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A little this side of Madingley, to the left of the road, there is a secluded dell, paved with grass and planted with fir-trees. It could not have been worth a visit twenty years ago, for then it was only a scar of chalk, and it is not worth a visit at the present day, for the trees have grown too thick and choked it. But when Rickie was up, it chanced to be the brief season of its romance, a season as brief for a chalk-pit as a man--its divine interval between the bareness of boyhood and the stuffiness of age. Rickie had discovered it in his second term, when the January snows had melted and left fiords and lagoons of clearest water between the inequalities of the floor. The place looked as big as Switzerland or Norway--as indeed for the moment it was-- and he came upon it at a time when his life too was beginning to expand. Accordingly the dell became for him a kind of church--a church where indeed you could do anything you liked, but where anything you did would be transfigured. Like the ancient Greeks, he could even laugh at his holy place and leave it no less holy. He chatted gaily about it, and about the pleasant thoughts with which it inspired him; he took his friends there; he even took people whom he did not like. "Procul este, profani!" exclaimed a delighted aesthete on being introduced to it. But this was never to be the attitude of Rickie. He did not love the vulgar herd, but he knew that his own vulgarity would be greater if he forbade it ingress, and that it was not by preciosity that he would attain to the intimate spirit of the dell. Indeed, if he had agreed with the aesthete, he would possibly not have introduced him. If the dell was to bear any inscription, he would have liked it to be "This way to Heaven," painted on a sign-post by the high-road, and he did not realize till later years that the number of visitors would not thereby have sensibly increased.
On the blessed Monday that the Pembrokes left, he walked out here with three friends. It was a day when the sky seemed enormous. One cloud, as large as a continent, was voyaging near the sun, whilst other clouds seemed anchored to the horizon, too lazy or too happy to move. The sky itself was of the palest blue, paling to white where it approached the earth; and the earth, brown, wet, and odorous, was engaged beneath it on its yearly duty of decay. Rickie was open to the complexities of autumn; he felt extremely tiny--extremely tiny and extremely important; and perhaps the combination is as fair as any that exists. He hoped that all his life he would never be peevish or unkind.
"Elliot is in a dangerous state," said Ansell. They had reached the dell, and had stood for some time in silence, each leaning against a tree. It was too wet to sit down.
"How's that?" asked Rickie, who had not known he was in any state at all. He shut up Keats, whom he thought he had been reading, and slipped him back into his coat-pocket. Scarcely ever was he without a book.
"He's trying to like people."
"Then he's done for," said Widdrington. "He's dead."
"He's trying to like Hornblower."
The others gave shrill agonized cries.
"He wants to bind the college together. He wants to link us to the beefy set."
"I do like Hornblower," he protested. "I don't try."
"And Hornblower tries to like you."
"That part doesn't matter."
"But he does try to like you. He tries not to despise you. It is altogether a most public-spirited affair."
"Tilliard started them," said Widdrington. "Tilliard thinks it such a pity the college should be split into sets."
"Oh, Tilliard!" said Ansell, with much irritation. "But what can you expect from a person who's eternally beautiful? The other night we had been discussing a long time, and suddenly the light was turned on. Every one else looked a sight, as they ought. But there was Tilliard, sitting neatly on a little chair, like an undersized god, with not a curl crooked. I should say he will get into the Foreign Office."
"Why are most of us so ugly?" laughed Rickie.
"It's merely a sign of our salvation--merely another sign that the college is split."
"The college isn't split," cried Rickie, who got excited on this subject with unfailing regularity. "The college is, and has been, and always will be, one. What you call the beefy set aren't a set at all. They're just the rowing people, and naturally they chiefly see each other; but they're always nice to me or to any one. Of course, they think us rather asses, but it's quite in a pleasant way."
"That's my whole objection," said Ansell. "What right have they to think us asses in a pleasant way? Why don't they hate us? What right has Hornblower to smack me on the back when I've been rude to him?"
"Well, what right have you to be rude to him?"
"Because I hate him. You think it is so splendid to hate no one. I tell you it is a crime. You want to love every one equally, and that's worse than impossible it's wrong. When you denounce sets, you're really trying to destroy friendship."
