Part 9 out of 9
I thought. "Yes."
"There isn't," I said.
"If there was?"
I made no answer.
"It's blind Want. And there's nothing ever been put into you to
stand against it. What are you going to do with the rest of your
"No end of things."
"I don't believe you are right," I said. "I believe we can save
Britten shook his head. "Some scraps of salvage won't excuse you,"
His indignation rose. "In the middle of life!" he said. "No man
has a right to take his hand from the plough!"
He leant forward on his desk and opened an argumentative palm. "You
know, Remington," he said, "and I know, that if this could be fended
off for six months--if you could be clapped in prison, or got out of
the way somehow,--until this marriage was all over and settled down
for a year, say--you know then you two could meet, curious, happy,
as friends. Saved! You KNOW it."
I turned and stared at him. "You're wrong, Britten," I said. "And
does it matter if we could?"
I found that in talking to him I could frame the apologetics I had
not been able to find for myself alone.
"I am certain of one thing, Britten. It is our duty not to hush up
He raised his eyebrows. I perceived now the element of absurdity in
me, but at the time I was as serious as a man who is burning.
"It's our duty," I went on, "to smash now openly in the sight of
every one. Yes! I've got that as clean and plain--as prison
whitewash. I am convinced that we have got to be public to the
uttermost now--I mean it--until every corner of our world knows this
story, knows it fully, adds it to the Parnell story and the Ashton
Dean story and the Carmel story and the Witterslea story, and all
the other stories that have picked man after man out of English
public life, the men with active imaginations, the men of strong
initiative. To think this tottering old-woman ridden Empire should
dare to waste a man on such a score! You say I ought to be
Britten shook his head and smiled very faintly.
"I'm boiling with indignation," I said. "I lay in bed last night
and went through it all. What in God's name was to be expected of
us but what has happened? I went through my life bit by bit last
night, I recalled all I've had to do with virtue and women, and all
I was told and how I was prepared. I was born into cowardice and
debasement. We all are. Our generation's grimy with hypocrisy. I
came to the most beautiful things in life--like peeping Tom of
Coventry. I was never given a light, never given a touch of natural
manhood by all this dingy, furtive, canting, humbugging English
world. Thank God! I'll soon be out of it! The shame of it! The
very savages in Australia initiate their children better than the
English do to-day. Neither of us was ever given a view of what they
call morality that didn't make it show as shabby subservience, as
the meanest discretion, an abject submission to unreasonable
prohibitions! meek surrender of mind and body to the dictation of
pedants and old women and fools. We weren't taught--we were mumbled
at! And when we found that the thing they called unclean, unclean,
was Pagan beauty--God! it was a glory to sin, Britten, it was a
pride and splendour like bathing in the sunlight after dust and
"Yes," said Britten. "That's all very well--"
I interrupted him. "I know there's a case--I'm beginning to think
it a valid case against us; but we never met it! There's a steely
pride in self restraint, a nobility of chastity, but only for those
who see and think and act--untrammeled and unafraid. The other
thing, the current thing, why! it's worth as much as the chastity of
a monkey kept in a cage by itself!" I put my foot in a chair, and
urged my case upon him. "This is a dirty world, Britten, simply
because it is a muddled world, and the thing you call morality is
dirtier now than the thing you call immorality. Why don't the
moralists pick their stuff out of the slime if they care for it, and
wipe it?--damn them! I am burning now to say: 'Yes, we did this and
this,' to all the world. All the world! . . . I will!"
Britten rubbed the palm of his hand on the corner of his desk.
"That's all very well, Remington," he said. "You mean to go."
He stopped and began again. "If you didn't know you were in the
wrong you wouldn't be so damned rhetorical. You're in the wrong.
It's as plain to you as it is to me. You're leaving a big work,
you're leaving a wife who trusted you, to go and live with your
jolly mistress. . . . You won't see you're a statesman that
matters, that no single man, maybe, might come to such influence as
you in the next ten years. You're throwing yourself away and
accusing your country of rejecting you."
He swung round upon his swivel at me. "Remington," he said, "have
you forgotten the immense things our movement means?"
I thought. "Perhaps I am rhetorical," I said.
"But the things we might achieve! If you'd only stay now--even now!
Oh! you'd suffer a little socially, but what of that? You'd be able
to go on--perhaps all the better for hostility of the kind you'd
get. You know, Remington--you KNOW."
