As I recall this side of our life, the figure of my round-eyes, button-nosed, pink-and-white Aunt Susan tends always to the central position. We drove the car and sustained the car, she sat in it with a magnificent variety of headgear poised upon her delicate neck, and always with that faint ghost of a lisp no misspelling can render—commented on and illuminated the new aspects.
I’ve already sketched the little home behind the Wimblehurst chemist’s shop, the lodging near the Cobden statue, and the apartments in Gower Street. Thence my aunt and uncle went into a flat in Redgauntlet Mansions. There they lived when I married. It was a compact flat, with very little for a woman to do in it. In those days my aunt, I think, used to find the time heavy upon her hands, and so she took to books and reading, and after a time even to going to lectures in the afternoon. I began to find unexpected books upon her table: sociological books, travels, Shaw’s plays. “Hullo!” I said, at the sight of some volume of the latter.
“I’m keeping a mind, George,” she explained.
“Keeping a mind. Dogs I never cared for. It’s been a toss-up between setting up a mind and setting up a soul. It’s jolly lucky for Him and you it’s a mind. I’ve joined the London Library, and I’m going in for the Royal Institution and every blessed lecture that comes along next winter. You’d better look out.” . . .
And I remember her coming in late one evening with a note-book in her hand.
“Where ya been, Susan?” said my uncle.
“Birkbeck—Physiology. I’m getting on.” She sat down and took off her gloves. “You’re just glass to me,” she sighed, and then in a note of grave reproach: “You old package! I had no idea! The Things you’ve kept from me!”
Presently they were setting; up the house at Beckengham, and my aunt intermitted her intellectual activities. The house at Beckengham was something of an enterprise for them at that time, a reasonably large place by the standards of the early years of Tono-Bungay. It was a big, rather gaunt villa, with a conservatory and a shrubbery, a tennis-lawn, a quite considerable vegetable garden, and a small disused coach-house. I had some glimpses of the excitements of its inauguration, but not many because of the estrangement between my aunt and Marion.
My aunt went into that house with considerable zest, and my uncle distinguished himself by the thoroughness with which he did the repainting and replumbing. He had all the drains up and most of the garden with them, and stood administrative on heaps—administrating whisky to the workmen. I found him there one day, most Napoleonic, on a little Elba of dirt, in an atmosphere that defies print. He also, I remember, chose what he considered cheerful contrasts of colours for the painting of the woodwork. This exasperated my aunt extremely—she called him a “Pestilential old Splosher” with an unusual note of earnestness—and he also enraged her into novelties of abuse by giving each bedroom the name of some favourite hero—Cliff, Napoleon, Caesar, and so forth—and having it painted on the door in gilt letters on a black label. “Martin Luther” was kept for me. Only her respect for domestic discipline, she said, prevented her retaliating with “Old Pondo” on the housemaid’s cupboard.
Also he went and ordered one of the completest sets of garden requisites I have ever seen—and had them all painted a hard clear blue. My aunt got herself large tins of a kindlier hued enamel and had everything secretly recoated, and this done, she found great joy in the garden and became an ardent rose grower and herbaceous borderer, leaving her Mind, indeed, to damp evenings and the winter months. When I think of her at Beckenham, I always think first of her as dressed in that blue cotton stuff she affected, with her arms in huge gauntleted gardening gloves, a trowel in one hand and a small but no doubt hardy and promising annual, limp and very young-looking and sheepish, in the other.
Beckenham, in the persons of a vicar, a doctor’s wife, and a large proud lady called Hogberry, “called” on my uncle and aunt almost at once, so soon in fact as the lawn was down again, and afterwards my aunt made friends with a quiet gentlewoman next door, apropos of an overhanging cherry tree and the need of repairing the party fence. So she resumed her place in society from which she had fallen with the disaster of Wimblehurst. She made a partially facetious study of the etiquette of her position, had cards engraved and retaliated calls. And then she received a card for one of Mrs. Hogberry’s At Homes, gave an old garden party herself, participated in a bazaar and sale of work, and was really becoming quite cheerfully entangled in Beckenham society when she was suddenly taken up by the roots again by my uncle and transplanted to Chiselhurst.
“Old Trek, George,” she said compactly, “Onward and Up,” when I found her superintending the loading of two big furniture vans. “Go up and say good-bye to ‘Martin Luther,’ and then I’ll see what you can do to help me.”
I look into the jumbled stores of the middle distance of memory, and Beckenham seems to me a quite transitory phase. But really they were there several years; through nearly all my married life, in fact, and far longer than the year and odd months we lived together at Wimblehurst. But the Wimblehurst time with them is fuller in my memory by far then the Beckenham period. There comes back to me with a quite considerable amount of detail the effect of that garden party of my aunt’s and of a little social misbehaviour of which I was guilty on that occasion. It’s like a scrap from another life. It’s all set in what is for me a kind of cutaneous feeling, the feeling of rather ill-cut city clothes, frock coat and grey trousers, and of a high collar and tie worn in sunshine among flowers. I have still a quite vivid memory of the little trapezoidal lawn, of the gathering, and particularly of the hats and feathers of the gathering, of the parlour-maid and the blue tea-cups, and of the magnificent presence of Mrs. Hogberry and of her clear, resonant voice. It was a voice that would have gone with a garden party on a larger scale; it went into adjacent premises; it included the gardener who was far up the vegetable patch and technically out of play. The only other men were my aunt’s doctor, two of the clergy, amiable contrasted men, and Mrs. Hogberry’s imperfectly grown-up son, a youth just bursting into collar. The rest were women, except for a young girl or so in a state of speechless good behaviour. Marion also was there.
Marion and I had arrived a little estranged, and I remember her as a silent presence, a shadow across all that sunlit emptiness of intercourse. We had embittered each other with one of those miserable little disputes that seemed so unavoidable between us. She had, with the help of Smithie, dressed rather elaborately for the occasion, and when she saw me prepared to accompany her in, I think it was a grey suit, she protested that silk hat and frock coat were imperative. I was recalcitrant, she quoted an illustrated paper showing a garden party with the King present, and finally I capitulated—but after my evil habit, resentfully. . . . Eh, dear! those old quarrels, how pitiful they were, how trivial! And how sorrowful they are to recall! I think they grow more sorrowful as I grow older, and all the small passionate reasons for our mutual anger fade and fade out of memory.
The impression that Beckenham company has left on my mind is one of a modest unreality; they were all maintaining a front of unspecified social pretension, and evading the display of the economic facts of the case. Most of the husbands were “in business” off stage, it would have been outrageous to ask what the business was—and the wives were giving their energies to produce, with the assistance of novels and the illustrated magazines, a moralised version of the afternoon life of the aristocratic class. They hadn’t the intellectual or moral enterprise of the upper-class woman, they had no political interests, they had no views about anything, and consequently they were, I remember, extremely difficult to talk to. They all sat about in the summer-house and in garden-chairs, and were very hatty and ruffley and sunshady. Three ladies and the curate played croquet with a general immense gravity, broken by occasional loud cries of feigned distress from the curate. “Oh! Whacking me about again! Augh!”
The dominant social fact that afternoon was Mrs. Hogberry; she took up a certain position commanding the croquet and went on, as my aunt said to me in an incidental aside, “like an old Roundabout.” She talked of the way in which Beckenham society was getting mixed, and turned on to a touching letter she had recently received from her former nurse at Little Gossdean. Followed a loud account of Little Gossdean and how much she and her eight sisters had been looked up to there. “My poor mother was quite a little Queen there, “she said. “And such nice Common people! People say the country labourers are getting disrespectful nowadays. It isn’t so—not if they’re properly treated. Here of course in Beckenham it’s different. I won’t call the people we get here a Poor—they’re certainly not a proper Poor. They’re Masses. I always tell Mr. Bugshoot they’re Masses, and ought to be treated as such.” . . .
Dim memories of Mrs. Mackridge floated through my mind as I listened to her. . . .
