I reasoned after this fashion. The line of human improvement and the expansion of human life lies in the direction of education and finer initiatives. If humanity cannot develop an education far beyond anything that is now provided, if it cannot collectively invent devices and solve problems on a much richer, broader scale than it does at the present time, it cannot hope to achieve any very much finer order or any more general happiness than it now enjoys. We must believe, therefore, that it can develop such a training and education, or we must abandon secular constructive hope. And here my peculiar difficulty as against crude democracy comes in. If humanity at large is capable of that high education and those creative freedoms our hope demands, much more must its better and more vigorous types be so capable. And if those who have power and leisure now, and freedom to respond to imaginative appeals, cannot be won to the idea of collective self-development, then the whole of humanity cannot be won to that. From that one passes to what has become my general conception in politics, the conception of the constructive imagination working upon the vast complex of powerful people, clever people, enterprising people, influential people, amidst whom power is diffused to-day, to produce that self-conscious, highly selective, open-minded, devoted aristocratic culture, which seems to me to be the necessary next phase in the development of human affairs. I see human progress, not as the spontaneous product of crowds of raw minds swayed by elementary needs, but as a natural but elaborate result of intricate human interdependencies, of human energy and curiosity liberated and acting at leisure, of human passions and motives, modified and redirected by literature and art. . . .
But now the reader will understand how it came about that, disappointed by the essential littleness of Liberalism, and disillusioned about the representative quality of the professed Socialists, I turned my mind more and more to a scrutiny of the big people, the wealthy and influential people, against whom Liberalism pits its forces. I was asking myself definitely whether, after all, it was not my particular job to work through them and not against them. Was I not altogether out of my element as an Anti-? Weren’t there big bold qualities about these people that common men lack, and the possibility of far more splendid dreams? Were they really the obstacles, might they not be rather the vehicles of the possible new braveries of life?
The faults of the Imperialist movement were obvious enough. The conception of the Boer War had been clumsy and puerile, the costly errors of that struggle appalling, and the subsequent campaign of Mr. Chamberlain for Tariff Reform seemed calculated to combine the financial adventurers of the Empire in one vast conspiracy against the consumer. The cant of Imperialism was easy to learn and use; it was speedily adopted by all sorts of base enterprises and turned to all sorts of base ends. But a big child is permitted big mischief, and my mind was now continually returning to the persuasion that after all in some development of the idea of Imperial patriotism might be found that wide, rough, politically acceptable expression of a constructive dream capable of sustaining a great educational and philosophical movement such as no formula of Liberalism supplied. The fact that it readily took vulgar forms only witnessed to its strong popular appeal. Mixed in with the noisiness and humbug of the movement there appeared a real regard for social efficiency, a real spirit of animation and enterprise. There suddenly appeared in my world—I saw them first, I think, in 1908—a new sort of little boy, a most agreeable development of the slouching, cunning, cigarette-smoking, town-bred youngster, a small boy in a khaki hat, and with bare knees and athletic bearing, earnestly engaged in wholesome and invigorating games up to and occasionally a little beyond his strength—the Boy Scout. I liked the Boy Scout, and I find it difficult to express how much it mattered to me, with my growing bias in favour of deliberate national training, that Liberalism hadn’t been able to produce, and had indeed never attempted to produce, anything of this kind.
In those days there existed a dining club called—there was some lost allusion to the exorcism of party feeling in its title—the Pentagram Circle. It included Bailey and Dayton and myself, Sir Herbert Thorns, Lord Charles Kindling, Minns the poet, Gerbault the big railway man, Lord Gane, fresh from the settlement of Framboya, and Rumbold, who later became Home Secretary and left us. We were men of all parties and very various experiences, and our object was to discuss the welfare of the Empire in a disinterested spirit. We dined monthly at the Mermaid in Westminster, and for a couple of years we kept up an average attendance of ten out of fourteen. The dinner-time was given up to desultory conversation, and it is odd how warm and good the social atmosphere of that little gathering became as time went on; then over the dessert, so soon as the waiters had swept away the crumbs and ceased to fret us, one of us would open with perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes’ exposition of some specially prepared question, and after him we would deliver ourselves in turn, each for three or four minutes. When every one present had spoken once talk became general again, and it was rare we emerged upon Hendon Street before midnight. Sometimes, as my house was conveniently near, a knot of men would come home with me and go on talking and smoking in my dining-room until two or three. We had Fred Neal, that wild Irish journalist, among us towards the end, and his stupendous flow of words materially prolonged our closing discussions and made our continuance impossible.
I learned very much and very many things at those dinners, but more particularly did I become familiarised with the habits of mind of such men as Neal, Crupp, Gane, and the one or two other New Imperialists who belonged to us. They were nearly all like Bailey Oxford men, though mostly of a younger generation, and they were all mysteriously and inexplicably advocates of Tariff Reform, as if it were the principal instead of at best a secondary aspect of constructive policy. They seemed obsessed by the idea that streams of trade could be diverted violently so as to link the parts of the Empire by common interests, and they were persuaded, I still think mistakenly, that Tariff Reform would have an immense popular appeal. They were also very keen on military organisation, and with a curious little martinet twist in their minds that boded ill for that side of public liberty. So much against them. But they were disposed to spend money much more generously on education and research of all sorts than our formless host of Liberals seemed likely to do; and they were altogether more accessible than the Young Liberals to bold, constructive ideas affecting the universities and upper classes. The Liberals are abjectly afraid of the universities. I found myself constantly falling into line with these men in our discussions, and more and more hostile to Dayton’s sentimentalising evasions of definite schemes and Minns’ trust in such things as the “Spirit of our People” and the “General Trend of Progress.” It wasn’t that I thought them very much righter than their opponents; I believe all definite party “sides” at any time are bound to be about equally right and equally lop-sided; but that I thought I could get more out of them and what was more important to me, more out of myself if I co-operated with them. By 1908 I had already arrived at a point where I could be definitely considering a transfer of my political allegiance.
These abstract questions are inseparably interwoven with my memory of a shining long white table, and our hock bottles and burgundy bottles, and bottles of Perrier and St. Galmier and the disturbed central trophy of dessert, and scattered glasses and nut-shells and cigarette-ends and menu-cards used for memoranda. I see old Dayton sitting back and cocking his eye to the ceiling in a way he had while he threw warmth into the ancient platitudes of Liberalism, and Minns leaning forward, and a little like a cockatoo with a taste for confidences, telling us in a hushed voice of his faith in the Destiny of Mankind. Thorns lounges, rolling his round face and round eyes from speaker to speaker and sounding the visible depths of misery whenever Neal begins. Gerbault and Gane were given to conversation in undertones, and Bailey pursued mysterious purposes in lisping whispers. It was Crupp attracted me most. He had, as people say, his eye on me from the beginning. He used to speak at me, and drifted into a custom of coming home with me very regularly for an after-talk.
He opened his heart to me.
“Neither of us,” he said, “are dukes, and neither of us are horny-handed sons of toil. We want to get hold of the handles, and to do that, one must go where the power is, and give it just as constructive a twist as we can. That’s my Toryism.”
“Is it Kindling’s—or Gerbault’s?”
