GEORGE HAD JUST left Cambridge. He had grown more and more discontented as his three years drew to an end, as the romances which has been the continual and secret delight of his boyhood became more and more threadbare. As far back as he could remember he had invented romances to please himself, with vague misgivings even at the beginning; but they had continued to occupy his mind. Now they had become uninteresting or hateful, and he was left without the engrossing occupation of his intimate life. He enjoyed his friendships, he had great enthusiasms, he did some work; but he was for ever coming back upon himself to find only bits of old dreams and a causeless melancholy. Not that this indescribable discontent spoilt his pleasure; only it was always there, at the back of everything else, the one thing of which he was sure. Everything else was on the outside and not engrossing enough to touch him intimately. The one reality which he must always face, in spite of all interests, was this spectre of himself.
He was sure now that his early misgivings had been right. If he had not filled his mind so greedily with pleasant dreams all through his boyhood, perhaps now he would not have been left with such a big blank.
One day, wearied out with wondering how it was that, with his strongest efforts, he could not arrive at anything more comforting than an occasional laugh at himself (and it was a great discovery when he found that at moments he could laugh), he said in jest, “I evidently want a religion.” The hackneyed words stuck in his mind, and however broad a construction he put on them, he still felt ashamed and disgusted that they should be applicable to him.
He had been independent, he had felt strongly the emancipated young man’s objection to admitting any of the recognised laws of morality. And even if he agreed with them, he shrank from using the orthodox phraseology. Thus he naturally resented a falling back upon well-known words, a statement which had been preached to him long before he understood what it could mean. He had always revolted from the teaching of mothers and fathers and schoolmasters, however true it may have been, because there was nothing to appeal to him in the way in which it was expressed. When he was a child he had been delighted to hear a grown man scoffing at the idea that a religion was necessary. He had clung blindly to his literary enthusiasms, just as he had clung to his belief that Cambridge did not suit him, and his hope that when he started upon life he would be easier and less self-centred than in his surroundings at the University. His chief friend, Henry Bishop, joined somewhat cheerfully in George’s discontent, Cambridge was certainly not an inspiring place, and he talked about life—life in the world. George talked less; but comforted himself when he could with his vague hopes. He was working at classics for his Tripos, there was no need to be precise; he could write a little now and then, take great pleasure in making favourite novels and plays his own possession, and look forward still more vaguely to—well, he would have been shy of owning it; he only took every occasion in discussion with his friends to defend and idolise women, to declaim against everything that led them out of sympathy with men, and to confess that he loved everything that brought them together—even afternoon calls. That was part of his faith, and he would not be shaken by any doubts, whether they arose from himself or from books and friends. Of his dreams the sweetest and brightest were the moments when his mind was filled with the expectation of success in life, mingled somehow with love; but they did not last long, and would be followed by hours of idle depression, or an emptiness which he felt painfully even through the laughter and conversation in which he took part. Then he felt as if he were at sea and rudderless.
When the boy left Cambridge he had time to look more closely into his hopes; there was no longer any excuse for vagueness. He turned over the scraps of paper on which had written at Cambridge, and earlier still at school the cherished foundation of his hopes, and they showed so little promise, their childishness made him so ashamed, that he was shocked by his own fatuousness in thinking that anything could some from such productions. And the first serious attempts at writing which he made now that has leisure so overwhelmed him with a sense of his incapacity that the first two months of freedom were darkened by the horrible disillusion.
He was to be helped on to an evening paper in August when some of the regular staff would be away, and he had hoped that he might by that time have his vague expectations turned into a certainty. The work which was to be done on the paper would not be very amusing, he had allowed; but he might have time to write now and then—and most certainly he would always have work of his own which he would carry on for his own pleasure. He would come home in the afternoon looking forward to this private work; there would always be something to think over, a centre for his enthusiasm and diligence, a cure for the emptiness and causeless melancholy which had been so heavy till then. But now, when had he to look forward to?
Also he entered upon “life,” and there was nothing peculiarly interesting in it. He even found an elegant and charming girl staying at his home; but that did not make much difference. After various conversations with her about their friends and Ibsen’s plays, like other conversations not at all exciting, he recognised that this was exactly that great thing to which he had been looking forward. Women’s society, then, meant nothing in itself. The destruction of his two hopes at the first trial sent him to the extreme of bitterness.
At moments he saw that he was ridiculous. The world was evidently possible, for look at all the people who were living contentedly; but that thought did not console him, nor, because he had enjoyed himself for an hour or a day, could he feel any lasting foundation of comfort.
A young man is a difficult thing to handle, and very few people think it worth while to try. When his mother saw any little piece of groundless melancholy and boredom, she generally put him off by saying, “Rubbish, my boy; you want something to keep you occupied. You have no real troubles. You eat and sleep all right: it’s only idleness.” This is one of the truths which are not good to say. It was no comfort to George, and it was put in a way which roused his hostility to everything which older people said, everything together. So instead of answering properly, “Then go and give me something to occupy me,” he answered in a spirit of opposition that it was not so at all.
TOWARDS THE END of July George was left alone in the house. He went to his work early in the morning, and was generally free soon after four o’clock. He thought he felt better now that he had entirely thrown over the hope of being able to write. It had been of no service, so he would not let it hamper him. He was absolutely empty, like the man in the parable. It was better than worrying. He tried to keep himself as blank as possible. But his mind was active, and he had nothing to occupy his thoughts, so he could not help thinking of himself, inventing love-romances again till he made himself sick, building castles in Spain till he was ashamed of being still such a child, especially when he had already looked a little at life and found that it did not correspond at all with his hopes. He wondered how other people filled their thoughts. And like a man in bed, wishing to sleep, he kept his mind from thinking—he might almost have taken to counting in his endeavour to remain blank.
There must have been something peculiarly wrong, it seemed to him, about his character during June and the beginning of July, to make that period leave such a disagreeable impression on his mind. There was one particular struggle during that time, a source of utter weariness, which he remembered with a shudder. It was an attempt to explain in a story one of the ideas which had vaguely interesting him. A teacher comes as a lecturer to a college school in London. He has a slight personal acquaintance with Taine and Renan, he is enthusiastic, with an interesting, somewhat bohemian, manner. Pupils and parents are delighted with him. When the pupils who have left school see him again, they find him just the same, still enthusiastic, still talking of Taine, still with the same mannerisms. He seems so far back and narrow; but he has others under him who in their turn are caught by his enthusiasm.
For some days he thought only of this: he would not let his mind romance to please himself, he would occupy himself with this idea. Then he tried to express it. First he described the state of things; but that was too explanatory: then he thought a long story could be woven round the theme; but he had not enought knowledge: then he wrote the thing from the point of view of a pupil; but that would not do. He was determined to make this an interest, a complete interest; it was this which should prevent his falling back into the old emptiness; but the struggle was hopeless.
Then came a period of nausea, an empty retching of the disgusted intellect—he had demanded so much.
And finally he became wildly angry. Why should be torture himself over this idiocy? What did he care about theories of expression? He wanted to be out, dancing, taking ladies down the river, enjoying himself in act, in actual life. Art was not the business of a young man; it was a pretty substitute, not fit for him at any rate. But, then, what was there to think about? How did other people fill their thoughts? And so he had reached the blank stage. It was no good doing anything. Either all life was like this, and then he had better resign himself; or else it was better than this; but the improvement must come from outside, if it was to come. He was incapable of moving, because he had no ground to walk on—he could not look at anything for space was empty.
A new source of annoyance had come upon him; another of those strange unheard-of things. All his little personal habits pushed themselves into view. Instead of passing unnoticed as the inevitable details of existence, his little peculiarities forced their way into notice, and then grew heavy and formed a great chain of weights which stretched over the day. Suppose he told any one of this? He imagined himself giving an example. No; people would either think that he was mad, or wished to think that he was mad, or wished to be interesting and modern. Or if anybody saw the truth, they would be disgusted, as he was.
