MR. BRITLING IN SOLILOQUY
Very different from the painful contentment of the bruised and broken
Mr. Direck was the state of mind of his unwounded host. He too was
sleepless, but sleepless without exaltation. The day had been too much
for him altogether; his head, to borrow an admirable American
expression, was "busy."
How busy it was, a whole chapter will be needed to describe....
The impression Mr. Britling had made upon Mr. Direck was one of
indefatigable happiness. But there were times when Mr. Britling was
called upon to pay for his general cheerful activity in lump sums of
bitter sorrow. There were nights--and especially after seasons of
exceptional excitement and nervous activity--when the reckoning would be
presented and Mr. Britling would welter prostrate and groaning under a
stormy sky of unhappiness--active insatiable unhappiness--a beating with
The sorrows of the sanguine temperament are brief but furious; the world
knows little of them. The world has no need to reckon with them. They
cause no suicides and few crimes. They hurry past, smiting at their
victim as they go. None the less they are misery. Mr. Britling in these
moods did not perhaps experience the grey and hopeless desolations of
the melancholic nor the red damnation of the choleric, but he saw a
world that bristled with misfortune and error, with poisonous thorns and
traps and swampy places and incurable blunderings. An almost
insupportable remorse for being Mr. Britling would pursue
him--justifying itself upon a hundred counts....
And for being such a Britling!...
Why--he revived again that bitter question of a thousand and one unhappy
nights--why was he such a fool? Such a hasty fool? Why couldn't he look
before he leapt? Why did he take risks? Why was he always so ready to
act upon the supposition that all was bound to go well? (He might as
well have asked why he had quick brown eyes.)
Why, for instance, hadn't he adhered to the resolution of the early
morning? He had begun with an extremity of caution....
It was a characteristic of these moods of Mr. Britling that they
produced a physical restlessness. He kept on turning over and then
turning over again, and sitting up and lying back, like a martyr on a
This was just the latest instance of a life-long trouble. Will there
ever be a sort of man whose thoughts are quick and his acts slow? Then
indeed we shall have a formidable being. Mr. Britling's thoughts were
quick and sanguine and his actions even more eager than his thoughts.
Already while he was a young man Mr. Britling had found his acts elbow
their way through the hurry of his ideas and precipitate humiliations.
Long before his reasons were marshalled, his resolutions were formed. He
had attempted a thousand remonstrances with himself; he had sought to
remedy the defects in his own character by written inscriptions in his
bedroom and memoranda inside his watch case. "Keep steady!" was one of
them. "Keep the End in View." And, "Go steadfastly, coherently,
continuously; only so can you go where you will." In distrusting all
impulse, scrutinising all imagination, he was persuaded lay his one
prospect of escape from the surprise of countless miseries. Otherwise he
danced among glass bombs and barbed wire.
There had been a time when he could exhort himself to such fundamental
charge and go through phases of the severest discipline. Always at last
to be taken by surprise from some unexpected quarter. At last he had
ceased to hope for any triumph so radical. He had been content to
believe that in recent years age and a gathering habit of wisdom had
somewhat slowed his leaping purpose. That if he hadn't overcome he had
at least to a certain extent minimised it. But this last folly was
surely the worst. To charge through this patient world with--how much
did the car weigh? A ton certainly and perhaps more--reckless of every
risk. Not only to himself but others. At this thought, he clutched the
steering wheel again. Once more he saw the bent back of the endangered
cyclist, once more he felt rather than saw the seething approach of the
motor bicycle, and then through a long instant he drove helplessly at
Hell perhaps is only one such incident, indefinitely prolonged....
Anything might have been there in front of him. And indeed now, out of
the dreamland to which he could not escape something had come, something
that screamed sharply....
"Good God!" he cried, "if I had hit a child! I might have hit a child!"
The hypothesis flashed into being with the thought, tried to escape and
was caught. It was characteristic of Mr. Britling's nocturnal
imagination that he should individualise this child quite sharply as
rather plain and slender, with reddish hair, staring eyes, and its ribs
crushed in a vivid and dreadful manner, pinned against the wall, mixed
up with some bricks, only to be extracted, oh! _horribly_.
But this was not fair! He had hurt no child! He had merely pitched out
Mr. Direck and broken his arm....
It wasn't his merit that the child hadn't been there!
The child might have been there!
He lay staring in despair--as an involuntary God might stare at many a
thing in this amazing universe--staring at the little victim his
imagination had called into being only to destroy....
If he had not crushed a child other people had. Such things happened.
Vicariously at any rate he had crushed many children....
Why are children ever crushed?
And suddenly all the pain and destruction and remorse of all the
accidents in the world descended upon Mr. Britling.
No longer did he ask why am I such a fool, but why are we all such
fools? He became Man on the automobile of civilisation, crushing his
thousands daily in his headlong and yet aimless career....
That was a trick of Mr. Britling's mind. It had this tendency to spread
outward from himself to generalised issues. Many minds are like that
nowadays. He was not so completely individualised as people are supposed
to be individualised--in our law, in our stories, in our moral
judgments. He had a vicarious factor. He could slip from concentrated
reproaches to the liveliest remorse for himself as The Automobilist in
General, or for himself as England, or for himself as Man. From remorse
for smashing his guest and his automobile he could pass by what was for
him the most imperceptible of transitions to remorse for every accident
that has ever happened through the error of an automobilist since
automobiles began. All that long succession of blunderers became Mr.
