THE SINGLE MIND OF MR. STONE
Since in the flutter of her spirit caused by the words of Mrs. Hughs, Cecilia felt she must do something, she decided to change her dress.
The furniture of the pretty room she shared with Stephen had not been hastily assembled. Conscious, even fifteen years ago, when they moved into this house, of the grave Philistinism of the upper classes, she and Stephen had ever kept their duty to aestheticism green; and, in the matter of their bed, had lain for two years on two little white affairs, comfortable, but purely temporary, that they might give themselves a chance. The chance had come at last--a bed in real keeping with the period they had settled on, and going for twelve pounds. They had not let it go, and now slept in it--not quite so comfortable, perhaps, but comfortable enough, and conscious of duty done.
For fifteen years Cecilia had been furnishing her house; the process approached completion. The only things remaining on her mind--apart, that is, from Thyme's development and the condition of the people--were: item, a copper lantern that would allow some light to pass its framework; item, an old oak washstand not going back to Cromwell's time. And now this third anxiety had come!
She was rather touching, as she stood before the wardrobe glass divested of her bodice, with dimples of exertion in her thin white arms while she hooked her skirt behind, and her greenish eyes troubled, so anxious to do their best for everyone, and save risk of any sort. Having put on a bramble-coloured frock, which laced across her breast with silver lattice-work, and a hat (without feathers, so as to encourage birds) fastened to her head with pins (bought to aid a novel school of metal-work), she went to see what sort of day it was.
The window looked out at the back over some dreary streets, where the wind was flinging light drifts of smoke athwart the sunlight. They had chosen this room, not indeed for its view over the condition of the people, but because of the sky effects at sunset, which were extremely fine. For the first time, perhaps, Cecilia was conscious that a sample of the class she was so interested in was exposed to view beneath her nose. 'The Hughs live somewhere there,' she thought. 'After all I think B. ought to know about that man. She might speak to father, and get him to give up having the girl to copy for him--the whole thing's so worrying.'
In pursuance of this thought, she lunched hastily, and went out, making her way to Hilary's. With every step she became more uncertain. The fear of meddling too much, of not meddling enough, of seeming meddlesome; timidity at touching anything so awkward; distrust, even ignorance, of her sister's character, which was like, yet so very unlike, her own; a real itch to get the matter settled, so that nothing whatever should come of it--all this she felt. She hurried, dawdled, finished the adventure almost at a run, then told the servant not to announce her. The vision of Bianca's eyes, while she listened to this tale, was suddenly too much for Cecilia. She decided to pay a visit to her father first.
Mr. Stone was writing, attired in his working dress--a thick brown woollen gown, revealing his thin neck above the line of a blue shirt, and tightly gathered round the waist with tasselled cord; the lower portions of grey trousers were visible above woollen-slippered feet. His hair straggled over his thin long ears. The window, wide open, admitted an east wind; there was no fire. Cecilia shivered.
"Come in quickly," said Mr. Stone. Turning to a big high desk of stained deal which occupied the middle of one wall, he began methodically to place the inkstand, a heavy paper-knife, a book, and stones of several sizes, on his guttering sheets of manuscript.
Cecilia looked about her; she had not been inside her father's room for several months. There was nothing in it but that desk, a camp bed in the far corner (with blankets, but no sheets), a folding washstand, and a narrow bookcase, the books in which Cecilia unconsciously told off on the fingers of her memory. They never varied. On the top shelf the Bible and the works of Plautus and Diderot; on the second from the top the plays of Shakespeare in a blue edition; on the third from the bottom Don Quixote, in four volumes, covered with brown paper; a green Milton; the "Comedies of Aristophanes"; a leather book, partially burned, comparing the philosophy of Epicurus with the philosophy of Spinoza; and in a yellow binding Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn." On the second from the bottom was lighter literature: "The Iliad"; a "Life of Francis of Assisi"; Speke's "Discovery of the Sources of the Nile"; the "Pickwick Papers"; "Mr. Midshipman Easy"; The Verses of Theocritus, in a very old translation; Renan's "Life of Christ"; and the "Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini." The bottom shelf of all was full of books on natural science.