I was whirled on this roundabout for a bit, and then had the fortune to fall off into a tete-a-tete with a lady whom my aunt introduced as Mrs. Mumble—but then she introduced everybody to me as Mumble that afternoon, either by way of humour or necessity.
That must have been one of my earliest essays in the art of polite conversation, and I remember that I began by criticising the local railway service, and that at the third sentence or thereabouts Mrs. Mumble said in a distinctly bright and encouraging way that she feared I was a very “frivolous” person.
I wonder now what it was I said that was “frivolous.”
I don’t know what happened to end that conversation, or if it had an end. I remember talking to one of the clergy for a time rather awkwardly, and being given a sort of topographical history of Beckenham, which he assured me time after time was “Quite an old place. Quite an old place.” As though I had treated it as new and he meant to be very patient but very convincing. Then we hung up in a distinct pause, and my aunt rescued me. “George,” she said in a confidential undertone, “keep the pot a-boiling.” And then audibly, “I say, will you both old trot about with tea a bit?”
“Only too delighted to trot for you, Mrs. Ponderevo,” said the clergyman, becoming fearfully expert and in his elements; “only too delighted.”
I found we were near a rustic table, and that the housemaid was behind us in a suitable position to catch us on the rebound with the tea things.
“Trot!” repeated the clergyman to me, much amused; “excellent expression!” And I just saved him from the tray as he turned about.
We handed tea for a while. . . .
“Give ’em cakes,” said my aunt, flushed, but well in hand. “Helps ’em to talk, George. Always talk best after a little nourishment. Like throwing a bit of turf down an old geyser.”
She surveyed the gathering with a predominant blue eye and helped herself to tea.
“They keep on going stiff,” she said in an undertone. . . . “I’ve done my best.”
“It’s been a huge success,” I said encouragingly.
“That boy has had his legs crossed in that position and hasn’t spoken for ten minutes. Stiffer and stiffer. Brittle. He’s beginning a dry cough—always a bad sign, George. . . . Walk ’em about, shall I?—rub their noses with snow?”
Happily she didn’t. I got myself involved with the gentlewoman from next door, a pensive, languid-looking little woman with a low voice, and fell talking; our topic, Cats and Dogs, and which it was we liked best.
“I always feel,” said the pensive little woman, “that there’s something about a dog— A cat hasn’t got it.”
“Yes,” I found myself admitting with great enthusiasm, “there is something. And yet again—”
“Oh! I know there’s something about a cat, too. But it isn’t the same.”
“Not quite the same,” I admitted; “but still it’s something.”
“Ah! But such a different something!”
“Ever so much more.”
“It makes all the difference, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I said, “all.”
She glanced at me gravely and sighed a long, deeply felt “Yes.” A long pause.
The thing seemed to me to amount to a stale-mate. Fear came into my heart and much perplexity.
“The—er—Roses,” I said. I felt like a drowning man. “Those roses—don’t you think they are—very beautiful flowers?”
“Aren’t they!” she agreed gently. “There seems to be something in roses—something—I don’t know how to express it.”
“Something,” I said helpfully.
“Yes,” she said, “something. Isn’t there?”
“So few people see it,” I said; “more’s the pity!”
She sighed and said again very softly, “Yes.” . . .
There was another long pause. I looked at her and she was thinking dreamily. The drowning sensation returned, the fear and enfeeblement. I perceived by a sort of inspiration that her tea-cup was empty.
“Let me take your cup,” I said abruptly, and, that secured, made for the table by the summer-house. I had no intention then of deserting my aunt. But close at hand the big French window of the drawing-room yawned inviting and suggestive. I can feel all that temptation now, and particularly the provocation of my collar. In an instant I was lost. I would—Just for a moment!
I dashed in, put down the cup on the keys of the grand piano and fled upstairs, softly, swiftly, three steps at a time, to the sanctuary of my uncle’s study, his snuggery. I arrived there breathless, convinced there was no return for me. I was very glad and ashamed of myself, and desperate. By means of a penknife I contrived to break open his cabinet of cigars, drew a chair to the window, took off my coat, collar and tie, and remained smoking guiltily and rebelliously, and peeping through the blind at the assembly on the lawn until it was altogether gone. . . .
The clergymen, I thought, were wonderful.
A few such pictures of those early days at Beckenham stand out, and then I find myself among the Chiselhurst memories. The Chiselhurst mansion had “grounds” rather than a mere garden, and there was a gardener’s cottage and a little lodge at the gate. The ascendant movement was always far more in evidence there than at Beckenham. The velocity was increasing
One night picks itself out as typical, as, in its way, marking an epoch. I was there, I think, about some advertisement stuff, on some sort of business anyhow, and my uncle and aunt had come back in a fly from a dinner at the Runcorns. (Even there he was nibbling at Runcorn with the idea of our great Amalgamation budding in his mind.) I got down there, I suppose, about eleven. I found the two of them sitting in the study, my aunt on a chair-arm with a whimsical pensiveness on her face, regarding my uncle, and he, much extended and very rotund, in the low arm-chair drawn up to the fender.
“Look here, George,” said my uncle, after my first greetings. “I just been saying: We aren’t Oh Fay!”
“Not Oh Fay! Socially!”
“Old fly, he means, George—French!”
“Oh! Didn’t think of French. One never knows where to have him. What’s gone wrong to-night?”
“I been thinking. It isn’t any particular thing. I ate too much of that fishy stuff at first, like salt frog spawn, and was a bit confused by olives; and—well, I didn’t know which wine was which. Had to say that each time. It puts your talk all wrong. And she wasn’t in evening dress, not like the others. We can’t go on in that style, George—not a proper ad.”
“I’m not sure you were right,” I said, “in having a fly.”
“We got to do it all better,” said my uncle, “we got to do it in Style. Smart business, smart men. She tries to pass it off as humorous”—my aunt pulled a grimace— “it isn’t humorous! See! We’re on the up-grade now, fair and square. We’re going to be big. We aren’t going to be laughed at as Poovenoos, see!”
“Nobody laughed at you,” said my aunt. “Old Bladder!”
“Nobody isn’t going to laugh at me,” said my uncle, glancing at his contours and suddenly sitting up.
My aunt raised her eyebrows slightly, swung her foot, and said nothing.
“We aren’t keeping pace with our own progress, George. We got to. We’re bumping against new people, and they set up to be gentlefolks—etiquette dinners and all the rest of it. They give themselves airs and expect us to be fish-out-of-water. We aren’t going to be. They think we’ve no Style. Well, we give them Style for our advertisements, and we’re going to give ’em Style all through. . . . You needn’t be born to it to dance well on the wires of the Bond Street tradesmen. See?”
I handed him the cigar-box.
“Runcorn hadn’t cigars like these,” he said, truncating one lovingly. “We beat him at cigars. We’ll beat him all round.”
My aunt and I regarded him, full of apprehensions.
“I got idees,” he said darkly to the cigar, deepening our dread.
He pocketed his cigar-cutter and spoke again.
“We got to learn all the rotten little game first. See, F’rinstance, we got to get samples of all the blessed wines there are—and learn ’em up. Stern, Smoor, Burgundy, all of ’em! She took Stern to-night—and when she tasted it first—you pulled a face, Susan, you did. I saw you. It surprised you. You bunched your nose. We got to get used to wine and not do that. We got to get used to wearing evening dress—you, Susan, too.”
“Always have had a tendency to stick out of my clothes,” said my aunt. “However—Who cares?” She shrugged her shoulders.
I had never seen my uncle so immensely serious.
“Got to get the hang of etiquette,” he went on to the fire. “Horses even. Practise everything. Dine every night in evening dress. . . . Get a brougham or something. Learn up golf and tennis and things. Country gentleman. Oh Fay. It isn’t only freedom from Goochery.”
“Eh?” I said.
“Oh!—Gawshery, if you like!”
