STEPHEN'S PRIVATE LIFE
Mr. Stone and Thyme, going out, again passed the tall, white young man. He had thrown away the hand-made cigarette, finding that it had not enough saltpetre to make it draw, and was smoking one more suited to the action of his lungs. He directed towards them the same lack-lustre, jeering stare.
Unconscious, seemingly, of where he went, Mr. Stone walked with his eyes fixed on space. His head jerked now and then, as a dried flower will shiver in a draught.
Scared at these movements, Thyme took his arm. The touch of that soft young arm squeezing his own brought speech back to Mr. Stone.
"In those places...." he said, "in those streets! ...I shall not see the flowering of the aloe--I shall not see the living peace! 'As with dogs, each couched over his proper bone, so men were living then!'" Thyme, watching him askance, pressed still closer to his side, as though to try and warm him back to every day.
'Oh!' went her guttered thoughts. 'I do wish grandfather would say something one could understand. I wish he would lose that dreadful stare.'
Mr. Stone spoke in answer to his granddaughter's thoughts.
"I have seen a vision of fraternity. A barren hillside in the sun, and on it a man of stone talking to the wind. I have heard an owl hooting in the daytime; a cuckoo singing in the night."
To that appeal Mr. Stone responded: "Yes, what is it?"
But Thyme, thus challenged, knew not what to say, having spoken out of terror.
"If the poor baby had lived," she stammered out, "it would have grown up.... It's all for the best, isn't it?"
"Everything is for the best," said Mr. Stone. "'In those days men, possessed by thoughts of individual life, made moan at death, careless of the great truth that the world was one unending song.'"
Thyme thought: 'I have never seen him as bad as this!' She drew him on more quickly. With deep relief she saw her father, latchkey in hand, turning into the Old Square.
Stephen, who was still walking with his springy step, though he had come on foot the whole way from the Temple, hailed them with his hat. It was tall and black, and very shiny, neither quite oval nor positively round, and had a little curly brim. In this and his black coat, cut so as to show the front of him and cover the behind, he looked his best. The costume suited his long, rather narrow face, corrugated by two short parallel lines slanting downwards from his eyes and nostrils on either cheek; suited his neat, thin figure and the close-lipped corners of his mouth. His permanent appointment in the world of Law had ousted from his life (together with all uncertainty of income) the need for putting on a wig and taking his moustache off; but he still preferred to go clean-shaved.
"Where have you two sprung from?" he inquired, admitting them into the hall.
Mr. Stone gave him no answer, but passed into the drawing-room, and sat down on the verge of the first chair he came across, leaning forward with his hands between his knees.
Stephen, after one dry glance at him, turned to his daughter.
"My child," he said softly, "what have you brought the old boy here for? If there happens to be anything of the high mammalian order for dinner, your mother will have a fit."
Thyme answered: "Don't chaff, Father!"
Stephen, who was very fond of her, saw that for some reason she was not herself. He examined her with unwonted gravity. Thyme turned away from him. He heard, to his alarm, a little gulping sound.
"My dear!" he said.
Conscious of her sentimental weakness, Thyme made a violent effort.
"I've seen a baby dead," she cried in a quick, hard voice; and, without another word, she ran upstairs.
In Stephen there was a horror of emotion amounting almost to disease. It would have been difficult to say when he had last shown emotion; perhaps not since Thyme was born, and even then not to anyone except himself, having first locked the door, and then walked up and down, with his teeth almost meeting in the mouthpiece of his favourite pipe. He was unaccustomed, too, to witness this weakness on the part of other people. His looks and speech unconsciously discouraged it, so that if Cecilia had been at all that way inclined, she must long ago have been healed. Fortunately, she never had been, having too much distrust of her own feelings to give way to them completely. And Thyme, that healthy product of them both, at once younger for her age, and older, than they had ever been, with her incapacity for nonsense, her love for open air and facts--that fresh, rising plant, so elastic and so sane--she had never given them a single moment of uneasiness.
Stephen, close to his hat-rack, felt soreness in his heart. Such blows as Fortune had dealt, and meant to deal him, he had borne, and he could bear, so long as there was nothing in his own manner, or in that of others, to show him they were blows.
