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Chapter 32

WILDERNESS


When he had read this note, Shelton put it down beside his sleeve-links on his dressing table, stared in the mirror at himself, and laughed. But his lips soon stopped him laughing; he threw himself upon his bed and pressed his face into the pillows. He lay there half-dressed throughout the night, and when he rose, soon after dawn, he had not made his mind up what to do. The only thing he knew for certain was that he must not meet Antonia.

At last he penned the following:

I have had a sleepless night with toothache, and think it best to run up to the dentist at once. If a tooth must come out, the sooner the better.

He addressed it to Mrs. Dennant, and left it on his table. After doing this he threw himself once more upon his bed, and this time fell into a doze.

He woke with a start, dressed, and let himself quietly out. The likeness of his going to that of Ferrand struck him. "Both outcasts now," he thought.

He tramped on till noon without knowing or caring where he went; then, entering a field, threw himself down under the hedge, and fell asleep.

He was awakened by a whirr. A covey of partridges, with wings glistening in the sun, were straggling out across the adjoining field of mustard. They soon settled in the old-maidish way of partridges, and began to call upon each other.

Some cattle had approached him in his sleep, and a beautiful bay cow, with her head turned sideways, was snuffing at him gently, exhaling her peculiar sweetness. She was as fine in legs and coat as any race-horse. She dribbled at the corners of her black, moist lips; her eye was soft and cynical. Breathing the vague sweetness of the mustard-field, rubbing dry grasp-stalks in his fingers, Shelton had a moment's happiness--the happiness of sun and sky, of the eternal quiet, and untold movements of the fields. Why could not human beings let their troubles be as this cow left the flies that clung about her eyes? He dozed again, and woke up with a laugh, for this was what he dreamed:

He fancied he was in a room, at once the hall and drawing-room of some country house. In the centre of this room a lady stood, who was looking in a hand-glass at her face. Beyond a door or window could be seen a garden with a row of statues, and through this door people passed without apparent object.

Suddenly Shelton saw his mother advancing to the lady with the hand-glass, whom now he recognised as Mrs. Foliot. But, as he looked, his mother changed to Mrs. Dennant, and began speaking in a voice that was a sort of abstract of refinement. "Je fais de la philosophic," it said; "I take the individual for what she's worth. I do not condemn; above all, one must have spirit!" The lady with the mirror continued looking in the glass; and, though he could not see her face, he could see its image-pale, with greenish eyes, and a smile like scorn itself. Then, by a swift transition, he was walking in the garden talking to Mrs. Dennant.

It was from this talk that he awoke with laughter. "But," she had been saying, "Dick, I've always been accustomed to believe what I was told. It was so unkind of her to scorn me just because I happen to be second-hand." And her voice awakened Shelton's pity; it was like a frightened child's. "I don't know what I shall do if I have to form opinions for myself. I was n't brought up to it. I 've always had them nice and secondhand. How am I to go to work? One must believe what other people do; not that I think much of other people, but, you do know what it is--one feels so much more comfortable," and her skirts rustled. "But, Dick, whatever happens"--her voice entreated--"do let Antonia get her judgments secondhand. Never mind for me--if I must form opinions for myself, I must--but don't let her; any old opinions so long as they are old. It 's dreadful to have to think out new ones for oneself." And he awoke. His dream had had in it the element called Art, for, in its gross absurdity, Mrs. Dennant had said things that showed her soul more fully than anything she would have said in life.

"No," said a voice quite close, behind the hedge, "not many Frenchmen, thank the Lord! A few coveys of Hungarians over from the Duke's. Sir James, some pie?"

Shelton raised himself with drowsy curiosity--still half asleep--and applied his face to a gap in the high, thick osiers of the hedge. Four men were seated on camp-stools round a folding-table, on which was a pie and other things to eat. A game-cart, well-adorned with birds and hares, stood at a short distance; the tails of some dogs were seen moving humbly, and a valet opening bottles. Shelton had forgotten that it was "the first." The host was a soldierly and freckled man; an older man sat next him, square-jawed, with an absent-looking eye and sharpened nose; next him, again, there was a bearded person whom they seemed to call the Commodore; in the fourth, to his alarm, Shelton recognised the gentleman called Mabbey. It was really no matter for surprise to meet him miles from his own place, for he was one of those who wander with a valet and two guns from the twelfth of August to the end of January, and are then supposed to go to Monte Carlo or to sleep until the twelfth of August comes again.

