I could fill a book, I think, with a more or less imaginary account of how I came to apprehend London, how first in one aspect and then in another it grew in my mind. Each day my accumulating impressions were added to and qualified and brought into relationship with new ones; they fused inseparably with others that were purely personal and accidental. I find myself with a certain comprehensive perception of London, complete indeed, incurably indistinct in places and yet in some way a whole that began with my first visit and is still being mellowed and enriched.
At first, no doubt, it was a chaos of streets and people and buildings and reasonless going to and fro. I do not remember that I ever struggled very steadily to understand it, or explored it with any but a personal and adventurous intention. Yet in time there has grown up in me a kind of theory of London; I do think I see lines of an ordered structure out of which it has grown, detected a process that is something more than a confusion of casual accidents though indeed it may be no more than a process of disease.
I said at the outset of my first book that I find in Bladesover the clue to all England. Well, I certainly imagine it is the clue to the structure of London. There have been no revolutions no deliberate restatements or abandonments of opinion in England since the days of the fine gentry, since 1688 or thereabouts, the days when Bladesover was built; there have been changes, dissolving forest replacing forest, if you will; but then it was that the broad lines of the English system set firmly. And as I have gone to and fro in London in certain regions constantly the thought has recurred this is Bladesover House, this answers to Bladesover House. The fine gentry may have gone; they have indeed largely gone, I think; rich merchants may have replaced them, financial adventurers or what not. That does not matter; the shape is still Bladesover.
I am most reminded of Bladesover and Eastry by all those regions round about the West End parks; for example, estate parks, each more or less in relation to a palace or group of great houses. The roads and back ways of Mayfair and all about St. James’s again, albeit perhaps of a later growth in point of time, were of the very spirit and architectural texture of the Bladesover passages and yards; they had the same smells, the space, the large cleanest and always going to and fro where one met unmistakable Olympians and even more unmistakable valets, butlers, footmen in mufti. There were moments when I seemed to glimpse down areas the white panelling, the very chintz of my mother’s room again.
I could trace out now on a map what I would call the Great-House region; passing south-westward into Belgravia, becoming diffused and sporadic westward, finding its last systematic outbreak round and about Regent’s Park. The Duke of Devonshire’s place in Piccadilly, in all its insolent ugliness, pleases me particularly; it is the quintessence of the thing; Apsley House is all in the manner of my theory, Park Lane has its quite typical mansions, and they run along the border of the Green Park and St. James’s. And I struck out a truth one day in Cromwell Road quite suddenly, as I looked over the Natural History Museum “By Jove,” said I “but this is the little assemblage of cases of stuffed birds and animals upon the Bladesover staircase grown enormous, and yonder as the corresponding thing to the Bladesover curios and porcelain is the Art Museume and there in the little observatories in Exhibition Road is old Sir Cuthbert’s Gregorian telescope that I hunted out in the storeroom and put together.” And diving into the Art Museum under this inspiration, I came to a little reading-room and found as I had inferred, old brown books!
It was really a good piece of social comparative anatomy I did that day; all these museums and libraries that are dotted over London between Piccadilly and West Kensington, and indeed the museum and library movement throughout the world, sprang from the elegant leisure of the gentlemen of taste. Theirs were the. first libraries, the first houses of culture; by my rat-like raids into the Bladesover saloon I became, as it were, the last dwindled representative of such a man of letters as Swift. But now these things have escaped out of the Great House altogether, and taken on a strange independent life of their own.
It is this idea of escaping parts from the seventeenth century system of Bladesover, of proliferating and overgrowing elements from the Estates, that to this day seems to me the best explanation, not simply of London, but of all England. England is a country of great Renascence landed gentlefolk who have been unconsciously outgrown and overgrown. The proper shops for Bladesover custom were still to be found in Regent Street and Bond Street in my early London days in those days they had been but lightly touched by the American’s profaning hand—and in Piccadilly. I found the doctor’s house of the country village or country town up and down Harley Street, multiplied but not otherwise different, and the family solicitor (by the hundred) further eastward in the abandoned houses of a previous generation of gentlepeople, and down in Westminster, behind Palladian fronts, the public offices sheltered in large Bladesoverish rooms and looked out on St. James’s Park. The Parliament Houses of lords and gentlemen, the parliament house that was horrified when merchants and brewers came thrusting into it a hundred years ago, stood out upon its terrace gathering the whole system together into a head.
And the more I have paralleled these things with my Bladesover-Eastry model, the more evident it has become to me that the balance is not the same, and the more evident is the presence of great new forces, blind forces of invasion, of growth. The railway termini on the north side of London have been kept as remote as Eastry had kept the railway-station from Wimblehurst, they stop on the very outskirts of the estates, but from the south, the South Eastern railway had butted its great stupid rusty iron head of Charing Cross station, that great head that came smashing down in 1905—clean across the river, between Somerset House and Whitehall. The south side had no protecting estate. Factory chimneys smoke right over against Westminster with an air of carelessly not having permission, and the whole effect of industrial London and of all London east of Temple Bar and of the huge dingy immensity of London port is to me of something disproportionately large, something morbidly expanded, without plan or intention, dark and sinister toward the clean clear social assurance of the West End. And south of this central London, south-east, south-west, far west, north-west, all round the northern hills, are similar disproportionate growths, endless streets of undistinguished houses, undistinguished industries, shabby families, second-rate shops, inexplicable people who in a once fashionable phrase do not “exist.” All these aspects have suggested to my mind at times, do suggest to this day, the unorganised, abundant substance of some tumorous growth-process, a process which indeed bursts all the outlines of the affected carcass and protrudes such masses as ignoble comfortable Croydon, as tragic impoverished West Ham. To this day I ask myself will those masses ever become structural, will they indeed shape into anything new whatever, or is that cancerous image their true and ultimate diagnosis? . . .
