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Chapter 18

THE FRIENDS OF PROGRESS MEET.


The night next but one after this meditation saw a new order in the
world. A young lady dressed in an astrachan-edged jacket and with a
face of diminished cheerfulness marched from Chelsea to Clapham alone,
and Lewisham sat in the flickering electric light of the Education
Library staring blankly over a business-like pile of books at unseen
things.

The arrangement had not been effected without friction, the
explanation had proved difficult. Evidently she did not appreciate the
full seriousness of Lewisham's mediocre position in the list. "But you
have _passed_ all right," she said. Neither could she grasp the
importance of evening study. "Of course I don't know," she said
judicially; "but I thought you were learning all day." She calculated
the time consumed by their walk as half an hour, "just one half hour;"
she forgot that he had to get to Chelsea and then to return to his
lodgings. Her customary tenderness was veiled by an only too apparent
resentment. First at him, and then when he protested, at Fate. "I
suppose it _has_ to be," she said. "Of course, it doesn't matter, I
suppose, if we _don't_ see each other quite so often," with a quiver
of pale lips.

He had returned from the parting with an uneasy mind, and that evening
had gone in the composition of a letter that was to make things
clearer. But his scientific studies rendered his prose style "hard,"
and things he could whisper he could not write. His justification
indeed did him no sort of justice. But her reception of it made her
seem a very unreasonable person. He had some violent fluctuations. At
times he was bitterly angry with her for her failure to see things as
he did. He would wander about the museum conducting imaginary
discussions with her and making even scathing remarks. At other times
he had to summon all his powers of acrid discipline and all his
memories of her resentful retorts, to keep himself from a headlong
rush to Chelsea and unmanly capitulation.

And this new disposition of things endured for two weeks. It did not
take Miss Heydinger all that time to discover that the disaster of the
examination had wrought a change in Lewisham. She perceived those
nightly walks were over. It was speedily evident to her that he was
working with a kind of dogged fury; he came early, he went late. The
wholesome freshness of his cheek paled. He was to be seen on each of
the late nights amidst a pile of diagrams and text-books in one of the
less draughty corners of the Educational Library, accumulating piles
of memoranda. And nightly in the Students' "club" he wrote a letter
addressed to a stationer's shop in Clapham, but that she did not see.
For the most part these letters were brief, for Lewisham, South
Kensington fashion, prided himself upon not being "literary," and some
of the more despatch-like wounded a heart perhaps too hungry for
tender words.

He did not meet Miss Heydinger's renewed advances with invariable
kindness. Yet something of the old relations were presently
restored. He would talk well to her for a time, and then snap like a
dry twig. But the loaning of books was resumed, the subtle process of
his aesthetic education that Miss Heydinger had devised. "Here is a
book I promised you," she said one day, and he tried to remember the
promise.

The book was a collection of Browning's Poems, and it contained
"Sludge"; it also happened that it contained "The Statue and the
Bust"--that stimulating lecture on half-hearted constraints. "Sludge"
did not interest Lewisham, it was not at all his idea of a medium, but
he read and re-read "The Statue and the Bust." It had the profoundest
effect upon him. He went to sleep--he used to read his literature in
bed because it was warmer there, and over literature nowadays it did
not matter as it did with science if one dozed a little--with these
lines stimulating his emotion:--

"So weeks grew months, years; gleam by gleam
The glory dropped from their youth and love,
And both perceived they had dreamed a dream."

By way of fruit it may be to such seed, he dreamed a dream that
night. It concerned Ethel, and at last they were a-marrying. He drew
her to his arms. He bent to kiss her. And suddenly he saw her lips
were shrivelled and her eyes were dull, saw the wrinkles seaming her
face! She was old! She was intolerably old! He woke in a kind of
horror and lay awake and very dismal until dawn, thinking of their
separation and of her solitary walk through the muddy streets,
thinking of his position, the leeway he had lost and the chances there
were against him in the battle of the world. He perceived the
colourless truth; the Career was improbable, and that Ethel should be
added to it was almost hopeless. Clearly the question was between
these two. Or should he vacillate and lose both? And then his
wretchedness gave place to that anger that comes of perpetually
thwarted desires....

