NIGHT THE FIRST.
John Foe and I entered Rugby together at fourteen, and shared a study for a year and a term. Pretty soon he climbed out of my reach and finally attained to the Sixth. I never got beyond the Lower Fifth, having no brains to mention. Cricket happened to be my strong point; and when you're in the Eleven you can keep on fairly level terms with a push man in the Sixth. So he and I were friends--"Jack" and "Roddy" to one another--all the way up. We went through the school together and went up to Cambridge together.
He was a whale at Chemistry (otherwise Stinks), and took a Tancred Scholarship at Caius. I had beaten the examiner in Little-go at second shot, and went up in the same term, to Trinity; where I played what is called the flannelled fool at cricket--an old-fashioned game which I will describe to you one of these days--
"Cricket? But I thought you rowed, sir?" put in Yarrell Smith. "Yes, surely--"
"Hush! tread softly," Barham interrupted. "Our Major won't mind your not knowing he was a double Blue--don't stare at him like that; it's rude. But he will not like it forgotten that he once knocked up a century for England v Australia. . . . You'll forgive our young friend, sir; he left school early, when the war broke out."
Otway looked across at Yarrell-Smith with a twinkle. "I took up rowing in my second year," he explained modestly, "to enlarge my mind. And this story, my good Sammy, is not about me--though I come into it incidentally because by a pure fluke I happened to set it going. All the autobiography that's wanted for our present purpose is that I went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in the footsteps (among others) of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, and--well, you see the result. May I go on?"
But although they were listening, Otway did not at once go on. Sammy had spoken in his usual light way and yet with something of a pang in his voice, and something of a transient cloud still rested on the boy's face. Otway noted it, and understood. When the war broke out, Sammy had been on the point of going up to Oxford. . . .
Before the cloudlet passed, Otway had a vision behind it, though the vision came from his own brain, out of his own memory--a vision of green turf and of boys in white on it, a small regiment set orderly against a background of English elms, and moving orderly, intent on the game of games.
O thou, that dear and happy Isle, The garden of the world erstwhile. . . . Unhappy! shall we nevermore That sweet militia restore?
Snatches of an old parody floated in his brain with the vision--a parody of Walt Whitman--
Far off a grey-brown thrush warbling in hedge or in marsh; Down there in the blossoming bushes, my brother, what is that you are saying? . . .
The perfect feel of a "fourer "! . . .
The jubilant cry from the flowering thorn to the flowerless willow, "smite, smite, smite."
(Flowerless willow no more but every run a late-shed perfect bloom.)
The fierce chant of my demon brother issuing forth against the demon bowler, "hit him, hit him, hit him."
The thousand melodious cracks, delicious cracks, the responsive echoes of my comrades and the hundred thence-resulting runs, passionately yearned for, never, never again to be forgotten.
Overhead meanwhile the splendid silent sun, blending all, fusing all, bathing all in floods of soft ecstatic perspiration.
Otway lifted his stare from the rough table.
They have skinned the turf off Trinity cricket-ground . . . Such turf, too! I wonder who bought it, and what he paid for it. . . . They have turned the field into a big Base Hospital--all tin sheds, like a great kraal of scientific Kaffirs. Which reminds me . . .
Foe read medicine. Caius, you must know, is a great college for training doctors, and in the way of scholarships and prizes he annexed most of the mugs on the board. All the same I want you to understand that he wasn't a pot-hunter. I don't quite know how to explain. . . . His father had died while he was at Rugby, leaving him a competence; but he certainly was not over-burdened with money. Of that I am sure. . . . Can't say why. He never talked of his private affairs, even with me, though we were friends, "Jack" and "Roddy" to each other still, and inhabited lodgings together in Jesus Lane. He owed money to no one. Unsociable habit, I used to call it; destructive of confidence between man and man.
But he was no pot-hunter. I think--I am sure--that so long as he kept upsides with money he rather despised it. He had a handsome face--rather curiously like the pictures you see of Dante--and his mind answered to it, up to a point. Fastidious is the word, . . . gave you the impression he had attached himself to Natural Science much as an old Florentine attached himself to theology or anatomy or classics, with a kind of cold passion.
