A FAMILY DISCUSSION
The marriage of Sylvanus Stone, Professor of the Natural Sciences, to Anne, daughter of Mr. Justice Carfax, of the well-known county family--the Carfaxes of Spring Deans, Hants--was recorded in the sixties. The baptisms of Martin, Cecilia, and Bianca, son and daughters of Sylvanus and Anne Stone, were to be discovered registered in Kensington in the three consecutive years following, as though some single-minded person had been connected with their births. After this the baptisms of no more offspring were to be found anywhere, as if that single mind had encountered opposition. But in the eighties there was noted in the register of the same church the burial of "Anne, nee Carfax, wife of Sylvanus Stone." In that "nee Carfax" there was, to those who knew, something more than met the eye. It summed up the mother of Cecilia and Bianca, and, in more subtle fashion, Cecilia and Bianca, too. It summed up that fugitive, barricading look in their bright eyes, which, though spoken of in the family as "the Carfax eyes," were in reality far from coming from old Mr. Justice Carfax. They had been his wife's in turn, and had much annoyed a man of his decided character. He himself had always known his mind, and had let others know it, too; reminding his wife that she was an impracticable woman, who knew not her own mind; and devoting his lawful gains to securing the future of his progeny. It would have disturbed him if he had lived to see his grand-daughters and their times. Like so many able men of his generation, far-seeing enough in practical affairs, he had never considered the possibility that the descendants of those who, like himself, had laid up treasure for their children's children might acquire the quality of taking time, balancing pros and cons, looking ahead, and not putting one foot down before picking the other up. He had not foreseen, in deed, that to wobble might become an art, in order that, before anything was done, people might know the full necessity for doing some thing, and how impossible it would be to do indeed, foolish to attempt to do--that which would fully meet the case. He, who had been a man of action all his life, had not perceived how it would grow to be matter of common instinct that to act was to commit oneself, and that, while what one had was not precisely what one wanted, what one had not (if one had it) would be as bad. He had never been self-conscious--it was not the custom of his generation--and, having but little imagination, had never suspected that he was laying up that quality for his descendants, together with a competence which secured them a comfortable leisure.
Of all the persons in his grand-daughter's studio that afternoon, that stray sheep Mr. Purcey would have been, perhaps, the only one whose judgments he would have considered sound. No one had laid up a competence for Mr. Purcey, who had been in business from the age of twenty.
It is uncertain whether the mere fact that he was not in his own fold kept this visitor lingering in the studio when all other guests were gone; or whether it was simply the feeling that the longer he stayed in contact with really artistic people the more distinguished he was becoming. Probably the latter, for the possession of that Harpignies, a good specimen, which he had bought by accident, and subsequently by accident discovered to have a peculiar value, had become a factor in his life, marking him out from all his friends, who went in more for a neat type of Royal Academy landscape, together with reproductions of young ladies in eighteenth-century costumes seated on horseback, or in Scotch gardens. A junior partner in a banking-house of some importance, he lived at Wimbledon, whence he passed up and down daily in his car. To this he owed his acquaintance with the family of Dallison. For one day, after telling his chauffeur to meet him at the Albert Gate, he had set out to stroll down Rotten Row, as he often did on the way home, designing to nod to anybody that he knew. It had turned out a somewhat barren expedition. No one of any consequence had met his eye; and it was with a certain almost fretful longing for distraction that in Kensington Gardens he came on an old man feeding birds out of a paper bag. The birds having flown away on seeing him, he approached the feeder to apologize.
"I'm afraid I frightened your birds, sir," he began.
This old man, who was dressed in smoke-grey tweeds which exhaled a poignant scent of peat, looked at him without answering.
"I'm afraid your birds saw me coming," Mr. Purcey said again.
"In those days," said the aged stranger, "birds were afraid of men."
Mr. Purcey's shrewd grey eyes perceived at once that he had a character to deal with.
"Ah, yes!" he said; "I see--you allude to the present time. That's very nice. Ha, ha!"
The old man answered: "The emotion of fear is inseparably connected with a primitive state of fratricidal rivalry."
This sentence put Mr. Purcey on his guard.
'The old chap,' he thought, 'is touched. He evidently oughtn't to be out here by himself.' He debated, therefore, whether he should hasten away toward his car, or stand by in case his assistance should be needed. Being a kind-hearted man, who believed in his capacity for putting things to rights, and noticing a certain delicacy--a "sort of something rather distinguished," as he phrased it afterwards--in the old fellow's face and figure, he decided to see if he could be of any service. They walked along together, Mr. Purcey watching his new friend askance, and directing the march to where he had ordered his chauffeur to await him.
"You are very fond of birds, I suppose," he said cautiously.
"The birds are our brothers."