“No. But theirs is soft, and mine’s hard. Mine will wear theirs out. You and I and Bailey are all after the same thing, and why aren’t we working together?”
“Are you a Confederate?” I asked suddenly.
“That’s a secret nobody tells,” he said.
“What are the Confederates after?”
“Making aristocracy work, I suppose. Just as, I gather, you want to do.” . . .
The Confederates were being heard of at that time. They were at once attractive and repellent to me, an odd secret society whose membership nobody knew, pledged, it was said, to impose Tariff Reform and an ample constructive policy upon the Conservatives. In the press, at any rate, they had an air of deliberately organised power. I have no doubt the rumour of them greatly influenced my ideas. . . .
In the end I made some very rapid decisions, but for nearly two years I was hesitating. Hesitations were inevitable in such a matter. I was not dealing with any simple question of principle, but with elusive and fluctuating estimates of the trend of diverse forces and of the nature of my own powers. All through that period I was asking over and over again: how far are these Confederates mere dreamers? How far—and this was more vital—are they rendering lip-service to social organisations? Is it true they desire war because it confirms the ascendency of their class? How far can Conservatism be induced to plan and construct before it resists the thrust towards change. Is it really in bulk anything more than a mass of prejudice and conceit, cynical indulgence, and a hard suspicion of and hostility to the expropriated classes in the community?
That is a research which yields no statistics, an enquiry like asking what is the ruling colour of a chameleon. The shadowy answer varied with my health, varied with my mood and the conduct of the people I was watching. How fine can people be? How generous?—not incidentally, but all round? How far can you educate sons beyond the outlook of their fathers, and how far lift a rich, proud, self-indulgent class above the protests of its business agents and solicitors and its own habits and vanity? Is chivalry in a class possible?—was it ever, indeed, or will it ever indeed be possible? Is the progress that seems attainable in certain directions worth the retrogression that may be its price?
It was to the Pentagram Circle that I first broached the new conceptions that were developing in my mind. I count the evening of my paper the beginning of the movement that created the Blue Weekly and our wing of the present New Tory party. I do that without any excessive egotism, because my essay was no solitary man’s production; it was my reaction to forces that had come to me very large through my fellow-members; its quick reception by them showed that I was, so to speak, merely the first of the chestnuts to pop. The atmospheric quality of the evening stands out very vividly in my memory. The night, I remember, was warmly foggy when after midnight we went to finish our talk at my house.
We had recently changed the rules of the club to admit visitors, and so it happened that I had brought Britten, and Crupp introduced Arnold Shoesmith, my former schoolfellow at City Merchants, and now the wealthy successor of his father and elder brother. I remember his heavy, inexpressively handsome face lighting to his rare smile at the sight of me, and how little I dreamt of the tragic entanglement that was destined to involve us both. Gane was present, and Esmeer, a newly-added member, but I think Bailey was absent. Either he was absent, or he said something so entirely characteristic and undistinguished that it has left no impression on my mind.
I had broken a little from the traditions of the club even in my title, which was deliberately a challenge to the liberal idea: it was, “The World Exists for Exceptional People.” It is not the title I should choose now—for since that time I have got my phrase of “mental hinterlander” into journalistic use. I should say now, “The World Exists for Mental Hinterland.”
The notes I made of that opening have long since vanished with a thousand other papers, but some odd chance has preserved and brought with me to Italy the menu for the evening; its back black with the scrawled notes I made of the discussion for my reply. I found it the other day among some letters from Margaret and a copy of the 1909 Report of the Poor Law Commission, also rich with pencilled marginalia.
My opening was a criticism of the democratic idea and method, upon lines such as I have already sufficiently indicated in the preceding sections. I remember how old Dayton fretted in his chair, and tushed and pished at that, even as I gave it, and afterwards we were treated to one of his platitudinous harangues, he sitting back in his chair with that small obstinate eye of his fixed on the ceiling, and a sort of cadaverous glow upon his face, repeating—quite regardless of all my reasoning and all that had been said by others in the debate—the sacred empty phrases that were his soul’s refuge from reality. “You may think it very clever,” he said with a nod of his head to mark his sense of his point, “not to Trust in the People. I do.” And so on. Nothing in his life or work had ever shown that he did trust in the people, but that was beside the mark. He was the party Liberal, and these were the party incantations.
After my preliminary attack on vague democracy I went on to show that all human life was virtually aristocratic; people must either recognise aristocracy in general or else follow leaders, which is aristocracy in particular, and so I came to my point that the reality of human progress lay necessarily through the establishment of freedoms for the human best and a collective receptivity and understanding. There was a disgusted grunt from Dayton, “Superman rubbish—Nietzsche. Shaw! Ugh!” I sailed on over him to my next propositions. The prime essential in a progressive civilisation was the establishment of a more effective selective process for the privilege of higher education, and the very highest educational opportunity for the educable. We were too apt to patronise scholarship winners, as though a scholarship was toffee given as a reward for virtue. It wasn’t any reward at all; it was an invitation to capacity. We had no more right to drag in virtue, or any merit but quality, than we had to involve it in a search for the tallest man. We didn’t want a mere process for the selection of good as distinguished from gifted and able boys—“No, you don’t,” from Dayton—we wanted all the brilliant stuff in the world concentrated upon the development of the world. Just to exasperate Dayton further I put in a plea for gifts as against character in educational, artistic, and legislative work. “Good teaching,” I said, “is better than good conduct. We are becoming idiotic about character.”
Dayton was too moved to speak. He slewed round upon me an eye of agonised aversion.
I expatiated on the small proportion of the available ability that is really serving humanity to-day. “I suppose to-day all the thought, all the art, all the increments of knowledge that matter, are supplied so far as the English-speaking community is concerned by—how many?—by three or four thousand individuals. (‘Less,’ said Thorns.) To be more precise, by the mental hinterlands of three or four thousand individuals. We who know some of the band entertain no illusions as to their innate rarity. We know that they are just the few out of many, the few who got in our world of chance and confusion, the timely stimulus, the apt suggestion at the fortunate moment, the needed training, the leisure. The rest are lost in the crowd, fail through the defects of their qualities, become commonplace workmen and second-rate professional men, marry commonplace wives, are as much waste as the driftage of superfluous pollen in a pine forest is waste.”
“Decent honest lives!” said Dayton to his bread-crumbs, with his chin in his necktie. “waste! ”
“And the people who do get what we call opportunity get it usually in extremely limited and cramping forms. No man lives a life of intellectual productivity alone; he needs not only material and opportunity, but helpers, resonators. Round and about what I might call the real men, you want the sympathetic cooperators, who help by understanding. It isn’t that our—salt of three or four thousand is needlessly rare; it is sustained by far too small and undifferentiated a public. Most of the good men we know are not really doing the very best work of their gifts; nearly all are a little adapted, most are shockingly adapted to some second-best use. Now, I take it, this is the very centre and origin of the muddle, futility, and unhappiness that distresses us; it’s the cardinal problem of the state—to discover, develop, and use the exceptional gifts of men. And I see that best done—I drift more and more away from the common stuff of legislative and administrative activity—by a quite revolutionary development of the educational machinery, but by a still more unprecedented attempt to keep science going, to keep literature going, and to keep what is the necessary spur of all science and literature, an intelligent and appreciative criticism going. You know none of these things have ever been kept going hitherto; they’ve come unexpectedly and inexplicably.”