“French, George,” said my aunt. “But I’m not ol’ Gooch. I made that face for fun.”
“It isn’t only freedom from Gawshery. We got to have Style. See! Style! Just all right and one better. That’s what I call Style. We can do it, and we will.”
He mumbled his cigar and smoked for a space, leaning forward and looking into the fire.
“What is it,” he asked, “after all? What is it? Tips about eating; tips about drinking. Clothes. How to hold yourself, and not say jes’ the few little things they know for certain are wrong—jes’ the shibboleth things.”
He was silent again, and the cigar crept up from the horizontal towards the zenith as the confidence of his mouth increased.
“Learn the whole bag of tricks in six months.” he said, becoming more cheerful. “Ah, Susan? Beat it out! George, you in particular ought to get hold of it. Ought to get into a good club, and all that.”
“Always ready to learn!” I said. “Ever since you gave me the chance of Latin. So far we don’t seem to have hit upon any Latin-speaking stratum in the population.”
“We’ve come to French,” said my aunt, “anyhow.”
“It’s a very useful language,” said my uncle. “Put a point on things. Zzzz. As for accent, no Englishman has an accent. No Englishman pronounces French properly. Don’t you tell me. It’s a Bluff.—It’s all a Bluff. Life’s a Bluff—practically. That’s why it’s so important, Susan, for us to attend to Style. Le Steel Say Lum. The Style it’s the man. Whad you laughing at, Susan? George, you’re not smoking. These cigars are good for the mind. . . . What do you think of it all? We got to adapt ourselves. We have—so far. . . . Not going to be beat by these silly things.”
“What do you think of it, George?” he insisted.
What I said I thought of it I don’t now recall. Only I have very distinctly the impression of meeting for a moment my aunt’s impenetrable eye. And anyhow he started in with his accustomed energy to rape the mysteries of the Costly Life, and become the calmest of its lords. On the whole, I think he did it—thoroughly. I have crowded memories, a little difficult to disentangle, of his experimental stages, his experimental proceedings. It’s hard at times to say which memory comes in front of which. I recall him as presenting on the whole a series of small surprises, as being again and again, unexpectedly, a little more self-confident, a little more polished, a little richer and finer, a little more aware of the positions and values of things and men.
There was a time—it must have been very early—when I saw him deeply impressed by the splendours of the dining-room of the National Liberal Club. Heaven knows who our host was or what that particular little “feed” was about now!—all that sticks is the impression of our straggling entry, a string of six or seven guests, and my uncle looking about him at the numerous bright red-shaded tables, at the exotics in great Majolica jars, at the shining ceramic columns and pilasters, at the impressive portraits of Liberal statesmen and heroes, and all that contributes to the ensemble of that palatial spectacle. He was betrayed into a whisper to me, “This is all Right, George!” he said. That artless comment seems almost incredible as I set it down; there came a time so speedily when not even the clubs of New York could have overawed my uncle, and when he could walk through the bowing magnificence of the Royal Grand Hotel to his chosen table in that aggressively exquisite gallery upon the river, with all the easy calm of one of earth’s legitimate kings.
The two of them learnt the new game rapidly and well; they experimented abroad, they experimented at home. At Chiselhurst, with the aid of a new, very costly, but highly instructive cook, they tried over everything they heard of that roused their curiosity and had any reputation for difficulty, from asparagus to plover’s eggs. They afterwards got a gardener who could wait at table—and he brought the soil home to one. Then there came a butler.
I remember my aunt’s first dinner-gown very brightly, and how she stood before the fire in the drawing-room confessing once unsuspected pretty arms with all the courage she possessed, and looking over her shoulder at herself in a mirror.
“A ham,” she remarked reflectively, “must feel like this. Just a necklace.” . . .
I attempted, I think, some commonplace compliment.
My uncle appeared at the door in a white waistcoat and with his hands in his trouser pockets; he halted and surveyed her critically.
“Couldn’t tell you from a duchess, Susan,” he remarked. “I’d like to have you painted, standin’ at the fire like that. Sargent! You look—spirited, somehow. Lord!—I wish some of those damned tradesmen at Wimblehurst could see you.” . . .
They did a lot of week-ending at hotels, and sometimes I went down with them. We seemed to fall into a vast drifting crowd of social learners. I don’t know whether it is due simply to my changed circumstances, but it seems to me there have been immensely disproportionate developments of the hotel-frequenting and restaurant-using population during the last twenty years. It is not only, I think, that there are crowds of people who, like we were, are in the economically ascendant phase, but whole masses of the prosperous section of the population must be altering its habits, giving up high-tea for dinner and taking to evening dress, using the week-end hotels as a practise-ground for these new social arts. A swift and systematic conversion to gentility has been going on, I am convinced, throughout the whole commercial upper-middle class since I was twenty-one. Curiously mixed was the personal quality of the people one saw in these raids. There were conscientiously refined and low-voiced people reeking with proud bashfulness; there were aggressively smart people using pet diminutives for each other loudly and seeking fresh occasions for brilliant rudeness; there were awkward husbands and wives quarrelling furtively about their manners and ill at ease under the eye of the winter; cheerfully amiable and often discrepant couples with a disposition to inconspicuous corners, and the jolly sort, affecting an unaffected ease; plump happy ladies who laughed too loud, and gentlemen in evening dress who subsequently “got their pipes.” And nobody, you knew, was anybody, however expensively they dressed and whatever rooms they took.
I look back now with a curious remoteness of spirit to those crowded dining-rooms with their dispersed tables and their inevitable red-shaded lights and the unsympathetic, unskillful waiters, and the choice of “Thig or Glear, Sir?” I’ve not dined in that way, in that sort of place, now for five years—it must be quite five years, so specialised and narrow is my life becoming.
My uncle’s earlier motor-car phases work in with these associations, and there stands out a little bright vignette of the hall of the Magnificent, Bexhill-on-Sea, and people dressed for dinner and sitting about amidst the scarlet furniture—satin and white-enameled woodwork until the gong should gather them; and my aunt is there, very marvelously wrapped about in a dust cloak and a cage-like veil, and there are hotel porters and under-porters very alert, and an obsequious manager; and the tall young lady in black from the office is surprised into admiration, and in the middle of the picture is my uncle, making his first appearance in that Esquimaux costume I have already mentioned, a short figure, compactly immense, hugely goggled, wearing a sort of brown rubber proboscis, and surmounted by a table-land of motoring cap.
So it was we recognised our new needs as fresh invaders of the upper levels of the social system, and set ourselves quite consciously to the acquisition of Style and Savoir Faire. We became part of what is nowadays quite an important element in the confusion of our world, that multitude of economically ascendant people who are learning how to spend money. It is made up of financial people, the owners of the businesses that are eating up their competitors, inventors of new sources of wealth, such as ourselves; it includes nearly all America as one sees it on the European stage. It is a various multitude having only this in common: they are all moving, and particularly their womankind are moving, from conditions in which means were insistently finite, things were few, and customs simple, towards a limitless expenditure and the sphere of attraction of Bond Street, Fifth Avenue, and Paris. Their general effect is one of progressive revolution, of limitless rope.
They discover suddenly indulgences their moral code never foresaw and has no provision for, elaborations, ornaments, possessions beyond their wildest dreams. With an immense astonished zest they begin shopping begin a systematic adaptation to a new life crowded and brilliant with things shopped, with jewels, maids, butlers, coachmen, electric broughams, hired town and country houses. They plunge into it as one plunges into a career; as a class, they talk, think, and dream possessions. Their literature, their Press, turns all on that; immense illustrated weeklies of unsurpassed magnificence guide them in domestic architecture, in the art of owning a garden, in the achievement of the sumptuous in motor-cars, in an elaborate sporting equipment, in the purchase and control of their estates, in travel and stupendous hotels. Once they begin to move they go far and fast. Acquisition becomes the substance of their lives. They find a world organised to gratify that passion. In a brief year or so they are connoisseurs. They join in the plunder of the eighteenth century, buy rare old books, fine old pictures, good old furniture. Their first crude conception of dazzling suites of the newly perfect is replaced almost from the outset by a jackdaw dream of accumulating costly discrepant old things.
