That same day Rickie, feeling neither poor nor aimless, left the Ansells' for a night's visit to Cadover. His aunt had invited him--why, he could not think, nor could he think why he should refuse the invitation. She could not annoy him now, and he was not vindictive. In the dell near Madingley he had cried, "I hate no one," in his ignorance. Now, with full knowledge, he hated no one again. The weather was pleasant, the county attractive, and he was ready for a little change.
Maud and Stewart saw him off. Stephen, who was down for the holiday, had been left with his chin on the luncheon table. He had wanted to come also. Rickie pointed out that you cannot visit where you have broken the windows. There was an argument--there generally was--and now the young man had turned sulky.
"Let him do what he likes," said Ansell. "He knows more than we do. He knows everything."
"Is he to get drunk?" Rickie asked.
"And to go where he isn't asked?"
Maud, though liking a little spirit in a man, declared this to be impossible.
"Well, I wish you joy!" Rickie called, as the train moved away. "He means mischief this evening. He told me piously that he felt it beating up. Good-bye!"
"But we'll wait for you to pass," they cried. For the Salisbury train always backed out of the station and then returned, and the Ansell family, including Stewart, took an incredible pleasure in seeing it do this.
The carriage was empty. Rickie settled himself down for his little journey. First he looked at the coloured photographs. Then he read the directions for obtaining luncheon-baskets, and felt the texture of the cushions. Through the windows a signal-box interested him. Then he saw the ugly little town that was now his home, and up its chief street the Ansells' memorable facade. The spirit of a genial comedy dwelt there. It was so absurd, so kindly. The house was divided against itself and yet stood. Metaphysics, commerce, social aspirations--all lived together in harmony. Mr. Ansell had done much, but one was tempted to believe in a more capricious power--the power that abstains from "nipping." "One nips or is nipped, and never knows beforehand," quoted Rickie, and opened the poems of Shelley, a man less foolish than you supposed. How pleasant it was to read! If business worried him, if Stephen was noisy or Ansell perverse, there still remained this paradise of books. It seemed as if he had read nothing for two years. Then the train stopped for the shunting, and he heard protests from minor officials who were working on the line. They complained that some one who didn't ought to, had mounted on the footboard of the carriage. Stephen's face appeared, convulsed with laughter. With the action of a swimmer he dived in through the open window, and fell comfortably on Rickie's luggage and Rickie. He declared it was the finest joke ever known. Rickie was not so sure. "You'll be run over next," he said. "What did you do that for?"
"I'm coming with you," he giggled, rolling all that he could on to the dusty floor.
"Now, Stephen, this is too bad. Get up. We went into the whole question yesterday."
"I know; and I settled we wouldn't go into it again, spoiling my holiday."
"Well, it's execrable taste."
Now he was waving to the Ansells, and showing them a piece of soap: it was all his luggage, and even that he abandoned, for he flung it at Stewart's lofty brow.
"I can't think what you've done it for. You know how strongly I felt."
Stephen replied that he should stop in the village; meet Rickie at the lodge gates; that kind of thing.
"It's execrable taste," he repeated, trying to keep grave.
"Well, you did all you could," he exclaimed with sudden sympathy. "Leaving me talking to old Ansell, you might have thought you'd got your way. I've as much taste as most chaps, but, hang it! your aunt isn't the German Emperor. She doesn't own Wiltshire."
"You ass!" sputtered Rickie, who had taken to laugh at nonsense again.
"No, she isn't," he repeated, blowing a kiss out of the window to maidens. "Why, we started for Wiltshire on the wet morning!"
"When Stewart found us at Sawston railway station?" He smiled happily. "I never thought we should pull through."
"Well, we didn't. We never did what we meant. It's nonsense that I couldn't have managed you alone. I've a notion. Slip out after your dinner this evening, and we'll get thundering tight together."
"I've a notion I won't."
"It'd do you no end of good. You'll get to know people-- shepherds, carters--" He waved his arms vaguely, indicating democracy. "Then you'll sing."
"But I'll catch you," promised Stephen. "We shall carry you up the hill to bed. In the morning you wake, have your row with old Em'ly, she kicks you out, we meet--we'll meet at the Rings!" He danced up and down the carriage. Some one in the next carriage punched at the partition, and when this happens, all lads with mettle know that they must punch the partition back.
"Thank you. I've a notion I won't," said Rickie when the noise had subsided--subsided for a moment only, for the following conversation took place to an accompaniment of dust and bangs. "Except as regards the Rings. We will meet there."
