond of him, he was a perpetual interest and stimulation to me, an angry stimulation, if you can understand what I mean, and I missed his presence, if only because it deprived me of the occupation of picking holes in him, and of making mental pounces for my own satisfaction upon everything he said. Not upon its intellectual value. That was above reproach. Only upon it as a signpost to his character. I took a delight in silently finding fault with him. But presently this desire passed from me, and I came to prefer the repose of the evenings I spent alone with his wife to the strenuousness of the evenings when we were all three together. We talked very little, his wife and I, when he was not there. She had about her an amazing quality of restfulness, of which I quickly got into the habit of taking advantage, after the vulgar, competitive days of a journalist’s existence. You can’t imagine what it meant to me, to drift into the seclusion of that little Chelsea room, with the mistiness of the trees and the river outside the window, to be greeted by her smile, and to sink into my familiar arm-chair, where I might lounge sucking at my pipe and watching the cool glimmer of her beautiful hands over the rhythm of her needle. Can you wonder that we didn’t talk much? And can you wonder that our silence became heavy with the things we hadn’t said?
“Not at first. Our love-affair ran a course contrary to the usual ordering of such things. If it indeed ended in all the fever and pain of passion, it certainly began with all the calm of the hearth; yes, I went through a long phase of accepting that room as my home, and that gentle woman as my natural companion therein. I don’t think I examined the situation at all closely at that time. I was more than content to let so pleasant an acquiescence take possession of me; for the first time in my life, you understand, I was neither lonely nor unhappy. The only thing that jarred was his presence. The evenings when he was there were all out of tune. All out of tune.”
The man with the white hair paused to pour himself out another glass of wine; and his voice, losing the dreamy note of reminiscence, sharpened to a more rapid utterance—a crescendo for which I had been waiting.
“I haven’t an attractive character,” he resumed; “I don’t want you to think that I have, and so accord me more sympathy than I deserve. Please be quite impartial. Please realise that, according to ordinary standards, I played the part of a cad. Think: there was a man, ostensibly my friend, who had given me the run of his house; I accept his hospitality and his friendship, and then take advantage of his absences to make love to his wife. Not a pretty story, although a commonplace one. Please be quite harsh towards me, and let me be quite harsh towards myself. I did none of the things I ought to have done under the circumstances; I neither went quietly abroad without making a fuss, nor did I attempt to conceal my feelings from her. If you knew her,” he said, with an anguish of longing that lit up the whole story for me better than any words of his could have done, “if you knew her, you would realise at once that she wasn’t a woman from whom one could conceal one’s feelings. There was that calm gentleness about her which made all hypocrisy a shame and a sham. Also, deceiving her would have been like deceiving a child; hurting her was like hurting a child. (That was what enraged me when he hurt her, and I had to stand by, and listen.) She was so simple, and direct, and defenceless. So, you see, as soon as I realised what had happened, I told her. It wasn’t a dramatic avowal, and it had no very immediately dramatic consequences. In fact, for a while its only effect was to bring me across the room from my habitual arm-chair, to sit on the floor near her with my head against her knee; and so we would remain for hours, not moving, scarcely speaking, for there was such harmony and such content between us that we seemed to know everything that passed in each other’s minds.
“Of course, that couldn’t last. We were young and human, you see; and standing in the background, overshadowing the perfection of our solitary hours, was his long, sarcastic figure—her husband and my friend. An impossible situation, when you come to consider it. The evenings that he spent at home very soon became intolerable, from every point of view. I grew so nervous with the strain of keeping a hold on myself, that even her tenderness could no longer soothe me. He didn’t seem to notice anything amiss, and, you know, the funny, horrible, contradictory part was that, much as I now hated him, I was still conscious of his charm. And so, I think, was she. Can’t you picture the trio in that little Chelsea room, while the barges floated by, and she and I sat on opposite sides of the fireplace, so terribly aware of one another, and he lay on the sofa, his long legs trailing over the end, discoursing in his admirable and varied way on life, politics, and letters? I wonder in how many London drawing-rooms that situation was being simultaneously reproduced?
“Why do I bore you with a recital so commonplace?” he exclaimed, bringing his fist down on the table; “are you beginning to ask yourself that? What have you to do with journalistic adulteries? Only wait: you shan’t complain that the sequel is commonplace, and perhaps, one day, when you read in the papers the sequel to the sequel, you will remember and be entertained. He caught us red-handed, you see. It was one evening when we hadn’t expected him home until after midnight, and at ten o’clock the door opened and he stood suddenly in the room. Squalid enough, isn’t it? To this day I don’t know whether he had laid a trap for us, or whether he was as surprised as we were. He stood there stock still, and I sprang up and stood too, and we glared across at one another. After a moment he said, ‘Paolo and Francesca? this scene acquires quite a classic dignity, doesn’t it, from frequent repetition?’ And then he said the most astonishing thing; he said, ‘Don’t let me disturb you, and above all remember that I don’t mind,’ and with that he went out of the room and shut the door.
“After that,” said the man with the white hair, “I didn’t go near the house for a week. This was at her request, and of course I couldn’t refuse her. During that week she telephoned to me daily, once in the morning and once in the evening, always with the same story: she had seen nothing of him. He had not even been home to collect any of his clothes. You may imagine the state of anxiety I lived in during that week, which his disappearance did nothing to palliate, but rather heightened by leaving everything so mysterious and uncertain. She was evidently terrified—I could hear it in her voice—but implored me to keep away, for her sake, if not for mine. At the end of the week he appeared without warning in the office of the paper where I worked, and, greeting me without making any allusion to what had happened, invited me to come for two days’ sailing in a small boat which had been lent him by a friend.
“I was startled enough by this incongruous suggestion, but naturally I accepted: you couldn’t refuse such an invitation from a man who, you suspected, intended to have such a matter out with you on the open sea. We started immediately, and all the way down in the train for Cornwall he talked in his usual manner, undeterred by the fact that I never answered him. We got out at Penzance, the time then being, I suppose, about six o’clock in the evening. I had never been to Penzance before, but he seemed to know his way about, walking me briskly down to the harbour, where a fishing-smack under the charge of a rough-looking sailor was waiting for him. By now I was quite certain that he meant to have it out with me, and for my part, after the long uncertainty of the week, I asked nothing better than to get to grips with him. All I prayed for was a hand-to-hand struggle in which I might have the luck to tip him overboard, so I was rather dismayed when I saw that the sailor was to accompany us.
