I ran away from the care of my cousin Nicodemus back to Bladesover House.
My cousin Nicodemus Frapp was a baker in a back street—a slum rather—just off that miserable narrow mean high road that threads those exquisite beads, Rochester and Chatham. He was, I must admit, a shock to me, much dominated by a young, plump, prolific, malingering wife; a bent, slow-moving, unwilling dark man with flour in his hair and eyelashes, in the lines of his face and the seams of his coat. I’ve never had a chance to correct my early impression of him, and he still remains an almost dreadful memory, a sort of caricature of incompetent simplicity. As I remember him, indeed, he presented the servile tradition perfected. He had no pride in his person; fine clothes and dressing up wasn’t “for the likes of” him, so that he got his wife, who was no artist at it, to cut his black hair at irregular intervals, and let his nails become disagreeable to the fastidious eye; he had no pride in his business nor any initiative; his only virtues were not doing certain things and hard work. “Your uncle,” said my mother—all grown-up cousins were uncles by courtesy among the Victorian middle-class— “isn’t much to look at or talk to, but he’s a Good Hard-Working Man.” There was a sort of base honourableness about toil, however needless, in that system of inversion. Another point of honour was to rise at or before dawn, and then laboriously muddle about.
It was very distinctly impressed on my mind that the Good Hard-Working Man would have thought it “fal-lallish” to own a pocket handkerchief. Poor old Frapp—dirty and crushed by, product of, Bladesover’s magnificence! He made no fight against the world at all, he was floundering in small debts that were not so small but that finally they overwhelmed him, whenever there was occasion for any exertion his wife fell back upon pains and her “condition,” and God sent them many children, most of whom died, and so, by their coming and going, gave a double exercise in the virtues of submission.
Resignation to God’s will was the common device of these people in the face of every duty and every emergency. There were no books in the house; I doubt if either of them had retained the capacity for reading consecutively for more than a minute or so, and it was with amazement that day after day, over and above stale bread, one beheld food and again more food amidst the litter that held permanent session on the living-room table.
One might have doubted if either of them felt discomfort in this dusty darkness of existence, if it was not that they did visibly seek consolation. They sought this and found it of a Sunday, not in strong drink and raving, but in imaginary draughts of blood. They met with twenty or thirty other darkened and unclean people, all dressed in dingy colours that would not show the dirt, in a little brick-built chapel equipped with a spavined roarer of a harmonium, and there solaced their minds on the thought that all that was fair and free in life, all that struggled, all that planned and made, all pride and beauty and honour, all fine and enjoyable things, were irrevocably damned to everlasting torments. They were the self-appointed confidants of God’s mockery of his own creation. So at any rate they stick in my mind. Vaguer, and yet hardly less agreeable than this cosmic jest, this coming “Yah, clever!” and general serving out and “showing up” of the lucky, the bold, and the cheerful, was their own predestination to Glory.
“There is a Fountain, filled with Blood|
Drawn from Emmanuel’s Veins,”
so they sang. I hear the drone and wheeze of that hymn now. I hated them with the bitter uncharitable condemnation of boyhood, and a twinge of that hate comes back to me. As I write the words, the sounds and then the scene return, these obscure, undignified people, a fat woman with asthma, an old Welsh milk-seller with a tumour on his bald head, who was the intellectual leader of the sect, a huge-voiced haberdasher with a big black beard, a white-faced, extraordinarily pregnant woman, his wife, a spectacled rate collector with a bent back. . . . I hear the talk about souls, the strange battered old phrases that were coined ages ago in the seaports of the sun-dry Levant, of balm of Gilead and manna in the desert, of gourds that give shade and water in a thirsty land; I recall again the way in which at the conclusion of the service the talk remained pious in form but became medical in substance, and how the women got together for obstetric whisperings. I, as a boy, did not matter, and might overhear.
If Bladesover is my key for the explanation of England, I think my invincible persuasion that I understand Russia was engendered by the circle of Uncle Frapp.
I slept in a dingy sheeted bed with the two elder survivors of Frapp fecundity, and spent my week days in helping in the laborious disorder of the shop and bakehouse, in incidental deliveries of bread and so forth, and in parrying the probings of my uncle into my relations with the Blood, and his confidential explanations that ten shillings a week—which was what my mother paid him—was not enough to cover my accommodation. He was very anxious to keep that, but also he wanted more. There were neither books nor any seat nor corner in that house where reading was possible, no newspaper ever brought the clash of worldly things into its heavenward seclusion; horror of it all grew in me daily, and whenever I could I escaped into the streets and tramped about Chatham. The news shops appealed to me particularly. One saw there smudgy illustrated sheets, the Police News in particular, in which vilely drawn pictures brought home to the dullest intelligence an interminable succession of squalid crimes, women murdered and put into boxes, buried under floors, old men bludgeoned at midnight by robbers, people thrust suddenly out of trains, happy lovers shot, vitrioled and so forth by rivals. I got my first glimpse of the life of pleasure in foully drawn pictures of “police raids” on this and that. Interspersed with these sheets were others in which Sloper, the urban John Bull, had his fling with gin bottle and obese umbrella, or the kindly empty faces of the Royal Family appeared and reappeared, visiting this, opening that, getting married, getting offspring, lying in state, doing everything but anything, a wonderful, good-meaning, impenetrable race apart.
