Leila was deep in her new draught of life. When she fell in love it had always been over head and ears, and so far her passion had always burnt itself out before that of her partner. This had been, of course, a great advantage to her. Not that Leila had ever expected her passions to burn themselves out. When she fell in love she had always thought it was for always. This time she was sure it was, surer than she had ever been. Jimmy Fort seemed to her the man she had been looking for all her life. He was not so good-looking as either Farie or Lynch, but beside him these others seemed to her now almost ridiculous. Indeed they did not figure at all, they shrank, they withered, they were husks, together with the others for whom she had known passing weaknesses. There was only one man in the world for her now, and would be for evermore. She did not idealise him either, it was more serious than that; she was thrilled by his voice, and his touch, she dreamed of him, longed for him when he was not with her. She worried, too, for she was perfectly aware that he was not half as fond of her as she was of him. Such a new experience puzzled her, kept her instincts painfully on the alert. It was perhaps just this uncertainty about his affection which made him seem more precious than any of the others. But there was ever the other reason, too-consciousness that Time was after her, and this her last grand passion. She watched him as a mother-cat watches her kitten, without seeming to, of course, for she had much experience. She had begun to have a curious secret jealousy of Noel though why she could not have said. It was perhaps merely incidental to her age, or sprang from that vague resemblance between her and one who outrivalled even what she had been as a girl; or from the occasional allusions Fort made to what he called "that little fairy princess." Something intangible, instinctive, gave her that jealousy. Until the death of her young cousin's lover she had felt safe, for she knew that Jimmy Fort would not hanker after another man's property; had he not proved that in old days, with herself, by running away from her? And she had often regretted having told him of Cyril Morland's death. One day she determined to repair that error. It was at the Zoo, where they often went on Sunday afternoons. They were standing before a creature called the meercat, which reminded them both of old days on the veldt. Without turning her head she said, as if to the little animal: "Do you know that your fairy princess, as you call her, is going to have what is known as a war-baby?"
The sound of his "What!" gave her quite a stab. It was so utterly horrified.
She said stubbornly: "She came and told me all about it. The boy is dead, as you know. Yes, terrible, isn't it?" And she looked at him. His face was almost comic, so wrinkled up with incredulity.
"That lovely child! But it's impossible!"
"The impossible is sometimes true, Jimmy."
"I refuse to believe it."
"I tell you it is so," she said angrily.
"What a ghastly shame!"
"It was her own doing; she said so, herself."
"And her father--the padre! My God!"
Leila was suddenly smitten with a horrible doubt. She had thought it would disgust him, cure him of any little tendency to romanticise that child; and now she perceived that it was rousing in him, instead, a dangerous compassion. She could have bitten her tongue out for having spoken. When he got on the high horse of some championship, he was not to be trusted, she had found that out; was even finding it out bitterly in her own relations with him, constantly aware that half her hold on him, at least, lay in his sense of chivalry, aware that he knew her lurking dread of being flung on the beach, by age. Only ten minutes ago he had uttered a tirade before the cage of a monkey which seemed unhappy. And now she had roused that dangerous side of him in favour of Noel. What an idiot she had been!
"Don't look like that, Jimmy. I'm sorry I told you."
His hand did not answer her pressure in the least, but he muttered:
"Well, I do think that's the limit. What's to be done for her?"
Leila answered softly: "Nothing, I'm afraid. Do you love me?" And she pressed his hand hard.
But Leila thought: 'If I were that meercat he'd have taken more notice of my paw!' Her heart began suddenly to ache, and she walked on to the next cage with head up, and her mouth hard set.
Jimmy Fort walked away from Camelot Mansions that evening in extreme discomfort of mind. Leila had been so queer that he had taken leave immediately after supper. She had refused to talk about Noel; had even seemed angry when he had tried to. How extraordinary some women were! Did they think that a man could hear of a thing like that about such a dainty young creature without being upset! It was the most perfectly damnable news! What on earth would she do--poor little fairy princess! Down had come her house of cards with a vengeance! The whole of her life--the whole of her life! With her bringing-up and her father and all--it seemed inconceivable that she could ever survive it. And Leila had been almost callous about the monstrous business. Women were hard to each other! Bad enough, these things, when it was a simple working girl, but this dainty, sheltered, beautiful child! No, it was altogether too strong--too painful! And following an impulse which he could not resist, he made his way to the old Square. But having reached the house, he nearly went away again. While he stood hesitating with his hand on the bell, a girl and a soldier passed, appearing as if by magic out of the moonlit November mist, blurred and solid shapes embraced, then vanished into it again, leaving the sound of footsteps. Fort jerked the bell. He was shown into what seemed, to one coming out of that mist, to be a brilliant, crowded room, though in truth there were but two lamps and five people in it. They were sitting round the fire, talking, and paused when he came in. When he had shaken hands with Pierson and been introduced to "my daughter Gratian" and a man in khaki "my son-in-law George Laird," to a tall thin-faced, foreign-looking man in a black stock and seemingly no collar, he went up to Noel, who had risen from a chair before the fire. 'No!' he thought, 'I've dreamed it, or Leila has lied!' She was so perfectly the self-possessed, dainty maiden he remembered. Even the feel of her hand was the same-warm and confident; and sinking into a chair, he said: "Please go on, and let me chip in."