I seem to remember my uncle taking to shopping quite suddenly. In the Beckenham days and in the early Chiselhurst days he was chiefly interested in getting money, and except for his onslaught on the Beckenham house, bothered very little about his personal surroundings and possessions. I forget now when the change came and he began to spend. Some accident must have revealed to him this new source of power, or some subtle shifting occurred in the tissues of his brain. He began to spend and “shop.” So soon as he began to shop, he began to shop violently. He began buying pictures, and then, oddly enough, old clocks. For the Chiselhurst house he bought nearly a dozen grandfather clocks and three copper warming pans. After that he bought much furniture. Then he plunged into art patronage, and began to commission pictures and to make presents to churches and institutions. His buying increased with a regular acceleration. Its development was a part of the mental changes that came to him in the wild excitements of the last four years of his ascent. Towards the climax he was a furious spender; he shopped with large unexpected purchases, he shopped like a mind seeking expression, he shopped to astonish and dismay; shopped crescendo, shopped fortissimo, con molto espressione until the magnificent smash of Crest Hill eroded his shopping for ever. Always it was he who shopped. My aunt did not shine as a purchaser. It is a curious thing, due to I know not what fine strain in her composition, that my aunt never set any great store upon possessions. She plunged through that crowded bazaar of Vanity Fair during those feverish years, spending no doubt freely and largely, but spending with detachment and a touch of humorous contempt for the things, even the “old” things, that money can buy. It came to me suddenly one afternoon just how detached she was, as I saw her going towards the Hardingham, sitting up, as she always did, rather stiffly in her electric brougham, regarding the glittering world with interested and ironically innocent blue eyes from under the brim of a hat that defied comment. “No one,” I thought, “would sit so apart if she hadn’t dreams—and what are her dreams?”
I’d never thought.
And I remember, too, an outburst of scornful description after she had lunched with a party of women at the Imperial Cosmic Club. She came round to my rooms on the chance of finding me there, and I gave her tea. She professed herself tired and cross, and flung herself into my chair. . . .
“George,” she cried, “ the Things women are! Do I stink of money?”
“Lunching?” I asked.
“Oh! Like a burst hareem! . . . Bragging of possessions. . . . They feel you. They feel your clothes, George, to see if they are good!”
I soothed her as well as I could. “They are Good aren’t they?” I said.
“It’s the old pawnshop in their blood,” she said, drinking tea; and then in infinite disgust, “They run their hands over your clothes—they paw you.”
I had a moment of doubt whether perhaps she had not been discovered in possession of unsuspected forgeries. I don’t know. After that my eyes were quickened, and I began to see for myself women running their hands over other women’s furs, scrutinising their lace, even demanding to handle jewelry, appraising, envying, testing. They have a kind of etiquette. The woman who feels says, “What beautiful sables?” “What lovely lace?” The woman felt admits proudly: “It’s Real, you know,” or disavows pretension modestly and hastily, “It’s Rot Good.” In each other’s houses they peer at the pictures, handle the selvage of hangings, look at the bottoms of china. . . .
I wonder if it is the old pawnshop in the blood.
I doubt if Lady Drew and the Olympians did that sort of thing, but here I may be only clinging to another of my former illusions about aristocracy and the State. Perhaps always possessions have been Booty, and never anywhere has there been such a thing as house and furnishings native and natural to the women and men who made use of them. . . .
For me, at least, it marked an epoch in my uncle’s career when I learnt one day that he had “shopped” Lady Grove. I realised a fresh, wide, unpreluded step. He took me by surprise with the sudden change of scale from such portable possessions as jewels and motor-cars to a stretch of countryside. The transaction was Napoleonic; he was told of the place; he said “snap”; there were no preliminary desirings or searchings. Then he came home and said what he had done. Even my aunt was for a day or so measurably awestricken by this exploit in purchase, and we both went down with him to see the house in a mood near consternation. It struck us then as a very lordly place indeed. I remember the three of us standing on the terrace that looked westward, surveying the sky-reflecting windows of the house, and a feeling of unwarrantable intrusion comes back to me.
Lady Grove, you know, is a very beautiful house indeed, a still and gracious place, whose age-long seclusion was only effectively broken with the toot of the coming of the motor-car. An old Catholic family had died out in it, century by century, and was now altogether dead. Portions of the fabric are thirteenth century, and its last architectural revision was Tudor; within, it is for the most part dark and chilly, save for two or three favoured rooms and its tall-windowed, oak-galleried hall. Its terrace is its noblest feature; a very wide, broad lawn it is, bordered by a low stone battlement, and there is a great cedar in one corner under whose level branches one looks out across the blue distances of the Weald, blue distances that are made extraordinarily Italian in quality by virtue of the dark masses of that single tree. It is a very high terrace; southward one looks down upon the tops of wayfaring trees and spruces, and westward on a steep slope of beechwood, through which the road comes. One turns back to the still old house, and sees a grey and lichenous facade with a very finely arched entrance. It was warmed by the afternoon light and touched with the colour of a few neglected roses and a pyracanthus. It seemed to me that the most modern owner conceivable in this serene fine place was some bearded scholarly man in a black cassock, gentle-voiced and white-handed, or some very soft-robed, grey gentlewoman. And there was my uncle holding his goggles in a sealskin glove, wiping the glass with a pocket-handkerchief, and asking my aunt if Lady Grove wasn’t a “Bit of all Right.”
My aunt made him no answer.
“The man who built this,” I speculated, “wore armour and carried a sword.”
“There’s some of it inside still,” said my uncle.
We went inside. An old woman with very white hair was in charge of the place and cringed rather obviously to the new master. She evidently found him a very strange and frightful apparition indeed, and was dreadfully afraid of him. But if the surviving present bowed down to us, the past did not. We stood up to the dark, long portraits of the extinguished race—one was a Holbein—and looked them in their sidelong eyes. They looked back at us. We all, I know, felt the enigmatical quality in them. Even my uncle was momentarily embarrassed, I think, by that invincibly self-complacent expression. It was just as though, after all, he had not bought them up and replaced them altogether; as though that, secretly, they knew better and could smile at him.
The spirit of the place was akin to Bladesover, but touched with something older and remoter. That armour that stood about had once served in tilt-yards, if indeed it had not served in battle, and this family had sent its blood and treasure, time after time, upon the most romantic quest in history, to Palestine. Dreams, loyalties, place and honour, how utterly had it all evaporated, leaving, at last, the final expression of its spirit, these quaint painted smiles, these smiles of triumphant completion! It had evaporated, indeed, long before the ultimate Durgan had died, and in his old age he had cumbered the place with Early Victorian cushions and carpets and tapestry table-cloths and invalid appliances of a type even more extinct, it seemed to us, than the crusades. . . . Yes, it was different from Bladesover.
“Bit stuffy, George,” said my uncle. “They hadn’t much idea of ventilation when this was built.”
One of the panelled rooms was half-filled with presses and a four-poster bed. “Might be the ghost room,” said my uncle; but it did not seem to me that so retiring a family as the Durgans, so old and completely exhausted a family as the Durgans, was likely to haunt anybody. What living thing now had any concern with their honour and judgments and good and evil deeds? Ghosts and witchcraft were a later innovation—that fashion came from Scotland with the Stuarts.
Afterwards, prying for epitaphs, we found a marble crusader with a broken nose, under a battered canopy of fretted stone, outside the restricted limits of the present Duffield church, and half buried in nettles. “Ichabod,” said my uncle. “Eh? We shall be like that, Susan, some day. . . . I’m going to clean him up a bit and put a railing to keep off the children.”
“Old saved at the eleventh hour,” said my aunt, quoting one of the less successful advertisements of Tono-Bungay.