"I maintain," said Rickie--it was a verb he clung to, in the hope that it would lend stability to what followed--"I maintain that one can like many more people than one supposes."
"And I maintain that you hate many more people than you pretend."
"I hate no one," he exclaimed with extraordinary vehemence, and the dell re-echoed that it hated no one.
"We are obliged to believe you," said Widdrington, smiling a little "but we are sorry about it."
"Not even your father?" asked Ansell.
Rickie was silent.
"Not even your father?"
The cloud above extended a great promontory across the sun. It only lay there for a moment, yet that was enough to summon the lurking coldness from the earth.
"Does he hate his father?" said Widdrington, who had not known. "Oh, good!"
"But his father's dead. He will say it doesn't count."
"Still, it's something. Do you hate yours?"
Ansell did not reply. Rickie said: "I say, I wonder whether one ought to talk like this?"
"About hating dead people?"
"Did you hate your mother?" asked Widdrington.
Rickie turned crimson.
"I don't see Hornblower's such a rotter," remarked the other man, whose name was James.
"James, you are diplomatic," said Ansell. "You are trying to tide over an awkward moment. You can go."
Widdrington was crimson too. In his wish to be sprightly he had used words without thinking of their meanings. Suddenly he realized that "father" and "mother" really meant father and mother--people whom he had himself at home. He was very uncomfortable, and thought Rickie had been rather queer. He too tried to revert to Hornblower, but Ansell would not let him. The sun came out, and struck on the white ramparts of the dell. Rickie looked straight at it. Then he said abruptly--
"I think I want to talk."
"I think you do," replied Ansell.
"Shouldn't I be rather a fool if I went through Cambridge without talking? It's said never to come so easy again. All the people are dead too. I can't see why I shouldn't tell you most things about my birth and parentage and education."
"Talk away. If you bore us, we have books."
With this invitation Rickie began to relate his history. The reader who has no book will be obliged to listen to it.
Some people spend their lives in a suburb, and not for any urgent reason. This had been the fate of Rickie. He had opened his eyes to filmy heavens, and taken his first walk on asphalt. He had seen civilization as a row of semi-detached villas, and society as a state in which men do not know the men who live next door. He had himself become part of the grey monotony that surrounds all cities. There was no necessity for this--it was only rather convenient to his father.
Mr. Elliot was a barrister. In appearance he resembled his son, being weakly and lame, with hollow little cheeks, a broad white band of forehead, and stiff impoverished hair. His voice, which he did not transmit, was very suave, with a fine command of cynical intonation. By altering it ever so little he could make people wince, especially if they were simple or poor. Nor did he transmit his eyes. Their peculiar flatness, as if the soul looked through dirty window-panes, the unkindness of them, the cowardice, the fear in them, were to trouble the world no longer.
He married a girl whose voice was beautiful. There was no caress in it yet all who heard it were soothed, as though the world held some unexpected blessing. She called to her dogs one night over invisible waters, and he, a tourist up on the bridge, thought "that is extraordinarily adequate." In time he discovered that her figure, face, and thoughts were adequate also, and as she was not impossible socially, he married her. "I have taken a plunge," he told his family. The family, hostile at first, had not a word to say when the woman was introduced to them; and his sister declared that the plunge had been taken from the opposite bank.
Things only went right for a little time. Though beautiful without and within, Mrs. Elliot had not the gift of making her home beautiful; and one day, when she bought a carpet for the dining-room that clashed, he laughed gently, said he "really couldn't," and departed. Departure is perhaps too strong a word. In Mrs. Elliot's mouth it became, "My husband has to sleep more in town." He often came down to see them, nearly always unexpectedly, and occasionally they went to see him. "Father's house," as Rickie called it, only had three rooms, but these were full of books and pictures and flowers; and the flowers, instead of being squashed down into the vases as they were in mummy's house, rose gracefully from frames of lead which lay coiled at the bottom, as doubtless the sea serpent has to lie, coiled at the bottom of the sea. Once he was let to lift a frame out--only once, for he dropped some water on a creton. "I think he's going to have taste," said Mr. Elliot languidly. "It is quite possible," his wife replied. She had not taken off her hat and gloves, nor even pulled up her veil. Mr. Elliot laughed, and soon afterwards another lady came in, and they--went away.
