Ansell was in his favourite haunt--the reading-room of the British Museum. In that book-encircled space he always could find peace. He loved to see the volumes rising tier above tier into the misty dome. He loved the chairs that glide so noiselessly, and the radiating desks, and the central area, where the catalogue shelves curve, round the superintendent's throne. There he knew that his life was not ignoble. It was worth while to grow old and dusty seeking for truth though truth is unattainable, restating questions that have been stated at the beginning of the world. Failure would await him, but not disillusionment. It was worth while reading books, and writing a book or two which few would read, and no one, perhaps, endorse. He was not a hero, and he knew it. His father and sister, by their steady goodness, had made this life possible. But, all the same, it was not the life of a spoilt child.
In the next chair to him sat Widdrington, engaged in his historical research. His desk was edged with enormous volumes, and every few moments an assistant brought him more. They rose like a wall against Ansell. Towards the end of the morning a gap was made, and through it they held the following conversation.
"I've been stopping with my cousin at Sawston."
"It was quite exciting. The air rang with battle. About two-thirds of the masters have lost their heads, and are trying to produce a gimcrack copy of Eton. Last term, you know, with a great deal of puffing and blowing, they fixed the numbers of the school. This term they want to create a new boarding-house."
"They are very welcome."
"But the more boarding-houses they create, the less room they leave for day-boys. The local mothers are frantic, and so is my queer cousin. I never knew him so excited over sub-Hellenic things. There was an indignation meeting at his house. He is supposed to look after the day-boys' interests, but no one thought he would--least of all the people who gave him the post. The speeches were most eloquent. They argued that the school was founded for day-boys, and that it's intolerable to handicap them. One poor lady cried, 'Here's my Harold in the school, and my Toddie coming on. As likely as not I shall be told there is no vacancy for him. Then what am I to do? If I go, what's to become of Harold; and if I stop, what's to become of Toddie?' I must say I was touched. Family life is more real than national life--at least I've ordered all these books to prove it is--and I fancy that the bust of Euripides agreed with me, and was sorry for the hot-faced mothers. Jackson will do what he can. He didn't quite like to state the naked truth-which is, that boardinghouses pay. He explained it to me afterwards: they are the only, future open to a stupid master. It's easy enough to be a beak when you're young and athletic, and can offer the latest University smattering. The difficulty is to keep your place when you get old and stiff, and younger smatterers are pushing up behind you. Crawl into a boarding-house and you're safe. A master's life is frightfully tragic. Jackson's fairly right himself, because he has got a first-class intellect. But I met a poor brute who was hired as an athlete. He has missed his shot at a boarding-house, and there's nothing in the world for him to do but to trundle down the hill."
"I saw Rickie too. Once I dined there."
"My cousin thinks Mrs. Elliot one of the most horrible women he has ever seen. He calls her 'Medusa in Arcady.' She's so pleasant, too. But certainly it was a very stony meal."
"What kind of stoniness"
"No one stopped talking for a moment."
"That's the real kind," said Ansell moodily. "The only kind."
"Well, I," he continued, "am inclined to compare her to an electric light. Click! she's on. Click! she's off. No waste. No flicker."
"I wish she'd fuse."
"She'll never fuse--unless anything was to happen at the main."
"What do you mean by the main?" said Ansell, who always pursued a metaphor relentlessly.
Widdrington did not know what he meant, and suggested that Ansell should visit Sawston to see whether one could know.
"It is no good me going. I should not find Mrs. Elliot: she has no real existence."
"I very much doubt it. I had two letters from Ilfracombe last April, and I very much doubt that the man who wrote them can exist." Bending downwards he began to adorn the manuscript of his dissertation with a square, and inside that a circle, and inside that another square. It was his second dissertation: the first had failed.
"I think he exists: he is so unhappy."
Ansell nodded. "How did you know he was unhappy?"
"Because he was always talking." After a pause he added, "What clever young men we are!"
"Aren't we? I expect we shall get asked in marriage soon. I say, Widdrington, shall we--?"
"Accept? Of course. It is not young manly to say no."
"I meant shall we ever do a more tremendous thing,--fuse Mrs. Elliot."
"No," said Widdrington promptly. "We shall never do that in all our lives." He added, "I think you might go down to Sawston, though."
"I have already refused or ignored three invitations."
"So I gathered."
"What's the good of it?" said Ansell through his teeth. "1 will not put up with little things. I would rather be rude than to listen to twaddle from a man I've known.
"You might go down to Sawston, just for a night, to see him."
"I saw him last month--at least, so Tilliard informs me. He says that we all three lunched together, that Rickie paid, and that the conversation was most interesting."
