STEPHEN SIGNS CHEQUES
Cecilia received the mystic document containing these words "Am quite all right. Address, 598, Euston Road, three doors off Martin. Letter follows explaining. Thyme," she had not even realised her little daughter's departure. She went up to Thyme's room at once, and opening all the drawers and cupboards, stared into them one by one. The many things she saw there allayed the first pangs of her disquiet.
'She has only taken one little trunk,' she thought, 'and left all her evening frocks.'
This act of independence alarmed rather than surprised her, such had been her sense of the unrest in the domestic atmosphere during the last month. Since the evening when she had found Thyme in foods of tears because of the Hughs' baby, her maternal eyes had not failed to notice something new in the child's demeanour--a moodiness, an air almost of conspiracy, together with an emphatic increase of youthful sarcasm: Fearful of probing deep, she had sought no confidence, nor had she divulged her doubts to Stephen.
Amongst the blouses a sheet of blue ruled paper, which had evidently escaped from a notebook, caught her eye. Sentences were scrawled on it in pencil. Cecilia read: "That poor little dead thing was so grey and pinched, and I seemed to realise all of a sudden how awful it is for them. I must--I must--I will do something!"
Cecilia dropped the sheet of paper; her hand was trembling. There was no mystery in that departure now, and Stephen's words came into her mind: "It's all very well up to a certain point, and nobody sympathises with them more than I do; but after that it becomes destructive of all comfort, and that does no good to anyone."
The sound sense of those words had made her feel queer when they were spoken; they were even more sensible than she had thought. Did her little daughter, so young and pretty, seriously mean to plunge into the rescue work of dismal slums, to cut herself adrift from sweet sounds and scents and colours, from music and art, from dancing, flowers, and all that made life beautiful? The secret forces of fastidiousness, an inborn dread of the fanatical, and all her real ignorance of what such a life was like, rose in Cecilia with a force which made her feel quite sick. Better that she herself should do this thing than that her own child should be deprived of air and light and all the just environment of her youth and beauty. 'She must come back--she must listen to me!' she thought. 'We will begin together; we will start a nice little creche of our own, or--perhaps Mrs. Tallents Smallpeace could find us some regular work on one of her committees.'
Then suddenly she conceived a thought which made her blood run positively cold. What if it were a matter of heredity? What if Thyme had inherited her grandfather's single-mindedness? Martin was giving proof of it. Things, she knew, often skipped a generation and then set in again. Surely, surely, it could not have done that! With longing, yet with dread, she waited for the sound of Stephen's latchkey. It came at its appointed time.
Even in her agitation Cecilia did not forget to spare him, all she could. She began by giving him a kiss, and then said casually: "Thyme has got a whim into her head."
"It's rather what you might expect," faltered Cecilia, "from her going about so much with Martin."
Stephen's face assumed at once an air of dry derision; there was no love lost between him and his young nephew-in-law.
"The Sanitist?" he said; "ah! Well?"
"She has gone off to do work-some place in the Euston Road. I've had a telegram. Oh, and I found this, Stephen."
She held out to him half-heartedly the two bits of paper, one pinkish-brown, the other blue. Stephen saw that she was trembling. He took them from her, read them, and looked at her again. He had a real affection for his wife, and the tradition of consideration for other people's feelings was bred in him, so that at this moment, so vitally disturbing, the first thing he did was to put his hand on her shoulder and give it a reassuring squeeze. But there was also in Stephen a certain primitive virility, pickled, it is true, at Cambridge, and in the Law Courts dried, but still preserving something of its possessive and assertive quality, and the second thing he did was to say, "No, I'm damned!"
