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 31

SWAN SONG


The new wine, if it does not break the old bottle, after fierce effervescence seethes and bubbles quietly.

It was so in Mr. Stone's old bottle, hour by hour and day by day, throughout the month. A pinker, robuster look came back to his cheeks; his blue eyes, fixed on distance, had in them more light; his knees regained their powers; he bathed, and, all unknown to him, for he only saw the waters he cleaved with his ineffably slow stroke, Hilary and Martin, on alternate weeks, and keeping at a proper distance, for fear he should see them doing him a service, attended at that function in case Mr. Stone should again remain too long seated at the bottom of the Serpentine. Each morning after his cocoa and porridge he could be heard sweeping out his room with extraordinary vigour, and as ten o'clock came near anyone who listened would remark a sound of air escaping, as he moved up and down on his toes in preparation for the labours of the day. No letters, of course, nor any newspapers disturbed the supreme and perfect self-containment of this life devoted to Fraternity--no letters, partly because he lacked a known address, partly because for years he had not answered them; and with regard to newspapers, once a month he went to a Public Library, and could be seen with the last four numbers of two weekly reviews before him, making himself acquainted with the habits of those days, and moving his lips as though in prayer. At ten each morning anyone in the corridor outside his room was startled by the whirr of an alarum clock; perfect silence followed; then rose a sound of shuffling, whistling, rustling, broken by sharply muttered words; soon from this turbid lake of sound the articulate, thin fluting of an old man's voice streamed forth. This, alternating with the squeak of a quill pen, went on till the alarum clock once more went off. Then he who stood outside could smell that Mr. Stone would shortly eat; if, stimulated by that scent, he entered; he might see the author of the "Book of Universal Brotherhood" with a baked potato in one hand and a cup of hot milk in the other; on the table, too, the ruined forms of eggs, tomatoes, oranges, bananas, figs, prunes, cheese, and honeycomb, which had passed into other forms already, together with a loaf of wholemeal bread. Mr. Stone would presently emerge in his cottage-woven tweeds, and old hat of green-black felt; or, if wet, in a long coat of yellow gaberdine, and sou'wester cap of the same material; but always with a little osier fruit-bag in his hand. Thus equipped, he walked down to Rose and Thorn's, entered, and to the first man he saw handed the osier fruit-bag, some coins, and a little book containing seven leaves, headed "Food: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," and so forth. He then stood looking through the pickles in some jar or other at things beyond, with one hand held out, fingers upwards, awaiting the return of his little osier fruit-bag. Feeling presently that it had been restored to him, he would turn and walk out of the shop. Behind his back, on the face of the department, the same protecting smile always rose. Long habit had perfected it. All now felt that, though so very different from themselves, this aged customer was dependent on them. By not one single farthing or one pale slip of cheese would they have defrauded him for all the treasures of the moon, and any new salesman who laughed at that old client was promptly told to "shut his head."

Mr. Stone's frail form, bent somewhat to one side by the increased gravamen of the osier bag, was now seen moving homewards. He arrived perhaps ten minutes before the three o'clock alarum, and soon passing through preliminary chaos, the articulate, thin fluting of his voice streamed forth again, broken by the squeaking and spluttering of his quill.

But towards four o'clock signs of cerebral excitement became visible; his lips would cease to utter sounds, his pen to squeak. His face, with a flushed forehead, would appear at the open window. As soon as the little model came in sight--her eyes fixed, not on his window, but on Hilary's--he turned his back, evidently waiting for her to enter by the door. His first words were uttered in a tranquil voice: "I have several pages. I have placed your chair. Are you ready? Follow!"

Except for that strange tranquillity of voice and the disappearance of the flush on his brow, there was no sign of the rejuvenescence that she brought, of such refreshment as steals on the traveller who sits down beneath a lime-tree toward the end of along day's journey; no sign of the mysterious comfort distilled into his veins by the sight of her moody young face, her young, soft limbs. So from some stimulant men very near their end will draw energy, watching, as it were, a shape beckoning them forward, till suddenly it disappears in darkness.

In the quarter of an hour sacred to their tea and conversation he never noticed that she was always listening for sounds beyond; it was enough that in her presence he felt singleness of purpose strong within him.

When she had gone, moving languidly, moodily away, her eyes darting about for signs of Hilary, Mr. Stone would sit down rather suddenly and fall asleep, to dream, perhaps, of Youth--Youth with its scent of sap, its close beckonings; Youth with its hopes and fears; Youth that hovers round us so long after it is dead! His spirit would smile behind its covering--that thin china of his face; and, as dogs hunting in their sleep work their feet, so he worked the fingers resting on his woollen knees.

