THE article appeared in a socialist journal belonging to the Withers, rather a dilettante paper; however, the appeal was not to the workers, but to the others. He sent it to Helen just two days before she left Cromer. She did not write and thank him, but she said in a note, “Come for me at three the day after to-morrow to Wright’s Lane.”
She behaved much as usual to her mother in the train on the way back, perhaps speaking a little less. But her thoughts were fixed upon George—as they had been during the whole visit to Cromer—only with a new intensity which had been awakened in her by his article, the letter which had accompanied it, and the thought of meeting him again. The intensity was immeasurable, she had never imagined that there would be anything so profound. They arrived at King’s Cross a little after two o’clock. She could talk and think no longer; she sat, her mind a blank, simply waiting. She was tired out into being merely the absolute expectancy, waiting personified.
It was three o’clock before they turned into Wright’s Lane. George was standing near the gate with his back turned. At the sound of wheels he faced round, and in a second the carriage was at the door. Mrs. Lemardelay shook hands with George; Helen did not seem to want to begin looking at him and greeting him yet. Her mother was too tired to notice George much; she said to her daughter—
“Helen, I think I’ll go upstairs at once and lie down. You must be very tired too, won’t you follow my example?”
“No thanks, mother, Mr. Aston and I will have a stroll together.”
It seemed a mad thing to Mrs. Lemardelay; but she spoke no more. Helen said to George, almost without looking at him—
“Will you wait a moment or two for me, do you mind?”
She went upstairs, took off her cloak, and washed her hands and face and was down at his side again. They went out of the house door, along the short path and through the gate into the street. The first words he spoke to her were—
“You’re sure you’re not tired?”
He might have said this to a stranger, he knew that she was not tired, and yet it seemed the fitting thing to say.
They had gone a few steps up the High Street when he noticed that her ungloved hand was hanging at her side close to his. He remembered how he had looked longingly at that hand nearly a month ago, when Helen stretched it out upon the table at her side as a preface to her invitation for that Saturday evening. She seemed to know what was in his mind, for she moved it nearer his. Their hands closed into one another—she had so much to tell him.
And they walked holding hands up High Street. “Dear Kensington!” as they both said hand in hand among the people.
“We neither of us thought of going into the garden, did we?” Helen asked.
“No.” It seemed much better to be journeying close together out among people than to be in the garden, walking round and round. The made their way along side by side, unobservant, as children are unobservant. Everything was easy, as it is easy to an unconcerned child. George felt as if his eyes were very wide open and had returned to their childish gaze. They were silent, except for the few words which Helen spoke now and again; and they were more like snatches of an unknown song which a baby croons to itself, wandering about in a wood through the tall grass, now standing to wonder at a butterfly, now bending down to a flower.
They went into the Gardens, not at a corner, but at the gate opposite De Vere Street. When they came to the grass stretch at the back of the Flower walk, they sat down. So long as they were moving, they had held hands as comrades; but when they sat down it was different, they naturally let go.
And then they began to talk. They had not spoken till then, not knowing where to begin in their wish to say the most important thing first, and fully; but they had said all that during their silent walk.
They talked on, Helen thanking George for his article, George telling her again how great the meeting was. And such conversation mingled with delicious irruptions of personal matters—
“Your mother must have thought it very strange of you to start out for a walk at once.”
“I daresay it did seem childish. But I couldn’t bear to think of anything coming in between my arrival in London and my talk to you. It would have made me miserable to have eaten meals, gone about the house, unpacked, and perhaps gone to bed before I could tell you, fresh from my eagerness in Cromer, everything I feel.”
Then they would talk about the work which he meant to do—and that would be interrupted to say—
“How lovely it is to be together again”—with some fresh proof on her part of the absolute non-existence of the place Cromer in her mind during her mother’s visit there. After they had sat a long time, they went on further, along the path which leads out into Lancaster Gate.
They went back the high road, and then home by Church Street. They did not reach Wright’s Lane till nearly seven, and at the door she said—
“I’m growing so insatiable, so greedy! It’s bad to have to part and to live through hours or a day alone. Greed it is, for if I’d been told months ago that I should have one hour a week of companionship like this I should have said that it would satisfy me.”
The next afternoon at six o’clock George was returning home from his usual walk between tea and dinner. He had been in the Brompton Road, and he was coming back by Nevern Square. London was in one of its best moods. The evening sunlight of September was not so pale as it had been in the day, and very soft; there had been a little rain some hours before, and the leaves of the trees overhanging the road were glistening. The boys and girls in the Square had fallen back into their old July plan of playing a kind of cricket to finish up the day. It was still summer and they could still do it. When they had finished tennis, before they went in, one would stand in the corner, a friend would bowl for him and he would hit the ball out into the field to be caught by any one among the rest who were scattered over the lawn. This game was immensely enjoyed, and was an honoured custom. It entailed much joking and shouting, and the shrill screams of the girls sounded high above the laughter. At the top of the Square two cabbies seated on their hansoms turned in opposite directions were lazily chatting. A parlour-maid was talking out of the dining-room window to a man at the area railings.
On the opposite side of the Square, in front of him, George’s eye was caught by the figure of a girl standing on the balcony. He recognised the figure and the dress—a stiff, dark-blue linen jacket and skirt, quite plain. The girl was standing looking sideways down the street at a little group of children surrounding an organ-grinder and his monkey. Everything was soft and friendly, Londoners were playing at summer for the last few days as they used before they went to the country. As George walked slowly on, nearer to the girl in the balcony, she moved her head and recognised him. She turned back, leaning inwards, her right hand resting on the rail, her left raised and touching the side of the open window. She called into the room. Another figure appeared in the window and stepped out to the balcony. Helen put her arm round her waist, and, leaning over the rail, she pointed down to the man standing below in the street.
Helen made no sign to George, Margaret did not speak; but the two girls, with their arms round each other’s waists, leant upon the rail and looked over at him.
Helen could not have called to him then, she had no wish to run down and speak to him; but she felt a joy in standing up there, safe, holding Margaret at her side, and looking down smilingly. It was a kind of primeval feeling, something like a savage and her love—as primeval as when they walked hand in hand along the High Street.
George passed on. He did not know the house. Probably Mrs. Forde was living there for the time, and Margaret and Helen were spending the evening with her—he knew that Margaret had been staying at the house in Campden Hill since her return from Dieppe.
The next day was Sunday, Miss Spencer’s day, the first after the summer holidays, so that there was a great gathering at her house. Henry Bishop was there with his sister. George had not seen him since he went to Dieppe, for he had not made haste to call on his old college friend as he would else probably have done—he felt so far away from him now. Henry knew nothing about the great change which his friend had undergone. He had shared in his melancholy while at college, but somewhat cheerfully. Naturally George did not say anything about what had happened, because where was he to begin? Henry was looking very interesting, talking enthusiastically about Ibsen to two sisters. Mrs. Lemardelay was sitting on a bench near the balcony steps with Miss Spencer, who got up every now and then to receive the visitors announced from the drawing-room, and Mr. Withers, the father, was with them. At the end of the garden George joined a group of ladies—Helen, Margaret, Mrs. Forde, Iseult. As he walked towards them Helen came forward to meet him, Margaret stood by, with a smile on her face; she and the other two ladies shook hands warmly with him—he had seen them so often before, here and elsewhere, as a mere acquaintance.
“Would you take us to have some tea, Mr. Aston?” Helen asked.
They all moved off together towards the house, and stood by the table which was placed upon the gravel path under the drawing-room; they drank their tea and chatted, George handing them their cups all round.
Mrs. Lemardelay in a few minutes rose from her seat, shook hands with George, and said to Helen—
“I think I must be going. Will you come too, or will you stay a little longer?”
“Oh, I think I’ll stay, mother.”
Mrs. Lemardelay went back to the seat to say good-bye to Miss Spencer. Mr. Withers, still sitting on the bench , asked—
“Who’s that young man with Helen and Iseult? Is that Aston?”
“Oh, then it’s he who has led Helen astray? I heard they had gone to one of Iseult’s meetings.”
“Yes, they like each other’s company apparently.”
“Why do you allow such things to go on?”
Mrs. Lemardelay raised her eyebrows slightly, gave the faintest approach to a shrug of her shoulders, smiled, said good-bye to Miss Spencer, and went off through the drawing-room.
Miss Spender had gone away, and Mr. Withers was left sitting alone, with his legs stretched out and his hands in his pockets defiantly, while the group of tea-drinkers chatted on near him.
Helen and George strolled about together and talked to Henry Bishop, who had a volume of stories coming out at the beginning of the next month. His sister Henrietta was standing by, glad to be out, and yet a little irritable and discontented. She looked pretty, very much one of a large number of girls who all look alike, all tall, well groomed, dressed fashionably, with somewhat expressionless faces.
George walked home with Helen. She had fully made up to him for her behaviour on former occasions when he had met her in society. Something of this kind was in her mind, for she said—
“You see how they are all much like other people when you know them, aren’t they?”
When they came to her house she said, “Won’t you come in a minute?” and immediately went on as if something were on her mind, “I somehow felt sorry afterwards that I should have let you pass on yesterday without speaking to you—I don’t know exactly why I did it.”
They had reached the drawing-room by this time and found it empty. George would hardly have come in with her if she had not begun making excuses directly after giving her invitation. They talked on for a little.
When he got up to go she put both her hands in his and smilingly lifted her face for him to kiss.
It was the first time, and there was nothing which George could have seen to lead to it at this particular moment. But Helen was thinking of yesterday evening a little sorrowfully, and of how gently he had always behaved, particularly this afternoon when she had made him happy by staying with him right through the visit to Miss Spencer.
[Because of an editing error in the original, the text as published lacks Chapter VIII.]
HELEN LEMARDELAY and George Aston were married half-way through November. Nothing and no one stood in their way. Helen had some eight hundred pounds a year of her own, part of some money which her father had inherited from a brother. George’s position, which might have seemed an objection to those who did not know them, only added to her desire for the marriage. He would not long be able to continue without an occupation, giving up his time to the new work. But on her money they could both live, and he would be able to spend his whole time in learning all he wished, and then he might get work on some paper which devoted much space to the labour question. He was to become a great authority.