Moreover, together with this hypertrophy there is an immigration of elements that have never understood and never will understand the great tradition, wedges of foreign settlement embedded in the heart of this yeasty English expansion. One day I remember wandering eastward out of pure curiosity—it must have been in my early student days—and discovering a shabbily bright foreign quarter, shops displaying Hebrew placards and weird, unfamiliar commodities and a concourse of bright-eyed, eagle-nosed people talking some incomprehensible gibberish between the shops and the barrows. And soon I became quite familiar with the devious. vicious, dirtily-pleasant eroticism of Soho. I found those crowded streets a vast relief from the dull grey exterior of Brompton where I lodged and lived my daily life. In Soho, indeed, I got my first inkling of the factor of replacement that is so important in both the English and the American process.
Even in the West End, in Mayfair and the square, about Pall Mall, Ewart was presently to remind me the face of the old aristocratic dignity was fairer than its substance; here were actors and actresses, here money lenders and Jews, here bold financial adventurers, and I thought of my uncle’s frayed cuff as he pointed out this house in Park Lane and that. That was so and so’s who made a corner in borax, and that palace belonged to that hero among modern adventurers, Barmentrude, who used to be an I.D.B.,—an illicit diamond buyer that is to say. A city of Bladesovers, the capital of a kingdom of Bladesovers, all much shaken and many altogether in decay, parasitically occupied, insidiously replaced by alien, unsympathetic and irresponsible elements; and with a ruling an adventitious and miscellaneous empire of a quarter of this daedal earth complex laws, intricate social necessities, disturbing insatiable suggestions, followed from this. Such was the world into which I had come, into which I had in some way to thrust myself and fit my problem, my temptations, my efforts, my patriotic instinct, all my moral instincts, my physical appetites, my dreams and my sanity.
London! I came up to it, young and without advisers, rather priggish, rather dangerously open-minded and very open-eyed, and with something—it is, I think, the common gift of imaginative youth, and I claim it unblushingly—fine in me, finer than the world and seeking fine responses. I did not want simply to live or simply to live happily or well; I wanted to serve and do and make—with some nobility. It was in me. It is in half the youth of the world.
I had come to London as a scholar. I had taken the Vincent Bradley scholarship of the Pharmaceutical Society, but I threw this up when I found that my work of the Science and Art Department in mathematics, physics and chemistry had given me one of the minor Technical Board Scholarships at the Consolidated Technical Schools at South Kensington. This latter was in mechanics and metallurgy; and I hesitated between the two. The Vincent Bradley gave me £70 a year and quite the best start-off a pharmaceutical chemist could have; the South Kensington thing was worth about twenty-two shillings a week, and the prospects it opened were vague. But it meant far more scientific work than the former, and I was still under the impulse of that great intellectual appetite that is part of the adolescence of men of my type. Moreover it seemed to lead towards engineering, in which I imagined—I imagine to this day—my particular use is to be found. I took its greater uncertainty as a fair risk. I came up very keen, not doubting that the really hard and steady industry that had carried me through Wimblehurst would go on still in the new surroundings.
Only from the very first it didn’t. . . .
When I look back now at my Wimblehurst days, I still find myself surprised at the amount of steady grinding study, of strenuous self-discipline that I maintained throughout my apprenticeship. In many ways I think that time was the most honourable period in my life. I wish I could say with a certain mind that my motives in working so well were large and honourable too. To a certain extent they were so; there was a fine sincere curiosity, a desire for the strength and power of scientific knowledge and a passion for intellectual exercise; but I do not think those forces alone would have kept me at it so grimly and closely if Wimblehurst had not been so dull, so limited and so observant. Directly I came into the London atmosphere, tasting freedom, tasting irresponsibility and the pull of new forces altogether, my discipline fell from me like a garment. Wimblehurst to a youngster in my position offered no temptations worth counting, no interests to conflict with study, no vices—such vices as it offered were coarsely stripped of any imaginative glamourfull drunkenness, clumsy leering shameful lust, no social intercourse even to waste one’s time, and on the other hand it would minister greatly to the self-esteem of a conspicuously industrious student. One was marked as “clever,” one played up to the part, and one’s little accomplishment stood out finely in one’s private reckoning against the sunlit small ignorance of that agreeable place. One went with an intent rush across the market square, one took one’s exercise with as dramatic a sense of an ordered day as an Oxford don, one burnt the midnight oil quite consciously at the rare respectful, benighted passer-by. And one stood out finely in the local paper with one’s unapproachable yearly harvest of certificates. Thus I was not only a genuinely keen student, but also a little of a prig and poseur in those days—and the latter kept the former at it, as London made clear.
Moreover Wimblehurst had given me no outlet in any other direction.
But I did not realise all this when I came to London, did not perceive how the change of atmosphere began at once to warp and distribute my energies. In the first place I became invisible. If I idled for a day, no one except my fellow-students (who evidently had no awe for me) remarked it. No one saw my midnight taper; no one pointed me out as I crossed the street as an astonishing intellectual phenomenon. In the next place I became inconsiderable. In Wimblehurst I felt I stood for Science; nobody there seemed to have so much as I and to have it so fully and completely. In London I walked ignorant in an immensity, and it was clear that among my fellow-students from the midlands and the north I was ill-equipped and under-trained. With the utmost exertion I should only take a secondary position among them. And finally, in the third place, I was distracted by voluminous new interests; London took hold of me, and Science, which had been the universe, shrank back to the dimensions of tiresome little formulae compacted in a book. I came to London in late September, and it was a very different London from that great greyly-overcast, smoke-stained house-wilderness of my first impressions. I reached it by Victoria and not by Cannon Street, and its centre was now in Exhibition Road. It shone, pale amber, blue-grey and tenderly spacious and fine under clear autumnal skies. a London of hugely handsome buildings and vistas and distances, a London of gardens and labyrinthine tall museums, of old trees and remote palaces and artificial waters. I lodged near by in West Brompton at a house in a little square.