The walls were whitewashed, and, as Cecilia knew, came off on anybody who leaned against them. The floor was stained, and had no carpet. There was a little gas cooking-stove, with cooking things ranged on it; a small bare table; and one large cupboard. No draperies, no pictures, no ornaments of any kind; but by the window an ancient golden leather chair. Cecilia could never bear to sit in that oasis; its colour in this wilderness was too precious to her spirit.
"It's an east wind, father; aren't you terribly cold without a fire?"
Mr. Stone came from his writing-desk, and stood so that light might fall on a sheet of paper in his hand. Cecilia noted the scent that went about with him of peat and baked potatoes. He spoke:
"Listen to this: 'In the condition of society, dignified in those days with the name of civilisation, the only source of hope was the persistence of the quality called courage. Amongst a thousand nerve-destroying habits, amongst the dramshops, patent medicines, the undigested chaos of inventions and discoveries, while hundreds were prating in their pulpits of things believed in by a negligible fraction of the population, and thousands writing down today what nobody would want to read in two days' time; while men shut animals in cages, and made bears jig to please their children, and all were striving one against the other; while, in a word, like gnats above a stagnant pool on a summer's evening, man danced up and down without the faintest notion why--in this condition of affairs the quality of courage was alive. It was the only fire within that gloomy valley.'" He stopped, though evidently anxious to go on, because he had read the last word on that sheet of paper. He moved towards the writing-desk. Cecilia said hastily:
"Do you mind if I shut the window, father?"
Mr. Stone made a movement of his head, and Cecilia saw that he held a second sheet of paper in his hand. She rose, and, going towards him, said:
"I want to talk to you, Dad!" Taking up the cord of his dressing-gown, she pulled it by its tassel.
"Don't!" said Mr. Stone; "it secures my trousers."
Cecilia dropped the cord. 'Father is really terrible!' she thought.
Mr. Stone, lifting the second sheet of paper, began again:
"'The reason, however, was not far to seek---"
Cecilia said desperately:
"It's about that girl who comes to copy for you."
Mr. Stone lowered the sheet of paper, and stood, slightly curved from head to foot; his ears moved as though he were about to lay them back; his blue eyes, with little white spots of light alongside the tiny black pupils, stared at his daughter.
Cecilia thought: 'He's listening now.'
She made haste. "Must you have her here? Can't you do without her?"
"Without whom?" said Mr. Stone.
"Without the girl who comes to copy for you."
"For this very good reason---"
Mr. Stone dropped his eyes, and Cecilia saw that he had moved the sheet of paper up as far as his waist.
"Does she copy better than any other girl could?" she asked hastily.
"No," said Mr. Stone.
"Then, Father, I do wish, to please me, you'd get someone else. I know what I'm talking about, and I---" Cecilia stopped; her father's lips and eyes were moving; he was obviously reading to himself.
'I've no patience with him,' she thought; 'he thinks of nothing but his wretched book.'
Aware of his daughter's silence, Mr. Stone let the sheet of paper sink, and waited patiently again.
"What do you want, my dear?" he said.
"Oh, Father, do listen just a minute!"
"It's about that girl who comes to copy for you. Is there any reason why she should come instead of any other girl?"
"Yes," said Mr. Stone.
"Because she has no friends."
So awkward a reply was not expected by Cecilia; she looked at the floor, forced to search within her soul. Silence lasted several seconds; then Mr. Stone's voice rose above a whisper:
"'The reason was not far to seek. Man, differentiated from the other apes by his desire to know, was from the first obliged to steel himself against the penalties of knowledge. Like animals subjected to the rigours of an Arctic climate, and putting forth more fur with each reduction in the temperature, man's hide of courage thickened automatically to resist the spear-thrusts dealt him by his own insatiate curiosity. In those days of which we speak, when undigested knowledge, in a great invading horde, had swarmed all his defences, man, suffering from a foul dyspepsia, with a nervous system in the latest stages of exhaustion, and a reeling brain, survived by reason of his power to go on making courage. Little heroic as (in the then general state of petty competition) his deeds appeared to be, there never had yet been a time when man in bulk was more courageous, for there never had yet been a time when he had more need to be. Signs were not wanting that this desperate state of things had caught the eyes of the community. A little sect---'" Mr. Stone stopped; his eyes had again tumbled over the bottom edge; he moved hurriedly towards the desk. Just as his hand removed a stone and took up a third sheet, Cecilia cried out:
Mr. Stone stopped, and turned towards her. His daughter saw that he had gone quite pink; her annoyance vanished.