Some of their less intimate friends thought that the marriage was hasty. But they did not know how completely they filled up each other’s needs, and how strong the needs in these young people had been—and there was no reason for waiting. The lease of the house in Wright’s Lane, too, was falling in at Christmas, and Helen could not think of beginning another chapter of life still living with her mother. Mrs. Lemardelay was taking a flat at the other end of the High Street, opposite the entrance to the Gardens.
Helen and George went north for their honeymoon. They felt now as they felt that first afternoon when she returned from Cromer, not the least desire to run away and hide their joy and be alone. They wished to enjoy the charm of being together and belonging to each other in the midst of the world and its work. They therefore went north and visited the towns concerned in the great strike which had been threatening so long, and had broken out at last. That remained to her till the end of her life, the wonderful impression of the delights of their honeymoon in the midst of the enormously important movement. That time was not a dream of joy, as she had read in books. It was an awakening. Her past life was the dream; now she had found out what life really was. There was this wonderful combination of love with work to be done together. Their honeymoon was a fit overture to the harmony of life which she had discovered when she met George.
As for Mrs. Aston, the marriage was the last step in the course which had bit by bit separated George from his mother. He was now free; he depended upon her for nothing. And she was jealous, not so much of the love between George and Helen, as of the new power of this other person, who could give her son as much as she herself could offer, and more. George had not become possessed of his independence by any effort of his own. Then she would have been proud. No, it was rather as if he had chosen another mother. They had grown apart, as the two generations always do, and now that Helen held out her hand, offered more than she could, he separated from her gaily. She was nothing to him, he could do with her, and she came to think that she had never been really anything in his heart. Mrs. Lemardelay she had seen a few times and did not like, but for Helen she had always had a fancy, so that there was no dislike in the case. It was simply a fresh person sailing upon the scene, doing nothing and capturing her son, eclipsing a long twenty-three years of devotion. She had been vexed that her son had changed his plans and become socialist. Yet that vexation was better than this entire severance.
When they came back at Christmas time Mr. and Mrs. George Aston took furnished lodgings because they did not wish to be hampered with a house. They would go from place to place, according to circumstances. An arrangement of this kind, as everything else which they did, seemed to come from both husband and wife at the same time; no completer unity could be imagined.
One of the first things which they did was to go to Kensington and look at the old house. As they came in sight of the well-known stretch of wall on the right-hand side of Wright’s Lane they walked more slowly. There was something forlorn and faded about it. The time when they had been together there seemed to have been long, long ago. They saw the old place, sleeping, empty, and peaceful, and were astonished, as people always are in such cases, that it was still the same. It looked to them desolate on this cold winter’s morning, because they knew it was empty; but people were passing along the High Street, and many were turning the corner, bright and cheerful, not noticing the empty house. Helen and George were not saddened. They had left the old times far behind, and were with the busy passers-by concerned in their engrossing affairs. There was a board up announcing that the house and land were to let.
They went up the High Street, for they were to lunch with Mrs. Lemardelay. She lived in a flat in a huge red-brick building, which had only been finished a few months. It was the work of one of the younger members of the school, who had turned architect. The gentle quietness and old-fashioned air of the old house, and its big pleasant garden, with the seat round the cedar-tree, shut in from the world by high walls, only admitting a few select artistic people, was left for the third floor of a bright, red-brick mountain with a lift; the roar of the street mounts up into the rooms. But the lift has little pieces of wrought-iron fixed about it, and the incandescent lamps are curved and prickly. The windows are of bottle-glass or else hung with bead blinds, and there are still the sketched of the master hanging in the drawing-room.
During the strike George had been irritated by the way in which some newspapers had taken hold of certain mistakes made by the leaders of the strike, and had lost sight of the great principle concerned, preaching, perhaps, some rather shaky political economy. Their coldness and want of brotherly feeling, even if they thought that the strikers were wrong, astonished George and made him indignant. A very elementary indignation. He was shocked that people who at any rate lived comfortably should be so hostile to thousands of their fellow-men in worse circumstances. Suppose they were wrong, was that a reason for being unbrotherly?
At this moment both Helen and George were beginning their study of charities. This was part of their scheme; part of the gospel of the time which they had discovered. George had no great faith in charity, but he would gain if he confirmed his prejudice, because he could then depend entirely on the other side of social work.
A life of committees and discussions began. For months they worked together, taking a personal delight in the communion of thought and labour, even if in itself the thing studied gave less satisfaction. Helen would always be on in front, a pioneer, discovering new phases. George would follow, take up what she had discovered, and form an opinion upon it. She would move on uncritically, showing one new thing after another; he would comprehend and criticise, carrying her absolutely with him in his judgment. And so they lived in perfect unity, going about together, each with an especial province: the woman, with her quickness, in front, turning up the sand which contained the jewels, and looking back with love into the eyes of the man for whose sake alone she worked; and the man following in her steps, looking closely, choosing critically and slowly among the treasures which lay along the stretch chosen out by her quick sense.
They loved the sympathy, and on they worked; but his prejudice against charities was confirmed, and she agreed. There was nothing grand or beautiful about charities as far as he could see. The old charity—yes, there was beauty in that—the beggar moving the rich man to pity by his appeal. That was personal; there was a kind of feudal air about such charity; something that brought with it vague remembrances of pilgrims, castles, saints, and apparitions of Christ; but this new charity, impersonal and organised, with officers who distribute what the rich give thoughtlessly in order to get the poor off their minds and out of their sight, was mistaken. The other was natural; it was the appeal of one man to another against fate’s decree; the rich was moved with pity and gave. The old feudal charity, though pretty, was probably impossible now; but that did not prove the other to be right.
It was a mistake and no progress could be expected from it. It was all part of the false system by which the rich pay for the policemen to keep the criminals out of their way, and pay for prisons in which to hide them, whereas it seemed that if a person lived in a society he should bear to the full the difficulties to which it gave rise. The whole society is liable if one is a criminal; and if there are to be prisons, every one should take their turn of hard labour.
And from charities they went on to the next step, Helen throwing herself hopefully into the region of societies for the improvement of the poor. Here, at least, people worked personally. Helen and George became acquainted with believers in temperance, in missions, in Toynbee Hall, the People’s Palace, and boys’ and girls’ clubs. Helen worked hard and George did a good deal. It was said that by these means, at any rate, a man might become acquainted with the poor and their needs. The inseparable couple came to be well known among clubs and organisations in all parts of London; no one dreamt of mentioning them apart. Helen and George worked absolutely together. Neither had a thought of which the other did not know and when George fell out of sympathy, as he had done before, they were still together.
One or two striking pictures and situations had crystallised George’s vague misgivings. One Saturday evening he was in the Mile End Road, sharing in the enjoyment of the parade, the booths, the movement, the lights, the free laughter and chaff. The whole place was full of life, and there was an air of simple gaiety which was almost continental, an enjoyment of nothing at all. At one time the whole street seemed to be chanting the latest popular song. The entrance to the Paragon looked bright. Those who had six-pences to spare and had gone in with their wives and children to spend a pleasant evening, and to refresh their recollection of the great comic singer who had taken their world by storm. Helen walked at his side, enjoying the company and his enjoyment. Suddenly the pleasant light of gas and petroleum flares was interrupted by the cold, desolating electric light. An enormous building without a front rose into view. It was the People’s Palace. Joy stopped there. They passed through the solitary turnstile, and the railings covered with boards announcing shorthand and French lessons, into an immense forsaken hall, lit by electric light, and containing some plants in pots. There were three people in it; an old man and an old woman with a little girl.
Or, again, he went to a meeting of a University society for the improvement of the people in Whitechapel. A Cambridge secretary spoke about their work. They were teaching people how to enjoy themselves rationally, giving them books, lectures, debating clubs, gymnasiums. And George had a vision of the heavy boredom of the upper-class Englishman, of the extreme difficulty which he finds in amusing himself, and passing his leisure hours. While, in the streets, a promenade, a song, laughter, was enough. And to see the girls dancing to an organ, and a ring of people watching! The working man who spoke at the meeting, although he meant to be favourable, made such a much better speech than the Cambridge secretary, and touched upon so many points which told both ways, or even were adverse to the improvers, that he was, to George’s mind, pleading against them.
So they went on month after month, charmed to be working together, becoming intimate with that large circle of people whose minds are completely filled with thoughts of social improvement—finding a sufficient employment in their discovery that those people were unsympathetic.
The various makeshifts with which Society tried to blind itself to the necessity of socialism were criticised, and the steps in the process were marked by articles in different papers, but mostly in the Withers’ journal. For during all this time, though he did not lose his original unfavourable impression, he had remained on good terms with the artistic socialists, and continued to attend their meetings. And after two years of experiment, during which he gradually gave up his connection with philanthropy, he found himself closer to the Withers school than to any other. But, as time went one, a new difficulty began.
He had objected openly to some of their ways, and had even written for their paper a warning against the dangers of abstract socialism, of theories which only serve to divide. They accepted such criticism as natural and fair, and the article came well in the paper, as it was not an attack, but a warning from their own side.
But during February in the third year of their marriage, when he had less to occupy his thoughts than usual, he found that instead of combating those of their opinions which he disliked, he was unconsciously noticing and collecting little points about the whole set which joined themselves together into an extremely ridiculous sketch. They were little things which he said to Helen about them, and over which she laughed, though they were not at all when she herself would have noticed. One day in the early spring, when the completeness of the sketch was irresistibly tempting, he began writing. And some days after, what he had written seemed so good that he wondered whether he would send it to a paper. But then he thought it was rather unkind. Yet it was so comic. He showed it to Helen. She was astonished that George had cared to amuse himself thus, especially when he spoke of sending it to a paper.
“Why do you wish to do that?”
“I didn’t think very seriously of doing so, perhaps I’d better not, because they mightn’t like it; but it reads so funnily.”
“Of course, I think it’s amusing because I know the people; but do you think any one who didn’t would?”
“Oh, there’s no fear of people not understanding it. The thing is obvious enough.”
“If you attacked their opinions, that would be all right. Write your article upon their mediaeval socialism.”
“If I did that I should be much more violent, for I should be a partisan. I should be hard on them then; but in this case I’m not hostile; I’m not even laughing. I simply represent certain points.”
“They certainly will be hurt by this much more than by an attack, because there’s no answer. But I can’t see why you wish to publish this; it comes to nothing.”
“No; it’s not worth while; it was only an idea.”