I thought and went back to his earlier point. "If I am rhetorical,
at any rate it's a living feeling behind it. Yes, I remember all
the implications of our aims--very splendid, very remote. But just
now it's rather like offering to give a freezing man the sunlit
Himalayas from end to end in return for his camp-fire. When you
talk of me and my jolly mistress, it isn't fair. That misrepresents
everything. I'm not going out of this--for delights. That's the
sort of thing men like Snuffles and Keyhole imagine--that excites
them! When I think of the things these creatures think! Ugh! But
YOU know better? You know that physical passion that burns like a
fire--ends clean. I'm going for love, Britten--if I sinned for
passion. I'm going, Britten, because when I saw her the other day
she HURT me. She hurt me damnably, Britten. . . . I've been a cold
man--I've led a rhetorical life--you hit me with that word!--I put
things in a windy way, I know, but what has got hold of me at last
is her pain. She's ill. Don't you understand? She's a sick thing--
a weak thing. She's no more a goddess than I'm a god. . . . I'm
not in love with her now; I'm RAW with love for her. I feel like a
man that's been flayed. I have been flayed. . . . You don't begin
to imagine the sort of helpless solicitude. . . . She's not going
to do things easily; she's ill. Her courage fails. . . . It's hard
to put things when one isn't rhetorical, but it's this, Britten--
there are distresses that matter more than all the delights or
achievements in the world. . . . I made her what she is--as I never
made Margaret. I've made her--I've broken her. . . . I'm going
with my own woman. The rest of my life and England, and so forth,
must square itself to that. . . ."
For a long time, as it seemed, we remained silent and motionless.
We'd said all we had to say. My eyes caught a printed slip upon the
desk before him, and I came back abruptly to the paper.
I picked up this galley proof. It was one of Winter's essays.
"This man goes on doing first-rate stuff," I said. "I hope you will
keep him going."
He did not answer for a moment or so. "I'll keep him going," he
said at last with a sigh.
I have a letter Margaret wrote me within a week of our flight. I
cannot resist transcribing some of it here, because it lights things
as no word of mine can do. It is a string of nearly inconsecutive
thoughts written in pencil in a fine, tall, sprawling hand. Its
very inconsecutiveness is essential. Many words are underlined. It
was in answer to one from me; but what I wrote has passed utterly
from my mind. . . .
"Certainly," she says, "I want to hear from you, but I do not want
to see you. There's a sort of abstract YOU that I want to go on
with. Something I've made out of you. . . . I want to know things
about you--but I don't want to see or feel or imagine. When some
day I have got rid of my intolerable sense of proprietorship, it may
be different. Then perhaps we may meet again. I think it is even
more the loss of our political work and dreams that I am feeling
than the loss of your presence. Aching loss. I thought so much of
the things we were DOING for the world--had given myself so
unreservedly. You've left me with nothing to DO. I am suddenly at
loose ends. . . .
"We women are trained to be so dependent on a man. I've got no life
of my own at all. It seems now to me that I wore my clothes even
for you and your schemes. . . .
"After I have told myself a hundred times why this has happened, I
ask again, 'Why did he give things up? Why did he give things
up?' . . .
"It is just as though you were wilfully dead. . . .
"Then I ask again and again whether this thing need have happened at
all, whether if I had had a warning, if I had understood better, I
might not have adapted myself to your restless mind and made this
catastrophe impossible. . . .
"Oh, my dear! why hadn't you the pluck to hurt me at the beginning,
and tell me what you thought of me and life? You didn't give me a
chance; not a chance. I suppose you couldn't. All these things you
and I stood away from. You let my first repugnances repel you. . . .
"It is strange to think after all these years that I should be
asking myself, do I love you? have I loved you? In a sense I think
I HATE you. I feel you have taken my life, dragged it in your wake
for a time, thrown it aside. I am resentful. Unfairly resentful,
for why should I exact that you should watch and understand my life,
when clearly I have understood so little of yours. But I am savage--
savage at the wrecking of all you were to do.
"Oh, why--why did you give things up?
"No human being is his own to do what he likes with. You were not
only pledged to my tiresome, ineffectual companionship, but to great
purposes. They ARE great purposes. . . .
"If only I could take up your work as you leave it, with the
strength you had--then indeed I feel I could let you go--you and
your young mistress. . . . All that matters so little to me. . . .
"Yet I think I must indeed love you yourself in my slower way. At
times I am mad with jealousy at the thought of all I hadn't the wit
to give you. . . . I've always hidden my tears from you--and what
was in my heart. It's my nature to hide--and you, you want things
brought to you to see. You are so curious as to be almost cruel.
You don't understand reserves. You have no mercy with restraints
and reservations. You are not really a CIVILISED man at all. You
hate pretences--and not only pretences but decent coverings. . . .
"It's only after one has lost love and the chance of loving that
slow people like myself find what they might have done. Why wasn't
I bold and reckless and abandoned? It's as reasonable to ask that,
I suppose, as to ask why my hair is fair. . . .
"I go on with these perhapses over and over again here when I find
myself alone. . . .