“We started without any delay, getting clear of the port just as the darkness fell and the first stars came out in a pale green sky. I had never been with him anywhere but in London, and it crossed my mind that it was odd to be with him so far away, off this rocky coast, in the solitude of waters; and I looked at the green sky above the red-brown sails of the fishing-smack, and thought of the barges floating down the river at Chelsea. They were ships, and this was a ship; they carried men, and this one also carried men. I looked at my companion, who sat in the stern holding the tiller. There was a breeze, which drove us along at quite a smart pace. ‘Cornwall,’ I said to myself, staring slowly round the bay and at the black mass of St. Michael’s Mount,’ Cornwall…’
“I don’t know how many hours we sailed that night, but I know that when the day broke we were out of sight of land. All that while we had not spoken a word, though to all practical purposes we were alone, the sailor having gone to sleep for’ard on a heap of nets, in the bottom of the boat. He was a rough, handsome, foreign-looking fellow, of a type I believe often to be found in that part of England. I couldn’t understand the object of this sailing expedition at all. It seemed to me an unnecessarily elaborate introduction to the discussion of a subject which could as well have been thrashed out in London. Still, as the other man was the aggrieved party, I supposed that he was entitled to the choice of weapons; I supposed that his devilish sense of humour was at the bottom of all this, and I was determined not to give him the chance of saying I wouldn’t play up. But why couldn’t he tell me what was in his mind? How far did he mean to take me out to sea first? These questions and others raced through my mind during the whole of that night, while I sat back leaning against the sides of the boat, watching the stars pass overhead and listening to the gentle sip, sip of the water.
“At dawn my companion rose, and, shading his eyes with one hand while with the other he still held the tiller, he stood up scanning the surface of the waters. I watched him, resolved that it would not be me who spoke first. After a while he appeared to find what he was looking for, for he said, ‘Nearly there.’ I could see nothing to break the whole pale opal stretch of sunrise-flushing sea but a small black speck which I took to be a buoy, and the faint echo of its bell was borne to me through the clear air. He sat down again beside the tiller, and we sailed on in the same silence, into the loveliness of the morning. I was quite certain that he had some sinister purpose, though what it was I could not yet imagine. What did he mean by that ‘Nearly there ‘? Although he did not actually stir, he gave me the impression of concentration now, and at a word from him the sailor awoke and shot a rapid glance at me, as though doubtful whether he would find me still in the boat. I was beginning to wonder whether I should be a match for the two of them, when my companion, leaving the tiller, made a step towards me with a handkerchief he had drawn from his pocket; the sailor pinioned my arms from behind, and no sooner had I recognised the peculiar smell of chloroform than I was insensible and inert between them.
“It was very neatly done. I might have trusted him to carry out neatly whatever he undertook. Even over that he compelled my angry admiration. So neat! the fiend, the devil, he had got the better of me before I had had the chance to put up even the feeblest struggle. I curse myself now for my silly bravado in accompanying him when he asked me. I might have known I wasn’t a match for him. But I’ll be even with him yet,” he said, his nervous hands fumbling at his collar, “I’ll be even with him yet; I’ll bide my time,” and never was vindictiveness more savage in human eyes.
“He didn’t allow me to come to my senses until he had carried out his purpose. When I opened my eyes I was inside the cage of the buoy, with the bell swinging gently to and fro above my head.
“Have you ever seen one of those buoys? They consist of a pear-shaped iron cage fixed on to a sort of platform, like the keel of a dinghy, and the bell hangs between four clappers at the top of the cage, and as the thing rocks up and down on the swell of the sea the clappers hit against the bell. There was just room for me to sit on the platform, crouched up inside the cage. One section of the cage was hinged to open, and the door thus formed was secured by a padlock; how he had got the key of it Heaven alone knows. I have tried to convey to you—haven’t I?—that he was a very able and successful fellow.
“When I came to, he was circling slowly round and round the buoy in his sailing-boat, lounging indifferently beside the tiller, and watching me with an expression of mockery I can’t reproduce in words. I lost my head then; I leapt up and shook the bars of my cage and screamed to him to let me out. I can hear now in my ears the futility of my own voice screaming across the placid emptiness of the water. I must have looked like a trapped ape—the kind of ape that is most like a man. I shook the iron bars so violently that the whole of my floating prison jumped about, and the b ell began to ring loudly. He only lounged and smiled. No doubt he had looked forward extremely to the moment. His amused impassivity was the thing best calculated to restore my self-control, and I try to salve my vanity by thinking that I should never so have gratified him but for the bewildering effects of the anaesthetic. I calmed myself down, I tried to reason with him.
“I exhorted him to settle up his wrongs in a more civilised manner. Then, seeing that every plea was to him a source of fresh delight, I ceased to argue, and became silent, holding on to the bars of my cage and watching him as he cruised slowly round and round the buoy. Presently he talked to me. They were like neat incisions in my flesh, his words. Oh, he spared me nothing, I assure you; there wasn’t a phrase without a beautifully tempered edge to it. I recalled his words when he had caught us together, ‘Don’t let me disturb you, and above all remember that ‘I don’t mind,’ and even in the midst of my rage and hatred I couldn’t help respecting him for that irony.
“I learnt now the full extent to which he had minded. Quite coldly he told me. He had spent the week wondering whether it should be himself or me that should be put out of the way. So much had he minded, you see. I think he had been hurt in his pride, even more than in his affection for… for her. I hadn’t suspected that he was so sensitive over what he considered his honour—dense of me, perhaps—but there was no mistaking that this sensitiveness now tied the extra lash on to the whip of his tongue. When he had finished talking, when he had said all that he wanted to say, and all without once losing his temper or his damned insolent dexterity, he nodded to me for all the world as though we had been talking shop in Fleet Street, and were separating to go about our various businesses. That nod remains with me; I’ll never forget it or forgive it; it seemed to me the last crowning insult; it seemed to sum up all that I most hated in the man.
