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Chapter 28

THE COMING OF THE ROSES.


And the roses miscarried!

When Lewisham returned from Vigours' it was already nearly seven. He
entered the house with a beating heart. He had expected to find Ethel
excited, the roses displayed. But her face was white and jaded. He was
so surprised by this that the greeting upon his lips died away. He was
balked! He went into, the sitting-room and there were no roses to be
seen. Ethel came past him and stood with her back to him looking out
of the window. The suspense was suddenly painful....

He was obliged to ask, though he was certain of the answer, "Has
nothing come?"

Ethel looked at him. "What did you think had come?"

"Oh! nothing."

She looked out of the window again. "No," she said slowly, "nothing
has come."

He tried to think of something to say that might bridge the distance
between them, but he could think of nothing. He must wait until the
roses came. He took out his books and a gaunt hour passed to supper
time. Supper was a chilly ceremonial set with necessary over-polite
remarks. Disappointment and exasperation darkened Lewisham's soul. He
began to feel angry with everything--even with her--he perceived she
still judged him angry, and that made him angry with her. He was
resuming his books and she was helping Madam Gadow's servant to clear
away, when they heard a rapping at the street door. "They have come at
last," he said to himself brightening, and hesitated whether he should
bolt or witness her reception of them. The servant was a
nuisance. Then he heard Chaffery's voices and whispered a soft "damn!"
to himself.

The only thing to do now if the roses came was to slip out into the
passage, intercept them, and carry them into the bedroom by the door
between that and the passage. It would be undesirable for Chaffery to
witness that phase of sentiment. He might flash some dart of ridicule
that would stick in their memory for ever.

Lewisham tried to show that he did not want a visitor. But Chaffery
was in high spirits, and could have warmed a dozen cold welcomes. He
sat down without any express invitation in the chair that he
preferred.

Before Mr. and Mrs. Chaffery the Lewishams veiled whatever trouble
might be between them beneath an insincere cordiality, and Chaffery
was soon talking freely, unsuspicious of their crisis. He produced two
cigars. "I had a wild moment," he said. "'For once,' said I, 'the
honest shall smoke the admirable--or the admirable shall smoke the
honest,' whichever you like best. Try one? No? Those austere
principles of yours! There will be more pleasure then. But really, I
would as soon you smoked it as I. For to-night I radiate benevolence."

He cut the cigar with care, he lit it with ceremony, waiting until
nothing but honest wood was burning on the match, and for fully a
minute he was silent, evolving huge puffs of smoke. And then he spoke
again, punctuating his words by varied and beautiful spirals. "So
far," he said, "I have only trifled with knavery."

As Lewisham said nothing he resumed after a pause.

"There are three sorts of men in the world, my boy, three and no
more--and of women only one. There are happy men and there are knaves
and fools. Hybrids I don't count. And to my mind knaves and fools are
very much alike."

He paused again.

"I suppose they are," said Lewisham flatly, and frowned at the
fireplace.

Chaffery eyed him. "I am talking wisdom. To-night I am talking a
particular brand of wisdom. I am broaching some of my oldest and
finest, because--as you will find one day--this is a special occasion.
And you are distrait!"

Lewisham looked up. "Birthday?" he said.

"You will see. But I was making golden observations about knaves and
fools. I was early convinced of the absolute necessity of
righteousness if a man is to be happy. I know it as surely as there is
a sun in the heavens. Does that surprise you?"

"Well, it hardly squares--"

"No. I know. I will explain all that. But let me tell you the happy
life. Let me give you that, as if I lay on my deathbed and this was a
parting gift. In the first place, mental integrity. Prove all things,
hold fast to that which is right. Let the world have no illusions for
you, no surprises. Nature is full of cruel catastrophes, man is a
physically degenerate ape, every appetite, every instinct, needs the
curb; salvation is not in the nature of things, but whatever salvation
there may be is in the nature of man; face all these painful things. I
hope you follow that?"

"Go on," said Lewisham, with the debating-society taste for a thesis
prevailing for a minute over that matter of the roses.

"In youth, exercise and learning; in adolescence, ambition; and in
early manhood, love--no footlight passion." Chaffery was very solemn
and insistent, with a lean extended finger, upon this point.

"Then marriage, young and decent, and then children and stout honest
work for them, work too for the State in which they live; a life of
self-devotion, indeed, and for sunset a decent pride--that is the
happy life. Rest assured that is the happy life; the life Natural
Selection has been shaping for man since life began. So a man may go
happy from the cradle to the grave--at least--passably happy. And to
do this needs just three things--a sound body, a sound intelligence,
and a sound will ... A sound will."

Chaffery paused on the repetition.

"No other happiness endures. And when all men are wise, all men will
seek that life. Fame! Wealth! Art!--the Red Indians worship lunatics,
and we are still by way of respecting the milder sorts. But I say that
all men who do not lead that happy life are knaves and fools. The
physical cripple, you know, poor devil, I count a sort of bodily
fool."