"My dear, my dear, you can't think of the desolation of things--I
shall never go back to that house we furnished together, that was to
have been the laboratory (do you remember calling it a laboratory?)
in which you were to forge so much of the new order. . . .
"But, dear, if I can help you--even now--in any way--help both of
you, I mean. . . . It tears me when I think of you poor and
discredited. You will let me help you if I can--it will be the last
wrong not to let me do that. . . .
"You had better not get ill. If you do, and I hear of it--I shall
come after you with a troupe of doctor's and nurses. If I am a
failure as a wife, no one has ever said I was anything but a success
as a district visitor. . . ."
There are other sheets, but I cannot tell whether they were written
before or after the ones from which I have quoted. And most of them
have little things too intimate to set down. But this oddly
penetrating analysis of our differences must, I think, be given.
"There are all sorts of things I can't express about this and want
to. There's this difference that has always been between us, that
you like nakedness and wildness, and I, clothing and restraint. It
goes through everything. You are always TALKING of order and
system, and the splendid dream of the order that might replace the
muddled system you hate, but by a sort of instinct you seem to want
to break the law. I've watched you so closely. Now I want to obey
laws, to make sacrifices, to follow rules. I don't want to make,
but I do want to keep. You are at once makers and rebels, you and
Isabel too. You're bad people--criminal people, I feel, and yet
full of something the world must have. You're so much better than
me, and so much viler. It may be there is no making without
destruction, but it seems to me sometimes that it is nothing but an
instinct for lawlessness that drives you. You remind me--do you
remember?--of that time we went from Naples to Vesuvius, and walked
over the hot new lava there. Do you remember how tired I was? I
know it disappointed you that I was tired. One walked there in
spite of the heat because there was a crust; like custom, like law.
But directly a crust forms on things, you are restless to break down
to the fire again. You talk of beauty, both of you, as something
terrible, mysterious, imperative. YOUR beauty is something
altogether different from anything I know or feel. It has pain in
it. Yet you always speak as though it was something I ought to feel
and am dishonest not to feel. MY beauty is a quiet thing. You have
always laughed at my feeling for old-fashioned chintz and blue china
and Sheraton. But I like all these familiar USED things. My beauty
is STILL beauty, and yours, is excitement. I know nothing of the
fascination of the fire, or why one should go deliberately out of
all the decent fine things of life to run dangers and be singed and
tormented and destroyed. I don't understand. . . ."
I remember very freshly the mood of our departure from London, the
platform of Charing Cross with the big illuminated clock overhead,
the bustle of porters and passengers with luggage, the shouting of
newsboys and boys with flowers and sweets, and the groups of friends
seeing travellers off by the boat train. Isabel sat very quiet and
still in the compartment, and I stood upon the platform with the
door open, with a curious reluctance to take the last step that
should sever me from London's ground. I showed our tickets, and
bought a handful of red roses for her. At last came the guards
crying: "Take your seats," and I got in and closed the door on me.
We had, thank Heaven! a compartment to ourselves. I let down the
window and stared out.
There was a bustle of final adieux on the platform, a cry of "Stand
away, please, stand away!" and the train was gliding slowly and
smoothly out of the station.
I looked out upon the river as the train rumbled with slowly
gathering pace across the bridge, and the bobbing black heads of the
pedestrians in the footway, and the curve of the river and the
glowing great hotels, and the lights and reflections and blacknesses
of that old, familiar spectacle. Then with a common thought, we
turned our eyes westward to where the pinnacles of Westminster and
the shining clock tower rose hard and clear against the still,
"They'll be in Committee on the Reformatory Bill to-night," I said,
a little stupidly.
"And so," I added, "good-bye to London!"
We said no more, but watched the south-side streets below--bright
gleams of lights and movement, and the dark, dim, monstrous shapes
of houses and factories. We ran through Waterloo Station, London
Bridge, New Cross, St. John's. We said never a word. It seemed to
me that for a time we had exhausted our emotions. We had escaped,
we had cut our knot, we had accepted the last penalty of that
headlong return of mine from Chicago a year and a half ago. That
was all settled. That harvest of feelings we had reaped. I thought
now only of London, of London as the symbol of all we were leaving
and all we had lost in the world. I felt nothing now but an
enormous and overwhelming regret. . . .
The train swayed and rattled on its way. We ran through old
Bromstead, where once I had played with cities and armies on the
nursery floor. The sprawling suburbs with their scattered lights
gave way to dim tree-set country under a cloud-veiled,
intermittently shining moon. We passed Cardcaster Place. Perhaps
old Wardingham, that pillar of the old Conservatives, was there,
fretting over his unsuccessful struggle with our young Toryism.
Little he recked of this new turn of the wheel and how it would
confirm his contempt of all our novelties. Perhaps some faint
intimation drew him to the window to see behind the stems of the
young fir trees that bordered his domain, the little string of
lighted carriage windows gliding southward. . . .