I have never revisited Chatham; the impression it has left on my mind is one of squalid compression, unlit by any gleam of a maturer charity. All its effects arranged themselves as antithetical to the Bladesover effects. They confirmed and intensified all that Bladesover suggested. Bladesover declared itself to be the land, to be essentially England; I have already told how its airy spaciousness, its wide dignity, seemed to thrust village, church, and vicarage into corners, into a secondary and conditional significance. Here one gathered the corollary of that. Since the whole wide country of Kent was made up of contiguous Bladesovers and for the gentlefolk, the surplus of population, all who were not good tenants nor good labourers, Church of England, submissive and respectful, were necessarily thrust together, jostled out of sight, to fester as they might in this place that had the colours and even the smells of a well-packed dustbin. They should be grateful even for that; that, one felt, was the theory of it all.
And I loafed about this wilderness of crowded dinginess, with young, receptive, wide-open eyes, and through the blessing (or curse) of some fairy godmother of mine, asking and asking again: “But after all, why—”
I wandered up through Rochester once, and had a glimpse of the Stour valley above the town, all horrible with cement works and foully smoking chimneys and rows of workmen’s cottages, minute, ugly, uncomfortable, and grimy. So I had my first intimation of how industrialism must live in a landlord’s land. I spent some hours, too, in the streets that give upon the river, drawn by the spell of the sea. But I saw barges and ships stripped of magic and mostly devoted to cement, ice, timber, and coal. The sailors looked to me gross and slovenly men, and the shipping struck me as clumsy, ugly, old, and dirty. I discovered that most sails don’t fit the ships that hoist them, and that there may be as pitiful and squalid a display of poverty with a vessel as with a man. When I saw colliers unloading, watched the workers in the hold filling up silly little sacks and the succession of blackened, half-naked men that ran to and fro with these along a plank over a thirty-foot drop into filth and mud, I was first seized with admiration of their courage and toughness and then, “But after all, why—?” and the stupid ugliness of all this waste of muscle and endurance came home to me. Among other things it obviously wasted and deteriorated the coal. . . . And I had imagined great things of the sea!
Well, anyhow, for a time that vocation was stilled.
But such impressions came into my leisure, and of that I had no excess. Most of my time was spent doing things for Uncle Frapp, and my evenings and nights perforce in the company of the two eldest of my cousins. He was errand boy at an oil shop and fervently pious, and of him I saw nothing until the evening except at meals; the other was enjoying the midsummer holidays without any great elation; a singularly thin and abject, stunted creature he was, whose chief liveliness was to pretend to be a monkey, and who I am now convinced had some secret disease that drained his vitality away. If I met him now I should think him a pitiful little creature and be extremely sorry for him. Then I felt only a wondering aversion. He sniffed horribly, he was tired out by a couple of miles of loafing, he never started any conversation, and he seemed to prefer his own company to mine. His mother, poor woman, said he was the “thoughtful one.”
Serious trouble came suddenly out of a conversation we held in bed one night. Some particularly pious phrase of my elder cousin’s irritated me extremely, and I avowed outright my entire disbelief in the whole scheme of revealed religion. I had never said a word about my doubts to any one before, except to Ewart who had first evolved them. I had never settled my doubts until at this moment when I spoke. But it came to me then that the whole scheme of salvation of the Frappes was not simply doubtful, but impossible. I fired this discovery out into the darkness with the greatest promptitude.
My abrupt denials certainly scared my cousin amazingly.
At first they could not understand what I was saying, and when they did I fully believe they expected an instant answer in thunderbolts and flames. They gave me more room in the bed forthwith, and then the elder sat up and expressed his sense of my awfulness. I was already a little frightened at my temerity, but when he asked me categorically to unsay what I had said, what could I do but confirm my repudiation?
“There’s no hell,” I said, “and no eternal punishment. No God would be such a fool as that.”
My elder cousin cried aloud in horror, and the younger lay scared, but listening. “Then you mean,” said my elder cousin, when at last he could bring himself to argue, “you might do just as you liked?”
“If you were cad enough,” said I.
Our little voices went on interminably, and at one stage my cousin got out of bed and made his brother do likewise, and knelt in the night dimness and prayed at me. That I found trying, but I held out valiantly. “Forgive him,” said my cousin, “he knows not what he sayeth.”