"Father! About that girl---"
Mr. Stone seemed to reflect. "Yes, yes," he said.
"I don't think Bianca likes her coming here."
Mr. Stone passed his hand across his brow.
"Forgive me for reading to you, my dear," he said; "it's a great relief to me at times."
Cecilia went close to him, and refrained with difficulty from taking up the tasselled cord.
"Of course, dear," she said: "I quite understand that."
Mr. Stone looked full in her face, and before a gaze which seemed to go through her and see things the other side, Cecilia dropped her eyes.
"It is strange," he said, "how you came to be my daughter!"
To Cecilia, too, this had often seemed a problem.
"There is a great deal in atavism," said Mr. Stone, "that we know nothing of at present."
Cecilia cried with heat, "I do wish you would attend a minute, Father; it's really an important matter," and she turned towards the window, tears being very near her eyes.
The voice of Mr. Stone said humbly: "I will try, my dear."
But Cecilia thought: 'I must give him a good lesson. He really is too self-absorbed'; and she did not move, conveying by the posture of her shoulders how gravely she was vexed.
She could see nursemaids wheeling babies towards the Gardens, and noted their faces gazing, not at the babies, but, uppishly, at other nursemaids, or, with a sort of cautious longing, at men who passed. How selfish they looked! She felt a little glow of satisfaction that she was making this thin and bent old man behind her conscious of his egoism.
'He will know better another time,' she thought. Suddenly she heard a whistling, squeaking sound--it was Mr. Stone whispering the third page of his manuscript:
"'---animated by some admirable sentiments, but whose doctrines--riddled by the fact that life is but the change of form to form--were too constricted for the evils they designed to remedy; this little sect, who had as yet to learn the meaning of universal love, were making the most strenuous efforts, in advance of the community at large, to understand themselves. The necessary, movement which they voiced--reaction against the high-tide of the fratricidal system then prevailing--was young, and had the freshness and honesty of youth....'"
Without a word Cecilia turned round and hurried to the door. She saw her father drop the sheet of paper; she saw his face, all pink and silver, stooping after it; and remorse visited her anger.
In the corridor outside she was arrested by a noise. The uncertain light of London halls fell there; on close inspection the sufferer was seen to be Miranda, who, unable to decide whether she wanted to be in the garden or the house, was seated beneath the hatrack snuffling to herself. On seeing Cecilia she came out.
"What do you want, you little beast?"
Peering at her over the tops of her eyes, Miranda vaguely lifted a white foot. 'Why ask me that?' she seemed to say. 'How am I to know? Are we not all like this?'
Her conduct, coming at that moment, over-tried Cecilia's nerves. She threw open Hilary's study-door, saying sharply: "Go in and find your master!"
Miranda did not move, but Hilary came out instead. He had been correcting proofs to catch the post, and wore the look of a man abstracted, faintly contemptuous of other forms of life.
Cecilia, once more saved from the necessity of approaching her sister, the mistress of the house, so fugitive, haunting, and unseen, yet so much the centre of this situation, said:
"Can I speak to you a minute, Hilary?"
They went into his study, and Miranda came creeping in behind.
To Cecilia her brother-in-law always seemed an amiable and more or less pathetic figure. In his literary preoccupations he allowed people to impose on him. He looked unsubstantial beside the bust of Socrates, which moved Cecilia strangely--it was so very massive and so very ugly! She decided not to beat about the bush.
"I've been hearing some odd things from Mrs. Hughs about that little model, Hilary."
Hilary's smile faded from his eyes, but remained clinging to his lips.
