I glanced at the shiny sleeve of his coat, and my eye travelled up to the frayed collar.
“Every penny,” said the man with the glass eye, and I caught the active pupil looking at me with a touch of offence.
“I’ve never had any windfalls like that,” I said, trying to speak enviously and propitiate him.
“Even a legacy isn’t always a blessing,” he remarked with a sigh, and with an air of philosophical resignation he put the red nose and the wiry moustache into his tankard for a space.
“Perhaps not,” I said.
“He was an author, you see, and he wrote a lot of books.”
“That was the trouble of it all.” He stared at me with the available eye to see if I grasped his statement, then averted his face a little and produced a toothpick.
“You see,” he said, smacking his lips after a pause, “it was like this. He was my uncle—my maternal uncle. And he had—what shall I call it—? A weakness for writing, edifying literature. Weakness is hardly the word—downright mania is nearer the mark. He’s been librarian in a Polytechnic, and as soon as the money came to him he began to indulge his ambition. It’s a simply extraordinary and incomprehensible thing to me. Here was a man of thirty-seven suddenly dropped into a perfect pile of gold, and he didn’t go—not a day’s bust on it. One would think a chap would go and get himself dressed a bit decent—say a couple of dozen pair of trousers at a West End tailor’s; but he never did. You’d hardly believe it, but when he died he hadn’t even a gold watch. It seems wrong for people like that to have money. All he did was just to take a house, and order in pretty nearly five tons of books and ink and paper, and set to writing, edifying literature as hard as ever he could write. I can’t understand it! But he did. The money came to him, curiously enough, through a maternal uncle of his, unexpected like, when he was seven-and-thirty. My mother, it happened, was his only relation in the wide, wide world, except some second cousins of his. And I was her only son. You follow all that? The second cousins had one only son too, but they brought him to see the old man too soon. He was rather a spoilt youngster, was this son of theirs, and directly he set eyes on my uncle, he began bawling out as hard as he could. ‘Take ’im away—er,’ he says, ‘take ’im away,’ and so did for himself entirely. It was pretty straight sailing, you’d think, for me, eh? And my mother, being a sensible, careful woman, settled the business in her own mind long before he did.”
“He was a curious little chap, was my uncle, as I remember him. I don’t wonder at the kid being scared. Hair just like these Japanese dolls they sell, black and straight and stiff all round the brim and none in the middle, and below, a whitish kind of face and rather large dark grey eyes moving about behind his spectacles. He used to attach a great deal of importance to dress, and always wore a flapping overcoat and a big-brimmed felt hat of a most extraordinary size. He looked a rummy little beggar, I can tell you. Indoors it was, as a rule, a dirty red flannel dressing-gown and a black skull-cap he had. That black skull-cap made him look like the portraits of all kinds of celebrated people. He was always moving about from house to house, was my uncle, with his chair which had belonged to Savage Landor, and his two writing-tables, one of Carlyle’s and the other of Shelley’s, so the dealer told him, and the completest portable reference library in England, he said he had—and he lugged the whole caravan, now to a house at Down, near Darwin’s old place, then to Reigate, near Meredith, then off to Haslemere, then back to Chelsea for a bit, and then up to Hampstead. He knew there was something wrong with his stuff, but he never knew there was anything wrong with his brains. It was always the air, or the water, or the altitude, or some tommy-rot like that. ‘So much depends on environment,’ he used to say, and stare at you hard, as if he half suspected you were hiding a grin at him somewhere under your face. ‘So much depends on environment to a sensitive mind like mine.’”
“What was his name? You wouldn’t know it if I told you. He wrote nothing that anyone has ever read—nothing. No one could read it. He wanted to be a great teacher, he said, and he didn’t know what he wanted to teach any more than a child. So he just blethered at large about Truth and Righteousness, and the Spirit of History, and all that. Book after book he wrote and published at his own expense. He wasn’t quite right in his head, you know really; and to hear him go on at the critics—not because they slated him, mind you—he liked that—but because they didn’t take any notice of him at all. ‘What do the nations want?’ he would ask, holding out his brown old claw. ‘Why, teaching—guidance! They are scattered upon the hills like sheep without a shepherd. There is War and Rumours of War, the unlaid Spirit of Discord abroad in the land, Nihilism, Vivisection, Vaccination, Drunkenness, Penury, Want, Socialistic Error, Selfish Capital! Do you see the clouds, Ted—?’ My name, you know—‘Do you see the clouds lowering over the land? and behind it all—the Mongol waits!’ He was always very great on Mongols, and the Spectre of Socialism, and suchlike things.”
“Then out would come his finger at me, and with his eyes all afire and his skull-cap askew, he would whisper: ‘And here am I. What did I want? Nations to teach. Nations! I say it with all modesty, Ted, I could. I would guide them; nay! But I will guide them to a safe haven, to the land of Righteousness, flowing with milk and honey.’”
“That’s how he used to go on. Ramble, rave about the nations, and righteousness, and that kind of thing. Kind of mincemeat of Bible and blethers. From fourteen up to three-and-twenty, when I might have been improving my mind, my mother used to wash me and brush my hair (at least in the earlier years of it), with a nice parting down the middle, and take me, once or twice a week, to hear this old lunatic jabber about things he had read of in the morning papers, trying to do it as much like Carlyle as he could, and I used to sit according to instructions, and look intelligent and nice, and pretend to be taking it all in. Afterwards I used to go of my own free will, out of a regard for the legacy. I was the only person that used to go see him. He wrote, I believe, to every man who made the slightest stir in the world, sending him a copy or so of his books, and inviting him to come and talk about the nations to him; but half of them didn’t answer, and none ever came. And when the girl let you in—she was an artful bit of goods, that girl—there were heaps of letters on the hall-seat waiting to go off, addressed to Prince Bismarck, the President of the United States, and such-like people. And one went up the staircase and along the cobwebby passage—, the housekeeper drank like fury, and his passages were always cobwebby—, and found him at last, with books turned down all over the room, and heaps of torn paper on the floor, and telegrams and newspapers littered about, and empty coffee-cups and half-eaten bits of toast on the desk and the mantel. You’d see his back humped up, and his hair would be sticking out quite straight between the collar of that dressing-gown thing and the edge of his skull-cap.”
“’A moment!’ he would say. ‘A moment!’ over his shoulder. ‘The mot juste, you know, Ted, le mot juste. Righteous thought righteously expressed—Aah—! Concatenation. And now, Ted,’ he’d say, spinning round in his study chair, ‘how’s Young England?’ That was his silly name for me.”
“Well, that was my uncle, and that was how he talked—to me, at any rate. With others about he seemed a bit shy. And he not only talked to me, but he gave me his books, books of six hundred pages or so, with cock-eyed headings, ‘The Shrieking Sisterhood,’ ‘The Behemoth of Bigotry,’ ‘Crucibles and Cullenders,’ and so on. All very strong, and none of them original. The very last time, but one that I saw him, he gave me a book. He was feeling ill even then, and his hand shook and he was despondent. I noticed it because I was naturally on the look-out for those little symptoms. ‘My last book, Ted,’ he said. ‘My last book, my boy; my last word to the deaf and hardened nations;’ and I’m hanged if a tear didn’t go rolling down his yellow old cheek. He was regular crying because it was so nearly over, and he hadn’t only written about fifty-three books of rubbish. ‘I’ve sometimes thought, Ted—’ he said, and stopped.”
“’Perhaps I’ve been a bit hasty and angry with this stiff-necked generation. A little more sweetness, perhaps, and a little less blinding light. I’ve sometimes thought—I might have swayed them. But I’ve done my best, Ted.’”
