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Chapter 13

AN "AT HOME"


On Tuesday morning he wandered off to Paddington, hoping for a chance view of her on her way down to Holm Oaks; but the sense of the ridiculous, on which he had been nurtured, was strong enough to keep him from actually entering the station and lurking about until she came. With a pang of disappointment he retraced his steps from Praed Street to the Park, and once there tried no further to waylay her. He paid a round of calls in the afternoon, mostly on her relations; and, seeking out Aunt Charlotte, he dolorously related his encounter in the Row. But she found it "rather nice," and on his pressing her with his views, she murmured that it was "quite romantic, don't you know."

"Still, it's very hard," said Shelton; and he went away disconsolate.

As he was dressing for dinner his eye fell on a card announcing the "at home" of one of his own cousins. Her husband was a composer, and he had a vague idea that he would find at the house of a composer some quite unusually free kind of atmosphere. After dining at the club, therefore, he set out for Chelsea. The party was held in a large room on the ground-floor, which was already crowded with people when Shelton entered. They stood or sat about in groups with smiles fixed on their lips, and the light from balloon-like lamps fell in patches on their heads and hands and shoulders. Someone had just finished rendering on the piano a composition of his own. An expert could at once have picked out from amongst the applauding company those who were musicians by profession, for their eyes sparkled, and a certain acidity pervaded their enthusiasm. This freemasonry of professional intolerance flew from one to the other like a breath of unanimity, and the faint shrugging of shoulders was as harmonious as though one of the high windows had been opened suddenly, admitting a draught of chill May air.

Shelton made his way up to his cousin--a fragile, grey-haired woman in black velvet and Venetian lace, whose starry eyes beamed at him, until her duties, after the custom of these social gatherings, obliged her to break off conversation just as it began to interest him. He was passed on to another lady who was already talking to two gentlemen, and, their volubility being greater than his own, he fell into the position of observer. Instead of the profound questions he had somehow expected to hear raised, everybody seemed gossiping, or searching the heart of such topics as where to go this summer, or how to get new servants. Trifling with coffee-cups, they dissected their fellow artists in the same way as his society friends of the other night had dissected the fellow--"smart"; and the varnish on the floor, the pictures, and the piano were reflected on all the faces around. Shelton moved from group to group disconsolate.

A tall, imposing person stood under a Japanese print holding the palm of one hand outspread; his unwieldy trunk and thin legs wobbled in concert to his ingratiating voice.

"War," he was saying, "is not necessary. War is not necessary. I hope I make myself clear. War is not necessary; it depends on nationality, but nationality is not necessary." He inclined his head to one side, "Why do we have nationality? Let us do away with boundaries--let us have the warfare of commerce. If I see France looking at Brighton"--he laid his head upon one side, and beamed at Shelton,--"what do I do? Do I say 'Hands off'? No. 'Take it,' I say--take it!'" He archly smiled. "But do you think they would?"

And the softness of his contours fascinated Shelton.

"The soldier," the person underneath the print resumed, "is necessarily on a lower plane--intellectually--oh, intellectually--than the philanthropist. His sufferings are less acute; he enjoys the compensations of advertisement--you admit that?" he breathed persuasively. "For instance--I am quite impersonal--I suffer; but do I talk about it?" But, someone gazing at his well-filled waistcoat, he put his thesis in another form: "I have one acre and one cow, my brother has one acre and one cow: do I seek to take them away from him?"

Shelton hazarded, "Perhaps you 're weaker than your brother."

"Come, come! Take the case of women: now, I consider our marriage laws are barbarous."

For the first time Shelton conceived respect for them; he made a comprehensive gesture, and edged himself into the conversation of another group, for fear of having all his prejudices overturned. Here an Irish sculptor, standing in a curve, was saying furiously, "Bees are not bhumpkins, d---n their sowls!" A Scotch painter, who listened with a curly smile, seemed trying to compromise this proposition, which appeared to have relation to the middle classes; and though agreeing with the Irishman, Shelton felt nervous over his discharge of electricity. Next to them two American ladies, assembled under the tent of hair belonging to a writer of songs, were discussing the emotions aroused in them by Wagner's operas.

"They produce a strange condition of affairs in me," said the thinner one.

"They 're just divine," said the fatter.

"I don't know if you can call the fleshly lusts divine," replied the thinner, looking into the eyes of the writer of the songs.

Amidst all the hum of voices and the fumes of smoke, a sense of formality was haunting Shelton. Sandwiched between a Dutchman and a Prussian poet, he could understand neither of his neighbours; so, assuming an intelligent expression, he fell to thinking that an assemblage of free spirits is as much bound by the convention of exchanging their ideas as commonplace people are by the convention of having no ideas to traffic in. He could not help wondering whether, in the bulk, they were not just as dependent on each other as the inhabitants of Kensington; whether, like locomotives, they could run at all without these opportunities for blowing off the steam, and what would be left when the steam had all escaped. Somebody ceased playing the violin, and close to him a group began discussing ethics. Aspirations were in the air all round, like a lot of hungry ghosts. He realised that, if tongue be given to them, the flavour vanishes from ideas which haunt the soul.

Again the violinist played.

"Cock gracious!" said the Prussian poet, falling into English as the fiddle ceased: "Colossal! 'Aber, wie er ist grossartig'!"