“He put his boat about, she heeled over a little as the breeze took her, and that slight slant of her sail was pencilled against the pale sky as she glided away across the water. I can’t resist the journalistic touch, you see,” he added, with an outburst of extraordinary bitterness.
“It was not until his boat had dwindled to a tiny black dot far away that I began fully to realise the situation. There was I, alone in the middle of a great circle of sea and sky, alone and confined, and ludicrously helpless. At first it was upon the ludicrous aspect that I chiefly dwelt, the anger of it, the absurdity, and the humiliation. Then little by little the horror of it crept over me, and I was aghast; there was, of course, the gleam of hope that I might attract the attention of a passing ship, but the Channel at that point must be fairly on the way to becoming the Atlantic, and I dared not delude myself too boldly lest I be disappointed. He wasn’t coming back for me; he had made that quite clear. He had left beside me on the bottom of the buoy a parcel of food and a bottle of water, enough, he had said, to keep me for a week if I used it sparingly. He had said, with a grin, that I would be all right for a week if the weather kept calm. If not, he was afraid I might be inconvenienced. But he would like me to have a week, because that was exactly the length of time that he had had. Those had been his last words before he nodded and said, ‘So long.’
“The whole of that day passed in a dead calm. I sat on the floor with my arms clasped round my knees, because there wasn’t room to stretch out my legs, and when I became too cramped in that position I stood up, which I could just manage to do if I stooped my head. Later on I found out that I could stand upright by putting my head inside the bell, but I couldn’t bear that for very long because of the intolerable noise of the clappers hitting the bell so near my ears. I tried holding the clappers still, but that was no good, as there were four of them. So I held the bell itself, which at least deadened the sound. No, I couldn’t unhook the clappers; they were a fixture. Anyhow, that first day I wasn’t much troubled by the noise of the bell, as the buoy rocked very slightly on an oily swell; I was more troubled by the dazzle of the sun on the water, not daring to shut my eyes for long lest I should miss a possible ship, and also I was divided between the gnawing of my thoughts and the boredom of those interminable hours from sunrise to sunset. I don’t suppose it is given to many men to have nothing better to do than watch the sun travel across the heavens from the moment it emerges above one horizon to the moment it dips below the rim of the other. That was what I watched—the delicacy of dawn, the blood-red of sunset, and the grand golden sweep of the journey in between the two.
“Never had I felt so abandoned or so insignificant. Can your imagination enter into it at all? To do so, you must keep the sense of the enormous circle of sea always present in your mind, the hard round edge of the horizon, and the buoy in the centre like a speck of dust in the centre of a plate. I felt I was in a tiny prison in the middle of an enormous prison. And after the sun had gone it was worse; it is true that I could no longer see that huge hard circle, but I knew that, although invisible, it was still there, and now in addition I had a black vault over me, and it grew cold, and a loneliness closed down on me such as I had not experienced while I had the sun and his warmth for companions. I dared not contemplate the prospect of many such days and nights; I simply dared not let myself think. I tried to sleep, but was too cold. A breeze sprang up at about midnight, and the buoy rocked more noticeably; again, I dared not picture my discomfort should the weather change. I called it discomfort; I didn’t know then, I hadn’t yet begun to learn.
“Two days passed like that. Two whole days. Have you ever tried to spend two days, or even one day, or even twelve hours, doing absolutely and literally nothing? If not, try it, especially if you happen to be an active man. I could only sit there, my knees drawn up and my hands either clasped round my knees or hanging between them. I was confronted all the time by the thought of what the end was to be. Starvation and death from thirst? I could see very little other prospect. For the first day I had been comparatively sanguine that a ship would come along, but hourly this hope dwindled, till there was no real hope left, but only the old obscure and unreasoning human obstinacy. So on the second day I suffered from my thoughts; I hadn’t, as yet, undergone any real physical suffering.
“The morning of the third day broke with dark clouds over a grey sea. It was indescribably dreary. All that water, all that mass of grey water! I huddled my knees up against my chest for warmth. A shower fell, and I minded that because it meant more water, not only because it chilled me; don’t think I exaggerate: the quantity and the monotony of so much water was getting on my nerves. They were in a pretty bad state by then, so bad that the dread of ultimate madness had already crossed my mind. I was weakened, too, by insufficient food, for I knew I must economise my resources. Once or twice steamers passed, a very long way off. I shouted till my throat was hoarse, but quite in vain. Each time they passed out of sight, I sobbed. Forgive me.
“The wind held, driving the masses of low clouds across the sky, and chopping the sea into little waves, white-topped amongst the grey, which tumbled and tossed the buoy till I was sickened and wearied. I fancied that the pulp of my brain was being shaken to and fro inside my head; it felt like that. I prayed for the wind to go down, but it only gained in strength. I felt I should go mad; I was so impotent, you see. And the bell clanged above my head—I was condemned to unceasing movement and unceasing noise.”
He stared round him with tormented eyes, as though afraid that the whole restaurant would begin rocking and vibrating.
“And there were other things, ridiculous and humiliating,” he resumed, “that robbed me even of the small consolation of tragedy. How can I tell you? I shall lose all dignity in your eyes—if indeed I ever had any to lose—as I lost it in my own. The terrible sickness, you understand…. That, and the din of the bell, and being flung up and down, backwards and forwards. No rest, not for a moment. I prayed, I tried to fight my way out of the buoy, between the bars, to throw myself into the sea. The sea was rising visibly, and the spray of the waves broke over me, drenching me; the salt dried upon my face, stiffening my skin. There were moments when I thought I could endure the rest, if I might have a respite from the movement; other moments, if I might have a respite from the sickness; and yet others, if I might have a respite from the clang of the bell. In the intervals of the sickness, with such strength as remained to me, I tore strips from my soaking shirt and tried to bind up the clappers; it muffled the noise a little, but not much. I wept from weariness and despair.
“It pursues me,” he said, again putting his head between his hands and shaking it with the same tired mournfulness; “at nights I think that my bed is flung up and down, and when I spring out the room reels round me as though I were drunk. There was no escape. It was no use trying to bend the bars of the cage, or to pull up the planks of the bottom. And the sickness, the sickness! It tore me, it shattered me, but never for a moment did I lose consciousness of the supreme humiliation it brought on me, and I supposed that he had foreseen this; surely he had foreseen every detail. Secure in London, by now, he was surely rubbing his hands together as he thought of the derelict ceaselessly tossing up and down at sea.” He gave a kind of snarl. “I pictured him, as no doubt he was picturing me.