He was speaking.

"Did you hear what a bag we made on the twelfth, Sir James?"

"Ah! yes; what was that? Have you sold your bay horse, Glennie?"

Shelton had not decided whether or no to sneak away, when the Commodore's thick voice began:

"My man tellsh me that Mrs. Foliot--haw--has lamed her Arab. Does she mean to come out cubbing?"

Shelton observed the smile that came on all their faces. "Foliot 's paying for his good time now; what a donkey to get caught!" it seemed to say. He turned his back and shut his eyes.

"Cubbing?" replied Glennie; "hardly."

"Never could shee anything wonderful in her looks," went on the Commodore; "so quiet, you never knew that she was in the room. I remember sayin' to her once, 'Mrs. Lutheran, now what do you like besht in all the world?' and what do you think she answered? 'Music!' Haw!"

The voice of Mabbey said:

"He was always a dark horse, Foliot: It 's always the dark horses that get let in for this kind of thing"; and there was a sound as though he licked his lips.

"They say," said the voice of the host, "he never gives you back a greeting now. Queer fish; they say that she's devoted to him."

Coming so closely on his meeting with this lady, and on the dream from which he had awakened, this conversation mesmerised the listener behind the hedge.

"If he gives up his huntin' and his shootin', I don't see what the deuce he 'll do; he's resigned his clubs; as to his chance of Parliament--" said the voice of Mabbey.

"Thousand pities," said Sir James; "still, he knew what to expect."

"Very queer fellows, those Foliots," said the Commodore. "There was his father: he 'd always rather talk to any scarecrow he came across than to you or me. Wonder what he'll do with all his horses; I should like that chestnut of his."

"You can't tell what a fellow 'll do," said the voice of Mabbey--"take to drink or writin' books. Old Charlie Wayne came to gazin' at stars, and twice a week he used to go and paddle round in Whitechapel, teachin' pothooks--"

"Glennie," said Sir James, "what 's become of Smollett, your old keeper?"

"Obliged to get rid of him." Shelton tried again to close his ears, but again he listened. "Getting a bit too old; lost me a lot of eggs last season."

"Ah!" said the Commodore, "when they oncesh begin to lose eggsh--"

"As a matter of fact, his son--you remember him, Sir James, he used to load for you?--got a girl into trouble; when her people gave her the chuck old Smollet took her in; beastly scandal it made, too. The girl refused to marry Smollett, and old Smollett backed her up. Naturally, the parson and the village cut up rough; my wife offered to get her into one of those reformatory what-d' you-call-'ems, but the old fellow said she should n't go if she did n't want to. Bad business altogether; put him quite off his stroke. I only got five hundred pheasants last year instead of eight."

There was a silence. Shelton again peeped through the hedge. All were eating pie.

"In Warwickshire," said the Commodore, "they always marry--haw--and live reshpectable ever after."

"Quite so," remarked the host; "it was a bit too thick, her refusing to marry him. She said he took advantage of her."

"She's sorry by this time," said Sir James; "lucky escape for young Smollett. Queer, the obstinacy of some of these old fellows!"

"What are we doing after lunch?" asked the Commodore.

"The next field," said the host, "is pasture. We line up along the hedge, and drive that mustard towards the roots; there ought to be a good few birds."

"Shelton rose, and, crouching, stole softly to the gate:

"On the twelfth, shootin' in two parties," followed the voice of Mabbey from the distance.

Whether from his walk or from his sleepless night, Shelton seemed to ache in every limb; but he continued his tramp along the road. He was no nearer to deciding what to do. It was late in the afternoon when he reached Maidenhead, and, after breaking fast, got into a London train and went to sleep. At ten o'clock that evening he walked into St. James's Park and there sat down.

The lamplight dappled through the tired foliage on to these benches which have rested many vagrants. Darkness has ceased to be the lawful cloak of the unhappy; but Mother Night was soft and moonless, and man had not despoiled her of her comfort, quite.

Shelton was not alone upon the seat, for at the far end was sitting a young girl with a red, round, sullen face; and beyond, and further still, were dim benches and dim figures sitting on them, as though life's institutions had shot them out in an endless line of rubbish.

