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Chapter 19

AN INCIDENT


"Eleven o'clock," said Crocker, as they went out of college. "I don't feel sleepy; shall we stroll along the 'High' a bit?"

Shelton assented; he was too busy thinking of his encounter with the dons to heed the soreness of his feet. This, too, was the last day of his travels, for he had not altered his intention of waiting at Oxford till July.

"We call this place the heart of knowledge," he said, passing a great building that presided, white and silent, over darkness; "it seems to me as little that, as Society is the heart of true gentility."

Crocker's answer was a grunt; he was looking at the stars, calculating possibly in how long he could walk to heaven.

"No," proceeded Shelton; "we've too much common-sense up here to strain our minds. We know when it's time to stop. We pile up news of Papias and all the verbs in 'ui' but as for news of life or of oneself! Real seekers after knowledge are a different sort. They fight in the dark--no quarter given. We don't grow that sort up here."

"How jolly the limes smell!" said Crocker.

He had halted opposite a garden, and taken hold of Shelton by a button of his coat. His eyes, like a dog's, stared wistfully. It seemed as though he wished to speak, but feared to give offence.

"They tell you," pursued Shelton, "that we learn to be gentlemen up here. We learn that better through one incident that stirs our hearts than we learn it here in all the time we're up."

"Hum!" muttered Crocker, twisting at the button; "those fellows who seemed the best sorts up here have turned out the best sorts afterwards."

"I hope not," said Shelton gloomily; "I was a snob when I was up here. I believed all I was told, anything that made things pleasant; my 'set' were nothing but--"

Crocker smiled in the darkness; he had been too "cranky" to belong to Shelton's "set."

"You never were much like your 'set,' old chap," he said.

Shelton turned away, sniffing the perfume of the limes. Images were thronging through his mind. The faces of his old friends strangely mixed with those of people he had lately met--the girl in the train, Ferrand, the lady with the short, round, powdered face, the little barber; others, too, and floating, mysterious,--connected with them all, Antonia's face. The scent of the lime-trees drifted at him with its magic sweetness. From the street behind, the footsteps of the passers-by sounded muffled, yet exact, and on the breeze was borne the strain: "For he's a jolly good fellow!"

"For he's a jolly good fellow! For he's a jolly good fe-ellow! And so say all of us!"

"Ah!" he said, "they were good chaps."

"I used to think," said Crocker dreamily, "that some of them had too much side."

And Shelton laughed.

"The thing sickens me," said he, "the whole snobbish, selfish business. The place sickens me, lined with cotton-wool-made so beastly comfortable."

Crocker shook his head.

"It's a splendid old place," he said, his eyes fastening at last on Shelton's boots. "You know, old chap," he stammered, "I think you--you ought to take care!"

"Take care? What of?"

Crocker pressed his arm convulsively.

"Don't be waxy, old boy," he said; "I mean that you seem somehow--to be--to be losing yourself."

"Losing myself! Finding myself, you mean!"

Crocker did not answer; his face was disappointed. Of what exactly was he thinking? In Shelton's heart there was a bitter pleasure in knowing that his friend was uncomfortable on his account, a sort of contempt, a sort of aching. Crocker broke the silence.

"I think I shall do a bit more walking to-night," he said; "I feel very fit. Don't you really mean to come any further with me, Bird?"

And there was anxiety in his voice, as though Shelton were in danger of missing something good. The latter's feet had instantly begun to ache and burn.

"No!"? he said; "you know what I'm staying here for."

Crocker nodded.

"She lives near here. Well, then, I'll say good-bye. I should like to do another ten miles to-night."

"My dear fellow, you're tired and lame."

Crocker chuckled.

"No," he said; "I want to get on. See you in London. Good-bye!" and, gripping Shelton's hand, he turned and limped away.

Shelton called after him: "Don't be an idiot: You 'll only knock yourself up."

But the sole answer was the pale moon of Crocker's face screwed round towards him in the darkness, and the waving of his stick.

Shelton strolled slowly on; leaning over the bridge, he watched the oily gleam of lamps, on the dark water underneath the trees. He felt relieved, yet sorry. His thoughts were random, curious, half mutinous, half sweet. That afternoon five years ago, when he had walked back from the river with Antonia across the Christchurch meadows, was vivid to his mind; the scent of that afternoon had never died away from him-the aroma of his love. Soon she would be his wife--his wife! The faces of the dons sprang up before him. They had wives, perhaps. Fat, lean, satirical, and compromising--what was it that through diversity they had in common? Cultured intolerance! . . . Honour! . . . A queer subject to discuss. Honour! The honour that made a fuss, and claimed its rights! And Shelton smiled. "As if man's honour suffered when he's injured!" And slowly he walked along the echoing, empty street to his room at the Bishop's Head. Next morning he received the following wire:

