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Chapter 13

SOUND IN THE NIGHT


He passed his study door, and halted at Mr. Stone's; the thought of the old man, so steady and absorbed in the face of all external things, refreshed him.

Still in his brown woollen gown, Mr. Stone was sitting with his eyes fixed on something in the corner, whence a little perfumed steam was rising.

"Shut the door," he said; "I am making cocoa; will you have a cup?"

"Am I disturbing you?" asked Hilary.

Mr. Stone looked at him steadily before answering:

"If I work after cocoa, I find it clogs the liver."

"Then, if you'll let me, sir, I'll stay a little."

"It is boiling," said Mr. Stone. He took the saucepan off the flame, and, distending his frail cheeks, blew. Then, while the steam mingled with his frosty beard, he brought two cups from a cupboard, filled one of them, and looked at Hilary.

"I should like you," he said, "to hear three or four pages I have just completed; you may perhaps be able to suggest a word or two."

He placed the saucepan back on the stove, and grasped the cup he had filled.

"I will drink my cocoa, and read them to you."

Going to the desk, he stood, blowing at the cup.

Hilary turned up the collar of his coat against the night wind which was visiting the room, and glanced at the empty cup, for he was rather hungry. He heard a curious sound: Mr. Stone was blowing his own tongue. In his haste to read, he had drunk too soon and deeply of the cocoa.

"I have burnt my mouth," he said.

Hilary moved hastily towards him: "Badly? Try cold milk, sir."

Mr. Stone lifted the cup.

"There is none," he said, and drank again.

'What would I not give,' thought Hilary, 'to have his singleness of heart!'

There was the sharp sound of a cup set down. Then, out of a rustling of papers, a sort of droning rose:

"'The Proletariat--with a cynicism natural to those who really are in want, and even amongst their leaders only veiled when these attained a certain position in the public eye--desired indeed the wealth and leisure of their richer neighbours, but in their long night of struggle with existence they had only found the energy to formulate their pressing needs from day to day. They were a heaving, surging sea of creatures, slowly, without consciousness or real guidance, rising in long tidal movements to set the limits of the shore a little farther back, and cast afresh the form of social life; and on its pea-green bosom '" Mr. Stone paused. "She has copied it wrong," he said; "the word is 'seagreen.' 'And on its sea-green bosom sailed a fleet of silver cockle-shells, wafted by the breath of those not in themselves driven by the wind of need. The voyage of these silver cockle-shells, all heading across each other's bows, was, in fact, the advanced movement of that time. In the stern of each of these little craft, blowing at the sails, was seated a by-product of the accepted system. These by-products we should now examine."

Mr. Stone paused, and looked into his cup. There were some grounds in it. He drank them, and went on:

"'The fratricidal principle of the survival of the fittest, which in those days was England's moral teaching, had made the country one huge butcher's shop. Amongst the carcasses of countless victims there had fattened and grown purple many butchers, physically strengthened by the smell of blood and sawdust. These had begotten many children. Following out the laws of Nature providing against surfeit, a proportion of these children were born with a feeling of distaste for blood and sawdust; many of them, compelled for the purpose of making money to follow in their fathers' practices, did so unwillingly; some, thanks to their fathers' butchery, were in a position to abstain from practising; but whether in practice or at leisure, distaste for the scent of blood and sawdust was the common feature that distinguished them. Qualities hitherto but little known, and generally despised--not, as we shall see, without some reason--were developed in them. Self-consciousness, aestheticism, a dislike for waste, a hatred of injustice; these--or some one of these, when coupled with that desire natural to men throughout all ages to accomplish something--constituted the motive forces which enabled them to work their bellows. In practical affairs those who were under the necessity of labouring were driven, under the then machinery of social life, to the humaner and less exacting kinds of butchery, such as the Arts, Education, the practice of Religions and Medicine, and the paid representation of their fellow-creatures. Those not so driven occupied themselves in observing and complaining of the existing state of thing. Each year saw more of their silver cockleshells putting out from port, and the cheeks of those who blew the sails more violently distended. Looking back on that pretty voyage, we see the reason why those ships were doomed never to move, but, seated on the sea-green bosom of that sea, to heave up and down, heading across each other's bows in the self-same place for ever. That reason, in few words, was this: 'The man who blew should have been in the sea, not on the ship.'"