The queerest thing about him was that anything like "intellectual society," as they call it, bored him stiff. Now you may believe it or not, but I've always had a kind of crawling reverence for things of the mind, and for men who go in for 'em. You can't think the amount of poetry, for instance, I've read in my time, just wondering how the devil it was done. But it's no use; it never was any use, even in those days. No man of the kind I wanted to worship could ever take me seriously. I remember once being introduced to a poet whose stuff I knew by heart, almost every line of it, and when I blurted out some silly enthusiasm--sort of thing a well-meaning Philistine does say, don't you know?--he put the lid down on me with "Now, that's most interesting. I've often wondered if what I write appealed to one of your--er--interests, and if so, how."
Well that's where I always felt Foe could help. And yet he didn't help very much. He read a heap of poetry--on the sly, as it were; and one night I coaxed him off to a talk about Browning. His language on the way home was three-parts blasphemy.
Am I making him at all clear to you? He kept his intellect in a cage all to itself, so to speak. . . . What's more--and you'll see the point of this by and by--he liked to keep his few friends in separate cages. I won't say he was jealous: but if he liked A and B, it was odds he'd be uneasy at A's liking B, or at any rate getting to like him intimately.
This secretiveness had its value, to be sure. It gave you a sense of being privileged by his friendship. . . . Or, no; that's too priggish for my meaning. Foe wasn't a bit of a prig. It was only because he had, on his record already, so much brains that the ordinary man who met him in my rooms was disposed to wonder how he could be so good a fellow. Get into your minds, please, that he was a good fellow, and that no one doubted it; of the sort that listens and doesn't speak out of his turn.
He had a great capacity for silence; and it's queer to me--since I've thought over it--what a large share of our friendship consisted in just sitting up into the small hours and smoking, and saying next to nothing. I talked, no doubt: Foe didn't.
I shall go on calling him Foe. He was Jack to me, always; but Foe suits better with the story; and besides . . . well, I suppose there's always something in friendship that one chooses to keep in a cage. . . . The only cage-mate that Jack--I mean Foe--ever allowed me was Jimmy Caldecott, and that happened after we had both moved to London.
He--Foe--had taken a first-class in the Tripos, of course; and a fellowship on top of that. But he did not stay up at Cambridge. He put in the next few years at different London hospitals, published some papers on the nervous system of animals, got appointed Professor of Animal Morphology, in the South London University College (the Silversmiths' College), and might wake up any morning to find himself a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was already--I am talking of 1907, when the tale starts--a Corresponding Member of three or four learned Societies in Europe and the U.S.A., and had put a couple of honorary doctorates to his account besides his Cambridge DSc.
As for me, I had rooms at first in Jermyn Street, then chambers in the Inner Temple--my father, who had been Chairman of Quarter Sessions, holding the opinion that I ought to read for the Bar, that I might be better qualified in due time to deal out local justice down in Warwickshire. I read a little, played cricket a good deal, stuck out three or four London Seasons, travelled a bit, shot a bit in East Africa (Oh, I forgot to say I'd put in a year in the South African War); climbed a bit, in Switzerland, and afterwards in the Himalayas; come home to write a paper for the Geographical Society; got bitten with Socialism and certain Fabian notions, and put in some time with an East-End Settlement besides attending many crowded and unsavoury public meetings to urge what was vaguely known as Betterment. When I took courage and made a clean breast of my new opinions to my father, the old man answered very composedly that he too had been a Radical in his time, and had come out of it all right. . . . By all means let me go on with my spouting: capital practice for public life: hoped I should take my place one of these days in the County Council at home: wouldn't even mind seeing me in Parliament, etc.