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Chapter 27

SUB ROSA


From the interview, which Shelton had the mixed delight of watching, between Ferrand and the Honourable Mrs. Dennant, certain definite results accrued, the chief of which was the permission accorded the young wanderer to occupy the room which had formerly been tenanted by the footman John. Shelton was lost in admiration of Ferrand's manner in this scene.. Its subtle combination of deference and dignity was almost paralysing; paralysing, too, the subterranean smile upon his lips.

"Charmin' young man, Dick," said Mrs. Dennant, when Shelton lingered to say once more that he knew but very little of him; "I shall send a note round to Mrs. Robinson at once. They're rather common, you know--the Robinsons. I think they'll take anyone I recommend."

"I 'm sure they will," said Shelton; "that's why I think you ought to know--"

But Mrs. Dennant's eyes, fervent, hare-like, were fixed on something far away; turning, he saw the rose in a tall vase on a tall and spindly stool. It seemed to nod towards them in the sunshine. Mrs. Dennant dived her nose towards her camera.

"The light's perfect now," she said, in a voice muffled by the cloth. "I feel sure that livin' with decent people will do wonders for him. Of course, he understands that his meals will be served to him apart."

Shelton, doubly anxious, now that his efforts had lodged his client in a place of trust, fell, back on hoping for the best; his instinct told him that, vagabond as Ferrand was, he had a curious self-respect, that would save him from a mean ingratitude.

In fact, as Mrs. Dennant, who was by no means void of common-sense, foresaw, the arrangement worked all right. Ferrand entered on his duties as French tutor to the little Robinsons. In the Dennants' household he kept himself to his own room, which, day and night, he perfumed with tobacco, emerging at noon into the garden, or, if wet, into the study, to teach young Toddles French. After a time it became customary for him to lunch with the house-party, partly through a mistake of Toddles, who seemed to think that it was natural, and partly through John Noble, one of Shelton's friends, who had come to stay, and discovered Ferrand to be a most awfully interesting person he was always, indeed, discovering the most awfully interesting persons. In his grave and toneless voice, brushing his hair from off his brow, he descanted upon Ferrand with enthusiasm, to which was joined a kind of shocked amusement, as who should say, "Of course, I know it's very odd, but really he 's such an awfully interesting person." For John Noble was a politician, belonging to one of those two Peculiar parties, which, thoroughly in earnest, of an honesty above suspicion, and always very busy, are constitutionally averse to anything peculiar for fear of finding they have overstepped the limit of what is practical in politics. As such he inspired confidence, not caring for things unless he saw some immediate benefit to be had from them, having a perfect sense of decency, and a small imagination. He discussed all sorts of things with Ferrand; on one occasion Shelton overheard them arguing on anarchism.

"No Englishman approves of murder," Noble was saying, in the gloomy voice that contrasted with the optimistic cast of his fine head, "but the main principle is right. Equalisation of property is bound to come. I sympathise with then, not with their methods."

"Forgive me," struck in Ferrand; "do you know any anarchists?"

"No," returned Noble; "I certainly do not."

"You say you sympathise with them, but the first time it comes to action--"

"Well?"

"Oh, monsieur! one doesn't make anarchism with the head."

Shelton perceived that he had meant to add, "but with the heart, the lungs, the liver." He drew a deeper meaning from the saying, and seemed to see, curling with the smoke from Ferrand's lips, the words: "What do you, an English gentleman, of excellent position, and all the prejudices of your class, know about us outcasts? If you want to understand us you must be an outcast too; we are not playing at the game."

This talk took place upon the lawn, at the end of one of Toddles's French lessons, and Shelton left John Noble maintaining to the youthful foreigner, with stubborn logic, that he, John Noble, and the anarchists had much, in common. He was returning to the house, when someone called his name from underneath the holm oak. There, sitting Turkish fashion on the grass, a pipe between his teeth, he found a man who had arrived the night before, and impressed him by his friendly taciturnity. His name was Whyddon, and he had just returned from Central Africa; a brown-faced, large-jawed man, with small but good and steady eyes, and strong, spare figure.

"Oh, Mr. Shelton!" he said, "I wondered if you could tell me what tips I ought to give the servants here; after ten years away I 've forgotten all about that sort of thing."

Shelton sat down beside him; unconsciously assuming, too, a cross-legged attitude, which caused him much discomfort.

"I was listening," said his new acquaintance, "to the little chap learning his French. I've forgotten mine. One feels a hopeless duffer knowing no, languages."

"I suppose you speak Arabic?" said Shelton.

"Oh, Arabic, and a dialect or two; they don't count. That tutor has a curious face."

"You think so?" said Shelton, interested. "He's had a curious life."