Britling. Or rather Mr. Britling became all that vast succession of
These fluctuating lapses from individuation made Mr. Britling a
perplexity to many who judged only by the old personal standards. At
times he seemed a monster of cantankerous self-righteousness, whom
nobody could please or satisfy, but indeed when he was most pitiless
about the faults of his race or nation he was really reproaching
himself, and when he seemed more egotistical and introspective and
self-centred he was really ransacking himself for a clue to that same
confusion of purposes that waste the hope and strength of humanity. And
now through the busy distresses of the night it would have perplexed a
watching angel to have drawn the line and shown when Mr. Britling, was
grieving for his own loss and humiliation and when he was grieving for
these common human weaknesses of which he had so large a share.
And this double refraction of his mind by which a concentrated and
individualised Britling did but present a larger impersonal Britling
beneath, carried with it a duplication of his conscience and sense of
responsibility. To his personal conscience he was answerable for his
private honour and his debts and the Dower House he had made and so on,
but to his impersonal conscience he was answerable for the whole world.
The world from the latter point of view was his egg. He had a
subconscious delusion that he had laid it. He had a subconscious
suspicion that he had let it cool and that it was addled. He had an
urgency to incubate it. The variety and interest of his talk was largely
due to that persuasion, it was a perpetual attempt to spread his mental
feathers over the task before him....
After this much of explanation it is possible to go on to the task which
originally brought Mr. Direck to Matching's Easy, the task that
Massachusetts society had sent him upon, the task of organising the
mental unveiling of Mr. Britling. Mr. Direck saw Mr. Britling only in
the daylight, and with an increasing distraction of the attention
towards Miss Cecily Corner. We may see him rather _more_ clearly in the
darkness, without any distraction except his own.
Now the smashing of Gladys was not only the source of a series of
reproaches and remorses directly arising out of the smash; it had also a
wide system of collateral consequences, which were also banging and
blundering their way through the Britling mind. It was extraordinarily
inconvenient in quite another direction that the automobile should be
destroyed. It upset certain plans of Mr. Britling's in a direction
growing right out from all the Dower House world in which Mr. Direck
supposed him to be completely set and rooted. There were certain matters
from which Mr. Britling had been averting his mind most strenuously
throughout the week-end. Now, there was no averting his mind any more.
Mr. Britling was entangled in a love affair. It was, to be exact, and
disregarding minor affinities, his eighth love affair. And the new
automobile, so soon as he could drive it efficiently, was to have played
quite a solvent and conclusive part in certain entangled complications
of this relationship.
A man of lively imagination and quick impulses naturally has love
affairs as he drives himself through life, just as he naturally has
accidents if he drives an automobile.
And the peculiar relations that existed between Mr. Britling and Mrs.
Britling tended inevitably to make these love affairs troublesome,
undignified and futile. Especially when they were viewed from the point
of view of insomnia.
Mr. Britling's first marriage had been a passionately happy one. His
second was by comparison a marriage in neutral tint. There is much to be
said for that extreme Catholic theory which would make marriage not
merely lifelong but eternal. Certainly Mr. Britling would have been a
finer if not a happier creature if his sentimental existence could have
died with his first wife or continued only in his love for their son. He
had married in the glow of youth, he had had two years of clean and
simple loving, helping, quarrelling and the happy ending of quarrels.
Something went out of him into all that, which could not be renewed
again. In his first extremity of grief he knew that perfectly well--and
then afterwards he forgot it. While there is life there is imagination,
which makes and forgets and goes on.
He met Edith under circumstances that did not in any way recall his lost
Mary. He met her, as people say, "socially"; Mary, on the other hand,
had been a girl at Newnham while he was a fellow of Pembroke, and there
had been something of accident and something of furtiveness in their
lucky discovery of each other. There had been a flush in it; there was
dash in it. But Edith he saw and chose and had to woo. There was no
rushing together; there was solicitation and assent. Edith was a
Bachelor of Science of London University and several things like that,
and she looked upon the universe under her broad forehead and
broad-waving brown hair with quiet watchful eyes that had nothing
whatever to hide, a thing so incredible to Mr. Britling that he had
loved and married her very largely for the serenity of her mystery. And
for a time after their marriage he sailed over those brown depths
Of course he did not make his former passion for Mary at all clear to
her. Indeed, while he was winning Edith it was by no means clear to
himself. He was making a new emotional drama, and consciously and
subconsciously he dismissed a hundred reminiscences that sought to
invade the new experience, and which would have been out of key with it.
And without any deliberate intention to that effect he created an
atmosphere between himself and Edith in which any discussion of Mary was
reduced to a minimum, and in which Hugh was accepted rather than
explained. He contrived to believe that she understood all sorts of
unsayable things; he invented miracles of quite uncongenial mute
It was over the chess-board that they first began to discover their
extensive difficulties of sympathy. Mr. Britling's play was
characterised by a superficial brilliance, much generosity and extreme
unsoundness; he always moved directly his opponent had done so--and then
reflected on the situation. His reflection was commonly much wiser than
his moves. Mrs. Britling was, as it were, a natural antagonist to her
husband; she was as calm as he was irritable. She was never in a hurry
to move, and never disposed to make a concession. Quietly, steadfastly,
by caution and deliberation, without splendour, without error, she had
beaten him at chess until it led to such dreadful fits of anger that he
had to renounce the game altogether. After every such occasion he would
be at great pains to explain that he had merely been angry with himself.
