THE GOOD CITIZEN
Leaving the theatre, they paused a moment in the hall to don their coats; a stream of people with spotless bosoms eddied round the doors, as if in momentary dread of leaving this hothouse of false morals and emotions for the wet, gusty streets, where human plants thrive and die, human weeds flourish and fade under the fresh, impartial skies. The lights revealed innumerable solemn faces, gleamed innumerably on jewels, on the silk of hats, then passed to whiten a pavement wet with newly-fallen rain, to flare on horses, on the visages of cabmen, and stray, queer objects that do not bear the light.
"Shall we walk?" asked Halidome.
"Has it ever struck you," answered Shelton, "that in a play nowadays there's always a 'Chorus of Scandalmongers' which seems to have acquired the attitude of God?"
Halidome cleared his throat, and there was something portentous in the sound.
"You're so d---d fastidious," was his answer.
"I've a prejudice for keeping the two things separate," went on Shelton. "That ending makes me sick."
"Why?" replied Halidome. "What other end is possible? You don't want a play to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth."
"But this does."
Halidome increased his stride, already much too long; for in his walk, as in all other phases of his life, he found it necessary to be in front.
"How do you mean?" he asked urbanely; "it's better than the woman making a fool of herself."
"I'm thinking of the man."
"What 's the matter with him? He was a bit of a bounder, certainly."
"I can't understand any man wanting to live with a woman who doesn't want him."
Some note of battle in Shelton's voice, rather than the sentiment itself, caused his friend to reply with dignity:
"There's a lot of nonsense talked about that sort of thing. Women don't really care; it's only what's put into their heads."
"That's much the same as saying to a starving man: 'You don't really want anything; it's only what's put into your head!' You are begging the question, my friend."
But nothing was more calculated to annoy Halidome than to tell him he was "begging the question," for he prided himself on being strong in logic.
"That be d---d," he said.
"Not at all, old chap. Here is a case where a woman wants her freedom, and you merely answer that she dogs n't want it."
"Women like that are impossible; better leave them out of court."
Shelton pondered this and smiled; he had recollected an acquaintance of his own, who, when his wife had left him, invented the theory that she was mad, and this struck him now as funny. But then he thought: "Poor devil! he was bound to call her mad! If he didn't, it would be confessing himself distasteful; however true, you can't expect a man to consider himself that." But a glance at his friend's eye warned him that he, too, might think his wife mad in such a case.
"Surely," he said, "even if she's his wife, a man's bound to behave like a gentleman."
"Depends on whether she behaves like a lady."
"Does it? I don't see the connection."
Halidome paused in the act of turning the latch-key in his door; there was a rather angry smile in his fine eyes.
"My dear chap," he said, "you're too sentimental altogether."
The word "sentimental" nettled Shelton. "A gentleman either is a gentleman or he is n't; what has it to do with the way other people behave?"
Halidome turned the key in the lock and opened the door into his hall, where the firelight fell on the decanters and huge chairs drawn towards the blaze.
"No, Bird," he said, resuming his urbanity, and gathering his coat-tails in his hands; "it's all very well to talk, but wait until you're married. A man must be master, and show it, too."
An idea occurred to Shelton.
"Look here, Hal," he said: "what should you do if your wife got tired of you?"
The expression on Halidome's face was a mixture of amusement and contempt.
"I don't mean anything personal, of course, but apply the situation to yourself."
Halidome took out a toothpick, used it brusquely, and responded:
"I shouldn't stand any humbug--take her travelling; shake her mind up. She'd soon come round."
"But suppose she really loathed you?"
Halidome cleared his throat; the idea was so obviously indecent. How could anybody loathe him? With great composure, however, regarding Shelton as if he were a forward but amusing child, he answered:
"There are a great many things to be taken into consideration."
"It appears to me," said Shelton, "to be a question of common pride. How can you, ask anything of a woman who doesn't want to give it."
His friend's voice became judicial.
"A man ought not to suffer," he said, poring over his whisky, "because a woman gets hysteria. You have to think of Society, your children, house, money arrangements, a thousand things. It's all very well to talk. How do you like this whisky?"
"The part of the good citizen, in fact," said Shelton, "self-preservation!"
"Common-sense," returned his friend; "I believe in justice before sentiment." He drank, and callously blew smoke at Shelton. "Besides, there are many people with religious views about it."