“And then, with a burst, for the first and last time in his life he owned himself a failure. It showed he was really ill. He seemed to think for a minute, and then he spoke quietly and low, as sane and sober as I am now. ‘I’ve been a fool, Ted,’ he said. ‘I’ve been flapping nonsense all my life. Only He who readeth the heart knows whether this is anything more than vanity. Ted, I don’t. But He knows, He knows, and if I have done foolishly and vainly, in my heart—in my heart—’”
“Just like that he spoke, repeating himself, and he stopped quite short and handed the book to me, trembling. Then the old shine came back into his eye. I remember it all fairly well, because I repeated it and acted it to my old mother when I got home, to cheer her up a bit. ‘Take this book and read it,’ he said. ‘It’s my last word, my very last word. I’ve left all my property to you, Ted, and may you use it better than I have done.’ And then he fell a-coughing.”
“I remember that quite well even now, and how I went home cock-a-hoop, and how he was in bed the next time I called. The housekeeper was downstairs drunk, and I fooled about—as a young man will—with the girl in the passage before I went to him. He was sinking fast. But even then his vanity clung to him.
“’Have you read it?’ he whispered.”
“’Sat, up all night reading it,’ I said in his ear to cheer him. ‘It’s the last,’ said I, and then, with a memory of some poetry or other in my head, ‘but it’s the bravest and best.’”
“He smiled a little and tried to squeeze my hand as a woman might do, and left off squeezing in the middle, and lay still. ‘The bravest and the best,’ said I again, seeing it pleased him. But he didn’t answer. I heard the girl giggle outside the door, for occasionally we’d had just a bit of innocent laughter, you know, at his ways. I looked at his face, and his eyes were closed, and it was just as if somebody had punched in his nose on either side. But he was still smiling. It’s queer to think of—he lay dead, lay dead there, an utter failure, with the smile of success on his face.
“That was the end of my uncle. You can imagine me and my mother saw that he had a decent funeral. Then, of course, came the hunt for the will. We began decent and respectful at first, and before the day was out we were ripping chairs, and smashing bureau panels, and sounding walls. Every hour we expected those others to come in. We asked the housekeeper, and found she’d actually witnessed a will—on an ordinary half-sheet of notepaper it was written, and very short, she said—not a month ago. The other witness was the gardener, and he bore her out word for word. But I’m hanged if there was that or any other will to be found. The way my mother talked must have made him turn in his grave. At last a lawyer at Reigate sprang one on us that had been made years ago during some temporary quarrel with my mother. I’m blest if that wasn’t the only will to be discovered anywhere, and it left every penny he possessed to that ‘Take ‘im away’ youngster of his second cousin’s—a chap who’d never had to stand his talking, not for one afternoon of his life.”
The man with the glass eye stopped.
“I thought you said—” I began.
“Half a minute,” said the man with the glass eye. “I had to wait for the end of the story till this very morning, and I was a blessed sight more interested than you are. You just wait a bit too. They executed the will, and the other chap inherited, and directly he was one-and-twenty he began to blew it. How he did blew it, to be sure! He bet, he drank, he got in the papers for this and that. I tell you, it makes me wiggle to think of the times he had. He blewed every ha’penny of it before he was thirty, and the last I heard of him was—Holloway! Three years ago.”
“Well, I naturally fell on hard times, because as you see, the only trade I knew was legacy-cadging. All my plans were waiting over to begin, so to speak, when the old chap died. I’ve had my ups and downs since then. Just now it’s a period of depression. I tell you frankly, I’m on the look-out for help. I was hunting round my room to find something to raise a bit on for immediate necessities, and the sight of all those presentation volumes—no one will buy them, not to wrap butter in, even—well, they annoyed me. I promised him not to part with them, and I never kept a promise easier. I let out at them with my boot, and sent them shooting across the room. One lifted at the kick, and spun through the air. And out of it flapped—You guess?
“It was the will. He’d given it to me himself in that very last volume of all.”
He folded his arms on the table, and looked sadly with the active eye at his empty tankard. He shook his head slowly, and said softly, “I’d never opened the book, much more cut a page!” Then he looked up, with a bitter laugh, for sympathy. “Fancy hiding it there! Eigh? Of all places.”
He began to fish absently for a dead fly with a finger. “It just shows you the vanity of authors,” he said, looking up at me. “It wasn’t no trick of his. He’d meant perfectly fair. He’d really thought I was really going home to read that blessed book of his through. But it shows you, don’t it—?” his eye went down to the tankard again—, “It shows you too, how we poor human beings fail to understand one another.”
But there was no misunderstanding the eloquent thirst of his eye. He accepted with ill-feigned surprise. He said, in the usual subtle formula, that he didn’t mind if he did.
THE SAD STORY OF A DRAMATIC CRITIC
I was—you shall hear immediately why I am not now—Egbert Craddock Cummins. The name remains. I am still (Heaven help me!) Dramatic Critic to the ‘Fiery Cross’. What I shall be in a little while I do not know. I write in great trouble and confusion of mind. I will do what I can to make myself clear in the face of terrible difficulties. You must bear with me a little. When a man is rapidly losing his own identity, he naturally finds a difficulty in expressing himself. I will make it perfectly plain in a minute, when once I get my grip upon the story. Let me see—where am I? I wish I knew. Ah, I have it! Dead self! Egbert Craddock Cummins!
In the past I should have disliked writing anything quite so full of “I” as this story must be. It is full of “I’s” before and behind, like the beast in Revelation—the one with a head like a calf, I am afraid. But my tastes have changed since I became a Dramatic Critic and studied the masters—G.R.S., G.B.S., G.A.S., and others. Everything has changed since then. At least the story is about myself—so that there is some excuse for me. And it is really not egotism, because as I say, since those days my identity has undergone an entire alteration.
That past . . . ! I was—in those days—rather a nice fellow, rather shy—taste for grey in my clothes, weedy little moustache, face “interesting,” slight stutter which I had caught in early life from a schoolfellow. Engaged to a very nice girl, named Delia. Fairly new, she was—cigarettes—liked me because I was human and original. Considered I was like Lamb—on the strength of the stutter, I believe. Father, an eminent authority on postage stamps. She read a great deal in the British Museum. (A perfect pairing ground for literary people, that British Museum—you should read George Egerton and Justin Huntly M’Carthy and Gissing and the rest of them.) We loved in our intellectual way, and shared the brightest hopes. (All gone now.) And her father liked me because I seemed honestly eager to hear about stamps. She had no mother. Indeed, I had the happiest prospects a young man could have. I never went to theatres in those days. My Aunt Charlotte before she died had told me not to.
Then Barnaby, the editor of the ‘Fiery Cross’, made me—in spite of my spasmodic efforts to escape—Dramatic Critic. He is a fine, healthy man, Barnaby, with an enormous head of frizzy black hair and a convincing manner, and he caught me on the staircase going to see Wembly. He had been dining, and was more than usually buoyant. “Hullo, Cummins!” he said. “The very man I want!” He caught me by the shoulder or collar or something, ran me up the little passage, and flung me over the waste-paper basket into the armchair in his office. “Pray be seated,” he said, as he did so. Then he ran across the room and came back with some pink and yellow tickets and pushed them into my hand. “Opera Comique,” he said, “Thursday; Friday, the Surrey; Saturday, the Frivolity. That’s all, I think.”
“But—” I began.
“Glad you’re free,” he said, snatching some proofs off the desk and beginning to read.
“I don’t quite understand,” I said.
“Eigh?” he said, at the top of his voice, as though he thought I had gone, and was startled at my remark.