In that little sentence lay the whole psychology of his attitude towards this situation and all the difference between two classes of the population. Mr. Purcey would undoubtedly have said: "Well, I'm damned!" Stephen, by saying "No, I'm damned!" betrayed that before he could be damned he had been obliged to wrestle and contend with something, and Cecilia, who was always wrestling too, knew this something to be that queer new thing, a Social Conscience, the dim bogey stalking pale about the houses of those who, through the accidents of leisure or of culture, had once left the door open to the suspicion: Is it possible that there is a class of people besides my own, or am I dreaming? Happy the millions, poor or rich, not yet condemned to watch the wistful visiting or hear the husky mutter of that ghost, happy in their homes, blessed by a less disquieting god. Such were Cecilia's inner feelings.
Even now she did not quite plumb the depths of Stephen's; she felt his struggle with the ghost; she felt and admired his victory. What she did not, could not, perhaps, realise, was the precise nature of the outrage inflicted on him by Thyme's action. With her--being a woman--the matter was more practical; she did not grasp, had never grasped, the architectural nature of Stephen's mind--how really hurt he was by what did not seem to him in due and proper order.
He spoke: "Why on earth, if she felt like that, couldn't she have gone to work in the ordinary way? She could have put herself in connection with some proper charitable society--I should never have objected to that. It's all that young Sanitary idiot!"
"I believe," Cecilia faltered, "that Martin's is a society. It's a kind of medical Socialism, or something of that sort. He has tremendous faith in it."
Stephen's lip curled.
"He may have as much faith as he likes," he said, with the restraint that was one of his best qualities, "so long as he doesn't infect my daughter with it."
Cecilia said suddenly: "Oh! what are we to do, Stephen? Shall I go over there to-night?"
As one may see a shadow pass down on a cornfield, so came the cloud on Stephen's face. It was as though he had not realised till then the full extent of what this meant. For a minute he was silent. "Better wait for her letter," he said at last. "He's her cousin, after all, and Mrs. Grundy's dead--in the Euston Road, at all events."
So, trying to spare each other all they could of anxiety, and careful to abstain from any hint of trouble before the servants, they dined and went to bed.
At that hour between the night and morning, when man's vitality is lowest, and the tremors of his spirit, like birds of ill omen, fly round and round him, beating their long plumes against his cheeks, Stephen woke.
It was very still. A bar of pearly-grey dawn showed between the filmy curtains, which stirred with a regular, faint movement, like the puffing of a sleeper's lips. The tide of the wind, woven in Mr. Stone's fancy of the souls of men, was at low ebb. Feebly it fanned the houses and hovels where the myriad forms of men lay sleeping, unconscious of its breath; so faint life's pulse, that men and shadows seemed for that brief moment mingled in the town's sleep. Over the million varied roofs, over the hundred million little different shapes of men and things, the wind's quiet, visiting wand had stilled all into the wonder state of nothingness, when life is passing into death, death into new life, and self is at its feeblest.
And Stephen's self, feeling the magnetic currents of that ebb-tide drawing it down into murmurous slumber, out beyond the sand-bars of individuality and class, threw up its little hands and began to cry for help. The purple sea of self-forgetfulness, under the dim, impersonal sky, seemed to him so cold and terrible. It had no limit that he could see, no rules but such as hung too far away, written in the hieroglyphics of paling stars. He could feel no order in the lift and lap of the wan waters round his limbs. Where would those waters carry him? To what depth of still green silence? Was his own little daughter to go down into this sea that knew no creed but that of self-forgetfulness, that respected neither class nor person--this sea where a few wandering streaks seemed all the evidence of the precious differences between mankind? God forbid it!
And, turning on his elbow, he looked at her who had given him this daughter. In the mystery of his wife's sleeping face--the face of her most near and dear to him--he tried hard not to see a likeness to Mr. Stone. He fell back somewhat comforted with the thought: 'That old chap has his one idea--his Universal Brotherhood. He's absolutely absorbed in it. I don't see it in Cis's face a bit. Quite the contrary.'
