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Title: Aaron's Rod
Author: Lawrence, D. H. (David Herbert)
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Aaron's Rod" ***

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AARON’S ROD

by D. H. Lawrence


CONTENTS

     I.  THE BLUE BALL
    II.  ROYAL OAK
   III.  “THE LIGHTED TREE”
     IV.  “THE PILLAR OF SALT”
      V.  AT THE OPERA
    VI.  TALK
   VII.  THE DARK SQUARE GARDEN
  VIII.  A PUNCH IN THE WIND
    IX.  LOW-WATER MARK
     X.  THE WAR AGAIN
    XI.  MORE PILLAR OF SALT
   XII.  NOVARA
  XIII.  WIE ES IHNEN GEFAELLT
   XIV.  XX SETTEMBRE
    XV.  A RAILWAY JOURNEY
   XVI.  FLORENCE
  XVII.  HIGH UP OVER THE CATHEDRAL SQUARE
 XVIII.  THE MARCHESA
   XIX.  CLEOPATRA, BUT NOT ANTHONY
    XX.  THE BROKEN ROD
   XXI.  WORDS



CHAPTER I. THE BLUE BALL


There was a large, brilliant evening star in the early twilight, and
underfoot the earth was half frozen. It was Christmas Eve. Also the War
was over, and there was a sense of relief that was almost a new menace.
A man felt the violence of the nightmare released now into the general
air. Also there had been another wrangle among the men on the pit-bank
that evening.

Aaron Sisson was the last man on the little black railway-line climbing
the hill home from work. He was late because he had attended a meeting
of the men on the bank. He was secretary to the Miners Union for his
colliery, and had heard a good deal of silly wrangling that left him
nettled.

He strode over a stile, crossed two fields, strode another stile, and
was in the long road of colliers’ dwellings. Just across was his own
house: he had built it himself. He went through the little gate, up past
the side of the house to the back. There he hung a moment, glancing down
the dark, wintry garden.

“My father--my father’s come!” cried a child’s excited voice, and two
little girls in white pinafores ran out in front of his legs.

“Father, shall you set the Christmas Tree?” they cried. “We’ve got one!”

“Afore I have my dinner?” he answered amiably.

“Set it now. Set it now.--We got it through Fred Alton.”

“Where is it?”

The little girls were dragging a rough, dark object out of a corner of
the passage into the light of the kitchen door.

“It’s a beauty!” exclaimed Millicent.

“Yes, it is,” said Marjory.

“I should think so,” he replied, striding over the dark bough. He went
to the back kitchen to take off his coat.

“Set it now, Father. Set it now,” clamoured the girls.

“You might as well. You’ve left your dinner so long, you might as well
do it now before you have it,” came a woman’s plangent voice, out of the
brilliant light of the middle room.

Aaron Sisson had taken off his coat and waistcoat and his cap. He stood
bare-headed in his shirt and braces, contemplating the tree.

“What am I to put it in?” he queried. He picked up the tree, and held
it erect by the topmost twig. He felt the cold as he stood in the yard
coatless, and he twitched his shoulders.

“Isn’t it a beauty!” repeated Millicent.

“Ay!--lop-sided though.”

“Put something on, you two!” came the woman’s high imperative voice,
from the kitchen.

“We aren’t cold,” protested the girls from the yard.

“Come and put something on,” insisted the voice. The man started off
down the path, the little girls ran grumbling indoors. The sky was
clear, there was still a crystalline, non-luminous light in the under
air.

Aaron rummaged in his shed at the bottom of the garden, and found a
spade and a box that was suitable. Then he came out to his neat, bare,
wintry garden. The girls flew towards him, putting the elastic of their
hats under their chins as they ran. The tree and the box lay on the
frozen earth. The air breathed dark, frosty, electric.

“Hold it up straight,” he said to Millicent, as he arranged the tree in
the box. She stood silent and held the top bough, he filled in round the
roots.

When it was done, and pressed in, he went for the wheelbarrow. The girls
were hovering excited round the tree. He dropped the barrow and stooped
to the box. The girls watched him hold back his face--the boughs pricked
him.

“Is it very heavy?” asked Millicent.

“Ay!” he replied, with a little grunt. Then the procession set off--the
trundling wheel-barrow, the swinging hissing tree, the two excited
little girls. They arrived at the door. Down went the legs of the
wheel-barrow on the yard. The man looked at the box.

“Where are you going to have it?” he called.

“Put it in the back kitchen,” cried his wife.

“You’d better have it where it’s going to stop. I don’t want to hawk it
about.”

“Put it on the floor against the dresser, Father. Put it there,” urged
Millicent.

“You come and put some paper down, then,” called the mother hastily.

The two children ran indoors, the man stood contemplative in the cold,
shrugging his uncovered shoulders slightly. The open inner door showed a
bright linoleum on the floor, and the end of a brown side-board on which
stood an aspidistra.

Again with a wrench Aaron Sisson lifted the box. The tree pricked and
stung. His wife watched him as he entered staggering, with his face
averted.

“Mind where you make a lot of dirt,” she said.

He lowered the box with a little jerk on to the spread-out newspaper on
the floor. Soil scattered.

“Sweep it up,” he said to Millicent.

His ear was lingering over the sudden, clutching hiss of the
tree-boughs.

A stark white incandescent light filled the room and made everything
sharp and hard. In the open fire-place a hot fire burned red. All was
scrupulously clean and perfect. A baby was cooing in a rocker-less
wicker cradle by the hearth. The mother, a slim, neat woman with dark
hair, was sewing a child’s frock. She put this aside, rose, and began to
take her husband’s dinner from the oven.

“You stopped confabbing long enough tonight,” she said.

“Yes,” he answered, going to the back kitchen to wash his hands.

In a few minutes he came and sat down to his dinner. The doors were shut
close, but there was a draught, because the settling of the mines under
the house made the doors not fit. Aaron moved his chair, to get out of
the draught. But he still sat in his shirt and trousers.

He was a good-looking man, fair, and pleasant, about thirty-two years
old. He did not talk much, but seemed to think about something. His wife
resumed her sewing. She was acutely aware of her husband, but he seemed
not very much aware of her.

“What were they on about today, then?” she said.

“About the throw-in.”

“And did they settle anything?”

“They’re going to try it--and they’ll come out if it isn’t
satisfactory.”

“The butties won’t have it, I know,” she said. He gave a short laugh,
and went on with his meal.

The two children were squatted on the floor by the tree. They had a
wooden box, from which they had taken many little newspaper packets,
which they were spreading out like wares.

“Don’t open any. We won’t open any of them till we’ve taken them all
out--and then we’ll undo one in our turns. Then we s’ll both undo
equal,” Millicent was saying.

“Yes, we’ll take them ALL out first,” re-echoed Marjory.

“And what are they going to do about Job Arthur Freer? Do they want
him?” A faint smile came on her husband’s face.

“Nay, I don’t know what they want.--Some of ‘em want him--whether
they’re a majority, I don’t know.”

She watched him closely.

“Majority! I’d give ‘em majority. They want to get rid of you, and make
a fool of you, and you want to break your heart over it. Strikes me you
need something to break your heart over.”

He laughed silently.

“Nay,” he said. “I s’ll never break my heart.”

“You’ll go nearer to it over that, than over anything else: just because
a lot of ignorant monkeys want a monkey of their own sort to do the
Union work, and jabber to them, they want to get rid of you, and you eat
your heart out about it. More fool you, that’s all I say--more fool you.
If you cared for your wife and children half what you care about your
Union, you’d be a lot better pleased in the end. But you care about
nothing but a lot of ignorant colliers, who don’t know what they want
except it’s more money just for themselves. Self, self, self--that’s all
it is with them--and ignorance.”

“You’d rather have self without ignorance?” he said, smiling finely.

“I would, if I’ve got to have it. But what I should like to see is a man
that has thought for others, and isn’t all self and politics.”

Her color had risen, her hand trembled with anger as she sewed. A blank
look had come over the man’s face, as if he did not hear or heed any
more. He drank his tea in a long draught, wiped his moustache with two
fingers, and sat looking abstractedly at the children.

They had laid all the little packets on the floor, and Millicent was
saying:

“Now I’ll undo the first, and you can have the second. I’ll take this--”

She unwrapped the bit of newspaper and disclosed a silvery ornament
for a Christmas tree: a frail thing like a silver plum, with deep rosy
indentations on each side.

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Isn’t it LOVELY!” Her fingers cautiously held the
long bubble of silver and glowing rose, cleaving to it with a curious,
irritating possession. The man’s eyes moved away from her. The lesser
child was fumbling with one of the little packets.

“Oh!”--a wail went up from Millicent. “You’ve taken one!--You didn’t
wait.” Then her voice changed to a motherly admonition, and she began to
interfere. “This is the way to do it, look! Let me help you.”

But Marjory drew back with resentment.

“Don’t, Millicent!--Don’t!” came the childish cry. But Millicent’s
fingers itched.

At length Marjory had got out her treasure--a little silvery bell with
a glass top hanging inside. The bell was made of frail glassy substance,
light as air.

“Oh, the bell!” rang out Millicent’s clanging voice. “The bell! It’s my
bell. My bell! It’s mine! Don’t break it, Marjory. Don’t break it, will
you?”

Marjory was shaking the bell against her ear. But it was dumb, it made
no sound.

“You’ll break it, I know you will.--You’ll break it. Give it ME--”
 cried Millicent, and she began to take away the bell. Marjory set up an
expostulation.

“LET HER ALONE,” said the father.

Millicent let go as if she had been stung, but still her brassy,
impudent voice persisted:

“She’ll break it. She’ll break it. It’s mine--”

“You undo another,” said the mother, politic.

Millicent began with hasty, itching fingers to unclose another package.

“Aw--aw Mother, my peacock--aw, my peacock, my green peacock!” Lavishly
she hovered over a sinuous greenish bird, with wings and tail of spun
glass, pearly, and body of deep electric green.

“It’s mine--my green peacock! It’s mine, because Marjory’s had one wing
off, and mine hadn’t. My green peacock that I love! I love it!” She
swung it softly from the little ring on its back. Then she went to her
mother.

“Look, Mother, isn’t it a beauty?”

“Mind the ring doesn’t come out,” said her mother. “Yes, it’s lovely!”
 The girl passed on to her father.

“Look, Father, don’t you love it!”

“Love it?” he re-echoed, ironical over the word love.

She stood for some moments, trying to force his attention. Then she went
back to her place.

Marjory had brought forth a golden apple, red on one cheek, rather
garish.

“Oh!” exclaimed Millicent feverishly, instantly seized with desire for
what she had not got, indifferent to what she had. Her eye ran quickly
over the packages. She took one.

“Now!” she exclaimed loudly, to attract attention. “Now! What’s
this?--What’s this? What will this beauty be?”

With finicky fingers she removed the newspaper. Marjory watched her
wide-eyed. Millicent was self-important.

“The blue ball!” she cried in a climax of rapture. “I’ve got THE BLUE
BALL.”

She held it gloating in the cup of her hands. It was a little globe of
hardened glass, of a magnificent full dark blue color. She rose and went
to her father.

“It was your blue ball, wasn’t it, father?”

“Yes.”

“And you had it when you were a little boy, and now I have it when I’m a
little girl.”

“Ay,” he replied drily.

“And it’s never been broken all those years.”

“No, not yet.”

“And perhaps it never will be broken.” To this she received no answer.

“Won’t it break?” she persisted. “Can’t you break it?”

“Yes, if you hit it with a hammer,” he said.

“Aw!” she cried. “I don’t mean that. I mean if you just drop it. It
won’t break if you drop it, will it?”

“I dare say it won’t.”

“But WILL it?”

“I sh’d think not.”

“Should I try?”

She proceeded gingerly to let the blue ball drop, it bounced dully on
the floor-covering.

“Oh-h-h!” she cried, catching it up. “I love it.”

“Let ME drop it,” cried Marjory, and there was a performance of
admonition and demonstration from the elder sister.

But Millicent must go further. She became excited.

“It won’t break,” she said, “even if you toss it up in the air.”

She flung it up, it fell safely. But her father’s brow knitted slightly.
She tossed it wildly: it fell with a little splashing explosion: it had
smashed. It had fallen on the sharp edge of the tiles that protruded
under the fender.

“NOW what have you done!” cried the mother.

The child stood with her lip between her teeth, a look, half, of pure
misery and dismay, half of satisfaction, on her pretty sharp face.

“She wanted to break it,” said the father.

“No, she didn’t! What do you say that for!” said the mother. And
Millicent burst into a flood of tears.

He rose to look at the fragments that lay splashed on the floor.

“You must mind the bits,” he said, “and pick ‘em all up.”

He took one of the pieces to examine it. It was fine and thin and hard,
lined with pure silver, brilliant. He looked at it closely. So--this
was what it was. And this was the end of it. He felt the curious soft
explosion of its breaking still in his ears. He threw his piece in the
fire.

“Pick all the bits up,” he said. “Give over! give over! Don’t cry any
more.” The good-natured tone of his voice quieted the child, as he
intended it should.

He went away into the back kitchen to wash himself. As he was bending
his head over the sink before the little mirror, lathering to shave,
there came from outside the dissonant voices of boys, pouring out the
dregs of carol-singing.

“While Shep-ep-ep-ep-herds watched--”

He held his soapy brush suspended for a minute. They called this
singing! His mind flitted back to early carol music. Then again he heard
the vocal violence outside.

“Aren’t you off there!” he called out, in masculine menace. The noise
stopped, there was a scuffle. But the feet returned and the voices
resumed. Almost immediately the door opened, boys were heard muttering
among themselves. Millicent had given them a penny. Feet scraped on the
yard, then went thudding along the side of the house, to the street.

To Aaron Sisson, this was home, this was Christmas: the unspeakably
familiar. The war over, nothing was changed. Yet everything changed. The
scullery in which he stood was painted green, quite fresh, very clean,
the floor was red tiles. The wash-copper of red bricks was very red, the
mangle with its put-up board was white-scrubbed, the American oil-cloth
on the table had a gay pattern, there was a warm fire, the water in the
boiler hissed faintly. And in front of him, beneath him as he leaned
forward shaving, a drop of water fell with strange, incalculable rhythm
from the bright brass tap into the white enamelled bowl, which was now
half full of pure, quivering water. The war was over, and everything
just the same. The acute familiarity of this house, which he had built
for his marriage twelve years ago, the changeless pleasantness of it all
seemed unthinkable. It prevented his thinking.

When he went into the middle room to comb his hair he found the
Christmas tree sparkling, his wife was making pastry at the table, the
baby was sitting up propped in cushions.

“Father,” said Millicent, approaching him with a flat blue-and-white
angel of cotton-wool, and two ends of cotton--“tie the angel at the
top.”

“Tie it at the top?” he said, looking down.

“Yes. At the very top--because it’s just come down from the sky.”

“Ay my word!” he laughed. And he tied the angel.

Coming downstairs after changing he went into the icy cold parlour, and
took his music and a small handbag. With this he retreated again to the
back kitchen. He was still in trousers and shirt and slippers: but now
it was a clean white shirt, and his best black trousers, and new pink
and white braces. He sat under the gas-jet of the back kitchen, looking
through his music. Then he opened the bag, in which were sections of a
flute and a piccolo. He took out the flute, and adjusted it. As he sat
he was physically aware of the sounds of the night: the bubbling of
water in the boiler, the faint sound of the gas, the sudden crying of
the baby in the next room, then noises outside, distant boys shouting,
distant rags of carols, fragments of voices of men. The whole country
was roused and excited.

The little room was hot. Aaron rose and opened a square ventilator over
the copper, letting in a stream of cold air, which was grateful to him.
Then he cocked his eye over the sheet of music spread out on the table
before him. He tried his flute. And then at last, with the odd gesture
of a diver taking a plunge, he swung his head and began to play. A
stream of music, soft and rich and fluid, came out of the flute. He
played beautifully. He moved his head and his raised bare arms with
slight, intense movements, as the delicate music poured out. It was
sixteenth-century Christmas melody, very limpid and delicate.

The pure, mindless, exquisite motion and fluidity of the music delighted
him with a strange exasperation. There was something tense, exasperated
to the point of intolerable anger, in his good-humored breast, as he
played the finely-spun peace-music. The more exquisite the music, the
more perfectly he produced it, in sheer bliss; and at the same time, the
more intense was the maddened exasperation within him.

Millicent appeared in the room. She fidgetted at the sink. The music was
a bugbear to her, because it prevented her from saying what was on her
own mind. At length it ended, her father was turning over the various
books and sheets. She looked at him quickly, seizing her opportunity.

“Are you going out, Father?” she said.

“Eh?”

“Are you going out?” She twisted nervously.

“What do you want to know for?”

He made no other answer, and turned again to the music. His eye went
down a sheet--then over it again--then more closely over it again.

“Are you?” persisted the child, balancing on one foot.

He looked at her, and his eyes were angry under knitted brows.

“What are you bothering about?” he said.

“I’m not bothering--I only wanted to know if you were going out,” she
pouted, quivering to cry.

“I expect I am,” he said quietly.

She recovered at once, but still with timidity asked:

“We haven’t got any candles for the Christmas tree--shall you buy some,
because mother isn’t going out?”

“Candles!” he repeated, settling his music and taking up the piccolo.

“Yes--shall you buy us some, Father? Shall you?”

“Candles!” he repeated, putting the piccolo to his mouth and blowing a
few piercing, preparatory notes.

“Yes, little Christmas-tree candles--blue ones and red ones, in
boxes--Shall you, Father?”

“We’ll see--if I see any--”

“But SHALL you?” she insisted desperately. She wisely mistrusted his
vagueness.

But he was looking unheeding at the music. Then suddenly the piccolo
broke forth, wild, shrill, brilliant. He was playing Mozart. The child’s
face went pale with anger at the sound. She turned, and went out,
closing both doors behind her to shut out the noise.

The shrill, rapid movement of the piccolo music seemed to possess the
air, it was useless to try to shut it out. The man went on playing
to himself, measured and insistent. In the frosty evening the sound
carried. People passing down the street hesitated, listening. The
neighbours knew it was Aaron practising his piccolo. He was esteemed a
good player: was in request at concerts and dances, also at swell balls.
So the vivid piping sound tickled the darkness.

He played on till about seven o’clock; he did not want to go out too
soon, in spite of the early closing of the public houses. He never went
with the stream, but made a side current of his own. His wife said he
was contrary. When he went into the middle room to put on his collar and
tie, the two little girls were having their hair brushed, the baby was
in bed, there was a hot smell of mince-pies baking in the oven.

“You won’t forget our candles, will you, Father?” asked Millicent, with
assurance now.

“I’ll see,” he answered.

His wife watched him as he put on his overcoat and hat. He was
well-dressed, handsome-looking. She felt there was a curious glamour
about him. It made her feel bitter. He had an unfair advantage--he was
free to go off, while she must stay at home with the children.

“There’s no knowing what time you’ll be home,” she said.

“I shan’t be late,” he answered.

“It’s easy to say so,” she retorted, with some contempt. He took his
stick, and turned towards the door.

“Bring the children some candles for their tree, and don’t be so
selfish,” she said.

“All right,” he said, going out.

“Don’t say ALL RIGHT if you never mean to do it,” she cried, with sudden
anger, following him to the door.

His figure stood large and shadowy in the darkness.

“How many do you want?” he said.

“A dozen,” she said. “And holders too, if you can get them,” she added,
with barren bitterness.

“Yes--all right,” he turned and melted into the darkness. She went
indoors, worn with a strange and bitter flame.

He crossed the fields towards the little town, which once more fumed its
lights under the night. The country ran away, rising on his right hand.
It was no longer a great bank of darkness. Lights twinkled freely here
and there, though forlornly, now that the war-time restrictions were
removed. It was no glitter of pre-war nights, pit-heads glittering
far-off with electricity. Neither was it the black gulf of the war
darkness: instead, this forlorn sporadic twinkling.

Everybody seemed to be out of doors. The hollow dark countryside
re-echoed like a shell with shouts and calls and excited voices.
Restlessness and nervous excitement, nervous hilarity were in the
air. There was a sense of electric surcharge everywhere, frictional, a
neurasthenic haste for excitement.

Every moment Aaron Sisson was greeted with Good-night--Good-night,
Aaron--Good-night, Mr. Sisson. People carrying parcels, children,
women, thronged home on the dark paths. They were all talking loudly,
declaiming loudly about what they could and could not get, and what this
or the other had lost.

When he got into the main street, the only street of shops, it was
crowded. There seemed to have been some violent but quiet contest, a
subdued fight, going on all the afternoon and evening: people struggling
to buy things, to get things. Money was spent like water, there was
a frenzy of money-spending. Though the necessities of life were in
abundance, still the people struggled in frenzy for cheese, sweets,
raisins, pork-stuff, even for flowers and holly, all of which were
scarce, and for toys and knick-knacks, which were sold out. There was a
wild grumbling, but a deep satisfaction in the fight, the struggle. The
same fight and the same satisfaction in the fight was witnessed whenever
a tram-car stopped, or when it heaved its way into sight. Then the
struggle to mount on board became desperate and savage, but stimulating.
Souls surcharged with hostility found now some outlet for their
feelings.

As he came near the little market-place he bethought himself of the
Christmas-tree candles. He did not intend to trouble himself. And yet,
when he glanced in passing into the sweet-shop window, and saw it bare
as a board, the very fact that he probably _could not_ buy the things
made him hesitate, and try.

“Have you got any Christmas-tree candles?” he asked as he entered the
shop.

“How many do you want?”

“A dozen.”

“Can’t let you have a dozen. You can have two boxes--four in a
box--eight. Six-pence a box.”

“Got any holders?”

“Holders? Don’t ask. Haven’t seen one this year.”

“Got any toffee--?”

“Cough-drops--two-pence an ounce--nothing else left.”

“Give me four ounces.”

He watched her weighing them in the little brass scales.

“You’ve not got much of a Christmas show,” he said.

“Don’t talk about Christmas, as far as sweets is concerned. They ought
to have allowed us six times the quantity--there’s plenty of sugar, why
didn’t they? We s’ll have to enjoy ourselves with what we’ve got. We
mean to, anyhow.”

“Ay,” he said.

“Time we had a bit of enjoyment, THIS Christmas. They ought to have made
things more plentiful.”

“Yes,” he said, stuffing his package in his pocket.



CHAPTER II. ROYAL OAK


The war had killed the little market of the town. As he passed the
market place on the brow, Aaron noticed that there were only two
miserable stalls. But people crowded just the same. There was a loud
sound of voices, men’s voices. Men pressed round the doorways of the
public-houses.

But he was going to a pub out of town. He descended the dark hill. A
street-lamp here and there shed parsimonious light. In the bottoms,
under the trees, it was very dark. But a lamp glimmered in front of
the “Royal Oak.” This was a low white house sunk three steps below the
highway. It was darkened, but sounded crowded.

Opening the door, Sisson found himself in the stone passage. Old Bob,
carrying three cans, stopped to see who had entered--then went on
into the public bar on the left. The bar itself was a sort of
little window-sill on the right: the pub was a small one. In this
window-opening stood the landlady, drawing and serving to her husband.
Behind the bar was a tiny parlour or den, the landlady’s preserve.

“Oh, it’s you,” she said, bobbing down to look at the newcomer. None
entered her bar-parlour unless invited.

“Come in,” said the landlady. There was a peculiar intonation in her
complacent voice, which showed she had been expecting him, a little
irritably.

He went across into her bar-parlour. It would not hold more than eight
or ten people, all told--just the benches along the walls, the fire
between--and two little round tables.

“I began to think you weren’t coming,” said the landlady, bringing him a
whiskey.

She was a large, stout, high-coloured woman, with a fine profile,
probably Jewish. She had chestnut-coloured eyes, quick, intelligent. Her
movements were large and slow, her voice laconic.

“I’m not so late, am I?” asked Aaron.

“Yes, you are late, I should think.” She Looked up at the little clock.
“Close on nine.”

“I did some shopping,” said Aaron, with a quick smile.

“Did you indeed? That’s news, I’m sure. May we ask what you bought?”

This he did not like. But he had to answer.

“Christmas-tree candles, and toffee.”

“For the little children? Well you’ve done well for once! I must say I
recommend you. I didn’t think you had so much in you.”

She sat herself down in her seat at the end of the bench, and took up
her knitting. Aaron sat next to her. He poured water into his glass, and
drank.

“It’s warm in here,” he said, when he had swallowed the liquor.

“Yes, it is. You won’t want to keep that thick good overcoat on,”
 replied the landlady.

“No,” he said, “I think I’ll take it off.”

She watched him as he hung up his overcoat. He wore black clothes, as
usual. As he reached up to the pegs, she could see the muscles of his
shoulders, and the form of his legs. Her reddish-brown eyes seemed to
burn, and her nose, that had a subtle, beautiful Hebraic curve, seemed
to arch itself. She made a little place for him by herself, as
he returned. She carried her head thrown back, with dauntless
self-sufficiency.

There were several colliers in the room, talking quietly. They were
the superior type all, favoured by the landlady, who loved intellectual
discussion. Opposite, by the fire, sat a little, greenish man--evidently
an oriental.

“You’re very quiet all at once, Doctor,” said the landlady in her slow,
laconic voice.

“Yes.--May I have another whiskey, please?” She rose at once, powerfully
energetic.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. And she went to the bar.

“Well,” said the little Hindu doctor, “and how are things going now,
with the men?”

“The same as ever,” said Aaron.

“Yes,” said the stately voice of the landlady. “And I’m afraid they will
always be the same as ever. When will they learn wisdom?”

“But what do you call wisdom?” asked Sherardy, the Hindu. He spoke with
a little, childish lisp.

“What do I call wisdom?” repeated the landlady. “Why all acting together
for the common good. That is wisdom in my idea.”

“Yes, very well, that is so. But what do you call the common good?”
 replied the little doctor, with childish pertinence.

“Ay,” said Aaron, with a laugh, “that’s it.” The miners were all
stirring now, to take part in the discussion.

“What do I call the common good?” repeated the landlady. “That all
people should study the welfare of other people, and not only their
own.”

“They are not to study their own welfare?” said the doctor.

“Ah, that I did not say,” replied the landlady. “Let them study their
own welfare, and that of others also.”

“Well then,” said the doctor, “what is the welfare of a collier?”

“The welfare of a collier,” said the landlady, “is that he shall earn
sufficient wages to keep himself and his family comfortable, to educate
his children, and to educate himself; for that is what he wants,
education.”

“Ay, happen so,” put in Brewitt, a big, fine, good-humoured collier.
“Happen so, Mrs. Houseley. But what if you haven’t got much education,
to speak of?”

“You can always get it,” she said patronizing.

“Nay--I’m blest if you can. It’s no use tryin’ to educate a man over
forty--not by book-learning. That isn’t saying he’s a fool, neither.”

“And what better is them that’s got education?” put in another
man. “What better is the manager, or th’ under-manager, than we
are?--Pender’s yaller enough i’ th’ face.”

“He is that,” assented the men in chorus.

“But because he’s yellow in the face, as you say, Mr. Kirk,” said the
landlady largely, “that doesn’t mean he has no advantages higher than
what you have got.”

“Ay,” said Kirk. “He can ma’e more money than I can--that’s about a’ as
it comes to.”

“He can make more money,” said the landlady. “And when he’s made it, he
knows better how to use it.”

“‘Appen so, an’ a’!--What does he do, more than eat and drink and
work?--an’ take it out of hisself a sight harder than I do, by th’ looks
of him.--What’s it matter, if he eats a bit more or drinks a bit more--”

“No,” reiterated the landlady. “He not only eats and drinks. He can
read, and he can converse.”

“Me an’ a’,” said Tom Kirk, and the men burst into a laugh. “I can
read--an’ I’ve had many a talk an’ conversation with you in this house,
Mrs. Houseley--am havin’ one at this minute, seemingly.”

“SEEMINGLY, you are,” said the landlady ironically. “But do you
think there would be no difference between your conversation, and Mr.
Pender’s, if he were here so that I could enjoy his conversation?”

“An’ what difference would there be?” asked Tom Kirk. “He’d go home to
his bed just the same.”

“There, you are mistaken. He would be the better, and so should I, a
great deal better, for a little genuine conversation.”

“If it’s conversation as ma’es his behind drop--” said Tom Kirk. “An’
puts th’ bile in his face--” said Brewitt. There was a general laugh.

“I can see it’s no use talking about it any further,” said the landlady,
lifting her head dangerously.

“But look here, Mrs. Houseley, do you really think it makes much
difference to a man, whether he can hold a serious conversation or not?”
 asked the doctor.

“I do indeed, all the difference in the world--To me, there is no
greater difference, than between an educated man and an uneducated man.”

“And where does it come in?” asked Kirk.

“But wait a bit, now,” said Aaron Sisson. “You take an educated
man--take Pender. What’s his education for? What does he scheme
for?--What does he contrive for? What does he talk for?--”

“For all the purposes of his life,” replied the landlady.

“Ay, an’ what’s the purpose of his life?” insisted Aaron Sisson.

“The purpose of his life,” repeated the landlady, at a loss. “I should
think he knows that best himself.”

“No better than I know it--and you know it,” said Aaron.

“Well,” said the landlady, “if you know, then speak out. What is it?”

“To make more money for the firm--and so make his own chance of a rise
better.”

The landlady was baffled for some moments. Then she said:

“Yes, and suppose that he does. Is there any harm in it? Isn’t it his
duty to do what he can for himself? Don’t you try to earn all you can?”

“Ay,” said Aaron. “But there’s soon a limit to what I can earn.--It’s
like this. When you work it out, everything comes to money. Reckon it as
you like, it’s money on both sides. It’s money we live for, and money is
what our lives is worth--nothing else. Money we live for, and money we
are when we’re dead: that or nothing. An’ it’s money as is between the
masters and us. There’s a few educated ones got hold of one end of the
rope, and all the lot of us hanging on to th’ other end, an’ we s’ll go
on pulling our guts out, time in, time out--”

“But they’ve got th’ long end o’ th’ rope, th’ masters has,” said
Brewitt.

“For as long as one holds, the other will pull,” concluded Aaron Sisson
philosophically.

“An’ I’m almighty sure o’ that,” said Kirk. There was a little pause.

“Yes, that’s all there is in the minds of you men,” said the landlady.
“But what can be done with the money, that you never think of--the
education of the children, the improvement of conditions--”

“Educate the children, so that they can lay hold of the long end of the
rope, instead of the short end,” said the doctor, with a little giggle.

“Ay, that’s it,” said Brewitt. “I’ve pulled at th’ short end, an’ my
lads may do th’ same.”

“A selfish policy,” put in the landlady.

“Selfish or not, they may do it.”

“Till the crack o’ doom,” said Aaron, with a glistening smile.

“Or the crack o’ th’ rope,” said Brewitt.

“Yes, and THEN WHAT?” cried the landlady.

“Then we all drop on our backsides,” said Kirk. There was a general
laugh, and an uneasy silence.

“All I can say of you men,” said the landlady, “is that you have a
narrow, selfish policy.--Instead of thinking of the children, instead of
thinking of improving the world you live in--”

“We hang on, British bulldog breed,” said Brewitt. There was a general
laugh.

“Yes, and little wiser than dogs, wrangling for a bone,” said the
landlady.

“Are we to let t’ other side run off wi’ th’ bone, then, while we sit on
our stunts an’ yowl for it?” asked Brewitt.

“No indeed. There can be wisdom in everything.--It’s what you DO with
the money, when you’ve got it,” said the landlady, “that’s where the
importance lies.”

“It’s Missis as gets it,” said Kirk. “It doesn’t stop wi’ us.” “Ay, it’s
the wife as gets it, ninety per cent,” they all concurred.

“And who SHOULD have the money, indeed, if not your wives? They have
everything to do with the money. What idea have you, but to waste it!”

“Women waste nothing--they couldn’t if they tried,” said Aaron Sisson.

There was a lull for some minutes. The men were all stimulated by drink.
The landlady kept them going. She herself sipped a glass of brandy--but
slowly. She sat near to Sisson--and the great fierce warmth of her
presence enveloped him particularly. He loved so to luxuriate, like a
cat, in the presence of a violent woman. He knew that tonight she was
feeling very nice to him--a female glow that came out of her to him.
Sometimes when she put down her knitting, or took it up again from
the bench beside him, her fingers just touched his thigh, and the fine
electricity ran over his body, as if he were a cat tingling at a caress.

And yet he was not happy--nor comfortable. There was a hard, opposing
core in him, that neither the whiskey nor the woman could dissolve or
soothe, tonight. It remained hard, nay, became harder and more deeply
antagonistic to his surroundings, every moment. He recognised it as a
secret malady he suffered from: this strained, unacknowledged opposition
to his surroundings, a hard core of irrational, exhausting withholding
of himself. Irritating, because he still WANTED to give himself. A woman
and whiskey, these were usually a remedy--and music. But lately these
had begun to fail him. No, there was something in him that would not
give in--neither to the whiskey, nor the woman, nor even the music.
Even in the midst of his best music, it sat in the middle of him, this
invisible black dog, and growled and waited, never to be cajoled. He
knew of its presence--and was a little uneasy. For of course he _wanted_
to let himself go, to feel rosy and loving and all that. But at the very
thought, the black dog showed its teeth.

Still he kept the beast at bay--with all his will he kept himself as it
were genial. He wanted to melt and be rosy, happy.

He sipped his whiskey with gratification, he luxuriated in the presence
of the landlady, very confident of the strength of her liking for him.
He glanced at her profile--that fine throw-back of her hostile head,
wicked in the midst of her benevolence; that subtle, really very
beautiful delicate curve of her nose, that moved him exactly like a
piece of pure sound. But tonight it did not overcome him. There was a
devilish little cold eye in his brain that was not taken in by what he
saw.

A terrible obstinacy located itself in him. He saw the fine,
rich-coloured, secretive face of the Hebrew woman, so loudly
self-righteous, and so dangerous, so destructive, so lustful--and he
waited for his blood to melt with passion for her. But not tonight.
Tonight his innermost heart was hard and cold as ice. The very danger
and lustfulness of her, which had so pricked his senses, now made him
colder. He disliked her at her tricks. He saw her once too often. Her
and all women. Bah, the love game! And the whiskey that was to help in
the game! He had drowned himself once too often in whiskey and in love.
Now he floated like a corpse in both, with a cold, hostile eye.

And at least half of his inward fume was anger because he could no
longer drown. Nothing would have pleased him better than to feel his
senses melting and swimming into oneness with the dark. But impossible!
Cold, with a white fury inside him, he floated wide eyed and apart as
a corpse. He thought of the gentle love of his first married years, and
became only whiter and colder, set in more intense obstinacy. A wave of
revulsion lifted him.

He became aware that he was deadly antagonistic to the landlady, that
he disliked his whole circumstances. A cold, diabolical consciousness
detached itself from his state of semi-intoxication.

“Is it pretty much the same out there in India?” he asked of the doctor,
suddenly.

The doctor started, and attended to him on his own level.

“Probably,” he answered. “It is worse.”

“Worse!” exclaimed Aaron Sisson. “How’s that?”

“Why, because, in a way the people of India have an easier time even
than the people of England. Because they have no responsibility. The
British Government takes the responsibility. And the people have nothing
to do, except their bit of work--and talk perhaps about national rule,
just for a pastime.”

“They have to earn their living?” said Sisson.

“Yes,” said the little doctor, who had lived for some years among the
colliers, and become quite familiar with them. “Yes, they have to earn
their living--and then no more. That’s why the British Government is the
worst thing possible for them. It is the worst thing possible. And not
because it is a bad government. Really, it is not a bad government. It
is a good one--and they know it--much better than they would make for
themselves, probably. But for that reason it is so very bad.”

The little oriental laughed a queer, sniggering laugh. His eyes
were very bright, dilated, completely black. He was looking into the
ice-blue, pointed eyes of Aaron Sisson. They were both intoxicated--but
grimly so. They looked at each other in elemental difference.

The whole room was now attending to this new conversation: which they
all accepted as serious. For Aaron was considered a special man, a man
of peculiar understanding, even though as a rule he said little.

“If it is a good government, doctor, how can it be so bad for the
people?” said the landlady.

The doctor’s eyes quivered for the fraction of a second, as he watched
the other man. He did not look at the landlady.

“It would not matter what kind of mess they made--and they would make
a mess, if they governed themselves, the people of India. They would
probably make the greatest muddle possible--and start killing
one another. But it wouldn’t matter if they exterminated half the
population, so long as they did it themselves, and were responsible for
it.”

Again his eyes dilated, utterly black, to the eyes of the other man, and
an arch little smile flickered on his face.

“I think it would matter very much indeed,” said the landlady. “They had
far better NOT govern themselves.”

She was, for some reason, becoming angry. The little greenish doctor
emptied his glass, and smiled again.

“But what difference does it make,” said Aaron Sisson, “whether they
govern themselves or not? They only live till they die, either way.” And
he smiled faintly. He had not really listened to the doctor. The terms
“British Government,” and “bad for the people--good for the people,”
 made him malevolently angry.

The doctor was nonplussed for a moment. Then he gathered himself
together.

“It matters,” he said; “it matters.--People should always be responsible
for themselves. How can any people be responsible for another race
of people, and for a race much older than they are, and not at all
children.”

Aaron Sisson watched the other’s dark face, with its utterly exposed
eyes. He was in a state of semi-intoxicated anger and clairvoyance. He
saw in the black, void, glistening eyes of the oriental only the same
danger, the same menace that he saw in the landlady. Fair, wise, even
benevolent words: always the human good speaking, and always underneath,
something hateful, something detestable and murderous. Wise speech
and good intentions--they were invariably maggoty with these secret
inclinations to destroy the man in the man. Whenever he heard anyone
holding forth: the landlady, this doctor, the spokesman on the pit
bank: or when he read the all-righteous newspaper; his soul curdled with
revulsion as from something foul. Even the infernal love and good-will
of his wife. To hell with good-will! It was more hateful than ill-will.
Self-righteous bullying, like poison gas!

The landlady looked at the clock.

“Ten minutes to, gentlemen,” she said coldly. For she too knew that
Aaron was spoiled for her for that night.

The men began to take their leave, shakily. The little doctor seemed
to evaporate. The landlady helped Aaron on with his coat. She saw the
curious whiteness round his nostrils and his eyes, the fixed hellish
look on his face.

“You’ll eat a mince-pie in the kitchen with us, for luck?” she said to
him, detaining him till last.

But he turned laughing to her.

“Nay,” he said, “I must be getting home.”

He turned and went straight out of the house. Watching him, the
landlady’s face became yellow with passion and rage.

“That little poisonous Indian viper,” she said aloud, attributing
Aaron’s mood to the doctor. Her husband was noisily bolting the door.

Outside it was dark and frosty. A gang of men lingered in the road near
the closed door. Aaron found himself among them, his heart bitterer than
steel.

The men were dispersing. He should take the road home. But the devil was
in it, if he could take a stride in the homeward direction. There seemed
a wall in front of him. He veered. But neither could he take a stride in
the opposite direction. So he was destined to veer round, like some sort
of weather-cock, there in the middle of the dark road outside the “Royal
Oak.”

But as he turned, he caught sight of a third exit. Almost opposite was
the mouth of Shottle Lane, which led off under trees, at right angles
to the highroad, up to New Brunswick Colliery. He veered towards the
off-chance of this opening, in a delirium of icy fury, and plunged away
into the dark lane, walking slowly, on firm legs.



CHAPTER III. “THE LIGHTED TREE”


It is remarkable how many odd or extraordinary people there are in
England. We hear continual complaints of the stodgy dullness of the
English. It would be quite as just to complain of their freakish,
unusual characters. Only _en masse_ the metal is all Britannia.

In an ugly little mining town we find the odd ones just as distinct as
anywhere else. Only it happens that dull people invariably meet dull
people, and odd individuals always come across odd individuals, no
matter where they may be. So that to each kind society seems all of a
piece.

At one end of the dark tree-covered Shottle Lane stood the “Royal Oak”
 public house; and Mrs. Houseley was certainly an odd woman. At the
other end of the lane was Shottle House, where the Bricknells lived; the
Bricknells were odd, also. Alfred Bricknell, the old man, was one of the
partners in the Colliery firm. His English was incorrect, his accent,
broad Derbyshire, and he was not a gentleman in the snobbish sense of
the word. Yet he was well-to-do, and very stuck-up. His wife was dead.

Shottle House stood two hundred yards beyond New Brunswick Colliery.
The colliery was imbedded in a plantation, whence its burning pit-hill
glowed, fumed, and stank sulphur in the nostrils of the Bricknells.
Even war-time efforts had not put out this refuse fire. Apart from this,
Shottle House was a pleasant square house, rather old, with shrubberies
and lawns. It ended the lane in a dead end. Only a field-path trekked
away to the left.

On this particular Christmas Eve Alfred Bricknell had only two of his
children at home. Of the others, one daughter was unhappily married, and
away in India weeping herself thinner; another was nursing her babies in
Streatham. Jim, the hope of the house, and Julia, now married to Robert
Cunningham, had come home for Christmas.

The party was seated in the drawing-room, that the grown-up daughters
had made very fine during their periods of courtship. Its walls were
hung with fine grey canvas, it had a large, silvery grey, silky carpet,
and the furniture was covered with dark green silky material. Into this
reticence pieces of futurism, Omega cushions and Van-Gogh-like pictures
exploded their colours. Such _chic_ would certainly not have been looked
for up Shottle Lane.

The old man sat in his high grey arm-chair very near an enormous coal
fire. In this house there was no coal-rationing. The finest coal was
arranged to obtain a gigantic glow such as a coal-owner may well enjoy,
a great, intense mass of pure red fire. At this fire Alfred Bricknell
toasted his tan, lambs-wool-lined slippers.

He was a large man, wearing a loose grey suit, and sprawling in the
large grey arm-chair. The soft lamp-light fell on his clean, bald,
Michael-Angelo head, across which a few pure hairs glittered. His chin
was sunk on his breast, so that his sparse but strong-haired white
beard, in which every strand stood distinct, like spun glass lithe and
elastic, curved now upwards and inwards, in a curious curve returning
upon him. He seemed to be sunk in stern, prophet-like meditation. As a
matter of fact, he was asleep after a heavy meal.

Across, seated on a pouffe on the other side of the fire, was a
cameo-like girl with neat black hair done tight and bright in the French
mode. She had strangely-drawn eyebrows, and her colour was brilliant.
She was hot, leaning back behind the shaft of old marble of the
mantel-piece, to escape the fire. She wore a simple dress of apple-green
satin, with full sleeves and ample skirt and a tiny bodice of green
cloth. This was Josephine Ford, the girl Jim was engaged to.

Jim Bricknell himself was a tall big fellow of thirty-eight. He sat in
a chair in front of the fire, some distance back, and stretched his long
legs far in front of him. His chin too was sunk on his breast, his young
forehead was bald, and raised in odd wrinkles, he had a silent half-grin
on his face, a little tipsy, a little satyr-like. His small moustache
was reddish.

Behind him a round table was covered with cigarettes, sweets, and
bottles. It was evident Jim Bricknell drank beer for choice. He wanted
to get fat--that was his idea. But he couldn’t bring it off: he was
thin, though not too thin, except to his own thinking.

His sister Julia was bunched up in a low chair between him and his
father. She too was a tall stag of a thing, but she sat bunched up like
a witch. She wore a wine-purple dress, her arms seemed to poke out of
the sleeves, and she had dragged her brown hair into straight, untidy
strands. Yet she had real beauty. She was talking to the young man who
was not her husband: a fair, pale, fattish young fellow in pince-nez and
dark clothes. This was Cyril Scott, a friend.

The only other person stood at the round table pouring out red wine. He
was a fresh, stoutish young Englishman in khaki, Julia’s husband, Robert
Cunningham, a lieutenant about to be demobilised, when he would become a
sculptor once more. He drank red wine in large throatfuls, and his eyes
grew a little moist. The room was hot and subdued, everyone was silent.

“I say,” said Robert suddenly, from the rear--“anybody have a drink?
Don’t you find it rather hot?”

“Is there another bottle of beer there?” said Jim, without moving, too
settled even to stir an eye-lid.

“Yes--I think there is,” said Robert.

“Thanks--don’t open it yet,” murmured Jim.

“Have a drink, Josephine?” said Robert.

“No thank you,” said Josephine, bowing slightly.

Finding the drinks did not go, Robert went round with the cigarettes.
Josephine Ford looked at the white rolls.

“Thank you,” she said, and taking one, suddenly licked her rather full,
dry red lips with the rapid tip of her tongue. It was an odd movement,
suggesting a snake’s flicker. She put her cigarette between her lips,
and waited. Her movements were very quiet and well bred; but perhaps too
quiet, they had the dangerous impassivity of the Bohemian, Parisian or
American rather than English.

“Cigarette, Julia?” said Robert to his wife.

She seemed to start or twitch, as if dazed. Then she looked up at her
husband with a queer smile, puckering the corners of her eyes. He looked
at the cigarettes, not at her. His face had the blunt voluptuous gravity
of a young lion, a great cat. She kept him standing for some moments
impassively. Then suddenly she hung her long, delicate fingers over
the box, in doubt, and spasmodically jabbed at the cigarettes, clumsily
raking one out at last.

“Thank you, dear--thank you,” she cried, rather high, looking up and
smiling once more. He turned calmly aside, offering the cigarettes to
Scott, who refused.

“Oh!” said Julia, sucking the end of her cigarette. “Robert is so happy
with all the good things--aren’t you dear?” she sang, breaking into a
hurried laugh. “We aren’t used to such luxurious living, we aren’t--ARE
WE DEAR--No, we’re not such swells as this, we’re not. Oh, ROBBIE, isn’t
it all right, isn’t it just all right?” She tailed off into her hurried,
wild, repeated laugh. “We’re so happy in a land of plenty, AREN’T WE
DEAR?”

“Do you mean I’m greedy, Julia?” said Robert.

“Greedy!--Oh, greedy!--he asks if he’s greedy?--no you’re not greedy,
Robbie, you’re not greedy. I want you to be happy.”

“I’m quite happy,” he returned.

“Oh, he’s happy!--Really!--he’s happy! Oh, what an accomplishment! Oh,
my word!” Julia puckered her eyes and laughed herself into a nervous
twitching silence.

Robert went round with the matches. Julia sucked her cigarette.

“Give us a light, Robbie, if you ARE happy!” she cried.

“It’s coming,” he answered.

Josephine smoked with short, sharp puffs. Julia sucked wildly at her
light. Robert returned to his red wine. Jim Bricknell suddenly roused
up, looked round on the company, smiling a little vacuously and showing
his odd, pointed teeth.

“Where’s the beer?” he asked, in deep tones, smiling full into
Josephine’s face, as if she were going to produce it by some sleight of
hand. Then he wheeled round to the table, and was soon pouring beer down
his throat as down a pipe. Then he dropped supine again. Cyril Scott was
silently absorbing gin and water.

“I say,” said Jim, from the remote depths of his sprawling. “Isn’t there
something we could do to while the time away?”

Everybody suddenly laughed--it sounded so remote and absurd.

“What, play bridge or poker or something conventional of that sort?”
 said Josephine in her distinct voice, speaking to him as if he were a
child.

“Oh, damn bridge,” said Jim in his sleep-voice. Then he began pulling
his powerful length together. He sat on the edge of his chair-seat,
leaning forward, peering into all the faces and grinning.

“Don’t look at me like that--so long--” said Josephine, in her
self-contained voice. “You make me uncomfortable.” She gave an odd
little grunt of a laugh, and the tip of her tongue went over her lips as
she glanced sharply, half furtively round the room.

“I like looking at you,” said Jim, his smile becoming more malicious.

“But you shouldn’t, when I tell you not,” she returned.

Jim twisted round to look at the state of the bottles. The father also
came awake. He sat up.

“Isn’t it time,” he said, “that you all put away your glasses and
cigarettes and thought of bed?”

Jim rolled slowly round towards his father, sprawling in the long chair.

“Ah, Dad,” he said, “tonight’s the night! Tonight’s some night,
Dad.--You can sleep any time--” his grin widened--“but there aren’t many
nights to sit here--like this--Eh?”

He was looking up all the time into the face of his father, full and
nakedly lifting his face to the face of his father, and smiling fixedly.
The father, who was perfectly sober, except for the contagion from the
young people, felt a wild tremor go through his heart as he gazed on the
face of his boy. He rose stiffly.

“You want to stay?” he said. “You want to stay!--Well then--well then,
I’ll leave you. But don’t be long.” The old man rose to his full height,
rather majestic. The four younger people also rose respectfully--only
Jim lay still prostrate in his chair, twisting up his face towards his
father.

“You won’t stay long,” said the old man, looking round a little
bewildered. He was seeking a responsible eye. Josephine was the only one
who had any feeling for him.

“No, we won’t stay long, Mr. Bricknell,” she said gravely.

“Good night, Dad,” said Jim, as his father left the room.

Josephine went to the window. She had rather a stiff, _poupee_ walk.

“How is the night?” she said, as if to change the whole feeling in
the room. She pushed back the thick grey-silk curtains. “Why?” she
exclaimed. “What is that light burning? A red light?”

“Oh, that’s only the pit-bank on fire,” said Robert, who had followed
her.

“How strange!--Why is it burning now?”

“It always burns, unfortunately--it is most consistent at it. It is the
refuse from the mines. It has been burning for years, in spite of all
efforts to the contrary.”

“How very curious! May we look at it?” Josephine now turned the handle
of the French windows, and stepped out.

“Beautiful!” they heard her voice exclaim from outside.

In the room, Julia laid her hand gently, protectively over the hand of
Cyril Scott.

“Josephine and Robert are admiring the night together!” she said,
smiling with subtle tenderness to him.

“Naturally! Young people always do these romantic things,” replied Cyril
Scott. He was twenty-two years old, so he could afford to be cynical.

“Do they?--Don’t you think it’s nice of them?” she said, gently removing
her hand from his. His eyes were shining with pleasure.

“I do. I envy them enormously. One only needs to be sufficiently naive,”
 he said.

“One does, doesn’t one!” cooed Julia.

“I say, do you hear the bells?” said Robert, poking his head into the
room.

“No, dear! Do you?” replied Julia.

“Bells! Hear the bells! Bells!” exclaimed the half-tipsy and
self-conscious Jim. And he rolled in his chair in an explosion of
sudden, silent laughter, showing his mouthful of pointed teeth, like
a dog. Then he gradually gathered himself together, found his feet,
smiling fixedly.

“Pretty cool night!” he said aloud, when he felt the air on his almost
bald head. The darkness smelt of sulphur.

Josephine and Robert had moved out of sight. Julia was abstracted,
following them with her eyes. With almost supernatural keenness she
seemed to catch their voices from the distance.

“Yes, Josephine, WOULDN’T that be AWFULLY ROMANTIC!”--she suddenly
called shrilly.

The pair in the distance started.

“What--!” they heard Josephine’s sharp exclamation.

“What’s that?--What would be romantic?” said Jim as he lurched up and
caught hold of Cyril Scott’s arm.

“Josephine wants to make a great illumination of the grounds of the
estate,” said Julia, magniloquent.

“No--no--I didn’t say it,” remonstrated Josephine.

“What Josephine said,” explained Robert, “was simply that it would be
pretty to put candles on one of the growing trees, instead of having a
Christmas-tree indoors.”

“Oh, Josephine, how sweet of you!” cried Julia.

Cyril Scott giggled.

“Good egg! Champion idea, Josey, my lass. Eh? What--!” cried Jim. “Why
not carry it out--eh? Why not? Most attractive.” He leaned forward over
Josephine, and grinned.

“Oh, no!” expostulated Josephine. “It all sounds so silly now. No. Let
us go indoors and go to bed.”

“NO, Josephine dear--No! It’s a LOVELY IDEA!” cried Julia. “Let’s get
candles and lanterns and things--”

“Let’s!” grinned Jim. “Let’s, everybody--let’s.”

“Shall we really?” asked Robert. “Shall we illuminate one of the
fir-trees by the lawn?”

“Yes! How lovely!” cried Julia. “I’ll fetch the candles.”

“The women must put on warm cloaks,” said Robert.

They trooped indoors for coats and wraps and candles and lanterns. Then,
lighted by a bicycle lamp, they trooped off to the shed to twist wire
round the candles for holders. They clustered round the bench.

“I say,” said Julia, “doesn’t Cyril look like a pilot on a stormy night!
Oh, I say--!” and she went into one of her hurried laughs.

They all looked at Cyril Scott, who was standing sheepishly in the
background, in a very large overcoat, smoking a large pipe. The
young man was uncomfortable, but assumed a stoic air of philosophic
indifference.

Soon they were busy round a prickly fir-tree at the end of the lawn. Jim
stood in the background vaguely staring. The bicycle lamp sent a beam
of strong white light deep into the uncanny foliage, heads clustered and
hands worked. The night above was silent, dim. There was no wind. In
the near distance they could hear the panting of some engine at the
colliery.

“Shall we light them as we fix them,” asked Robert, “or save them for
one grand rocket at the end?”

“Oh, as we do them,” said Cyril Scott, who had lacerated his fingers and
wanted to see some reward.

A match spluttered. One naked little flame sprang alight among the dark
foliage. The candle burned tremulously, naked. They all were silent.

“We ought to do a ritual dance! We ought to worship the tree,” sang
Julia, in her high voice.

“Hold on a minute. We’ll have a little more illumination,” said Robert.

“Why yes. We want more than one candle,” said Josephine.

But Julia had dropped the cloak in which she was huddled, and with arms
slung asunder was sliding, waving, crouching in a _pas seul_ before the
tree, looking like an animated bough herself.

Jim, who was hugging his pipe in the background, broke into a short,
harsh, cackling laugh.

“Aren’t we fools!” he cried. “What? Oh, God’s love, aren’t we fools!”

“No--why?” cried Josephine, amused but resentful.

But Jim vouchsafed nothing further, only stood like a Red Indian
gripping his pipe.

The beam of the bicycle-lamp moved and fell upon the hands and faces
of the young people, and penetrated the recesses of the secret trees.
Several little tongues of flame clipped sensitive and ruddy on the naked
air, sending a faint glow over the needle foliage. They gave a strange,
perpendicular aspiration in the night. Julia waved slowly in her tree
dance. Jim stood apart, with his legs straddled, a motionless figure.

The party round the tree became absorbed and excited as more ruddy
tongues of flame pricked upward from the dark tree. Pale candles became
evident, the air was luminous. The illumination was becoming complete,
harmonious.

Josephine suddenly looked round.

“Why-y-y!” came her long note of alarm.

A man in a bowler hat and a black overcoat stood on the edge of the
twilight.

“What is it?” cried Julia.

“_Homo sapiens_!” said Robert, the lieutenant. “Hand the light, Cyril.”
 He played the beam of light full on the intruder; a man in a bowler hat,
with a black overcoat buttoned to his throat, a pale, dazed, blinking
face. The hat was tilted at a slightly jaunty angle over the left eye,
the man was well-featured. He did not speak.

“Did you want anything?” asked Robert, from behind the light.

Aaron Sisson blinked, trying to see who addressed him. To him, they were
all illusory. He did not answer.

“Anything you wanted?” repeated Robert, military, rather peremptory.

Jim suddenly doubled himself up and burst into a loud harsh cackle of
laughter. Whoop! he went, and doubled himself up with laughter. Whoop!
Whoop! he went, and fell on the ground and writhed with laughter. He
was in that state of intoxication when he could find no release from
maddening self-consciousness. He knew what he was doing, he did
it deliberately. And yet he was also beside himself, in a sort of
hysterics. He could not help himself in exasperated self-consciousness.

The others all began to laugh, unavoidably. It was a contagion. They
laughed helplessly and foolishly. Only Robert was anxious.

“I’m afraid he’ll wake the house,” he said, looking at the doubled up
figure of Jim writhing on the grass and whooping loudly.

“Or not enough,” put in Cyril Scott. He twigged Jim’s condition.

“No--no!” cried Josephine, weak with laughing in spite of herself.
“No--it’s too long--I’m like to die laughing--”

Jim embraced the earth in his convulsions. Even Robert shook quite
weakly with laughter. His face was red, his eyes full of dancing water.
Yet he managed to articulate.

“I say, you know, you’ll bring the old man down.” Then he went off again
into spasms.

“Hu! Hu!” whooped Jim, subsiding. “Hu!”

He rolled over on to his back, and lay silent. The others also became
weakly silent.

“What’s amiss?” said Aaron Sisson, breaking this spell.

They all began to laugh again, except Jim, who lay on his back looking
up at the strange sky.

“What’re you laughing at?” repeated Aaron.

“We’re laughing at the man on the ground,” replied Josephine. “I think
he’s drunk a little too much.”

“Ay,” said Aaron, standing mute and obstinate.

“Did you want anything?” Robert enquired once more.

“Eh?” Aaron looked up. “Me? No, not me.” A sort of inertia kept him
rooted. The young people looked at one another and began to laugh,
rather embarrassed.

“Another!” said Cyril Scott cynically.

They wished he would go away. There was a pause.

“What do you reckon stars are?” asked the sepulchral voice of Jim. He
still lay flat on his back on the grass.

Josephine went to him and pulled at his coat.

“Get up,” she said. “You’ll take cold. Get up now, we’re going indoors.”

“What do you reckon stars are?” he persisted.

Aaron Sisson stood on the edge of the light, smilingly staring at the
scene, like a boy out of his place, but stubbornly keeping his ground.

“Get up now,” said Josephine. “We’ve had enough.” But Jim would not
move.

Robert went with the bicycle lamp and stood at Aaron’s side.

“Shall I show you a light to the road--you’re off your track,” he said.
“You’re in the grounds of Shottle House.”

“I can find my road,” said Aaron. “Thank you.”

Jim suddenly got up and went to peer at the stranger, poking his face
close to Aaron’s face.

“Right-o,” he replied. “You’re not half a bad sort of chap--Cheery-o!
What’s your drink?”

“Mine--whiskey,” said Aaron.

“Come in and have one. We’re the only sober couple in the bunch--what?”
 cried Jim.

Aaron stood unmoving, static in everything. Jim took him by the arm
affectionately. The stranger looked at the flickering tree, with its
tiers of lights.

“A Christmas tree,” he said, jerking his head and smiling.

“That’s right, old man,” said Jim, seeming thoroughly sober now. “Come
indoors and have a drink.”

Aaron Sisson negatively allowed himself to be led off. The others
followed in silence, leaving the tree to flicker the night through. The
stranger stumbled at the open window-door.

“Mind the step,” said Jim affectionately.

They crowded to the fire, which was still hot. The newcomer looked round
vaguely. Jim took his bowler hat and gave him a chair. He sat without
looking round, a remote, abstract look on his face. He was very pale,
and seemed-inwardly absorbed.

The party threw off their wraps and sat around. Josephine turned to
Aaron Sisson, who sat with a glass of whiskey in his hand, rather slack
in his chair, in his thickish overcoat. He did not want to drink. His
hair was blond, quite tidy, his mouth and chin handsome but a little
obstinate, his eyes inscrutable. His pallor was not natural to him.
Though he kept the appearance of a smile, underneath he was hard and
opposed. He did not wish to be with these people, and yet, mechanically,
he stayed.

“Do you feel quite well?” Josephine asked him.

He looked at her quickly.

“Me?” he said. He smiled faintly. “Yes, I’m all right.” Then he dropped
his head again and seemed oblivious.

“Tell us your name,” said Jim affectionately.

The stranger looked up.

“My name’s Aaron Sisson, if it’s anything to you,” he said.

Jim began to grin.

“It’s a name I don’t know,” he said. Then he named all the party
present. But the stranger hardly heeded, though his eyes looked
curiously from one to the other, slow, shrewd, clairvoyant.

“Were you on your way home?” asked Robert, huffy.

The stranger lifted his head and looked at him.

“Home!” he repeated. “No. The other road--” He indicated the direction
with his head, and smiled faintly.

“Beldover?” inquired Robert.

“Yes.”

He had dropped his head again, as if he did not want to look at them.

To Josephine, the pale, impassive, blank-seeming face, the blue eyes
with the smile which wasn’t a smile, and the continual dropping of the
well-shaped head was curiously affecting. She wanted to cry.

“Are you a miner?” Robert asked, _de haute en bas_.

“No,” cried Josephine. She had looked at his hands.

“Men’s checkweighman,” replied Aaron. He had emptied his glass. He put
it on the table.

“Have another?” said Jim, who was attending fixedly, with curious
absorption, to the stranger.

“No,” cried Josephine, “no more.”

Aaron looked at Jim, then at her, and smiled slowly, with remote
bitterness. Then he lowered his head again. His hands were loosely
clasped between his knees.

“What about the wife?” said Robert--the young lieutenant.

“What about the wife and kiddies? You’re a married man, aren’t you?”

The sardonic look of the stranger rested on the subaltern.

“Yes,” he said.

“Won’t they be expecting you?” said Robert, trying to keep his temper
and his tone of authority.

“I expect they will--”

“Then you’d better be getting along, hadn’t you?”

The eyes of the intruder rested all the time on the flushed subaltern.
The look on Aaron’s face became slowly satirical.

“Oh, dry up the army touch,” said Jim contemptuously, to Robert. “We’re
all civvies here. We’re all right, aren’t we?” he said loudly, turning
to the stranger with a grin that showed his pointed teeth.

Aaron gave a brief laugh of acknowledgement.

“How many children have you?” sang Julia from her distance.

“Three.”

“Girls or boys?”

“Girls.”

“All girls? Dear little things! How old?”

“Oldest eight--youngest nine months--”

“So small!” sang Julia, with real tenderness now--Aaron dropped his
head. “But you’re going home to them, aren’t you?” said Josephine, in
whose eyes the tears had already risen. He looked up at her, at her
tears. His face had the same pale perverse smile.

“Not tonight,” he said.

“But why? You’re wrong!” cried Josephine.

He dropped his head and became oblivious.

“Well!” said Cyril Scott, rising at last with a bored exclamation. “I
think I’ll retire.”

“Will you?” said Julia, also rising. “You’ll find your candle outside.”

She went out. Scott bade good night, and followed her. The four people
remained in the room, quite silent. Then Robert rose and began to walk
about, agitated.

“Don’t you go back to ‘em. Have a night out. You stop here tonight,” Jim
said suddenly, in a quiet intimate tone.

The stranger turned his head and looked at him, considering.

“Yes?” he said. He seemed to be smiling coldly.

“Oh, but!” cried Josephine. “Your wife and your children! Won’t they be
awfully bothered? Isn’t it awfully unkind to them?”

She rose in her eagerness. He sat turning up his face to her. She could
not understand his expression.

“Won’t you go home to them?” she said, hysterical.

“Not tonight,” he replied quietly, again smiling.

“You’re wrong!” she cried. “You’re wrong!” And so she hurried out of the
room in tears.

“Er--what bed do you propose to put him in?” asked Robert rather
officer-like.

“Don’t propose at all, my lad,” replied Jim, ironically--he did not like
Robert. Then to the stranger he said:

“You’ll be all right on the couch in my room?--it’s a good couch, big
enough, plenty of rugs--” His voice was easy and intimate.

Aaron looked at him, and nodded.

They had another drink each, and at last the two set off, rather
stumbling, upstairs. Aaron carried his bowler hat with him.

Robert remained pacing in the drawing-room for some time. Then he went
out, to return in a little while. He extinguished the lamps and saw that
the fire was safe. Then he went to fasten the window-doors securely.
Outside he saw the uncanny glimmer of candles across the lawn. He had
half a mind to go out and extinguish them--but he did not. So he went
upstairs and the house was quiet. Faint crumbs of snow were falling
outside.

When Jim woke in the morning Aaron had gone. Only on the floor were two
packets of Christmas-tree candles, fallen from the stranger’s pockets.
He had gone through the drawing-room door, as he had come. The housemaid
said that while she was cleaning the grate in the dining-room she heard
someone go into the drawing-room: a parlour-maid had even seen someone
come out of Jim’s bedroom. But they had both thought it was Jim himself,
for he was an unsettled house mate.

There was a thin film of snow, a lovely Christmas morning.



CHAPTER IV. “THE PILLAR OF SALT”


Our story will not yet see daylight. A few days after Christmas, Aaron
sat in the open shed at the bottom of his own garden, looking out on the
rainy darkness. No one knew he was there. It was some time after six in
the evening.

From where he sat, he looked straight up the garden to the house. The
blind was not drawn in the middle kitchen, he could see the figures of
his wife and one child. There was a light also in the upstairs window.
His wife was gone upstairs again. He wondered if she had the baby ill.
He could see her figure vaguely behind the lace curtains of the bedroom.
It was like looking at his home through the wrong end of a telescope.
Now the little girls had gone from the middle room: only to return in a
moment.

His attention strayed. He watched the light falling from the window
of the next-door house. Uneasily, he looked along the whole range of
houses. The street sloped down-hill, and the backs were open to the
fields. So he saw a curious succession of lighted windows, between which
jutted the intermediary back premises, scullery and outhouse, in dark
little blocks. It was something like the keyboard of a piano: more
still, like a succession of musical notes. For the rectangular planes
of light were of different intensities, some bright and keen, some soft,
warm, like candle-light, and there was one surface of pure red light,
one or two were almost invisible, dark green. So the long scale of
lights seemed to trill across the darkness, now bright, now dim,
swelling and sinking. The effect was strange.

And thus the whole private life of the street was threaded in lights.
There was a sense of indecent exposure, from so many backs. He felt
himself almost in physical contact with this contiguous stretch of back
premises. He heard the familiar sound of water gushing from the sink in
to the grate, the dropping of a pail outside the door, the clink of a
coal shovel, the banging of a door, the sound of voices. So many houses
cheek by jowl, so many squirming lives, so many back yards, back doors
giving on to the night. It was revolting.

Away in the street itself, a boy was calling the newspaper: “--‘NING
POST! --‘NING PO-O-ST!” It was a long, melancholy howl, and seemed
to epitomise the whole of the dark, wet, secretive, thickly-inhabited
night. A figure passed the window of Aaron’s own house, entered, and
stood inside the room talking to Mrs. Sisson. It was a young woman in
a brown mackintosh and a black hat. She stood under the incandescent
light, and her hat nearly knocked the globe. Next door a man had run out
in his shirt sleeves: this time a young, dark-headed collier running to
the gate for a newspaper, running bare-headed, coatless, slippered in
the rain. He had got his news-sheet, and was returning. And just at that
moment the young man’s wife came out, shading her candle with a lading
tin. She was going to the coal-house for some coal. Her husband passed
her on the threshold. She could be heard breaking the bits of coal and
placing them on the dustpan. The light from her candle fell faintly
behind her. Then she went back, blown by a swirl of wind. But again she
was at the door, hastily standing her iron shovel against the wall. Then
she shut the back door with a bang. These noises seemed to scrape and
strike the night.

In Aaron’s own house, the young person was still talking to Mrs. Sisson.
Millicent came out, sheltering a candle with her hand. The candle blew
out. She ran indoors, and emerged again, her white pinafore fluttering.
This time she performed her little journey safely. He could see the
faint glimmer of her candle emerging secretly from the closet.

The young person was taking her leave. He could hear her
sympathetic--“Well--good night! I hope she’ll be no worse. Good night
Mrs. Sisson!” She was gone--he heard the windy bang of the street-gate.
Presently Millicent emerged again, flitting indoors.

So he rose to his feet, balancing, swaying a little before he started
into motion, as so many colliers do. Then he moved along the path
towards the house, in the rain and darkness, very slowly edging
forwards.

Suddenly the door opened. His wife emerged with a pail. He stepped
quietly aside, on to his side garden, among the sweet herbs. He could
smell rosemary and sage and hyssop. A low wall divided his garden from
his neighbour’s. He put his hand on it, on its wetness, ready to drop
over should his wife come forward. But she only threw the contents of
her pail on the garden and retired again. She might have seen him had
she looked. He remained standing where he was, listening to the trickle
of rain in the water-butt. The hollow countryside lay beyond him.
Sometimes in the windy darkness he could see the red burn of New
Brunswick bank, or the brilliant jewels of light clustered at Bestwood
Colliery. Away in the dark hollow, nearer, the glare of the electric
power-station disturbed the night. So again the wind swirled the rain
across all these hieroglyphs of the countryside, familiar to him as his
own breast.

A motor-car was labouring up the hill. His trained ear attended to it
unconsciously. It stopped with a jar. There was a bang of the yard-gate.
A shortish dark figure in a bowler hat passed the window. Millicent was
drawing down the blind. It was the doctor. The blind was drawn, he could
see no more.

Stealthily he began to approach the house. He stood by the climbing rose
of the porch, listening. He heard voices upstairs. Perhaps the children
would be downstairs. He listened intently. Voices were upstairs only. He
quietly opened the door. The room was empty, save for the baby, who was
cooing in her cradle. He crossed to the hall. At the foot of the stairs
he could hear the voice of the Indian doctor: “Now little girl, you
must just keep still and warm in bed, and not cry for the moon.” He said
“_de_ moon,” just as ever.--Marjory must be ill.

So Aaron quietly entered the parlour. It was a cold, clammy room, dark.
He could hear footsteps passing outside on the asphalt pavement below
the window, and the wind howling with familiar cadence. He began feeling
for something in the darkness of the music-rack beside the piano. He
touched and felt--he could not find what he wanted. Perplexed, he turned
and looked out of the window. Through the iron railing of the front wall
he could see the little motorcar sending its straight beams of light in
front of it, up the street.

He sat down on the sofa by the window. The energy had suddenly left all
his limbs. He sat with his head sunk, listening. The familiar room, the
familiar voice of his wife and his children--he felt weak as if he were
dying. He felt weak like a drowning man who acquiesces in the waters.
His strength was gone, he was sinking back. He would sink back to it
all, float henceforth like a drowned man.