“Do you want me to criticise these plays?”
“Do something with ’em . . . Did you think it was a treat?”
“But I can’t.”
“Did you call me a fool?”
“Well, I’ve never been to a theatre in my life.”
“But I don’t know anything about it, you know.”
“That’s just it. New view. No habits. No cliches in stock. Ours is a live paper, not a bag of tricks. None of your clockwork professional journalism in this office. And I can rely on your integrity—”
“But I’ve conscientious scruples—”
He caught me up suddenly and put me outside his door. “Go and talk to Wembly about that,” he said. “He’ll explain.”
As I stood perplexed, he opened the door again, said, “I forgot this,” thrust a fourth ticket into my hand (it was for that night—in twenty minutes’ time) and slammed the door upon me. His expression was quite calm, but I caught his eye.
I hate arguments. I decided that I would take his hint and become (to my own destruction) a Dramatic Critic. I walked slowly down the passage to Wembly. That Barnaby has a remarkably persuasive way. He has made few suggestions during our very pleasant intercourse of four years that he has not ultimately won me round to adopting. It may be, of course, that I am of a yielding disposition; certainly I am too apt to take my colour from my circumstances. It is, indeed, to my unfortunate susceptibility to vivid impressions that all my misfortunes are due. I have already alluded to the slight stammer I had acquired from a schoolfellow in my youth. However, this is a digression . . . I went home in a cab to dress.
I will not trouble the reader with my thoughts about the first-night audience, strange assembly as it is—, those I reserve for my Memoirs, nor the humiliating story of how I got lost during the entr’acte in a lot of red plush passages, and saw the third act from the gallery. The only point upon which I wish to lay stress was the remarkable effect of the acting upon me. You must remember I had lived a quite and retired life, and had never been to the theatre before, and that I am extremely sensitive to vivid impressions. At the risk of repetition I must insist upon these points.
The first effect was a profound amazement, not untinctured by alarm. The phenomenal unnaturalness of acting is a thing discounted in the minds of most people by early visits to the theatre. They get used to the fantastic gestures, the flamboyant emotions, the weird mouthings, melodious snortings, agonising yelps, lip-gnawings, glaring horrors, and other emotional symbolism of the stage. It becomes at least a mere deaf-and-dumb language to them, which they read intelligently pari passu with the hearing of the dialogue. But all this was new to me. The thing was called a modern comedy, the people were supposed to be English and were dressed like fashionable Americans of the current epoch, and I fell into the natural error of supposing that the actors were trying to represent human beings. I looked round on my first-night audience with a kind of wonder, discovered—as all new Dramatic Critics do—that it rested with me to reform the Drama, and after a supper choked with emotion, went off to the office to write a column, piebald with “new paragraphs” (as all my stuff is—it fills out so) and purple with indignation. Barnaby was delighted.
But I could not sleep that night. I dreamt of actors—actors glaring, actors smiting their chests, actors flinging out a handful of extended fingers, actors smiling bitterly, laughing despairingly, falling hopelessly, dying idiotically. I got up at eleven with a slight headache, read my notice in the ‘Fiery Cross’, breakfasted, and went back to my room to shave. (It’s my habit to do so.) Then an odd thing happened. I could not find my razor. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had not unpacked it the day before.
“Ah!” said I, in front of the looking-glass. Then “Hullo!”
Quite involuntarily, when I had thought of my portmanteau, I had flung up the left arm (fingers fully extended) and clutched at my diaphragm with my right hand. I am an acutely self-conscious man at all times. The gesture struck me as absolutely novel for me. I repeated it, for my own satisfaction. “Odd!” Then (rather puzzled) I turned to my portmanteau.
After shaving, my mind reverted to the acting I had seen, and I entertained myself before the cheval glass with some imitations of Jafferay’s more exaggerated gestures. “Really, one might think it a disease.” I said—, “Stage-Walkitis!” (There’s many a truth spoken in jest.) Then, if I remember rightly, I went off to see Wembly, and afterwards lunched at the British Museum with Delia. We actually spoke about our prospects, in the light of my new appointment.
But that appointment was the beginning of my downfall. From that day I necessarily became a persistent theatre-goer, and almost insensibly I began to change. The next thing I noticed after the gesture about the razor, was to catch myself bowing ineffably when I met Delia, and stooping in an old-fashioned, courtly way over her hand. Directly I caught myself, I straightened myself up and became very uncomfortable. I remember she looked at me curiously. Then, in the office, I found myself doing “nervous business,” fingers on teeth, when Barnaby asked me a question I could not very well answer. Then, in some trifling difference with Delia, I clasped my hand to my brow. And I pranced through my social transactions at times singularly like an actor! I tried not to—no one could be more keenly alive to the arrant absurdity of the histrionic bearing. And I did!
It began to dawn on me what it all meant. The acting, I saw, was too much for my delicately-strung nervous system. I have always, I know, been too amenable to the suggestions of my circumstances. Night after night of concentrated attention to the conventional attitudes and intonation of the English stage was gradually affecting my speech and carriage. I was giving way to the infection of sympathetic imitation. Night after night my plastic nervous system took the print of some new amazing gesture, some new emotional exaggeration—and retained it. A kind of theatrical veneer threatened to plate over and obliterate my private individuality altogether. I saw myself in a kind of vision. Sitting by myself one night, my new self seemed to me to glide, posing and gesticulating, across the room. He clutched his throat, he opened his fingers, he opened his legs in walking like a high-class marionette. He went from attitude to attitude. He might have been clockwork. Directly after this I made an ineffectual attempt to resign my theatrical work. But Barnaby persisted in talking about the Polywhiddle Divorce all the time I was with him, and I could get no opportunity of saying what I wished.
And then Delia’s manner began to change towards me. The ease of our intercourse vanished. I felt she was learning to dislike me. I grinned, and capered, and scowled, and posed at her in a thousand ways, and knew—with what a voiceless agony—! That I did it all the time. I tried to resign again, and Barnaby talked about “X” and “Z” and “Y” in the New Review, and gave me a strong cigar to smoke, and so routed me. And then I walked up the Assyrian Gallery in the manner of Irving to meet Delia, and so precipitated the crisis.
“Ah—! Dear!” I said, with more sprightliness and emotion in my voice than had ever been in all my life before I became (to my own undoing) a Dramatic Critic.
She held out her hand rather coldly, scrutinising my face as she did so. I prepared, with a new-won grace, to walk by her side.
“Egbert,” she said, standing still, and thought. Then she looked at me.
I said nothing. I felt what was coming. I tried to be the old Egbert Craddock Cummins of shambling gait and stammering sincerity, whom she loved, but I felt even as I did so that I was a new thing, a thing of surging emotions and mysterious fixity—like no human being that ever lived, except upon the stage. “Egbert,” she said, “you are not yourself.”
“Ah!” Involuntarily I clutched my diaphragm and averted my head (as is the way with them).
“There!” she said.
“What do you mean?” I said, whispering in vocal italics—you know how they do it—turning on her, perplexity on face, right hand down, left on brow. I knew quite well what she meant. I knew quite well the dramatic unreality of my behaviour. But I struggled against it in vain. “What do you mean?” I said, and in a kind of hoarse whisper, “I don’t understand!”
She really looked as though she disliked me. “What do you keep on posing for?” she said. “I don’t like it. You didn’t used to.”
“Didn’t used to!” I said slowly, repeating this twice. I glared up and down the gallery, with short, sharp glances. “We are alone,” I said swiftly. “Listen!” I poked my forefinger towards her, and glared at her. “I’m under a curse.”