--all with the wise calm of one who has passed his three-score years and ten, found the world good, made it a little better, hunted his own harriers and learnt, long since, every way in which hares run. So I returned and somehow found myself pledged to compete as a Progressive for the next London County Council--for a constituency down Bethnal Green way. In all this, you see, my orbit and Foe's wouldn't often intersect. But we dined together on birthdays and other occasions. One year I took him down to the Derby, on the ground that it was part of a liberal education. In the paddock he nodded at a horse in blinkers and said, "What's the matter with that fellow?" "St. Amant," said I, and began to explain why Hayhoe had put blinkers on him. "Where does he stand in the betting?" asked Foe. "Why, man," said I, "at 5 to 1. You can't risk good money on a horse of that temper. I've put mine on the French horse over there--Gouvernant--easy favourite--7 to 4 on." "Oh," said he, in a silly sort of way, "I thought St. Amant might be your French horse--it's a French name isn't it? . . . As for your Gouvernant, I advise you to run for your life and hedge: the animal is working up for a stage fright. A touch more and he's dished before the flag drops. Now, whether the blinkers have done it or not, that St. Amant is firm as a rock." "How the devil--" I began. "That's a fine horse, too, over yonder," he said, pointing one out with his umbrella. "John o' Gaunt," said I: "ran second to St. Amant for the Guineas, and second to Henry the First in the Newmarket, with St. Amant third. The running has been all in-and-out this season. But how the devil you spotted him, when I didn't know you could tell a horse's head from his stern--" "I don't profess to much more," said Foe; "but it's my job to read an animal's eye, and what he's fit for by the quiver under his skin. Now, I'd only a glimpse of St. Amant's eye, across his blinkers, and your John o' Gaunt is a stout one--inclined, you tell me, to run in second place. But if your money's on Gouvernant, hurry while there's time and set it right. If you've thirty seconds to spare when you've done that," he added, "you may put up a tenner for me on St. Amant--but don't bother. Your book may want some arranging."
The way he said it impressed me, and I fairly shinned back to the Ring. I hadn't made my book on any reasoned conviction, you understand; for the horses had been playing at cat's-cradle all along, and as I went it broke on me that, after all, my faith in Gouvernant mainly rested on my knowing less of him than of the others--that I was really going with the crowd. But really I was running to back a superstition--my belief in Foe, who knew nothing about horse-racing and cared less.
Well, the race was run that year in a thunderstorm--a drencher; and if Foe was right, I guess that finished Gouvernant, who never looked like a winner. St. Amant romped home, with John o' Gaunt second, in the place he could be trusted for. Thanks to Foe I had saved myself more than a pony in three strenuous minutes, and he pocketed his few sovereigns and smiled.
That was also the day--June 1st, 1904--"Glorious First of June" as Jimmy Collingwood called it--that Foe first made Jimmy's acquaintance. Young Collingwood was a neighbour of mine, down in the country; an artless, irresponsible, engaging youth, of powerful build and as pretty an oarsman and as neat a waterman as you could watch. Eton and B.N.C. Oxford were his nursing mothers. His friends (including the dons) at this latter house of learning knew him as the Malefactor; it being a tradition that he poisoned an aunt or a grandparent annually, towards the close of May. He was attending the obsequies of one that afternoon on the edge of the hill, in a hansom, with a plate of foie gras on his knees and a bottle of champagne between his ankles. His cabby reclined on the turf with a bottle of Bass and the remains of a pigeon pie. His horse had its head in a nose-bag.
"Hallo, Jimmy!" I hailed, pausing before the pastoral scene. "Funeral bake-meats?"
"Hallo!" Jimmy answered, and shook his head very solemnly. "Sister-in-law this time. It had to be."
"Sister-in-law! Why you haven't one!"
"Course not," said Jimmy. "That's the whole trouble. Ain't I breaking it to you gently? . . . Case of angina pectoris, if you know what that means. It sounds like a pick-me-up--'try Angostura bitters to keep up your Pecker.' But it isn't. Angina--short 'i'; I know because I tried it on the Dean with a long one and he corrected me. He said that angina might be forgiven, for once, in a young man bereaved and labouring under strong emotion, but that if I apprehended its running in the family I had better get the quantity right. He also remarked rather pointedly that he hoped his memory was at fault and that my poor brother hadn't really lost his deceased wife's sister."
"Do you know where bad boys go?" I asked him.
"Silly question," said Jimmy, with his mouth full of foie gras. "Why, to the Derby, of course. Have something to eat."