One hot morning just before lunch George was walking home past Kensington Church. That was always a pleasant thing, at any rate, the walk in the High Street. He did not meet the usual people, they were away mostly; but still there were a fair number of pretty girls to keep up the reputation of the street—for nowhere in London can you see so many pretty women as in Kensington High Street near the church at a quarter to one o’clock in the afternoon. He had come home to fetch something, instead of lunching close by the office. He was wishing that he could always just take a light-hearted appreciative pleasure in looking at the pretty girls as they passed, and not have a pain, a kind of twinge, and an absurd wish to go out of his way to see them again (which, by the way, he seldom did). Sometimes he felt so; quite pleased without a drawback, glad without a thought of melancholy; but it was only rarely.
Suddenly he met his friend Miss Spencer. She was astonished to find him still in town. She was infinitely kind, and could not see this boy alone in London without wanting to do something for him. So she asked him to come in on Thursday afternoon. “Miss Lemardelay has promised to come,” she added.
It was very kind of Miss Spencer to take pity on him; but he did not know that he was very eager to go and see her. It was true she was a dear old lady, and he thought he might get on well enough with her alone; but he had never felt at ease in her house, which was the meeting-place of a number of distinguished artistic people, a set whose members seemed to George to be sloesly bound together against outsiders—“creepy” people he and his brothers always called them. And Helen Lemardelay, who was to be at Miss Spencer’s, was the only child of the most renowned and wonderful lady in this set. He had been introduced again and again to Mrs. Lemardelay and she never recognised him. Helen he had met constantly at Miss Spencer’s house in the Campden Hill Road, she almost lived there when Margaret, Miss Spencer’s niece, was staying with her aunt. George admired both the girls, but felt afraid of them, especially of Helen, who reflected some of the wonder of her mother; and Mrs. Lemardelay frightened George very much with the poetical halo which she carried with her. He used to try and imagine sometimes what kind of life this wonderful woman and daughter led in their beautiful house hidden behind the high wall of Wright’s Lane. George would never have the courage to ask Helen Lemardelay to dance with him when he saw her at a ball; she was so superior and always appeared so much at home in the houses where he met her—running off with Margaret upstairs into unknown bedrooms to fetch something, or going into supper with a distinguished painter. He imagined that the conversations in which she took part must be peculiarly interesting and out of the common. And then she was one among a number of girl-friends who liked being together, and who had their own jokes and occupation, while he was on the outside.
George went on Thursday. Helen Lemardelay was already in the drawing-room when he arrived. He felt a little afraid as Miss Spencer walked across the room with him to where she was sitting. She was so wonderful—and the last time he had seen her was at a dance where he had not dared to ask her to dance with him.
The three talked for some time, and then Miss Spencer mentioned the shade in the garden, and asked them whether they would not go out—
“I’m afraid I don’t know where the tennis things are.”
They both protested that they did not want to play; but they stood up and Miss Lemardelay led the way through the window, brushing past the hanging creeper, and down the few steps. At the bottom she waited and looked back. George followed her, astonished to find himself alone with Helen Lemardelay, as he might have been with any ordinary girl. She must think him a dull outsider; but still here she was, he would have to say something not too uninteresting, and it would be exciting to see what she was like separated from her usual surroundings. He began the conversation safely by asking if she had heard from Margaret Spencer lately.
“Yes, I got a letter yesterday. She says your friends the Bishops are in Dieppe, and apparently they see a good deal of one another.”
“Do you know Henry Bishop at all well?”
“No; I hardly think I’ve ever spoken to him. He was at Trinity with you, wasn’t he?”
Then there was a short pause as they walked side by side along the gravel path. Then they talked for some time of other friends, and of dances, of theatres, of the season which had just finished.
“I’m surprised to find you still in London,” George said, in order to become personal.
“My mother wasn’t well enough to go away; she’s getting better. But it’s rather dreary in London now, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. I’m staying in town because I’ve some work to do on an evening paper—a chance not to be missed.”
“Oh, you’re a journalist? Well, it can’t be so dull for you if you’ve your work.”
“My work doesn’t interest me much—not enough at any rate to fill up the whole day.”
“What do you have to do?” she said, as they turned the corner of the lawn.
“I have to muddle about and arrange things chiefly; now and then I do a bit of my own.”
“You don’t write criticisms?”
“One or two. But there aren’t many to be done now. Besides, chattering about other people’s novels and pictures is nothing to look forward to.”
“You don’t write novels or stories yourself?”
“No. I thought I might when I was a boy—we all do, I believe. But I can’t. And besides, novels—even if one could write them—that wouldn’t be enough. Fancy going about all day and all your life wondering how to work out a story: there’s something so false about it: and Art, Art, I’m sick of it.”
The young man ended rather hotly, and was afraid directly that he had been unnecessarily vehement—especially as he was talking to a girl who was almost a stranger—so he went on. “However” … and stopped.
“It’s ten minutes to five, Helen, and you said you wished to get home to your mother by five,” Miss Spencer called from the balcony.
Helen turned and held out her hand to George.
“Well, I must be going, Mr. Aston. Will you come and see us, as you’re all alone? You know where we live? Today is Thursday: come next Saturday, will you? Good-bye.”
She walked away, leaving George at the bottom of the steps, ashamed of himself. And as he walked home he was vexed that he had spoken all the time about himself, in the regular young man’s fashion to a girl whom he hardly knew. She had only been making conversation, and did not want serious discussions. And then later on in the evening, when he was sitting alone, he wondered whether after all what he had said was true. Had he not exaggerated? He could not recall the conversation exactly; but his impression was that he had bored the girl for a long time with the causes of his melancholy, which was not the case. “She must think me a great lumbering fool,” he said aloud as he got into bed—which was not the case either, for she did not think much about him.
MRS. LEMARDELAY WAS a great person, very well known in Kensington: well known, in fact, everywhere where artists predominated, or persons who called themselves artistic. She was, at the time of which we are speaking, a little over fifty, and her masses of dull red hair were patched with grey.
Thirty years before, Clara Simpson, the daughter of a small tradesman, had been the ideal of a small renowned set of painters and poets. Her hair, her pale complexion, and a certain langour in her movements, made these poets and painters rave. When she was thirty, to the astonishment of her friends, she married Henry Lemardelay, an Englishman in business in the City, connected with the great French banking family of Lemardelay. He was a quiet, stiff man who for once in his life had fallen madly in love, and with Clara Simpson. Her friends, of course, expected that she would marry one of her interesting admirers. But comradeship does not lead necessarily to marriage, and few of her admirers had two thousand a year then.
In a manner Clara Simpson had deceived the world; the deception was quite unconscious. The school of painters and poets who had made her famous by their admiration of her personal appearance would hardly have asked themselves whether she was really the wonderful person of their representations. They had the intelligence, she gave the material: the result pleased them and gradually the public. Therefor Clara Simpson appeared first to the world as the mysterious and wonderful woman who inspired a whole set of artists. And she looked the character perfectly. Moreover, she had a safeguard against detection in her extreme indolence. The indolence of a tall, beautiful woman, with a strange and poetical face, shows remarkably like superior intelligence. She spoke little, very rarely made a mistake, the magnificence of her appearance, and again her extraordinary idleness, combined to give the effect of some hidden purpose. She had no sense of humour. A common characteristic of beautiful stupid people who have been very much petted when they were young, is a certain kind of callousness. For instance, Mrs. Lemardelay lived in comfort in a beautiful old house with a big garden, and she enjoyed it. But if she had suddenly become poor, she would have borne the misfortune well, better than most people. If only she were left in peace, allowed to go to bed early, and get up late, and live undisturbed, she would be contented. She had a narrow circle of vision: but as she did not try to understand anything outside the circle (the greater part of which was taken up by her own easy-going self) her limitations were not apparent.