Helen could not understand what he meant. The sketch certainly amused her, because she knew the people and recognised the descriptions of them and their houses; but it would not be anything for others. She was not so much concerned with the question of the feelings of her friends as with her own feeling that it was a piece of fooling unworthy of George. He had not enough to do at the time, and she was glad that in May they were to start for the Continent. He was to begin with Belgium, and write accounts to a morning paper of socialism there, then they were to go on to Germany. It was now just the turning-point; they had passed through the preliminary stages; they were going to start on real socialism. Meanwhile they were idle; he said that it was not worth while to begin anything in England. She urged him to write about mediaevalism, an attack which she knew would by violent. He wrote something, but did not publish it; he said he would wait.
ON an afternoon, half way through September, George was sitting in his room after tea. Helen had gone out to see her mother, George was tired and not very well, so he had stayed at home. They had come back from Berlin the day before. George sat in a listless, melancholy mood; his state of mind reminded him of the days before he was married, when he had come home from the country and sat and felt miserable at the prospect of a Cambridge winter term, or, further back still, of a term at school.
London had always been cheerless, he remembered, on those days. Sometimes he had left his mother and his brothers behind; but even when they came with him it was melancholy. There was nothing worth looking forward to; then the actual dread of the journey to school or Cambridge, the station, the men with their Gladstone-bags, talking shop, men already in couples, friendly already, and he himself shrinking from them, keeping to himself, now hopeless at the prospect of the winter, now filled with poignant regret at the picture of the sunny holiday.
And always in those times, as far back as he could remember, his regrets would centre round one person or one spot.
As if the pain at leaving the holiday place had been too general, some one thing would arise in his mind to make the pain acute. Once it had been a girl to whom he had never spoken, and the girl in particular surroundings, coming out of her white house with its green shutters on the sunny quay. Another time it was a little girl of eleven, who had put her arm in his and run about the garden with him. And once his regrets were inextricably mingled with the pathos of a novel which he had been reading, until the heroine became the centre of his pain…. It was a windy day; the house seemed sometimes to rise, sometimes to swell with the gusts.
It was ridiculous to be so sentimental, he would look forward cheerfully to his work. And he set himself to thinking of all he had to do. He had made a name as an authority on socialism; his articles were to be re-published; he was to be regularly on the staff of the morning paper for which he had written; he had been asked to give lectures and to speak at meetings; some of the secret prominent of the trades’ union secretaries were his friends and took him into their confidence; in fact he was well started on the work….
The intention was good, but it was no use. In Berlin he had lived from hand to mouth, writing his articles and getting them over, and then enjoying the actual new things which he saw, without entering into himself and considering what he meant by it all. But now, when he was trying to look forward to the work which he had begun, he felt like a child with his mouth full, when half through chewing, without a feeling of sickness, quite involuntarily, the mouth suddenly opens wide–ah–with a closed feeling in the throat.
And it was no use trying to deceive himself into hopefulness, he was alone with himself. That was a strange sensation too. Never before had he experienced this feeling of having to depend entirely on himself. When he was a boy there had been hope, and he had justified in waiting for help from outside. He felt afraid, the gusts swelled, drops of rain swung about in the grey air; it was hopeless, and there was nothing to comfort him. Helen’s entrance would have been an interruption.
He left thinking of the future, and dreamt of the time which he had passed in Berlin. It was almost painful to remember some bits–the bright Potsdamer Strasse with its brilliant white houses and lime trees, and especially some places just out of the town; a sandy slope beyond Wedding, with purple flowers growing in the sheltered parts, and then Halensee, the long sandy stretches grown with purple grass and sorrel and evening primroses, and the pine woods dripping down to a little lake, and the bier-lokal at Hundukehle and St. Hubertus. Or else the more obvious corners of the town: the view of the Linden, lighted by electric light, seen through the curtained windows of the great room in the opera house, the touching statue of the great Frederic, with the stretch of trees behind him.
How happily he had lived there, and how bright everything he had lived there, and how bright everything had been! He had not troubled to look forward; he just did his work conscientiously, and the rest of the time he was free to appreciate this new town, to be a sensitive observer of all the aspects which struck him. He had allowed no misgivings to trouble him, he had put all questions off till he should return to London, and fully occupied himself in enjoying and comprehending the sentiment in the town. Yes, that had been his business–strangely engrossing, for what was it after all? And here again he had the curious feeling of having to deal with himself only; for though he had sometimes tried to explain it to Helen, this pleasure, whatever it was, had been all his own.
And then he thought, “I’m not well. This regret for Berlin is fantastic and only comes because I don’t feel fit for effort and fresh work.” And yet he had nothing to set against his present hopelessness and the long dreary prospect expect this past enjoyment; it certainly had been acute, and had a peculiar halo of glory around it.
“How early it grows dark now,” he thought, and looked at his watch; it was seven o’clock; Helen ought to be in; and just at that moment he heard the key in the door.
She came into the room and saw George sitting as she had left him. Immediately her while concern was for him. She was so little herself that the irritating “What, still sitting here?” the cheerful expression of personal astonishment, never even entered her head. She came up to him, took the hand which he held out, and sat down beside him. Then she said–
“I’m sorry I’ve been away so long.”
“Oh, I’ve been sitting here doing nothing. I feel idle. How is your mother?”
“She’s very well…. On my way I went to see the house. It has been bought by the drapers at the corner, and they are rebuilding it. I couldn’t get in by the big gate, it was boarded up; but I went into the garden by the builders’ entrance at the side. The house and everything looked so strange; I had to look a long time before I saw that all the things were really just as they used to be. The sort of idea I had about the house isn’t a bit like what it really is.”
During dinner and afterwards, George was preoccupied and did not speak much. Helen said not a word about his silence, or about his being unwell. She was simply there, and his entirely. This attitude of complete love and self-oblivion was irresistible, and George felt forced to speak.
“I shall be all right to-morrow. Changes always do upset me. I don’t know why I should feel low-spirited exactly. But I can’t become hopeful by thinking over the work we are going to do. I’ve been trying to rouse myself, but all I do is to drop back into thinking how delicious it was in Berlin. It is dreary to come back again.”
As he began, it all seemed natural. He was not very well, he had done a good deal of work in Berlin, and now he felt tired and a little hopeless; that was to be expected. A man cannot always feel certain and vigorous about a great work in which he is engaged. But “it is dreary to come back again;” that struck a short, painful note upon a chord somewhere hidden away in her heart.
She comforted him, and they talked on a little longer. But when he had gone to bed and she was sitting up alone, the painful note began again to sound and brought back his words, “It is dreary to come back again.” And now that he was not with her, she thought over these words and the pain came out clear. How strange, she thought, that he should feel this private regret at leaving one place for another. Such an idea–a thought apart from him–could never have occurred to her.
And George had said the words quite openly, without the least idea of what they meant to her. He felt dreary at coming back to London, and so he said it, and he did not see what he was saying. His confession about his work gave her no pain, yet that was what George might have fancied would distress her.
It was dreary for him to come back to London. She had no idea that such a thing could be. He had a pleasure apart, a source of sympathy outside. Her fears came first; but then she calmed them. She was exaggerating; he was not well. They would see, he would be well again soon. Bishop was coming to dine the next day to talk over business, and that might set him right.
Henry Bishop, just before Helen and George started for Berlin, had made a proposal to George to carry out their old college plan of starting a weekly paper. George was to take charge of politics, which would be socialist. Henry would write stories and criticisms; and other friends, among them a musical student with advanced views, had promised to help them. Bishop would put in some money which his father was willing to give him for this purpose, and Helen would do the same; she thought the idea excellent, it would give George a fresh interest in social work. They had discussed the matter in Berlin and had written to Henry to say that on consideration they approved. And on the next evening he was to come and make more definite arrangements.
Helen had invited Margaret, for she and Bishop liked each other, and as George had so neglected his old college friend of late, she wished to have a pleasant party. Margaret, too, she had seldom seen since since her marriage. George and she had been so wrapped up in each other and the work which they were doing, so contented after their discontent and emptiness, that they had not needed their old friends. And now George had expressed a wish to go back again; he felt a longing to see Henry and have one of the old talks with him.
The meeting was very friendly. Towards the end of dinner, after much personal talk, Henry and George began to discuss the paper excitedly, continually springing up from the consideration of details into lofty ideas about art, or the way in which things were to be viewed and articles written. And the eager conversation was sprinkled with jokes which moved to endless laughter, jokes about the greatness of the paper, the name of the articles, and what people would say and how they would hold up their hands and shake their fists. They were like boys over it.
Helen was delighted to see George show so much interest and hopefulness; and Margaret, interested, glad that her two friends were going to do this work, with only just a vague consciousness of astonishment floating through her mind now and again when she thought of Helen attached to a boy who was so eager and full of theories–only dim little astonishments as she looked at Helen.
They had been to talk for five minutes about such an actual subject as the printer, when George said–
“And I know the way to treat my subject now. Something quite new and much more striking than the mere up-holding of opinions. People have had enough of bare opinions, we must give them depth and reality, light and shade, by representing things rather more descriptively. I can do the more ordinary style for the old daily, but you shall have something more sympathetic and infinitely more real–and it will be of interest to everybody, not merely to specialists.”
“Yes, that’s a great thing. The articles, even on remote subjects, shall be interesting to every one. And we shall all be working together. There’s a thread which joins us already, and it will grow stronger. There will be no contradictions in our paper. And yet it will be broad and sympathetic, not narrow, and incapable of enthusiasms.”
They talked until it was time for Margaret to go–they could have talk for ever. Helen and George went out and accompanied the other two to Portland Road Station, where they took train for Notting Hill Gate, for Margaret was staying in Campden Hill.
George felt cheerful after this meeting with Henry and the discussion about the paper. He did not know why the idea should make him feel hopeful; but somewhere in the back of his mind hopes sprang up: there seemed to be possibilities in the paper and in the renewal of his intimacy with Henry.
THE paper appeared in November. George’s first two articles were drawn from his recollections of what he had seen of socialism in Belgium. As he had intended, he taught very little in the articles, and endeavoured to draw striking pictures–to record, with more latitude than he had given himself before, the situations which had taken his fancy. For the third week he had already written a finishing article upon Belgium. With the fourth he meant to continue the series with Berlin.
