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Chapter 3

CHAPTER III.

The terrace in front of the house was a long narrow strip of
turf, bounded along its outer edge by a graceful stone
balustrade. Two little summer-houses of brick stood at either
end. Below the house the ground sloped very steeply away, and
the terrace was a remarkably high one; from the balusters to the
sloping lawn beneath was a drop of thirty feet. Seen from below,
the high unbroken terrace wall, built like the house itself of
brick, had the almost menacing aspect of a fortification--a
castle bastion, from whose parapet one looked out across airy
depths to distances level with the eye. Below, in the
foreground, hedged in by solid masses of sculptured yew trees,
lay the stone-brimmed swimming-pool. Beyond it stretched the
park, with its massive elms, its green expanses of grass, and, at
the bottom of the valley, the gleam of the narrow river. On the
farther side of the stream the land rose again in a long slope,
chequered with cultivation. Looking up the valley, to the right,
one saw a line of blue, far-off hills.

The tea-table had been planted in the shade of one of the little
summer-houses, and the rest of the party was already assembled
about it when Denis and Priscilla made their appearance. Henry
Wimbush had begun to pour out the tea. He was one of those
ageless, unchanging men on the farther side of fifty, who might
be thirty, who might be anything. Denis had known him almost as
long as he could remember. In all those years his pale, rather
handsome face had never grown any older; it was like the pale
grey bowler hat which he always wore, winter and summer--
unageing, calm, serenely without expression.

Next him, but separated from him and from the rest of the world
by the almost impenetrable barriers of her deafness, sat Jenny
Mullion. She was perhaps thirty, had a tilted nose and a pink-
and-white complexion, and wore her brown hair plaited and coiled
in two lateral buns over her ears. In the secret tower of her
deafness she sat apart, looking down at the world through sharply
piercing eyes. What did she think of men and women and things?
That was something that Denis had never been able to discover.
In her enigmatic remoteness Jenny was a little disquieting. Even
now some interior joke seemed to be amusing her, for she was
smiling to herself, and her brown eyes were like very bright
round marbles.

On his other side the serious, moonlike innocence of Mary
Bracegirdle's face shone pink and childish. She was nearly
twenty-three, but one wouldn't have guessed it. Her short hair,
clipped like a page's, hung in a bell of elastic gold about her
cheeks. She had large blue china eyes, whose expression was one
of ingenuous and often puzzled earnestness.

Next to Mary a small gaunt man was sitting, rigid and erect in
his chair. In appearance Mr. Scogan was like one of those
extinct bird-lizards of the Tertiary. His nose was beaked, his
dark eye had the shining quickness of a robin's. But there was
nothing soft or gracious or feathery about him. The skin of his
wrinkled brown face had a dry and scaly look; his hands were the
hands of a crocodile. His movements were marked by the lizard's
disconcertingly abrupt clockwork speed; his speech was thin,
fluty, and dry. Henry Wimbush's school-fellow and exact
contemporary, Mr. Scogan looked far older and, at the same time,
far more youthfully alive than did that gentle aristocrat with
the face like a grey bowler.

Mr. Scogan might look like an extinct saurian, but Gombauld was
altogether and essentially human. In the old-fashioned natural
histories of the 'thirties he might have figured in a steel
engraving as a type of Homo Sapiens--an honour which at that time
commonly fell to Lord Byron. Indeed, with more hair and less
collar, Gombauld would have been completely Byronic--more than
Byronic, even, for Gombauld was of Provencal descent, a black-
haired young corsair of thirty, with flashing teeth and luminous
large dark eyes. Denis looked at him enviously. He was jealous
of his talent: if only he wrote verse as well as Gombauld
painted pictures! Still more, at the moment, he envied Gombauld
his looks, his vitality, his easy confidence of manner. Was it
surprising that Anne should like him? Like him?--it might even
be something worse, Denis reflected bitterly, as he walked at
Priscilla's side down the long grass terrace.

Between Gombauld and Mr. Scogan a very much lowered deck-chair
presented its back to the new arrivals as they advanced towards
the tea-table. Gombauld was leaning over it; his face moved
vivaciously; he smiled, he laughed, he made quick gestures with
his hands. From the depths of the chair came up a sound of soft,
lazy laughter. Denis started as he heard it. That laughter--how
well he knew it! What emotions it evoked in him! He quickened
his pace.