“Hear, hear!” from Dayton, cough, nodding of the head, and an expression of mystical profundity.
“They’ve lit up a civilisation and vanished, to give place to darkness again. Now the modern state doesn’t mean to go back to darkness again—and so it’s got to keep its light burning.” I went on to attack the present organisation of our schools and universities, which seemed elaborately designed to turn the well-behaved, uncritical, and uncreative men of each generation into the authoritative leaders of the next, and I suggested remedies upon lines that I have already indicated in the earlier chapters of this story. . . .
So far I had the substance of the club with me, but I opened new ground and set Crupp agog by confessing my doubt from which party or combination of groups these developments of science and literature and educational organisation could most reasonably be expected. I looked up to find Crupp’s dark little eye intent upon me.
There I left it to them.
We had an astonishingly good discussion; Neal burst once, but we emerged from his flood after a time, and Dayton had his interlude. The rest was all close, keen examination of my problem.
I see Crupp now with his arm bent before him on the table in a way we had, as though it was jointed throughout its length like a lobster’s antenna, his plump, short-fingered hand crushing up a walnut shell into smaller and smaller fragments. “Remington,” he said, “has given us the data for a movement, a really possible movement. It’s not only possible, but necessary—urgently necessary, I think, if the Empire is to go on.”
“We’re working altogether too much at the social basement in education and training,” said Gane. “Remington is right about our neglect of the higher levels.”
Britten made a good contribution with an analysis of what he called the spirit of a country and what made it. “The modern community needs its serious men to be artistic and its artists to be taken seriously,” I remember his saying. “The day has gone by for either dull responsibility or merely witty art.”
I remember very vividly how Shoesmith harped on an idea I had thrown out of using some sort of review or weekly to express and elaborate these conceptions of a new, severer, aristocratic culture.
“It would have to be done amazingly well,” said Britten, and my mind went back to my school days and that ancient enterprise of ours, and how Cossington had rushed it. Well, Cossington had too many papers nowadays to interfere with us, and we perhaps had learnt some defensive devices.
“But this thing has to be linked to some political party,” said Crupp, with his eye on me. “You can’t get away from that. The Liberals,” he added, “have never done anything for research or literature.”
“They had a Royal Commission on the Dramatic Censorship,” said Thorns, with a note of minute fairness. “It shows what they were made of,” he added.
“It’s what I’ve told Remington again and again,” said Crupp, “we’ve got to pick up the tradition of aristocracy, reorganise it, and make it work. But he’s certainly suggested a method.”
“There won’t be much aristocracy to pick up,” said Dayton, darkly to the ceiling, “if the House of Lords throws out the Budget.”
“All the more reason for picking it up,” said Neal. “For we can’t do without it.”
“Will they go to the bad, or will they rise from the ashes, aristocrats indeed—if the Liberals come in overwhelmingly?” said Britten.
“It’s we who might decide that,” said Crupp, insidiously.
“I agree,” said Gane.
“No one can tell,” said Thorns. “I doubt if they will get beaten.”
It was an odd, fragmentary discussion that night. We were all with ideas in our minds at once fine and imperfect. We threw out suggestions that showed themselves at once far inadequate, and we tried to qualify them by minor self-contradictions. Britten, I think, got more said than any one. “You all seem to think you want to organise people, particular groups and classes of individuals,” he insisted. “It isn’t that. That’s the standing error of politicians. You want to organise a culture. Civilisation isn’t a matter of concrete groupings; it’s a matter of prevailing ideas. The problem is how to make bold, clear ideas prevail. The question for Remington and us is just what groups of people will most help this culture forward.”
“Yes, but how are the Lords going to behave?” said Crupp. “You yourself were asking that a little while ago.”
“If they win or if they lose,” Gane maintained, “there will be a movement to reorganise aristocracy—Reform of the House of Lords, they’ll call the political form of it.”
“Bailey thinks that,” said some one.
“The labour people want abolition,” said some one. “Let ’em,” said Thorns.
He became audible, sketching a possibility of action.
“Suppose all of us were able to work together. It’s just one of those indeterminate, confused, eventful times ahead when a steady jet of ideas might produce enormous results.”
“Leave me out of it,” said Dayton, “if you please.”
“We should,” said Thorns under his breath.
I took up Crupp’s initiative, I remember, and expanded it.
“I believe we could do—extensive things,” I insisted.
“Revivals and revisions of Toryism have been tried so often,” said Thorns, “from the Young England movement onward.”
“Not one but has produced its enduring effects,” I said. “It’s the peculiarity of English conservatism that it’s persistently progressive and rejuvenescent.”
I think it must have been about that point that Dayton fled our presence, after some clumsy sentence that I decided upon reflection was intended to remind me of my duty to my party.
Then I remember Thorns firing doubts at me obliquely across the table. “You can’t run a country through its spoilt children,” he said. “What you call aristocrats are really spoilt children. They’ve had too much of everything, except bracing experience.”
“Children can always be educated,” said Crupp.
“I said spoilt children,” said Thorns.
“Look here, Thorns!” said I. “If this Budget row leads to a storm, and these big people get their power clipped, what’s going to happen? Have you thought of that? When they go out lock, stock, and barrel, who comes in?”
“Nature abhors a Vacuum,” said Crupp, supporting me.
“Bailey’s trained officials,” suggested Gane.
“Quacks with a certificate of approval from Altiora,” said Thorns. “I admit the horrors of the alternative. There’d be a massacre in three years.”
“One may go on trying possibilities for ever,” I said. “One thing emerges. Whatever accidents happen, our civilisation needs, and almost consciously needs, a culture of fine creative minds, and all the necessary tolerances, opennesses, considerations, that march with that. For my own part, I think that is the Most Vital Thing. Build your ship of state as you will; get your men as you will; I concentrate on what is clearly the affair of my sort of man,—I want to ensure the quality of the quarter deck.”
“Hear, hear!” said Shoesmith, suddenly—his first remark for a long time. “A first-rate figure,” said Shoesmith, gripping it.
“Our danger is in missing that,” I went on. “Muddle isn’t ended by transferring power from the muddle-headed few to the muddle-headed many, and then cheating the many out of it again in the interests of a bureaucracy of sham experts. But that seems the limit of the liberal imagination. There is no real progress in a country, except a rise in the level of its free intellectual activity. All other progress is secondary and dependant. If you take on Bailey’s dreams of efficient machinery and a sort of fanatical discipline with no free-moving brains behind it, confused ugliness becomes rigid ugliness,—that’s all. No doubt things are moving from looseness to discipline, and from irresponsible controls to organised controls—and also and rather contrariwise everything is becoming as people say, democratised; but all the more need in that, for an ark in which the living element may be saved.”
“Hear, hear!” said Shoesmith, faint but pursuing.
It must have been in my house afterwards that Shoesmith became noticeable. He seemed trying to say something vague and difficult that he didn’t get said at all on that occasion. “We could do immense things with a weekly,” he repeated, echoing Neal, I think. And there he left off and became a mute expressiveness, and it was only afterwards, when I was in bed, that I saw we had our capitalist in our hands. . . .