“You can pray if you like,” I said, “but if you’re going to cheek me in your prayers I draw the line.”
The last I remember of that great discussion was my cousin deploring the fact that he “should ever sleep in the same bed with an Infidel!”
The next day he astonished me by telling the whole business to his father. This was quite outside all my codes. Uncle Nicodemus sprang it upon me at the midday meal.
“You been sayin’ queer things, George,” he said abruptly. “You better mind what you’re saying.”
“What did he say, father?” said Mrs. Frapp.
“Things I couldn’t’ repeat,” said he.
“What things?” I asked hotly.
“Ask ’im,” said my uncle, pointing with his knife to his informant, and making me realise the nature of my offence. My aunt looked at the witness. “Not—?” she framed a question.
“Wuss,” said my uncle. “Blarsphemy.”
My aunt couldn’t touch another mouthful. I was already a little troubled in my conscience by my daring, and now I began to feel the black enormity of the course upon which I had embarked.
“I was only talking sense,” I said.
I had a still more dreadful moment when presently I met my cousin in the brick alley behind the yard, that led back to his grocer’s shop.
“You sneak!” I said, and smacked his face hard forthwith. “Now then,” said I.
He started back, astonished and alarmed. His eyes met mine, and I saw a sudden gleam of resolution. He turned his other cheek to me.
“’It ’it,” he said. “’It ’it. I’ll forgive you.”
I felt I had never encountered a more detestable way of evading a licking. I shoved him against the wall and left him there, forgiving me, and went back into the house.
“You better not speak to your cousins, George,” said my aunt, “till you’re in a better state of mind.”
I became an outcast forthwith. At supper that night a gloomy silence was broken by my cousin saying
“’E ’it me for telling you, and I turned the other cheek, muvver.”
“’E’s got the evil one be’ind ’im now, a ridin’ on ’is back,” said my aunt, to the grave discomfort of the eldest girl, who sat beside me.
After supper my uncle, in a few ill-chosen words, prayed me to repent before I slept.
“Suppose you was took in your sleep, George,” he said; “where’d you be then? You jest think of that me boy.” By this time I was thoroughly miserable and frightened, and this suggestion unnerved me dreadfully but I kept up an impenitent front. “To wake in ’ell,” said Uncle Nicodemus, in gentle tones. “You don’t want to wake in ’ell, George, burnin’ and screamin’ for ever, do you? You wouldn’t like that?”
He tried very hard to get me to “jest ’ave a look at the bake’ouse fire” before I retired. “It might move you,” he said.
I was awake longest that night. My cousins slept, the sleep of faith on either side of me. I decided I would whisper my prayers, and stopped midway because I was ashamed, and perhaps also because I had an idea one didn’t square God like that.
“No,” I said, with a sudden confidence, “damn me if you’re coward enough. . . . But you’re not. No! You couldn’t be!”
I woke my cousins up with emphatic digs, and told them as much, triumphantly, and went very peacefully to sleep with my act of faith accomplished.
I slept not only through that night, but for all my nights since then. So far as any fear of Divine injustice goes, I sleep soundly, and shall, I know, to the end of things. That declaration was an epoch in my spiritual life.
But I didn’t expect to have the whole meeting on Sunday turned on to me.
It was. It all comes back to me, that convergence of attention, even the faint leathery smell of its atmosphere returns, and the coarse feel of my aunt’s black dress beside me in contact with my hand. I see again the old Welsh milkman “wrestling” with me, they all wrestled with me, by prayer or exhortation. And I was holding out stoutly, though convinced now by the contagion of their universal conviction that by doing so I was certainly and hopelessly damned. I felt that they were right, that God was probably like them, and that on the whole it didn’t matter. And to simplify the business thoroughly I had declared I didn’t believe anything at all. They confuted me by texts from Scripture which I now perceive was an illegitimate method of reply. When I got home, still impenitent and eternally lost and secretly very lonely and miserable and alarmed, Uncle Nicodemus docked my Sunday pudding.
One person only spoke to me like a human being on that day of wrath, and that was the younger Frapp. He came up to me in the afternoon while I was confined upstairs with a Bible and my own thoughts.
“’Ello,” he said, and fretted about.
“D’you mean to say there isn’t—no one,” he said, funking the word.
“No one watching yer—always.”
“Why should there be?” I asked.
“You can’t ’elp thoughts,” said my cousin, “anyhow. You mean—” He stopped hovering. “I s’pose I oughtn’t to be talking to you.”
He hesitated and flitted away with a guilty back glance over his shoulder. . . .
The following week made life quite intolerable for me; these people forced me at last into an Atheism that terrified me. When I learnt that next Sunday the wrestling was to be resumed, my courage failed me altogether.
