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Chapter 16

BENEATH THE ELMS


Spring was in the hearts of men, and their tall companions, trees. Their troubles, the stiflings of each other's growth, and all such things, seemed of little moment. Spring had them by the throat. It turned old men round, and made them stare at women younger than themselves. It made young men and women walking side by side touch each other, and every bird on the branches tune his pipe. Flying sunlight speckled the fluttered leaves, and gushed the cheeks of crippled boys who limped into the Gardens, till their pale Cockney faces shone with a strange glow.

In the Broad Walk, beneath those dangerous trees, the elms, people sat and took the sun--cheek by jowl, generals and nursemaids, parsons and the unemployed. Above, in that Spring wind, the elm-tree boughs were swaying, rustling, creaking ever so gently, carrying on the innumerable talk of trees--their sapient, wordless conversation over the affairs of men. It was pleasant, too, to see and hear the myriad movement of the million little separate leaves, each shaped differently, flighting never twice alike, yet all obedient to the single spirit of their tree.

Thyme and Martin were sitting on a seat beneath the largest of all the elms. Their manner lacked the unconcern and dignity of the moment, when, two hours before, they had started forth on their discovery from the other end of the Broad Walk. Martin spoke:

"It's given you the hump! First sight of blood, and you're like all the rest of them!"

"I'm not, Martin. How perfectly beastly of you!"

"Oh yes, you are. There's plenty of aestheticism about you and your people--plenty of good intentions--but not an ounce of real business!"

"Don't abuse my people; they're just as kind as you!"

"Oh, they're kind enough, and they can see what's wrong. It's not that which stops them. But your dad's a regular official. He's got so much sense of what he ought not to do that he never does anything; Just as Hilary's got so much consciousness of what he ought to do that he never does anything. You went to that woman's this morning with your ideas of helping her all cut and dried, and now that you find the facts aren't what you thought, you're stumped!"

"One can't believe anything they say. That's what I hate. I thought Hughs simply knocked her about. I didn't know it was her jealousy--"

"Of course you didn't. Do you imagine those people give anything away to our sort unless they're forced? They know better."

"Well, I hate the whole thing--it's all so sordid!"

"O Lord!"

"Well, it is! I don't feel that I want to help a woman who can say and feel such horrid things, or the girl, or any of them."

"Who cares what they say or feel? that's not the point. It's simply a case of common sense: Your people put that girl there, and they must get her to clear out again sharp. It's just a question of what's healthy."

"Well, I know it's not healthy for me to have anything to do with, and I won't! I don't believe you can help people unless they want to be helped."

Martin whistled.

"You're rather a brute, I think," said Thyme.

"A brute, not rather a brute. That's all the difference."

"For the worse!"

"I don't think so, Thyme!"

There was no answer.

"Look at me."

Very slowly Thyme turned her eyes.

"Well?"

"Are you one of us, or are you not?"

"Of course I am."

"You're not!"

"I am."

"Well, don't let's fight about it. Give me your hand."

He dropped his hand on hers. Her face had flushed rose colour. Suddenly she freed herself. "Here's Uncle Hilary!"

It was indeed Hilary, with Miranda, trotting in advance. His hands were crossed behind him, his face bent towards the ground. The two young people on the bench sat looking at him.

"Buried in self-contemplation," murmured Martin; "that's the way he always walks. I shall tell him about this!"

The colour of Thyme's face deepened from rose to crimson.

"No!"

"Why not?"

"Well--those new---" She could not bring out that word "clothes." It would have given her thoughts away.

Hilary seemed making for their seat, but Miranda, aware of Martin, stopped. "A man of action!" she appeared to say. "The one who pulls my ears." And turning, as though unconscious, she endeavoured to lead Hilary away. Her master, however, had already seen his niece. He came and sat down on the bench beside her.

"We wanted you!" said Martin, eyeing him slowly, as a young dog will eye another of a different age and breed. "Thyme and I have been to see the Hughs in Hound Street. Things are blowing up for a mess. You, or whoever put the girl there, ought to get her away again as quick as possible."