We parted that night on my doorstep in a tremendous glow—but in that sort of glow one doesn’t act upon without much reconsideration, and it was some months before I made my decision to follow up the indications of that opening talk.
I find my thoughts lingering about the Pentagram Circle. In my developments it played a large part, not so much by starting new trains of thought as by confirming the practicability of things I had already hesitatingly entertained. Discussion with these other men so prominently involved in current affairs endorsed views that otherwise would have seemed only a little less remote from actuality than the guardians of Plato or the labour laws of More. Among other questions that were never very distant from our discussions, that came apt to every topic, was the true significance of democracy, Tariff Reform as a method of international hostility, and the imminence of war. On the first issue I can still recall little Bailey, glib and winking, explaining that democracy was really just a dodge for getting assent to the ordinances of the expert official by means of the polling booth. “If they don’t like things,” said he, “they can vote for the opposition candidate and see what happens then—and that, you see, is why we don’t want proportional representation to let in the wild men.” I opened my eyes—the lids had dropped for a moment under the caress of those smooth sounds—to see if Bailey’s artful forefinger wasn’t at the side of his predominant nose.
The international situation exercised us greatly. Our meetings were pervaded by the feeling that all things moved towards a day of reckoning with Germany, and I was largely instrumental in keeping up the suggestion that India was in a state of unstable equilibrium, that sooner or later something must happen there—something very serious to our Empire. Dayton frankly detested these topics. He was full of that old Middle Victorian persuasion that whatever is inconvenient or disagreeable to the English mind could be annihilated by not thinking about it. He used to sit low in his chair and look mulish. “Militarism,” he would declare in a tone of the utmost moral fervour, “is a curse. It’s an unmitigated curse.” Then he would cough shortly and twitch his head back and frown, and seem astonished beyond measure that after this conclusive statement we could still go on talking of war.
All our Imperialists were obsessed by the thought of international conflict, and their influence revived for a time those uneasinesses that had been aroused in me for the first time by my continental journey with Willersley and by Meredith’s “One of Our Conquerors.” That quite justifiable dread of a punishment for all the slackness, mental dishonesty, presumption, mercenary respectability and sentimentalised commercialism of the Victorian period, at the hands of the better organised, more vigorous, and now far more highly civilised peoples of Central Europe, seemed to me to have both a good and bad series of consequences. It seemed the only thing capable of bracing English minds to education, sustained constructive effort and research; but on the other hand it produced the quality of a panic, hasty preparation, impatience of thought, a wasteful and sometimes quite futile immediacy. In 1909, for example, there was a vast clamour for eight additional Dreadnoughts—
“We want eight|
And we won’t wait,”
but no clamour at all about our national waste of inventive talent, our mean standard of intellectual attainment, our disingenuous criticism, and the consequent failure to distinguish men of the quality needed to carry on the modern type of war. Almost universally we have the wrong men in our places of responsibility and the right men in no place at all, almost universally we have poorly qualified, hesitating, and resentful subordinates, because our criticism is worthless and, so habitually as to be now almost unconsciously, dishonest. Germany is beating England in every matter upon which competition is possible, because she attended sedulously to her collective mind for sixty pregnant years, because in spite of tremendous defects she is still far more anxious for quality in achievement than we are. I remember saying that in my paper. From that, I remember, I went on to an image that had flashed into my mind. “The British Empire,” I said, “is like some of those early vertebrated monsters, the Brontosaurus and the Atlantosaurus and such-like; it sacrifices intellect to character; its backbone, that is to say,—especially in the visceral region—is bigger than its cranium. It’s no accident that things are so. We’ve worked for backbone. We brag about backbone, and if the joints are anchylosed so much the better. We’re still but only half awake to our error. You can’t change that suddenly.”
“Turn it round and make it go backwards,” interjected Thorns.
“It’s trying to do that,” I said, “in places.”
And afterwards Crupp declared I had begotten a nightmare which haunted him of nights; he was trying desperately and belatedly to blow a brain as one blows soap-bubbles on such a mezoroic saurian as I had conjured up, while the clumsy monster’s fate, all teeth and brains, crept nearer and nearer. . . .
I’ve grown, I think, since those days out of the urgency of that apprehension. I still think a European war, and conceivably a very humiliating war for England, may occur at no very distant date, but I do not think there is any such heroic quality in our governing class as will make that war catastrophic. The prevailing spirit in English life—it is one of the essential secrets of our imperial endurance—is one of underbred aggression in prosperity and diplomatic compromise in moments of danger; we bully haughtily where we can and assimilate where we must. It is not for nothing that our upper and middle-class youth is educated by teachers of the highest character, scholars and gentlemen, men who can pretend quite honestly that Darwinism hasn’t upset the historical fall of man, that cricket is moral training, and that Socialism is an outrage upon the teachings of Christ. A sort of dignified dexterity of evasion is the national reward. Germany, with a larger population, a vigorous and irreconcilable proletariat, a bolder intellectual training, a harsher spirit, can scarcely fail to drive us at last to a realisation of intolerable strain. So we may never fight at all. The war of preparations that has been going on for thirty years may end like a sham-fight at last in an umpire’s decision. We shall proudly but very firmly take the second place. For my own part, since I love England as much as I detest her present lethargy of soul, I pray for a chastening war—I wouldn’t mind her flag in the dirt if only her spirit would come out of it. So I was able to shake off that earlier fear of some final and irrevocable destruction truncating all my schemes. At the most, a European war would be a dramatic episode in the reconstruction I had in view.
In India, too, I no longer foresee, as once I was inclined to see, disaster. The English rule in India is surely one of the most extraordinary accidents that has ever happened in history. We are there like a man who has fallen off a ladder on to the neck of an elephant, and doesn’t know what to do or how to get down. Until something happens he remains. Our functions in India are absurd. We English do not own that country, do not even rule it. We make nothing happen; at the most we prevent things happening. We suppress our own literature there. Most English people cannot even go to this land they possess; the authorities would prevent it. If Messrs. Perowne or Cook organised a cheap tour of Manchester operatives, it would be stopped. No one dare bring the average English voter face to face with the reality of India, or let the Indian native have a glimpse of the English voter. In my time I have talked to English statesmen, Indian officials and ex-officials, viceroys, soldiers, every one who might be supposed to know what India signifies, and I have prayed them to tell me what they thought we were up to there. I am not writing without my book in these matters. And beyond a phrase or so about “even-handed justice”—and look at our sedition trials!—they told me nothing. Time after time I have heard of that apocryphal native ruler in the north-west, who, when asked what would happen if we left India, replied that in a week his men would be in the saddle, and in six months not a rupee nor a virgin would he left in Lower Bengal. That is always given as our conclusive justification. But is it our business to preserve the rupees and virgins of Lower Bengal in a sort of magic inconclusiveness? Better plunder than paralysis, better fire and sword than futility. Our flag is spread over the peninsula, without plans, without intentions—a vast preventive. The sum total of our policy is to arrest any discussion, any conferences that would enable the Indians to work out a tolerable scheme of the future for themselves. But that does not arrest the resentment of men held back from life. Consider what it must be for the educated Indian sitting at the feast of contemporary possibilities with his mouth gagged and his hands bound behind him! The spirit of insurrection breaks out in spite of espionage and seizures. Our conflict for inaction develops stupendous absurdities. The other day the British Empire was taking off and examining printed cotton stomach wraps for seditious emblems and inscriptions. . . .