The seven o'clock alarum woke him to the preparation of the evening meal. This eaten, he began once more to pace up and down, to pour words out into the silence, and to drive his squeaking quill.

So was being written a book such as the world had never seen!

But the girl who came so moodily to bring him refreshment, and went so moodily away, never in these days caught a glimpse of that which she was seeking.

Since the morning when he had left her abruptly, Hilary had made a point of being out in the afternoons and not returning till past six o'clock. By this device he put off facing her and himself, for he could no longer refuse to see that he had himself to face. In the few minutes of utter silence when the girl sat beside him, magnetic, quivering with awakening force, he had found that the male in him was far from dead. It was no longer vague, sensuous feeling; it was warm, definite desire. The more she was in his thoughts, the less spiritual his feeling for this girl of the people had become.

In those days he seemed much changed to such as knew him well. Instead of the delicate, detached, slightly humorous suavity which he had accustomed people to expect from him, the dry kindliness which seemed at once to check confidence and yet to say, 'If you choose to tell me anything, I should never think of passing judgment on you, whatever you have done'--instead of that rather abstracted, faintly quizzical air, his manner had become absorbed and gloomy. He seemed to jib away from his friends. His manner at the "Pen and Ink" was wholly unsatisfying to men who liked to talk. He was known to be writing a new book; they suspected him of having "got into a hat"--this Victorian expression, found by Mr. Balladyce in some chronicle of post-Thackerayan manners, and revived by him in his incomparable way, as who should say, 'What delicious expressions those good bourgeois had!' now flourished in second childhood.

In truth, Hilary's difficulty with his new book was merely the one of not being able to work at it at all. Even the housemaid who "did" his study noticed that day after day she was confronted by Chapter XXIV., in spite of her employer's staying in, as usual, every morning.

The change in his manner and face, which had grown strained and harassed, had been noticed by Bianca, though she would have died sooner than admit she had noticed anything about him. It was one of those periods in the lives of households like an hour of a late summer's day--brooding, electric, as yet quiescent, but charged with the currents of coming storms.

Twice only in those weeks while Hughs was in prison did Hilary see the girl. Once he met her when he was driving home; she blushed crimson and her eyes lighted up. And one morning, too, he passed her on the bench where they had sat together. She was staring straight before her, the corners of her mouth drooping discontentedly. She did not see him.

To a man like Hilary-for whom running after women had been about the last occupation in the world, who had, in fact, always fought shy of them and imagined that they would always fight shy of him--there was an unusual enticement and dismay in the feeling that a young girl really was pursuing him. It was at once too good, too unlikely, and too embarrassing to be true. His sudden feeling for her was the painful sensation of one who sees a ripe nectarine hanging within reach. He dreamed continually of stretching out his hand, and so he did not dare, or thought he did not dare, to pass that way. All this did not favour the tenor of a studious, introspective life; it also brought a sense of unreality which made him avoid his best friends. This, partly, was why Stephen came to see him one Sunday, his other reason for the visit being the calculation that Hughs would be released on the following Wednesday.

'This girl,' he thought, 'is going to the house still, and Hilary will let things drift till he can't stop them, and there'll be a real mess.'

The fact of the man's having been in prison gave a sinister turn to an affair regarded hitherto as merely sordid by Stephen's orderly and careful mind.

Crossing the garden, he heard Mr. Stone's voice issuing through the open window.

'Can't the old crank stop even on Sundays?' he thought.

He found Hilary in his study, reading a book on the civilisation of the Maccabees, in preparation for a review. He gave Stephen but a dubious welcome.

Stephen broke ground gently.

"We haven't seen you for an age. I hear our old friend at it. Is he working double tides to finish his magnum opus? I thought he observed the day of rest."

"He does as a rule," said Hilary.

"Well, he's got the girl there now dictating."

Hilary winced. Stephen continued with greater circumspection "You couldn't get the old boy to finish by Wednesday, I suppose? He must be quite near the end by now."

The notion of Mr. Stone's finishing his book by Wednesday procured a pale smile from Hilary.

"Could you get your Law Courts," he said, "to settle up the affairs of mankind for good and all by Wednesday?"

"By Jove! Is it as bad as that? I thought, at any rate, he must be meaning to finish some day."

"When men are brothers," said Hilary, "he will finish."

Stephen whistled.

"Look here, dear boy!" he said, "that ruffian comes out on Wednesday. The whole thing will begin over again."

