Mr. Ansell, a provincial draper of moderate prosperity, ought by rights to have been classed not with the cow, but with those phenomena that are not really there. But his son, with pardonable illogicality, excepted him. He never suspected that his father might be the subjective product of a diseased imagination. From his earliest years he had taken him for granted, as a most undeniable and lovable fact. To be born one thing and grow up another--Ansell had accomplished this without weakening one of the ties that bound him to his home. The rooms above the shop still seemed as comfortable, the garden behind it as gracious, as they had seemed fifteen years before, when he would sit behind Miss Appleblossom's central throne, and she, like some allegorical figure, would send the change and receipted bills spinning away from her in little boxwood balls. At first the young man had attributed these happy relations to his own tact. But in time he perceived that the tact was all on the side of his father. Mr. Ansell was not merely a man of some education; he had what no education can bring--the power of detecting what is important. Like many fathers, he had spared no expense over his boy,--he had borrowed money to start him at a rapacious and fashionable private school; he had sent him to tutors; he had sent him to Cambridge. But he knew that all this was not the important thing. The important thing was freedom. The boy must use his education as he chose, and if he paid his father back it would certainly not be in his own coin. So when Stewart said, "At Cambridge, can I read for the Moral Science Tripos?" Mr. Ansell had only replied, "This philosophy--do you say that it lies behind everything?"
"Yes, I think so. It tries to discover what is good and true."
"Then, my boy, you had better read as much of it as you can."
And a year later: "I'd like to take up this philosophy seriously, but I don't feel justified."
"Because it brings in no return. I think I'm a great philosopher, but then all philosophers think that, though they don't dare to say so. But, however great I am. I shan't earn money. Perhaps I shan't ever be able to keep myself. I shan't even get a good social position. You've only to say one word, and I'll work for the Civil Service. I'm good enough to get in high."
Mr. Ansell liked money and social position. But he knew that there is a more important thing, and replied, "You must take up this philosophy seriously, I think."
"Another thing--there are the girls."
"There is enough money now to get Mary and Maud as good husbands as they deserve." And Mary and Maud took the same view. It was in this plebeian household that Rickie spent part of the Christmas vacation. His own home, such as it was, was with the Silts, needy cousins of his father's, and combined to a peculiar degree the restrictions of hospitality with the discomforts of a boarding-house. Such pleasure as he had outside Cambridge was in the homes of his friends, and it was a particular joy and honour to visit Ansell, who, though as free from social snobbishness as most of us will ever manage to be, was rather careful when he drove up to the facade of his shop.
"I like our new lettering," he said thoughtfully. The words "Stewart Ansell" were repeated again and again along the High Street--curly gold letters that seemed to float in tanks of glazed chocolate.
"Rather!" said Rickie. But he wondered whether one of the bonds that kept the Ansell family united might not be their complete absence of taste--a surer bond by far than the identity of it. And he wondered this again when he sat at tea opposite a long row of crayons--Stewart as a baby, Stewart as a small boy with large feet, Stewart as a larger boy with smaller feet, Mary reading a book whose leaves were as thick as eiderdowns. And yet again did he wonder it when he woke with a gasp in the night to find a harp in luminous paint throbbing and glowering at him from the adjacent wall. "Watch and pray" was written on the harp, and until Rickie hung a towel over it the exhortation was partially successful.
It was a very happy visit. Miss Appleblosssom--who now acted as housekeeper--had met him before, during her never-forgotten expedition to Cambridge, and her admiration of University life was as shrill and as genuine now as it had been then. The girls at first were a little aggressive, for on his arrival he had been tired, and Maud had taken it for haughtiness, and said he was looking down on them. But this passed. They did not fall in love with him, nor he with them, but a morning was spent very pleasantly in snow-balling in the back garden. Ansell was rather different to what he was in Cambridge, but to Rickie not less attractive. And there was a curious charm in the hum of the shop, which swelled into a roar if one opened the partition door on a market-day.
"Listen to your money!" said Rickie. "I wish I could hear mine. I wish my money was alive."