Nevertheless he felt, and would not let himself think (while she
concluded from incidental heated phrases), that that was not the
complete truth about the outbreak.
Slowly they got through the concealments of that specious explanation.
Temperamentally they were incompatible.
They were profoundly incompatible. In all things she was defensive. She
never came out; never once had she surprised him halfway upon the road
to her. He had to go all the way to her and knock and ring, and then she
answered faithfully. She never surprised him even by unkindness. If he
had a cut finger she would bind it up very skilfully and healingly, but
unless he told her she never discovered he had a cut finger. He was
amazed she did not know of it before it happened. He piped and she did
not dance. That became the formula of his grievance. For several unhappy
years she thwarted him and disappointed him, while he filled her with
dumb inexplicable distresses. He had been at first so gay an activity,
and then he was shattered; fragments of him were still as gay and
attractive as ever, but between were outbreaks of anger, of hostility,
of something very like malignity. Only very slowly did they realise the
truth of their relationship and admit to themselves that the fine bud
of love between them had failed to flower, and only after long years
were they able to delimit boundaries where they had imagined union, and
to become--allies. If it had been reasonably possible for them to part
without mutual injury and recrimination they would have done so, but two
children presently held them, and gradually they had to work out the
broad mutual toleration of their later relations. If there was no love
and delight between them there was a real habitual affection and much
mutual help. She was proud of his steady progress to distinction, proud
of each intimation of respect he won; she admired and respected his
work; she recognised that he had some magic, of liveliness and
unexpectedness that was precious and enviable. So far as she could help
him she did. And even when he knew that there was nothing behind it,
that it was indeed little more than an imaginative inertness, he could
still admire and respect her steady dignity and her consistent
honourableness. Her practical capacity was for him a matter for
continual self-congratulation. He marked the bright order of her
household, her flowering borders, the prosperous high-born roses of her
garden with a wondering appreciation. He had never been able to keep
anything in order. He relied more and more upon her. He showed his
respect for her by a scrupulous attention to her dignity, and his
confidence by a franker and franker emotional neglect. Because she
expressed so little he succeeded in supposing she felt little, and since
nothing had come out of the brown depths of her eyes he saw fit at last
to suppose no plumb-line would ever find anything there. He pursued his
interests; he reached out to this and that; he travelled; she made it a
matter of conscience to let him go unhampered; she felt, she
thought--unrecorded; he did, and he expressed and re-expressed and
over-expressed, and started this and that with quick irrepressible
activity, and so there had accumulated about them the various items of
the life to whose more ostensible accidents Mr. Direck was now for an
indefinite period joined.
It was in the nature of Mr. Britling to incur things; it was in the
nature of Mrs. Britling to establish them. Mr. Britling had taken the
Dower House on impulse, and she had made it a delightful home. He had
discovered the disorderly delights of mixed Sunday hockey one week-end
at Pontings that had promised to be dull, and she had made it an
institution.... He had come to her with his orphan boy and a memory of a
passionate first loss that sometimes, and more particularly at first, he
seemed to have forgotten altogether, and at other times was only too
evidently lamenting with every fibre of his being. She had taken the
utmost care of the relics of her duskily pretty predecessor that she
found in unexpected abundance in Mr. Britling's possession, and she had
done her duty by her sometimes rather incomprehensible stepson. She
never allowed herself to examine the state of her heart towards this
youngster; it is possible that she did not perceive the necessity for
any such examination....
So she went through life, outwardly serene and dignified, one of a great
company of rather fastidious, rather unenterprising women who have
turned for their happiness to secondary things, to those fair inanimate
things of household and garden which do not turn again and rend one, to
aestheticisms and delicacies, to order and seemliness. Moreover she
found great satisfaction in the health and welfare, the growth and
animation of her own two little boys. And no one knew, and perhaps even
she had contrived to forget, the phases of astonishment and
disillusionment, of doubt and bitterness and secret tears, that spread
out through the years in which she had slowly realised that this
strange, fitful, animated man who had come to her, vowing himself hers,
asking for her so urgently and persuasively, was ceasing, had ceased, to
love her, that his heart had escaped her, that she had missed it; she
never dreamt that she had hurt it, and that after its first urgent,
tumultuous, incomprehensible search for her it had hidden itself
The mysterious processes of nature that had produced Mr. Britling had
implanted in him an obstinate persuasion that somewhere in the world,
from some human being, it was still possible to find the utmost
satisfaction for every need and craving. He could imagine as existing,
as waiting for him, he knew not where, a completeness of understanding,
a perfection of response, that would reach all the gamut of his feelings
and sensations from the most poetical to the most entirely physical, a
beauty of relationship so transfiguring that not only would she--it went
without saying that this completion was a woman--be perfectly beautiful
in its light but, what was manifestly more incredible, that he too would
be perfectly beautiful and quite at his ease.... In her presence there
could be no self-reproaches, no lapses, no limitations, nothing but
happiness and the happiest activities.... To such a persuasion half the
imaginative people in the world succumb as readily and naturally as
ducklings take to water. They do not doubt its truth any more than a
thirsty camel doubts that presently it will come to a spring.