"Then I'll get tight by myself."
"No, you won't."
"Yes, I will. I swore to do something special this evening. I feel like it."
"In that case, I get out at the next station." He was laughing, but quite determined. Stephen had grown too dictatorial of late. The Ansells spoilt him. "It's bad enough having you there at all. Having you there drunk is impossible. I'd sooner not visit my aunt than think, when I sat with her, that you're down in the village teaching her labourers to be as beastly as yourself. Go if you will. But not with me."
"Why shouldn't I have a good time while I'm young, if I don't harm any one?" said Stephen defiantly.
"Need we discuss self."
"Oh, I can stop myself any minute I choose. I just say 'I won't' to you or any other fool, and I don't."
Rickie knew that the boast was true. He continued, "There is also a thing called Morality. You may learn in the Bible, and also from the Greeks, that your body is a temple."
"So you said in your longest letter."
"Probably I wrote like a prig, for the reason that I have never been tempted in this way; but surely it is wrong that your body should escape you."
"I don't follow," he retorted, punching.
"It isn't right, even for a little time, to forget that you exist."
"I suppose you've never been tempted to go to sleep?"
Just then the train passed through a coppice in which the grey undergrowth looked no more alive than firewood. Yet every twig in it was waiting for the spring. Rickie knew that the analogy was false, but argument confused him, and he gave up this line of attack also.
"Do be more careful over life. If your body escapes you in one thing, why not in more? A man will have other temptations."
"You mean women," said Stephen quietly, pausing for a moment in this game. "But that's absolutely different. That would be harming some one else."
"Is that the only thing that keeps you straight?"
"What else should?" And he looked not into Rickie, but past him, with the wondering eyes of a child. Rickie nodded, and referred himself to the window.
He observed that the country was smoother and more plastic. The woods had gone, and under a pale-blue sky long contours of earth were flowing, and merging, rising a little to bear some coronal of beeches, parting a little to disclose some green valley, where cottages stood under elms or beside translucent waters. It was Wiltshire at last. The train had entered the chalk. At last it slackened at a wayside platform. Without speaking he opened the door.
"What's that for?"
"To go back."
Stephen had forgotten the threat. He said that this was not playing the game.
"I can't have you going back."
"Promise to behave decently then."
He was seized and pulled away from the door.
"We change at Salisbury," he remarked. "There is an hour to wait. You will find me troublesome."
"It isn't fair," exploded Stephen. "It's a lowdown trick. How can I let you go back?"
"Oh, yes, yes, yes. Y.M.C.A. But for this occasion only."
"No, no. For the rest of your holiday."
"Yes, yes. Very well. I promise."
"For the rest of your life?"
Somehow it pleased him that Stephen should bang him crossly with his elbow and say, "No. Get out. You've gone too far." So had the train. The porter at the end of the wayside platform slammed the door, and they proceeded toward Salisbury through the slowly modulating downs. Rickie pretended to read. Over the book he watched his brother's face, and wondered how bad temper could be consistent with a mind so radiant. In spite of his obstinacy and conceit, Stephen was an easy person to live with. He never fidgeted or nursed hidden grievances, or indulged in a shoddy pride. Though he spent Rickie's money as slowly as he could, he asked for it without apology: "You must put it down against me," he would say. In time--it was still very vague--he would rent or purchase a farm. There is no formula in which we may sum up decent people. So Ansell had preached, and had of course proceeded to offer a formula: "They must be serious, they must be truthful." Serious not in the sense of glum; but they must be convinced that our life is a state of some importance, and our earth not a place to beat time on. Of so much Stephen was convinced: he showed it in his work, in his play, in his self-respect, and above all--though the fact is hard to face-in his sacred passion for alcohol. Drink, today, is an unlovely thing. Between us and the heights of Cithaeron the river of sin now flows. Yet the cries still call from the mountain, and granted a man has responded to them, it is better he respond with the candour of the Greek.
"I shall stop at the Thompsons' now," said the disappointed reveller. "Prayers."
Rickie did not press his triumph, but it was a happy moment, partly because of the triumph, partly because he was sure that his brother must care for him. Stephen was too selfish to give up any pleasure without grave reasons. He was certain that he had been right to disentangle himself from Sawston, and to ignore the threats and tears that still tempted him to return. Here there was real work for him to do. Moreover, though he sought no reward, it had come. His health was better, his brain sound, his life washed clean, not by the waters of sentiment, but by the efforts of a fellow-man. Stephen was man first, brother afterwards. Herein lay his brutality and also his virtue. "Look me in the face. Don't hang on me clothes that don't belong--as you did on your wife, giving her saint's robes, whereas she was simply a woman of her own sort, who needed careful watching. Tear up the photographs. Here am I, and there are you. The rest is cant." The rest was not cant, and perhaps Stephen would confess as much in time. But Rickie needed a tonic, and a man, not a brother, must hold it to his lips.
