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Chapter 11

THE VISION


A few days later he received a letter from Antonia which filled him with excitement:


. . . Aunt Charlotte is ever so much better, so mother thinks we can go home-hurrah! But she says that you and I must keep to our arrangement not to see each other till July. There will be something fine in being so near and having the strength to keep apart . . . All the English are gone. I feel it so empty out here; these people are so funny-all foreign and shallow. Oh, Dick! how splendid to have an ideal to look up to! Write at once to Brewer's Hotel and tell me you think the same.... We arrive at Charing Cross on Sunday at half-past seven, stay at Brewer's for a couple of nights, and go down on Tuesday to Holm Oaks.

Always your

ANTONIA.


"To-morrow!" he thought; "she's coming tomorrow!" and, leaving his neglected breakfast, he started out to walk off his emotion. His square ran into one of those slums that still rub shoulders with the most distinguished situations, and in it he came upon a little crowd assembled round a dogfight. One of the dogs was being mauled, but the day was muddy, and Shelton, like any well-bred Englishman, had a horror of making himself conspicuous even in a decent cause; he looked for a policeman. One was standing by, to see fair play, and Shelton made appeal to him. The official suggested that he should not have brought out a fighting dog, and advised him to throw cold water over them.

"It is n 't my dog," said Shelton.

"Then I should let 'em be," remarked the policeman with evident surprise.

Shelton appealed indefinitely to the lower orders. The lower orders, however, were afraid of being bitten.

"I would n't meddle with that there job if I was you," said one.

"Nasty breed o' dawg is that."

He was therefore obliged to cast away respectability, spoil his trousers and his gloves, break his umbrella, drop his hat in the mud, and separate the dogs. At the conclusion of the "job," the lower orders said to him in a rather shamefaced spanner:

"Well, I never thought you'd have managed that, sir"; but, like all men of inaction, Shelton after action was more dangerous.

"D----n it!" he said, "one can't let a dog be killed"; and he marched off, towing the injured dog with his pocket-handkerchief, and looking scornfully at harmless passers-by. Having satisfied for once the smouldering fires within him, he felt entitled to hold a low opinion of these men in the street. "The brutes," he thought, "won't stir a finger to save a poor dumb creature, and as for policemen--" But, growing cooler, he began to see that people weighted down by "honest toil" could not afford to tear their trousers or get a bitten hand, and that even the policeman, though he had looked so like a demi-god, was absolutely made of flesh and blood. He took the dog home, and, sending for a vet., had him sewn up.

He was already tortured by the doubt whether or no he might venture to meet Antonia at the station, and, after sending his servant with the dog to the address marked on its collar, he formed the resolve to go and see his mother, with some vague notion that she might help him to decide. She lived in Kensington, and, crossing the Brompton Road, he was soon amongst that maze of houses into the fibre of whose structure architects have wrought the motto: "Keep what you have--wives, money, a good address, and all the blessings of a moral state!"

Shelton pondered as he passed house after house of such intense respectability that even dogs were known to bark at them. His blood was still too hot; it is amazing what incidents will promote the loftiest philosophy. He had been reading in his favourite review an article eulogising the freedom and expansion which had made the upper middle class so fine a body; and with eyes wandering from side to side he nodded his head ironically. "Expansion and freedom," ran his thoughts: "Freedom and expansion!"

Each house-front was cold and formal, the shell of an owner with from three to five thousand pounds a year, and each one was armoured against the opinion of its neighbours by a sort of daring regularity. "Conscious of my rectitude; and by the strict observance of exactly what is necessary and no more, I am enabled to hold my head up in the world. The person who lives in me has only four thousand two hundred and fifty-five pounds each year, after allowing for the income tax." Such seemed the legend of these houses.

Shelton passed ladies in ones and twos and threes going out shopping, or to classes of drawing, cooking, ambulance. Hardly any men were seen, and they were mostly policemen; but a few disillusioned children were being wheeled towards the Park by fresh-cheeked nurses, accompanied by a great army of hairy or of hairless dogs.