This persuasion is as foolish as though a camel hoped that some day it
would drink from such a spring that it would never thirst again. For the
most part Mr. Britling ignored its presence in his mind, and resisted
the impulses it started. But at odd times, and more particularly in the
afternoon and while travelling and in between books, Mr. Britling so far
succumbed to this strange expectation of a wonder round the corner that
he slipped the anchors of his humour and self-contempt and joined the
great cruising brotherhood of the Pilgrims of Love....
In fact--though he himself had never made a reckoning of it--he had
been upon eight separate cruises. He was now upon the eighth....
Between these various excursions--they took him round and about the
world, so to speak, they cast him away on tropical beaches, they left
him dismasted on desolate seas, they involved the most startling
interventions and the most inconvenient consequences--there were
interludes of penetrating philosophy. For some years the suspicion had
been growing up in Mr. Britling's mind that in planting this persuasion
in his being, the mysterious processes of Nature had been, perhaps for
some purely biological purpose, pulling, as people say, his leg, that
there were not these perfect responses, that loving a woman is a thing
one does thoroughly once for all--or so--and afterwards recalls
regrettably in a series of vain repetitions, and that the career of the
Pilgrim of Love, so soon as you strip off its credulous glamour, is
either the most pitiful or the most vulgar and vile of perversions from
the proper conduct of life. But this suspicion had not as yet grown to
prohibitive dimensions with him, it was not sufficient to resist the
seasons of high tide, the sudden promise of the salt-edged breeze, the
invitation of the hovering sea-bird; and he was now concealing beneath
the lively surface of activities with which Mr. Direck was now familiar,
a very extensive system of distresses arising out of the latest, the
eighth of these digressional adventures....
Mr. Britling had got into it very much as he had got into the ditch on
the morning before his smash. He hadn't thought the affair out and he
hadn't looked carefully enough. And it kept on developing in just the
ways he would rather that it didn't.
The seventh affair had been very disconcerting. He had made a fool of
himself with quite a young girl; he blushed to think how young; it
hadn't gone very far, but it had made his nocturnal reflections so
disagreeable that he had--by no means for the first time--definitely
and forever given up these foolish dreams of love. And when Mrs.
Harrowdean swam into his circle, she seemed just exactly what was wanted
to keep his imagination out of mischief. She came bearing flattery to
the pitch of adoration. She was the brightest and cleverest of young
widows. She wrote quite admirably criticism in the _Scrutator_ and the
_Sectarian_, and occasionally poetry in the _Right Review_--when she
felt disposed to do so. She had an intermittent vein of high spirits
that was almost better than humour and made her quickly popular with
most of the people she met, and she was only twenty miles away in her
pretty house and her absurd little jolly park.
There was something, she said, in his thought and work that was like
walking in mountains. She came to him because she wanted to clamber
about the peaks and glens of his mind.
It was natural to reply that he wasn't by any means the serene mountain
elevation she thought him, except perhaps for a kind of loneliness....
She was a great reader of eighteenth century memoirs, and some she
conveyed to him. Her mental quality was all in the vein of the
friendships of Rousseau and Voltaire, and pleasantly and trippingly she
led him along the primrose path of an intellectual liaison. She came
first to Matching's Easy, where she was sweet and bright and vividly
interested and a great contrast to Mrs. Britling, and then he and she
met in London, and went off together with a fine sense of adventure for
a day at Richmond, and then he took some work with him to her house and
Then she went away into Scotland for a time and he wanted her again
tremendously and clamoured for her eloquently, and then it was apparent
and admitted between them that they were admirably in love, oh!
immensely in love.
The transitions from emotional mountaineering to ardent intimacies were
so rapid and impulsive that each phase obliterated its predecessor, and
it was only with a vague perplexity that Mr. Britling found himself
transferred from the rôle of a mountainous objective for pretty little
pilgrims to that of a sedulous lover in pursuit of the happiness of one
of the most uncertain, intricate, and entrancing of feminine
personalities. This was not at all his idea of the proper relations
between men and women, but Mrs. Harrowdean had a way of challenging his
gallantry. She made him run about for her; she did not demand but she
commanded presents and treats and surprises; she even developed a
certain jealousy in him. His work began to suffer from interruptions.
Yet they had glowing and entertaining moments together that could temper
his rebellious thoughts with the threat of irreparable loss. "One must
love, and all things in life are imperfect," was how Mr. Britling
expressed his reasons for submission. And she had a hold upon him too in
a certain facile pitifulness. She was little; she could be stung
sometimes by the slightest touch and then her blue eyes would be bright
Those possible tears could weigh at times even more than those possible
And there was Oliver.