During the afternoon of Friday Mrs. Lemardelay had a visit from an old admirer. He was a painter of about her age, and had been the chief friend and pupil of the great man of the movement. He often came to the Lemardelay’s, and sat talking and laughing with the lady of the house, chiefly about old times. Helen objected to him. As to his pictures, she had no sense for painting; and of all pictures she disliked most those of his school. Her mother had been the inspiration of a large part of the movement, and that in her mind made it worse: she knew nothing of other artists; but the set to which her mother belonged annoyed, even at times disgusted her. There was something so selfish, it seemed to her, in the way in which they talked and lived—unworldly yet selfish. For their pictures and poems had nothing to do with the world, and she was annoyed that her mother should not be a centre of a movement which was not only selfish, but which was really a thing of the past. She was annoyed with these self-satisfied people who chattered and mutually supported themselves with admiration, while the world, the people who really worked, had gone right past and were doing something else—even if they ever had really admired this way of thinking, which she could hardly believe. Her exceedingly upright and rather puritanical nature revolted. If she had been with the more serious and sympathetic members of the set, she might have been less vehement in her dislike. But her objection was unmitigated, because in the life of her mother, the idle person whom they all admired, she could see no justification of their ways. These feelings seemed to be the whole cause of her dissatisfaction, she could not see any further: and her objection had lately gone so far that she was irritated even at the pretty sleepy house in which they lived, irritated at the pictures and the artistic furniture, at the dark rooms overshadowed by vine and clematis.
This afternoon she found Mr. Withers more unbearable than ever. She sat at the tea-table while he and her mother laughed at a common acquaintance.
“And my daughter Iseult has gone the same way. Of course I didn’t mind so long as she and her brother kept to pottery They made some very pretty bowls and things. But now she has followed the rest of our young people and become a violent socialist. The two things seem to go together. If they didn’t bother me so, I should be amused. Our children have degenerated. We are artists; we started a great school and painted pictures, but our children can only get as far as pots and carpets. Naturally they have to eke out their pots with socialism. It’s the tail end. I only wish they would be quiet, and amuse themselves without troubling other people. But when once a man, and especially a women, becomes altruistic, moral, social—he or she can’t leave other people alone… I hope,” he added, turning to Helen with smile which she thought patronising, “I hope our Miss Helen won’t behave in this ridiculous manner?”
His speech and the tone of his voice had thoroughly annoyed her, and his last words made her indignant. She answered hotly—
“I don’t see any reason for sneering at people because they are not selfish.”
The man had looked at her as he finished his question, but seeing her resentment he immediately looked away: and now, without taking notice of what Helen had said, he spoke to Mrs. Lemardelay in an uninterested tone of voice—”
“The Fishers have gone to live at Chelsea.”
It made Helen’s position unbearable; she was absolutely ignored, treated like a child, and had to sit still after she had been slighted, and listen to this man prating to her mother. And yet to get up and go away would be absurd. It was all the more exasperating because what he said was so heartless and unconcerned, so inhuman: and yet it seemed to her typical of all this way of life which disgusted her. She did not much care for Iseult, did not know her at all well, and thought it rather silly of her to make pots over which all the people raved. But this new development, this socialism pleased her. After-all it did show some amount of unselfishness, some humanity and interest in life. It was a relief from the narrow life of her mother’s best friends, and for a father to sneer and be cool about it seemed unpardonable. But how could an artist be unselfish and work for other people, she argued. The nature of his employment made him entirely personal, and closed his eyes to everything but his own narrow sphere of isolated work. Mr. Withers behaved as if the only reality in life lay in the work and narrow interests of his set; everything else in the world was only part of an absurd comedy, to be laughed at and spoken of lightly. And all her inartistic, moral nature rose in fresh revolt, so that she though that she would hardly be able to hide her feelings.
She had been thinking angrily for herself, and had not noticed the conversation which was going on. She was brought back again by seeing the gentleman rise to say good-bye. After he had shaken hands with Mrs. Lemardelay, who was lying in convalescent style on a long wicker chair, he turned to Helen and held out his hand. Helen always had irritated him; but he had almost forgotten that anything particular had happened this time, so he said nothing to her. If he had shown that he was still thinking of what he had said, she would probably have given expression to the thought to which her reverie had led—“Anyhow, it’s our turn which is coming now!” But he said nothing, so she too was silent. When he was gone, she felt more comfortable. She knew that her mother would not begin any conversation upon what had happened. That was characteristic of Mrs. Lemardelay; she seldom bothered any one. Moreover, she rather mistrusted herself with her daughter, and would not enter into a realm where she might find difficulties. And so the two sat on in silence, until Helen’s thoughts led her to day suddenly—
“Mother, I’ve asked Mr. Aston to come in to tea to-morrow. I met him on Thursday at Miss Spencer’s. He’s rather dull all alone here: staying for his work.’
“Is he that rather sentimental looking young man who danced a good deal with Miss Bishop at the Spencers’ a month ago?”
“Yes; he’s a friend of the Bishop’s.”
SATURDAY CAME, AND George was thinking a good deal of his visit. The day passed away quickly. As he turned down Wright’s Lane he felt uncomfortably shy. He had always been so afraid of these people! And as he pulled the long iron bell-handle and looked at the two white balls at the top of the gate pillars, and the gas lamp in the middle, he grew still more afraid. The gate went with a click. He pushed it open and walked along the path and up the steps of the house.
Mrs. Lemardelay would be sure not to recognise him: she was not well. He had come only on her daughter’s invitation. The hall was rather dark, furnished with old furniture. Everything was very quiet. He felt still more afraid.
As he entered the drawing-room Helen came forward and shook hands with him. Mrs. Lemardelay said, “How do you do, Mr. Aston? Isn’t it hot? We will have some tea at once.” then, after a few words about the weather, she went on—“You didn’t know Miss Spencer’s step-brother Vincent, I suppose? He was a very promising young painter. Do you like the pictures of his which she has in her house?”
“They are certainly very interesting!” And Mrs. Lemardelay and George went on, George agreeing with all she said. Helen now and then put in a word.
He left the house, the visit was over. There was something unsatisfactory about it. He had expected a great deal, for some reason. He had hardly spoken to Helen; but what a face she had! He had never looked at her so closely before, although he had known her ever since he was seventeen. The fair brown hair, a shade darker than her pale brown colouring, gave her face a look of complete harmony; and he had not noticed before how blue and fearless her eyes were. He had a pleasant and engrossing subject for his thoughts now.
The very next day, Sunday, the first day of August, he was in Portland Road Station, waiting for a train to take him west. As he was walking up the platform he noticed her coming down the steps and through the gate in front of him. She turned round and saw him, and they shook hands. She had hardly told him that she was going to High Street, when an Addison Road train came in noisily, and stopped further conversation. They stood back and watched the passengers get out and in. The train moved on and left the platform still and almost empty. They walked a few steps side by side in silence. Suddenly she turned to him a laughing face, and said—
“You don’t really admire Vincent Spencer’s pictures, do you?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You only said you did out of politeness to my mother? I don’t know why I thought so, for you didn’t show it—but I was sure it was so.”
This gave George an intimate pleasure, and made them both feel very friendly. She had remembered what he had said, recognised his position, and sided with him against her mother.
She laughed again, and said—
“You talked a great deal about art, for a person who professes to hate it! When you told me on Thursday that you hated it, it didn’t make much effect on me. But I remembered it on Saturday.”
“Well, what was I to do?
She was so friendly and pleasant that he felt quite willing to put himself entirely into her hands.
“Oh, I’m not blaming you. Only you won’t go on being polite to me, will you? Besides, I hate art as much as you do; more, I expect, because I daresay you understand about it. I start unsympathetic, and then I’m annoyed with it.”