So he heard voices coming nearer from upstairs, feet moving. They were
coming down.

“No, Mrs. Sisson, you needn’t worry,” he heard the voice of the doctor
on the stairs. “If she goes on as she is, she’ll be all right. Only she
must be kept warm and quiet--warm and quiet--that’s the chief thing.”

“Oh, when she has those bouts I can’t bear it,” Aaron heard his wife’s
voice.

They were downstairs. Their feet click-clicked on the tiled passage.
They had gone into the middle room. Aaron sat and listened.

“She won’t have any more bouts. If she does, give her a few drops from
the little bottle, and raise her up. But she won’t have any more,” the
doctor said.

“If she does, I s’ll go off my head, I know I shall.”

“No, you won’t. No, you won’t do anything of the sort. You won’t go off
your head. You’ll keep your head on your shoulders, where it ought to
be,” protested the doctor.

“But it nearly drives me mad.”

“Then don’t let it. The child won’t die, I tell you. She will be all
right, with care. Who have you got sitting up with her? You’re not to
sit up with her tonight, I tell you. Do you hear me?”

“Miss Smitham’s coming in. But it’s no good--I shall have to sit up. I
shall HAVE to.”

“I tell you you won’t. You obey ME. I know what’s good for you as well
as for her. I am thinking of you as much as of her.”

“But I can’t bear it--all alone.” This was the beginning of tears. There
was a dead silence--then a sound of Millicent weeping with her mother.
As a matter of fact, the doctor was weeping too, for he was an emotional
sympathetic soul, over forty.

“Never mind--never mind--you aren’t alone,” came the doctor’s
matter-of-fact voice, after a loud nose-blowing. “I am here to help you.
I will do whatever I can--whatever I can.”

“I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it,” wept the woman.

Another silence, another nose-blowing, and again the doctor:

“You’ll HAVE to bear it--I tell you there’s nothing else for it. You’ll
have to bear it--but we’ll do our best for you. I will do my best
for you--always--ALWAYS--in sickness or out of sickness--There!” He
pronounced _there_ oddly, not quite _dhere_.

“You haven’t heard from your husband?” he added.

“I had a letter--“--sobs--“from the bank this morning.”

“FROM DE BANK?”

“Telling me they were sending me so much per month, from him, as an
allowance, and that he was quite well, but he was travelling.”

“Well then, why not let him travel? You can live.”

“But to leave me alone,” there was burning indignation in her voice. “To
go off and leave me with every responsibility, to leave me with all the
burden.”

“Well I wouldn’t trouble about him. Aren’t you better off without him?”

“I am. I am,” she cried fiercely. “When I got that letter this morning,
I said MAY EVIL BEFALL YOU, YOU SELFISH DEMON. And I hope it may.”


“Well-well, well-well, don’t fret. Don’t be angry, it won’t make it any
better, I tell you.”

“Angry! I AM angry. I’m worse than angry. A week ago I hadn’t a grey
hair in my head. Now look here--” There was a pause.

“Well-well, well-well, never mind. You will be all right, don’t you
bother. Your hair is beautiful anyhow.”

“What makes me so mad is that he should go off like that--never a
word--coolly takes his hook. I could kill him for it.”

“Were you ever happy together?”

“We were all right at first. I know I was fond of him. But he’d kill
anything.--He kept himself back, always kept himself back, couldn’t give
himself--”

There was a pause.

“Ah well,” sighed the doctor. “Marriage is a mystery. I’m glad I’m not
entangled in it.”

“Yes, to make some woman’s life a misery.--I’m sure it was death to live
with him, he seemed to kill everything off inside you. He was a man you
couldn’t quarrel with, and get it over. Quiet--quiet in his tempers, and
selfish through and through. I’ve lived with him twelve years--I know
what it is. Killing! You don’t know what he was--”

“I think I knew him. A fair man? Yes?” said the doctor.

“Fair to look at.--There’s a photograph of him in the parlour--taken
when he was married--and one of me.--Yes, he’s fairhaired.”

Aaron guessed that she was getting a candle to come into the parlour. He
was tempted to wait and meet them--and accept it all again. Devilishly
tempted, he was. Then he thought of her voice, and his heart went cold.
Quick as thought, he obeyed his first impulse. He felt behind the couch,
on the floor where the curtains fell. Yes--the bag was there. He took it
at once. In the next breath he stepped out of the room and tip-toed
into the passage. He retreated to the far end, near the street door, and
stood behind the coats that hung on the hall-stand.

At that moment his wife came into the passage, holding a candle. She was
red-eyed with weeping, and looked frail.

“Did YOU leave the parlour door open?” she asked of Millicent,
suspiciously.

“No,” said Millicent from the kitchen.

The doctor, with his soft, Oriental tread followed Mrs. Sisson into the
parlour. Aaron saw his wife hold up the candle before his portrait and
begin to weep. But he knew her. The doctor laid his hand softly on
her arm, and left it there, sympathetically. Nor did he remove it when
Millicent stole into the room, looking very woe-begone and important.
The wife wept silently, and the child joined in.

“Yes, I know him,” said the doctor. “If he thinks he will be happier
when he’s gone away, you must be happier too, Mrs. Sisson. That’s
all. Don’t let him triumph over you by making you miserable. You enjoy
yourself as well. You’re only a girl---”

But a tear came from his eye, and he blew his nose vigorously on a large
white silk handkerchief, and began to polish his _pince nez_. Then he
turned, and they all bundled out of the room.

The doctor took his departure. Mrs. Sisson went almost immediately
upstairs, and Millicent shortly crept after her. Then Aaron, who had
stood motionless as if turned to a pillar of salt, went quietly down
the passage and into the living room. His face was very pale,
ghastly-looking. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror over the
mantel, as he passed, and felt weak, as if he were really a criminal.
But his heart did not relax, nevertheless. So he hurried into the night,
down the garden, climbed the fence into the field, and went away across
the field in the rain, towards the highroad.

He felt sick in every fibre. He almost hated the little handbag he
carried, which held his flute and piccolo. It seemed a burden just
then--a millstone round his neck. He hated the scene he had left--and
he hated the hard, inviolable heart that stuck unchanging in his own
breast.

Coming to the high-road, he saw a tall, luminous tram-car roving along
through the rain. The trams ran across country from town to town. He
dared not board, because people knew him. So he took a side road, and
walked in a detour for two miles. Then he came out on the high-road
again and waited for a tram-car. The rain blew on his face. He waited a
long time for the last car.



CHAPTER V. AT THE OPERA


A friend had given Josephine Ford a box at the opera for one evening;
our story continues by night. The box was large and important, near the
stage. Josephine and Julia were there, with Robert and Jim--also two
more men. The women sat in the front of the box, conspicuously. They
were both poor, they were rather excited. But they belonged to a set
which looked on social triumphs as a downfall that one allows oneself.
The two men, Lilly and Struthers, were artists, the former literary, the
latter a painter. Lilly sat by Josephine in the front of the box: he was
her little lion of the evening.

Few women can sit in the front of a big box, on a crowded and full-swing
opera night, without thrilling and dilating. There is an intoxication in
being thus thrust forward, conspicuous and enhanced, right in the eye of
the vast crowd that lines the hollow shell of the auditorium. Thus even
Josephine and Julia leaned their elbows and poised their heads regally,
looking condescendingly down upon the watchful world. They were two poor
women, having nothing to do with society. Half bohemians.

Josephine was an artist. In Paris she was a friend of a very fashionable
dressmaker and decorator, master of modern elegance. Sometimes she
designed dresses for him, and sometimes she accepted from him a
commission to decorate a room. Usually at her last sou, it gave her
pleasure to dispose of costly and exquisite things for other people, and
then be rid of them.

This evening her dress was a simple, but a marvellously poised thing of
black and silver: in the words of the correct journal. With her tight,
black, bright hair, her arched brows, her dusky-ruddy face and her bare
shoulders; her strange equanimity, her long, slow, slanting looks; she
looked foreign and frightening, clear as a cameo, but dark, far off.
Julia was the English beauty, in a lovely blue dress. Her hair was
becomingly untidy on her low brow, her dark blue eyes wandered and got
excited, her nervous mouth twitched. Her high-pitched, sing-song voice
and her hurried laugh could be heard in the theatre. She twisted a
beautiful little fan that a dead artist had given her.

Not being fashionable, they were in the box when the overture began. The
opera was Verdi--_Aida_. If it is impossible to be in an important box
at the opera without experiencing the strange intoxication of social
pre-eminence, it is just as impossible to be there without some feeling
of horror at the sight the stage presents.

Josephine leaned her elbow and looked down: she knew how arresting
that proud, rather stiff bend of her head was. She had some aboriginal
American in her blood. But as she looked, she pursed her mouth. The
artist in her forgot everything, she was filled with disgust. The sham
Egypt of _Aida_ hid from her nothing of its shame. The singers were all
colour-washed, deliberately colour-washed to a bright orange tint. The
men had oblong dabs of black wool under their lower lip; the beard of
the mighty Pharaohs. This oblong dab shook and wagged to the singing.

The vulgar bodies of the fleshy women were unendurable. They all looked
such good meat. Why were their haunches so prominent? It was a question
Josephine could not solve. She scanned their really expensive, brilliant
clothing. It was _nearly_ right--nearly splendid. It only lacked that
last subtlety which the world always lacks, the last final clinching
which puts calm into a sea of fabric, and yet is the opposite pole to
machine fixity.

But the leading tenor was the chief pain. He was large, stout, swathed
in a cummerbund, and looked like a eunuch. This fattish, emasculated
look seems common in stage heroes--even the extremely popular. The tenor
sang bravely, his mouth made a large, coffin-shaped, yawning gap in his
orange face, his little beard fluttered oddly, like a tail. He turned
up his eyes to Josephine’s box as he sang--that being the regulation
direction. Meanwhile his abdomen shook as he caught his breath, the
flesh of his fat, naked arms swayed.

Josephine looked down with the fixed gravity of a Red Indian, immovable,
inscrutable. It was not till the scene was ended that she lifted her
head as if breaking a spell, sent the point of her tongue rapidly over
her dried lips, and looked round into the box. Her brown eyes expressed
shame, fear, and disgust. A curious grimace went over her face--a
grimace only to be expressed by the exclamation _Merde!_ But she was
mortally afraid of society, and its fixed institutions. Rapidly she
scanned the eyes of her friends in the box. She rested on the eyes of
Lilly, a dark, ugly man.

“Isn’t it nasty?” she said.

“You shouldn’t look so closely,” he said. But he took it calmly, easily,
whilst she felt floods of burning disgust, a longing to destroy it all.

“Oh-ho-ho!” laughed Julia. “It’s so fu-nny--so funny!”

“Of course we are too near,” said Robert.

“Say you admire that pink fondant over there,” said Struthers,
indicating with his eyebrows a blond large woman in white satin with
pink edging, who sat in a box opposite, on the upper tier.

“Oh, the fondant--exactly--the fondant! Yes, I admire her immensely!
Isn’t she exactly IT!” sang Julia.

Josephine was scanning the auditorium. So many myriads of faces--like
beads on a bead-work pattern--all bead-work, in different layers. She
bowed to various acquaintances--mostly Americans in uniform, whom she
had known in Paris. She smiled to Lady Cochrane, two boxes off--Lady
Cochrane had given her the box. But she felt rather coldly towards her.

The curtain rose, the opera wound its slow length along. The audience
loved it. They cheered with mad enthusiasm. Josephine looked down on the
choppy sea of applause, white gloves clapping, heads shaking. The
noise was strange and rattling. What a curious multiple object a
theatre-audience was! It seemed to have a million heads, a million
hands, and one monstrous, unnatural consciousness. The singers appeared
before the curtain--the applause rose up like clouds of dust.

“Oh, isn’t it too wonderful!” cried Julia. “I am wild with excitement.
Are you all of you?”

“Absolutely wild,” said Lilly laconically.

“Where is Scott to-night?” asked Struthers.

Julia turned to him and gave him a long, queer look from her dark blue
eyes.

“He’s in the country,” she said, rather enigmatic.

“Don’t you know, he’s got a house down in Dorset,” said Robert, verbally
rushing in. “He wants Julia to go down and stay.”

“Is she going?” said Lilly.

“She hasn’t decided,” replied Robert.

“Oh! What’s the objection?” asked Struthers.

“Well, none whatsoever, as far as can be seen, except that she can’t
make up her mind,” replied Robert.

“Julia’s got no mind,” said Jim rudely.

“Oh! Hear the brotherly verdict!” laughed Julia hurriedly.

“You mean to go down to Dorset alone!” said Struthers.

“Why not?” replied Robert, answering for her.

“And stay how long?”

“Oh--as long as it lasts,” said Robert again.

“Starting with eternity,” said Lilly, “and working back to a fortnight.”

“And what’s the matter?--looks bad in the eyes of the world?”

“Yes--about that. Afraid of compromising herself--”

Lilly looked at them.

“Depends what you take the world to mean. Do you mean us in this box, or
the crew outside there?” he jerked his head towards the auditorium.

“Do you think, Lilly, that we’re the world?” said Robert ironically.

“Oh, yes, I guess we’re shipwrecked in this box, like Robinson Crusoes.
And what we do on our own little island matters to us alone. As for the
infinite crowds of howling savages outside there in the unspeakable, all
you’ve got to do is mind they don’t scrap you.”

“But WON’T they?” said Struthers.

“Not unless you put your head in their hands,” said Lilly.

“I don’t know--” said Jim.

But the curtain had risen, they hushed him into silence.

All through the next scene, Julia puzzled herself, as to whether she
should go down to the country and live with Scott. She had carried on a
nervous kind of _amour_ with him, based on soul sympathy and emotional
excitement. But whether to go and live with him? She didn’t know if she
wanted to or not: and she couldn’t for her life find out. She was in
that nervous state when desire seems to evaporate the moment fulfilment
is offered.

When the curtain dropped she turned.

“You see,” she said, screwing up her eyes, “I have to think of
Robert.” She cut the word in two, with an odd little hitch in her
voice--“ROB-ert.”

“My dear Julia, can’t you believe that I’m tired of being thought of,”
 cried Robert, flushing.

Julia screwed up her eyes in a slow smile, oddly cogitating.

“Well, who AM I to think of?” she asked.

“Yourself,” said Lilly.

“Oh, yes! Why, yes! I never thought of that!” She gave a hurried little
laugh. “But then it’s no FUN to think about oneself,” she cried flatly.
“I think about ROB-ert, and SCOTT.” She screwed up her eyes and peered
oddly at the company.

“Which of them will find you the greatest treat,” said Lilly
sarcastically.

“Anyhow,” interjected Robert nervously, “it will be something new for
Scott.”

“Stale buns for you, old boy,” said Jim drily.

“I don’t say so. But--” exclaimed the flushed, full-blooded Robert, who
was nothing if not courteous to women.

“How long ha’ you been married? Eh?” asked Jim.

“Six years!” sang Julia sweetly.

“Good God!”

“You see,” said Robert, “Julia can’t decide anything for herself. She
waits for someone else to decide, then she puts her spoke in.”

“Put it plainly--” began Struthers.

“But don’t you know, it’s no USE putting it plainly,” cried Julia.

“But DO you want to be with Scott, out and out, or DON’T you?” said
Lilly.

“Exactly!” chimed Robert. “That’s the question for you to answer Julia.”

“I WON’T answer it,” she cried. “Why should I?” And she looked away into
the restless hive of the theatre. She spoke so wildly that she attracted
attention. But it half pleased her. She stared abstractedly down at the
pit.

The men looked at one another in some comic consternation.

“Oh, damn it all!” said the long Jim, rising and stretching himself.
“She’s dead nuts on Scott. She’s all over him. She’d have eloped with
him weeks ago if it hadn’t been so easy. She can’t stand it that Robert
offers to hand her into the taxi.”

He gave his malevolent grin round the company, then went out. He did not
reappear for the next scene.

“Of course, if she loves Scott--” began Struthers.

Julia suddenly turned with wild desperation, and cried:

“I like him tremendously--tre-men-dous-ly! He DOES understand.”

“Which we don’t,” said Robert.

Julia smiled her long, odd smile in their faces: one might almost say
she smiled in their teeth.

“What do YOU think, Josephine?” asked Lilly.

Josephine was leaning froward. She started. Her tongue went rapidly over
her lips. “Who--? I--?” she exclaimed.

“Yes.”

“I think Julia should go with Scott,” said Josephine. “She’ll bother
with the idea till she’s done it. She loves him, really.”

“Of course she does,” cried Robert.

Julia, with her chin resting on her arms, in a position which irritated
the neighbouring Lady Cochrane sincerely, was gazing with unseeing eyes
down upon the stalls.

“Well then--” began Struthers. But the music struck up softly. They
were all rather bored. Struthers kept on making small, half audible
remarks--which was bad form, and displeased Josephine, the hostess of
the evening.

When the curtain came down for the end of the act, the men got up.
Lilly’s wife, Tanny, suddenly appeared. She had come on after a dinner
engagement.

“Would you like tea or anything?” Lilly asked.

The women refused. The men filtered out on to the crimson and white,
curving corridor. Julia, Josephine and Tanny remained in the box. Tanny
was soon hitched on to the conversation in hand.

“Of course,” she replied, “one can’t decide such a thing like drinking a
cup of tea.”

“Of course, one can’t, dear Tanny,” said Julia.

“After all, one doesn’t leave one’s husband every day, to go and live
with another man. Even if one looks on it as an experiment--.”

“It’s difficult!” cried Julia. “It’s difficult! I feel they all want to
FORCE me to decide. It’s cruel.”

“Oh, men with their beastly logic, their either-this-or-that stunt, they
are an awful bore.--But of course, Robert can’t love you REALLY, or he’d
want to keep you. I can see Lilly discussing such a thing for ME. But
then you don’t love Robert either,” said Tanny.

“I do! Oh, I do, Tanny! I DO love him, I love him dearly. I think he’s
beautiful. Robert’s beautiful. And he NEEDS me. And I need him too. I
need his support. Yes, I do love him.”

“But you like Scott better,” said Tanny.

“Only because he--he’s different,” sang Julia, in long tones. “You see
Scott has his art. His art matters. And ROB-ert--Robert is a dilettante,
don’t you think--he’s dilettante--” She screwed up her eyes at Tanny.
Tanny cogitated.

“Of course I don’t think that matters,” she replied.

“But it does, it matters tremendously, dear Tanny, tremendously.”

“Of course,” Tanny sheered off. “I can see Scott has great
attractions--a great warmth somewhere--”

“Exactly!” cried Julia. “He UNDERSTANDS!”

“And I believe he’s a real artist. You might even work together. You
might write his librettos.”

“Yes!--Yes!--” Julia spoke with a long, pondering hiss.

“It might be AWFULLY nice,” said Tanny rapturously.

“Yes!--It might!--It might--!” pondered Julia. Suddenly she gave herself
a shake. Then she laughed hurriedly, as if breaking from her line of
thought.

“And wouldn’t Robert be an AWFULLY nice lover for Josephine! Oh,
wouldn’t that be splendid!” she cried, with her high laugh.

Josephine, who had been gazing down into the orchestra, turned now,
flushing darkly.

“But I don’t want a lover, Julia,” she said, hurt.

“Josephine dear! Dear old Josephine! Don’t you really! Oh, yes,
you do.--I want one so BADLY,” cried Julia, with her shaking laugh.
“Robert’s awfully good to me. But we’ve been married six years. And it
does make a difference, doesn’t it, Tanny dear?”

“A great difference,” said Tanny.

“Yes, it makes a difference, it makes a difference,” mused Julia. “Dear
old Rob-ert--I wouldn’t hurt him for worlds. I wouldn’t. Do you think it
would hurt Robert?”

She screwed up her eyes, looking at Tanny.

“Perhaps it would do Robert good to be hurt a little,” said Tanny. “He’s
so well-nourished.”

“Yes!--Yes!--I see what you mean, Tanny!--Poor old ROB-ert! Oh, poor old
Rob-ert, he’s so young!”

“He DOES seem young,” said Tanny. “One doesn’t forgive it.”

“He is young,” said Julia. “I’m five years older than he. He’s only
twenty-seven. Poor Old Robert.”

“Robert is young, and inexperienced,” said Josephine, suddenly turning
with anger. “But I don’t know why you talk about him.”

“Is he inexperienced, Josephine dear? IS he?” sang Julia. Josephine
flushed darkly, and turned away.

“Ah, he’s not so innocent as all that,” said Tanny roughly. “Those young
young men, who seem so fresh, they’re deep enough, really. They’re far
less innocent really than men who are experienced.”

“They are, aren’t they, Tanny,” repeated Julia softly. “They’re
old--older than the Old Man of the Seas, sometimes, aren’t they?
Incredibly old, like little boys who know too much--aren’t they? Yes!”
 She spoke quietly, seriously, as if it had struck her.

Below, the orchestra was coming in. Josephine was watching closely.
Julia became aware of this.

“Do you see anybody we know, Josephine?” she asked.

Josephine started.

“No,” she said, looking at her friends quickly and furtively.

“Dear old Josephine, she knows all sorts of people,” sang Julia.

At that moment the men returned.

“Have you actually come back!” exclaimed Tanny to them. They sat down
without answering. Jim spread himself as far as he could, in the narrow
space. He stared upwards, wrinkling his ugly, queer face. It was evident
he was in one of his moods.

“If only somebody loved me!” he complained. “If only somebody loved me I
should be all right. I’m going to pieces.” He sat up and peered into the
faces of the women.

“But we ALL love you,” said Josephine, laughing uneasily. “Why aren’t
you satisfied?”

“I’m not satisfied. I’m not satisfied,” murmured Jim.

“Would you like to be wrapped in swaddling bands and laid at the
breast?” asked Lilly, disagreeably.

Jim opened his mouth in a grin, and gazed long and malevolently at his
questioner.

“Yes,” he said. Then he sprawled his long six foot of limb and body
across the box again.

“You should try loving somebody, for a change,” said Tanny. “You’ve been
loved too often. Why not try and love somebody?”

Jim eyed her narrowly.

“I couldn’t love YOU,” he said, in vicious tones.

“_A la bonne heure_!” said Tanny.

But Jim sank his chin on his chest, and repeated obstinately:

“I want to be loved.”

“How many times have you been loved?” Robert asked him. “It would be
rather interesting to know.”

Jim looked at Robert long and slow, but did not answer.

“Did you ever keep count?” Tanny persisted.

Jim looked up at her, malevolent.

“I believe I did,” he replied.

“Forty is the age when a man should begin to reckon up,” said Lilly.

Jim suddenly sprang to his feet, and brandished his fists.

“I’ll pitch the lot of you over the bloody rail,” he said.

He glared at them, from under his bald, wrinkled forehead. Josephine
glanced round. She had become a dusky white colour. She was afraid of
him, and she disliked him intensely nowadays.

“Do you recognise anyone in the orchestra?” she asked.

The party in the box had become dead silent. They looked down. The
conductor was at his stand. The music began. They all remained silent
and motionless during the next scene, each thinking his own thoughts.
Jim was uncomfortable. He wanted to make good. He sat with his elbows
on his knees, grinning slightly, looking down. At the next interval he
stood up suddenly.

“It IS the chap--What?” he exclaimed excitedly, looking round at his
friends.

“Who?” said Tanny.

“It IS he?” said Josephine quietly, meeting Jim’s eye.

“Sure!” he barked.

He was leaning forward over the ledge, rattling a programme in his hand,
as if trying to attract attention. Then he made signals.

“There you are!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “That’s the chap.”

“Who? Who?” they cried.

But neither Jim nor Josephine would vouchsafe an answer.

The next was the long interval. Jim and Josephine gazed down at the
orchestra. The musicians were laying aside their instruments and rising.
The ugly fire-curtain began slowly to descend. Jim suddenly bolted out.

“Is it that man Aaron Sisson?” asked Robert.

“Where? Where?” cried Julia. “It can’t be.”

But Josephine’s face was closed and silent. She did not answer.

The whole party moved out on to the crimson-carpeted gangway. Groups of
people stood about chatting, men and women were passing along, to pay
visits or to find drinks. Josephine’s party stared around, talking
desultorily. And at length they perceived Jim stalking along, leading
Aaron Sisson by the arm. Jim was grinning, the flautist looked
unwilling. He had a comely appearance, in his white shirt--a certain
comely blondness and repose. And as much a gentleman as anybody.

“Well!” cried Josephine to him. “How do you come here?”

“I play the flute,” he answered, as he shook hands.

The little crowd stood in the gangway and talked.

“How wonderful of you to be here!” cried Julia.

He laughed.

“Do you think so?” he answered.

“Yes, I do.--It seems so FAR from Shottle House and Christmas Eve.--Oh,
wasn’t it exciting!” cried Julia.

Aaron looked at her, but did not answer.

“We’ve heard all about you,” said Tanny playfully.

“Oh, yes,” he replied.

“Come!” said Josephine, rather irritated. “We crowd up the gangway.” And
she led the way inside the box.

Aaron stood and looked down at the dishevelled theatre.

“You get all the view,” he said.

“We do, don’t we!” cried Julia.

“More than’s good for us,” said Lilly.

“Tell us what you are doing. You’ve got a permanent job?” asked
Josephine.

“Yes--at present.”

“Ah! It’s more interesting for you than at Beldover.”

She had taken her seat. He looked down at her dusky young face. Her
voice was always clear and measured.

“It’s a change,” he said, smiling.

“Oh, it must be more than that,” she said. “Why, you must feel a whole
difference. It’s a whole new life.”

He smiled, as if he were laughing at her silently. She flushed.

“But isn’t it?” she persisted.

“Yes. It can be,” he replied.

He looked as if he were quietly amused, but dissociated. None of the
people in the box were quite real to him. He was not really amused.
Julia found him dull, stupid. Tanny also was offended that he could not
_perceive her_. The men remained practically silent.

“You’re a chap I always hoped would turn up again,” said Jim.

“Oh, yes!” replied Aaron, smiling as if amused.

“But perhaps he doesn’t like us! Perhaps he’s not glad that we turned
up,” said Julia, leaving her sting.

The flautist turned and looked at her.

“You can’t REMEMBER us, can you?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I can remember you.”

“Oh,” she laughed. “You are unflattering.”

He was annoyed. He did not know what she was getting at.

“How are your wife and children?” she asked spitefully.

“All right, I think.”

“But you’ve been back to them?” cried Josephine in dismay.

He looked at her, a slow, half smiling look, but did not speak.

“Come and have a drink. Damn the women,” said Jim uncouthly, seizing
Aaron by the arm and dragging him off.



CHAPTER VI. TALK


The party stayed to the end of the interminable opera. They had agreed
to wait for Aaron. He was to come around to the vestibule for them,
after the show. They trooped slowly down-stairs into the crush of the
entrance hall. Chattering, swirling people, red carpet, palms green
against cream-and-gilt walls, small whirlpools of life at the open, dark
doorways, men in opera hats steering decisively about-it was the old
scene. But there were no taxis--absolutely no taxis. And it was raining.
Fortunately the women had brought shoes. They slipped these on. Jim
rocked through the crowd, in his tall hat, looking for the flautist.

At last Aaron was found--wearing a bowler hat. Julia groaned in spirit.
Josephine’s brow knitted. Not that anybody cared, really. But as one
must frown at something, why not at the bowler hat? Acquaintances and
elegant young men in uniforms insisted on rushing up and bowing and
exchanging a few words, either with Josephine, or Jim, or Julia, or
Lilly. They were coldly received. The party veered out into the night.

The women hugged their wraps about them, and set off sharply, feeling
some repugnance for the wet pavements and the crowd. They had not far to
go--only to Jim’s rooms in Adelphi. Jim was leading Aaron, holding
him by the arm and slightly pinching his muscles. It gave him
great satisfaction to have between his fingers the arm-muscles of a
working-man, one of the common people, the _fons et origo_ of modern
life. Jim was talking rather vaguely about Labour and Robert Smillie,
and Bolshevism. He was all for revolution and the triumph of labour.

So they arrived, mounted a dark stair, and entered a large, handsome
room, one of the Adams rooms. Jim had furnished it from Heale’s with
striped hangings, green and white and yellow and dark purple, and with
a green-and-black checked carpet, and great stripe-covered chairs
and Chesterfield. A big gas-fire was soon glowing in the handsome old
fire-place, the panelled room seemed cosy.

While Jim was handing round drinks and sandwiches, and Josephine was
making tea, Robert played Bach on the piano--the pianola, rather. The
chairs and lounge were in a half-circle round the fire. The party threw
off their wraps and sank deep into this expensive comfort of modern
bohemia. They needed the Bach to take away the bad taste that _Aida_ had
left in their mouths. They needed the whiskey and curacao to rouse their
spirits. They needed the profound comfort in which to sink away from the
world. All the men, except Aaron, had been through the war in some
way or other. But here they were, in the old setting exactly, the old
bohemian routine.

The bell rang, Jim went downstairs. He returned shortly with a frail,
elegant woman--fashionable rather than bohemian. She was cream and
auburn, Irish, with a slightly-lifted upper lip that gave her a pathetic
look. She dropped her wrap and sat down by Julia, taking her hand
delicately.

“How are you, darling?” she asked.

“Yes--I’m happy,” said Julia, giving her odd, screwed-up smile.

The pianola stopped, they all chatted indiscriminately. Jim was watching
the new-comer--Mrs. Browning--with a concentrated wolfish grin.

“I like her,” he said at last. “I’ve seen her before, haven’t I?--I like
her awfully.”

“Yes,” said Josephine, with a slight grunt of a laugh. “He wants to be
loved.”

“Oh,” cried Clariss. “So do I!”

“Then there you are!” cried Tanny.

“Alas, no, there we aren’t,” cried Clariss. She was beautiful too, with
her lifted upper-lip. “We both want to be loved, and so we miss each
other entirely. We run on in two parallel lines, that can never meet.”
 She laughed low and half sad.

“Doesn’t SHE love you?” said Aaron to Jim amused, indicating Josephine.
“I thought you were engaged.”

“HER!” leered Jim vindictively, glancing at Josephine. “She doesn’t love
me.”

“Is that true?” asked Robert hastily, of Josephine.

“Why,” she said, “yes. Why should he make me say out here that I don’t
love him!”

“Got you my girl,” said Jim.

“Then it’s no engagement?” said Robert.

“Listen to the row fools make, rushing in,” said Jim maliciously.

“No, the engagement is broken,” said Josephine.

“World coming to pieces bit by bit,” said Lilly. Jim was twisting in
his chair, and looking like a Chinese dragon, diabolical. The room was
uneasy.

“What gives you such a belly-ache for love, Jim?” said Lilly, “or for
being loved? Why do you want so badly to be loved?”

“Because I like it, damn you,” barked Jim. “Because I’m in need of it.”

None of them quite knew whether they ought to take it as a joke. It was
just a bit too real to be quite pleasant.

“Why are you such a baby?” said Lilly. “There you are, six foot in
length, have been a cavalry officer and fought in two wars, and you
spend your time crying for somebody to love you. You’re a comic.”

“Am I though?” said Jim. “I’m losing life. I’m getting thin.”

“You don’t look as if you were losing life,” said Lilly.

“Don’t I? I am, though. I’m dying.”

“What of? Lack of life?”

“That’s about it, my young cock. Life’s leaving me.”

“Better sing Tosti’s Farewell to it.”

Jim who had been sprawling full length in his arm-chair, the centre
of interest of all the company, suddenly sprang forward and pushed his
face, grinning, in the face of Lilly.

“You’re a funny customer, you are,” he said.

Then he turned round in his chair, and saw Clariss sitting at the feet
of Julia, with one white arm over her friend’s knee. Jim immediately
stuck forward his muzzle and gazed at her. Clariss had loosened her
masses of thick, auburn hair, so that it hung half free. Her face was
creamy pale, her upper lip lifted with odd pathos! She had rose-rubies
in her ears.

“I like HER,” said Jim. “What’s her name?”

“Mrs. Browning. Don’t be so rude,” said Josephine.

“Browning for gravies. Any relation of Robert?”

“Oh, yes! You ask my husband,” came the slow, plangent voice of Clariss.

“You’ve got a husband, have you?”

“Rather! Haven’t I, Juley?”

“Yes,” said Julia, vaguely and wispily. “Yes, dear, you have.”

“And two fine children,” put in Robert.

“No! You don’t mean it!” said Jim. “Who’s your husband? Anybody?”

“Rather!” came the deep voice of Clariss. “He sees to that.”

Jim stared, grinning, showing his pointed teeth, reaching nearer and
nearer to Clariss who, in her frail scrap of an evening dress, amethyst
and silver, was sitting still in the deep black hearth-rug, her arm over
Julia’s knee, taking very little notice of Jim, although he amused her.

“I like you awfully, I say,” he repeated.

“Thanks, I’m sure,” she said.

The others were laughing, sprawling in their chairs, and sipping curacao
and taking a sandwich or a cigarette. Aaron Sisson alone sat upright,
smiling flickeringly. Josephine watched him, and her pointed tongue went
from time to time over her lips.

“But I’m sure,” she broke in, “this isn’t very interesting for the
others. Awfully boring! Don’t be silly all the time, Jim, or we must go
home.”

Jim looked at her with narrowed eyes. He hated her voice. She let her
eye rest on his for a moment. Then she put her cigarette to her lips.
Robert was watching them both.

Josephine took her cigarette from her lips again.

“Tell us about yourself, Mr. Sisson,” she said. “How do you like being
in London?”

“I like London,” said Aaron.

Where did he live? Bloomsbury. Did he know many people? No--nobody
except a man in the orchestra. How had he got his job? Through an agent.
Etc. Etc.

“What do you make of the miners?” said Jim, suddenly taking a new line.

“Me?” said Sisson. “I don’t make anything of them.”

“Do you think they’ll make a stand against the government?”

“What for?”

“Nationalisation.”

“They might, one day.”

“Think they’d fight?”

“Fight?”

“Yes.”

Aaron sat laughing.

“What have they to fight for?”

“Why, everything! What haven’t they to fight for?” cried Josephine
fiercely. “Freedom, liberty, and escape from this vile system. Won’t
they fight for that?”

Aaron sat smiling, slowly shaking his head.

“Nay,” he said, “you mustn’t ask me what they’ll do--I’ve only just left
them, for good. They’ll do a lot of cavilling.”

“But won’t they ACT?” cried Josephine.

“Act?” said Aaron. “How, act?”

“Why, defy the government, and take things in their own hands,” said
Josephine.

“They might, some time,” said Aaron, rather indifferent.

“I wish they would!” cried Josephine. “My, wouldn’t I love it if they’d
make a bloody revolution!”

They were all looking now at her. Her black brows were twitching, in her
black and silver dress she looked like a symbol of young disaster.

“Must it be bloody, Josephine?” said Robert.

“Why, yes. I don’t believe in revolutions that aren’t bloody,” said
Josephine. “Wouldn’t I love it! I’d go in front with a red flag.”

“It would be rather fun,” said Tanny.

“Wouldn’t it!” cried Josephine.

“Oh, Josey, dear!” cried Julia hysterically. “Isn’t she a red-hot
Bolsher! _I_ should be frightened.”

“No!” cried Josephine. “I should love it.”

“So should I,” said Jim, in a luscious sort of voice. “What price
machine-guns at the end of the Strand! That’s a day to live for, what?”

“Ha! Ha!” laughed Clariss, with her deep laugh. “We’d all Bolsh
together. I’d give the cheers.”

“I wouldn’t mind getting killed. I’d love it, in a real fight,” said
Josephine.

“But, Josephine,” said Robert, “don’t you think we’ve had enough of that
sort of thing in the war? Don’t you think it all works out rather stupid
and unsatisfying?”

“Ah, but a civil war would be different. I’ve no interest in fighting
Germans. But a civil war would be different.”

“That’s a fact, it would,” said Jim.

“Only rather worse,” said Robert.

“No, I don’t agree,” cried Josephine. “You’d feel you were doing
something, in a civil war.”

“Pulling the house down,” said Lilly.

“Yes,” she cried. “Don’t you hate it, the house we live
in--London--England--America! Don’t you hate them?”

“I don’t like them. But I can’t get much fire in my hatred. They pall on
me rather,” said Lilly.

“Ay!” said Aaron, suddenly stirring in his chair.

Lilly and he glanced at one another with a look of recognition.

“Still,” said Tanny, “there’s got to be a clearance some day or other.”

“Oh,” drawled Clariss. “I’m all for a clearance. I’m all for pulling the
house down. Only while it stands I do want central heating and a good
cook.”

“May I come to dinner?” said Jim.

“Oh, yes. You’d find it rather domestic.”

“Where do you live?”

“Rather far out now--Amersham.”

“Amersham? Where’s that--?”

“Oh, it’s on the map.”

There was a little lull. Jim gulped down a drink, standing at the
sideboard. He was a tall, fine, soldierly figure, and his face, with
its little sandy moustache and bald forehead, was odd. Aaron Sisson sat
watching him, unconsciously.

“Hello you!” said Jim. “Have one?”

Aaron shook his head, and Jim did not press him. It saved the drinks.

“You believe in love, don’t you?” said Jim, sitting down near Aaron, and
grinning at him.

“Love!” said Aaron.

“LOVE! he says,” mocked Jim, grinning at the company.

“What about it, then?” asked Aaron.

“It’s life! Love is life,” said Jim fiercely.

“It’s a vice, like drink,” said Lilly.

“Eh? A vice!” said Jim. “May be for you, old bird.”

“More so still for you,” said Lilly.

“It’s life. It’s life!” reiterated Jim. “Don’t you agree?” He turned
wolfishly to Clariss.

“Oh, yes--every time--” she drawled, nonchalant.

“Here, let’s write it down,” said Lilly. He found a blue pencil and
printed in large letters on the old creamy marble of the mantel-piece
panel:--LOVE IS LIFE.

Julia suddenly rose and flung her arms asunder wildly.

“Oh, I hate love. I hate it,” she protested.

Jim watched her sardonically.

“Look at her!” he said. “Look at Lesbia who hates love.”

“No, but perhaps it is a disease. Perhaps we are all wrong, and we can’t
love properly,” put in Josephine.

“Have another try,” said Jim,--“I know what love is. I’ve thought about
it. Love is the soul’s respiration.”

“Let’s have that down,” said Lilly.

LOVE IS THE SOUL’S RESPIRATION. He printed it on the old mantel-piece.

Jim eyed the letters.

“It’s right,” he said. “Quite right. When you love, your soul breathes
in. If you don’t breathe in, you suffocate.”

“What about breathing out?” said Robert. “If you don’t breathe out, you
asphyxiate.”

“Right you are, Mock Turtle--” said Jim maliciously.

“Breathing out is a bloody revolution,” said Lilly.

“You’ve hit the nail on the head,” said Jim solemnly.

“Let’s record it then,” said Lilly. And with the blue pencil he printed:

WHEN YOU LOVE, YOUR SOUL BREATHES IN--

WHEN YOUR SOUL BREATHES OUT, IT’S A BLOODY REVOLUTION.

“I say Jim,” he said. “You must be busting yourself, trying to breathe
in.”

“Don’t you be too clever. I’ve thought about it,” said Jim. “When I’m in
love, I get a great inrush of energy. I actually feel it rush in--here!”
 He poked his finger on the pit of his stomach. “It’s the soul’s
expansion. And if I can’t get these rushes of energy, I’M DYING, AND I
KNOW I AM.”

He spoke the last words with sudden ferocity and desperation.

“All _I_ know is,” said Tanny, “you don’t look it.”

“I AM. I am.” Jim protested. “I’m dying. Life’s leaving me.”

“Maybe you’re choking with love,” said Robert. “Perhaps you have
breathed in so much, you don’t know how to let it go again. Perhaps your
soul’s got a crick in it, with expanding so much.”

“You’re a bloody young sucking pig, you are,” said Jim.

“Even at that age, I’ve learned my manners,” replied Robert.

Jim looked round the party. Then he turned to Aaron Sisson.

“What do you make of ‘em, eh?” he said.

Aaron shook his head, and laughed.

“Me?” he said.

But Jim did not wait for an answer.

“I’ve had enough,” said Tanny suddenly rising. “I think you’re all
silly. Besides, it’s getting late.”

“She!” said Jim, rising and pointing luridly to Clariss. “She’s Love.
And HE’s the Working People. The hope is these two--” He jerked a thumb
at Aaron Sisson, after having indicated Mrs. Browning.

“Oh, how awfully interesting. It’s quite a long time since I’ve been a
personification.--I suppose you’ve never been one before?” said Clariss,
turning to Aaron in conclusion.

“No, I don’t think I have,” he answered.

“I hope personification is right.--Ought to be _allegory_ or something
else?” This from Clariss to Robert.

“Or a parable, Clariss,” laughed the young lieutenant.

“Goodbye,” said Tanny. “I’ve been awfully bored.”

“Have you?” grinned Jim. “Goodbye! Better luck next time.”

“We’d better look sharp,” said Robert, “if we want to get the tube.”

The party hurried through the rainy narrow streets down to the
Embankment station. Robert and Julia and Clariss were going west, Lilly
and his wife were going to Hampstead, Josephine and Aaron Sisson were
going both to Bloomsbury.

“I suppose,” said Robert, on the stairs--“Mr. Sisson will see you to
your door, Josephine. He lives your way.”

“There’s no need at all,” said Josephine.

The four who were going north went down to the low tube level. It
was nearly the last train. The station was half deserted, half rowdy,
several fellows were drunk, shouting and crowing. Down there in the
bowels of London, after midnight, everything seemed horrible and
unnatural.

“How I hate this London,” said Tanny. She was half Norwegian, and had
spent a large part of her life in Norway, before she married Lilly.

“Yes, so do I,” said Josephine. “But if one must earn one’s living one
must stay here. I wish I could get back to Paris. But there’s nothing
doing for me in France.--When do you go back into the country, both of
you?”

“Friday,” said Lilly.

“How lovely for you!--And when will you go to Norway, Tanny?”

“In about a month,” said Tanny.

“You must be awfully pleased.”

“Oh--thankful--THANKFUL to get out of England--”

“I know. That’s how I feel. Everything is so awful--so dismal and
dreary, I find it--”

They crowded into the train. Men were still yelling like wild
beasts--others were asleep--soldiers were singing.

“Have you really broken your engagement with Jim?” shrilled Tanny in a
high voice, as the train roared.

“Yes, he’s impossible,” said Josephine. “Perfectly hysterical and
impossible.”

“And SELFISH--” cried Tanny.

“Oh terribly--” cried Josephine.

“Come up to Hampstead to lunch with us,” said Lilly to Aaron.

“Ay--thank you,” said Aaron.

Lilly scribbled directions on a card. The hot, jaded midnight
underground rattled on. Aaron and Josephine got down to change trains.



CHAPTER VII. THE DARK SQUARE GARDEN


Josephine had invited Aaron Sisson to dinner at a restaurant in Soho,
one Sunday evening. They had a corner to themselves, and with a bottle
of Burgundy she was getting his history from him.

His father had been a shaft-sinker, earning good money, but had been
killed by a fall down the shaft when Aaron was only four years old. The
widow had opened a shop: Aaron was her only child. She had done well
in her shop. She had wanted Aaron to be a schoolteacher. He had served
three years apprenticeship, then suddenly thrown it up and gone to the
pit.

“But why?” said Josephine.

“I couldn’t tell you. I felt more like it.”

He had a curious quality of an intelligent, almost sophisticated mind,
which had repudiated education. On purpose he kept the midland accent in
his speech. He understood perfectly what a personification was--and an
allegory. But he preferred to be illiterate.

Josephine found out what a miner’s checkweighman was. She tried to find
out what sort of wife Aaron had--but, except that she was the daughter
of a publican and was delicate in health, she could learn nothing.

“And do you send her money?” she asked.

“Ay,” said Aaron. “The house is mine. And I allow her so much a week out
of the money in the bank. My mother left me a bit over a thousand when
she died.”

“You don’t mind what I say, do you?” said Josephine.

“No I don’t mind,” he laughed.

He had this pleasant-seeming courteous manner. But he really kept her
at a distance. In some things he reminded her of Robert: blond, erect,
nicely built, fresh and English-seeming. But there was a curious cold
distance to him, which she could not get across. An inward indifference
to her--perhaps to everything. Yet his laugh was so handsome.

“Will you tell me why you left your wife and children?--Didn’t you love
them?”

Aaron looked at the odd, round, dark muzzle of the girl. She had had her
hair bobbed, and it hung in odd dark folds, very black, over her ears.

“Why I left her?” he said. “For no particular reason. They’re all right
without me.”

Josephine watched his face. She saw a pallor of suffering under its
freshness, and a strange tension in his eyes.

“But you couldn’t leave your little girls for no reason at all--”

“Yes, I did. For no reason--except I wanted to have some free room round
me--to loose myself--”

“You mean you wanted love?” flashed Josephine, thinking he said _lose_.

“No, I wanted fresh air. I don’t know what I wanted. Why should I know?”

“But we must know: especially when other people will be hurt,” said she.

“Ah, well! A breath of fresh air, by myself. I felt forced to feel--I
feel if I go back home now, I shall be FORCED--forced to love--or
care--or something.”

“Perhaps you wanted more than your wife could give you,” she said.

“Perhaps less. She’s made up her mind she loves me, and she’s not going
to let me off.”

“Did you never love her?” said Josephine.

“Oh, yes. I shall never love anybody else. But I’m damned if I want to
be a lover any more. To her or to anybody. That’s the top and bottom of
it. I don’t want to CARE, when care isn’t in me. And I’m not going to be
forced to it.”

The fat, aproned French waiter was hovering near. Josephine let him
remove the plates and the empty bottle.

“Have more wine,” she said to Aaron.

But he refused. She liked him because of his dead-level indifference to
his surroundings. French waiters and foreign food--he noticed them in
his quick, amiable-looking fashion--but he was indifferent. Josephine
was piqued. She wanted to pierce this amiable aloofness of his.

She ordered coffee and brandies.

“But you don’t want to get away from EVERYTHING, do you? I myself feel
so LOST sometimes--so dreadfully alone: not in a silly sentimental
fashion, because men keep telling me they love me, don’t you know. But
my LIFE seems alone, for some reason--”

“Haven’t you got relations?” he said.

“No one, now mother is dead. Nothing nearer than aunts and cousins in
America. I suppose I shall see them all again one day. But they hardly
count over here.”

“Why don’t you get married?” he said. “How old are you?”

“I’m twenty-five. How old are you?”

“Thirty-three.”

“You might almost be any age.--I don’t know why I don’t get married. In
a way, I hate earning my own living--yet I go on--and I like my work--”

“What are you doing now?”

“I’m painting scenery for a new play--rather fun--I enjoy it. But I
often wonder what will become of me.”

“In what way?”

She was almost affronted.

“What becomes of me? Oh, I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter, not to
anybody but myself.”

“What becomes of anybody, anyhow? We live till we die. What do you
want?”

“Why, I keep saying I want to get married and feel sure of something.
But I don’t know--I feel dreadful sometimes--as if every minute would
be the last. I keep going on and on--I don’t know what for--and IT keeps
going on and on--goodness knows what it’s all for.”

“You shouldn’t bother yourself,” he said. “You should just let it go on
and on--”

“But I MUST bother,” she said. “I must think and feel--”

“You’ve no occasion,” he said.

“How--?” she said, with a sudden grunting, unhappy laugh. Then she lit a
cigarette.

“No,” she said. “What I should really like more than anything would be
an end of the world. I wish the world would come to an end.”

He laughed, and poured his drops of brandy down his throat.

“It won’t, for wishing,” he said.

“No, that’s the awful part of it. It’ll just go on and on-- Doesn’t it
make you feel you’d go mad?”

He looked at her and shook his head.

“You see it doesn’t concern me,” he said. “So long as I can float by
myself.”

“But ARE you SATISFIED!” she cried.

“I like being by myself--I hate feeling and caring, and being forced
into it. I want to be left alone--”

“You aren’t very polite to your hostess of the evening,” she said,
laughing a bit miserably.

“Oh, we’re all right,” he said. “You know what I mean--”

“You like your own company? Do you?--Sometimes I think I’m nothing when
I’m alone. Sometimes I think I surely must be nothing--nothingness.”

He shook his head.

“No,” he said. “No. I only want to be left alone.”

“Not to have anything to do with anybody?” she queried ironically.

“Not to any extent.”

She watched him--and then she bubbled with a laugh.

“I think you’re funny,” she said. “You don’t mind?”

“No--why--It’s just as you see it.--Jim Bricknell’s a rare comic, to my
eye.”

“Oh, him!--no, not actually. He’s self-conscious and selfish and
hysterical. It isn’t a bit funny after a while.”

“I only know what I’ve seen,” said Aaron. “You’d both of you like a
bloody revolution, though.”

“Yes. Only when it came he wouldn’t be there.”

“Would you?”

“Yes, indeed I would. I would give everything to be in it. I’d give
heaven and earth for a great big upheaval--and then darkness.”

“Perhaps you’ll get it, when you die,” said Aaron.

“Oh, but I don’t want to die and leave all this standing. I hate it so.”

“Why do you?”

“But don’t you?”

“No, it doesn’t really bother me.”

“It makes me feel I can’t live.”

“I can’t see that.”

“But you always disagree with one!” said Josephine. “How do you like
Lilly? What do you think of him?”

“He seems sharp,” said Aaron.

“But he’s more than sharp.”

“Oh, yes! He’s got his finger in most pies.”

“And doesn’t like the plums in any of them,” said Josephine tartly.

“What does he do?”

“Writes--stories and plays.”

“And makes it pay?”

“Hardly at all.--They want us to go. Shall we?” She rose from the table.
The waiter handed her her cloak, and they went out into the blowy dark
night. She folded her wrap round her, and hurried forward with short,
sharp steps. There was a certain Parisian _chic_ and mincingness about
her, even in her walk: but underneath, a striding, savage suggestion as
if she could leg it in great strides, like some savage squaw.

Aaron pressed his bowler hat down on his brow.

“Would you rather take a bus?” she said in a high voice, because of the
wind.

“I’d rather walk.”

“So would I.”

They hurried across the Charing Cross Road, where great buses rolled and
rocked, crammed with people. Her heels clicked sharply on the pavement,
as they walked east. They crossed Holborn, and passed the Museum. And
neither of them said anything.

When they came to the corner, she held out her hand.

“Look!” she said. “Don’t come any further: don’t trouble.”

“I’ll walk round with you: unless you’d rather not.”

“No--But do you want to bother?”

“It’s no bother.”

So they pursued their way through the high wind, and turned at last
into the old, beautiful square. It seemed dark and deserted, dark like
a savage wilderness in the heart of London. The wind was roaring in the
great bare trees of the centre, as if it were some wild dark grove deep
in a forgotten land.

Josephine opened the gate of the square garden with her key, and let it
slam to behind him.

“How wonderful the wind is!” she shrilled. “Shall we listen to it for a
minute?”

She led him across the grass past the shrubs to the big tree in the
centre. There she climbed up to a seat. He sat beside her. They sat in
silence, looking at the darkness. Rain was blowing in the wind. They
huddled against the big tree-trunk, for shelter, and watched the scene.

Beyond the tall shrubs and the high, heavy railings the wet street
gleamed silently. The houses of the Square rose like a cliff on this
inner dark sea, dimly lighted at occasional windows. Boughs swayed and
sang. A taxi-cab swirled round a corner like a cat, and purred to a
standstill. There was a light of an open hall door. But all far away,
it seemed, unthinkably far away. Aaron sat still and watched. He was
frightened, it all seemed so sinister, this dark, bristling heart of
London. Wind boomed and tore like waves ripping a shingle beach. The two
white lights of the taxi stared round and departed, leaving the coast
at the foot of the cliffs deserted, faintly spilled with light from the
high lamp. Beyond there, on the outer rim, a policeman passed solidly.

Josephine was weeping steadily all the time, but inaudibly. Occasionally
she blew her nose and wiped her face. But he had not realized. She
hardly realized herself. She sat near the strange man. He seemed so
still and remote--so fascinating.

“Give me your hand,” she said to him, subduedly.

He took her cold hand in his warm, living grasp. She wept more bitterly.
He noticed at last.

“Why are you crying?” he said.

“I don’t know,” she replied, rather matter-of-fact, through her tears.

So he let her cry, and said no more, but sat with her cold hand in his
warm, easy clasp.

“You’ll think me a fool,” she said. “I don’t know why I cry.”

“You can cry for nothing, can’t you?” he said.

“Why, yes, but it’s not very sensible.”

He laughed shortly.

“Sensible!” he said.

“You are a strange man,” she said.

But he took no notice.

“Did you ever intend to marry Jim Bricknell?” he asked.

“Yes, of course.”

“I can’t imagine it,” he said.

“Why not?”

Both were watching blankly the roaring night of mid-London, the
phantasmagoric old Bloomsbury Square. They were still hand in hand.

“Such as you shouldn’t marry,” he said.

“But why not? I want to.”

“You think you do.”

“Yes indeed I do.”

He did not say any more.

“Why shouldn’t I?” she persisted. “I don’t know--”

And again he was silent.

“You’ve known some life, haven’t you?” he asked.

“Me? Why?”

“You seem to.”

“Do I? I’m sorry. Do I seem vicious?--No, I’m not vicious.--I’ve seen
some life, perhaps--in Paris mostly. But not much. Why do you ask?”

“I wasn’t thinking.”

“But what do you mean? What are you thinking?”

“Nothing. Nothing.”

“Don’t be so irritating,” said she.

But he did not answer, and she became silent also. They sat hand in
hand.

“Won’t you kiss me?” came her voice out of the darkness.

He waited some moments, then his voice sounded gently, half mocking,
half reproachful.

“Nay!” he said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to.”

“Why not?” she asked.

He laughed, but did not reply.

She sat perfectly still for some time. She had ceased to cry. In the
darkness her face was set and sullen. Sometimes a spray of rain blew
across it. She drew her hand from his, and rose to her feet.

“Ill go in now,” she said.

“You’re not offended, are you?” he asked.

“No. Why?”

They stepped down in the darkness from their perch.

“I wondered.”

She strode off for some little way. Then she turned and said:

“Yes, I think it is rather insulting.”

“Nay,” he said. “Not it! Not it!”

And he followed her to the gate.

She opened with her key, and they crossed the road to her door.

“Good-night,” she said, turning and giving him her hand.

“You’ll come and have dinner with me--or lunch--will you? When shall we
make it?” he asked.

“Well, I can’t say for certain--I’m very busy just now. I’ll let you
know.”

A policeman shed his light on the pair of them as they stood on the
step.

“All right,” said Aaron, dropping back, and she hastily opened the big
door, and entered.



CHAPTER VIII. A PUNCH IN THE WIND


The Lillys had a labourer’s cottage in Hampshire--pleasant enough. They
were poor. Lilly was a little, dark, thin, quick fellow, his wife was
strong and fair. They had known Robert and Julia for some years, but
Josephine and Jim were new acquaintances,--fairly new.

One day in early spring Lilly had a telegram, “Coming to see you arrive
4:30--Bricknell.” He was surprised, but he and his wife got the spare
room ready. And at four o’clock Lilly went off to the station. He was
a few minutes late, and saw Jim’s tall, rather elegant figure stalking
down the station path. Jim had been an officer in the regular army, and
still spent hours with his tailor. But instead of being a soldier he was
a sort of socialist, and a red-hot revolutionary of a very ineffectual
sort.

“Good lad!” he exclaimed, as Lilly came up. “Thought you wouldn’t mind.”

“Not at all. Let me carry your bag.” Jim had a bag and a knapsack.

“I had an inspiration this morning,” said Jim. “I suddenly saw that if
there was a man in England who could save me, it was you.”

“Save you from what?” asked Lilly, rather abashed.

“Eh--?” and Jim stooped, grinning at the smaller man.

Lilly was somewhat puzzled, but he had a certain belief in himself as a
saviour. The two men tramped rather incongruously through the lanes to
the cottage.

Tanny was in the doorway as they came up the garden path.

“So nice to see you! Are you all right?” she said.

“A-one!” said Jim, grinning. “Nice of you to have me.”

“Oh, we’re awfully pleased.”

Jim dropped his knapsack on the broad sofa.

“I’ve brought some food,” he said.

“Have you! That’s sensible of you. We can’t get a great deal here,
except just at week-ends,” said Tanny.

Jim fished out a pound of sausages and a pot of fish paste.

“How lovely the sausages,” said Tanny. “We’ll have them for dinner
tonight--and we’ll have the other for tea now. You’d like a wash?”

But Jim had already opened his bag, taken off his coat, and put on an
old one.

“Thanks,” he said.

Lilly made the tea, and at length all sat down.

“Well how unexpected this is--and how nice,” said Tanny.

“Jolly--eh?” said Jim.

He ate rapidly, stuffing his mouth too full.

“How is everybody?” asked Tanny.

“All right. Julia’s gone with Cyril Scott. Can’t stand that fellow, can
you? What?”

“Yes, I think he’s rather nice,” said Tanny. “What will Robert do?”

“Have a shot at Josephine, apparently.”

“Really? Is he in love with her? I thought so. And she likes him too,
doesn’t she?” said Tanny.

“Very likely,” said Jim.

“I suppose you’re jealous,” laughed Tanny.

“Me!” Jim shook his head. “Not a bit. Like to see the ball kept
rolling.”

“What have you been doing lately?”

“Been staying a few days with my wife.”

“No, really! I can’t believe it.”

Jim had a French wife, who had divorced him, and two children. Now he
was paying visits to this wife again: purely friendly. Tanny did most
of the talking. Jim excited her, with his way of looking in her face and
grinning wolfishly, and at the same time asking to be saved.

After tea, he wanted to send telegrams, so Lilly took him round to the
village post-office. Telegrams were a necessary part of his life. He had
to be suddenly starting off to keep sudden appointments, or he felt he
was a void in the atmosphere. He talked to Lilly about social reform,
and so on. Jim’s work in town was merely nominal. He spent his time
wavering about and going to various meetings, philandering and weeping.

Lilly kept in the back of his mind the Saving which James had come to
look for. He intended to do his best. After dinner the three sat cosily
round the kitchen fire.

“But what do you really think will happen to the world?” Lilly asked
Jim, amid much talk.

“What? There’s something big coming,” said Jim.

“Where from?”

“Watch Ireland, and watch Japan--they’re the two poles of the world,”
 said Jim.

“I thought Russia and America,” said Lilly.

“Eh? What? Russia and America! They’ll depend on Ireland and Japan. I
know it. I’ve had a vision of it. Ireland on this side and Japan on the
other--they’ll settle it.”

“I don’t see how,” said Lilly.

“I don’t see HOW--But I had a vision of it.”

“What sort of vision?”

“Couldn’t describe it.”

“But you don’t think much of the Japanese, do you?” asked Lilly.

“Don’t I! Don’t I!” said Jim. “What, don’t you think they’re wonderful?”

“No. I think they’re rather unpleasant.”

“I think the salvation of the world lies with them.”

“Funny salvation,” said Lilly. “I think they’re anything but angels.”

“Do you though? Now that’s funny. Why?”

“Looking at them even. I knew a Russian doctor who’d been through the
Russo-Japanese war, and who had gone a bit cracked. He said he saw the
Japs rush a trench. They threw everything away and flung themselves
through the Russian fire and simply dropped in masses. But those that
reached the trenches jumped in with bare hands on the Russians and tore
their faces apart and bit their throats out--fairly ripped the faces
off the bone.--It had sent the doctor a bit cracked. He said the wounded
were awful,--their faces torn off and their throats mangled--and dead
Japs with flesh between the teeth--God knows if it’s true. But that’s
the impression the Japanese had made on this man. It had affected his
mind really.”

Jim watched Lilly, and smiled as if he were pleased.

“No--really--!” he said.

“Anyhow they’re more demon than angel, I believe,” said Lilly.

“Oh, no, Rawdon, but you always exaggerate,” said Tanny.

“Maybe,” said Lilly.

“I think Japanese are fascinating--fascinating--so quick, and such FORCE
in them--”

“Rather!--eh?” said Jim, looking with a quick smile at Tanny.

“I think a Japanese lover would be marvellous,” she laughed riskily.

“I s’d think he would,” said Jim, screwing up his eyes.

“Do you hate the normal British as much as I do?” she asked him.

“Hate them! Hate them!” he said, with an intimate grin.

“Their beastly virtue,” said she. “And I believe there’s nobody more
vicious underneath.”

“Nobody!” said Jim.

“But you’re British yourself,” said Lilly to Jim.

“No, I’m Irish. Family’s Irish--my mother was a Fitz-patrick.”

“Anyhow you live in England.”

“Because they won’t let me go to Ireland.”

The talk drifted. Jim finished up all the beer, and they prepared to go
to bed. Jim was a bit tipsy, grinning. He asked for bread and cheese to
take upstairs.

“Will you have supper?” said Lilly. He was surprised, because Jim had
eaten strangely much at dinner.

“No--where’s the loaf?” And he cut himself about half of it. There was
no cheese.

“Bread’ll do,” said Jim.

“Sit down and eat it. Have cocoa with it,” said Tanny.

“No, I like to have it in my bedroom.”

“You don’t eat bread in the night?” said Lilly.

“I do.”

“What a funny thing to do.”

The cottage was in darkness. The Lillys slept soundly. Jim woke up and
chewed bread and slept again. In the morning at dawn he rose and went
downstairs. Lilly heard him roaming about--heard the woman come in
to clean--heard them talking. So he got up to look after his visitor,
though it was not seven o’clock, and the woman was busy.--But before he
went down, he heard Jim come upstairs again.

Mrs. Short was busy in the kitchen when Lilly went down.

“The other gentleman have been down, Sir,” said Mrs. Short. “He asked me
where the bread and butter were, so I said should I cut him a piece. But
he wouldn’t let me do it. I gave him a knife and he took it for himself,
in the pantry.”

“I say, Bricknell,” said Lilly at breakfast time, “why do you eat so
much bread?”

“I’ve got to feed up. I’ve been starved during this damned war.”

“But hunks of bread won’t feed you up.”

“Gives the stomach something to work at, and prevents it grinding on the
nerves,” said Jim.

“But surely you don’t want to keep your stomach always full and heavy.”

“I do, my boy. I do. It needs keeping solid. I’m losing life, if I
don’t. I tell you I’m losing life. Let me put something inside me.”

“I don’t believe bread’s any use.”

During breakfast Jim talked about the future of the world.

“I reckon Christ’s the finest thing time has ever produced,” said he;
“and will remain it.”

“But you don’t want crucifixions _ad infinitum_,” said Lilly.

“What? Why not?”

“Once is enough--and have done.”

“Don’t you think love and sacrifice are the finest things in life?” said
Jim, over his bacon.

“Depends WHAT love, and what sacrifice,” said Lilly. “If I really
believe in an Almighty God, I am willing to sacrifice for Him. That is,
I’m willing to yield my own personal interest to the bigger creative
interest.--But it’s obvious Almighty God isn’t mere Love.”

“I think it is. Love and only love,” said Jim. “I think the greatest joy
is sacrificing oneself to love.”

“To SOMEONE you love, you mean,” said Tanny.

“No I don’t. I don’t mean someone at all. I mean love--love--love. I
sacrifice myself to love. I reckon that’s the highest man is capable
of.”

“But you can’t sacrifice yourself to an abstract principle,” said Tanny.

“That’s just what you can do. And that’s the beauty of it. Who
represents the principle doesn’t matter. Christ is the principle of
love,” said Jim.

“But no!” said Tanny. “It MUST be more individual. It must be SOMEBODY
you love, not abstract love in itself. How can you sacrifice yourself to
an abstraction.”

“Ha, I think Love and your Christ detestable,” said Lilly--“a sheer
ignominy.”

“Finest thing the world has produced,” said Jim.

“No. A thing which sets itself up to be betrayed! No, it’s foul. Don’t
you see it’s the Judas principle you really worship. Judas is the real
hero. But for Judas the whole show would have been _manque_.”

“Oh yes,” said Jim. “Judas was inevitable. I’m not sure that Judas
wasn’t the greatest of the disciples--and Jesus knew it. I’m not sure
Judas wasn’t the disciple Jesus loved.”

“Jesus certainly encouraged him in his Judas tricks,” said Tanny.

Jim grinned knowingly at Lilly.

“Then it was a nasty combination. And anything which turns on a Judas
climax is a dirty show, to my thinking. I think your Judas is a rotten,
dirty worm, just a dirty little self-conscious sentimental twister. And
out of all Christianity he is the hero today. When people say Christ
they mean Judas. They find him luscious on the palate. And Jesus
fostered him--” said Lilly.

“He’s a profound figure, is Judas. It’s taken two thousand years to
begin to understand him,” said Jim, pushing the bread and marmalade into
his mouth.

“A traitor is a traitor--no need to understand any further. And a system
which rests all its weight on a piece of treachery makes that treachery
not only inevitable but sacred. That’s why I’m sick of Christianity.--At
any rate this modern Christ-mongery.”

“The finest thing the world has produced, or ever will produce--Christ
and Judas--” said Jim.

“Not to me,” said Lilly. “Foul combination.”

It was a lovely morning in early March. Violets were out, and the first
wild anemones. The sun was quite warm. The three were about to take out
a picnic lunch. Lilly however was suffering from Jim’s presence.

“Jolly nice here,” said Jim. “Mind if I stay till Saturday?”

There was a pause. Lilly felt he was being bullied, almost obscenely
bullied. Was he going to agree? Suddenly he looked up at Jim.

“I’d rather you went tomorrow,” he said.

Tanny, who was sitting opposite Jim, dropped her head in confusion.

“What’s tomorrow?” said Jim.

“Thursday,” said Lilly.

“Thursday,” repeated Jim. And he looked up and got Lilly’s eye. He
wanted to say “Friday then?”

“Yes, I’d rather you went Thursday,” repeated Lilly.

“But Rawdon--!” broke in Tanny, who was suffering. She stopped, however.

“We can walk across country with you some way if you like,” said Lilly
to Jim. It was a sort of compromise.

“Fine!” said Jim. “We’ll do that, then.”

It was lovely sunshine, and they wandered through the woods. Between Jim
and Tanny was a sort of growing _rapprochement_, which got on Lilly’s
nerves.

“What the hell do you take that beastly personal tone for?” cried Lilly
at Tanny, as the three sat under a leafless great beech-tree.

“But I’m not personal at all, am I, Mr. Bricknell?” said Tanny.

Jim watched Lilly, and grinned pleasedly.

“Why shouldn’t you be, anyhow?” he said.

“Yes!” she retorted. “Why not!”

“Not while I’m here. I loathe the slimy creepy personal
intimacy.--‘Don’t you think, Mr. Bricknell, that it’s lovely to be able
to talk quite simply to somebody? Oh, it’s such a relief, after most
people---’” Lilly mimicked his wife’s last speech savagely.

“But I MEAN it,” cried Tanny. “It is lovely.”

“Dirty messing,” said Lilly angrily.

Jim watched the dark, irascible little man with amusement. They rose,
and went to look for an inn, and beer. Tanny still clung rather stickily
to Jim’s side.

But it was a lovely day, the first of all the days of spring, with
crocuses and wall-flowers in the cottage gardens, and white cocks
crowing in the quiet hamlet.

When they got back in the afternoon to the cottage, they found a
telegram for Jim. He let the Lillys see it--“Meet you for a walk on your
return journey Lois.” At once Tanny wanted to know all about Lois. Lois
was a nice girl, well-to-do middle-class, but also an actress, and she
would do anything Jim wanted.

“I must get a wire to her to meet me tomorrow,” he said. “Where shall I
say?”

Lilly produced the map, and they decided on time and station at which
Lois coming out of London, should meet Jim. Then the happy pair could
walk along the Thames valley, spending a night perhaps at Marlowe, or
some such place.

Off went Jim and Lilly once more to the postoffice. They were quite
good friends. Having so inhospitably fixed the hour of departure,
Lilly wanted to be nice. Arrived at the postoffice, they found it shut:
half-day closing for the little shop.

“Well,” said Lilly. “We’ll go to the station.”

They proceeded to the station--found the station-master--were conducted
down to the signal-box. Lilly naturally hung back from people, but
Jim was hob-nob with the station-master and the signal man, quite
officer-and-my-men kind of thing. Lilly sat out on the steps of the
signal-box, rather ashamed, while the long telegram was shouted over the
telephone to the junction town--first the young lady and her address,
then the message “Meet me X. station 3:40 tomorrow walk back great
pleasure Jim.”

Anyhow that was done. They went home to tea. After tea, as the evening
fell, Lilly suggested a little stroll in the woods, while Tanny prepared
the dinner. Jim agreed, and they set out. The two men wandered through
the trees in the dusk, till they came to a bank on the farther edge of
the wood. There they sat down.

And there Lilly said what he had to say. “As a matter of fact,” he said,
“it’s nothing but love and self-sacrifice which makes you feel yourself
losing life.”

“You’re wrong. Only love brings it back--and wine. If I drink a bottle
of Burgundy I feel myself restored at the middle--right here! I feel
the energy back again. And if I can fall in love--But it’s becoming so
damned hard--”

“What, to fall in love?” asked Lilly.

“Yes.”

“Then why not leave off trying! What do you want to poke yourself and
prod yourself into love, for?”

“Because I’m DEAD without it. I’m dead. I’m dying.”

“Only because you force yourself. If you drop working yourself up--”

“I shall die. I only live when I can fall in love. Otherwise I’m dying
by inches. Why, man, you don’t know what it was like. I used to get
the most grand feelings--like a great rush of force, or light--a great
rush--right here, as I’ve said, at the solar plexus. And it would come
any time--anywhere--no matter where I was. And then I was all right.

“All right for what?--for making love?”

“Yes, man, I was.”

“And now you aren’t?--Oh, well, leave love alone, as any twopenny doctor
would tell you.”