Oliver was a person Mr. Britling had never seen. He grew into the scheme
of things by insensible gradations. He was a government official in
London; he was, she said, extraordinarily dull, he was lacking
altogether in Mr. Britling's charm and interest, but he was faithful and
tender and true. And considerably younger than Mr. Britling. He asked
nothing but to love. He offered honourable marriage. And when one's
heart was swelling unendurably one could weep in safety on his patient
shoulder. This patient shoulder of Oliver's ultimately became Mr.
Britling's most exasperating rival.
She liked to vex him with Oliver. She liked to vex him generally. Indeed
in this by no means abnormal love affair, there was a very strong
antagonism. She seemed to resent the attraction Mr. Britling had for
her and the emotions and pleasure she had with him. She seemed under the
sway of an instinctive desire to make him play heavily for her, in time,
in emotion, in self-respect. It was intolerable to her that he could
take her easily and happily. That would be taking her cheaply. She
valued his gifts by the bother they cost him, and was determined that
the path of true love should not, if she could help it, run smooth. Mr.
Britling on the other hand was of the school of polite and happy lovers.
He thought it outrageous to dispute and contradict, and he thought that
making love was a cheerful, comfortable thing to be done in a state of
high good humour and intense mutual appreciation. This levity offended
the lady's pride. She drew unfavourable contrasts with Oliver. If Oliver
lacked charm he certainly did not lack emotion. He desired sacrifice, it
seemed, almost more than satisfactions. Oliver was a person of the most
exemplary miserableness; he would weep copiously and frequently. She
could always make him weep when she wanted to do so. By holding out
hopes and then dashing them if by no other expedient. Why did Mr.
Britling never weep? She wept.
Some base streak of competitiveness in Mr. Britling's nature made it
seem impossible that he should relinquish the lady to Oliver. Besides,
then, what would he do with his dull days, his afternoons, his need for
a properly demonstrated affection?
So Mr. Britling trod the path of his eighth digression, rather
overworked in the matter of flowers and the selection of small
jewellery, stalked by the invisible and indefatigable Oliver, haunted
into an unwilling industry of attentions--attentions on the model of the
professional lover of the French novels--by the memory and expectation
of tearful scenes. "Then you don't love me! And it's all spoilt. I've
risked talk and my reputation.... I was a fool ever to dream of making
Exactly like running your car into a soft wet ditch when you cannot get
out and you cannot get on. And your work and your interests waiting and
waiting for you!...
The car itself was an outcome of the affair. It was Mrs. Harrowdean's
idea, she thought chiefly of pleasant expeditions to friendly inns in
remote parts of the country, inns with a flavour of tacit complicity,
but it fell in very pleasantly with Mr. Britling's private resentment at
the extraordinary inconvenience of the railway communications between
Matching's Easy and her station at Pyecrafts, which involved a journey
to Liverpool Street and a long wait at a junction. And now the car was
smashed up--just when he had acquired skill enough to take it over to
Pyecrafts without shame, and on Tuesday or Wednesday at latest he would
have to depart in the old way by the London train....
Only the most superficial mind would assert nowadays that man is a
reasonable creature. Man is an unreasonable creature, and it was
entirely unreasonable and human for Mr. Britling during his nocturnal
self-reproaches to mix up his secret resentment at his infatuation for
Mrs. Harrowdean with his ill-advised attack upon the wall of Brandismead
Park. He ought never to have bought that car; he ought never to have
been so ready to meet Mrs. Harrowdean more than halfway.
What exacerbated his feeling about Mrs. Harrowdean was a new line she
had recently taken with regard to Mrs. Britling. From her first rash
assumption that Mr. Britling was indifferent to his wife, she had come
to realise that on the contrary he was in some ways extremely tender
about his wife. This struck her as an outrageous disloyalty. Instead of
appreciating a paradox she resented an infidelity. She smouldered with
perplexed resentment for some days, and then astonished her lover by a
series of dissertations of a hostile and devastating nature upon the
lady of the Dower House.
He tried to imagine he hadn't heard all that he had heard, but Mrs.
Harrowdean had a nimble pen and nimbler afterthoughts, and once her mind
had got to work upon the topic she developed her offensive in
half-a-dozen brilliant letters.... On the other hand she professed a
steadily increasing passion for Mr. Britling. And to profess
passion for Mr. Britling was to put him under a sense of profound
obligation--because indeed he was a modest man. He found himself in an
You see, if Mrs. Harrowdean had left Mrs. Britling alone everything
would have been quite tolerable. He considered Mrs. Harrowdean a
charming human being, and altogether better than he deserved. Ever so
much better. She was all initiative and response and that sort of thing.
And she was so discreet. She had her own reputation to think about, and
one or two of her predecessors--God rest the ashes of those fires!--had
not been so discreet. Yet one could not have this sort of thing going on
behind Edith's back. All sorts of things one might have going on behind
Edith's back, but not this writing and saying of perfectly beastly
things about Edith. Nothing could alter the fact that Edith was his
Throughout the week-end Mr. Britling had kept this trouble well battened
down. He had written to Mrs. Harrowdean a brief ambiguous note saying,
"I am thinking over all that you have said," and after that he had
scarcely thought about her at all. Or at least he had always contrived
to be much more vividly thinking about something else. But now in these
night silences the suppressed trouble burst hatches and rose about him.