"Have you read that thing of Besom's?" asked shrill voice behind.

"Oh, my dear fellow! too horrid for words; he ought to be hanged!"

"The man's dreadful," pursued the voice, shriller than ever; "nothing but a volcanic eruption would cure him."

Shelton turned in alarm to look at the authors of these statements. They were two men of letters talking of a third.

"'C'est un grand naif, vous savez,'" said the second speaker.

"These fellows don't exist," resumed the first; his small eyes gleamed with a green light, his whole face had a look as if he gnawed himself. Though not a man of letters, Shelton could not help recognising from those eyes what joy it was to say those words: "These fellows don't exist!"

"Poor Besom! You know what Moulter said . . ."

Shelton turned away, as if he had been too close to one whose hair smelt of cantharides; and, looking round the room, he frowned. With the exception of his cousin, he seemed the only person there of English blood. Americans, Mesopotamians, Irish, Italians, Germans, Scotch, and Russians. He was not contemptuous of them for being foreigners; it was simply that God and the climate had made him different by a skin or so.

But at this point his conclusions were denied (as will sometimes happen) by his introduction to an Englishman--a Major Somebody, who, with smooth hair and blond moustache, neat eyes and neater clothes, seemed a little anxious at his own presence there. Shelton took a liking to him, partly from a fellow-feeling, and partly because of the gentle smile with which he was looking at his wife. Almost before he had said "How do you do?" he was plunged into a discussion on imperialism.

"Admitting all that," said Shelton, "what I hate is the humbug with which we pride ourselves on benefiting the whole world by our so-called civilising methods."

The soldier turned his reasonable eyes.

"But is it humbug?"

Shelton saw his argument in peril. If we really thought it, was it humbug? He replied, however:

"Why should we, a small portion of the world's population, assume that our standards are the proper ones for every kind of race? If it 's not humbug, it 's sheer stupidity."

The soldier, without taking his hands out of his pockets, but by a forward movement of his face showing that he was both sincere and just, re-replied:

"Well, it must be a good sort of stupidity; it makes us the nation that we are."

Shelton felt dazed. The conversation buzzed around him; he heard the smiling prophet saying, "Altruism, altruism," and in his voice a something seemed to murmur, "Oh, I do so hope I make a good impression!"

He looked at the soldier's clear-cut head with its well-opened eyes, the tiny crow's-feet at their corners, the conventional moustache; he envied the certainty of the convictions lying under that well-parted hair.

"I would rather we were men first and then Englishmen," he muttered; "I think it's all a sort of national illusion, and I can't stand illusions."

"If you come to that," said the soldier, "the world lives by illusions. I mean, if you look at history, you'll see that the creation of illusions has always been her business, don't you know."

This Shelton was unable to deny.

"So," continued the soldier (who was evidently a highly cultivated man), "if you admit that movement, labour, progress, and all that have been properly given to building up these illusions, that--er--in fact, they're what you might call--er--the outcome of the world's crescendo," he rushed his voice over this phrase as if ashamed of it--"why do you want to destroy them?"

Shelton thought a moment, then, squeezing his body with his folded arms, replied:

"The past has made us what we are, of course, and cannot be destroyed; but how about the future? It 's surely time to let in air. Cathedrals are very fine, and everybody likes the smell of incense; but when they 've been for centuries without ventilation you know what the atmosphere gets like."

The soldier smiled.

"By your own admission," he said, "you'll only be creating a fresh set of illusions."

"Yes," answered Shelton, "but at all events they'll be the honest necessities of the present."

The pupils of the soldier's eyes contracted; he evidently felt the conversation slipping into generalities; he answered:

"I can't see how thinking small beer of ourselves is going to do us any good!"

An "At Home!"

Shelton felt in danger of being thought unpractical in giving vent to the remark:

"One must trust one's reason; I never can persuade myself that I believe in what I don't."

A minute later, with a cordial handshake, the soldier left, and Shelton watched his courteous figure shepherding his wife away.

"Dick, may I introduce you to Mr. Wilfrid Curly?" said his cousin's voice behind, and he found his hand being diffidently shaken by a fresh-cheeked youth with a dome-like forehead, who was saying nervously:

"How do you do? Yes, I am very well, thank you!"

He now remembered that when he had first come in he had watched this youth, who had been standing in a corner indulging himself in private smiles. He had an uncommon look, as though he were in love with life--as though he regarded it as a creature to whom one could put questions to the very end--interesting, humorous, earnest questions. He looked diffident, and amiable, and independent, and he, too, was evidently English.

"Are you good at argument?" said Shelton, at a loss for a remark.

The youth smiled, blushed, and, putting back his hair, replied:

"Yes--no--I don't know; I think my brain does n't work fast enough for argument. You know how many motions of the brain-cells go to each remark. It 's awfully interesting"; and, bending from the waist in a mathematical position, he extended the palm of one hand, and started to explain.

Shelton stared at the youth's hand, at his frowns and the taps he gave his forehead while he found the expression of his meaning; he was intensely interested. The youth broke off, looked at his watch, and, blushing brightly, said:

"I 'm afraid I have to go; I have to be at the 'Den' before eleven."

"I must be off, too," said Shelton. Making their adieux together, they sought their hats and coats.


John Galsworthy

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