“The real storm came next day, and I had to cling to the bars of the cage with both hands to save myself from being flung from side to side and broken against the iron. There were periods, I think, when I fainted from exhaustion, emerging incredibly bruised, and instantly in the grip of the sickness again. The buoy was hurled about, down into the grey valleys between the waves, drenched over and over with masses of water, as though some giant were flinging down enormous pailfuls; indeed, it remains a mystery to me why I wasn’t drowned. No doubt I would have been if the light platform hadn’t floated like a cork. The bell was ringing wildly all the time. Every time I went down with the buoy I saw the sky tilting impossibly over my head, and the wave curling up above me before it smashed and fell, burying me beneath it.”
He became silent, and sat for a long while heavily brooding to himself. Once or twice he closed his eyes, as though his thoughts were causing him intolerable pain. I knew that he was living again through all that racket and nightmare. I didn’t say anything; the thunder of the storm roared too loudly in my head for me to upraise my small voice against it, or to offer my tiny sympathy to that man whose endurance had been measured against the elements, and whose standard must be for ever after raised to the summit of their standard.
He let fall one or two phrases that seemed to open a rift down into the mirk of his experience, so that I thought I looked for a moment into the very night that he described:
“I had simply given up hope. I was so weak, you understand. By the time that night came I was just letting myself be thrown about, anyhow, quite limp, my head rolling and my arms flacking; I must have looked like a man in a fit. Whenever I opened my eyes I saw the moon between the clouds rushing furiously down the sky, and rushing back the other way as another wave took me up again on its crest. The light of the moon was just sufficient to light up the rough and tumble of the inky hills of water. I remember thinking quite stupidly to myself that the moon was a dead world, and that I envied her for being dead. All this happened to me,” he said, frowning across the table with sudden intentness, “the week before last.”
This mention of human time brought me back with a shock from the fantastic world to which he had transported me.
“Hallo!” I said, starting as one awakened, and making in my confusion a ridiculous remark, “it must be getting very late.”
Only the ceiling light burnt in the little restaurant, which but for ourselves was deserted. The stranger leant over towards me, and a shiver passed over me at the nearness of this man whom I did not know, and to whose extraordinary experience I had, so to speak, by my own doing, been made a party. I wanted to put an end to it now, I wanted to say, “Yes, I have been very much interested. Thank you very much for telling me,” and then to get up and go away. But at my first movement he detained me.
“Listen a little longer. I’m not mad, you know, and you needn’t be afraid that I shall ever bother you afterwards. You don’t know what good this has done me. I’ve been alone with this thing for a fortnight, nearly, thinking about it. The storm…. It lasted for two days; that made four days since I had been on the buoy. I think another day of storm would have killed me, There wasn’t much life left in me by the time the sea began to go down. Two days of storm….”
His voice trailed away. I think he felt, as I did, that the moment was over when he had really held all my attention and all my imagination. It was no good trying to revive it. I was tired, as though I had lived through some brief but violent mental stress.
“Two days of storm,” he muttered vaguely.
“And how did you get away?” I asked; it was a perfunctory question.
“How did I get away.—Oh.—Yes, of course. A ship, on the seventh day. Yes, there were three days of calm after the storm; comparative calm, but for the swell. So I had the week he had intended for me to have, to the full. The ship’s carpenter came alongside in a dinghy, and filed through one of the bars. I never told them how I came to be there. I said it was for a bet, and that I was to have been fetched by my friends the next day. When I got on board I collapsed. I’d just come out of hospital the day you first saw me here.” He rose wearily. “Well, I mustn’t keep you. Thank you more than I can say, for having listened.”
It seemed strange that he should be thanking me.
We walked towards the door of the restaurant together; outside, the London street was empty under a melancholy drizzle of rain.
“You had better give me your name and your address,” I said, pricked on to it by a curiously conventional conscience.
“No, no,” he said, backing away from me. “You’ve been kind, you mustn’t ever be implicated.”
“Why, what are you going to do?” I cried.
He turned, his old wideawake crammed down over his hair, and his face half buried in the upturned collar of his coat, but I saw the sudden gleam of his eyes by the light of a street lamp.
“Think out something worse to do to him,” he mumbled rapidly; “something worse to do to him.”
As he read the last words M. Lesueur’s brow darkened. A mare’s nest indeed! An hour gone and nothing gained! Then his eye caught a footnote to the last page of the translation he had just perused.
“About the middle of this story” (the footnote said) “I found a few words in brackets that seem to have no connection with the tale. They are in French—foreigner’s French and faulty—but they appear to mean: ‘We are imprisoned in the garret under the leads of the long wing of the château. Our food will last only another day.'” This laconic footnote was initialled “H. F. (translator).”
The Commissary’s eye brightened. Here at last was something, and something good. Rapidly he made his plans. He would start in twenty minutes with six men; he would advise Toussaint by telephone to meet him at the château with six more. The case would prove, perhaps, vastly important. He saw decorations and Paris employment; he read in imagination columns of praise in the great papers of the capital. Quitting unwillingly the realm of ambitious fancy, he took up the telephone, but before he could speak there came a sharp knock at the door, and a gendarme stood awaiting permission to address his superior.
“What is it?” demanded M. Lesueur.
“A tramp, sir,” replied the gendarme.
“God in heaven, man! What do I care for a tramp? Is this a workhouse? Send him away and go after him!”
“He has found two Englishmen in a dungeon,” observed the gendarme with wooden persistence.
“Let him join them!” snapped M. Lesueur, angrily. Then the next moment, “What do you say? Englishmen? Where? What dungeon?”
“He asks leave to make his deposition, sir. He is not an ordinary tramp.”
For a moment the commissary hesitated. The memory of those words interpolated in the third of the mysterious stories checked his impatience. Never neglect possible information.
“Bring him in,” he said shortly, and replaced the telephone receiver that, all this while and to the intense irritation of the exchange, he had held vaguely in his hand.