So London faced me the second time, making me forget altogether for a while the grey, drizzling city visage that had first looked upon me. I settled down and went to and fro to my lectures and laboratory; in the beginning I worked hard, and only slowly did the curiosity that presently possessed me to know more of this huge urban province arise, the desire to find something beyond mechanism that I could serve, some use other than learning. With this was a growing sense of loneliness, a desire for adventure and intercourse. I found myself in the evenings poring over a map of London I had bought, instead of copying out lecture notes—and on Sundays I made explorations, taking omnibus rides east and west and north and south, and to enlarging and broadening the sense of great swarming hinterlands of humanity with whom I had no dealings, of whom I knew nothing. . . .
The whole illimitable place teemed with suggestions of indefinite and sometimes outrageous possibility, of hidden but magnificent meanings.
It wasn’t simply that I received a vast impression of space and multitude and opportunity; intimate things also were suddenly dragged from neglected, veiled and darkened corners into an acute vividness of perception. Close at hand in the big art museum I came for the first time upon the beauty of nudity, which I had hitherto held to be a shameful secret, flaunted and gloried in; I was made aware of beauty as not only permissible, but desirable and frequent and of a thousand hitherto unsuspected rich aspects of life. One night in a real rapture, I walked round the upper gallery of the Albert Hall and listened for the first time to great music; I believe now that it was a rendering of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. . . .
My apprehension of spaces and places was reinforced by a quickened apprehension of persons. A constant stream of people passed by me, eyes met and challenged mine and passed—more and more I wanted them to stay—if I went eastward towards Piccadilly, women who seemed then to my boyish inexperience softly splendid and alluring, murmured to me as they passed. Extraordinarily life unveiled. The very hoardings clamoured strangely at one’s senses and curiosities. One bought pamphlets and papers full of strange and daring ideas transcending one’s boldest; in the parks one heard men discussing the very existence of God, denying the rights of property, debating a hundred things that one dared not think about in Wimblehurst. And after the ordinary overcast day, after dull mornings, came twilight, and London lit up and became a thing of white and yellow and red jewels of light and wonderful floods of golden illumination and stupendous and unfathomable shadows—and there were no longer any mean or shabby people—but a great mysterious movement of unaccountable beings. . . .
Always I was coming on the queerest new aspects. Late one Saturday night I found myself one of a great slow-moving crowd between the blazing shops and the flaring barrows in the Harrow Road; I got into conversation with two bold-eyed girls, bought them boxes of chocolate, made the acquaintance of father and mother and various younger brothers and sisters, sat in a public-house hilariously with them all, standing and being stood drinks, and left them in the small hours at the door of “home,” never to see them again. And once I was accosted on the outskirts of a Salvation Army meeting in one of the parks by a silk-hatted young man of eager and serious discourse, who argued against scepticism with me, invited me home to tea into a clean and cheerful family of brothers and sisters and friends, and there I spent the evening singing hymns to the harmonium (which reminded me of half-forgotten Chatham), and wishing all the sisters were not so obviously engaged. . . .
Then on the remote hill of this boundless city-world I found Ewart.
How well I remember the first morning, a bright Sunday morning in early October, when I raided in upon Ewart! I found my old schoolfellow in bed in a room over an oil-shop in a back street at the foot of Highgate Hill. His landlady, a pleasant, dirty young woman with soft-brown eyes, brought down his message for me to come up; and up I went. The room presented itself as ample and interesting in detail and shabby with a quite commendable shabbiness. I had an impression of brown walls—they were papered with brown paper—of a long shelf along one side of the room, with dusty plaster casts and a small cheap lay figure of a horse, of a table and something of grey wax partially covered with a cloth, and of scattered drawings. There was a gas stove in one corner, and some enameled ware that had been used for overnight cooking. The oilcloth on the floor was streaked with a peculiar white dust. Ewart himself was not in the first instance visible, but only a fourfold canvas screen at the end of the room from which shouts proceeded of “Come on!” then his wiry black hair, very much rumpled, and a staring red-brown eye and his stump of a nose came round the edge of this at a height of about three feet from the ground “It’s old Ponderevo!” he said, “the Early bird! And he’s caught the worm! By Jove, but it’s cold this morning! Come round here and sit on the bed!”
I walked round, wrung his hand, and we surveyed one another.
He was lying on a small wooden fold-up bed, the scanty covering of which was supplemented by an overcoat and an elderly but still cheerful pair of check trousers, and he was wearing pajamas of a virulent pink and green. His neck seemed longer and more stringy than it had been even in our schooldays, and his upper lip had a wiry black moustache. The rest of his ruddy, knobby countenance, his erratic hair and his general hairy leanness had not even—to my perceptions grown.
“By Jove!” he said, “you’ve got quite decent-looking, Ponderevo! What do you think of me?”
“You’re all right. What are you doing here?”
“Art, my son—sculpture! And incidentally—” He hesitated. “I ply a trade. Will you hand me that pipe and those smoking things? So! You can’t make coffee, eh? Well, try your hand. Cast down this screen—no—fold it up and so we’ll go into the other room. I’ll keep in bed all the same. The fire’s a gas stove. Yes. Don’t make it bang too loud as you light it—I can’t stand it this morning. You won’t smoke? . . . Well, it does me good to see you again, Ponderevo. Tell me what you’re doing, and how you’re getting on.”
He directed me in the service of his simple hospitality, and presently I came back to his bed and sat down and smiled at him there, smoking comfortably, with his hands under his head, surveying me.
“How’s Life’s Morning, Ponderevo? By Jove, it must be nearly six years since we met! They’ve got moustaches. We’ve fleshed ourselves a bit, eh? And you?”
I felt a pipe was becoming after all, and that lit, I gave him a favourable sketch of my career.
“Science! And you’ve worked like that! While I’ve been potting round doing odd jobs for stone-masons and people, and trying to get to sculpture. I’ve a sort of feeling that the chisel—I began with painting, Ponderevo, and found I was colour-blind, colour-blind enough to stop it. I’ve drawn about and thought about—thought more particularly. I give myself three days a week as an art student, and the rest of the time I’ve a sort of trade that keeps me. And we’re still in the beginning of things, young men starting. Do you remember the old times at Goudhurst, our doll’s-house island, the Retreat of the Ten Thousand Young Holmes and the rabbits, eh? It’s surprising, if you think of it, to find we are still young. And we used to talk of what we would be, and we used to talk of love! I suppose you know all about that now, Ponderevo?”