I told him that we had lunched, introduced him to Foe as the Malefactor, and invited him to come back and dine with us at Prince's before catching the late train for Oxford. He answered that fate always smiled on him at these funerals, paid off his cabby, and joined us.
Our dinner that evening was a brilliant success; and we left it to drive to Paddington to see the boy off. He had dropped a few pounds over the Derby but made the most of it up by a plunge on the last race: "and what with your standing me a dinner, I'm all up on the day's working and that cheerful I could kiss the guard." He wasn't in the least drunk, either; but explained to me very lucidly, on my taxing him with his real offence--cutting Oxford for a day when, the Eights being a short week off, he should have been in strict training--that all the strength of the B.N.C. boat that year lying on stroke side (he rowed at "six"), one might look on a Peche Melba and a Corona almost in the light of a prescription. "Friend of my youth," he added--addressing me, "and"--addressing Foe--"prop, sole prop, of my declining years--as you love me, be cruel to be kind and restrain me when I show a disposition to kiss yon bearded guard."
As the tail of the train swung out of the station Foe said meditatively, "I like that boy," . . . And so it was. That autumn, when Jimmy Collingwood, having achieved a pass degree--"by means," as he put it, "only known to myself"--came up to share my chambers and read for the Bar, he and Foe struck up a warm affection. For once, moreover, Foe broke his habit of keeping his friends in separate cages. He was too busy a man to join us often; but when we met we were the Three Musketeers.
* * * * *
My father died in the Autumn of 1906; and this kept me down in the country until the New Year; although he had left his affairs as straight as a balance-sheet. Death duties and other things. . . . His account-books, note-books, filed references and dockets; his diaries kept, for years back, with records of rents and tithe-charges, of farms duly visited and crops examined field by field; appraisements of growing timber, memoranda for new plantings, queer charitable jottings about his tenants, their families, prospects, and ways to help them; all this tally, kept under God's eye by one who had never suffered man to interfere with him, gave my Radicalism a pretty severe jerk.
You see, here, worked out admirably in practice, was the rural side of that very landlordism which I had been denouncing up and down the East-End. The difference was plain enough, of course; but when you worked down to principle, it became for me a pretty delicate difference to explain. I was pledged, however, to return to London after Christmas and run (as Jimmy Collingwood put it) for those Bethnal Green Stakes: and in due time--that's to say, about the middle of January--up I came.
I won't bore you with my political campaign. One day in the middle of it Jimmy said, "To-night's a night off and we're dining with Jack Foe down in Chelsea. Eight o'clock: no theatre afterwards: 'no band, no promenade, no nozzing.' We've arranged between us to give your poor tired brain a rest."
"When you do happen to be thoughtful," said I "you might give me a little longer warning. As it is, I made a half-promise yesterday, to speak for that man of ours, Farrell, across the water."
"No, you don't," said Jimmy. "Who's Farrell? Friend of yours?"
"Tottenham Court Road," I said. "Only met him yesterday."
"What? Peter Farrell's Hire System? . . . And you met him there, in the Tottenham Court Road--by appointment, I suppose, with a coy carnation in your buttonhole. A bad young baronet, unmarried, intellectual, with a craving for human sympathy, on the Hire System'--"
"Don't be an ass, Jimmy," said I. "He's a Progressive, and they tell me his seat's dicky."
"They mostly are in the Tottenham Court Road," said Jimmy. "But if you've made half a promise, I was a week ahead of you with a whole one. We dine with Jack Foe."
* * * * *
The night was a beast. Foe's flat, high up on a block overlooking the Chelsea embankment, fairly rocked under squalls of a cross-river wind. He had moved into these new quarters while I was down in Warwickshire, and the man who put in the windows had scamped his job. The sashes rattled diabolically. Now that's just the sort of thing he'd have asked me to see to before he installed himself, if I had been up at the time: or, rather, I should have seen to it without being asked. That kind of noise never affected him: he could just withdraw himself into his work and forget it. But different noises get on different men's nerves, and, next to the scratching of a slate-pencil, a window on the rattle or the distant slam-slam of a door left ajar makes me craziest. You'd think a man out here would get accustomed to anything in the way of racket. Not a bit of it! Home on leave those particular sounds rasp me as badly as ever. . . . Moreover I have rather an eye for scamped carpentry: learned it off my father, going about the property with him. His own eye was a hawk's for loose fences, loose slates, badly-hung gates, even a broken sash-cord.