In some manner we shall have to come out of India. We have had our chance, and we have demonstrated nothing but the appalling dulness of our national imagination. We are not good enough to do anything with India. Codger and Flack, and Gates and Dayton, Cladingbowl in the club, and the Home Churchman in the home, cant about “character,” worship of strenuous force and contempt of truth; for the sake of such men and things as these, we must abandon in fact, if not in appearance, that empty domination. Had we great schools and a powerful teaching, could we boast great men, had we the spirit of truth and creation in our lives, then indeed it might be different. But a race that bears a sceptre must carry gifts to justify it.
It does not follow that we shall be driven catastrophically from India. That was my earlier mistake. We are not proud enough in our bones to be ruined by India as Spain was by her empire. We may be able to abandon India with an air of still remaining there. It is our new method. We train our future rulers in the public schools to have a very wholesome respect for strength, and as soon as a power arises in India in spite of us, be it a man or a culture, or a native state, we shall he willing to deal with it. We may or may not have a war, but our governing class will be quick to learn when we are beaten. Then they will repeat our South African diplomacy, and arrange for some settlement that will abandon the reality, such as it is, and preserve the semblance of power. The conqueror de facto will become the new “loyal Briton,” and the democracy at home will be invited to celebrate our recession—triumphantly. I am no believer in the imminent dissolution of our Empire; I am less and less inclined to see in either India or Germany the probability of an abrupt truncation of those slow intellectual and moral constructions which are the essentials of statecraft.
I sit writing in this little loggia to the sound of dripping water—this morning we had rain, and the roof of our little casa is still not dry, there are pools in the rocks under the sweet chestnuts, and the torrent that crosses the salita is full and boastful,—and I try to recall the order of my impressions during that watching, dubious time, before I went over to the Conservative Party. I was trying—chaotic task—to gauge the possibilities inherent in the quality of the British aristocracy. There comes a broad spectacular effect of wide parks, diversified by woods and bracken valleys, and dappled with deer; of great smooth lawns shaded by ancient trees; of big facades of sunlit buildings dominating the country side; of large fine rooms full of handsome, easy-mannered people. As a sort of representative picture to set off against those other pictures of Liberals and of Socialists I have given, I recall one of those huge assemblies the Duchess of Clynes inaugurated at Stamford House. The place itself is one of the vastest private houses in London, a huge clustering mass of white and gold saloons with polished floors and wonderful pictures, and staircases and galleries on a Gargantuan scale. And there she sought to gather all that was most representative of English activities, and did, in fact, in those brilliant nocturnal crowds, get samples of nearly every section of our social and intellectual life, with a marked predominance upon the political and social side.
I remember sitting in one of the recesses at the end of the big saloon with Mrs. Redmondson, one of those sharp-minded, beautiful rich women one meets so often in London, who seem to have done nothing and to be capable of everything, and we watched the crowd—uniforms and splendours were streaming in from a State ball—and exchanged information. I told her about the politicians and intellectuals, and she told me about the aristocrats, and we sharpened our wit on them and counted the percentage of beautiful people among the latter, and wondered if the general effect of tallness was or was not an illusion.
They were, we agreed, for the most part bigger than the average of people in London, and a handsome lot, even when they were not subtly individualised. “They look so well nurtured,” I said, “well cared for. I like their quiet, well-trained movements, their pleasant consideration for each other.”
“Kindly, good tempered, and at bottom utterly selfish,” she said, “like big, rather carefully trained, rather pampered children. What else can you expect from them?”
“They are good tempered, anyhow,” I witnessed, “and that’s an achievement. I don’t think I could ever be content under a bad-tempered, sentimentalism, strenuous Government. That’s why I couldn’t stand the Roosevelt régime in America. One’s chief surprise when one comes across these big people for the first time is their admirable easiness and a real personal modesty. I confess I admire them. Oh! I like them. I wouldn’t at all mind, I believe, giving over the country to this aristocracy—given something—”
“Which they haven’t got.”
“Which they haven’t got—or they’d be the finest sort of people in the world.”
“That something?” she inquired.
“I don’t know. I’ve been puzzling my wits to know. They’ve done all sorts of things——”
“That’s Lord Wrassleton,” she interrupted, “whose leg was broken—you remember?—at Spion Kop.”
“It’s healed very well. I like the gold lace and the white glove resting, with quite a nice awkwardness, on the sword. When I was a little boy I wanted to wear clothes like that. And the stars! He’s got the V.C. Most of these people here have at any rate shown pluck, you know—brought something off.”
“Not quite enough,” she suggested.
“I think that’s it,” I said. “Not quite enough—not quite hard enough,” I added.
She laughed and looked at me. “You’d like to make us,” she said.
“I don’t think you’ll go on if you don’t get hard.”
“We shan’t be so pleasant if we do.”
“Well, there my puzzled wits come in again. I don’t see why an aristocracy shouldn’t be rather hard trained, and yet kindly. I’m not convinced that the resources of education are exhausted. I want to better this, because it already looks so good.”
“How are we to do it?” asked Mrs. Redmondson.
“Oh, there you have me! I’ve been spending my time lately in trying to answer that! It makes me quarrel with”—I held up my fingers and ticked the items off—“the public schools, the private tutors, the army exams, the Universities, the Church, the general attitude of the country towards science and literature—”
“We all do,” said Mrs. Redmondson. “We can’t begin again at the beginning,” she added.
“Couldn’t one,” I nodded at the assembly in general, “start a movement?”
“There’s the Confederates,” she said, with a faint smile that masked a gleam of curiosity. . . . “You want,” she said, “to say to the aristocracy, ‘Be aristocrats. Noblesse oblige.’ Do you remember what happened to the monarch who was told to ‘Be a King’?”
“Well,” I said, “I want an aristocracy.”
“This,” she said, smiling, “is the pick of them. The backwoodsmen are off the stage. These are the brilliant ones—the smart and the blues. . . . They cost a lot of money, you know.”
So far Mrs. Redmondson, but the picture remained full of things not stated in our speech. They were on the whole handsome people, charitable minded, happy, and easy. They led spacious lives, and there was something free and fearless about their bearing that I liked extremely. The women particularly were wide-reading, fine-thinking. Mrs. Redmondson talked as fully and widely and boldly as a man, and with those flashes of intuition, those startling, sudden delicacies of perception few men display. I liked, too, the relations that held between women and men, their general tolerance, their antagonism to the harsh jealousies that are the essence of the middle-class order. . . .
After all, if one’s aim resolved itself into the development of a type and culture of men, why shouldn’t one begin at this end?