He sat in the evening at his writing-table calling up to his remembrance with growing pleasure various scenes which in Berlin. His recollection centred round the pine-woods and the restaurants to the west of the town. They had no sort of connection with socialism; yet they seemed to be the flower of his Berlin recollections. For some reason one particular spot rested in his mind with peculiar vividness, and slowly he traces again every step which he had made on that evening.
He had been strolling alone the whole afternoon in the country, and at five o’clock he was returning east towards the town. The country was absolutely still, the sun was hot, the crickets and larks were mingling their notes. He had passed through a tiny avenue of old and worn fruit-trees, when suddenly he heard the noisy clang of a bell and found himself at the top of a broad road which turned down towards some houses. There was no transition that he could remember, he was astonished to find himself at once among a crowd of people who were waiting for the noisy-ringing steam-tram to come and take them up. He could not think why there were so many people about, holiday-makers.
Then he remember that it was Sunday; but what they doing out there? He followed the road among a stream of people and reached the bottom of the dip. On the left lay a lake among reeds, and on the right there was a little group of willows, and among them an entrance to a restaurants which was out of sight. But through the willows the flash of water caught his eye, and the sound of music was accompanied by the continuous roll and thud of skittles. Two laughing girls in light dresses were turning into the entrance arm-in-arm.
The sudden change from the hot, flat, and silent plain to this noisy, gay corner among the reeds and willows of a lake affected him. And the impression was heightened as he walled on. For he came to a cross-road in which were some shops and houses, some old and some newly built. And at the doors of the old houses peasants were standing listlessly, gazing with open mouths into the street; in the wine shop there was a noisy quarrel going on, and in the first floor of a little cottage a man and a woman were cursing and shouting one another down. The sudden change had impressed him, and each point as it presented itself found a sensitive record.
Down the road, past a house, three or four steps into a field, and all was perfect silence again. Before him lay the beginning of Berlin, the great mass of the Joachimsthal school. A new road had been begun and reached half say across; but the meadows on either side were untouched and full of wild flowers, especially grass of Parnassus. It was perfectly still.
He remembered that he had been so moved as to wish to go again and take Helen to show her, though he did not know what had made him cling so to the recollection of this spot. They went together, and took a long time in finding it. When he came he was impressed again, though in rather a different way. He could not explain what he felt to Helen. Since then he had not thought of the place particularly. He had not written of it in his articles, fir it had nothing to do with them. But now he could think of nothing else. Why had this one place come back to his mind with such a glamour round it?
Why now, when he was intending to write on the Berlin socialists? The feeling reminded him of a morning in his boyhood when he was staying in Dieppe for the summer holidays. He woke up knowing that it was Saturday, the day for a ball at the Casino. And he began thinking over his partners one by one. When he reached one particular girl, the picture of her touched him, and gave a peculiar softness to his feeling, as if something had happened between them. And yet she was not an especial favourite of his, he had never paid her particular attention. And then the recollection came vaguely, and like a faint scent through a mist, that the causeless phantasy of the night’s dream had made the girl sweet and caressing to him, and that he had kissed her then.
What was it now? What had passed between him and Wilmersdorf that he could think of nothing else? And what was to be done? The whole of his strange, intimate joy in Berlin, and his regret at leaving it, hung now upon this place.
As he thought over the little street with its houses, a tragedy grew to match the laughter and the music and the flash of the reedy lake; how, years before, Wilmersdorf had been a silent, tiny hamlet inhabited by market-gardeners and day labourers; close to Berlin, only six or seven miles from the Bröse, and yet it was seen by no one, for it was on no high road. As Berlin grew after the war, the shopkeepers and townspeople spread abroad every Sunday to find a bit of country, and Wilmersdorf was discovered. People came gradually more and more. The one old innkeeper, who used to work in his garden all day, and only come in at certain hours to give the well-known customers a drink of white beer, was called upon to supply the visitors. He gave up his gardening and made an attempt, envied by his friends. But he could not manage the work; he was bought out by a man from the town, and his young daughter, an ignorant country girl, was kept on at a salary as a waitress. And from that, the gradual ruin of the old life in the little hamlet, as the visitors and their visitors and their demands increased, and the villagers let off working in order to try and supply their wants: the men idle and unsettled, the girls ruined, yet even so no success–disorder everywhere. And gradually the building of fine restaurants by the side of the lake–the place becoming as he had seen it. The drunkenness and quarrelling, the cursing at misfortune, the idle gazing at the visitors on Sunday and the dreariness of Monday, the complete wreck of the village. And the last picture. A few years afterwards, and Wilmersdorf is as orderly as it was thirty years back. All the original inhabitants have been scattered–some of the men are working on behalf of their enemy the town, building the road which runs west from Berlin. The Berliners are amused in organised pleasure-gardens. There is a big ball-room, entrance one shilling, boxes extra, and everything is as business-like as at a chantant in the Alexandrinen Strasse.
And behind the tragedy came into his mind the scene of it, the lake with its three restaurants hidden among the trees, the triumphant bell-clang of the steam-tram skimming along the road from Berlin.
And as it all came before his eye, the whole picture, crowded with interest, calling for him to take it, he felt all his vigour streaming back upon him like a flood. Now he was eager once more to live on.
He had found it, he had found it; he had found it; found the one thing for which he had been dimly searching these last months. It was the gleam of the ocean which he knew, which was his, and from which he had been exiled so long, on his march through a strange land.
“HAVE you written your fourth article yet; the beginning of Berlin?”
“Yes, I’ve finished it. I’ll show it you. I never wrote anything so easily. I’ve only dome the beginning; but enough for an article. It’s about the place which I took you to see that hot afternoon, out beyond the big school. I couldn’t explain to you quite why it interested me so, but you’ll see now.”
When Helen had read it she said–
“How strange! That’s not at all the impression the place made on me.”
“No? Well it’s most certainly the impression it made on me–not that the truth matters one way or the other.”
For the first time since they had met, Helen was out of touch, and naturally, for George was away to a region of which she had no knowledge. She felt immediately that they were not together.
“It’s to be an example of the ruin of village-life of which people talk so much?” she went on.
“Yes, it’s a picture of what happens. But I shall draw no moral, for there’s none to be drawn.”
“It will remain simply a picture?”
When the complete vision of Wilmersdorf’s story came to him that evening, it was the discovery of something which he seemed to recognise as the object of his vague search. He did not inquire any further, or connect it at all with Helen. His whole state of mind, his idleness, the dead lack of energy which had been growing slowly upon him when he thought of his work, the curious love for Berlin, where he had lived thoughtlessly and enjoyed something new, the dreariness of coming back to London, where it would be necessary to have it out with himself, the circling of his imagination round and round a spot vaguely seen, and the final discovery of what it meant, all was so entirely his own concern that he did not think particularly of Helen; why should he? And he himself had inquired into it so little.
But directly he saw Helen reading what he had written he began to feel that his new departure did not concern himself alone, and when she had finished he was certain that her first movement had been unsympathetic. Without reflecting how entirely he had lived for himself lately, whereas, before, everything he had done and felt sprung from his companionship with Helen, without seeing how impossible it would be for her to understand at once what this opening Berlin article meant to him, he was a little hurt offended at her want of sympathy. He did not go further than a slight sensation of distrust. But when once an artist feels, or imagines, the slightest want of he increases his hostility, adding brick after brick, until the wall of separation grows impassable and sheer.
When George gave Helen his article to look at, she thought that it would be a continuation of his former work. She read it through and found nothing in it. It was taken from a source of which she had no knowledge. She only knew that whatever it was, it had not sprung into being and grown up with her help, she had no part in it. The only criticism which came into her head was that the description did not recall the place. And when he told her later that this kind of writing was the solution of his difficulties, and the meaning of his vague feelings in Berlin, her fears of the day after their return came upon her in force. They came on her in overwhelming force, so that she could not think clearly–simply minute passed of blind fear, so that she grew hot and cold, and the sweat stood on her forehead. It was like a child’s nightmare; he had been away and was still away somewhere in the distance at a point which she could not reach, infatuated with something which was out of range.
But the next morning she came back from her first extreme fears. There was George at her side, and what was the nightmare which had frightened her?
Two weeks passed away. The house was very lively. Henry Bishop was always there, and he was an enthusiastic, generous person, full of admiration for George, and very eager about the paper. Others who were connected with them often came to the house, and they sat and talked and cheered each other on and joked. Everybody was occupied, and that made Helen feel all the more acutely the sudden change which had come for her. During every minute of the three years of her life with George she had been occupied, she had been working, for George had taken his full draught of sweet sympathy after long thirst. Every part of his life was hers, it was perfect employment.
Now she was idle. But only for a time, surely only for a time; the change had come upon her unawares; she had not imagined such a thing. But it was only a whim, George would come back again to the work. The work, the great, noble work, her gospel, the discovery which they had made together, their life.
And as the days passed on she came to look forward to a particular evening just before Christmas, for which they had a long-standing invitation from John Fisher. It was for a small private meeting, just the secretaries of some of the most important unions. The invitation was a great honour, and they had been delighted when Fisher spoke of it to them long before. It would be a kind of introduction into the real working socialism, the crowning of their efforts.
A few days before the fifteenth of December, the evening appointed, she spoke to George of their engagement. She had said nothing before, because he was occupied, and it was only as time went on that she began to feel fully how idle the change had left her, and to fear how it would end. So she spoke, hoping to get back to their life together.
George, to her astonishment, said he could not go. She had not expected that.
“Really? You mean really that you don’t wish to go?”
“I don’t see how I can. The fifteenth is just the evening on which we meet to discuss the following number.”
“But surely another day would do as well for that.”
“No. It’s most important that we shouldn’t miss the meeting in which we arrange everything.”
“Then you really don’t wish to go?”
George was astonished now. Astonished at himself, astonished to think how entirely he had neglected her during these weeks. The tone of her voice discovered this to him. They had talked and laughed together with the rest, but he had not really thought of her. This feeling put him in the wrong, and Helen hurried on to speak, hating to see at a disadvantage, and sacrificing herself.
“Are you going to give up the work for the sale of this paper?”
“It’s not so much for the paper as the work which I’m doing for it.”
“But it is worth while, George, to give up such an important thing for such a slight one? You may miss your chance. You have full success in your grasp. You’ve gone through all the preliminaries, and now that you’ve reached the point for which you’ve been working, will you turn back just when you should go on, and for a fancy, a fancy which has taken you because you were tired and a little hopeless? Won’t you begin again?”
