Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 17


If has been said that Stephen Dallison, when unable to get his golf on Saturdays, went to his club, and read reviews. The two forms of exercise, in fact, were very similar: in playing golf you went round and round; in reading reviews you did the same, for in course of time you were assured of coming to articles that, nullified articles already read. In both forms of sport the balance was preserved which keeps a man both sound and young.

And to be both sound and young was to Stephen an everyday necessity. He was essentially a Cambridge man, springy and undemonstrative, with just that air of taking a continual pinch of really perfect snuff. Underneath this manner he was a good worker, a good husband, a good father, and nothing could be urged against him except his regularity and the fact that he was never in the wrong. Where he worked, and indeed in other places, many men were like him. In one respect he resembled them, perhaps, too much--he disliked leaving the ground unless he knew precisely where he was coming down again.

He and Cecilia had "got on" from the first. They had both desired to have one child--no more; they had both desired to keep up with the times--no more; they now both considered Hilary's position awkward--no more; and when Cecilia, in the special Jacobean bed, and taking care to let him have his sleep out first, had told him of this matter of the Hughs, they had both turned it over very carefully, lying on their backs, and speaking in grave tones. Stephen was of opinion that poor old Hilary must look out what he was doing. Beyond this he did not go, keeping even from his wife the more unpleasant of what seemed to him the possibilities.

Then, in the words she had used to Hilary, Cecilia spoke:

"It's so sordid, Stephen."

He looked at her, and almost with one accord they both said:

"But it's all nonsense!"

These speeches, so simultaneous, stimulated them to a robuster view. What was this affair, if real, but the sort of episode that they read of in their papers? What was it, if true, but a duplicate of some bit of fiction or drama which they daily saw described by that word "sordid"? Cecilia, indeed, had used this word instinctively. It had come into her mind at once. The whole affair disturbed her ideals of virtue and good taste--that particular mental atmosphere mysteriously, inevitably woven round the soul by the conditions of special breeding and special life. If, then, this affair were real it was sordid, and if it were sordid it was repellent to suppose that her family could be mixed up in it; but her people were mixed up in it, therefore it must be--nonsense!

So the matter rested until Thyme came back from her visit to her grandfather, and told them of the little model's new and pretty clothes. When she detailed this news they were all sitting at dinner, over the ordering of which Cecilia's loyalty had been taxed till her little headache came, so that there might be nothing too conventional to over-nourish Stephen or so essentially aesthetic as not to nourish him at all. The man servant being in the room, they neither of them raised their eyes. But when he was gone to fetch the bird, each found the other looking furtively across the table. By some queer misfortune the word "sordid" had leaped into their minds again. Who had given her those clothes? But feeling that it was sordid to pursue this thought, they looked away, and, eating hastily, began pursuing it. Being man and woman, they naturally took a different line of chase, Cecilia hunting in one grove and Stephen in another.

Thus ran Stephen's pack of meditations:

'If old Hilary has been giving her money and clothes and that sort of thing, he's either a greater duffer than I took him for, or there's something in it. B.'s got herself to thank, but that won't help to keep Hughs quiet. He wants money, I expect. Oh, damn!'

Cecilia's pack ran other ways:

'I know the girl can't have bought those things out of her proper earnings. I believe she's a really bad lot. I don't like to think it, but it must be so. Hilary can't have been so stupid after what I said to him. If she really is bad, it simplifies things very much; but Hilary is just the sort of man who will never believe it. Oh dear!'

It was, to be quite fair, immensely difficult for Stephen and his wife--or any of their class and circle--in spite of genuinely good intentions, to really feel the existence of their "shadows," except in so far as they saw them on the pavements. They knew that these people lived, because they saw them, but they did not feel it--with such extraordinary care had the web of social life been spun. They were, and were bound to be, as utterly divorced from understanding of, or faith in, all that shadowy life, as those "shadows" in their by-streets were from knowledge or belief that gentlefolk really existed except in so far as they had money from them.

