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Chapter 10

AN ALIEN


The individual on the doorstep had fallen into slumber over his own knees. No greater air of prosperity clung about him than is conveyed by a rusty overcoat and wisps of cloth in place of socks. Shelton endeavoured to pass unseen, but the sleeper woke.

"Ah, it's you, monsieur!" he said "I received your letter this evening, and have lost no time." He looked down at himself and tittered, as though to say, "But what a state I 'm in!"

The young foreigner's condition was indeed more desperate than on the occasion of their first meeting, and Shelton invited him upstairs.

"You can well understand," stammered Ferrand, following his host, "that I did n't want to miss you this time. When one is like this--" and a spasm gripped his face.

"I 'm very glad you came," said Shelton doubtfully.

His visitor's face had a week's growth of reddish beard; the deep tan of his cheeks gave him a robust appearance at variance with the fit of, trembling which had seized on him as soon as he had entered.

"Sit down-sit down," said Shelton; "you 're feeling ill!"

Ferrand smiled. "It's nothing," said he; "bad nourishment."

Shelton left him seated on the edge of an armchair, and brought him in some whisky.

"Clothes," said Ferrand, when he had drunk, "are what I want. These are really not good enough."

The statement was correct, and Shelton, placing some garments in the bath-room, invited his visitor to make himself at home. While the latter, then, was doing this, Shelton enjoyed the luxuries of self-denial, hunting up things he did not want, and laying them in two portmanteaus. This done, he waited for his visitor's return.

The young foreigner at length emerged, unshaved indeed, and innocent of boots, but having in other respects an air of gratifying affluence.

"This is a little different," he said. "The boots, I fear"--and, pulling down his, or rather Shelton's, socks he exhibited sores the size of half a crown. "One does n't sow without reaping some harvest or another. My stomach has shrunk," he added simply. "To see things one must suffer. 'Voyager, c'est plus fort que moi'!"

Shelton failed to perceive that this was one way of disguising the human animal's natural dislike of work--there was a touch of pathos, a suggestion of God-knows-what-might-have-been, about this fellow.

"I have eaten my illusions," said the young foreigner, smoking a cigarette. "When you've starved a few times, your eyes are opened. 'Savoir, c'est mon metier; mais remarquez ceci, monsieur': It 's not always the intellectuals who succeed."

"When you get a job," said Shelton, "you throw it away, I suppose."

"You accuse me of restlessness? Shall I explain what I think about that? I'm restless because of ambition; I want to reconquer an independent position. I put all my soul into my trials, but as soon as I see there's no future for me in that line, I give it up and go elsewhere. 'Je ne veux pas etre rond de cuir,' breaking my back to economise sixpence a day, and save enough after forty years to drag out the remains of an exhausted existence. That's not in my character." This ingenious paraphrase of the words "I soon get tired of things" he pronounced with an air of letting Shelton into a precious secret.

"Yes; it must be hard," agreed the latter.

Ferrand shrugged his shoulders.

"It's not all butter," he replied; "one is obliged to do things that are not too delicate. There's nothing I pride myself on but frankness."

Like a good chemist, however, he administered what Shelton could stand in a judicious way. "Yes, yes," he seemed to say, "you'd like me to think that you have a perfect knowledge of life: no morality, no prejudices, no illusions; you'd like me to think that you feel yourself on an equality with me, one human animal talking to another, without any barriers of position, money, clothes, or the rest--'ca c'est un peu trop fort'! You're as good an imitation as I 've come across in your class, notwithstanding your unfortunate education, and I 'm grateful to you, but to tell you everything, as it passes through my mind would damage my prospects. You can hardly expect that."

In one of Shelton's old frock-coats he was impressive, with his air of natural, almost sensitive refinement. The room looked as if it were accustomed to him, and more amazing still was the sense of familiarity that he inspired, as, though he were a part of Shelton's soul. It came as a shock to realise that this young foreign vagabond had taken such a place within his thoughts. The pose of his limbs and head, irregular but not ungraceful; his disillusioned lips; the rings of smoke that issued from them--all signified rebellion, and the overthrow of law and order. His thin, lopsided nose, the rapid glances of his goggling, prominent eyes, were subtlety itself; he stood for discontent with the accepted.

"How do I live when I am on the tramp?" he said, "well, there are the consuls. The system is not delicate, but when it's a question of starving, much is permissible; besides, these gentlemen were created for the purpose. There's a coterie of German Jews in Paris living entirely upon consuls." He hesitated for the fraction of a second, and resumed: "Yes, monsieur; if you have papers that fit you, you can try six or seven consuls in a single town. You must know a language or two; but most of these gentlemen are not too well up in the tongues of the country they represent. Obtaining money under false pretences? Well, it is. But what's the difference at bottom between all this honourable crowd of directors, fashionable physicians, employers of labour, ferry-builders, military men, country priests, and consuls themselves perhaps, who take money and give no value for it, and poor devils who do the same at far greater risk? Necessity makes the law. If those gentlemen were in my position, do you think that they would hesitate?"