Suddenly I began to realise just what it was we were doing.
And now, indeed, I knew what London had been to me, London where I
had been born and educated, the slovenly mother of my mind and all
my ambitions, London and the empire! It seemed to me we must be
going out to a world that was utterly empty. All our significance
fell from us--and before us was no meaning any more. We were
leaving London; my hand, which had gripped so hungrily upon its
complex life, had been forced from it, my fingers left their hold.
That was over. I should never have a voice in public affairs again.
The inexorable unwritten law which forbids overt scandal sentenced
me. We were going out to a new life, a life that appeared in that
moment to be a mere shrivelled remnant of me, a mere residuum of
sheltering and feeding and seeing amidst alien scenery and the sound
of unfamiliar tongues. We were going to live cheaply in a foreign
place, so cut off that I meet now the merest stray tourist, the
commonest tweed-clad stranger with a mixture of shyness and hunger. . . .
And suddenly all the schemes I was leaving appeared fine and
adventurous and hopeful as they had never done before. How great
was this purpose I had relinquished, this bold and subtle remaking
of the English will! I had doubted so many things, and now suddenly
I doubted my unimportance, doubted my right to this suicidal
abandonment. Was I not a trusted messenger, greatly trusted and
favoured, who had turned aside by the way? Had I not, after all,
stood for far more than I had thought; was I not filching from that
dear great city of my birth and life, some vitally necessary thing,
a key, a link, a reconciling clue in her political development, that
now she might seek vaguely for in vain? What is one life against
the State? Ought I not to have sacrificed Isabel and all my passion
and sorrow for Isabel, and held to my thing--stuck to my thing?
I heard as though he had spoken it in the carriage Britten's "It WAS
a good game." No end of a game. And for the first time I imagined
the faces and voices of Crupp and Esmeer and Gane when they learnt
of this secret flight, this flight of which they were quite
unwarned. And Shoesmith might be there in the house,--Shoesmith who
was to have been married in four days--the thing might hit him full
in front of any kind of people. Cruel eyes might watch him. Why
the devil hadn't I written letters to warn them all? I could have
posted them five minutes before the train started. I had never
thought to that moment of the immense mess they would be in; how the
whole edifice would clatter about their ears. I had a sudden desire
to stop the train and go back for a day, for two days, to set that
negligence right. My brain for a moment brightened, became animated
and prolific of ideas. I thought of a brilliant line we might have
taken on that confounded Reformatory Bill. . . .
That sort of thing was over. . . .
What indeed wasn't over? I passed to a vaguer, more multitudinous
perception of disaster, the friends I had lost already since Altiora
began her campaign, the ampler remnant whom now I must lose. I
thought of people I had been merry with, people I had worked with
and played with, the companions of talkative walks, the hostesses of
houses that had once glowed with welcome for us both. I perceived
we must lose them all. I saw life like a tree in late autumn that
had once been rich and splendid with friends--and now the last brave
dears would be hanging on doubtfully against the frosty chill of
facts, twisting and tortured in the universal gale of indignation,
trying to evade the cold blast of the truth. I had betrayed my
party, my intimate friend, my wife, the wife whose devotion had made
me what I was. For awhile the figure of Margaret, remote, wounded,
shamed, dominated my mind, and the thought of my immense
ingratitude. Damn them! they'd take it out of her too. I had a
feeling that I wanted to go straight back and grip some one by the
throat, some one talking ill of Margaret. They'd blame her for not
keeping me, for letting things go so far. . . . I wanted the whole
world to know how fine she was. I saw in imagination the busy,
excited dinner tables at work upon us all, rather pleasantly
excited, brightly indignant, merciless.
Well, it's the stuff we are! . . .
Then suddenly, stabbing me to the heart, came a vision of Margaret's
tears and the sound of her voice saying, "Husband mine! Oh! husband
mine! To see you cry!" . . .
I came out of a cloud of thoughts to discover the narrow
compartment, with its feeble lamp overhead, and our rugs and hand-
baggage swaying on the rack, and Isabel, very still in front of me,
gripping my wilting red roses tightly in her bare and ringless hand.
For a moment I could not understand her attitude, and then I
perceived she was sitting bent together with her head averted from
the light to hide the tears that were streaming down her face. She
had not got her handkerchief out for fear that I should see this,
but I saw her tears, dark drops of tears, upon her sleeve. . . .
I suppose she had been watching my expression, divining my thoughts.
For a time I stared at her and was motionless, in a sort of still
and weary amazement. Why had we done this injury to one another?
WHY? Then something stirred within me.
"ISABEL!" I whispered.
She made no sign.
"Isabel!" I repeated, and then crossed over to her and crept closely
to her, put my arm about her, and drew her wet cheek to mine.