Stephen and Cecilia, and their thousands, knew these "shadows" as "the people," knew them as slums, as districts, as sweated industries, of different sorts of workers, knew them in the capacity of persons performing odd jobs for them; but as human beings possessing the same faculties and passions with themselves, they did not, could not, know them. The reason, the long reason, extending back through generations, was so plain, so very simple, that it was never mentioned--in their heart of hearts, where there was no room for cant, they knew it to be just a little matter of the senses. They knew that, whatever they might say, whatever money they might give, or time devote, their hearts could never open, unless--unless they closed their ears, and eyes, and noses. This little fact, more potent than all the teaching of philosophers, than every Act of Parliament, and all the sermons ever preached, reigned paramount, supreme. It divided class from class, man from his shadow--as the Great Underlying Law had set dark apart from light.

On this little fact, too gross to mention, they and their kind had in secret built and built, till it was not too much to say that laws, worship, trade, and every art were based on it, if not in theory, then in fact. For it must not be thought that those eyes were dull or that nose plain--no, no, those eyes could put two and two together; that nose, of myriad fancy, could imagine countless things unsmelled which must lie behind a state of life not quite its own. It could create, as from the scent of an old slipper dogs create their masters.

So Stephen and Cecilia sat, and their butler brought in the bird. It was a nice one, nourished down in Surrey, and as he cut it into portions the butler's soul turned sick within him--not because he wanted some himself, or was a vegetarian, or for any sort of principle, but because he was by natural gifts an engineer, and deadly tired of cutting up and handing birds to other people and watching while they ate them. Without a glimmer of expression on his face he put the portions down before the persons who, having paid him to do so, could not tell his thoughts.

That same night, after working at a Report on the present Laws of Bankruptcy, which he was then drawing up, Stephen entered the joint apartment with excessive caution, having first made all his dispositions, and, stealing to the bed, slipped into it. He lay there, offering himself congratulations that he had not awakened Cecilia, and Cecilia, who was wide awake, knew by his unwonted carefulness that he had come to some conclusion which he did not wish to impart to her. Devoured, therefore, by disquiet, she lay sleepless till the clock struck two.

The conclusion to which Stephen had come was this: Having twice gone through the facts--Hilary's corporeal separation from Bianca (communicated to him by Cecilia), cause unknowable; Hilary's interest in the little model, cause unknown; her known poverty; her employment by Mr. Stone; her tenancy of Mrs. Hughs' room; the latter's outburst to Cecilia; Hughs' threat; and, finally, the girl's pretty clothes--he had summed it up as just a common "plant," to which his brother's possibly innocent, but in any case imprudent, conduct had laid him open. It was a man's affair. He resolutely tried to look on the whole thing as unworthy of attention, to feel that nothing would occur. He failed dismally, for three reasons. First, his inherent love of regularity, of having everything in proper order; secondly, his ingrained mistrust of and aversion from Bianca; thirdly, his unavowed conviction, for all his wish to be sympathetic to them, that the lower classes always wanted something out of you. It was a question of how much they would want, and whether it were wise to give them anything. He decided that it would not be wise at all. What then? Impossible to say. It worried him. He had a natural horror of any sort of scandal, and he was very fond of Hilary. If only he knew the attitude Bianca would take up! He could not even guess it.

Thus, on that Saturday afternoon, the 4th of May, he felt for once such a positive aversion from the reading of reviews, as men will feel from their usual occupations when their nerves have been disturbed. He stayed late at Chambers, and came straight home outside an omnibus.

The tide of life was flowing in the town. The streets were awash with wave on wave of humanity, sucked into a thousand crossing currents. Here men and women were streaming out from the meeting of a religious congress, there streaming in at the gates of some social function; like bright water confined within long shelves of rock and dyed with myriad scales of shifting colour, they thronged Rotten Row, and along the closed shop-fronts were woven into an inextricable network of little human runlets. And everywhere amongst this sea of men and women could be seen their shadows, meandering like streaks of grey slime stirred up from the lower depths by some huge, never-ceasing finger. The innumerable roar of that human sea climbed out above the roofs and trees, and somewhere in illimitable space blended, and slowly reached the meeting-point of sound and silence--that Heart where Life, leaving its little forms and barriers, clasps Death, and from that clasp springs forth new-formed, within new barriers.