The answer was of a nature to determine Mr. Purcey in his diagnosis of the case.
"I've got my car here," he said. "Let me give you a lift home."
This new but aged acquaintance did not seem to hear; his lips moved as though he were following out some thought.
"In those days," Mr. Purcey heard him say, "the congeries of men were known as rookeries. The expression was hardly just towards that handsome bird."
Mr. Purcey touched him hastily on the arm.
"I've got my car here, sir," he said. "Do let me put you down!"
Telling the story afterwards, he had spoken thus:
"The old chap knew where he lived right enough; but dash me if I believe he noticed that I was taking him there in my car--I had the A.i. Damyer out. That's how I came to make the acquaintance of these Dallisons. He's the writer, you know, and she paints--rather the new school--she admires Harpignies. Well, when I got there in the car I found Dallison in the garden. Of course I was careful not to put my foot into it. I told him: 'I found this old gentleman wandering about. I've just brought him back in my car.' Who should the old chap turn out to be but her father! They were awfully obliged to me. Charmin' people, but very what d'you call it 'fin de siecle'--like all these professors, these artistic pigs--seem to know rather a queer set, advanced people, and all that sort of cuckoo, always talkin' about the poor, and societies, and new religions, and that kind of thing."
Though he had since been to see them several times, the Dallisons had never robbed him of the virtuous feeling of that good action--they had never let him know that he had brought home, not, as he imagined, a lunatic, but merely a philosopher.
It had been somewhat of a quiet shock to him to find Mr. Stone close to the doorway when he entered Bianca's studio that afternoon; for though he had seen him since the encounter in Kensington Gardens, and knew that he was writing a book, he still felt that he was not quite the sort of old man that one ought to meet about. He had at once begun to tell him of the hanging of the Shoreditch murderer, as recorded in the evening papers. Mr. Stone's reception of that news had still further confirmed his original views. When all the guests were gone--with the exception of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Dallison and Miss Dallison, "that awfully pretty girl," and the young man "who was always hangin' about her"--he had approached his hostess for some quiet talk. She stood listening to him, very well bred, with just that habitual spice of mockery in her smile, which to Mr. Purcey's eyes made her "a very strikin'-lookin' woman, but rather---" There he would stop, for it required a greater psychologist than he to describe a secret disharmony which a little marred her beauty. Due to some too violent cross of blood, to an environment too unsuited, to what not--it was branded on her. Those who knew Bianca Dallison better than Mr. Purcey were but too well aware of this fugitive, proud spirit permeating one whose beauty would otherwise have passed unquestioned.
She was a little taller than Cecilia, her figure rather fuller and more graceful, her hair darker, her eyes, too, darker and more deeply set, her cheek-bones higher, her colouring richer. That spirit of the age, Disharmony, must have presided when a child so vivid and dark-coloured was christened Bianca.
Mr. Purcey, however, was not a man who allowed the finest shades of feeling to interfere with his enjoyments. She was a "strikin'-lookin' woman," and there was, thanks to Harpignies, a link between them.
"Your father and I, Mrs. Dallison, can't quite understand each other," he began. "Our views of life don't seem to hit it off exactly."
"Really," murmured Bianca; "I should have thought that you'd have got on so well."
"He's a little bit too--er--scriptural for me, perhaps," said Mr. Purcey, with some delicacy.
"Did we never tell you," Bianca answered softly, "that my father was a rather well--known man of science before his illness?"
"Ah!" replied Mr. Purcey, a little puzzled; "that, of course. D'you know, of all your pictures, Mrs. Dallison, I think that one you call 'The Shadow' is the most rippin'. There's a something about it that gets hold of you. That was the original, wasn't it, at your Christmas party--attractive girl--it's an awf'ly good likeness."
Bianca's face had changed, but Mr. Purcey was not a man to notice a little thing like that.
"If ever you want to part with it," he said, "I hope you'll give me a chance. I mean it'd be a pleasure to me to have it. I think it'll be worth a lot of money some day."
Bianca did not answer, and Mr. Purcey, feeling suddenly a little awkward, said: "I've got my car waiting. I must be off--really." Shaking hands with all of them, he went away.
When the door had closed behind his back, a universal sigh went up. It was followed by a silence, which Hilary broke.
"We'll smoke, Stevie, if Cis doesn't mind."
Stephen Dallison placed a cigarette between his moustacheless lips, always rather screwed up, and ready to nip with a smile anything that might make him feel ridiculous.
"Phew!" he said. "Our friend Purcey becomes a little tedious. He seems to take the whole of Philistia about with him."
"He's a very decent fellow," murmured Hilary.
"A bit heavy, surely!" Stephen Dallison's face, though also long and narrow, was not much like his brother's. His eyes, though not unkind, were far more scrutinising, inquisitive, and practical; his hair darker, smoother.