The droning ceased. Hilary saw that Mr. Stone was staring fixedly at his sheet of paper, as though the merits of this last sentence were surprising him. The droning instantly began again: "'In social effort, as in the physical processes of Nature, there had ever been a single fertilising agent--the mysterious and wonderful attraction known as Love. To this--that merging of one being in another--had been due all the progressive variance of form, known by man under the name of Life. It was this merger, this mysterious, unconscious Love, which was lacking to the windy efforts of those who tried to sail that fleet. They were full of reason, conscience, horror, full of impatience, contempt, revolt; but they did not love the masses of their fellow-men. They could not fling themselves into the sea. Their hearts were glowing; but the wind which made them glow was not the salt and universal zephyr: it was the desert wind of scorn. As with the flowering of the aloe-tree--so long awaited, so strange and swift when once it comes--man had yet to wait for his delirious impulse to Universal Brotherhood, and the forgetfulness of Self.'"

Mr. Stone had finished, and stood gazing at his visitor with eyes that clearly saw beyond him. Hilary could not meet those eyes; he kept his own fixed on the empty cocoa cup. It was not, in fact, usual for those who heard Mr. Stone read his manuscript to look him in the face. He stood thus absorbed so long that Hilary rose at last, and glanced into the saucepan. There was no cocoa in it. Mr. Stone had only made enough for one. He had meant it for his visitor, but self-forgetfulness had supervened.

"You know what happens to the aloe, sir, when it has flowered?" asked Hilary with malice.

Mr. Stone moved, but did not answer.

"It dies," said Hilary.

"No," said Mr. Stone; "it is at peace."

"When is self at peace, sir? The individual is surely as immortal as the universal. That is the eternal comedy of life."

"What is?" said Mr. Stone.

"The fight or game between the two."

Mr. Stone stood a moment looking wistfully at his son-in-law. He laid down the sheet of manuscript. "It is time for me to do my exercises." So saying, he undid the tasselled cord tied round the middle of his gown.

Hilary hastened to the door. From that point of vantage he looked back.

Divested of his gown and turned towards the window, Mr. Stone was already rising on his toes, his arms were extended, his palms pressed hard together in the attitude of prayer, his trousers slowly slipping down.

"One, two, three, four, five!" There was a sudden sound of breath escaping....

In the corridor upstairs, flooded with moonlight from a window at the end, Hilary stood listening again. The only sound that came to him was the light snoring of Miranda, who slept in the bathroom, not caring to lie too near to anyone. He went to his room, and for a long time sat buried in thought; then, opening the side window, he leaned out. On the trees of the next garden, and the sloping roofs of stables and outhouses, the moonlight had come down like a flight of milk-white pigeons; with outspread wings, vibrating faintly as though yet in motion, they covered everything. Nothing stirred. A clock was striking two. Past that flight of milk-white pigeons were black walls as yet unvisited. Then, in the stillness, Hilary seemed to hear, deep and very faint, the sound as of some monster breathing, or the far beating of muffed drums. From every side of the pale sleeping town it seemed to come, under the moon's cold glamour. It rose, and fell, and rose, with a weird, creepy rhythm, like a groaning of the hopeless and hungry. A hansom cab rattled down the High Street; Hilary strained his ears after the failing clatter of hoofs and bell. They died; there was silence. Creeping nearer, drumming, throbbing, he heard again the beating of that vast heart. It grew and grew. His own heart began thumping. Then, emerging from that sinister dumb groan, he distinguished a crunching sound, and knew that it was no muttering echo of men's struggles, but only the waggons journeying to Covent Garden Market.


John Galsworthy