I finished and hesitated on some vague foolish lie, “No,” I said, a little ashamed of the truth. “Do you? I’ve been too busy.”
“I’m just beginning—just as we were then. Things happen.”
He sucked at his pipe for a space and stared at the plaster cast of a flayed hand that hung on the wall.
“The fact is, Ponderevo, I’m beginning to find life a most extraordinary queer set-out; the things that pull one, the things that don’t. The wants—This business of sex. It’s a net. No end to it, no way out of it, no sense in it. There are times when women take possession of me, when my mind is like a painted ceiling at Hampton Court with the pride of the flesh sprawling all over it. Why? . . . And then again sometimes when I have to encounter a woman, I am overwhelmed by a terror of tantalising boredom—I fly, I hide, I do anything. You’ve got your scientific explanations perhaps; what’s Nature and the universe up to in that matter?”
“It’s her way, I gather, of securing the continuity of the species.”
“But it doesn’t,” said Ewart. “That’s just it! No. I have succumbed to—dissipation—down the hill there. Euston Road way.
“And it was damned ugly and mean, and I hate having done it. And the continuity of the species—Lord! . . . And why does Nature make a man so infernally ready for drinks? There’s no sense in that anyhow.” He sat up in bed, to put this question with the greater earnestness. “And why has she given me a most violent desire towards sculpture and an equally violent desire to leave off work directly I begin it, eh? . . . Let’s have some more coffee. I put it to you, these things puzzle me, Ponderevo. They dishearten me. They keep me in bed.”
He had an air of having saved up these difficulties for me for some time. He sat with his chin almost touching his knees, sucking at his pipe.
“That’s what I mean,” he went on, “when I say life is getting on to me as extraordinarily queer, I don’t see my game, nor why I was invited. And I don’t make anything of the world outside either. What do you make of it?”
“London,” I began. “It’s—so enormous!”
“Isn’t it! And it’s all up to nothing. You find chaps keeping grocers’ shops—why the devil, Ponderevo, do they keep grocers’ shops? They all do it very carefully, very steadily, very meanly. You find people running about and doing the most remarkable things being policemen, for example, and burglars. They go about these businesses quite gravely and earnestly. I somehow—can’t go about mine. Is there any sense in it at all—anywhere?”
“There must be sense in it,” I said. “We’re young.”
“We’re young—yes. But one must inquire. The grocer’s a grocer because, I suppose, he sees he comes in there. Feels that on the whole it amounts to a call. . . . But the bother is I don’t see where I come in at all. Do you?”
“Where you come in?”
“No, where you come in.”
“Not exactly, yet,” I said. “I want to do some good in the world—something—something effectual, before I die. I have a sort of idea my scientific work—I don’t know.”
“Yes,” he mused. “And I’ve got a sort of idea my sculpture,—but now it is to come in and why,—I’ve no idea at all.” He hugged his knees for a space. “That’s what puzzles me, Ponderevo, no end.”
He became animated. “If you will look in that cupboard,” he said, “you will find an old respectable looking roll on a plate and a knife somewhere and a gallipot containing butter. You give them me and I’ll make my breakfast, and then if you don’t mind watching me paddle about at my simple toilet I’ll get up. Then we’ll go for a walk and talk about this affair of life further. And about Art and Literature and anything else that crops up on the way. . . . Yes, that’s the gallipot. Cockroach got in it? Chuck him out—damned interloper. . . . ”
So in the first five minutes of our talk, as I seem to remember it now, old Ewart struck the note that ran through all that morning’s intercourse. . . .
To me it was a most memorable talk because it opened out quite new horizons of thought. I’d been working rather close and out of touch with Ewart’s free gesticulating way. He was pessimistic that day and sceptical to the very root of things. He made me feel clearly, what I had not felt at all before, the general adventurousness of life, particularly of life at the stage we had reached, and also the absence of definite objects, of any concerted purpose in the lives that were going on all round us. He made me feel, too, how ready I was to take up commonplace assumptions. Just as I had always imagined that somewhere in social arrangements there was certainly a Head-Master who would intervene if one went too far, so I had always had a sort of implicit belief that in our England there were somewhere people who understood what we were all, as a nation, about. That crumpled into his pit of doubt and vanished.
He brought out, sharply cut and certain, the immense effect of purposelessness in London that I was already indistinctly feeling. We found ourselves at last returning through Highgate Cemetery and Waterlow Park—and Ewart was talking.
“Look at it there,” he said, stopping and pointing to the great vale of London spreading wide and far. “It’s like a sea—and we swim in it. And at last down we go, and then up we come—washed up here.” He swung his arms to the long slopes about us, tombs and headstones in long perspectives, in limitless rows.
“We’re young, Ponderevo, but sooner or later our whitened memories will wash up on one of these beaches, on some such beach as this. George Ponderevo, F.R.S., Sidney Ewart, R.I.P. Look at the rows of ’em!”
He paused. “Do you see that hand? The hand, I mean, pointing upward, on the top of a blunted obelisk. Yes. Well, that’s what I do for a living—when I’m not thinking, or drinking, or prowling, or making love, or pretending I’m trying to be a sculptor without either the money or the morals for a model. See? And I do those hearts afire and those pensive angel guardians with the palm of peace. Damned well I do ’em and damned cheap! I’m a sweated victim, Ponderevo . . . ”
That was the way of it, anyhow. I drank deep of talk that day; we went into theology, into philosophy; I had my first glimpse of socialism. I felt as though I had been silent in a silence since I and he had parted. At the thought of socialism Ewart’s moods changed for a time to a sort of energy. “After all, all this confounded vagueness might be altered. If you could get men to work together . . . ”
It was a good talk that rambled through all the universe. I thought I was giving my mind refreshment, but indeed it was dissipation. All sorts of ideas, even now, carry me back as it were to a fountain-head, to Waterlow Park and my resuscitated Ewart. There stretches away south of us long garden slopes and white gravestones and the wide expanse of London, and somewhere in the picture is a red old wall, sun-warmed, and a great blaze of Michaelmas daisies set off with late golden sunflowers and a drift of mottled, blood-red, fallen leaves. It was with me that day as though I had lifted my head suddenly out of dull and immediate things and looked at life altogether. . . . But it played the very devil with the copying up of my arrears of notes to which I had vowed the latter half of that day.