Shelton's face remaining doubtful, Ferrand went on instantly: "You're right; they would, from fear, not principle. One must be hard pressed before committing these indelicacies. Look deep enough, and you will see what indelicate things are daily done by the respectable for not half so good a reason as the want of meals."

Shelton also took a cigarette--his own income was derived from property for which he gave no value in labour.

"I can give you an instance," said Ferrand, "of what can be done by resolution. One day in a German town, 'etant dans la misere', I decided to try the French consul. Well, as you know, I am a Fleming, but something had to be screwed out somewhere. He refused to see me; I sat down to wait. After about two hours a voice bellowed: 'Has n't the brute gone?' and my consul appears. 'I 've nothing for fellows like you,' says he; 'clear out!'

"'Monsieur,' I answered, 'I am skin and bone; I really must have assistance.'

"'Clear out,' he says, 'or the police shall throw you out!'

"I don't budge. Another hour passes, and back he comes again.

"'Still here?' says he. 'Fetch a sergeant.'

"The sergeant comes.

"'Sergeant,' says the consul, 'turn this creature out.'

"'Sergeant,' I say, 'this house is France!' Naturally, I had calculated upon that. In Germany they're not too fond of those who undertake the business of the French.

"'He is right,' says the sergeant; 'I can do nothing.'

"'You refuse?'

"'Absolutely.' And he went away.

"'What do you think you'll get by staying?' says my consul.

"'I have nothing to eat or drink, and nowhere to sleep,' says I.

"'What will you go for?'

"'Ten marks.'

"'Here, then, get out!' I can tell you, monsieur, one must n't have a thin skin if one wants to exploit consuls."

His yellow fingers slowly rolled the stump of his cigarette, his ironical lips flickered. Shelton thought of his own ignorance of life. He could not recollect ever having gone without a meal.

"I suppose," he said feebly, "you've often starved." For, having always been so well fed, the idea of starvation was attractive.

Ferrand smiled.

"Four days is the longest," said he. "You won't believe that story.... It was in Paris, and I had lost my money on the race-course. There was some due from home which didn't come. Four days and nights I lived on water. My clothes were excellent, and I had jewellery; but I never even thought of pawning them. I suffered most from the notion that people might guess my state. You don't recognise me now?"

"How old were you then?" said Shelton.

"Seventeen; it's curious what one's like at that age."

By a flash of insight Shelton saw the well-dressed boy, with sensitive, smooth face, always on the move about the streets of Paris, for fear that people should observe the condition of his stomach. The story was a valuable commentary. His thoughts were brusquely interrupted; looking in Ferrand's face, he saw to his dismay tears rolling down his cheeks.

"I 've suffered too much," he stammered; "what do I care now what becomes of me?"

Shelton was disconcerted; he wished 'to say something sympathetic,' but, being an Englishman, could only turn away his eyes.

"Your turn 's coming," he said at last.

"Ah! when you've lived my life," broke out his visitor, "nothing 's any good. My heart's in rags. Find me anything worth keeping, in this menagerie."

Moved though he was, Shelton wriggled in his chair, a prey to racial instinct, to an ingrained over-tenderness, perhaps, of soul that forbade him from exposing his emotions, and recoiled from the revelation of other people's. He could stand it on the stage, he could stand it in a book, but in real life he could not stand it. When Ferrand had gone off with a portmanteau in each hand, he sat down and told Antonia:

. . . The poor chap broke down and sat crying like a child; and instead of making me feel sorry, it turned me into stone. The more sympathetic I wanted to be, the gruffer I grew. Is it fear of ridicule, independence, or consideration, for others that prevents one from showing one's feelings?

He went on to tell her of Ferrand's starving four days sooner than face a pawnbroker; and, reading the letter over before addressing it, the faces of the three ladies round their snowy cloth arose before him--Antonia's face, so fair and calm and wind-fresh; her mother's face, a little creased by time and weather; the maiden aunt's somewhat too thin-and they seemed to lean at him, alert and decorous, and the words "That's rather nice!" rang in his ears. He went out to post the letter, and buying a five-shilling order enclosed it to the little barber, Carolan, as a reward for delivering his note to Ferrand. He omitted to send his address with this donation, but whether from delicacy or from caution he could not have said. Beyond doubt, however, on receiving through Ferrand the following reply, he felt ashamed and pleased.


3, BLANK ROW, WESTMINSTER.

From every well-born soul humanity is owing. A thousand thanks. I received this morning your postal order; your heart henceforth for me will be placed beyond all praise.

J. CAROLAN.


John Galsworthy

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