"Yes," weighed Lewisham, "I suppose he is."

"Now a fool fails of happiness because of his insufficient mind, he
miscalculates, he stumbles and hobbles, some cant or claptrap whirls
him away; he gets passion out of a book and a wife out of the stews,
or he quarrels on a petty score; threats frighten him, vanity beguiles
him, he fails by blindness. But the knave who is not a fool fails
against the light. Many knaves are fools also--_most_ are--but some
are not. I know--I am a knave but no fool. The essence of your knave
is that he lacks the will, the motive capacity to seek his own greater
good. The knave abhors persistence. Strait is the way and narrow the
gate; the knave cannot keep to it and the fool cannot find it."

Lewisham lost something of what Chaffery was saying by reason of a rap
outside. He rose, but Ethel was before him. He concealed his anxiety
as well as he could; and was relieved when he heard the front door
close again and her footsteps pass into the bedroom by the passage
door. He reverted to Chaffery.

"Has it ever occurred to you," asked Chaffery, apparently apropos of
nothing, "that intellectual conviction is no motive at all? Any more
than a railway map will run a train a mile."

"Eh?" said Lewisham. "Map--run a train a mile--of course, yes. No, it
won't."

"That is precisely my case," said Chaffery. "That is the case of
your pure knave everywhere. We are not fools--because we know. But
yonder runs the highway, windy, hard, and austere, a sort of dry
happiness that will endure; and here is the pleasant by-way--lush,
my boy, lush, as the poets have it, and with its certain man-trap
among the flowers ..."

Ethel returned through the folding doors. She glanced at Lewisham,
remained standing for awhile, sat down in the basket chair as if to
resume some domestic needlework that lay upon the table, then rose and
went back into the bedroom.

Chaffery proceeded to expatiate on the transitory nature of passion
and all glorious and acute experiences. Whole passages of that
discourse Lewisham did not hear, so intent was he upon those
roses. Why had Ethel gone back into the bedroom? Was it possible--?
Presently she returned, but she sat down so that he could not see her
face.

"If there is one thing to set against the wholesome life it is
adventure," Chaffery was saying. "But let every adventurer pray for an
early death, for with adventure come wounds, and with wounds come
sickness, and--except in romances--sickness affects the nervous
system. Your nerve goes. Where are you then, my boy?"

"Ssh! what's that?" said Lewisham.

It was a rap at the house door. Heedless of the flow of golden wisdom,
he went out at once and admitted a gentleman friend of Madam Gadow,
who passed along the passage and vanished down the staircase. When he
returned Chaffery was standing to go.

"I could have talked with you longer," he said, "but you have
something on your mind, I see. I will not worry you by guessing
what. Some day you will remember ..." He said no more, but laid his
hand on Lewisham's shoulder.

One might almost fancy he was offended at something.

At any other time Lewisham might have been propitiatory, but now he
offered no apology. Chaffery turned to Ethel and looked at her
curiously for a moment. "Good-bye," he said, holding out his hand to
her.

On the doorstep Chaffery regarded Lewisham with the same curious look,
and seemed to weigh some remark. "Good-bye," he said at last with
something in his manner that kept Lewisham at the door for a moment
looking after his stepfather's receding figure. But immediately the
roses were uppermost again.

When he re-entered the living room he found Ethel sitting idly at her
typewriter, playing with the keys. She got up at his return and sat
down in the armchair with a novelette that hid her face. He stared at
her, full of questions. After all, then, they had not come. He was
intensely disappointed now, he was intensely angry with the ineffable
young shop-woman in black. He looked at his watch and then again, he
took a book and pretended to read and found himself composing a
scathing speech of remonstrance to be delivered on the morrow at the
flower-shop. He put his book down, went to his black bag, opened and
closed it aimlessly. He glanced covertly at Ethel, and found her
looking covertly at him. He could not quite understand her expression.

He fidgeted into the bedroom and stopped as dead as a pointer.

He felt an extraordinary persuasion of the scent of roses. So strong
did it seem that he glanced outside the room door, expecting to find a
box there, mysteriously arrived. But there was no scent of roses in
the passage.

Then he saw close by his foot an enigmatical pale object, and
stooping, picked up the creamy petal of a rose. He stood with it in
his hand, perplexed beyond measure. He perceived a slight disorder of
the valence of the dressing-table and linked it with this petal by a
swift intuition.

He made two steps, lifted the valence, and behold! there lay his
roses crushed together!

He gasped like a man who plunges suddenly into cold water. He remained
stooping with the valence raised.

Ethel appeared in the half doorway and her, expression was unfamiliar.
He stared at her white face.

"Why on earth did you put my roses here?" he asked.

She stared back at him. Her face reflected his astonishment.

"Why did you put my roses here?" he asked again.

"Your roses!" she cried, "What! Did _you_ send those roses?"

H.G. Wells