It is very easy indeed to generalise about a class or human beings, but much harder to produce a sample. Was old Lady Forthundred, for instance, fairly a sample? I remember her as a smiling, magnificent presence, a towering accumulation of figure and wonderful shimmering blue silk and black lace and black hair, and small fine features and chins and chins and chins, disposed in a big cane chair with wraps and cushions upon the great terrace of Champneys. Her eye was blue and hard, and her accent and intonation were exactly what you would expect from a rather commonplace dressmaker pretending to be aristocratic. I was, I am afraid, posing a little as the intelligent but respectful inquirer from below investigating the great world, and she was certainly posing as my informant. She affected a cynical coarseness. She developed a theory on the governance of England, beautifully frank and simple. “Give ’um all a peerage when they get twenty thousand a year,” she maintained. “That’s my remedy.”
In my new role of theoretical aristocrat I felt a little abashed.
“Twenty thousand,” she repeated with conviction.
It occurred to me that I was in the presence of the aristocratic theory currently working as distinguished from my as yet unformulated intentions.
“You’ll get a lot of loafers and scamps among ’um,” said Lady Forthundred. “You get loafers and scamps everywhere, but you’ll get a lot of men who’ll work hard to keep things together, and that’s what we’re all after, isn’t ut?
“It’s not an ideal arrangement.”
“Tell me anything better,” said Lady Forthundred.
On the whole, and because she refused emphatically to believe in education, Lady Forthundred scored.
We had been discussing Cossington’s recent peerage, for Cossington, my old schoolfellow at City Merchants’, and my victor in the affair of the magazine, had clambered to an amazing wealth up a piled heap of energetically pushed penny and halfpenny magazines, and a group of daily newspapers. I had expected to find the great lady hostile to the new-comer, but she accepted him, she gloried in him.
“We’re a peerage,” she said, “but none of us have ever had any nonsense about nobility.”
She turned and smiled down on me. “We English,” she said, “are a practical people. We assimilate ’um.”
“Then, I suppose, they don’t give trouble?”
“Then they don’t give trouble.”
“They learn to shoot?”
“And all that,” said Lady Forthundred. “Yes. And things go on. Sometimes better than others, but they go on—somehow. It depends very much on the sort of butler who pokes ’um about.”
I suggested that it might be possible to get a secure twenty thousand a year by at least detrimental methods—socially speaking.
“We must take the bad and the good of ’um,” said Lady Forthundred, courageously. . . .
Now, was she a sample? It happened she talked. What was there in the brains of the multitude of her first, second, third, fourth, and fifth cousins, who didn’t talk, who shone tall, and bearing themselves finely, against a background of deft, attentive maids and valets, on every spacious social scene? How did things look to them?
Side by side with Lady Forthundred, it is curious to put Evesham with his tall, bent body, his little-featured almost elvish face, his unequal mild brown eyes, his gentle manner, his sweet, amazing oratory. He led all these people wonderfully. He was always curious and interested about life, wary beneath a pleasing frankness—and I tormented my brain to get to the bottom of him. For a long time he was the most powerful man in England under the throne; he had the Lords in his hand, and a great majority in the Commons, and the discontents and intrigues that are the concomitants of an overwhelming party advantage broke against him as waves break against a cliff. He foresaw so far in these matters that it seemed he scarcely troubled to foresee. He brought political art to the last triumph of naturalness. Always for me he has been the typical aristocrat, so typical and above the mere forms of aristocracy, that he remained a commoner to the end of his days.
I had met him at the beginning of my career; he read some early papers of mine, and asked to see me, and I conceived a flattered liking for him that strengthened to a very strong feeling indeed. He seemed to me to stand alone without an equal, the greatest man in British political life. Some men one sees through and understands, some one cannot see into or round because they are of opaque clay, but about Evesham I had a sense of things hidden as it were by depth and mists, because he was so big and atmospheric a personality. No other contemporary has had that effect upon me. I’ve sat beside him at dinners, stayed in houses with him—he was in the big house party at Champneys—talked to him, sounded him, watching him as I sat beside him. I could talk to him with extraordinary freedom and a rare sense of being understood. Other men have to be treated in a special manner; approached through their own mental dialect, flattered by a minute regard for what they have said and done. Evesham was as widely and charitably receptive as any man I have ever met. The common politicians beside him seemed like rows of stuffy little rooms looking out upon the sea.
And what was he up to? What did he think we were doing with Mankind? That I thought worth knowing.
I remember his talking on one occasion at the Hartsteins’, at a dinner so tremendously floriferous and equipped that we were almost forced into duologues, about the possible common constructive purpose in politics.
“I feel so much,” he said, “that the best people in every party converge. We don’t differ at Westminster as they do in the country towns. There’s a sort of extending common policy that goes on under every government, because on the whole it’s the right thing to do, and people know it. Things that used to be matters of opinion become matters of science—and cease to be party questions.”
He instanced education.
“Apart,” said I, “from the religious question.”
“Apart from the religious question.”
He dropped that aspect with an easy grace, and went on with his general theme that political conflict was the outcome of uncertainty. “Directly you get a thing established, so that people can say, ‘Now this is Right,’ with the same conviction that people can say water is a combination of oxygen and hydrogen, there’s no more to be said. The thing has to be done. . . . ”
And to put against this effect of Evesham, broad and humanely tolerant, posing as the minister of a steadily developing constructive conviction, there are other memories.
Have I not seen him in the House, persistent, persuasive, indefatigable, and by all my standards wickedly perverse, leaning over the table with those insistent movements of his hand upon it, or swaying forward with a grip upon his coat lapel, fighting with a diabolical skill to preserve what are in effect religious tests, tests he must have known would outrage and humiliate and injure the consciences of a quarter—and that perhaps the best quarter—of the youngsters who come to the work of elementary education?
In playing for points in the game of party advantage Evesham displayed at times a quite wicked unscrupulousness in the use of his subtle mind. I would sit on the Liberal benches and watch him, and listen to his urbane voice, fascinated by him. Did he really care? Did anything matter to him? And if it really mattered nothing, why did he trouble to serve the narrowness and passion of his side? Or did he see far beyond my scope, so that this petty iniquity was justified by greater, remoter ends of which I had no intimation?
They accused him of nepotism. His friends and family were certainly well cared for. In private life he was full of an affectionate intimacy; he pleased by being charmed and pleased. One might think at times there was no more of him than a clever man happily circumstanced, and finding an interest and occupation in politics. And then came a glimpse of thought, of imagination, like the sight of a soaring eagle through a staircase skylight. Oh, beyond question he was great! No other contemporary politician had his quality. In no man have I perceived so sympathetically the great contrast between warm, personal things and the white dream of statecraft. Except that he had it seemed no hot passions, but only interests and fine affections and indolences, he paralleled the conflict of my life. He saw and thought widely and deeply; but at times it seemed to me his greatness stood over and behind the reality of his life, like some splendid servant, thinking his own thoughts, who waits behind a lesser master’s chair. . . .
Of course, when Evesham talked of this ideal of the organised state becoming so finely true to practicability and so clearly stated as to have the compelling conviction of physical science, he spoke quite after my heart. Had he really embodied the attempt to realise that, I could have done no more than follow him blindly. But neither he nor I embodied that, and there lies the gist of my story. And when it came to a study of others among the leading Tories and Imperialists the doubt increased, until with some at last it was possible to question whether they had any imaginative conception of constructive statecraft at all; whether they didn’t opaquely accept the world for what it was, and set themselves single-mindedly to make a place for themselves and cut a figure in it.