“Helen, let us wait–let me wait a little and see,” and he wanted to turn and speak of something different, to leave this untouched, and talk as people do usually, about anything.
Before they had gone abroad Helen had a vague fear for a short space. George might lose interest in the work for a time, and then the weight of bringing him back would rest with her. Something had made her look forward down the long vista of life and she thought she saw the possibility. But the fear had passed away. Now this was worse. He had gone away, and of his own accord, to something else, just when he had reached the important point. And she saw that he did not wish to say anything to her about this work, that he was making a division between it and his conversation with her, cutting her off from the one great interest which occupied his thoughts.
One day during the week she was alone with Bishop, and she said–
“George isn’t going to write any more articles on socialism then, for I see you’ve got some one else to do them?”
“Yes, a man called Player. It’s just as well to keep them on, because socialism is a thing of the time, and it would be a pity to miss the chance of sympathising with something important.”
Henry knew nothing of what Helen and George had done together. He had begun again with his friend where he left off, taking the three years of estrangement as natural: “that’s always what happens when people marry.” And he was much too enthusiastic and concerned with art and ideas to notice anything now; indeed, that would have been difficult.
“I’m glad that George isn’t doing them any more. He’s writing excellent things now. That Wilmersdorf sketch was wonderful; it took us all by storm. And now these character sketches which he’s doing are delicious. And I’m glad, too, that he’s thinking of writing Wilmersdorf on a large scale, making a long book of it, and doing the town and the suburb and all the people thoroughly, like a Zola. It will be just as well, too, if he leaves off his work for the Chronicle. As he said, a man can’t do two things at once, and he ought to give his whole time to this.”
So it really was important as this? And they all knew about it. He had long plans in his head, and Bishop and the rest knew what was his intention.
And she felt as if she were drifting at sea. That of all things she could least bear. A safe anchorage, the feeling of certainty, or else a struggle against wind and tide–either of those suites her nature.
Meanwhile George was working hard, with all the vigour and hope which follows a fresh discovery. He was sweet and gay to Helen, always hoping that she would not go back to the serious subject; for he felt tender about her in this matter, and the thought of her disappointment now was a black shadow with his own invincible feeling of life and hope. He tried not to think of it, and to look forward and comfort himself with the idea that when his work became admired, everything would be right again; and his joy at his work was so great, it seemed to him impossible that the shadow could last.
Days passed away, and weeks. Helen went out very little. She felt always that George was afraid of talking to her about the change; she felt even how in his own mine he tried to put off thinking about it. She hoped that it was only a mood, and would pass; but fearful lest the separation between them should grow, she kept from talking to him about the one thing which she thought. She read the paper, paying no particular attention to his sketches, hardly knowing what they were about, simply waiting for the return. She knew nothing of what the world said of the paper, except what she had heard from the set who came to the house, and from them she gathered and vaguely understood that the world did not appreciate it. However, they made up for the world’s unkindness by admiring each other.
Helen had taken Henry without criticising him, as a friend and admirer of George. But now she began to dislike him–this man who was in league with George, who knew all his plans, who raved over his work, and gaily les him on without noticing her. The one secret of George’s which he did not know was the only thing in her life.
A YEAR passed away, and Helen was once more at Christmas time. She has made an effort during the year. As the winter spent itself, when she reached March, and found that things were just the same–George still wrapped in his work, and still waiting, as far as she was concerned–Helen had wondered why she too had dropped the work. Why not go on? That would, at any rate, put an end to her idleness. And workers were needed. At first she had no idea of going on alone; not for a moment did the thought cross her mind. But now she moved. Moreover, she felt that she was losing all her friends, and she took no fancy to any of the people with whom George was becoming acquainted.
This resolve brought with it a painful feeling. She felt sure that when George saw her going to work again, he would be greatly relieved. The more she brooded over this, the more bitter the thought became until at last it grew into an agony such as she had never known. She would not then be on his conscience, because he could always think that she was occupied and interested, and he would be freer. She was not even sure whether a dim feeling of this kind was not partly the reason that her idleness oppressed her; perhaps it was partly because she hated to see him uneasy that she began to work again.
She went once more to meetings, and renewed her friendship with the old set of people. She even tried writing some articles. But it was miserable. There seemed to be no reason for what she did. Nobody wanted her. She even went hopelessly back to some of the social work which they had discarded at the beginning, for there seemed more need of her there. But she was not doing it for any one’s sake, and there was no longer a feeling of strength and certainty in the work.
George had gone on contributing to the paper. Sometimes he wrote character sketches; sometimes he wrote descriptions of places which had struck him, containing perhaps the faintest tinge of human interest–a craftsman at work in his shop window, dignified; a nurse-maid wheeling her perambulator up and down the one piece of smooth pavement in a new outskirt of Berlin, with the peculiar swagger in the swinging motion of the body, pleased that a man in a balcony should be watching her–just such a tiny thread by which he meant the description to hold together.
But often a week or two would pass without any contribution to the paper, when he thought that he saw his way to a proper expression of some bit of the great Wilmersdorf novel. This work often gave him trouble, and sometimes brought him to desperation. But it was his business, and he never felt hopeless for long; he would know how to do it soon. However, when the summer came, the novel was still chaotic; the sketch was complete, but very little of it was really finished. He had arranged to stay in London during August, Bishop went to Dieppe for a holiday with his family. In September Henry came back, and George and Helen went to Dieppe, where the Bishops were still staying. George was in the middle of a period of the most warm affection for the whole Bishop family. Helen found the mother and father dull, even a little common; Henrietta she disliked.
Heinrich Bishop, the father of Henry and Henrietta, was a German from Hamburg, where his father, an Englishman, had settled in his boyhood. Heinrich had married a little German girl, and remained in his father’s business until a few years after the birth of Henrietta, when he came to London to take charge of a new branch of the business, and settled near Westbourne Park. In England he became ultra-English. The English pose was a continual vexation to his wife, who was a regular housewife, and a source of much amusement to his father, really an Englishman, and quite contented to live in Hamburg. In fact, the father’s sarcasms about his son’s Anglomania annoyed the son more than he confessed. Henrietta, who was a great favourite of her father’s, never could agree with her mother. Since they had very few friends, she was always pining to go to the subscription dances, races, regattas, cricket matches, skating rinks–anywhere to be among people; and as her mother hated receiving or going out, and would have liked Henry to help her in the house, vaguely wishing she would employ her time with heaven knows what serious occupation, the girl had to depend for her pleasures a good deal upon chance acquaintances; and this was another source of annoyance to her mother. Mr. Bishop would reply, when his wife complained, that the remedy lay in her own hands; and as for being idle, English women as a rule did not spend much time in housekeeping.
Heinrich was proud of his English son, and had always been very lenient to him, and Henry was adored by his mother. He had at first been sent to University College School. Next it was decided that he should go to Sandhurst. For that purpose he went to a crammer’s for a year. When he looked back upon that year, it seemed to resolve itself into one long, hot summer day of boredom in class, a walk down the Grove with some other men in straw hats, and an evening of empty fooling in the Gardens where they lived. After he had spent the year at the crammer’s he gave up the army, thinking that he was fit for something better. It was just at the period when he tool to Shelley and began to talk about Balzac. He would go to Cambridge and try for the Bar. Mrs. Bishop had objected to the Sandhurst scheme, and had hated the life her son led at the crammer’s. Cambridge was not so bad; but really she would have liked him to go into his father’s business. The boy himself did not know what he wished to do; but he felt enthusiastic and advanced, and enthusiastic and advanced he entered at Trinity.
Helen disliked Henrietta, disliked everything about her; the rather forward manner, a bold outside covering a nature really timid from shallowness and incapable of taking a strong line and of actually facing any difficulty, and this joined with a perpetual and obvious desire to be in society and to be seem, which led her continually into open differences with her mother, and which seemed to be the whole life of the girl. So far there was a good deal of truth in Helen’s observation. But she was unfair when she put down what seemed to her a preposterous admiration for George’s work to affectation and a general wish to flatter any man in order to attach him. Henrietta really believed that George was very clever, and she was flattered by the attention which he paid her. If she imagined that her admiration was more for his art than it really was, that was not affection, but a mistake.
George was flattered at the admiration, and felt that she was flattered merely by his giving her his company, and as she showed very plainly her great wish for society and enjoyment, he felt inclined to do all he could to supply her need. It had always been a pleasure to him to take any amount of trouble for people who at all pleased him, if he felt that they needed him enough to be touched by his attentions.
George began a great work in Dieppe. One afternoon he happened to leave the Casino and the region of hotels and gaiety, and in the course of a walk through the town he came upon the docks and basins which had been lately been built at great expense. There were hardly any ships in them, the enormous warehouses were empty, and had the peculiarly desolate look of things which have never been used, the railway lines were rusty, the arms of the cranes pointed meaninglessly into the sky. Everything had been done on the lavish scale. He came back with the idea of the town a failure, dead at the core, and only living at the edge, just along the plage where the visitors came in the summer.
He was greatly excited at this idea. Gradually it took shape as the life of the town, the real life which goes in all the year, contrasted with the gay passing life of visitors during the season, the centre of the picture. He fired Henrietta’s admiration afresh when he told her of this: really it did look magnificent.
Helen had paid no attention to George’s stories in themselves; it has not struck her to look at them critically for a moment. But now that she felt that the solitary effort to continue the social work was no comfort, now that she was entirely cut off from it and idle in Dieppe, and heard Henrietta in raptures over her husband’s writing, she unconsciously took to reading his sketches carefully. It was only when she had already criticised two or three, that she realised that this was the first time she had really looked at her husband’s new work, although he had been writing for ten months. It had never entered into her head that the question whether his stories were good or bad might be of any importance to her. The gradual discovery that he had really gone back from his proper work to this had been enough to occupied her thoughts.
And her criticism was adverse. Naturally she came biassed to the consideration; but still, truly enough, she could see nothing in the sketches. They were either shapeless and utterly incomprehensible, or else they were so slight as to be nothing at all. She read the three articles containing the sketch of Wilmersdorf, and she remembered bits of what she had heard from himself and others of his long novel on the subject. That would be another shapeless production, more shapeless than ever. And when, in his joy at the discovery of this new Dieppe picture, he told her something about it, that was just the same. And what was this idea of always writing about towns? Who ever heard if taking such a thing as a town for the subject of a novel, as if it were a person? And when next he spoke to her of it, she said that this business of towns was becoming a mania with him, and no one would understand what he meant.