“No, you’re off it there. It’s nothing technical. Technically I can make
love as much as you like. It’s nothing a doctor has any say in. It’s
what I feel inside me. I feel the life going. I know it’s going. I never
get those inrushes now, unless I drink a jolly lot, or if I possibly
could fall in love. Technically, I’m potent all right--oh, yes!”

“You should leave yourself and your inrushes alone.”

“But you can’t. It’s a sort of ache.”

“Then you should stiffen your backbone. It’s your backbone that matters.
You shouldn’t want to abandon yourself. You shouldn’t want to fling
yourself all loose into a woman’s lap. You should stand by yourself and
learn to be by yourself. Why don’t you be more like the Japanese you
talk about? Quiet, aloof little devils. They don’t bother about being
loved. They keep themselves taut in their own selves--there, at the
bottom of the spine--the devil’s own power they’ve got there.”

Jim mused a bit.

“Think they have?” he laughed. It seemed comic to him.

“Sure! Look at them. Why can’t you gather yourself there?”

“At the tail?”

“Yes. Hold yourself firm there.”

Jim broke into a cackle of a laugh, and rose. The two went through
the dark woods back to the cottage. Jim staggered and stumbled like a
drunken man: or worse, like a man with locomotor ataxia: as if he had no
power in his lower limbs.

“Walk there--!” said Lilly, finding him the smoothest bit of the
dark path. But Jim stumbled and shambled, in a state of nauseous weak
relaxation. However, they reached the cottage: and food and beer--and
Tanny, piqued with curiosity to know what the men had been saying
privately to each other.

After dinner they sat once more talking round the fire.

Lilly sat in a small chair facing the fire, the other two in the
armchairs on either side the hearth.

“How nice it will be for you, walking with Lois towards London
tomorrow,” gushed Tanny sentimentally.

“Good God!” said Lilly. “Why the dickens doesn’t he walk by himself,
without wanting a woman always there, to hold his hand.”

“Don’t be so spiteful,” said Tanny. “YOU see that you have a woman
always there, to hold YOUR hand.”

“My hand doesn’t need holding,” snapped Lilly.

“Doesn’t it! More than most men’s! But you’re so beastly ungrateful and
mannish. Because I hold you safe enough all the time you like to pretend
you’re doing it all yourself.”

“All right. Don’t drag yourself in,” said Lilly, detesting his wife
at that moment. “Anyhow,” and he turned to Jim, “it’s time you’d done
slobbering yourself over a lot of little women, one after the other.”

“Why shouldn’t I, if I like it?” said Jim.

“Yes, why not?” said Tanny.

“Because it makes a fool of you. Look at you, stumbling and staggering
with no use in your legs. I’d be ashamed if I were you.”

“Would you?” said Jim.

“I would. And it’s nothing but your wanting to be loved which does it. A
maudlin crying to be loved, which makes your knees all go rickety.”

“Think that’s it?” said Jim.

“What else is it. You haven’t been here a day, but you must telegraph
for some female to be ready to hold your hand the moment you go away.
And before she lets go, you’ll be wiring for another. YOU WANT TO BE
LOVED, you want to be loved--a man of your years. It’s disgusting--”

“I don’t see it. I believe in love--” said Jim, watching and grinning
oddly.

“Bah, love! Messing, that’s what it is. It wouldn’t matter if it did
you no harm. But when you stagger and stumble down a road, out of sheer
sloppy relaxation of your will---”

At this point Jim suddenly sprang from his chair at Lilly, and gave him
two or three hard blows with his fists, upon the front of the body. Then
he sat down in his own chair again, saying sheepishly:

“I knew I should have to do it, if he said any more.”

Lilly sat motionless as a statue, his face like paper. One of the blows
had caught him rather low, so that he was almost winded and could not
breathe. He sat rigid, paralysed as a winded man is. But he wouldn’t let
it be seen. With all his will he prevented himself from gasping. Only
through his parted lips he drew tiny gasps, controlled, nothing revealed
to the other two. He hated them both far too much.

For some minutes there was dead silence, whilst Lilly silently and
viciously fought for his breath. Tanny opened her eyes wide in a sort
of pleased bewilderment, and Jim turned his face aside, and hung his
clasped hands between his knees.

“There’s a great silence, suddenly!” said Tanny.

“What is there to say?” ejaculated Lilly rapidly, with a spoonful of
breath which he managed to compress and control into speech. Then he sat
motionless again, concerned with the business of getting back his wind,
and not letting the other two see.

Jim jerked in his chair, and looked round.

“It isn’t that I don’t like the man,” he said, in a rather small voice.
“But I knew if he went on I should have to do it.”

To Lilly, rigid and physically preoccupied, there sounded a sort of
self-consciousness in Jim’s voice, as if the whole thing had been
semi-deliberate. He detected the sort of maudlin deliberateness which
goes with hysterics, and he was colder, more icy than ever.

Tanny looked at Lilly, puzzled, bewildered, but still rather pleased, as
if she demanded an answer. None being forthcoming, she said:

“Of course, you mustn’t expect to say all those things without rousing a
man.”

Still Lilly did not answer. Jim glanced at him, then looked at Tanny.

“It isn’t that I don’t like him,” he said, slowly. “I like him better
than any man I’ve ever known, I believe.” He clasped his hands and
turned aside his face.

“Judas!” flashed through Lilly’s mind.

Again Tanny looked for her husband’s answer.

“Yes, Rawdon,” she said. “You can’t say the things you do without their
having an effect. You really ask for it, you know.”

“It’s no matter.” Lilly squeezed the words out coldly. “He wanted to do
it, and he did it.”

A dead silence ensued now. Tanny looked from man to man.

“I could feel it coming on me,” said Jim.

“Of course!” said Tanny. “Rawdon doesn’t know the things he says.” She
was pleased that he had had to pay for them, for once.

It takes a man a long time to get his breath back, after a sharp blow in
the wind. Lilly was managing by degrees. The others no doubt attributed
his silence to deep or fierce thoughts. It was nothing of the kind,
merely a cold struggle to get his wind back, without letting them know
he was struggling: and a sheer, stock-stiff hatred of the pair of them.

“I like the man,” said Jim. “Never liked a man more than I like him.” He
spoke as if with difficulty.

“The man” stuck safely in Lilly’s ears.

“Oh, well,” he managed to say. “It’s nothing. I’ve done my talking and
had an answer, for once.”

“Yes, Rawdy, you’ve had an answer, for once. Usually you don’t get an
answer, you know--and that’s why you go so far--in the things you say.
Now you’ll know how you make people feel.”

“Quite!” said Lilly.

“_I_ don’t feel anything. I don’t mind what he says,” said Jim.

“Yes, but he ought to know the things he DOES say,” said Tanny. “He goes
on, without considering the person he’s talking to. This time it’s come
back on him. He mustn’t say such personal things, if he’s not going to
risk an answer.”

“I don’t mind what he says. I don’t mind a bit,” said Jim.

“Nor do I mind,” said Lilly indifferently. “I say what I feel--You do as
you feel--There’s an end of it.”

A sheepish sort of silence followed this speech. It was broken by a
sudden laugh from Tanny.

“The things that happen to us!” she said, laughing rather shrilly.
“Suddenly, like a thunderbolt, we’re all struck into silence!”

“Rum game, eh!” said Jim, grinning.

“Isn’t it funny! Isn’t life too funny!” She looked again at her husband.
“But, Rawdy, you must admit it was your own fault.”

Lilly’s stiff face did not change.

“Why FAULT!” he said, looking at her coldly. “What is there to talk
about?”

“Usually there’s so much,” she said sarcastically.

A few phrases dribbled out of the silence. In vain Jim, tried to get
Lilly to thaw, and in vain Tanny gave her digs at her husband. Lilly’s
stiff, inscrutable face did not change, he was polite and aloof. So they
all went to bed.

In the morning, the walk was to take place, as arranged, Lilly and Tanny
accompanying Jim to the third station across country. The morning was
lovely, the country beautiful. Lilly liked the countryside and enjoyed
the walk. But a hardness inside himself never relaxed. Jim talked
a little again about the future of the world, and a higher state of
Christlikeness in man. But Lilly only laughed. Then Tanny managed to
get ahead with Jim, sticking to his side and talking sympathetic
personalities. But Lilly, feeling it from afar, ran after them and
caught them up. They were silent.

“What was the interesting topic?” he said cuttingly.

“Nothing at all!” said Tanny, nettled. “Why must you interfere?”

“Because I intend to,” said Lilly.

And the two others fell apart, as if severed with a knife. Jim walked
rather sheepishly, as if cut out.

So they came at last past the canals to the wayside station: and at last
Jim’s train came. They all said goodbye. Jim and Tanny were both waiting
for Lilly to show some sign of real reconciliation. But none came. He
was cheerful and aloof.

“Goodbye,” he said to Jim. “Hope Lois will be there all right. Third
station on. Goodbye! Goodbye!”

“You’ll come to Rackham?” said Jim, leaning out of the train.

“We should love to,” called Tanny, after the receding train.

“All right,” said Lilly, non-committal.

But he and his wife never saw Jim again. Lilly never intended to see
him: a devil sat in the little man’s breast.

“You shouldn’t play at little Jesus, coming so near to people, wanting
to help them,” was Tanny’s last word.



CHAPTER IX. LOW-WATER MARK


Tanny went away to Norway to visit her people, for the first time for
three years. Lilly did not go: he did not want to. He came to London
and settled in a room over Covent Garden market. The room was high up, a
fair size, and stood at the corner of one of the streets and the market
itself, looking down on the stalls and the carts and the arcade. Lilly
would climb out of the window and sit for hours watching the behaviour
of the great draught-horses which brought the mountains of boxes and
vegetables. Funny half-human creatures they seemed, so massive and
fleshy, yet so Cockney. There was one which could not bear donkeys,
and which used to stretch out its great teeth like some massive serpent
after every poor diminutive ass that came with a coster’s barrow.
Another great horse could not endure standing. It would shake itself
and give little starts, and back into the heaps of carrots and broccoli,
whilst the driver went into a frenzy of rage.

There was always something to watch. One minute it was two great loads
of empty crates, which in passing had got entangled, and reeled, leaning
to fall disastrously. Then the drivers cursed and swore and dismounted
and stared at their jeopardised loads: till a thin fellow was persuaded
to scramble up the airy mountains of cages, like a monkey. And he
actually managed to put them to rights. Great sigh of relief when the
vans rocked out of the market.

Again there was a particular page-boy in buttons, with a round and perky
behind, who nimbly carried a tea-tray from somewhere to somewhere, under
the arches beside the market. The great brawny porters would tease him,
and he would stop to give them cheek. One afternoon a giant lunged after
him: the boy darted gracefully among the heaps of vegetables, still
bearing aloft his tea-tray, like some young blue-buttoned acolyte
fleeing before a false god. The giant rolled after him--when alas, the
acolyte of the tea-tray slipped among the vegetables, and down came the
tray. Then tears, and a roar of unfeeling mirth from the giants. Lilly
felt they were going to make it up to him.

Another afternoon a young swell sauntered persistently among the
vegetables, and Lilly, seated in his high little balcony, wondered why.
But at last, a taxi, and a very expensive female, in a sort of silver
brocade gown and a great fur shawl and ospreys in her bonnet. Evidently
an assignation. Yet what could be more conspicuous than this elegant
pair, picking their way through the cabbage-leaves?

And then, one cold grey afternoon in early April, a man in a black
overcoat and a bowler hat, walking uncertainly. Lilly had risen and was
just retiring out of the chill, damp air. For some reason he lingered to
watch the figure. The man was walking east. He stepped rather insecurely
off the pavement, and wavered across the setts between the wheels of the
standing vans. And suddenly he went down. Lilly could not see him on the
ground, but he saw some van-men go forward, and he saw one of them pick
up the man’s hat.

“I’d better go down,” said Lilly to himself.

So he began running down the four long flights of stone stairs, past
the many doors of the multifarious business premises, and out into the
market. A little crowd had gathered, and a large policeman was just
rowing into the centre of the interest. Lilly, always a hoverer on the
edge of public commotions, hung now hesitating on the outskirts of the
crowd.

“What is it?” he said, to a rather sniffy messenger boy.

“Drunk,” said the messenger boy: except that, in unblushing cockney, he
pronounced it “Drank.”

Lilly hung further back on the edge of the little crowd.

“Come on here. Where d’ you want to go?” he heard the hearty tones of
the policeman.

“I’m all right. I’m all right,” came the testy drunken answer.

“All right, are yer! All right, and then some,--come on, get on your
pins.”

“I’m all right! I’m all right.”

The voice made Lilly peer between the people. And sitting on the granite
setts, being hauled up by a burly policeman, he saw our acquaintance
Aaron, very pale in the face and a little dishevelled.

“Like me to tuck the sheets round you, shouldn’t you? Fancy yourself
snug in bed, don’t you? You won’t believe you’re right in the way of
traffic, will you now, in Covent Garden Market? Come on, we’ll see to
you.” And the policeman hoisted the bitter and unwilling Aaron.

Lilly was quickly at the centre of the affair, unobtrusive like a
shadow, different from the other people.

“Help him up to my room, will you?” he said to the constable. “Friend of
mine.”

The large constable looked down on the bare-headed wispy, unobtrusive
Lilly with good-humoured suspicion and incredulity. Lilly could not have
borne it if the policeman had uttered any of this cockney suspicion, so
he watched him. There was a great gulf between the public official and
the odd, quiet little individual--yet Lilly had his way.

“Which room?” said the policeman, dubious.

Lilly pointed quickly round. Then he said to Aaron:

“Were you coming to see me, Sisson? You’ll come in, won’t you?”

Aaron nodded rather stupidly and testily. His eyes looked angry.
Somebody stuck his hat on his head for him, and made him look a fool.
Lilly took it off again, and carried it for him. He turned and the crowd
eased. He watched Aaron sharply, and saw that it was with difficulty
he could walk. So he caught him by the arm on the other side from the
policeman, and they crossed the road to the pavement.

“Not so much of this sort of thing these days,” said the policeman.

“Not so much opportunity,” said Lilly.

“More than there was, though. Coming back to the old days, like. Working
round, bit by bit.”

They had arrived at the stairs. Aaron stumbled up.

“Steady now! Steady does it!” said the policeman, steering his charge.
There was a curious breach of distance between Lilly and the constable.

At last Lilly opened his own door. The room was pleasant. The fire
burned warm, the piano stood open, the sofa was untidy with cushions and
papers. Books and papers covered the big writing desk. Beyond the screen
made by the bookshelves and the piano were two beds, with washstand by
one of the large windows, the one through which Lilly had climbed.

The policeman looked round curiously.

“More cosy here than in the lock-up, sir!” he said.

Lilly laughed. He was hastily clearing the sofa.

“Sit on the sofa, Sisson,” he said.

The policeman lowered his charge, with a--

“Right we are, then!”

Lilly felt in his pocket, and gave the policeman half a crown. But
he was watching Aaron, who sat stupidly on the sofa, very pale and
semi-conscious.

“Do you feel ill, Sisson?” he said sharply.

Aaron looked back at him with heavy eyes, and shook his head slightly.

“I believe you are,” said Lilly, taking his hand.

“Might be a bit o’ this flu, you know,” said the policeman.

“Yes,” said Lilly. “Where is there a doctor?” he added, on reflection.

“The nearest?” said the policeman. And he told him. “Leave a message for
you, Sir?”

Lilly wrote his address on a card, then changed his mind.

“No, I’ll run round myself if necessary,” he said.

And the policeman departed.

“You’ll go to bed, won’t you?” said Lilly to Aaron, when the door was
shut. Aaron shook his head sulkily.

“I would if I were you. You can stay here till you’re all right. I’m
alone, so it doesn’t matter.”

But Aaron had relapsed into semi-consciousness. Lilly put the big kettle
on the gas stove, the little kettle on the fire. Then he hovered in
front of the stupefied man. He felt uneasy. Again he took Aaron’s hand
and felt the pulse.

“I’m sure you aren’t well. You must go to bed,” he said. And he kneeled
and unfastened his visitor’s boots. Meanwhile the kettle began to boil,
he put a hot-water bottle into the bed.

“Let us get your overcoat off,” he said to the stupefied man. “Come
along.” And with coaxing and pulling and pushing he got off the overcoat
and coat and waistcoat.

At last Aaron was undressed and in bed. Lilly brought him tea. With
a dim kind of obedience he took the cup and would drink. He looked at
Lilly with heavy eyes.

“I gave in, I gave in to her, else I should ha’ been all right,” he
said.

“To whom?” said Lilly.

“I gave in to her--and afterwards I cried, thinking of Lottie and the
children. I felt my heart break, you know. And that’s what did it. I
should have been all right if I hadn’t given in to her--”

“To whom?” said Lilly.

“Josephine. I felt, the minute I was loving her, I’d done myself. And I
had. Everything came back on me. If I hadn’t given in to her, I should
ha’ kept all right.”

“Don’t bother now. Get warm and still--”

“I felt it--I felt it go, inside me, the minute I gave in to her. It’s
perhaps killed me.”

“No, not it. Never mind, be still. Be still, and you’ll be all right in
the morning.”

“It’s my own fault, for giving in to her. If I’d kept myself back, my
liver wouldn’t have broken inside me, and I shouldn’t have been sick.
And I knew--”

“Never mind now. Have you drunk your tea? Lie down. Lie down, and go to
sleep.”

Lilly pushed Aaron down in the bed, and covered him over. Then he
thrust his hands under the bedclothes and felt his feet--still cold. He
arranged the water bottle. Then he put another cover on the bed.

Aaron lay still, rather grey and peaked-looking, in a stillness that was
not healthy. For some time Lilly went about stealthily, glancing at his
patient from time to time. Then he sat down to read.

He was roused after a time by a moaning of troubled breathing and a
fretful stirring in the bed. He went across. Aaron’s eyes were open, and
dark looking.

“Have a little hot milk,” said Lilly.

Aaron shook his head faintly, not noticing.

“A little Bovril?”

The same faint shake.

Then Lilly wrote a note for the doctor, went into the office on the same
landing, and got a clerk, who would be leaving in a few minutes, to call
with the note. When he came back he found Aaron still watching.

“Are you here by yourself?” asked the sick man.

“Yes. My wife’s gone to Norway.”

“For good?”

“No,” laughed Lilly. “For a couple of months or so. She’ll come back
here: unless she joins me in Switzerland or somewhere.”

Aaron was still for a while.

“You’ve not gone with her,” he said at length.

“To see her people? No, I don’t think they want me very badly--and I
didn’t want very badly to go. Why should I? It’s better for married
people to be separated sometimes.”

“Ay!” said Aaron, watching the other man with fever-darkened eyes.

“I hate married people who are two in one--stuck together like two
jujube lozenges,” said Lilly.

“Me an’ all. I hate ‘em myself,” said Aaron.

“Everybody ought to stand by themselves, in the first place--men and
women as well. They can come together, in the second place, if
they like. But nothing is any good unless each one stands alone,
intrinsically.”

“I’m with you there,” said Aaron. “If I’d kep’ myself to myself I
shouldn’t be bad now--though I’m not very bad. I s’ll be all right in
the morning. But I did myself in when I went with another woman. I felt
myself go--as if the bile broke inside me, and I was sick.”

“Josephine seduced you?” laughed Lilly.

“Ay, right enough,” replied Aaron grimly. “She won’t be coming here,
will she?”

“Not unless I ask her.”

“You won’t ask her, though?”

“No, not if you don’t want her.”

“I don’t.”

The fever made Aaron naive and communicative, unlike himself. And he
knew he was being unlike himself, he knew that he was not in proper
control of himself, so he was unhappy, uneasy.

“I’ll stop here the night then, if you don’t mind,” he said.

“You’ll have to,” said Lilly. “I’ve sent for the doctor. I believe
you’ve got the flu.”

“Think I have?” said Aaron frightened.

“Don’t be scared,” laughed Lilly.

There was a long pause. Lilly stood at the window looking at the
darkening market, beneath the street-lamps.

“I s’ll have to go to the hospital, if I have,” came Aaron’s voice.

“No, if it’s only going to be a week or a fortnight’s business, you can
stop here. I’ve nothing to do,” said Lilly.

“There’s no occasion for you to saddle yourself with me,” said Aaron
dejectedly.

“You can go to your hospital if you like--or back to your lodging--if
you wish to,” said Lilly. “You can make up your mind when you see how
you are in the morning.”

“No use going back to my lodgings,” said Aaron.

“I’ll send a telegram to your wife if you like,” said Lilly.

Aaron was silent, dead silent, for some time.

“Nay,” he said at length, in a decided voice. “Not if I die for it.”

Lilly remained still, and the other man lapsed into a sort of
semi-sleep, motionless and abandoned. The darkness had fallen over
London, and away below the lamps were white.

Lilly lit the green-shaded reading lamp over the desk. Then he stood and
looked at Aaron, who lay still, looking sick. Rather beautiful the bones
of the countenance: but the skull too small for such a heavy jaw and
rather coarse mouth. Aaron half-opened his eyes, and writhed feverishly,
as if his limbs could not be in the right place. Lilly mended the fire,
and sat down to write. Then he got up and went downstairs to unfasten
the street door, so that the doctor could walk up. The business people
had gone from their various holes, all the lower part of the tall house
was in darkness.

Lilly waited and waited. He boiled an egg and made himself toast. Aaron
said he might eat the same. Lilly cooked another egg and took it to the
sick man. Aaron looked at it and pushed it away with nausea. He would
have some tea. So Lilly gave him tea.

“Not much fun for you, doing this for somebody who is nothing to you,”
 said Aaron.

“I shouldn’t if you were unsympathetic to me,” said Lilly. “As it is,
it’s happened so, and so we’ll let be.”

“What time is it?”

“Nearly eight o’clock.”

“Oh, my Lord, the opera.”

And Aaron got half out of bed. But as he sat on the bedside he knew he
could not safely get to his feet. He remained a picture of dejection.

“Perhaps we ought to let them know,” said Lilly.

But Aaron, blank with stupid misery, sat huddled there on the bedside
without answering.

“Ill run round with a note,” said Lilly. “I suppose others have had flu,
besides you. Lie down!”

But Aaron stupidly and dejectedly sat huddled on the side of the bed,
wearing old flannel pyjamas of Lilly’s, rather small for him. He felt
too sick to move.

“Lie down! Lie down!” said Lilly. “And keep still while I’m gone. I
shan’t be more than ten minutes.”

“I don’t care if I die,” said Aaron.

Lilly laughed.

“You’re a long way from dying,” said he, “or you wouldn’t say it.”

But Aaron only looked up at him with queer, far-off, haggard eyes,
something like a criminal who is just being executed.

“Lie down!” said Lilly, pushing him gently into the bed. “You won’t
improve yourself sitting there, anyhow.”

Aaron lay down, turned away, and was quite still. Lilly quietly left the
room on his errand.

The doctor did not come until ten o’clock: and worn out with work when
he did come.

“Isn’t there a lift in this establishment?” he said, as he groped his
way up the stone stairs. Lilly had heard him, and run down to meet him.

The doctor poked the thermometer under Aaron’s tongue and felt the
pulse. Then he asked a few questions: listened to the heart and
breathing.

“Yes, it’s the flu,” he said curtly. “Nothing to do but to keep warm in
bed and not move, and take plenty of milk and liquid nourishment. I’ll
come round in the morning and give you an injection. Lungs are all right
so far.”

“How long shall I have to be in bed?” said Aaron.

“Oh--depends. A week at least.”

Aaron watched him sullenly--and hated him. Lilly laughed to himself. The
sick man was like a dog that is ill but which growls from a deep corner,
and will bite if you put your hand in. He was in a state of black
depression.

Lilly settled him down for the night, and himself went to bed. Aaron
squirmed with heavy, pained limbs, the night through, and slept and had
bad dreams. Lilly got up to give him drinks. The din in the market was
terrific before dawn, and Aaron suffered bitterly.

In the morning he was worse. The doctor gave him injections against
pneumonia.

“You wouldn’t like me to wire to your wife?” said Lilly.

“No,” said Aaron abruptly. “You can send me to the hospital. I’m nothing
but a piece of carrion.”

“Carrion!” said Lilly. “Why?”

“I know it. I feel like it.”

“Oh, that’s only the sort of nauseated feeling you get with flu.”

“I’m only fit to be thrown underground, and made an end of. I can’t
stand myself--”

He had a ghastly, grey look of self-repulsion.

“It’s the germ that makes you feel like that,” said Lilly. “It poisons
the system for a time. But you’ll work it off.”

At evening he was no better, the fever was still high. Yet there were no
complications--except that the heart was irregular.

“The one thing I wonder,” said Lilly, “is whether you hadn’t better be
moved out of the noise of the market. It’s fearful for you in the early
morning.”

“It makes no difference to me,” said Aaron.

The next day he was a little worse, if anything. The doctor knew there
was nothing to be done. At evening he gave the patient a calomel pill.
It was rather strong, and Aaron had a bad time. His burning, parched,
poisoned inside was twisted and torn. Meanwhile carts banged, porters
shouted, all the hell of the market went on outside, away down on the
cobble setts. But this time the two men did not hear.

“You’ll feel better now,” said Lilly, “after the operation.”

“It’s done me harm,” cried Aaron fretfully. “Send me to the hospital, or
you’ll repent it. Get rid of me in time.”

“Nay,” said Lilly. “You get better. Damn it, you’re only one among a
million.”

Again over Aaron’s face went the ghastly grimace of self-repulsion.

“My soul’s gone rotten,” he said.

“No,” said Lilly. “Only toxin in the blood.”

Next day the patient seemed worse, and the heart more irregular. He
rested badly. So far, Lilly had got a fair night’s rest. Now Aaron was
not sleeping, and he seemed to struggle in the bed.

“Keep your courage up, man,” said the doctor sharply. “You give way.”

Aaron looked at him blackly, and did not answer.

In the night Lilly was up time after time. Aaron would slip down on his
back, and go semi-conscious. And then he would awake, as if drowning,
struggling to move, mentally shouting aloud, yet making no sound for
some moments, mentally shouting in frenzy, but unable to stir or make a
sound. When at last he got some sort of physical control he cried: “Lift
me up! Lift me up!”

Lilly hurried and lifted him up, and he sat panting with a sobbing
motion, his eyes gloomy and terrified, more than ever like a criminal
who is just being executed. He drank brandy, and was laid down on his
side.

“Don’t let me lie on my back,” he said, terrified. “No, I won’t,” said
Lilly. Aaron frowned curiously on his nurse. “Mind you don’t let me,” he
said, exacting and really terrified.

“No, I won’t let you.”

And now Lilly was continually crossing over and pulling Aaron on to his
side, whenever he found him slipped down on his back.

In the morning the doctor was puzzled. Probably it was the toxin in the
blood which poisoned the heart. There was no pneumonia. And yet Aaron
was clearly growing worse. The doctor agreed to send in a nurse for the
coming night.

“What’s the matter with you, man!” he said sharply to his patient. “You
give way! You give way! Can’t you pull yourself together?”

But Aaron only became more gloomily withheld, retracting from life.
And Lilly began to be really troubled. He got a friend to sit with the
patient in the afternoon, whilst he himself went out and arranged to
sleep in Aaron’s room, at his lodging.

The next morning, when he came in, he found the patient lying as ever,
in a sort of heap in the bed. Nurse had had to lift him up and hold him
up again. And now Aaron lay in a sort of semi-stupor of fear, frustrated
anger, misery and self-repulsion: a sort of interlocked depression.

The doctor frowned when he came. He talked with the nurse, and wrote
another prescription. Then he drew Lilly away to the door.

“What’s the matter with the fellow?” he said. “Can’t you rouse his
spirit? He seems to be sulking himself out of life. He’ll drop out quite
suddenly, you know, if he goes on like this. Can’t you rouse him up?”

“I think it depresses him partly that his bowels won’t work. It
frightens him. He’s never been ill in his life before,” said Lilly.

“His bowels won’t work if he lets all his spirit go, like an animal
dying of the sulks,” said the doctor impatiently. “He might go off quite
suddenly--dead before you can turn round--”

Lilly was properly troubled. Yet he did not quite know what to do. It
was early afternoon, and the sun was shining into the room. There were
daffodils and anemones in a jar, and freezias and violets. Down below in
the market were two stalls of golden and blue flowers, gay.

“The flowers are lovely in the spring sunshine,” said Lilly. “I wish I
were in the country, don’t you? As soon as you are better we’ll go. It’s
been a terrible cold, wet spring. But now it’s going to be nice. Do you
like being in the country?”

“Yes,” said Aaron.

He was thinking of his garden. He loved it. Never in his life had he
been away from a garden before.

“Make haste and get better, and we’ll go.”

“Where?” said Aaron.

“Hampshire. Or Berkshire. Or perhaps you’d like to go home? Would you?”

Aaron lay still, and did not answer.

“Perhaps you want to, and you don’t want to,” said Lilly. “You can
please yourself, anyhow.”

There was no getting anything definite out of the sick man--his soul
seemed stuck, as if it would not move.

Suddenly Lilly rose and went to the dressing-table.

“I’m going to rub you with oil,” he said. “I’m going to rub you as
mothers do their babies whose bowels don’t work.”

Aaron frowned slightly as he glanced at the dark, self-possessed face of
the little man.

“What’s the good of that?” he said irritably. “I’d rather be left
alone.”

“Then you won’t be.”

Quickly he uncovered the blond lower body of his patient, and began to
rub the abdomen with oil, using a slow, rhythmic, circulating motion,
a sort of massage. For a long time he rubbed finely and steadily, then
went over the whole of the lower body, mindless, as if in a sort of
incantation. He rubbed every speck of the man’s lower body--the abdomen,
the buttocks, the thighs and knees, down to the feet, rubbed it all
warm and glowing with camphorated oil, every bit of it, chafing the toes
swiftly, till he was almost exhausted. Then Aaron was covered up again,
and Lilly sat down in fatigue to look at his patient.

He saw a change. The spark had come back into the sick eyes, and the
faint trace of a smile, faintly luminous, into the face. Aaron was
regaining himself. But Lilly said nothing. He watched his patient fall
into a proper sleep.

And he sat and watched him sleep. And he thought to himself: “I wonder
why I do it. I wonder why I bother with him.... Jim ought to have taught
me my lesson. As soon as this man’s really better he’ll punch me in the
wind, metaphorically if not actually, for having interfered with him.
And Tanny would say, he was quite right to do it. She says I want power
over them. What if I do? They don’t care how much power the mob has over
them, the nation, Lloyd George and Northcliffe and the police and money.
They’ll yield themselves up to that sort of power quickly enough, and
immolate themselves _pro bono publico_ by the million. And what’s
the bonum publicum but a mob power? Why can’t they submit to a bit of
healthy individual authority? The fool would die, without me: just as
that fool Jim will die in hysterics one day. Why does he last so long!

“Tanny’s the same. She does nothing really but resist me: my authority,
or my influence, or just ME. At the bottom of her heart she just blindly
and persistently opposes me. God knows what it is she opposes: just me
myself. She thinks I want her to submit to me. So I do, in a measure
natural to our two selves. Somewhere, she ought to submit to me. But
they all prefer to kick against the pricks. Not that THEY get many
pricks. I get them. Damn them all, why don’t I leave them alone? They
only grin and feel triumphant when they’ve insulted one and punched one
in the wind.

“This Aaron will do just the same. I like him, and he ought to like me.
And he’ll be another Jim: he WILL like me, if he can knock the wind out
of me. A lot of little Stavrogins coming up to whisper affectionately,
and biting one’s ear.

“But anyhow I can soon see the last of this chap: and him the last of
all the rest. I’ll be damned for ever if I see their Jims and Roberts
and Julias and Scotts any more. Let them dance round their insipid
hell-broth. Thin tack it is.

“There’s a whole world besides this little gang of Europeans. Except,
dear God, that they’ve exterminated all the peoples worth knowing. I
can’t do with folk who teem by the billion, like the Chinese and Japs
and orientals altogether. Only vermin teem by the billion. Higher types
breed slower. I would have loved the Aztecs and the Red Indians. I KNOW
they hold the element in life which I am looking for--they had living
pride. Not like the flea-bitten Asiatics--even niggers are better than
Asiatics, though they are wallowers--the American races--and the South
Sea Islanders--the Marquesans, the Maori blood. That was the true blood.
It wasn’t frightened. All the rest are craven--Europeans, Asiatics,
Africans--everyone at his own individual quick craven and cringing: only
conceited in the mass, the mob. How I hate them: the mass-bullies, the
individual Judases.

“Well, if one will be a Jesus he must expect his Judas. That’s why
Abraham Lincoln gets shot. A Jesus makes a Judas inevitable. A man
should remain himself, not try to spread himself over humanity. He
should pivot himself on his own pride.

“I suppose really I ought to have packed this Aaron off to the hospital.
Instead of which here am I rubbing him with oil to rub the life into
him. And I KNOW he’ll bite me, like a warmed snake, the moment he
recovers. And Tanny will say ‘Quite right, too,’ I shouldn’t have been
so intimate. No, I should have left it to mechanical doctors and nurses.

“So I should. Everything to its own. And Aaron belongs to this little
system, and Jim is waiting to be psychoanalysed, and Tanny is waiting
for her own glorification.

“All right, Aaron. Last time I break my bread for anybody, this is. So
get better, my flautist, so that I can go away.

“It was easy for the Red Indians and the Others to take their hook into
death. They might have stayed a bit longer to help one to defy the white
masses.

“I’ll make some tea--”

Lilly rose softly and went across to the fire. He had to cross a landing
to a sort of little lavatory, with a sink and a tap, for water. The
clerks peeped out at him from an adjoining office and nodded. He nodded,
and disappeared from their sight as quickly as possible, with his
kettle. His dark eyes were quick, his dark hair was untidy, there was
something silent and withheld about him. People could never approach him
quite ordinarily.

He put on the kettle, and quietly set cups and plates on a tray. The
room was clean and cosy and pleasant. He did the cleaning himself, and
was as efficient and inobtrusive a housewife as any woman. While the
kettle boiled, he sat darning the socks which he had taken off Aaron’s
feet when the flautist arrived, and which he had washed. He preferred
that no outsider should see him doing these things. Yet he preferred
also to do them himself, so that he should be independent of outside
aid.

His face was dark and hollow, he seemed frail, sitting there in the
London afternoon darning the black woollen socks. His full brow was
knitted slightly, there was a tension. At the same time, there was an
indomitable stillness about him, as it were in the atmosphere about him.
His hands, though small, were not very thin. He bit off the wool as he
finished his darn.

As he was making the tea he saw Aaron rouse up in bed.

“I’ve been to sleep. I feel better,” said the patient, turning round to
look what the other man was doing. And the sight of the water steaming
in a jet from the teapot seemed attractive.

“Yes,” said Lilly. “You’ve slept for a good two hours.”

“I believe I have,” said Aaron.

“Would you like a little tea?”

“Ay--and a bit of toast.”

“You’re not supposed to have solid food. Let me take your temperature.”

The temperature was down to a hundred, and Lilly, in spite of the
doctor, gave Aaron a piece of toast with his tea, enjoining him not to
mention it to the nurse.

In the evening the two men talked.

“You do everything for yourself, then?” said Aaron.

“Yes, I prefer it.”

“You like living all alone?”

“I don’t know about that. I never have lived alone. Tanny and I have
been very much alone in various countries: but that’s two, not one.”

“You miss her then?”

“Yes, of course. I missed her horribly in the cottage, when she’d first
gone. I felt my heart was broken. But here, where we’ve never been
together, I don’t notice it so much.”

“She’ll come back,” said Aaron.

“Yes, she’ll come back. But I’d rather meet her abroad than here--and
get on a different footing.”

“Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. There’s something with marriage altogether, I think.
_Egoisme a deux_--”

“What’s that mean?”

“_Egoisme a deux_? Two people, one egoism. Marriage is a self-conscious
egoistic state, it seems to me.”

“You’ve got no children?” said Aaron.

“No. Tanny wants children badly. I don’t. I’m thankful we have none.”

“Why?”

“I can’t quite say. I think of them as a burden. Besides, there ARE such
millions and billions of children in the world. And we know well enough
what sort of millions and billions of people they’ll grow up into. I
don’t want to add my quota to the mass--it’s against my instinct--”

“Ay!” laughed Aaron, with a curt acquiescence.

“Tanny’s furious. But then, when a woman has got children, she thinks
the world wags only for them and her. Nothing else. The whole world wags
for the sake of the children--and their sacred mother.”

“Ay, that’s DAMNED true,” said Aaron.

“And myself, I’m sick of the children stunt. Children are all right, so
long as you just take them for what they are: young immature things like
kittens and half-grown dogs, nuisances, sometimes very charming. But
I’ll be hanged if I can see anything high and holy about children. I
should be sorry, too, it would be so bad for the children. Young brats,
tiresome and amusing in turns.”

“When they don’t give themselves airs,” said Aaron.

“Yes, indeed. Which they do half the time. Sacred children, and sacred
motherhood, I’m absolutely fed stiff by it. That’s why I’m thankful I
have no children. Tanny can’t come it over me there.”

“It’s a fact. When a woman’s got her children, by God, she’s a bitch
in the manger. You can starve while she sits on the hay. It’s useful to
keep her pups warm.”

“Yes.”

“Why, you know,” Aaron turned excitedly in the bed, “they look on a man
as if he was nothing but an instrument to get and rear children. If you
have anything to do with a woman, she thinks it’s because you want to
get children by her. And I’m damned if it is. I want my own pleasure, or
nothing: and children be damned.”

“Ah, women--THEY must be loved, at any price!” said Lilly. “And if you
just don’t want to love them--and tell them so--what a crime.”

“A crime!” said Aaron. “They make a criminal of you. Them and their
children be cursed. Is my life given me for nothing but to get children,
and work to bring them up? See them all in hell first. They’d better die
while they’re children, if childhood’s all that important.”

“I quite agree,” said Lilly. “If childhood is more important than
manhood, then why live to be a man at all? Why not remain an infant?”

“Be damned and blasted to women and all their importances,” cried Aaron.
“They want to get you under, and children is their chief weapon.”

“Men have got to stand up to the fact that manhood is more than
childhood--and then force women to admit it,” said Lilly. “But the
rotten whiners, they’re all grovelling before a baby’s napkin and a
woman’s petticoat.”

“It’s a fact,” said Aaron. But he glanced at Lilly oddly, as if
suspiciously. And Lilly caught the look. But he continued:

“And if they think you try to stand on your legs and walk with the feet
of manhood, why, there isn’t a blooming father and lover among them but
will do his best to get you down and suffocate you--either with a baby’s
napkin or a woman’s petticoat.”

Lilly’s lips were curling; he was dark and bitter.

“Ay, it is like that,” said Aaron, rather subduedly.

“The man’s spirit has gone out of the world. Men can’t move an inch
unless they can grovel humbly at the end of the journey.”

“No,” said Aaron, watching with keen, half-amused eyes.

“That’s why marriage wants readjusting--or extending--to get men on to
their own legs once more, and to give them the adventure again. But men
won’t stick together and fight for it. Because once a woman has climbed
up with her children, she’ll find plenty of grovellers ready to support
her and suffocate any defiant spirit. And women will sacrifice eleven
men, fathers, husbands, brothers and lovers, for one baby--or for her
own female self-conceit--”

“She will that,” said Aaron.

“And can you find two men to stick together, without feeling criminal,
and without cringing, and without betraying one another? You can’t. One
is sure to go fawning round some female, then they both enjoy giving
each other away, and doing a new grovel before a woman again.”

“Ay,” said Aaron.

After which Lilly was silent.



CHAPTER X. THE WAR AGAIN


“One is a fool,” said Lilly, “to be lachrymose. The thing to do is to
get a move on.”

Aaron looked up with a glimpse of a smile. The two men were sitting
before the fire at the end of a cold, wet April day: Aaron convalescent,
somewhat chastened in appearance.

“Ay,” he said rather sourly. “A move back to Guilford Street.”

“Oh, I meant to tell you,” said Lilly. “I was reading an old Baden
history. They made a law in 1528--not a law, but a regulation--that: if
a man forsakes his wife and children, as now so often happens, the said
wife and children are at once to be dispatched after him. I thought that
would please you. Does it?”

“Yes,” said Aaron briefly.

“They would have arrived the next day, like a forwarded letter.”

“I should have had to get a considerable move on, at that rate,” grinned
Aaron.

“Oh, no. You might quite like them here.” But Lilly saw the white frown
of determined revulsion on the convalescent’s face.

“Wouldn’t you?” he asked.

Aaron shook his head.

“No,” he said. And it was obvious he objected to the topic. “What are
you going to do about your move on?”

“Me!” said Lilly. “I’m going to sail away next week--or steam dirtily
away on a tramp called the _Maud Allen Wing_.”

“Where to?”

“Malta.”

“Where from?”

“London Dock. I fixed up my passage this morning for ten pounds. I am
cook’s assistant, signed on.”

Aaron looked at him with a little admiration.

“You can take a sudden jump, can’t you?” he said.

“The difficulty is to refrain from jumping: overboard or anywhere.”

Aaron smoked his pipe slowly.

“And what good will Malta do you?” he asked, envious.

“Heaven knows. I shall cross to Syracuse, and move up Italy.”

“Sounds as if you were a millionaire.”

“I’ve got thirty-five pounds in all the world. But something will come
along.”

“I’ve got more than that,” said Aaron.

“Good for you,” replied Lilly.

He rose and went to the cupboard, taking out a bowl and a basket of
potatoes. He sat down again, paring the potatoes. His busy activity
annoyed Aaron.

“But what’s the good of going to Malta? Shall YOU be any different in
yourself, in another place? You’ll be the same there as you are here.”

“How am I here?”

“Why, you’re all the time grinding yourself against something inside
you. You’re never free. You’re never content. You never stop chafing.”

Lilly dipped his potato into the water, and cut out the eyes carefully.
Then he cut it in two, and dropped it in the clean water of the second
bowl. He had not expected this criticism.

“Perhaps I don’t,” said he.

“Then what’s the use of going somewhere else? You won’t change
yourself.”

“I may in the end,” said Lilly.

“You’ll be yourself, whether it’s Malta or London,” said Aaron.

“There’s a doom for me,” laughed Lilly. The water on the fire was
boiling. He rose and threw in salt, then dropped in the potatoes with
little plops. “There there are lots of mes. I’m not only just one
proposition. A new place brings out a new thing in a man. Otherwise
you’d have stayed in your old place with your family.”

“The man in the middle of you doesn’t change,” said Aaron.

“Do you find it so?” said Lilly.

“Ay. Every time.”

“Then what’s to be done?”

“Nothing, as far as I can see. You get as much amusement out of life as
possible, and there’s the end of it.”

“All right then, I’ll get the amusement.”

“Ay, all right then,” said Aaron. “But there isn’t anything wonderful
about it. You talk as if you were doing something special. You aren’t.
You’re no more than a man who drops into a pub for a drink, to liven
himself up a bit. Only you give it a lot of names, and make out as if
you were looking for the philosopher’s stone, or something like that.
When you’re only killing time like the rest of folks, before time kills
you.”

Lilly did not answer. It was not yet seven o’clock, but the sky was
dark. Aaron sat in the firelight. Even the saucepan on the fire was
silent. Darkness, silence, the firelight in the upper room, and the two
men together.

“It isn’t quite true,” said Lilly, leaning on the mantelpiece and
staring down into the fire.

“Where isn’t it? You talk, and you make a man believe you’ve got
something he hasn’t got? But where is it, when it comes to? What have
you got, more than me or Jim Bricknell! Only a bigger choice of words,
it seems to me.”

Lilly was motionless and inscrutable like a shadow.

“Does it, Aaron!” he said, in a colorless voice.

“Yes. What else is there to it?” Aaron sounded testy.

“Why,” said Lilly at last, “there’s something. I agree, it’s true what
you say about me. But there’s a bit of something else. There’s just a
bit of something in me, I think, which ISN’T a man running into a pub
for a drink--”

“And what--?”

The question fell into the twilight like a drop of water falling down a
deep shaft into a well.

“I think a man may come into possession of his own soul at last--as
the Buddhists teach--but without ceasing to love, or even to hate. One
loves, one hates--but somewhere beyond it all, one understands, and
possesses one’s soul in patience and in peace--”

“Yes,” said Aaron slowly, “while you only stand and talk about it.
But when you’ve got no chance to talk about it--and when you’ve got to
live--you don’t possess your soul, neither in patience nor in peace,
but any devil that likes possesses you and does what it likes with you,
while you fridge yourself and fray yourself out like a worn rag.”

“I don’t care,” said Lilly, “I’m learning to possess my soul in patience
and in peace, and I know it. And it isn’t a negative Nirvana either. And
if Tanny possesses her own soul in patience and peace as well--and if in
this we understand each other at last--then there we are, together
and apart at the same time, and free of each other, and eternally
inseparable. I have my Nirvana--and I have it all to myself. But more
than that. It coincides with her Nirvana.”

“Ah, yes,” said Aaron. “But I don’t understand all that word-splitting.”

“I do, though. You learn to be quite alone, and possess your own soul
in isolation--and at the same time, to be perfectly WITH someone
else--that’s all I ask.”

“Sort of sit on a mountain top, back to back with somebody else, like a
couple of idols.”

“No--because it isn’t a case of sitting--or a case of back to back. It’s
what you get to after a lot of fighting and a lot of sensual fulfilment.
And it never does away with the fighting and with the sensual passion.
It flowers on top of them, and it would never flower save on top of
them.”

“What wouldn’t?”

“The possessing one’s own soul--and the being together with someone else
in silence, beyond speech.”

“And you’ve got them?”

“I’ve got a BIT of the real quietness inside me.”

“So has a dog on a mat.”

“So I believe, too.”

“Or a man in a pub.”

“Which I don’t believe.”

“You prefer the dog?”

“Maybe.”

There was silence for a few moments.

“And I’m the man in the pub,” said Aaron.

“You aren’t the dog on the mat, anyhow.”

“And you’re the idol on the mountain top, worshipping yourself.”

“You talk to me like a woman, Aaron.”

“How do you talk to ME, do you think?”

“How do I?”

“Are the potatoes done?”

Lilly turned quickly aside, and switched on the electric light.
Everything changed. Aaron sat still before the fire, irritated. Lilly
went about preparing the supper.

The room was pleasant at night. Two tall, dark screens hid the two beds.
In front, the piano was littered with music, the desk littered with
papers. Lilly went out on to the landing, and set the chops to grill on
the gas stove. Hastily he put a small table on the hearth-rug, spread it
with a blue-and-white cloth, set plates and glasses. Aaron did not move.
It was not his nature to concern himself with domestic matters--and
Lilly did it best alone.

The two men had an almost uncanny understanding of one another--like
brothers. They came from the same district, from the same class. Each
might have been born into the other’s circumstance. Like brothers, there
was a profound hostility between them. But hostility is not antipathy.

Lilly’s skilful housewifery always irritated Aaron: it was so
self-sufficient. But most irritating of all was the little man’s
unconscious assumption of priority. Lilly was actually unaware that he
assumed this quiet predominance over others. He mashed the potatoes, he
heated the plates, he warmed the red wine, he whisked eggs into the
milk pudding, and served his visitor like a housemaid. But none of this
detracted from the silent assurance with which he bore himself, and with
which he seemed to domineer over his acquaintance.

At last the meal was ready. Lilly drew the curtains, switched off the
central light, put the green-shaded electric lamp on the table, and
the two men drew up to the meal. It was good food, well cooked and hot.
Certainly Lilly’s hands were no longer clean: but it was clean dirt, as
he said.

Aaron sat in the low arm-chair at table. So his face was below, in the
full light. Lilly sat high on a small chair, so that his face was in
the green shadow. Aaron was handsome, and always had that peculiar
well-dressed look of his type. Lilly was indifferent to his own
appearance, and his collar was a rag.

So the two men ate in silence. They had been together alone for a
fortnight only: but it was like a small eternity. Aaron was well
now--only he suffered from the depression and the sort of fear that
follows influenza.

“When are you going?” he asked irritably, looking up at Lilly, whose
face hovered in that green shadow above, and worried him.

“One day next week. They’ll send me a telegram. Not later than
Thursday.”

“You’re looking forward to going?” The question was half bitter.

“Yes. I want to get a new tune out of myself.”

“Had enough of this?”

“Yes.”

A flush of anger came on Aaron’s face.

“You’re easily on, and easily off,” he said, rather insulting.

“Am I?” said Lilly. “What makes you think so?”

“Circumstances,” replied Aaron sourly.

To which there was no answer. The host cleared away the plates, and put
the pudding on the table. He pushed the bowl to Aaron.

“I suppose I shall never see you again, once you’ve gone,” said Aaron.

“It’s your choice. I will leave you an address.”

After this, the pudding was eaten in silence.

“Besides, Aaron,” said Lilly, drinking his last sip of wine, “what do
you care whether you see me again or not? What do you care whether
you see anybody again or not? You want to be amused. And now you’re
irritated because you think I am not going to amuse you any more: and
you don’t know who is going to amuse you. I admit it’s a dilemma. But
it’s a hedonistic dilemma of the commonest sort.”

“I don’t know hedonistic. And supposing I am as you say--are you any
different?”

“No, I’m not very different. But I always persuade myself there’s a bit
of difference. Do you know what Josephine Ford confessed to me? She’s
had her lovers enough. ‘There isn’t any such thing as love, Lilly,’ she
said. ‘Men are simply afraid to be alone. That is absolutely all there
is in it: fear of being alone.’”

“What by that?” said Aaron.

“You agree?”

“Yes, on the whole.”

“So do I--on the whole. And then I asked her what about woman. And then
she said with a woman it wasn’t fear, it was just boredom. A woman is
like a violinist: any fiddle, any instrument rather than empty hands and
no tune going.”

“Yes--what I said before: getting as much amusement out of life as
possible,” said Aaron.

“You amuse me--and I’ll amuse you.”

“Yes--just about that.”

“All right, Aaron,” said Lilly. “I’m not going to amuse you, or try to
amuse you any more.”

“Going to try somebody else; and Malta.”

“Malta, anyhow.”

“Oh, and somebody else--in the next five minutes.”

“Yes--that also.”

“Goodbye and good luck to you.”

“Goodbye and good luck to you, Aaron.”

With which Lilly went aside to wash the dishes. Aaron sat alone under
the zone of light, turning over a score of _Pelleas_. Though the noise
of London was around them, it was far below, and in the room was a deep
silence. Each of the men seemed invested in his own silence.

Aaron suddenly took his flute, and began trying little passages from the
opera on his knee. He had not played since his illness. The noise came
out a little tremulous, but low and sweet. Lilly came forward with a
plate and a cloth in his hand.

“Aaron’s rod is putting forth again,” he said, smiling.

“What?” said Aaron, looking up.

“I said Aaron’s rod is putting forth again.”

“What rod?”

“Your flute, for the moment.”

“It’s got to put forth my bread and butter.”

“Is that all the buds it’s going to have?”

“What else!”

“Nay--that’s for you to show. What flowers do you imagine came out of
the rod of Moses’s brother?”

“Scarlet runners, I should think if he’d got to live on them.”

“Scarlet enough, I’ll bet.”

Aaron turned unnoticing back to his music. Lilly finished the wiping of
the dishes, then took a book and sat on the other side of the table.

“It’s all one to you, then,” said Aaron suddenly, “whether we ever see
one another again?”

“Not a bit,” said Lilly, looking up over his spectacles. “I very much
wish there might be something that held us together.”

“Then if you wish it, why isn’t there?”

“You might wish your flute to put out scarlet-runner flowers at the
joints.”

“Ay--I might. And it would be all the same.”

The moment of silence that followed was extraordinary in its hostility.

“Oh, we shall run across one another again some time,” said Aaron.

“Sure,” said Lilly. “More than that: I’ll write you an address that will
always find me. And when you write I will answer you.”

He took a bit of paper and scribbled an address. Aaron folded it and put
it into his waistcoat pocket. It was an Italian address.

“But how can I live in Italy?” he said. “You can shift about. I’m tied
to a job.”

“You--with your budding rod, your flute--and your charm--you can always
do as you like.”

“My what?”

“Your flute and your charm.”

“What charm?”

“Just your own. Don’t pretend you don’t know you’ve got it. I don’t
really like charm myself; too much of a trick about it. But whether or
not, you’ve got it.”

“It’s news to me.”

“Not it.”

“Fact, it is.”

“Ha! Somebody will always take a fancy to you. And you can live on that,
as well as on anything else.”

“Why do you always speak so despisingly?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“Have you any right to despise another man?”

“When did it go by rights?”

“No, not with you.”

“You answer me like a woman, Aaron.”

Again there was a space of silence. And again it was Aaron who at last
broke it.

“We’re in different positions, you and me,” he said.

“How?”

“You can live by your writing--but I’ve got to have a job.”

“Is that all?” said Lilly.

“Ay. And plenty. You’ve got the advantage of me.”

“Quite,” said Lilly. “But why? I was a dirty-nosed little boy when
you were a clean-nosed little boy. And I always had more patches on my
breeches than you: neat patches, too, my poor mother! So what’s the good
of talking about advantages? You had the start. And at this very moment
you could buy me up, lock, stock, and barrel. So don’t feel hard done
by. It’s a lie.”

“You’ve got your freedom.”

“I make it and I take it.”

“Circumstances make it for you.”

“As you like.”

“You don’t do a man justice,” said Aaron.

“Does a man care?”

“He might.”

“Then he’s no man.”

“Thanks again, old fellow.”

“Welcome,” said Lilly, grimacing.

Again Aaron looked at him, baffled, almost with hatred. Lilly grimaced
at the blank wall opposite, and seemed to ruminate. Then he went back to
his book. And no sooner had he forgotten Aaron, reading the fantasies of
a certain Leo Frobenius, than Aaron must stride in again.

“You can’t say there isn’t a difference between your position and mine,”
 he said pertinently.

Lilly looked darkly over his spectacles.

“No, by God,” he said. “I should be in a poor way otherwise.”

“You can’t say you haven’t the advantage--your JOB gives you the
advantage.”

“All right. Then leave it out with my job, and leave me alone.”

“That’s your way of dodging it.”

“My dear Aaron, I agree with you perfectly. There is no difference
between us, save the fictitious advantage given to me by my job. Save
for my job--which is to write lies--Aaron and I are two identical little
men in one and the same little boat. Shall we leave it at that, now?”

“Yes,” said Aaron. “That’s about it.”

“Let us shake hands on it--and go to bed, my dear chap. You are just
recovering from influenza, and look paler than I like.”

“You mean you want to be rid of me,” said Aaron.

“Yes, I do mean that,” said Lilly.

“Ay,” said Aaron.

And after a few minutes more staring at the score of _Pelleas_, he rose,
put the score away on the piano, laid his flute beside it, and retired
behind the screen. In silence, the strange dim noise of London sounding
from below, Lilly read on about the Kabyles. His soul had the faculty of
divesting itself of the moment, and seeking further, deeper interests.
These old Africans! And Atlantis! Strange, strange wisdom of the
Kabyles! Old, old dark Africa, and the world before the flood! How
jealous Aaron seemed! The child of a jealous God. A jealous God! Could
any race be anything but despicable, with such an antecedent?

But no, persistent as a jealous God himself, Aaron reappeared in his
pyjamas, and seated himself in his chair.

“What is the difference then between you and me, Lilly?” he said.

“Haven’t we shaken hands on it--a difference of jobs.”

“You don’t believe that, though, do you?”

“Nay, now I reckon you’re trespassing.”

“Why am I? I know you don’t believe it.”

“What do I believe then?” said Lilly.

“You believe you know something better than me--and that you are
something better than me. Don’t you?”

“Do YOU believe it?”

“What?”

“That I AM something better than you, and that I KNOW something better?”

“No, because I don’t see it,” said Aaron.

“Then if you don’t see it, it isn’t there. So go to bed and sleep the
sleep of the just and the convalescent. I am not to be badgered any
more.”

“Am I badgering you?” said Aaron.

“Indeed you are.”

“So I’m in the wrong again?”

“Once more, my dear.”

“You’re a God-Almighty in your way, you know.”

“So long as I’m not in anybody else’s way--Anyhow, you’d be much better
sleeping the sleep of the just. And I’m going out for a minute or two.
Don’t catch cold there with nothing on--

“I want to catch the post,” he added, rising.

Aaron looked up at him quickly. But almost before there was time to
speak, Lilly had slipped into his hat and coat, seized his letters, and
gone.

It was a rainy night. Lilly turned down King Street to walk to Charing
Cross. He liked being out of doors. He liked to post his letters at
Charing Cross post office. He did not want to talk to Aaron any more. He
was glad to be alone.

He walked quickly down Villiers Street to the river, to see it flowing
blackly towards the sea. It had an endless fascination for him: never
failed to soothe him and give him a sense of liberty. He liked the
night, the dark rain, the river, and even the traffic. He enjoyed the
sense of friction he got from the streaming of people who meant nothing
to him. It was like a fox slipping alert among unsuspecting cattle.

When he got back, he saw in the distance the lights of a taxi standing
outside the building where he lived, and heard a thumping and hallooing.
He hurried forward.

It was a man called Herbertson.

“Oh, why, there you are!” exclaimed Herbertson, as Lilly drew near. “Can
I come up and have a chat?”

“I’ve got that man who’s had flu. I should think he is gone to bed.”

“Oh!” The disappointment was plain. “Well, look here I’ll just come up
for a couple of minutes.” He laid his hand on Lilly’s arm. “I heard you
were going away. Where are you going?”

“Malta.”

“Malta! Oh, I know Malta very well. Well now, it’ll be all right if
I come up for a minute? I’m not going to see much more of you,
apparently.” He turned quickly to the taxi. “What is it on the clock?”

The taxi was paid, the two men went upstairs. Aaron was in bed, but he
called as Lilly entered the room.

“Hullo!” said Lilly. “Not asleep? Captain Herbertson has come in for a
minute.”

“Hope I shan’t disturb you,” said Captain Herbertson, laying down his
stick and gloves, and his cap. He was in uniform. He was one of the
few surviving officers of the Guards, a man of about forty-five,
good-looking, getting rather stout. He settled himself in the chair
where Aaron had sat, hitching up his trousers. The gold identity plate,
with its gold chain, fell conspicuously over his wrist.

“Been to ‘Rosemary,’” he said. “Rotten play, you know--but passes the
time awfully well. Oh, I quite enjoyed it.”

Lilly offered him Sauterne--the only thing in the house.

“Oh, yes! How awfully nice! Yes, thanks, I shall love it. Can I have it
with soda? Thanks! Do you know, I think that’s the very best drink in
the tropics: sweet white wine, with soda? Yes--well!-- Well--now, why
are you going away?”

“For a change,” said Lilly.

“You’re quite right, one needs a change now the damned thing is all
over. As soon as I get out of khaki I shall be off. Malta! Yes! I’ve
been in Malta several times. I think Valletta is quite enjoyable,
particularly in winter, with the opera. Oh--er--how’s your wife? All
right? Yes!--glad to see her people again. Bound to be-- Oh, by the
way, I met Jim Bricknell. Sends you a message hoping you’ll go down and
stay--down at Captain Bingham’s place in Surrey, you know. Awfully queer
lot down there. Not my sort, no. You won’t go down? No, I shouldn’t. Not
the right sort of people.”

Herbertson rattled away, rather spasmodic. He had been through the very
front hell of the war--and like every man who had, he had the war at the
back of his mind, like an obsession. But in the meantime, he skirmished.

“Yes. I was on guard one day when the Queen gave one of her tea-parties
to the blind. Awful affair. But the children are awfully nice children.
Prince of Wales awfully nice, almost too nice. Prince Henry smart boy,
too--oh, a smart boy. Queen Mary poured the tea, and I handed round
bread and butter. She told me I made a very good waiter. I said,
Thank you, Madam. But I like the children. Very different from
the Battenbergs. Oh!--” he wrinkled his nose. “I can’t stand the
Battenbergs.”

“Mount Battens,” said Lilly.

“Yes! Awful mistake, changing the royal name. They were Guelfs, why not
remain it? Why, I’ll tell you what Battenberg did. He was in the Guards,
too--”

The talk flowed on: about royalty and the Guards, Buckingham Palace and
St. James.

“Rather a nice story about Queen Victoria. Man named Joyce, something
or other, often used to dine at the Palace. And he was an awfully good
imitator--really clever, you know. Used to imitate the Queen. ‘Mr.
Joyce,’ she said, ‘I hear your imitation is very amusing. Will you do it
for us now, and let us see what it is like?’ ‘Oh, no, Madam! I’m afraid
I couldn’t do it now. I’m afraid I’m not in the humour.’ But she would
have him do it. And it was really awfully funny. He had to do it. You
know what he did. He used to take a table-napkin, and put it on with
one corner over his forehead, and the rest hanging down behind, like
her veil thing. And then he sent for the kettle-lid. He always had the
kettle-lid, for that little crown of hers. And then he impersonated her.
But he was awfully good--so clever. ‘Mr. Joyce,’ she said. ‘We are not
amused. Please leave the room.’ Yes, that is exactly what she said: ‘WE
are not amused--please leave the room.’ I like the WE, don’t you? And he
a man of sixty or so. However, he left the room and for a fortnight or
so he wasn’t invited--Wasn’t she wonderful--Queen Victoria?”

And so, by light transitions, to the Prince of Wales at the front, and
thus into the trenches. And then Herbertson was on the subject he was
obsessed by. He had come, unconsciously, for this and this only, to talk
war to Lilly: or at Lilly. For the latter listened and watched, and said
nothing. As a man at night helplessly takes a taxi to find some woman,
some prostitute, Herbertson had almost unthinkingly got into a taxi and
come battering at the door in Covent Garden, only to talk war to Lilly,
whom he knew very little. But it was a driving instinct--to come and get
it off his chest.

And on and on he talked, over his wine and soda. He was not
conceited--he was not showing off--far from it. It was the same thing
here in this officer as it was with the privates, and the same with this
Englishman as with a Frenchman or a German or an Italian. Lilly had sat
in a cowshed listening to a youth in the north country: he had sat on
the corn-straw that the oxen had been treading out, in Calabria, under
the moon: he had sat in a farm-kitchen with a German prisoner: and every
time it was the same thing, the same hot, blind, anguished voice of a
man who has seen too much, experienced too much, and doesn’t know where
to turn. None of the glamour of returned heroes, none of the romance of
war: only a hot, blind, mesmerised voice, going on and on, mesmerised by
a vision that the soul cannot bear.

In this officer, of course, there was a lightness and an appearance of
bright diffidence and humour. But underneath it all was the same as in
the common men of all the combatant nations: the hot, seared burn of
unbearable experience, which did not heal nor cool, and whose irritation
was not to be relieved. The experience gradually cooled on top: but only
with a surface crust. The soul did not heal, did not recover.

“I used to be awfully frightened,” laughed Herbertson. “Now you say,
Lilly, you’d never have stood it. But you would. You’re nervous--and
it was just the nervous ones that did stand it. When nearly all our
officers were gone, we had a man come out--a man called Margeritson,
from India--big merchant people out there. They all said he was no
good--not a bit of good--nervous chap. No good at all. But when you
had to get out of the trench and go for the Germans he was
perfect--perfect--It all came to him then, at the crisis, and he was
perfect.

“Some things frighten one man, and some another. Now shells would never
frighten me. But I couldn’t stand bombs. You could tell the
difference between our machines and the Germans. Ours was a steady
noise--drrrrrrrr!--but their’s was heavy, drrrrRURUrrrrRURU!-- My word,
that got on my nerves....

“No I was never hit. The nearest thing was when I was knocked down by an
exploding shell--several times that--you know. When you shout like mad
for the men to come and dig you out, under all the earth. And my word,
you do feel frightened then.” Herbertson laughed with a twinkling motion
to Lilly. But between his brows there was a tension like madness.

“And a funny thing you know--how you don’t notice things. In--let me
see--1916, the German guns were a lot better than ours. Ours were old,
and when they’re old you can’t tell where they’ll hit: whether they’ll
go beyond the mark, or whether they’ll fall short. Well, this day our
guns were firing short, and killing our own men. We’d had the order to
charge, and were running forward, and I suddenly felt hot water spurting
on my neck--” He put his hand to the back of his neck and glanced round
apprehensively. “It was a chap called Innes--Oh, an awfully decent
sort--people were in the Argentine. He’d been calling out to me as we
were running, and I was just answering. When I felt this hot water on my
neck and saw him running past me with no head--he’d got no head, and he
went running past me. I don’t know how far, but a long way.... Blood,
you know--Yes--well--

“Oh, I hated Chelsea--I loathed Chelsea--Chelsea was purgatory to me.
I had a corporal called Wallace--he was a fine chap--oh, he was a
fine chap--six foot two--and about twenty-four years old. He was my
stand-back. Oh, I hated Chelsea, and parades, and drills. You know, when
it’s drill, and you’re giving orders, you forget what order you’ve just
given--in front of the Palace there the crowd don’t notice--but it’s
AWFUL for you. And you know you daren’t look round to see what the men
are doing. But Wallace was splendid. He was just behind me, and I’d
hear him, quite quiet you know, ‘It’s right wheel, sir.’ Always perfect,
always perfect--yes--well....

“You know you don’t get killed if you don’t think you will. Now I never
thought I should get killed. And I never knew a man get killed if he
hadn’t been thinking he would. I said to Wallace I’d rather be out here,
at the front, than at Chelsea. I hated Chelsea--I can’t tell you how
much. ‘Oh no, sir!’ he said. ‘I’d rather be at Chelsea than here. I’d
rather be at Chelsea. There isn’t hell like this at Chelsea.’ We’d had
orders that we were to go back to the real camp the next day. ‘Never
mind, Wallace,’ I said. ‘We shall be out of this hell-on-earth
tomorrow.’ And he took my hand. We weren’t much for showing feeling
or anything in the guards. But he took my hand. And we climbed out to
charge--Poor fellow, he was killed--” Herbertson dropped his head, and
for some moments seemed to go unconscious, as if struck. Then he lifted
his face, and went on in the same animated chatty fashion: “You see, he
had a presentiment. I’m sure he had a presentiment. None of the men got
killed unless they had a presentiment--like that, you know....”

Herbertson nodded keenly at Lilly, with his sharp, twinkling, yet
obsessed eyes. Lilly wondered why he made the presentiment responsible
for the death--which he obviously did--and not vice versa. Herbertson
implied every time, that you’d never get killed if you could keep
yourself from having a presentiment. Perhaps there was something in it.
Perhaps the soul issues its own ticket of death, when it can stand no
more. Surely life controls life: and not accident.

“It’s a funny thing what shock will do. We had a sergeant and he shouted
to me. Both his feet were off--both his feet, clean at the ankle. I gave
him morphia. You know officers aren’t allowed to use the needle--might
give the man blood poisoning. You give those tabloids. They say they act
in a few minutes, but they DON’T. It’s a quarter of an hour. And nothing
is more demoralising than when you have a man, wounded, you know, and
crying out. Well, this man I gave him the morphia before he got over the
stunning, you know. So he didn’t feel the pain. Well, they carried him
in. I always used to like to look after my men. So I went next morning
and I found he hadn’t been removed to the Clearing Station. I got hold
of the doctor and I said, ‘Look here! Why hasn’t this man been taken
to the Clearing Station?’ I used to get excited. But after some years
they’d got used to me. ‘Don’t get excited, Herbertson, the man’s dying.’
‘But,’ I said, ‘he’s just been talking to me as strong as you are.’ And
he had--he’d talk as strong and well as you or me, then go quiet for
a bit. I said I gave him the morphia before he came round from the
stunning. So he’d felt nothing. But in two hours he was dead. The doctor
says that the shock does it like that sometimes. You can do nothing
for them. Nothing vital is injured--and yet the life is broken in them.
Nothing can be done--funny thing--Must be something in the brain--”

“It’s obviously not the brain,” said Lilly. “It’s deeper than the
brain.”

“Deeper,” said Herbertson, nodding.

“Funny thing where life is. We had a lieutenant. You know we all buried
our own dead. Well, he looked as if he was asleep. Most of the chaps
looked like that.” Herbertson closed his eyes and laid his face aside,
like a man asleep and dead peacefully. “You very rarely see a man dead
with any other look on his face--you know the other look.--” And
he clenched his teeth with a sudden, momentaneous, ghastly
distortion.--“Well, you’d never have known this chap was dead. He had a
wound here--in the back of the head--and a bit of blood on his hand--and
nothing else, nothing. Well, I said we’d give him a decent burial. He
lay there waiting--and they’d wrapped him in a filthy blanket--you know.
Well, I said he should have a proper blanket. He’d been dead lying there
a day and a half you know. So I went and got a blanket, a beautiful
blanket, out of his private kit--his people were Scotch, well-known
family--and I got the pins, you know, ready to pin him up properly, for
the Scots Guards to bury him. And I thought he’d be stiff, you see. But
when I took him by the arms, to lift him on, he sat up. It gave me an
awful shock. ‘Why he’s alive!’ I said. But they said he was dead. I
couldn’t believe it. It gave me an awful shock. He was as flexible as
you or me, and looked as if he was asleep. You couldn’t believe he was
dead. But we pinned him up in his blanket. It was an awful shock to me.
I couldn’t believe a man could be like that after he’d been dead two
days....

“The Germans were wonderful with the machine guns--it’s a wicked thing,
a machine gun. But they couldn’t touch us with the bayonet. Every time
the men came back they had bayonet practice, and they got awfully good.
You know when you thrust at the Germans--so--if you miss him, you bring
your rifle back sharp, with a round swing, so that the butt comes up and
hits up under the jaw. It’s one movement, following on with the stab,
you see, if you miss him. It was too quick for them--But bayonet charge
was worst, you know. Because your man cries out when you catch him, when
you get him, you know. That’s what does you....