I happened upon a map of Kent in a stationer’s window on Saturday, and that set me thinking of one form of release. I studied it intently for half an hour perhaps, on Saturday night, got a route list of villages well fixed in my memory, and got up and started for Bladesover about five on Sunday morning while my two bed mates were still fast asleep.
I remember something, but not so much of it as I should like to recall, of my long tramp to Bladesover House. The distance from Chatham is almost exactly seventeen miles, and it took me until nearly one. It was very interesting and I do not think I was very fatigued, though I got rather pinched by one boot.
The morning must have been very clear, because I remember that near Itchinstow Hall I looked back and saw the estuary of the Thames, that river that has since played so large a part in my life. But at the time I did not know it was the Thames, I thought this great expanse of mud flats and water was the sea, which I had never yet seen nearly. And out upon it stood ships, sailing ships and a steamer or so, going up to London or down out into the great seas of the world. I stood for a long time watching these and thinking whether after all I should not have done better to have run away to sea.
The nearer I drew to Bladesover, the more doubtful I grew of the duality of my reception, and the more I regretted that alternative. I suppose it was the dirty clumsiness of the shipping I had seen nearly, that put me out of mind of that. I took a short cut through the Warren across the corner of the main park to intercept the people from the church. I wanted to avoid meeting any one before I met my mother, and so I went to a place where the path passed between banks, and without exactly hiding, stood up among the bushes. This place among other advantages eliminated any chance of seeing Lady Drew, who would drive round by the carriage road.
Standing up to waylay in this fashion I had a queer feeling of brigandage, as though I was some intrusive sort of bandit among these orderly things. It is the first time I remember having that outlaw feeling distinctly, a feeling that has played a large part in my subsequent life. I felt there existed no place for me that I had to drive myself in.
Presently, down the hill, the servants appeared, straggling by twos and threes, first some of the garden people and the butler’s wife with them, then the two laundry maids, odd inseparable old creatures, then the first footman talking to the butler’s little girl, and at last, walking grave and breathless beside old Ann and Miss Fison, the black figure of my mother.
My boyish mind suggested the adoption of a playful form of appearance. “Coo-ee, mother” said I, coming out against the sky, “Coo-ee!”
My mother looked up, went very white, and put her hand to her bosom.
I suppose there was a fearful fuss about me. And of course I was quite unable to explain my reappearance. But I held out stoutly, “I won’t go back to Chatham; I’ll drown myself first.” The next day my mother carried me off to Wimblehurst, took me fiercely and aggressively to an uncle I had never heard of before, near though the place was to us. She gave me no word as to what was to happen, and I was too subdued by her manifest wrath and humiliation at my last misdemeanour to demand information. I don’t for one moment think Lady Drew was “nice” about me. The finality of my banishment was endorsed and underlined and stamped home. I wished very much now that I had run away to sea, in spite of the coal dust and squalour Rochester had revealed to me. Perhaps over seas one came to different lands.
I do not remember much of my journey to Wimblehurst with my mother except the image of her as sitting bolt upright, as rather disdaining the third-class carriage in which we traveled, and how she looked away from me out of the window when she spoke of my uncle. “I have not seen your uncle,” she said, “since he was a boy. . . . ” She added grudgingly, “Then he was supposed to be clever.”
She took little interest in such qualities as cleverness.
“He married about three years ago, and set up for himself in Wimblehurst. . . . So I suppose she had some money.”
She mused on scenes she had long dismissed from her mind. “Teddy,” she said at last in the tone of one who has been feeling in the dark and finds. “He was called Teddy . . . about your age. . . . Now he must be twenty-six or seven.”
I thought of my uncle as Teddy directly I saw him; there was something in his personal appearance that in the light of that memory phrased itself at once as Teddiness—a certain Teddidity. To describe it in and other terms is more difficult. It is nimbleness without grace, and alertness without intelligence. He whisked out of his shop upon the pavement, a short figure in grey and wearing grey carpet slippers; one had a sense of a young fattish face behind gilt glasses, wiry hair that stuck up and forward over the forehead, an irregular nose that had its aquiline moments, and that the body betrayed an equatorial laxity, an incipient “bow window” as the image goes. He jerked out of the shop, came to a stand on the pavement outside, regarded something in the window with infinite appreciation, stroked his chin, and, as abruptly, shot sideways into the door again, charging through it as it were behind an extended hand.
“That must be him,” said my mother, catching at her breath.
We came past the window whose contents I was presently to know by heart, a very ordinary chemist’s window except that there was a frictional electrical machine, an air pump and two or three tripods and retorts replacing the customary blue, yellow, and red bottles above. There was a plaster of Paris horse to indicate veterinary medicines among these breakables, and below were scent packets and diffusers and sponges and soda-water syphons and such-like things. Only in the middle there was a rubricated card, very neatly painted by hand, with these words—
Buy Ponderevo’s Cough Linctus Now.