The traveller spread his hands, palms downwards, on the grass and looked at Shelton with, a smile.

"I should say he was a rolling stone," he said. "It 's odd, I' ve seen white men in Central Africa with a good deal of his look about them.

"Your diagnosis is a good one," answered Shelton.

"I 'm always sorry for those fellows. There's generally some good in them. They are their own enemies. A bad business to be unable to take pride in anything one does!" And there was a look of pity on his face.

"That's exactly it," said Shelton. "I 've often tried to put it into words. Is it incurable?"

"I think so."

"Can you tell me why?"

Whyddon pondered.

"I rather think," he said at last, "it must be because they have too strong a faculty of criticism. You can't teach a man to be proud of his own work; that lies in his blood "; folding his arms across his breast, he heaved a sigh. Under the dark foliage, his eyes on the sunlight, he was the type of all those Englishmen who keep their spirits bright and wear their bodies out in the dark places of hard work. "You can't think," he said, showing his teeth in a smile, "how delightful it is to be at home! You learn to love the old country when you're away from it."

Shelton often thought, afterwards; of this diagnosis of the vagabond, for he was always stumbling on instances of that power of subtle criticism which was the young foreigner's prime claim to be "a most awfully interesting" and perhaps a rather shocking person.

An old school-fellow of Shelton's and his wife were staying in the house, who offered to the eye the picture of a perfect domesticity. Passionless and smiling, it was impossible to imagine they could ever have a difference. Shelton, whose bedroom was next to theirs, could hear them in the mornings talking in exactly the tones they used at lunch, and laughing the same laughs. Their life seemed to accord them perfect satisfaction; they were supplied with their convictions by Society just as, when at home, they were supplied with all the other necessaries of life by some co-operative stores. Their fairly handsome faces, with the fairly kind expressions, quickly and carefully regulated by a sense of compromise, began to worry him so much that when in the same room he would even read to avoid the need of looking at them. And yet they were kind--that is, fairly kind--and clean and quiet in the house, except when they laughed, which was often, and at things which made him want to howl as a dog howls at music.

"Mr. Shelton," Ferrand said one day, "I 'm not an amateur of marriage--never had the chance, as you may well suppose; but, in any case, you have some people in the house who would make me mark time before I went committing it. They seem the ideal young married people--don't quarrel, have perfect health, agree with everybody, go to church, have children--but I should like to hear what is beautiful in their life," and he grimaced. "It seems to me so ugly that I can only gasp. I would much rather they ill-treated each other, just to show they had the corner of a soul between them. If that is marriage, 'Dieu m'en garde!'"

But Shelton did not answer; he was thinking deeply.

The saying of John Noble's, "He's really a most interesting person," grew more and more upon his nerves; it seemed to describe the Dennant attitude towards this stranger within their gates. They treated him with a sort of wonder on the "don't touch" system, like an object in an exhibition. The restoration, however, of, his self-respect proceeded with success. For all the semblance of having grown too big for Shelton's clothes, for all his vividly burnt face, and the quick but guarded play of cynicism on his lips--he did much credit to his patrons. He had subdued his terror of a razor, and looked well in a suit of Shelton's flannels. For, after all, he had only been eight years exiled from middle-class gentility, and he had been a waiter half that time. But Shelton wished him at the devil. Not for his manners' sake--he was never tired of watching how subtly the vagabond adapted his conduct to the conduct of his hosts, while keeping up his critical detachment--but because that critical detachment was a constant spur to his own vision, compelling him to analyse the life into which, he had been born and was about to marry. This process was disturbing; and to find out when it had commenced, he had to go back to his meeting with Ferrand on the journey up from Dover.

There was kindness in a hospitality which opened to so strange a bird; admitting the kindness, Shelton fell to analysing it. To himself, to people of his class, the use of kindness was a luxury, not significant of sacrifice, but productive of a pleasant feeling in the heart, such as massage will setup in the legs. "Everybody's kind," he thought; "the question is, What understanding is there, what real sympathy?" This problem gave him food for thought.

The progress, which Mrs. Dennant not unfrequently remarked upon, in Ferrand's conquest of his strange position, seemed to Shelton but a sign that he was getting what he could out of his sudden visit to green pastures; under the same circumstances, Shelton thought that he himself would do the same. He felt that the young foreigner was making a convenient bow to property, but he had more respect for the sarcastic smile on the lips of Ferrand's heart.

It was not long before the inevitable change came in the spirit of the situation; more and more was Shelton conscious of a quaint uneasiness in the very breathing of the household.

"Curious fellow you've got hold of there, Shelton," Mr. Dennant said to him during a game of croquet; "he 'll never do any good for himself, I'm afraid."