But suddenly a flash of clear, hard cynicism amounting to inspiration utterly disturbed him: The old chap, indeed, was so wrapped up in himself and his precious book as to be quite unconscious that anyone else was alive. Could one be everybody's brother if one were blind to their existence? But this freak of Thyme's was an actual try to be everybody's sister. For that, he supposed, one must forget oneself. Why, it was really even a worse case than that of Mr. Stone! And to Stephen there was something awful in this thought.
The first small bird of morning, close to the open window, uttered a feeble chirrup. Into Stephen's mind there leaped without reason recollection of the morning after his first term at school, when, awakened by the birds, he had started up and fished out from under his pillow his catapult and the box of shot he had brought home and taken to sleep with him. He seemed to see again those leaden shot with their bluish sheen, and to feel them, round, and soft, and heavy, rolling about his palm. He seemed to hear Hilary's surprised voice saying: "Hallo, Stevie! you awake?"
No one had ever had a better brother than old Hilary. His only fault was that he had always been too kind. It was his kindness that had done for him, and made his married life a failure. He had never asserted himself enough with that woman, his wife. Stephen turned over on his other side. 'All this confounded business,' he thought, 'comes from over-sympathising. That's what's the matter with Thyme, too.' Long he lay thus, while the light grew stronger, listening to Cecilia's gentle breathing, disturbed to his very marrow by these thoughts.
The first post brought no letter from Thyme, and the announcement soon after, that Mr. Hilary had come to breakfast, was received by both Stephen and Cecilia with a welcome such as the anxious give to anything which shows promise of distracting them.
Stephen made haste down. Hilary, with a very grave and harassed face, was in the dining-room. It was he, however, who, after one look at Stephen, said:
"What's the matter, Stevie?"
Stephen took up the Standard. In spite of his self-control, his hand shook a little.
"It's a ridiculous business," he said. "That precious young Sanitist has so worked his confounded theories into Thyme that she has gone off to the Euston Road to put them into practice, of all things!"
At the half-concerned amusement on Hilary's face his quick and rather narrow eyes glinted.
"It's not exactly for you to laugh, Hilary," he said. "It's all of a piece with your cursed sentimentality about those Hughs, and that girl. I knew it would end in a mess."
Hilary answered this unjust and unexpected outburst by a look, and Stephen, with the strange feeling of inferiority which would come to him in Hilary's presence against his better judgment, lowered his own glance.
"My dear boy," said Hilary, "if any bit of my character has crept into Thyme, I'm truly sorry."
Stephen took his brother's hand and gave it a good grip; and, Cecilia coming in, they all sat down.
Cecilia at once noted what Stephen in his preoccupation had not--that Hilary had come to tell them something. But she did not like to ask him what it was, though she knew that in the presence of their trouble Hilary was too delicate to obtrude his own. She did not like, either, to talk of her trouble in the presence of his. They all talked, therefore, of indifferent things--what music they had heard, what plays they had seen--eating but little, and drinking tea. In the middle of a remark about the opera, Stephen, looking up, saw Martin himself standing in the doorway. The young Sanitist looked pale, dusty, and dishevelled. He advanced towards Cecilia, and said with his usual cool determination:
"I've brought her back, Aunt Cis."
At that moment, fraught with such relief, such pure joy, such desire to say a thousand things, Cecilia could only murmur: "Oh, Martin!"
Stephen, who had jumped up, asked: "Where is she?"
"Gone to her room."
"Then perhaps," said Stephen, regaining at once his dry composure, "you will give us some explanation of this folly."
"She's no use to us at present."
"Then," said Stephen, "kindly understand that we have no use for you in future, or any of your sort."
Martin looked round the table, resting his eyes on each in turn.
"You're right," he said. "Good-bye!"
Hilary and Cecilia had risen, too. There was silence. Stephen crossed to the door.
"You seem to me," he said suddenly, in his driest voice, "with your new manners and ideas, quite a pernicious youth."
Cecilia stretched her hands out towards Martin, and there was a faint tinkling as of chains.