"I don't understand."
"Mine's dead money. It's come to me through about six dead people--silently."
"Getting a little smaller and a little more respectable each time, on account of the death-duties."
"It needed to get respectable."
"Why? Did your people, too, once keep a shop?"
"Oh, not as bad as that! They only swindled. About a hundred years ago an Elliot did something shady and founded the fortunes of our house."
"I never knew any one so relentless to his ancestors. You make up for your soapiness towards the living."
"You'd be relentless if you'd heard the Silts, as I have, talk about 'a fortune, small perhaps, but unsoiled by trade!' Of course Aunt Emily is rather different. Oh, goodness me! I've forgotten my aunt. She lives not so far. I shall have to call on her."
Accordingly he wrote to Mrs. Failing, and said he should like to pay his respects. He told her about the Ansells, and so worded the letter that she might reasonably have sent an invitation to his friend.
She replied that she was looking forward to their tete-a-tete.
"You mustn't go round by the trains," said Mr. Ansell. "It means changing at Salisbury. By the road it's no great way. Stewart shall drive you over Salisbury Plain, and fetch you too."
"There's too much snow," said Ansell.
"Then the girls shall take you in their sledge."
"That I will," said Maud, who was not unwilling to see the inside of Cadover. But Rickie went round by the trains.
"We have all missed you," said Ansell, when he returned. "There is a general feeling that you are no nuisance, and had better stop till the end of the vac."
This he could not do. He was bound for Christmas to the Silts-- "as a real guest," Mrs. Silt had written, underlining the word "real" twice. And after Christmas he must go to the Pembrokes.
"These are no reasons. The only real reason for doing a thing is because you want to do it. I think the talk about 'engagements' is cant."
"I think perhaps it is," said Rickie. But he went. Never had the turkey been so athletic, or the plum-pudding tied into its cloth so tightly. Yet he knew that both these symbols of hilarity had cost money, and it went to his heart when Mr. Silt said in a hungry voice, "Have you thought at all of what you want to be? No? Well, why should you? You have no need to be anything." And at dessert: "I wonder who Cadover goes to? I expect money will follow money. It always does." It was with a guilty feeling of relief that he left for the Pembrokes'.
The Pembrokes lived in an adjacent suburb, or rather "sububurb,"--the tract called Sawston, celebrated for its public school. Their style of life, however, was not particularly suburban. Their house was small and its name was Shelthorpe, but it had an air about it which suggested a certain amount of money and a certain amount of taste. There were decent water-colours in the drawing-room. Madonnas of acknowledged merit hung upon the stairs. A replica of the Hermes of Praxiteles--of course only the bust--stood in the hall with a real palm behind it. Agnes, in her slap-dash way, was a good housekeeper, and kept the pretty things well dusted. It was she who insisted on the strip of brown holland that led diagonally from the front door to the door of Herbert's study: boys' grubby feet should not go treading on her Indian square. It was she who always cleaned the picture-frames and washed the bust and the leaves of the palm. In short, if a house could speak--and sometimes it does speak more clearly than the people who live in it--the house of the Pembrokes would have said, "I am not quite like other houses, yet I am perfectly comfortable. I contain works of art and a microscope and books. But I do not live for any of these things or suffer them to disarrange me. I live for myself and for the greater houses that shall come after me. Yet in me neither the cry of money nor the cry for money shall ever be heard."
Mr. Pembroke was at the station. He did better as a host than as a guest, and welcomed the young man with real friendliness.
"We were all coming, but Gerald has strained his ankle slightly, and wants to keep quiet, as he is playing next week in a match. And, needless to say, that explains the absence of my sister."
"Yes; he's with us. I'm so glad you'll meet again."
"So am I," said Rickie with extreme awkwardness. "Does he remember me?"
Vivid also was Rickie's remembrance of him.
"A splendid fellow," asserted Mr. Pembroke.
"I hope that Agnes is well."
"Thank you, yes; she is well. And I think you're looking more like other people yourself."
"I've been having a very good time with a friend."
"Indeed. That's right. Who was that?"