"Ah!" thought Shelton, in the dreamy way of tired people; "the institutions are all right; it's the spirit that's all--"

"Wrong?" said a voice behind him; "why, of course! You've taken the wrong turn, old man."

He saw a policeman, with a red face shining through the darkness, talking to a strange old figure like some aged and dishevelled bird.

"Thank you, constable," the old man said, "as I've come wrong I'll take a rest." Chewing his gums, he seemed to fear to take the liberty of sitting down.

Shelton made room, and the old fellow took the vacant place.

"You'll excuse me, sir, I'm sure," he said in shaky tones, and snatching at his battered hat; "I see you was a gentleman"--and lovingly he dwelt upon the word--"would n't disturb you for the world. I'm not used to being out at night, and the seats do get so full. Old age must lean on something; you'll excuse me, sir, I 'm sure."

"Of course," said Shelton gently.

"I'm a respectable old man, really," said his neighbour; "I never took a liberty in my life. But at my age, sir, you get nervous; standin' about the streets as I been this last week, an' sleepin' in them doss-houses--Oh, they're dreadful rough places--a dreadful rough lot there! Yes," the old man said again, as Shelton turned to look at him, struck by the real self-pity in his voice, "dreadful rough places!"

A movement of his head, which grew on a lean, plucked neck like that of an old fowl, had brought his face into the light. It was long, and run to seed, and had a large, red nose; its thin, colourless lips were twisted sideways and apart, showing his semi-toothless mouth; and his eyes had that aged look of eyes in which all colour runs into a thin rim round the iris; and over them kept coming films like the films over parrots' eyes. He was, or should have been, clean-shaven. His hair--for he had taken off his hat was thick and lank, of dusty colour, as far as could be seen, without a speck of grey, and parted very beautifully just about the middle.

"I can put up with that," he said again. "I never interferes with nobody, and nobody don't interfere with me; but what frightens me"--his voice grew steady, as if too terrified to shake, "is never knowin' day to day what 's to become of yer. Oh, that 'a dreadful, that is!"

"It must be," answered Shelton.

"Ah! it is," the old man said; "and the winter cumin' on. I never was much used to open air, bein' in domestic service all my life; but I don't mind that so long as I can see my way to earn a livin'. Well, thank God! I've got a job at last"; and his voice grew cheerful suddenly. "Sellin' papers is not what I been accustomed to; but the Westminister, they tell me that's one of the most respectable of the evenin' papers--in fact, I know it is. So now I'm sure to get on; I try hard."

"How did you get the job?" asked Shelton.

"I 've got my character," the old fellow said, making a gesture with a skinny hand towards his chest, as if it were there he kept his character.

"Thank God, nobody can't take that away! I never parts from that"; and fumbling, he produced a packet, holding first one paper to the light, and then another, and he looked anxiously at Shelton. "In that house where I been sleepin' they're not honest; they 've stolen a parcel of my things--a lovely shirt an' a pair of beautiful gloves a gentleman gave me for holdin' of his horse. Now, would n't you prosecute 'em, sir?"

"It depends on what you can prove."

"I know they had 'em. A man must stand up for his rights; that's only proper. I can't afford to lose beautiful things like them. I think I ought to prosecute, now, don't you, sir?"

Shelton restrained a smile.

"There!" said the old man, smoothing out a piece of paper shakily, "that's Sir George!" and his withered finger-tips trembled on the middle of the page: 'Joshua Creed, in my service five years as butler, during which time I have found him all that a servant should be.' And this 'ere'--he fumbled with another--"this 'ere 's Lady Glengow: 'Joshua Creed--' I thought I'd like you to read 'em since you've been so kind."

"Will you have a pipe?"

"Thank ye, sir," replied the aged butler, filling his clay from Shelton's pouch; then, taking a front tooth between his finger and his thumb, he began to feel it tenderly, working it to and fro with a sort of melancholy pride.

"My teeth's a-comin' out," he said; "but I enjoys pretty good health for a man of my age."

"How old is that?"

"Seventy-two! Barrin' my cough, and my rupture, and this 'ere affliction"--he passed his hand over his face--"I 've nothing to complain of; everybody has somethink, it seems. I'm a wonder for my age, I think."