“But how extraordinary that you of all people should be like this!”
“Do you think so?”
It was such an exquisite pleasure for both of them to be beginning each other in this way. They felt like children early in the morning digging in some new soil.
The train came in and stopped them. They did not have such interesting talk afterwards. As they parted she said—
“Come and see us soon—some tomorrow, won’t you, as you’ve no one to go home to? And you needn’t be afraid of my mother. She doesn’t really care about pictures or opinions or that kind of thing.”
He went to see them the next day. And after that he came every day to tea, turning the corner of Wright’s Lane on leaving the station as if that had been his habit for years. It seemed to him quite natural that he should be at Wright’s Lane every afternoon. There was something gorgeous to his mind in their solitude; he knew that in time his mother and his people and his friends would come back, Helen and her mother would go away for a week or two when she was strong enough, and then all her friends would surround her once more. Meanwhile they were absolutely alone. They both took an extravagant delight in the feeling that they were more interested in each other than in anything else, and that their friends knew nothing of the matter, and were of no importance in their minds—the world with its ordinary life stood still while they enjoyed the magical familiarity which had suddenly grown between them.
A short time before the threatened departure of the Lemardelays, Helen and George were walking in the garden as usual. Day after day during the hot August they had found no difficulty in continuing their conversation; if there were differences of opinion they were no subject for opposition or argument, they seemed rather to be converging to meet at some point. They had been talking seriously and eagerly, and George found that he was telling her of himself very closely, and went on in a lighter tone, conversational, so as to hide his real seriousness.
“Have you ever felt that kind of causeless melancholy? For it must be causeless—I never hear of any one absolutely sickened of life because he couldn’t express an idea! Especially as I do not want to express the thing. Have you a recipe for the cure of it? I could understand bearing up and being cheerful under misfortune—but when there’s no misfortune! The usual advice, ‘Cheer up, the luck will turn,’ is good enough and could be followed under a calamity, but in this case what’s to be done? Have you a recipe?”
She was an attentive and apt learner. No, she had not felt quite that—dissatisfaction certainly, but not quite that. A feeling of revolt, but against something actual which she disliked. She explained a little her objection to the surroundings in which she lived, as she had begun to do at Portland Road.
“But have you no friends, didn’t you find men at college who could help you? I find that a woman like Margaret Spencer is always by me when I’m low-spirited or disgusted, and she helps me in her gentle way—but I understand you: yes, I understand you,” she added, eager and pleased.
“Well, with my friends, you see, it’s like this. There’s always a kind of pose about such friendships. We don’t perhaps care for each other; but we discuss theories, art, philosophy. But I wanted something much more simple and direct, something affectionate, intimate. No pose, no obstacles, so theories—purely human intimacy. I don’t want ‘to think the same about the state’ or about anything else, or to differ: I don’t want to think at all, but simply to chatter and be comfortable and filled up, humanly and affectionately. I want something to guard me against myself and against the empty melancholy. I see sometimes that it’s ridiculous—I can even laugh at it; but what’s the use of that? It remains all the same.” Here was a direct appeal, a cry which moved her. He added quickly—
“I don’t want to exaggerate: sometimes it’s gay. But I want something permanent. I should be ashamed if I thought I was magnifying my trouble to you. … But no, no, I don’t think I am—and, as far as I can see, no work will serve the purpose.”
And to this appeal she found an answer, a sublime answer. She hardly knew what she was saying: she had never thought it out before, never clearly, at least. But here was some one who demanded something of her, needed her help; and her wisdom came to meet the need: suddenly it was there, suddenly she knew.
“The only recipe for melancholy which can’t be fought against is a patience upheld by the knowledge that others are suffering the same. In your dreary times, in your agony—ridiculous though you say it is, yet I understand—in your trouble, just think of others of your age, boys or girls, who are suffering in the same way. And you will have a large warm rising in your heart, a feeling of brotherhood, a feeling that we are all the same—and that would give patience… wouldn’t it?” She finished, becoming a little timid and astonished at herself towards the end, turning her face to his tentatively after her great exposition, with an exquisite look in her eyes.
He almost gasped, he called out her name, he could not say anything more: he could only have fallen at her feet. For a few seconds he gazed at her while she looked away over the trees. It did not seem as if they were in the ordinary world and could act in the ordinary way. How they had sprung to meet at the first touch! She made a step and he cried out, clasping his hands—
“Oh, stop! Stay still! Let me look at you.”
She made another step, and said—
“No, not now, I’ll go in. Come again soon—to-morrow,” and she walked to the house, just casting one glance at him and meeting his eye. Her look was serious, thoughtful—almost respectful. He did not follow her.
She went away. She felt a little uncertain—what it was she did not know. Perhaps an undefined feeling that they had suddenly come so close that nothing further was possible except that he should kneel at her feet and worship, and she should raise him up and tell him that she was not to be worshipped—he himself had put this into her: it was his own… as she was.
And she sat in her room and wondered and wondered. Suddenly how great! How new! Nothing could disgust her now. If Iseult’s father had come and talked again, she would not have become indignant. Not because she would agree anymore; but it would not concern her personally: she was above it. She had now her own personal work. Here was something to do, something to be unselfish about, something clear and beautiful, far above the troubles which she had endured. Then she thought of George, of his looks, of his character which she knew. But how sudden! And she laughed gently to herself. She could give him exactly what he wanted.
And he too went home in ecstasy. The whole difficulty had been swept away. In an hour it was gone so completely that he could hardly comprehend what it was that had troubled him. She, this exquisitely fair figure, had come with sympathy. In herself she was enough. And with her she brought this wonderful new gospel that had sounded so gorgeous in his ears—and this gospel she had invented for him. And he remembered her timid, inquiring look as she said, “That would give, patience, wouldn’t it?” And then he fell to thinking of her sweetness and her beauty. And then, in remembering every detail, he came back to her teaching. How grand it sounded. And it had been given just when it was wanted; and how it had been given! It was no piece of morality. She had not learnt it. No, she had discovered a wonderful gospel, and discovered it solely for him. Some such doctrine as this he had certainly heard before; but it had never meant anything to him, a statement which did not apply, unaccompanied by proof or means of fulfilment. There was even an entry in his Cambridge diary the day after his return from a dance in London: he was sitting dreaming, his mind filled with vague longings, the pleasant-looking porter brought him up a letter, and he imagined the man looking into his eyes with a friendly glance, and saying, “At it again, young man? Yes, I know, we all go through it”—but it had remained a pretty thing on paper.