There was something of her brother's large liberality about Mrs. Shelton, a tiny lady with affectionate eyes, warm cheeks, and chilly feet; fond as a cat of a chair by the fire, and full of the sympathy that has no insight. She kissed her son at once with rapture, and, as usual, began to talk of his engagement. For the first time a tremor of doubt ran through her son; his mother's view of it grated on him like the sight of a blue-pink dress; it was too rosy. Her splendid optimism, damped him; it had too little traffic with the reasoning powers.

"What right," he asked himself, "has she to be so certain? It seems to me a kind of blasphemy."

"The dear!" she cooed. "And she is coming back to-morrow? Hurrah! how I long to see her!"

"But you know, mother, we've agreed not to meet again until July."

Mrs. Shelton rocked her foot, and, holding her head on one side like a little bird, looked at her son with shining eyes.

"Dear old Dick!" she said, "how happy you must be!"

Half a century of sympathy with weddings of all sorts--good, bad, indifferent--beamed from her.

"I suppose," said Shelton gloomily, "I ought not to go and see her at the station."

"Cheer up!" replied the mother, and her son felt dreadfully depressed.

That "Cheer-up!"--the panacea which had carried her blind and bright through every evil--was as void of meaning to him as wine without a flavour.

"And how is your sciatica?" he asked.

"Oh, pretty bad," returned his mother; "I expect it's all right, really. Cheer up!" She stretched her little figure, canting her head still more.

"Wonderful woman!" Shelton thought. She had, in fact, like many of her fellow-countrymen, mislaid the darker side of things, and, enjoying the benefits of orthodoxy with an easy conscience, had kept as young in heart as any girl of thirty.

Shelton left her house as doubtful whether he might meet Antonia as when he entered it. He spent a restless afternoon.

The next day--that of her arrival--was a Sunday. He had made Ferrand a promise to go with him to hear a sermon in the slums, and, catching at any diversion which might allay excitement, he fulfilled it. The preacher in question--an amateur, so Ferrand told him--had an original method of distributing the funds that he obtained. To male sheep he gave nothing, to ugly female sheep a very little, to pretty female sheep the rest. Ferrand hazarded an inference, but he was a foreigner. The Englishman preferred to look upon the preacher as guided by a purely abstract love of beauty. His eloquence, at any rate, was unquestionable, and Shelton came out feeling sick.

It was not yet seven o'clock, so, entering an Italian restaurant to kill the half-hour before Antonia's arrival, he ordered a bottle of wine for his companion, a cup of coffee for himself, and, lighting a cigarette, compressed his lips. There was a strange, sweet sinking in his heart. His companion, ignorant of this emotion, drank his wine, crumbled his roll, and blew smoke through his nostrils, glancing caustically at the rows of little tables, the cheap mirrors, the hot, red velvet, the chandeliers. His juicy lips seemed to be murmuring, "Ah! if you only knew of the dirt behind these feathers!" Shelton watched him with disgust. Though his clothes were now so nice, his nails were not quite clean, and his fingertips seemed yellow to the bone. An anaemic waiter in a shirt some four days old, with grease-spots on his garments and a crumpled napkin on his arm, stood leaning an elbow amongst doubtful fruits, and reading an Italian journal. Resting his tired feet in turn, he looked like overwork personified, and when he moved, each limb accused the sordid smartness of the walls. In the far corner sat a lady eating, and, mirrored opposite, her feathered hat, her short, round face, its coat of powder, and dark eyes, gave Shelton a shiver of disgust. His companion's gaze rested long and subtly on her.

"Excuse me, monsieur," he said at length. "I think I know that lady!" And, leaving his host, he crossed the room, bowed, accosted her, and sat down. With Pharisaic delicacy, Shelton refrained from looking. But presently Ferrand came back; the lady rose and left the restaurant; she had been crying. The young foreigner was flushed, his face contorted; he did not touch his wine.