Hilary rose and paced the room. "I refuse," he said, "to consider Hughs a ruffian. What do we know about him, or any of them?"

"Precisely! What do we know of this girl?"

"I am not going to discuss that," Hilary said shortly.

For a moment the faces of the two brothers wore a hard, hostile look, as though the deep difference between their characters had at last got the better of their loyalty. They both seemed to recognise this, for they turned their heads away.

"I just wanted to remind you," Stephen said, "though you know your own business best, of course." And at Hilary's nod he thought:

'That's just exactly what he doesn't!'

He soon left, conscious of an unwonted awkwardness in his brother's presence. Hilary watched him out through the wicket gate, then sat down on the solitary garden bench.

Stephen's visit had merely awakened perverse desires in him. Strong sunlight was falling on that little London garden, disclosing its native shadowiness; streaks, and smudges such as Life smears over the faces of those who live too consciously. Hilary, beneath the acacia-tree not yet in bloom, marked an early butterfly flitting over the geraniums blossoming round an old sundial. Blackbirds were holding evensong; the late perfume of the lilac came stealing forth into air faintly smeeched with chimney smoke. There was brightness, but no glory, in that little garden; scent, but no strong air blown across golden lakes of buttercups, from seas of springing clover, or the wind-silver of young wheat; music, but no full choir of sound, no hum. Like the face and figure of its master, so was this little garden, whose sundial the sun seldom reached-refined, self-conscious, introspective, obviously a creature of the town. At that moment, however, Hilary was not looking quite himself; his face was flushed, his eyes angry, almost as if he had been a man of action.

The voice of Mr. Stone was still audible, fitfully quavering out into the air, and the old man himself could now and then be seen holding up his manuscript, his profile clear-cut against the darkness of the room. A sentence travelled out across the garden:

"'Amidst the tur-bu-lent dis-cov-eries of those days, which, like cross-currented and multibillowed seas, lapped and hollowed every rock '"

A motor-car dashing past drowned the rest, and when the voice rose again it was evidently dictating another paragraph.

"'In those places, in those streets, the shadows swarmed, whispering and droning like a hive of dying bees, who, their honey eaten, wander through the winter day seeking flowers that are frozen and dead."'

A great bee which had been busy with the lilac began to circle, booming, round his hair. Suddenly Hilary saw Mr. Stone raise both his arms.

"'In huge congeries, crowded, devoid of light and air, they were assembled, these bloodless imprints from forms of higher caste. They lay, like the reflection of leaves which, fluttering free in the sweet winds, let fall to the earth wan resemblances. Imponderous, dark ghosts, wandering ones chained to the ground, they had no hope of any Lovely City, nor knew whence they had come. Men cast them on the pavements and marched on. They did not in Universal Brotherhood clasp their shadows to sleep within their hearts--for the sun was not then at noon, when no man has a shadow.'"

As those words of swan song died away he swayed and trembled, and suddenly disappeared below the sight-line, as if he had sat down. The little model took his place in the open window. She started at seeing Hilary; then, motionless, stood gazing at him. Out of the gloom of the opening her eyes were all pupil, two spots of the surrounding darkness imprisoned in a face as pale as any flower. Rigid as the girl herself, Hilary looked up at her.

A voice behind him said: "How are you? I thought I'd give my car a run." Mr. Purcey was coming from the gate, his eyes fixed on the window where the girl stood. "How is your wife?" he added.

The bathos of this visit roused an acid fury in Hilary. He surveyed Mr. Purcey's figure from his cloth-topped boots to his tall hat, and said: "Shall we go in and find her?"

As they went along Mr. Purcey said: "That's the young--the--er--model I met in your wife's studio, isn't it? Pretty girl!"

Hilary compressed his lips.

"Now, what sort of living do those girls make?" pursued Mr. Purcey. "I suppose they've most of them other resources. Eh, what?"

"They make the living God will let them, I suppose, as other people do."

Mr. Purcey gave him a sharp look. It was almost as if Dallison had meant to snub him.

"Oh, exactly! I should think this girl would have no difficulty." And suddenly he saw a curious change come over "that writing fellow," as he always afterwards described Hilary. Instead of a mild, pleasant-looking chap enough, he had become a regular cold devil.

"My wife appears to be out," Hilary said. "I also have an engagement."

In his surprise and anger Mr. Purcey said with great simplicity, "Sorry I'm 'de trop'!" and soon his car could be heard bearing him away with some unnecessary noise.


John Galsworthy