"Well, I contend that he does exist, and that if you go--oh, I can't be clever any longer. You really must go, man. I'm certain he's miserable and lonely. Dunwood House reeks of commerce and snobbery and all the things he hated most. He doesn't do anything. He doesn't make any friends. He is so odd, too. In this day-boy row that has just started he's gone for my cousin. Would you believe it? Quite spitefully. It made quite a difficulty when I wanted to dine. It isn't like him either the sentiments or the behaviour. I'm sure he's not himself. Pembroke used to look after the day-boys, and so he can't very well take the lead against them, and perhaps Rickie's doing his dirty work--and has overdone it, as decent people generally do. He's even altering to talk to. Yet he's not been married a year. Pembroke and that wife simply run him. I don't see why they should, and no more do you; and that's why I want you to go to Sawston, if only for one night."
Ansell shook his head, and looked up at the dome as other men look at the sky. In it the great arc lamps sputtered and flared, for the month was again November. Then he lowered his eyes from the cold violet radiance to the books.
"No, Widdrington; no. We don't go to see people because they are happy or unhappy. We go when we can talk to them. I cannot talk to Rickie, therefore I will not waste my time at Sawston."
"I think you're right," said Widdrington softly. "But we are bloodless brutes. I wonder whether-If we were different people--something might be done to save him. That is the curse of being a little intellectual. You and our sort have always seen too clearly. We stand aside--and meanwhile he turns into stone. Two philosophic youths repining in the British Museum! What have we done? What shall we ever do? Just drift and criticize, while people who know what they want snatch it away from us and laugh."
"Perhaps you are that sort. I'm not. When the moment comes I shall hit out like any ploughboy. Don't believe those lies about intellectual people. They're only written to soothe the majority. Do you suppose, with the world as it is, that it's an easy matter to keep quiet? Do you suppose that I didn't want to rescue him from that ghastly woman? Action! Nothing's easier than action; as fools testify. But I want to act rightly."
"The superintendent is looking at us. I must get back to my work."
"You think this all nonsense," said Ansell, detaining him. "Please remember that if I do act, you are bound to help me."
Widdrington looked a little grave. He was no anarchist. A few plaintive cries against Mrs. Elliot were all that he prepared to emit.
"There's no mystery," continued Ansell. "I haven't the shadow of a plan in my head. I know not only Rickie but the whole of his history: you remember the day near Madingley. Nothing in either helps me: I'm just watching."
"But what for?"
"For the Spirit of Life."
Widdrington was surprised. It was a phrase unknown to their philosophy. They had trespassed into poetry.
"You can't fight Medusa with anything else. If you ask me what the Spirit of Life is, or to what it is attached, I can't tell you. I only tell you, watch for it. Myself I've found it in books. Some people find it out of doors or in each other. Never mind. It's the same spirit, and I trust myself to know it anywhere, and to use it rightly."
But at this point the superintendent sent a message.
Widdrington then suggested a stroll in the galleries. It was foggy: they needed fresh air. He loved and admired his friend, but today he could not grasp him. The world as Ansell saw it seemed such a fantastic place, governed by brand-new laws. What more could one do than to see Rickie as often as possible, to invite his confidence, to offer him spiritual support? And Mrs. Elliot--what power could "fuse" a respectable woman?
Ansell consented to the stroll, but, as usual, only breathed depression. The comfort of books deserted him among those marble goddesses and gods. The eye of an artist finds pleasure in texture and poise, but he could only think of the vanished incense and deserted temples beside an unfurrowed sea.
"Let us go," he said. "I do not like carved stones."
"You are too particular," said Widdrington. "You are always expecting to meet living people. One never does. I am content with the Parthenon frieze." And he moved along a few yards of it, while Ansell followed, conscious only of its pathos.
"There's Tilliard," he observed. "Shall we kill him?"
"Please," said Widdrington, and as he spoke Tilliard joined them. He brought them news. That morning he had heard from Rickie: Mrs. Elliot was expecting a child.
"A child?" said Ansell, suddenly bewildered.
"Oh, I forgot," interposed Widdrington. "My cousin did tell me."
"You forgot! Well, after all, I forgot that it might be, We are indeed young men." He leant against the pedestal of Ilissus and remembered their talk about the Spirit of Life. In his ignorance of what a child means he wondered whether the opportunity he sought lay here.
"I am very glad," said Tilliard, not without intention. "A child will draw them even closer together. I like to see young people wrapped up in their child."
"I suppose I must be getting back to my dissertation," said Ansell. He left the Parthenon to pass by the monuments of our more reticent beliefs--the temple of the Ephesian Artemis, the statue of the Cnidian Demeter. Honest, he knew that here were powers he could not cope with, nor, as yet, understand.
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