There was ushered in a lean, scarecrow figure at whose heels (despite scuffling protests from the gendarme without) limped a black, untidy dog. The tramp bowed and began at once to speak in the slow correct French of a well-educated foreigner. He told of a dusty road along which he had toiled; of a coppice and its tempting shade; of the drowsiness of afternoon; of dream voices that were not, after all, of dream; of a mound with a mysterious grating; of a subterranean cavern and its two unusual and impatient prisoners. M. Lesueur listened in silence. The story done, he took up the telephone once again. While waiting for his connection, he addressed the senior gendarme of those present in the room.
“I want the two fastest cars brought round immediately. This fellow shall take us to his mound and we will see how far he is lying and how far telling us the truth. We will then proceed to the Château de la Hourmerie. Six men will be required to accompany me. Make your selection——’allô! ‘allô!—— Toussaint?—— Is that you, Toussaint?”
And he outlined with curt efficiency the instructions laid down for his subordinate.
“In an hour,” he concluded, “we meet at the Château de la Hourmerie. One hour, mind you! One hour from now.” Smartly and with finality he hung up the receiver.
The Commissary was already struggling into his dust coat when there came yet a second interruption. The sound of many agitated feet in the outer office prepared the occupants of M. Lesueur’s private room for threatened but not for actual invasion of their retired sanctuary. Wherefore they regarded with speechless amazement the tempestuous entry of two elegantly gowned women, one clutching the other firmly by the arm, while in close and uncomfortable attendance followed two men, one tall, white-whiskered, and conspicuous in a buff alpaca suit, the other short, stout, and shining with the sweat-drops of embarrassment.
The female invaders lost no time in stating their business, but as they both spoke at once and shrilly, the unfortunate Commissary learnt little of the matter at issue between them. Not until the united efforts of all the men present had silenced feminine vociferation was it possible to understand what in the world the pother was about. The old gentleman, to whom in courtesy priority of speech was accorded, made the following statement:
“About an hour and a half ago I entered the Casino in company with the young lady whom now you observe in the grip of—er—the other lady. My companion, whose name is Amélie, was anxious at once to join the crowd at the tables.
“We contrived to edge ourselves to a convenient front seat, and for some while played quietly and with varying success. I then observed that new-comers were seeking to force a way to the front row of players, and, in order to give others their turn, stepped behind my companion, leaving vacant the spot I had previously occupied. It was filled forthwith by the second of the two ladies now before you, who thanked me with a charming smile for my courtesy, and was on the point of turning her interest wholly to the game when her eyes fell on Amélie. Instantly she flushed with excitement, paled again and flushed once more, and I was the next moment aware of a rapid movement of her arm as she snatched from the neck of Amélie an ornament that hung there from a thin gold chain.
“You can imagine the excited confusion that ensued, the outcome of which is my attendance here to account, so far as I may, for the disturbance in which I have been involved.”
M. Lesueur acknowledged die straightforward simplicity of the old gentleman’s story with a slight bow.
“Your name, sir?” he asked.
“Widiershaw. I am an Englishman.”
“Did you know any of these persons before this afternoon?”
“Yes and no. Yes—because the lady who assaulted Amélie in the Casino turns out to be the widow of a relative of mine, and her name, although not her person, is quite familiar to me. No—because my acquaintance with Mdlle Amélie predated by an hour only our visit to the Casino. This gentleman I have never seen before.”
The Commissary suddenly recalled his waiting motor-cars, his telephoned appointment, his sensational prospects at the Château de la Hourmerie. Between him and the door of his room was an excited and perspiring crowd, not the least awesome members of which were the two angry ladies. By ill-luck his second in command was ill and away from work. Next in seniority came an official, competent enough to deal with ordinary cases of theft, disturbance, or general misdemeanour, but hardly to be trusted with an affair deserving of delicate and cautious management. M. Lesueur felt obscurely that the present was an affair of that kind. The parties to it were not only well dressed, but (with the possible exception of Amélie, whose social complacency the evidence of Mr. Withershaw appeared to have established) suggestive of good breeding, or at least of normal good behaviour. It would not do, thanks to the inexperience of a subordinate, to involve the Commissariat of St. Hilaire in unpleasantness with foreigners of influence and distinction.
With a sigh of impatience M. Lesueur turned again to his chair and sat down. He gave an order to the gendarme at his elbow:
“Telephone Toussaint that I am delayed, that I will be at La Hourmerie half an hour later than I said. Perhaps forty minutes. The cars can wait.”
He spoke in a low voice, but not so low that the quick ear of Amélie did not catch the words “La Hourmerie.” She compressed her lips, cast a look of spiteful triumph at her antagonist (who still held her arm as in a vice), and awaited developments in vengeful silence.
“Now!” said the Commissary briskly. “Your names, please. M. Withershaw—prénom? Thank you. M. James Withershaw. Yours, madame? Pardon? Spell it, please.”
“D-A-N-E—trait d’union—V-E-R-E-K-E-R,” said the captor lady, with precision and a very passable accent.
A clerk made the necessary entries. Mrs. Dane-Vereker was asked to give her version of the afternoon’s events.
“They are few and easy to relate,” she said. “This woman was my maid. Two days ago she stole, among other things, a valuable and valued cameo belonging to me, and disappeared. This afternoon, and by the merest hazard, I found myself next to her at the tables. With an effrontery natural to women of her type she was wearing the very ornament she had stolen. Naturally I charged her with the theft, and attempted to seize my property. That is all I have to say.”
“And you, Mdlle Vildrac?”
Amélie shrugged insolent shoulders.
“Things have an air so different from different points of view,” she observed. “Madame tells her story. I tell mine. Which will you believe? Here are the real facts. It is true, as Madame has said, that until two days ago I was Madame’s maid. It is also true in effect that two days ago I left her. But not clandestinely, oh no! nor with stolen valuables. Rather at her bidding, and with a small trinket that she gave to me at parting. ‘Amélie,’ she said to me, ‘I have planned to leave these people we are with’—you must understand, Monsieur, that Madame and I were members of a touring party under the charge of M. Hector Turpin yonder. Mon Dieu, how strange some of that party! English, all of them, and so strange!—— But I was saying that Madame had planned to leave them. ‘I am going away with M. Turpin,’ she said to me, ‘and these stupid people must extricate themselves as best they may from the trap into which my clever Turpin has led them. You will not betray me? Go you to Paris or to St. Hilaire and seek your fortune. Here is money and here is the cameo you have so often admired. Wear it in memory of me, and for its sake keep silence.’