But I don’t think my uncle heard her.
It was by our captured crusader that the vicar found us. He came round the corner at us briskly, a little out of breath. He had an air of having been running after us since the first toot of our horn had warned the village of our presence. He was an Oxford man, clean-shaven, with a cadaverous complexion and a guardedly respectful manner, a cultivated intonation, and a general air of accommodation to the new order of things. These Oxford men are the Greeks of our plutocratic empire. He was a Tory in spirit, and what one may call an adapted Tory by stress of circumstances; that is to say, he was no longer a legitimist; he was prepared for the substitution of new lords for old. We were pill vendors he knew, and no doubt horribly vulgar in soul; but then it might have been some polygamous Indian rajah, a great strain on a good man’s tact, or some Jew with an inherited expression of contempt. Anyhow, we were English, and neither Dissenters nor Socialists, and he was cheerfully prepared to do what he could to make gentlemen of both of us. He might have preferred Americans for some reasons; they are not so obviously taken from one part of the social system and dumped down in another, and they are more teachable; but in this world we cannot always be choosers. So he was very bright and pleasant with us, showed us the church, gossiped informingly about our neighbours on the countryside—Tux, the banker; Lord Boom, the magazine and newspaper proprietor; Lord Carnaby, that great sportsman, and old Lady Osprey. And finally he took us by way of a village lane—three children bobbed convulsively with eyes of terror for my uncle—through a meticulous garden to a big, slovenly Vicarage with faded Victorian furniture and a faded Victorian wife, who gave us tea and introduced us to a confusing family dispersed among a lot of disintegrating basket chairs upon the edge of a well-used tennis lawn.
These people interested me. They were a common type, no doubt, but they were new to me. There were two lank sons who had been playing singles at tennis, red-eared youths growing black moustaches, and dressed in conscientiously untidy tweeds and unbuttoned and ungirt Norfolk jackets. There were a number of ill-nourished-looking daughters, sensible and economical in their costume, the younger still with long, brown-stockinged legs, and the eldest present—there were, we discovered, one or two hidden away—displaying a large gold cross and other aggressive ecclesiastical symbols; there were two or three fox-terriers, a retrieverish mongrel, and an old, bloody-eyed and very evil-smelling St. Bernard. There was a jackdaw. There was, moreover, an ambiguous, silent lady that my aunt subsequently decided must be a very deaf paying guest. Two or three other people had concealed themselves at our coming and left unfinished teas behind them. Rugs and cushions lay among the chairs, and two of the latter were, I noted, covered with Union Jacks.
The vicar introduced us sketchily, and the faded Victorian wife regarded my aunt with a mixture of conventional scorn and abject respect, and talked to her in a languid, persistent voice about people in the neighbourhood whom my aunt could not possibly know.
My aunt received these personalia cheerfully, with her blue eyes flitting from point to point, and coming back again and again to the pinched faces of the daughters and the cross upon the eldest’s breast. Encouraged by my aunt’s manner, the vicar’s wife grew patronising and kindly, and made it evident that she could do much to bridge the social gulf between ourselves and the people of family about us.
I had just snatches of that conversation. “Mrs. Merridew brought him quite a lot of money. Her father, I believe, had been in the Spanish wine trade—quite a lady though. And after that he fell off his horse and cracked his brain pan and took to fishing and farming. I’m sure you’ll like to know them. He’s most amusing. . . . The daughter had a disappointment and went to China as a missionary and got mixed up in a massacre.” . . .
“The most beautiful silks and things she brought back, you’d hardly believe!”
“Yes, they gave them to propitiate her. You see, they didn’t understand the difference, and they thought that as they’d been massacring people, they’d be massacred. They didn’t understand the difference Christianity makes.” . . .
“Seven bishops they’ve had in the family!”
“Married a Papist and was quite lost to them.” . . .
“He failed some dreadful examination and had to go into the militia.” . . .
“So she bit his leg as hard as ever she could and he let go.” . . .
“Had four of his ribs amputated.” . . .
“Caught meningitis and was carried off in a week.”
“Had to have a large piece of silver tube let into his throat, and if he wants to talk he puts his finger on it. It makes him so interesting, I think. You feel he’s sincere somehow. A most charming man in every way.”
“Preserved them both in spirits very luckily, and there they are in his study, though of course he doesn’t show them to everybody.”
The silent lady, unperturbed by these apparently exciting topics, scrutinised my aunt’s costume with a singular intensity, and was visibly moved when she unbuttoned her dust cloak and flung it wide. Meanwhile we men conversed, one of the more spirited daughters listened brightly, and the youths lay on the grass at our feet. My uncle offered them cigars, but they both declined,—out of bashfulness, it seemed to me, whereas the vicar, I think, accepted out of tact. When we were not looking at them directly, these young men would kick each other furtively.
Under the influence of my uncle’s cigar, the vicar’s mind had soared beyond the limits of the district. “This Socialism,” he said, “seems making great headway.”
My uncle shook his head. “We’re too individualistic in this country for that sort of nonsense,” he said “Everybody’s business is nobody’s business. That’s where they go wrong.”
“They have some intelligent people in their ranks, I am told,” said the vicar, “writers and so forth. Quite a distinguished playwright, my eldest daughter was telling me—I forget his name.
“Milly, dear! Oh! she’s not here. Painters, too, they have. This Socialist, it seems to me, is part of the Unrest of the Age. . . . But, as you say, the spirit of the people is against it. In the country, at any rate. The people down here are too sturdily independent in their small way—and too sensible altogether.” . . .
“It’s a great thing for Duffield to have Lady Grove occupied again,” he was saying when my wandering attention came back from some attractive casualty in his wife’s discourse. “People have always looked up to the house and considering all things, old Mr. Durgan really was extraordinarily good—extraordinarily good. You intend to give us a good deal of your time here, I hope.”
“I mean to do my duty by the Parish,” said my uncle.
“I’m sincerely glad to hear it—sincerely. We’ve missed—the house influence. An English village isn’t complete—People get out of hand. Life grows dull. The young people drift away to London.”
He enjoyed his cigar gingerly for a moment.
“We shall look to you to liven things up,” he said, poor man!
My uncle cocked his cigar and removed it from his mouth.
“What you think the place wants?” he asked.
He did not wait for an answer. “I been thinking while you been talking—things one might do. Cricket—a good English game—sports. Build the chaps a pavilion perhaps. Then every village ought to have a miniature rifle range.”
“Ye-ees,” said the vicar. “Provided, of course, there isn’t a constant popping.” . . .
“Manage that all right,” said my uncle. “Thing’d be a sort of long shed. Paint it red. British colour. Then there’s a Union Jack for the church and the village school. Paint the school red, too, p’raps. Not enough colour about now. Too grey. Then a maypole.”
“How far our people would take up that sort of thing—” began the vicar.
“I’m all for getting that good old English spirit back again,” said my uncle. “Merrymakings. Lads and lasses dancing on the village green. Harvest home. Fairings. Yule Log—all the rest of it.”
“How would old Sally Glue do for a May Queen?” asked one of the sons in the slight pause that followed.
“Or Annie Glassbound?” said the other, with the huge virile guffaw of a young man whose voice has only recently broken.
“Sally Glue is eighty-five,” explained the vicar, “and Annie Glassbound is well—a young lady of extremely generous proportions. And not quite right, you know. Not quite right—here.” He tapped his brow.
“Generous proportions!” said the eldest son, and the guffaws were renewed.
“You see,” said the vicar, “all the brisker girls go into service in or near London. The life of excitement attracts them. And no doubt the higher wages have something to do with it. And the liberty to wear finery. And generally—freedom from restraint. So that there might be a little diffculty perhaps to find a May Queen here just at present who was really young and er—pretty. . . . Of course I couldn’t think of any of my girls—or anything of that sort.”