Cecilia went on nervously: "Mrs. Hughs says it's because of her that Hughs behaves so badly. I don't want to say anything against the girl, but she seems--she seems to have---"
"Yes?" said Hilary.
"To have cast a spell on Hughs, as the woman puts it."
"On Hughs!" repeated Hilary.
Cecilia found her eyes resting on the bust of Socrates, and hastily proceeded:
"She says he follows her about, and comes down here to lie in wait for her. It's a most strange business altogether. You went to see them, didn't you?"
"I've been speaking to Father," Cecilia murmured; "but he's hopeless--I, couldn't get him to pay the least attention."
Hilary seemed thinking deeply.
"I wanted him," she went on, "to get some other girl instead to come and copy for him."
Under the seeming impossibility of ever getting any farther, without saying what she had come to say, Cecilia blurted out:
"Mrs. Hughs says that Hughs has threatened you."
Hilary's face became ironical.
"Really!" he said. "That's good of him! What for?"
The frightful indelicacy of her situation at this moment, the feeling of unfairness that she should be placed in it, almost overwhelmed Cecilia. "Goodness knows I don't want to meddle. I never meddle in anything-it's horrible!"
Hilary took her hand.
"My dear Cis," he said, "of course! But we'd better have this out!"
Grateful for the pressure of his hand, she gave it a convulsive squeeze.
"It's so sordid, Hilary!"
"Sordid! H'm! Let's get it over, then."
Cecilia had grown crimson. "Do you want me to tell you everything?"
"Well, Hughs evidently thinks you're interested in the girl. You can't keep anything from servants and people who work about your house; they always think the worst of everything--and, of course, they know that you and B. don't--aren't---"
"Mrs. Hughs actually said the man meant to go to B.!"
Again the vision of her sister seemed to float into the room, and she went on desperately: "And, Hilary, I can see Mrs. Hughs really thinks you are interested. Of course, she wants to, for if you were, it would mean that a man like her husband could have no chance."
Astonished at this flash of cynical inspiration, and ashamed of such plain speaking, she checked herself. Hilary had turned away.
Cecilia touched his arm. "Hilary, dear," she said, "isn't there any chance of you and B---"
Hilary's lips twitched. "I should say not."
Cecilia looked sadly at the floor. Not since Stephen was bad with pleurisy had she felt so worried. The sight of Hilary's face brought back her doubts with all their force. It might, of course, be only anger at the man's impudence, but it might be--she hardly liked to frame her thought--a more personal feeling.
"Don't you think," she said, "that, anyway, she had better not come here again?"
Hilary paced the room.
"It's her only safe and certain piece of work; it keeps her independent. It's much more satisfactory than this sitting. I can't have any hand in taking it away from her."
Cecilia had never seen him moved like this. Was it possible that he was not incorrigibly gentle, but had in him some of that animality which she, in a sense, admired? This uncertainty terribly increased the difficulties of the situation.
"But, Hilary," she said at last, "are you satisfied about the girl--I mean, are you satisfied that she really is worth helping?"
"I don't understand."
"I mean," murmured Cecilia, "that we don't know anything about her past." And, seeing from the movement of his eyebrows that she was touching on what had evidently been a doubt with him, she went on with great courage: "Where are her friends and relations? I mean, she may have had a--adventures."
Hilary withdrew into himself.
"You can hardly expect me," he said, "to go into that with her."
His reply made Cecilia feel ridiculous.
"Well," she said in a hard little voice, "if this is what comes of helping the poor, I don't see the use of it."
The outburst evoked no reply from Hilary; she felt more tremulous than ever. The whole thing was so confused, so unnatural. What with the dark, malignant Hughs and that haunting vision of Bianca, the matter seemed almost Italian. That a man of Hughs' class might be affected by the passion of love had somehow never come into her head. She thought of the back streets she had looked out on from her bedroom window. Could anything like passion spring up in those dismal alleys? The people who lived there, poor downtrodden things, had enough to do to keep themselves alive. She knew all about them; they were in the air; their condition was deplorable! Could a person whose condition was deplorable find time or strength for any sort of lurid exhibition such as this? It was incredible.
She became aware that Hilary was speaking.
"I daresay the man is dangerous!"