Hurriedly depositing his hat, he ran to Cecilia. He still preserved the habit of knocking on her door before he entered, though she had never, so far, answered, "Don't come in!" because she knew his knock. The custom gave, in fact, the measure of his idealism. What he feared, or what he thought he feared, after nineteen years of unchecked entrance, could never have been ascertained; but there it was, that flower of something formal and precise, of something reticent, within his soul.
This time, for once, he did not knock, and found Cecilia hooking up her tea-gown and looking very sweet. She glanced at him with mild surprise.
"What's this, Cis," he said, "about a baby dead? Thyme's quite upset about it; and your dad's in the drawing-room!"
With the quick instinct that was woven into all her gentle treading, Cecilia's thoughts flew--she could not have told why--first to the little model, then to Mrs. Hughs.
"Dead?" she said. "Oh, poor woman!"
"What woman?" Stephen asked.
"It must be Mrs. Hughs."
The thought passed darkly through Stephen's mind: 'Those people again! What now?' He did not express it, being neither brutal nor lacking in good taste.
A short silence followed, then Cecilia said suddenly: "Did you say that father was in the drawing-room? There's fillet of beef, Stephen!"
Stephen turned away. "Go and see Thyme!" he said.
Outside Thyme's door Cecilia paused, and, hearing no sound, tapped gently. Her knock not being answered, she slipped in. On the bed of that white room, with her face pressed into the pillow, her little daughter lay. Cecilia stood aghast. Thyme's whole body was quivering with suppressed sobs.
"My darling!" said Cecilia, "what is it?"
Thyme's answer was inarticulate.
Cecilia sat down on the bed and waited, drawing her fingers through the girl's hair, which had fallen loose; and while she sat there she experienced all that sore, strange feeling--as of being skinned--which comes to one who watches the emotion of someone near and dear without knowing the exact cause.
'This is dreadful,' she thought. 'What am I to do?'
To see one's child cry was bad enough, but to see her cry when that child's whole creed of honour and conduct for years past had precluded this relief as unfeminine, was worse than disconcerting.
Thyme raised herself on her elbow, turning her face carefully away.
"I don't know what's the matter with me," she said, choking. "It's--it's purely physical."
"Yes, darling," murmured Cecilia; "I know."
"Oh, Mother!" said Thyme suddenly, "it looked so tiny."
"Yes, yes, my sweet."
Thyme faced round; there was a sort of passion in her darkened eyes, rimmed pink with grief, and in all her gushed, wet face.
"Why should it have been choked out like that? It's--it's so brutal!"
Cecilia slid an arm round her.
"I'm so distressed you saw it, dear," she said.
"And grandfather was so--" A long sobbing quiver choked her utterance.
"Yes, yes," said Cecilia; "I'm sure he was."
Clasping her hands together in her lap, Thyme muttered: "He called him 'Little brother.'"
A tear trickled down Cecilia's cheek, and dropped on her daughter's wrist. Feeling that it was not her own tear, Thyme started up.
"It's weak and ridiculous," she said. "I won't!"
"Oh, go away, Mother, please. I'm only making you feel bad, too. You'd better go and see to grandfather."
Cecilia saw that she would cry no more, and since it was the sight of tears which had so disturbed her, she gave the girl a little hesitating stroke, and went away. Outside she thought: 'How dreadfully unlucky and pathetic; and there's father in the drawing-room!' Then she hurried down to Mr. Stone.
He was sitting where he had first placed himself, motionless. It struck her suddenly how frail and white he looked. In the shadowy light of her drawing-room, he was almost like a spirit sitting there in his grey tweed--silvery from head to foot. Her conscience smote her. It is written of the very old that they shall pass, by virtue of their long travel, out of the country of the understanding of the young, till the natural affections are blurred by creeping mists such as steal across the moors when the sun is going down.
Cecilia's heart ached with a little ache for all the times she had thought: 'If father were only not quite so---'; for all the times she had shunned asking him to come to them, because he was so---; for all the silences she and Stephen had maintained after he had spoken; for all the little smiles she had smiled. She longed to go and kiss his brow, and make him feel that she was aching. But she did not dare; he seemed so far away; it would be ridiculous.