They went back to London at the beginning of October. Helen began again with her work, but with less hope than ever. And gradually she dropped her friends, and left off working bit by bit, though it was Christmas before she had quite stopped. One of her regular occupations had been to attend a certain committee-meeting on Wednesday evenings, and that was one of the last things to which she held.
But one Wednesday evening soon after Christmas she had not the heart to go. She was sitting, spiritless and tired, in the drawing-room. George always went to dine at the Bishops’ on Wednesday evenings. He came in at eleven o’clock in good spirits. He had noticed already that Helen had been leaving off work gradually, and when he found her in the drawing-room, looking as if she had been at home all the evening, he asked at once–
“Haven’t you been to your meeting?”
“Oh! So you dropped off the work, too, then?”
Helen looked at him, astonished; then she stretched out both her arms over her chair, not towards him, but despairingly, anywhere, her head bowed forward upon them; great sobs suddenly broke from her, hopeless sobs. And crying still, she rocked herself to and fro. She let George come and kneel by her side and take her hand and speak softly to her; but that was no comfort. What he had said seemed to her so hideously cruel: he had sneered, simply because she shoved how utterly her life depended upon him, after her humble attempt to work on alone–thinking of him even then. George did not understand. He had not meant anything particular by remark. Even as he kissed her forehead and her brown hair and tried to comfort her, he knew that he was out of sympathy with her. As he knelt by her side he was thinking all the time that her sorrow could not last. How was it possible when his work was so wonderful and he felt so hopeful in it? His confidence was so strong, it must conquer everything; so he fixed his eyes obstinately at a point beyond her present pain.
That night Helen wondered how she would be able to go on living. Something must happen to make her sorrow less vast and high, to break it into smaller pieces and bring it down to earth, making it more like what were called troubles. She could not live at this stretch.
IN January a collection of George’s sketches came out. A publisher who had a great idea that it was useful to appear advanced and strange, offered to bring them out if George would share in the expense.
Helen had imagined that there would be an outcry when George’s change of face became known. A man who had devoted himself so entirely to social work, and who had made a name for himself by taking a distinct line which every one respected, could not change round just at the moment of success without notice. But no, there had been no outcry. No one seemed to think it astonishing that a socialist should take to writing stories. Some of the critics even, in writing of the volume, spoke as if they saw no break in his work. He had published some extreme essays; now here were some absurd stories.
Most of the papers made great fun of the book. As soon as Bishop’s paper became at all known, it had afforded endless chaff and laughter week after week, so that when the stories reappeared, the critics were on the alert, and they simply rollicked. One especially, a rising man, wrote a most happy article upon the book; he had never been so inspired. There was something really grand, he said, about the childlike simplicity with which Mr. Aston seriously wrote and offered to the public such amazingly idiotic things—no, not idiotic, for that was unpleasant, but baby-like. The critic reveled in the solemn fatuousness of Mr. Aston, and his article had a great success. The literary people asked each other whether they had seen Monty Frere’s article about Aston’s book, and then they chuckled and roared over every line of it.
Frere was delighted with the success of his article, because his idea was to make himself famous as a literary critic. There were men who had become known in a short time by their dramatic and art criticisms; not he would make a name in this way.
The publisher was not disappointed, for the book was much talked of. People bought it in order to join in the laugh. The way in which his book was treated reminded George of a short stay which he had made in an out-of-the-way French village a long time ago. The inhabitants remarked upon his clothes, and his fame spread, until at last the tiny children, who would never have noticed anything strange about him, and had no idea of what their elders were laughing at, used to run out when he passed, and collect round him when he stopped, and stand gazing at one another for a minute or two, until one of them would giggle, and then they all roared with laughter and ran away.
George knew that there were faults in the stories, but he was sure that they were not so ridiculous as the critics made out. He did not pay very much attention to what they said; sometimes it made him a little sad; but the immoderate fun and laughter, the extreme self-satisfaction and positiveness of some, roused in him a spirit of fight. He settled down with energy to “Wilmersdorf” once more, for the Dieppe novel he could not finish, though he had brought it to the same point as the other.
Helen happened to mention Frere’s article in the course of the conversation—
“Oh, but I know Frere. He’s one of those horrible sneaking little men, a kind of rat, whom no man would speak to if he followed his private opinion. Besides, no one could possibly take his article for criticism; you can see with half an eye that he has stolen a couple of points from some one or other, and then has been inspired with this funny article; it certainly is funny. He hasn’t a scrap of insight; he’s sure to succeed in making himself the crack literary critic, which is what he wants to do.”
George made merry over the criticism, and at heart, too, he often felt that it was amusing to be one man against every one’s derision. But his wife could not feel like that. It was terrible. She was ashamed to go out for fear of seeing a friend. She had not paid attention to what the world had said of the paper; but now she was brought with a shock right up against her husband’s work and its worth. And that George should go gaily on to more ridicule after this disgrace, brush criticism aside, and say that it meant nothing—her face burned to think of it. And there was no possible feeling of martyrdom; he was fighting for no cause. It was indeed fatuous, as they said.
Margaret came to see her, and Helen was fearful lest something should lead to the dreaded subject. After a few minutes’ conversation Margaret said—
“I think George’s stories read charmingly; better than when they appeared in the paper.”
Helen thought that she was only saying that to comfort her. It was not like Margaret to do such a thing, for she was too sensitive to comfort in that way; but they had seen so little of each other during the most important part of Helen’s life that the were almost strangers. But she thought that it was too cruel when, after a murmured “Yes?” Margaret went on—
“Don’t you think so?”
Helen bit her lip, but it was no use—she was crying. She got up from her chair and walked to the window—just such a girlish movement as Margaret had often seen her make. As the instant Margaret was back again in their old loving school-days. She went up to her and put her arms around her.
“But, Helen, my sweet Helen, you don’t really mind what they say?”
Helen could not answer for her crying, indeed she had no answer to that question, for her tears came from further away.
“They are all mistaken. They will change their mind. I’m not so enthusiastic, am I, that I’m likely to go off my head suddenly? When I read the first story in the paper it did strike me as strange; but then I went back and like the first. It’s only a question of knowing them. Anybody with sense, who has once got over the obvious strangeness, couldn’t help seeing how honest and truthful all his things are. And as for the strangeness, which they make so much of, it would need a clever man to say for certain that even that mayn’t be the beginning of something new which we shall all admire in a few years.”
Helen hardly listened to what Margaret was saying, but she was grateful. Margaret’s heart smote her when she saw Helen like this. Why had she neglected her friend, and taken it for granted that everything was right with her? And this regret showed itself in Margaret’s comforting love, and Helen, too, felt that they were as close as they used to be.
And gradually Margaret learnt the whole truth, which Helen had vaguely imagined she knew somehow—and Margaret had not even known that she did not admire George’s work.
This long explanation with Margaret was a great comfort to Helen. And yet, as she thought over it that night, with a great shock there suddenly came into her mind the indignation she would have shown when she was a girl if she had been told that she could ever confide in any one, any one however dear, about her married life—and now it was a relief!
Still, for all that she was shocked, she felt much stronger when, facing George, she could remember that Margaret knew her whole sorrow. She did not feel so weighed down, as with a sense of utter defeat.
All through February Aston was struggling with “Wilmersdorf.” He was in great difficulties, and often he would spend whole days doing nothing. Helen could not understand the days of idleness. If he was going to do this work, why did he not at least do it? George, meanwhile, in great need of sympathy, wanting some one to whom he could talk until he grew confident in his theories, began to confide in Helen.
He was telling the story of “Wilmersdorf” by means of the history of two or three families; and the whole thing was written rather from the standpoint of the innkeeper’s daughter, who is left as waitress when her father is bought out. Now George’s difficulty was to keep the book to its real point—the expression of a change in a village—and yet not to give himself away by crudely stating the case. He told Helen that he had decided not to write any more character-sketches for the paper. He had come to the conclusion that they were thoroughly bad, for they increased his natural tendency to be explanatory. None of the fools who had criticised his story had said that; and it was the one thing to say. He seemed to Helen to be quite as much pleased with the discovery that his stories were bad as he could have been if he had found out that they were perfect. He would correct his fault by taking up some of his work and re-writing it in play form; there was no possibility of explanation in the dialogue of a play.
Helen could not imagine that any work could be done in that way. And she was astonished that he could go one against such discouragement, though his perseverance seemed less to be respected than to be pitied. And then his great and only objection to his stories was not the real objection at all.
In the course of his work George made a discovery which interested him, and he could not contain his delight when he came to tell Helen.
“I haven’t been able to get through much work actually the last two days; but in thinking how things should be done I’ve found out something. It’s absurd to suppose that a man is always executing; he must spend a lot of time without doing anything, thinking out his difficulties.”
He had discovered the reason why Ibsen introduces symbols into his plays; for he himself had felt the need for a symbol of some kind in the course of his own work. In his novel about Wilmersdorf his tendency had been to keep more and more to the history of the girl, and leave out the change in the village, which was the real reason for the story’s existence. That he might keep the gradual change always in view, without stating over and over again the facts of the case—as Zola often did—he had found himself thinking of some actual object—a mound in the inn-garden, a piece of furniture, or a corner house, or perhaps such a thing as an old village custom—which suffers by the change, and so is a continual expression of it. In fact, a symbol which would stand for the great idea in the book, and do away with explanations and restatements—a perpetual metaphor.
“As we are realists, of course the symbol isn’t extravagant, but takes a place in the scene, only having a special significance all the time parallel to the story.”
At first the village was orderly, because it was peaceful and unknown; then it became disorderly, because of the change, and finally it ended by being orderly once more, when the irresistible force of the town had come and fashioned it to its uses. He had felt of his own accord the necessity for a symbol, and then suddenly had come into his head the wooden bridge over the mill-stream in “Rosmersholme,” the crack in the chimney, the high tower in the “Master Builder.” And was not that exactly the reason for which Ibsen had put in these things? Without the symbols those plays would either have been incomplete and incomprehensible, or else Ibsen would have been forced to stuff them full of explanations.
He became so excited over his discovery that in talking to Helen his voice towards the end unconsciously sounded with the eager intonation of the actress who had interpreted those plays. Helen could not understand why George should make such a fuss about all this and talk about it; and she was still more annoyed when a fortnight afterwards he said—
“Of course no one can use the symbol after Ibsen. It’s all right with him, and it’s beautiful; but it must be really a mistake in expression, and it would be mannered and sill in others. Still, it’s useful to see how people get round their difficulties.”