"I see the old spire," he called, and then added, "I don't mind seeing it again."
"No one does, as far as I know. People have come from the other side of the world to see it again."
"Pious people. But I don't hold with bishops." He was young enough to be uneasy. The cathedral, a fount of superstition, must find no place in his life. At the age of twenty he had settled things.
"I've got my own philosophy," he once told Ansell, "and I don't care a straw about yours." Ansell's mirth had annoyed him not a little. And it was strange that one so settled should feel his heart leap up at the sight of an old spire. "I regard it as a public building," he told Rickie, who agreed. "It's useful, too, as a landmark." His attitude today was defensive. It was part of a subtle change that Rickie had noted in him since his return from Scotland. His face gave hints of a new maturity. "You can see the old spire from the Ridgeway," he said, suddenly laying a hand on Rickie's knee, "before rain as clearly as any telegraph post."
"How far is the Ridgeway?"
"North, naturally. North again from that you see Devizes, the vale of Pewsey, and the other downs. Also towards Bath. It is something of a view. You ought to get on the Ridgeway."
"I shouldn't have time for that."
"Or Beacon Hill. Or let's do Stonehenge."
"If it's fine, I suggest the Rings."
"It will be fine." Then he murmured the names of villages.
"I wish you could live here," said Rickie kindly. "I believe you love these particular acres more than the whole world."
Stephen replied that this was not the case: he was only used to them. He wished they were driving out, instead of waiting for the Cadchurch train.
They had advanced into Salisbury, and the cathedral, a public building, was grey against a tender sky. Rickie suggested that, while waiting for the train, they should visit it. He spoke of the incomparable north porch. "I've never been inside it, and I never will. Sorry to shock you, Rickie, but I must tell you plainly. I'm an atheist. I don't believe in anything."
"I do," said Rickie.
"When a man dies, it's as if he's never been," he asserted. The train drew up in Salisbury station. Here a little incident took place which caused them to alter their plans.
They found outside the station a trap driven by a small boy, who had come in from Cadford to fetch some wire-netting. "That'll do us," said Stephen, and called to the boy, "If I pay your railway-ticket back, and if I give you sixpence as well, will you let us drive back in the trap?" The boy said no. "It will be all right," said Rickie. "I am Mrs. Failing's nephew." The boy shook his head. "And you know Mr. Wonham?" The boy couldn't say he didn't. "Then what's your objection? Why? What is it? Why not?" But Stephen leant against the time-tables and spoke of other matters.
Presently the boy said, "Did you say you'd pay my railway-ticket back, Mr. Wonham?"
"Yes," said a bystander. "Didn't you hear him?"
"I heard him right enough."
Now Stephen laid his hand on the splash-board, saying, "What I want, though, is this trap here of yours, see, to drive in back myself;" and as he spoke the bystander followed him in canon, "What he wants, though, is that there trap of yours, see, to drive hisself back in."
"I've no objection," said the boy, as if deeply offended. For a time he sat motionless, and then got down, remarking, "I won't rob you of your sixpence."
"Silly little fool," snapped Rickie, as they drove through the town.
Stephen looked surprised. "What's wrong with the boy? He had to think it over. No one had asked him to do such a thing before. Next time he'd let us have the trap quick enough."
"Not if he had driven in for a cabbage instead of wire-netting."
"He never would drive in for a cabbage."
Rickie shuffled his feet. But his irritation passed. He saw that the little incident had been a quiet challenge to the civilization that he had known. "Organize." "Systematize." "Fill up every moment," "Induce esprit de corps." He reviewed the watchwords of the last two years, and found that they ignored personal contest, personal truces, personal love. By following them Sawston School had lost its quiet usefulness and become a frothy sea, wherein plunged Dunwood House, that unnecessary ship. Humbled, he turned to Stephen and said, "No, you're right. Nothing is wrong with the boy. He was honestly thinking it out." But Stephen had forgotten the incident, or else he was not inclined to talk about it. His assertive fit was over.
The direct road from Salisbury to Cadover is extremely dull. The city--which God intended to keep by the river; did she not move there, being thirsty, in the reign of William Rufus?--the city had strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.