“No, oh no, this was no war like other wars. All the machinery of it.
No, you couldn’t stand it, but for the men. The men are wonderful, you
know. They’ll be wiped out.... No, it’s your men who keep you going,
if you’re an officer.... But there’ll never be another war like this.
Because the Germans are the only people who could make a war like
this--and I don’t think they’ll ever do it again, do you?

“Oh, they were wonderful, the Germans. They were amazing. It was
incredible, what they invented and did. We had to learn from them, in
the first two years. But they were too methodical. That’s why they lost
the war. They were too methodical. They’d fire their guns every ten
minutes--regular. Think of it. Of course we knew when to run, and when
to lie down. You got so that you knew almost exactly what they’d do--if
you’d been out long enough. And then you could time what you wanted to
do yourselves.

“They were a lot more nervous than we were, at the last. They sent up
enough light at night from their trenches--you know, those things that
burst in the air like electric light--we had none of that to do--they
did it all for us--lit up everything. They were more nervous than we
were....”

It was nearly two o’clock when Herbertson left. Lilly, depressed,
remained before the fire. Aaron got out of bed and came uneasily to the
fire.

“It gives me the bellyache, that damned war,” he said.

“So it does me,” said Lilly. “All unreal.”

“Real enough for those that had to go through it.”

“No, least of all for them,” said Lilly sullenly. “Not as real as a bad
dream. Why the hell don’t they wake up and realise it!”

“That’s a fact,” said Aaron. “They’re hypnotised by it.”

“And they want to hypnotise me. And I won’t be hypnotised. The war was a
lie and is a lie and will go on being a lie till somebody busts it.”

“It was a fact--you can’t bust that. You can’t bust the fact that it
happened.”

“Yes you can. It never happened. It never happened to me. No more than
my dreams happen. My dreams don’t happen: they only seem.”

“But the war did happen, right enough,” smiled Aaron palely.

“No, it didn’t. Not to me or to any man, in his own self. It took place
in the automatic sphere, like dreams do. But the ACTUAL MAN in every man
was just absent--asleep--or drugged--inert--dream-logged. That’s it.”

“You tell ‘em so,” said Aaron.

“I do. But it’s no good. Because they won’t wake up now even--perhaps
never. They’ll all kill themselves in their sleep.”

“They wouldn’t be any better if they did wake up and be themselves--that
is, supposing they are asleep, which I can’t see. They are what they
are--and they’re all alike--and never very different from what they are
now.”

Lilly stared at Aaron with black eyes.

“Do you believe in them less than I do, Aaron?” he asked slowly.

“I don’t even want to believe in them.”

“But in yourself?” Lilly was almost wistful--and Aaron uneasy.

“I don’t know that I’ve any more right to believe in myself than in
them,” he replied. Lilly watched and pondered.

“No,” he said. “That’s not true--I KNEW the war was false: humanly
quite false. I always knew it was false. The Germans were false, we were
false, everybody was false.”

“And not you?” asked Aaron shrewishly.

“There was a wakeful, self-possessed bit of me which knew that the war
and all that horrible movement was false for me. And so I wasn’t going
to be dragged in. The Germans could have shot my mother or me or what
they liked: I wouldn’t have joined the WAR. I would like to kill my
enemy. But become a bit of that huge obscene machine they called the
war, that I never would, no, not if I died ten deaths and had eleven
mothers violated. But I would like to kill my enemy: Oh, yes, more than
one enemy. But not as a unit in a vast obscene mechanism. That never:
no, never.”

Poor Lilly was too earnest and vehement. Aaron made a fine nose. It
seemed to him like a lot of words and a bit of wriggling out of a hole.

“Well,” he said, “you’ve got men and nations, and you’ve got the
machines of war--so how are you going to get out of it? League of
Nations?”

“Damn all leagues. Damn all masses and groups, anyhow. All I want is
to get MYSELF out of their horrible heap: to get out of the swarm. The
swarm to me is nightmare and nullity--horrible helpless writhing in
a dream. I want to get myself awake, out of it all--all that
mass-consciousness, all that mass-activity--it’s the most horrible
nightmare to me. No man is awake and himself. No man who was awake and
in possession of himself would use poison gases: no man. His own awake
self would scorn such a thing. It’s only when the ghastly mob-sleep,
the dream helplessness of the mass-psyche overcomes him, that he becomes
completely base and obscene.”

“Ha--well,” said Aaron. “It’s the wide-awake ones that invent the poison
gas, and use it. Where should we be without it?”

Lilly started, went stiff and hostile.

“Do you mean that, Aaron?” he said, looking into Aaron’s face with a
hard, inflexible look.

Aaron turned aside half sheepishly.

“That’s how it looks on the face of it, isn’t it?” he said.

“Look here, my friend, it’s too late for you to be talking to me about
the face of things. If that’s how you feel, put your things on and
follow Herbertson. Yes--go out of my room. I don’t put up with the face
of things here.”

Aaron looked at him in cold amazement.

“It’ll do tomorrow morning, won’t it?” he asked rather mocking.

“Yes,” said Lilly coldly. “But please go tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, I’ll go all right,” said Aaron. “Everybody’s got to agree with
you--that’s your price.”

But Lilly did not answer. Aaron turned into bed, his satirical smile
under his nose. Somewhat surprised, however, at this sudden turn of
affairs.

As he was just going to sleep, dismissing the matter, Lilly came once
more to his bedside, and said, in a hard voice:

“I’m NOT going to pretend to have friends on the face of things. No,
and I don’t have friends who don’t fundamentally agree with me. A friend
means one who is at one with me in matters of life and death. And if
you’re at one with all the rest, then you’re THEIR friend, not mine. So
be their friend. And please leave me in the morning. You owe me
nothing, you have nothing more to do with me. I have had enough of these
friendships where I pay the piper and the mob calls the tune.

“Let me tell you, moreover, your heroic Herbertsons lost us more than
ever they won. A brave ant is a damned cowardly individual. Your heroic
officers are a sad sight AFTERWARDS, when they come home. Bah, your
Herbertson! The only justification for war is what we learn from it. And
what have they learnt?--Why did so many of them have presentiments, as
he called it? Because they could feel inside them, there was nothing
to come after. There was no life-courage: only death-courage. Nothing
beyond this hell--only death or love--languishing--”

“What could they have seen, anyhow?” said Aaron.

“It’s not what you see, actually. It’s the kind of spirit you keep
inside you: the life spirit. When Wallace had presentiments, Herbertson,
being officer, should have said: ‘None of that, Wallace. You and I,
we’ve got to live and make life smoke.’--Instead of which he let Wallace
be killed and his own heart be broken. Always the death-choice-- And we
won’t, we simply will not face the world as we’ve made it, and our own
souls as we find them, and take the responsibility. We’ll never get
anywhere till we stand up man to man and face EVERYTHING out, and
break the old forms, but never let our own pride and courage of life be
broken.”

Lilly broke off, and went silently to bed. Aaron turned over to sleep,
rather resenting the sound of so many words. What difference did it
make, anyhow? In the morning, however, when he saw the other man’s pale,
closed, rather haughty face, he realised that something _had_ happened.
Lilly was courteous and even affable: but with a curious cold space
between him and Aaron. Breakfast passed, and Aaron knew that he must
leave. There was something in Lilly’s bearing which just showed him the
door. In some surprise and confusion, and in some anger, not unmingled
with humorous irony, he put his things in his bag. He put on his hat and
coat. Lilly was seated rather stiffly writing.

“Well,” said Aaron. “I suppose we shall meet again.”

“Oh, sure to,” said Lilly, rising from his chair. “We are sure to run
across one another.”

“When are you going?” asked Aaron.

“In a few days’ time.”

“Oh, well, I’ll run in and see you before you go, shall I?”

“Yes, do.”

Lilly escorted his guest to the top of the stairs, shook hands, and then
returned into his own room, closing the door on himself.

Aaron did not find his friend at home when he called. He took it rather
as a slap in the face. But then he knew quite well that Lilly had made
a certain call on his, Aaron’s soul: a call which he, Aaron, did not
at all intend to obey. If in return the soul-caller chose to shut his
street-door in the face of the world-friend--well, let it be quits. He
was not sure whether he felt superior to his unworldly enemy or not. He
rather thought he did.



CHAPTER XI. MORE PILLAR OF SALT


The opera season ended, Aaron was invited by Cyril Scott to join a group
of musical people in a village by the sea. He accepted, and spent a
pleasant month. It pleased the young men musically-inclined and bohemian
by profession to patronise the flautist, whom they declared marvellous.
Bohemians with well-to-do parents, they could already afford to squander
a little spasmodic and self-gratifying patronage. And Aaron did not mind
being patronised. He had nothing else to do.

But the party broke up early in September. The flautist was detained a
few days at a country house, for the amusement of the guests. Then he
left for London.

In London he found himself at a loose end. A certain fretful dislike
of the patronage of indifferent young men, younger than himself, and a
certain distaste for regular work in the orchestra made him look round.
He wanted something else. He wanted to disappear again. Qualms and
emotions concerning his abandoned family overcame him. The early,
delicate autumn affected him. He took a train to the Midlands.

And again, just after dark, he strolled with his little bag across the
field which lay at the end of his garden. It had been mown, and the
grass was already growing long. He stood and looked at the line of back
windows, lighted once more. He smelled the scents of autumn, phlox and
moist old vegetation and corn in sheaf. A nostalgia which was half at
least revulsion affected him. The place, the home, at once fascinated
and revolted him.

Sitting in his shed, he scrutinised his garden carefully, in the
starlight. There were two rows of beans, rather disshevelled. Near at
hand the marrow plants sprawled from their old bed. He could detect
the perfume of a few carnations. He wondered who it was had planted
the garden, during his long absence. Anyhow, there it was, planted and
fruited and waning into autumn.

The blind was not drawn. It was eight o’clock. The children were going
to bed. Aaron waited in his shed, his bowels stirred with violent but
only half-admitted emotions. There was his wife, slim and graceful,
holding a little mug to the baby’s mouth. And the baby was drinking. She
looked lonely. Wild emotions attacked his heart. There was going to be a
wild and emotional reconciliation.

Was there? It seemed like something fearful and imminent. A passion
arose in him, a craving for the violent emotional reconciliation. He
waited impatiently for the children to be gone to bed, gnawed with
restless desire.

He heard the clock strike nine, then half-past, from the village behind.
The children would be asleep. His wife was sitting sewing some little
frock. He went lingering down the garden path, stooping to lift the
fallen carnations, to see how they were. There were many flowers, but
small. He broke one off, then threw it away. The golden rod was out.
Even in the little lawn there were asters, as of old.

His wife started to listen, hearing his step. He was filled with a
violent conflict of tenderness, like a sickness. He hesitated, tapping
at the door, and entered. His wife started to her feet, at bay.

“What have you come for!” was her involuntary ejaculation.

But he, with the familiar odd jerk of his head towards the garden, asked
with a faint smile:

“Who planted the garden?”

And he felt himself dropping into the twang of the vernacular, which he
had discarded.

Lottie only stood and stared at him, objectively. She did not think
to answer. He took his hat off, and put it on the dresser. Again the
familiar act maddened her.

“What have you come for?” she cried again, with a voice full of hate. Or
perhaps it was fear and doubt and even hope as well. He heard only hate.

This time he turned to look at her. The old dagger was drawn in her.

“I wonder,” he said, “myself.”

Then she recovered herself, and with trembling hand picked up her sewing
again. But she still stood at bay, beyond the table. She said nothing.
He, feeling tired, sat down on the chair nearest the door. But he
reached for his hat, and kept it on his knee. She, as she stood there
unnaturally, went on with her sewing. There was silence for some time.
Curious sensations and emotions went through the man’s frame seeming to
destroy him. They were like electric shocks, which he felt she emitted
against him. And an old sickness came in him again. He had forgotten
it. It was the sickness of the unrecognised and incomprehensible strain
between him and her.

After a time she put down her sewing, and sat again in her chair.

“Do you know how vilely you’ve treated me?” she said, staring across the
space at him. He averted his face.

Yet he answered, not without irony.

“I suppose so.”

“And why?” she cried. “I should like to know why.”

He did not answer. The way she rushed in made him go vague.

“Justify yourself. Say why you’ve been so vile to me. Say what you had
against me,” she demanded.

“What I HAD against her,” he mused to himself: and he wondered that she
used the past tense. He made no answer.

“Accuse me,” she insisted. “Say what I’ve done to make you treat me like
this. Say it. You must THINK it hard enough.”

“Nay,” he said. “I don’t think it.”

This speech, by which he merely meant that he did not trouble to
formulate any injuries he had against her, puzzled her.

“Don’t come pretending you love me, NOW. It’s too late,” she said with
contempt. Yet perhaps also hope.

“You might wait till I start pretending,” he said.

This enraged her.

“You vile creature!” she exclaimed. “Go! What have you come for?”

“To look at YOU,” he said sarcastically.

After a few minutes she began to cry, sobbing violently into her apron.
And again his bowels stirred and boiled.

“What have I done! What have I done! I don’t know what I’ve done that he
should be like this to me,” she sobbed, into her apron. It was childish,
and perhaps true. At least it was true from the childish part of her
nature. He sat gloomy and uneasy.

She took the apron from her tear-stained face, and looked at him. It
was true, in her moments of roused exposure she was a beautiful woman--a
beautiful woman. At this moment, with her flushed, tear-stained, wilful
distress, she was beautiful.

“Tell me,” she challenged. “Tell me! Tell me what I’ve done. Tell me
what you have against me. Tell me.”

Watching like a lynx, she saw the puzzled, hurt look in his face.
Telling isn’t so easy--especially when the trouble goes too deep for
conscious comprehension. He couldn’t _tell_ what he had against her. And
he had not the slightest intention of doing what she would have liked
him to do, starting to pile up detailed grievances. He knew the detailed
grievances were nothing in themselves.

“You CAN’T,” she cried vindictively. “You CAN’T. You CAN’T find anything
real to bring against me, though you’d like to. You’d like to be able
to accuse me of something, but you CAN’T, because you know there isn’t
anything.”

She watched him, watched. And he sat in the chair near the door, without
moving.

“You’re unnatural, that’s what you are,” she cried. “You’re unnatural.
You’re not a man. You haven’t got a man’s feelings. You’re nasty, and
cold, and unnatural. And you’re a coward. You’re a coward. You run away
from me, without telling me what you’ve got against me.”

“When you’ve had enough, you go away and you don’t care what you do,” he
said, epigrammatic.

She paused a moment.

“Enough of what?” she said. “What have you had enough of? Of me and your
children? It’s a nice manly thing to say. Haven’t I loved you? Haven’t
I loved you for twelve years, and worked and slaved for you and tried to
keep you right? Heaven knows where you’d have been but for me, evil as
you are at the bottom. You’re evil, that’s what it is--and weak. You’re
too weak to love a woman and give her what she wants: too weak. Unmanly
and cowardly, he runs away.”

“No wonder,” he said.

“No,” she cried. “It IS no wonder, with a nature like yours: weak and
unnatural and evil. It IS no wonder.”

She became quiet--and then started to cry again, into her apron. Aaron
waited. He felt physically weak.

“And who knows what you’ve been doing all these months?” she wept. “Who
knows all the vile things you’ve been doing? And you’re the father of my
children--the father of my little girls--and who knows what vile things
he’s guilty of, all these months?”

“I shouldn’t let my imagination run away with me,” he answered. “I’ve
been playing the flute in the orchestra of one of the theatres in
London.”

“Ha!” she cried. “It’s more than that. Don’t think I’m going to believe
you. I know you, with your smooth-sounding lies. You’re a liar, as you
know. And I know you’ve been doing other things besides play a flute
in an orchestra. You!--as if I don’t know you. And then coming crawling
back to me with your lies and your pretense. Don’t think I’m taken in.”

“I should be sorry,” he said.

“Coming crawling back to me, and expecting to be forgiven,” she went on.
“But no--I don’t forgive--and I can’t forgive--never--not as long as I
live shall I forgive what you’ve done to me.”

“You can wait till you’re asked, anyhow,” he said.

“And you can wait,” she said. “And you shall wait.” She took up her
sewing, and stitched steadily, as if calmly. Anyone glancing in would
have imagined a quiet domestic hearth at that moment. He, too, feeling
physically weak, remained silent, feeling his soul absent from the
scene.

Again she suddenly burst into tears, weeping bitterly.

“And the children,” she sobbed, rocking herself with grief and chagrin.
“What have I been able to say to the children--what have I been able to
tell them?”

“What HAVE you told them?” he asked coldly.

“I told them you’d gone away to work,” she sobbed, laying her head on
her arms on the table. “What else could I tell them? I couldn’t tell
them the vile truth about their father. I couldn’t tell THEM how evil
you are.” She sobbed and moaned.

He wondered what exactly the vile truth would have been, had she
_started_ to tell it. And he began to feel, coldly and cynically, that
among all her distress there was a luxuriating in the violent emotions
of the scene in hand, and the situation altogether.

Then again she became quiet, and picked up her sewing. She stitched
quietly, wistfully, for some time. Then she looked up at him--a long
look of reproach, and sombre accusation, and wifely tenderness. He
turned his face aside.

“You know you’ve been wrong to me, don’t you?” she said, half wistfully,
half menacing.

He felt her wistfulness and her menace tearing him in his bowels and
loins.

“You do know, don’t you?” she insisted, still with the wistful appeal,
and the veiled threat.

“You do, or you would answer,” she said. “You’ve still got enough that’s
right in you, for you to know.”

She waited. He sat still, as if drawn by hot wires.

Then she slipped across to him, put her arms round him, sank on her
knees at his side, and sank her face against his thigh.

“Say you know how wrong you are. Say you know how cruel you’ve been to
me,” she pleaded. But under her female pleading and appeal he felt the
iron of her threat.

“You DO know it,” she murmured, looking up into his face as she crouched
by his knee. “You DO know it. I can see in your eyes that you know it.
And why have you come back to me, if you don’t know it! Why have you
come back to me? Tell me!” Her arms gave him a sharp, compulsory little
clutch round the waist. “Tell me! Tell me!” she murmured, with all her
appeal liquid in her throat.

But him, it half overcame, and at the same time, horrified. He had a
certain horror of her. The strange liquid sound of her appeal seemed
to him like the swaying of a serpent which mesmerises the fated,
fluttering, helpless bird. She clasped her arms round him, she drew
him to her, she half roused his passion. At the same time she coldly
horrified and repelled him. He had not the faintest feeling, at the
moment, of his own wrong. But she wanted to win his own self-betrayal
out of him. He could see himself as the fascinated victim, falling to
this cajoling, awful woman, the wife of his bosom. But as well, he had
a soul outside himself, which looked on the whole scene with cold
revulsion, and which was as unchangeable as time.

“No,” he said. “I don’t feel wrong.”

“You DO!” she said, giving him a sharp, admonitory clutch. “You DO.
Only you’re silly, and obstinate, babyish and silly and obstinate. An
obstinate little boy--you DO feel wrong. And you ARE wrong. And you’ve
got to say it.”

But quietly he disengaged himself and got to his feet, his face pale and
set, obstinate as she said. He put his hat on, and took his little bag.
She watched him curiously, still crouching by his chair.

“I’ll go,” he said, putting his hand on the latch.

Suddenly she sprang to her feet and clutched him by the shirt-neck, her
hand inside his soft collar, half strangling him.

“You villain,” she said, and her face was transfigured with passion as
he had never seen it before, horrible. “You villain!” she said thickly.
“What have you come here for?”

His soul went black as he looked at her. He broke her hand away from his
shirt collar, bursting the stud-holes. She recoiled in silence. And in
one black, unconscious movement he was gone, down the garden and over
the fence and across the country, swallowed in a black unconsciousness.

She, realising, sank upon the hearth-rug and lay there curled upon
herself. She was defeated. But she, too, would never yield. She lay
quite motionless for some time. Then she got up, feeling the draught on
the floor. She closed the door, and drew down the blind. Then she looked
at her wrist, which he had gripped, and which pained her. Then she
went to the mirror and looked for a long time at her white, strained,
determined face. Come life, come death, she, too would never yield. And
she realised now that he would never yield.

She was faint with weariness, and would be glad to get to bed and sleep.

Aaron meanwhile had walked across the country and was looking for a
place to rest. He found a cornfield with a half-built stack, and sheaves
in stook. Ten to one some tramp would have found the stack. He threw
a dozen sheaves together and lay down, looking at the stars in the
September sky. He, too, would never yield. The illusion of love was gone
for ever. Love was a battle in which each party strove for the mastery
of the other’s soul. So far, man had yielded the mastery to woman. Now
he was fighting for it back again. And too late, for the woman would
never yield.

But whether woman yielded or not, he would keep the mastery of his own
soul and conscience and actions. He would never yield himself up to her
judgment again. He would hold himself forever beyond her jurisdiction.

Henceforth, life single, not life double.

He looked at the sky, and thanked the universe for the blessedness
of being alone in the universe. To be alone, to be oneself, not to be
driven or violated into something which is not oneself, surely it is
better than anything. He thought of Lottie, and knew how much more truly
herself she was when she was alone, with no man to distort her. And he
was thankful for the division between them. Such scenes as the last were
too horrible and unreal.

As for future unions, too soon to think about it. Let there be clean
and pure division first, perfected singleness. That is the only way to
final, living unison: through sheer, finished singleness.



CHAPTER XII. NOVARA


Having no job for the autumn, Aaron fidgetted in London. He played at
some concerts and some private shows. He was one of an odd quartette,
for example, which went to play to Lady Artemis Hooper, when she lay
in bed after her famous escapade of falling through the window of her
taxi-cab. Aaron had that curious knack, which belongs to some people,
of getting into the swim without knowing he was doing it. Lady Artemis
thought his flute lovely, and had him again to play for her. Aaron
looked at her and she at him. She, as she reclined there in bed in a
sort of half-light, well made-up, smoking her cigarettes and talking in
a rather raucous voice, making her slightly rasping witty comments
to the other men in the room--of course there were other men, the
audience--was a shock to the flautist. This was the bride of the moment!
Curious how raucous her voice sounded out of the cigarette smoke. Yet
he liked her--the reckless note of the modern, social freebooter. In
himself was a touch of the same quality.

“Do you love playing?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he said, with that shadow of irony which seemed like a smile on
his face.

“Live for it, so to speak,” she said.

“I make my living by it,” he said.

“But that’s not really how you take it?” she said. He eyed her. She
watched him over her cigarette. It was a personal moment.

“I don’t think about it,” he said.

“I’m sure you don’t. You wouldn’t be so good if you did. You’re awfully
lucky, you know, to be able to pour yourself down your flute.”

“You think I go down easy?” he laughed.

“Ah!” she replied, flicking her cigarette broadcast. “That’s the point.
What should you say, Jimmy?” she turned to one of the men. He screwed
his eyeglass nervously and stiffened himself to look at her.

“I--I shouldn’t like to say, off-hand,” came the small-voiced,
self-conscious answer. And Jimmy bridled himself and glanced at Aaron.

“Do you find it a tight squeeze, then?” she said, turning to Aaron once
more.

“No, I can’t say that,” he answered. “What of me goes down goes down
easy enough. It’s what doesn’t go down.”

“And how much is that?” she asked, eying him.

“A good bit, maybe,” he said.

“Slops over, so to speak,” she retorted sarcastically. “And which do you
enjoy more, trickling down your flute or slopping over on to the lap of
Mother Earth--of Miss, more probably!”

“Depends,” he said.

Having got him a few steps too far upon the personal ground, she left
him to get off by himself.

So he found London got on his nerves. He felt it rubbed him the wrong
way. He was flattered, of course, by his own success--and felt at
the same time irritated by it. This state of mind was by no means
acceptable. Wherever he was he liked to be given, tacitly, the
first place--or a place among the first. Among the musical people
he frequented, he found himself on a callow kind of equality with
everybody, even the stars and aristocrats, at one moment, and a
backstairs outsider the next. It was all just as the moment demanded.
There was a certain excitement in slithering up and down the social
scale, one minute chatting in a personal tete-a-tete with the most
famous, or notorious, of the society beauties: and the next walking in
the rain, with his flute in a bag, to his grubby lodging in Bloomsbury.
Only the excitement roused all the savage sarcasm that lay at the bottom
of his soul, and which burned there like an unhealthy bile.

Therefore he determined to clear out--to disappear. He had a letter from
Lilly, from Novara. Lilly was drifting about. Aaron wrote to Novara, and
asked if he should come to Italy, having no money to speak of. “Come
if you want to. Bring your flute. And if you’ve no money, put on a good
suit of clothes and a big black hat, and play outside the best cafe in
any Italian town, and you’ll collect enough to get on with.”

It was a sporting chance. Aaron packed his bag and got a passport, and
wrote to Lilly to say he would join him, as invited, at Sir William
Franks’. He hoped Lilly’s answer would arrive before he left London. But
it didn’t.

Therefore behold our hero alighting at Novara, two hours late, on a
wet, dark evening. He hoped Lilly would be there: but nobody. With some
slight dismay he faced the big, crowded station. The stream of people
carried him automatically through the barrier, a porter having seized
his bag, and volleyed various unintelligible questions at him. Aaron
understood not one word. So he just wandered after the blue blouse of
the porter.

The porter deposited the bag on the steps of the station front, fired
off more questions and gesticulated into the half-illuminated space of
darkness outside the station. Aaron decided it meant a cab, so he nodded
and said “Yes.” But there were no cabs. So once more the blue-bloused
porter slung the big bag and the little bag on the strap over his
shoulder, and they plunged into the night, towards some lights and a
sort of theatre place.

One carriage stood there in the rain--yes, and it was free.

“Keb? Yes--orright--sir. Whe’to? Where you go? Sir William Franks? Yes,
I know. Long way go--go long way. Sir William Franks.”

The cabman spattered his few words of English. Aaron gave the porter an
English shilling. The porter let the coin lie in the middle of his palm,
as if it were a live beetle, and darted to the light of the carriage to
examine the beast, exclaiming volubly. The cabman, wild with interest,
peered down from the box into the palm of the porter, and carried on an
impassioned dialogue. Aaron stood with one foot on the step.

“What you give--he? One franc?” asked the driver.

“A shilling,” said Aaron.

“One sheeling. Yes. I know that. One sheeling English”--and the driver
went off into impassioned exclamations in Torinese. The porter, still
muttering and holding his hand as if the coin might sting him, filtered
away.

“Orright. He know--sheeling--orright. English moneys, eh? Yes, he know.
You get up, sir.”

And away went Aaron, under the hood of the carriage, clattering down the
wide darkness of Novara, over a bridge apparently, past huge rain-wet
statues, and through more rainy, half-lit streets.

They stopped at last outside a sort of park wall with trees above. The
big gates were just beyond.

“Sir William Franks--there.” In a mixture of Italian and English the
driver told Aaron to get down and ring the bell on the right. Aaron got
down and in the darkness was able to read the name on the plate.

“How much?” said Aaron to the driver.

“Ten franc,” said the fat driver.

But it was his turn now to screw down and scrutinise the pink
ten-shilling note. He waved it in his hand.

“Not good, eh? Not good moneys?”

“Yes,” said Aaron, rather indignantly. “Good English money. Ten
shillings. Better than ten francs, a good deal. Better--better--”

“Good--you say? Ten sheeling--” The driver muttered and muttered, as
if dissatisfied. But as a matter of fact he stowed the note in his
waistcoat pocket with considerable satisfaction, looked at Aaron
curiously, and drove away.

Aaron stood there in the dark outside the big gates, and wished himself
somewhere else. However, he rang the bell. There was a huge barking
of dogs on the other side. Presently a light switched on, and a woman,
followed by a man, appeared cautiously, in the half-opened doorway.

“Sir William Franks?” said Aaron.

“Si, signore.”

And Aaron stepped with his two bags inside the gate. Huge dogs jumped
round. He stood in the darkness under the trees at the foot of the
park. The woman fastened the gate--Aaron saw a door--and through an
uncurtained window a man writing at a desk--rather like the clerk in an
hotel office. He was going with his two bags to the open door, when the
woman stopped him, and began talking to him in Italian. It was evident
he must not go on. So he put down the bags. The man stood a few yards
away, watchfully.

Aaron looked down at the woman and tried to make out something of what
she was saying, but could not. The dogs still barked spasmodically,
drops fell from the tall, dark trees that rose overhead.

“Is Mr. Lilly here? Mr. Lilly?” he asked.

“Signor Lillee. No, Signore--”

And off the woman went in Italian. But it was evident Lilly was not at
the house. Aaron wished more than ever he had not come, but had gone to
an hotel.

He made out that the woman was asking him for his name--“Meester--?
Meester--?” she kept saying, with a note of interrogation.

“Sisson. Mr. Sisson,” said Aaron, who was becoming impatient. And he
found a visiting card to give her. She seemed appeased--said something
about telephone--and left him standing.

The rain had ceased, but big drops were shaken from the dark, high
trees. Through the uncurtained window he saw the man at the desk reach
the telephone. There was a long pause. At length the woman came back
and motioned to him to go up--up the drive which curved and disappeared
under the dark trees.

“Go up there?” said Aaron, pointing.

That was evidently the intention. So he picked up his bags and strode
forward, from out of the circle of electric light, up the curved drive
in the darkness. It was a steep incline. He saw trees and the grass
slopes. There was a tang of snow in the air.

Suddenly, up ahead, a brilliant light switched on. He continued uphill
through the trees along the path, towards it, and at length, emerged
at the foot of a great flight of steps, above which was a wide glass
entrance, and an Italian manservant in white gloves hovering as if on
the brink.

Aaron emerged from the drive and climbed the steps. The manservant came
down two steps and took the little bag. Then he ushered Aaron and the
big bag into a large, pillared hall, with thick Turkish carpet on the
floor, and handsome appointments. It was spacious, comfortable and warm;
but somewhat pretentious; rather like the imposing hall into which the
heroine suddenly enters on the film.

Aaron dropped his heavy bag, with relief, and stood there, hat in hand,
in his damp overcoat in the circle of light, looking vaguely at the
yellow marble pillars, the gilded arches above, the shadowy distances
and the great stairs. The butler disappeared--reappeared in another
moment--and through an open doorway came the host. Sir William was a
small, clean old man with a thin, white beard and a courtly deportment,
wearing a black velvet dinner jacket faced with purple silk.

“How do you do, Mr. Sisson. You come straight from England?”

Sir William held out his hand courteously and benevolently, smiling an
old man’s smile of hospitality.

“Mr. Lilly has gone away?” said Aaron.

“Yes. He left us several days ago.”

Aaron hesitated.

“You didn’t expect me, then?”

“Yes, oh, yes. Yes, oh, yes. Very glad to see you--well, now, come in
and have some dinner--”

At this moment Lady Franks appeared--short, rather plump, but erect and
definite, in a black silk dress and pearls round her throat.

“How do you do? We are just at dinner,” she said. “You haven’t eaten?
No--well, then--would you like a bath now, or--?”

It was evident the Franks had dispensed much hospitality: much of it
charitable. Aaron felt it.

“No,” he said. “I’ll wash my hands and come straight in, shall I?”

“Yes, perhaps that would be better--”

“I’m afraid I am a nuisance.”

“Not at all--Beppe--” and she gave instructions in Italian.

Another footman appeared, and took the big bag. Aaron took the little
one this time. They climbed the broad, turning stairs, crossed another
handsome lounge, gilt and ormolu and yellow silk chairs and scattered
copies of _The Graphic_ or of _Country Life_, then they disappeared
through a doorway into a much narrower flight of stairs. Man can so
rarely keep it up all the way, the grandeur.

Two black and white chamber-maids appeared. Aaron found himself in a
blue silk bedroom, and a footman unstrapping his bag, which he did not
want unstrapped. Next minute he was beckoned and allured by the Italian
servants down the corridor, and presented to the handsome, spacious
bathroom, which was warm and creamy-coloured and glittering with massive
silver and mysterious with up-to-date conveniences. There he was left to
his own devices, and felt like a small boy finding out how it works. For
even the mere turning on of the taps was a problem in silver mechanics.

In spite of all the splendours and the elaborated convenience, he washed
himself in good hot water, and wished he were having a bath, chiefly
because of the wardrobe of marvellous Turkish towels. Then he clicked
his way back to his bedroom, changed his shirt and combed his hair in
the blue silk bedroom with the Greuze picture, and felt a little dim and
superficial surprise. He had fallen into country house parties before,
but never into quite such a plushy sense of riches. He felt he ought to
have his breath taken away. But alas, the cinema has taken our breath
away so often, investing us in all the splendours of the splendidest
American millionaire, or all the heroics and marvels of the Somme or the
North Pole, that life has now no magnate richer than we, no hero nobler
than we have been, on the film. _Connu_! _Connu_! Everything life has to
offer is known to us, couldn’t be known better, from the film.

So Aaron tied his tie in front of a big Venice mirror, and nothing was
a surprise to him. He found a footman hovering to escort him to the
dining-room--a real Italian footman, uneasy because milady’s dinner was
unsettled. He entered the rather small dining-room, and saw the people
at table.

He was told various names: bowed to a young, slim woman with big
blue eyes and dark hair like a photograph, then to a smaller rather
colourless young woman with a large nose: then to a stout, rubicund,
bald colonel, and to a tall, thin, Oxford-looking major with a black
patch over his eye--both these men in khaki: finally to a good-looking,
well-nourished young man in a dinner-jacket, and he sat down to his
soup, on his hostess’ left hand. The colonel sat on her right, and was
confidential. Little Sir William, with his hair and his beard white like
spun glass, his manner very courteous and animated, the purple facings
of his velvet jacket very impressive, sat at the far end of the table
jesting with the ladies and showing his teeth in an old man’s smile, a
little bit affected, but pleasant, wishing everybody to be happy.

Aaron ate his soup, trying to catch up. Milady’s own confidential
Italian butler, fidelity itself, hovered quivering near, spiritually
helping the newcomer to catch up. Two nice little entree dishes,
specially prepared for Aaron to take the place of the bygone fish and
vol au-vents of the proper dinner, testified to the courtesy and charity
of his hostess.

Well, eating rapidly, he had more or less caught up by the time the
sweets came. So he swallowed a glass of wine and looked round. His
hostess with her pearls, and her diamond star in her grey hair, was
speaking of Lilly and then of music to him.

“I hear you are a musician. That’s what I should have been if I had had
my way.”

“What instrument?” asked Aaron.

“Oh, the piano. Yours is the flute, Mr. Lilly says. I think the flute
can be so attractive. But I feel, of course you have more range with the
piano. I love the piano--and orchestra.”

At that moment, the colonel and hostess-duties distracted her. But she
came back in snatches. She was a woman who reminded him a little
of Queen Victoria; so assured in her own room, a large part of her
attention always given to the successful issue of her duties, the
remainder at the disposal of her guests. It was an old-fashioned, not
unpleasant feeling: like retrospect. But she had beautiful, big, smooth
emeralds and sapphires on her fingers. Money! What a curious thing it
is! Aaron noticed the deference of all the guests at table: a touch of
obsequiousness: before the money! And the host and hostess accepted the
deference, nay, expected it, as their due. Yet both Sir William and Lady
Franks knew that it was only money and success. They had both a certain
afterthought, knowing dimly that the game was but a game, and that
they were the helpless leaders in the game. They had a certain basic
ordinariness which prevented their making any great hits, and which
kept them disillusioned all the while. They remembered their poor and
insignificant days.

“And I hear you were playing in the orchestra at Covent Garden. We came
back from London last week. I enjoyed Beecham’s operas so much.”

“Which do you like best?” said Aaron.

“Oh, the Russian. I think _Ivan_. It is such fine music.”

“I find _Ivan_ artificial.”

“Do you? Oh, I don’t think so. No, I don’t think you can say that.”

Aaron wondered at her assurance. She seemed to put him just a tiny bit
in his place, even in an opinion on music. Money gave her that right,
too. Curious--the only authority left. And he deferred to her opinion:
that is, to her money. He did it almost deliberately. Yes--what did he
believe in, besides money? What does any man? He looked at the black
patch over the major’s eye. What had he given his eye for?--the nation’s
money. Well, and very necessary, too; otherwise we might be where
the wretched Austrians are. Instead of which--how smooth his hostess’
sapphires!

“Of course I myself prefer Moussorgsky,” said Aaron. “I think he is a
greater artist. But perhaps it is just personal preference.”

“Yes. _Boris_ is wonderful. Oh, some of the scenes in _Boris_!”

“And even more _Kovantchina_,” said Aaron. “I wish we could go back
to melody pure and simple. Yet I find _Kovantchina_, which is all mass
music practically, gives me more satisfaction than any other opera.”

“Do you really? I shouldn’t say so: oh, no--but you can’t mean that
you would like all music to go back to melody pure and simple! Just a
flute--just a pipe! Oh, Mr. Sisson, you are bigoted for your instrument.
I just LIVE in harmony--chords, chords!” She struck imaginary chords on
the white damask, and her sapphires swam blue. But at the same time she
was watching to see if Sir William had still got beside his plate the
white medicine _cachet_ which he must swallow at every meal. Because if
so, she must remind him to swallow it. However, at that very moment,
he put it on his tongue. So that she could turn her attention again to
Aaron and the imaginary chord on the white damask; the thing she just
lived in. But the rubicund bald colonel, more rubicund after wine, most
rubicund now the Marsala was going, snatched her attention with a burly
homage to her femininity, and shared his fear with her with a boyish
gallantry.

When the women had gone up, Sir William came near and put his hand on
Aaron’s shoulder. It was evident the charm was beginning to work. Sir
William was a self-made man, and not in the least a snob. He liked the
fundamental ordinariness in Aaron, the commonness of the common man.

“Well now, Mr. Sisson, we are very glad to see you! Very glad, indeed. I
count Mr. Lilly one of the most interesting men it has ever been my good
fortune to know. And so for your own sake, and for Mr. Lilly’s sake,
we are very glad to see you. Arthur, my boy, give Mr. Sisson some
Marsala--and take some yourself.”

“Thank you, Sir,” said the well-nourished young man in nice evening
clothes. “You’ll take another glass yourself, Sir?”

“Yes, I will, I will. I will drink a glass with Mr. Sisson. Major, where
are you wandering off to? Come and take a glass with us, my boy.”

“Thanks, Sir William,” drawled the young major with the black patch.

“Now, Colonel--I hope you are in good health and spirits.”

“Never better, Sir William, never better.”

“I’m very glad to hear it; very glad indeed. Try my Marsala--I think it
is quite good. Port is beyond us for the moment--for the moment--”

And the old man sipped his brown wine, and smiled again. He made quite a
handsome picture: but he was frail.

“And where are you bound, Mr. Sisson? Towards Rome?”

“I came to meet Lilly,” said Aaron.

“Ah! But Lilly has fled over the borders by this time. Never was such a
man for crossing frontiers. Wonderful person, to be able to do it.”

“Where has he gone?” said Aaron.

“I think to Geneva for the moment. But he certainly talked of Venice.
You yourself have no definite goal?”

“No.”

“Ah! You have not come to Italy to practice your art?”

“I shall HAVE to practice it: or else--no, I haven’t come for that.”

“Ah, you will HAVE to practice it. Ah, yes! We are all under the
necessity to eat. And you have a family in England? Am I not right?”

“Quite. I’ve got a family depending on me.”

“Yes, then you must practice your art: you must practice your art.
Well--shall we join the ladies? Coffee will no doubt be served.”

“Will you take my arm, Sir?” said the well-nourished Arthur.

“Thank you, thank you,” the old man motioned him away.

So they went upstairs to where the three women were sitting in the
library round the fire, chattering not very interested. The entry of Sir
William at once made a stir.

The girl in white, with the biggish nose, fluttered round him. She was
Arthur’s wife. The girl in soft blue spread herself on the couch: she
was the young Major’s wife, and she had a blue band round her hair. The
Colonel hovered stout and fidgetty round Lady Franks and the liqueur
stand. He and the Major were both in khaki--belonging to the service on
duty in Italy still.

Coffee appeared--and Sir William doled out _creme de menthe_. There
was no conversation--only tedious words. The little party was just
commonplace and dull--boring. Yet Sir William, the self-made man, was a
study. And the young, Oxford-like Major, with his English diffidence and
his one dark, pensive, baffled eye was only waiting to be earnest, poor
devil.

The girl in white had been a sort of companion to Lady Franks, so that
Arthur was more or less a son-in-law. In this capacity, he acted. Aaron
strayed round uneasily looking at the books, bought but not read, and at
the big pictures above. It was Arthur who fetched out the little boxes
containing the orders conferred on Sir William for his war-work: and
perhaps more, for the many thousands of pounds he had spent on his
war-work.

There were three orders: one British, and quite important, a large
silver star for the breast: one Italian, smaller, and silver and gold;
and one from the State of Ruritania, in silver and red-and-green enamel,
smaller than the others.

“Come now, William,” said Lady Franks, “you must try them all on. You
must try them all on together, and let us see how you look.”

The little, frail old man, with his strange old man’s blue eyes and his
old man’s perpetual laugh, swelled out his chest and said:

“What, am I to appear in all my vanities?” And he laughed shortly.

“Of course you are. We want to see you,” said the white girl.

“Indeed we do! We shouldn’t mind all appearing in such vanities--what,
Lady Franks!” boomed the Colonel.

“I should think not,” replied his hostess. “When a man has honours
conferred on him, it shows a poor spirit if he isn’t proud of them.”

“Of course I am proud of them!” said Sir William. “Well then, come and
have them pinned on. I think it’s wonderful to have got so much in one
life-time--wonderful,” said Lady Franks.

“Oh, Sir William is a wonderful man,” said the Colonel. “Well--we won’t
say so before him. But let us look at him in his orders.”

Arthur, always ready on these occasions, had taken the large and shining
British star from its box, and drew near to Sir William, who stood
swelling his chest, pleased, proud, and a little wistful.

“This one first, Sir,” said Arthur.

Sir William stood very still, half tremulous, like a man undergoing an
operation.

“And it goes just here--the level of the heart. This is where it goes.”
 And carefully he pinned the large, radiating ornament on the black
velvet dinner-jacket of the old man.

“That is the first--and very becoming,” said Lady Franks.

“Oh, very becoming! Very becoming!” said the tall wife of the Major--she
was a handsome young woman of the tall, frail type.

“Do you think so, my dear?” said the old man, with his eternal smile:
the curious smile of old people when they are dead.

“Not only becoming, Sir,” said the Major, bending his tall, slim figure
forwards. “But a reassuring sign that a nation knows how to distinguish
her valuable men.”

“Quite!” said Lady Franks. “I think it is a very great honour to have
got it. The king was most gracious, too-- Now the other. That goes
beside it--the Italian--”

Sir William stood there undergoing the operation of the pinning-on. The
Italian star being somewhat smaller than the British, there was a
slight question as to where exactly it should be placed. However, Arthur
decided it: and the old man stood before the company with his two stars
on his breast.

“And now the Ruritanian,” said Lady Franks eagerly.

“That doesn’t go on the same level with the others, Lady Franks,” said
Arthur. “That goes much lower down--about here.”

“Are you sure?” said Lady Franks. “Doesn’t it go more here?”

“No no, no no, not at all. Here! Isn’t it so, Sybil?”

“Yes, I think so,” said Sybil.

Old Sir William stood quite silent, his breast prepared, peering over
the facings of his coat to see where the star was going. The Colonel was
called in, and though he knew nothing about it, he agreed with Arthur,
who apparently did know something. So the star was pinned quite low
down. Sir William, peeping down, exclaimed:

“Well, that is most curious now! I wear an order over the pit of my
stomach! I think that is very curious: a curious place to wear an
order.”

“Stand up! Stand up and let us look!” said Lady Franks. “There now,
isn’t it handsome? And isn’t it a great deal of honour for one man?
Could he have expected so much, in one life-time? I call it wonderful.
Come and look at yourself, dear”--and she led him to a mirror.

“What’s more, all thoroughly deserved,” said Arthur.

“I should think so,” said the Colonel, fidgetting.

“Ah, yes, nobody has deserved them better,” cooed Sybil.

“Nor on more humane and generous grounds,” said the Major, _sotto voce._

“The effort to save life, indeed,” returned the Major’s young wife:
“splendid!”

Sir William stood naively before the mirror and looked at his three
stars on his black velvet dinner-jacket.

“Almost directly over the pit of my stomach,” he said. “I hope that is
not a decoration for my greedy APPETITE.” And he laughed at the young
women.

“I assure you it is in position, Sir,” said Arthur. “Absolutely correct.
I will read it out to you later.”

“Aren’t you satisfied? Aren’t you a proud man! Isn’t it wonderful?” said
Lady Franks. “Why, what more could a man want from life? He could never
EXPECT so much.”

“Yes, my dear. I AM a proud man. Three countries have honoured me--”
 There was a little, breathless pause.

“And not more than they ought to have done,” said Sybil.

“Well! Well! I shall have my head turned. Let me return to my own humble
self. I am too much in the stars at the moment.”

Sir William turned to Arthur to have his decorations removed. Aaron,
standing in the background, felt the whole scene strange, childish, a
little touching. And Lady Franks was so obviously trying to _console_
her husband: to console the frail, excitable old man with his honours.
But why console him? Did he need consolation? And did she? It was
evident that only the hard-money woman in her put any price on the
decorations.

Aaron came forward and examined the orders, one after the other. Just
metal playthings of curious shiny silver and gilt and enamel. Heavy the
British one--but only like some heavy buckle, a piece of metal merely
when one turned it over. Somebody dropped the Italian cross, and there
was a moment of horror. But the lump of metal took no hurt. Queer to see
the things stowed in their boxes again. Aaron had always imagined these
mysterious decorations as shining by nature on the breasts of heroes.
Pinned-on pieces of metal were a considerable come-down.

The orders were put away, the party sat round the fire in the
comfortable library, the men sipping more _creme de menthe_, since
nothing else offered, and the couple of hours in front promising the
tedium of small-talk of tedious people who had really nothing to say and
no particular originality in saying it.

Aaron, however, had reckoned without his host. Sir William sat upright
in his chair, with all the determination of a frail old man who insists
on being level with the young. The new guest sat in a lower chair,
smoking, that curious glimmer on his face which made him so attractive,
and which only meant that he was looking on the whole scene from the
outside, as it were, from beyond a fence. Sir William came almost
directly to the attack.

“And so, Mr. Sisson, you have no definite purpose in coming to Italy?”

“No, none,” said Aaron. “I wanted to join Lilly.”

“But when you had joined him--?”

“Oh, nothing--stay here a time, in this country, if I could earn my
keep.”

“Ah!--earn your keep? So you hope to earn your keep here? May I ask
how?”

“By my flute.”

“Italy is a poor country.”

“I don’t want much.”

“You have a family to provide for.”

“They are provided for--for a couple of years.”

“Oh, indeed! Is that so?”

The old man got out of Aaron the detailed account of his
circumstances--how he had left so much money to be paid over to his
wife, and had received only a small amount for himself.

“I see you are like Lilly--you trust to Providence,” said Sir William.

“Providence or fate,” said Aaron.

“Lilly calls it Providence,” said Sir William. “For my own part, I
always advise Providence plus a banking account. I have every belief in
Providence, plus a banking account. Providence and no banking account I
have observed to be almost invariably fatal. Lilly and I have argued it.
He believes in casting his bread upon the waters. I sincerely hope
he won’t have to cast himself after his bread, one of these days.
Providence with a banking account. Believe in Providence once you have
secured enough to live on. I should consider it disastrous to believe in
Providence BEFORE. One can never be SURE of Providence.”

“What can you be sure of, then?” said Aaron.

“Well, in moderation, I can believe in a little hard cash, and in my own
ability to earn a little hard cash.”

“Perhaps Lilly believes in his own ability, too.”

“No. Not so. Because he will never directly work to earn money. He
works--and works quite well, I am told: but only as the spirit moves
him, and never with any eye to the market. Now I call that TEMPTING
Providence, myself. The spirit may move him in quite an opposite
direction to the market--then where is Lilly? I have put it to him more
than once.”

“The spirit generally does move him dead against the market,” said
Aaron. “But he manages to scrape along.”

“In a state of jeopardy: all the time in a state of jeopardy,” said
the old man. “His whole existence, and that of his wife, is completely
precarious. I found, in my youth, the spirit moved me to various things
which would have left me and my wife starving. So I realised in time,
this was no good. I took my spirit in hand, therefore, and made him
pull the cart which mankind is riding in. I harnessed him to the work of
productive labour. And so he brought me my reward.”

“Yes,” said Aaron. “But every man according to his belief.”

“I don’t see,” said Sir William, “how a man can BELIEVE in a Providence
unless he sets himself definitely to the work of earning his daily
bread, and making provision for future needs. That’s what Providence
means to me--making provision for oneself and one’s family. Now, Mr.
Lilly--and you yourself--you say you believe in a Providence that does
NOT compel you to earn your daily bread, and make provision. I confess
myself I cannot see it: and Lilly has never been able to convince me.”

“I don’t believe in a kind-hearted Providence,” said Aaron, “and I don’t
believe Lilly does. But I believe in chance. I believe, if I go my own
way, without tying my nose to a job, chance will always throw something
in my way: enough to get along with.”

“But on what do you base such a very unwarrantable belief?”

“I just feel like that.”

“And if you are ever quite without success--and nothing to fall back
on?”

“I can work at something.”

“In case of illness, for example?”

“I can go to a hospital--or die.”

“Dear me! However, you are more logical than Lilly. He seems to believe
that he has the Invisible--call it Providence if you will--on his side,
and that this Invisible will never leave him in the lurch, or let him
down, so long as he sticks to his own side of the bargain, and NEVER
works for his own ends. I don’t quite see how he works. Certainly he
seems to me a man who squanders a great deal of talent unworthily. Yet
for some reason or other he calls this true, genuine activity, and has
a contempt for actual work by which a man makes provision for his years
and for his family. In the end, he will have to fall back on charity.
But when I say so, he denies it, and says that in the end we, the men
who work and make provision, will have to fall back on him. Well, all
I can say is, that SO FAR he is in far greater danger of having to fall
back on me, than I on him.”

The old man sat back in his chair with a little laugh of triumph. But it
smote almost devilishly on Aaron’s ears, and for the first time in his
life he felt that there existed a necessity for taking sides.

“I don’t suppose he will do much falling back,” he said.

“Well, he is young yet. You are both young. You are squandering your
youth. I am an old man, and I see the end.”

“What end, Sir William?”

“Charity--and poverty--and some not very congenial ‘job,’ as you call
it, to put bread in your mouth. No, no, I would not like to trust myself
to your Providence, or to your Chance. Though I admit your Chance is
a sounder proposition than Lilly’s Providence. You speculate with your
life and your talent. I admit the nature which is a born speculator.
After all, with your flute, you will speculate in other people’s taste
for luxury, as a man may speculate in theatres or _trains de luxe_. You
are the speculator. That may be your way of wisdom. But Lilly does not
even speculate. I cannot see his point. I cannot see his point. I cannot
see his point. Yet I have the greatest admiration for his mentality.”

The old man had fired up during this conversation--and all the others
in the room had gone silent. Lady Franks was palpably uneasy. She alone
knew how frail the old man was--frailer by far than his years. She alone
knew what fear of his own age, what fear of death haunted him now: fear
of his own non-existence. His own old age was an agony to him; worse
than an agony, a horror. He wanted to be young--to live, to live. And
he was old, he was breaking up. The glistening youth of Aaron, the
impetuousness of Lilly fascinated him. And both these men seemed calmly
to contradict his own wealth and honours.

Lady Franks tried to turn off the conversation to the trickles of normal
chit-chat. The Colonel was horribly bored--so were all the women--Arthur
was indifferent. Only the young Major was implicated, troubled in his
earnest and philosophic spirit.

“What I can’t see,” he said, “is the place that others have in your
scheme.”

“Is isn’t a scheme,” said Aaron.

“Well then, your way of life. Isn’t it pretty selfish, to marry a woman
and then expect her to live on very little indeed, and that always
precarious, just because you happen to believe in Providence or in
Chance: which I think worse? What I don’t see is where others come in.
What would the world be like if everybody lived that way?”

“Other people can please themselves,” said Aaron.

“No, they can’t--because you take first choice, it seems to me.
Supposing your wife--or Lilly’s wife--asks for security and for
provision, as Sir William says. Surely she has a right to it.”

“If I’ve no right to it myself--and I HAVE no right to it, if I don’t
want it--then what right has she?”

“Every right, I should say. All the more since you are improvident.”

“Then she must manage her rights for herself. It’s no good her foisting
her rights on to me.”

“Isn’t that pure selfishness?”

“It may be. I shall send my wife money as long as I’ve money to send.”

“And supposing you have none?”

“Then I can’t send it--and she must look out for herself.”

“I call that almost criminal selfishness.”

“I can’t help it.”

The conversation with the young Major broke off.

“It is certainly a good thing for society that men like you and Mr.
Lilly are not common,” said Sir William, laughing.

“Becoming commoner every day, you’ll find,” interjaculated the Colonel.

“Indeed! Indeed! Well. May we ask you another question, Mr. Sisson? I
hope you don’t object to our catechism?”

“No. Nor your judgment afterwards,” said Aaron, grinning.

“Then upon what grounds did you abandon your family? I know it is a
tender subject. But Lilly spoke of it to us, and as far I could
see....”

“There were no grounds,” said Aaron. “No, there weren’t I just left
them.”

“Mere caprice?”

“If it’s a caprice to be begotten--and a caprice to be born--and a
caprice to die--then that was a caprice, for it was the same.”

“Like birth or death? I don’t follow.”

“It happened to me: as birth happened to me once--and death will happen.
It was a sort of death, too: or a sort of birth. But as undeniable as
either. And without any more grounds.”

The old, tremulous man, and the young man were watching one another.

“A natural event,” said Sir William.

“A natural event,” said Aaron.

“Not that you loved any other woman?”

“God save me from it.”

“You just left off loving?”

“Not even that. I went away.”

“What from?”

“From it all.”

“From the woman in particular?”

“Oh, yes. Yes. Yes, that.”

“And you couldn’t go back?”

Aaron shook his head.

“Yet you can give no reasons?”

“Not any reasons that would be any good. It wasn’t a question of
reasons. It was a question of her and me and what must be. What makes a
child be born out of its mother to the pain and trouble of both of them?
I don’t know.”

“But that is a natural process.”

“So is this--or nothing.”

“No,” interposed the Major. “Because birth is a universal process--and
yours is a specific, almost unique event.”

“Well, unique or not, it so came about. I didn’t ever leave off loving
her--not as far as I know. I left her as I shall leave the earth when I
die--because it has to be.”

“Do you know what I think it is, Mr. Sisson?” put in Lady Franks. “I
think you are just in a wicked state of mind: just that. Mr. Lilly, too.
And you must be very careful, or some great misfortune will happen to
you.”

“It may,” said Aaron.

“And it will, mark my word, it will.”

“You almost wish it might, as a judgment on me,” smiled Aaron.

“Oh, no, indeed. I should only be too sorry. But I feel it will, unless
you are careful.”

“I’ll be careful, then.”

“Yes, and you can’t be too careful.”

“You make me frightened.”

“I would like to make you very frightened indeed, so that you went back
humbly to your wife and family.”

“It would HAVE to be a big fright then, I assure you.”

“Ah, you are really heartless. It makes me angry.”

She turned angrily aside.

“Well, well! Well, well! Life! Life! Young men are a new thing to me!”
 said Sir William, shaking his head. “Well, well! What do you say to
whiskey and soda, Colonel?”

“Why, delighted, Sir William,” said the Colonel, bouncing up.

“A night-cap, and then we retire,” said Lady Franks.

Aaron sat thinking. He knew Sir William liked him: and that Lady Franks
didn’t. One day he might have to seek help from Sir William. So he had
better placate milady. Wrinkling the fine, half mischievous smile on his
face, and trading on his charm, he turned to his hostess.

“You wouldn’t mind, Lady Franks, if I said nasty things about my wife
and found a lot of fault with her. What makes you angry is that I know
it is not a bit more her fault than mine, that we come apart. It can’t
be helped.”

“Oh, yes, indeed. I disapprove of your way of looking at things
altogether. It seems to me altogether cold and unmanly and inhuman.
Thank goodness my experience of a man has been different.”

“We can’t all be alike, can we? And if I don’t choose to let you see me
crying, that doesn’t prove I’ve never had a bad half hour, does it? I’ve
had many--ay, and a many.”

“Then why are you so WRONG, so wrong in your behaviour?”

“I suppose I’ve got to have my bout out: and when it’s out, I can
alter.”

“Then I hope you’ve almost had your bout out,” she said.

“So do I,” said he, with a half-repentant, half-depressed look on his
attractive face. The corners of his mouth grimaced slightly under his
moustache.

“The best thing you can do is to go straight back to England, and to
her.”

“Perhaps I’d better ask her if she wants me, first,” he said drily.

“Yes, you might do that, too.” And Lady Franks felt she was quite
getting on with her work of reform, and the restoring of woman to her
natural throne. Best not go too fast, either.

“Say when,” shouted the Colonel, who was manipulating the syphon.

“When,” said Aaron.

The men stood up to their drinks.

“Will you be leaving in the morning, Mr. Sisson?” asked Lady Franks.

“May I stay till Monday morning?” said Aaron. They were at Saturday
evening.

“Certainly. And you will take breakfast in your room: we all do. At what
time? Half past eight?”

“Thank you very much.”

“Then at half past eight the man will bring it in. Goodnight.”

Once more in his blue silk bedroom, Aaron grimaced to himself and stood
in the middle of the room grimacing. His hostess’ admonitions were like
vitriol in his ears. He looked out of the window. Through the darkness
of trees, the lights of a city below. Italy! The air was cold with snow.
He came back into his soft, warm room. Luxurious it was. And luxurious
the deep, warm bed.

He was still asleep when the man came noiselessly in with the tray: and
it was morning. Aaron woke and sat up. He felt that the deep, warm bed,
and the soft, warm room had made him sleep too well: robbed him of his
night, like a narcotic. He preferred to be more uncomfortable and more
aware of the flight of the dark hours. It seemed numbing.

The footman in his grey house-jacket was neat and Italian and
sympathising. He gave good-morning in Italian--then softly arranged the
little table by the bedside, and put out the toast and coffee and butter
and boiled egg and honey, with silver and delicate china. Aaron watched
the soft, catlike motions of the man. The dark eyes glanced once at the
blond man, leaning on his elbow on the pillow. Aaron’s face had that
watchful, half-amused expression. The man said something in Italian.
Aaron shook his head, laughed, and said:

“Tell me in English.”

The man went softly to the window curtains, and motioned them with his
hand.

“Yes, do,” said Aaron.

So the man drew the buff-coloured silk curtains: and Aaron, sitting
in bed, could see away beyond red roofs of a town, and in the further
heaven great snowy mountains.

“The Alps,” he said in surprise.

“Gli Alpi--si, signore.” The man bowed, gathered up Aaron’s clothes, and
silently retired.

Aaron watched through the window. It was a frosty morning at the end
of September, with a clear blue morning-sky, Alpine, and the watchful,
snow-streaked mountain tops bunched in the distance, as if waiting.
There they were, hovering round, circling, waiting. They reminded him
of marvellous striped sky-panthers circling round a great camp: the
red-roofed city. Aaron looked, and looked again. In the near distance,
under the house elm-tree tops were yellowing. He felt himself changing
inside his skin.

So he turned away to his coffee and eggs. A little silver egg-cup with a
curious little frill round it: honey in a frail, iridescent glass bowl,
gold-iridescent: the charm of delicate and fine things. He smiled half
mockingly to himself. Two instincts played in him: the one, an instinct
for fine, delicate things: he had attractive hands; the other, an
inclination to throw the dainty little table with all its niceties out
of the window. It evoked a sort of devil in him.

He took his bath: the man had brought back his things: he dressed and
went downstairs. No one in the lounge: he went down to the ground floor:
no one in the big hall with its pillars of yellow marble and its gold
arches, its enormous, dark, bluey-red carpet. He stood before the great
glass doors. Some red flowers still were blooming in the tubs, on the
steps, handsome: and beautiful chrysanthemums in the wide portico.
Beyond, yellow leaves were already falling on the green grass and the
neat drive. Everywhere was silent and empty. He climbed the wide stairs,
sat in the long, upper lounge where the papers were. He wanted his hat
and coat, and did not know where to find them. The windows looked on to
a terraced garden, the hill rising steeply behind the house. He wanted
to go out.

So he opened more doors, and in a long drawing-room came upon five or
six manservants, all in the grey house-jackets, all clean-shaven, neat,
with neat black hair, all with dusters or brushes or feather brooms, and
all frolicking, chattering, playing like so many monkeys. They were all
of the same neat, smallish size. They were all laughing. They rolled
back a great rug as if it were some football game, one flew at the
curtains. And they merely looked at Aaron and went on chattering, and
laughing and dusting.

Surprised, and feeling that he trespassed, he stood at the window a
moment looking out. The noise went on behind him. So he turned, smiling,
and asked for his hat, pointing to his head. They knew at once what he
wanted. One of the fellows beckoned him away, down to the hall and to
the long cupboard place where hats and coats and sticks were hung. There
was his hat; he put it on, while the man chattered to him pleasantly and
unintelligibly, and opened for him the back door, into the garden.



CHAPTER XIII. WIE ES IHNEN GEFAELLT


The fresh morning air comes startling after a central heated house. So
Aaron found it. He felt himself dashing up the steps into the garden
like a bird dashing out of a trap where it has been caught: that warm
and luxurious house. Heaven bless us, we who want to save civilisation.
We had better make up our minds what of it we want to save. The kernel
may be all well and good. But there is precious little kernel, to a lot
of woolly stuffing and poisonous rind.

The gardens to Sir William’s place were not imposing, and still rather
war-neglected. But the pools of water lay smooth in the bright air, the
flowers showed their colour beside the walks. Many birds dashed
about, rather bewildered, having crossed the Alps in their migration
southwards. Aaron noted with gratification a certain big magnificence,
a certain reckless powerfulness in the still-blossoming, harsh-coloured,
autumn flowers. Distinct satisfaction he derived from it.

He wandered upwards, up the succeeding flights of step; till he came
to the upper rough hedge, and saw the wild copse on the hill-crest just
above. Passing through a space in the hedge, he climbed the steep last
bit of Sir William’s lane. It was a little vineyard, with small vines
and yellowing leaves. Everywhere the place looked neglected--but as if
man had just begun to tackle it once more.

At the very top, by the wild hedge where spindle-berries hung pink,
seats were placed, and from here the view was very beautiful. The hill
dropped steep beneath him. A river wound on the near side of the city,
crossed by a white bridge. The city lay close clustered, ruddy on the
plains, glittering in the clear air with its flat roofs and domes and
square towers, strangely naked-seeming in the clear, clean air. And
massive in the further nearness, snow-streaked mountains, the tiger-like
Alps. Tigers prowling between the north and the south. And this
beautiful city lying nearest exposed. The snow-wind brushed her this
morning like the icy whiskers of a tiger. And clear in the light lay
Novara, wide, fearless, violent Novara. Beautiful the perfect air, the
perfect and unblemished Alp-sky. And like the first southern flower,
Novara.

Aaron sat watching in silence. Only the uneasy birds rustled. He watched
the city and the winding river, the bridges, and the imminent Alps. He
was on the south side. On the other side of the time barrier. His old,
sleepy English nature was startled in its sleep. He felt like a man who
knows it is time to wake up, and who doesn’t want to wake up, to face
the responsibility of another sort of day.

To open his darkest eyes and wake up to a new responsibility. Wake
up and enter on the responsibility of a new self in himself. Ach, the
horror of responsibility! He had all his life slept and shelved the
burden. And he wanted to go on sleeping. It was so hateful to have
to get a new grip on his own bowels, a new hard recklessness into his
heart, a new and responsible consciousness into his mind and soul. He
felt some finger prodding, prodding, prodding him awake out of the sleep
of pathos and tragedy and spasmodic passion, and he wriggled, unwilling,
oh, most unwilling to undertake the new business.

In fact he ran away again. He gave a last look at the town and its
white-fanged mountains, and descended through the garden, round the way
of the kitchen garden and garage and stables and pecking chickens, back
to the house again. In the hall still no one. He went upstairs to the
long lounge. There sat the rubicund, bald, boy-like Colonel reading the
_Graphic_. Aaron sat down opposite him, and made a feeble attempt at
conversation. But the Colonel wasn’t having any. It was evident he
didn’t care for the fellow--Mr. Aaron, that is. Aaron therefore dried
up, and began to sit him out, with the aid of _The Queen_. Came a
servant, however, and said that the Signor Colonello was called up from
the hospital, on the telephone. The Colonel once departed, Aaron fled
again, this time out of the front doors, and down the steep little park
to the gates.

Huge dogs and little dogs came bounding forward. Out of the lodge came
the woman with the keys, smiling very pleasantly this morning. So, he
was in the street. The wide road led him inevitably to the big bridge,
with the violent, physical stone statue-groups. Men and women were
moving about, and he noticed for the first time the littleness and
the momentaneousness of the Italians in the street. Perhaps it was the
wideness of the bridge and the subsequent big, open boulevard. But there
it was: the people seemed little, upright brisk figures moving in a
certain isolation, like tiny figures on a big stage. And he felt himself
moving in the space between. All the northern cosiness gone. He was set
down with a space round him.

Little trams flitted down the boulevard in the bright, sweet light. The
barbers’ shops were all busy, half the Novarese at that moment ambushed
in lather, full in the public gaze. A shave is nothing if not a public
act, in the south. At the little outdoor tables of the cafes a very few
drinkers sat before empty coffee-cups. Most of the shops were shut. It
was too soon after the war for life to be flowing very fast. The feeling
of emptiness, of neglect, of lack of supplies was evident everywhere.

Aaron strolled on, surprised himself at his gallant feeling of liberty:
a feeling of bravado and almost swaggering carelessness which is Italy’s
best gift to an Englishman. He had crossed the dividing line, and
the values of life, though ostensibly and verbally the same, were
dynamically different. Alas, however, the verbal and the ostensible,
the accursed mechanical ideal gains day by day over the spontaneous
life-dynamic, so that Italy becomes as idea-bound and as automatic as
England: just a business proposition.

Coming to the station, he went inside. There he saw a money-changing
window which was open, so he planked down a five-pound note and got
two-hundred-and-ten lire. Here was a start. At a bookstall he saw a
man buy a big timetable with a large railway map in it. He immediately
bought the same. Then he retired to a corner to get his whereabouts.

In the morning he must move: where? He looked on the map. The map seemed
to offer two alternatives, Milan and Genoa. He chose Milan, because of
its musical associations and its cathedral. Milano then. Strolling and
still strolling, he found the boards announcing Arrivals and Departures.
As far as he could make out, the train for Milan left at 9:00 in the
morning.

So much achieved, he left the big desolating caravanserai of the
station. Soldiers were camped in every corner, lying in heaps asleep.
In their grey-green uniform, he was surprised at their sturdy limbs and
uniformly short stature. For the first time, he saw the cock-feathers
of the Bersaglieri. There seemed a new life-quality everywhere. Many
worlds, not one world. But alas, the one world triumphing more and
more over the many worlds, the big oneness swallowing up the many
small diversities in its insatiable gnawing appetite, leaving a dreary
sameness throughout the world, that means at last complete sterility.

Aaron, however, was too new to the strangeness, he had no eye for the
horrible sameness that was spreading like a disease over Italy from
England and the north. He plunged into the space in front of the
station, and took a new, wide boulevard. To his surprise he ran towards
a big and over-animated statue that stood resolutely with its back to
the magnificent snow-domes of the wild Alps. Wolves in the street
could not have startled him more than those magnificent fierce-gleaming
mountains of snow at the street-end, beyond the statue. He stood and
wondered, and never thought to look who the gentleman was. Then he
turned right round, and began to walk home.

Luncheon was at one o’clock. It was half-past twelve when he rang at
the lodge gates. He climbed through the leaves of the little park, on a
side-path, rather reluctantly towards the house. In the hall Lady Franks
was discussing with Arthur a fat Pekinese who did not seem very well.
She was sure the servants did not obey her orders concerning the
Pekinese bitch. Arthur, who was more than indifferent, assured her they
did. But she seemed to think that the whole of the male human race was
in league against the miserable specimen of a she-dog. She almost cried,
thinking her Queenie _might_ by some chance meet with, perhaps, a harsh
word or look. Queenie apparently fattened on the secret detestation of
the male human species.

“I can’t bear to think that a dumb creature might be ill-treated,” she
said to Aaron. “Thank goodness the Italians are better than they used to
be.”

“Are they better than they used to be?”

“Oh, much. They have learnt it from us.”

She then enquired if her guest had slept, and if he were rested from
his journey. Aaron, into whose face the faint snow-wind and the sun had
brought a glow, replied that he had slept well and enjoyed the morning,
thank you. Whereupon Lady Franks knitted her brows and said Sir William
had had such a bad night. He had not been able to sleep, and had got
up and walked about the room. The least excitement, and she dreaded a
break-down. He must have absolute calm and restfulness.

“There’s one for you and your jawing last night, Aaron, my boy!” said
our hero to himself.

“I thought Sir William seemed so full of life and energy,” he said,
aloud.

“Ah, did you! No, he WANTS to be. But he can’t do it. He’s very much
upset this morning. I have been very anxious about him.”

“I am sorry to hear that.”

Lady Franks departed to some duty. Aaron sat alone before the fire.
It was a huge fireplace, like a dark chamber shut in by tall,
finely-wrought iron gates. Behind these iron gates of curly iron the
logs burned and flickered like leopards slumbering and lifting their
heads within their cage. Aaron wondered who was the keeper of the savage
element, who it was that would open the iron grille and throw on another
log, like meat to the lions. To be sure the fire was only to be looked
at: like wild beasts in the Zoo. For the house was warm from roof to
floor. It was strange to see the blue air of sunlight outside, the
yellow-edged leaves falling in the wind, the red flowers shaking.