Shelton, for all his pity, would have given much to laugh.

"Seventy-two!" he said; "yes, a great age. You remember the country when it was very different to what it is now?"

"Ah!" said the old butler, "there was gentry then; I remember them drivin' down to Newmarket (my native place, sir) with their own horses. There was n't so much o' these here middle classes then. There was more, too, what you might call the milk o' human kindness in people then--none o' them amalgamated stores, every man keepin' his own little shop; not so eager to cut his neighbour's throat, as you might say. And then look at the price of bread! O dear! why, it is n't a quarter what it was!"

"And are people happier now than they were then?" asked Shelton.

The old butler sucked his pipe.

"No," he answered, shaking his old head; "they've lost the contented spirit. I see people runnin' here and runnin' there, readin' books, findin' things out; they ain't not so self-contented as they were."

"Is that possible?" thought Shelton.

"No," repeated the old man, again sucking at his pipe, and this time blowing out a lot of smoke; "I don't see as much happiness about, not the same look on the faces. 'T isn't likely. See these 'ere motorcars, too; they say 'orses is goin' out"; and, as if dumbfounded at his own conclusion, he sat silent for some time, engaged in the lighting and relighting of his pipe.

The girl at the far end stirred, cleared her throat, and settled down again; her movement disengaged a scent of frowsy clothes. The policeman had approached and scrutinised these ill-assorted faces; his glance was jovially contemptuous till he noticed Shelton, and then was modified by curiosity.

"There's good men in the police," the aged butler said, when the policeman had passed on--"there's good men in the police, as good men as you can see, and there 's them that treats you like the dirt--a dreadful low class of man. Oh dear, yes! when they see you down in the world, they think they can speak to you as they like; I don't give them no chance to worry me; I keeps myself to myself, and speak civil to all the world. You have to hold the candle to them; for, oh dear! if they 're crossed--some of them--they 're a dreadful unscrup'lous lot of men!"

"Are you going to spend the night here?"

"It's nice and warm to-night," replied the aged butler. "I said to the man at that low place I said: 'Don't you ever speak to me again,' I said, 'don't you come near me!' Straightforward and honest 's been my motto all my life; I don't want to have nothing to say to them low fellows"--he made an annihilating gesture--"after the way they treated me, takin' my things like that. Tomorrow I shall get a room for three shillin's a week, don't you think so, sir? Well, then I shall be all right. I 'm not afraid now; the mind at rest. So long as I ran keep myself, that's all I want. I shall do first-rate, I think"; and he stared at Shelton, but the look in his eyes and the half-scared optimism of his voice convinced the latter that he lived in dread. "So long as I can keep myself," he said again, "I sha'n't need no workhouse nor lose respectability."

"No," thought Shelton; and for some time sat without a word. "When you can;" he said at last, "come and see me; here's my card."

The aged butler became conscious with a jerk, for he was nodding.

"Thank ye, sir; I will," he said, with pitiful alacrity. "Down by Belgravia? Oh, I know it well; I lived down in them parts with a gentleman of the name of Bateson--perhaps you knew him; he 's dead now--the Honourable Bateson. Thank ye, sir; I'll be sure to come"; and, snatching at his battered hat, he toilsomely secreted Shelton's card amongst his character. A minute later he began again to nod.

The policeman passed a second time; his gaze seemed to say, "Now, what's a toff doing on that seat with those two rotters?" And Shelton caught his eye.

"Ah!" he thought; "exactly! You don't know what to make of me--a man of my position sitting here! Poor devil! to spend your days in spying on your fellow-creatures! Poor devil! But you don't know that you 're a poor devil, and so you 're not one."

The man on the next bench sneezed--a shrill and disapproving sneeze.

The policeman passed again, and, seeing that the lower creatures were both dozing, he spoke to Shelton:

"Not very safe on these 'ere benches, sir," he said; "you never know who you may be sittin' next to. If I were you, sir, I should be gettin' on--if you 're not goin' to spend the night here, that is"; and he laughed, as at an admirable joke.

Shelton looked at him, and itched to say, "Why shouldn't I?" but it struck him that it would sound very odd. "Besides," he thought, "I shall only catch a cold"; and, without speaking, he left the seat, and went along towards his rooms.


John Galsworthy

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