“We got to attract ’em back,” said my uncle. “That’s what I feel about it. We got to Buck-Up the country. The English country is a going concern still; just as the Established Church—if you’ll excuse me saying it, is a going concern. Just as Oxford is—or Cambridge. Or any of those old, fine old things. Only it wants fresh capital, fresh idees and fresh methods. Light railways, f’rinstance—scientific use of drainage. Wire fencing machinery—all that.”
The vicar’s face for one moment betrayed dismay. Perhaps he was thinking of his country walks amids the hawthorns and honeysuckle.
“There’s great things,” said my uncle, “to be done on Mod’un lines with Village Jam and Pickles—boiled in the country.”
It was the reverberation of this last sentence in my mind, I think, that sharpened my sentimental sympathy as we went through the straggling village street and across the trim green on our way back to London. It seemed that afternoon the most tranquil and idyllic collection of creeper-sheltered homes you can imagine; thatch still lingered on a whitewashed cottage or two, pyracanthus, wall-flowers, and daffodils abounded, and an unsystematic orchard or so was white with blossom above and gay with bulbs below. I noted a row of straw beehives, beehive-shaped, beehives of the type long since condemned as inefficient by all progressive minds, and in the doctor’s acre of grass a flock of two whole sheep was grazing,—no doubt he’d taken them on account. Two men and one old woman made gestures of abject vassalage, and my uncle replied with a lordly gesture of his great motoring glove. . . .
“England’s full of Bits like this,” said my uncle, leaning over the front seat and looking back with great satisfaction. The black glare of his goggles rested for a time on the receding turrets of Lady Grove just peeping over the trees.
“I shall have a flagstaff, I think,” he considered. “Then one could show when one is in residence. The villagers will like to know.” . . .
I reflected. “They will” I said. “They’re used to liking to know.” . . .
My aunt had been unusually silent. Suddenly she spoke. “He says Snap,” she remarked; “he buys that place. And a nice old job of Housekeeping he gives me! He sails through the village swelling like an old turkey. And who’ll have to scoot the butler? Me! Who’s got to forget all she ever knew and start again? Me! Who’s got to trek from Chiselhurst and be a great lady? Me! . . . You old Bother! Just when I was settling down and beginning to feel at home.”
My uncle turned his goggles to her. “Ah! This time it is home, Susan. . . . We got there.”
It seems to me now but a step from the buying of Lady Grove to the beginning of Crest Hill, from the days when the former was a stupendous achievement to the days when it was too small and dark and inconvenient altogether for a great financier’s use. For me that was a period of increasing detachment from our business and the great world of London; I saw it more and more in broken glimpses, and sometimes I was working in my little pavilion above Lady Grove for a fortnight together; even when I came up it was often solely for a meeting of the aeronautical society or for one of the learned societies or to consult literature or employ searchers or some such special business. For my uncle it was a period of stupendous inflation. Each time I met him I found him more confident, more comprehensive, more consciously a factor in great affairs. Soon he was no longer an associate of merely business men; he was big enough for the attentions of greater powers.
I grew used to discovering some item of personal news about him in my evening paper, or to the sight of a full-page portrait of him in a sixpenny magazine. Usually the news was of some munificent act, some romantic piece of buying or giving or some fresh rumour of reconstruction. He saved, you will remember, the Parbury Reynolds for the country. Or at times, it would be an interview or my uncle’s contribution to some symposium on the “Secret of Success,” or such-like topic. Or wonderful tales of his power of work, of his wonderful organisation to get things done, of his instant decisions and remarkable power of judging his fellow-men. They repeated his great mot: “Eight hour working day—I want eighty hours!”
He became modestly but resolutely “public.” They cartooned him in Vanity Fair. One year my aunt, looking indeed a very gracious, slender lady, faced the portrait of the King in the great room at Burlington House, and the next year saw a medallion of my uncle by Ewart, looking out upon the world, proud and imperial, but on the whole a trifle too prominently convex, from the walls of the New Gallery.
I shared only intermittently in his social experiences. People knew of me, it is true, and many of them sought to make through me a sort of flank attack upon him, and there was a legend, owing, very unreasonably, partly to my growing scientific reputation and partly to an element of reserve in my manner, that I played a much larger share in planning his operations than was actually the case. This led to one or two very intimate private dinners, to my inclusion in one or two house parties and various odd offers of introductions and services that I didn’t for the most part accept. Among other people who sought me in this way was Archie Garvell, now a smart, impecunious soldier of no particular distinction, who would, I think, have been quite prepared to develop any sporting instincts I possessed, and who was beautifully unaware of our former contact. He was always offering me winners; no doubt in a spirit of anticipatory exchange for some really good thing in our more scientific and certain method of getting something for nothing. . . .
In spite of my preoccupation with my experiments, work, I did, I find now that I come to ransack my impressions, see a great deal of the great world during those eventful years; I had a near view of the machinery by which an astounding Empire is run, rubbed shoulders and exchanged experiences with bishops and statesmen, political women and women who were not political, physicians and soldiers, artists and authors, the directors of great journals, philanthropists and all sorts of eminent, significant people. I saw the statesmen without their orders and the bishops with but a little purple silk left over from their canonicals, inhaling, not incensen but cigar smoke. I could look at them all the better because, for the most part, they were not looking at me but at my uncle, and calculating consciously or unconsciously how they might use him and assimilate him to their system, the most unpremeditated, subtle, successful and aimless plutocracy that ever encumbered the destinies of mankind. Not one of them, so far as I could see, until disaster overtook him, resented his lies, his almost naked dishonesty of method, the disorderly disturbance of this trade and that, caused by his spasmodic operations. I can see them now about him, see them polite, watchful, various; his stiff compact little figure always a centre of attention, his wiry hair, his brief nose, his under-lip, electric with self-confidence. Wandering marginally through distinguished gatherings, I would catch the whispers: “That’s Mr. Ponderevo!”
“The little man?”
“Yes, the little bounder with the glasses.”
“They say he’s made—” . . .
Or I would see him on some parterre of a platform beside my aunt’s hurraying hat, amidst titles and costumes, “holding his end up,” as he would say, subscribing heavily to obvious charities, even at times making brief convulsive speeches in some good cause before the most exalted audiences. “Mr. Chairman, your Royal Highness, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,” he would begin amidst subsiding applause and adjust those obstinate glasses and thrust back the wings of his frock-coat and rest his hands upon his hips and speak his fragment with ever and again an incidental Zzzz. His hands would fret about him as he spoke, fiddle his glasses, feel in his waistcoat pockets; ever and again he would rise slowly to his toes as a sentence unwound jerkily like a clockwork snake, and drop back on his heels at the end. They were the very gestures of our first encounter when he had stood before the empty fireplace in his minute draped parlour and talked of my future to my mother.
In those measurelessly long hot afternoons in the little shop at Wimblehurst he had talked and dreamt of the Romance of Modern Commerce. Here, surely, was his romance come true.
People say that my uncle lost his head at the crest of his fortunes, but if one may tell so much truth of a man one has in a manner loved, he never had very much head to lose. He was always imaginative, erratic, inconsistent, recklessly inexact, and his inundation of wealth merely gave him scope for these qualities. It is true, indeed, that towards the climax he became intensely irritable at times and impatient of contradiction, but that, I think, was rather the gnawing uneasiness of sanity than any mental disturbance. But I find it hard either to judge him or convey the full development of him to the reader. I saw too much of him; my memory is choked with disarranged moods and aspects. Now he is distended with megalomania, now he is deflated, now he is quarrelsome, now impenetrably self-satisfied, but always he is sudden, jerky, fragmentary, energetic, and—in some subtle fundamental way that I find difficult to define—absurd.