Rickie had a young man's reticence. He generally spoke of "a friend," "a person I know," "a place I was at." When the book of life is opening, our readings are secret, and we are unwilling to give chapter and verse. Mr. Pembroke, who was half way through the volume, and had skipped or forgotten the earlier pages, could not understand Rickie's hesitation, nor why with such awkwardness he should pronounce the harmless dissyllable "Ansell."
"Ansell? Wasn't that the pleasant fellow who asked us to lunch?"
"No. That was Anderson, who keeps below. You didn't see Ansell. The ones who came to breakfast were Tilliard and Hornblower."
"Of course. And since then you have been with the Silts. How are they?"
"Very well, thank you. They want to be remembered to you."
The Pembrokes had formerly lived near the Elliots, and had shown great kindness to Rickie when his parents died. They were thus rather in the position of family friends.
"Please remember us when you write." He added, almost roguishly, "The Silts are kindness itself. All the same, it must be just a little--dull, we thought, and we thought that you might like a change. And of course we are delighted to have you besides. That goes without saying."
"It's very good of you," said Rickie, who had accepted the invitation because he felt he ought to.
"Not a bit. And you mustn't expect us to be otherwise than quiet on the holidays. There is a library of a sort, as you know, and you will find Gerald a splendid fellow."
"Will they be married soon?"
"Oh no!" whispered Mr. Pembroke, shutting his eyes, as if Rickie had made some terrible faux pas. "It will be a very long engagement. He must make his way first. I have seen such endless misery result from people marrying before they have made their way."
"Yes. That is so," said Rickie despondently, thinking of the Silts.
"It's a sad unpalatable truth," said Mr. Pembroke, thinking that the despondency might be personal, "but one must accept it. My sister and Gerald, I am thankful to say, have accepted it, though naturally it has been a little pill."
Their cab lurched round the corner as he spoke, and the two patients came in sight. Agnes was leaning over the creosoted garden-gate, and behind her there stood a young man who had the figure of a Greek athlete and the face of an English one. He was fair and cleanshaven, and his colourless hair was cut rather short. The sun was in his eyes, and they, like his mouth, seemed scarcely more than slits in his healthy skin. Just where he began to be beautiful the clothes started. Round his neck went an up-and-down collar and a mauve-and-gold tie, and the rest of his limbs were hidden by a grey lounge suit, carefully creased in the right places.
"Lovely! Lovely!" cried Agnes, banging on the gate, "Your train must have been to the minute."
"Hullo!" said the athlete, and vomited with the greeting a cloud of tobacco-smoke. It must have been imprisoned in his mouth some time, for no pipe was visible.
"Hullo!" returned Rickie, laughing violently. They shook hands.
"Where are you going, Rickie?" asked Agnes. "You aren't grubby. Why don't you stop? Gerald, get the large wicker-chair. Herbert has letters, but we can sit here till lunch. It's like spring."
The garden of Shelthorpe was nearly all in front an unusual and pleasant arrangement. The front gate and the servants' entrance were both at the side, and in the remaining space the gardener had contrived a little lawn where one could sit concealed from the road by a fence, from the neighbour by a fence, from the house by a tree, and from the path by a bush.
"This is the lovers' bower," observed Agnes, sitting down on the bench. Rickie stood by her till the chair arrived.
"Are you smoking before lunch?" asked Mr. Dawes.
"No, thank you. I hardly ever smoke."
"No vices. Aren't you at Cambridge now?"
"What's your college?"
Rickie told him.
"Do you know Carruthers?"
"I mean A. P. Carruthers, who got his socker blue."
"Rather! He's secretary to the college musical society."
"A. P. Carruthers?"
Mr. Dawes seemed offended. He tapped on his teeth, and remarked that the weather bad no business to be so warm in winter. "But it was fiendish before Christmas," said Agnes.
He frowned, and asked, "Do you know a man called Gerrish?"
"Do you know James?"
"Never heard of him."
"He's my year too. He got a blue for hockey his second term."
"I know nothing about the 'Varsity."