Foe's notions of furnishing, too, had always been bleak. He had hung his few pictures in the wrong places, and askew at that. He understood dining, though, and no doubt the dinner was good, though I gave very little attention to it.
"Otty's hipped to-night," said Collingwood, over the coffee. "Politics are all he can talk in these days. Wake up, Otty, and don't sit thinking out a speech."
I woke up. "I don't need to think out a speech," said I. "After a fortnight's campaigning a fellow can make speeches in his sleep."
"That's just what you're doing; and my fear is, you'll stand up presently and make one in ours."
"I'm sorry, Jack," I apologised. "Fact is, I'm worried by a half-promise I made to your man Farrell, over the river--"
"My man Farrell?" says Foe. "Farrell? . . . Farrell? . . . Never heard of him. Who's Farrell?"
"Never heard of him? . . . Why, Farrell's our candidate over there! . . . Your candidate; because, if elected, he'll represent you; because your College and--if you choose to narrow it down--your own laboratories and lecture-rooms--will belong to his constituency. The rates on your buildings, the trams that bring your poorer students, the public money that pays their scholarships--"
"My dear Roddy," he broke in. "You know that I never could get up an interest in politics. As for local politics--"
That fired me up at once. "Pretty silly sneer, that! Doesn't there lurk, somewhere down in your consciousness, some sense of belonging to the first city in the world? . . . Oh, yes, you use it, fast enough, whenever you go back to Cambridge and play the condescending metropolitan in Combination Room. There, seventy minutes from Liverpool Street, you pose--yes, pose, Jack--as the urbane man, Horatius Flaccus life-size; whereas your job as a citizen is confined to cursing the rates, swearing if a pit in the wood pavement jolts you on the way home from the theatre, supposing it's somebody's business, supposing there's graft in it, and talking superciliously of Glasgow and Birmingham, provincial towns, while you can't help to cheapen the price of a cabbage in Covent Garden!"
"Dear Roddy," Foe answered--very tolerantly, I'll admit--"you'll get elected, to a dead certainty."
"Oh, I'm all right," said I, cooling down. "Wish I could be so sure of your man Farrell, across the bridge."
"That's his name. . . . Think you'll be able to remember it?"
Here Jimmy dropped the ash of his cigar into his coffee-cup and chipped in judiciously.
"Otty has the right of it, Professor--though we shall have to cure him of his platform style. Somebody has to look after this country and look after London; and if you despise the fellows who run the show, then it's up to you, my intellectuals, to come in and do the business better. But you won't. It bores you. 'Oh, go away--can't you see I'm busy? I've got a malignant growth here, potted in a glass bottle with a diet of sterilised fat and an occasional whisky and soda, and we're sitting around until the joker develops D.T. He's an empyema, from South America, fully-grown male--'"
"I dare say I haven't the exact name," confessed Jimmy. "Fact is, I happened on it in the dictionary when I was turning up 'Empiricist' in a bit of a hurry. Some Moderate fellow down at Bethnal Green had called Otty in one of his speeches 'an ignorant empiricist'; so naturally I had to look up the word. I'd a hope it meant something connected with Empire-building, and then Otty could have scored off him. But apparently it doesn't."
"Are you sure?" asks Foe.
"Well, I used the dictionary they keep at Boodle's, not having one of my own. If you tell me it's not up to date, I'll write something sarcastic in the Complaint-Book."
Foe dropped the end of his cigar into the ash-tray and pushed back his chair. "Well", said he, "it's about time we got into our coats, eh?"
"My dear fellow--" I began. "You don't tell us--" I began again.
He understood, of course. What he said was, "The late Mr. Gladstone, they tell me, used to address Queen Victoria as if she were a public meeting. She complained that she didn't like it . . . and anyway, if you two can't help it, I can't help the acoustic defects of this flat. . . . Some more brandy? You'd better. It's a beast of a night; but your faithful dog shall bear you company."
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