Twopence Cheaper than in Winter.
You Store apples! why not the Medicine
You are Bound to Need?
in which appeal I was to recognise presently my uncle’s distinctive note.
My uncle’s face appeared above a card of infant’s comforters in the glass pane of the door. I perceived his eyes were brown, and that his glasses creased his nose. It was manifest he did not know us from Adam. A stare of scrutiny allowed an expression of commercial deference to appear in front of it, and my uncle flung open the door.
“You don’t know me?” panted my mother.
My uncle would not own he did not, but his curiosity was manifest. My mother sat down on one of the little chairs before the soap and patent medicine-piled counter, and her lips opened and closed.
“A glass of water, madam,” said my uncle, waved his hand in a sort of curve and shot away.
My mother drank the water and spoke. “That boy,” she said, “takes after his father. He grows more like him every day. . . . And so I have brought him to you.”
“His father, madam?”
For a moment the chemist was still at a loss. He stood behind the counter with the glass my mother had returned to him in his hand. Then comprehension grew.
“By Gosh!” he said. “Lord!” he cried. His glasses fell off. He disappeared replacing them, behind a pile of boxed-up bottles of blood mixture. “Eleven thousand virgins!” I heard him cry. The glass was banged down. “O-ri-ental Gums!”
He shot away out of the shop through some masked door. One heard his voice. “Susan! Susan!”
Then he reappeared with an extended hand. “Well, how are you?” he said. “I was never so surprised in my life. Fancy! . . . You!”
He shook my mother’s impassive hand and then mine very warmly holding his glasses on with his left forefinger.
“Come right in!” he cried—“come right in! Better late than never!” and led the way into the parlour behind the shop.
After Bladesover that apartment struck me as stuffy and petty, but it was very comfortable in comparison with the Frapp living-room. It had a faint, disintegrating smell of meals about it, and my most immediate impression was of the remarkable fact that something was hung about or wrapped round or draped over everything. There was bright-patterned muslin round the gas-bracket in the middle of the room, round the mirror over the mantel, stuff with ball-fringe along the mantel and casing in the fireplace,—I first saw ball-fringe here—and even the lamp on the little bureau wore a shade like a large muslin hat. The table-cloth had ball-fringe and so had the window curtains, and the carpet was a bed of roses. There were little cupboards on either side of the fireplace, and in the recesses, ill-made shelves packed with books, and enriched with pinked American cloth. There was a dictionary lying face downward on the table, and the open bureau was littered with foolscap paper and the evidences of recently abandoned toil. My eye caught “The Ponderevo Patent Flat, a Machine you can Live in,” written in large firm letters. My uncle opened a little door like a cupboard door in the corner of this room, and revealed the narrowest twist of staircase I had ever set eyes upon. “Susan!” he bawled again. “Wantje. Some one to see you. Surprisin’.”
There came an inaudible reply, and a sudden loud bump over our heads as of some article of domestic utility pettishly flung aside, then the cautious steps of someone descending the twist, and then my aunt appeared in the doorway with her hand upon the jamb.
“It’s Aunt Ponderevo,” cried my uncle. “George’s wife—and she’s brought over her son!” His eye roamed about the room. He darted to the bureau with a sudden impulse, and turned the sheet about the patent flat face down. Then he waved his glasses at us, “You know, Susan, my elder brother George. I told you about ’im lots of times.”
He fretted across to the hearthrug and took up a position there, replaced his glasses and coughed.
My aunt Susan seemed to be taking it in. She was then rather a pretty slender woman of twenty-three or four, I suppose, and I remember being struck by the blueness of her eyes and the clear freshness of her complexion. She had little features, a button nose, a pretty chin and a long graceful neck that stuck out of her pale blue cotton morning dress. There was a look of half-assumed perplexity on her face, a little quizzical wrinkle of the brow that suggested a faintly amused attempt to follow my uncle’s mental operations, a vain attempt and a certain hopelessness that had in succession become habitual. She seemed to be saying, “Oh Lord! What’s he giving me this time?” And as came to know her better I detected, as a complication of her effort of apprehension, a subsidiary riddle to “What’s he giving me?” and that was—to borrow a phrase from my schoolboy language “Is it keeps?” She looked at my mother and me, and back to her husband again.
“You know,” he said. “George.”
“Well,” she said to my mother, descending the last three steps of the staircase and holding out her hand! “you’re welcome. Though it’s a surprise. . . . I can’t ask you to have anything, I’m afraid, for there isn’t anything in the house.” She smiled, and looked at her husband banteringly. “Unless he makes up something with his old chemicals, which he’s quite equal to doing.”