The gong sounded softly through the house. The Colonel came in heartily
from the garden, but did not speak to Aaron. The Major and his wife
came pallid down the stairs. Lady Franks appeared, talking
domestic-secretarial business with the wife of Arthur. Arthur,
well-nourished and half at home, called down the stairs. And then Sir
William descended, old and frail now in the morning, shaken: still he
approached Aaron heartily, and asked him how he did, and how he had
spent his morning. The old man who had made a fortune: how he expected
homage: and how he got it! Homage, like most things, is just a
convention and a social trick. Aaron found himself paying homage, too,
to the old man who had made a fortune. But also, exacting a certain
deference in return, from the old man who had made a fortune. Getting
it, too. On what grounds? Youth, maybe. But mostly, scorn for fortunes
and fortune-making. Did he scorn fortunes and fortune-making? Not he,
otherwise whence this homage for the old man with much money? Aaron,
like everybody else, was rather paralysed by a million sterling,
personified in one old man. Paralysed, fascinated, overcome. All those
three. Only having no final control over his own make-up, he could not
drive himself into the money-making or even into the money-having habit.
And he had just wit enough to threaten Sir William’s golden king with
his own ivory queen and knights of wilful life. And Sir William quaked.

“Well, and how have you spent your morning?” asked the host.

“I went first to look at the garden.”

“Ah, not much to see now. They have been beautiful with flowers,
once. But for two and a half years the house has been a hospital for
officers--and even tents in the park and garden--as many as two hundred
wounded and sick at a time. We are only just returning to civil life.
And flowers need time. Yes--yes--British officers--for two and a half
years. But did you go up, now, to the belvedere?”

“To the top--where the vines are? I never expected the mountains.”

“You never expected the mountains? Pray, why not? They are always
there!”

“But I was never there before. I never knew they were there, round the
town. I didn’t expect it like that.”

“Ah! So you found our city impressive?”

“Very! Ah, very! A new world to me. I feel I’ve come out of myself.”

“Yes, it is a wonderful sight--a wonderful sight-- But you have not been
INTO the town?”

“Yes. I saw the men being shaved, and all the soldiers at the station:
and a statue, and mountains behind it. Oh, I’ve had a full morning.”

“A full morning! That is good, that is good!” The old man looked again
at the younger man, and seemed to get life from him, to live in him
vicariously.

“Come,” said the hostess. “Luncheon.”

Aaron sat again on his hostess’ left hand. The Colonel was more affable
now it was meal-time. Sir William was again in a good humour, chaffing
the young ladies with an old man’s gallantry. But now he insisted on
drawing Aaron into the play. And Aaron did not want to be drawn. He did
not one bit want to chaffer gallantries with the young women. Between
him and Sir William there was a curious rivalry--unconscious on both
sides. The old knight had devoted an energetic, adventurous, almost an
artistic nature to the making of his fortune and the developing of later
philanthropies. He had no children. Aaron was devoting a similar nature
to anything but fortune-making and philanthropy. The one held life to
be a storing-up of produce and a conservation of energy: the other held
life to be a sheer spending of energy and a storing-up of nothing but
experience. There they were, in opposition, the old man and the young.
Sir William kept calling Aaron into the chaffer at the other end of
the table: and Aaron kept on refusing to join. He hated long distance
answers, anyhow. And in his mood of the moment he hated the young women.
He had a conversation with Arthur about statues: concerning which Aaron
knew nothing, and Arthur less than nothing. Then Lady Franks turned the
conversation to the soldiers at the station, and said how Sir William
had equipped rest-huts for the Italian privates, near the station: but
that such was the jealousy and spite of the Italian Red Cross--or
some such body, locally--that Sir William’s huts had been left
empty--standing unused--while the men had slept on the stone floor of
the station, night after night, in icy winter. There was evidently much
bitter feeling as a result of Sir William’s philanthropy. Apparently
even the honey of lavish charity had turned to gall in the Italian
mouth: at least the official mouth. Which gall had been spat back at
the charitable, much to his pain. It is in truth a difficult world,
particularly when you have another race to deal with. After which came
the beef-olives.

“Oh,” said Lady Franks, “I had such a dreadful dream last night, such a
dreadful dream. It upset me so much. I have not been able to get over it
all day.”

“What was it?” said Aaron. “Tell it, and break it.”

“Why,” said his hostess, “I dreamed I was asleep in my room--just as I
actually was--and that it was night, yet with a terrible sort of light,
like the dead light before dawn, so that one could see. And my maid
Giuseppina came running into my room, saying: ‘Signora! Signora! Si
alza! Subito! Signora! Vengono su!’--and I said, ‘Chi? Chi sono chi
vengono? Chi?’--‘I Novaresi! I Novaresi vengono su. Vengono qui!’--I
got out of bed and went to the window. And there they were, in the dead
light, rushing up to the house, through the trees. It was so awful, I
haven’t been able to forget it all day.”

“Tell me what the words are in English,” said Aaron.

“Why,” she said, “get up, get up--the Novaresi, the people of Novara
are coming up--vengono su--they are coming up--the Novara
people--work-people. I can’t forget it. It was so real, I can’t believe
it didn’t actually happen.”

“Ah,” said Aaron. “It will never happen. I know, that whatever one
foresees, and FEELS has happened, never happens in real life. It sort of
works itself off through the imagining of it.”

“Well, it was almost more real to me than real life,” said his hostess.

“Then it will never happen in real life,” he said.

Luncheon passed, and coffee. The party began to disperse--Lady Franks to
answer more letters, with the aid of Arthur’s wife--some to sleep, some
to walk. Aaron escaped once more through the big gates. This time he
turned his back on the town and the mountains, and climbed up the hill
into the country. So he went between the banks and the bushes, watching
for unknown plants and shrubs, hearing the birds, feeling the influence
of a new soil. At the top of the hill he saw over into vineyards, and a
new strange valley with a winding river, and jumbled, entangled hills.
Strange wild country so near the town. It seemed to keep an almost
virgin wildness--yet he saw the white houses dotted here and there.

Just below him was a peasant house: and on a little loggia in the sun
two peasants in white shirtsleeves and black Sunday suits were sitting
drinking wine, and talking, talking. Peasant youths in black hats, their
sweethearts in dark stuff dresses, wearing no hat, but a black silk or
a white silk scarf, passed slowly along the little road just below the
ridge. None looked up to see Aaron sitting there alone. From some hidden
place somebody was playing an accordion, a jerky sound in the still
afternoon. And away beyond lay the unchanging, mysterious valley, and
the infolding, mysterious hills of Italy.

Returning back again another way, he lost himself at the foot of the
hill in new and deserted suburb streets--unfinished streets of seemingly
unfinished houses. Then a sort of boulevard where bourgeois families
were taking the Sunday afternoon walk: stout papas, stout, pallid mamas
in rather cheap black fur, little girls very much dressed, and long lads
in short socks and round sailor caps, ribbons fluttering. Alien they
felt, alien, alien, as a bourgeois crowd always does, but particularly
a foreign, Sunday-best bourgeois crowd. Aaron wandered and wandered,
finding the tram terminus and trying blank, unfinished street after
street. He had a great disinclination to ask his way.

At last he recognised the bank and the little stream of water that ran
along the street side. So he was back in time for tea. A hospital nurse
was there, and two other strange women. Arthur played the part of host.
Sir William came in from a walk with the dogs, but retired to his room
without taking tea.

And so the evening fell. Aaron sat in the hall at some distance from the
fire, which burned behind its wrought iron gates. He was tired now with
all his impressions, and dispirited. He thought of his wife and children
at home: of the church-bells ringing so loudly across the field beyond
his garden end: of the dark-clad people trailing unevenly across the two
paths, one to the left, one to the right, forking their way towards the
houses of the town, to church or to chapel: mostly to chapel. At this
hour he himself would be dressed in his best clothes, tying his bow,
ready to go out to the public house. And his wife would be resenting his
holiday departure, whilst she was left fastened to the children.

Rather tired and dispirited in this alien place, he wondered if he
wished himself back. But the moment he actually _realised_ himself
at home, and felt the tension of barrenness which it meant, felt the
curious and deadly opposition of his wife’s will against his own nature,
the almost nauseating ache which it amounted to, he pulled himself
together and rejoiced again in his new surroundings. Her will, her will,
her terrible, implacable, cunning will! What was there in the female
will so diabolical, he asked himself, that it could press like a flat
sheet of iron against a man all the time? The female will! He realised
now that he had a horror of it. It was flat and inflexible as a sheet
of iron. But also it was cunning as a snake that could sing treacherous
songs.

Of two people at a deadlock, he always reminded himself, there is not
one only wholly at fault. Both must be at fault. Having a detached and
logical soul, he never let himself forget this truth. Take Lottie! He
had loved her. He had never loved any other woman. If he had had his
other affairs--it was out of spite or defiance or curiosity. They meant
nothing. He and Lottie had loved one another. And the love had developed
almost at once into a kind of combat. Lottie had been the only child of
headstrong, well-to-do parents. He also had been the only child of his
widowed mother. Well then, both he and Lottie had been brought up
to consider themselves the first in whatsoever company they found
themselves. During the early months of the marriage he had, of course,
continued the spoiling of the young wife. But this never altered the
fact that, by his very nature, he considered himself as first and almost
as single in any relationship. First and single he felt, and as such he
bore himself. It had taken him years to realise that Lottie also felt
herself first and single: under all her whimsicalness and fretfulness
was a conviction as firm as steel: that she, as woman, was the centre of
creation, the man was but an adjunct. She, as woman, and particularly
as mother, was the first great source of life and being, and also of
culture. The man was but the instrument and the finisher. She was the
source and the substance.

Sure enough, Lottie had never formulated this belief inside herself. But
it was formulated for her in the whole world. It is the substantial
and professed belief of the whole white world. She did but inevitably
represent what the whole world around her asserted: the life-centrality
of woman. Woman, the life-bearer, the life-source.

Nearly all men agree to the assertion. Practically all men, even while
demanding their selfish rights as superior males, tacitly agree to the
fact of the sacred life-bearing priority of woman. Tacitly, they yield
the worship to that which is female. Tacitly, they conspire to agree
that all that is productive, all that is fine and sensitive and most
essentially noble, is woman. This, in their productive and religious
souls, they believe. And however much they may react against the belief,
loathing their women, running to prostitutes, or beer or _anything_,
out of reaction against this great and ignominious dogma of the sacred
priority of women, still they do but profane the god they worship.
Profaning woman, they still inversely worship her.

But in Aaron was planted another seed. He did not know it. He started
off on the good old tack of worshipping his woman while his heart was
honest, and profaning her in his fits of temper and revolt. But he made
a bad show. Born in him was a spirit which could not worship woman:
no, and would not. Could not and would not. It was not in him. In early
days, he tried to pretend it was in him. But through his plaintive and
homage-rendering love of a young husband was always, for the woman,
discernible the arrogance of self-unyielding male. He never yielded
himself: never. All his mad loving was only an effort. Afterwards, he
was as devilishly unyielded as ever. And it was an instinct in her, that
her man must yield to her, so that she should envelop him yielding,
in her all-beneficent love. She was quite sure that her love was
all-beneficent. Of this no shadow of doubt. She was quite sure that
the highest her man could ever know or ever reach, was to be perfectly
enveloped in her all-beneficent love. This was her idea of marriage.
She held it not as an idea, but as a profound impulse and instinct: an
instinct developed in her by the age in which she lived. All that was
deepest and most sacred in he feeling centred in this belief.

And he outraged her! Oh, from the first day and the first night, she
felt he outraged her. True, for some time she had been taken in by his
manifest love. But though you can deceive the conscious mind, you can
never deceive the deep, unconscious instinct. She could never understand
whence arose in her, almost from the first days of marriage with him,
her terrible paroxysms of hatred for him. She was in love with him: ah,
heaven, how maddeningly she was in love with him: a certain unseizable
beauty that was his, and which fascinated her as a snake a bird. But in
revulsion, how she hated him! How she abhorred him! How she despised and
shuddered at him! He seemed a horrible thing to her.

And then again, oh, God, the agony of her desire for him. The agony of
her long, long desire for him. He was a passionate lover. He gave
her, ostensibly, all she asked for. He withheld from her nothing, no
experience, no degree of intimacy. She was his initiate, or he hers.

And yet, oh, horror for a woman, he withheld everything from her.
He withheld the very centre of himself. For a long time, she never
realised. She was dazed and maddened only. But as months of married
experience passed into years of married torment, she began to
understand. It was that, after their most tremendous, and, it seemed to
her, heaven-rending passion--yea, when for her every veil seemed
rent and a terrible and sacred creative darkness covered the
earth--then--after all this wonder and miracle--in crept a poisonous
grey snake of disillusionment, a poisonous grey snake of disillusion
that bit her to madness, so that she really was a mad woman, demented.

Why? Why? He never gave himself. He never came to her, _really_. He
withheld himself. Yes, in those supreme and sacred times which for her
were the whole culmination of life and being, the ecstasy of unspeakable
passional conjunction, he was not really hers. He was withheld. He
withheld the central core of himself, like the devil and hell-fiend he
was. He cheated and made play with her tremendous passional soul, her
sacred sex passion, most sacred of all things for a woman. All the time,
some central part of him stood apart from her, aside, looking on.

Oh, agony and horror for a passionate, fierce-hearted woman! She who
loved him. She who loved him to madness. She who would have died for
him. She who did die with him, many terrible and magnificent connubial
deaths, in his arms, her husband.

Her husband! How bitter the word grew to her! Her husband! and him never
once given, given wholly to her! Her husband--and in all the frenzied
finality of desire, she never _fully_ possessed him, not once. No, not
once. As time went on, she learned it for inevitable. Not once!

And then, how she hated him! Cheated, foiled, betrayed, forced to love
him or to hate him: never able to be at peace near him nor away from
him: poor Lottie, no wonder she was as a mad woman. She was strictly
as a woman demented, after the birth of her second child. For all
her instinct, all her impulse, all her desire, and above all, all her
_will_, was to possess her man in very fulness once: just once: and once
and for all. Once, just once: and it would be once and for all.

But never! Never! Not once! Never! Not for one single solitary second!
Was it not enough to send a woman mad! Was it not enough to make her
demented! Yes, and mad she was. She made his life a hell for him. She
bit him to the bone with her frenzy of rage, chagrin, and agony. She
drove him mad, too: mad, so that he beat her: mad so that he longed
to kill her. But even in his greatest rages it was the same: he
never finally lost himself: he remained, somewhere in the centre, in
possession of himself. She sometimes wished he would kill her: or that
she would kill him. Neither event happened.

And neither of them understood what was happening. How should they? They
were both dazed, horrified, and mortified. He took to leaving her alone
as much as was possible. But when he _had_ to come home, there was
her terrible will, like a flat, cold snake coiled round his soul and
squeezing him to death. Yes, she did not relent. She was a good wife and
mother. All her duties she fulfilled. But she was not one to yield. _He_
must yield. That was written in eternal letters, on the iron tablet of
her will. _He_ must yield. She the woman, the mother of his children,
how should she ever even think to yield? It was unthinkable. He, the
man, the weak, the false, the treacherous, the half-hearted, it was he
who must yield. Was not hers the divine will and the divine right? Ha,
she would be less than woman if she ever capitulated, abandoned her
divine responsibility as woman! No, _he_ must yield.

So, he was unfaithful to her. Piling reproach after reproach upon
himself, he added adultery to his brutality. And this was the beginning
of the end. She was more than maddened: but he began to grow silent,
unresponsive, as if he did not hear her. He was unfaithful to her:
and oh, in such a low way. Such shame, such shame! But he only smiled
carelessly now, and asked her what she wanted. She had asked for all she
got. That he reiterated. And that was all he would do.

Terrible was, that she found even his smile of insolent indifference
half-beautiful. Oh, bitter chain to bear! But she summoned up all
her strange woman’s will. She fought against his fascination, the
fascination he exerted over her. With fearful efforts of will she fought
against it, and mastered it. And then, suddenly, horror and agony of
it, up it would rush in her again, her unbearable desire for him, the
longing for his contact, his quality of beauty.

That was a cross hard to bear. Yet even that she bore. And schooled
herself into a fretful, petulant manner of indifference. Her odd,
whimsical petulance hid a will which he, and he alone, knew to be
stronger than steel, strong as a diabolical, cold, grey snake that
presses and presses and cannot-relax: nay, cannot relax. She became the
same as he. Even in her moments of most passionate desire for him, the
cold and snake-like tension of her will never relaxed, and the cold,
snake-like eye of her intention never closed.

So, till it reached a deadlock. Each will was wound tense, and so fixed.
Fixed! There was neither any relaxing or any increase of pressure.
Fixed. Hard like a numbness, a grip that was solidifying and turning to
stone.

He realised, somehow, that at this terrible passive game of fixed
tension she would beat him. Her fixed female soul, her wound-up female
will would solidify into stone--whereas his must break. In him
something must break. It was a cold and fatal deadlock, profitless. A
life-automatism of fixed tension that suddenly, in him, did break. His
will flew loose in a recoil: a recoil away from her. He left her, as
inevitably as a broken spring flies out from its hold.

Not that he was broken. He would not do her even that credit. He had
only flown loose from the old centre-fixture. His will was still entire
and unabated. Only he did not know: he did not understand. He swung
wildly about from place to place, as if he were broken.

Then suddenly, on this Sunday evening in the strange country, he
realised something about himself. He realised that he had never intended
to yield himself fully to her or to anything: that he did not intend
ever to yield himself up entirely to her or to anything: that his very
being pivoted on the fact of his isolate self-responsibility, aloneness.
His intrinsic and central aloneness was the very centre of his being.
Break it, and he broke his being. Break this central aloneness, and he
broke everything. It was the great temptation, to yield himself: and
it was the final sacrilege. Anyhow, it was something which, from his
profoundest soul, he did not intend to do. By the innermost isolation
and singleness of his own soul he would abide though the skies fell on
top of one another, and seven heavens collapsed.

Vaguely he realised this. And vaguely he realised that this had been the
root cause of his strife with Lottie: Lottie, the only person who had
mattered at all to him in all the world: save perhaps his mother. And
his mother had not mattered, no, not one-half nor one-fifth what Lottie
had mattered. So it was: there was, for him, only her significant in the
universe. And between him and her matters were as they were.

He coldly and terribly hated her, for a moment. Then no more. There was
no solution. It was a situation without a solution. But at any rate, it
was now a defined situation. He could rest in peace.

Thoughts something in this manner ran through Aaron’s subconscious mind
as he sat still in the strange house. He could not have fired it all
off at any listener, as these pages are fired off at any chance reader.
Nevertheless there it was, risen to half consciousness in him. All
his life he had _hated_ knowing what he felt. He had wilfully, if not
consciously, kept a gulf between his passional soul and his open
mind. In his mind was pinned up a nice description of himself, and a
description of Lottie, sort of authentic passports to be used in the
conscious world. These authentic passports, self-describing: nose short,
mouth normal, etc.; he had insisted that they should do all the duty
of the man himself. This ready-made and very banal idea of himself as a
really quite nice individual: eyes blue, nose short, mouth normal, chin
normal; this he had insisted was really himself. It was his conscious
mask.

Now at last, after years of struggle, he seemed suddenly to have dropped
his mask on the floor, and broken it. His authentic self-describing
passport, his complete and satisfactory idea of himself suddenly became
a rag of paper, ridiculous. What on earth did it matter if he was nice
or not, if his chin was normal or abnormal.

His mask, his idea of himself dropped and was broken to bits. There he
sat now maskless and invisible. That was how he strictly felt: invisible
and undefined, rather like Wells’ _Invisible Man_. He had no longer a
mask to present to people: he was present and invisible: they _could_
not really think anything about him, because they could not really
see him. What did they see when they looked at him? Lady Franks, for
example. He neither knew nor cared. He only knew he was invisible to
himself and everybody, and that all thinking about what he was like was
only a silly game of Mrs. Mackenzie’s Dead.

So there. The old Aaron Sisson was as if painfully transmuted, as the
Invisible Man when he underwent his transmutations. Now he was gone, and
no longer to be seen. His visibility lost for ever.

And then what? Sitting there as an invisible presence, the preconceived
world melted also and was gone. Lady Franks, Sir William, all the
guests, they talked and maneuvered with their visible personalities,
manipulating the masks of themselves. And underneath there was something
invisible and dying--something fading, wilting: the essential plasm of
themselves: their invisible being.

Well now, and what next? Having in some curious manner tumbled from the
tree of modern knowledge, and cracked and rolled out from the shell of
the preconceived idea of himself like some dark, night-lustrous chestnut
from the green ostensibility of the burr, he lay as it were exposed but
invisible on the floor, knowing, but making no conceptions: knowing,
but having no idea. Now that he was finally unmasked and exposed,
the accepted idea of himself cracked and rolled aside like a broken
chestnut-burr, the mask split and shattered, he was at last quiet and
free. He had dreaded exposure: and behold, we cannot be exposed, for we
are invisible. We cannot be exposed to the looks of others, for our very
being is night-lustrous and unseeable. Like the Invisible Man, we are
only revealed through our clothes and our masks.

In his own powerful but subconscious fashion Aaron realized this. He was
a musician. And hence even his deepest _ideas_: were not word-ideas, his
very thoughts were not composed of words and ideal concepts. They
too, his thoughts and his ideas, were dark and invisible, as electric
vibrations are invisible no matter how many words they may purport. If
I, as a word-user, must translate his deep conscious vibrations into
finite words, that is my own business. I do but make a translation of
the man. He would speak in music. I speak with words.

The inaudible music of his conscious soul conveyed his meaning in him
quite as clearly as I convey it in words: probably much more clearly.
But in his own mode only: and it was in his own mode only he realised
what I must put into words. These words are my own affair. His mind was
music.

Don’t grumble at me then, gentle reader, and swear at me that this
damned fellow wasn’t half clever enough to think all these smart things,
and realise all these fine-drawn-out subtleties. You are quite right, he
wasn’t, yet it all resolved itself in him as I say, and it is for you to
prove that it didn’t.

In his now silent, maskless state of wordless comprehension, he knew
that he had never wanted to surrender himself utterly to Lottie: nor to
his mother: nor to anybody. The last extreme of self-abandon in love was
for him an act of false behaviour. His own nature inside him fated
him not to take this last false step, over the edge of the abyss of
selflessness. Even if he wanted to, he could not. He might struggle on
the edge of the precipice like an assassin struggling with his own soul,
but he could not conquer. For, according to all the current prejudice
and impulse in one direction, he too had believed that the final
achievement, the consummation of human life, was this flinging oneself
over the precipice, down the bottomless pit of love. Now he realised
that love, even in its intensest, was only an attribute of the human
soul: one of its incomprehensible gestures. And to fling down the whole
soul in one gesture of finality in love was as much a criminal suicide
as to jump off a church-tower or a mountain-peak. Let a man give himself
as much as he liked in love, to seven thousand extremities, he must
never give himself _away_. The more generous and the more passionate a
soul, the more it _gives_ itself. But the more absolute remains the law,
that it shall never give itself away. Give thyself, but give thyself not
away. That is the lesson written at the end of the long strange lane of
love.

The _idee fixe_ of today is that every individual shall not only give
himself, but shall achieve the last glory of giving himself away. And
since this takes two--you can’t even make a present of yourself unless
you’ve got somebody to receive the present; since this last extra-divine
act takes two people to perform it, you’ve got to take into count not
only your giver but your receiver. Who is going to be the giver and who
the receiver.

Why, of course, in our long-drawn-out Christian day, man is given and
woman is recipient. Man is the gift, woman the receiver. This is the
sacrament we live by; the holy Communion we live for. That man gives
himself to woman in an utter and sacred abandon, all, all, all himself
given, and taken. Woman, eternal woman, she is the communicant. She
receives the sacramental body and spirit of the man. And when she’s got
it, according to her passionate and all-too-sacred desire, completely,
when she possesses her man at last finally and ultimately, without
blemish or reservation in the perfection of the sacrament: then, also,
poor woman, the blood and the body of which she has partaken become
insipid or nauseous to her, she is driven mad by the endless meal of the
marriage sacrament, poisoned by the sacred communion which was her goal
and her soul’s ambition.

We have pushed a process into a goal. The aim of any process is not
the perpetuation of that process, but the completion thereof. Love is a
process of the incomprehensible human soul: love also incomprehensible,
but still only a process. The process should work to a completion, not
to some horror of intensification and extremity wherein the soul and
body ultimately perish. The completion of the process of love is the
arrival at a state of simple, pure self-possession, for man and woman.
Only that. Which isn’t exciting enough for us sensationalists. We prefer
abysses and maudlin self-abandon and self-sacrifice, the degeneration
into a sort of slime and merge.

Perhaps, truly, the process of love is never accomplished. But it moves
in great stages, and at the end of each stage a true goal, where the
soul possesses itself in simple and generous singleness. Without this,
love is a disease.

So Aaron, crossing a certain border-line and finding himself alone
completely, accepted his loneliness or singleness as a fulfilment, a
state of fulfilment. The long fight with Lottie had driven him at last
to himself, so that he was quiet as a thing which has its root deep in
life, and has lost its anxiety. As for considering the lily, it is not
a matter of consideration. The lily toils and spins hard enough, in her
own way. But without that strain and that anxiety with which we try
to weave ourselves a life. The lily is life-rooted, life-central. She
_cannot_ worry. She is life itself, a little, delicate fountain playing
creatively, for as long or as short a time as may be, and unable to
be anxious. She may be sad or sorry, if the north wind blows. But even
then, anxious she cannot be. Whether her fountain play or cease to play,
from out the cold, damp earth, she cannot be anxious. She may only be
glad or sorry, and continue her way. She is perfectly herself, whatever
befall! even if frosts cut her off. Happy lily, never to be saddled with
an _idee fixe_, never to be in the grip of a monomania for happiness or
love or fulfilment. It is not _laisser aller_. It is life-rootedness. It
is being by oneself, life-living, like the much-mooted lily. One toils,
one spins, one strives: just as the lily does. But like her, taking
one’s own life-way amidst everything, and taking one’s own life-way
alone. Love too. But there also, taking one’s way alone, happily alone
in all the wonders of communion, swept up on the winds, but never swept
away from one’s very self. Two eagles in mid-air, maybe, like Whitman’s
Dalliance of Eagles. Two eagles in mid-air, grappling, whirling, coming
to their intensification of love-oneness there in mid-air. In mid-air
the love consummation. But all the time each lifted on its own wings:
each bearing itself up on its own wings at every moment of the mid-air
love consummation. That is the splendid love-way.


        ...............


The party was festive at dinner-time, the women in their finest dresses,
new flowers on the table, the best wine going. It was Sunday evening.
Aaron too was dressed--and Lady Franks, in black lace and pearls, was
almost gay. There were quails for dinner. The Colonel was quite happy.
An air of conviviality gathered round the table during the course of the
meal.

“I hope,” said Aaron, “that we shall have some music tonight.”

“I want so much to hear your flute,” said his hostess.

“And I your piano,” he said.

“I am very weak--very out of practise. I tremble at the thought of
playing before a musician. But you must not be too critical.”

“Oh,” said Aaron, “I am not a man to be afraid of.”

“Well, we will see,” said Lady Franks. “But I am afraid of music
itself.”

“Yes,” said Aaron. “I think it is risky.”

“Risky! I don’t see that! Music risky? Bach? Beethoven! No, I don’t
agree. On the contrary, I think it is most elevating--most morally
inspiring. No, I tremble before it because it is so wonderful and
elevating.”

“I often find it makes me feel diabolical,” said he.

“That is your misfortune, I am sure,” said Lady Franks. “Please do take
another--but perhaps you don’t like mushrooms?”

Aaron quite liked mushrooms, and helped himself to the _entree_.

“But perhaps,” said she, “you are too modern. You don’t care for Bach or
Beethoven or Chopin--dear Chopin.”

“I find them all quite as modern as I am.”

“Is that so! Yes. For myself I am quite old-fashioned--though I can
appreciate Strauss and Stravinsky as well, some things. But my old
things--ah, I don’t think the moderns are so fine. They are not so deep.
They haven’t fathomed life so deeply.” Lady Franks sighed faintly.

“They don’t care for depths,” said Aaron.

“No, they haven’t the capacity. But I like big, deep music. Oh, I love
orchestra. But my instrument is the piano. I like the great
masters, Bach, Beethoven. They have such faith. You were talking of
faith--believing that things would work out well for you in the end.
Beethoven inspires that in me, too.”

“He makes you feel that all will be well with you at last?”

“Yes, he does. He makes me feel faith in my PERSONAL destiny. And I do
feel that there is something in one’s special fate. I feel that I myself
have a special kind of fate, that will always look after me.”

“And you can trust to it?”

“Yes, I can. It ALWAYS turns out right. I think something has gone
wrong--and then, it always turns out right. Why when we were in
London--when we were at lunch one morning it suddenly struck me, haven’t
I left my fur cloak somewhere? It was rather cold, so I had taken it
with me, and then never put it on. And I hadn’t brought it home. I had
left it somewhere. But whether in a taxi, or in a shop, or in a little
show of pictures I had been to, I couldn’t remember. I COULD NOT
remember. And I thought to myself: have I lost my cloak? I went round
to everywhere I could think of: no-trace of it. But I didn’t give it
up. Something prompted me not to give it up: quite distinctly, I felt
something telling me that I should get it back. So I called at Scotland
Yard and gave the information. Well, two days later I had a notice from
Scotland Yard, so I went. And there was my cloak. I had it back. And
that has happened to me almost every time. I almost always get my things
back. And I always feel that something looks after me, do you know:
almost takes care of me.”

“But do you mean when you lose things--or in your life?”

“I mean when I lose things--or when I want to get something I want--I am
very nearly ALWAYS successful. And I always feel there is some sort of
higher power which does it for me.”

“Finds your cloak for you.”

“Yes. Wasn’t it extraordinary? I felt when I saw my cloak in Scotland
Yard: There, I KNEW I should recover you. And I always feel, as I say,
that there is some higher power which helps me. Do you feel the same?”

“No, not that way, worse luck. I lost a batch of music a month ago which
didn’t belong to me--and which I couldn’t replace. But I never could
recover it: though I’m sure nobody wanted it.”

“How very unfortunate! Whereas my fur cloak was just the thing that gets
stolen most.”

“I wished some power would trace my music: but apparently we aren’t all
gifted alike with guardian angels.”

“Apparently not. And that is how I regard it: almost as a gift, you
know, that my fairy godmother gave me in my cradle.”

“For always recovering your property?”

“Yes--and succeeding in my undertakings.”

“I’m afraid I had no fairy godmother.”

“Well--I think I had. And very glad I am of it.”

“Why, yes,” said Aaron, looking at his hostess.

So the dinner sailed merrily on.

“But does Beethoven make you feel,” said Aaron as an afterthought, “in
the same way--that you will always find the things you have lost?”

“Yes--he makes me feel the same faith: that what I lose will be
returned to me. Just as I found my cloak. And that if I enter into an
undertaking, it will be successful.”

“And your life has been always successful?”

“Yes--almost always. We have succeeded with almost everything.”

“Why, yes,” said Aaron, looking at her again.

But even so, he could see a good deal of hard wornness under her
satisfaction. She had had her suffering, sure enough. But none the
less, she was in the main satisfied. She sat there, a good hostess, and
expected the homage due to her success. And of course she got it. Aaron
himself did his little share of shoe-licking, and swallowed the taste of
boot-polish with a grimace, knowing what he was about.

The dinner wound gaily to an end. The ladies retired. Sir William left
his seat of honour at the end of the table and came and sat next to
Aaron, summoning the other three men to cluster near.

“Now, Colonel,” said the host, “send round the bottle.”

With a flourish of the elbow and shoulder, the Colonel sent on the port,
actually port, in those bleak, post-war days!

“Well, Mr. Sisson,” said Sir William, “we will drink to your kind
Providence: providing, of course, that we shall give no offence by so
doing.”

“No, sir; no, sir! The Providence belonged to Mr. Lilly. Mr. Sisson put
his money on kindly fortune, I believe,” said Arthur, who rosy and fresh
with wine, looked as if he would make a marvelous _bonne bouchee_ for a
finely-discriminating cannibal.

“Ah, yes, indeed! A much more ingratiating lady to lift our glasses to.
Mr. Sisson’s kindly fortune. _Fortuna gentil-issima_! Well, Mr. Sisson,
and may your Lady Fortune ever smile on you.”

Sir William lifted his glass with an odd little smirk, some touch of a
strange, prim old satyr lurking in his oddly inclined head. Nay, more
than satyr: that curious, rather terrible iron demon that has fought
with the world and wrung wealth from it, and which knows all about it.
The devilish spirit of iron itself, and iron machines. So, with his
strange, old smile showing his teeth rather terribly, the old knight
glowered sightlessly over his glass at Aaron. Then he drank: the
strange, careful, old-man’s gesture in drinking.

“But,” said Aaron, “if Fortune is a female---”

“Fortune! Fortune! Why, Fortune is a lady. What do you say, Major?”

“She has all the airs of one, Sir William,” said the Major, with the
wistful grimness of his age and culture. And the young fellow stared
like a crucified cyclops from his one eye: the black shutter being over
the other.

“And all the graces,” capped Sir William, delighted with himself.

“Oh, quite!” said the Major. “For some, all the airs, and for others,
all the graces.”

“Faint heart ne’er won fair lady, my boy,” said Sir William. “Not that
your heart is faint. On the contrary--as we know, and your country
knows. But with Lady Fortune you need another kind of stout heart--oh,
quite another kind.”

“I believe it, sir: and the kind of stout heart which I am afraid I
haven’t got,” said the Major.

“What!” said the old man. “Show the white feather before you’ve tackled
the lady! Fill the Major’s glass, Colonel. I am quite sure we will none
of us ever say die.”

“Not likely. Not if we know it,” said the Colonel, stretching himself
heartily inside his tunic. He was becoming ruddier than the cherry.
All he cared about at the moment was his gay little port glass. But
the Major’s young cheek was hollow and sallow, his one eye terribly
pathetic.

“And you, Mr. Sisson,” said Sir William, “mean to carry all before you
by taking no thought for the morrow. Well, now, we can only wish you
success.”

“I don’t want to carry all before me,” said Aaron. “I should be sorry. I
want to walk past most of it.”

“Can you tell us where to? I am intrigued, as Sybil says, to know where
you will walk to. Come now. Enlighten us.”

“Nowhere, I suppose.”

“But is that satisfactory? Can you find it satisfactory?”

“Is it even true?” said the Major. “Isn’t it quite as positive an act to
walk away from a situation as to walk towards it?”

“My dear boy, you can’t merely walk away from a situation. Believe that.
If you walk away from Rome, you walk into the Maremma, or into the Alban
Hills, or into the sea--but you walk into something. Now if I am going
to walk away from Rome, I prefer to choose my direction, and therefore
my destination.”

“But you can’t,” said the Major.

“What can’t you?”

“Choose. Either your direction or your destination.” The Major was
obstinate.

“Really!” said Sir William. “I have not found it so. I have not found
it so. I have had to keep myself hard at work, all my life, choosing
between this or that.”

“And we,” said the Major, “have no choice, except between this or
nothing.”

“Really! I am afraid,” said Sir William, “I am afraid I am too old--or
too young--which shall I say?--to understand.”

“Too young, sir,” said Arthur sweetly. “The child was always father to
the man, I believe.”

“I confess the Major makes me feel childish,” said the old man. “The
choice between this or nothing is a puzzler to me. Can you help me out,
Mr. Sisson? What do you make of this this-or-nothing business? I can
understand neck-or-nothing---”

“I prefer the NOTHING part of it to the THIS part of it,” said Aaron,
grinning.

“Colonel,” said the old man, “throw a little light on this nothingness.”

“No, Sir William,” said the Colonel. “I am all right as I am.”

“As a matter of fact, so are we all, perfectly A-one,” said Arthur.

Aaron broke into a laugh.

“That’s the top and bottom of it,” he laughed, flushed with wine, and
handsome. We’re all as right as ninepence. Only it’s rather nice to
talk.”

“There!” said Sir William. “We’re all as right as ninepence! We’re all
as right ninepence. So there well leave it, before the Major has time to
say he is twopence short.” Laughing his strange old soundless laugh, Sir
William rose and made a little bow. “Come up and join the ladies in a
minute or two,” he said. Arthur opened the door for him and he left the
room.

The four men were silent for a moment--then the Colonel whipped up the
decanter and filled his glass. Then he stood up and clinked glasses with
Aaron, like a real old sport.

“Luck to you,” he said.

“Thanks,” said Aaron.

“You’re going in the morning?” said Arthur.

“Yes,” said Aaron.

“What train?” said Arthur.

“Eight-forty.”

“Oh--then we shan’t see you again. Well--best of luck.”

“Best of luck--” echoed the Colonel.

“Same to you,” said Aaron, and they all peered over their glasses and
quite loved one another for a rosy minute.

“I should like to know, though,” said the hollow-cheeked young Major
with the black flap over his eye, “whether you do really mean you are
all right--that it is all right with you--or whether you only say so to
get away from the responsibility.”

“I mean I don’t really care--I don’t a damn--let the devil take it all.”

“The devil doesn’t want it, either,” said the Major.

“Then let him leave it. I don’t care one single little curse about it
all.”

“Be damned. What is there to care about?” said the Colonel.

“Ay, what?” said Aaron.

“It’s all the same, whether you care or don’t care. So I say it’s much
easier not to care,” said Arthur.

“Of course it is,” said the Colonel gaily.

“And I think so, too,” said Aaron.

“Right you are! We’re all as right as ninepence--what? Good old sport!
Here’s yours!” cried the Colonel.

“We shall have to be going up,” said Arthur, wise in his generation.

As they went into the hall, Arthur suddenly put one arm round Aaron’s
waist, and one arm round the Colonel’s, and the three did a sudden
little barn-dance towards the stairs. Arthur was feeling himself quite
let loose again, back in his old regimental mess.

Approaching the foot of the stairs, he let go again. He was in that rosy
condition when united-we-stand. But unfortunately it is a complicated
job to climb the stairs in unison. The whole lot tends to fall
backwards. Arthur, therefore, rosy, plump, looking so good to eat, stood
still a moment in order to find his own neatly-slippered feet. Having
found them, he proceeded to put them carefully one before the other, and
to his enchantment found that this procedure was carrying him magically
up the stairs. The Colonel, like a drowning man, clutched feebly for the
straw of the great stair-rail--and missed it. He would have gone under,
but that Aaron’s hand gripped his arm. So, orientating once more like
a fragile tendril, he reached again for the banister rail, and got it.
After which, lifting his feet as if they were little packets of sand
tied to his trouser buttons, he manipulated his way upwards. Aaron was
in that pleasant state when he saw what everybody else was doing and was
unconscious of what he did himself. Whilst tall, gaunt, erect, like a
murdered Hamlet resurrected in khaki, with the terrible black shutter
over his eye, the young Major came last.

Arthur was making a stern fight for his composure. His whole future
depended on it. But do what he would, he could not get the flushed,
pleased, mess-happy look off his face. The Colonel, oh, awful man, did
a sort of plump roly-poly-cake-walk, like a fat boy, right to the
very door of that santum-sanctorum, the library. Aaron was inwardly
convulsed. Even the Major laughed.

But Arthur stiffened himself militarily and cleared his throat. All four
started to compose themselves, like actors going on the stage, outside
that library door. And then Arthur softly, almost wistfully, opened and
held the door for the others to pass. The Colonel slunk meekly in, and
sat in a chair in the background. The Major stalked in expressionless,
and hovered towards the sofa where his wife sat.

There was a rather cold-water-down-your-back feeling in the library.
The ladies had been waiting for coffee. Sir William was waiting, too.
Therefore in a little tension, half silent, the coffee was handed round.
Lady Franks was discussing something with Arthur’s wife. Arthur’s
wife was in a cream lace dress, and looking what is called lovely.
The Major’s wife was in amethyst chiffon with dark-red roses, and
was looking blindingly beautiful. The Colonel was looking into his
coffee-cup as wistfully as if it contained the illusion of tawny port.
The Major was looking into space, as if there and there alone, etc.
Arthur was looking for something which Lady Franks had asked for, and
which he was much too flushed to find. Sir William was looking at Aaron,
and preparing for another _coeur a coeur_.

“Well,” he said, “I doubt if you will care for Milan. It is one of the
least Italian of all the towns, in my opinion. Venice, of course, is a
thing apart. I cannot stand, myself, that miserable specimen the modern
Roman. He has most of the vices of the old Romans and none of the
virtues. The most congenial town, perhaps, for a stranger, is Florence.
But it has a very bad climate.”

Lady Franks rose significantly and left the room, accompanied by
Arthur’s wife. Aaron knew, silently, that he was summoned to follow.
His hostess had her eye on him this evening. But always postponing his
obedience to the cool commands of women, he remained talking with his
host in the library, and sipping _creme de menthe_! Came the ripple
of the pianoforte from the open doorway down at the further end of the
room. Lady Franks was playing, in the large drawing-room. And the ripple
of the music contained in it the hard insistence of the little woman’s
will. Coldly, and decidedly, she intended there should be no more
unsettling conversations for the old Sir William. Aaron was to come
forthwith into the drawing room. Which Aaron plainly understood--and
so he didn’t go. No, he didn’t go, though the pianoforte rippled and
swelled in volume. No, and he didn’t go even when Lady Franks left off
playing and came into the library again. There he sat, talking with Sir
William. Let us do credit to Lady Franks’ will-power, and admit that the
talk was quite empty and distracted--none of the depths and skirmishes
of the previous occasions. None the less, the talk continued. Lady
Franks retired, discomfited, to her piano again. She would never break
in upon her lord.

So now Aaron relented. He became more and more distracted. Sir William
wandered away like some restless, hunted soul. The Colonel still sat in
his chair, nursing his last drop of _creme de menthe_ resentfully. He
did not care for the green toffee-stuff. Arthur was busy. The Major
lay sprawled in the last stages of everything on the sofa, holding
his wife’s hand. And the music came pathetically through the open
folding-doors. Of course, she played with feeling--it went without
saying. Aaron’s soul felt rather tired. But she had a touch of
discrimination also.

He rose and went to the drawing-room. It was a large, vacant-seeming,
Empire sort of drawing-room, with yellow silk chairs along the walls and
yellow silk panels upon the walls, and a huge, vasty crystal chandelier
hanging from a faraway-above ceiling. Lady Franks sat at a large black
Bechstein piano at one end of this vacant yellow state-room. She sat,
a little plump elderly lady in black lace, for all the world like Queen
Victoria in Max Beerbohm’s drawing of Alfred Tennyson reading to her
Victorian Majesty, with space before her. Arthur’s wife was bending over
some music in a remote corner of the big room.

Aaron seated himself on one of the chairs by the wall, to listen.
Certainly it was a beautiful instrument. And certainly, in her way, she
loved it. But Aaron remembered an anthem in which he had taken part as a
boy.


                    His eye is on the sparrow
                    So I know He watches me.


For a long time he had failed to catch the word _sparrow_, and had
heard:


                    His eye is on the spy-hole
                    So I know He watches me.


Which was just how it had all seemed to him, as a boy.

Now, as ever, he felt the eye was on the spy-hole. There sat the woman
playing music. But her inward eye was on the spy-hole of her vital
affairs--her domestic arrangements, her control of her household, guests
and husband included. The other eye was left for the music, don’t you
know.

Sir William appeared hovering in the doorway, not at all liking the
defection of Mr. Aaron. Then he retreated. He seemed not to care for
music. The Major’s wife hovered--felt it her duty to _aude_, or play
audience--and entered, seating herself in a breath of lilac and amethyst
again at the near distance. The Major, after a certain beating about the
bush, followed and sat wrapt in dim contemplation near his wife. Arthur
luckily was still busy with something.

Aaron of course made proper musical remarks in the intervals--Arthur’s
wife sorted out more pieces. Arthur appeared--and then the Colonel. The
Colonel tip-toed beautifully across the wide blank space of the Empire
room, and seated himself on a chair, rather in the distance, with his
back to the wall, facing Aaron. When Lady Franks finished her piece,
to everybody’s amazement the Colonel clapped gaily to himself and said
Bravo! as if at a Cafe Chantant, looking round for his glass. But there
was no glass. So he crossed his neatly-khakied legs, and looked rapt
again.

Lady Franks started with a _vivace_ Schumann piece. Everybody listened
in sanctified silence, trying to seem to like it. When suddenly our
Colonel began to spring and bounce in his chair, slinging his loose leg
with a kind of rapture up and down in the air, and capering upon his
posterior, doing a sitting-down jig to the Schumann _vivace_. Arthur,
who had seated himself at the farthest extremity of the room, winked
with wild bliss at Aaron. The Major tried to look as if he noticed
nothing, and only succeeded in looking agonised. His wife studied the
point of her silver shoe minutely, and peeped through her hair at the
performance. Aaron grimly chuckled, and loved the Colonel with real
tenderness.

And the game went on while the _vivace_ lasted. Up and down bounced the
plump Colonel on his chair, kicking with his bright, black-patent toe
higher and higher, getting quite enthusiastic over his jig. Rosy
and unabashed, he was worthy of the great nation he belonged to. The
broad-seated Empire chair showed no signs of giving way. Let him enjoy
himself, away there across the yellow Sahara of this silk-panelled
salon. Aaron felt quite cheered up.

“Well, now,” he thought to himself, “this man is in entire command of
a very important branch of the British Service in Italy. We are a great
race still.”

But Lady Franks must have twigged. Her playing went rather stiff. She
came to the end of the _vivace_ movement, and abandoned her piece.

“I always prefer Schumann in his _vivace_ moods,” said Aaron.

“Do you?” said Lady Franks. “Oh, I don’t know.”

It was now the turn of Arthur’s wife to sing. Arthur seemed to get
further away: if it was possible, for he was at the remotest remote end
of the room, near the gallery doors. The Colonel became quiet, pensive.
The Major’s wife eyed the young woman in white lace, and seemed not
to care for lace. Arthur seemed to be trying to push himself backwards
through the wall. Lady Franks switched on more lights into the vast and
voluminous crystal chandelier which hung like some glory-cloud above the
room’s centre. And Arthur’s wife sang sweet little French songs, and _Ye
Banks and Braes_, and _Caro mio ben_, which goes without saying: and so
on. She had quite a nice voice and was quite adequately trained. Which
is enough said. Aaron had all his nerves on edge.

Then he had to play the flute. Arthur strolled upstairs with him,
arm-in-arm, where he went to fetch his instrument.

“I find music in the home rather a strain, you know,” said Arthur.

“Cruel strain. I quite agree,” said Aaron.

“I don’t mind it so much in the theatre--or even a concert--where
there are a lot of other people to take the edge off-- But after a good
dinner--”

“It’s medicine,” said Aaron.

“Well, you know, it really is, to me. It affects my inside.” Aaron
laughed. And then, in the yellow drawing-room, blew into his pipe and
played. He knew so well that Arthur, the Major, the Major’s wife, the
Colonel, and Sir William thought it merely an intolerable bore. However,
he played. His hostess even accompanied him in a Mozart bit.



CHAPTER XIV. XX SETTEMBRE


Aaron was awakened in the morning by the soft entrance of the butler
with the tray: it was just seven o’clock. Lady Franks’ household was
punctual as the sun itself.

But our hero roused himself with a wrench. The very act of lifting
himself from the pillow was like a fight this morning. Why? He
recognized his own wrench, the pain with which he struggled under the
necessity to move. Why shouldn’t he want to move? Why not? Because he
didn’t want the day in front--the plunge into a strange country, towards
nowhere, with no aim in view. True, he said that ultimately he wanted to
join Lilly. But this was hardly more than a sop, an excuse for his own
irrational behaviour. He was breaking loose from one connection after
another; and what for? Why break every tie? Snap, snap, snap went the
bonds and ligatures which bound him to the life that had formed him, the
people he had loved or liked. He found all his affections snapping off,
all the ties which united him with his own people coming asunder. And
why? In God’s name, why? What was there instead?

There was nothingness. There was just himself, and blank nothingness.
He had perhaps a faint sense of Lilly ahead of him; an impulse in that
direction, or else merely an illusion. He could not persuade himself
that he was seeking for love, for any kind of unison or communion. He
knew well enough that the thought of any loving, any sort of real coming
together between himself and anybody or anything, was just objectionable
to him. No--he was not moving _towards_ anything: he was moving almost
violently away from everything. And that was what he wanted. Only
that. Only let him _not_ run into any sort of embrace with anything or
anybody--this was what he asked. Let no new connection be made between
himself and anything on earth. Let all old connections break. This was
his craving.

Yet he struggled under it this morning as under the lid of a tomb. The
terrible sudden weight of inertia! He knew the tray stood ready by the
bed: he knew the automobile would be at the door at eight o’clock, for
Lady Franks had said so, and he half divined that the servant had also
said so: yet there he lay, in a kind of paralysis in this bed. He
seemed for the moment to have lost his will. Why go forward into more
nothingness, away from all that he knew, all he was accustomed to and
all he belonged to?

However, with a click he sat up. And the very instant he had poured his
coffee from the little silver coffee-pot into his delicate cup, he was
ready for anything and everything. The sense of silent adventure took
him, the exhilarated feeling that he was fulfilling his own
inward destiny. Pleasant to taste was the coffee, the bread, the
honey--delicious.

The man brought his clothes, and again informed him that the automobile
would be at the door at eight o’clock: or at least so he made out.

“I can walk,” said Aaron.

“Milady ha comandato l’automobile,” said the man softly.

It was evident that if Milady had ordered it, so it must be.

So Aaron left the still-sleeping house, and got into the soft and
luxurious car. As he dropped through the park he wondered that Sir
William and Lady Franks should be so kind to him: a complete stranger.
But so it was. There he sat in their car. He wondered, also, as he ran
over the bridge and into the city, whether this soft-running automobile
would ever rouse the socialistic bile of the work-people. For the first
time in his life, as he sat among the snug cushions, he realised what
it might be to be rich and uneasy: uneasy, even if not afraid, lurking
there inside an expensive car.--Well, it wasn’t much of a sensation
anyhow: and riches were stuffy, like wadded upholstery on everything. He
was glad to get out into the fresh air of the common crowd. He was glad
to be in the bleak, not-very-busy station. He was glad to be part of
common life. For the very atmosphere of riches seems to be stuffed and
wadded, never any real reaction. It was terrible, as if one’s very body,
shoulders and arms, were upholstered and made cushiony. Ugh, but he was
glad to shake off himself the atmosphere of wealth and motor-cars, to
get out of it all. It was like getting out of quilted clothes.

“Well,” thought Aaron, “if this is all it amounts to, to be rich, you
can have riches. They talk about money being power. But the only sort of
power it has over me is to bring on a kind of numbness, which I fairly
hate. No wonder rich people don’t seem to be really alive.”

The relief of escaping quite took away his self-conscious embarrassment
at the station. He carried his own bags, bought a third-class ticket,
and got into the train for Milan without caring one straw for the
comments or the looks of the porters.

It began to rain. The rain ran across the great plain of north Italy.
Aaron sat in his wood-seated carriage and smoked his pipe in silence,
looking at the thick, short Lombards opposite him without heeding
them. He paid hardly any outward attention to his surroundings, but sat
involved in himself.

In Milan he had been advised to go to the Hotel Britannia, because it
was not expensive, and English people went there. So he took a carriage,
drove round the green space in front of Milan station, and away into the
town. The streets were busy, but only half-heartedly so.

It must be confessed that every new move he made was rather an effort.
Even he himself wondered why he was struggling with foreign porters and
foreign cabmen, being talked at and not understanding a word. But there
he was. So he went on with it.

The hotel was small and congenial. The hotel porter answered in English.
Aaron was given a little room with a tiny balcony, looking on to a quiet
street. So, he had a home of his own once more. He washed, and then
counted his money. Thirty-seven pounds he had: and no more. He stood on
the balcony and looked at the people going by below. Life seems to be
moving so quick, when one looks down on it from above.

Across the road was a large stone house with its green shutters all
closed. But from the flagpole under the eaves, over the central window
of the uppermost floor--the house was four storeys high--waved the
Italian flag in the melancholy damp air. Aaron looked at it--the red,
white and green tricolour, with the white cross of Savoy in the centre.
It hung damp and still. And there seemed a curious vacancy in the
city--something empty and depressing in the great human centre. Not that
there was really a lack of people. But the spirit of the town seemed
depressed and empty. It was a national holiday. The Italian flag was
hanging from almost every housefront.

It was about three o’clock in the afternoon. Aaron sat in the restaurant
of the hotel drinking tea, for he was rather tired, and looking through
the thin curtains at the little square outside, where people passed:
little groups of dark, aimless-seeming men, a little bit poorer
looking--perhaps rather shorter in stature--but very much like the
people in any other town. Yet the feeling of the city was so different
from that of London. There seemed a curious emptiness. The rain had
ceased, but the pavements were still wet. There was a tension.

Suddenly there was a noise of two shots, fired in rapid succession.
Aaron turned startled to look into the quiet piazza. And to his
amazement, the pavements were empty, not a soul was in sight. Two
minutes before the place was busy with passers-by, and a newspaper man
selling the Corriere, and little carriages rattling through. Now, as if
by magic, nobody, nothing. It was as if they had all melted into thin
air.

The waiter, too, was peeping behind the curtain. A carriage came
trotting into the square--an odd man took his way alone--the traffic
began to stir once more, and people reappeared as suddenly as they had
disappeared. Then the waiter ran hastily and furtively out and craned
his neck, peering round the square. He spoke with two youths--rather
loutish youths. Then he returned to his duty in the hotel restaurant.

“What was it? What were the shots?” Aaron asked him.

“Oh--somebody shooting at a dog,” said the man negligently.

“At a dog!” said Aaron, with round eyes.

He finished his tea, and went out into the town. His hotel was not far
from the cathedral square. Passing through the arcade, he came in sight
of the famous cathedral with its numerous spines pricking into the
afternoon air. He was not as impressed as he should have been. And yet
there was something in the northern city--this big square with all the
trams threading through, the little yellow Continental trams: and the
spiny bulk of the great cathedral, like a grey-purple sea-urchin with
many spines, on the one side, the ornamental grass-plots and flower beds
on the other: the big shops going all along the further strands, all
round: and the endless restless nervous drift of a north Italian crowd,
so nervous, so twitchy; nervous and twitchy as the slipping past of
the little yellow tram-cars; it all affected him with a sense of
strangeness, nervousness, and approaching winter. It struck him the
people were afraid of themselves: afraid of their own souls, and that
which was in their own souls.

Turning up the broad steps of the cathedral, he entered the famous
building. The sky had cleared, and the freshened light shone coloured in
living tablets round the wonderful, towering, rose-hearted dusk of the
great church. At some altars lights flickered uneasily. At some unseen
side altar mass was going on, and a strange ragged music fluttered
out on the incense-dusk of the great and lofty interior, which was all
shadow, all shadow, hung round with jewel tablets of light. Particularly
beautiful the great east bay, above the great altar. And all the time,
over the big-patterned marble floor, the faint click and rustle of feet
coming and going, coming and going, like shallow uneasy water rustled
back and forth in a trough. A white dog trotted pale through the
under-dusk, over the pale, big-patterned floor. Aaron came to the side
altar where mass was going on, candles ruddily wavering. There was a
small cluster of kneeling women--a ragged handful of on-looking men--and
people wandering up and wandering away, young women with neatly dressed
black hair, and shawls, but without hats; fine young women in very high
heels; young men with nothing to do; ragged men with nothing to do.
All strayed faintly clicking over the slabbed floor, and glanced at the
flickering altar where the white-surpliced boys were curtseying and
the white-and-gold priest bowing, his hands over his breast, in the
candle-light. All strayed, glanced, lingered, and strayed away again, as
if the spectacle were not sufficiently holding. The bell chimed for the
elevation of the Host. But the thin trickle of people trickled the
same, uneasily, over the slabbed floor of the vastly-upreaching
shadow-foliaged cathedral.

The smell of incense in his nostrils, Aaron went out again by a side
door, and began to walk along the pavements of the cathedral square,
looking at the shops. Some were closed, and had little notices pinned on
them. Some were open, and seemed half-stocked with half-elegant things.
Men were carrying newspapers. In the cafes a few men were seated
drinking vermouth. In the doorway of the restaurants waiters stood
inert, looking out on the streets. The curious heart-eating _ennui_ of
the big town on a holiday came over our hero. He felt he must get out,
whatever happened. He could not bear it.

So he went back to his hotel and up to his room. It was still only five
o’clock. And he did not know what to do with himself. He lay down on
the bed, and looked at the painting on his bedroom ceiling. It was a
terrible business in reckitt’s blue and browny gold, with awful heraldic
beasts, rather worm-wriggly, displayed in a blue field.

As he lay thinking of nothing and feeling nothing except a certain
weariness, or dreariness, or tension, or God-knows-what, he heard a loud
hoarse noise of humanity in the distance, something frightening. Rising,
he went on to his little balcony. It was a sort of procession, or march
of men, here and there a red flag fluttering from a man’s fist. There
had been a big meeting, and this was the issue. The procession was
irregular, but powerful, men four abreast. They emerged irregularly from
the small piazza to the street, calling and vociferating. They stopped
before a shop and clotted into a crowd, shouting, becoming vicious. Over
the shop-door hung a tricolour, a national flag. The shop was closed,
but the men began to knock at the door. They were all workmen, some
in railway men’s caps, mostly in black felt hats. Some wore red cotton
neck-ties. They lifted their faces to the national flag, and as they
shouted and gesticulated Aaron could see their strong teeth in their
jaws. There was something frightening in their lean, strong Italian
jaws, something inhuman and possessed-looking in their foreign,
southern-shaped faces, so much more formed and demon-looking than
northern faces. They had a demon-like set purpose, and the noise of
their voices was like a jarring of steel weapons. Aaron wondered what
they wanted. There were no women--all men--a strange male, slashing
sound. Vicious it was--the head of the procession swirling like a little
pool, the thick wedge of the procession beyond, flecked with red flags.

A window opened above the shop, and a frowsty-looking man, yellow-pale,
was quickly and nervously hauling in the national flag. There were
shouts of derision and mockery--a great overtone of acrid derision--the
flag and its owner ignominiously disappeared. And the procession moved
on. Almost every shop had a flag flying. And every one of these flags
now disappeared, quickly or slowly, sooner or later, in obedience to the
command of the vicious, derisive crowd, that marched and clotted slowly
down the street, having its own way.

Only one flag remained flying--the big tricolour that floated from the
top storey of the house opposite Aaron’s hotel. The ground floor of this
house consisted of shop-premises--now closed. There was no sign of any
occupant. The flag floated inert aloft.

The whole crowd had come to a stop immediately below the hotel, and
all were now looking up at the green and white and red tricolour which
stirred damply in the early evening light, from under the broad eaves of
the house opposite. Aaron looked at the long flag, which drooped almost
unmoved from the eaves-shadow, and he half expected it to furl itself
up of its own accord, in obedience to the will of the masses. Then he
looked down at the packed black shoulders of the mob below, and at the
curious clustering pattern of a sea of black hats. He could hardly see
anything but hats and shoulders, uneasily moving like boiling pitch away
beneath him. But the shouts began to come up hotter and hotter. There
had been a great ringing of a door-bell and battering on the shop-door.
The crowd--the swollen head of the procession--talked and shouted,
occupying the centre of the street, but leaving the pavement clear.
A woman in a white blouse appeared in the shop-door. She came out and
looked up at the flag and shook her head and gesticulated with her
hands. It was evidently not her flag--she had nothing to do with it. The
leaders again turned to the large house-door, and began to ring all
the bells and to knock with their knuckles. But no good--there was
no answer. They looked up again at the flag. Voices rose ragged and
ironical. The woman explained something again. Apparently there was
nobody at home in the upper floors--all entrance was locked--there was
no caretaker. Nobody owned the flag. There it hung under the broad eaves
of the strong stone house, and didn’t even know that it was guilty.
The woman went back into her shop and drew down the iron shutter from
inside.

The crowd, nonplussed, now began to argue and shout and whistle. The
voices rose in pitch and derision. Steam was getting up. There hung the
flag. The procession crowded forward and filled the street in a mass
below. All the rest of the street was empty and shut up. And still hung
the showy rag, red and white and green, up aloft.

Suddenly there was a lull--then shouts, half-encouraging, half-derisive.
And Aaron saw a smallish-black figure of a youth, fair-haired, not more
than seventeen years old, clinging like a monkey to the front of the
house, and by the help of the heavy drain-pipe and the stone-work
ornamentation climbing up to the stone ledge that ran under ground-floor
windows, up like a sudden cat on to the projecting footing. He did not
stop there, but continued his race like some frantic lizard running up
the great wall-front, working away from the noise below, as if in sheer
fright. It was one unending wriggling movement, sheer up the front of
the impassive, heavy stone house.

The flag hung from a pole under one of the windows of the top
storey--the third floor. Up went the wriggling figure of the possessed
youth. The cries of the crowd below were now wild, ragged ejaculations
of excitement and encouragement. The youth seemed to be lifted up,
almost magically on the intense upreaching excitement of the massed men
below. He passed the ledge of the first floor, like a lizard he wriggled
up and passed the ledge or coping of the second floor, and there he was,
like an upward-climbing shadow, scrambling on to the coping of the third
floor. The crowd was for a second electrically still as the boy rose
there erect, cleaving to the wall with the tips of his fingers.

But he did not hesitate for one breath. He was on his feet and running
along the narrow coping that went across the house under the third floor
windows, running there on that narrow footing away above the street,
straight to the flag. He had got it--he had clutched it in his hand, a
handful of it. Exactly like a great flame rose the simultaneous yell of
the crowd as the boy jerked and got the flag loose. He had torn it
down. A tremendous prolonged yell, touched with a snarl of triumph, and
searing like a puff of flame, sounded as the boy remained for one moment
with the flag in his hand looking down at the crowd below. His face was
odd and elated and still. Then with the slightest gesture he threw the
flag from him, and Aaron watched the gaudy remnant falling towards the
many faces, whilst the noise of yelling rose up unheard.

There was a great clutch and hiss in the crowd. The boy still stood
unmoved, holding by one hand behind him, looking down from above, from
his dangerous elevation, in a sort of abstraction.

And the next thing Aaron was conscious of was the sound of trumpets. A
sudden startling challenge of trumpets, and out of nowhere a sudden rush
of grey-green carabinieri battering the crowd wildly with truncheons. It
was so sudden that Aaron _heard_ nothing any more. He only saw.

In utmost amazement he saw the greeny-grey uniformed carabinieri rushing
thick and wild and indiscriminate on the crowd: a sudden new excited
crowd in uniforms attacking the black crowd, beating them wildly with
truncheons. There was a seething moment in the street below. And almost
instantaneously the original crowd burst into a terror of frenzy. The
mob broke as if something had exploded inside it. A few black-hatted men
fought furiously to get themselves free of the hated soldiers; in the
confusion bunches of men staggered, reeled, fell, and were struggling
among the legs of their comrades and of the carabinieri. But the bulk of
the crowd just burst and fled--in every direction. Like drops of water
they seemed to fly up at the very walls themselves. They darted into
any entry, any doorway. They sprang up the walls and clambered into the
ground-floor windows. They sprang up the walls on to window-ledges, and
then jumped down again, and ran--clambering, wriggling, darting, running
in every direction; some cut, blood on their faces, terror or frenzy
of flight in their hearts. Not so much terror as the frenzy of running
away. In a breath the street was empty.

And all the time, there above on the stone coping stood the long-faced,
fair-haired boy, while four stout carabinieri in the street below stood
with uplifted revolvers and covered him, shouting that if he moved they
would shoot. So there he stood, still looking down, still holding with
his left hand behind him, covered by the four revolvers. He was not so
much afraid as twitchily self-conscious because of his false position.

Meanwhile down below the crowd had dispersed--melted momentaneously. The
carabinieri were busy arresting the men who had fallen and been trodden
underfoot, or who had foolishly let themselves be taken; perhaps half a
dozen men, half a dozen prisoners; less rather than more. The sergeant
ordered these to be secured between soldiers. And last of all the youth
up above, still covered by the revolvers, was ordered to come down. He
turned quite quietly, and quite humbly, cautiously picked his way along
the coping towards the drain-pipe. He reached this pipe and began, in
humiliation, to climb down. It was a real climb down.

Once in the street he was surrounded by the grey uniforms. The soldiers
formed up. The sergeant gave the order. And away they marched, the
dejected youth a prisoner between them.

Then were heard a few scattered yells of derision and protest, a few
shouts of anger and derision against the carabinieri. There were once
more gangs of men and groups of youths along the street. They sent up an
occasional shout. But always over their shoulders, and pretending it was
not they who shouted. They were all cowed and hang-dog once more, and
made not the slightest effort to save the youth. Nevertheless, they
prowled and watched, ready for the next time.

So, away went the prisoner and the grey-green soldiers, and the street
was left to the little gangs and groups of hangdog, discontented men,
all thoroughly out of countenance. The scene was ended.

Aaron looked round, dazed. And then for the first time he noticed, on
the next balcony to his own, two young men: young gentlemen, he would
have said. The one was tall and handsome and well-coloured, might be
Italian. But the other with his pale thin face and his rimless monocle
in his eye, he was surely an Englishman. He was surely one of the
young officers shattered by the war. A look of strange, arch, bird-like
pleasure was on his face at this moment: if one could imagine the
gleaming smile of a white owl over the events that had just passed, this
was the impression produced on Aaron by the face of the young man with
the monocle. The other youth, the ruddy, handsome one, had knitted his
brows in mock distress, and was glancing with a look of shrewd curiosity
at Aaron, and with a look of almost self-satisfied excitement first to
one end of the street, then to the other.

“But imagine, Angus, it’s all over!” he said, laying his hand on the arm
of the monocled young man, and making great eyes--not without a shrewd
glance in Aaron’s direction.

“Did you see him fall!” replied Angus, with another strange gleam.

“Yes. But was he HURT--?”

“I don’t know. I should think so. He fell right back out of that on to
those stones!”

“But how perfectly AWFUL! Did you ever see anything like it?”

“No. It’s one of the funniest things I ever did see. I saw nothing quite
like it, even in the war--”

Here Aaron withdrew into his room. His mind and soul were in a whirl. He
sat down in his chair, and did not move again for a great while. When
he did move, he took his flute and played he knew not what. But strange,
strange his soul passed into his instrument. Or passed half into his
instrument. There was a big residue left, to go bitter, or to ferment
into gold old wine of wisdom.

He did not notice the dinner gong, and only the arrival of the
chamber-maid, to put the wash-table in order, sent him down to the
restaurant. The first thing he saw, as he entered, was the two young
Englishmen seated at a table in a corner just behind him. Their hair was
brushed straight back from their foreheads, making the sweep of the head
bright and impeccable, and leaving both the young faces clear as if in
cameo. Angus had laid his monocle on the table, and was looking
round the room with wide, light-blue eyes, looking hard, like some
bird-creature, and seeming to see nothing. He had evidently been very
ill: was still very ill. His cheeks and even his jaw seemed shrunken,
almost withered. He forgot his dinner: or he did not care for it.
Probably the latter.

“What do you think, Francis,” he said, “of making a plan to see Florence
and Sienna and Orvieto on the way down, instead of going straight
to Rome?” He spoke in precise, particularly-enunciated words, in a
public-school manner, but with a strong twang of South Wales.

“Why, Angus,” came the graceful voice of Francis, “I thought we had
settled to go straight through via Pisa.” Francis was graceful in
everything--in his tall, elegant figure, in the poses of his handsome
head, in the modulation of his voice.

“Yes, but I see we can go either way--either Pisa or Florence. And I
thought it might be nice to look at Florence and Sienna and Orvieto.
I believe they’re very lovely,” came the soft, precise voice of Angus,
ending in a touch of odd emotion on the words “very lovely,” as if it
were a new experience to him to be using them.

“I’m SURE they’re marvellous. I’m quite sure they’re marvellously
beautiful,” said Francis, in his assured, elegant way. “Well, then,
Angus--suppose we do that, then?--When shall we start?”

Angus was the nervous insister. Francis was quite occupied with his own
thoughts and calculations and curiosity. For he was very curious, not
to say inquisitive. And at the present moment he had a new subject to
ponder.

This new subject was Aaron, who sat with his back to our new couple, and
who, with his fine sharp ears, caught every word that they said. Aaron’s
back was broad enough, and his shoulders square, and his head rather
small and fairish and well-shaped--and Francis was intrigued. He wanted
to know, was the man English. He _looked_ so English--yet he might
be--he might perhaps be Danish, Scandinavian, or Dutch. Therefore, the
elegant young man watched and listened with all his ears.

The waiter who had brought Aaron his soup now came very free and easy,
to ask for further orders.

“What would you like to drink? Wine? Chianti? Or white wine? Or
beer?”--The old-fashioned “Sir” was dropped. It is too old-fashioned
now, since the war.

“What SHOULD I drink?” said Aaron, whose acquaintance with wines was not
very large.

“Half-litre of Chianti: that is very good,” said the waiter, with the
air of a man who knew only too well how to bring up his betters, and
train them in the way they should go.

“All right,” said Aaron.

The welcome sound of these two magic words, All Right! was what the
waiter most desired. “All right! Yes! All Right!” This is the pith, the
marrow, the sum and essence of the English language to a southerner. Of
course it is not _all right_. It is _Or-rye_--and one word at that. The
blow that would be given to most foreign waiters, if they were forced
to realize that the famous _orye_ was really composed of two words, and
spelt _all right_, would be too cruel, perhaps.