After that reunion Ewart and I met much and talked much, and in our subsequent encounters his monologue was interrupted and I took my share. He had exercised me so greatly that I lay awake at nights thinking him over, and discoursed and answered him in my head as I went in the morning to the College. I am by nature a doer and only by the way a critic; his philosophical assertion of the incalculable vagueness of life which fitted his natural indolence roused my more irritable and energetic nature to active protests. “It’s all so pointless,” I said, “because people are slack and because it’s in the ebb of an age. But you’re a socialist. Well, let’s bring that about! And there’s a purpose. There you are!”
Ewart gave me all my first conceptions of socialism; in a little while I was an enthusiastic socialist and he was a passive resister to the practical exposition of the theories he had taught me. “We must join some organisation,” I said. “We ought to do things. . . . We ought to go and speak at street corners. People don’t know.”
You must figure me a rather ill-dressed young man in a state of great earnestness, standing up in that shabby studio of his and saying these things, perhaps with some gesticulations, and Ewart with a clay-smudged face, dressed perhaps in a flannel shirt and trousers, with a pipe in his mouth, squatting philosophically at a table, working at some chunk of clay that never got beyond suggestion.
“I wonder why one doesn’t want to,” he said.
It was only very slowly I came to gauge Ewart’s real position in the scheme of things, to understand how deliberate and complete was this detachment of his from the moral condemnation and responsibilities that played so fine a part in his talk. His was essentially the nature of an artistic appreciator; he could find interest and beauty in endless aspects of things that I marked as evil, or at least as not negotiable; and the impulse I had towards self-deception, to sustained and consistent self-devotion, disturbed and detached and pointless as it was at that time, he had indeed a sort of admiration for but no sympathy. Like many fantastic and ample talkers he was at bottom secretive, and he gave me a series of little shocks of discovery throughout our intercourse.
The first of these came in the realisation that he quite seriously meant to do nothing in the world at all towards reforming the evils he laid bare in so easy and dexterous a manner. The next came in the sudden appearance of a person called “Milly”—I’ve forgotten her surname—whom I found in his room one evening, simply attired in a blue wrap—the rest of her costume behind the screen—smoking cigarettes and sharing a flagon of an amazingly cheap and self-assertive grocer’s wine Ewart affected, called “Canary Sack.” “Hullo!” said Ewart, as I came in. “This is Milly, you know. She’s been being a model—she is a model really. . . . (keep calm, Ponderevo!) Have some sack?”
Milly was a woman of thirty, perhaps, with a broad, rather pretty face, a placid disposition, a bad accent and delightful blond hair that waved off her head with an irrepressible variety of charm; and whenever Ewart spoke she beamed at him. Ewart was always sketching this hair of hers and embarking upon clay statuettes of her that were never finished. She was, I know now, a woman of the streets, whom Ewart had picked up in the most casual manner, and who had fallen in love with him, but my inexperience in those days was too great for me to place her then, and Ewart offered no elucidations. She came to him, he went to her, they took holidays together in the country when certainly she sustained her fair share of their expenditure. I suspect him now even of taking money from her. Odd old Ewart! It was a relationship so alien to my orderly conceptions of honour, to what I could imagine any friend of mine doing, that I really hardly saw it with it there under my nose. But I see it and I think I understand it now. . . .
Before I fully grasped the discursive manner in which Ewart was committed to his particular way in life, I did, I say, as the broad constructive ideas of socialism took hold of me, try to get him to work with me in some definite fashion as a socialist.
“We ought to join on to other socialists,” I said.
“They’ve got something.”
“Let’s go and look at some first.”
After some pains we discovered the office of the Fabian Society, lurking in a cellar in Clement’s Inn; and we went and interviewed a rather discouraging secretary who stood astraddle in front of a fire and questioned us severely and seemed to doubt the integrity of our intentions profoundly. He advised us to attend the next open meeting in Clifford’s Inn and gave us the necessary data. We both contrived to get to the affair, and heard a discursive gritty paper on Trusts and one of the most inconclusive discussions you can imagine. Three-quarters of the speakers seemed under some jocular obsession which took the form of pretending to be conceited. It was a sort of family joke, and as strangers to the family we did not like it. . . . As we came out through the narrow passage from Clifford’s Inn to the Strand, Ewart suddenly pitched upon a wizened, spectacled little man in a vast felt hat and a large orange tie.
“How many members are there in this Fabian Society of yours?” he asked.
The little man became at once defensive in his manner.
“About seven hundred,” he said; “perhaps eight.”
“Like—like the ones here?”
The little man gave a nervous self-satisfied laugh. “I suppose they’re up to sample,” he said.
The little man dropped out of existence and we emerged upon the Strand. Ewart twisted his arm into a queerly eloquent gesture that gathered up all the tall facades of the banks, the business places, the projecting clock and towers of the Law Courts, the advertisements, the luminous signs, into one social immensity, into a capitalistic system gigantic and invincible.
“These socialists have no sense of proportion,” he said. “What can you expect of them?”
Ewart, as the embodiment of talk, was certainly a leading factor in my conspicuous failure to go on studying. Social theory in its first crude form of Democratic Socialism gripped my intelligence more and more powerfully. I argued in the laboratory with the man who shared my bench until we quarreled and did not speak and also I fell in love.
The ferment of sex had been creeping into my being like a slowly advancing tide through all my Wimblehurst days, the stimulus of London was like the rising of a wind out of the sea that brings the waves in fast and high. Ewart had his share in that. More and more acutely and unmistakably did my perception of beauty, form and sound, my desire for adventure, my desire for intercourse, converge on this central and commanding business of the individual life. I had to get me a mate.