"Why does father always laugh?" asked Rickie in the evening when he and his mother were sitting in the nursery.
"It is a way of your father's."
"Why does he always laugh at me? Am I so funny?" Then after a pause, "You have no sense of humour, have you, mummy?"
Mrs. Elliot, who was raising a thread of cotton to her lips, held it suspended in amazement.
"You told him so this afternoon. But I have seen you laugh." He nodded wisely. "I have seen you laugh ever so often. One day you were laughing alone all down in the sweet peas."
"Yes. Were you laughing at me?"
"I was not thinking about you. Cotton, please--a reel of No. 50 white from my chest of drawers. Left hand drawer. Now which is your left hand?"
"The side my pocket is."
"And if you had no pocket?"
"The side my bad foot is."
"I meant you to say, 'the side my heart is,' " said Mrs. Elliot, holding up the duster between them. "Most of us--I mean all of us--can feel on one side a little watch, that never stops ticking. So even if you had no bad foot you would still know which is the left. No. 50 white, please. No; I'll get it myself." For she had remembered that the dark passage frightened him.
These were the outlines. Rickie filled them in with the slowness and the accuracy of a child. He was never told anything, but he discovered for himself that his father and mother did not love each other, and that his mother was lovable. He discovered that Mr. Elliot had dubbed him Rickie because he was rickety, that he took pleasure in alluding to his son's deformity, and was sorry that it was not more serious than his own. Mr. Elliot had not one scrap of genius. He gathered the pictures and the books and the flower-supports mechanically, not in any impulse of love. He passed for a cultured man because he knew how to select, and he passed for an unconventional man because he did not select quite like other people. In reality he never did or said or thought one single thing that had the slightest beauty or value. And in time Rickie discovered this as well.
The boy grew up in great loneliness. He worshipped his mother, and she was fond of him. But she was dignified and reticent, and pathos, like tattle, was disgusting to her. She was afraid of intimacy, in case it led to confidences and tears, and so all her life she held her son at a little distance. Her kindness and unselfishness knew no limits, but if he tried to be dramatic and thank her, she told him not to be a little goose. And so the only person he came to know at all was himself. He would play Halma against himself. He would conduct solitary conversations, in which one part of him asked and another part answered. It was an exciting game, and concluded with the formula: "Good-bye. Thank you. I am glad to have met you. I hope before long we shall enjoy another chat." And then perhaps he would sob for loneliness, for he would see real people--real brothers, real friends--doing in warm life the things he had pretended. "Shall I ever have a friend?" he demanded at the age of twelve. "I don't see how. They walk too fast. And a brother I shall never have."
("No loss," interrupted Widdrington.
"But I shall never have one, and so I quite want one, even now.")
When he was thirteen Mr. Elliot entered on his illness. The pretty rooms in town would not do for an invalid, and so he came back to his home. One of the first consequences was that Rickie was sent to a public school. Mrs. Elliot did what she could, but she had no hold whatever over her husband.
"He worries me," he declared. "He's a joke of which I have got tired."
"Would it be possible to send him to a private tutor's?"
"No," said Mr. Elliot, who had all the money. "Coddling."
"I agree that boys ought to rough it; but when a boy is lame and very delicate, he roughs it sufficiently if he leaves home. Rickie can't play games. He doesn't make friends. He isn't brilliant. Thinking it over, I feel that as it's like this, we can't ever hope to give him the ordinary education. Perhaps you could think it over too." No.
"I am sure that things are best for him as they are. The day-school knocks quite as many corners off him as he can stand. He hates it, but it is good for him. A public school will not be good for him. It is too rough. Instead of getting manly and hard, he will--"
"My head, please."
Rickie departed in a state of bewildered misery, which was scarcely ever to grow clearer.