I saw her hands tighten upon her sunshade. “You are under some bad influence or other,” said Delia. “You should give it up. I never knew anyone change as you have done.”
“Delia!” I said, lapsing into the pathetic. “Pity me. Augh! Delia! Pit—y me!”
She eyed me critically. “Why you keep playing the fool like this I don’t know,” she said. “Anyhow, I really cannot go about with a man who behaves as you do. You made us both ridiculous on Wednesday. Frankly, I dislike you, as you are now. I met you here to tell you so—as it’s about the only place where we can be sure of being alone together—”
“Delia!” said I, with intensity, knuckles of clenched hands white. “You don’t mean—”
“I do,” said Delia. “A woman’s lot is sad enough at the best of times. But with you—”
I clapped my hand on my brow.
“So, good-bye,” said Delia, without emotion.
“Oh, Delia!” I said. “Not this?”
“Good-bye, Mr. Cummins,” she said.
By a violent effort I controlled myself and touched her hand. I tried to say some word of explanation to her. She looked into my working face and winced. “I must do it,” she said hopelessly. Then she turned from me and began walking rapidly down the gallery.
Heavens! How the human agony cried within me! I loved Delia. But nothing found expression—I was already too deeply crusted with my acquired self.
“Good-baye!” I said at last, watching her retreating figure. How I hated myself for doing it! After she had vanished, I repeated in a dreamy way, “Good-baye!” looking hopelessly round me. Then, with a kind of heart-broken cry, I shook my clenched fists in the air, staggered to the pedestal of a winged figure, buried my face in my arms, and made my shoulders heave. Something within me said “Ass!” as I did so. (I had the greatest difficulty in persuading the Museum policeman, who was attracted by my cry of agony, that I was not intoxicated, but merely suffering from a transient indisposition.)
But even this great sorrow has not availed to save me from my fate. I see it, everyone sees it; I grow more “theatrical” every day. And no one could be more painfully aware of the pungent silliness of theatrical ways. The quite, nervous, but pleasing, E.C. Cummins vanishes. I cannot save him. I am driven like a dead leaf before the winds of March. My tailor even enters into the spirit of my disorder. He has a peculiar sense of what is fitting. I tried to get a dull grey suit from him this spring, and he foisted a brilliant blue upon me, and I see he has put braid down the sides of my new dress trousers. My hairdresser insists upon giving me a “wave.”
I am beginning to associate with actors. I detest them, but it is only in their company that I feel I am not glaringly conspicuous. Their talk infects me. I notice a growing tendency to dramatic brevity, to dashes and pauses in my style, to a punctuation of bows and attitudes. Barnaby has remarked it too. I offended Wembly by calling him “Dear Boy” yesterday. I dread the end, but cannot escape from it.
The fact is, I am being obliterated. Living a grey, retired life all my youth, I came to the theatre a delicate sketch of a man, a thing of tints and faint lines. Their gorgeous colouring has effaced me altogether. People forget how much mode of expression, method of movement, are a matter of contagion. I have heard of stage-struck people before, and thought it a figure of speech. I spoke of it jestingly, as a disease. It is no jest. It is a disease. And I have got it bad! Deep down within me I protest against the wrong done to my personality—unavailingly. For three hours or more a week I have to go and concentrate my attention on some fresh play, and the suggestions of the drama strengthen their awful hold upon me. My manners grow so flamboyant, my passions so professional, that I doubt, as I said at the outset, whether it is really myself that behaves in such a manner. I feel merely the core of this dramatic casing, that grows thicker and presses upon me—me and mine. I feel like King John’s abbot in his cope of lead.
I doubt, indeed, whether I should not abandon the struggle altogether—leave this sad world of ordinary life for which I am so ill-fitted, abandon the name of Cummins for some professional pseudonym, complete my self-effacement, and—a thing of tricks and tatters, of posing and pretence—go upon the stage. It seems my only resort—” to hold mirror up to Nature.” For in the ordinary life, I will confess, no one now seems to regard me as both sane and sober. Only upon the stage, I feel convinced, will people take me seriously. That will be the end of it. I know that will be the end of it. And yet . . . I will frankly confess . . . all that marks off your actor from your common man . . . I detest. I am still largely of my Aunt Charlotte’s opinion, that playacting is unworthy of a pure-minded man’s attention, much more participation. Even now I would resign my dramatic criticism and try a rest. Only I can’t get hold of Barnaby. Letters of resignation he never notices. He says it is against the etiquette of journalism to write to your Editor. And when I go to see him, he gives me another big cigar and some strong whisky and soda, and then something always turns up to prevent my explanation.
A SLIP UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
Outside the laboratory windows was a watery-grey fog, and within a close warmth and the yellow light of the green-shaded gas lamps that stood two to each table down its narrow length. On each table stood a couple of glass jars containing the mangled vestiges of the crayfish, mussels, frogs, and guineapigs upon which the students had been working, and down the side of the room, facing the windows, were shelves bearing bleached dissections in spirits, surmounted by a row of beautifully executed anatomical drawings in whitewood frames and overhanging a row of cubical lockers. All the doors of the laboratory were panelled with blackboard, and on these were the half-erased diagrams of the previous day’s work. The laboratory was empty, save for the demonstrator, who sat near the preparation-room door, and silent, save for a low, continuous murmur and the clicking of the rocker microtome at which he was working. But scattered about the room were traces of numerous students: hand-bags, polished boxes of instruments, in one place a large drawing covered by newspaper, and in another a prettily bound copy of ‘News from Nowhere’, a book oddly at variance with its surroundings. These things had been put down hastily as the students had arrived and hurried at once to secure their seats in the adjacent lecture theatre. Deadened by the closed door, the measured accents of the professor sounded as a featureless muttering.
Presently, faint through the closed windows came the sound of the Oratory clock striking the hour of eleven. The clicking of the microtome ceased, and the demonstrator looked at his watch, rose, thrust his hands into his pockets, and walked slowly down the laboratory towards the lecture theatre door. He stood listening for a moment, and then his eye fell on the little volume by William Morris. He picked it up, glanced at the title, smiled, opened it, looked at the name on the fly-leaf, ran the leaves through with his hand, and put it down. Almost immediately the even murmur of the lecturer ceased, there was a sudden burst of pencils rattling on the desks in the lecture theatre, a stirring, a scraping of feet, and a number of voices speaking together. Then a firm footfall approached the door, which began to open, and stood ajar, as some indistinctly heard question arrested the new-comer.
The demonstrator turned, walked slowly back past the microtome, and left the laboratory by the preparation-room door. As he did so, first one, and then several students carrying notebooks entered the laboratory from the lecture theatre, and distributed themselves among the little tables, or stood in a group about the doorway. They were an exceptionally heterogeneous assembly, for while Oxford and Cambridge still recoil from the blushing prospect of mixed classes, the College of Science anticipated America in the matter years ago—mixed socially, too, for the prestige of the College is high, and its scholarships, free of any age limit, dredge deeper even than do those of the Scotch universities. The class numbered one-and-twenty, but some remained in the theatre questioning the professor, copying the blackboard diagrams before they were washed off, or examining the special specimens he had produced to illustrate the day’s teaching. Of the nine who had come into the laboratory three were girls, one of whom, a little fair woman, wearing spectacles and dressed in greyish-green, was peering out of the window at the fog, while the other two, both wholesome-looking, plain-faced schoolgirls, unrolled and put on the brown holland aprons they wore while dissecting. Of the men, two went down the laboratory to their places, one a pallid, dark-bearded man, who had once been a tailor; the other a pleasant-featured, ruddy young man of twenty, dressed in a well-fitting brown suit; young Wedderburn, the son of Wedderburn, the eye specialist. The others formed a little knot near the theatre door. One of these, a dwarfed, spectacled figure, with a hunchback, sat on a bent wood stool; two others, one a short, dark youngster, and the other a flaxen-haired, reddish-complexioned young man, stood leaning side by side against the slate sink, while the fourth stood facing them, and maintained the larger share of the conversation.