When Helen came down for dinner, she noticed a letter on the hall-table from France which she had not seen before. It was from Margaret, telling her of Dieppe. After a few words about her newly-married sister, Mrs. Forde, with whom she was staying, she went on—
“I have taken a fancy to Henry Bishop—that is to say, as far as I can see him through the absurd theoretical extravagances which I suppose will pass away, and only belong to his youthfulness. He is just finishing a story, and he talks a great deal about art. You know that I never quite understand all these enthusiasms for abstract things. I am very glad that books are written and pictures painted—and I suppose writers and painters must have somebody to bother with their theories and despondencies: only a bother it certainly is. The books and pictures are very well when they are done, and they form a pleasant part of life then; but when the manufacture of them engrosses so much of life, that seems to me to a mistake. I daresay older men manage the affair better. They write their books in work hours, quietly, and we enjoy them; but in between they are human and not abstract. I hope you do not find your artistic surroundings too unbearable. However much I laugh at—or rather, however little I understand—enthusiasm for opinions, and ravings about Ibsen and Wagner or socialism—remember (of course you will) that I have never laughed at you or wanted to laugh when I saw your dislike to your life at home. You put it sometimes as an abstract affair; but somehow it was not irrelevant, or not so irrelevant as the abstract extravagances as these young men. You were personal and human, these people miss the point—and it looks unreal with them. This essay, which I am just finishing for your edification, all comes from having been so much with Mr. Bishop———”
Helen sat down before her writing-case to answer her Margaret’s letter. They had been close friends since high-school days. Often Helen, in her girlish moods of revolt, when she was harassed by principles, had found peace in the calm content of Margaret. Her gentle laughter, and half-assumed incapacity for understanding any searchings of heart whatever, made Helen also easier. They had never had a secret from one another, and they had often talked of the kind of men whom they would love, and of how they would manage things. Helen began her letter apologetically. She felt a sudden yearning for Margaret, an inexpressible tenderness towards her. So she began by saying that she was afraid she was still liable to enthusiasms and discontent and abstract leadings. And, moreover, she hinted that Margaret was not with her to bring her back to content—and suppose some one appeared who justified her revolt? She had wanted something which her life at home could not give her, what it was she could not tell; but the want was comprehensible enough. “I want to be doing something; and my surroundings seem to me to be selfish. My wish would lead me to some kind of sacrifice; but a strong sacrifice, a sacrifice which is needed, and which would use all my good qualities—perhaps sacrifice is not the right word, for I suppose it would be a sacrifice to give in to my mother’s life entirely; but above all things I wish to get away, to get free of the whole atmosphere, and never hear of art again. I want to do.” She would not say anything about George Aston—she did not know how to tell the truth. Besides, it would not be fair to him—and then she thought, “Perhaps I do not know myself exactly what it means;” she would have to wait till she saw him again. A long reverie interrupted her writing.
When she had finished the letter to Margaret she wrote to Iseult, for she felt now quite sympathetic towards her. She had for a long time been ready to become interested in social and moral questions, for they seemed the natural escape from art. But she was only willing, nothing more; she needed a leading force somewhere, a reason to move her to actual doing. In course of time, perhaps, especially if she had been asked to bear many conversations with Iseult’s father, she might have made a start. But now she felt a need in George Aston’s need, her revolt had a justification. She would boldly help all the world; but she began now because here she saw the way to help one who had appealed to her personally. It seemed to her as if that day for the first time had an opportunity been given her of entering on the life for which she was fitted. What she felt was not merely a fancy for this man, was not an ordinary attachment; in fact, she did not know whether those words would apply to her at all. No, it was an explanation of her whole life up to now, it was the meaning of the world, the justification of all her wishes, and such a justification as made the wishes clear, brought them out of hidden corners and put them forward, pulled together so many loose and scattered thoughts and feelings into one whole as almost to create a new character. They had known each other by sight for a long time, and had met often, and even talked now and then; but hardly had they caught a glimpse of what they really were, when they sprang to meet each other.
George went down to the office next morning his thoughts full of her. He was filled with wonder as he thought over the events of that afternoon, and at moments he did not know how to understand his relations to Helen; but then he thought of her face and the meaning look which he had last seen upon it—a kind of seriousness which promised a continuance of the intimacy which had so suddenly sprung up between them—and when he remembered her face he felt reassured. As usual he went to lunch with five or six other men on the staff. He had done so the very day before; but he was astonished that they were still telling tales of how some one had been drunk and could not write a proper article, or some one else had done something else; they still were chaffing one another as before, and he wondered how it could still amuse them, as if he had been away for years. A discussion which arose between them reminded him that a few months ago, when he was at Cambridge, art and morality, the last act of the Doll’s House, programme music, and such things, had been a real trouble. Fancy, he remembered one occasion when he was quite restless because he had been shown a picture which evidently depended for its full appreciation upon literary sentiment. This had destroyed his peace of mind! And only a few weeks before the expression of an idea had brought him to despair. It was incomprehensible. How could he have tormented himself over such things?
At half-past five he was again at Wright’s Lane. Helen met him with the same look of respect, almost deference, in her eyes. He had doubted at moments whether they would be able to meet at the point at which they had parted; but directly he saw her he recognised that in his doubt he had reckoned without her. They could not be quite as intimate as on that afternoon, but he was assured that she had taken their actions in its full seriousness.
“Helen and I are going to the seaside for three weeks at the end of next week, Mr. Aston. Will you have to stay in London?” Mrs. Lemardelay asked.
“Yes. My man does not come back for quite another fortnight. And even then I hope I shall be able to find work enough on the paper to keep me here.”
“You know the Withers, don’t you?” Helen asked.
“No, not really. I’ve met Philip once or twice.”
She smiled at him, and put her hand out upon the table at her side.
“Philip, you know, and Iseult have meetings on Saturday evenings. They get a fair number of people to come, and some of them speak very well. She often asked me to come to a meeting, but I’ve never cared enough to go till now” (it was a delight to her to be quite bold and to speak the absolute truth to him, especially when her mother was by); “but now I should like to go if you’ll go with me, next Saturday? I wrote to Iseult and said that I’d come perhaps, trusting that you’d take me.”
“I’d certainly love to go. Yes, do let us go by all means,” he said warmly, and he would have liked to get up and take hold of the hand which had been stretched out to the table when the request was begun. When his eyes met hers he smiled happily at her; there was a look of such directness and strength and freedom in her face as it was turned to his. Mrs. Lemardelay was a little astonished at this change in her daughter. She had generally been dull and uninterested with men; but now she was easy. She was leading, cheerfully, and confidently. It came natural to Helen to be so with him; in fact, there was no question with her as to her behaviour towards him. It simply was so.
When she had made this arrangement with him she was satisfied. That was enough, and she sat contentedly in her chair.
“Then you’ll come and fetch me a little before eight?” she said, as he went. She did not wish to have him to dinner first. It would be so much nicer if he came and fetched her straight away.
AT THE END of July, when George Aston had been left alone in the house, the dreariness of his surroundings had seemed to him natural and fitting. The empty house, with its lifeless rooms, was the only and complete accompaniment to his own dreariness. In the evenings he sat alone in the dining-room. Between eleven and twelve he shut the window and the shutters, locked the front door, put out the gas, lit his candle, and marched up the uncarpeted stairs. When his people were at home, there had always been a reunion in the dining-room before bedtime. There had been cake or biscuit eating, water drinking, a joke or two, and “good-nights.” Now it was all solemn and solitary—naturally.
Since the appearance of Helen that Thursday afternoon at Miss Spencer’s, the idea of her was a balm to his spirits. Everything suddenly became bright. She filled his thoughts, and for the first time he had something clear and legitimate to think of, and at all times. His unfounded dreams and romances, which had begun as far back as he could remember, far back in his childhood, were over.
For a long time they had ceased to excite him; but still he had changed and changed them about cunningly, in order to keep up his interest.
But now the dreams were done with for ever: here was a strong, actual personality facing him—here, right in front of him; and the romances which he had twisted to suit his fancy had gone. And with them the trouble of his desires was finished too. This human being, with beauty and life and character of her own, had stilled them.
He had wondered sometimes if the muddy troubled water could ever become clear; and if not, how he would come shrink away if any one, if any woman, saw into it. No effort of his own could purge it. But now that he knew her, it was calm and limpid. The saving grace had come in time.
But he did not feel inferior. She knew he was not a worthless person. Only there was something weighing him down; and he needed help to get himself free. He had found it in a fair companionship. If she looked into him now, she would find him clear; and if she were to know what he had been before, she would know that she herself had cleared him of something which was not part of himself, she herself had done it, and that would be enough. So he thought to himself.
Saturday came. It was a fine, warm evening.
“I think we might go by omnibus, don’t you? Take the blue omnibus to Fulham road, and then the white?
They walked in silence to the corner of the road, and waited for their omnibus. Up they climbed to the top, George feeling how delightful it was to have a companion. When they were settled in their seats he began at once to talk of that afternoon in the garden. They had not been alone since then. His boldness was dashed with a little timidity.