Each holiday he found his father more irritable, and a little weaker. Mrs. Elliot was quickly growing old. She had to manage the servants, to hush the neighbouring children, to answer the correspondence, to paper and re-paper the rooms--and all for the sake of a man whom she did not like, and who did not conceal his dislike for her. One day she found Rickie tearful, and said rather crossly, "Well, what is it this time?"
He replied, "Oh, mummy, I've seen your wrinkles your grey hair-- I'm unhappy."
Sudden tenderness overcame her, and she cried, "My darling, what does it matter? Whatever does it matter now?"
He had never known her so emotional. Yet even better did he remember another incident. Hearing high voices from his father's room, he went upstairs in the hope that the sound of his tread might stop them. Mrs. Elliot burst open the door, and seeing him, exclaimed, "My dear! If you please, he's hit me." She tried to laugh it off, but a few hours later he saw the bruise which the stick of the invalid had raised upon his mother's hand.
God alone knows how far we are in the grip of our bodies. He alone can judge how far the cruelty of Mr. Elliot was the outcome of extenuating circumstances. But Mrs. Elliot could accurately judge of its extent.
At last he died. Rickie was now fifteen, and got off a whole week's school for the funeral. His mother was rather strange. She was much happier, she looked younger, and her mourning was as unobtrusive as convention permitted. All this he had expected. But she seemed to be watching him, and to be extremely anxious for his opinion on any, subject--more especially on his father. Why? At last he saw that she was trying to establish confidence between them. But confidence cannot be established in a moment. They were both shy. The habit of years was upon them, and they alluded to the death of Mr. Elliot as an irreparable loss.
"Now that your father has gone, things will be very different."
"Shall we be poorer, mother?" No.
"But naturally things will be very different."
"For instance, your poor father liked being near London, but I almost think we might move. Would you like that?"
"Of course, mummy." He looked down at the ground. He was not accustomed to being consulted, and it bewildered him.
"Perhaps you might like quite a different life better?"
"It's a little difficult for me," said Mrs. Elliot, pacing vigorously up and down the room, and more and more did her black dress seem a mockery. "In some ways you ought to be consulted: nearly all the money is left to you, as you must hear some time or other. But in other ways you're only a boy. What am I to do?"
"I don't know," he replied, appearing more helpless and unhelpful than he really was.
"For instance, would you like me to arrange things exactly as I like?"
"Oh do!" he exclaimed, thinking this a most brilliant suggestion.
"The very nicest thing of all." And he added, in his half-pedantic, half-pleasing way, "I shall be as wax in your hands, mamma."
She smiled. "Very well, darling. You shall be." And she pressed him lovingly, as though she would mould him into something beautiful.
For the next few days great preparations were in the air. She went to see his father's sister, the gifted and vivacious Aunt Emily. They were to live in the country--somewhere right in the country, with grass and trees up to the door, and birds singing everywhere, and a tutor. For he was not to go back to school. Unbelievable! He was never to go back to school, and the head- master had written saying that he regretted the step, but that possibly it was a wise one.
It was raw weather, and Mrs. Elliot watched over him with ceaseless tenderness. It seemed as if she could not do too much to shield him and to draw him nearer to her.
"Put on your greatcoat, dearest," she said to him.
"I don't think I want it," answered Rickie, remembering that he was now fifteen.
"The wind is bitter. You ought to put it on."
"But it's so heavy."
"Do put it on, dear."
He was not very often irritable or rude, but he answered, "Oh, I shan't catch cold. I do wish you wouldn't keep on bothering." He did not catch cold, but while he was out his mother died. She only survived her husband eleven days, a coincidence which was recorded on their tombstone.
Such, in substance, was the story which Rickie told his friends as they stood together in the shelter of the dell. The green bank at the entrance hid the road and the world, and now, as in spring, they could see nothing but snow-white ramparts and the evergreen foliage of the firs. Only from time to time would a beech leaf flutter in from the woods above, to comment on the waning year, and the warmth and radiance of the sun would vanish behind a passing cloud.
About the greatcoat he did not tell them, for he could not have spoken of it without tears.
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