This last person was named Hill. He was a sturdily built young fellow, of the same age as Wedderburn; he had a white face, dark grey eyes, hair of an indeterminate colour, and prominent, irregular features. He talked rather louder than was needful, and thrust his hands deeply into his pockets. His collar was frayed and blue with the starch of a careless laundress, his clothes were evidently ready-made, and there was a patch on the side of his boot near the toe. And as he talked or listened to the others, he glanced now and again towards the lecture theatre door. They were discussing the depressing peroration of the lecture they had just heard, the last lecture it was in the introductory course in zoology. “From ovum to ovum is the goal of the higher vertebrata,” the lecturer had said in his melancholy tones, and so had neatly rounded off the sketch of comparative anatomy he had been developing. The spectacled hunchback had repeated it, with noisy appreciation, had tossed it towards the fair-haired student with an evident provocation, and had started one of these vague, rambling discussions on generalities, so unaccountably dear to the student mind all the world over.
“That is our goal, perhaps—I admit it, as far as science goes,” said the fair-haired student, rising to the challenge. “But there are things above science.”
“Science,” said Hill confidently, “is systematic knowledge. Ideas that don’t come into the system—must anyhow—be loose ideas.” He was not quite sure whether that was a clever saying or a fatuity until his hearers took it seriously.
“The thing I cannot understand,” said the hunchback, at large, “is whether Hill is a materialist or not.”
“There is one thing above matter,” said Hill promptly, feeling he had a better thing this time; aware too, of someone in the doorway behind him, and raising his voice a trifle for her benefit, “and that is, the delusion that there is something above matter.”
“So we have your gospel at last,” said the fair student. “It’s all a delusion, is it? All our aspirations to lead something more than dogs’ lives, all our work for anything beyond ourselves. But see how inconsistent you are. Your socialism, for instance. Why do you trouble about the interests of the race? Why do you concern yourself about the beggar in the gutter? Why are you bothering yourself to lend that book—” he indicated William Morris by a movement of the head—”to everyone in the lab.?”
“Girl,” said the hunchback indistinctly, and glanced guiltily over his shoulder.
The girl in brown, with the brown eyes, had come into the laboratory, and stood on the other side of the table behind him, with her rolled-up apron in one hand, looking over her shoulder, listening to the discussion. She did not notice the hunchback, because she was glancing from Hill to his interlocutor. Hill’s consciousness of her presence betrayed itself to her only in his studious ignorance of the fact; but she understood that, and it pleased her. “I see no reason,” said he, “why a man should live like a brute because he knows of nothing beyond matter, and does not expect to exist a hundred years hence.”
“Why shouldn’t he?” said the fair-haired student.
“Why should he?” said Hill.
“What inducement has he?”
“That’s the way with all you religious people. It’s all a business of inducements. Cannot a man seek after righteousness for righteousness’ sake?”
There was a pause. The fair man answered, with a kind of vocal padding, “But—you see—inducement—when I said inducement,” to gain time. And then the hunchback came to his rescue and inserted a question. He was a terrible person in the debating society with his questions, and they invariably took one form—a demand for a definition, “What’s your definition of righteousness?” said the hunchback at this stage.
Hill experienced a sudden loss of complacency at this question, but even as it was asked, relief came in the person of Brooks, the laboratory attendant, who entered by the preparation-room door, carrying a number of freshly killed guineapigs by their hind legs. “This is the last batch of material this session,” said the youngster who had not previously spoken.
Brooks advanced up the laboratory, smacking down a couple of guineapigs at each table. The rest of the class, scenting the prey from afar, came crowding in by the lecture theatre door, and the discussion perished abruptly as the students who were not already in their places hurried to them to secure the choice of a specimen. There was a noise of keys rattling on split rings as lockers were opened and dissecting instruments taken out. Hill was already standing by his table, and his box of scalpels was sticking out of his pocket. The girl in brown came a step towards him, and leaning over his table, said softly, “Did you see that I returned your book, Mr. Hill?”
During the whole scene she and the book had been vividly present in his consciousness; but he made a clumsy pretence of looking at the book and seeing it for the first time. “Oh, yes,” he said, taking it up. “I see. Did you like it?”
“I want to ask you some questions about it—some time.”
“Certainly,” said Hill. “I shall be glad.” He stopped awkwardly. “You liked it?” he said.
“It’s a wonderful book. Only some things I don’t understand.”
Then suddenly the laboratory was hushed by a curious, braying noise. It was the demonstrator. He was at the blackboard ready to begin the day’s instruction, and it was his custom to demand silence by a sound midway between the “Er” of common intercourse and the blast of a trumpet. The girl in brown slipped back to her place: it was immediately in front of Hill’s, and Hill, forgetting her forthwith, took a notebook out of the drawer of his table, turned over its leaves hastily, drew a stumpy pencil from his pocket, and prepared to make a copious note of the coming demonstration. For demonstrations and lectures are the sacred text of the College students. Books, saving only the Professor’s own, you may—it is even expedient to—ignore.
Hill was the son of a Landport cobbler, and had been hooked by a chance blue paper the authorities had thrown out to the Landport Technical College. He kept himself in London on his allowance of a guinea a week, and found that, with proper care, this also covered his clothing allowance, an occasional waterproof collar, that is; and ink and needles and cotton, and suchlike necessaries for a man about town. This was his first year and his first session, but the brown old man in Landport had already got himself detested in many public-houses by boasting of his son, “the Professor.” Hill was a vigorous youngster, with a serene contempt for the clergy of all denominations, and a fine ambition to reconstruct the world. He regarded his scholarship as a brilliant opportunity. He had begun to read at seven, and had read steadily whatever came in his way, good or bad, since then. His worldly experience had been limited to the island of Portsea, and acquired chiefly in the wholesale boot factory in which he had worked by day, after passing the seventh standard of the Board school. He had a considerable gift of speech, as the College Debating Society, which met amidst the crushing machines and mine models in the metallurgical theatre downstairs, already recognised—recognised by a violent battering of desks whenever he rose. And he was just at that fine emotional age when life opens at the end of a narrow pass like a broad valley at one’s feet, full of the promise of wonderful discoveries and tremendous achievements. And his own limitations, save that he knew, that he knew, neither Latin nor French, were all unknown to him.
At first his interest had been divided pretty equally between his biological work at the College and social and theological theorising, an employment which he took in deadly earnest. Of a night, when the big museum library was not open, he would sit on the bed of his room in Chelsea with his coat and a muffler on, and write out the lecture notes and revise his dissection memoranda, until Thorpe called him out by a whistle—the landlady objected to open the door to attic visitors—and then the two would go prowling about the shadowy, shiny, gas-lit streets, talking, very much in the fashion of the sample just given, of the God idea, and Righteousness, and Carlyle, and the Reorganisation of Society. And in the midst of it all Hill, arguing not only for Thorpe, but for the casual passer-by, would lose the thread of his argument glancing at some pretty painted face that looked meaningly at him as he passed. Science and Righteousness! But once or twice lately there had been signs that a third interest was creeping into his life, and he had found his attention wandering from the fate of the mesoblastic somites or the probable meaning of the blastopore, to the thought of the girl with the brown eyes who sat at the table before him.