“Since that afternoon in your garden the whole thing has changed,” he said, putting the matter broadly in his shyness. Helen was glad, too, that they were able to go back to that subject; she knew how much had he had meant to express by the rather awkward and inexpressive sentence, and she answered simply—
“It has made a great difference to me.”
These two needed only the exchange of a few words in order to become at once deliciously familiar. They talked on about that afternoon, and then they were silent for some little time.
They had very nearly reached the bottom of Redcliffe Gardens. During this silence they both began to feel so pleased and light-hearted, that they knew the next thing to come would be something over which they could both laugh thoroughly. George began laughing first, and she, already smiling, turned to him for a reason.
“I used to be afraid of you.”
The omnibus swung round to the other side of the road and stopped.
George and Helen got off and walked to the opposite side of Fulham Road.
“Where do the Withers live exactly?” he asked.
“In the middle of the Hurlingham Road. Do you know where that is?”
“Well, we go along the road till we nearly reach Putney Bridge, then we turn left. They live in a house called the Vineyard—a pretty old house.”
“But Mr. Withers lives in Melbury Road—”
“Yes, he and his wife and younger son live there. But Iseult and her brother came down here and took the old house, which had been to let for a long time. It’s very pretty, and it suited them well, because it’s close to their pottery works in Wandsworth.”
It was still quite light, the sky was green up the road, and the lamps were just being lit,” The omnibus came along the street. When they were seated on the top, she began laughing again where she had left off, and said—
“But why were you afraid of me?”
“I’d always heard a great deal about you, about you and your mother. I saw you first quite a long time ago, but I only met you at rather long intervals, and then always at houses where you were very much at home, surrounded by friends, talking to distinguished people, and I was an outsider. Everybody knew you, and talked to you; I wasn’t one of them; I never felt quite easy at those houses, and I hardly thought you would recognise me, as we so seldom talked to each other.”
“I seemed to you to be quite one of the clique—”
“Yes, he interrupted; “and a clique peculiarly artistic and poetical; rather out of the world in their pose; decidedly pleased with a closer bond than any other set of people that I know of—I knew the Cambridge branch a little.”
She gave a peal of laughter—
“Why, you talk as if it were a bank!”
“Well, as I say, I often felt awkward among you;”—(he said “you” on purpose, because they were both in such high spirits)—“but I took it out in being amused sometimes, when I was away and thinking of the whole thing. I’ve even stood still all alone in the midst of Trinity Street, and shouted aloud with laughter.”
They both joined in a long laugh. She answered—
“You see now that I’m not so closely bound up with them. I naturally sailed along with the stream, and if I objected to our clique often enough, that wouldn’t appear when we were out in society. At a party, it’s exceedingly pleasant to know every one, and to feel at home, even if every one isn’t very charming.”
“I’ve no doubt we were often absolutely rude to strangers. I shouldn’t think of defending myself to you; you’re quite right, and you know what I am now.”
Then she went on—it was her turn—
“I daresay I appeared extra cliquey to you because I never cared particularly for the company of young men. I’ve no brothers, nor has Margaret; and I never knew any boys at all well. Whereas I had a number of girlfriends, and we were very fond of each other, and had a hundred different points of contact. It was an easy, intimate friendship with them, and it hardly seemed worth while to take the trouble of getting over the initial difficulty with boys. Some girls whom I knew always got on very well with boys and young men; but I never quite understood how they did it—and they happened to be girls I didn’t much like. I was rather narrow-minded; but I find it very difficult to remember that there are difference ways of living life.”
They talked on with great pleasure and ease until Helen told George that they must get down at the next turning.
“This way,” Helen said. George had never been in that part before; but Helen knew all about it, she was taking him.
Once off the omnibus and walking in the street, they began talking about more obvious things.
“I daresay this meeting won’t amuse you particularly; but it will be rather interesting to see what they are about. I object to Mr. Withers, the father, so I naturally have a leaning towards the son and daughter whom he disapproves of.”
“The father Withers is one of the strongest members of the set, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is. Well, I never liked him! The other day he came to call and he talked in such a superior way about his art, and Iseult’s folly in becoming a socialist.”
They walked down a short street of little unquiet red-brick houses, laughing at the names—Englemere, Dunkeld, Mowddyr, until they reached a narrow road at right angles. A long wall ran down one side, and on the other were some more little red-brick houses. In the centre of them stood the Vineyard, somewhat back from the road. In the daytime it looked very pretty, white and green woodwork round the windows, and a disused stable with a handsome cobble pavement at the side. They went through the gate and knocked. Philip himself opened the door.
“How splendid of you to come,” he said to Helen; “and how do you do?” shaking hands with Aston. “I think the last time we met was at the Spencers’?”
He was dressed in a dark brown velvet coat and black trousers, and wore a dark red tie and roll-down collar. The hall of the house was empty, handsome with broad tiled floor, a magnificent carpet on the walls, and a long white deal settee standing against one side.
They went into the dining-room. This was empty also. There was no carpet on the white deal floor. Over the fireplace there was some fine ornamentation which Philip had discovered under paint and had restored with great care himself. The wainscotting was high, and the walls were covered with a cream-coloured paper stamped in gold; a piece of it was old, the rest he had practically made himself, for he had supervised the manufacture at some works not far off. The table, upon which were the remains of a supper, was lighted by a lamp with silver reflectors. There were some dozen people in the room, men and women, talking and laughing loudly. As Philip entered with the two visitors, Iseult came forward and greeted Helen, and was introduced to George. They stood aside, Helen and Iseult talking, and George standing by. Philip joined the others, and continued the joke which had been interrupted by the knock at the door. It was some technical point about a lecture which one of their number, a Fabian, had delivered a day or two before. George had never heard of the man, and did not understand what they were all laughing at; but they evidently delighted to be talking about their own business.
After a few minutes Philip said—
“Well, come on, you people, we must be moving.”
Iseult explained to Helen that they now had their meetings at the pottery works. The numbers had increased, and they found that some of the work-men and their friends came to the works more willingly than to their house, and felt more comfortable. As the people began to move out of the room, George recognised a man whom he had known slightly at Cambridge. He had been at King’s, and was already in his third year when George was a freshman. George had known of him chiefly as one of the Cambridge secretaries of Toynbee Hall and a strong teetotaler. When he saw George, he shook hands with him, as an old hand welcomes a beginner.
“Ah, Aston, are you coming to join us? If I remember, at Cambridge you had the reputation of being a scoffer at ‘things social and moral,’ and you were a great authority on art. Have you found out the emptiness of your desires?” he added, laughingly, as he turned to answer the question of a Russian who was at his side.
George was irritated at this. The remark was true; but he did not want to be patronised by this man whom he had despised at Cambridge. He was still sore from his particular troubles, and this self-satisfied young person, who was familiar with the country George was about to explore, could not understand how he felt.
Helen was standing by, and had heard what the man said. This whole visit was so entirely her own venture and for George’s sake, that she was peculiarly sensitive for him; she understood exactly what he was feeling, and even forestalled him. He belonged to her for the time being. She slipped her hand softly into his arm. This first movement of familiarity, showing the most delicate sympathy, would have atoned for much more. He looked at her, their eyes met; he laughed, partly at himself, partly from delight—a gentle laugh in which she joined, and they walked out together with the others.
“The dining-room and the hall are the only parts of the house which we have finished yet. We are doing things gradually. We shall have terrible work with the garden—the house has been to let for so long.”
“How far off are the works?”
“Just down the road to the left, not more than five minutes’ walk.”
They left the house and trooped along the road. Iseult greatly pleased and not a little astonished at Helen’s visit, not quite knowing what this sudden kindness meant, walked behind with George and Helen. She felt that something generous and good was going on, she did not know what; but it made her feel kindly towards Helen and her friend. She spoke very sweetly to Helen and quite won her heart.