There were some very fine personalities among them: there were the great peers who had administered Egypt, India, South Africa, Framboya—Cromer, Kitchener, Curzon, Milner, Gane, for example. So far as that easier task of holding sword and scales had gone, they had shown the finest qualities, but they had returned to the perplexing and exacting problem of the home country, a little glorious, a little too simply bold. They wanted to arm and they wanted to educate, but the habit of immediate necessity made them far more eager to arm than to educate, and their experience of heterogeneous controls made them overrate the need for obedience in a homogeneous country. They didn’t understand raw men, ill-trained men, uncertain minds, and intelligent women; and these are the things that matter in England. . . . There were also the great business adventurers, from Cranber to Cossington (who was now Lord Paddockhurst). My mind remained unsettled, and went up and down the scale between a belief in their far-sighted purpose and the perception of crude vanities, coarse ambitions, vulgar competitiveness, and a mere habitual persistence in the pursuit of gain. For a time I saw a good deal of Cossington—I wish I had kept a diary of his talk and gestures, to mark how he could vary from day to day between a poseur, a smart tradesman, and a very bold and wide-thinking political schemer. He had a vanity of sweeping actions, motor car pounces, Napoleonic rushes, that led to violent ineffectual changes in the policy of his papers, and a haunting pursuit by parallel columns in the liberal press that never abashed him in the slightest degree. By an accident I plumbed the folly in him—but I feel I never plumbed his wisdom. I remember him one day after a lunch at the Barhams’ saying suddenly, out of profound meditation over the end of a cigar, one of those sentences that seem to light the whole interior being of a man. “Some day,” he said softly, rather to himself than to me, and a propos of nothing—“some day I will raise the country.”
“Why not?” I said, after a pause, and leant across him for the little silver spirit-lamp, to light my cigarette. . . .
Then the Tories had for another section the ancient creations, and again there were the financial peers, men accustomed to reserve, and their big lawyers, accustomed to—well, qualified statement. And below the giant personalities of the party were the young bloods, young, adventurous men of the type of Lord Tarvrille, who had seen service in South Africa, who had travelled and hunted; explorers, keen motorists, interested in aviation, active in army organisation. Good, brown-faced stuff they were, but impervious to ideas outside the range of their activities, more ignorant of science than their chaffeurs, and of the quality of English people than welt-politicians; contemptuous of school and university by reason of the Gateses and Flacks and Codgers who had come their way, witty, light-hearted, patriotic at the Kipling level, with a certain aptitude for bullying. They varied in insensible gradations between the noble sportsmen on the one hand, and men like Gane and the Tories of our Pentagram club on the other. You perceive how a man might exercise his mind in the attempt to strike an average of public serviceability in this miscellany! And mixed up with these, mixed up sometimes in the same man, was the pure reactionary, whose predominant idea was that the village schools should confine themselves to teaching the catechism, hat-touching and courtesying, and be given a holiday whenever beaters were in request. . . .
I find now in my mind as a sort of counterpoise to Evesham the figure of old Lord Wardingham, asleep in the largest armchair in the library of Stamford Court after lunch. One foot rested on one of those things—I think they are called gout stools. He had been playing golf all the morning and wearied a weak instep; at lunch he had sat at my table and talked in the overbearing manner permitted to irascible important men whose insteps are painful. Among other things he had flouted the idea that women would ever understand statecraft or be more than a nuisance in politics, denied flatly that Hindoos were capable of anything whatever except excesses in population, regretted he could not censor picture galleries and circulating libraries, and declared that dissenters were people who pretended to take theology seriously with the express purpose of upsetting the entirely satisfactory compromise of the Established Church. “No sensible people, with anything to gain or lose, argue about religion,” he said. “They mean mischief.” Having delivered his soul upon these points, and silenced the little conversation to the left of him from which they had arisen, he became, after an appreciative encounter with a sanguinary woodcock, more amiable, responded to some respectful initiatives of Crupp’s, and related a number of classical anecdotes of those blighting snubs, vindictive retorts and scandalous miscarriages of justice that are so dear to the forensic mind. Now he reposed. He was breathing heavily with his mouth a little open and his head on one side. One whisker was turned back against the comfortable padding. His plump strong hands gripped the arms of his chair, and his frown was a little assuaged. How tremendously fed up he looked! Honours, wealth, influence, respect, he had them all. How scornful and hard it had made his unguarded expression!
I note without comment that it didn’t even occur to me then to wake him up and ask him what he was up to with mankind.
One countervailing influence to my drift to Toryism in those days was Margaret’s quite religious faith in the Liberals. I realised that slowly and with a mild astonishment. It set me, indeed, even then questioning my own change of opinion. We came at last incidentally, as our way was, to an exchange of views. It was as nearly a quarrel as we had before I came over to the Conservative side. It was at Champneys, and I think during the same visit that witnessed my exploration of Lady Forthundred. It arose indirectly, I think, out of some comments of mine upon our fellow-guests, but it is one of those memories of which the scene and quality remain more vivid than the things said, a memory without any very definite beginning or end. It was afternoon, in the pause between tea and the dressing bell, and we were in Margaret’s big silver-adorned, chintz-bright room, looking out on the trim Italian garden. . . . Yes, the beginning of it has escaped me altogether, but I remember it as an odd exceptional little wrangle.
At first we seem to have split upon the moral quality of the aristocracy, and I had an odd sense that in some way too feminine for me to understand our hostess had aggrieved her. She said, I know, that Champneys distressed her; made her “eager for work and reality again.”
“But aren’t these people real?”
“They’re so superficial, so extravagant!”
I said I was not shocked by their unreality. They seemed the least affected people I had ever met. “And are they really so extravagant?” I asked, and put it to her that her dresses cost quite as much as any other woman’s in the house.
“It’s not only their dresses,” Margaret parried. “It’s the scale and spirit of things.”
I questioned that. “They’re cynical,” said Margaret, staring before her out of the window.
I challenged her, and she quoted the Brabants, about whom there had been an ancient scandal. She’d heard of it from Altiora, and it was also Altiora who’d given her a horror of Lord Carnaby, who was also with us. “You know his reputation,” said Margaret. “That Normandy girl. Every one knows about it. I shiver when I look at him. He seems—oh! like something not of our civilisation. He will come and say little things to me.”
“No, politenesses and things. Of course his manners are—quite right. That only makes it worse, I think. It shows he might have helped—all that happened. I do all I can to make him see I don’t like him. But none of the others make the slightest objection to him.”
“Perhaps these people imagine something might be said for him.”
“That’s just it,” said Margaret.
“Charity,” I suggested.
“I don’t like that sort of toleration.”
I was oddly annoyed. “Like eating with publicans and sinners,” I said. “No!. . . . ”
But scandals, and the contempt for rigid standards their condonation displayed, weren’t more than the sharp edge of the trouble. “It’s their whole position, their selfish predominance, their class conspiracy against the mass of people,” said Margaret. “When I sit at dinner in that splendid room, with its glitter and white reflections and candlelight, and its flowers and its wonderful service and its candelabra of solid gold, I seem to feel the slums and the mines and the over-crowded cottages stuffed away under the table.”