It was on the day after this dream that he insulted Parkson so
grossly. He insulted Parkson after a meeting of the "Friends of
Progress" at Parkson's rooms.

No type of English student quite realises the noble ideal of plain
living and high thinking nowadays. Our admirable examination system
admits of extremely little thinking at any level, high or low. But the
Kensington student's living is at any rate insufficient, and he makes
occasional signs of recognition towards the cosmic process.

One such sign was the periodic gathering of these "Friends of
Progress," an association begotten of Lewisham's paper on
Socialism. It was understood that strenuous things were to be done to
make the world better, but so far no decisive action had been taken.

They met in Parkson's sitting-room, because Parkson was the only one
of the Friends opulent enough to have a sitting-room, he being a
Whitworth Scholar and in receipt of one hundred pounds a year. The
Friends were of various ages, mostly very young. Several smoked and
others held pipes which they had discontinued smoking--but there was
nothing to drink, except coffee, because that was the extent of their
means. Dunkerley, an assistant master in a suburban school, and
Lewisham's former colleague at Whortley, attended these assemblies
through the introduction of Lewisham. All the Friends wore red ties
except Bletherley, who wore an orange one to show that he was aware of
Art, and Dunkerley, who wore a black one with blue specks, because
assistant masters in small private schools have to keep up
appearances. And their simple procedure was that each talked as much
as the others would suffer.

Usually the self-proposed "Luther of Socialism"--ridiculous
Lewisham!--had a thesis or so to maintain, but this night he was
depressed and inattentive. He sat with his legs over the arm of his
chair by way of indicating the state of his mind. He had a packet of
Algerian cigarettes (twenty for fivepence), and appeared chiefly
concerned to smoke them all before the evening was out. Bletherley was
going to discourse of "Woman under Socialism," and he brought a big
American edition of Shelley's works and a volume of Tennyson with the
"Princess," both bristling with paper tongues against his marked
quotations. He was all for the abolition of "monopolies," and the
_créche_ was to replace the family. He was unctuous when he was not
pretty-pretty, and his views were evidently unpopular.

Parkson was a man from Lancashire, and a devout Quaker; his third and
completing factor was Ruskin, with whose work and phraseology he was
saturated. He listened to Bletherley with a marked disapproval, and
opened a vigorous defence of that ancient tradition of loyalty that
Bletherley had called the monopolist institution of marriage. "The
pure and simple old theory--love and faithfulness," said Parkson,
"suffices for me. If we are to smear our political movements with
this sort of stuff ..."

"Does it work?" interjected Lewisham, speaking for the first time.

"What work?"

"The pure and simple old theory. I know the theory. I believe in the
theory. Bletherley's Shelley-witted. But it's theory. You meet the
inevitable girl. The theory says you may meet her anywhen. You meet
too young. You fall in love. You marry--in spite of obstacles. Love
laughs at locksmiths. You have children. That's the theory. All very
well for a man whose father can leave him five hundred a year. But how
does it work for a shopman?... An assistant master like Dunkerley? Or
... Me?"

"In these cases one must exercise restraint," said Parkson. "Have
faith. A man that is worth having is worth waiting for."

"Worth growing old for?" said Lewisham.

"Chap ought to fight," said Dunkerley. "Don't see your difficulty,
Lewisham. Struggle for existence keen, no doubt, tremendous in
fact--still. In it--may as well struggle. Two--join forces--pool the
luck. If I saw, a girl I fancied so that I wanted to, I'd marry her
to-morrow. And my market value is seventy _non res_."

Lewisham looked round at him eagerly, suddenly interested. "_Would_
you?" he said. Dunkerley's face was slightly flushed.

"Like a shot. Why not?"

"But how are you to live?"

"That comes after. If ..."

"I can't agree with you, Mr. Dunkerley," said Parkson. "I don't know
if you have read Sesame and Lilies, but there you have, set forth far
more fairly than any words of mine could do, an ideal of a woman's
place ..."