“Voila!” Mdlle Amélie spread out emphatic hands. “Am I a thief? Is it theft to take gifts from another woman? And finally, M. le Commissaire, seeing that you are bound for La Hourmerie, I ask you to observe that this precious elopement took place from that very spot, and that in the Château de la Hourmerie were staying those other unfortunates, now abandoned to their fate by the selfish passion of Madame for her cicerone turned paramour!”
It may be imagined that Amélie’s scandalous declaration let loose Babel once again in the office of the unhappy Commissary. Mrs. Dane-Vereker, Turpin, Amélie, and Mr. Withershaw vociferated simultaneously and with prolonged fervour. The patience of M. Lesueur came finally to an end.
“Silence!” he roared, banging the desk in frenzy. And then to the attendant gendarmes, who, by now, numbered some twelve highly edified stalwarts, he shouted an order for the instant incarceration of these pestilent folk. Their fate should be decided on the morrow.
“As for you, Mademoiselle,” he said to Amélie, “I know your type well, and I ask you to note that I am indeed bound for La Hourmerie. I shall not forget your story. Between this moment and to-morrow you will have time to think of the various embellishments of which it is susceptible.”
And he hurried from the room toward the outer door, followed by six gendarmes, and, between two of them, the tramp, while from the office they had left came a confused turmoil of bitter feminine insult, of French official determination, of furious Anglo-Saxon protest. Baba, the black dog, bundled in his master’s wake.
On the terrace of the Château de la Hourmerie clustered a motley and excited group. In the centre M. Lesueur, his face alight with the satisfaction of a quest worthily fulfilled, gazed almost fondly at the body of rescuers and rescued that bore witness to his triumph. First was the tramp, impassive as ever, his whole bearing a slouch of uninterested fatigue. By his side—unshaven, a little dusty, but otherwise no whit the worse—stood the Professor and the Bureaucrat, salved from their underground prison by the crowbars of the six muscular policemen who formed at the present impressivejuncture a stolid back-drop to the scene. Close by, also unshaven and weary-looking, but happy in the moment of release, were a priest, a poet, and a nondescript young man of amiable aspect and engaging mien, whose name was Peter Brown. M. Lesueur had just completed his narrative of events at the Commissariat of Police.
“Good Lord!” said the Bureaucrat. “Fancy Mrs. Dane bolting with old Turps!”
“I shall never write another story on wallpaper,” remarked Peter Brown. “It’s worse than marking handkerchiefs. But we could make no one hear, and thought, if we hurled out of the window a bundle of paper with a message hidden somewhere in the middle of apparently harmless text, there was just a chance of its being picked up. The lane runs fairly near to yonder corner of the house. You can imagine how thrilled we were when the old envelope—weighted with Father Anthony’s pocket knife and my pipe stop—fell plump into a passing cart.”
“The chance was indeed providential,” commented the Priest gravely, “but let us not forget that we owe to our zealous and sharp-eyed friends among the police the actual discovery of our queer message hidden in the grass of the crossroads.”
“Where are the others of the party?” broke in the Bureaucrat. “We know that Turpin and Mrs. Dane and that minx Amélie are in jail. But where are Miss Pogson and Doctor Pennock and Mr. Scott, and where’s old what’s-his-name, the Master Printer?…”
The reply was unexpected. Somewhere at the back of the château a clock struck noisily. In their basket chairs on the terrace of the Château de la Hourmerie the members of Mr. Hector Turpin’s first Continental touring party sat spellbound at the force of a chime hitherto unnoticed. They had counted twelve strokes. To their horrified amazement, the chime rang out once more—and they realised that the tall windows of the house no longer threw comforting light upon the flagstones, that behind them, as before, lay utter darkness.
Seven voices spoke as one:
“Did you hear it? The clock struck thirteen!”
“Did you see, the way the lights went out?”
For a moment there was profound silence. Then from the last chair of the line came a long-drawn, chuckling laugh, a laugh of pride, of amusement, of relief,
“Well, upon my word!” said in quiet, incisive tones the voice of Henry Scott (of the Psychical Research Society). “I hardly dared to hope for so complete a triumph! My good friends, it is one a.m. As the clock struck twelve you sank into hypnotic trance; on the point of its striking one, you emerged. The hour of interval was telescoped in your waking consciousness to a few seconds. As for the lights—at half-past twelve Doctor Pennock went to bed. She turned them out as she passed through the house. I asked her to. I will relight them now.”
And he walked to the nearest window, crossed the room within and switched on every lamp.
The bemused wits of the victims of Mr. Scott’s hypnotic joke could not immediately respond to this sudden revelation of the truth. Also their eyes blinked in the new brilliance of projected light. Mrs. Dane-Vereker was the first to recover speech.
“But where is that wretch Amélie?” she gasped.
“And the Commissary?” demanded Father Anthony.
“And the Old Gentleman?” echoed the Courier.
“Turpin, by the lord Harry!” shouted the Bureaucrat. “But you’ve eloped with Mrs. Dane!”
“The guile of an enemy detained me in a damp and poorly ventilated cave,” complained the Professor.
“There was a tramp here with a dog!” moaned the poet.
“The terrace was crowded with police!” cried Peter Brown, “and it was still daylight!…”
Mr. Scott enjoyed their bewilderment with the cruel calm of the true psychological investigator.
‘You will never see any of those people again,’ he observed quietly. ‘Except poor Amélie, who is in bed this three hours, I invented them all. Not a bad set of creations, were they?’
A snore from the shadow drew attention to the stertorous oblivion of Mr. Buck, the retired master printer.
‘Buck was my only failure,’ said the psychical researcher. ‘He was fast asleep when I started in. I say nothing of Doctor Pennock; she was too much for me; but then she knows the game. Nevertheless, she had the sportsmanship to leave me at it.’