I began to fall in love faintly with girls I passed in the street, with women who sat before me in trains, with girl fellow-students, with ladies in passing carriages, with loiterers at the corners, with neat-handed waitresses in shops and tea-rooms, with pictures even of girls and women. On my rare visits to the theatre I always became exalted, and found the actresses and even the spectators about me mysterious, attractive, creatures of deep interest and desire. I had a stronger and stronger sense that among these glancing, passing multitudes there was somewhere one who was for me. And in spite of every antagonistic force in the world, there was something in my very marrow that insisted: “Stop! Look at this one! Think of her! Won’t she do? This signifies—this before all things signifies! Stop! Why are you hurrying by? This may be the predestined person—before all others.”
It is odd that I can’t remember when first I saw Marion, who became my wife—whom I was to make wretched, who was to make me wretched, who was to pluck that fine generalised possibility of love out of my early manhood and make it a personal conflict. I became aware of her as one of a number of interesting attractive figures that moved about in my world, that glanced back at my eyes, that flitted by with a kind of averted watchfulness. I would meet her coming through the Art Museum, which was my short cut to the Brompton Road, or see her sitting, reading as I thought, in one of the bays of the Education Library. But really, as I found out afterwards, she never read. She used to come there to eat a bun in quiet. She was a very gracefully-moving figure of a girl then, very plainly dressed, with dark brown hair I remember, in a knot low on her neck behind that confessed the pretty roundness of her head and harmonised with the admirable lines of ears and cheek, the grave serenity of mouth and brow.
She stood out among the other girls very distinctly because they dressed more than she did, struck emphatic notes of colour, startled one by novelties in hats and bows and things. I’ve always hated the rustle, the disconcerting colour boundaries, the smart unnatural angles of women’s clothes. Her plain black dress gave her a starkness. . . .
I do remember, though, how one afternoon I discovered the peculiar appeal of her form for me. I had been restless with my work and had finally slipped out of the Laboratory and come over to the Art Museum to lounge among the pictures. I came upon her in an odd corner of the Sheepshanks gallery, intently copying something from a picture that hung high. I had just been in the gallery of casts from the antique, my mind was all alive with my newly awakened sense of line, and there she stood with face upturned, her body drooping forward from the hips just a little—memorably graceful—feminine.
After that I know I sought to see her, felt a distinctive emotion at her presence, began to imagine things about her. I no longer thought of generalised womanhood or of this casual person or that. I thought of her.
An accident brought us together. I found myself one Monday morning in an omnibus staggering westward from Victoria—I was returning from a Sunday I’d spent at Wimblehurst in response to a unique freak of hospitality on the part of Mr. Mantell. She was the sole other inside passenger. And when the time came to pay her fare, she became an extremely scared, disconcerted and fumbling young woman; she had left her purse at home.
Luckily I had some money.
She looked at me with startled, troubled brown eyes; she permitted my proffered payment to the conductor with a certain ungraciousness that seemed a part of her shyness, and then as she rose to go, she thanked me with an obvious affectation of ease.
“Thank you so much,” she said in a pleasant soft voice; and then less gracefully, “Awfully kind of you, you know.”
I fancy I made polite noises. But just then I wasn’t disposed to be critical. I was full of the sense of her presence; her arm was stretched out over me as she moved past me, the gracious slenderness of her body was near me. The words we used didn’t seem very greatly to matter. I had vague ideas of getting out with her—and I didn’t.
That encounter, I have no doubt, exercised me enormously. I lay awake at night rehearsing it, and wondering about the next phase of our relationship. That took the form of the return of my twopence. I was in the Science Library, digging something out of the Encyclopedia Britannica, when she appeared beside me and placed on the open page an evidently premeditated thin envelope, bulgingly confessing the coins within.
“It was so very kind of you,” she said, “the other day. I don’t know what I should have done, Mr.—”
I supplied my name. “I knew,” I said, “you were a student here.”
“Not exactly a student. I—”
“Well, anyhow, I knew you were here frequently. And I’m a student myself at the Consolidated Technical Schools.”
I plunged into autobiography and questionings, and so entangled her in a conversation that got a quality of intimacy through the fact that, out of deference to our fellow-readers, we were obliged to speak in undertones. And I have no doubt that in substance it was singularly banal. Indeed I have an impression that all our early conversations were incredibly banal. We met several times in a manner half-accidental, half furtive and wholly awkward. Mentally I didn’t take hold of her. I never did take hold of her mentally. Her talk, I now know all too clearly, was shallow, pretentious, evasive. Only—even to this day—I don’t remember it as in any way vulgar. She was, I could see quite clearly, anxious to overstate or conceal her real social status, a little desirous to be taken for a student in the art school and a little ashamed that she wasn’t. She came to the museum to “copy things,” and this, I gathered, had something to do with some way of partially earning her living that I wasn’t to inquire into. I told her things about myself, vain things that I felt might appeal to her, but that I learnt long afterwards made her think me “conceited.” We talked of books, but there she was very much on her guard and secretive, and rather more freely of pictures. She “liked” pictures. I think from the outset I appreciated and did not for a moment resent that hers was a commonplace mind, that she was the unconscious custodian of something that had gripped my most intimate instinct, that she embodied the hope of a possibility, was the careless proprietor of a physical quality that had turned my head like strong wine. I felt I had to stick to our acquaintance, flat as it was. Presently we should get through these irrelevant exterior things, and come to the reality of love beneath.
I saw her in dreams released, as it were, from herself, beautiful, worshipful, glowing. And sometimes when we were together, we would come on silences through sheer lack of matter, and then my eyes would feast on her, and the silence seemed like the drawing back of a curtain—her superficial self. Odd, I confess. Odd, particularly, the enormous hold of certain things about her upon me, a certain slight rounded duskiness of skin, a certain perfection of modelling in her lips, her brow, a certain fine flow about the shoulders. She wasn’t indeed beautiful to many people—these things are beyond explaining. She had manifest defects of form and feature, and they didn’t matter at all. Her complexion was bad, but I don’t think it would have mattered if it had been positively unwholesome. I had extraordinarily limited, extraordinarily painful, desires. I longed intolerably to kiss her lips.