"All rot--Sesame and Lilies," interrupted Dunkerley. "Read
bits. Couldn't stand it. Never _can_ stand Ruskin. Too many
prepositions. Tremendous English, no doubt, but not my style. Sort of
thing a wholesale grocer's daughter might read to get refined. _We_
can't afford to get refined."

"But would you really marry a girl ...?" began Lewisham, with an
unprecedented admiration for Dunkerley in his eyes.

"Why not?"

"On--?" Lewisham hesitated.

"Forty pounds a year _res_. Whack! Yes."

A silent youngster began to speak, cleared an accumulated huskiness
from his throat and said, "Consider the girl."

"Why _marry_?" asked Bletherley, unregarded.

"You must admit you are asking a great thing when you want a girl ..."
began Parkson.

"Not so. When a girl's chosen a man, and he chooses her, her place is
with him. What is the good of hankering? Mutual. Fight together."

"Good!" said Lewisham, suddenly emotional. "You talk like a man,
Dunkerley. I'm hanged if you don't."

"The place of Woman," insisted Parkson, "is the Home. And if there is
no home--! I hold that, if need be, a man should toil seven years--as
Jacob did for Rachel--ruling his passions, to make the home fitting
and sweet for her ..."

"Get the hutch for the pet animal," said Dunkerley. "No. I mean to
marry a _woman_. Female sex always _has_ been in the struggle for
existence--no great damage so far--always will be. Tremendous
idea--that struggle for existence. Only sensible theory you've got
hold of, Lewisham. Woman who isn't fighting square side by side with a
man--woman who's just kept and fed and petted is ..." He hesitated.

A lad with a spotted face and a bulldog pipe between his teeth
supplied a Biblical word.

"That's shag," said Dunkerley, "I was going to say 'a harem of one'"

The youngster was puzzled for a moment. "I smoke Perique," he said.

"It will make you just as sick," said Dunkerley.

"Refinement's so beastly vulgar," was the belated answer of the smoker
of Perique.

That was the interesting part of the evening to Lewisham. Parkson
suddenly rose, got down "Sesame and Lilies," and insisted upon reading
a lengthy mellifluous extract that went like a garden roller over the
debate, and afterwards Bletherley became the centre of a wrangle that
left him grossly insulted and in a minority of one. The institution
of marriage, so far as the South Kensington student is concerned, is
in no immediate danger.

Parkson turned out with the rest of them at half-past ten, for a
walk. The night was warm for February and the waxing moon
bright. Parkson fixed himself upon Lewisham and Dunkerley, to
Lewisham's intense annoyance--for he had a few intimate things he
could have said to the man of Ideas that night. Dunkerley lived north,
so that the three went up Exhibition Road to High Street,
Kensington. There they parted from Dunkerley, and Lewisham and Parkson
turned southward again for Lewisham's new lodging in Chelsea.

Parkson was one of those exponents of virtue for whom the discussion
of sexual matters has an irresistible attraction. The meeting had left
him eloquent. He had argued with Dunkerley to the verge of indelicacy,
and now he poured out a vast and increasingly confidential flow of
talk upon Lewisham. Lewisham was distraught. He walked as fast as he
could. His sole object was to get rid of Parkson. Parkson's sole
object was to tell him interesting secrets, about himself and a
Certain Person with a mind of extraordinary Purity of whom Lewisham
had heard before.

Ages passed.

Lewisham suddenly found himself being shown a photograph under a
lamp. It represented an unsymmetrical face singularly void of
expression, the upper part of an "art" dress, and a fringe of
curls. He perceived he was being given to understand that this was a
Paragon of Purity, and that she was the particular property of
Parkson. Parkson was regarding him proudly, and apparently awaiting
his verdict.

Lewisham struggled with the truth. "It's an interesting face," he
said.

"It is a face essentially beautiful," said Parkson quietly but
firmly. "Do you notice the eyes, Lewisham?"

"Oh yes," said Lewisham. "Yes. I see the eyes."

"They are ... innocent. They are the eyes of a little child."

"Yes. They look that sort of eye. Very nice, old man. I congratulate
you. Where does she live?"