By this time signs of considerable indignation were visible among the dupes of Mr. Scott’s inventive skill. The Lady of Fashion recalled with blushing fury her supposed escapade with the absurd Courier. The Bureaucrat re-lived his angry helplessness behind the iron grille. Before, however, anger could break out, the tension gave way to the irrepressible humour of Peter Brown. Suddenly he began to laugh, and each moment he laughed more loudly and more shamelessly. One by one the others joined, until by the healthy wind of merriment every trailing wisp of irritation was dispelled and blown away. Mr. Scott rose to his feet.
‘You are admirable folk,’ he said, ‘the whole collection of you! I am proud to be associated with so unselfish and humorous an assembly. Let me make some slight amends for my impertinence. In the first place, I would ask your pardon for subjecting you without warning or permission to a most interesting experiment. In the second place, let me tell you a tale against myself, a tale that shows me in the light of a bewildered, blundering fool. I had never, until the complete success of the unwarrantable trick I have just played upon you excellent people, really recovered from the depression of this adventure. It will discipline my vanity to tell the story, for I can hardly think of it without nervousness. Surely, by the time it has been made verbally public, I shall be chastened as befits simple humanity.'” Vita Sackville-West, “The Tale of Mr. Peter Brown;” in The New Decameron: Volume III, 1922
It was a much-deserved vacation for West. It’d been a rough few months on top of a rough few years. Only a couple of presidential cycles ago, West was on stage in Harlem, exchanging embraces with then–Senator Obama. But now, West finds himself in a strange place. After his public break with the Obama presidency, the same liberal intelligentsia that once championed West has not only thrown him overboard, but seems to delight in making a public spectacle of their scorn for a man they claim is little more than ’embittered’ after being ‘spurned’ by the first black president.
Long beloved by liberals as the premier black public intellectual, West is now rejected by the same crowd of Democratic Party apparatchiks that first helped him shoot to fame through television appearances, countless books, a hip-hop album, and even an onscreen role in The Matrix sequels. The Nation’s Joan Walsh has said that West is in the midst of a ‘tragic meltdown.’ The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart — the same man who tried to claim a photo of Sanders at a 1962 civil rights sit-in was fraudulent — has called West ‘no better than a Birther.’
Michael Eric Dyson, in one of the weirder and more personalized anti-West takedowns, published what can only be called a scornful ten-thousand-word breakup letter to his former mentor. Dyson, the Georgetown professor and Aspen Institute regular, spent one particularly lengthy section of his New Republic essay “ranking” black public intellectuals’ prowess according to their equivalent prizefighter. West was given the rank of Mike Tyson.
All of this led up to the great left/liberal schism of 2016 that was Sanders vs. Clinton. As Dyson, Capehart, and Walsh lined up firmly behind the increasingly miserable Clinton campaign, West found himself allied first with Bernie Sanders and later Green Party candidate Jill Stein. At the height of Sanders-mania, while Dyson, Walsh, and Capehart were delivering cringeworthy apologetics for Clinton, West was working with the Sanders campaign in the South, touring black churches and colleges in support of the social-democratic political revolution. In more than a few of these events, he sat alongside Adolph Reed, the man who had written a classic excoriation of both West and Dyson and their entire field of “black public intellectuals.”
The irony of West literally sharing the stage with Reed was lost on few. Written in the 1990s, Reed’s “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?” reads like prophecy today. The black public intellectual, in “Drums,” was a “freelance race spokesman; his status depended on designation by white elites rather than by any black electorate or social movement” only able to claim that status thanks to a long period of depoliticization. His role was to thus interpret “the opaquely black heart of darkness for whites.”
Unsurprisingly, this role fits perfectly within the brokerage model of politics that the Democratic Party has so heavily relied on for years to enact an agenda that is increasingly at odds with the material needs of most black voters. In the original essay, Reed found perhaps the clearest articulation of this role in West’s work up to that point — referencing West-isms like the call for a “love ethic” and a “politics of conversion.”
But in the Obama era, black public intellectuals find themselves in a curious position. It’s a difficult balancing act — how to keep “interpreting the drums” for the Democratic Party elite, as Reed’s argument goes, while staying friendly with that same party that’s overseen a mass economic immiseration of working-class Americans and an exploding carceral state (both of which disproportionately affect black Americans).
The contradictions in this relationship grow even starker as the rhetorical victories have stacked up. Today, even Silicon Valley CEOs proudly proclaim that “Black Lives Matter.” The discourse of diversity and the grad student seminar has become entrenched in everything from television criticism to celebrity tabloids. The Obama years have been a boon to the salaried intellectual class of all races, but lean times for the working-class constituents whose needs, hopes, and desires the black intellectual class vies to interpret for white audiences. What is the role of the black public intellectual when the discourse of “race relations” is now perhaps the liberal class’s preferred way — some would say only way — of talking about our never-ending barrage of social injustices?
Needless to say, the Obama era has been a hell of a trip for Brother West. As the analytical role of black public intellectual became increasingly unable to explain the growing social inequalities in American life, West bolted from the political mainstream to the margins. Where he once shared the stage with President Obama, he now occupies it with people like Revolutionary Communist Party leader Bob Avakian. While the Hillary Clinton campaign enlisted the Democratic Party’s black bourgeoisie to batten down the hatches against the Sanders threat, West assailed the Obama legacy as one of illusory racial uplift alongside the material reality of a post-crash society in which single black women were left with a median net worth of five dollars.
When Clinton’s black surrogates shamelessly accused Sanders of racial aloofness, West fought back using the same rhetoric of a “black public intellectual” that had helped build his career. But now, he was attempting to forge that same language into a weapon of social-democratic demystification, wielding it against the Clintonite fog of cultural studies jargon, meritocratic appeals, and subtle free-market apologetics.
It was always doomed. To no one’s surprise, West’s exhaustive intervention failed. No matter how much he vied with his former comrades for the “black public consciousness,” Clinton swept the South by even larger margins than anyone had expected. The same brokerage politics of racial authenticity that had, decades ago, delivered black votes to the Clinton machine weren’t about to win them away for a seventy-four-year-old senator few had heard of. The Wests of the world can deliver only righteousness and fiery passions. Congressmen Jim Clyburn and John Lewis can deliver jobs, networks, and targeted legislation.