My mother shook hands stiffly, and told me to kiss my aunt. . . .
“Well, let’s all sit down,” said my uncle, suddenly whistling through his clenched teeth, and briskly rubbing his hands together. He put up a chair for my mother, raised the blind of the little window, lowered it again, and returned to his hearthrug. “I’m sure,” he said, as one who decides, “I’m very glad to see you.”
As they talked I gave my attention pretty exclusively to my uncle.
I noted him in great detail. I remember now his partially unbuttoned waistcoat, as though something had occurred to distract him as he did it up, and a little cut upon his chin. I liked a certain humour in his eyes. I watched, too, with the fascination that things have for an observant boy, the play of his lips—they were a little oblique, and there was something “slipshod,” if one may strain a word so far, about his mouth, so that he lisped and sibilated ever and again and the coming and going of a curious expression, triumphant in quality it was, upon his face as he talked. He fingered his glasses, which did not seem to fit his nose, fretted with things in his waistcoat pockets or put his hands behind him, looked over our heads, and ever and again rose to his toes and dropped back on his heels. He had a way of drawing air in at times through his teeth that gave a whispering zest to his speech It’s a sound I can only represent as a soft Zzzz.
He did most of the talking. My mother repeated what she had already said in the shop, “I have brought George over to you,” and then desisted for a time from the real business in hand. “You find this a comfortable house?” she asked; and this being affirmed: “It looks—very convenient. . . . Not too big to be a trouble—no. You like Wimblehurst, I suppose?”
My uncle retorted with some inquiries about the great people of Bladesover, and my mother answered in the character of a personal friend of Lady Drew’s. The talk hung for a time, and then my uncle embarked upon a dissertation upon Wimblehurst.
“This place,” he began, “isn’t of course quite the place I ought to be in.”
My mother nodded as though she had expected that.
“It gives me no Scope,” he went on. “It’s dead-and-alive. Nothing happens.”
“He’s always wanting something to happen,” said my aunt Susan. “Some day he’ll get a shower of things and they’ll be too much for him.”
“Not they,” said my uncle, buoyantly.
“Do you find business—slack?” asked my mother.
“Oh! one rubs along. But there’s no Development—no growth. They just come along here and buy pills when they want ’em—and a horseball or such. They’ve got to be ill before there’s a prescription. That sort they are. You can’t get ’em to launch out, you can’t get ’em to take up anything new. For instance, I’ve been trying lately—induce them to buy their medicines in advance, and in larger quantities. But they won’t look for it! Then I tried to float a little notion of mine, sort of an insurance scheme for colds; you pay so much a week, and when you’ve got a cold you get a bottle of Cough Linctus so long as you can produce a substantial sniff. See? But Lord! they’ve no capacity for ideas, they don’t catch on; no Jump about the place, no Life. Live!—they trickle, and what one has to do here is to trickle too— Zzzz.”
“Ah!” said my mother.
“It doesn’t suit me,” said my uncle. “I’m the cascading sort.”
“George was that,” said my mother after a pondering moment.
My aunt Susan took up the parable with an affectionate glance at her husband.
“He’s always trying to make his old business jump,” she said. “Always putting fresh cards in the window, or getting up to something. You’d hardly believe. It makes me jump sometimes.”
“But it does no good,” said my uncle.
“It does no good,” said his wife. “It’s not his miloo . . . ”
Presently they came upon a wide pause.
From the beginning of their conversation there had been the promise of this pause, and I pricked my ears. I knew perfectly what was bound to come; they were going to talk of my father. I was enormously strengthened in my persuasion when I found my mother’s eyes resting thoughtfully upon me in the silence, and than my uncle looked at me and then my aunt. I struggled unavailingly to produce an expression of meek stupidity.
“I think,” said my uncle, “that George will find it more amusing to have a turn in the market-place than to sit here talking with us. There’s a pair of stocks there, George—very interesting. Old-fashioned stocks.”
“I don’t mind sitting here,” I said.
My uncle rose and in the most friendly way led me through the shop. He stood on his doorstep and jerked amiable directions to me.
“Ain’t it sleepy, George, eh? There’s the butcher’s dog over there, asleep in the road-half an hour from midday! If the last Trump sounded I don’t believe it would wake. Nobody would wake! The chaps up there in the churchyard—they’d just turn over and say: ‘Naar—you don’t catch us, you don’t! See?’. . . . Well, you’ll find the stocks just round that corner.”
He watched me out of sight.
So I never heard what they said about my father after all.
When I returned, my uncle had in some remarkable way become larger and central. “Tha’chu, George?” he cried, when the shop-door bell sounded. “Come right through”; and I found him, as it were, in the chairman’s place before the draped grate.