Helen could not see her way through all these theories; they seemed to have no use, and she distrusted them. And then, for some reason which she could not at all understand, whenever he talked as he had done about his discovery, her moral sense was shocked. He said nothing indecent or blasphemous, and yet she was hurt and made miserable. And she felt the same when she read any bits which he had finished and gave her to see, until at last she thought she could not read any more.
Margaret came often to see her, and was a great comfort. Helen said—
“I can’t at all see things as he does, and though I understand what he actually says, this theorising seems so useless. And he’s perfectly contented. It’s growing at last to be a tyranny, for his theories are all I get from him, and he talks of them in a selfish way to please himself. And quite unimportant things, such as the best hours for work, or explanations why he does not work…. The whole thing is torture to me. I’m sure there are people who could shrug their shoulders or even be amused; but I can’t possibly. It oppresses me. I wish I could get to feel more like an outsider sometimes—I always feel so terribly concerned.”
Margaret did not know how to console her; but she spoke lovingly to her and said that she must wait.
“And it’s all the worse coming after those first three years. I suppose most women haven’t had such a complete union as that, and so they can go on one way and let their husbands go another more easily—perhaps they don’t need it.”
“But George hasn’t changed, as far as I can see.”
“Changed so much that life isn’t recognisable.”
“Still, though he may think and talk of different things now, he’s there himself.”
“Neither of us seems to be able to make that distinction—at least I can’t. I daresay he could, for any one seems now to be able to get more of him than I can.”
By the end of July George had finished “Wilmersdorf.” There were pieces of it which he left in an unsatisfactory state, and here and there he had broken his own principles. But he was sure he had given due prominence to the original idea, and had not sacrificed it to the story. The same publisher promised to bring it out in October. George began to write for the paper again. He had forsaken it for some time, and had also seen less of the set, except Harry, who was always with him, for he had fancied that he could work better if he was more alone. His reappearance was hailed with delight. The set had changed a little. Those who found that they were writing nearer the public taste than the rest of the staff, deserted their first friends—some prefixing a quarrel to their desertion; others sending less and less important work as success gradually claimed them.
DURING the latter half of August Helen and George went to Dieppe and took Margaret with them. It was Helen’s idea to take her; she needed her companionship, and Margaret and George liked each other. Helen admired the way in which she would banter George about his theories; but then she remembered that his ways were not Margaret’s concern, and that neither of them made any demands upon the other, so that her freedom was not so wonderful.
At the beginning of September Margaret left them to join Mrs. Forde; and Henry Bishop, who had been at Dieppe with his family, went back to London to take over the paper for which he and George had been writing during the month.
Helen missed Margaret painfully. Since her departure it had grown cold and rainy, and the second week of September began with a great storm.
The next week it was worse still; people said that there had been no such storm for ten years. In the afternoon George and Henrietta Bishop had gone off to look at the sea from the pier, and Mr. and Mrs. Bishop, finding Helen sitting alone and reading a book in a corner of the Casino gallery, brought their chairs up and talked to her. Both Mr. and Mrs. Bishop were fond of George, Mrs. Bishop especially had a weakness for him; and they were both a little afraid of Helen, Mrs. Bishop more than her husband; for beside being a clever, advanced woman, and the wife of the great George, she seemed to her to have such superiority over other wives. She was so thoroughly at one with her husband, that she had none of the ordinary weaknesses of women; for instance, she did not mind his leaving her for hours together alone at the Casino. They would hardly have dared to sit by her now, but Helen asked them to keep her company, for there was something in their simplicity which appealed strongly to her in her present state of mind.
George and Henrietta were walking briskly along the windy plage towards the pier. While they were passing through the Casino on their way out, they talked of the people who passed by them, wondering how the members of a particular party were related, or fixing on distinguished looking old men the names of celebrated people who were said to be at Dieppe. On the plage it was so noisy and boisterous that they talked very little, only now and then calling each other’s attention to the waves which were breaking over the lighthouse.
When they reached the harbor, they joined a group of townspeople and visitors who were standing on the hinder part of the pier, watching the waves, and discussing whether there was any danger that part of the masonry might give way. No one expected the boat to start from Newhaven in such weather; but some time before three o’clock, an old sailor with a telescope cried out that he saw it. Every one strained their eyes; there was much pointing and much blindness; but at last the whole group had seen the speck, and settled itself down to the enjoyment of watching the gradual approach of the steamer. Some Englishmen among the party argued about the distance of the boat from the pier, and as this British habit was a common joke with the set, George and Henrietta looked at each other and laughed. The speck grew larger and larger, and at last the steamer was sweeping and heaving its way in between the two piers.
A great number of people had gathered at the landing-place to see the boat arrive. George and Henrietta hurried back from the pier and joined the crowd. The boat had just come to a standstill, and everybody was peering down at the deck. Suddenly a cloud came over the faces of the townspeople who were standing by, and George heard them mutter and point to the boat. He turned his face from them and looked once more upon the deck. There he saw a man, deadly pale, with his legs bandaged lying upon a stretcher. As the hooks of the crane were being fixed into the stretcher the murmurs of the crowd grew louder. The chain moved and the people began to hiss. The man was swung up from the boat and over the heads of the spectators, who were by that time hissing loud, groaning and shouting out curses. Henrietta felt afraid, and took hold of George’s hand—the piteous sight of the crowd, and all so sudden and unexpected and mysterious. The man was let down upon a large barrow and wheeled away, while the townspeople lined up all along his path and cursed and spat and shook their fists in his face.
George and Henrietta turned homewards, without speaking; but as he passed by a woman and a man standing at the door of their shop, George asked what the man had done, and he gathered scraps of a tragic story thrown in between curses. The man was the proprietor of a café under the arcades. He had made the common people loathe him by his extraordinary cruelty and villainy. A fortnight before he had left by boat on a visit to England. The day after, when the boat returned, some people heard from the crew that on his way across he had fallen into the hold and had broken both his legs. He had evidently stayed at Newhaven Hospital, and had been sent back as soon as he could be moved; and he had come, unexpected, like a curse again upon the town, on the day of this black storm, such as had not been for years.
Henrietta and George talked little while they were walking along the Quay; but when they came into the bright, friendly Grande Rue, they spoke eagerly about what they had just seen.
“There was something so shocking about it, I felt afraid,” Henrietta said.
“A minute before we noticed the man you made some laughing remark about the ball to-night.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“And immediately afterwards, we visitors had forced upon us a scene in a tragedy which belonged to the townspeople alone.”
“The look of the crowd frightened me; they were so fierce.”
“It’s always a shock to be let into the life of a town which seems to us to exist only for the summer months.”
“That’s just the idea of your novel, isn’t it?”
“Yes, and the story would come in well; don’t you think so? The chief theme the town and visitors, the harbour and docks a failure, and this story a lurid thread in the personal side of the book.”
They talked on for some time.
“And what will the critics say of ‘Wilmersdorf’?”
“They are sure, at any rate, not to find fault with the right parts. I could tell them what’s wrong with myself in many places.”
George liked being with Henrietta, especially in Dieppe; not because there was anything in her (though he was never ungrateful enough to say that); but because she wanted something of him, and pleased him by showing the want. And she did not want much, not more than he could give with pleasure. And there is a peculiar and lasting charm about the sister of a college friend; and Henry had always admired him, and had been the first to cheer him on. Sometimes she was really interested when he talked about his work; at other times she felt vain that he should confide in her—and sometimes she took his talk as the natural price to pa for his company. It was a most complete pleasure for her to dance with him, and that was why he enjoyed dancing with her. For besides the dancing of a good partner, she liked to be seen with one often, especially as there was a dearth of men at the Casino. She knew that Margaret did not like her, and thought her common, so that in Margaret’s company she always behaved less well than usual, from a mixed feeling of uneasiness and resentment. George saw this perfectly, and used to have arguments about her with Margaret and Helen together.
When they reached the house where the Bishops were staying, George and Henrietta looked in through the open window, and surprised Mr. and Mrs. Bishop at tea. Henrietta went in and joined them; but George said he must go home, and remained outside, chatting with Mrs. Bishop for a minute. As he went away, Henrietta cried out to him not to be late at the ball that evening. Some people whom she just knew by sight had arrived from London a day or two before, and she wished to dance every dance and feel thoroughly in it, as they would certainly be at the Casino in the evening looking on.
George began thinking again of what they had seen that afternoon. It had been strangely striking, and a magnificent example of his great Dieppe idea. It really seemed as if the story would come in beautifully. At any rate, the incident set him thinking with fresh enthusiasm.
He entered the house and found Helen writing a letter. She had spent a weary afternoon, and as George came in, his customary ignoring of her real feelings pained her more than usual, for in the course of writing to Margaret she had brought her weariness to a head, and as he began to talk she felt almost bitter. After a few words, he mentioned something about her wishing to go back to London.
“How did you hear that?”
“Mrs. Bishop said that she had been so pleased to spend an hour or two with you, and in talking about leaving, she told me you’d said you’d like to go—I didn’t know before.”
“Yes, during a rather dull two hours with the Bishops I said so—though it was chiefly to make conversation.”
“Do you really want to go?”
“Yes, I do.” And as he seemed to wait for her to give an explanation, she went straight on, “I shall feel less lonely in London. Here among all these strangers it wearies me to be left alone.”
George was shocked; her words were a sudden light showing up his conduct. He came and sat by her, and began—
“Oh, Helen, my own Helen, I’m so sorry; it has been horrible of me to be so careless—I didn’t think—”
She had looked him in the face as he came near to her; but his grief was so obvious what she broke down, and between her sobs she said passionately—
“Oh, to be left alone, always, always alone! And here in the Casino! And the people sit and wonder why I’m always alone, and I willingly accept the pity of people like the Bishops. Oh, it’s unbearable! And often when I’m alone there, I see you with other people, and you never come and speak to me, not even as an acquaintance would!” And her cry was broken by the passion of her tears.
“But Helen, Helen, it’s not like that! I didn’t think at the moment; everything went on so easily. I didn’t hurt you purposely!”
And as he appealed to her, bitterly repenting of his thoughtlessness during the long month which could never be recalled, her tears gained him, and he could speak no more, and say crying too.