Hilary seemed at once to withdraw into himself.

"Well," he said, "let us hear all about it."

"The woman's jealous of her: that's all the trouble!"

"Oh!" said Hilary; "that's all the trouble?"

Thyme murmured: "I don't see a bit why Uncle Hilary should bother. If they will be so horrid--I didn't think the poor were like that. I didn't think they had it in them. I'm sure the girl isn't worth it, or the woman either!"

"I didn't say they were," growled Martin. "It's a question of what's healthy."

Hilary looked from one of his young companions to the other.

"I see," he said. "I thought perhaps the matter was more delicate."

Martin's lip curled.'

"Ah, your precious delicacy! What's the good of that? What did it ever do? It's the curse that you're all suffering from. Why don't you act? You could think about it afterwards."

A flush came into Hilary's sallow cheeks.

"Do you never think before you act, Martin?"

Martin got up and stood looking down on Hilary.

"Look here!" he said; "I don't go in for your subtleties. I use my eyes and nose. I can see that the woman will never be able to go on feeding the baby in the neurotic state she's in. It's a matter of health for both of them."

"Is everything a matter of health with you?"

"It is. Take any subject that you like. Take the poor themselves--what's wanted? Health. Nothing on earth but health! The discoveries and inventions of the last century have knocked the floor out of the old order; we've got to put a new one in, and we're going to put it in, too--the floor of health. The crowd doesn't yet see what it wants, but they're looking for it, and when we show it them they'll catch on fast enough."

"But who are 'you'?" murmured Hilary.

"Who are we? I'll tell you one thing. While all the reformers are pecking at each other we shall quietly come along and swallow up the lot. We've simply grasped this elementary fact, that theories are no basis for reform. We go on the evidence of our eyes and noses; what we see and smell is wrong we correct by practical and scientific means."

"Will you apply that to human nature?"

"It's human nature to want health."

"I wonder! It doesn't look much like it at present."

"Take the case of this woman."

"Yes," said Hilary, "take her case. You can't make this too clear to me, Martin."

"She's no use--poor sort altogether. The man's no use. A man who's been wounded in the head, and isn't a teetotaller, is done for. The girl's no use--regular pleasure-loving type!"

Thyme flushed crimson, and, seeing that flood of colour in his niece's face, Hilary bit his lips.

"The only things worth considering are the children. There's this baby-well, as I said, the important thing is that the mother should be able to look after it properly. Get hold of that, and let the other facts go hang."

"Forgive me, but my difficulty is to isolate this question of the baby's health from all the other circumstances of the case."

Martin grinned.

"And you'll make that an excuse, I'm certain, for doing nothing."

Thyme slipped her hand into Hilary's.

"You are a brute, Martin," she-murmured.

The young man turned on her a look that said: 'It's no use calling me a brute; I'm proud of being one. Besides, you know you don't dislike it.'

"It's better to be a brute than an amateur," he said.

Thyme, pressing close to Hilary, as though he needed her protection, cried out:

"Martin, you really are a Goth!"

Hilary was still smiling, but his face quivered.

"Not at all," he said. "Martin's powers of diagnosis do him credit."

And, raising his hat, he walked away.

The two young people, both on their feet now, looked after him. Martin's face was a queer study of contemptuous compunction; Thyme's was startled, softened, almost tearful.

"It won't do him any harm," muttered the young man. "It'll shake him up."

Thyme flashed a vicious look at him.

"I hate you sometimes," she said. "You're so coarse-grained--your skin's just like leather."

Martin's hand descended on her wrist.

"And yours," he said, "is tissue-paper. You're all the same, you amateurs."

"I'd rather be an amateur than a--than a bounder!"

Martin made a queer movement of his jaw, then smiled. That smile seemed to madden Thyme. She wrenched her wrist away and darted after Hilary.

Martin impassively looked after her. Taking out his pipe, he filled it with tobacco, slowly pressing the golden threads down into the bowl with his little finger.


John Galsworthy