Coming down the room, and putting her slim foot on the fender with a noise, so that if possible he might both see and hear her, she turned her anxious face towards him, and said: "Father!"
Mr. Stone looked up, and seeing somebody who seemed to be his elder daughter, answered "Yes, my dear?"
"Are you sure you're feeling quite the thing? Thyme said she thought seeing that poor baby had upset you."
Mr. Stone felt his body with his hand.
"I am not conscious of any pain," he said.
"Then you'll stay to dinner, dear, won't you?"
Mr. Stone's brow contracted as though he were trying to recall his past.
"I have had no tea," he said. Then, with a sudden, anxious look at his daughter: "The little girl has not come to me. I miss her. Where is she?"
The ache within Cecilia became more poignant.
"It is now two days," said Mr. Stone, "and she has left her room in that house--in that street."
Cecilia, at her wits' end, answered: "Do you really miss her, Father?"
"Yes," said Mr. Stone. "She is like--" His eyes wandered round the room as though seeking something which would help him to express himself. They fixed themselves on the far wall. Cecilia, following their gaze, saw a little solitary patch of sunlight dancing and trembling there. It had escaped the screen of trees and houses, and, creeping through some chink, had quivered in. "She is like that," said Mr. Stone, pointing with his finger. "It is gone!" His finger dropped; he uttered a deep sigh.
'How dreadful this is!' Cecilia thought. 'I never expected him to feel it, and yet I can do nothing!' Hastily she asked: "Would it do if you had Thyme to copy for you? I'm sure she'd love to come."
"She is my grand-daughter," Mr. Stone said simply. "It would not be the same."
Cecilia could think of nothing now to say but: "Would you like to wash your hands, dear?"
"Yes," said Mr. Stone.
"Then will you go up to Stephen's dressing-room for hot water, or will you wash them in the lavatory?"
"In the lavatory," said Mr. Stone. "I shall be freer there."
When he had gone Cecilia thought: 'Oh dear, how shall I get through the evening? Poor darling, he is so single-minded!'
At the sounding of the dinner-gong they all assembled--Thyme from her bedroom with cheeks and eyes still pink, Stephen with veiled inquiry in his glance, Mr. Stone from freedom in the lavatory--and sat down, screened, but so very little, from each other by sprays of white lilac. Looking round her table, Cecilia felt rather like one watching a dew-belled cobweb, most delicate of all things in the world, menaced by the tongue of a browsing cow.
Both soup and fish had been achieved, however, before a word was spoken. It was Stephen who, after taking a mouthful of dry sherry, broke the silence.
"How are you getting on with your book, sir?"
Cecilia heard that question with something like dismay. It was so bald; for, however inconvenient Mr. Stone's absorption in his manuscript might be, her delicacy told her how precious beyond life itself that book was to him. To her relief, however, her father was eating spinach.
"You must be getting near the end, I should think," proceeded Stephen.
Cecilia spoke hastily: "Isn't this white lilac lovely, Dad?"
Mr. Stone looked up.
"It is not white; it is really pink. The test is simple." He paused with his eyes fixed on the lilac.
'Ah!' thought Cecilia, 'now, if I can only keep him on natural science he used to be so interesting.'
"All flowers are one!" said Mr. Stone. His voice had changed.
'Oh!' thought Cecilia, 'he is gone!'
"They have but a single soul. In those days men divided, and subdivided them, oblivious of the one pale spirit which underlay those seemingly separate forms."
Cecilia's glance passed swiftly from the manservant to Stephen.
She saw one of her husband's eyes rise visibly. Stephen did so hate one thing to be confounded with another.
"Oh, come, sir," she heard him say; "you don't surely tell us that dandelions and roses have the same pale spirit!"
Mr. Stone looked at him wistfully.
"Did I say that?" he said. "I had no wish to be dogmatic."
"Not at all, sir, not at all," murmured Stephen.
Thyme, leaning over to her mother, whispered "Oh, Mother, don't let grandfather be queer; I can't bear it to-night!"
