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The tension between James and his parents became not less, but greater. That barrier which, almost from the beginning, they had watched with pain rise up between them now seemed indestructible, and all their efforts only made it more obvious and more stable. It was like some tropical plant which, for being cut down, grew ever with greater luxuriance. And there was a mischievous devil present at all their conversations that made them misunderstand one another as completely as though they spoke in different tongues. Notwithstanding their love, they were like strangers together; they could look at nothing from the same point of view.
The Parsons had lived their whole lives in an artificial state. Ill-educated as most of their contemporaries in that particular class, they had just enough knowledge to render them dogmatic and intolerant. It requires a good deal of information to discover one's own ignorance, but to the consciousness of this the good people had never arrived. They felt they knew as much as necessary, and naturally on the most debatable questions were most assured. Their standpoint was inconceivably narrow. They had the best intentions in the world of doing their duty, but what their duty was they accepted on trust, frivolously. They walked round and round in a narrow circle, hemmed in by false ideals and by ugly prejudices, putting for the love of God unnecessary obstacles in their path and convinced that theirs was the only possible way, while all others led to damnation. They had never worked out an idea for themselves, never done a single deed on their own account, but invariably acted and thought according to the rule of their caste. They were not living creatures, but dogmatic machines.
James, going into the world, quickly realised that he had been brought up to a state of things which did not exist. He was like a sailor who has put out to sea in an ornamental boat, and finds that his sail is useless, the ropes not made to work, and the rudder immovable. The long, buoyant wind of the world blew away like thistle-down the conventions which had seemed so secure a foundation. But he discovered in himself a wonderful curiosity, an eagerness for adventure which led him boldly to affront every peril; and the unknown lands of the intellect are every bit as dangerously fascinating as are those of sober fact. He read omnivorously, saw many and varied things; the universe was spread out before him like an enthralling play. Knowledge is like the root of a tree, attaching man by its tendrils to the life about him. James found in existence new beauties, new interests, new complexities; and he gained a lighter heart and, above all, an exquisite sense of freedom. At length he looked back with something like horror at that old life in which the fetters of ignorance had weighed so terribly upon him.
On his return to Little Primpton, he found his people as he had left them, doing the same things, repeating at every well-known juncture the same trite observations. Their ingenuousness affected him as a negro, civilised and educated, on visiting after many years his native tribe, might be affected by their nose-rings and yellow ochre. James was astounded that they should ignore matters which he fancied common knowledge, and at the same time accept beliefs that he had thought completely dead. He was willing enough to shrug his shoulders and humour their prejudices, but they had made of them a rule of life which governed every action with an iron tyranny. It was in accordance with all these outworn conventions that they conducted the daily round. And presently James found that his father and mother were striving to draw him back into the prison. Unconsciously, even with the greatest tenderness, they sought to place upon his neck again that irksome yoke which he had so difficultly thrown off.
If James had learnt anything, it was at all hazards to think for himself, accepting nothing on authority, questioning, doubting; it was to look upon life with a critical eye, trying to understand it, and to receive no ready-made explanations. Above all, he had learnt that every question has two sides. Now this was precisely what Colonel Parsons and his wife could never acknowledge; for them one view was certainly right, and the other as certainly wrong. There was no middle way. To doubt what they believed could only be ascribed to arrant folly or to wickedness. Sometimes James was thrown into a blind rage by the complacency with which from the depths of his nescience his father dogmatised. No man could have been more unassuming than he, and yet on just the points which were most uncertain his attitude was almost inconceivably arrogant.
And James was horrified at the pettiness and the prejudice which he found in his home. Reading no books, for they thought it waste of time to read, the minds of his father and mother had sunk into such a narrow sluggishness that they could interest themselves only in trivialities. Their thoughts were occupied by their neighbours and the humdrum details of the life about them. Flattering themselves on their ideals and their high principles, they vegetated in stupid sloth and in a less than animal vacuity. Every topic of conversation above the most commonplace they found dull or incomprehensible. James learned that he had to talk to them almost as if they were children, and the tedium of those endless days was intolerable.
Occasionally he was exasperated that he could not avoid the discussions which his father, with a weak man's obstinacy, forced upon him. Some unhappy, baneful power seemed to drive Colonel Parsons to widen the rift, the existence of which caused him such exquisite pain; his natural kindliness was obscured by an uncontrollable irritation. One day he was reading the paper.