"You must know, dear," she said, "how anxious we've all been. Of course, your uncle doesn't mean that."
The same scornful tenderness with which he was wont to look at Thyme passed into Martin's face.
"All right, Aunt Cis," he said; "if Stephen doesn't mean it, he ought to. To mean things is what matters." He stooped and kissed her forehead. "Give that to Thyme for me," he said. "I shan't see her for a bit."
"You'll never see her, sir," said Stephen dryly, "if I can help it! The liquor of your Sanitism is too bright and effervescent."
Martin's smile broadened. "For old bottles," he said, and with another slow look round went out.
Stephen's mouth assumed its driest twist. "Bumptious young devil!" he said. "If that is the new young man, defend us!"
Over the cool dining-room, with its faint scent of pinks, of melon, and of ham, came silence. Suddenly Cecilia glided from the room. Her light footsteps were heard hurrying, now that she was not visible, up to Thyme.
Hilary, too, had moved towards the door. In spite of his preoccupation, Stephen could not help noticing how very worn his brother looked.
"You look quite seedy, old boy," he said. "Will you have some brandy?"
Hilary shook his head.
"Now that you've got Thyme back," he said, "I'd better let you know my news. I'm going abroad to-morrow. I don't know whether I shall come back again to live with B."
Stephen gave a low whistle; then, pressing Hilary's arm, he said: "Anything you decide, old man, I'll always back you in, but--"
"I'm going alone."
In his relief Stephen violated the laws of reticence.
"Thank Heaven for that! I was afraid you were beginning to lose your head about that girl."
"I'm not quite fool enough," said Hilary, "to imagine that such a liaison would be anything but misery in the long-run. If I took the child I should have to stick to her; but I'm not proud of leaving her in the lurch, Stevie."
The tone of his voice was so bitter that Stephen seized his hand.
"My dear old man, you're too kind. Why, she's no hold on you--not the smallest in the world!"
"Except the hold of this devotion I've roused in her, God knows how, and her destitution."
"You let these people haunt you," said Stephen. "It's quite a mistake--it really is."
"I had forgotten to mention that I am not an iceberg," muttered Hilary.
Stephen looked into his face without speaking, then with the utmost earnestness he said:
"However much you may be attracted, it's simply unthinkable for a man like you to go outside his class."
"Class! Yes!" muttered Hilary: "Good-bye!"
And with a long grip of his brother's hand he went away.
Stephen turned to the window. For all the care and contrivance bestowed on the view, far away to the left the back courts of an alley could be seen; and as though some gadfly had planted in him its small poisonous sting, he moved back from the sight at once. 'Confusion!' he thought. 'Are we never to get rid of these infernal people?'
His eyes lighted on the melon. A single slice lay by itself on a blue-green dish. Leaning over a plate, with a desperation quite unlike himself, he took an enormous bite. Again and again he bit the slice, then almost threw it from him, and dipped his fingers in a bowl.
'Thank God!' he thought, 'that's over! What an escape!'
Whether he meant Hilary's escape or Thyme's was doubtful, but there came on him a longing to rush up to his little daughter's room, and hug her. He suppressed it, and sat down at the bureau; he was suddenly experiencing a sensation such as he had sometimes felt on a perfect day, or after physical danger, of too much benefit, of something that he would like to return thanks for, yet knew not how. His hand stole to the inner pocket of his black coat. It stole out again; there was a cheque-book in it. Before his mind's eye, starting up one after the other, he saw the names of the societies he supported, or meant sometime, if he could afford it, to support. He reached his hand out for a pen. The still, small noise of the nib travelling across the cheques mingled with the buzzing of a single fly.
These sounds Cecilia heard, when, from the open door, she saw the thin back of her husband's neck, with its softly graduated hair, bent forward above the bureau. She stole over to him, and pressed herself against his arm.
Stephen, staying the progress of his pen, looked up at her. Their eyes met, and, bending down, Cecilia put her cheek to his.
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