"We were quarrelling about the Universe, Captain Fort," said the man in khaki; "delighted to have your help. I was just saying that this particular world has no particular importance, no more than a newspaper-seller would accord to it if it were completely destroyed tomorrow--''Orrible catastrophe, total destruction of the world--six o'clock edition-pyper!' I say that it will become again the nebula out of which it was formed, and by friction with other nebula re-form into a fresh shape and so on ad infinitum--but I can't explain why. My wife wonders if it exists at all except in the human mind--but she can't explain what the human mind is. My father-in-law thinks that it is God's hobby--but he can't explain who or what God is. Nollie is silent. And Monsieur Lavendie hasn't yet told us what he thinks. What do you think, monsieur?" The thin-faced, big-eyed man put up his hand to his high, veined brow as if he had a headache, reddened, and began to speak in French, which Fort followed with difficulty.
"For me the Universe is a limitless artist, monsieur, who from all time and to all time is ever expressing himself in differing forms--always trying to make a masterpiece, and generally failing. For me this world, and all the worlds, are like ourselves, and the flowers and trees--little separate works of art, more or less perfect, whose little lives run their course, and are spilled or powdered back into this Creative Artist, whence issue ever fresh attempts at art. I agree with Monsieur Laird, if I understand him right; but I agree also with Madame Laird, if I understand her. You see, I think mind and matter are one, or perhaps there is no such thing as either mind or matter, only growth and decay and growth again, for ever and ever; but always conscious growth--an artist expressing himself in millions of ever-changing forms; decay and death as we call them, being but rest and sleep, the ebbing of the tide, which must ever come between two rising tides, or the night which comes between two days. But the next day is never the same as the day before, nor the tide as the last tide; so the little shapes of the world and of ourselves, these works of art by the Eternal Artist, are never renewed in the same form, are never twice alike, but always fresh-fresh worlds, fresh individuals, fresh flowers, fresh everything. I do not see anything depressing in that. To me it would be depressing to think that I would go on living after death, or live again in a new body, myself yet not myself. How stale that would be! When I finish a picture it is inconceivable to me that this picture should ever become another picture, or that one can divide the expression from the mind-stuff it has expressed. The Great Artist who is the whole of Everything, is ever in fresh effort to achieve new things. He is as a fountain who throws up new drops, no two ever alike, which fall back into the water, flow into the pipe, and so are thrown up again in fresh-shaped drops. But I cannot explain why there should be this Eternal Energy, ever expressing itself in fresh individual shapes, this Eternal Working Artist, instead of nothing at all--just empty dark for always; except indeed that it must be one thing or the other, either all or nothing; and it happens to be this and not that, the all and not the nothing."
He stopped speaking, and his big eyes, which had fixed themselves on Fort's face, seemed to the latter not to be seeing him at all, but to rest on something beyond. The man in khaki, who had risen and was standing with his hand on his wife's shoulder, said:
"Bravo, monsieur; Jolly well put from the artist's point of view. The idea is pretty, anyway; but is there any need for an idea at all? Things are; and we have just to take them." Fort had the impression of something dark and writhing; the thin black form of his host, who had risen and come close to the fire.
"I cannot admit," he was saying, "the identity of the Creator with the created. God exists outside ourselves. Nor can I admit that there is no defnite purpose and fulfilment. All is shaped to His great ends. I think we are too given to spiritual pride. The world has lost reverence; I regret it, I bitterly regret it."
"I rejoice at it," said the man in khaki. "Now, Captain Fort, your turn to bat!"