"I see we've had another unfortunate reverse," he said, looking up.
"I suppose you're delighted, Jamie?"
"I'm very sorry. Why should I be otherwise?"
"You always stick up for the enemies of your country." Turning to his brother-in-law, he explained: "James says that if he'd been a Cape Dutchman he'd have fought against us."
"Well, he deserves to be court-martialled for saying so! "cried Major Forsyth.
"I don't think he means to be taken seriously," said his mother.
"Oh, yes, I do." It constantly annoyed James that when he said anything that was not quite an obvious truism, they should think he was speaking merely for effect. "Why, my dear mother, if you'd been a Boer woman you'd have potted at us from behind a haystack with the best of them."
"The Boers are robbers and brigands."
"That's just what they say we are."
"But we're right."
"And they're equally convinced that they are."
"God can't be on both sides, James."
"The odd thing is the certainty with which both sides claim His exclusive protection."
"I should think it wicked to doubt that God is with us in a righteous war," said Mrs. Parsons.
"If the Boers weren't deceived by that old villain Kruger, they'd never have fought us."
"The Boers are strange people," replied James. "They actually prefer their independence to all the privileges and advantages of subjection.... The wonderful thing to me is that people should really think Mr. Kruger a hypocrite. A ruler who didn't honestly believe in himself and in his mission would never have had such influence. If a man wants power he must have self-faith; but then he may be narrow, intolerant, and vicious. His fellows will be like wax in his hands."
"If Kruger had been honest, he wouldn't have put up with bribery and corruption."
"The last thing I expect is consistency in an animal of such contrary instincts as man."
"Every true Englishman, I'm thankful to say, thinks him a scoundrel and a blackguard."
"In a hundred years he will probably think him a patriot and a hero. In that time the sentimental view will be the only one of interest; and the sentimental view will put the Transvaal in the same category as Poland."
"You're nothing better than a pro-Boer, James."
"I'm nothing of the kind; but seeing how conflicting was current opinion, I took some trouble to find for myself a justification of the war. I couldn't help wondering why I went and killed people to whom I was personally quite indifferent."
"I hope because it was your duty as an officer of Her Majesty the Queen."
"Not exactly. I came to the conclusion that I killed people because I liked it. The fighting instinct is in my blood, and I'm never so happy as when I'm shooting things. Killing tigers is very good sport, but it's not in it with killing men. That is my justification, so far as I personally am concerned. As a member of society, I wage war for a different reason. War is the natural instinct of all creatures; not only do progress and civilisation arise from it, but it is the very condition of existence. Men, beasts, and plants are all in the same position: unless they fight incessantly they're wiped out; there's no sitting on one side and looking on.... When a state wants a neighbour's land, it has a perfect right to take it--if it can. Success is its justification. We English wanted the Transvaal for our greater numbers, for our trade, for the continuance of our power; that was our right to take it. The only thing that seems to me undignified is the rather pitiful set of excuses we made up."
"If those are your ideas, I think they are utterly ignoble."
"I believe they're scientific."
"D'you think men go to war for scientific reasons?"
"No, of course not; they don't realise them. The great majority are incapable of abstract ideas, but fortunately they're emotional and sentimental; and the pill can be gilded with high falutin. It's for them that the Union Jack and the honour of Old England are dragged through every newspaper and brandished in every music hall. It's for them that all these atrocities are invented--most of them bunkum. Men are only savages with a thin veneer of civilisation, which is rather easily rubbed off, and then they act just like Red Indians; but as a general rule they're well enough behaved. The Boer isn't a bad sort, and the Englishman isn't a bad sort; but there's not room for both of them on the earth, and one of them has to go."
"My father fought for duty and honour's sake, and so fought his father before him."
"Men have always fought really for the same reasons--for self-protection and gain; but perhaps they have not seen quite so clearly as now the truth behind all their big words. The world and mankind haven't altered suddenly in the last few years."
* * * * * * *
Afterwards, when Colonel Parsons and his wife were alone together, and she saw that he was brooding over his son's words, she laid her hand on his shoulder, and said:
"Don't worry, Richmond; it'll come right in the end, if we trust and pray."