Iseult’s nature was really sensitive to an extraordinary degree. She was retiring, and sometimes appeared timid; the last person to be in any way an innovator, or to take a strong line, a careless observer would have thought. But it was the conscientious side of this very sensitiveness which had forced her into a position apparently unsuited to her gentle nature. She had suffered much from her father’s opposition; but all the more, her sensitive conscience led her to be firm—more impenetrably firm even than the strong people. The thing she could bear least was the struggle with persons—always less sensitive than herself—whom she loved. And when she could oppose them no longer, she would desist and remain silent, and appear afterwards, having done her way: so that some people thought she was not straightforward. It was the impossibility felt by a sensitive nature either of bearing opposition beyond a certain point of giving in. When they reached the big workshop, they found half a dozen men and two women already there. Philip Withers spoke first. He began about the long hours. Then he showed how long hours were worse now when everything was done by machinery than they used to be in the old days of apprenticeship, when a man became interested in his work. Then he went on to the evils of machinery. Nowadays a worker only knew how to make one little motion with his hand. If that occupation failed him, he was useless. Further, these enormous factories had tended to put middlemen between the consumer and the maker, whereas the small intelligent craftsmen used to sell his work himself. And besides, there was the important fact that the factory-made things were bad and ugly.
When he had finished, a little old man, a hump-back, with long grey beard and keen face, got up to bear witness to the truth of what Withers had said. He was a bootmaker, and his experience was that he gained more by retailing a ready-made boot than by making a thirty-shilling pair of boots himself. Was it surprising that people because middlemen rather than workers? The boot trade was so bad, that no apprentices cared to come and learn the work; soon people would have quite forgotten how to make a good pair of boots by hand. And as Mr. Withers had said, when they were finished, the ready-made boots were bad and ugly. Other men spoke. Between the speeches the King’s man and one or two others continued a discussion about an abtruse point in the history of communism, talking rather loudly and with a good many epigrams, as if they were superior to the ordinary business of the meeting—they had heard that kind of thing so often.
After the meeting was over George and Helen stayed behind with Iseult to look at some designs which they were trying to carry out at the works. Then they went back to the house and found the people at the gate, enjoying that last and sweetest conversation of the doorstep.
Helen and George determined to go home by train, so they walked on to Putney Bridge Station. They naturally did not talk of the meeting; it had been too obviously an experiment to allow them to begin at once discussing it; but when they got out at Earl’s Court, and were walking down the road, she began—
“It wasn’t quite satisfactory. I’m sure you think so?”
“Yes, there was something wrong about them. What struck me was that there’s still the trail of art about these people, and their socialism is so theoretical and unreal.”
Directly he had said this, it seemed to her that she had known it all the time. That was what she thought.
He went on—
“Their position is like their house and its surroundings—at least, so it strikes me. Don’t you know, a pretty, quiet house, built in perfect taste, furnished, not with old things, but with new things somewhat on an old model; things made now, but a little out of the natural course. And this house is surrounded by a multitude of little, bright, red-brick houses—absolutely vile and tasteless. And yet these new little houses are an attempt to carry out as much of the Withers’ school of taste as is feasible I mean that these new little streets are what the common world makes of the Withers’ artistic movement. And then even the Vineyard doesn’t quite stand on all fours with itself. Outside it’s white and elegant, with green painted woodwork round the windows—I think there are even green persiennes. Inside you would expect polished floors, a French style of furniture, polished. But when you go inside, and it’s all filled with rawness. Raw terra-cotta colours, raw boards, raw carpets, and raw chairs. A rawness not of primitive times, but of a civilisation that has returned from polish. They’ve gone one better than elegance.”
She laughed at his exposition. As they were turning out of Abingdon Road into Wright’s Lane, Helen told him that they would be going away almost directly. Her mother was much better, and the doctor wished her to start for the east coast before it grew too cold.
THE NEXT DAY, when George came home in the afternoon, he found a letter from Helen, saying that her mother had decided to go at once; they were starting that afternoon at four o’clock. The note ended with their address at Cromer.
Immediately George had read Helen’s letter he sat down to write an answer –he felt the need of speaking to her at once, she meant everything to him now. He wrote warmly and enthusiastically, telling how much he owed her and how great a difference she had made in his life. Now that she was by him, or the thought of her, he could bear anything; for he could always be sure that with her he had all that was necessary, a continual and full contentment. Nothing would matter much now. When he read over his letter again, he felt doubtful. As long as they had been actually together there was no doubt, his behaviour was simple, their companionship frank and unmistakeable; but a littler was different; she was not there to give him the tone and to make him feel safe. He could imagine the letter not reading well. He conquered his doubt, and overcame the difficulty by openly stating it to her.
“Although I know you are safe there, and still really a near companion, yet I miss your actual presence, as perhaps you will see by this letter, which I am writing at once in my eagerness to be with you. So if there is anything amiss with the letter, and I feel doubtful about it, you will generously understand it, not think it ridiculous or beyond the mark.”
George had been writing to his mother regularly once a week; but he had found little to say in his letters. He told her at first that it was lonely in empty London, he told her of the visits to Miss Spencer, to Mrs. Lemardelay and Iseult Withers; but he told her only the facts. His mother knew nothing of his troubles and trials, and he would have to begin so far back in order to explain. And even if he could make everything clear, she would think it was only imagination and waywardness, because she had not noticed the real meaning of it herself. And without this impossible explanation his sudden great companionship with Helen would be inexplicable. There in a man’s falling in love with Helen Lemardelay—even at first sight—nor in a girl’s inclination for George. But a companionship, a sudden and complete intimacy, the perfection of contentment following upon it, and never a word of love spoken—that was a different thing. Besides, it was their own affair, and why should he trouble to explain?
He got a letter back from Helen. It was short, but reassuring. She begged him to write often, always: and to say everything without fear, it was a joy for her to read what he wished her to hear. She wrote nothing about Cromer in her letter. Except for the postmark on the envelope and the address at the top of the sheet, she might just as well have been in London.
In his third letter to her he wrote that he had been to the Withers’. He felt the same about them; but they had all been very kind to him, and they were nice people. They talked shop perhaps a little too much, were a little too pleased at being together. He had been reading accounts in the paper of the threatened strike, and with his head full of realities he had said something about being abstract and ineffectual to the Cambridge man, for he was still rather expected to talk as an enemy. The answer was—
“We are the head, the brain of socialist movement. Somebody must do the abstract reasoning, others apply principles to actual facts. One man can’t do everything, and the brain is as useful as the hand.”
Some ten days after they had parted, he wrote that he was going to hear John Fisher speak in Islington, and that he had great hopes of finding him splendid; he had heard so much about him, and he was not an abstract socialist, having been trained in practice all his life as secretary of great unions, and he was said to be more thoroughly trusted by workers than any one else.
On that Saturday George made his way out to Islington, found the hall, and took his seat in the front. It was empty when he came; but after a few minutes he heard the sound of a band. People began to arrive in numbers, and the hall filled fast. The men came in laughing and joking, talking over the procession which had marched through the streets on its way to the meeting. Some in the front benches stood up and turned round, calling to friends whom they saw at the back; every one began to close up so as to make room. The band came in, and with them the builders’ banner. All around him George heard the men who were quite at home critically considering the procession and meeting. The hall was often used by the Salvation Army. “Hallelujah” and “Welcome” hung in red cloth across the platform, with the name of the manufacturer written large in the corner; and the walls were covered with questions such as—“Where will you spend Eternity?”
After the band had played some popular songs for five or ten minutes, the chairman got up and introduced the first speaker. He was rather dull, and he often muddled himself by the use of parliamentary phrases and little roundabout introductions. The next speaker was interesting; he talked, perhaps, too much about the work which he himself had done when secretary of a union; but he was enthusiastic.
