Towards sunset the fair itself became quiescent. It was the hour
for the dancing to begin. At one side of the village of tents a
space had been roped off. Acetylene lamps, hung round it on
posts, cast a piercing white light. In one corner sat the band,
and, obedient to its scraping and blowing, two or three hundred
dancers trampled across the dry ground, wearing away the grass
with their booted feet. Round this patch of all but daylight,
alive with motion and noise, the night seemed preternaturally
dark. Bars of light reached out into it, and every now and then
a lonely figure or a couple of lovers, interlaced, would cross
the bright shaft, flashing for a moment into visible existence,
to disappear again as quickly and surprisingly as they had come.
Denis stood by the entrance of the enclosure, watching the
swaying, shuffling crowd. The slow vortex brought the couples
round and round again before him, as though he were passing them
in review. There was Priscilla, still wearing her queenly toque,
still encouraging the villagers--this time by dancing with one of
the tenant farmers. There was Lord Moleyn, who had stayed on to
the disorganised, passoverish meal that took the place of dinner
on this festal day; he one-stepped shamblingly, his bent knees
more precariously wobbly than ever, with a terrified village
beauty. Mr. Scogan trotted round with another. Mary was in the
embrace of a young farmer of heroic proportions; she was looking
up at him, talking, as Denis could see, very seriously. What
about? he wondered. The Malthusian League, perhaps. Seated in
the corner among the band, Jenny was performing wonders of
virtuosity upon the drums. Her eyes shone, she smiled to
herself. A whole subterranean life seemed to be expressing
itself in those loud rat-tats, those long rolls and flourishes of
drumming. Looking at her, Denis ruefully remembered the red
notebook; he wondered what sort of a figure he was cutting now.
But the sight of Anne and Gombauld swimming past--Anne with her
eyes almost shut and sleeping, as it were, on the sustaining
wings of movement and music--dissipated these preoccupations.
Male and female created He them...There they were, Anne and
Gombauld, and a hundred couples more--all stepping harmoniously
together to the old tune of Male and Female created He them. But
Denis sat apart; he alone lacked his complementary opposite.
They were all coupled but he; all but he...
Somebody touched him on the shoulder and he looked up. It was
"I never showed you our oaken drainpipes," he said. "Some of the
ones we dug up are lying quite close to here. Would you like to
come and see them?"
Denis got up, and they walked off together into the darkness.
The music grew fainter behind them. Some of the higher notes
faded out altogether. Jenny's drumming and the steady sawing of
the bass throbbed on, tuneless and meaningless in their ears.
Henry Wimbush halted.
"Here we are," he said, and, taking an electric torch out of his
pocket, he cast a dim beam over two or three blackened sections
of tree trunk, scooped out into the semblance of pipes, which
were lying forlornly in a little depression in the ground.
"Very interesting," said Denis, with a rather tepid enthusiasm.
They sat down on the grass. A faint white glare, rising from
behind a belt of trees, indicated the position of the dancing-
floor. The music was nothing but a muffled rhythmic pulse.
"I shall be glad," said Henry Wimbush, "when this function comes
at last to an end."
"I can believe it."
"I do not know how it is," Mr. Wimbush continued, "but the
spectacle of numbers of my fellow-creatures in a state of
agitation moves in me a certain weariness, rather than any gaiety
or excitement. The fact is, they don't very much interest me.
They're aren't in my line. You follow me? I could never take
much interest, for example, in a collection of postage stamps.
Primitives or seventeenth-century books--yes. They are my line.
But stamps, no. I don't know anything about them; they're not my
line. They don't interest me, they give me no emotion. It's
rather the same with people, I'm afraid. I'm more at home with
these pipes." He jerked his head sideways towards the hollowed
logs. "The trouble with the people and events of the present is
that you never know anything about them. What do I know of
contemporary politics? Nothing. What do I know of the people I
see round about me? Nothing. What they think of me or of
anything else in the world, what they will do in five minutes'
time, are things I can't guess at. For all I know, you may
suddenly jump up and try to murder me in a moment's time."