Above this crowd of his fellow-creatures, Stephen drove, and the same Spring wind which had made the elm-trees talk, whispered to him, and tried to tell him of the million flowers it had fertilised, the million leaves uncurled, the million ripples it had awakened on the sea, of the million flying shadows flung by it across the Downs, and how into men's hearts its scent had driven a million longings and sweet pains.

It was but moderately successful, for Stephen, like all men of culture and neat habits, took Nature only at those moments when he had gone out to take her, and of her wild heart he had a secret fear.

On his own doorstep he encountered Hilary coming out.

"I ran across Thyme and Martin in the Gardens," the latter said. "Thyme brought me back to lunch, and here I've been ever since."

"Did she bring our young Sanitist in too?" asked Stephen dubiously.

"No," said Hilary.

"Good! That young man gets on my nerves." Taking his elder brother by the arm, he added: "Will you come in again, old boy, or shall we go for a stroll?"

"A stroll," said Hilary.

Though different enough, perhaps because they were so different, these two brothers had the real affection for each other which depends on something deeper and more elementary than a similarity of sentiments, and is permanent because unconnected with the reasoning powers.

It depended on the countless times they had kissed and wrestled as tiny boys, slept in small beds alongside, refused-to "tell" about each other, and even now and then taken up the burden of each other's peccadilloes. They might get irritated or tired of being in each other's company, but it would have been impossible for either to have been disloyal to the other in any circumstances, because of that traditional loyalty which went back to their cribs.

Preceded by Miranda, they walked along the flower walk towards the Park, talking of indifferent things, though in his heart each knew well enough what was in the other's.

Stephen broke through the hedge.

"Cis has been telling me," he said, "that this man Hughs is making trouble of some sort."

Hilary nodded.

Stephen glanced a little anxiously at his brother's face; it struck him as looking different, neither so gentle nor so impersonal as usual.

"He's a ruffian, isn't he?"

"I can't tell you," Hilary answered. "Probably not."

"He must be, old chap," murmured Stephen. Then, with a friendly pressure of his brother's arm, he added: "Look here, old boy, can I be of any use?"

"In what?" asked Hilary.

Stephen took a hasty mental view of his position; he had been in danger of letting Hilary see that he suspected him. Frowning slightly, and with some colour in his clean-shaven face, he said:

"Of course, there's nothing in it."

"In what?" said Hilary again.

"In what this ruffian says."

"No," said Hilary, "there's nothing in it, though what there may be if people give me credit for what there isn't, is another thing."

Stephen digested this remark, which hurt him. He saw that his suspicions had been fathomed, and this injured his opinion of his own diplomacy.

"You mustn't lose your head, old man," he said at last.

They were crossing the bridge over the Serpentine. On the bright waters, below, young clerks were sculling their inamoratas up and down; the ripples set free by their oars gleamed beneath the sun, and ducks swam lazily along the banks. Hilary leaned over.

"Look here, Stephen, I take an interest in this child--she's a helpless sort of little creature, and she seems to have put herself under my protection. I can't help that. But that's all. Do you understand?"

This speech produced a queer turmoil in Stephen, as though his brother had accused him of a petty view of things. Feeling that he must justify himself somehow, he began:

"Oh, of course I understand, old boy! But don't think, anyway, that I should care a damn--I mean as far as I'm concerned--even if you had gone as far as ever you liked, considering what you have to put up with. What I'm thinking of is the general situation."

By this clear statement of his point of view Stephen felt he had put things back on a broad basis, and recovered his position as a man of liberal thought. He too leaned over, looking at the ducks. There was a silence. Then Hilary said:

"If Bianca won't get that child into some fresh place, I shall."

Stephen looked at his brother in surprise, amounting almost to dismay; he had spoken with such unwonted resolution.

"My dear old chap," he said, "I wouldn't go to B. Women are so funny."

Hilary smiled. Stephen took this for a sign of restored impersonality.

"I'll tell you exactly how the thing appeals to me. It'll be much better for you to chuck it altogether. Let Cis see to it!"

Hilary's eyes became bright with angry humour.

"Many thanks," he said, "but this is entirely our affair."

Stephen answered hastily:

"That's exactly what makes it difficult for you to look at it all round. That fellow Hughs could make himself quite nasty. I wouldn't give him any sort of chance. I mean to say--giving the girl clothes and that kind of thing---"

"I see," said Hilary.