Thirty miles left eighteen hours heel bad but going strong

CROCKER

He passed a fortnight at the Bishop's Head, waiting for the end of his probation, and the end seemed long in coming. To be so near Antonia, and as far as if he lived upon another planet, was worse than ever. Each day he took a sculling skiff, and pulled down to near Holm Oaks, on the chance of her being on the river; but the house was two miles off, and the chance but slender. She never came. After spending the afternoons like this he would return, pulling hard against the stream, with a queer feeling of relief, dine heartily, and fall a-dreaming over his cigar. Each morning he awoke in an excited mood, devoured his letter if he had one, and sat down to write to her. These letters of his were the most amazing portion of that fortnight. They were remarkable for failing to express any single one of his real thoughts, but they were full of sentiments which were not what he was truly feeling; and when he set himself to analyse, he had such moments of delirium that he was scared, and shocked, and quite unable to write anything. He made the discovery that no two human beings ever tell each other what they really feel, except, perhaps, in situations with which he could not connect Antonia's ice-blue eyes and brilliant smile. All the world was too engaged in planning decency.

Absorbed by longings, he but vaguely realised the turmoil of Commemoration, which had gathered its hundreds for their annual cure of salmon mayonnaise and cheap champagne. In preparation for his visit to Holm Oaks he shaved his beard and had some clothes sent down from London. With them was forwarded a letter from Ferrand, which ran as follows:


IMPERIAL PEACOCK HOTEL, FOLKESTONE,

June 20.

MY DEAR SIR,

Forgive me for not having written to you before, but I have been so bothered that I have felt no taste for writing; when I have the time, I have some curious stories to tell you. Once again I have encountered that demon of misfortune which dogs my footsteps. Being occupied all day and nearly all night upon business which brings me a heap of worries and next to no profit, I have no chance to look after my things. Thieves have entered my room, stolen everything, and left me an empty box. I am once again almost without clothes, and know not where to turn to make that figure necessary for the fulfilment of my duties. You see, I am not lucky. Since coming to your country, the sole piece of fortune I have had was to tumble on a man like you. Excuse me for not writing more at this moment. Hoping that you are in good health, and in affectionately pressing your hand,

I am,

Always your devoted

LOUIS FERRAND.


Upon reading this letter Shelton had once more a sense of being exploited, of which he was ashamed; he sat down immediately and wrote the following reply:


BISHOPS HEAD HOTEL, OXFORD,

June 25.

MY DEAR FERRAND,

I am grieved to hear of your misfortunes. I was much hoping that you had made a better start. I enclose you Post Office Orders for four pounds. Always glad to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

RICHARD SHELTON.


He posted it with the satisfaction that a man feels who nobly shakes off his responsibilities.

Three days before July he met with one of those disturbing incidents which befall no persons who attend quietly to their property and reputation.

The night was unbearably hot, and he had wandered out with his cigar; a woman came sidling up and spoke to him. He perceived her to be one of those made by men into mediums for their pleasure, to feel sympathy with whom was sentimental. Her face was flushed, her whisper hoarse; she had no attractions but the curves of a tawdry figure. Shelton was repelled by her proprietary tone, by her blowzy face, and by the scent of patchouli. Her touch on his arm startled him, sending a shiver through his marrow; he almost leaped aside, and walked the faster. But her breathing as she followed sounded laboured; it suddenly seemed pitiful that a woman should be panting after him like that.

"The least I can do," he thought, "is to speak to her." He stopped, and, with a mixture of hardness and compassion, said, "It 's impossible."

In spite of her smile, he saw by her disappointed eyes that she accepted the impossibility.

"I 'm sorry," he said.

She muttered something. Shelton shook his head.

"I 'm sorry," he said once more. "Good.-night."

The woman bit her lower lip.

"Good-night," she answered dully.

At the corner of the street he turned his head. The woman was hurrying uneasily; a policeman coming from behind had caught her by the arm.

His heart began to beat. "Heavens!" he thought, "what shall I do now?" His first impulse was to walk away, and think no more about it--to act, indeed, like any averagely decent man who did not care to be concerned in such affairs.

He retraced his steps, however, and halted half a dozen paces from their figures.

"Ask the gentleman! He spoke to me," she was saying in her brassy voice, through the emphasis of which Shelton could detect her fear.

"That's all right," returned the policeman, "we know all about that."

"You--police!" cried the woman tearfully; "I 've got to get my living, have n't I, the same as you?"

Shelton hesitated, then, catching the expression in her frightened face, stepped forward. The policeman turned, and at the sight of his pale, heavy jowl, cut by the cheek-strap, and the bullying eyes, he felt both hate and fear, as if brought face to face with all that he despised and loathed, yet strangely dreaded. The cold certainty of law and order upholding the strong, treading underfoot the weak, the smug front of meanness that only the purest spirits may attack, seemed to be facing him. And the odd thing was, this man was only carrying out his duty. Shelton moistened his lips.