The affair was immensely serious and commanding to me. I don’t remember that in these earlier phases I had any thought of turning back at all. It was clear to me that she regarded me with an eye entirely more critical than I had for her, that she didn’t like my scholarly untidiness, my want of even the most commonplace style. “Why do you wear collars like that?” she said, and sent me in pursuit of gentlemanly neckwear. I remember when she invited me a little abruptly one day to come to tea at her home on the following Sunday and meet her father and mother and aunt, that I immediately doubted whether my hitherto unsuspected best clothes would create the impression she desired me to make on her belongings. I put off the encounter until the Sunday after, to get myself in order. I had a morning coat made and I bought a silk hat, and had my reward in the first glance of admiration she ever gave me. I wonder how many of my sex are as preposterous. I was, you see, abandoning all my beliefs, my conventions unasked. I was forgetting myself immensely. And there was a conscious shame in it all. Never a word—did I breathe to Ewart—to any living soul of what was going on.
Her father and mother and aunt struck me as the dismalest of people, and her home in Walham Green was chiefly notable for its black and amber tapestry carpets and curtains and table-cloths, and the age and irrelevance of its books, mostly books with faded gilt on the covers. The windows were fortified against the intrusive eye by cheap lace curtains and an “art pot” upon an unstable octagonal table. Several framed Art School drawings of Marion’s, bearing official South Kensington marks of approval, adorned the room, and there was a black and gilt piano with a hymn-book on the top of it. There were draped mirrors over all the mantels, and above the sideboard in the dining-room in which we sat at tea was a portrait of her father, villainously truthful after the manner of such works. I couldn’t see a trace of the beauty I found in her in either parent, yet she somehow contrived to be like them both.
These people pretended in a way that reminded me of the Three Great Women in my mother’s room, but they had not nearly so much social knowledge and did not do it nearly so well. Also, I remarked, they did it with an eye on Marion. They had wanted to thank me, they said, for the kindness to their daughter in the matter of the ’bus fare, and so accounted for anything unusual in their invitation. They posed as simple gentlefolk, a little hostile to the rush and gadding-about of London, preferring a secluded and unpretentious quiet.
When Marion got out the white table-cloth from the sideboard-drawer for tea, a card bearing the word “APARTMENTS” fell to the floor. I picked it up and gave it to her before I realised from her quickened colour that I should not have seen it; that probably had been removed from the window in honour of my coming.
Her father spoke once in a large remote way of he claims of business engagements, and it was only long afterwards I realised that he was a supernumerary clerk in the Walham Green Gas Works and otherwise a useful man at home. He was a large, loose, fattish man with unintelligent brown eyes magnified by spectacles; he wore an ill-fitting frock-coat and a paper collar, and he showed me, as his great treasure and interest, a large Bible which he had grangerised with photographs of pictures. Also he cultivated the little garden-yard behind the house, and he had a small greenhouse with tomatoes. “I wish I ’ad ’eat,” he said. “One can do such a lot with ’eat. But I suppose you can’t ’ave everything you want in this world.”
Both he and Marion’s mother treated her with a deference that struck me as the most natural thing in the world. Her own manner changed, became more authoritative and watchful, her shyness disappeared. She had taken a line of her own I gathered, draped the mirror, got the second-hand piano, and broken her parents in.
Her mother must once have been a pretty woman; she had regular features and Marion’s hair without its lustre, but she was thin and careworn. The aunt, Miss Ramboat, was a large, abnormally shy person very like her brother, and I don’t recall anything she said on this occasion.
To begin with there was a good deal of tension, Marion was frightfully nervous and every one was under the necessity of behaving in a mysteriously unreal fashion until I plunged, became talkative and made a certain ease and interest. I told them of the schools, of my lodgings, of Wimblehurst and my apprenticeship days. “There’s a lot of this Science about nowadays,” Mr. Ramboat reflected; “but I sometimes wonder a bit what good it is?”
I was young enough to be led into what he called “a bit of a discussion,” which Marion truncated before our voices became unduly raised. “I dare say, “she said, “there’s much to be said on both sides.”
I remember Marion’s mother asked me what church I attended, and that I replied evasively. After tea there was music and we sang hymns. I doubted if I had a voice when this was proposed, but that was held to be a trivial objection, and I found sitting close beside the sweep of hair from Marion’s brow had many compensations. I discovered her mother sitting in the horsehair armchair and regarding us sentimentally. I went for a walk with Marion towards Putney Bridge, and then there was more singing and a supper of cold bacon and pie, after which Mr. Ramboat and I smoked. During that walk, I remember, she told me the import of her sketchings and copyings in the museum. A cousin of a friend of hers whom she spoke of as Smithie, had developed an original business in a sort of tea-gown garment which she called a Persian Robe, a plain sort of wrap with a gaily embroidered yoke, and Marion went there and worked in the busy times. In the times that weren’t busy she designed novelties in yokes by an assiduous use of eyes and note-book in the museum, and went home and traced out the captured forms on the foundation material. “I don’t get much,” said Marion, “but it’s interesting, and in the busy times we work all day. Of course the workgirls are dreadfully common, but we don’t say much to them. And Smithie talks enough for ten.”
I quite understood the workgirls were dreadfully common.
I don’t remember that the Walham Green menage and the quality of these people, nor the light they threw on Marion, detracted in the slightest degree at that time from the intent resolve that held me to make her mine. I didn’t like them. But I took them as part of the affair. Indeed, on the whole, I think they threw her up by an effect of contrast; she was so obviously controlling them, so consciously superior to them.
More and more of my time did I give to this passion that possessed me. I began to think chiefly of ways of pleasing Marion, of acts of devotion, of treats, of sumptuous presents for her, of appeals she would understand. If at times she was manifestly unintelligent, in her ignorance became indisputable, I told myself her simple instincts were worth all the education and intelligence in the world. And to this day I think I wasn’t really wrong about her. There was something extraordinarily fine about her, something simple and high, that flickered in and out of her ignorance and commonness and limitations like the tongue from the mouth of a snake. . . .