The three of them regarded me.
“We have been talking of making you a chemist, George,” said my uncle.
My mother looked at me. “I had hoped,” she said, “that Lady Drew would have done something for him—” She stopped.
“In what way?” said my uncle.
“She might have spoken to some one, got him into something perhaps. . . . ” She had the servant’s invincible persuasion that all good things are done by patronage.
“He is not the sort of boy for whom things are done,” she added, dismissing these dreams. “He doesn’t accommodate himself. When he thinks Lady Drew wishes a thing, he seems not to wish it. Towards Mr. Redgrave, too, he has been—disrespectful—he is like his father.”
“Who’s Mr. Redgrave?”
“A bit independent?” said my uncle, briskly.
“Disobedient,” said my mother. “He has no idea of his place. He seems to think he can get on by slighting people and flouting them. He’ll learn perhaps before it is too late.”
My uncle stroked his cut chin and me. “Have you learnt any Latin?” he asked abruptly.
I said I had not.
“He’ll have to learn a little Latin,” he explained to my mother, “to qualify. H’m. He could go down to the chap at the grammar school here—it’s just been routed into existence again by the Charity Commissioners and have lessons.”
“What, me learn Latin!” I cried, with emotion.
“A little,” he said.
“I’ve always wanted” I said and; “Latin!”
I had long been obsessed by the idea that having no Latin was a disadvantage in the world, and Archie Garvell had driven the point of this pretty earnestly home. The literature I had read at Bladesover had all tended that way. Latin had had a quality of emancipation for me that I find it difficult to convey. And suddenly, when I had supposed all learning was at an end for me, I heard this!
“It’s no good to you, of course,” said my uncle, “except to pass exams with, but there you are!”
“You’ll have to learn Latin because you have to learn Latin,” said my mother, “not because you want to. And afterwards you will have to learn all sorts of other things. . . . ”
The idea that I was to go on learning, that to read and master the contents of books was still to be justifiable as a duty, overwhelmed all other facts. I had had it rather clear in my mind for some weeks that all that kind of opportunity might close to me for ever. I began to take a lively interest in this new project.
“Then shall I live here?” I asked, “with you, and study . . . as well as work in the shop?”
“That’s the way of it,” said my uncle.
I parted from my mother that day in a dream, so sudden and important was this new aspect of things to me. I was to learn Latin! Now that the humiliation of my failure at Bladesover was past for her, now that she had a little got over her first intense repugnance at this resort to my uncle and contrived something that seemed like a possible provision for my future, the tenderness natural to a parting far more significant than any of our previous partings crept into her manner.
She sat in the train to return, I remember, and I stood at the open door of her compartment, and neither of us knew how soon we should cease for ever to be a trouble to one another.
“You must be a good boy, George,” she said. “You must learn. . . . And you mustn’t set yourself up against those who are above you and better than you. . . . Or envy them.”
“No, mother,” I said.
I promised carelessly. Her eyes were fixed upon me. I was wondering whether I could by any means begin Latin that night.
Something touched her heart then, some thought, some memory; perhaps some premonition. . . . The solitary porter began slamming carriage doors.
“George” she said hastily, almost shamefully, “kiss me!”
I stepped up into her compartment as she bent downward.
She caught me in her arms quite eagerly, she pressed me to her—a strange thing for her to do. I perceived her eyes were extraordinarily bright, and then this brightness burst along the lower lids and rolled down her cheeks.
For the first and last time in my life I saw my mother’s tears. Then she had gone, leaving me discomforted and perplexed, forgetting for a time even that I was to learn Latin, thinking of my mother as of something new and strange.
The thing recurred though I sought to dismiss it, it stuck itself into my memory against the day of fuller understanding. Poor, proud, habitual, sternly narrow soul! poor difficult and misunderstanding son! it was the first time that ever it dawned upon me that my mother also might perhaps feel.
My mother died suddenly and, it was thought by Lady Drew, inconsiderately, the following spring. Her ladyship instantly fled to Folkestone with Miss Somerville and Fison, until the funeral should be over and my mother’s successor installed.
My uncle took me over to the funeral. I remember there was a sort of prolonged crisis in the days preceding this because, directly he heard of my loss, he had sent a pair of check trousers to the Judkins people in London to be dyed black, and they did not come back in time. He became very excited on the third day, and sent a number of increasingly fiery telegrams without any result whatever, and succumbed next morning with a very ill grace to my aunt Susan’s insistence upon the resources of his dress-suit. In my memory those black legs of his, in a particularly thin and shiny black cloth—for evidently his dress-suit dated from adolescent and slenderer days—straddle like the Colossus of Rhodes over my approach to my mother’s funeral. Moreover, I was inconvenienced and distracted by a silk hat he had bought me, my first silk hat, much ennobled, as his was also, by a deep mourning band.
