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The sense of purity is a puzzling and at times a fearful thing. It seems so noble, and it starts as one with morality. But it is a dangerous guide, and can lead us away not only from what is gracious, but also from what is good. Agnes, in this tangle, had followed it blindly, partly because she was a woman, and it meant more to her than it can ever mean to a man; partly because, though dangerous, it is also obvious, and makes no demand upon the intellect. She could not feel that Stephen had full human rights. He was illicit, abnormal, worse than a man diseased. And Rickie remembering whose son he was, gradually adopted her opinion. He, too, came to be glad that his brother had passed from him untried, that the symbolic moment had been rejected. Stephen was the fruit of sin; therefore he was sinful, He, too, became a sexual snob.
And now he must hear the unsavoury details. That evening they sat in the walled garden. Agues, according to arrangement, left him alone with his aunt. He asked her, and was not answered.
"You are shocked," she said in a hard, mocking voice, "It is very nice of you to be shocked, and I do not wish to grieve you further. We will not allude to it again. Let us all go on just as we are. The comedy is finished."
He could not tolerate this. His nerves were shattered, and all that was good in him revolted as well. To the horror of Agnes, who was within earshot, he replied, "You used to puzzle me, Aunt Emily, but I understand you at last. You have forgotten what other people are like. Continual selfishness leads to that. I am sure of it. I see now how you look at the world. 'Nice of me to be shocked!' I want to go tomorrow, if I may."
"Certainly, dear. The morning trains are the best." And so the disastrous visit ended.
As he walked back to the house he met a certain poor woman, whose child Stephen had rescued at the level-crossing, and who had decided, after some delay, that she must thank the kind gentleman in person. "He has got some brute courage," thought Rickie, "and it was decent of him not to boast about it." But he had labelled the boy as "Bad," and it was convenient to revert to his good qualities as seldom as possible. He preferred to brood over his coarseness, his caddish ingratitude, his irreligion. Out of these he constructed a repulsive figure, forgetting how slovenly his own perceptions had been during the past week, how dogmatic and intolerant his attitude to all that was not Love.
During the packing he was obliged to go up to the attic to find the Dryad manuscript which had never been returned. Leighton came too, and for about half an hour they hunted in the flickering light of a candle. It was a strange, ghostly place, and Rickie was quite startled when a picture swung towards him, and he saw the Demeter of Cnidus, shimmering and grey. Leighton suggested the roof. Mr. Stephen sometimes left things on the roof. So they climbed out of the skylight--the night was perfectly still--and continued the search among the gables. Enormous stars hung overhead, and the roof was bounded by chasms, impenetrable and black. "It doesn't matter," said Rickie, suddenly convinced of the futility of all that he did. "Oh, let us look properly," said Leighton, a kindly, pliable man, who had tried to shirk coming, but who was genuinely sympathetic now that he had come. They were rewarded: the manuscript lay in a gutter, charred and smudged.
The rest of the year was spent by Rickie partly in bed,--he had a curious breakdown,--partly in the attempt to get his little stories published. He had written eight or nine, and hoped they would make up a book, and that the book might be called "Pan Pipes." He was very energetic over this; he liked to work, for some imperceptible bloom had passed from the world, and he no longer found such acute pleasure in people. Mrs. Failing's old publishers, to whom the book was submitted, replied that, greatly as they found themselves interested, they did not see their way to making an offer at present. They were very polite, and singled out for special praise "Andante Pastorale," which Rickie had thought too sentimental, but which Agnes had persuaded him to include. The stories were sent to another publisher, who considered them for six weeks, and then returned them. A fragment of red cotton, Placed by Agnes between the leaves, had not shifted its position.
"Can't you try something longer, Rickie?" she said; "I believe we're on the wrong track. Try an out--and--out love-story."
"My notion just now," he replied, "is to leave the passions on the fringe." She nodded, and tapped for the waiter: they had met in a London restaurant. "I can't soar; I can only indicate. That's where the musicians have the pull, for music has wings, and when she says 'Tristan' and he says 'Isolde,' you are on the heights at once. What do people mean when they call love music artificial?"
"I know what they mean, though I can't exactly explain. Or couldn't you make your stories more obvious? I don't see any harm in that. Uncle Willie floundered hopelessly. He doesn't read much, and he got muddled. I had to explain, and then he was delighted. Of course, to write down to the public would be quite another thing and horrible. You have certain ideas, and you must express them. But couldn't you express them more clearly?"
"You see--" He got no further than "you see."
"The soul and the body. The soul's what matters," said Agnes, and tapped for the waiter again. He looked at her admiringly, but felt that she was not a perfect critic. Perhaps she was too perfect to be a critic. Actual life might seem to her so real that she could not detect the union of shadow and adamant that men call poetry. He would even go further and acknowledge that she was not as clever as himself--and he was stupid enough! She did not like discussing anything or reading solid books, and she was a little angry with such women as did. It pleased him to make these concessions, for they touched nothing in her that he valued. He looked round the restaurant, which was in Soho and decided that she was incomparable.