She was a paying student; she descended inconceivable social altitudes to speak to him. At the thought of the education she must have had, and the accomplishments she must possess, the soul of Hill became abject within him. She had spoken to him first over a difficulty about the alisphenoid of a rabbit’s skull, and he had found that, in biology at least, he had no reason for self-abasement. And from that, after the manner of young people starting from any starting-point, they got to generalities, and while Hill attacked her upon the question of socialism—, some instinct told him to spare her a direct assault upon her religion—she was gathering resolution to undertake what she told herself was his aesthetic education. She was a year or two older than he, though the thought never occurred to him. The loan of ‘News from Nowhere’ was the beginning of a series of cross loans. Upon some absurd first principle of his, Hill had never “wasted time” Upon poetry, and it seemed an appalling deficiency to her. One day in the lunch hour, when she chanced upon him alone in the little museum where the skeletons were arranged, shamefully eating the bun that constituted his midday meal, she retreated, and returned to lend him, with a slightly furtive air, a volume of Browning. He stood sideways towards her and took the book rather clumsily, because he was holding the bun in the other hand. And in the retrospect his voice lacked the cheerful clearness he could have wished.
That occurred after the examination in comparative anatomy, on the day before the College turned out its students, and was carefully locked up by the officials, for the Christmas holidays. The excitement of cramming for the first trial of strength had for a little while dominated Hill, to the exclusion of his other interests. In the forecasts of the result in which everyone indulged he was surprised to find that no one regarded him as a possible competitor for the Harvey Commemoration Medal, of which this and the two subsequent examinations disposed. It was about this time that Wedderburn, who so far had lived inconspicuously on the uttermost margin of Hill’s perceptions, began to take on the appearance of an obstacle. By a mutual agreement, the nocturnal prowlings with Thorpe ceased for the three weeks before the examination, and his landlady pointed out that she really could not supply so much lamp oil at the price. He walked to and fro from the College with little slips of mnemonics in his hand, lists of crayfish appendages, rabbits’ skull-bones, and vertebrate nerves, for example, and became a positive nuisance to foot passengers in the opposite direction.
But by a natural reaction, Poetry and the girl with the brown eyes ruled the Christmas holiday. The pending results of the examination became such a secondary consideration that Hill marvelled at his father’s excitement. Even had he wished it, there was no comparative anatomy to read in Landport, and he was too poor to buy books, but the stock of poets in the library was extensive, and Hill’s attack was magnificently sustained. He saturated himself with the fluent numbers of Longfellow and Tennyson, and fortified himself with Shakespeare; found a kindred soul in Pope, and a master in Shelley, and heard and fled the siren voices of Eliza Cook and Mrs. Hemans. But he read no more Browning, because he hoped for the loan of other volumes from Miss Haysman when he returned to London.
He walked from his lodgings to the College with that volume of Browning in his shiny black bag, and his mind teeming with the finest general propositions about poetry. Indeed, he framed first this little speech and then that with which to grace the return. The morning was an exceptionally pleasant one for London; there was a clear, hard frost and undeniable blue in the sky, a thin haze softened every outline, and warm shafts of sunlight struck between the house blocks and turned the sunny side of the street to amber and gold. In the hall of the College he pulled off his glove and signed his name with fingers so stiff with cold that the characteristic dash under the signature he cultivated became a quivering line. He imagined Miss Haysman about him everywhere. He turned at the staircase, and there, below he saw a crowd struggling at the foot of the notice-board. This possibly, was the biology list. He forgot Browning and Miss Haysman for the moment, and joined the scrimmage. And at last, with his cheek flattened against the sleeve of the man on the step above him, he read the list—
CLASS 1 H. J. Somers Wedderburn William Hill
and thereafter followed a second class that is outside our present sympathies. It was characteristic that he did not trouble to look for Thorpe on the physics list, but backed out of the struggle at once, and in a curious emotional state between pride over common second-class humanity and acute disappointment at Wedderburn’s success, went on his way upstairs. At the top, as he was hanging up his coat in the passage, the zoological demonstrator, a young man from Oxford, who secretly regarded him as a blatant “mugger” of the very worst type, offered his heartiest congratulations.
At the laboratory door Hill stopped for a second to get his breath, and then entered. He looked straight up the laboratory and saw all five girl students grouped in their places, and Wedderburn, the once retiring Wedderburn, leaning rather gracefully against the window, playing with the blind tassel and talking, apparently, to the five of them. Now, Hill could talk bravely enough and even overbearingly to one girl, and he could have made a speech to a roomful of girls, but this business of standing at ease and appreciating, fencing, and returning quick remarks round a group was, he knew, altogether beyond him. Coming up the staircase his feelings for Wedderburn had been generous, a certain admiration perhaps, a willingness to shake his hand conspicuously and heartily as one who had fought but the first round. But before Christmas Wedderburn had never gone up to that end of the room to talk. In a flash Hill’s mist of vague excitement condensed abruptly to a vivid dislike of Wedderburn. Possibly his expression changed. As he came up to his place, Wedderburn nodded carelessly to him, and the others glanced round. Miss Haysman looked at him and away again, the faintest touch of her eyes. “I can’t agree with you, Mr. Wedderburn,” she said.
“I must congratulate you on your first-class, Mr. Hill,” said the spectacled girl in green, turning round and beaming at him.
“It’s nothing,” said Hill, staring at Wedderburn and Miss Haysman talking together, and eager to hear what they talked about.
“We poor folks in the second class don’t think so,” said the girl in spectacles.
What was it Wedderburn was saying? Something about William Morris! Hill did not answer the girl in spectacles, and the smile died out of his face. He could not hear, and failed to see how he could “cut in.” Confound Wedderburn! He sat down, opened his bag, hesitated whether to return the volume of Browning forthwith, in the sight of all, and instead drew out his new notebooks for the short course in elementary botany that was now beginning, and which would terminate in February. As he did so, a fat, heavy man, with a white face and pale grey eyes—Bindon, the professor of botany, who came up from Kew for January and February—came in by the lecture theatre door, and passed, rubbing his hands together and smiling, in silent affability down the laboratory.
In the subsequent six weeks Hill experienced some very rapid and curiously complex emotional developments. For the most part he had Wedderburn in focus—a fact that Miss Haysman never suspected. She told Hill (for in the comparative privacy of the museum she talked a good deal to him of socialism and Browning and general propositions) that she had met Wedderburn at the house of some people she knew, and “he’s inherited his cleverness; for his father, you know, is the great eye specialist.”
“My father is a cobbler,” said Hill, quite irrelevantly, and perceived the want of dignity even as he said it. But the gleam of jealousy did not offend her. She conceived herself the fundamental source of it. He suffered bitterly from a sense of Wedderburn’s unfairness, and a realisation of his own handicap. Here was this Wedderburn had picked up a prominent man for a father, and instead of his losing so many marks on the score of that advantage, it was counted to him for righteousness! And while Hill had to introduce himself and talk to Miss Haysman clumsily over mangled guineapigs in the laboratory, this Wedderburn, in some backstairs way, had access to her social altitudes, and could converse in a polished argot that Hill understood perhaps, but felt incapable of speaking. Not of course, that he wanted to. Then it seemed to Hill that for Wedderburn to come there day after day with cuffs unfrayed, neatly tailored, precisely barbered, quietly perfect, was in itself an ill-bred, sneering sort of proceeding. Moreover, it was a stealthy thing for Wedderburn to behave insignificantly for a space, to mock modesty, to lead Hill to fancy that he himself was beyond dispute the man of the year, and then suddenly to dart in front of him, and incontinently to swell up in this fashion. In addition to these things, Wedderburn displayed an increasing disposition to join in any conversational grouping that included Miss Haysman, and would venture, and indeed seek occasion, to pass opinions derogatory to socialism and atheism. He goaded Hill to incivilities by neat, shallow, and exceedingly effective personalities about the socialist leaders, until Hill hated Bernard Shaw’s graceful egotisms, William Morris’s limited editions and luxurious wall-papers, and Walter Crane’s charmingly absurd ideal working men, about as much as he hated Wedderburn. The dissertations in the laboratory, that had been his glory in the previous term, became a danger, degenerated into inglorious tussles with Wedderburn, and Hill kept to them only out of an obscure perception that his honour was involved. In the debating society Hill knew quite clearly that, to a thunderous accompaniment of banged desks, he could have pulverised Wedderburn. Only Wedderburn never attended the debating society to be pulverised, because—nauseous affectation—! He “dined late.”