"I was right," he said; "she is the wife of an old friend. I used to know her well."

He was suffering from emotion, but someone less absorbed than Shelton might have noticed a kind of relish in his voice, as though he were savouring life's dishes, and glad to have something new, and spiced with tragic sauce, to set before his patron.

"You can find her story by the hundred in your streets, but nothing hinders these paragons of virtue"--he nodded at the stream of carriages--"from turning up their eyes when they see ladies of her sort pass. She came to London--just three years ago. After a year one of her little boys took fever--the shop was avoided--her husband caught it, and died. There she was, left with two children and everything gone to pay the debts. She tried to get work; no one helped her. There was no money to pay anyone to stay with the children; all the work she could get in the house was not enough to keep them alive. She's not a strong woman. Well, she put the children out to nurse, and went to the streets. The first week was frightful, but now she's used to it--one gets used to anything."

"Can nothing be done?" asked Shelton, startled.

"No," returned his companion. "I know that sort; if they once take to it all's over. They get used to luxury. One does n't part with luxury, after tasting destitution. She tells me she does very nicely; the children are happy; she's able to pay well and see them sometimes. She was a girl of good family, too, who loved her husband, and gave up much for him. What would you have? Three quarters of your virtuous ladies placed in her position would do the same if they had the necessary looks."

It was evident that he felt the shock of this discovery, and Shelton understood that personal acquaintance makes a difference, even in a vagabond.

"This is her beat," said the young foreigner, as they passed the illuminated crescent, where nightly the shadows of hypocrites and women fall; and Shelton went from these comments on Christianity to the station of Charing Cross. There, as he stood waiting in the shadow, his heart was in his mouth; and it struck him as odd that he should have come to this meeting fresh from a vagabond's society.

Presently, amongst the stream of travellers, he saw Antonia. She was close to her mother, who was parleying with a footman; behind them were a maid carrying a bandbox and a porter with the travelling-bags. Antonia's figure, with its throat settled in the collar of her cape, slender, tall, severe, looked impatient and remote amongst the bustle. Her eyes, shadowed by the journey, glanced eagerly about, welcoming all she saw; a wisp of hair was loose above her ear, her cheeks glowed cold and rosy. She caught sight of Shelton, and bending her neck, stag-like, stood looking at him; a brilliant smile parted her lips, and Shelton trembled. Here was the embodiment of all he had desired for weeks. He could not tell what was behind that smile of hers--passionate aching or only some ideal, some chaste and glacial intangibility. It seemed to be shining past him into the gloomy station. There was no trembling and uncertainty, no rage of possession in that brilliant smile; it had the gleam of fixedness, like the smiling of a star. What did it matter? She was there, beautiful as a young day, and smiling at him; and she was his, only divided from him by a space of time. He took a step; her eyes fell at once, her face regained aloofness; he saw her, encircled by mother, footman, maid, and porter, take her seat and drive away. It was over; she had seen him, she had smiled, but alongside his delight lurked another feeling, and, by a bitter freak, not her face came up before him but the face of that lady in the restaurant--short, round, and powdered, with black-circled eyes. What right had we to scorn them? Had they mothers, footmen, porters, maids? He shivered, but this time with physical disgust; the powdered face with dark-fringed eyes had vanished; the fair, remote figure of the railway-station came back again.

He sat long over dinner, drinking, dreaming; he sat long after, smoking, dreaming, and when at length he drove away, wine and dreams fumed in his brain. The dance of lamps, the cream-cheese moon, the rays of clean wet light on his horse's harness, the jingling of the cab bell, the whirring wheels, the night air and the branches--it was all so good! He threw back the hansom doors to feel the touch of the warm breeze. The crowds on the pavement gave him strange delight; they were like shadows, in some great illusion, happy shadows, thronging, wheeling round the single figure of his world.


John Galsworthy

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