"Come, come," said Denis.
"True," Mr. Wimbush continued, "the little I know about your past
is certainly reassuring. But I know nothing of your present, and
neither you nor I know anything of your future. It's appalling;
in living people, one is dealing with unknown and unknowable
quantities. One can only hope to find out anything about them by
a long series of the most disagreeable and boring human contacts,
involving a terrible expense of time. It's the same with current
events; how can I find out anything about them except by devoting
years to the most exhausting first-hand study, involving once
more an endless number of the most unpleasant contacts? No, give
me the past. It doesn't change; it's all there in black and
white, and you can get to know about it comfortably and
decorously and, above all, privately--by reading. By reading I
know a great deal of Caesar Borgia, of St. Francis, of Dr.
Johnson; a few weeks have made me thoroughly acquainted with
these interesting characters, and I have been spared the tedious
and revolting process of getting to know them by personal
contact, which I should have to do if they were living now. How
gay and delightful life would be if one could get rid of all the
human contacts! Perhaps, in the future, when machines have
attained to a state of perfection--for I confess that I am, like
Godwin and Shelley, a believer in perfectibility, the
perfectibility of machinery--then, perhaps, it will be possible
for those who, like myself, desire it, to live in a dignified
seclusion, surrounded by the delicate attentions of silent and
graceful machines, and entirely secure from any human intrusion.
It is a beautiful thought."
"Beautiful," Denis agreed. "But what about the desirable human
contacts, like love and friendship?"
The black silhouette against the darkness shook its head. "The
pleasures even of these contacts are much exaggerated," said the
polite level voice. "It seems to me doubtful whether they are
equal to the pleasures of private reading and contemplation.
Human contacts have been so highly valued in the past only
because reading was not a common accomplishment and because books
were scarce and difficult to reproduce. The world, you must
remember, is only just becoming literate. As reading becomes
more and more habitual and widespread, an ever-increasing number
of people will discover that books will give them all the
pleasures of social life and none of its intolerable tedium. At
present people in search of pleasure naturally tend to congregate
in large herds and to make a noise; in future their natural
tendency will be to seek solitude and quiet. The proper study of
mankind is books."
"I sometimes think that it may be," said Denis; he was wondering
if Anne and Gombauld were still dancing together.
"Instead of which," said Mr. Wimbush, with a sigh, "I must go and
see if all is well on the dancing-floor." They got up and began
to walk slowly towards the white glare. "If all these people
were dead," Henry Wimbush went on, "this festivity would be
extremely agreeable. Nothing would be pleasanter than to read in
a well-written book of an open-air ball that took place a century
ago. How charming! one would say; how pretty and how amusing!
But when the ball takes place to-day, when one finds oneself
involved in it, then one sees the thing in its true light. It
turns out to be merely this." He waved his hand in the direction
of the acetylene flares. "In my youth," he went on after a
pause, "I found myself, quite fortuitously, involved in a series
of the most phantasmagorical amorous intrigues. A novelist could
have made his fortune out of them, and even if I were to tell
you, in my bald style, the details of these adventures, you would
be amazed at the romantic tale. But I assure you, while they
were happening--these romantic adventures--they seemed to me no
more and no less exciting than any other incident of actual life.
To climb by night up a rope-ladder to a second-floor window in an
old house in Toledo seemed to me, while I was actually performing
this rather dangerous feat, an action as obvious, as much to be
taken for granted, as--how shall I put it?--as quotidian as
catching the 8.52 from Surbiton to go to business on a Monday
morning. Adventures and romance only take on their adventurous
and romantic qualities at second-hand. Live them, and they are
just a slice of life like the rest. In literature they become as
charming as this dismal ball would be if we were celebrating its
tercentenary." They had come to the entrance of the enclosure
and stood there, blinking in the dazzling light. "Ah, if only we
were!" Henry Wimbush added.
Anne and Gombauld were still dancing together.
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