There stands out—because of the tranquil beauty of its setting perhaps—a talk we had in the veranda of the little pavilion near my worksheds behind Crest Hill in which my aeroplanes and navigable balloons were housed. It was one of many similar conversations, and I do not know why it in particular should survive its fellows. It happens so. He had come up to me after his coffee to consult me about a certain chalice which in a moment of splendour and under the importunity of a countess he had determined to give to a deserving church in the east-end. I, in a moment of even rasher generosity, had suggested Ewart as a possible artist. Ewart had produced at once an admirable sketch for the sacred vessel surrounded by a sort of wreath of Millies with open arms and wings and had drawn fifty pounds on the strength of it. After that came a series of vexatious delays. The chalice became less and less of a commercial man’s chalice, acquired more and more the elusive quality of the Holy Grail, and at last even the drawing receded.
My uncle grew restive. . . . “You see, George, they’ll begin to want the blasted thing!”
“What blasted thing?”
“That chalice, damn it! They’re beginning to ask questions. It isn’t Business, George.”
“It’s art,” I protested, “and religion.”
“That’s all very well. But it’s not a good ad for us, George, to make a promise and not deliver the goods. . . . I’ll have to write off your friend Ewart as a bad debt, that’s what it comes to, and go to a decent firm.” . . .
We sat outside on deck chairs in the veranda of the pavilion, smoked, drank whisky, and, the chalice disposed of, meditated. His temporary annoyance passed. It was an altogether splendid summer night, following a blazing, indolent day. Full moonlight brought out dimly the lines of the receding hills, one wave beyond another; far beyond were the pin-point lights of Leatherhead, and in the foreground the little stage from which I used to start upon my gliders gleamed like wet steel. The season must have been high June, for down in the woods that hid the lights of the Lady Grove windows, I remember the nightingales thrilled and gurgled. . . .
“We got here, George,” said my uncle, ending a long pause. “Didn’t I say?”
“Say!—when?” I asked.
“In that hole in the To’nem Court Road, eh? It’s been a Straight Square Fight, and here we are!”
“’Member me telling you—Tono-Bungay?. . . . Well. . . . I’d just that afternoon thought of it!”
“I’ve fancied at times;” I admitted.
“It’s a great world, George, nowadays, with a fair chance for every one who lays hold of things. The career ouvert to the Talons—eh? Tono-Bungay. Think of it! It’s a great world and a growing world, and I’m glad we’re in it—and getting a pull. We’re getting big people, George. Things come to us. Eh? This Palestine thing.” . . .
He meditated for a time and Zzzzed softly. Then he became still.
His theme was taken up by a cricket in the grass until he himself was ready to resume it. The cricket too seemed to fancy that in some scheme of its own it had got there. “Chirrrrrrup” it said; “chirrrrrrup.”
“Lord, what a place that was at Wimblehurst!” he broke out. “If ever I get a day off we’ll motor there, George, and run over that dog that sleeps in the High Street. Always was a dog asleep there—always. Always . . . I’d like to see the old shop again. I daresay old Ruck still stands between the sheep at his door, grinning with all his teeth, and Marbel, silly beggar! comes out with his white apron on and a pencil stuck behind his ear, trying to look awake . . . Wonder if they know it’s me? I’d like ’em somehow to know it’s me.”
“They’ll have had the International Tea Company and all sorts of people cutting them up,” I said. “And that dog’s been on the pavement this six years—can’t sleep even there, poor dear, because of the motor-horns and its shattered nerves.”
“Movin’ everywhere,” said my uncle. “I expect you’re right. . . . It’s a big time we’re in, George. It’s a big Progressive On-coming Imperial Time. This Palestine business—the daring of it. . . . It’s, it’s a Process, George. And we got our hands on it. Here we sit—with our hands on it, George. Entrusted.
“It seems quiet to-night. But if we could see and hear.” He waved his cigar towards Leatherhead and London.
“There they are, millions, George. Jes’ think of what they’ve been up to to-day—those ten millions—each one doing his own particular job. You can’t grasp it. It’s like old Whitman says—what is it he says? Well, anyway it’s like old Whitman. Fine chap, Whitman! Fine old chap! Queer, you can’t quote him. . . . And these millions aren’t anything. There’s the millions over seas, hundreds of millions, Chinese, M’rocco, Africa generally, ’Merica. . . . Well, here we are, with power, with leisure, picked out—because we’ve been energetic, because we’ve seized opportunities, because we’ve made things hum when other people have waited for them to hum. See? Here we are—with our hands on it. Big people. Big growing people. In a sort of way,—Forces.”
He paused. “It’s wonderful, George,” he said.
“Anglo-Saxon energy,” I said softly to the night.
“That’s it, George—energy. It’s put things in our grip—threads, wires, stretching out and out, George, from that little office of ours, out to West Africa, out to Egypt, out to Inja, out east, west, north and south. Running the world practically. Running it faster and faster. Creative. There’s that Palestine canal affair. Marvellous idee! Suppose we take that up, suppose we let ourselves in for it, us and the others, and run that water sluice from the Mediterranean into the Dead Sea Valley—think of the difference it will make! All the desert blooming like a rose, Jericho lost for ever, all the Holy Places under water. . . . Very likely destroy Christianity.” . . .
He mused for a space. “Cuttin’ canals,” murmured my uncle. “Making tunnels. . . . New countries. . . . New centres. . . . Zzzz. . . . Finance. . . . Not only Palestine.
“I wonder where we shall get before we done, George? We got a lot of big things going. We got the investing public sound and sure. I don’t see why in the end we shouldn’t be very big. There’s diffculties but I’m equal to them. We’re still a bit soft in our bones, but they’ll harden all right. . . . I suppose, after all, I’m worth something like a million, George, cleared up and settled. If I got out of things now. It’s a great time, George, a wonderful time!” . . .
I glanced through the twilight at his convexity and I must confess it struck me that on the whole he wasn’t particularly good value.
“We got our hands on things, George, us big people. We got to hang together, George run the show. Join up with the old order like that mill-wheel of Kipling’s1. (Finest thing he ever wrote, George; I jes’ been reading it again. Made me buy Lady Grove.) Well, we got to run the country, George. It’s ours. Make it a Scientific Organised Business Enterprise. Put idees into it. ’Lectrify it. Run the Press. Run all sorts of developments. All sorts of developments. I been talking to Lord Boom. I been talking to all sorts of people. Great things. Progress. The world on business lines. Only jes’ beginning.” . . .
He fell into a deep meditation.
He Zzzzed for a time and ceased.
“Yes,” he said at last in the tone of a man who has at last emerged with ultimate solutions to the profoundest problems.
“What?” I said after a seemly pause.
My uncle hung fire for a moment and it seemed to me the fate of nations trembled in the balance. Then he spoke as one who speaks from the very bottom of his heart—and I think it was the very bottom of his heart.
“I’d jes’ like to drop into the Eastry Arms, jes’ when all those beggars in the parlour are sittin’ down to whist, Ruck and Marbel and all, and give ’em ten minutes of my mind, George. Straight from the shoulder. Jes’ exactly what I think of them. It’s a little thing, but I’d like to do it jes’ once before I die.” . . .
He rested on that for some time Zzzz-ing.
Then he broke out at a new place in a tone of detached criticism.
“There’s Boom,” he reflected.
“It’s a wonderful system this old British system, George. It’s staid and stable and yet it has a place for new men. We come up and take our places. It’s almost expected. We take a hand. That’s where our Democracy differs from America. Over there a man succeeds; all he gets is money. Here there’s a system open to every one—practically. . . . Chaps like Boom—come from nowhere.”
His voice ceased. I reflected upon the spirit of his words. Suddenly I kicked my feet in the air, rolled on my side and sat up suddenly on my deck chair with my legs down.
“You don’t mean it!” I said.
“Mean what, George?”
“Subscription to the party funds. Reciprocal advantage. Have we got to that?”
“Whad you driving at, George?”
“You know. They’d never do it, man!”
“Do what?” he said feebly; and, “Why shouldn’t they?”