"I don't know what to make of him," he returned, sadly shaking his head. "It's not our boy, Frances; he couldn't be callous and unscrupulous, and--dishonourable. God forgive me for saying it!"
"Don't be hard on him, Richmond. I daresay he doesn't mean all he says. And remember that he's been very ill. He's not himself yet."
The Colonel sighed bitterly.
"When we looked forward so anxiously to his return, we didn't know that he would be like this."
James had gone out. He wandered along the silent roads, taking in large breaths of the fresh air, for his home affected him like a hot-house. The atmosphere was close and heavy, so that he could neither think freely nor see things in any reasonable light. He felt sometimes as though a weight were placed upon his head, that pressed him down, and pressed him down till he seemed almost forced to his knees.
He blamed himself for his lack of moderation. Why, remembering ever his father's unhappiness and his infirmities, could he not humour him? He was an old man, weak and frail; it should not have been so difficult to use restraint towards him. James knew he had left them in Primpton House distressed and angry; but the only way to please them was to surrender his whole personality, giving up to their bidding all his thoughts and all his actions. They wished to exercise over him the most intolerable of all tyrannies, the tyranny of love. It was a heavy return they demanded for their affection if he must abandon his freedom, body and soul; he earnestly wished to make them happy, but that was too hard a price to pay. And then, with sudden rage, James asked himself why they should be so self-sufficiently certain that they were right. What an outrageous assumption it was that age must be infallible! Their idea of filial duty was that he should accept their authority, not because they were wise, but because they were old. When he was a child they had insisted on the utmost submission, and now they expected the same submission--to their prejudice, intolerance, and lack of knowledge. They had almost ridiculously that calm, quiet, well-satisfied assurance which a king by right divine might have in the certainty that he could do no wrong.
And James, with bitter, painful scorn, thought of that frightful blunder which had forced Colonel Parsons to leave the service. At first his belief in his father had been such that James could not conceive the possibility even that he had acted wrongly; the mere fact that his father had chosen a certain course was proof of its being right and proper, and the shame lay with his chief, who had used him ill. But when he examined the affair and thought over it, the truth became only too clear; it came to him like a blow, and for a while he was overcome with shame. The fact was evident--alas! only too evident--his father was incapable of command. James was simply astounded; he tried not to hear the cruel words that buzzed in his ears, but he could not help it--imbecility, crass idiocy, madness. It was worse than madness, the folly of it was almost criminal; he thought now that his father had escaped very easily.
James hastened his step, trying to rid himself of the irritating thoughts. He walked along the fat and fertile Kentish fields, by the neat iron railing with which they were enclosed. All about him was visible the care of man. Nothing was left wild. The trees were lopped into proper shape, cut down where their presence seemed inelegant, planted to complete the symmetry of a group. Nature herself was under the power of the formal influence, and flourished with a certain rigidity and decorum. After a while the impression became singularly irksome; it seemed to emphasise man's lack of freedom, reminding one of the iron conventions with which he is inevitably bound. In the sun, the valley, all green and wooded, was pleasantly cool; but when the clouds rolled up from the west heavily, brushing the surrounding hills, the aspect was so circumscribed that James could have cried out as with physical pain. The primness of the scene then was insufferable; the sombre, well-ordered elms, the meadows so carefully kept, seemed the garden of some great voluptuous prison, and the air was close with servitude.
James panted for breath. He thought of the vast distances of South Africa, bush and prairie stretching illimitably, and above, the blue sky, vaster still. There, at least, one could breathe freely, and stretch one's limbs.
"Why did I ever come back?" he cried.
The blood went thrilling through his veins at the mere thought of those days in which every minute had been intensely worth living. Then, indeed, was no restraint or pettiness; then men were hard and firm and strong. By comparison, people in England appeared so pitifully weak, vain, paltry, insignificant. What were the privations and the hardships beside the sense of mastery, the happy adventure, and the carelessness of life?
But the grey clouds hung over the valley, pregnant with rain. It gave him a singular feeling of discomfort to see them laden with water, and yet painfully holding it up.
"I can't stay in this place," he muttered. "I shall go mad."
A sudden desire for flight seized him. The clouds sank lower and lower, till he imagined he must bend his head to avoid them. If he could only get away for a little, he might regain his calm. At least, absence, he thought bitterly, was the only way to restore the old affection between him and his father.
He went home, and announced that he was going to London.
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