"You never saw a face like that in London," said Parkson.

"_Never_," said Lewisham decisively.

"I would not show that to every one," said Parkson. "You can scarcely
judge all that pure-hearted, wonderful girl is to me." He returned the
photograph solemnly to its envelope, regarding Lewisham with an air of
one who has performed the ceremony of blood-brotherhood. Then taking
Lewisham's arm affectionately--a thing Lewisham detested--he went on
to a copious outpouring on Love--with illustrative anecdotes of the
Paragon. It was just sufficiently cognate to the matter of Lewisham's
thoughts to demand attention. Every now and then he had to answer, and
he felt an idiotic desire--albeit he clearly perceived its idiocy--to
reciprocate confidences. The necessity of fleeing Parkson became
urgent--Lewisham's temper under these multitudinous stresses was
going.

"Every man needs a Lode Star," said Parkson--and Lewisham swore under
his breath.

Parkson's lodgings were now near at hand to the left, and it occurred
to him this boredom would be soonest ended if he took Parkson home,
Parkson consented mechanically, still discoursing.

"I have often seen you talking to Miss Heydinger," he said. "If you
will pardon my saying it ..."

"We are excellent friends," admitted Lewisham. "But here we are at
your diggings."

Parkson stared at his "diggings." "There's Heaps I want to talk
about. I'll come part of the way at any rate to Battersea. Your Miss
Heydinger, I was saying ..."

From that point onwards he made casual appeals to a supposed
confidence between Lewisham and Miss Heydinger, each of which
increased Lewisham's exasperation. "It will not be long before you
also, Lewisham, will begin to know the infinite purification of a Pure
Love...." Then suddenly, with a vague idea of suppressing Parkson's
unendurable chatter, as one motive at least, Lewisham rushed into the
confidential.

"I know," he said. "You talk to me as though ... I've marked out my
destiny these three years." His confidential impulse died as he
relieved it.

"You don't mean to say Miss Heydinger--?" asked Parkson.

"Oh, _damn_ Miss Heydinger!" said Lewisham, and suddenly, abruptly,
uncivilly, he turned away from Parkson at the end of the street and
began walking away southward, leaving Parkson in mid-sentence at the
crossing.

Parkson stared in astonishment at his receding back and ran after him
to ask for the grounds of this sudden offence. Lewisham walked on for
a space with Parkson trotting by his side. Then suddenly he
turned. His face was quite white and he spoke in a tired voice.

"Parkson," he said, "you are a fool!... You have the face of a sheep,
the manners of a buffalo, and the conversation of a bore, Pewrity
indeed!... The girl whose photograph you showed me has eyes that don't
match. She looks as loathsome as one would naturally expect.... I'm
not joking now.... Go away!"

After that Lewisham went on his southward way alone. He did not go
straight to his room in Chelsea, but spent some hours in a street in
Battersea, pacing to and fro in front of a possible house. His passion
changed from savageness to a tender longing. If only he could see her
to-night! He knew his own mind now. To-morrow he was resolved _he_
would fling work to the dogs and meet her. The things Dunkerley had
said had filled his mind with wonderful novel thoughts. If only he
could see her now!

His wish was granted. At the corner of the street two figures passed
him; one of these, a tall man in glasses and a quasi-clerical hat,
with coat collar turned up under his grey side-whiskers, he recognised
as Chaffery; the other he knew only too well. The pair passed him
without seeing him, but for an instant the lamplight fell upon her
face and showed it white and tired.

Lewisham stopped dead at the corner, staring in blank astonishment
after these two figures as they receded into the haze under the
lights. He was dumfounded. A clock struck slowly. It was
midnight. Presently down the road came the slamming of their door.

Long after the echo died away he stood there. "She has been at a
_séance_; she has broken her promise. She has been at a _séance_; she
has broken her promise," sang in perpetual reiteration through his
brain.

And then came the interpretation. "She has done it because I have left
her. I might have told it from her letters. She has done it because
she thinks I am not in earnest, that my love-making was just
boyishness ...

"I knew she would never understand."

H.G. Wells