“Half litre Chianti. Orye,” said the waiter. And we’ll let him say it.

“ENGLISH!” whispered Francis melodramatically in the ear of Angus. “I
THOUGHT so. The flautist.”

Angus put in his monocle, and stared at the oblivious shoulders of
Aaron, without apparently seeing anything. “Yes. Obviously English,”
 said Angus, pursing like a bird.

“Oh, but I heard him,” whispered Francis emphatically. “Quite,” said
Angus. “But quite inoffensive.”

“Oh, but Angus, my dear--he’s the FLAUTIST. Don’t you remember? The
divine bit of Scriabin. At least I believe it was Scriabin.--But
PERFECTLY DIVINE!!! I adore the flute above all things--” And Francis
placed his hand on Angus’ arm, and rolled his eyes--Lay this to the
credit of a bottle of Lacrimae Cristi, if you like.

“Yes. So do I,” said Angus, again looking archly through the monocle,
and seeing nothing. “I wonder what he’s doing here.”

“Don’t you think we might ASK him?” said Francis, in a vehement whisper.
“After all, we are the only three English people in the place.”

“For the moment, apparently we are,” said Angus. “But the English are
all over the place wherever you go, like bits of orange peel in the
street. Don’t forget that, Francesco.”

“No, Angus, I don’t. The point is, his flute is PERFECTLY DIVINE--and he
seems quite attractive in himself. Don’t you think so?”

“Oh, quite,” said Angus, whose observations had got no further than the
black cloth of the back of Aaron’s jacket. That there was a man inside
he had not yet paused to consider.

“Quite a musician,” said Francis.

“The hired sort,” said Angus, “most probably.”

“But he PLAYS--he plays most marvellously. THAT you can’t get away from,
Angus.”

“I quite agree,” said Angus.

“Well, then? Don’t you think we might hear him again? Don’t you think we
might get him to play for us?--But I should love it more than anything.”

“Yes, I should, too,” said Angus. “You might ask him to coffee and a
liqueur.”

“I should like to--most awfully. But do you think I might?”

“Oh, yes. He won’t mind being offered a coffee and liqueur. We can give
him something decent--Where’s the waiter?” Angus lifted his pinched,
ugly bare face and looked round with weird command for the waiter. The
waiter, having not much to do, and feeling ready to draw these two weird
young birds, allowed himself to be summoned.

“Where’s the wine list? What liqueurs have you got?” demanded Angus
abruptly.

The waiter rattled off a list, beginning with Strega and ending with
cherry brandy.

“Grand Marnier,” said Angus. “And leave the bottle.”

Then he looked with arch triumph at Francis, like a wicked bird. Francis
bit his finger moodily, and glowered with handsome, dark-blue uncertain
eyes at Mr. Aaron, who was just surveying the _Frutte_, which consisted
of two rather old pomegranates and various pale yellow apples, with a
sprinkling of withered dried figs. At the moment, they all looked like a
_Natura Morta_ arrangement.

“But do you think I might--?” said Francis moodily. Angus pursed his
lips with a reckless brightness.

“Why not? I see no reason why you shouldn’t,” he said. Whereupon Francis
cleared his throat, disposed of his serviette, and rose to his feet,
slowly but gracefully. Then he composed himself, and took on the air he
wished to assume at the moment. It was a nice degage air, half naive and
half enthusiastic. Then he crossed to Aaron’s table, and stood on one
lounging hip, gracefully, and bent forward in a confidential manner, and
said:

“Do excuse me. But I MUST ask you if it was you we heard playing the
flute so perfectly wonderfully, just before dinner.”

The voice was confidential and ingratiating. Aaron, relieved from the
world’s stress and seeing life anew in the rosy glow of half a litre of
good old Chianti--the war was so near but gone by--looked up at the dark
blue, ingenuous, well-adapted eyes of our friend Francis, and smiling,
said:

“Yes, I saw you on the balcony as well.”

“Oh, did you notice us?” plunged Francis. “But wasn’t it an
extraordinary affair?”

“Very,” said Aaron. “I couldn’t make it out, could you?”

“Oh,” cried Francis. “I never try. It’s all much too new and complicated
for me.--But perhaps you know Italy?”

“No, I don’t,” said Aaron.

“Neither do we. And we feel rather stunned. We had only just
arrived--and then--Oh!” Francis put up his hand to his comely brow and
rolled his eyes. “I feel perfectly overwhelmed with it still.”

He here allowed himself to sink friendlily into the vacant chair
opposite Aaron’s.

“Yes, I thought it was a bit exciting,” said Aaron. “I wonder what will
become of him--”

“--Of the one who climbed for the flag, you mean? No!--But wasn’t it
perfectly marvellous! Oh, incredible, quite incredible!--And then your
flute to finish it all! Oh! I felt it only wanted that.--I haven’t got
over it yet. But your playing was MARVELLOUS, really marvellous. Do you
know, I can’t forget it. You are a professional musician, of course.”

“If you mean I play for a living,” said Aaron. “I have played in
orchestras in London.”

“Of course! Of course! I knew you must be a professional. But don’t you
give private recitals, too?”

“No, I never have.”

“Oh!” cried Francis, catching his breath. “I can’t believe it. But you
play MARVELLOUSLY! Oh, I just loved it, it simply swept me away, after
that scene in the street. It seemed to sum it all up, you know.”

“Did it,” said Aaron, rather grimly.

“But won’t you come and have coffee with us at our table?” said Francis.
“We should like it most awfully if you would.”

“Yes, thank you,” said Aaron, half-rising.

“But you haven’t had your dessert,” said Francis, laying a fatherly
detaining hand on the arm of the other man. Aaron looked at the
detaining hand.

“The dessert isn’t much to stop for,” he said. “I can take with me what
I want.” And he picked out a handful of dried figs.

The two went across to Angus’ table.

“We’re going to take coffee together,” said Francis complacently,
playing the host with a suave assurance that was rather amusing and
charming in him.

“Yes. I’m very glad,” said Angus. Let us give the show away: he was
being wilfully nice. But he _was_ quite glad; to be able to be so nice.
Anything to have a bit of life going: especially a bit of pleased life.
He looked at Aaron’s comely, wine-warmed face with gratification.

“Have a Grand Marnier,” he said. “I don’t know how bad it is. Everything
is bad now. They lay it down to the war as well. It used to be quite
a decent drink. What the war had got to do with bad liqueurs, I don’t
know.”

Aaron sat down in a chair at their table.

“But let us introduce ourselves,” said Francis. “I am Francis--or really
Franz Dekker--And this is Angus Guest, my friend.”

“And my name is Aaron Sisson.”

“What! What did you say?” said Francis, leaning forward. He, too, had
sharp ears.

“Aaron Sisson.”

“Aaron Sisson! Oh, but how amusing! What a nice name!”

“No better than yours, is it?”

“Mine! Franz Dekker! Oh, much more amusing, _I_ think,” said Francis
archly.

“Oh, well, it’s a matter of opinion. You’re the double decker, not me.”

“The double decker!” said Francis archly. “Why, what do you mean!--”
 He rolled his eyes significantly. “But may I introduce my friend Angus
Guest.”

“You’ve introduced me already, Francesco,” said Angus.

“So sorry,” said Francis.

“Guest!” said Aaron.

Francis suddenly began to laugh.

“May he not be Guest?” he asked, fatherly.

“Very likely,” said Aaron. “Not that I was ever good at guessing.”

Francis tilted his eyebrows. Fortunately the waiter arrived with the
coffee.

“Tell me,” said Francis, “will you have your coffee black, or with
milk?” He was determined to restore a tone of sobriety.

The coffee was sipped in sober solemnity.

“Is music your line as well, then?” asked Aaron.

“No, we’re painters. We’re going to work in Rome.”

“To earn your living?”

“Not yet.”

The amount of discretion, modesty, and reserve which Francis put into
these two syllables gave Aaron to think that he had two real young
swells to deal with.

“No,” continued Francis. “I was only JUST down from Oxford when the
war came--and Angus had been about ten months at the Slade--But I have
always painted.--So now we are going to work, really hard, in Rome, to
make up for lost time.--Oh, one has lost so much time, in the war. And
such PRECIOUS time! I don’t know if ever one will even be able to make
it up again.” Francis tilted his handsome eyebrows and put his head on
one side with a wise-distressed look.

“No,” said Angus. “One will never be able to make it up. What is
more, one will never be able to start again where one left off. We’re
shattered old men, now, in one sense. And in another sense, we’re just
pre-war babies.”

The speech was uttered with an odd abruptness and didacticism which made
Aaron open his eyes. Angus had that peculiar manner: he seemed to be
haranguing himself in the circle of his own thoughts, not addressing
himself to his listener.

So his listener listened on the outside edge of the young fellow’s
crowded thoughts. Francis put on a distressed air, and let his attention
wander. Angus pursed his lips and his eyes were stretched wide with a
kind of pleasure, like a wicked owl which has just joyfully hooted an
ill omen.

“Tell me,” said Francis to Aaron. “Where were YOU all the time during
the war?”

“I was doing my job,” said Aaron. Which led to his explaining his
origins.

“Really! So your music is quite new! But how interesting!” cried
Francis.

Aaron explained further.

“And so the war hardly affected you? But what did you FEEL about it,
privately?”

“I didn’t feel much. I didn’t know what to feel. Other folks did such a
lot of feeling, I thought I’d better keep my mouth shut.”

“Yes, quite!” said Angus. “Everybody had such a lot of feelings on
somebody else’s behalf, that nobody ever had time to realise what they
felt themselves. I know I was like that. The feelings all came on to me
from the outside: like flies settling on meat. Before I knew where I
was I was eaten up with a swarm of feelings, and I found myself in the
trenches. God knows what for. And ever since then I’ve been trying to
get out of my swarm of feelings, which buzz in and out of me and have
nothing to do with me. I realised it in hospital. It’s exactly like
trying to get out of a swarm of nasty dirty flies. And every one you
kill makes you sick, but doesn’t make the swarm any less.”

Again Angus pursed and bridled and looked like a pleased, wicked white
owl. Then he polished his monocle on a very choice silk handkerchief,
and fixed it unseeing in his left eye.

But Francis was not interested in his friend’s experiences. For Francis
had had a job in the War Office--whereas Angus was a war-hero with
shattered nerves. And let him depreciate his own experiences as much as
he liked, the young man with the monocle kept tight hold on his prestige
as a war hero. Only for himself, though. He by no means insisted that
anyone else should be war-bitten.

Francis was one of those men who, like women, can set up the sympathetic
flow and make a fellow give himself away without realising what he is
doing. So there sat our friend Aaron, amusingly unbosoming himself
of all his history and experiences, drawn out by the arch, subtle
attentiveness of the handsome Francis. Angus listened, too, with pleased
amusedness on his pale, emaciated face, pursing his shrunken jaw. And
Aaron sipped various glasses of the liqueur, and told all his tale as if
it was a comedy. A comedy it seemed, too, at that hour. And a comedy no
doubt it was. But mixed, like most things in this life. Mixed.

It was quite late before this seance broke up: and the waiter itching to
get rid of the fellows.

“Well, now,” said Francis, as he rose from the table and settled his
elegant waist, resting on one hip, as usual. “We shall see you in the
morning, I hope. You say you are going to Venice. Why? Have you some
engagement in Venice?”

“No,” said Aaron. “I only was going to look for a friend--Rawdon Lilly.”

“Rawdon Lilly! Why, is he in Venice? Oh, I’ve heard SUCH a lot about
him. I should like so much to meet him. But I heard he was in Germany--”

“I don’t know where he is.”

“Angus! Didn’t we hear that Lilly was in Germany?”

“Yes, in Munich, being psychoanalysed, I believe it was.”

Aaron looked rather blank.

“But have you anything to take you to Venice? It’s such a bad climate in
the winter. Why not come with us to Florence?” said Francis.

Aaron wavered. He really did not know what to do.

“Think about it,” said Francis, laying his hand on Aaron’s arm. “Think
about it tonight. And we’ll meet in the morning. At what time?”

“Any time,” said Aaron.

“Well, say eleven. We’ll meet in the lounge here at eleven. Will that
suit you? All right, then. It’s so awfully nice meeting you. That
marvellous flute.--And think about Florence. But do come. Don’t
disappoint us.”

The two young men went elegantly upstairs.



CHAPTER XV. A RAILWAY JOURNEY


The next day but one, the three set off for Florence. Aaron had made
an excursion from Milan with the two young heroes, and dined with them
subsequently at the most expensive restaurant in the town. Then they
had all gone home--and had sat in the young men’s bedroom drinking
tea, whilst Aaron played the flute. Francis was really musical, and
enchanted. Angus enjoyed the novelty, and the moderate patronage he
was able to confer. And Aaron felt amused and pleased, and hoped he was
paying for his treat.

So behold them setting off for Florence in the early morning. Angus and
Francis had first-class tickets: Aaron took a third-class.

“Come and have lunch with us on the train,” said Angus. “I’ll order
three places, and we can lunch together.”

“Oh, I can buy a bit of food at the station,” said Aaron.

“No, come and lunch with us. It will be much nicer. And we shall enjoy
it as well,” said Angus.

“Of course! Ever so much nicer! Of course!” cried Francis. “Yes, why
not, indeed! Why should you hesitate?”

“All right, then,” said Aaron, not without some feeling of constraint.

So they separated. The young men settled themselves amidst the red plush
and crochet-work, looking, with their hair plastered smoothly back,
quite as first class as you could wish, creating quite the right
impression on the porters and the travelling Italians. Aaron went to his
third-class, further up the train.

“Well, then, _au revoir_, till luncheon,” cried Francis.

The train was fairly full in the third and second classes. However,
Aaron got his seat, and the porter brought on his bags, after disposing
of the young men’s luggage. Aaron gave the tip uneasily. He always hated
tipping--it seemed humiliating both ways. And the airy aplomb of the
two young cavaliers, as they settled down among the red plush and the
obsequiousness, and said “Well, then, _au revoir_ till luncheon,” was
peculiarly unsettling: though they did not intend it so.

“The porter thinks I’m their servant--their valet,” said Aaron to
himself, and a curious half-amused, half-contemptuous look flickered on
his face. It annoyed him. The falsity occasioned by the difference in
the price of the tickets was really humiliating. Aaron had lived long
enough to know that as far as manhood and intellect went--nay, even
education--he was not the inferior of the two young “gentlemen.” He knew
quite well that, as far as intrinsic nature went, they did not imagine
him an inferior: rather the contrary. They had rather an exaggerated
respect for him and his life-power, and even his origin. And yet--they
had the inestimable cash advantage--and they were going to keep it. They
knew it was nothing more than an artificial cash superiority. But they
gripped it all the more intensely. They were the upper middle classes.
They were Eton and Oxford. And they were going to hang on to their
privileges. In these days, it is a fool who abdicates before he’s forced
to. And therefore:

“Well, then--_au revoir_ till luncheon.”

They were being so awfully nice. And inwardly they were not
condescending. But socially, they just had to be. The world is made like
that. It wasn’t their own private fault. It was no fault at all. It was
just the mode in which they were educated, the style of their living.
And as we know, _le style, c’est l’homme_.

Angus came of very wealthy iron people near Merthyr. Already he had a
very fair income of his own. As soon as the law-business concerning his
father’s and his grandfather’s will was settled, he would be well off.
And he knew it, and valued himself accordingly. Francis was the son of a
highly-esteemed barrister and politician of Sydney, and in his day would
inherit his father’s lately-won baronetcy. But Francis had not very much
money: and was much more class-flexible than Angus. Angus had been born
in a house with a park, and of awful, hard-willed, money-bound people.
Francis came of a much more adventurous, loose, excitable family, he had
the colonial newness and adaptability. He knew, for his own part, that
class superiority was just a trick, nowadays. Still, it was a trick that
paid. And a trick he was going to play as long as it did pay.

While Aaron sat, a little pale at the gills, immobile, ruminating these
matters, a not very pleasant look about his nose-end, he heard a voice:

“Oh, there you ARE! I thought I’d better come and see, so that we can
fetch you at lunch time.--You’ve got a seat? Are you quite comfortable?
Is there anything I could get you? Why, you’re in a non-smoker!--But
that doesn’t matter, everybody will smoke. Are you sure you have
everything? Oh, but wait just one moment--”

It was Francis, long and elegant, with his straight shoulders and his
coat buttoned to show his waist, and his face so well-formed and so
modern. So modern, altogether. His voice was pleasantly modulated, and
never hurried. He now looked as if a thought had struck him. He put a
finger to his brow, and hastened back to his own carriage. In a minute,
he returned with a new London literary magazine.

“Something to read--I shall have to FLY--See you at lunch,” and he had
turned and elegantly hastened, but not too fast, back to his carriage.
The porter was holding the door for him. So Francis looked pleasantly
hurried, but by no means rushed. Oh, dear, no. He took his time. It was
not for him to bolt and scramble like a mere Italian.

The people in Aaron’s carriage had watched the apparition of the elegant
youth intently. For them, he was a being from another sphere--no doubt
a young milordo with power wealth, and glamorous life behind him. Which
was just what Francis intended to convey. So handsome--so very, very
impressive in all his elegant calm showiness. He made such a _bella
figura_. It was just what the Italians loved. Those in the first class
regions thought he might even be an Italian, he was so attractive.

The train in motion, the many Italian eyes in the carriage studied
Aaron. He, too, was good-looking. But by no means as fascinating as
the young milordo. Not half as sympathetic. No good at all at playing a
role. Probably a servant of the young signori.

Aaron stared out of the window, and played the one single British role
left to him, that of ignoring his neighbours, isolating himself in
their midst, and minding his own business. Upon this insular trick our
greatness and our predominance depends--such as it is. Yes, they might
look at him. They might think him a servant or what they liked. But he
was inaccessible to them. He isolated himself upon himself, and there
remained.

It was a lovely day, a lovely, lovely day of early autumn. Over the
great plain of Lombardy a magnificent blue sky glowed like mid-summer,
the sun shone strong. The great plain, with its great stripes of
cultivation--without hedges or boundaries---how beautiful it was!
Sometimes he saw oxen ploughing. Sometimes. Oh, so beautiful, teams
of eight, or ten, even of twelve pale, great soft oxen in procession,
ploughing the dark velvety earth, a driver with a great whip at their
head, a man far behind holding the plough-shafts. Beautiful the soft,
soft plunging motion of oxen moving forwards. Beautiful the strange,
snaky lifting of the muzzles, the swaying of the sharp horns. And the
soft, soft crawling motion of a team of oxen, so invisible, almost, yet
so inevitable. Now and again straight canals of water flashed blue. Now
and again the great lines of grey-silvery poplars rose and made avenues
or lovely grey airy quadrangles across the plain. Their top boughs were
spangled with gold and green leaf. Sometimes the vine-leaves were gold
and red, a patterning. And the great square farm-homesteads, white,
red-roofed, with their out-buildings, stood naked amid the lands,
without screen or softening. There was something big and exposed about
it all. No more the cosy English ambushed life, no longer the cosy
littleness of the landscape. A bigness--and nothing to shelter the
unshrinking spirit. It was all exposed, exposed to the sweep of plain,
to the high, strong sky, and to human gaze. A kind of boldness, an
indifference. Aaron was impressed and fascinated. He looked with
new interest at the Italians in the carriage with him--for this same
boldness and indifference and exposed gesture. And he found it in them,
too. And again it fascinated him. It seemed so much bigger, as if the
walls of life had fallen. Nay, the walls of English life will have to
fall.

Sitting there in the third-class carriage, he became happy again. The
_presence_ of his fellow-passengers was not so hampering as in England.
In England, everybody seems held tight and gripped, nothing is left
free. Every passenger seems like a parcel holding his string as fast as
he can about him, lest one corner of the wrapper should come undone
and reveal what is inside. And every other passenger is forced, by
the public will, to hold himself as tight-bound also. Which in the end
becomes a sort of self-conscious madness.

But here, in the third class carriage, there was no tight string round
every man. They were not all trussed with self-conscious string as tight
as capons. They had a sufficient amount of callousness and indifference
and natural equanimity. True, one of them spat continually on the floor,
in large spits. And another sat with his boots all unlaced and his
collar off, and various important buttons undone. They did not seem to
care if bits of themselves did show, through the gaps in the wrapping.
Aaron winced--but he preferred it to English tightness. He was pleased,
he was happy with the Italians. He thought how generous and natural they
were.

So the towns passed by, and the hours, and he seemed at last to have got
outside himself and his old conditions. It seemed like a great escape.
There was magic again in life--real magic. Was it illusion, or was it
genuine? He thought it was genuine, and opened his soul a if there was
no danger.

Lunch-time came. Francis summoned Aaron down the rocking tram. The
three men had a table to themselves, and all felt they were enjoying
themselves very much indeed. Of course Francis and Angus made a great
impression again. But in the dining car were mostly middle-class,
well-to-do Italians. And these did not look upon our two young heroes as
two young wonders. No, rather with some criticism, and some class-envy.
But they were impressed. Oh, they were impressed! How should they not
be, when our young gentlemen had such an air! Aaron was conscious all
the time that the fellow-diners were being properly impressed by
the flower of civilisation and the salt of the earth, namely, young,
well-to-do Englishmen. And he had a faint premonition, based on
experience perhaps, that fellow-passengers in the end never forgive the
man who has “impressed” them. Mankind loves being impressed. It asks to
be impressed. It almost forces those whom it can force to play a role
and to make an impression. And afterwards, never forgives.

When the train ran into Bologna Station, they were still in the
restaurant car. Nor did they go at once to their seats. Angus had paid
the bill. There was three-quarters-of-an-hour’s wait in Bologna.

“You may as well come down and sit with us,” said Francis. “We’ve got
nobody in our carriage, so why shouldn’t we all stay together during the
wait. You kept your own seat, I suppose.”

No, he had forgotten. So when he went to look for it, it was occupied
by a stout man who was just taking off his collar and wrapping a white
kerchief round his neck. The third class carriages were packed. For
those were early days after the war, while men still had pre-war
notions and were poor. Ten months would steal imperceptibly by, and the
mysterious revolution would be effected. Then, the second class and the
first class would be packed, indescribably packed, crowded, on all
great trains: and the third class carriages, lo and behold, would be
comparatively empty. Oh, marvellous days of bankruptcy, when nobody will
condescend to travel third!

However, these were still modest, sombre months immediately after the
peace. So a large man with a fat neck and a white kerchief, and his
collar over his knee, sat in Aaron’s seat. Aaron looked at the man,
and at his own luggage overhead. The fat man saw him looking and stared
back: then stared also at the luggage overhead: and with his almost
invisible north-Italian gesture said much plainer than words would have
said it: “Go to hell. I’m here and I’m going to stop here.”

There was something insolent and unbearable about the look--and about
the rocky fixity of the large man. He sat as if he had insolently taken
root in his seat. Aaron flushed slightly. Francis and Angus strolled
along the train, outside, for the corridor was already blocked with the
mad Bologna rush, and the baggage belonging. They joined Aaron as he
stood on the platform.

“But where is YOUR SEAT?” cried Francis, peering into the packed and
jammed compartments of the third class.

“That man’s sitting in it.”

“Which?” cried Francis, indignant.

“The fat one there--with the collar on his knee.”

“But it was your seat--!”

Francis’ gorge rose in indignation. He mounted into the corridor. And in
the doorway of the compartment he bridled like an angry horse rearing,
bridling his head. Poising himself on one hip, he stared fixedly at the
man with the collar on his knee, then at the baggage aloft. He looked
down at the fat man as a bird looks down from the eaves of a house. But
the man looked back with a solid, rock-like impudence, before which an
Englishman quails: a jeering, immovable insolence, with a sneer round
the nose and a solid-seated posterior.

“But,” said Francis in English--none of them had any Italian yet. “But,”
 said Francis, turning round to Aaron, “that was YOUR SEAT?” and he flung
his long fore-finger in the direction of the fat man’s thighs.

“Yes!” said Aaron.

“And he’s TAKEN it--!” cried Francis in indignation.

“And knows it, too,” said Aaron.

“But--!” and Francis looked round imperiously, as if to summon his
bodyguard. But bodyguards are no longer forthcoming, and train-guards
are far from satisfactory. The fat man sat on, with a sneer-grin,
very faint but very effective, round his nose, and a solidly-planted
posterior. He quite enjoyed the pantomime of the young foreigners. The
other passengers said something to him, and he answered laconic. Then
they all had the faint sneer-grin round their noses. A woman in the
corner grinned jeeringly straight in Francis’ face. His charm failed
entirely this time: and as for his commandingness, that was ineffectual
indeed. Rage came up in him.

“Oh well--something must be done,” said he decisively. “But didn’t you
put something in the seat to RESERVE it?”

“Only that _New Statesman_--but he’s moved it.”

The man still sat with the invisible sneer-grin on his face, and that
peculiar and immovable plant of his Italian posterior.

“Mais--cette place etait RESERVEE--” said Francis, moving to the direct
attack.

The man turned aside and ignored him utterly--then said something to the
men opposite, and they all began to show their teeth in a grin.

Francis was not so easily foiled. He touched the man on the arm. The man
looked round threateningly, as if he had been struck.

“Cette place est reservee--par ce Monsieur--” said Francis with hauteur,
though still in an explanatory tone, and pointing to Aaron.

The Italian looked him, not in the eyes, but between the eyes, and
sneered full in his face. Then he looked with contempt at Aaron. And
then he said, in Italian, that there was room for such snobs in the
first class, and that they had not any right to come occupying the place
of honest men in the third.

“Gia! Gia!” barked the other passengers in the carriage.

“Loro possono andare prima classa--PRIMA CLASSA!” said the woman in the
corner, in a very high voice, as if talking to deaf people, and pointing
to Aaron’s luggage, then along the train to the first class carriages.

“C’e posto la,” said one of the men, shrugging his shoulders.

There was a jeering quality in the hard insolence which made Francis go
very red and Augus very white. Angus stared like a death’s-head behind
his monocle, with death-blue eyes.

“Oh, never mind. Come along to the first class. I’ll pay the difference.
We shall be much better all together. Get the luggage down, Francis.
It wouldn’t be possible to travel with this lot, even if he gave up the
seat. There’s plenty of room in our carriage--and I’ll pay the extra,”
 said Angus.

He knew there was one solution--and only one--Money.

But Francis bit his finger. He felt almost beside himself--and quite
powerless. For he knew the guard of the train would jeer too. It is
not so easy to interfere with honest third-class Bolognesi in Bologna
station, even if they _have_ taken another man’s seat. Powerless,
his brow knitted, and looking just like Mephistopheles with his high
forehead and slightly arched nose, Mephistopheles in a rage, he hauled
down Aaron’s bag and handed it to Angus. So they transferred themselves
to the first-class carriage, while the fat man and his party in the
third-class watched in jeering, triumphant silence. Solid, planted,
immovable, in static triumph.

So Aaron sat with the others amid the red plush, whilst the train
began its long slow climb of the Apennines, stinking sulphurous through
tunnels innumerable. Wonderful the steep slopes, the great chestnut
woods, and then the great distances glimpsed between the heights,
Firenzuola away and beneath, Turneresque hills far off, built of
heaven-bloom, not of earth. It was cold at the summit-station, ice and
snow in the air, fierce. Our travellers shrank into the carriage again,
and wrapped themselves round.

Then the train began its long slither downhill, still through a whole
necklace of tunnels, which fortunately no longer stank. So down and
down, till the plain appears in sight once more, the Arno valley. But
then began the inevitable hitch that always happens in Italian travel.
The train began to hesitate--to falter to a halt, whistling shrilly
as if in protest: whistling pip-pip-pip in expostulation as it stood
forlorn among the fields: then stealing forward again and stealthily
making pace, gathering speed, till it had got up a regular spurt: then
suddenly the brakes came on with a jerk, more faltering to a halt,
more whistling and pip-pip-pipping, as the engine stood jingling with
impatience: after which another creak and splash, and another choking
off. So on till they landed in Prato station: and there they sat. A
fellow passenger told them, there was an hour to wait here: an hour.
Something had happened up the line.

“Then I propose we make tea,” said Angus, beaming.

“Why not! Of course. Let us make tea. And I will look for water.”

So Aaron and Francis went to the restaurant bar and filled the little
pan at the tap. Angus got down the red picnic case, of which he was so
fond, and spread out the various arrangements on the floor of the coupe.
He soon had the spirit-lamp burning, the water heating. Francis proposed
that he and Aaron should dash into Prato and see what could be bought,
whilst the tea was in preparation. So off they went, leaving Angus like
a busy old wizard manipulating his arrangements on the floor of the
carriage, his monocle beaming with bliss. The one fat fellow--passenger
with a lurid striped rug over his knees watched with acute interest.
Everybody who passed the doorway stood to contemplate the scene with
pleasure. Officials came and studied the situation with appreciation.
Then Francis and Aaron returned with a large supply of roast chestnuts,
piping hot, and hard dried plums, and good dried figs, and rather stale
rusks. They found the water just boiling, Angus just throwing in the
tea-egg, and the fellow-passenger just poking his nose right in, he was
so thrilled.

Nothing pleased Angus so much as thus pitching camp in the midst of
civilisation. The scrubby newspaper packets of chestnuts, plums, figs
and rusks were spread out: Francis flew for salt to the man at the
bar, and came back with a little paper of rock-salt: the brown tea was
dispensed in the silver-fitted glasses from the immortal luncheon-case:
and the picnic was in full swing. Angus, being in the height of his
happiness, now sat on the seat cross-legged, with his feet under him, in
the authentic Buddha fashion, and on his face the queer rapt alert look,
half a smile, also somewhat Buddhistic, holding his glass of brown
tea in his hand. He was as rapt and immobile as if he really were in
a mystic state. Yet it was only his delight in the tea-party. The
fellow-passenger peered at the tea, and said in broken French, was it
good. In equally fragmentary French Francis said very good, and offered
the fat passenger some. He, however, held up his hand in protest, as if
to say not for any money would he swallow the hot-watery stuff. And he
pulled out a flask of wine. But a handful of chestnuts he accepted.

The train-conductor, ticket-collector, and the heavy green soldier who
protected them, swung open the door and stared attentively. The fellow
passenger addressed himself to these new-comers, and they all began to
smile good-naturedly. Then the fellow-passenger--he was stout and fifty
and had a brilliant striped rug always over his knees--pointed out the
Buddha-like position of Angus, and the three in-starers smiled again.
And so the fellow-passenger thought he must try too. So he put aside his
rug, and lifted his feet from the floor, and took his toes in his hands,
and tried to bring his legs up and his feet under him. But his knees
were fat, his trousers in the direst extreme of peril, and he could no
more manage it than if he had tried to swallow himself. So he desisted
suddenly, rather scared, whilst the three bunched and official heads in
the doorway laughed and jested at him, showing their teeth and teasing
him. But on our gypsy party they turned their eyes with admiration. They
loved the novelty and the fun. And on the thin, elegant Angus in his new
London clothes, they looked really puzzled, as he sat there immobile,
gleaming through his monocle like some Buddha going wicked, perched
cross-legged and ecstatic on the red velvet seat. They marvelled that
the lower half of him could so double up, like a foot-rule. So they
stared till they had seen enough. When they suddenly said “Buon
‘appetito,” withdrew their heads and shoulders, slammed the door, and
departed.

Then the train set off also--and shortly after six arrived in Florence.
It was debated what should Aaron do in Florence. The young men had
engaged a room at Bertolini’s hotel, on the Lungarno. Bertolini’s was
not expensive--but Aaron knew that his friends would not long endure
hotel life. However, he went along with the other two, trusting to find
a cheaper place on the morrow.

It was growing quite dark as they drove to the hotel, but still was
light enough to show the river rustling, the Ponte Vecchio spanning its
little storeys across the flood, on its low, heavy piers: and some sort
of magic of the darkening, varied houses facing, on the other side of
the stream. Of course they were all enchanted.

“I knew,” said Francis, “we should love it.”

Aaron was told he could have a little back room and pension terms for
fifteen lire a day, if he stayed at least fifteen days. The exchange
was then at forty-five. So fifteen lire meant just six-shillings-and-six
pence a day, without extras. Extras meant wine, tea, butter, and light.
It was decided he should look for something cheaper next day.

By the tone of the young men, he now gathered that they would prefer it
if he took himself off to a cheaper place. They wished to be on their
own.

“Well, then,” said Francis, “you will be in to lunch here, won’t you?
Then we’ll see you at lunch.”

It was as if both the young men had drawn in their feelers now. They
were afraid of finding the new man an incubus. They wanted to wash their
hands of him. Aaron’s brow darkened.


             “Perhaps it was right your love to dissemble
              But why did you kick me down stairs?...”


Then morning found him out early, before his friends had arisen. It was
sunny again. The magic of Florence at once overcame him, and he forgot
the bore of limited means and hotel costs. He went straight out of the
hotel door, across the road, and leaned on the river parapet. There ran
the Arno: not such a flood after all, but a green stream with shoals of
pebbles in its course. Across, and in the delicate shadow of the early
sun, stood the opposite Lungarno, the old flat houses, pink, or white,
or grey stone, with their green shutters, some closed, some opened. It
had a flowery effect, the skyline irregular against the morning light.
To the right the delicate Trinita bridge, to the left, the old bridge
with its little shops over the river. Beyond, towards the sun, glimpses
of green, sky-bloomed country: Tuscany.

There was a noise and clatter of traffic: boys pushing hand-barrows over
the cobble-stones, slow bullocks stepping side by side, and shouldering
one another affectionately, drawing a load of country produce, then
horses in great brilliant scarlet cloths, like vivid palls, slowly
pulling the long narrow carts of the district: and men hu-huing!--and
people calling: all the sharp, clattering morning noise of Florence.

“Oh, Angus! Do come and look! OH, so lovely!”

Glancing up, he saw the elegant figure of Francis, in fine coloured-silk
pyjamas, perched on a small upper balcony, turning away from the river
towards the bedroom again, his hand lifted to his lips, as if to catch
there his cry of delight. The whole pose was classic and effective: and
very amusing. How the Italians would love it!

Aaron slipped back across the road, and walked away under the houses
towards the Ponte Vecchio. He passed the bridge--and passed the
Uffizi--watching the green hills opposite, and San Miniato. Then he
noticed the over-dramatic group of statuary in the Piazza Mentana--male
and physical and melodramatic--and then the corner house. It was a big
old Florentine house, with many green shutters and wide eaves. There was
a notice plate by the door--“Pension Nardini.”

He came to a full stop. He stared at the notice-plate, stared at the
glass door, and turning round, stared at the over-pathetic dead soldier
on the arm of his over-heroic pistol-firing comrade; _Mentana_--and
the date! Aaron wondered what and where Mentana was. Then at last
he summoned his energy, opened the glass door, and mounted the first
stairs.

He waited some time before anybody appeared. Then a maid-servant.

“Can I have a room?” said Aaron.

The bewildered, wild-eyed servant maid opened a door and showed him into
a heavily-gilt, heavily-plush drawing-room with a great deal of frantic
grandeur about it. There he sat and cooled his heels for half an hour.
Arrived at length a stout young lady--handsome, with big dark-blue
Italian eyes--but anaemic and too stout.

“Oh!” she said as she entered, not knowing what else to say.

“Good-morning,” said Aaron awkwardly.

“Oh, good-morning! English! Yes! Oh, I am so sorry to keep you, you
know, to make you wait so long. I was upstairs, you know, with a lady.
Will you sit?”

“Can I have a room?” said Aaron.

“A room! Yes, you can.”

“What terms?”

“Terms! Oh! Why, ten francs a day, you know, pension--if you stay--How
long will you stay?”

“At least a month, I expect.”

“A month! Oh yes. Yes, ten francs a day.”

“For everything?”

“Everything. Yes, everything. Coffee, bread, honey or jam in the
morning: lunch at half-past twelve; tea in the drawing-room, half-past
four: dinner at half-past seven: all very nice. And a warm room with the
sun--Would you like to see?”

So Aaron was led up the big, rambling old house to the top floor--then
along a long old corridor--and at last into a big bedroom with two
beds and a red tiled floor--a little dreary, as ever--but the sun just
beginning to come in, and a lovely view on to the river, towards the
Ponte Vecchio, and at the hills with their pines and villas and verdure
opposite.

Here he would settle. The signorina would send a man for his bags, at
half past two in the afternoon.

At luncheon Aaron found the two friends, and told them of his move.

“How very nice for you! Ten francs a day--but that is nothing. I am so
pleased you’ve found something. And when will you be moving in?” said
Francis.

“At half-past two.”

“Oh, so soon. Yes, just as well.--But we shall see you from time to
time, of course. What did you say the address was? Oh, yes--just near
the awful statue. Very well. We can look you up any time--and you will
find us here. Leave a message if we should happen not to be in--we’ve
got lots of engagements--”



CHAPTER XVI. FLORENCE


The very afternoon after Aaron’s arrival in Florence the sky became
dark, the wind cold, and rain began steadily to fall. He sat in his big,
bleak room above the river, and watched the pale green water fused with
yellow, the many-threaded streams fuse into one, as swiftly the surface
flood came down from the hills. Across, the dark green hills looked
darker in the wet, the umbrella pines held up in vain above the villas.
But away below, on the Lungarno, traffic rattled as ever.

Aaron went down at five o’clock to tea, and found himself alone next a
group of women, mostly Swedes or Danish or Dutch, drinking a peculiar
brown herb-brew which tasted like nothing else on earth, and eating two
thick bits of darkish bread smeared with a brown smear which hoped
it was jam, but hoped in vain. Unhappily he sat in the gilt and red,
massively ornate room, while the foreign women eyed him. Oh, bitter to
be a male under such circumstances.

He escaped as soon as possible back to his far-off regions, lonely and
cheerless, away above. But he rather liked the far-off remoteness in
the big old Florentine house: he did not mind the peculiar dark, uncosy
dreariness. It was not really dreary: only indifferent. Indifferent
to comfort, indifferent to all homeliness and cosiness. The over-big
furniture trying to be impressive, but never to be pretty or bright
or cheerful. There it stood, ugly and apart. And there let it
stand.--Neither did he mind the lack of fire, the cold sombreness of his
big bedroom. At home, in England, the bright grate and the ruddy fire,
the thick hearth-rug and the man’s arm-chair, these had been inevitable.
And now he was glad to get away from it all. He was glad not to have a
cosy hearth, and his own arm-chair. He was glad to feel the cold, and to
breathe the unwarmed air. He preferred the Italian way of no fires, no
heating. If the day was cold, he was willing to be cold too. If it was
dark, he was willing to be dark. The cosy brightness of a real home--it
had stifled him till he felt his lungs would burst. The horrors of real
domesticity. No, the Italian brutal way was better.

So he put his overcoat over his knee, and studied some music he had
bought in Milan: some Pergolesi and the Scarlatti he liked, and some
Corelli. He preferred frail, sensitive, abstract music, with not much
feeling in it, but a certain limpidity and purity. Night fell as he sat
reading the scores. He would have liked to try certain pieces on his
flute. But his flute was too sensitive, it winced from the new strange
surroundings, and would not blossom.

Dinner sounded at last--at eight o’clock, or something after. He had to
learn to expect the meals always forty minutes late. Down he went, down
the long, dark, lonely corridors and staircases. The dining room was
right downstairs. But he had a little table to himself near the door,
the elderly women were at some little distance. The only other men were
Agostmo, the unshapely waiter, and an Italian duke, with wife and child
and nurse, the family sitting all together at a table halfway down the
room, and utterly pre-occupied with a little yellow dog.

However, the food was good enough, and sufficient, and the waiter and
the maid-servant cheerful and bustling. Everything felt happy-go-lucky
and informal, there was no particular atmosphere. Nobody put on any
airs, because nobody in the Nardini took any notice if they did. The
little ducal dog yapped, the ducal son shouted, the waiter dropped half
a dozen spoons, the old women knitted during the waits, and all went
off so badly that it was quite pleasant. Yes, Aaron preferred it to
Bertolini’s, which was trying to be efficient and correct: though not
making any strenuous effort. Still, Bertolini’s was much more up to
the scratch, there was the tension of proper standards. Whereas here at
Nardini’s, nothing mattered very much.

It was November. When he got up to his far-off room again, Aaron felt
almost as if he were in a castle with the drawbridge drawn up. Through
the open window came the sound of the swelling Arno, as it rushed and
rustled along over its gravel-shoals. Lights spangled the opposite side.
Traffic sounded deep below. The room was not really cold, for the summer
sun so soaks into these thick old buildings, that it takes a month or
two of winter to soak it out.--The rain still fell.

In the morning it was still November, and the dawn came slowly. And
through the open window was the sound of the river’s rushing. But the
traffic started before dawn, with a bang and a rattle of carts, and
a bang and jingle of tram-cars over the not-distant bridge. Oh, noisy
Florence! At half-past seven Aaron rang for his coffee: and got it at a
few minutes past eight. The signorina had told him to take his coffee in
bed.

Rain was still falling. But towards nine o’clock it lifted, and he
decided to go out. A wet, wet world. Carriages going by, with huge wet
shiny umbrellas, black and with many points, erected to cover the driver
and the tail of the horse and the box-seat. The hood of the carriage
covered the fare. Clatter-clatter through the rain. Peasants with long
wagons and slow oxen, and pale-green huge umbrellas erected for the
driver to walk beneath. Men tripping along in cloaks, shawls, umbrellas,
anything, quite unconcerned. A man loading gravel in the river-bed, in
spite of the wet. And innumerable bells ringing: but innumerable bells.
The great soft trembling of the cathedral bell felt in all the air.

Anyhow it was a new world. Aaron went along close to the tall thick
houses, following his nose. And suddenly he caught sight of the long
slim neck of the Palazzo Vecchio up above, in the air. And in another
minute he was passing between massive buildings, out into the Piazza
della Signoria. There he stood still and looked round him in real
surprise, and real joy. The flat empty square with its stone paving was
all wet. The great buildings rose dark. The dark, sheer front of the
Palazzo Vecchio went up like a cliff, to the battlements, and the slim
tower soared dark and hawk-like, crested, high above. And at the foot
of the cliff stood the great naked David, white and stripped in the wet,
white against the dark, warm-dark cliff of the building--and near, the
heavy naked men of Bandinelli.

The first thing he had seen, as he turned into the square, was the back
of one of these Bandinelli statues: a great naked man of marble, with a
heavy back and strong naked flanks over which the water was trickling.
And then to come immediately upon the David, so much whiter, glistening
skin-white in the wet, standing a little forward, and shrinking.

He may be ugly, too naturalistic, too big, and anything else you like.
But the David in the Piazza della Signoria, there under the dark great
palace, in the position Michelangelo chose for him, there, standing
forward stripped and exposed and eternally half-shrinking, half--wishing
to expose himself, he is the genius of Florence. The adolescent, the
white, self-conscious, physical adolescent: enormous, in keeping with
the stark, grim, enormous palace, which is dark and bare as he is white
and bare. And behind, the big, lumpy Bandinelli men are in keeping too.
They may be ugly--but they are there in their place, and they have their
own lumpy reality. And this morning in the rain, standing unbroken, with
the water trickling down their flanks and along the inner side of their
great thighs, they were real enough, representing the undaunted physical
nature of the heavier Florentines.

Aaron looked and looked at the three great naked men. David so much
white, and standing forward, self-conscious: then at the great splendid
front of the Palazzo Vecchio: and at the fountain splashing water
upon its wet, wet figures; and the distant equestrian statue; and the
stone-flagged space of the grim square. And he felt that here he was in
one of the world’s living centres, here, in the Piazza della Signoria.
The sense of having arrived--of having reached a perfect centre of the
human world: this he had.

And so, satisfied, he turned round to look at the bronze Perseus which
rose just above him. Benvenuto Cellini’s dark hero looked female, with
his plump hips and his waist, female and rather insignificant: graceful,
and rather vulgar. The clownish Bandinellis were somehow more to the
point.--Then all the statuary in the Loggia! But that is a mistake. It
looks too much like the yard of a monumental mason.

The great, naked men in the rain, under the dark-grey November sky, in
the dark, strong inviolable square! The wonderful hawk-head of the old
palace. The physical, self-conscious adolescent, Michelangelo’s David,
shrinking and exposing himself, with his white, slack limbs! Florence,
passionate, fearless Florence had spoken herself out.--Aaron was
fascinated by the Piazza della Signoria. He never went into the town,
nor returned from it to his lodging, without contriving to pass through
the square. And he never passed through it without satisfaction. Here
men had been at their intensest, most naked pitch, here, at the end of
the old world and the beginning of the new. Since then, always rather
puling and apologetic.

Aaron felt a new self, a new life-urge rising inside himself. Florence
seemed to start a new man in him. It was a town of men. On Friday
morning, so early, he heard the traffic. Early, he watched the rather
low, two-wheeled traps of the peasants spanking recklessly over the
bridge, coming in to town. And then, when he went out, he found the
Piazza della Signoria packed with men: but all, all men. And all
farmers, land-owners and land-workers. The curious, fine-nosed Tuscan
farmers, with their half-sardonic, amber-coloured eyes. Their curious
individuality, their clothes worn so easy and reckless, their hats with
the personal twist. Their curious full oval cheeks, their tendency to be
too fat, to have a belly and heavy limbs. Their close-sitting dark hair.
And above all, their sharp, almost acrid, mocking expression, the silent
curl of the nose, the eternal challenge, the rock-bottom unbelief,
and the subtle fearlessness. The dangerous, subtle, never-dying
fearlessness, and the acrid unbelief. But men! Men! A town of men, in
spite of everything. The one manly quality, undying, acrid fearlessness.
The eternal challenge of the un-quenched human soul. Perhaps too acrid
and challenging today, when there is nothing left to challenge. But
men--who existed without apology and without justification. Men who
would neither justify themselves nor apologize for themselves. Just men.
The rarest thing left in our sweet Christendom.

Altogether Aaron was pleased with himself, for being in Florence. Those
were early days after the war, when as yet very few foreigners had
returned, and the place had the native sombreness and intensity. So that
our friend did not mind being alone.

The third day, however, Francis called on him. There was a tap at the
bedroom door, and the young man entered, all eyes of curiosity.

“Oh, there you ARE!” he cried, flinging his hand and twisting his waist
and then laying his hand on his breast. “Such a LONG way up to you! But
miles--! Well, how are you? Are you quite all right here? You are?
I’m so glad--we’ve been so rushed, seeing people that we haven’t had a
MINUTE. But not a MINUTE! People! People! People! Isn’t it amazing how
many there are, and how many one knows, and gets to know! But amazing!
Endless acquaintances!--Oh, and such quaint people here! so ODD! So MORE
than odd! Oh, extraordinary--!” Francis chuckled to himself over the
extraordinariness. Then he seated himself gracefully at Aaron’s table.
“Oh, MUSIC! What? Corelli! So interesting! So very CLEVER, these people,
weren’t they!--Corelli and the younger Scarlatti and all that crowd.”
 Here he closed the score again. “But now--LOOK! Do you want to know
anybody here, or don’t you? I’ve told them about you, and of course
they’re dying to meet you and hear you play. But I thought it best not
to mention anything about--about your being hard-up, and all that. I
said you were just here on a visit. You see with this kind of people I’m
sure it’s much the best not to let them start off by thinking you will
need them at all--or that you MIGHT need them. Why give yourself away,
anyhow? Just meet them and take them for what they’re worth--and then
you can see. If they like to give you an engagement to play at some
show or other--well, you can decide when the time comes whether you
will accept. Much better that these kind of people shouldn’t get it into
their heads at once that they can hire your services. It doesn’t do.
They haven’t enough discrimination for that. Much best make rather
a favour of it, than sort of ask them to hire you.--Don’t you agree?
Perhaps I’m wrong.”

Aaron sat and listened and wondered at the wisdom and the genuine
kindness of the young _beau_. And more still, he wondered at the
profound social disillusionment. This handsome collie dog was something
of a social wolf, half showing his fangs at the moment. But with genuine
kindheartedness for another wolf. Aaron was touched.

“Yes, I think that’s the best way,” he said.

“You do! Yes, so do I. Oh, they are such queer people! Why is it, do
you think, that English people abroad go so very QUEER--so
ultra-English--INCREDIBLE!--and at the same time so perfectly
impossible? But impossible! Pathological, I assure you.--And as for
their sexual behaviour--oh, dear, don’t mention it. I assure you it
doesn’t bear mention.--And all quite flagrant, quite unabashed--under
the cover of this fanatical Englishness. But I couldn’t begin to TELL
you all the things. It’s just incredible.”

Aaron wondered how on earth Francis had been able to discover and bear
witness to so much that was incredible, in a bare two days. But a little
gossip, and an addition of lurid imagination will carry you anywhere.

“Well now,” said Francis. “What are you doing today?”

Aaron was not doing anything in particular.

“Then will you come and have dinner with us--?”

Francis fixed up the time and the place--a small restaurant at the other
end of the town. Then he leaned out of the window.

“Fascinating place! Oh, fascinating place!” he said, soliloquy. “And
you’ve got a superb view. Almost better than ours, I think.--Well then,
half-past seven. We’re meeting a few other people, mostly residents or
people staying some time. We’re not inviting them. Just dropping in,
you know--a little restaurant. We shall see you then! Well then, _a
rivederci_ till this evening.--So glad you like Florence! I’m simply
loving it--revelling. And the pictures!--Oh--”

The party that evening consisted all of men: Francis and Angus, and a
writer, James Argyle, and little Algy Constable, and tiny Louis Mee, and
deaf Walter Rosen. They all snapped and rattled at one another, and
were rather spiteful but rather amusing. Francis and Angus had to leave
early. They had another appointment. And James Argyle got quite tipsy,
and said to Aaron:

“But, my boy, don’t let yourself be led astray by the talk of such
people as Algy. Beware of them, my boy, if you’ve a soul to save. If
you’ve a soul to save!” And he swallowed the remains of his litre.

Algy’s nose trembled a little, and his eyes blinked. “And if you’ve
a soul to LOSE,” he said, “I would warn you very earnestly against
Argyle.” Whereupon Algy shut one eye and opened the other so wide, that
Aaron was almost scared. “Quite right, my boy. Ha! Ha! Never a truer
thing said! Ha-ha-ha.” Argyle laughed his Mephistophelian tipsy laugh.
“They’ll teach you to save. Never was such a lot of ripe old savers!
Save their old trouser-buttons! Go to them if you want to learn to
save. Oh, yes, I advise it seriously. You’ll lose nothing--not even a
reputation.--You may lose a SOUL, of course. But that’s a detail, among
such a hoard of banknotes and trouser-buttons. Ha-ha! What’s a soul, to
them--?”

“What is it to you, is perhaps the more pertinent question,” said Algy,
flapping his eyelids like some crazy owl. “It is you who specialise in
the matter of soul, and we who are in need of enlightenment--”

“Yes, very true, you ARE! You ARE in need of enlightenment. A set of
benighted wise virgins. Ha-ha-ha! That’s good, that--benighted wise
virgins! What--” Argyle put his red face near to Aaron’s, and made a
_moue_, narrowing his eyes quizzically as he peered up from under his
level grey eyebrows. “Sit in the dark to save the lamp-oil--And all no
good to them.--When the bridegroom cometh--! Ha-ha! Good that! Good,
my boy!--The bridegroom--” he giggled to himself. “What about the
bridegroom, Algy, my boy? Eh? What about him? Better trim your wick, old
man, if it’s not too late--”

“We were talking of souls, not wicks, Argyle,” said Algy.

“Same thing. Upon my soul it all amounts to the same thing. Where’s the
soul in a man that hasn’t got a bedfellow--eh?--answer me that! Can’t be
done you know. Might as well ask a virgin chicken to lay you an egg.”

“Then there ought to be a good deal of it about,” said Algy.

“Of what? Of soul? There ought to be a good deal of soul about?--Ah,
because there’s a good deal of--, you mean.--Ah, I wish it were so. I
wish it were so. But, believe me, there’s far more damned chastity in
the world, than anything else. Even in this town.--Call it chastity, if
you like. I see nothing in it but sterility. It takes a rat to praise
long tails. Impotence set up the praise of chastity--believe me
or not--but that’s the bottom of it. The virtue is made out of the
necessity.--Ha-ha-ha!--Like them! Like them! Ha-ha! Saving their souls!
Why they’d save the waste matter of their bodies if they could. Grieves
them to part with it.--Ha! ha!--ha!”

There was a pause. Argyle was in his cups, which left no more to be
said. Algy, quivering and angry, looked disconcertingly round the
room as if he were quite calm and collected. The deaf Jewish Rosen was
smiling down his nose and saying: “What was that last? I didn’t catch
that last,” cupping his ear with his hand in the frantic hope that
someone would answer. No one paid any heed.

“I shall be going,” said Algy, looking round. Then to Aaron he said,
“You play the flute, I hear. May we hear you some time?”

“Yes,” said Aaron, non-committal.

“Well, look here--come to tea tomorrow. I shall have some friends, and
Del Torre will play the piano. Come to tea tomorrow, will you?”

“Thank you, I will.”

“And perhaps you’ll bring your flute along.”

“Don’t you do any such thing, my boy. Make them entertain YOU, for
once.--They’re always squeezing an entertainment out of somebody--”
 and Argyle desperately emptied the remains of Algy’s wine into his
own glass: whilst Algy stood as if listening to something far off, and
blinking terribly.

“Anyhow,” he said at length, “you’ll come, won’t you? And bring the
flute if you feel like it.”

“Don’t you take that flute, my boy,” persisted Argyle. “Don’t think of
such a thing. If they want a concert, let them buy their tickets and go
to the Teatro Diana. Or to Marchesa del Torre’s Saturday morning. She
can afford to treat them.” Algy looked at Argyle, and blinked. “Well,”
 he said. “I hope you’ll get home all right, Argyle.”

“Thank you for your courtesy, Algy. Won’t you lend me your arm?”

As Algy was small and frail, somewhat shaky, and as Argyle was a finely
built, heavy man of fifty or more, the slap was unkind.

“Afraid I can’t tonight. Good-night--”

Algy departed, so did little Mee, who had sat with a little delighted
disapproval on his tiny, bird-like face, without saying anything. And
even the Jew Rosen put away his deaf-machine and began awkwardly to take
his leave. His long nose was smiling to itself complacently at all the
things Argyle had been saying.

When he, too, had gone, Argyle arched his brows at Aaron, saying:

“Oh, my dear fellow, what a lot they are!--Little Mee--looking like an
innocent little boy. He’s over seventy if he’s a day. Well over seventy.
Well, you don’t believe me. Ask his mother--ask his mother. She’s
ninety-five. Old lady of ninety-five--” Argyle even laughed himself at
his own preposterousness.

“And then Algy--Algy’s not a fool, you know. Oh, he can be most
entertaining, most witty, and amusing. But he’s out of place here. He
should be in Kensington, dandling round the ladies’ drawing rooms and
making his _mots_. They’re rich, you know, the pair of them. Little Mee
used to boast that he lived on eleven-and-three-pence a week. Had to,
poor chap. But then what does a white mouse like that need? Makes a
heavy meal on a cheese-paring. Luck, you know--but of course he’s
come into money as well. Rich as Croesus, and still lives on
nineteen-and-two-pence a week. Though it’s nearly double, of course,
what it used to be. No wonder he looks anxious. They disapprove of
me--oh, quite right, quite right from their own point of view. Where
would their money be otherwise? It wouldn’t last long if I laid hands
on it--” he made a devilish quizzing face. “But you know, they get on
my nerves. Little old maids, you know, little old maids. I’m sure I’m
surprised at their patience with me.--But when people are patient
with you, you want to spit gall at them. Don’t you? Ha-ha-ha! Poor old
Algy.--Did I lay it on him tonight, or did I miss him?”

“I think you got him,” said Aaron.

“He’ll never forgive me. Depend on it, he’ll never forgive me. Ha-ha! I
like to be unforgiven. It adds ZEST to one’s intercourse with people, to
know that they’ll never forgive one. Ha-ha-ha! Little old maids, who do
their knitting with their tongues. Poor old Algy--he drops his stitches
now. Ha-ha-ha!--Must be eighty, I should say.”

Aaron laughed. He had never met a man like Argyle before--and he could
not help being charmed. The other man had a certain wicked whimsicality
that was very attractive, when levelled against someone else, and not
against oneself. He must have been very handsome in his day, with his
natural dignity, and his clean-shaven strong square face. But now his
face was all red and softened and inflamed, his eyes had gone small and
wicked under his bushy grey brows. Still he had a presence. And his grey
hair, almost gone white, was still handsome.

“And what are you going to do in Florence?” asked Argyle.

Aaron explained.

“Well,” said Argyle. “Make what you can out of them, and then go. Go
before they have time to do the dirty on you. If they think you want
anything from them, they’ll treat you like a dog, like a dog. Oh,
they’re very frightened of anybody who wants anything of them:
frightened to death. I see nothing of them.--Live by myself--see nobody.
Can’t stand it, you know: their silly little teaparties--simply can’t
stand it. No, I live alone--and shall die alone.--At least, I sincerely
hope so. I should be sorry to have any of them hanging round.”

The restaurant was empty, the pale, malarial waiter--he had of course
contracted malaria during the war--was looking purple round the eyes.
But Argyle callously sat on. Aaron therefore rose to his feet.

“Oh, I’m coming, I’m coming,” said Argyle.

He got unsteadily to his feet. The waiter helped him on with his coat:
and he put a disreputable-looking little curly hat on his head. Then he
took his stick.

“Don’t look at my appearance, my dear fellow,” said Argyle. “I am frayed
at the wrists--look here!” He showed the cuffs of his overcoat, just
frayed through. “I’ve got a trunkful of clothes in London, if only
somebody would bring it out to me.--Ready then! _Avanti!_”

And so they passed out into the still rainy street. Argyle lived in the
very centre of the town: in the Cathedral Square. Aaron left him at his
hotel door.

“But come and see me,” said Argyle. “Call for me at twelve o’clock--or
just before twelve--and let us have luncheon together. What! Is that
all right?--Yes, come just before twelve.--When?--Tomorrow? Tomorrow
morning? Will you come tomorrow?”

Aaron said he would on Monday.

“Monday, eh! You say Monday! Very well then. Don’t you forget now. Don’t
you forget. For I’ve a memory like a vice. _I_ shan’t forget.--Just
before twelve then. And come right up. I’m right under the roof. In
Paradise, as the porter always says. _Siamo nel paradiso_. But he’s
a _cretin_. As near Paradise as I care for, for it’s devilish hot in
summer, and damned cold in winter. Don’t you forget now--Monday, twelve
o’clock.”

And Argyle pinched Aaron’s arm fast, then went unsteadily up the steps
to his hotel door.

The next day at Algy’s there was a crowd Algy had a very pleasant flat
indeed, kept more scrupulously neat and finicking than ever any woman’s
flat was kept. So today, with its bowls of flowers and its pictures and
books and old furniture, and Algy, very nicely dressed, fluttering and
blinking and making really a charming host, it was all very delightful
to the little mob of visitors. They were a curious lot, it is true:
everybody rather exceptional. Which though it may be startling, is so
very much better fun than everybody all alike. Aaron talked to an old,
old Italian elegant in side-curls, who peeled off his grey gloves and
studied his formalities with a delightful Mid-Victorian dash, and told
stories about a _plaint_ which Lady Surry had against Lord Marsh, and
was quite incomprehensible. Out rolled the English words, like plums out
of a burst bag, and all completely unintelligible. But the old _beau_
was supremely satisfied. He loved talking English, and holding his
listeners spell-bound.

Next to Aaron on the sofa sat the Marchesa del Torre, an American woman
from the Southern States, who had lived most of her life in Europe. She
was about forty years of age, handsome, well-dressed, and quiet in the
buzz of the tea-party. It was evident she was one of Algy’s lionesses.
Now she sat by Aaron, eating nothing, but taking a cup of tea and
keeping still. She seemed sad--or not well perhaps. Her eyes were
heavy. But she was very carefully made up, and very well dressed, though
simply: and sitting there, full-bosomed, rather sad, remote-seeming, she
suggested to Aaron a modern Cleopatra brooding, Anthony-less.

Her husband, the Marchese, was a little intense Italian in a colonel’s
grey uniform, cavalry, leather gaiters. He had blue eyes, his hair was
cut very short, his head looked hard and rather military: he would have
been taken for an Austrian officer, or even a German, had it not been
for the peculiar Italian sprightliness and touch of grimace in his
mobile countenance. He was rather like a gnome--not ugly, but odd.

Now he came and stood opposite to Signor di Lanti, and quizzed him
in Italian. But it was evident, in quizzing the old buck, the little
Marchese was hovering near his wife, in ear-shot. Algy came up with
cigarettes, and she at once began to smoke, with that peculiar heavy
intensity of a nervous woman.

Aaron did not say anything--did not know what to say. He was peculiarly
conscious of the woman sitting next to him, her arm near his. She smoked
heavily, in silence, as if abstracted, a sort of cloud on her level,
dark brows. Her hair was dark, but a softish brown, not black, and her
skin was fair. Her bosom would be white.--Why Aaron should have had this
thought, he could not for the life of him say.

Manfredi, her husband, rolled his blue eyes and grimaced as he laughed
at old Lanti. But it was obvious that his attention was diverted
sideways, towards his wife. Aaron, who was tired of nursing a tea-cup,
placed in on a table and resumed his seat in silence. But suddenly the
little Marchese whipped out his cigarette-case, and making a little bow,
presented it to Aaron, saying:

“Won’t you smoke?”

“Thank you,” said Aaron.

“Turkish that side--Virginia there--you see.”

“Thank you, Turkish,” said Aaron.

The little officer in his dove-grey and yellow uniform snapped his box
shut again, and presented a light.

“You are new in Florence?” he said, as he presented the match.

“Four days,” said Aaron.

“And I hear you are musical.”

“I play the flute--no more.”

“Ah, yes--but then you play it as an artist, not as an accomplishment.”

“But how do you know?” laughed Aaron.

“I was told so--and I believe it.”

“That’s nice of you, anyhow--But you are a musician too.”

“Yes--we are both musicians--my wife and I.”

Manfredi looked at his wife. She flicked the ash off her cigarette.

“What sort?” said Aaron.

“Why, how do you mean, what sort? We are dilettanti, I suppose.”

“No--what is your instrument? The piano?”

“Yes--the pianoforte. And my wife sings. But we are very much out of
practice. I have been at the war four years, and we have had our home
in Paris. My wife was in Paris, she did not wish to stay in Italy alone.
And so--you see--everything goes--”

“But you will begin again?”

“Yes. We have begun already. We have music on Saturday mornings. Next
Saturday a string quartette, and violin solos by a young Florentine
woman--a friend--very good indeed, daughter of our Professor Tortoli,
who composes--as you may know--”

“Yes,” said Aaron.

“Would you care to come and hear--?”

“Awfully nice if you would--” suddenly said the wife, quite simply, as
if she had merely been tired, and not talking before.

“I should like to very much--”

“Do come then.”

While they were making the arrangements, Algy came up in his blandest
manner.

“Now Marchesa--might we hope for a song?”

“No--I don’t sing any more,” came the slow, contralto reply.

“Oh, but you can’t mean you say that deliberately--”

“Yes, quite deliberately--” She threw away her cigarette and opened her
little gold case to take another.

“But what can have brought you to such a disastrous decision?”

“I can’t say,” she replied, with a little laugh. “The war, probably.”

“Oh, but don’t let the war deprive us of this, as of everything else.”

“Can’t be helped,” she said. “I have no choice in the matter. The bird
has flown--” She spoke with a certain heavy languor.

“You mean the bird of your voice? Oh, but that is quite impossible. One
can hear it calling out of the leaves every time you speak.”

“I’m afraid you can’t get him to do any more than call out of the
leaves.”

“But--but--pardon me--is it because you don’t intend there should be any
more song? Is that your intention?”

“That I couldn’t say,” said the Marchesa, smoking, smoking.

“Yes,” said Manfredi. “At the present time it is because she WILL
not--not because she cannot. It is her will, as you say.”

“Dear me! Dear me!” said Algy. “But this is really another disaster
added to the war list.--But--but--will none of us ever be able to
persuade you?” He smiled half cajoling, half pathetic, with a prodigious
flapping of his eyes.

“I don’t know,” said she. “That will be as it must be.”

“Then can’t we say it must be SONG once more?”

To this sally she merely laughed, and pressed out her half-smoked
cigarette.

“How very disappointing! How very cruel of--of fate--and the
war--and--and all the sum total of evils,” said Algy.

“Perhaps--” here the little and piquant host turned to Aaron.

“Perhaps Mr. Sisson, your flute might call out the bird of song. As
thrushes call each other into challenge, you know. Don’t you think that
is very probable?”

“I have no idea,” said Aaron.

“But you, Marchesa. Won’t you give us hope that it might be so?”

“I’ve no idea, either,” said she. “But I should very much like to hear
Mr. Sisson’s flute. It’s an instrument I like extremely.”

“There now. You see you may work the miracle, Mr. Sisson. Won’t you play
to us?”

“I’m afraid I didn’t bring my flute along,” said Aaron “I didn’t want to
arrive with a little bag.”

“Quite!” said Algy. “What a pity it wouldn’t go in your pocket.”

“Not music and all,” said Aaron.

“Dear me! What a _comble_ of disappointment. I never felt so strongly,
Marchesa, that the old life and the old world had collapsed.--Really--I
shall soon have to try to give up being cheerful at all.”

“Don’t do that,” said the Marchesa. “It isn’t worth the effort.”

“Ah! I’m glad you find it so. Then I have hope.”

She merely smiled, indifferent.

The teaparty began to break up--Aaron found himself going down the
stairs with the Marchesa and her husband. They descended all three in
silence, husband and wife in front. Once outside the door, the husband
asked:

“How shall we go home, dear? Tram or carriage--?” It was evident he was
economical.

“Walk,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at Aaron. “We are all going
the same way, I believe.”

Aaron said where he lived. They were just across the river. And so all
three proceeded to walk through the town.

“You are sure it won’t be too much for you--too far?” said the little
officer, taking his wife’s arm solicitously. She was taller than he. But
he was a spirited fellow.

“No, I feel like walking.”

“So long as you don’t have to pay for it afterwards.”

Aaron gathered that she was not well. Yet she did not look ill--unless
it were nerves. She had that peculiar heavy remote quality of
pre-occupation and neurosis.

The streets of Florence were very full this Sunday evening, almost
impassable, crowded particularly with gangs of grey-green soldiers. The
three made their way brokenly, and with difficulty. The Italian was in a
constant state of returning salutes. The grey-green, sturdy, unsoldierly
soldiers looked at the woman as she passed.

“I am sure you had better take a carriage,” said Manfredi.

“No--I don’t mind it.”

“Do you feel at home in Florence?” Aaron asked her.

“Yes--as much as anywhere. Oh, yes--quite at home.”

“Do you like it as well as anywhere?” he asked.

“Yes--for a time. Paris for the most part.”

“Never America?”

“No, never America. I came when I was quite a little girl to
Europe--Madrid--Constantinople--Paris. I hardly knew America at all.”

Aaron remembered that Francis had told him, the Marchesa’s father had
been ambassador to Paris.

“So you feel you have no country of your own?”

“I have Italy. I am Italian now, you know.”

Aaron wondered why she spoke so muted, so numbed. Manfredi seemed really
attached to her--and she to him. They were so simple with one another.

They came towards the bridge where they should part.

“Won’t you come and have a cocktail?” she said.

“Now?” said Aaron.

“Yes. This is the right time for a cocktail. What time is it, Manfredi?”

“Half past six. Do come and have one with us,” said the Italian. “We
always take one about this time.”

Aaron continued with them over the bridge. They had the first floor of
an old palazzo opposite, a little way up the hill. A man-servant opened
the door.

“If only it will be warm,” she said. “The apartment is almost impossible
to keep warm. We will sit in the little room.”

Aaron found himself in a quite warm room with shaded lights and a
mixture of old Italian stiffness and deep soft modern comfort. The
Marchesa went away to take off her wraps, and the Marchese chatted with
Aaron. The little officer was amiable and kind, and it was evident he
liked his guest.

“Would you like to see the room where we have music?” he said. “It is
a fine room for the purpose--we used before the war to have music
every Saturday morning, from ten to twelve: and all friends might come.
Usually we had fifteen or twenty people. Now we are starting again. I
myself enjoy it so much. I am afraid my wife isn’t so enthusiastic as
she used to be. I wish something would rouse her up, you know. The war
seemed to take her life away. Here in Florence are so many amateurs.
Very good indeed. We can have very good chamber-music indeed. I hope it
will cheer her up and make her quite herself again. I was away for such
long periods, at the front.--And it was not good for her to be alone.--I
am hoping now all will be better.”

So saying, the little, odd officer switched on the lights of the
long salon. It was a handsome room in the Italian mode of the Empire
period--beautiful old faded tapestry panels--reddish--and some ormolu
furniture--and other things mixed in--rather conglomerate, but pleasing,
all the more pleasing. It was big, not too empty, and seemed to belong
to human life, not to show and shut-upedness. The host was happy showing
it.

“Of course the flat in Paris is more luxurious than this,” he said. “But
I prefer this. I prefer it here.” There was a certain wistfulness as he
looked round, then began to switch off the lights.

They returned to the little salotta. The Marchesa was seated in a low
chair. She wore a very thin white blouse, that showed her arms and her
throat. She was a full-breasted, soft-skinned woman, though not stout.

“Make the cocktails then, Manfredi,” she said. “Do you find this room
very cold?” she asked of Aaron.

“Not a bit cold,” he said.

“The stove goes all the time,” she said, “but without much effect.”

“You wear such thin clothes,” he said.

“Ah, no, the stove should give heat enough. Do sit down. Will you smoke?
There are cigarettes--and cigars, if you prefer them.”

“No, I’ve got my own, thanks.”