As much as West tries to summon what he calls “the black prophetic tradition” in order to make it work for the democratic-socialist agenda he sincerely believes in, the battle over that discourse has long since been lost. The Democratic Party has only grown more skilled at “interpreting the drums,” even as it continues to abandon or rewrite historical commitments to trade unions and social insurance programs — commitments that disproportionately benefited black Americans.
We live in an era in which Clinton — who proudly supported mass incarceration and the obliteration of welfare — declares that a social-democratic program of financial reform and single-payer health insurance “won’t end racism.” A recent WikiLeaks publication of internal Clinton campaign emails reveals another line they were testing out against Sanders: “Wall Street is not gunning down young African Americans or denying immigrants a path to citizenship.”
It’s a sentiment that would’ve bewildered civil rights veterans like A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr, John P. Davis, Bayard Rustin, and Lester Granger, all of whom were committed to social-democratic politics as a crucial means of putting racism on a path towards ultimate extinction. The tragedy of West isn’t that he’s “full of bitterness,” as his liberal detractors claim. It’s that the politics of West’s “black prophetic tradition,” try as he might to wield them for socialist ends, will today find their strongest, clearest articulation in the same old quest of “interpreting the drums” for a mostly white ruling class.
Earlier in the primary season, during an interview on the Real News Network, West directly called out the black elite — whom he calls “the lumpenbourgeoisie” — for abandoning “the black prophetic tradition” for “individual upward mobility” and the “formation of the black professional class.” As he put it, “Black folk for the most part became just extensions of a milquetoast neoliberal Democratic Party. But Adolph Reed and a host of others told this story many years ago. It’s becoming much more crystallized. We have to be willing to tell the truth no matter how unpopular it is.”
West didn’t hesitate to proclaim that his biggest left-wing critic had been right all along. But the fact that he felt betrayed by this “lumpenbourgeoisie” in the first place only shows the limits of this political vision and the power of Reed’s original critique. After all, why would a “lumpenbourgeoisie” act different than any bourgeoisie? A vision of a harmonious insular black “community” without any internal class tensions might sound appealing to some in 2016 — particularly to the Democratic Party — but it’s a delusion no serious leftist can afford to entertain.
But as tragic as West’s crusade can appear, the sincerity of his commitment to a more just and egalitarian world — and the righteousness of his passion — cannot be called into question. Those who, like Michael Eric Dyson, claim that West’s political commitments now derive from nothing more than hurt feelings over unreturned phone calls to Barack are either not paying attention or shamelessly projecting their own guilty consciences onto West.
As soon as Sanders laid down his arms and endorsed Clinton, West was already on the trail for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, telling Bill Maher that “the Clinton train — Wall Street, security, surveillance, militarism — that’s not going in the same direction I’m going . . . she’s a neoliberal.” And while many criticisms of the Green Party’s electoral myopia are warranted, it’s impossible not to respect West’s drawing a line in the sand against the Democrats — a party he sees as irredeemable. If his break with Obama made him “sad and bitter,” one can only wonder what his elite critics think of him now.
The truth is that Cornel West is being punished for choosing a genuine commitment to a more egalitarian society over the faux radicalism (and career opportunities) of the DNC and MSNBC black intelligentsia. On an appearance on late-night television a couple years ago, David Letterman pitched him a softball question on the overall improvement in “race relations.” Instead, West chastised Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder for their inaction on police violence: “It’s a question of what kind of persons do you have, not just black faces.” After Letterman pointed out how at least things had improved for the LGBT population, West countered: “The system is still structured in such a way that one percent of the population owns 43 percent of the wealth, you end up with an embrace of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, especially upper–middle class and above, but the gay poor, the lesbian poor, they’re still catching hell . . . It’s not just black. It’s white. It’s brown. It’s the structure of a system . . . it’s worse [than ever].”
I was thinking about that when I stuck my sweaty hand out to shake West’s on the Epcot promenade. I was also thinking about the first time I ever heard him speak in public. It was at Left Forum just before Occupy Wall Street and just after the Wisconsin protests and the Arab Spring. And while I’ve never been shy about poking fun at that venue’s tendency towards ‘Comic Con for Alternative Politics,’ that year was different. It felt like that disparate coalition of marginal ideologies we call ‘the radical left’ was beginning to cohere into something. And West’s fiery speech that day made that possibility feel just within reach. Sure, there were a few airy West-isms and of course weaving in references to his favorite musicians as sources of potential ‘radicalization’ trickling through the culture (‘listen to a little Curtis Mayfield, listen to a little Bob Dylan, listen to a little Bruce Springsteen, listen to a little Aretha — her birthday’s on Monday!’).
But it didn’t matter. Because for the first time in years, it seemed like something really was happening. And the man on stage was the perfect one to give voice to that excitement, to that first hint of a lifelong passion and commitment. I remember looking around the auditorium: the young, this new generation who would soon file out in Occupy and, a few years later, join the Sanders campaign, were hanging on his every word as they listened to West define what it meant to be radical, what it meant to be on the Left. ‘That means we cut radically against the grain of the last forty years, especially in the American empire, where we have been told lies. Unfettered markets generating self-sufficiency, prosperity, and justice is a lie!. . . Wall Street oligarchs and the corporate elites are sucking so much of the blood of American democracy in such a way that more and more people are just useless, superfluous. And they don’t care! They think that they can get away with it because there’s been no resistance of large scale! And they think in the end, the chickens don’t come home to roost, that you don’t reap what you sow . . . we simply say at Left Forum,’ and here he backed away from the mic, lowered his voice and smiled, ‘We stand for the truth.’ People were on their feet, exploding in applause. While West’s reputation has suffered greatly among liberals, it has never been better among socialists. And while still marginal, after the Sanders challenge to the entire liberal class, ours is a corner with some confidence now. West is a longtime member of the Democratic Socialists of America and his reputation for generosity among younger members is unparalleled. He seemingly has time for everyone. Especially those who offer him nothing in career opportunities or elite respectability.
Unlike his former student Dyson, I doubt Cornel West will be receiving any new invitations to the Aspen Institute, at least for the time being. The Democratic Party and MSNBC elite may hate him, and we might quibble about the usefulness of his conversations with Bob Avakian, but it seems at long last Brother West has found his home.” Connor Kilpatrick, “Everybody Hates Cornel West;” Jacobin, 2016