One night I was privileged to meet her and bring her home from an entertainment at the Birkbeck Institute. We came back on the underground railway and we travelled first-class—that being the highest class available. We were alone in the carriage, and for the first time I ventured to put my arm about her.
“You mustn’t,” she said feebly.
“I love you,” I whispered suddenly with my heart beating wildly, drew her to me, drew all her beauty to me and kissed her cool and unresisting lips.
“Love me?” she said, struggling away from me, “Don’t!” and then, as the train ran into a station, “You must tell no one. . . . I don’t know. . . . You shouldn’t have done that. . . . ”
Then two other people got in with us and terminated my wooing for a time.
When we found ourselves alone together, walking towards Battersea, she had decided to be offended. I parted from her unforgiven and terribly distressed.
When we met again, she told me I must never say “that” again.
I had dreamt that to kiss her lips was ultimate satisfaction. But it was indeed only the beginning of desires. I told her my one ambition was to marry her.
“But,” she said, “you’re not in a position—What’s the good of talking like that?”
I stared at her. “I mean to,” I said.
“You can’t,” she answered. “It will be years”
“But I love you,” I insisted.
I stood not a yard from the sweet lips I had kissed; I stood within arm’s length of the inanimate beauty I desired to quicken, and I saw opening between us a gulf of years, toil, waiting, disappointments and an immense uncertainty.
“I love you,” I said. “Don’t you love me?”
She looked me in the face with grave irresponsive eyes.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I like you, of course. . . . One has to be sensibl . . . ”
I can remember now my sense of frustration by her unresilient reply. I should have perceived then that for her my ardour had no quickening fire. But how was I to know? I had let myself come to want her, my imagination endowed her with infinite possibilities. I wanted her and wanted her, stupidly and instinctively. . . .
“But,” I said “Love—!”
“One has to be sensible,” she replied. “I like going about with you. Can’t we keep as we are?’”
Well, you begin to understand my breakdown now, I have been copious enough with these apologia. My work got more and more spiritless, my behaviour degenerated, my punctuality declined; I was more and more outclassed in the steady grind by my fellow-students. Such supplies of moral energy as I still had at command shaped now in the direction of serving Marion rather than science.
I fell away dreadfully, more and more I shirked and skulked; the humped men from the north, the pale men with thin, clenched minds, the intent, hard-breathing students I found against me, fell at last from keen rivalry to moral contempt. Even a girl got above me upon one of the lists. Then indeed I made it a point of honour to show by my public disregard of every rule that I really did not even pretend to try.
So one day I found myself sitting in a mood of considerable astonishment in Kensington Gardens, reacting on a recent heated interview with the school Registrar in which I had displayed more spirit than sense. I was astonished chiefly at my stupendous falling away from all the militant ideals of unflinching study I had brought up from Wimblehurst. I had displayed myself, as the Registrar put it, “an unmitigated rotter.” My failure to get marks in the written examination had only been equalled by the insufficiency of my practical work.
“I ask you,” the Registrar had said, “what will become of you when your scholarship runs out?”
It certainly was an interesting question. What was going to become of me?
It was clear there would be nothing for me in the schools as I had once dared to hope; there seemed, indeed, scarcely anything in the world except an illpaid assistantship in some provincial organized Science School or grammar school. I knew that for that sort of work, without a degree or any qualification, one earned hardly a bare living and had little leisure to struggle up to anything better. If only I had even as little as fifty pounds I might hold out in London and take my B.Sc. degree, and quadruple my chances! My bitterness against my uncle returned at the thought. After all, he had some of my money still, or ought to have. Why shouldn’t I act within my rights, threaten to ‘take proceedings’? I meditated for a space on the idea, and then returned to the Science Library and wrote him a very considerable and occasionally pungent letter.
That letter to my uncle was the nadir of my failure. Its remarkable consequences, which ended my student days altogether, I will tell in the next chapter.
I say “my failure.” Yet there are times when I can even doubt whether that period was a failure at all, when I become defensively critical of those exacting courses I did not follow, the encyclopaedic process of scientific exhaustion from which I was distracted. My mind was not inactive, even if it fed on forbidden food. I did not learn what my professors and demonstrators had resolved I should learn, but I learnt many things. My mind learnt to swing wide and to swing by itself.
After all, those other fellows who took high places in the College examinations and were the professor’s model boys haven’t done so amazingly. Some are professors themselves, some technical experts; not one can show things done such as I, following my own interest, have achieved. For I have built boats that smack across the water like whiplashes; no one ever dreamt of such boats until I built them; and I have surprised three secrets that are more than technical discoveries, in the unexpected hiding-places of Nature. I have come nearer flying than any man has done. Could I have done as much if I had had a turn for obeying those rather mediocre professors at the college who proposed to train my mind? If I had been trained in research—that ridiculous contradiction in terms—should I have done more than produce additions to the existing store of little papers with blunted conclusions, of which there are already too many? I see no sense in mock modesty upon this matter. Even by the standards of worldly success I am, by the side of my fellow-students, no failure. I had my F.R.S. by the time I was thirty-seven, and if I am not very wealthy poverty is as far from me as the Spanish Inquisition. Suppose I had stamped down on the head of my wandering curiosity, locked my imagination in a box just when it wanted to grow out to things, worked by so-and-so’s excellent method and so-and-so’s indications, where should I be now?
I may be all wrong in this. It may be I should be a far more efficient man than I am if I had cut off all those divergent expenditures of energy, plugged up my curiosity about society with more currently acceptable rubbish or other, abandoned Ewart, evaded Marion instead of pursuing her, concentrated. But I don’t believe it!
However, I certainly believed it completely and was filled with remorse on that afternoon when I sat dejectedly in Kensington Gardens and reviewed, in the light of the Registrar’s pertinent questions my first two years in London.