I reminded Margaret that she was not altogether innocent of unearned increment.
“But aren’t we doing our best to give it back?” she said.
I was moved to question her. “Do you really think,” I asked, “that the Tories and peers and rich people are to blame for social injustice as we have it to-day? Do you really see politics as a struggle of light on the Liberal side against darkness on the Tory?”
“They must know,” said Margaret.
I found myself questioning that. I see now that to Margaret it must have seemed the perversest carping against manifest things, but at the time I was concentrated simply upon the elucidation of her view and my own; I wanted to get at her conception in the sharpest, hardest lines that were possible. It was perfectly clear that she saw Toryism as the diabolical element in affairs. The thing showed in its hopeless untruth all the clearer for the fine, clean emotion with which she gave it out to me. My sleeping peer in the library at Stamford Court and Evesham talking luminously behind the Hartstein flowers embodied the devil, and my replete citizen sucking at his cigar in the National Liberal Club, Willie Crampton discussing the care and management of the stomach over a specially hygienic lemonade, and Dr. Tumpany in his aggressive frock-coat pegging out a sort of copyright in Socialism, were the centre and wings of the angelic side. It was nonsense. But how was I to put the truth to her?
“I don’t see things at all as you do,” I said. “I don’t see things in the same way.”
“Think of the poor,” said Margaret, going off at a tangent.
“Think of every one,” I said. “We Liberals have done more mischief through well-intentioned benevolence than all the selfishness in the world could have done. We built up the liquor interest.”
“We!” cried Margaret. “How can you say that? It’s against us.”
“Naturally. But we made it a monopoly in our clumsy efforts to prevent people drinking what they liked, because it interfered with industrial regularity—”
“Oh!” cried Margaret, stung; and I could see she thought I was talking mere wickedness.
“That’s it,” I said.
“But would you have people drink whatever they pleased?”
“Certainly. What right have I to dictate to other men and women?”
“But think of the children!”
“Ah! there you have the folly of modern Liberalism, its half-cunning, half-silly way of getting at everything in a roundabout fashion. If neglecting children is an offence, and it is an offence, then deal with it as such, but don’t go badgering and restricting people who sell something that may possibly in some cases lead to a neglect of children. If drunkenness is an offence, punish it, but don’t punish a man for selling honest drink that perhaps after all won’t make any one drunk at all. Don’t intensify the viciousness of the public-house by assuming the place isn’t fit for women and children. That’s either spite or folly. Make the public-house fit for women and children. Make it a real public-house. If we Liberals go on as we are going, we shall presently want to stop the sale of ink and paper because those things tempt men to forgery. We do already threaten the privacy of the post because of betting tout’s letters. The drift of all that kind of thing is narrow, unimaginative, mischievous, stupid. . . . ”
I stopped short and walked to the window and surveyed a pretty fountain, facsimile of one in Verona, amidst trim-cut borderings of yew. Beyond, and seen between the stems of ilex trees, was a great blaze of yellow flowers. . . .
“But prevention,” I heard Margaret behind me, “is the essence of our work.”
I turned. “There’s no prevention but education. There’s no antiseptics in life but love and fine thinking. Make people fine, make fine people. Don’t be afraid. These Tory leaders are better people individually than the average; why cast them for the villains of the piece? The real villain in the piece—in the whole human drama—is the muddle-headedness, and it matters very little if it’s virtuous-minded or wicked. I want to get at muddle-headedness. If I could do that I could let all that you call wickedness in the world run about and do what it jolly well pleased. It would matter about as much as a slightly neglected dog—in an otherwise well-managed home.”
My thoughts had run away with me.
“I can’t understand you,” said Margaret, in the profoundest distress. “I can’t understand how it is you are coming to see things like this.”
The moods of a thinking man in politics are curiously evasive and difficult to describe. Neither the public nor the historian will permit the statesman moods. He has from the first to assume he has an Aim, a definite Aim, and to pretend to an absolute consistency with that. Those subtle questionings about the very fundamentals of life which plague us all so relentlessly nowadays are supposed to be silenced. He lifts his chin and pursues his Aim explicitly in the sight of all men. Those who have no real political experience can scarcely imagine the immense mental and moral strain there is between one’s everyday acts and utterances on the one hand and the “thinking-out” process on the other. It is perplexingly difficult to keep in your mind, fixed and firm, a scheme essentially complex, to keep balancing a swaying possibility while at the same time under jealous, hostile, and stupid observation you tread your part in the platitudinous, quarrelsome, ill-presented march of affairs. . . .
The most impossible of all autobiographies is an intellectual autobiography. I have thrown together in the crudest way the elements of the problem I struggled with, but I can give no record of the subtle details; I can tell nothing of the long vacillations between Protean values, the talks and re-talks, the meditations, the bleak lucidities of sleepless nights. . . .
And yet these things I have struggled with must be thought out, and, to begin with, they must be thought out in this muddled, experimenting way. To go into a study to think about statecraft is to turn your back on the realities you are constantly needing to feel and test and sound if your thinking is to remain vital; to choose an aim and pursue it in despite of all subsequent questionings is to bury the talent of your mind. It is no use dealing with the intricate as though it were simple, to leap haphazard at the first course of action that presents itself; the whole world of politicians is far too like a man who snatches a poker to a failing watch. It is easy to say he wants to “get something done,” but the only sane thing to do for the moment is to put aside that poker and take thought and get a better implement. . . .
One of the results of these fundamental preoccupations of mine was a curious irritability towards Margaret that I found difficult to conceal. It was one of the incidental cruelties of our position that this should happen. I was in such doubt myself, that I had no power to phrase things for her in a form she could use. Hitherto I had stage-managed our “serious” conversations. Now I was too much in earnest and too uncertain to go on doing this. I avoided talk with her. Her serene, sustained confidence in vague formulæ and sentimental aspirations exasperated me; her want of sympathetic apprehension made my few efforts to indicate my changing attitudes distressing and futile. It wasn’t that I was always thinking right, and that she was always saying wrong. It was that I was struggling to get hold of a difficult thing that was, at any rate, half true, I could not gauge how true, and that Margaret’s habitual phrasing ignored these elusive elements of truth, and without premeditation fitted into the weaknesses of my new intimations, as though they had nothing but weaknesses. It was, for example, obvious that these big people, who were the backbone of Imperialism and Conservatism, were temperamentally lax, much more indolent, much more sensuous, than our deliberately virtuous Young Liberals. I didn’t want to be reminded of that, just when I was in full effort to realise the finer elements in their composition. Margaret classed them and disposed of them. It was our incurable differences in habits and gestures of thought coming between us again.
The desert of misunderstanding widened. I was forced back upon myself and my own secret councils. For a time I went my way alone; an unmixed evil for both of us. Except for that Pentagram evening, a series of talks with Isabel Rivers, who was now becoming more and more important in my intellectual life, and the arguments I maintained with Crupp, I never really opened my mind at all during that period of indecisions, slow abandonments, and slow acquisitions.