"In one sense I'm afraid not," admitted Shelton.

"Do you know his story? I will bet you sixpence"--and Mr. Dennant paused to swing his mallet with a proper accuracy "that he's been in prison."

"Prison!" ejaculated Shelton.

"I think," said Mr. Dennant, with bent knees carefully measuring his next shot, "that you ought to make inquiries--ah! missed it! Awkward these hoops! One must draw the line somewhere."

"I never could draw," returned Shelton, nettled and uneasy; "but I understand--I 'll give him a hint to go."

"Don't," said Mr. Dennant, moving after his second ball, which Shelton had smitten to the farther end, "be offended, my dear Shelton, and by no means give him a hint; he interests me very much--a very clever, quiet young fellow."

That this was not his private view Shelton inferred by studying Mr. Dennant's manner in the presence of the vagabond. Underlying the well-bred banter of the tranquil voice, the guarded quizzicality of his pale brown face, it could be seen that Algernon Cuffe Dennant, Esq., J.P., accustomed to laugh at other people, suspected that he was being laughed at. What more natural than that he should grope about to see how this could be? A vagrant alien was making himself felt by an English Justice of the Peace--no small tribute, this, to Ferrand's personality. The latter would sit silent through a meal, and yet make his effect. He, the object of their kindness, education, patronage, inspired their fear. There was no longer any doubt; it was not of Ferrand that they were afraid, but of what they did not understand in him; of horrid subtleties meandering in the brain under that straight, wet-looking hair; of something bizarre popping from the curving lips below that thin, lopsided nose.

But to Shelton in this, as in all else, Antonia was what mattered. At first, anxious to show her lover that she trusted him, she seemed never tired of doing things for his young protege, as though she too had set her heart on his salvation; but, watching her eyes when they rested on the vagabond, Shelton was perpetually reminded of her saying on the first day of his visit to Holm Oaks, "I suppose he 's really good--I mean all these things you told me about were only...."

Curiosity never left her glance, nor did that story of his four days' starving leave her mind; a sentimental picturesqueness clung about that incident more valuable by far than this mere human being with whom she had so strangely come in contact. She watched Ferrand, and Shelton watched her. If he had been told that he was watching her, he would have denied it in good faith; but he was bound to watch her, to find out with what eyes she viewed this visitor who embodied all the rebellious under-side of life, all that was absent in herself.

"Dick," she said to him one day, "you never talk to me of Monsieur Ferrand."

"Do you want to talk of him?"

"Don't you think that he's improved?"

"He's fatter."

Antonia looked grave.

"No, but really?"

"I don't know," said Shelton; "I can't judge him."

Antonia turned her face away, and something in her attitude alarmed him.

"He was once a sort of gentleman," she said; "why shouldn't he become one again?"

Sitting on the low wall of the kitchen-garden, her head was framed by golden plums. The sun lay barred behind the foliage of the holm oak, but a little patch filtering through a gap had rested in the plum-tree's heart. It crowned the girl. Her raiment, the dark leaves, the red wall, the golden plums, were woven by the passing glow to a block of pagan colour. And her face above it, chaste, serene, was like the scentless summer evening. A bird amongst the currant bushes kept a little chant vibrating; and all the plum-tree's shape and colour seemed alive.

"Perhaps he does n't want to be a gentleman," said Shelton.

Antonia swung her foot.

"How can he help wanting to?"

"He may have a different philosophy of life."

Antonia was slow to answer.

"I know nothing about philosophies of life," she said at last.

Shelton answered coldly,

"No two people have the same."

With the falling sun-glow the charm passed off the tree. Chilled and harder, yet less deep, it was no more a block of woven colour, warm and impassive, like a southern goddess; it was now a northern tree, with a grey light through its leaves.

"I don't understand you in the least," she said; "everyone wishes to be good."

"And safe?" asked Shelton gently.

Antonia stared.

"Suppose," he said--"I don't pretend to know, I only suppose--what Ferrand really cares for is doing things differently from other people? If you were to load him with a character and give him money on condition that he acted as we all act, do you think he would accept it?"

"Why not?"

"Why are n't cats dogs; or pagans Christians?"

Antonia slid down from the wall.

"You don't seem to think there 's any use in trying," she said, and turned away.

Shelton made a movement as if he would go after her, and then stood still, watching her figure slowly pass, her head outlined above the wall, her hands turned back across her narrow hips. She halted at the bend, looked back, then, with an impatient gesture, disappeared.

Antonia was slipping from him!

A moment's vision from without himself would have shown him that it was he who moved and she who was standing still, like the figure of one watching the passage of a stream with clear, direct, and sullen eyes.


John Galsworthy

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