Letting a puff of smoke escape, he added:
"Now, that's the sort of man to give you a good sound opinion. You should have asked him, Cis."
Cecilia answered with a frown:
"Don't chaff, Stephen; I'm perfectly serious about Mrs. Hughs."
"Well, I don't see what I can do for the good woman, my dear. One can't interfere in these domestic matters."
"But it seems dreadful that we who employ her should be able to do nothing for her. Don't you think so, B.?"
"I suppose we could do something for her if we wanted to badly enough."
Bianca's voice, which had the self-distrustful ring of modern music, suited her personality.
A glance passed between Stephen and his wife.
"That's B. all over!" it seemed to say....
"Hound Street, where they live, is a horrid place."
It was Thyme who spoke, and everybody looked round at her.
"How do you know that?" asked Cecilia.
"I went to see."
The lips of the young man whose name she mentioned curled sarcastically.
Hilary asked gently:
"Well, my dear, what did you see?"
"Most of the doors are open---"
Bianca murmured: "That doesn't tell us much."
"On the contrary," said Martin suddenly, in a deep bass voice, "it tells you everything. Go on."
"The Hughs live on the top floor at No. 1. It's the best house in the street. On the ground-floor are some people called Budgen; he's a labourer, and she's lame. They've got one son. The Hughs have let off the first-floor front-room to an old man named Creed---"
"Yes, I know," Cecilia muttered.
"He makes about one and tenpence a day by selling papers. The back-room on that floor they let, of course, to your little model, Aunt B."
"She is not my model now."
There was a silence such as falls when no one knows how far the matter mentioned is safe to, touch on. Thyme proceeded with her report.
"Her room's much the best in the house; it's airy, and it looks out over someone's garden. I suppose she stays there because it's so cheap. The Hughs' rooms are---" She stopped, wrinkling her straight nose.
"So that's the household," said Hilary. "Two married couples, one young man, one young girl"--his eyes travelled from one to another of the two married couples, the young man, and the young girl, collected in this room--"and one old man," he added softly.
"Not quite the sort of place for you to go poking about in, Thyme," Stephen said ironically. "Do you think so, Martin?"
Stephen raised his brows, and glanced towards his wife. Her face was dubious, a little scared. There was a silence. Then Bianca spoke:
"Well?" That word, like nearly all her speeches, seemed rather to disconcert her hearers.
"So Hughs ill-treats her?" said Hilary.
"She says so," replied Cecilia--"at least, that's what I understood. Of course, I don't know any details."
"She had better get rid of him, I should think," Bianca murmured.
Out of the silence that followed Thyme's clear voice was heard saying:
"She can't get a divorce; she could get a separation."
Cecilia rose uneasily. These words concreted suddenly a wealth of half-acknowledged doubts about her little daughter. This came of letting her hear people talk, and go about with Martin! She might even have been listening to her grandfather--such a thought was most disturbing. And, afraid, on the one hand, of gainsaying the liberty of speech, and, on the other, of seeming to approve her daughter's knowledge of the world, she looked at her husband.
But Stephen did not speak, feeling, no doubt, that to pursue the subject would be either to court an ethical, even an abstract, disquisition, and this one did not do in anybody's presence, much less one's wife's or daughter's; or to touch on sordid facts of doubtful character, which was equally distasteful in the circumstances. He, too, however, was uneasy that Thyme should know so much.
The dusk was gathering outside; the fire threw a flickering light, fitfully outlining their figures, making those faces, so familiar to each other, a little mysterious.
At last Stephen broke the silence. "Of course, I'm very sorry for her, but you'd better let it alone--you can't tell with that sort of people; you never can make out what they want--it's safer not to meddle. At all events, it's a matter for a Society to look into first!"
Cecilia answered: "But she's, on my conscience, Stephen."
"They're all on my conscience," muttered Hilary.
Bianca looked at him for the first time; then, turning to her nephew, said: "What do you say, Martin?"
The young man, whose face was stained by the firelight the colour of pale cheese, made no answer.
But suddenly through the stillness came a voice:
"I have thought of something."
Everyone turned round. Mr. Stone was seen emerging from behind "The Shadow"; his frail figure, in its grey tweeds, his silvery hair and beard, were outlined sharply against the wall.
"Why, Father," Cecilia said, "we didn't know that you were here!"
Mr. Stone looked round bewildered; it seemed as if he, too, had been ignorant of that fact.
"What is it that you've thought of?"
The firelight leaped suddenly on to Mr. Stone's thin yellow hand.
"Each of us," he said, "has a shadow in those places--in those streets."
There was a vague rustling, as of people not taking a remark too seriously, and the sound of a closing door.
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