Hearing her fears confirmed, and in accordance with the secret vein of hardness which kept her living, amid all her sympathies and hesitations, Cecilia felt suddenly that she had gone as far as it was in her to go.
"I shall have no more to do with them," she said; "I've tried my best for Mrs. Hughs. I know quite as good a needlewoman, who'll be only too glad to come instead. Any other girl will do as well to copy father's book. If you take my advice, Hilary, you'll give up trying to help them too."
Hilary's smile puzzled and annoyed her. If she had known, this was the smile that stood between him and her sister.
"You may be right," he said, and shrugged his shoulders:
"Very well," said Cecilia, "I've done all I can. I must go now. Good-bye."
During her progress to the door she gave one look behind. Hilary was standing by the bust of Socrates. Her heart smote her to leave him thus embarrassed. But again the vision of Bianca--fugitive in her own house, and with something tragic in her mocking immobility--came to her, and she hastened away.
A voice said: "How are you, Mrs. Dallison? Your sister at home?"
Cecilia saw before her Mr. Purcey, rising and falling a little with the oscillation of his A.i. Damyer.
A sense as of having just left a house visited by sickness or misfortune made Cecilia murmur:
"I'm afraid she's not."
"Bad luck!" said Mr. Purcey. His face fell as far as so red and square a face could fall. "I was hoping perhaps I might be allowed to take them for a run. She's wanting exercise." Mr. Purcey laid his hand on the flank of his palpitating car. "Know these A.i. Damyers, Mrs. Dallison? Best value you can get, simply rippin' little cars. Wish you'd try her."
The A.i. Damyer, diffusing an aroma of the finest petrol, leaped and trembled, as though conscious of her master's praise. Cecilia looked at her.
"Yes," she said, "she's very sweet."
"Now do!" said Mr. Purcey. "Let me give you a run--Just to please me, I mean. I'm sure you'll like her."
A little compunction, a little curiosity, a sudden revolt against all the discomfiture and sordid doubts she had been suffering from, made Cecilia glance softly at Mr. Purcey's figure; almost before she knew it, she was seated in the A.i. Damyer. It trembled, emitted two small sounds, one large scent, and glided forward. Mr. Purcey said:
"That's rippin' of you!"
A postman, dog, and baker's cart, all hurrying at top speed, seemed to stand still; Cecilia felt the wind beating her cheeks. She gave a little laugh.
"You must just take me home, please."
Mr. Purcey touched the chauffeur's elbow.
"Round the park," he said. "Let her have it."
The A.i. Damyer uttered a tiny shriek. Cecilia, leaning back in her padded corner, glanced askance at Mr. Purcey leaning back in his; an unholy, astonished little smile played on her lips.
'What am I doing?' it seemed to say. 'The way he got me here--really! And now I am here I'm just going to enjoy it!'
There were no Hughs, no little model--all that sordid life had vanished; there was nothing but the wind beating her cheeks and the A.i. Damyer leaping under her.
Mr. Purcey said: "It just makes all the difference to me; keeps my nerves in order."
"Oh," Cecilia murmured, "have you got nerves."
Mr. Purcey smiled. When he smiled his cheeks formed two hard red blocks, his trim moustache stood out, and many little wrinkles ran from his light eyes.
"Chock full of them," he said; "least thing upsets me. Can't bear to see a hungry-lookin' child, or anything."
A strange feeling of admiration for this man had come upon Cecilia. Why could not she, and Thyme, and Hilary, and Stephen, and all the people they knew and mixed with, be like him, so sound and healthy, so unravaged by disturbing sympathies, so innocent of "social conscience," so content?
As though jealous of these thoughts about her master, the A.i. Damyer stopped of her own accord.
"Hallo," said Mr. Purcey, "hallo, I say! Don't you get out; she'll be all right directly."
"Oh," said Cecilia, "thanks; but I must go in here, anyhow; I think I'll say good-bye. Thank you so much. I have enjoyed it."
From the threshold of a shop she looked back. Mr. Purcey, on foot, was leaning forward from the waist, staring at his A.i. Damyer with profound concentration.
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