You must not imagine that these things presented themselves in quite such a crude form to Hill’s perception. Hill was a born generaliser. Wedderburn to him was not so much an individual obstacle as a type, the salient angle of a class. The economic theories that, after infinite ferment, had shaped themselves in Hill’s mind, became abruptly concrete at the contact. The world became full of easy-mannered, graceful, gracefully-dressed, conversationally dexterous, finally shallow Wedderburn’s, Bishops Wedderburn, Wedderburn M.P.’s, Professors Wedderburn, Wedderburn landlords, all with finger-bowl shibboleths and epigrammatic cities of refuge from a sturdy debater. And everyone ill-clothed or ill-dressed, from the cobbler to the cab-runner, was a man and a brother, a fellow-sufferer, to Hill’s imagination. So that he became, as it were, a champion of the fallen and oppressed, albeit to outward seeming only a self-assertive, ill-mannered young man, and an unsuccessful champion at that. Again and again a skirmish over the afternoon tea that the girl students had inaugurated left Hill with flushed cheeks and a tattered temper, and the debating society noticed a new quality of sarcastic bitterness in his speeches.
You will understand now how it was necessary, if only in the interests of humanity, that Hill should demolish Wedderburn in the forthcoming examination and outshine him in the eyes of Miss Haysman; and you will perceive too, how Miss Haysman fell into some common feminine misconceptions. The Hill-Wedderburn quarrel, for in his unostentatious way Wedderburn reciprocated Hill’s ill-veiled rivalry, became a tribute to her indefinable charm; she was the Queen of Beauty in a tournament of scalpels and stumpy pencils. To her confidential friend’s secret annoyance, it even troubled her conscience, for she was a good girl, and painfully aware, from Ruskin and contemporary fiction, how entirely men’s activities are determined by women’s attitudes. And if Hill never by any chance mentioned the topic of love to her, she only credited him with the finer modesty for that omission.
So the time came on for the second examination, and Hill’s increasing pallor confirmed the general rumour that he was working hard. In the aerated bread shop near South Kensington Station you would see him, breaking his bun and sipping his milk, with his eyes intent upon a paper of closely written notes. In his bedroom there were propositions about buds and stems round his looking-glass, a diagram to catch his eye, if soap should chance to spare it, above his washing basin. He missed several meetings of the debating society, but he found the chance encounters with Miss Haysman in the spacious ways of the adjacent art museum, or in the little museum at the top of the College, or in the College corridors, more frequent and very restful. In particular, they used to meet in a little gallery full of wrought-iron chests and gates, near the art library, and there Hill used to talk, under the gentle stimulus of her flattering attention, of Browning and his personal ambitions. A characteristic she found remarkable in him was his freedom from avarice. He contemplated quite calmly the prospect of living all his life on an income below a hundred pounds a year. But he was determined to be famous, to make, recognisably in his own proper person, the world a better place to live in. He took Bradlaugh and John Burns for his leaders and models, poor, even impecunious, great men. But Miss Haysman thought that such lives were deficient on the aesthetic side, by which, though she did not know it, she meant good wall-paper and upholstery, pretty books, tasteful clothes, concerts, and meals nicely cooked and respectfully served.
At last came the day of the second examination, and the professor of botany, a fussy, conscientious man, rearranged all the tables in a long narrow laboratory to prevent copying, and put his demonstrator on a chair on a table (where he felt, he said, like a Hindoo god), to see all the cheating, and stuck a notice outside the door, “Door closed,” for no earthly reason that any human being could discover. And all the morning from ten till one the quill of Wedderburn shrieked defiance at Hill’s, and the quills of the others chased their leaders in a tireless pack, and so also it was in the afternoon. Wedderburn was a little quieter than usual, and Hill’s face was hot all day, and his overcoat bulged with textbooks and notebooks against the last moment’s revision. And the next day, in the morning and in the afternoon, was the practical examination, when sections had to be cut and slides identified. In the morning Hill was depressed because he knew he had cut a thick section, and in the afternoon came the mysterious slip.
It was just the kind of thing that the botanical professor was always doing. Like the income tax, it offered a premium to the cheat. It was a preparation under the microscope, a little glass slip, held in its place on the stage of the instrument by light steel clips, and the inscription set forth that the slip was not to be moved. Each student was to go in turn to it, sketch it, write in his book of answers what he considered it to be, and return to his place. Now, to move such a slip is a thing one can do by a chance movement of the finger, and in a fraction of a second.
The professor’s reason for decreeing that the slip should not be moved depended on the fact that the object he wanted identified was characteristic of a certain tree stem. In the position in which it was placed it was a difficult thing to recognise, but once the slip was moved so as to bring other parts of the preparation into view, its nature was obvious enough.
Hill came to this, flushed from a contest with staining re-agents, sat down on the little stool before the microscope, turned the mirror to get the best light, and then, out of sheer habit, shifted the slips. At once he remembered the prohibition, and with an almost continuous motion of his hands, moved it back, and sat paralysed with astonishment at his action.
Then slowly, he turned his head. The professor was out of the room; the demonstrator sat aloft on his impromptu rostrum, reading the Quarterly Journal Microbiology Science; the rest of the examinees were busy, and with their backs to him. Should he own up to the accident now? He knew quite clearly what the thing was. It was a lenticel, a characteristic preparation from the elder-tree. His eyes roved over his intent fellow-students, and Wedderburn suddenly glanced over his shoulder at him with a queer expression in his eyes. The mental excitement that had kept Hill at an abnormal pitch of vigour these two days gave way to a curious nervous tension. His book of answers was beside him. He did not write down what the thing was, but with one eye at the microscope he began making a hasty sketch of it. His mind was full of this grotesque puzzle in ethics that had suddenly been sprung upon him. Should he identify it? Or should he leave this question unanswered? In that case Wedderburn would probably come out first in the second result. How could he tell now whether he might not have identified the thing without shifting it? It was possible that Wedderburn had failed to recognise it, of course. Suppose Wedderburn too had shifted the slide?
He looked up at the clock. There were fifteen minutes in which to make up his mind. He gathered up his book of answers and the coloured pencils he used in illustrating his replies and walked back to his seat.
He read through his manuscript, and then sat thinking and gnawing his knuckle. It would look queer now if he owned up. He must beat Wedderburn. He forgot the examples of those starry gentlemen, John Burns and Bradlaugh. Besides, he reflected, the glimpse of the rest of the slip he had, had was, after all, quite accidental, forced upon him by chance, a kind of providential revelation rather than an unfair advantage. It was not nearly so dishonest to avail himself of that as it was of Broome, who believed in the efficacy of prayer, to pray daily for a first-class. “Five minutes more,” said the demonstrator, folding up his paper and becoming observant. Hill watched the clock hands until two minutes remained; then he opened the book of answers, and, with hot ears and an affectation of ease, gave his drawing of the lenticel its name.