"You know, old man," Stephen went on hastily, "I don't think you'll get Bianca to look at things in your light. If you were on--on terms, of course it would be different. I mean the girl, you know, is rather attractive in her way."

Hilary roused himself from contemplation of the ducks, and they moved on towards the Powder Magazine. Stephen carefully abstained from looking at his brother; the respect he had for Hilary--result, perhaps, of the latter's seniority, perhaps of the feeling that Hilary knew more of him than he of Hilary--was beginning to assert itself in a way he did not like. With every word, too, of this talk, the ground, instead of growing firmer, felt less and less secure. Hilary spoke:

"You mistrust my powers of action?"

"No, no," said Stephen. "I don't want you to act at all."

Hilary laughed. Hearing that rather bitter laugh, Stephen felt a little ache about his heart.

"Come, old boy," he said, "we can trust each other, anyway."

Hilary gave his brother's arm a squeeze.

Moved by that pressure, Stephen spoke:

"I hate you to be worried over such a rotten business."

The whizz of a motor-car rapidly approaching them became a sort of roar, and out of it a voice shouted: "How are you?" A hand was seen to rise in salute. It was Mr. Purcey driving his A.i. Damyer back to Wimbledon. Before him in the sunlight a little shadow fled; behind him the reek of petrol seemed to darken the road.

"There's a symbol for you," muttered Hilary.

"How do you mean?" said Stephen dryly. The word "symbol" was distasteful to him.

"The machine in the middle moving on its business; shadows like you and me skipping in front; oil and used-up stuff dropping behind. Society-body, beak, and bones."

Stephen took time to answer. "That's rather far-fetched," he said. "You mean these Hughs and people are the droppings?"

"Quite so," was Hilary's sardonic answer. "There's the body of that fellow and his car between our sort and them--and no getting over it, Stevie."

"Well, who wants to? If you're thinking of our old friend's Fraternity, I'm not taking any." And Stephen suddenly added: "Look here, I believe this affair is all 'a plant.'"

"You see that Powder Magazine?" said Hilary. "Well, this business that you call a 'plant' is more like that. I don't want to alarm you, but I think you as well as our young friend Martin, are inclined to underrate the emotional capacity of human nature."

Disquietude broke up the customary mask on Stephen's face: "I don't understand," he stammered.

"Well, we're none of us machines, not even amateurs like me--not even under-dogs like Hughs. I fancy you may find a certain warmth, not to say violence, about this business. I tell you frankly that I don't live in married celibacy quite with impunity. I can't answer for anything, in fact. You had better stand clear, Stephen--that's all."

Stephen marked his thin hands quivering, and this alarmed him as nothing else had done.

They walked on beside the water. Stephen spoke quietly, looking at the ground. "How can I stand clear, old man, if you are going to get into a mess? That's impossible."

He saw at once that this shot, which indeed was from his heart, had gone right home to Hilary's. He sought within him how to deepen the impression.

"You mean a lot to us," he said. "Cis and Thyme would feel it awfully if you and B.---" He stopped.

Hilary was looking at him; that faintly smiling glance, searching him through and through, suddenly made Stephen feel inferior. He had been detected trying to extract capital from the effect of his little piece of brotherly love. He was irritated at his brother's insight.

"I have no right to give advice, I suppose," he said; "but in my opinion you should drop it--drop it dead. The girl is not worth your looking after. Turn her over to that Society--Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace's thing whatever it's called."

At a sound as of mirth Stephen, who was not accustomed to hear his brother laugh, looked round.

"Martin," said Hilary, "also wants the case to be treated on strictly hygienic grounds."

Nettled by this, Stephen answered:

"Don't confound me with our young Sanitist, please; I simply think there are probably a hundred things you don't know about the girl which ought to be cleared up."

"And then?"

"Then," said Stephen, "they could--er--deal with her accordingly."

Hilary shrank so palpably at this remark that he added rather hastily:

"You call that cold-blooded, I suppose; but I think, you know, old chap, that you're too sensitive."

Hilary stopped rather abruptly.

"If you don't mind, Stevie," he said, "we'll part here. I want to think it over." So saying, he turned back, and sat down on a seat that faced the sun.

John Galsworthy