"You're not going to charge her?"

"Aren't I?" returned the policeman.

"Look here; constable, you 're making a mistake."

The policeman took out his note-book.

"Oh, I 'm making a mistake? I 'll take your name and address, please; we have to report these things."

"By all means," said Shelton, angrily giving it. "I spoke to her first."

"Perhaps you'll come up to the court tomorrow morning, and repeat that," replied the policeman, with incivility.

Shelton looked at him with all the force at his command.

"You had better be careful, constable," he said; but in the act of uttering these words he thought how pitiable they sounded.

"We 're not to be trifled with," returned the policeman in a threatening voice.

Shelton could think of nothing but to repeat:

"You had better be careful, constable."

"You're a gentleman," replied the policeman. "I'm only a policeman. You've got the riches, I've got the power."

Grasping the woman's arm, he began to move along with her.

Shelton turned, and walked away.

He went to Grinnings' Club, and flung himself down upon a sofa. His feeling was not one of pity for the woman, nor of peculiar anger with the policeman, but rather of dissatisfaction with himself.

"What ought I to have done?" he thought, "the beggar was within his rights."

He stared at the pictures on the wall, and a tide of disgust surged up in him.

"One or other of us," he reflected, "we make these women what they are. And when we've made them, we can't do without them; we don't want to; but we give them no proper homes, so that they're reduced to prowl about the streets, and then we run them in. Ha! that's good--that's excellent! We run them in! And here we sit and carp. But what do we do? Nothing! Our system is the most highly moral known. We get the benefit without soiling even the hem of our phylacteries--the women are the only ones that suffer. And why should n't they--inferior things?"

He lit a cigarette, and ordered the waiter to bring a drink.

"I'll go to the Court," he thought; but suddenly it occurred to him that the case would get into the local papers. The press would never miss so nice a little bit of scandal--"Gentleman v. Policeman!" And he had a vision of Antonia's father, a neighbouring and conscientious magistrate, solemnly reading this. Someone, at all events, was bound to see his name and make a point of mentioning it too good to be missed! And suddenly he saw with horror that to help the woman he would have to assert again that he had spoken to her first. "I must go to the Court!" he kept thinking, as if to assure himself that he was not a coward.

He lay awake half the night worrying over this dilemma.

"But I did n't speak to her first," he told himself; "I shall only be telling a lie, and they 'll make me swear it, too!"

He tried to persuade himself that this was against his principles, but at the bottom of his heart he knew that he would not object to telling such a lie if only guaranteed immune from consequences; it appeared to him, indeed, but obvious humanity.

"But why should I suffer?" he thought; "I've done nothing. It's neither reasonable nor just."

He hated the unhappy woman who was causing him these horrors of uncertainty. Whenever he decided one way or other, the policeman's face, with its tyrannical and muddy eyes, rose before him like a nightmare, and forced him to an opposite conviction. He fell asleep at last with the full determination to go and see what happened.

He woke with a sense of odd disturbance. "I can do no good by going," he thought, remembering, aid lying very still; "they 're certain to believe the policeman; I shall only blacken myself for nothing;" and the combat began again within him, but with far less fury. It was not what other people thought, not even the risk of perjury that mattered (all this he made quite clear)--it was Antonia. It was not fair to her to put himself in such a false position; in fact, not decent.

He breakfasted. In the room were some Americans, and the face of one young girl reminded him a little of Antonia. Fainter and fainter grew the incident; it seemed to have its right proportions.

Two hours later, looking at the clock, he found that it was lunch-time. He had not gone, had not committed perjury; but he wrote to a daily paper, pointing out the danger run by the community from the power which a belief in their infallibility places in the hands of the police--how, since they are the sworn abettors of right and justice, their word is almost necessarily taken to be gospel; how one and all they hang together, from mingled interest and esprit de corps. Was it not, he said, reasonable to suppose that amongst thousands of human beings invested with such opportunities there would be found bullies who would take advantage of them, and rise to distinction in the service upon the helplessness of the unfortunate and the cowardice of people with anything to lose? Those who had in their hands the sacred duties of selecting a practically irresponsible body of men were bound, for the sake of freedom and humanity, to exercise those duties with the utmost care and thoroughness . . . .

However true, none of this helped him to think any better of himself at heart, and he was haunted by the feeling that a stout and honest bit of perjury was worth more than a letter to a daily paper.

He never saw his letter printed, containing, as it did, the germs of an unpalatable truth.

In the afternoon he hired a horse, and galloped on Port Meadow. The strain of his indecision over, he felt like a man recovering from an illness, and he carefully abstained from looking at the local papers. There was that within him, however, which resented the worsting of his chivalry.


John Galsworthy

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