Rickie winced at the abbreviation "'Varsity." It was at that time the proper thing to speak of "the University."
"I haven't the time," pursued Mr. Dawes.
"No, no," said Rickie politely.
"I had the chance of being an Undergrad, myself, and, by Jove, I'm thankful I didn't!"
"Why?" asked Agnes, for there was a pause.
"Puts you back in your profession. Men who go there first, before the Army, start hopelessly behind. The same with the Stock Exchange or Painting. I know men in both, and they've never caught up the time they lost in the 'Varsity--unless, of course, you turn parson."
"I love Cambridge," said she. "All those glorious buildings, and every one so happy and running in and out of each other's rooms all day long."
"That might make an Undergrad happy, but I beg leave to state it wouldn't me. I haven't four years to throw away for the sake of being called a 'Varsity man and hobnobbing with Lords."
Rickie was prepared to find his old schoolfellow ungrammatical and bumptious, but he was not prepared to find him peevish. Athletes, he believed, were simple, straightforward people, cruel and brutal if you like, but never petty. They knocked you down and hurt you, and then went on their way rejoicing. For this, Rickie thought, there is something to be said: he had escaped the sin of despising the physically strong--a sin against which the physically weak must guard. But here was Dawes returning again and again to the subject of the University, full of transparent jealousy and petty spite, nagging, nagging, nagging, like a maiden lady who has not been invited to a tea-party. Rickie wondered whether, after all, Ansell and the extremists might not be right, and bodily beauty and strength be signs of the soul's damnation.
He glanced at Agnes. She was writing down some orderings for the tradespeople on a piece of paper. Her handsome face was intent on the work. The bench on which she and Gerald were sitting had no back, but she sat as straight as a dart. He, though strong enough to sit straight, did not take the trouble.
"Why don't they talk to each other?" thought Rickie.
"Gerald, give this paper to the cook."
"I can give it to the other slavey, can't I?"
"She'd be dressing."
"Well, there's Herbert."
"He's busy. Oh, you know where the kitchen is. Take it to the cook."
He disappeared slowly behind the tree.
"What do you think of him?" she immediately asked. He murmured civilly.
"Has he changed since he was a schoolboy?"
"In a way."
"Do tell me all about him. Why won't you?"
She might have seen a flash of horror pass over Rickie's face. The horror disappeared, for, thank God, he was now a man, whom civilization protects. But he and Gerald had met, as it were, behind the scenes, before our decorous drama opens, and there the elder boy had done things to him--absurd things, not worth chronicling separately. An apple-pie bed is nothing; pinches, kicks, boxed ears, twisted arms, pulled hair, ghosts at night, inky books, befouled photographs, amount to very little by themselves. But let them be united and continuous, and you have a hell that no grown-up devil can devise. Between Rickie and Gerald there lay a shadow that darkens life more often than we suppose. The bully and his victim never quite forget their first relations. They meet in clubs and country houses, and clap one another on the back; but in both the memory is green of a more strenuous day, when they were boys together.
He tried to say, "He was the right kind of boy, and I was the wrong kind." But Cambridge would not let him smooth the situation over by self-belittlement. If he had been the wrong kind of boy, Gerald had been a worse kind. He murmured, "We are different, very," and Miss Pembroke, perhaps suspecting something, asked no more. But she kept to the subject of Mr. Dawes, humorously depreciating her lover and discussing him without reverence. Rickie laughed, but felt uncomfortable. When people were engaged, he felt that they should be outside criticism. Yet here he was criticizing. He could not help it. He was dragged in.
"I hope his ankle is better."
"Never was bad. He's always fussing over something."
"He plays next week in a match, I think Herbert says."
"I dare say he does."
"Shall we be going?"
"Pray go if you like. I shall stop at home. I've had enough of cold feet."
It was all very colourless and odd.
Gerald returned, saying, "I can't stand your cook. What's she want to ask me questions for? I can't stand talking to servants. I say, 'If I speak to you, well and good'--and it's another thing besides if she were pretty."