And when she cried no longer he was still sobbing heavily, with his face between his hands. And every sorrow of which he had ever dreamt came to mingle with his anguish at having so hurt his wife.
Helen was tired out with crying, and turned to him, for she could not bear to see him still racked with sobs. She had never seen him cry before. And she comforted him, and stroked his hair, and said she was sorry, that she had not meant to say anything during this holiday, but had hoped they would go back quietly to London soon.
For a long time she could not comfort him, nor even stay his sobbing, for George did not know himself how his grief came to be so complex.
The servant came in to lay cloth, and George left his chair, and went to the window. When they had finished dinner Helen said—
“You will go to the Casino to-night?”
“No, I don’t think I’ll go.”
“But why not? Oh, please go.”
“I couldn’t enjoy myself; that’s the only reason.”
“But, poor Henrietta, it will disappoint her so!”
“Yes, I’m sorry to disappoint her, and it’s no fault of hers.” Indeed he was sorry; it seemed so shamefully unkind—in fact, part of his whole grief was because the pleasant, easy friendship between them seemed to have been all a mistake.
“But it puts me in such a false position; as if I could wish to stop any pleasure of yours!”
“You’re not stopping it—it’s my own fault if I can’t go. And then I should like to be with you this evening, it’s the only way I could pass it with any comfort.”
“I promised the old lad next door to go and sit with her, and I’m afraid you can’t come too; I arranged it all beforehand. I didn’t wish you to feel that I depended on you, so I thought I would engage myself to-night, as I didn’t want to go to the Casino….”
Helen was afraid as soon as she had said this that she had pained George again; she told him that for her sake he must not grieve so.
That night in bed Helen thought over what had happened. She had not meant to speak—and then when she had spoken there had come this cry of being left alone for the company of others. But that was not the real grievance, she knew that well enough; and yet she had naturally complained of this neglect, this had come into her mind painfully, the complaint of any ordinary woman. It did not seem to her like her own self, like her old character, to stop at the outside without going to the truth.
They stayed two more days in Dieppe, and both were pleased to be always together. Yet George’s pleasure was dashed with a sentimental regret at the thought of leaving a place which he loved so much, under this shadow which had been thrown back upon the visit; and he was sorry for Henrietta, and even the dark story which they had come upon added to his melancholy; and vaguely the thought of his work troubled him. So that through his pleasure at sitting by Helen’s side there ran a regret, a yearning which made him soft, weak like a man after a fever.
And Helen knew, if only from his not working, that he was not in his normal state, and went on half considering how things really stood, and half simply contented that they were together.
IN October “Wilmersdorf” appeared. George had finished the proofs in Dieppe, and Henrietta had been pleased to help him: he saw that Helen hated the book, and would rather not look at it. The change of face on the publication of “Wilmersdorf” was interesting. Monty Frere became moral, and the mass of critics followed faithfully and raised up their hands. They none of them explained what they meant. It was not exactly the story of the innkeeper’s daughter which shocked them, though perhaps something in the perfectly even treatment of her story may have had a share in hurting their moral sense. The author took her ruin for granted, and treated it as if he himself had no moral feelings at all—which was the fact, for he had been entirely taken up with another aspect of the circumstances. And the more simple, taking it for granted that the final stage of the village was meant to be happy, especially as the author called it “Order,” were fearfully shocked by his diabolical want of the ordinary moral attributes of mankind. Fancy leading his heroine and her village up to orderly vice, vice without question, as the summit of ambition! It was unheard of! They had articles about the state regulation of prostitution, with letters from “English women,” they went far afield and filled many pages of their papers with print which people eagerly read.
At first Aston stood aghast at their stupidity, and at the apparently unquenchable fire he had innocently kindled: he even thought of pointing out how they had gone wrong. But as they went on further and further, the humour of the thing struck him suddenly, and he shouted, shouted with laughter for a whole day. It he stopped laughing a moment, a new side of the affair, more ridiculous than the others set him off in a fresh fit.
George saw to some extent what even the less simple people found shocking. He had been at great pains to show that in the intermediate stage the villagers ruined themselves by trying to do something for which they were not fitted. Whether it was the innocent attempt to supply the visitors with beer, or the less innocent attempt to make successful love to the men, was all the same for his purpose. And his own perfect innocence in conscientiously working out his idea without ever dreaming of morality, added humour to the affair of the critics.
But he found that Helen felt with them, as she had done before. Indeed, when he laughed she could not help showing him that she was sure they were right. She had come down from her original high position, the sorrow at his having left the work, and the hope that he would return: and now she found herself begging him to write something less horrible and disgusting. It was no use assuring her that it was impossible there could be anything immoral in the book: it was only a certain treatment which came naturally to him, and was new to them. People were always inclined to think that a new handling in any art is indecent.
But in contradiction to the universal howl, the book gained for Aston the beginning of a following. If any one outside his own personal admirers had liked his volume of stories, George had not heard of it. But on the appearance of “Wilmersdorf,” three or four critics sided with him, and behind them he felt the force of a certain number of admirers, a force that felt as if it would grow. Quite a large section of these admirers were enthusiastic. Whatever faults the book had, it was an endeavour far above the level of contemporary English novels, and Aston would do great things. The chief critic who praised his book was a man who had formerly done some work for the paper. He admired George, and now although he was successful and had advanced greatly during the last year or two, his admiration remained. A well-established and well-known weekly had taken work of his regularly, though his exceedingly modern articles showed somewhat strangely in the rest of the paper. Thus Aston had strong praise from a most important quarter. And George received another piece of praise, which flattered him still more. It came from a famous novelist, for whom he had always had a certain admiration, which was now greatly increased. He was an old man by this time, nearly sixty. His reputation had come slowly and gently. There had never been any great excitement about his work, either for or against it; he had never advertised himself and had never been boomed; but gradually his books had taken a higher and higher place in public opinion. He could never have been popular; but probably at this time the majority of people who had claims to taste would have put him first among English contemporary writers.
He liked Aston’s book, and as he knew Miss Spencer and Mrs. Lemardelay, it was not difficult to bring about a meeting. He asked him to his house, and took a fancy to him. He had a step-daughter, a woman between thirty and forty. She had written some fine stories; but after her mother’s death she had devoted herself entirely to her step-father, whom she adored, and had written very little. George naturally fell in love with this woman, a talented writer herself, and the favourite of the great man for whom she lived, and in whose genius she seemed to have a share. George did not see much of her; but the names of the lady and the step-father were always on his lips, he raved about them.
Helen went once or twice with him to see them. She admired the man himself; but his liking for George had no effect upon her. It was not to the point. He knew nothing about their life, and how things had happened, and if he had discovered that George was a clever man, which all the world knew, what was that to her? It was simply another thing for George to rave about. She knew the step-daughter slightly, and her devotion was certainly beautiful; but it irritated Helen to hear George, who had so little power of devotion, always praising her for that. Besides, she had admired and even known the genius years and years ago, and why should he suddenly be extolled as if no one had ever heard of him before?
During the two years which had passed, when George thought of Helen, he had refused to consider her sorrow as if it were a fixed reality. His work was so wonderful that he persisted in ignoring her thoughts. And then he had come to believe that he would soon reach a position of security, a height from which he could safely look and consider things—they must both wait until that time. And he had waited and hoped that she would wait, working hard in his own way, not having the heart to face the difficulty at the beginning before he felt secure himself.
But he never seemed to arrive at that point. And now, after two years, when he felt how utterly out of sympathy she was with his work and with all his ways, he began to justify himself to his own mind. And this change appeared when he talked to Helen.
“George, the Maxwells are always asking after you, and wondering why you never go to see them.”
“They get on my nerves rather, those people. Their minds are so completely moral and social. I really have no point of contact with them.”
The Maxwells were a married couple with whom the Astons had been very friendly in the first three years of their marriage, and Helen was still fond of them; they were almost the last friends of that period with whom she had kept up an acquaintance.
“But you used to like them so much.”
“Oh, no, not really. I’ve nothing against them, I simply can’t get on with them. They are just the same as all the ridiculous people who’ve been talking morality over my book instead of criticising it, their state of mind is incomprehensible to me, that’s all.”
“It was only a few years ago that you were working side by side with them.”
“I should hardly call that ‘working side by side’: I was finding out that what they cared about was rubbish. That’s all I ever did during those three years. And when I reached the one thing which was not rubbish—I had had enough.”
“Then your socialism meant nothing?”
But without waiting for an answer she hurried on to another subject and then went away.
George only saw that he was vindicating himself. His art and his own feelings had so completely engrossed him that he could not have understood what Helen felt as she listened to his scraps of justification. Helen only saw that he was incredibly cruel and cowardly in belittling the work which they had discovered, and trying to exonerate himself from the responsibility even of having joined in it. And she who had longed so for sympathy and an occupation, and had found so perfect a satisfaction, was now alone and without any occupation except to brood over his sneers at her discovery.
And there was something which was always urging her on to hear more from him.
“The idea of my imagining that I was that sort of person, a ‘Sozial-Kopf’! Why, I set about objecting and criticising at once, and with great delight. All my opinions are in those articles—and almost all are hostile! Even my objections were not the objections of a moral and social person, but rather of an artists.”
And when she asked him why he had ever taken to socialism, he said—
“Oh, I was an enthusiastic young fool with ‘Welt-Schmerz.’”
She was maddened. Their divine gospel, and her exquisite influence, and her George as she had loved him, everything, everything was to be recklessly smirched in order to leave nothing but his art and his theories. And his unconsciousness, which kept her from raving at him when he grew too cruel, completed her misery.
“There’s all the difference in the world. What I did before wasn’t work—I was occupied, that was all. Now I’ve got beyond that. I’ve found real work, my work, the affair of my life. It was like that humble craftsman I wrote about, seen in the window of his shop, looking seriously at the crucifix which he was finishing, with just the expression that the greatest artist has when he considers what he has done—the type of the man dignified by his work.”
He did indeed seem to Helen to be possessed not to see the satire of his words. To leave his work in the cause of humanity, to entrench himself in this folly—doubly foolish, for all the world saw that he was incapable—and then to talk of the dignity of work! And all that Helen could do was to combat stray bits of his justification, illogically, hopelessly, or to run away when her pain and her scorn grew too fierce.
·[END OF INSTALMENT TWO]·