She took her own cigarette from her gold case.

“It is a fine room, for music, the big room,” said he.

“Yes, quite. Would you like to play for us some time, do you think?”

“Do you want me to? I mean does it interest you?”

“What--the flute?”

“No--music altogether--”

“Music altogether--! Well! I used to love it. Now--I’m not sure.
Manfredi lives for it, almost.”

“For that and nothing else?” asked Aaron.

“No, no! No, no! Other things as well.”

“But you don’t like it much any more?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps I don’t. I’m not sure.”

“You don’t look forward to the Saturday mornings?” he asked.

“Perhaps I don’t--but for Manfredi’s sake, of course, I do. But for his
sake more than my own, I admit. And I think he knows it.”

“A crowd of people in one’s house--” said Aaron.

“Yes, the people. But it’s not only that. It’s the music itself--I think
I can’t stand it any more. I don’t know.”

“Too emotional? Too much feeling for you?”

“Yes, perhaps. But no. What I can’t stand is chords, you know:
harmonies. A number of sounds all sounding together. It just makes me
ill. It makes me feel so sick.”

“What--do you want discords?--dissonances?”

“No--they are nearly as bad. No, it’s just when any number of musical
notes, different notes, come together, harmonies or discords. Even a
single chord struck on the piano. It makes me feel sick. I just feel as
if I should retch. Isn’t it strange? Of course, I don’t tell Manfredi.
It would be too cruel to him. It would cut his life in two.”

“But then why do you have the music--the Saturdays--then?”

“Oh, I just keep out of the way as much as possible. I’m sure you feel
there is something wrong with me, that I take it as I do,” she added, as
if anxious: but half ironical.

“No--I was just wondering--I believe I feel something the same myself. I
know orchestra makes me blind with hate or I don’t know what. But I want
to throw bombs.”

“There now. It does that to me, too. Only now it has fairly got me down,
and I feel nothing but helpless nausea. You know, like when you are
seasick.”

Her dark-blue, heavy, haunted-looking eyes were resting on him as if
she hoped for something. He watched her face steadily, a curious
intelligence flickering on his own.

“Yes,” he said. “I understand it. And I know, at the bottom, I’m like
that. But I keep myself from realising, don’t you know? Else perhaps,
where should I be? Because I make my life and my living at it, as well.”

“At music! Do you! But how bad for you. But perhaps the flute is
different. I have a feeling that it is. I can think of one single
pipe-note--yes, I can think of it quite, quite calmly. And I can’t even
think of the piano, or of the violin with its tremolo, or of orchestra,
or of a string quartette--or even a military band--I can’t think of
it without a shudder. I can only bear drum-and-fife. Isn’t it crazy of
me--but from the other, from what we call music proper, I’ve endured too
much. But bring your flute one day. Bring it, will you? And let me hear
it quite alone. Quite, quite alone. I think it might do me an awful lot
of good. I do, really. I can imagine it.” She closed her eyes and her
strange, sing-song lapsing voice came to an end. She spoke almost like
one in a trance--or a sleep-walker.

“I’ve got it now in my overcoat pocket,” he said, “if you like.”

“Have you? Yes!” She was never hurried: always slow and resonant, so
that the echoes of her voice seemed to linger. “Yes--do get it. Do get
it. And play in the other room--quite--quite without accompaniment.
Do--and try me.”

“And you will tell me what you feel?”

“Yes.”

Aaron went out to his overcoat. When he returned with his flute, which
he was screwing together, Manfredi had come with the tray and the three
cocktails. The Marchesa took her glass.

“Listen, Manfredi,” she said. “Mr. Sisson is going to play, quite alone
in the sala. And I am going to sit here and listen.”

“Very well,” said Manfredi. “Drink your cocktail first. Are you going to
play without music?”

“Yes,” said Aaron.

“I’ll just put on the lights for you.”

“No--leave it dark. Enough light will come in from here.”

“Sure?” said Manfredi.

“Yes.”

The little soldier was an intruder at the moment. Both the others felt
it so. But they bore him no grudge. They knew it was they who were
exceptional, not he. Aaron swallowed his drink, and looked towards the
door.

“Sit down, Manfredi. Sit still,” said the Marchesa.

“Won’t you let me try some accompaniment?” said the soldier.

“No. I shall just play a little thing from memory,” said Aaron.

“Sit down, dear. Sit down,” said the Marchesa to her husband.

He seated himself obediently. The flash of bright yellow on the grey of
his uniform seemed to make him like a chaffinch or a gnome.

Aaron retired to the other room, and waited awhile, to get back the
spell which connected him with the woman, and gave the two of them this
strange isolation, beyond the bounds of life, as it seemed.

He caught it again. And there, in the darkness of the big room, he put
his flute to his lips, and began to play. It was a clear, sharp, lilted
run-and-fall of notes, not a tune in any sense of the word, and yet
a melody, a bright, quick sound of pure animation, a bright, quick,
animate noise, running and pausing. It was like a bird’s singing, in
that it had no human emotion or passion or intention or meaning--a
ripple and poise of animate sound. But it was unlike a bird’s singing,
in that the notes followed clear and single one after the other, in
their subtle gallop. A nightingale is rather like that--a wild sound.
To read all the human pathos into nightingales’ singing is nonsense.
A wild, savage, non-human lurch and squander of sound, beautiful, but
entirely unaesthetic.

What Aaron was playing was not of his own invention. It was a bit of
mediaeval phrasing written for the pipe and the viol. It made the piano
seem a ponderous, nerve-wracking steam-roller of noise, and the violin,
as we know it, a hateful wire-drawn nerve-torturer.

After a little while, when he entered the smaller room again, the
Marchesa looked full into his face.

“Good!” she said. “Good!”

And a gleam almost of happiness seemed to light her up. She seemed like
one who had been kept in a horrible enchanted castle--for years and
years. Oh, a horrible enchanted castle, with wet walls of emotions and
ponderous chains of feelings and a ghastly atmosphere of must-be. She
felt she had seen through the opening door a crack of sunshine, and
thin, pure, light outside air, outside, beyond this dank and
beastly dungeon of feelings and moral necessity. Ugh!--she shuddered
convulsively at what had been. She looked at her little husband. Chains
of necessity all round him: a little jailor. Yet she was fond of him.
If only he would throw away the castle keys. He was a little gnome. What
did he clutch the castle-keys so tight for?

Aaron looked at her. He knew that they understood one another, he and
she. Without any moral necessity or any other necessity. Outside--they
had got outside the castle of so-called human life. Outside the
horrible, stinking human castle Of life. A bit of true, limpid freedom.
Just a glimpse.

“Charming!” said the Marchese. “Truly charming! But what was it you
played?”

Aaron told him.

“But truly delightful. I say, won’t you play for us one of these
Saturdays? And won’t you let me take the accompaniment? I should be
charmed, charmed if you would.”

“All right,” said Aaron.

“Do drink another cocktail,” said his hostess.

He did so. And then he rose to leave.

“Will you stay to dinner?” said the Marchesa. “We have two people
coming--two Italian relatives of my husband. But--”

No, Aaron declined to stay to dinner.

“Then won’t you come on--let me see--on Wednesday? Do come on Wednesday.
We are alone. And do bring the flute. Come at half-past six, as today,
will you? Yes?”

Aaron promised--and then he found himself in the street. It was
half-past seven. Instead of returning straight home, he crossed the
Ponte Vecchio and walked straight into the crowd. The night was fine
now. He had his overcoat over his arm, and in a sort of trance or
frenzy, whirled away by his evening’s experience, and by the woman, he
strode swiftly forward, hardly heeding anything, but rushing blindly on
through all the crowd, carried away by his own feelings, as much as if
he had been alone, and all these many people merely trees.

Leaving the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele a gang of soldiers suddenly rushed
round him, buffeting him in one direction, whilst another gang, swinging
round the corner, threw him back helpless again into the midst of the
first gang. For some moments he struggled among the rude, brutal little
mob of grey-green coarse uniforms that smelt so strong of soldiers.
Then, irritated, he found himself free again, shaking himself and
passing on towards the cathedral. Irritated, he now put on his overcoat
and buttoned it to the throat, closing himself in, as it were, from the
brutal insolence of the Sunday night mob of men. Before, he had been
walking through them in a rush of naked feeling, all exposed to their
tender mercies. He now gathered himself together.

As he was going home, suddenly, just as he was passing the Bargello,
he stopped. He stopped, and put his hand to his breast pocket. His
letter-case was gone. He had been robbed. It was as if lightning ran
through him at that moment, as if a fluid electricity rushed down his
limbs, through the sluice of his knees, and out at his feet, leaving
him standing there almost unconscious. For a moment unconscious and
superconscious he stood there. He had been robbed. They had put their
hand in his breast and robbed him. If they had stabbed him, it could
hardly have had a greater effect on him.

And he had known it. He had known it. When the soldiers jostled him so
evilly they robbed him. And he knew it. He had known it as if it were
fate. Even as if it were fated beforehand.

Feeling quite weak and faint, as if he had really been struck by some
evil electric fluid, he walked on. And as soon as he began to walk, he
began to reason. Perhaps his letter-case was in his other coat. Perhaps
he had not had it with him at all. Perhaps he was feeling all this, just
for nothing. Perhaps it was all folly.

He hurried forward. He wanted to make sure. He wanted relief. It was
as if the power of evil had suddenly seized him and thrown him, and he
wanted to say it was not so, that he had imagined it all, conjured it
up. He did not want to admit the power of evil--particularly at that
moment. For surely a very ugly evil spirit had struck him, in the midst
of that gang of Italian soldiers. He knew it--it had pierced him. It had
_got_ him.

But he wanted to say it was not so. Reaching the house, he hastened
upwards to his far-off, lonely room, through the dark corridors. Once
in his own apartment, he shut the door and switched on the light, a
sensation like fear at his heart. Then he searched his other pockets. He
looked everywhere. In vain.

In vain, truly enough. For he _knew_ the thing was stolen. He had known
it all along. The soldiers had deliberately plotted, had deliberately
rushed him and taken his purse. They must have watched him previously.
They must have grinned, and jeered at him.

He sat down in a chair, to recover from the shock. The pocket-book
contained four hundred francs, three one-pound notes, and various
letters and private effects. Well, these were lost. But it was not so
much the loss as the assault on his person that caused him to feel
so stricken. He felt the jeering, gibing blows they had given as they
jostled him.

And now he sat, weak in every limb, and said to himself: “Yes--and if I
hadn’t rushed along so full of feeling: if I hadn’t exposed myself: if
I hadn’t got worked up with the Marchesa, and then rushed all kindled
through the streets, without reserve, it would never have happened. I
gave myself away: and there was someone ready to snatch what I gave. I
gave myself away. It is my own fault. I should have been on my guard.
I should be always on my guard: always, always. With God and the devil
both, I should be on my guard. Godly or devilish, I should hold fast to
my reserve and keep on the watch. And if I don’t, I deserve what I get.”

But still he sat in his chair in his bedroom, dazed. One part of his
soul was saying emphatically: It serves you right. It is nothing but
right. It serves everybody right who rushes enkindled through the
street, and trusts implicitly in mankind and in the life-spirit, as if
mankind and the life-spirit were a playground for enkindled individuals.
It serves you right. You have paid about twelve pounds sterling for your
lesson. Fool, you might have known beforehand, and then you needn’t have
paid at all. You can ill afford twelve pounds sterling, you fool. But
since paid you have, then mind, mind the lesson is learned. Never
again. Never expose yourself again. Never again absolute trust. It is
a blasphemy against life, is absolute trust. Has a wild creature ever
absolute trust? It minds itself. Sleeping or waking it is on its guard.
And so must you be, or you’ll go under. Sleeping or waking, man or
woman, God or the devil, keep your guard over yourself. Keep your guard
over yourself, lest worse befall you. No man is robbed unless he incites
a robber. No man is murdered unless he attracts a murderer. Then be not
robbed: it lies within your own power. And be not murdered. Or if you
are, you deserve it. Keep your guard over yourself, now, always and
forever. Yes, against God quite as hard as against the devil. He’s fully
as dangerous to you....

Thus thinking, not in his mind but in his soul, his active, living soul,
he gathered his equanimity once more, and accepted the fact. So he rose
and tidied himself for dinner. His face was now set, and still. His
heart also was still--and fearless. Because its sentinel was stationed.
Stationed, stationed for ever.

And Aaron never forgot. After this, it became essential to him to feel
that the sentinel stood guard in his own heart. He felt a strange unease
the moment he was off his guard. Asleep or awake, in the midst of the
deepest passion or the suddenest love, or in the throes of greatest
excitement or bewilderment, somewhere, some corner of himself was awake
to the fact that the sentinel of the soul must not sleep, no, never, not
for one instant.



CHAPTER XVII. HIGH UP OVER THE CATHEDRAL SQUARE


Aaron and Lilly sat in Argyle’s little loggia, high up under the eaves
of the small hotel, a sort of long attic-terrace just under the roof,
where no one would have suspected it. It was level with the grey conical
roof of the Baptistery. Here sat Aaron and Lilly in the afternoon, in
the last of the lovely autumn sunshine. Below, the square was
already cold in shadow, the pink and white and green Baptistery rose
lantern-shaped as from some sea-shore, cool, cold and wan now the sun
was gone. Black figures, innumerable black figures, curious because they
were all on end, up on end--Aaron could not say why he expected them to
be horizontal--little black figures upon end, like fishes that swim on
their tails, wiggled endlessly across the piazza, little carriages on
natural all-fours rattled tinily across, the yellow little tram-cars,
like dogs slipped round the corner. The balcony was so high up, that
the sound was ineffectual. The upper space, above the houses, was
nearer than the under-currents of the noisy town. Sunlight, lovely full
sunlight, lingered warm and still on the balcony. It caught the facade
of the cathedral sideways, like the tips of a flower, and sideways lit
up the stem of Giotto’s tower, like a lily stem, or a long, lovely pale
pink and white and green pistil of the lily of the cathedral. Florence,
the flowery town. Firenze--Fiorenze--the flowery town: the red lilies.
The Fiorentini, the flower-souled. Flowers with good roots in the mud
and muck, as should be: and fearless blossoms in air, like the cathedral
and the tower and the David.

“I love it,” said Lilly. “I love this place, I love the cathedral and
the tower. I love its pinkness and its paleness. The Gothic souls find
fault with it, and say it is gimcrack and tawdry and cheap. But I love
it, it is delicate and rosy, and the dark stripes are as they should be,
like the tiger marks on a pink lily. It’s a lily, not a rose; a pinky
white lily with dark tigery marks. And heavy, too, in its own substance:
earth-substance, risen from earth into the air: and never forgetting
the dark, black-fierce earth--I reckon here men for a moment were
themselves, as a plant in flower is for the moment completely itself.
Then it goes off. As Florence has gone off. No flowers now. But it HAS
flowered. And I don’t see why a race should be like an aloe tree, flower
once and die. Why should it? Why not flower again? Why not?”

“If it’s going to, it will,” said Aaron. “Our deciding about it won’t
alter it.”

“The decision is part of the business.”

Here they were interrupted by Argyle, who put his head through one of
the windows. He had flecks of lather on his reddened face.

“Do you think you’re wise now,” he said, “to sit in that sun?”

“In November?” laughed Lilly.

“Always fear the sun when there’s an ‘r’ in the month,” said Argyle.
“Always fear it ‘r’ or no ‘r,’ _I_ say. I’m frightened of it. I’ve been
in the South, I know what it is. I tell you I’m frightened of it. But if
you think you can stand it--well--”

“It won’t last much longer, anyhow,” said Lilly.

“Too long for me, my boy. I’m a shady bird, in all senses of the word,
in all senses of the word.--Now are you comfortable? What? Have another
cushion? A rug for your knees? You’re quite sure now? Well, wait just
one moment till the waiter brings up a syphon, and you shall have a
whiskey and soda. Precious--oh, yes, very precious these days--like
drinking gold. Thirty-five lire a bottle, my boy!” Argyle pulled a long
face, and made a noise with his lips. “But I had this bottle given me,
and luckily you’ve come while there’s a drop left. Very glad you have!
Very glad you have.”

Here he poked a little table through the window, and put a bottle and
two glasses, one a tooth-glass, upon it. Then he withdrew again to
finish shaving. The waiter presently hobbled up with the syphon and
third glass. Argyle pushed his head through the window, that was only
a little higher than the balcony. He was soon neatly shaved, and was
brushing his hair.

“Go ahead, my boys, go ahead with that whiskey!” he said.

“We’ll wait for you,” said Lilly.

“No, no, don’t think of it. However, if you will, I shall be one minute
only--one minute only. I’ll put on the water for the tea now. Oh, damned
bad methylated spirit they sell now! And six francs a litre! Six francs
a litre! I don’t know what I’m going to do, the air I breathe costs
money nowadays--Just one moment and I’ll be with you! Just one moment--”

In a very little while he came from the tiny attic bedroom, through
the tiniest cupboard of a sitting-room under the eaves, where his
books were, and where he had hung his old red India tapestries--or silk
embroideries--and he emerged there up above the world on the loggia.

“Now then--_siamo nel paradiso_, eh? Paradisal enough for you, is it?”

“The devil looking over Lincoln,” said Lilly laughing, glancing up into
Argyle’s face.

“The devil looking over Florence would feel sad,” said Argyle. “The
place is fast growing respectable--Oh, piety makes the devil chuckle.
But respectability, my boy, argues a serious diminution of spunk. And
when the spunk diminishes we-ell--it’s enough to make the most sturdy
devil look sick. What? No doubt about it, no doubt whatever--There--!”
 he had just finished settling his tie and buttoning his waistcoat. “How
do I look, eh? Presentable?--I’ve just had this suit turned. Clever
little tailor across the way there. But he charged me a hundred and
twenty francs.” Argyle pulled a face, and made the little trumping noise
with his lips. “However--not bad, is it?--He had to let in a bit at the
back of the waistcoat, and a gusset, my boy, a gusset--in the trousers
back. Seems I’ve grown in the arsal region. Well, well, might do
worse.--Is it all right?”

Lilly eyed the suit.

“Very nice. Very nice indeed. Such a good cloth! That makes all the
difference.”

“Oh, my dear fellow, all the difference! This suit is eleven years
old--eleven years old. But beautiful English cloth--before the war,
before the war!”

“It looks quite wonderfully expensive and smart now,” said Lilly.

“Expensive and smart, eh! Ha-ha-ha! Well, it cost me a hundred and
twenty francs to have it turned, and I found that expensive enough.
Well, now, come--” here Argyle’s voice took on a new gay cheer. “A
whiskey and soda, Lilly? Say when! Oh, nonsense, nonsense! You’re going
to have double that. You’re no lily of the valley here, remember. Not
with me. Not likely. _Siamo nel paradiso_, remember.”

“But why should we drink your whiskey? Tea would do for us just as
well.”

“Not likely! Not likely! When I have the pleasure of your company, my
boy, we drink a glass of something, unless I am utterly stripped. Say
when, Aaron.”

“When,” said Aaron.

Argyle at last seated himself heavily in a small chair. The sun had left
the loggia, but was glowing still on Giotto’s tower and the top of the
cathedral facade, and on the remoter great red-tiled dome.

“Look at my little red monthly rose,” said Argyle. “Wonderful little
fellow! I wouldn’t have anything happen to him for the world. Oh, a
bacchic little chap. I made Pasquale wear a wreath of them on his hair.
Very becoming they were, very.--Oh, I’ve had a charming show of flowers.
Wonderful creatures sunflowers are.” They got up and put their heads
over the balcony, looking down on the square below. “Oh, great fun,
great fun.--Yes, I had a charming show of flowers, charming.--Zinnias,
petunias, ranunculus, sunflowers, white stocks--oh, charming. Look at
that bit of honeysuckle. You see the berries where his flowers were!
Delicious scent, I assure you.”

Under the little balcony wall Argyle had put square red-tiled pots, all
round, and in these still bloomed a few pansies and asters, whilst in a
corner a monthly rose hung flowers like round blood-drops. Argyle was
as tidy and scrupulous in his tiny rooms and his balcony as if he were a
first-rate sea-man on a yacht. Lilly remarked on this.

“Do you see signs of the old maid coming out in me? Oh, I don’t doubt
it. I don’t doubt it. We all end that way. Age makes old maids of us
all. And Tanny is all right, you say? Bring her to see me. Why didn’t
she come today?”

“You know you don’t like people unless you expect them.”

“Oh, but my dear fellow!--You and Tanny; you’d be welcome if you came
at my busiest moment. Of course you would. I’d be glad to see you if you
interrupted me at any crucial moment.--I am alone now till August. Then
we shall go away together somewhere. But you and Tanny; why, there’s the
world, and there’s Lilly: that’s how I put it, my boy.”

“All right, Argyle.--Hoflichkeiten.”

“What? Gar keine Hoflichkeiten. Wahrhaftiger Kerl bin ich.--When am I
going to see Tanny? When are you coming to dine with me?”

“After you’ve dined with us--say the day after tomorrow.”

“Right you are. Delighted--. Let me look if that water’s boiling.”
 He got up and poked half himself inside the bedroom. “Not yet. Damned
filthy methylated spirit they sell.”

“Look,” said Lilly. “There’s Del Torre!”

“Like some sort of midge, in that damned grey-and-yellow uniform. I
can’t stand it, I tell you. I can’t stand the sight of any more of these
uniforms. Like a blight on the human landscape. Like a blight. Like
green-flies on rose-trees, smother-flies. Europe’s got the smother-fly
in these infernal shoddy militarists.”

“Del Torre’s coming out of it as soon as he can,” said Lilly.

“I should think so, too.”

“I like him myself--very much. Look, he’s seen us! He wants to come up,
Argyle.”

“What, in that uniform! I’ll see him in his grandmother’s crinoline
first.”

“Don’t be fanatical, it’s bad taste. Let him come up a minute.”

“Not for my sake. But for yours, he shall,” Argyle stood at the parapet
of the balcony and waved his arm. “Yes, come up,” he said, “come up, you
little mistkafer--what the Americans call a bug. Come up and be damned.”

Of course Del Torre was too far off to hear this exhortation. Lilly also
waved to him--and watched him pass into the doorway far below.

“I’ll rinse one of these glasses for him,” said Argyle.

The Marchese’s step was heard on the stone stairs: then his knock.

“Come in! Come in!” cried Argyle from the bedroom, where he was rinsing
the glass. The Marchese entered, grinning with his curious, half
courteous greeting. “Go through--go through,” cried Argyle. “Go on to
the loggia--and mind your head. Good heavens, mind your head in that
doorway.”

The Marchese just missed the top of the doorway as he climbed the abrupt
steps on to the loggia.--There he greeted Lilly and Aaron with hearty
handshakes.

“Very glad to see you--very glad, indeed!” he cried, grinning with
excited courtesy and pleasure, and covering Lilly’s hand with both his
own gloved hands. “When did you come to Florence?”

There was a little explanation. Argyle shoved the last chair--it was a
luggage stool--through the window.

“All I can do for you in the way of a chair,” he said.

“Ah, that is all right,” said the Marchese. “Well, it is very nice
up here--and very nice company. Of the very best, the very best in
Florence.”

“The highest, anyhow,” said Argyle grimly, as he entered with the glass.
“Have a whiskey and soda, Del Torre. It’s the bottom of the bottle, as
you see.”

“The bottom of the bottle! Then I start with the tail-end, yes!” He
stretched his blue eyes so that the whites showed all round, and grinned
a wide, gnome-like grin.

“You made that start long ago, my dear fellow. Don’t play the _ingenue_
with me, you know it won’t work. Say when, my man, say when!”

“Yes, when,” said Del Torre. “When did I make that start, then?”

“At some unmentionably young age. Chickens such as you soon learn to
cheep.”

“Chickens such as I soon learn to cheap,” repeated Del Torre, pleased
with the verbal play. “What is cheap, please? What is TO CHEAP?”

“Cheep! Cheep!” squeaked Argyle, making a face at the little Italian,
who was perched on one strap of the luggage-stool. “It’s what chickens
say when they’re poking their little noses into new adventures--naughty
ones.”

“Are chickens naughty? Oh! I thought they could only be good!”

“Featherless chickens like yourself, my boy.”

“Oh, as for featherless--then there is no saying what they will do.--”
 And here the Marchese turned away from Argyle with the inevitable
question to Lilly:

“Well, and how long will you stay in Florence?”

Lilly did not know: but he was not leaving immediately.

“Good! Then you will come and see us at once....”

Argyle rose once more, and went to make the tea. He shoved a lump of
cake--or rather panetone, good currant loaf--through the window, with a
knife to cut it.

“Help yourselves to the panetone,” he said. “Eat it up. The tea is
coming at once. You’ll have to drink it in your glasses, there’s only
one old cup.”

The Marchese cut the cake, and offered pieces. The two men took and ate.

“So you have already found Mr. Sisson!” said Del Torre to Lilly.

“Ran straight into him in the Via Nazionale,” said Lilly.

“Oh, one always runs into everybody in Florence. We are all already
acquainted: also with the flute. That is a great pleasure.”

“So I think.--Does your wife like it, too?”

“Very much, indeed! She is quite _eprise_. I, too, shall have to learn
to play it.”

“And run the risk of spoiling the shape of your mouth--like Alcibiades.”

“Is there a risk? Yes! Then I shan’t play it. My mouth is too
beautiful.--But Mr. Sisson has not spoilt his mouth.”

“Not yet,” said Lilly. “Give him time.”

“Is he also afraid--like Alcibiades?”

“Are you, Aaron?” said Lilly.

“What?”

“Afraid of spoiling your beauty by screwing your mouth to the flute?”

“I look a fool, do I, when I’m playing?” said Aaron.

“Only the least little bit in the world,” said Lilly. “The way you
prance your head, you know, like a horse.”

“Ah, well,” said Aaron. “I’ve nothing to lose.”

“And were you surprised, Lilly, to find your friend here?” asked Del
Torre.

“I ought to have been. But I wasn’t really.”

“Then you expected him?”

“No. It came naturally, though.--But why did you come, Aaron? What
exactly brought you?”

“Accident,” said Aaron.

“Ah, no! No! There is no such thing as accident,” said the Italian. “A
man is drawn by his fate, where he goes.”

“You are right,” said Argyle, who came now with the teapot. “A man is
drawn--or driven. Driven, I’ve found it. Ah, my dear fellow, what is
life but a search for a friend? A search for a friend--that sums it up.”

“Or a lover,” said the Marchese, grinning.

“Same thing. Same thing. My hair is white--but that is the sum of my
whole experience. The search for a friend.” There was something at once
real and sentimental in Argyle’s tone.

“And never finding?” said Lilly, laughing.

“Oh, what would you? Often finding. Often finding. And losing, of
course.--A life’s history. Give me your glass. Miserable tea, but nobody
has sent me any from England--”

“And you will go on till you die, Argyle?” said Lilly. “Always seeking a
friend--and always a new one?”

“If I lose the friend I’ve got. Ah, my dear fellow, in that case I shall
go on seeking. I hope so, I assure you. Something will be very wrong
with me, if ever I sit friendless and make no search.”

“But, Argyle, there is a time to leave off.”

“To leave off what, to leave off what?”

“Having friends: or a friend, rather: or seeking to have one.”

“Oh, no! Not at all, my friend. Not at all! Only death can make an end
of that, my friend. Only death. And I should say, not even death. Not
even death ends a man’s search for a friend. That is my belief. You may
hang me for it, but I shall never alter.”

“Nay,” said Lilly. “There is a time to love, and a time to leave off
loving.”

“All I can say to that is that my time to leave off hasn’t come yet,”
 said Argyle, with obstinate feeling.

“Ah, yes, it has. It is only a habit and an idea you stick to.”

“Indeed, it is no such thing. Indeed, it is no such thing. It is a
profound desire and necessity: and what is more, a belief.”

“An obstinate persistency, you mean,” said Lilly.

“Well, call it so if it pleases you. It is by no means so to me.” There
was a brief pause. The sun had left the cathedral dome and the tower,
the sky was full of light, the square swimming in shadow.

“But can a man live,” said the Marchese, “without having something he
lives for: something he wishes for, or longs for, and tries that he may
get?”

“Impossible! Completely impossible!” said Argyle. “Man is a seeker, and
except as such, he has no significance, no importance.”

“He bores me with his seeking,” said Lilly. “He should learn to possess
himself--to be himself--and keep still.”

“Ay, perhaps so,” said Aaron. “Only--”

“But my dear boy, believe me, a man is never himself save in the supreme
state of love: or perhaps hate, too, which amounts to the same thing.
Never really himself.--Apart from this he is a tram-driver or a
money-shoveller or an idea-machine. Only in the state of love is he
really a man, and really himself. I say so, because I know,” said
Argyle.

“Ah, yes. That is one side of the truth. It is quite true, also. But it
is just as true to say, that a man is never less himself, than in the
supreme state of love. Never less himself, than then.”

“Maybe! Maybe! But what could be better? What could be better than to
lose oneself with someone you love, entirely, and so find yourself. Ah,
my dear fellow, that is my creed, that is my creed, and you can’t shake
me in it. Never in that. Never in that.”

“Yes, Argyle,” said Lilly. “I know you’re an obstinate love-apostle.”

“I am! I am! And I have certain standards, my boy, and certain ideals
which I never transgress. Never transgress. And never abandon.”

“All right, then, you are an incurable love-maker.”

“Pray God I am,” said Argyle.

“Yes,” said the Marchese. “Perhaps we are all so. What else do you give?
Would you have us make money? Or do you give the centre of your spirit
to your work? How is it to be?”

“I don’t vitally care either about money or my work or--” Lilly
faltered.

“Or what, then?”

“Or anything. I don’t really care about anything. Except that--”

“You don’t care about anything? But what is that for a life?” cried the
Marchese, with a hollow mockery.

“What do YOU care for?” asked Lilly.

“Me? I care for several things. I care for my wife. I care for love. And
I care to be loved. And I care for some pleasures. And I care for music.
And I care for Italy.”

“You are well off for cares,” said Lilly.

“And you seem to me so very poor,” said Del Torre.

“I should say so--if he cares for nothing,” interjaculated Argyle. Then
he clapped Lilly on the shoulder with a laugh. “Ha! Ha! Ha!--But he only
says it to tease us,” he cried, shaking Lilly’s shoulder. “He cares more
than we do for his own way of loving. Come along, don’t try and take
us in. We are old birds, old birds,” said Argyle. But at that moment he
seemed a bit doddering.

“A man can’t live,” said the Italian, “without an object.”

“Well--and that object?” said Lilly.

“Well--it may be many things. Mostly it is two things.--love, and money.
But it may be many things: ambition, patriotism, science, art--many
things. But it is some objective. Something outside the self. Perhaps
many things outside the self.”

“I have had only one objective all my life,” said Argyle. “And that was
love. For that I have spent my life.”

“And the lives of a number of other people, too,” said Lilly.

“Admitted. Oh, admitted. It takes two to make love: unless you’re a
miserable--”

“Don’t you think,” said Aaron, turning to Lilly, “that however you try
to get away from it, if you’re not after money, and can’t fit yourself
into a job--you’ve got to, you’ve got to try and find something
else--somebody else--somebody. You can’t really be alone.”

“No matter how many mistakes you’ve made--you can’t really be alone--?”
 asked Lilly.

“You can be alone for a minute. You can be alone just in that minute
when you’ve broken free, and you feel heart thankful to be alone,
because the other thing wasn’t to be borne. But you can’t keep on being
alone. No matter how many tunes you’ve broken free, and feel, thank God
to be alone (nothing on earth is so good as to breathe fresh air and be
alone), no matter how many times you’ve felt this--it wears off every
time, and you begin to look again--and you begin to roam round. And
even if you won’t admit it to yourself, still you are seeking--seeking.
Aren’t you? Aren’t you yourself seeking?”

“Oh, that’s another matter,” put in Argyle. “Lilly is happily married
and on the shelf. With such a fine woman as Tanny I should think
so--RATHER! But his is an exceptional nature, and an exceptional case.
As for me, I made a hell of my marriage, and I swear it nearly sent me
to hell. But I didn’t forswear love, when I forswore marriage and woman.
Not by ANY means.”

“Are you not seeking any more, Lilly?” asked the Marchese. “Do you seek
nothing?”

“We married men who haven’t left our wives, are we supposed to seek
anything?” said Lilly. “Aren’t we perfectly satisfied and in bliss with
the wonderful women who honour us as wives?”

“Ah, yes, yes!” said the Marchese. “But now we are not speaking to the
world. Now we try to speak of that which we have in our centre of our
hearts.”

“And what have we there?” said Lilly.

“Well--shall I say? We have unrest. We have another need. We have
something that hurts and eats us, yes, eats us inside. Do I speak the
truth?”

“Yes. But what is the something?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. But it is something in love, I think. It is
love itself which gnaws us inside, like a cancer,” said the Italian.

“But why should it? Is that the nature of love?” said Lilly.

“I don’t know. Truly. I don’t know.--But perhaps it is in the nature of
love--I don’t know.--But I tell you, I love my wife--she is very dear
to me. I admire her, I trust her, I believe her. She is to me much more
than any woman, more even than my mother.--And so, I am very happy. I am
very happy, she is very happy, in our love and our marriage.--But wait.
Nothing has changed--the love has not changed: it is the same.--And yet
we are NOT happy. No, we are not happy. I know she is not happy, I know
I am not--”

“Why should you be?” said Lilly.

“Yes--and it is not even happiness,” said the Marchese, screwing up his
face in a painful effort of confession. “It is not even happiness. No,
I do not ask to be happy. Why should I? It is childish--but there is for
both of us, I know it, something which bites us, which eats us within,
and drives us, drives us, somewhere, we don’t know where. But it drives
us, and eats away the life--and yet we love each other, and we must not
separate--Do you know what I mean? Do you understand me at all in what I
say? I speak what is true.”

“Yes, I understand. I’m in the same dilemma myself.--But what I want to
hear, is WHY you think it is so. Why is it?”

“Shall I say what I think? Yes? And you can tell me if it is foolish to
you.--Shall I tell you? Well. Because a woman, she now first wants the
man, and he must go to her because he is wanted. Do you understand?--You
know--supposing I go to a woman--supposing she is my wife--and I go to
her, yes, with my blood all ready, because it is I who want. Then she
puts me off. Then she says, not now, not now, I am tired, I am not well.
I do not feel like it. She puts me off--till I am angry or sorry or
whatever I am--but till my blood has gone down again, you understand,
and I don’t want her any more. And then she puts her arms round me, and
caresses me, and makes love to me--till she rouses me once more. So, and
so she rouses me--and so I come to her. And I love her, it is very good,
very good. But it was she who began, it was her initiative, you know.--I
do not think, in all my life, my wife has loved me from my initiative,
you know. She will yield to me--because I insist, or because she wants
to be a good submissive wife who loves me. So she will yield to me. But
ah, what is it, you know? What is it a woman who allows me, and who has
no answer? It is something worse than nothing--worse than nothing. And
so it makes me very discontented and unbelieving.--If I say to her, she
says it is not true--not at all true. Then she says, all she wants is
that I should desire her, that I should love her and desire her. But
even that is putting her will first. And if I come to her so, if I come
to her of my own desire, then she puts me off. She puts me off, or she
only allows me to come to her. Even now it is the same after ten years,
as it was at first. But now I know, and for many years I did not know--”

The little man was intense. His face was strained, his blue eyes so
stretched that they showed the whites all round. He gazed into Lilly’s
face.

“But does it matter?” said Lilly slowly, “in which of you the desire
initiates? Isn’t the result the same?”

“It matters. It matters--” cried the Marchese.

“Oh, my dear fellow, how MUCH it matters--” interrupted Argyle sagely.

“Ay!” said Aaron.

The Marchese looked from one to the other of them.

“It matters!” he cried. “It matters life or death. It used to be, that
desire started in the man, and the woman answered. It used to be so for
a long time in Italy. For this reason the women were kept away from the
men. For this reason our Catholic religion tried to keep the young girls
in convents, and innocent, before marriage. So that with their minds
they should not know, and should not start this terrible thing, this
woman’s desire over a man, beforehand. This desire which starts in a
woman’s head, when she knows, and which takes a man for her use, for her
service. This is Eve. Ah, I hate Eve. I hate her, when she knows, and
when she WILLS. I hate her when she will make of me that which serves
her desire.--She may love me, she may be soft and kind to me, she may
give her life for me. But why? Only because I am HERS. I am that thing
which does her most intimate service. She can see no other in me. And I
may be no other to her--”

“Then why not let it be so, and be satisfied?” said Lilly.

“Because I cannot. I cannot. I would. But I cannot. The Borghesia--the
citizens--the bourgeoisie, they are the ones who can. Oh, yes. The
bourgeoisie, the shopkeepers, these serve their wives so, and their
wives love them. They are the marital maquereaux--the husband-maquereau,
you know. Their wives are so stout and happy, and they dote on their
husbands and always betray them. So it is with the bourgeoise. She loves
her husband so much, and is always seeking to betray him. Or she is a
Madame Bovary, seeking for a scandal. But the bourgeois husband, he goes
on being the same. He is the horse, and she the driver. And when she
says gee-up, you know--then he comes ready, like a hired maquereau. Only
he feels so good, like a good little boy at her breast. And then there
are the nice little children. And so they keep the world going.--But for
me--” he spat suddenly and with frenzy on the floor.

“You are quite right, my boy,” said Argyle. “You are quite right.
They’ve got the start of us, the women: and we’ve got to canter when
they say gee-up. I--oh, I went through it all. But I broke the shafts
and smashed the matrimonial cart, I can tell you, and I didn’t care
whether I smashed her up along with it or not. I didn’t care one single
bit, I assure you.--And here I am. And she is dead and buried these
dozen years. Well--well! Life, you know, life. And women oh, they are
the very hottest hell once they get the start of you. There’s NOTHING
they won’t do to you, once they’ve got you. Nothing they won’t do to
you. Especially if they love you. Then you may as well give up the
ghost: or smash the cart behind you, and her in it. Otherwise she will
just harry you into submission, and make a dog of you, and cuckold you
under your nose. And you’ll submit. Oh, you’ll submit, and go on calling
her my darling. Or else, if you won’t submit, she’ll do for you. Your
only chance is to smash the shafts, and the whole matrimonial cart. Or
she’ll do for you. For a woman has an uncanny, hellish strength--she’s
a she-bear and a wolf, is a woman when she’s got the start of you. Oh,
it’s a terrible experience, if you’re not a bourgeois, and not one of
the knuckling-under money-making sort.”

“Knuckling-under sort. Yes. That is it,” said the Marchese.

“But can’t there be a balancing of wills?” said Lilly.

“My dear boy, the balance lies in that, that when one goes up, the other
goes down. One acts, the other takes. It is the only way in love--And
the women are nowadays the active party. Oh, yes, not a shadow of doubt
about it. They take the initiative, and the man plays up. That’s how it
is. The man just plays up.--Nice manly proceeding, what!” cried Argyle.

“But why can’t man accept it as the natural order of things?” said
Lilly. “Science makes it the natural order.”

“All my ---- to science,” said Argyle. “No man with one drop of real
spunk in him can stand it long.”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” cried the Italian. “Most men want it so. Most men want
only, that a woman shall want them, and they shall then play up to her
when she has roused them. Most men want only this: that a woman shall
choose one man out, to be her man, and he shall worship her and come
up when she shall provoke him. Otherwise he is to keep still. And the
woman, she is quite sure of her part. She must be loved and adored, and
above all, obeyed, particularly in her sex desire. There she must not
be thwarted, or she becomes a devil. And if she is obeyed, she becomes a
misunderstood woman with nerves, looking round for the next man whom she
can bring under. So it is.”

“Well,” said Lilly. “And then what?”

“Nay,” interrupted Aaron. “But do you think it’s true what he says?
Have you found it like that? You’re married. Has your experience been
different, or the same?”

“What was yours?” asked Lilly.

“Mine was the same. Mine was the same, if ever it was,” said Aaron.

“And mine was EXTREMELY similar,” said Argyle with a grimace.

“And yours, Lilly?” asked the Marchese anxiously.

“Not very different,” said Lilly.

“Ah!” cried Del Torre, jerking up erect as if he had found something.

“And what’s your way out?” Aaron asked him.

“I’m not out--so I won’t holloa,” said Lilly. “But Del Torre puts it
best.--What do you say is the way out, Del Torre?”

“The way out is that it should change: that the man should be the asker
and the woman the answerer. It must change.”

“But it doesn’t. Prrr!” Argyle made his trumpeting noise.

“Does it?” asked Lilly of the Marchese.

“No. I think it does not.”

“And will it ever again?”

“Perhaps never.”

“And then what?”

“Then? Why then man seeks a _pis-aller_. Then he seeks something which
will give him answer, and which will not only draw him, draw him, with a
terrible sexual will.--So he seeks young girls, who know nothing, and so
cannot force him. He thinks he will possess them while they are young,
and they will be soft and responding to his wishes.--But in this, too,
he is mistaken. Because now a baby of one year, if it be a female, is
like a woman of forty, so is its will made up, so it will force a man.”

“And so young girls are no good, even as a _pis-aller_.”

“No good--because they are all modern women. Every one, a modern woman.
Not one who isn’t.”

“Terrible thing, the modern woman,” put in Argyle.

“And then--?”

“Then man seeks other forms of loves, always seeking the loving
response, you know, of one gentler and tenderer than himself, who will
wait till the man desires, and then will answer with full love.--But it
is all _pis-aller_, you know.”

“Not by any means, my boy,” cried Argyle.

“And then a man naturally loves his own wife, too, even if it is not
bearable to love her.”

“Or one leaves her, like Aaron,” said Lilly.

“And seeks another woman, so,” said the Marchese.

“Does he seek another woman?” said Lilly. “Do you, Aaron?”

“I don’t WANT to,” said Aaron. “But--I can’t stand by myself in the
middle of the world and in the middle of people, and know I am quite by
myself, and nowhere to go, and nothing to hold on to. I can for a day
or two--But then, it becomes unbearable as well. You get frightened. You
feel you might go funny--as you would if you stood on this balcony wall
with all the space beneath you.”

“Can’t one be alone--quite alone?” said Lilly.

“But no--it is absurd. Like Saint Simeon Stylites on a pillar. But it is
absurd!” cried the Italian.

“I don’t mean like Simeon Stylites. I mean can’t one live with one’s
wife, and be fond of her: and with one’s friends, and enjoy their
company: and with the world and everything, pleasantly: and yet KNOW
that one is alone? Essentially, at the very core of me, alone. Eternally
alone. And choosing to be alone. Not sentimental or LONELY. Alone,
choosing to be alone, because by one’s own nature one is alone. The
being with another person is secondary,” said Lilly.

“One is alone,” said Argyle, “in all but love. In all but love, my dear
fellow. And then I agree with you.”

“No,” said Lilly, “in love most intensely of all, alone.”

“Completely incomprehensible,” said Argyle. “Amounts to nothing.”

“One man is but a part. How can he be so alone?” said the Marchese.

“In so far as he is a single individual soul, he IS alone--ipso facto.
In so far as I am I, and only I am I, and I am only I, in so far, I am
inevitably and eternally alone, and it is my last blessedness to
know it, and to accept it, and to live with this as the core of my
self-knowledge.”

“My dear boy, you are becoming metaphysical, and that is as bad as
softening of the brain,” said Argyle.

“All right,” said Lilly.

“And,” said the Marchese, “it may be so by REASON. But in the heart--?
Can the heart ever beat quite alone? Plop! Plop!--Can the heart beat
quite alone, alone in all the atmosphere, all the space of the universe?
Plop! Plop! Plop!--Quite alone in all the space?” A slow smile came over
the Italian’s face. “It is impossible. It may eat against the heart of
other men, in anger, all in pressure against the others. It may beat
hard, like iron, saying it is independent. But this is only beating
against the heart of mankind, not alone.--But either with or against
the heart of mankind, or the heart of someone, mother, wife, friend,
children--so must the heart of every man beat. It is so.”

“It beats alone in its own silence,” said Lilly.

The Italian shook his head.

“We’d better be going inside, anyhow,” said Argyle. “Some of you will be
taking cold.”

“Aaron,” said Lilly. “Is it true for you?”

“Nearly,” said Aaron, looking into the quiet, half-amused, yet
frightening eyes of the other man. “Or it has been.”

“A miss is as good as a mile,” laughed Lilly, rising and picking up his
chair to take it indoors. And the laughter of his voice was so like a
simple, deliberate amiability, that Aaron’s heart really stood still
for a second. He knew that Lilly was alone--as far as he, Aaron, was
concerned. Lilly was alone--and out of his isolation came his words,
indifferent as to whether they came or not. And he left his friends
utterly to their own choice. Utterly to their own choice. Aaron felt
that Lilly was _there_, existing in life, yet neither asking for
connection nor preventing any connection. He was present, he was the
real centre of the group. And yet he asked nothing of them, and he
imposed nothing. He left each to himself, and he himself remained just
himself: neither more nor less. And there was a finality about it, which
was at once maddening and fascinating. Aaron felt angry, as if he were
half insulted by the other man’s placing the gift of friendship or
connection so quietly back in the giver’s hands. Lilly would receive no
gift of friendship in equality. Neither would he violently refuse it. He
let it lie unmarked. And yet at the same time Aaron knew that he could
depend on the other man for help, nay, almost for life itself--so long
as it entailed no breaking of the intrinsic isolation of Lilly’s
soul. But this condition was also hateful. And there was also a great
fascination in it.



CHAPTER XVIII. THE MARCHESA


So Aaron dined with the Marchesa and Manfredi. He was quite startled
when his hostess came in: she seemed like somebody else. She seemed like
a demon, her hair on her brows, her terrible modern elegance. She wore
a wonderful gown of thin blue velvet, of a lovely colour, with some kind
of gauzy gold-threaded filament down the sides. It was terribly modern,
short, and showed her legs and her shoulders and breast and all her
beautiful white arms. Round her throat was a collar of dark-blue
sapphires. Her hair was done low, almost to the brows, and heavy, like
an Aubrey Beardsley drawing. She was most carefully made up--yet with
that touch of exaggeration, lips slightly too red, which was quite
intentional, and which frightened Aaron. He thought her wonderful, and
sinister. She affected him with a touch of horror. She sat down opposite
him, and her beautifully shapen legs, in frail, goldish stockings,
seemed to glisten metallic naked, thrust from out of the wonderful,
wonderful skin, like periwinkle-blue velvet. She had tapestry shoes,
blue and gold: and almost one could see her toes: metallic naked. The
gold-threaded gauze slipped at her side. Aaron could not help watching
the naked-seeming arch of her foot. It was as if she were dusted with
dark gold-dust upon her marvellous nudity.

She must have seen his face, seen that he was _ebloui_.

“You brought the flute?” she said, in that toneless, melancholy,
unstriving voice of hers. Her voice alone was the same: direct and bare
and quiet.

“Yes.”

“Perhaps I shall sing later on, if you’ll accompany me. Will you?”

“I thought you hated accompaniments.”

“Oh, no--not just unison. I don’t mean accompaniment. I mean unison. I
don’t know how it will be. But will you try?”

“Yes, I’ll try.”

“Manfredi is just bringing the cocktails. Do you think you’d prefer
orange in yours?”

“Ill have mine as you have yours.”

“I don’t take orange in mine. Won’t you smoke?”

The strange, naked, remote-seeming voice! And then the beautiful firm
limbs thrust out in that dress, and nakedly dusky as with gold-dust. Her
beautiful woman’s legs, slightly glistening, duskily. His one abiding
instinct was to touch them, to kiss them. He had never known a woman to
exercise such power over him. It was a bare, occult force, something he
could not cope with.

Manfredi came in with the little tray. He was still in uniform.

“Hello!” cried the little Italian. “Glad to see you--well, everything
all right? Glad to hear it. How is the cocktail, Nan?”

“Yes,” she said. “All right.”

“One drop too much peach, eh?”

“No, all right.”

“Ah,” and the little officer seated himself, stretching his gaitered
legs as if gaily. He had a curious smiling look on his face, that
Aaron thought also diabolical--and almost handsome. Suddenly the odd,
laughing, satanic beauty of the little man was visible.

“Well, and what have you been doing with yourself?” said he. “What did
you do yesterday?”

“Yesterday?” said Aaron. “I went to the Uffizi.”

“To the Uffizi? Well! And what did you think of it?”

“Very fine.”

“I think it is. I think it is. What pictures did you look at?”

“I was with Dekker. We looked at most, I believe.”

“And what do you remember best?”

“I remember Botticelli’s Venus on the Shell.”

“Yes! Yes!--” said Manfredi. “I like her. But I like others better. You
thought her a pretty woman, yes?”

“No--not particularly pretty. But I like her body. And I like the fresh
air. I like the fresh air, the summer sea-air all through it--through
her as well.”

“And her face?” asked the Marchesa, with a slow, ironic smile.

“Yes--she’s a bit baby-faced,” said Aaron.

“Trying to be more innocent than her own common-sense will let her,”
 said the Marchesa.

“I don’t agree with you, Nan,” said her husband. “I think it is just
that wistfulness and innocence which makes her the true Venus: the
true modern Venus. She chooses NOT to know too much. And that is her
attraction. Don’t you agree, Aaron? Excuse me, but everybody speaks of
you as Aaron. It seems to come naturally. Most people speak of me as
Manfredi, too, because it is easier, perhaps, than Del Torre. So if you
find it easier, use it. Do you mind that I call you Aaron?”

“Not at all. I hate Misters, always.”

“Yes, so do I. I like one name only.”

The little officer seemed very winning and delightful to Aaron this
evening--and Aaron began to like him extremely. But the dominating
consciousness in the room was the woman’s.

“DO you agree, Mr. Sisson?” said the Marchesa. “Do you agree that the
mock-innocence and the sham-wistfulness of Botticelli’s Venus are her
great charms?”

“I don’t think she is at all charming, as a person,” said Aaron. “As
a particular woman, she makes no impression on me at all. But as a
picture--and the fresh air, particularly the fresh air. She doesn’t seem
so much a woman, you know, as the kind of out-of-doors morning-feelings
at the seaside.”

“Quite! A sort of sea-scape of a woman. With a perfectly sham innocence.
Are you as keen on innocence as Manfredi is?”

“Innocence?” said Aaron. “It’s the sort of thing I don’t have much
feeling about.”

“Ah, I know you,” laughed the soldier wickedly. “You are the sort of man
who wants to be Anthony to Cleopatra. Ha-ha!”

Aaron winced as if struck. Then he too smiled, flattered. Yet he felt
he had been struck! Did he want to be Anthony to Cleopatra? Without
knowing, he was watching the Marchesa. And she was looking away, but
knew he was watching her. And at last she turned her eyes to his, with a
slow, dark smile, full of pain and fuller still of knowledge. A strange,
dark, silent look of knowledge she gave him: from so far away, it
seemed. And he felt all the bonds that held him melting away. His eyes
remained fixed and gloomy, but with his mouth he smiled back at her. And
he was terrified. He knew he was sulking towards her--sulking towards
her. And he was terrified. But at the back of his mind, also, he knew
there was Lilly, whom he might depend on. And also he wanted to sink
towards her. The flesh and blood of him simply melted out, in desire
towards her. Cost what may, he must come to her. And yet he knew at the
same time that, cost what may, he must keep the power to recover himself
from her. He must have his cake and eat it.

And she became Cleopatra to him. “Age cannot wither, nor custom stale--”
 To his instinctive, unwilled fancy, she was Cleopatra.

They went in to dinner, and he sat on her right hand. It was a smallish
table, with a very few daisy-flowers: everything rather frail, and
sparse. The food the same--nothing very heavy, all rather exquisite.
They drank hock. And he was aware of her beautiful arms, and her bosom;
her low-crowded, thick hair, parted in the centre: the sapphires on her
throat, the heavy rings on her fingers: and the paint on her lips,
the fard. Something deep, deep at the bottom of him hovered upon her,
cleaved to her. Yet he was as if sightless, in a stupor. Who was she,
what was she? He had lost all his grasp. Only he sat there, with his
face turned to hers, or to her, all the time. And she talked to him. But
she never looked at him.

Indeed she said little. It was the husband who talked. His manner
towards Aaron was almost caressive. And Aaron liked it. The woman was
silent mostly, and seemed remote. And Aaron felt his life ebb towards
her. He felt the marvellousness, the rich beauty of her arms and breast.
And the thought of her gold-dusted smooth limbs beneath the table made
him feel almost an idiot.

The second wine was a gold-coloured Moselle, very soft and rich and
beautiful. She drank this with pleasure, as one who understands. And for
dessert there was a dish of cacchi--that orange-coloured, pulpy Japanese
fruit--persimmons. Aaron had never eaten these before. Soft, almost
slimy, of a wonderful colour, and of a flavour that had sunk from harsh
astringency down to that first decay-sweetness which is all autumn-rich.
The Marchese loved them, and scooped them out with his spoon. But she
ate none.

Aaron did not know what they talked about, what was said. If someone had
taken his mind away altogether, and left him with nothing but a body and
a spinal consciousness, it would have been the same.

But at coffee the talk turned to Manfredi’s duties. He would not be free
from the army for some time yet. On the morrow, for example, he had to
be out and away before it was day. He said he hated it, and wanted to
be a free man once more. But it seemed to Aaron he would be a very bored
man, once he was free. And then they drifted on to talk of the palazzo
in which was their apartment.

“We’ve got such a fine terrace--you can see it from your house where you
are,” said Manfredi. “Have you noticed it?”

“No,” said Aaron.

“Near that tuft of palm-trees. Don’t you know?”

“No,” said Aaron.

“Let us go out and show it him,” said the Marchesa.

Manfredi fetched her a cloak, and they went through various doors, then
up some steps. The terrace was broad and open. It looked straight across
the river at the opposite Lungarno: and there was the thin-necked tower
of the Palazzo Vecchio, and the great dome of the cathedral in the
distance, in shadow-bulk in the cold-aired night of stars. Little trams
were running brilliant over the flat new bridge on the right. And from a
garden just below rose a tuft of palm-trees.

“You see,” said the Marchesa, coming and standing close to Aaron, so
that she just touched him, “you can know the terrace, just by these palm
trees. And you are in the Nardini just across there, are you? On the top
floor, you said?”

“Yes, the top floor--one of the middle windows, I think.”

“One that is always open now--and the others are shut. I have noticed
it, not connecting it with you.”

“Yes, my window is always open.”

She was leaning very slightly against him, as he stood. And he knew,
with the same kind of inevitability with which he knew he would one
day die, that he would be the lover of this woman. Nay, that he was her
lover already.

“Don’t take cold,” said Manfredi.

She turned at once indoors. Aaron caught a faint whiff of perfume from
the little orange trees in tubs round the wall.

“Will you get the flute?” she said as they entered.

“And will you sing?” he answered.

“Play first,” she said.

He did as she wished. As the other night, he went into the big
music-room to play. And the stream of sound came out with the quick wild
imperiousness of the pipe. It had an immediate effect on her. She seemed
to relax the peculiar, drug-like tension which was upon her at all
ordinary times. She seemed to go still, and yielding. Her red mouth
looked as if it might moan with relief. She sat with her chin dropped
on her breast, listening. And she did not move. But she sat softly,
breathing rather quick, like one who has been hurt, and is soothed. A
certain womanly naturalness seemed to soften her.

And the music of the flute came quick, rather brilliant like a
call-note, or like a long quick message, half command. To her it was
like a pure male voice--as a blackbird’s when he calls: a pure male
voice, not only calling, but telling her something, telling her
something, and soothing her soul to sleep. It was like the fire-music
putting Brunnhilde to sleep. But the pipe did not flicker and sink. It
seemed to cause a natural relaxation in her soul, a peace. Perhaps it
was more like waking to a sweet, morning awakening, after a night of
tormented, painful tense sleep. Perhaps more like that.

When Aaron came in, she looked at him with a gentle, fresh smile that
seemed to make the fard on her face look like a curious tiredness, which
now she might recover from. And as the last time, it was difficult for
her to identify this man with the voice of the flute. It was rather
difficult. Except that, perhaps, between his brows was something of a
doubt, and in his bearing an aloofness that made her dread he might go
away and not come back. She could see it in him, that he might go away
and not come back.

She said nothing to him, only just smiled. And the look of knowledge in
her eyes seemed, for the moment, to be contained in another look: a look
of faith, and at last happiness. Aaron’s heart stood still. No, in her
moment’s mood of faith and at last peace, life-trust, he was perhaps
more terrified of her than in her previous sinister elegance. His spirit
started and shrank. What was she going to ask of him?

“I am so anxious that you should come to play one Saturday morning,”
 said Manfredi. “With an accompaniment, you know. I should like so much
to hear you with piano accompaniment.”

“Very well,” said Aaron.

“Will you really come? And will you practise with me, so that I can
accompany you?” said Manfredi eagerly.

“Yes. I will,” said Aaron.

“Oh, good! Oh, good! Look here, come in on Friday morning and let us
both look through the music.”

“If Mr. Sisson plays for the public,” said the Marchesa, “he must not do
it for charity. He must have the proper fee.”

“No, I don’t want it,” said Aaron.

“But you must earn money, mustn’t you?” said she.

“I must,” said Aaron. “But I can do it somewhere else.”

“No. If you play for the public, you must have your earnings. When you
play for me, it is different.”

“Of course,” said Manfredi. “Every man must have his wage. I have mine
from the Italian government---”

After a while, Aaron asked the Marchesa if she would sing.

“Shall I?” she said.

“Yes, do.”

“Then I will sing alone first, to let you see what you think of it--I
shall be like Trilby--I won’t say like Yvette Guilbert, because I
daren’t. So I will be like Trilby, and sing a little French song. Though
not Malbrouck, and without a Svengali to keep me in tune.”

She went near the door, and stood with heir hands by her side. There was
something wistful, almost pathetic now, in her elegance.


                    “Derriere chez mon pere
                      _Vole vole mon coeur, vole_!
                     Derriere chez mon pere
                     Il y a un pommier doux.
                       _Tout doux, et iou
                        Et iou, tout doux.
                        Il y a unpommier doux_.

                     Trois belles princesses
                      _Vole vole mon coeur, vole_!
                     Trois belles princesses
                     Sont assis dessous.
                      _Tout doux, et iou
                       Et iou, tout doux.
                       Sont asses dessous._”


She had a beautiful, strong, sweet voice. But it was faltering,
stumbling and sometimes it seemed to drop almost to speech. After three
verses she faltered to an end, bitterly chagrined.

“No,” she said. “It’s no good. I can’t sing.” And she dropped in her
chair.

“A lovely little tune,” said Aaron. “Haven’t you got the music?”

She rose, not answering, and found him a little book.

“What do the words mean?” he asked her.

She told him. And then he took his flute.

“You don’t mind if I play it, do you?” he said.

So he played the tune. It was so simple. And he seemed to catch the lilt
and the timbre of her voice.

“Come and sing it while I play--” he said.

“I can’t sing,” she said, shaking her head rather bitterly.

“But let us try,” said he, disappointed.

“I know I can’t,” she said. But she rose.

He remained sitting at the little table, the book propped up under the
reading lamp. She stood at a little distance, unhappy.

“I’ve always been like that,” she said. “I could never sing music,
unless I had a thing drilled into me, and then it wasn’t singing any
more.”

But Aaron wasn’t heeding. His flute was at his mouth, he was watching
her. He sounded the note, but she did not begin. She was twisting her
handkerchief. So he played the melody alone. At the end of the verse,
he looked up at her again, and a half mocking smile played in his
eyes. Again he sounded the note, a challenge. And this time, as at his
bidding, she began to sing. The flute instantly swung with a lovely soft
firmness into the song, and she wavered only for a minute or two. Then
her soul and her voice got free, and she sang--she sang as she wanted to
sing, as she had always wanted to sing, without that awful scotch, that
impediment inside her own soul, which prevented her.

She sang free, with the flute gliding along with her. And oh, how
beautiful it was for her! How beautiful it was to sing the little song
in the sweetness of her own spirit. How sweet it was to move pure and
unhampered at last in the music! The lovely ease and lilt of her own
soul in its motion through the music! She wasn’t aware of the flute. She
didn’t know there was anything except her own pure lovely song-drift.
Her soul seemed to breathe as a butterfly breathes, as it rests on a
leaf and slowly breathes its wings. For the first time! For the first
time her soul drew its own deep breath. All her life, the breath had
caught half-way. And now she breathed full, deep, to the deepest extent
of her being.

And oh, it was so wonderful, she was dazed. The song ended, she stood
with a dazed, happy face, like one just coming awake. And the fard
on her face seemed like the old night-crust, the bad sleep. New and
luminous she looked out. And she looked at Aaron with a proud smile.

“Bravo, Nan! That was what you wanted,” said her husband.

“It was, wasn’t it?” she said, turning a wondering, glowing face to him.

His face looked strange and withered and gnome-like, at the moment.

She went and sat in her chair, quite silent, as if in a trance. The
two men also sat quite still. And in the silence a little drama played
itself between the three, of which they knew definitely nothing. But
Manfredi knew that Aaron had done what he himself never could do, for
this woman. And yet the woman was his own woman, not Aaron’s. And so, he
was displaced. Aaron, sitting there, glowed with a sort of triumph. He
had performed a little miracle, and felt himself a little wonder-worker,
to whom reverence was due. And as in a dream the woman sat, feeling what
a joy it was to float and move like a swan in the high air, flying upon
the wings of her own spirit. She was as a swan which never before could
get its wings quite open, and so which never could get up into the open,
where alone it can sing. For swans, and storks make their music only
when they are high, high up in the air. Then they can give sound to
their strange spirits. And so, she.

Aaron and Manfredi kept their faces averted from one another and hardly
spoke to one another. It was as if two invisible hands pushed their
faces apart, away, averted. And Aaron’s face glimmered with a little
triumph, and a little grimace of obstinacy. And the Italian’s face
looked old, rather monkey-like, and of a deep, almost stone-bare
bitterness. The woman looked wondering from one man to the
other--wondering. The glimmer of the open flower, the wonder-look, still
lasted. And Aaron said in his heart, what a goodly woman, what a woman
to taste and enjoy. Ah, what a woman to enjoy! And was it not his
privilege? Had he not gained it?

His manhood, or rather his maleness, rose powerfully in him, in a sort
of mastery. He felt his own power, he felt suddenly his own virile title
to strength and reward. Suddenly, and newly flushed with his own male
super-power, he was going to have his reward. The woman was his reward.
So it was, in him. And he cast it over in his mind. He wanted her--ha,
didn’t he! But the husband sat there, like a soap-stone Chinese monkey,
greyish-green. So, it would have to be another time.

He rose, therefore, and took his leave.

“But you’ll let us do that again, won’t you?” said she.

“When you tell me, I’ll come,” said he.

“Then I’ll tell you soon,” said she.

So he left, and went home to his own place, and there to his own remote
room. As he laid his flute on the table he looked at it and smiled. He
remembered that Lilly had called it Aaron’s Rod.

“So you blossom, do you?--and thorn as well,” said he.

For such a long time he had been gripped inside himself, and withheld.
For such a long time it had been hard and unyielding, so hard and
unyielding. He had wanted nothing, his desire had kept itself back, fast
back. For such a long time his desire for woman had withheld itself,
hard and resistant. All his deep, desirous blood had been locked, he had
wanted nobody, and nothing. And it had been hard to live, so. Without
desire, without any movement of passionate love, only gripped back in
recoil! That was an experience to endure.

And now came his desire back. But strong, fierce as iron. Like the
strength of an eagle with the lightning in its talons. Something to
glory in, something overweening, the powerful male passion, arrogant,
royal, Jove’s thunderbolt. Aaron’s black rod of power, blossoming again
with red Florentine lilies and fierce thorns. He moved about in the
splendour of his own male lightning, invested in the thunder of the male
passion-power. He had got it back, the male godliness, the male godhead.

So he slept, and dreamed violent dreams of strange, black strife,
something like the street-riot in Milan, but more terrible. In the
morning, however, he cared nothing about his dreams. As soon as it was
really light, he rose, and opened his window wide. It was a grey, slow
morning. But he saw neither the morning nor the river nor the woman
walking on the gravel river-bed with her goose nor the green hill up to
San Miniato. He watched the tuft of palm-trees, and the terrace beside
it. He could just distinguish the terrace clearly, among the green of
foliage. So he stood at his window for a full hour, and did not move.
Motionless, planted, he stood and watched that terrace across above the
Arno. But like a statue.

After an hour or so, he looked at his watch. It was nine o’clock. So he
rang for his coffee, and meanwhile still stood watching the terrace
on the hill. He felt his turn had come. The phoenix had risen in fire
again, out of the ashes.

Therefore at ten o’clock he went over the bridge. He wrote on the back
of his card a request, would she please let him have the little book of
songs, that he might practise them over. The manservant went, and came
back with the request that Aaron should wait. So Aaron entered, while
the man took his hat.

The manservant spoke only French and Spanish, no English. He was
a Spaniard, with greyish hair and stooping shoulders, and dark,
mute-seeming eyes. He spoke as little as possible. The Marchesa had
inherited him from her father.

Aaron sat in the little sitting-room and waited. After a rather long
time the Marchesa came in--wearing a white, thin blouse and a blue
skirt. She was hardly made up at all. She had an odd pleased, yet
brooding look on her face as she gave Aaron her hand. Something brooded
between her brows. And her voice was strange, with a strange, secret
undertone, that he could not understand. He looked up at her. And his
face was bright, and his knees, as he sat, were like the knees of the
gods.

“You wanted the book of _chansons_?” she said.

“I wanted to learn your tunes,” he replied.

“Yes. Look--here it is!” And she brought him the little yellow book. It
was just a hand-book, with melody and words only, no accompaniment. So
she stood offering him the book, but waiting as if for something else,
and standing as if with another meaning.

He opened the leaves at random.

“But I ought to know which ones you sing,” said he, rising and standing
by her side with the open book.

“Yes,” she said, looking over his arm. He turned the pages one by one.
“_Trois jeunes tambours_,” said she. “Yes, that.... Yes, _En passant
par la Lorraine_.... _Aupres de ma blonde_.... Oh, I like that one so
much--” He stood and went over the tune in his mind.

“Would you like me to play it?” he said.

“Very much,” said she.

So he got his flute, propped up the book against a vase, and played the
tune, whilst she hummed it fragmentarily. But as he played, he felt that
he did not cast the spell over her. There was no connection. She was in
some mysterious way withstanding him. She was withstanding him, and
his male super-power, and his thunderbolt desire. She was, in some
indescribable way, throwing cold water over his phoenix newly risen from
the ashes of its nest in flames.

He realised that she did not want him to play. She did not want him to
look at the songs. So he put the book away, and turned round, rather
baffled, not quite sure what was happening, yet feeling she was
withstanding him. He glanced at her face: it was inscrutable: it was
her Cleopatra face once more, yet with something new and warm in it.
He could not understand it. What was it in her face that puzzled him?
Almost angered him? But she could not rob him of his male power, she
could not divest him of his concentrated force.

“Won’t you take off your coat?” she said, looking at him with strange,
large dark eyes. A strange woman, he could not understand her. Yet, as
he sat down again, having removed his overcoat, he felt her looking at
his limbs, his physical body. And this went against him, he did not want
it. Yet quite fixed in him too was the desire for her, her beautiful
white arms, her whole soft white body. And such desire he would not
contradict nor allow to be contradicted. It was his will also. Her whole
soft white body--to possess it in its entirety, its fulness.

“What have you to do this morning?” she asked him.

“Nothing,” he said. “Have you?” He lifted his head and looked at her.

“Nothing at all,” said she.

And then they sat in silence, he with his head dropped. Then again he
looked at her.

“Shall we be lovers?” he said.

She sat with her face averted, and did not answer. His heart struck
heavily, but he did not relax.

“Shall we be lovers?” came his voice once more, with the faintest touch
of irony.

Her face gradually grew dusky. And he wondered very much to see it.

“Yes,” said she, still not looking at him. “If you wish.”

“I do wish,” he said. And all the time he sat with his eyes fixed on her
face, and she sat with her face averted.

“Now?” he said. “And where?”

Again she was silent for some moments, as if struggling with herself.
Then she looked at him--a long, strange, dark look, incomprehensible,
and which he did not like.

“You don’t want emotions? You don’t want me to say things, do you?” he
said.

A faint ironic smile came on her face.

“I know what all that is worth,” she said, with curious calm equanimity.
“No, I want none of that.”

“Then--?”

But now she sat gazing on him with wide, heavy, incomprehensible eyes.
It annoyed him.

“What do you want to see in me?” he asked, with a smile, looking
steadily back again.

And now she turned aside her face once more, and once more the dusky
colour came in her cheek. He waited.

“Shall I go away?” he said at length.

“Would you rather?” she said, keeping her face averted.

“No,” he said.

Then again she was silent.

“Where shall I come to you?” he said.

She paused a moment still, then answered:

“I’ll go to my room.”

“I don’t know which it is,” he said.

“I’ll show it you,” she said.

“And then I shall come to you in ten minutes. In ten minutes,” he
reiterated.

So she rose, and led the way out of the little salon. He walked with her
to the door of her room, bowed his head as she looked at him, holding
the door handle; and then he turned and went back to the drawing-room,
glancing at his watch.

In the drawing-room he stood quite still, with his feet apart, and
waited. He stood with his hands behind him, and his feet apart, quite
motionless, planted and firm. So the minutes went by unheeded. He looked
at his watch. The ten minutes were just up. He had heard footsteps and
doors. So he decided to give her another five minutes. He wished to be
quite sure that she had had her own time for her own movements.

Then at the end of the five minutes he went straight to her room,
entered, and locked the door behind him. She was lying in bed, with her
back to him.