When the second pass list appeared, the previous positions of Wedderburn and Hill were reversed, and the spectacled girl in green, who knew the demonstrator in private life (where he was practically human), said that in the result of the two examinations taken together Hill had the advantage of a mark—167 to 166 out of a possible 200. Everyone admired Hill in a way, though the suspicion of “mugging” clung to him. But Hill was to find congratulations and Miss Haysman’s enhanced opinion of him, and even the decided decline in the crest of Wedderburn, tainted by an unhappy memory. He felt a remarkable access of energy at first, and the note of a democracy marching to triumph returned to his debating society speeches; he worked at his comparative anatomy with tremendous zeal and effect, and he went on with his aesthetic education. But through it all, a vivid little picture was continually coming before his mind’s eye—of a sneakish person manipulating a slide.
No human being had witnessed the act, and he was cocksure that no higher power existed to see, it; but for all that it worried him. Memories are not dead things but alive; they dwindle in disuse, but they harden and develop in all sorts of queer ways if they are being continually fretted. Curiously enough, though at the time he perceived clearly that the shifting was accidental, as the days wore on, his memory became confused about it, until at last he was not sure—although he assured himself that he was sure—whether the movement had been absolutely involuntary. Then it is possible that Hill’s dietary was conducive to morbid conscientiousness; a breakfast frequently eaten in a hurry, a midday bun, and at such hours after five as chanced to be convenient, such meat as his means determined, usually in a chop-house in a back street off the Brompton Road. Occasionally he treated himself to threepenny or ninepenny classics, and they usually represented a suppression of potatoes or chops. It is indisputable that outbreaks of self-abasement and emotional revival have a distinct relation to periods of scarcity. But apart from this influence on the feelings, there was in Hill a distinct aversion to falsity that the blasphemous Landport cobbler had inculcated by strap and tongue from his earliest years. Of one fact about professed atheists I am convinced; they may be—they usually are—fools, void of subtlety, revilers of holy institutions, brutal speakers, and mischievous knaves, but they lie with difficulty. If it were not so, if they had the faintest grasp of the idea of compromise, they would simply be liberal churchmen. And moreover, this memory poisoned his regard for Miss Haysman. For she now so evidently preferred him to Wedderburn that he felt sure he cared for her, and began reciprocating her attentions by timid marks of personal regard; at one time he even bought a bunch of violets, carried it about in his pocket, and produced it, with a stumbling explanation, withered and dead, in the gallery of old iron. It poisoned too, the denunciation of capitalist dishonesty that had been one of his life’s pleasures. And lastly, it poisoned his triumph in Wedderburn. Previously he had been Wedderburn’s superior in his own eyes, and had raged simply at a want of recognition. Now he began to fret at the darker suspicion of positive inferiority. He fancied he found justifications for his position in Browning, but they vanished on analysis. At last—moved, curiously enough, by exactly the same motive forces that had resulted in his dishonesty—he went to Professor Bindon, and made a clean breast of the whole affair. As Hill was a paid student, Professor Bindon did not ask him to sit down, and he stood before the professor’s desk as he made his confession.
“It’s a curious story,” said Professor Bindon, slowly realising how the thing reflected on himself, and then letting his anger rise—, “a most remarkable story. I can’t understand your doing it, and I can’t understand this avowal. You’re a type of student—Cambridge men would never dream—I suppose I ought to have thought—why did you cheat?”
“I didn’t cheat,” said Hill.
“But you have just been telling me you did.”
“I thought I explained—”
“Either you cheated or you did not cheat—”
“I said my motion was involuntary.”
“I am not a metaphysician, I am a servant of science—of fact. You were told not to move the slip. You did move the slip. If that is not cheating—”
“If I was a cheat,” said Hill, with the note of hysterics in his voice, “should I come here and tell you?”
“Your repentance, of course, does you credit,” said Professor Bindon, “but it does not alter the original facts.”
“No, sir,” said Hill, giving in, in utter self-abasement.
“Even now you cause an enormous amount of trouble. The examination list will have to be revised.”
“I suppose so, sir.”
“Suppose so? Of course it must be revised. And I don’t see how I can conscientiously pass you.”
“Not pass me?” said Hill. “Fail me?”
“It’s the rule in all examinations. Or where should we be? What else did you expect? You don’t want to shirk the consequences of your own acts?”
“I thought, perhaps—” said Hill. And then, “Fail me? I thought, as I told you, you would simply deduct the marks given for that slip.”
“Impossible!” said Bindon. “Besides, it would still leave you above Wedderburn. Deduct only the marks! Preposterous! The Departmental Regulations distinctly say—”
“But it’s my own admission, sir.”
“The Regulations say nothing whatever of the manner in which the matter comes to light. They simply provide—”
“It will ruin me. If I fail this examination, they won’t renew my scholarship.”
“You should have thought of that before.”
“But, sir, consider all my circumstances—”
“I cannot consider anything. Professors in this College are machines. The Regulations will not even let us recommend our students for appointments. I am a machine, and you have worked me. I have to do—”
“It’s very hard, sir.”
“Possibly it is.”
“If I am to be failed this examination, I might as well go home at once.”
“That is as you think proper.” Bindon’s voice softened a little; he perceived he had been unjust, and provided he did not contradict himself, he was disposed to amelioration. “As a private person,” he said, “I think this confession of yours goes far to mitigate your offence. But you have set the machinery in motion, and now it must take its course. I—I am really sorry you gave way.”
A wave of emotion prevented Hill from answering. Suddenly, very vividly, he saw the heavily-lined face of the old Landport cobbler, his father. “Good God! What a fool I have been!” he said hotly and abruptly.
“I hope,” said Bindon, “that it will be a lesson to you.”
But, curiously enough, they were not thinking of quite the same indiscretion.
There was a pause.
“I would like a day to think, sir, and then I will let you know—about going home, I mean,” said Hill, moving towards the door.
The next day Hill’s place was vacant. The spectacled girl in green was, as usual, first with the news. Wedderburn and Miss Haysman were talking of a performance of ‘The Meistersingers’ when she came up to them.
“Have you heard?” she said.
“There was cheating in the examination.”
“Cheating!” said Wedderburn, with his face suddenly hot. “How?”
“It was. That slide that we weren’t to move—”
“Nonsense!” said Wedderburn. “Why! How could they find out? Who do they say—?”
“It was Mr. Hill.”
“Not—surely not the immaculate Hill?” said Wedderburn, recovering.
“I don’t believe it,” said Miss Haysman. “How do you know?”
“I didn’t,” said the girl in spectacles. “But I know it now for a fact. Mr. Hill went and confessed to Professor Bindon himself.”
“By Jove!” said Wedderburn. “Hill of all people. But I am always inclined to distrust these philanthropists-on-principle—”
“Are you quite sure?” said Miss Haysman, with a catch in her breath.
“Quite. It’s dreadful, isn’t it? But, you know, what can you expect? His father is a cobbler.”
Then Miss Haysman astonished the girl in spectacles.
“I don’t care. I will not believe it,” she said, flushing darkly under her warm-tinted skin. “I will not believe it until he has told me so himself—face to face. I would scarcely believe it then,” and abruptly she turned her back on the girl in spectacles, and walked to her own place.
“It’s true, all the same,” said the girl in spectacles, peering and smiling at Wedderburn.
But Wedderburn did not answer her. She was indeed one of those people who seemed destined to make unanswered remarks.