"Well, I hope our ugly cook will have lunch ready in a minute," said Agnes. "We're frightfully unpunctual this morning, and I daren't say anything, because it was the same yesterday, and if I complain again they might leave. Poor Rickie must be starved."
"Why, the Silts gave me all these sandwiches and I've never eaten them. They always stuff one."
"And you thought you'd better, eh?" said Mr. Dawes, "in case you weren't stuffed here."
Miss Pembroke, who house-kept somewhat economically, looked annoyed.
The voice of Mr. Pembroke was now heard calling from the house, "Frederick! Frederick! My dear boy, pardon me. It was an important letter about the Church Defence, otherwise--. Come in and see your room."
He was glad to quit the little lawn. He had learnt too much there. It was dreadful: they did not love each other. More dreadful even than the case of his father and mother, for they, until they married, had got on pretty well. But this man was already rude and brutal and cold: he was still the school bully who twisted up the arms of little boys, and ran pins into them at chapel, and struck them in the stomach when they were swinging on the horizontal bar. Poor Agnes; why ever had she done it? Ought not somebody to interfere?
He had forgotten his sandwiches, and went back to get them.
Gerald and Agnes were locked in each other's arms.
He only looked for a moment, but the sight burnt into his brain. The man's grip was the stronger. He had drawn the woman on to his knee, was pressing her, with all his strength, against him. Already her hands slipped off him, and she whispered, "Don't you hurt--" Her face had no expression. It stared at the intruder and never saw him. Then her lover kissed it, and immediately it shone with mysterious beauty, like some star.
Rickie limped away without the sandwiches, crimson and afraid. He thought, "Do such things actually happen?" and he seemed to be looking down coloured valleys. Brighter they glowed, till gods of pure flame were born in them, and then he was looking at pinnacles of virgin snow. While Mr. Pembroke talked, the riot of fair images increased.
They invaded his being and lit lamps at unsuspected shrines. Their orchestra commenced in that suburban house, where he had to stand aside for the maid to carry in the luncheon. Music flowed past him like a river. He stood at the springs of creation and heard the primeval monotony. Then an obscure instrument gave out a little phrase.
The river continued unheeding. The phrase was repeated and a listener might know it was a fragment of the Tune of tunes. Nobler instruments accepted it, the clarionet protected, the brass encouraged, and it rose to the surface to the whisper of violins. In full unison was Love born, flame of the flame, flushing the dark river beneath him and the virgin snows above. His wings were infinite, his youth eternal; the sun was a jewel on his finger as he passed it in benediction over the world. Creation, no longer monotonous, acclaimed him, in widening melody, in brighter radiances. Was Love a column of fire? Was he a torrent of song? Was he greater than either--the touch of a man on a woman?
It was the merest accident that Rickie had not been disgusted. But this he could not know.
Mr. Pembroke, when he called the two dawdlers into lunch, was aware of a hand on his arm and a voice that murmured, "Don't-- they may be happy."
He stared, and struck the gong. To its music they approached, priest and high priestess.
"Rickie, can I give these sandwiches to the boot boy?" said the one. "He would love them."
"The gong! Be quick! The gong!"
"Are you smoking before lunch?" said the other.
But they had got into heaven, and nothing could get them out of it. Others might think them surly or prosaic. He knew. He could remember every word they spoke. He would treasure every motion, every glance of either, and so in time to come, when the gates of heaven had shut, some faint radiance, some echo of wisdom might remain with him outside.
As a matter of fact, he saw them very little during his visit. He checked himself because he was unworthy. What right had he to pry, even in the spirit, upon their bliss? It was no crime to have seen them on the lawn. It would be a crime to go to it again. He tried to keep himself and his thoughts away, not because he was ascetic, but because they would not like it if they knew. This behaviour of his suited them admirably. And when any gracious little thing occurred to them--any little thing that his sympathy had contrived and allowed--they put it down to chance or to each other.
So the lovers fall into the background. They are part of the distant sunrise, and only the mountains speak to them. Rickie talks to Mr. Pembroke, amidst the unlit valleys of our over-habitable world.
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