What a mess he had made of the whole scheme of his emotional life! There
had been a time when he had started out as gaily with his passions and
his honour as he had started out with Gladys to go to Market Saffron.
He had as little taste for complications as he had for ditches. And now
his passions and his honour were in a worse case even than poor muddy
smashed up Gladys as the cart-horses towed her off, for she at any rate
might be repaired. But he--he was a terribly patched fabric of
explanations now. Not indeed that he had ever stooped to explanations.
But there he was! Far away, like a star seen down the length of a
tunnel, was that first sad story of a love as clean as starlight. It had
been all over by eight-and-twenty and he could find it in his heart to
grieve that he had ever given a thought to love again. He should have
lived a decent widower.... Then Edith had come into his life, Edith that
honest and unconscious defaulter. And there again he should have stuck
to his disappointment. He had stuck to it--nine days out of every ten.
It's the tenth day, it's the odd seductive moment, it's the instant of
confident pride--and there is your sanguine temperament in the ditch.
He began to recapitulate items in the catalogue of his escapades, and
the details of his automobile misadventures mixed themselves up with the
story of his heart steering. For example there was that tremendous
Siddons affair. He had been taking the corner of a girlish friendship
and he had taken it altogether too far. What a frightful mess that had
been! When once one is off the road anything may happen, from a crumpled
mud-guard to the car on the top of you. And there was his forty miles an
hour spurt with the great and gifted Delphine Marquise--for whom he was
to have written a play and been a perfect Annunzio. Until Willersley
appeared--very like the motor-cyclist--buzzing in the opposite
direction. And then had ensued angers, humiliations....
Had every man this sort of crowded catalogue? Was every
forty-five-year-old memory a dark tunnel receding from the star of
youth? It is surely a pity that life cannot end at thirty. It comes to
one clean and in perfect order....
Is experience worth having?
What a clean, straight thing the spirit of youth is. It is like a bright
new spear. It is like a finely tempered sword. The figure of his boy
took possession of his mind, his boy who looked out on the world with
his mother's, dark eyes, the slender son of that whole-hearted first
love. He was a being at once fine and simple, an intimate mystery. Must
he in his turn get dented and wrinkled and tarnished?
The boy was in trouble. What was the trouble?
Was it some form of the same trouble that had so tangled and tainted and
scarred the private pride of his father? And how was it possible for Mr.
Britling, disfigured by heedless misadventures, embarrassed by
complications and concealments, to help this honest youngster out of his
perplexities? He imagined possible forms of these perplexities.
Graceless forms. Ugly forms. Such forms as only the nocturnal
imagination would have dared present....
Oh, why had he been such a Britling? Why was he still such a Britling?
Mr. Britling sat up in his bed and beat at the bedclothes with his
fists. He uttered uncompleted vows, "From this hour forth ... from this
He must do something, he felt. At any rate he had his experiences. He
could warn. He could explain away. Perhaps he might help to extricate,
if things had got to that pitch.
Should he write to his son? For a time he revolved a long, tactful
letter in his mind. But that was impossible. Suppose the trouble was
something quite different? It would have to be a letter in the most
It was in the doubly refracting nature of Mr. Britling's mind that while
he was deploring his inefficiency in regard to his son, he was also
deploring the ineffectiveness of all his generation of parents. Quite
insensibly his mind passed over to the generalised point of view.
In his talks with Mr. Direck, Mr. Britling could present England as a
great and amiable spectacle of carelessness and relaxation, but was it
indeed an amiable spectacle? The point that Mr. Direck had made about
the barn rankled in his thoughts. His barn was a barn no longer, his
farmyard held no cattle; he was just living laxly in the buildings that
ancient needs had made, he was living on the accumulated prosperity of
former times, the spendthrift heir of toiling generations. Not only was
he a pampered, undisciplined sort of human being; he was living in a
pampered, undisciplined sort of community. The two things went
together.... This confounded Irish business, one could laugh at it in
the daylight, but was it indeed a thing to laugh at? We were drifting
lazily towards a real disaster. We had a government that seemed guided
by the principles of Mr. Micawber, and adopted for its watchword "Wait
and see." For months now this trouble had grown more threatening.
Suppose presently that civil war broke out in Ireland! Suppose presently
that these irritated, mishandled suffragettes did some desperate
irreconcilable thing, assassinated for example! The bomb in Westminster
Abbey the other day might have killed a dozen people.... Suppose the
smouldering criticism of British rule in India and Egypt were fanned by
administrative indiscretions into a flame....
And then suppose Germany had made trouble....
Usually Mr. Britling kept his mind off Germany. In the daytime he
pretended Germany meant nothing to England. He hated alarmists. He hated
disagreeable possibilities. He declared the idea of a whole vast nation
waiting to strike at us incredible. Why should they? You cannot have
seventy million lunatics.... But in the darkness of the night one cannot
dismiss things in this way. Suppose, after all, their army was more
than a parade, their navy more than a protest?