In her low deck-chair Anne was nearer to lying than to sitting.
Her long, slender body reposed in an attitude of listless and
indolent grace. Within its setting of light brown hair her face
had a pretty regularity that was almost doll-like. And indeed
there were moments when she seemed nothing more than a doll; when
the oval face, with its long-lashed, pale blue eyes, expressed
nothing; when it was no more than a lazy mask of wax. She was
Henry Wimbush's own niece; that bowler-like countenance was one
of the Wimbush heirlooms; it ran in the family, appearing in its
female members as a blank doll-face. But across this dollish
mask, like a gay melody dancing over an unchanging fundamental
bass, passed Anne's other inheritance--quick laughter, light
ironic amusement, and the changing expressions of many moods.
She was smiling now as Denis looked down at her: her cat's
smile, he called it, for no very good reason. The mouth was
compressed, and on either side of it two tiny wrinkles had formed
themselves in her cheeks. An infinity of slightly malicious
amusement lurked in those little folds, in the puckers about the
half-closed eyes, in the eyes themselves, bright and laughing
between the narrowed lids.

The preliminary greetings spoken, Denis found an empty chair
between Gombauld and Jenny and sat down.

"How are you, Jenny?" he shouted to her.

Jenny nodded and smiled in mysterious silence, as though the
subject of her health were a secret that could not be publicly
divulged.

"How's London been since I went away?" Anne inquired from the
depth of her chair.

The moment had come; the tremendously amusing narrative was
waiting for utterance. "Well," said Denis, smiling happily, "to
begin with..."

"Has Priscilla told you of our great antiquarian find?" Henry
Wimbush leaned forward; the most promising of buds was nipped.

"To begin with," said Denis desperately, "there was the
Ballet..."

"Last week," Mr. Wimbush went on softly and implacably, "we dug
up fifty yards of oaken drain-pipes; just tree trunks with a hole
bored through the middle. Very interesting indeed. Whether they
were laid down by the monks in the fifteenth century, or
whether..."

Denis listened gloomily. "Extraordinary!" he said, when Mr.
Wimbush had finished; "quite extraordinary!" He helped himself
to another slice of cake. He didn't even want to tell his tale
about London now; he was damped.

For some time past Mary's grave blue eyes had been fixed upon
him. "What have you been writing lately?" she asked. It would
be nice to have a little literary conversation.

"Oh, verse and prose," said Denis--"just verse and prose."

"Prose?" Mr. Scogan pounced alarmingly on the word. "You've been
writing prose?"

"Yes."

"Not a novel?"

"Yes."

"My poor Denis!" exclaimed Mr. Scogan. "What about?"

Denis felt rather uncomfortable. "Oh, about the usual things,
you know."

"Of course," Mr. Scogan groaned. "I'll describe the plot for
you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was
always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the
usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the
artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries
the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a
novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and
disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future."

Denis blushed scarlet. Mr. Scogan had described the plan of his
novel with an accuracy that was appalling. He made an effort to
laugh. "You're entirely wrong," he said. "My novel is not in
the least like that." It was a heroic lie. Luckily, he
reflected, only two chapters were written. He would tear them up
that very evening when he unpacked.

Mr. Scogan paid no attention to his denial, but went on: "Why
will you young men continue to write about things that are so
entirely uninteresting as the mentality of adolescents and
artists? Professional anthropologists might find it interesting
to turn sometimes from the beliefs of the Blackfellow to the
philosophical preoccupations of the undergraduate. But you can't
expect an ordinary adult man, like myself, to be much moved by
the story of his spiritual troubles. And after all, even in
England, even in Germany and Russia, there are more adults than
adolescents. As for the artist, he is preoccupied with problems
that are so utterly unlike those of the ordinary adult man--
problems of pure aesthetics which don't so much as present
themselves to people like myself--that a description of his
mental processes is as boring to the ordinary reader as a piece
of pure mathematics. A serious book about artists regarded as
artists is unreadable; and a book about artists regarded as
lovers, husbands, dipsomaniacs, heroes, and the like is really
not worth writing again. Jean-Christophe is the stock artist of
literature, just as Professor Radium of "Comic Cuts" is its stock
man of science."

'I'm sorry to hear I'm as uninteresting as all that," said
Gombauld.

"Not at all, my dear Gombauld," Mr. Scogan hastened to explain.
"As a lover or a dipsomaniac, I've no doubt of your being a most
fascinating specimen. But as a combiner of forms, you must
honestly admit it, you're a bore."

"I entirely disagree with you," exclaimed Mary. She was somehow
always out of breath when she talked. And her speech was
punctuated by little gasps. "I've known a great many artists,
and I've always found their mentality very interesting.
Especially in Paris. Tschuplitski, for example--I saw a great
deal of Tschuplitski in Paris this spring..."

"Ah, but then you're an exception, Mary, you're an exception,"
said Mr. Scogan. "You are a femme superieure."

A flush of pleasure turned Mary's face into a harvest moon.

Aldous Huxley

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