He found her strange, not as he had imagined her. Not powerful, as
he had imagined her. Strange, in his arms she seemed almost small
and childish, whilst in daily life she looked a full, womanly woman.
Strange, the naked way she clung to him! Almost like a sister, a younger
sister! Or like a child! It filled him with a curious wonder, almost a
bewilderment. In the dark sightlessness of passion, she seemed almost
like a clinging child in his arms. And yet like a child who in some deep
and essential way mocked him. In some strange and incomprehensible way,
as a girl-child blindly obstinate in her deepest nature, she was against
him. He felt she was not his woman. Through him went the feeling, “This
is not my woman.”

When, after a long sleep, he awoke and came fully to himself, with that
click of awakeness which is the end, the first shades were closing on
the afternoon. He got up and reached for his watch.

“Quarter past four,” he said.

Her eyes stretched wide with surprise as she looked at him. But she
said nothing. The same strange and wide, perhaps insatiable child-like
curiosity was in her eyes as she watched him. He dressed very quickly.
And her eyes were wide, and she said no single word.

But when he was dressed, and bent over her to say goodbye, she put her
arms round him, that seemed such frail and childish arms now, yet withal
so deadly in power. Her soft arms round his neck, her tangle of hair
over his face. And yet, even as he kissed her, he felt her deadly. He
wanted to be gone. He wanted to get out of her arms and her clinging and
her tangle of hair and her curiosity and her strange and hateful power.

“You’ll come again. We’ll be like this again?” she whispered.

And it was hard for him to realise that this was that other woman, who
had sat so silently on the sofa, so darkly and reservedly, at the tea at
Algy’s.

“Yes! I will! Goodbye now!” And he kissed her, and walked straight out
of the room. Quickly he took his coat and his hat, quickly, and left the
house. In his nostrils was still the scent with which the bed linen was
faintly scented--he did not know what it was. But now he wiped his face
and his mouth, to wipe it away.

He had eaten nothing since coffee that morning, and was hungry,
faint-feeling. And his face, and his mind, felt withered. Curiously he
felt blasted as if blighted by some electricity. And he knew, he
knew quite well he was only in possession of a tithe of his natural
faculties. And in his male spirit he felt himself hating her: hating her
deeply, damnably. But he said to himself: “No, I won’t hate her. I won’t
hate her.”

So he went on, over the Ponte Vecchio, where the jeweller’s windows on
the bridge were already blazing with light, on into the town. He wanted
to eat something, so he decided to go to a shop he knew, where one could
stand and eat good tiny rolls split into truffle or salami sandwiches,
and drink Marsala. So one after the other he ate little truffle rolls,
and drank a few glasses of Marsala. And then he did not know what to do.
He did not want to eat any more, he had had what he wanted. His hunger
had been more nervous than sensual.

So he went into the street. It was just growing dark and the town was
lighting up. He felt curiously blazed, as if some flame or electric
power had gone through him and withered his vital tissue. Blazed, as if
some kind of electric flame had run over him and withered him. His brain
felt withered, his mind had only one of its many-sighted eyes left open
and unscorched. So many of the eyes of his mind were scorched now and
sightless.

Yet a restlessness was in his nerves. What should he do? He remembered
he had a letter in his pocket from Sir William Franks. Sir William had
still teased him about his fate and his providence, in which he, Aaron,
was supposed to trust. “I shall be very glad to hear from you, and to
know how your benevolent Providence--or was yours a Fate--has treated
you since we saw you---”

So, Aaron turned away, and walked to the post office. There he took
paper, and sat down at one of the tables in the writing room, and wrote
his answer. It was very strange, writing thus when most of his mind’s
eyes were scorched, and it seemed he could hardly see to hold the pen,
to drive it straight across the paper. Yet write he must. And most of
his faculties being quenched or blasted for the moment, he wrote perhaps
his greatest, or his innermost, truth.--“I don’t want my Fate or my
Providence to treat me well. I don’t want kindness or love. I don’t
believe in harmony and people loving one another. I believe in the fight
and in nothing else. I believe in the fight which is in everything. And
if it is a question of women, I believe in the fight of love, even if it
blinds me. And if it is a question of the world, I believe in fighting
it and in having it hate me, even if it breaks my legs. I want the world
to hate me, because I can’t bear the thought that it might love me. For
of all things love is the most deadly to me, and especially from such a
repulsive world as I think this is....”

Well, here was a letter for a poor old man to receive. But, in the
dryness of his withered mind, Aaron got it out of himself. When a man
writes a letter to himself, it is a pity to post it to somebody else.
Perhaps the same is true of a book.

His letter written, however, he stamped it and sealed it and put it
in the box. That made it final. Then he turned towards home. One fact
remained unbroken in the debris of his consciousness: that in the town
was Lilly: and that when he needed, he could go to Lilly: also, that
in the world was Lottie, his wife: and that against Lottie, his heart
burned with a deep, deep, almost unreachable bitterness.--Like a deep
burn on his deepest soul, Lottie. And like a fate which he resented, yet
which steadied him, Lilly.

He went home and lay on his bed. He had enough self-command to hear the
gong and go down to dinner. White and abstract-looking, he sat and ate
his dinner. And then, thank God, he could go to bed, alone, in his own
cold bed, alone, thank God. To be alone in the night! For this he was
unspeakably thankful.



CHAPTER XIX. CLEOPATRA, BUT NOT ANTHONY


Aaron awoke in the morning feeling better, but still only a part
himself. The night alone had restored him. And the need to be alone
still was his greatest need. He felt an intense resentment against the
Marchesa. He felt that somehow, she had given him a scorpion. And his
instinct was to hate her. And yet he avoided hating her. He remembered
Lilly--and the saying that one must possess oneself, and be alone in
possession of oneself. And somehow, under the influence of Lilly, he
refused to follow the reflex of his own passion. He refused to hate the
Marchesa. He _did_ like her. He did _esteem_ her. And after all, she too
was struggling with her fate. He had a genuine sympathy with her. Nay,
he was not going to hate her.

But he could not see her. He could not bear the thought that she might
call and see him. So he took the tram to Settignano, and walked away all
day into the country, having bread and sausage in his pocket. He sat for
long hours among the cypress trees of Tuscany. And never had any trees
seemed so like ghosts, like soft, strange, pregnant presences. He lay
and watched tall cypresses breathing and communicating, faintly moving
and as it were walking in the small wind. And his soul seemed to
leave him and to go far away, far back, perhaps, to where life was
all different and time passed otherwise than time passes now. As in
clairvoyance he perceived it: that our life is only a fragment of the
shell of life. That there has been and will be life, human life such as
we do not begin to conceive. Much that is life has passed away from men,
leaving us all mere bits. In the dark, mindful silence and inflection of
the cypress trees, lost races, lost language, lost human ways of feeling
and of knowing. Men have known as we can no more know, have felt as we
can no more feel. Great life-realities gone into the darkness. But the
cypresses commemorate. In the afternoon, Aaron felt the cypresses rising
dark about him, like so many high visitants from an old, lost, lost
subtle world, where men had the wonder of demons about them, the aura of
demons, such as still clings to the cypresses, in Tuscany.

All day, he did not make up his mind what he was going to do. His first
impulse was never to see her again. And this was his intention all day.
But as he went home in the tram he softened, and thought. Nay,
that would not be fair. For how had she treated him, otherwise than
generously.

She had been generous, and the other thing, that he felt blasted
afterwards, which was his experience, that was fate, and not her fault.
So he must see her again. He must not act like a churl. But he would
tell her--he would tell her that he was a married man, and that though
he had left his wife, and though he had no dogma of fidelity, still,
the years of marriage had made a married man of him, and any other woman
than his wife was a strange woman to him, a violation. “I will tell
her,” he said to himself, “that at the bottom of my heart I love Lottie
still, and that I can’t help it. I believe that is true. It isn’t love,
perhaps. But it is marriage. I am married to Lottie. And that means I
can’t be married to another woman. It isn’t my nature. And perhaps I
can’t bear to live with Lottie now, because I am married and not in
love. When a man is married, he is not in love. A husband is not a
lover. Lilly told me that: and I know it’s true now. Lilly told me that
a husband cannot be a lover, and a lover cannot be a husband. And that
women will only have lovers now, and never a husband. Well, I am a
husband, if I am anything. And I shall never be a lover again, not while
I live. No, not to anybody. I haven’t it in me. I’m a husband, and so it
is finished with me as a lover. I can’t be a lover any more, just as I
can’t be aged twenty any more. I am a man now, not an adolescent. And to
my sorrow I am a husband to a woman who wants a lover: always a lover.
But all women want lovers. And I can’t be it any more. I don’t want to.
I have finished that. Finished for ever: unless I become senile---”

Therefore next day he gathered up his courage. He would not have had
courage unless he had known that he was not alone. The other man was
in the town, and from this fact he derived his strength: the fact that
Lilly was there. So at teatime he went over the river, and rang at her
door. Yes, she was at home, and she had other visitors. She was wearing
a beautiful soft afternoon dress, again of a blue like chicory-flowers,
a pale, warm blue. And she had cornflowers in her belt: heaven knows
where she had got them.

She greeted Aaron with some of the childish shyness. He could tell that
she was glad he had come, and that she had wondered at his not coming
sooner. She introduced him to her visitors: two young ladies and one
old lady and one elderly Italian count. The conversation was mostly in
French or Italian, so Aaron was rather out of it.

However, the visitors left fairly early, so Aaron stayed them out. When
they had gone, he asked:

“Where is Manfredi?”

“He will come in soon. At about seven o’clock.”

Then there was a silence again.

“You are dressed fine today,” he said to her.

“Am I?” she smiled.

He was never able to make out quite what she felt, what she was feeling.
But she had a quiet little air of proprietorship in him, which he did
not like.

“You will stay to dinner tonight, won’t you?” she said.

“No--not tonight,” he said. And then, awkwardly, he added: “You know. I
think it is better if we are friends--not lovers. You know--I don’t feel
free. I feel my wife, I suppose, somewhere inside me. And I can’t help
it---”

She bent her head and was silent for some moments. Then she lifted her
face and looked at him oddly.

“Yes,” she said. “I am sure you love your wife.”

The reply rather staggered him--and to tell the truth, annoyed him.

“Well,” he said. “I don’t know about love. But when one has been married
for ten years--and I did love her--then--some sort of bond or something
grows. I think some sort of connection grows between us, you know. And
it isn’t natural, quite, to break it.--Do you know what I mean?”

She paused a moment. Then, very softly, almost gently, she said:

“Yes, I do. I know so well what you mean.”

He was really surprised at her soft acquiescence. What _did_ she mean?

“But we can be friends, can’t we?” he said.

“Yes, I hope so. Why, yes! Goodness, yes! I should be sorry if we
couldn’t be friends.”

After which speech he felt that everything was all right--everything
was A-one. And when Manfredi came home, the first sound he heard was the
flute and his wife’s singing.

“I’m so glad you’ve come,” his wife said to him. “Shall we go into the
sala and have real music? Will you play?”

“I should love to,” replied the husband.

Behold them then in the big drawing-room, and Aaron and the Marchese
practising together, and the Marchesa singing an Italian folk-song
while her husband accompanied her on the pianoforte. But her singing was
rather strained and forced. Still, they were quite a little family, and
it seemed quite nice. As soon as she could, the Marchesa left the two
men together, whilst she sat apart. Aaron and Manfredi went through
old Italian and old German music, tried one thing and then another, and
seemed quite like brothers. They arranged a piece which they should play
together on a Saturday morning, eight days hence.

The next day, Saturday, Aaron went to one of the Del Torre music
mornings. There was a string quartette--and a violin soloist--and the
Marchese at the piano. The audience, some dozen or fourteen friends,
sat at the near end of the room, or in the smaller salotta, whilst the
musicians performed at the further end of the room. The Lillys were
there, both Tanny and her husband. But apart from these, Aaron knew
nobody, and felt uncomfortable. The Marchesa gave her guests little
sandwiches and glasses of wine or Marsala or vermouth, as they chose.
And she was quite the hostess: the well-bred and very simple, but still
the conventional hostess. Aaron did not like it. And he could see that
Lilly too was unhappy. In fact, the little man bolted the moment he
could, dragging after him the indignant Tanny, who was so looking
forward to the excellent little sandwiches. But no--Lilly just rudely
bolted. Aaron followed as soon as he could.

“Will you come to dinner tomorrow evening?” said his hostess to him as
he was leaving. And he agreed. He had really resented seeing her as a
conventional hostess, attending so charmingly to all the other people,
and treating him so merely as one of the guests, among many others. So
that when at the last moment she quietly invited him to dinner next day,
he was flattered and accepted at once.

The next day was Sunday--the seventh day after his coming together with
the Marchesa--which had taken place on the Monday. And already he was
feeling much less dramatic in his decision to keep himself apart from
her, to be merely friends. Already the memory of the last time was
fanning up in him, not as a warning but as a terrible incitement. Again
the naked desire was getting hold of him, with that peculiar brutal
powerfulness which startled him and also pleased him.

So that by the time Sunday morning came, his recoil had exhausted
itself, and he was ready again, eager again, but more wary this time.
He sat in his room alone in the morning, playing his flute, playing over
from memory the tunes she loved, and imagining how he and she would get
into unison in the evening. His flute, his Aaron’s rod, would blossom
once again with splendid scarlet flowers, the red Florentine lilies.
It was curious, the passion he had for her: just unalloyed desire, and
nothing else. Something he had not known in his life before. Previously
there had been always _some_ personal quality, some sort of personal
tenderness. But here, none. She did not seem to want it. She seemed
to hate it, indeed. No, all he felt was stark, naked desire, without a
single pretension. True enough, his last experience had been a warning
to him. His desire and himself likewise had broken rather disastrously
under the proving. But not finally broken. He was ready again. And with
all the sheer powerful insolence of desire he looked forward to the
evening. For he almost expected Manfredi would not be there. The
officer had said something about having to go to Padua on the Saturday
afternoon.

So Aaron went skipping off to his appointment, at seven o’clock. Judge
of his chagrin, then, when he found already seated in the salotta an
elderly, quite well-known, very cultured and very well-connected English
authoress. She was charming, in her white hair and dress of soft white
wool and white lace, with a long chain of filigree gold beads, like
bubbles. She was charming in her old-fashioned manner too, as if the
world were still safe and stable, like a garden in which delightful
culture, and choice ideas bloomed safe from wind and weather. Alas,
never was Aaron more conscious of the crude collapse in the world than
when he listened to this animated, young-seeming lady from the safe
days of the seventies. All the old culture and choice ideas seemed like
blowing bubbles. And dear old Corinna Wade, she seemed to be blowing
bubbles still, as she sat there so charming in her soft white dress,
and talked with her bright animation about the influence of woman
in Parliament and the influence of woman in the Periclean day. Aaron
listened spell-bound, watching the bubbles float round his head, and
almost hearing them go pop.

To complete the party arrived an elderly litterateur who was more proud
of his not-very-important social standing than of his literature. In
fact he was one of those English snobs of the old order, living abroad.
Perfectly well dressed for the evening, his grey hair and his prim face
was the most well-dressed thing to be met in North Italy.

“Oh, so glad to see you, Mr. French. I didn’t know you were in Florence
again. You make that journey from Venice so often. I wonder you don’t
get tired of it,” cried Corinna Wade.

“No,” he said. “So long as duty to England calls me to Florence, I shall
come to Florence. But I can LIVE in no town but Venice.”

“No, I suppose you can’t. Well, there is something special about Venice:
having no streets and no carriages, and moving about in a gondola. I
suppose it is all much more soothing.”

“Much less nerve-racking, yes. And then there is a quality in the
whole life. Of course I see few English people in Venice--only the old
Venetian families, as a rule.”

“Ah, yes. That must be very interesting. They are very exclusive still,
the Venetian _noblesse_?” said Miss Wade.

“Oh, very exclusive,” said Mr. French. “That is one of the charms.
Venice is really altogether exclusive. It excludes the world, really,
and defies time and modern movement. Yes, in spite of the steamers on
the canal, and the tourists.”

“That is so. That is so. Venice is a strange back-water. And the old
families are very proud still, in these democratic days. They have a
great opinion of themselves, I am told.”

“Well,” said Mr. French. “Perhaps you know the rhyme:

                     “‘Veneziano gran’ Signore
                     Padovano buon’ dotore.
                     Vicenzese mangia il gatto
                     Veronese tutto matto---’”

“How very amusing!” said Miss Wade. “_Veneziana_ gran’ Signore. The
Venetian is a great gentleman! Yes, I know they are all convinced of it.
Really, how very amusing, in these advanced days. To be born a Venetian,
is to be born a great gentleman! But this outdoes divine right of king.”

“To be born a Venetian GENTLEMAN, is to be born a great gentleman,” said
Mr. French, rather fussily.

“You seriously think so?” said Miss Wade. “Well now, what do you base
your opinion on?”

Mr. French gave various bases for his opinion.

“Yes--interesting. Very interesting. Rather like the
Byzantines--lingering on into far other ages. Anna Comnena always
charmed me very much. HOW she despised the flower of the north--even
Tancred! And so the lingering Venetian families! And you, in your
palazzo on the Grand Canal: you are a northern barbarian civilised into
the old Venetian Signoria. But how very romantic a situation!”

It was really amusing to see the old maid, how she skirmished and hit
out gaily, like an old jaunty free lance: and to see the old bachelor,
how prim he was, and nervy and fussy and precious, like an old maid.

But need we say that Mr. Aaron felt very much out of it. He sat and
listened, with a sardonic small smile on his face and a sardonic gleam
in his blue eyes, that looked so very blue on such an occasion. He made
the two elderly people uncomfortable with his silence: his democratic
silence, Miss Wade might have said.

However, Miss Wade lived out towards Galuzzo, so she rose early, to
catch her tram. And Mr. French gallantly and properly rose to accompany
her, to see her safe on board. Which left Aaron and the Marchesa alone.

“What time is Manfredi coming back?” said he.

“Tomorrow,” replied she.

There was a pause.

“Why do you have those people?” he asked.

“Who?”

“Those two who were here this evening.”

“Miss Wade and Mr. French?--Oh, I like Miss Wade so very much. She is so
refreshing.”

“Those old people,” said Aaron. “They licked the sugar off the pill, and
go on as if everything was toffee. And we’ve got to swallow the pill.
It’s easy to be refreshing---”

“No, don’t say anything against her. I like her so much.”

“And him?”

“Mr. French!--Well, he’s perhaps a little like the princess who felt
the pea through three feather-beds. But he can be quite witty, and an
excellent conversationalist, too. Oh yes, I like him quite well.”

“Matter of taste,” said Aaron.

They had not much to say to one another. The time passed, in the pauses.
He looked at his watch.

“I shall have to go,” he said.

“Won’t you stay?” she said, in a small, muted voice.

“Stay all night?” he said.

“Won’t you?”

“Yes,” he said quietly. Did he not feel the strength of his desire on
him.

After which she said no more. Only she offered him whiskey and soda,
which he accepted.

“Go then,” he said to her. “And I’ll come to you.--Shall I come in
fifteen minutes?”

She looked at him with strange, slow dark eyes. And he could not
understand.

“Yes,” she said. And she went.

And again, this night as before, she seemed strangely small and clinging
in his arms. And this night he felt his passion drawn from him as if
a long, live nerve were drawn out from his body, a long live thread of
electric fire, a long, living nerve finely extracted from him, from the
very roots of his soul. A long fine discharge of pure, bluish fire,
from the core of his soul. It was an excruciating, but also an intensely
gratifying sensation.

This night he slept with a deeper obliviousness than before. But ah, as
it grew towards morning how he wished he could be alone.

They must stay together till the day was light. And she seemed to love
clinging to him and curling strangely on his breast. He could never
reconcile it with her who was a hostess entertaining her guests. How
could she now in a sort of little ecstasy curl herself and nestle
herself on his, Aaron’s breast, tangling his face all over with her
hair. He verily believed that this was what she really wanted of him: to
curl herself on his naked breast, to make herself small, small, to feel
his arms around her, while he himself was remote, silent, in some
way inaccessible. This seemed almost to make her beside herself with
gratification. But why, why? Was it because he was one of her own race,
and she, as it were, crept right home to him?

He did not know. He only knew it had nothing to do with him: and that,
save out of _complaisance_, he did not want it. It simply blasted his
own central life. It simply blighted him.

And she clung to him closer. Strange, she was afraid of him! Afraid of
him as of a fetish! Fetish afraid, and fetish-fascinated! Or was her
fear only a delightful game of cat and mouse? Or was the fear genuine,
and the delight the greater: a sort of sacrilege? The fear, and the
dangerous, sacrilegious power over that which she feared.

In some way, she was not afraid of him at all. In some other way she
used him as a mere magic implement, used him with the most amazing
priestess-craft. Himself, the individual man which he was, this she
treated with an indifference that was startling to him.

He forgot, perhaps, that this was how he had treated her. His famous
desire for her, what had it been but this same attempt to strike a magic
fire out of her, for his own ecstasy. They were playing the same game
of fire. In him, however, there was all the time something hard and
reckless and defiant, which stood apart. She was absolutely gone in
her own incantations. She was absolutely gone, like a priestess utterly
involved in her terrible rites. And he was part of the ritual only, God
and victim in one. God and victim! All the time, God and victim. When
his aloof soul realised, amid the welter of incantation, how he was
being used,--not as himself but as something quite different--God and
victim--then he dilated with intense surprise, and his remote soul stood
up tall and knew itself alone. He didn’t want it, not at all. He knew
he was apart. And he looked back over the whole mystery of their
love-contact. Only his soul was apart.

He was aware of the strength and beauty and godlikeness that his breast
was then to her--the magic. But himself, he stood far off, like Moses’
sister Miriam. She would drink the one drop of his innermost heart’s
blood, and he would be carrion. As Cleopatra killed her lovers in the
morning. Surely they knew that death was their just climax. They had
approached the climax. Accept then.

But his soul stood apart, and could have nothing to do with it. If he
had really been tempted, he would have gone on, and she might have had
his central heart’s blood. Yes, and thrown away the carrion. He would
have been willing.

But fatally, he was not tempted. His soul stood apart and decided. At
the bottom of his soul he disliked her. Or if not her, then her whole
motive. Her whole life-mode. He was neither God nor victim: neither
greater nor less than himself. His soul, in its isolation as she lay on
his breast, chose it so, with the soul’s inevitability. So, there was no
temptation.

When it was sufficiently light, he kissed her and left her. Quietly he
left the silent flat. He had some difficulty in unfastening the various
locks and bars and catches of the massive door downstairs, and began, in
irritation and anger, to feel he was a prisoner, that he was locked
in. But suddenly the ponderous door came loose, and he was out in the
street. The door shut heavily behind him, with a shudder. He was out in
the morning streets of Florence.



CHAPTER XX. THE BROKEN ROD


The day was rainy. Aaron stayed indoors alone, and copied music and
slept. He felt the same stunned, withered feeling as before, but less
intensely, less disastrously, this time. He knew now, without argument
or thought that he would never go again to the Marchesa: not as a lover.
He would go away from it all. He did not dislike her. But he would never
see her again. A great gulf had opened, leaving him alone on the far
side.

He did not go out till after dinner. When he got downstairs he found the
heavy night-door closed. He wondered: then remembered the Signorina’s
fear of riots and disturbances. As again he fumbled with the catches,
he felt that the doors of Florence were trying to prevent his egress.
However, he got out.

It was a very dark night, about nine o’clock, and deserted seeming. He
was struck by the strange, deserted feeling of the city’s atmosphere.
Yet he noticed before him, at the foot of the statue, three men, one
with a torch: a long torch with naked flames. The men were stooping over
something dark, the man with the torch bending forward too. It was a
dark, weird little group, like Mediaeval Florence. Aaron lingered on his
doorstep, watching. He could not see what they were doing. But now, the
two were crouching down; over a long dark object on the ground, and the
one with the torch bending also to look. What was it? They were just at
the foot of the statue, a dark little group under the big pediment, the
torch-flames weirdly flickering as the torch-bearer moved and stooped
lower to the two crouching men, who seemed to be kneeling.

Aaron felt his blood stir. There was something dark and mysterious,
stealthy, in the little scene. It was obvious the men did not want to
draw attention, they were so quiet and furtive-seeming. And an eerie
instinct prevented Aaron’s going nearer to look. Instead, he swerved
on to the Lungarno, and went along the top of the square, avoiding the
little group in the centre. He walked the deserted dark-seeming street
by the river, then turned inwards, into the city. He was going to the
Piazza Vittoria Emmanuele, to sit in the cafe which is the centre
of Florence at night. There he could sit for an hour, and drink his
vermouth and watch the Florentines.

As he went along one of the dark, rather narrow streets, he heard a
hurrying of feet behind him. Glancing round, he saw the torch-bearer
coming along at a trot, holding his flaming torch up in front of him as
he trotted down the middle of the narrow dark street. Aaron shrank under
the wall. The trotting torch-bearer drew near, and now Aaron perceived
the other two men slowly trotting behind, stealthily, bearing a
stretcher on which a body was wrapped up, completely and darkly covered.
The torch-bearer passed, the men with the stretcher passed too, hastily
and stealthily, the flickering flames revealing them. They took no
notice of Aaron, no notice of anything, but trotted softly on towards
the centre of the city. Their queer, quick footsteps echoed down the
distance. Then Aaron too resumed his way.

He came to the large, brilliantly-lighted cafe. It was Sunday evening,
and the place was full. Men, Florentines, many, many men sat in groups
and in twos and threes at the little marble tables. They were mostly in
dark clothes or black overcoats. They had mostly been drinking just a
cup of coffee--others however had glasses of wine or liquor. But mostly
it was just a little coffee-tray with a tiny coffee pot and a cup and
saucer. There was a faint film of tobacco smoke. And the men were
all talking: talking, talking with that peculiar intensity of
the Florentines. Aaron felt the intense, compressed sound of many
half-secret voices. For the little groups and couples abated their
voices, none wished that others should hear what they said.

Aaron was looking for a seat--there was no table to him-—when suddenly
someone took him by the arm. It was Argyle.

“Come along, now! Come and join us. Here, this way! Come along!”

Aaron let himself be led away towards a corner. There sat Lilly and a
strange man: called Levison. The room was warm. Aaron could never bear
to be too hot. After sitting a minute, he rose and took off his coat,
and hung it on a stand near the window. As he did so he felt the weight
of his flute--it was still in his pocket. And he wondered if it was safe
to leave it.

“I suppose no one will steal from the overcoat pockets,” he said, as he
sat down.

“My dear chap, they’d steal the gold filling out of your teeth, if you
happened to yawn,” said Argyle. “Why, have you left valuables in your
overcoat?”

“My flute,” said Aaron.

“Oh, they won’t steal that,” said Argyle.

“Besides,” said Lilly, “we should see anyone who touched it.”

And so they settled down to the vermouth.

“Well,” said Argyle, “what have you been doing with yourself, eh? I
haven’t seen a glimpse of you for a week. Been going to the dogs, eh?”

“Or the bitches,” said Aaron.

“Oh, but look here, that’s bad! That’s bad! I can see I shall have
to take you in hand, and commence my work of reform. Oh, I’m a great
reformer, a Zwingli and Savonarola in one. I couldn’t count the number
of people I’ve led into the right way. It takes some finding, you know.
Strait is the gate--damned strait sometimes. A damned tight squeeze....”
 Argyle was somewhat intoxicated. He spoke with a slight slur, and
laughed, really tickled at his own jokes. The man Levison smiled
acquiescent. But Lilly was not listening. His brow was heavy and he
seemed abstracted. He hardly noticed Aaron’s arrival.

“Did you see the row yesterday?” asked Levison.

“No,” said Aaron. “What was it?”

It was the socialists. They were making a demonstration against the
imprisonment of one of the railway-strikers. I was there. They went on
all right, with a good bit of howling and gibing: a lot of young louts,
you know. And the shop-keepers shut up shop, and nobody showed the
Italian flag, of course. Well, when they came to the Via Benedetto
Croce, there were a few mounted carabinieri. So they stopped the
procession, and the sergeant said that the crowd could continue, could
go on where they liked, but would they not go down the Via Verrocchio,
because it was being repaired, the roadway was all up, and there were
piles of cobble stones. These might prove a temptation and lead to
trouble. So would the demonstrators not take that road--they might take
any other they liked.--Well, the very moment he had finished, there
was a revolver shot, he made a noise, and fell forward over his horse’s
nose. One of the anarchists had shot him. Then there was hell let loose,
the carabinieri fired back, and people were bolting and fighting like
devils. I cleared out, myself. But my God--what do you think of it?”

“Seems pretty mean,” said Aaron.

“Mean!--He had just spoken them fair--they could go where they liked,
only would they not go down the one road, because of the heap of stones.
And they let him finish. And then shot him dead.”

“Was he dead?” said Aaron.

“Yes--killed outright, the Nazione says.”

There was a silence. The drinkers in the cafe all continued to talk
vehemently, casting uneasy glances.

“Well,” said Argyle, “if you let loose the dogs of war, you mustn’t
expect them to come to heel again in five minutes.”

“But there’s no fair play about it, not a bit,” said Levison.

“Ah, my dear fellow, are you still so young and callow that you cherish
the illusion of fair play?” said Argyle.

“Yes, I am,” said Levison.

“Live longer and grow wiser,” said Argyle, rather contemptuously.

“Are you a socialist?” asked Levison.

“Am I my aunt Tabitha’s dachshund bitch called Bella,” said Argyle, in
his musical, indifferent voice. “Yes, Bella’s her name. And if you
can tell me a damneder name for a dog, I shall listen, I assure you,
attentively.”

“But you haven’t got an aunt called Tabitha,” said Aaron.

“Haven’t I? Oh, haven’t I? I’ve got TWO aunts called Tabitha: if not
more.”

“They aren’t of any vital importance to you, are they?” said Levison.

“Not the very least in the world--if it hadn’t been that my elder Aunt
Tabitha had christened her dachshund bitch Bella. I cut myself off from
the family after that. Oh, I turned over a new leaf, with not a family
name on it. Couldn’t stand Bella amongst the rest.”

“You must have strained most of the gnats out of your drink, Argyle,”
 said Lilly, laughing.

“Assiduously! Assiduously! I can’t stand these little vermin. Oh, I
am quite indifferent about swallowing a camel or two--or even a whole
string of dromedaries. How charmingly Eastern that sounds! But gnats!
Not for anything in the world would I swallow one.”

“You’re a bit of a SOCIALIST though, aren’t you?” persisted Levison, now
turning to Lilly.

“No,” said Lilly. “I was.”

“And am no more,” said Argyle sarcastically. “My dear fellow, the only
hope of salvation for the world lies in the re-institution of slavery.”

“What kind of slavery?” asked Levison.

“Slavery! SLAVERY! When I say SLAVERY I don’t mean any of your damned
modern reform cant. I mean solid sound slavery on which the Greek and
the Roman world rested. FAR finer worlds than ours, my dear chap! Oh
FAR finer! And can’t be done without slavery. Simply can’t be done.--Oh,
they’ll all come to realise it, when they’ve had a bit more of this
democratic washer-women business.”

Levison was laughing, with a slight sneer down his nose. “Anyhow,
there’s no immediate danger--or hope, if you prefer it--of the
re-instituting of classic slavery,” he said.

“Unfortunately no. We are all such fools,” said Argyle.

“Besides,” said Levison, “who would you make slaves of?”

“Everybody, my dear chap: beginning with the idealists and the
theorising Jews, and after them your nicely-bred gentlemen, and then
perhaps, your profiteers and Rothschilds, and ALL politicians, and
ending up with the proletariat,” said Argyle.

“Then who would be the masters?--the professional classes, doctors and
lawyers and so on?”

“What? Masters. They would be the sewerage slaves, as being those who
had made most smells.” There was a moment’s silence.

“The only fault I have to find with your system,” said Levison, rather
acidly, “is that there would be only one master, and everybody else
slaves.”

“Do you call that a fault? What do you want with more than one
master? Are you asking for several?--Well, perhaps there’s cunning in
THAT.--Cunning devils, cunning devils, these theorising slaves--” And
Argyle pushed his face with a devilish leer into Aaron’s face. “Cunning
devils!” he reiterated, with a slight tipsy slur. “That be-fouled
Epictetus wasn’t the last of ‘em--nor the first. Oh, not by any means,
not by any means.”

Here Lilly could not avoid a slight spasm of amusement. “But returning
to serious conversation,” said Levison, turning his rather sallow face
to Lilly. “I think you’ll agree with me that socialism is the inevitable
next step--”

Lilly waited for some time without answering. Then he said, with
unwilling attention to the question: “I suppose it’s the logically
inevitable next step.”

“Use logic as lavatory paper,” cried Argyle harshly. “Yes--logically
inevitable--and humanly inevitable at the same time. Some form of
socialism is bound to come, no matter how you postpone it or try
variations,” said Levison.

“All right, let it come,” said Lilly. “It’s not my affair, neither to
help it nor to keep it back, or even to try varying it.”

“There I don’t follow you,” said Levison. “Suppose you were in Russia
now--”

“I watch it I’m not.”

“But you’re in Italy, which isn’t far off. Supposing a socialist
revolution takes place all around you. Won’t that force the problem on
you?--It is every man’s problem,” persisted Levison.

“Not mine,” said Lilly.

“How shall you escape it?” said Levison.

“Because to me it is no problem. To Bolsh or not to Bolsh, as far as my
mind goes, presents no problem. Not any more than to be or not to be. To
be or not to be is simply no problem--”

“No, I quite agree, that since you are already existing, and since death
is ultimately inevitable, to be or not to be is no sound problem,”
 said Levison. “But the parallel isn’t true of socialism. That is not a
problem of existence, but of a certain mode of existence which centuries
of thought and action on the part of Europe have now made logically
inevitable for Europe. And therefore there is a problem. There is more
than a problem, there is a dilemma. Either we must go to the logical
conclusion--or--”

“Somewhere else,” said Lilly.

“Yes--yes. Precisely! But where ELSE? That’s the one half of the
problem: supposing you do not agree to a logical progression in human
social activity. Because after all, human society through the course
of ages only enacts, spasmodically but still inevitably, the logical
development of a given idea.”

“Well, then, I tell you.--The idea and the ideal has for me gone
dead--dead as carrion--”

“Which idea, which ideal precisely?”

“The ideal of love, the ideal that it is better to give than to receive,
the ideal of liberty, the ideal of the brotherhood of man, the ideal of
the sanctity of human life, the ideal of what we call goodness, charity,
benevolence, public spirited-ness, the ideal of sacrifice for a cause,
the ideal of unity and unanimity--all the lot--all the whole beehive
of ideals--has all got the modern bee-disease, and gone putrid,
stinking.--And when the ideal is dead and putrid, the logical sequence
is only stink.--Which, for me, is the truth concerning the ideal of
good, peaceful, loving humanity and its logical sequence in socialism
and equality, equal opportunity or whatever you like.--But this time he
stinketh--and I’m sorry for any Christus who brings him to life again,
to stink livingly for another thirty years: the beastly Lazarus of our
idealism.”

“That may be true for you--”

“But it’s true for nobody else,” said Lilly. “All the worse for them.
Let them die of the bee-disease.”

“Not only that,” persisted Levison, “but what is your alternative? Is it
merely nihilism?”

“My alternative,” said Lilly, “is an alternative for no one but myself,
so I’ll keep my mouth shut about it.”

“That isn’t fair.”

“I tell you, the ideal of fairness stinks with the rest.--I have no
obligation to say what I think.”

“Yes, if you enter into conversation, you have--”

“Bah, then I didn’t enter into conversation.--The only thing is, I agree
in the rough with Argyle. You’ve got to have a sort of slavery again.
People are not MEN: they are insects and instruments, and their
destiny is slavery. They are too many for me, and so what I think
is ineffectual. But ultimately they will be brought to agree--after
sufficient extermination--and then they will elect for themselves a
proper and healthy and energetic slavery.”

“I should like to know what you mean by slavery. Because to me it is
impossible that slavery should be healthy and energetic. You seem to
have some other idea in your mind, and you merely use the word slavery
out of exasperation--”

“I mean it none the less. I mean a real committal of the life-issue of
inferior beings to the responsibility of a superior being.”

“It’ll take a bit of knowing, who are the inferior and which is the
superior,” said Levison sarcastically.

“Not a bit. It is written between a man’s brows, which he is.”

“I’m afraid we shall all read differently.”

“So long as we’re liars.”

“And putting that question aside: I presume that you mean that this
committal of the life-issue of inferior beings to someone higher shall
be made voluntarily--a sort of voluntary self-gift of the inferiors--”

“Yes--more or less--and a voluntary acceptance. For it’s no pretty gift,
after all.--But once made it must be held fast by genuine power.
Oh yes--no playing and fooling about with it. Permanent and very
efficacious power.”

“You mean military power?”

“I do, of course.”

Here Levison smiled a long, slow, subtle smile of ridicule. It all
seemed to him the preposterous pretentiousness of a megalomaniac--one
whom, after a while, humanity would probably have the satisfaction of
putting into prison, or into a lunatic asylum. And Levison felt
strong, overwhelmingly strong, in the huge social power with which
he, insignificant as he was, was armed against such criminal-imbecile
pretensions as those above set forth. Prison or the lunatic asylum.
The face of the fellow gloated in these two inevitable engines of his
disapproval.

“It will take you some time before you’ll get your doctrines accepted,”
 he said.

“Accepted! I’d be sorry. I don’t want a lot of swine snouting and
sniffing at me with their acceptance.--Bah, Levison--one can easily make
a fool of you. Do you take this as my gospel?”

“I take it you are speaking seriously.”

Here Lilly broke into that peculiar, gay, whimsical smile.

“But I should say the blank opposite with just as much fervour,” he
declared.

“Do you mean to say you don’t MEAN what you’ve been saying?” said
Levison, now really looking angry.

“Why, I’ll tell you the real truth,” said Lilly. “I think every man is a
sacred and holy individual, NEVER to be violated; I think there is only
one thing I hate to the verge of madness, and that is BULLYING. To see
any living creature BULLIED, in any way, almost makes a murderer of me.
That is true. Do you believe it--?”

“Yes,” said Levison unwillingly. “That may be true as well. You have no
doubt, like most of us, got a complex nature which--”

C R A S H!

There intervened one awful minute of pure shock, when the soul was in
darkness.

Out of this shock Aaron felt himself issuing amid a mass of terrible
sensations: the fearful blow of the explosion, the noise of glass, the
hoarse howl of people, the rushing of men, the sudden gulf, the awful
gulfing whirlpool of horror in the social life.

He stood in agony and semi-blindness amid a chaos. Then as he began to
recover his consciousness, he found himself standing by a pillar some
distance from where he had been sitting: he saw a place where tables and
chairs were all upside down, legs in the air, amid debris of glass and
breakage: he saw the cafe almost empty, nearly everybody gone: he saw
the owner, or the manager, advancing aghast to the place of debris: he
saw Lilly standing not far off, white as a sheet, and as if unconscious.
And still he had no idea of what had happened. He thought perhaps
something had broken down. He could not understand.

Lilly began to look round. He caught Aaron’s eye. And then Aaron began
to approach his friend.

“What is it?” he asked.

“A bomb,” said Lilly.

The manager, and one old waiter, and three or four youths had now
advanced to the place of debris. And now Aaron saw that a man was lying
there--and horror, blood was running across the floor of the cafe. Men
began now hastily to return to the place. Some seized their hats and
departed again at once. But many began to crowd in--a black eager crowd
of men pressing to where the bomb had burst--where the man was lying. It
was rather dark, some of the lamps were broken--but enough still shone.
Men surged in with that eager, excited zest of people, when there has
been an accident. Grey carabinieri, and carabinieri in the cocked hat
and fine Sunday uniform pressed forward officiously.

“Let us go,” said Lilly.

And he went to the far corner, where his hat hung. But Aaron looked in
vain for his own hat. The bomb had fallen near the stand where he had
hung it and his overcoat.

“My hat and coat?” he said to Lilly.

Lilly, not very tall, stood on tiptoe. Then he climbed on a chair and
looked round. Then he squeezed past the crowd.

Aaron followed. On the other side of the crowd excited angry men
were wrestling over overcoats that were mixed up with a broken marble
table-top. Aaron spied his own black hat under the sofa near the wall.
He waited his turn and then in the confusion pressed forward to where
the coats were. Someone had dragged out his, and it lay on the floor
under many feet. He managed, with a struggle, to get it from under the
feet of the crowd. He felt at once for his flute. But his trampled, torn
coat had no flute in its pocket. He pushed and struggled, caught sight
of a section, and picked it up. But it was split right down, two silver
stops were torn out, and a long thin spelch of wood was curiously torn
off. He looked at it, and his heart stood still. No need to look for the
rest.

He felt utterly, utterly overcome--as if he didn’t care what became
of him any further. He didn’t care whether he were hit by a bomb, or
whether he himself threw the next bomb, and hit somebody. He just didn’t
care any more about anything in life or death. It was as if the reins of
his life slipped from his hands. And he would let everything run where
it would, so long as it did run.

Then he became aware of Lilly’s eyes on him--and automatically he joined
the little man.

“Let us go,” said Lilly.

And they pushed their way through the door. The police were just
marching across the square. Aaron and Lilly walked in the opposite
direction. Groups of people were watching. Suddenly Lilly swerved--in
the middle of the road was a large black glisten of blood, trickling
horribly. A wounded man had run from the blow and fallen here.

Aaron did not know where he was going. But in the Via Tournabuoni Lilly
turned towards the Arno, and soon they were on the Ponte Santa Trinita.

“Who threw the bomb?” said Aaron.

“I suppose an anarchist.”

“It’s all the same,” said Aaron.

The two men, as if unable to walk any further, leaned on the broad
parapet of the bridge and looked at the water in the darkness of the
still, deserted night. Aaron still had his flute section in his hand,
his overcoat over his arm.

“Is that your flute?” asked Lilly.

“Bit of it. Smashed.”

“Let me look.”

He looked, and gave it back.

“No good,” he said.

“Oh, no,” said Aaron.

“Throw it in the river, Aaron,” said Lilly.

Aaron turned and looked at him.

“Throw it in the river,” repeated Lilly. “It’s an end.”

Aaron nervelessly dropped the flute into the stream. The two men stood
leaning on the bridge-parapet, as if unable to move.

“We shall have to go home,” said Lilly. “Tanny may hear of it and be
anxious.”

Aaron was quite dumbfounded by the night’s event: the loss of his
flute. Here was a blow he had not expected. And the loss was for him
symbolistic. It chimed with something in his soul: the bomb, the smashed
flute, the end.

“There goes Aaron’s Rod, then,” he said to Lilly.

“It’ll grow again. It’s a reed, a water-plant--you can’t kill it,” said
Lilly, unheeding.

“And me?”

“You’ll have to live without a rod, meanwhile.”

To which pleasant remark Aaron made no reply.



CHAPTER XXI. WORDS


He went home to bed: and dreamed a strange dream. He dreamed that he was
in a country with which he was not acquainted. Night was coming on, and
he had nowhere to sleep. So he passed the mouth of a sort of cave or
house, in which a woman, an old woman, sat. Therefore he entered, and
though he could not understand the language, still his second self
understood. The cave was a house: and men came home from work. His
second self assumed that they were tin-miners.

He wandered uneasily to and fro, no one taking any particular notice of
him. And he realized that there was a whole vast country spreading, a
sort of underworld country, spreading away beyond him. He wandered from
vast apartment to apartment, down narrow corridors like the roads in a
mine. In one of the great square rooms, the men were going to eat. And
it seemed to him that what they were going to eat was a man, naked man.
But his second self knew that what appeared to his eyes as a man was
really a man’s skin stuffed tight with prepared meat, as the skin of a
Bologna sausage. This did not prevent his seeing the naked man who was
to be eaten walk slowly and stiffly across the gangway and down the
corridor. He saw him from behind. It was a big handsome man in the prime
of life, quite naked and perhaps stupid. But of course he was only a
skin stuffed with meat, whom the grey tin-miners were going to eat.

Aaron, the dream-Aaron, turned another way, and strayed along the vast
square rooms, cavern apartments. He came into one room where there were
many children, all in white gowns. And they were all busily putting
themselves to bed, in the many beds scattered about the room at
haphazard. And each child went to bed with a wreath of flowers on its
head, white flowers and pink, so it seemed. So there they all lay, in
their flower-crowns in the vast space of the rooms. And Aaron went away.

He could not remember the following part. Only he seemed to have passed
through many grey domestic apartments, where were all women, all
greyish in their clothes and appearance, being wives of the underground
tin-miners. The men were away and the dream-Aaron remembered with fear
the food they were to eat.

The next thing he could recall was, that he was in a boat. And now he
was most definitely two people. His invisible, _conscious_ self, what we
have called his second self, hovered as it were before the prow of
the boat, seeing and knowing, but unseen. His other self, the palpable
Aaron, sat as a passenger in the boat, which was being rowed by the
unknown people of this underworld. They stood up as they thrust the boat
along. Other passengers were in the boat too, women as well, but all of
them unknown people, and not noticeable.

The boat was upon a great lake in the underworld country, a lake of dark
blue water, but crystal clear and very beautiful in colour. The second
or invisible Aaron sat in the prow and watched the fishes swimming
suspended in the clear, beautiful dark-blue water. Some were pale fish,
some frightening-looking, like centipedes swimming, and some were dark
fish, of definite form, and delightful to watch.

The palpable or visible Aaron sat at the side of the boat, on the end of
the middle seat, with his naked right elbow leaning out over the side.
And now the boat entered upon shallows. The impalpable Aaron in the bows
saw the whitish clay of the bottom swirl up in clouds at each thrust of
the oars, whitish-clayey clouds which would envelope the strange fishes
in a sudden mist. And on the right hand of the course stakes stood up in
the water, at intervals, to mark the course.

The boat must pass very near these stakes, almost touching. And Aaron’s
naked elbow was leaning right over the side. As they approached the
first stake, the boatmen all uttered a strange cry of warning, in a
foreign language. The flesh-and-blood Aaron seemed not even to hear. The
invisible Aaron heard, but did not comprehend the words of the cry.

So the naked elbow struck smartly against the stake as the boat passed.

The rowers rowed on. And still the flesh-and-blood Aaron sat with his
arm over the side. Another stake was nearing. “Will he heed, will he
heed?” thought the anxious second self. The rowers gave the strange
warning cry. He did not heed, and again the elbow struck against the
stake as the boat passed. And yet the flesh-and-blood Aaron sat on and
made no sign. There were stakes all along this shallow part of the lake.
Beyond was deep water again. The invisible Aaron was becoming anxious.
“Will he never hear? Will he never heed? Will he never understand?”
 he thought. And he watched in pain for the next stake. But still the
flesh-and-blood Aaron sat on, and though the rowers cried so acutely
that the invisible Aaron almost understood their very language, still
the Aaron seated at the side heard nothing, and his elbow struck against
the third stake.

This was almost too much. But after a few moments, as the boat rowed on,
the palpable Aaron changed his position as he sat, and drew in his arm:
though even now he was not aware of any need to do so. The invisible
Aaron breathed with relief in the bows, the boat swung steadily on, into
the deep, unfathomable water again.

They were drawing near a city. A lake-city, like Mexico. They must have
reached a city, because when Aaron woke up and tried to piece together
the dream of which these are mere fragments, he could remember having
just seen an idol. An Astarte he knew it as, seated by the road, and in
her open lap, were some eggs: smallish hen’s eggs, and one or two bigger
eggs, like swan’s, and one single little roll of bread. These lay in the
lap of the roadside Astarte.... And then he could remember no more.

He woke, and for a minute tried to remember what he had been dreaming,
and what it all meant. But he quickly relinquished the effort. So he
looked at his watch: it was only half-past three. He had one of those
American watches with luminous, phosphorescent figures and fingers. And
tonight he felt afraid of its eerily shining face.

He was awake a long time in the dark--for two hours, thinking and
not thinking, in that barren state which is not sleep, nor yet full
wakefulness, and which is a painful strain. At length he went to sleep
again, and did not wake till past eight o’clock. He did not ring for his
coffee till nine.

Outside was a bright day--but he hardly heeded it. He lay profitlessly
thinking. With the breaking of the flute, that which was slowly breaking
had finally shattered at last. And there was nothing ahead: no plan, no
prospect. He knew quite well that people would help him: Francis Dekker
or Angus Guest or the Marchese or Lilly. They would get him a new flute,
and find him engagements. But what was the good? His flute was broken,
and broken finally. The bomb had settled it. The bomb had settled it and
everything. It was an end, no matter how he tried to patch things up.
The only thing he felt was a thread of destiny attaching him to Lilly.
The rest had all gone as bare and bald as the dead orb of the moon. So
he made up his mind, if he could, to make some plan that would bring his
life together with that of his evanescent friend.

Lilly was a peculiar bird. Clever and attractive as he undoubtedly was,
he was perhaps the most objectionable person to know. It was stamped on
his peculiar face. Aaron thought of Lilly’s dark, ugly face, which had
something that lurked in it as a creature under leaves. Then he thought
of the wide-apart eyes, with their curious candour and surety. The
peculiar, half-veiled surety, as if nothing, nothing could overcome
him. It made people angry, this look of silent, indifferent assurance.
“Nothing can touch him on the quick, nothing can really GET at him,”
 they felt at last. And they felt it with resentment, almost with hate.
They wanted to be able to get at him. For he was so open-seeming, so
very outspoken. He gave himself away so much. And he had no money to
fall back on. Yet he gave himself away so easily, paid such attention,
almost deference to any chance friend. So they all thought: Here is
a wise person who finds me the wonder which I really am.--And lo and
behold, after he had given them the trial, and found their inevitable
limitations, he departed and ceased to heed their wonderful existence.
Which, to say the least of it, was fraudulent and damnable. It was then,
after his departure, that they realised his basic indifference to them,
and his silent arrogance. A silent arrogance that knew all their wisdom,
and left them to it.

Aaron had been through it all. He had started by thinking Lilly a
peculiar little freak: gone on to think him a wonderful chap, and a
bit pathetic: progressed, and found him generous, but overbearing: then
cruel and intolerant, allowing no man to have a soul of his own: then
terribly arrogant, throwing a fellow aside like an old glove which is
in holes at the finger-ends. And all the time, which was most beastly,
seeing through one. All the time, freak and outsider as he was, Lilly
_knew_. He knew, and his soul was against the whole world.

Driven to bay, and forced to choose. Forced to choose, not between life
and death, but between the world and the uncertain, assertive Lilly.
Forced to choose, and yet, in the world, having nothing left to choose.
For in the world there was nothing left to choose, unless he would give
in and try for success. Aaron knew well enough that if he liked to do
a bit of buttering, people would gladly make a success of him, and give
him money and success. He could become quite a favourite.

But no! If he had to give in to something: if he really had to give in,
and it seemed he had: then he would rather give in to the little Lilly
than to the beastly people of the world. If he had to give in, then
it should be to no woman, and to no social ideal, and to no social
institution. No!--if he had to yield his wilful independence, and give
himself, then he would rather give himself to the little, individual man
than to any of the rest. For to tell the truth, in the man was something
incomprehensible, which had dominion over him, if he chose to allow it.

As he lay pondering this over, escaping from the _cul de sac_ in which
he had been running for so long, by yielding to one of his pursuers:
yielding to the peculiar mastery of one man’s nature rather than to the
quicksands of woman or the stinking bogs of society: yielding, since
yield he must, in some direction or other: yielding in a new direction
now, to one strange and incalculable little individual: as Aaron lay so
relaxing, finding a peculiar delight in giving his soul to his mind’s
hero, the self-same hero tapped and entered.

“I wondered,” he said, “if you’d like to walk into the country with me:
it is such a nice day. I thought you might have gone out already. But
here you are in bed like a woman who’s had a baby.--You’re all right,
are you?”

“Yes,” said Aaron. “I’m all right.”

“Miserable about your flute?--Ah, well, there are more flutes. Get up
then.” And Lilly went to the window, and stood looking out at the river.

“We’re going away on Thursday,” he said.

“Where to?” said Aaron.

“Naples. We’ve got a little house there for the winter--in the country,
not far from Sorrento--I must get a bit of work done, now the winter is
coming. And forget all about everything and just live with life. What’s
the good of running after life, when we’ve got it in us, if nobody
prevents us and obstructs us?”

Aaron felt very queer.

“But for how long will you settle down--?” he asked.

“Oh, only the winter. I am a vagrant really: or a migrant. I must
migrate. Do you think a cuckoo in Africa and a cuckoo in Essex is one
AND the same bird? Anyhow, I know I must oscillate between north and
south, so oscillate I do. It’s just my nature. All people don’t have the
same needs.”

“Perhaps not,” said Aaron, who had risen and was sitting on the side of
the bed.

“I would very much like to try life in another continent, among another
race. I feel Europe becoming like a cage to me. Europe may be all right
in herself. But I find myself chafing. Another year I shall get out. I
shall leave Europe. I begin to feel caged.”

“I guess there are others that feel caged, as well as you,” said Aaron.

“I guess there are.”

“And maybe they haven’t a chance to get out.”

Lilly was silent a moment. Then he said:

“Well, I didn’t make life and society. I can only go my own way.”

Aaron too was silent. A deep disappointment was settling over his
spirit.

“Will you be alone all winter?”

“Just myself and Tanny,” he answered. “But people always turn up.”

“And then next year, what will you do?”

“Who knows? I may sail far off. I should like to. I should like to try
quite a new life-mode. This is finished in me--and yet perhaps it is
absurd to go further. I’m rather sick of seekers. I hate a seeker.”

“What,” said Aaron rather sarcastically--“those who are looking for a
new religion?”

“Religion--and love--and all that. It’s a disease now.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Aaron. “Perhaps the lack of love and religion
is the disease.”

“Ah--bah! The grinding the old millstones of love and God is what ails
us, when there’s no more grist between the stones. We’ve ground love
very small. Time to forget it. Forget the very words religion, and God,
and love--then have a shot at a new mode. But the very words rivet us
down and don’t let us move. Rivets, and we can’t get them out.”

“And where should we be if we could?” said Aaron.

“We might begin to be ourselves, anyhow.”

“And what does that mean?” said Aaron. “Being yourself--what does it
mean?”

“To me, everything.”

“And to most folks, nothing. They’ve got to have a goal.”

“There is no goal. I loathe goals more than any other impertinence.
Gaols, they are. Bah--jails and jailers, gaols and gaolers---”

“Wherever you go, you’ll find people with their noses tied to some
goal,” said Aaron.

“Their wagon hitched to a star--which goes round and round like an ass
in a gin,” laughed Lilly. “Be damned to it.”

Aaron got himself dressed, and the two men went out, took a tram and
went into the country. Aaron could not help it--Lilly put his back up.
They came to a little inn near a bridge, where a broad stream rustled
bright and shallow. It was a sunny warm day, and Aaron and Lilly had
a table outside under the thin trees at the top of the bank above the
river. The yellow leaves were falling--the Tuscan sky was turquoise
blue. In the stream below three naked boys still adventurously bathed,
and lay flat on the shingle in the sun. A wagon with two pale, loving,
velvety oxen drew slowly down the hill, looking at each step as if they
were going to come to rest, to move no more. But still they stepped
forward. Till they came to the inn, and there they stood at rest. Two
old women were picking the last acorns under three scrubby oak-trees,
whilst a girl with bare feet drove her two goats and a sheep up from the
water-side towards the women. The girl wore a dress that had been blue,
perhaps indigo, but which had faded to the beautiful lavender-purple
colour which is so common, and which always reminded Lilly of purple
anemones in the south.

The two friends sat in the sun and drank red wine. It was midday. From
the thin, square belfry on the opposite hill the bells had rung. The
old women and the girl squatted under the trees, eating their bread
and figs. The boys were dressing, fluttering into their shirts on the
stream’s shingle. A big girl went past, with somebody’s dinner tied in
a red kerchief and perched on her head. It was one of the most precious
hours: the hour of pause, noon, and the sun, and the quiet acceptance
of the world. At such a time everything seems to fall into a true
relationship, after the strain of work and of urge.

Aaron looked at Lilly, and saw the same odd, distant look on his face as
on the face of some animal when it lies awake and alert, yet perfectly
at one with its surroundings. It was something quite different from
happiness: an alert enjoyment of rest, an intense and satisfying sense
of centrality. As a dog when it basks in the sun with one eye open and
winking: or a rabbit quite still and wide-eyed, with a faintly-twitching
nose. Not passivity, but alert enjoyment of being central, life-central
in one’s own little circumambient world.

They sat thus still--or lay under the trees--for an hour and a half.
Then Lilly paid the bill, and went on.

“What am I going to do this winter, do you think?” Aaron asked.

“What do you want to do?”

“Nay, that’s what I want to know.”

“Do you want anything? I mean, does something drive you from inside?”

“I can’t just rest,” said Aaron.

“Can’t you settle down to something?--to a job, for instance?”

“I’ve not found the job I could settle down to, yet,” said Aaron.

“Why not?”

“It’s just my nature.”

“Are you a seeker? Have you got a divine urge, or need?”

“How do I know?” laughed Aaron. “Perhaps I’ve got a DAMNED urge, at the
bottom of me. I’m sure it’s nothing divine.”

“Very well then. Now, in life, there are only two great dynamic
urges--do you believe me--?”

“How do I know?” laughed Aaron. “Do you want to be believed?”

“No, I don’t care a straw. Only for your own sake, you’d better believe
me.”

“All right then--what about it?”

“Well, then, there are only two great dynamic urges in LIFE: love and
power.”

“Love and power?” said Aaron. “I don’t see power as so very important.”

“You don’t see because you don’t look. But that’s not the point. What
sort of urge is your urge? Is it the love urge?”

“I don’t know,” said Aaron.

“Yes, you do. You know that you have got an urge, don’t you?”

“Yes--” rather unwillingly Aaron admitted it.

“Well then, what is it? Is it that you want to love, or to be obeyed?”

“A bit of both.”

“All right--a bit of both. And what are you looking for in love?--A
woman whom you can love, and who will love you, out and out and all in
all and happy ever after sort of thing?”

“That’s what I started out for, perhaps,” laughed Aaron.

“And now you know it’s all my eye!” Aaron looked at Lilly, unwilling to
admit it. Lilly began to laugh.

“You know it well enough,” he said. “It’s one of your lost illusions, my
boy. Well, then, what next? Is it a God you’re after? Do you want a God
you can strive to and attain, through love, and live happy ever after,
countless millions of eternities, immortality and all that? Is this your
little dodge?”

Again Aaron looked at Lilly with that odd double look of mockery and
unwillingness to give himself away.

“All right then. You’ve got a love-urge that urges you to God; have
you? Then go and join the Buddhists in Burmah, or the newest fangled
Christians in Europe. Go and stick your head in a bush of Nirvana or
spiritual perfection. Trot off.”

“I won’t,” said Aaron.

“You must. If you’ve got a love-urge, then give it its fulfilment.”

“I haven’t got a love-urge.”

“You have. You want to get excited in love. You want to be carried away
in love. You want to whoosh off in a nice little love whoosh and love
yourself. Don’t deny it. I know you do. You want passion to sweep you
off on wings of fire till you surpass yourself, and like the swooping
eagle swoop right into the sun. I know you, my love-boy.”

“Not any more--not any more. I’ve been had too often,” laughed Aaron.

“Bah, it’s a lesson men never learn. No matter how sick they make
themselves with love, they always rush for more, like a dog to his
vomit.”

“Well, what am I to do then, if I’m not to love?” cried Aaron.

“You want to go on, from passion to passion, from ecstasy to ecstasy,
from triumph to triumph, till you can whoosh away into glory, beyond
yourself, all bonds loosened and happy ever after. Either that or
Nirvana, opposite side of the medal.”

“There’s probably more hate than love in me,” said Aaron.

“That’s the recoil of the same urge. The anarchist, the criminal, the
murderer, he is only the extreme lover acting on the recoil. But it
is love: only in recoil. It flies back, the love-urge, and becomes a
horror.”

“All right then. I’m a criminal and a murderer,” said Aaron.

“No, you’re not. But you’ve a love-urge. And perhaps on the recoil just
now. But listen to me. It’s no good thinking the love-urge is the one
and only. _Niente_! You can whoosh if you like, and get excited and
carried away loving a woman, or humanity, or God. Swoop away in the love
direction till you lose yourself. But that’s where you’re had. You can’t
lose yourself. You can try. But you might just as well try to swallow
yourself. You’ll only bite your fingers off in the attempt. You can’t
lose yourself, neither in woman nor humanity nor in God. You’ve always
got yourself on your hands in the end: and a very raw and jaded and
humiliated and nervous-neurasthenic self it is, too, in the end. A
very nasty thing to wake up to is one’s own raw self after an excessive
love-whoosh. Look even at President Wilson: he love-whooshed for
humanity, and found in the end he’d only got a very sorry self on his
hands.

“So leave off. Leave off, my boy. Leave off love-whooshing. You can’t
lose yourself, so stop trying. The responsibility is on your own
shoulders all the time, and no God which man has ever struck can take it
off. You ARE yourself and so BE yourself. Stick to it and abide by it.
Passion or no passion, ecstasy or no ecstasy, urge or no urge, there’s
no goal outside you, where you can consummate like an eagle flying
into the sun, or a moth into a candle. There’s no goal outside you--and
there’s no God outside you. No God, whom you can get to and rest in.
None. It’s a case of:


          ‘Trot, trot to market, to buy a penny bun,
           And trot, trot back again, as fast as you can run.’


But there’s no God outside you, whom you can rise to or sink to or swoop
away to. You can’t even gum yourself to a divine Nirvana moon. Because
all the time you’ve got to eat your dinner and digest it. There is no
goal outside you. None.

“There is only one thing, your own very self. So you’d better stick to
it. You can’t be any bigger than just yourself, so you needn’t drag God
in. You’ve got one job, and no more. There inside you lies your own very
self, like a germinating egg, your precious Easter egg of your own soul.
There it is, developing bit by bit, from one single egg-cell which you
were at your conception in your mother’s womb, on and on to the strange
and peculiar complication in unity which never stops till you die--if
then. You’ve got an innermost, integral unique self, and since it’s the
only thing you have got or ever will have, don’t go trying to lose it.
You’ve got to develop it, from the egg into the chicken, and from the
chicken into the one-and-only phoenix, of which there can only be one
at a time in the universe. There can only be one of you at a time in the
universe--and one of me. So don’t forget it. Your own single oneness is
your destiny. Your destiny comes from within, from your own self-form.
And you can’t know it beforehand, neither your destiny nor your
self-form. You can only develop it. You can only stick to your own very
self, and NEVER betray it. And by so sticking, you develop the one and
only phoenix of your own self, and you unfold your own destiny, as
a dandelion unfolds itself into a dandelion, and not into a stick of
celery.

“Remember this, my boy: you’ve never got to deny the Holy Ghost which is
inside you, your own soul’s self. Never. Or you’ll catch it. And you’ve
never got to think you’ll dodge the responsibility of your own soul’s
self, by loving or sacrificing or Nirvaning--or even anarchising and
throwing bombs. You never will....”

Aaron was silenced for a moment by this flood of words. Then he said
smiling:

“So I’d better sit tight on my soul, till it hatches, had I?”

“Oh, yes. If your soul’s urge urges you to love, then love. But always
know that what you are doing is the fulfilling of your own soul’s
impulse. It’s no good trying to act by prescription: not a bit. And
it’s no use getting into frenzies. If you’ve got to go in for love and
passion, go in for them. But they aren’t the goal. They’re a mere means:
a life-means, if you will. The only goal is the fulfilling of your own
soul’s active desire and suggestion. Be passionate as much as ever it is
your nature to be passionate, and deeply sensual as far as you can
be. Small souls have a small sensuality, deep souls a deep one. But
remember, all the time, the responsibility is upon your own head, it
all rests with your own lonely soul, the responsibility for your own
action.”

“I never said it didn’t,” said Aaron.

“You never said it did. You never accepted. You thought there was
something outside, to justify you: God, or a creed, or a prescription.
But remember, your soul inside you is your only Godhead. It develops
your actions within you as a tree develops its own new cells. And the
cells push on into buds and boughs and flowers. And these are your
passion and your acts and your thoughts and expressions, your developing
consciousness. You don’t know beforehand, and you can’t. You can only
stick to your own soul through thick and thin.

“You are your own Tree of Life, roots and limbs and trunk. Somewhere
within the wholeness of the tree lies the very self, the quick: its own
innate Holy Ghost. And this Holy Ghost puts forth new buds, and pushes
past old limits, and shakes off a whole body of dying leaves. And the
old limits hate being empassed, and the old leaves hate to fall. But
they must, if the tree-soul says so....”

They had sat again during this harangue, under a white wall. Aaron
listened more to the voice than the words. It was more the sound value
which entered his soul, the tone, the strange speech-music which sank
into him. The sense he hardly heeded. And yet he understood, he knew.
He understood, oh so much more deeply than if he had listened with his
head. And he answered an objection from the bottom of his soul.

“But you talk,” he said, “as if we were like trees, alone by ourselves
in the world. We aren’t. If we love, it needs another person than
ourselves. And if we hate, and even if we talk.”

“Quite,” said Lilly. “And that’s just the point. We’ve got to love and
hate moreover--and even talk. But we haven’t got to fix on any one of
these modes, and say that’s the only mode. It is such imbecility to say
that love and love alone must rule. It is so obviously not the case. Yet
we try and make it so.”

“I feel that,” said Aaron. “It’s all a lie.”

“It’s worse. It’s a half lie. But listen. I told you there were two
urges--two great life-urges, didn’t I? There may be more. But it comes
on me so strongly, now, that there are two: love, and power. And
we’ve been trying to work ourselves, at least as individuals, from the
love-urge exclusively, hating the power-urge, and repressing it. And now
I find we’ve got to accept the very thing we’ve hated.

“We’ve exhausted our love-urge, for the moment. And yet we try to force
it to continue working. So we get inevitably anarchy and murder. It’s
no good. We’ve got to accept the power motive, accept it in deep
responsibility, do you understand me? It is a great life motive. It was
that great dark power-urge which kept Egypt so intensely living for so
many centuries. It is a vast dark source of life and strength in us now,
waiting either to issue into true action, or to burst into cataclysm.
Power--the power-urge. The will-to-power--but not in Nietzsche’s sense.
Not intellectual power. Not mental power. Not conscious will-power. Not
even wisdom. But dark, living, fructifying power. Do you know what I
mean?”

“I don’t know,” said Aaron.

“Take what you call love, for example. In the real way of love, the
positive aim is to make the other person--or persons--happy. It devotes
itself to the other or to others. But change the mode. Let the urge be
the urge of power. Then the great desire is not happiness, neither of
the beloved nor of oneself. Happiness is only one of many states, and it
is horrible to think of fixing us down to one state. The urge of power
does not seek for happiness any more than for any other state. It urges
from within, darkly, for the displacing of the old leaves, the inception
of the new. It is powerful and self-central, not seeking its centre
outside, in some God or some beloved, but acting indomitably from within
itself.

“And of course there must be one who urges, and one who is impelled.
Just as in love there is a beloved and a lover: The man is supposed to
be the lover, the woman the beloved. Now, in the urge of power, it is
the reverse. The woman must submit, but deeply, deeply submit. Not to
any foolish fixed authority, not to any foolish and arbitrary will. But
to something deep, deeper. To the soul in its dark motion of power and
pride. We must reverse the poles. The woman must now submit--but deeply,
deeply, and richly! No subservience. None of that. No slavery. A deep,
unfathomable free submission.”

“You’ll never get it,” said Aaron.

“You will, if you abandon the love idea and the love motive, and if
you stand apart, and never bully, never force from the conscious will.
That’s where Nietzsche was wrong. His was the conscious and benevolent
will, in fact, the love-will. But the deep power-urge is not conscious
of its aims: and it is certainly not consciously benevolent or
love-directed.--Whatever else happens, somewhere, sometime, the deep
power-urge in man will have to issue forth again, and woman will submit,
livingly, not subjectedly.”

“She never will,” persisted Aaron. “Anything else will happen, but not
that.”

“She will,” said Lilly, “once man disengages himself from the love-mode,
and stands clear. Once he stands clear, and the other great urge begins
to flow in him, then the woman won’t be able to resist. Her own soul
will wish to yield itself.”

“Woman yield--?” Aaron re-echoed.

“Woman--and man too. Yield to the deep power-soul in the individual man,
and obey implicitly. I don’t go back on what I said before. I do believe
that every man must fulfil his own soul, every woman must be herself,
herself only, not some man’s instrument, or some embodied theory. But
the mode of our being is such that we can only live and have our being
whilst we are implicit in one of the great dynamic modes. We MUST either
love, or rule. And once the love-mode changes, as change it must, for we
are worn out and becoming evil in its persistence, then the other mode
will take place in us. And there will be profound, profound obedience in
place of this love-crying, obedience to the incalculable power-urge. And
men must submit to the greater soul in a man, for their guidance: and
women must submit to the positive power-soul in man, for their being.”

“You’ll never get it,” said Aaron.

“You will, when all men want it. All men say, they want a leader. Then
let them in their souls submit to some greater soul than theirs. At
present, when they say they want a leader, they mean they want an
instrument, like Lloyd George. A mere instrument for their use. But it’s
more than that. It’s the reverse. It’s the deep, fathomless submission
to the heroic soul in a greater man. You, Aaron, you too have the need
to submit. You, too, have the need livingly to yield to a more heroic
soul, to give yourself. You know you have. And you know it isn’t love.
It is life-submission. And you know it. But you kick against the pricks.
And perhaps you’d rather die than yield. And so, die you must. It is
your affair.”

There was a long pause. Then Aaron looked up into Lilly’s face. It was
dark and remote-seeming. It was like a Byzantine eikon at the moment.

“And whom shall I submit to?” he said.

“Your soul will tell you,” replied the other.


THE END





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