We might be caught--It was only in the vast melancholia of such
occasions that Mr. Britling would admit such possibilities, but we might
be caught by some sudden declaration of war.... And how should we face
He recalled the afternoon's talk at Claverings and such samples of our
governmental machinery as he chanced to number among his personal
acquaintance. Suppose suddenly the enemy struck! With Raeburn and his
friends to defend us! Or if the shock tumbled them out of power, then
with these vituperative Tories, these spiteful advocates of weak
tyrannies and privileged pretences in the place of them. There was no
leadership in England. In the lucid darkness he knew that with a
terrible certitude. He had a horrible vision of things disastrously
muffled; of Lady Frensham and her _Morning Post_ friends first
garrulously and maliciously "patriotic," screaming her way with
incalculable mischiefs through the storm, and finally discovering that
the Germans were the real aristocrats and organising our national
capitulation on that understanding. He knew from talk he had heard that
the navy was weak in mines and torpedoes, unprovided with the great
monitors needed for a war with Germany; torn by doctrinaire feuds;
nevertheless the sea power was our only defence. In the whole country we
might muster a military miscellany of perhaps three hundred thousand
men. And he had no faith in their equipment, in their direction. General
French, the one man who had his entire confidence, had been forced to
resign through some lawyer's misunderstanding about the Irish
difficulty. He did not believe any plans existed for such a war as
Germany might force upon us, any calculation, any foresight of the thing
Why had we no foresight? Why had we this wilful blindness to
disagreeable possibilities? Why did we lie so open to the unexpected
crisis? Just what he said of himself he said also of his country. It was
curious to remember that. To realise how closely Dower House could play
the microcosm to the whole Empire....
It became relevant to the trend of his thoughts that his son had through
his mother a strong strain of the dark Irish in his composition.
How we had wasted Ireland! The rich values that lay in Ireland, the
gallantry and gifts, the possible friendliness, all these things were
being left to the Ulster politicians and the Tory women to poison and
spoil, just as we left India to the traditions of the chattering army
women and the repressive instincts of our mandarins. We were too lazy,
we were too negligent. We passed our indolent days leaving everything to
somebody else. Was this the incurable British, just as it was the
incurable Britling, quality?
Was the whole prosperity of the British, the far-flung empire, the
securities, the busy order, just their good luck? It was a question he
had asked a hundred times of his national as of his personal self. No
doubt luck had favoured him. He was prosperous, and he was still only at
the livelier end of middle age. But was there not also a personal
factor, a meritorious factor? Luck had favoured the British with a
well-placed island, a hardening climate, accessible minerals, but then
too was there not also a national virtue? Once he had believed in that,
in a certain gallantry, a noble levity, an underlying sound sense. The
last ten years of politics had made him doubt that profoundly. He clung
to it still, but without confidence. In the night that dear persuasion
left him altogether.... As for himself he had a certain brightness and
liveliness of mind, but the year of his fellowship had been a soft year,
he had got on to _The Times_ through something very like a
misapprehension, and it was the chances of a dinner and a duchess that
had given him the opportunity of the Kahn show. He'd dropped into good
things that suited him. That at any rate was the essence of it. And
these lucky chances had been no incentive to further effort. Because
things had gone easily and rapidly with him he had developed indolence
into a philosophy. Here he was just over forty, and explaining to the
world, explaining all through the week-end to this American--until even
God could endure it no longer and the smash stopped him--how excellent
was the backwardness of Essex and English go-as-you-please, and how
through good temper it made in some mysterious way for all that was
desirable. A fat English doctrine. _Punch_ has preached it for forty
But this wasn't what he had always been. He thought of the strenuous
intentions of his youth, before he had got into this turmoil of amorous
experiences, while he was still out there with the clean star of youth.
As Hugh was....
In those days he had had no amiable doctrine of compromise. He had
truckled to no "domesticated God," but talked of the "pitiless truth";
he had tolerated no easy-going pseudo-aristocratic social system, but
dreamt of such a democracy "mewing its mighty youth" as the world had
never seen. He had thought that his brains were to do their share in
building up this great national _imago_, winged, divine, out of the
clumsy, crawling, snobbish, comfort-loving caterpillar of Victorian
England. With such dreams his life had started, and the light of them,
perhaps, had helped him to his rapid success. And then his wife had
died, and he had married again and become somehow more interested in his
income, and then the rather expensive first of the eight experiences had
drained off so much of his imaginative energy, and the second had
drained off so much, and there had been quarrels and feuds, and the way
had been lost, and the days had passed. He hadn't failed. Indeed he
counted as a success among his generation. He alone, in the night
watches, could gauge the quality of that success. He was widely known,
reputably known; he prospered. Much had come, oh! by a mysterious luck,
but everything was doomed by his invincible defects. Beneath that
hollow, enviable show there ached waste. Waste, waste, waste--his heart,
his imagination, his wife, his son, his country--his automobile....
Then there flashed into his mind a last straw of disagreeable
He hadn't as yet insured his automobile! He had meant to do so. The
papers were on his writing-desk.
On these black nights, when the personal Mr. Britling would lie awake
thinking how unsatisfactorily Mr. Britling was going on, and when the
impersonal Mr. Britling would be thinking how unsatisfactorily his
universe was going on, the whole mental process had a likeness to some
complex piece of orchestral music wherein the organ deplored the
melancholy destinies of the race while the piccolo lamented the secret
trouble of Mrs. Harrowdean; the big drum thundered at the Irish
politicians, and all the violins bewailed the intellectual laxity of the
university system. Meanwhile the trumpets prophesied wars and disasters,
the cymbals ever and again inserted a clashing jar about the fatal delay
in the automobile insurance, while the triangle broke into a plangent
solo on the topic of a certain rotten gate-post he always forgot in the
daytime, and how in consequence the cows from the glebe farm got into
the garden and ate Mrs. Britling's carnations.