At last the speaker of the afternoon got up amid loud cheers. He was a dark man with a strong face, well dressed. From the very first words which he said until the end George was wrapt in admiration. The man spoke for over half an hour without a note, without a single hesitation, a logical, well-argued speech. He used a delightfully comprehensive and homely wit—people’s wit, and the audience shouted with laughter. The next moment he was passionate, grinding out a sentence with a perfect use of his voice and gestures; but never rambling or losing the thread of argument. His great idea was the necessity of working so-operation together with trades’ unionism. The one must help the other: if they were both properly developed, things would go smoothly.
George had a delightful vision of the House of Commons dwindling down to a kind of Oxford Union Debating Society. As it was, they spent weeks and weeks over nothing at all, whereas one man like this was starting a work which was likely to develope co-operation and trades’ unions into the practical government of the country upon all the really important questions. This idea delighted George, for he hated politics. Here was something tremendous in import to the country, which was going to disregard politics.
“Take whatever either political party will give you,” the speaker said, “but don’t trust to either. You can get on quite well without them.” Co-operation and trades’ unions properly developed made socialism no longer a Utopian dream—a hard and fast system to be suddenly put into action—but a legitimate growth, something which was practicable because it had come gradually. And this socialism was the work of all these thousands of men, the real strength and citizenship of the country, who cared not a jot for Home Rule, Disestablishment, or even for an Eight Hours Bill. It was not only possible to become enthusiastic and sympathetic with these men, it was unavoidable. How was it that he had never seen this before? How could he have been so egotistical as to be melancholy when all this was going on? And he pictured himself some months ago at a meeting of this kind. He would probably have tried to keep up his artistic vision, even if he had felt inclined to give way. He would have dwelt upon his ambition of the speakers, on the enthusiasm carrying away a mass of men—all the old humbug. No, it was worse than humbug. It was disgusting, almost blasphemous, to be still concerned with such shams and educated theories in the face of all this humanity and real need. How much he owed to Helen! How he would work at this, carrying out the broader part of her gospel of sympathy.
John Fisher ended with a magnificent peroration, in which he placed all his theories and demands on an ethical basis. George felt that quite a little time ago he would have scoffed at this, even if he had been enthusiastic over the theories. “We are becoming strong, we will have out turn, if we can,” would have been enough for him. But this man was saying that it was not enough, that he believed in a higher sanction—and now George sympathised entirely.
He left the hall immensely excited, joining in with the remarks and the praises of the men around him. When he came home, he sat down and wrote to Helen, his mind full of the new life he had gained from that evening’s meeting, and looking forward hopefully to work in the future.
This letter was almost as great a delight to Helen as George’s presence had been.
He had started on the new line, and she had begun her new life; here was a clearer proof than anything before. It was so good that he by himself had been carried away by this movement, that he understood it so fully, that it agreed so well with his inmost feelings. The letter in which she answered him was in a new strain. He had grasped the principles and was already beyond her. Her letter showed a caressing affection which she would hardly have expressed to him if they had been together, but which came naturally now that he had done so well. So completely had the enthusiasm taken hold of him that, as he owed to her, he had felt ashamed of himself when the resolution was put at the end of the meeting. The chairman had read from a paper something to the effect that all should join their union and do everything in their power to strengthen it; and he had hardly felt justified in holding up his hand for the “ayes.”
She told him how much this new enthusiasm meant to her too. She also had been greatly in want of something; sometimes she called it freedom, sometimes an occupation. It was curious that freedom and a complete occupation had been one and the same thing in her mind. The want had continued to be vague, and she only understood its intensity now that she saw clearly that its satisfaction lay in this new thing which they had struck out between them. So much she told him. Her mind was ceasing to distinguish this new salvation from the personality of George, and this tenderness and respect for him showed itself here and there in the letter. He stretched himself back in his chair with a shudder of ecstasy as he saw through the letter Helen sitting at the table away in Cromer; one hand, and he saw its shape and colour, holding the note-paper, willingly resting upon what was to be his, her right hand penning the words, her face close above with a smile on the lips and her eyes thinking of him.
September was already advanced—the schools had begun. People were coming back to town, talking of their holidays, and very well pleased with themselves, bumptiously healthy, full of rather noisy and disturbing pity for those who had been left in London all the time. The man whose work George had been doing came back and took his place again. George had hoped at first that he should be able to stay on; but none of the staff were leaving, and he had not shown himself so brilliantly useful as to make them wish to keep him on unnecessarily. He felt that he had missed his chance. He did not express particular annoyance when he wrote of this to Helen. He only regretted that he as yet knew too little of trades’ unions, strikes, and socialism to write about such subjects. In any case, the paper on which he had worked was not at all likely to want a socialist member on the staff. There must be a time of waiting and study. Some reviews, an article now and then could be written for the paper. Meanwhile he must work hard and learn as much as he could. He would understand all social questions, and keep abreast with the development of strikes, trades’ unions, co-operation. He would catch up the Withers’ school; he would get a grasp on socialism in Germany. But not only that. He would study such things as Toynbee Hall and the People’s Palace, charities, the Salvation Army social wing. Nothing should be left dark to him in all this region.
Full of hope and strength he looked forward and considered these things. And, like a stranger, his vision fell on his old hopes. No wonder he had despaired! When he was still in the misty stages, before he had tried and found what reality meant, he had dreamt of two studies which were to fill in the hours when his stories flagged. One was a comparative history of the Romantic movement of 1830 in England, France, Russia, and Germany. He still had some notes which he had written on the subject. Another was to be a monumental book, the history of Venus from the earliest times, through the Greek stages, through Rome into the Middle Ages up to the Venusberg and Botticelli. What illustrations there would be, and what magnificent lines to quote. Especially the Venus of the Middle Ages, that was to be a joy. And then, what a chance for an exquisite piece of writing to explain why the book stopped at Botticelli.
Yes; no wonder he had despaired! No wonder he longed for something more human and nearer life, something broader and stronger, not so refined and studious.
George told his mother that he no longer had a place on the paper. He had given her hopes that the holiday engagement would be permanent. Still she would not have blamed him if he had merely stated the fact that he was no wanted. But in his inexperience he went further and told her part of the truth. He said that he did not much mind, he had not tried very hard, his heart was not in the work, and now he was going to try something different. He showed her some of his enthusiasm. His mother was swayed by the justifiable parental fear of any occupation which is entered upon with enthusiasm. Write poetry, music—do anything; even paint if you like; only not if your heart is in it. The change in George made a breach between mother and son. And although he assured her that there was practical use in learning about strikes and co-operation, that they were material for articles, still, remembering the enthusiasm, she was tormented by the fear that instead of being in a respectable position and able to marry, he would waste all his energies over a fad.
However, after the first disappointment and shock at hearing her son’s partial confession, the matter did not appear so bad. He had got work sooner than had been expected; and now, although not in any post, he seemed to be fully occupied with this study, which, after all, was perhaps useful to a journalist, as it was evidently the question of the day.
The sudden change and enlightenment which had come upon George, and the particular inspiration of Fisher’s meeting, found an expression in an article which he wrote at the end of the third week in September. It was a renunciation of art. Art is well in itself, but the time for it is over now. There will no doubt come a time when art is once more a worthy occupation. But now it is not the concern of the day and therefore it is false and selfish.
He had never done anything so good; the eloquence of the article, the conviction with which it was written, struck even the writer himself with astonishment. It really was rather a grand piece of writing, full of fervour caught from the bitterness of his own short experience—an appeal to his contemporaries to weigh his arguments and no longer to depend despairingly on the hopeless cause of art. Art could not mean a full occupation, an energetic life to such as they: it had been, and it would be; but it was not then. Social questions, in the broadest sense, were now the fit study of the young generation. The idle, the discontented, the blasé, would find enthusiasm and vigour there and only there.
·[END OF INSTALMENT ONE]·