Cecilia, at her wits' end, said hurriedly:
"Dad, will you tell us what sort of character you think that little girl who comes to you has?"
Mr. Stone paused in the act of drinking water; his attention had evidently been riveted; he did not, however, speak. And Cecilia, seeing that the butler, out of the perversity which she found so conspicuous in her servants, was about to hand him beef, made a desperate movement with her lips. "No, Charles, not there, not there!"
The butler, tightening his lips, passed on. Mr. Stone spoke:
"I had not considered that. She is rather of a Celtic than an Anglo-Saxon type; the cheekbones are prominent; the jaw is not massive; the head is broad--if I can remember I will measure it; the eyes are of a peculiar blue, resembling chicory flowers; the mouth---," Mr. Stone paused.
Cecilia thought: 'What a lucky find! Now perhaps he will go on all right!'
"I do not know," Mr. Stone resumed, speaking in a far-off voice, "whether she would be virtuous."
Cecilia heard Stephen drinking sherry; Thyme, too, was drinking something; she herself drank nothing, but, pink and quiet, for she was a well-bred woman, said:
"You have no new potatoes, dear. Charles, give Mr. Stone some new potatoes."
By the almost vindictive expression on Stephen's face she saw, however, that her failure had decided him to resume command of the situation. "Talking of brotherhood, sir," he said dryly, "would you go so far as to say that a new potato is the brother of a bean?"
Mr. Stone, on whose plate these two vegetables reposed, looked almost painfully confused.
"I do not perceive," he stammered, "any difference between them."
"It's true," said Stephen; "the same pale spirit can be extracted from them both."
Mr. Stone looked up at him.
"You laugh at me," he said. "I cannot help it; but you must not laugh at life--that is blasphemy."
Before the piercing wistfulness of that sudden gaze Stephen was abashed. Cecilia saw him bite his lower lip.
"We're talking too much," he said; "we really must let your father eat!" And the rest of the dinner was achieved in silence.
When Mr. Stone, refusing to be accompanied, had taken his departure, and Thyme had gone to bed, Stephen withdrew to his study. This room, which had a different air from any other portion of the house, was sacred to his private life. Here, in specially designed compartments, he kept his golf clubs, pipes, and papers. Nothing was touched by anyone except himself, and twice a week by one particular housemaid. Here was no bust of Socrates, no books in deerskin bindings, but a bookcase filled with treatises on law, Blue Books, reviews, and the novels of Sir Walter Scott; two black oak cabinets stood side by side against the wall filled with small drawers. When these cabinets were opened and the drawers drawn forward there emerged a scent of metal polish. If the green-baize covers of the drawers were lifted, there were seen coins, carefully arranged with labels--as one may see plants growing in rows, each with its little name tied on. To these tidy rows of shining metal discs Stephen turned in moments when his spirit was fatigued. To add to them, touch them, read their names, gave him the sweet, secret feeling which comes to a man who rubs one hand against the other. Like a dram-drinker, Stephen drank--in little doses--of the feeling these coins gave him. They were his creative work, his history of the world. To them he gave that side of him which refused to find its full expression in summarising law, playing golf, or reading the reviews; that side of a man which aches, he knows not wherefore, to construct something ere he die. From Rameses to George IV. the coins lay within those drawers--links of the long unbroken chain of authority.
Putting on an old black velvet jacket laid out for him across a chair, and lighting the pipe that he could never bring himself to smoke in his formal dinner clothes, he went to the right-hand cabinet, and opened it. He stood with a smile, taking up coins one by one. In this particular drawer they were of the best Byzantine dynasty, very rare. He did not see that Cecilia had stolen in, and was silently regarding him. Her eyes seemed doubting at that moment whether or no she loved him who stood there touching that other mistress of his thoughts--that other mistress with whom he spent so many evening hours. The little green-baize cover fell. Cecilia said suddenly:
"Stephen, I feel as if I must tell Father where that girl is!"
"My dear child," he answered in his special voice, which, like champagne, seemed to have been dried by artifice, "you don't want to reopen the whole thing?"
"But I can see he really is upset about it; he's looking so awfully white and thin."