Through them the road descends into an unobtrusive country where, nevertheless, the power of the earth grows stronger. Streams do divide. Distances do still exist. It is easier to know the men in your valley than those who live in the next, across a waste of down. It is easier to know men well. The country is not paradise, and can show the vices that grieve a good man everywhere. But there is room in it, and leisure.
"I suppose," said Rickie as the twilight fell, "this kind of thing is going on all over England." Perhaps he meant that towns are after all excrescences, grey fluxions, where men, hurrying to find one another, have lost themselves. But he got no response, and expected none. Turning round in his seat, he watched the winter sun slide out of a quiet sky. The horizon was primrose, and the earth against it gave momentary hints of purple. All faded: no pageant would conclude the gracious day, and when he turned eastward the night was already established.
"Those verlands--" said Stephen, scarcely above his breath.
"What are verlands?"
He pointed at the dusk, and said, "Our name for a kind of field." Then he drove his whip into its socket,and seemed to swallow something. Rickie, straining his eyes for verlands, could only see a tumbling wilderness of brown.
"Are there many local words?"
"There have been."
"I suppose they die out."
The conversation turned curiously. In the tone of one who replies, he said, "I expect that some time or other I shall marry."
"I expect you will," said Rickie, and wondered a little why the reply seemed not abrupt. "Would we see the Rings in the daytime from here?"
"(We do see them.) But Mrs. Failing once said no decent woman would have me."
"Did you agree to that?"
"Drive a little, will you?"
The horse went slowly forward into the wilderness, that turned from brown to black. Then a luminous glimmer surrounded them, and the air grew cooler: the road was descending between parapets of chalk.
"But, Rickie, mightn't I find a girl--naturally not refined--and be happy with her in my own way? I would tell her straight I was nothing much--faithful, of course, but that she should never have all my thoughts. Out of no disrespect to her, but because all one's thoughts can't belong to any single person."
While he spoke even the road vanished, and invisible water came gurgling through the wheel-spokes. The horse had chosen the ford. "You can't own people. At least a fellow can't. It may be different for a poet. (Let the horse drink.) And I want to marry some one, and don't yet know who she is, which a poet again will tell you is disgusting. Does it disgust you? Being nothing much, surely I'd better go gently. For it's something rather outside that makes one marry, if you follow me: not exactly oneself. (Don't hurry the horse.) We want to marry, and yet--I can't explain. I fancy I'll go wading: this is our stream."
Romantic love is greater than this. There are men and women--we know it from history--who have been born into the world for each other, and for no one else, who have accomplished the longest journey locked in each other's arms. But romantic love is also the code of modern morals, and, for this reason, popular. Eternal union, eternal ownership--these are tempting baits for the average man. He swallows them, will not confess his mistake, and--perhaps to cover it--cries "dirty cynic" at such a man as Stephen.
Rickie watched the black earth unite to the black sky. But the sky overhead grew clearer, and in it twinkled the Plough and the central stars. He thought of his brother's future and of his own past, and of how much truth might lie in that antithesis of Ansell's: "A man wants to love mankind, a woman wants to love one man." At all events, he and his wife had illustrated it, and perhaps the conflict, so tragic in their own case, was elsewhere the salt of the world. Meanwhile Stephen called from the water for matches: there was some trick with paper which Mr. Failing had showed him, and which he would show Rickie now, instead of talking nonsense. Bending down, he illuminated the dimpled surface of the ford. "Quite a current." he said, and his face flickered out in the darkness. "Yes, give me the loose paper, quick! Crumple it into a ball."
Rickie obeyed, though intent on the transfigured face. He believed that a new spirit dwelt there, expelling the crudities of youth. He saw steadier eyes, and the sign of manhood set like a bar of gold upon steadier lips. Some faces are knit by beauty, or by intellect, or by a great passion: had Stephen's waited for the touch of the years?
But they played as boys who continued the nonsense of the railway carriage. The paper caught fire from the match, and spread into a rose of flame. "Now gently with me," said Stephen, and they laid it flowerlike on the stream. Gravel and tremulous weeds leapt into sight, and then the flower sailed into deep water, and up leapt the two arches of a bridge. "It'll strike!" they cried; "no, it won't; it's chosen the left," and one arch became a fairy tunnel, dropping diamonds. Then it vanished for Rickie; but Stephen, who knelt in the water, declared that it was still afloat, far through the arch, burning as if it would burn forever.
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