Time after time he had promised to see to that gate-post....
The organ _motif_ battled its way to complete predominance. The lesser
themes were drowned or absorbed. Mr. Britling returned from the rôle of
an incompetent automobilist to the rôle of a soul naked in space and
time wrestling with giant questions. These cosmic solicitudes, it may
be, are the last penalty of irreligion. Was Huxley right, and was all
humanity, even as Mr. Britling, a careless, fitful thing, playing a
tragically hopeless game, thinking too slightly, moving too quickly,
against a relentless antagonist?
Or is the whole thing just witless, accidentally cruel perhaps, but not
malignant? Or is it wise, and merely refusing to pamper us? Is there
somewhere in the immensities some responsive kindliness, some faint hope
of toleration and assistance, something sensibly on our side against
death and mechanical cruelty? If so, it certainly refuses to pamper
us.... But if the whole thing is cruel, perhaps also it is witless and
will-less? One cannot imagine the ruler of everything a devil--that
would be silly. So if at the worst it is inanimate then anyhow we have
our poor wills and our poor wits to pit against it. And manifestly then,
the good of life, the significance of any life that is not mere
receptivity, lies in the disciplined and clarified will and the
sharpened and tempered mind. And what for the last twenty years--for all
his lectures and writings--had he been doing to marshal the will and
harden the mind which were his weapons against the Dark? He was ready
enough to blame others--dons, politicians, public apathy, but what was
he himself doing?
What was he doing now?
Lying in bed!
His son was drifting to ruin, his country was going to the devil, the
house was a hospital of people wounded by his carelessness, the country
roads choked with his smashed (and uninsured) automobiles, the cows were
probably lined up along the borders and munching Edith's carnations at
this very moment, his pocketbook and bureau were stuffed with venomous
insults about her--and he was just lying in bed!
Suddenly Mr. Britling threw back his bedclothes and felt for the matches
on his bedside table.
Indeed this was by no means the first time that his brain had become a
whirring torment in his skull. Previous experiences had led to the most
careful provision for exactly such states. Over the end of the bed hung
a light, warm pyjama suit of llama-wool, and at the feet of it were two
tall boots of the same material that buckled to the middle of his calf.
So protected, Mr. Britling proceeded to make himself tea. A Primus stove
stood ready inside the fender of his fireplace, and on it was a brightly
polished brass kettle filled with water; a little table carried a
tea-caddy, a tea-pot, a lemon and a glass. Mr. Britling lit the stove
and then strolled to his desk. He was going to write certain "Plain
Words about Ireland." He lit his study lamp and meditated beside it
until a sound of water boiling called him to his tea-making.
He returned to his desk stirring the lemon in his glass of tea. He would
write the plain common sense of this Irish situation. He would put
things so plainly that this squabbling folly would _have_ to cease. It
should be done austerely, with a sort of ironical directness. There
should be no abuse, no bitterness, only a deep passion of sanity.
What is the good of grieving over a smashed automobile?
He sipped his tea and made a few notes on his writing pad. His face in
the light of his shaded reading lamp had lost its distraught expression,
his hand fingered his familiar fountain pen....
The next morning Mr. Britling came into Mr. Direck's room. He was pink
from his morning bath, he was wearing a cheerful green-and-blue silk
dressing gown, he had shaved already, he showed no trace of his
nocturnal vigil. In the bathroom he had whistled like a bird. "Had a
good night?" he said. "That's famous. So did I. And the wrist and arm
didn't even ache enough to keep you awake?"
"I thought I heard you talking and walking about," said Mr. Direck.
"I got up for a little bit and worked. I often do that. I hope I didn't
disturb you. Just for an hour or so. It's so delightfully quiet in the
He went to the window and blinked at the garden outside. His two younger
sons appeared on their bicycles returning from some early expedition. He
waved a hand of greeting. It was one of those summer mornings when
attenuated mist seems to fill the very air with sunshine dust.
"This is the sunniest morning bedroom in the house," he said. "It's
The sunlight slashed into the masses of the blue cedar outside with a
score of golden spears.
"The Dayspring from on High," he said.... "I thought of rather a useful
pamphlet in the night.
"I've been thinking about your luggage at that hotel," he went on,
turning to his guest again. "You'll have to write and get it packed up
and sent down here--
"No," he said, "we won't let you go until you can hit out with that arm
and fell a man. Listen!"
Mr. Direck could not distinguish any definite sound.
"The smell of frying rashers, I mean," said Mr. Britling. "It's the
clarion of the morn in every proper English home....
"You'd like a rasher, coffee?
"It's good to work in the night, and it's good to wake in the morning,"
said Mr. Britling, rubbing his hands together. "I suppose I wrote nearly
two thousand words. So quiet one is, so concentrated. And as soon as I
have had my breakfast I shall go on with it again."