"He ought to give up that bathing in the Serpentine. At his age it's monstrous. And surely any other girl will do just as well?"
"He seems to set store by reading to her specially."
Stephen shrugged his shoulders. It had happened to him on one occasion to be present when Mr. Stone was declaiming some pages of his manuscript. He had never forgotten the discomfort of the experience. "That crazy stuff," as he had called it to Cecilia afterwards, had remained on his mind, heavy and damp, like a cold linseed poultice. His wife's father was a crank, and perhaps even a little more than a crank, a wee bit "touched"--that she couldn't help, poor girl; but any allusion to his cranky produce gave Stephen pain. Nor had he forgotten his experience at dinner.
"He seems to have grown fond of her," murmured Cecilia.
"But it's absurd at his time of life!"
"Perhaps that makes him feel it more; people do miss things when they are old!"
Stephen slid the drawer back into its socket. There was dry decision in that gesture.
"Look here! Let's exercise a little common sense; it's been sacrificed to sentiment all through this wretched business. One wants to be kind, of course; but one's got to draw the line."
"Ah!" said Cecilia; "where?"
"The thing," went on Stephen, "has been a mistake from first to last. It's all very well up to a certain point, but after that it becomes destructive of all comfort. It doesn't do to let these people come into personal contact with you. There are the proper channels for that sort of thing."
Cecilia's eyes were lowered, as though she did not dare to let him see her thoughts.
"It seems so horrid," she said; "and father is not like other people."
"He is not," said Stephen dryly; "we had a pretty good instance of that this evening. But Hilary and your sister are. There's something most distasteful to me, too, about Thyme's going about slumming. You see what she's been let in for this afternoon. The notion of that baby being killed through the man's treatment of his wife, and that, no doubt, arising from the girl's leaving them, is most repulsive!"
To these words Cecilia answered with a sound almost like a gasp. "I hadn't thought of that. Then we're responsible; it was we who advised Hilary to make her change her lodging."
Stephen stared; he regretted sincerely that his legal habit of mind had made him put the case so clearly.
"I can't imagine," he said, almost violently, "what possesses everybody! We--responsible! Good gracious! Because we gave Hilary some sound advice! What next?"
Cecilia turned to the empty hearth.
"Thyme has been telling me about that poor little thing. It seems so dreadful, and I can't get rid of the feeling that we're--we're all mixed up with it!"
"Mixed up with what?"
"I don't know; it's just a feeling like--like being haunted."
Stephen took her quietly by the arm.
"My dear old girl," he said, "I'd no idea that you were run down like this. To-morrow's Thursday, and I can get away at three. We'll motor down to Richmond, and have a round or two!"
Cecilia quivered; for a moment it seemed that she was about to burst out crying. Stephen stroked her shoulder steadily. Cecilia must have felt his dread; she struggled loyally with her emotion.
"That will be very jolly," she said at last.
Stephen drew a deep breath.
"And don't you worry, dear," he said, "about your dad; he'll have forgotten the whole thing in a day or two; he's far too wrapped up in his book. Now trot along to bed; I'll be up directly."
Before going out Cecilia looked back at him. How wonderful was that look, which Stephen did not--perhaps intentionally--see. Mocking, almost hating, and yet thanking him for having refused to let her be emotional and yield herself up for once to what she felt, showing him too how clearly she saw through his own masculine refusal to be made to feel, and how she half-admired it--all this was in that look, and more. Then she went out.
Stephen glanced quickly at the door, and, pursing up his lips, frowned. He threw the window open, and inhaled the night air.
'If I don't look out,' he thought, 'I shall be having her mixed up with this. I was an ass ever to have spoken to old Hilary. I ought to have ignored the matter altogether. It's a lesson not to meddle with people in those places. I hope to God she'll be herself tomorrow!'
Outside, under the soft black foliage of the Square, beneath the slim sickle of the moon, two cats were hunting after happiness; their savage cries of passion rang in the blossom-scented air like a cry of dark humanity in the jungle of dim streets. Stephen, with a shiver of disgust, for his nerves were on edge, shut the window with a slam.
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