I remember, but rather indistinctly, my mother’s white paneled housekeeper’s room and the touch of oddness about it that she was not there, and the various familiar faces made strange by black, and I seem to recall the exaggerated self-consciousness that arose out of their focussed attention. No doubt the sense of the new silk hat came and went and came again in my emotional chaos. Then something comes out clear and sorrowful, rises out clear and sheer from among all these rather base and inconsequent things, and once again I walk before all the other mourners close behind her coffin as it is carried along the churchyard path to her grave, with the old vicar’s slow voice saying regretfully and unconvincingly above me, triumphant solemn things.
“I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
Never die! The day was a high and glorious morning in spring, and all the trees were budding and bursting into green. Everywhere there were blossoms and flowers; the pear trees and cherry trees in the sexton’s garden were sunlit snow, there were nodding daffodils and early tulips in the graveyard beds, great multitudes of daisies, and everywhere the birds seemed singing. And in the middle was the brown coffin end, tilting on men’s shoulders and half occluded by the vicar’s Oxford hood.
And so we came to my mother’s waiting grave.
For a time I was very observant, watching the coffin lowered, hearing the words of the ritual. It seemed a very curious business altogether.
Suddenly as the service drew to its end, I felt something had still to be said which had not been said, realised that she had withdrawn in silence, neither forgiving me nor hearing from me—those now lost assurances. Suddenly I knew I had not understood. Suddenly I saw her tenderly; remembered not so much tender or kindly things of her as her crossed wishes and the ways in which I had thwarted her. Surprisingly I realised that behind all her hardness and severity she had loved me, that I was the only thing she had ever loved and that until this moment I had never loved her. And now she was there and deaf and blind to me, pitifully defeated in her designs for me, covered from me so that she could not know. . . .
I dug my nails into the palms of my hands, I set my teeth, but tears blinded me, sobs would have choked me had speech been required of me. The old vicar read on, there came a mumbled response—and so on to the end. I wept as it were internally, and only when we had come out of the churchyard could I think and speak calmly again.
Stamped across this memory are the little black figures of my uncle and Rabbits, telling Avebury, the sexton and undertaker, that “it had all passed off very well—very well indeed.”
That is the last I shall tell of Bladesover. The dropscene falls on that, and it comes no more as an actual presence into this novel. I did indeed go back there once again, but under circumstances quite immaterial to my story. But in a sense Bladesover has never left me; it is, as I said at the outset, one of those dominant explanatory impressions that make the framework of my mind. Bladesover illuminates England; it has become all that is spacious, dignified pretentious, and truly conservative in English life. It is my social datum. That is why I have drawn it here on so large a scale.
When I came back at last to the real Bladesover on an inconsequent visit, everything was far smaller than I could have supposed possible. It was as though everything had shivered and shrivelled a little at the Lichtenstein touch. The harp was still in the saloon, but there was a different grand piano with a painted lid and a metrostyle pianola, and an extraordinary quantity of artistic litter and bric-a-brac scattered about. There was the trail of the Bond Street showroom over it all. The furniture was still under chintz, but it wasn’t the same sort of chintz although it pretended to be, and the lustre-dangling chandeliers had passed away. Lady Lichtenstein’s books replaced the brown volumes I had browsed among—they were mostly presentation copies of contemporary novels and the National Review and the Empire Review, and the Nineteenth Century and after jostled current books on the tables—English new books in gaudy catchpenny “artistic” covers, French and Italian novels in yellow, German art handbooks of almost incredible ugliness. There were abundant evidences that her ladyship was playing with the Keltic renascence, and a great number of ugly cats made of china—she “collected” china and stoneware cats—stood about everywhere—in all colours, in all kinds of deliberately comic, highly glazed distortion.
It is nonsense to pretend that finance makes any better aristocrats than rent. Nothing can make an aristocrat but pride, knowledge, training, and the sword. These people were no improvement on the Drews, none whatever. There was no effect of a beneficial replacement of passive unintelligent people by active intelligent ones. One felt that a smaller but more enterprising and intensely undignified variety of stupidity had replaced the large dullness of the old gentry, and that was all. Bladesover, I thought, had undergone just the same change between the seventies and the new century that had overtaken the dear old Times, and heaven knows how much more of the decorous British fabric. These Lichtensteins and their like seem to have no promise in them at all of any fresh vitality for the kingdom. I do not believe in their intelligence or their power—they have nothing new about them at all, nothing creative nor rejuvenescent, no more than a disorderly instinct of acquisition; and the prevalence of them and their kind is but a phase in the broad slow decay of the great social organism of England. They could not have made Bladesover they cannot replace it; they just happen to break out over it—saprophytically.
Well—that was my last impression of Bladesover.