Fort, who had been looking at Noel, gave himself a shake, and said: "I think what monsieur calls expression, I call fighting. I suspect the Universe of being simply a long fight, a sum of conquests and defeats. Conquests leading to defeats, defeats to conquests. I want to win while I'm alive, and because I want to win, I want to live on after death. Death is a defeat. I don't want to admit it. While I have that instinct, I don't think I shall really die; when I lose it, I think I shall." He was conscious of Noel's face turning towards him, but had the feeling that she wasn't really listening. "I suspect that what we call spirit is just the fighting instinct; that what we call matter is the mood of lying down. Whether, as Mr. Pierson says, God is outside us, or, as monsieur thinks, we are all part of God, I don't know, I'm sure."
"Ah! There we are!" said the man in khaki. "We all speak after our temperaments, and none of us know. The religions of the world are just the poetic expressions of certain strongly marked temperaments. Monsieur was a poet just now, and his is the only temperament which has never yet been rammed down the world's throat in the form of religion. Go out and proclaim your views from the housetops, monsieur, and see what happens."
The painter shook his head with a smile which seemed to Fort very bright on the surface, and very sad underneath.
"Non, monsieur," he said; "the artist does not wish to impose his temperament. Difference of temperament is the very essence of his joy, and his belief in life. Without difference there would be no life for him. 'Tout casse, tout lasse,' but change goes on for ever: We artists reverence change, monsieur; we reverence the newness of each morning, of each night, of each person, of each expression of energy. Nothing is final for us; we are eager for all and always for more. We are in love, you see, even with-death."
There was a silence; then Fort heard Pierson murmur:
"That is beautiful, monsieur; but oh! how wrong!" "And what do you think, Nollie?" said the man in khaki suddenly. The girl had been sitting very still in her low chair, with her hands crossed in her lap, her eyes on the fire, and the lamplight shining down on her fair hair; she looked up, startled, and her eyes met Fort's.
"I don't know; I wasn't listening." Something moved in him, a kind of burning pity, a rage of protection. He said quickly:
"These are times of action. Philosophy seems to mean nothing nowadays. The one thing is to hate tyranny and cruelty, and protect everything that's weak and lonely. It's all that's left to make life worth living, when all the packs of all the world are out for blood."
Noel was listening now, and he went on fervently: "Why! Even we who started out to fight this Prussian pack, have caught the pack feeling--so that it's hunting all over the country, on every sort of scent. It's a most infectious thing."
"I cannot see that we are being infected, Captain Fort."
"I'm afraid we are, Mr. Pierson. The great majority of people are always inclined to run with the hounds; the pressure's great just now; the pack spirit's in the air."
Pierson shook his head. "No, I cannot see it," he repeated; "it seems to me that we are all more brotherly, and more tolerant."
"Ah! monsieur le cure," Fort heard the painter say very gently, "it is difficult for a good man to see the evil round him. There are those whom the world's march leaves apart, and reality cannot touch. They walk with God, and the bestialities of us animals are fantastic to them. The spirit of the pack, as monsieur says, is in the air. I see all human nature now, running with gaping mouths and red tongues lolling out, their breath and their cries spouting thick before them. On whom they will fall next--one never knows; the innocent with the guilty. Perhaps if you were to see some one dear to you devoured before your eyes, monsieur le cure, you would feel it too; and yet I do not know."
Fort saw Noel turn her face towards her father; her expression at that moment was very strange, searching, half frightened. No! Leila had not lied, and he had not dreamed! That thing was true!
When presently he took his leave, and was out again in the Square, he could see nothing but her face and form before him in the moonlight: its soft outline, fair colouring, slender delicacy, and the brooding of the big grey eyes. He had already crossed New Oxford Street and was some way down towards the Strand, when a voice behind him murmured: "Ah! c'est vous, monsieur!" and the painter loomed up at his elbow.
"Are you going my way?" said Fort. "I go slowly, I'm afraid."
"The slower the better, monsieur. London is so beautiful in the dark. It is the despair of the painter--these moonlit nights. There are moments when one feels that reality does not exist. All is in dreams--like the face of that young lady."
Fort stared sharply round at him. "Oh! She strikes you like that, does she?"
"Ah! What a charming figure! What an atmosphere of the past and future round her! And she will not let me paint her! Well, perhaps only Mathieu Maris." He raised his broad Bohemian hat, and ran his fingers through his hair.
"Yes," said Fort, "she'd make a wonderful picture. I'm not a judge of Art, but I can see that."