"At half-past two I call on the editor of the 'Holborn.' He's got a stray story to look at, and he's written about it."
"Oh, Rickie! Rickie! Why didn't you put on a boiled shirt!"
He laughed, and teased her. "'The soul's what matters. We literary people don't care about dress."
"Well, you ought to care. And I believe you do. Can't you change?"
"Too far." He had rooms in South Kensington. "And I've forgot my card-case. There's for you!"
She shook her head. "Naughty, naughty boy! Whatever will you do?"
"Send in my name, or ask for a bit of paper and write it. Hullo! that's Tilliard!"
Tilliard blushed, partly on account of the faux pas he had made last June, partly on account of the restaurant. He explained how he came to be pigging in Soho: it was so frightfully convenient and so frightfully cheap.
"Just why Rickie brings me," said Miss Pembroke.
"And I suppose you're here to study life?" said Tilliard, sitting down.
"I don't know," said Rickie, gazing round at the waiters and the guests.
"Doesn't one want to see a good deal of life for writing? There's life of a sort in Soho,--Un peu de faisan, s'il vows plait."
Agnes also grabbed at the waiter, and paid. She always did the paying, Rickie muddled with his purse.
"I'm cramming," pursued Tilliard, "and so naturally I come into contact with very little at present. But later on I hope to see things." He blushed a little, for he was talking for Rickie's edification. "It is most frightfully important not to get a narrow or academic outlook, don't you think? A person like Ansell, who goes from Cambridge, home--home, Cambridge--it must tell on him in time."
"But Mr. Ansell is a philosopher."
"A very kinky one," said Tilliard abruptly. "Not my idea of a philosopher. How goes his dissertation?"
"He never answers my letters," replied Rickie. "He never would. I've heard nothing since June."
"It's a pity he sends in this year. There are so many good people in. He'd have afar better chance if he waited."
"So I said, but he wouldn't wait. He's so keen about this particular subject."
"What is it?" asked Agnes.
"About things being real, wasn't it, Tilliard?"
"That's near enough."
"Well, good luck to him!" said the girl. "And good luck to you, Mr. Tilliard! Later on, I hope, we'll meet again."
They parted. Tilliard liked her, though he did not feel that she was quite in his couche sociale. His sister, for instance, would never have been lured into a Soho restaurant--except for the experience of the thing. Tilliard's couche sociale permitted experiences. Provided his heart did not go out to the poor and the unorthodox, he might stare at them as much as he liked. It was seeing life.
Agnes put her lover safely into an omnibus at Cambridge Circus. She shouted after him that his tie was rising over his collar, but he did not hear her. For a moment she felt depressed, and pictured quite accurately the effect that his appearance would have on the editor. The editor was a tall neat man of forty, slow of speech, slow of soul, and extraordinarily kind. He and Rickie sat over a fire, with an enormous table behind them whereon stood many books waiting to be reviewed.
"I'm sorry," he said, and paused.
Rickie smiled feebly.
"Your story does not convince." He tapped it. "I have read it with very great pleasure. It convinces in parts, but it does not convince as a whole; and stories, don't you think, ought to convince as a whole?"
"They ought indeed," said Rickie, and plunged into self-depreciation. But the editor checked him.
"No--no. Please don't talk like that. I can't bear to hear any one talk against imagination. There are countless openings for imagination,--for the mysterious, for the supernatural, for all the things you are trying to do, and which, I hope, you will succeed in doing. I'm not objecting to imagination; on the contrary, I'd advise you to cultivate it, to accent it. Write a really good ghost story and we'd take it at once. Or"--he suggested it as an alternative to imagination--"or you might get inside life. It's worth doing."
"Life?" echoed Rickie anxiously.
He looked round the pleasant room, as if life might be fluttering there like an imprisoned bird. Then he looked at the editor: perhaps he was sitting inside life at this very moment. "See life, Mr. Elliot, and then send us another story." He held out his hand. "I am sorry I have to say 'No, thank you'; it's so much nicer to say, 'Yes, please.'" He laid his hand on the young man's sleeve, and added, "Well, the interview's not been so alarming after all, has it?"
"I don't think that either of us is a very alarming person," was not Rickie's reply. It was what he thought out afterwards in the omnibus. His reply was "Ow," delivered with a slight giggle.
As he rumbled westward, his face was drawn, and his eyes moved quickly to the right and left, as if he would discover something in the squalid fashionable streets some bird on the wing, some radiant archway, the face of some god beneath a beaver hat. He loved, he was loved, he had seen death and other things; but the heart of all things was hidden. There was a password and he could not learn it, nor could the kind editor of the "Holborn" teach him. He sighed, and then sighed more piteously. For had he not known the password once--known it and forgotten it already? But at this point his fortunes become intimately connected with those of Mr. Pembroke.
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