"It's always seemed to me," said Shelton, "to be quaint that people should assert that marriage gives them the right to 'an eye for an eye,' and call themselves Christians. Did you ever know anybody stand on their rights except out of wounded pride or for the sake of their own comfort? Let them call their reasons what they like, you know as well as I do that it's cant."
"I don't know about that," said Halidome, more and more superior as Shelton grew more warm; "when you stand on your rights, you do it for the sake of Society as well as for your own. If you want to do away with marriage, why don't you say so?"
"But I don't," said Shelton, "is it likely? Why, I'm going--" He stopped without adding the words "to be married myself," for it suddenly occurred to him that the reason was not the most lofty and philosophic in the world. "All I can say is," he went on soberly, "that you can't make a horse drink by driving him. Generosity is the surest way of tightening the knot with people who've any sense of decency; as to the rest, the chief thing is to prevent their breeding."
"You're a rum chap," he said.
Shelton jerked his cigarette into the fire.
"I tell you what"--for late at night a certain power of vision came to him--"it's humbug to talk of doing things for the sake of Society; it's nothing but the instinct to keep our own heads above the water."
But Halidome remained unruffled.
"All right," he said, "call it that. I don't see why I should go to the wall; it wouldn't do any good."
"You admit, then," said Shelton, "that our morality is the sum total of everybody's private instinct of self-preservation?"
Halidome stretched his splendid frame and yawned.
"I don't know," he began, "that I should quite call it that--"
But the compelling complacency of his fine eyes, the dignified posture of his healthy body, the lofty slope of his narrow forehead, the perfectly humane look of his cultivated brutality, struck Shelton as ridiculous.
"Hang it, Hall" he cried, jumping from his chair, "what an old fraud you are! I'll be off."
"No, look here!" said Halidome; the faintest shade of doubt had appeared upon his face; he took Shelton by a lapel: "You're quite wrong--"
"Very likely; good-night, old chap!"
Shelton walked home, letting the spring wind into him. It was Saturday, and he passed many silent couples. In every little patch of shadow he could see two forms standing or sitting close together, and in their presence Words the Impostors seemed to hold their tongues. The wind rustled the buds; the stars, one moment bright as diamonds, vanished the next. In the lower streets a large part of the world was under the influence of drink, but by this Shelton was far from being troubled. It seemed better than Drama, than dressing-bagged men, unruffled women, and padded points of view, better than the immaculate solidity of his friend's possessions.
"So," he reflected, "it's right for every reason, social, religious, and convenient, to inflict one's society where it's not desired. There are obviously advantages about the married state; charming to feel respectable while you're acting in a way that in any other walk of life would bring on you contempt. If old Halidome showed that he was tired of me, and I continued to visit him, he'd think me a bit of a cad; but if his wife were to tell him she couldn't stand him, he'd still consider himself a perfect gentleman if he persisted in giving her the burden of his society; and he has the cheek to bring religion into it--a religion that says, 'Do unto others!'"
But in this he was unjust to Halidome, forgetting how impossible it was for him to believe that a woman could not stand him. He reached his rooms, and, the more freely to enjoy the clear lamplight, the soft, gusty breeze, and waning turmoil of the streets, waited a moment before entering.
"I wonder," thought he, "if I shall turn out a cad when I marry, like that chap in the play. It's natural. We all want our money's worth, our pound of flesh! Pity we use such fine words--'Society, Religion, Morality.' Humbug!"
He went in, and, throwing his window open, remained there a long time, his figure outlined against the lighted room for the benefit of the dark square below, his hands in his pockets, his head down, a reflective frown about his eyes. A half-intoxicated old ruffian, a policeman, and a man in a straw hat had stopped below, and were holding a palaver.
"Yus," the old ruffian said, "I'm a rackety old blank; but what I say is, if we wus all alike, this would n't be a world!"
They went their way, and before the listener's eyes there rose Antonia's face, with its unruffled brow; Halidome's, all health and dignity; the forehead of the goggle-eyed man, with its line of hair parted in the centre, and brushed across. A light seemed to illumine the plane of their existence, as the electric lamp with the green shade had illumined the pages of the Matthew Arnold; serene before Shelton's vision lay that Elysium, untouched by passion or extremes of any kind, autocratic; complacent, possessive, and well-kept as any Midland landscape. Healthy, wealthy, wise! No room but for perfection, self-preservation, the survival of the fittest! "The part of the good citizen," he thought: "no, if we were all alike, this would n't be a world!"
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