The painter smiled, and went on in his rapid French:
"She has youth and age all at once--that is rare. Her father is an interesting man, too; I am trying to paint him; he is very difficult. He sits lost in some kind of vacancy of his own; a man whose soul has gone before him somewhere, like that of his Church, escaped from this age of machines, leaving its body behind--is it not? He is so kind; a saint, I think. The other clergymen I see passing in the street are not at all like him; they look buttoned-up and busy, with faces of men who might be schoolmasters or lawyers, or even soldiers--men of this world. Do you know this, monsieur--it is ironical, but it is true, I think a man cannot be a successful priest unless he is a man of this world. I do not see any with that look of Monsieur Pierson, a little tortured within, and not quite present. He is half an artist, really a lover of music, that man. I am painting him at the piano; when he is playing his face is alive, but even then, so far away. To me, monsieur, he is exactly like a beautiful church which knows it is being deserted. I find him pathetic. Je suis socialiste, but I have always an aesthetic admiration for that old Church, which held its children by simple emotion. The times have changed; it can no longer hold them so; it stands in the dusk, with its spire to a heaven which exists no more, its bells, still beautiful but out of tune with the music of the streets. It is something of that which I wish to get into my picture of Monsieur Pierson; and sapristi! it is difficult!" Fort grunted assent. So far as he could make out the painter's words, it seemed to him a large order.
"To do it, you see," went on the painter, "one should have the proper background--these currents of modern life and modern types, passing him and leaving him untouched. There is no illusion, and no dreaming, in modern life. Look at this street. La, la!"
In the darkened Strand, hundreds of khaki-clad figures and girls were streaming by, and all their voices had a hard, half-jovial vulgarity. The motor-cabs and buses pushed along remorselessly; newspaper-sellers muttered their ceaseless invitations. Again the painter made his gesture of despair: "How am I to get into my picture this modern life, which washes round him as round that church, there, standing in the middle of the street? See how the currents sweep round it, as if to wash it away; yet it stands, seeming not to see them. If I were a phantasist, it would be easy enough: but to be a phantasist is too simple for me--those romantic gentlemen bring what they like from anywhere, to serve their ends. Moi, je suis realiste. And so, monsieur, I have invented an idea. I am painting over his head while he sits there at the piano a picture hanging on the wall--of one of these young town girls who have no mysteriousness at all, no youth; nothing but a cheap knowledge and defiance, and good humour. He is looking up at it, but he does not see it. I will make the face of that girl the face of modern life, and he shall sit staring at it, seeing nothing. What do you think of my idea?"
But Fort had begun to feel something of the revolt which the man of action so soon experiences when he listens to an artist talking.
"It sounds all right," he said abruptly; "all the same, monsieur, all my sympathy is with modern life. Take these young girls, and these Tommies. For all their feather-pated vulgarity and they are damned vulgar, I must say--they're marvellous people; they do take the rough with the smooth; they're all 'doing their bit,' you know, and facing this particularly beastly world. Aesthetically, I daresay, they're deplorable, but can you say that on the whole their philosophy isn't an advance on anything we've had up till now? They worship nothing, it's true; but they keep their ends up marvellously."
The painter, who seemed to feel the wind blowing cold on his ideas, shrugged his shoulders.
"I am not concerned with that, monsieur; I set down what I see; better or worse, I do not know. But look at this!" And he pointed down the darkened and moonlit street. It was all jewelled and enamelled with little spots and splashes of subdued red and green-blue light, and the downward orange glow of the high lamps--like an enchanted dream-street peopled by countless moving shapes, which only came to earth-reality when seen close to. The painter drew his breath in with a hiss.
"Ah!" he said, "what beauty! And they don't see it--not one in a thousand! Pity, isn't it? Beauty is the holy thing!"
Fort, in his turn, shrugged his shoulders. "Every man to his vision!" he said. "My leg's beginning to bother me; I'm afraid I must take a cab. Here's my address; any time you like to come. I'm often in about seven. I can't take you anywhere, I suppose?"
"A thousand thanks, monsieur; but I go north. I loved your words about the pack. I often wake at night and hear the howling of all the packs of the world. Those who are by nature gentle nowadays feel they are strangers in a far land. Good night, monsieur!"
He took off his queer hat, bowed low, and crossed out into the Strand, like one who had come in a dream, and faded out with the waking. Fort hailed a cab, and went home, still seeing Noel's face. There was one, if you liked, waiting to be thrown to the wolves, waiting for the world's pack to begin howling round her--that lovely child; and the first, the loudest of all the pack, perhaps, must be her own father, the lean, dark figure with the gentle face, and the burnt bright eyes. What a ghastly business! His dreams that night were not such as Leila would have approved.
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