“They’d not even go to a baronetcy. No!. . . . and yet, of course, there’s Boom! and Collingshead and Gorver. They’ve done beer, they’ve done snippets! After all Tono-Bungay—it’s not like a turf commission agent or anything like that! . . . There have of course been some very gentlemanly commission agents. It isn’t like a fool of a scientific man who can’t make money!”
My uncle grunted; we’d differed on that issue before.
A malignant humour took possession of me. “What would they call you?” I speculated. “The vicar would like Duffield. Too much like Duffer! Difficult thing, a title.” I ran my mind over various possibilities. “Why not take a leaf from a socialist tract I came upon yesterday. Chap says we’re all getting delocalised. Beautiful word—delocalised! Why not be the first delocalised peer? That gives you—Tono-Bungay! There is a Bungay, you know. Lord Tono of Bungay—in bottles everywhere. Eh?”
My uncle astonished me by losing his temper.
“Damn it. George, you don’t seem to see I’m serious! You’re always sneering at Tono-Bungay! As though it was some sort of swindle. It was perfec’ly legitimate trade, perfec’ly legitimate. Good value and a good article. . . . When I come up here and tell you plans and exchange idees—you sneer at me. You do. You don’t see—it’s a big thing. It’s a big thing. You got to get used to new circumstances. You got to face what lies before us. You got to drop that tone.”
My uncle was not altogether swallowed up in business and ambition. He kept in touch with modern thought. For example, he was, I know, greatly swayed by what he called “This Overman idee, Nietzsche—all that stuff.”
He mingled those comforting suggestions of a potent and exceptional human being emancipated from the pettier limitations of integrity with the Napoleonic legend. It gave his imagination a considerable outlet. That Napoleonic legend! The real mischief of Napoleon’s immensely disastrous and accidental career began only when he was dead and the romantic type of mind was free to elaborate his character. I do believe that my uncle would have made a far less egregious smash if there had been no Napoleonic legend to misguide him. He was in many ways better and infinitely kinder than his career. But when in doubt between decent conduct and a base advantage, that cult came in more and more influentially: “think of Napoleon; think what the inflexibly-wilful Napoleon would have done with such scruples as yours;” that was the rule, and the end was invariably a new step in dishonour.
My uncle was in an unsystematic way a collector of Napoleonic relics; the bigger the book about his hero the more readily he bought it; he purchased letters and tinsel and weapons that bore however remotely upon the Man of Destiny, and he even secured in Geneva, though he never brought home, an old coach in which Buonaparte might have ridden; he crowded the quiet walls of Lady Grove with engravings and figures of him, preferring, my aunt remarked, the more convex portraits with the white vest and those statuettes with the hands behind the back which threw forward the figure. The Durgans watched him through it all, sardonically.
And he would stand after breakfast at times in the light of the window at Lady Grove, a little apart, with two fingers of one hand stuck between his waistcoat-buttons and his chin sunken, thinking,—the most preposterous little fat man in the world. It made my aunt feel, she said, “like an old Field Marshal—knocks me into a cocked hat, George!”
Perhaps this Napoleonic bias made him a little less frequent with his cigars than he would otherwise have been, but of that I cannot be sure, and it certainly caused my aunt a considerable amount of vexation after he had read Napoleon and the Fair Sex, because for a time that roused him to a sense of a side of life he had in his commercial preoccupations very largely forgotten. Suggestion plays so great a part in this field. My uncle took the next opportunity and had an “affair”!
It was not a very impassioned affair, and the exact particulars never of course reached me. It is quite by chance I know anything of it at all. One evening I was surprised to come upon my uncle in a mixture of Bohemia and smart people at an At Home in the flat of Robbert, the R.A. who painted my aunt, and he was standing a little apart in a recess, talking or rather being talked to in undertones by a plump, blond little woman in pale blue, a Helen Scrymgeour who wrote novels and was organising a weekly magazine. I elbowed a large lady who was saying something about them, but I didn’t need to hear the thing she said to perceive the relationship of the two. It hit me like a placard on a hoarding. I was amazed the whole gathering did not see it. Perhaps they did. She was wearing a remarkably fine diamond necklace, much too fine for journalism, and regarding him with that quality of questionable proprietorship, of leashed but straining intimacy, that seems inseparable from this sort of affair. It is so much more palpable than matrimony. If anything was wanted to complete my conviction it was my uncles’s eyes when presently he became aware of mine, a certain embarrassment and a certain pride and defiance. And the next day he made an opportunity to praise the lady’s intelligence to me concisely, lest I should miss the point of it all.
After that I heard some gossip—from a friend of the lady’s. I was much too curious to do anything but listen. I had never in all my life imagined my uncle in an amorous attitude. It would appear that she called him her “God in the Car”—after the hero in a novel of Anthony Hope’s. It was essential to the convention of their relations that he should go relentlessly whenever business called, and it was generally arranged that it did call. To him women were an incident, it was understood between them; Ambition was the master-passion. A great world called him and the noble hunger for Power. I have never been able to discover just how honest Mrs. Scrymgeour was in all this, but it is quite possible the immense glamour of his financial largeness prevailed with her and that she did bring a really romantic feeling to their encounters. There must have been some extraordinary moments. . . .
I was a good deal exercised and distressed about my aunt when I realised what was afoot. I thought it would prove a terrible humiliation to her. I suspected her of keeping up a brave front with the loss of my uncle’s affections fretting at her heart, but there I simply underestimated her. She didn’t hear for some time and when she did hear she was extremely angry and energetic. The sentimental situation didn’t trouble her for a moment. She decided that my uncle “wanted smacking.” She accentuated herself with an unexpected new hat, went and gave him an inconceivable talking-to at the Hardingham, and then came round to “blow-up” me for not telling her what was going on before. . . .
I tried to bring her to a proper sense of the accepted values in this affair, but my aunt’s originality of outlook was never so invincible. “Men don’t tell on one another in affairs of passion,” I protested, and such-like worldly excuses.
“Women!” she said in high indignation, “and men! It isn’t women and men—it’s him and me, George! Why don’t you talk sense?
“Old passion’s all very well, George, in its way, and I’m the last person to be jealous. But this is old nonsense. . . . I’m not going to let him show off what a silly old lobster he is to other women. . . . I’ll mark every scrap of his underclothes with red letters, ‘Ponderevo-Private’—every scrap.
“Going about making love indeed,—in abdominal belts!—at his time of life!”
I cannot imagine what passed between her and my uncle. But I have no doubt that for once her customary badinage was laid aside. How they talked then I do not know, for I who knew them so well had never heard that much of intimacy between them. At any rate it was a concerned and preoccupied “God in the Car” I had to deal with in the next few days, unusually Zzzz-y and given to slight impatient gestures that had nothing to do with the current conversation. And it was evident that in all directions he was finding things unusually difficult to explain.
All the intimate moments in this affair were hidden from me, but in the end my aunt triumphed. He did not so much throw as jerk over Mrs. Scrymgeour, and she did not so much make a novel of it as upset a huge pailful of attenuated and adulterated female soul upon this occasion. My aunt did not appear in that, even remotely. So that it is doubtful if the lady knew the real causes of her abandonment. The Napoleonic hero was practically unmarried, and he threw over his lady as Napoleon threw over Josephine for a great alliance.
It was a triumph for my aunt, but it had its price. For some time it was evident things were strained between them. He gave up the lady, but he resented having to do so, deeply. She had meant more to his imagination than one could have supposed. He wouldn’t for a long time “come round.” He became touchy and impatient and secretive towards my aunt, and she, I noted, after an amazing check or so, stopped that stream of kindly abuse that had flowed for so long and had been so great a refreshment in their lives. They were both the poorer for its cessation, both less happy. She devoted herself more and more to Lady Grove and the humours and complications of its management. The servants took to her—as they say—she god-mothered three Susans during her rule, the coachman’s, the gardener’s, and the Up Hill gamekeeper’s. She got together a library of old household books that were in the vein of the place. She revived the still-room, and became a great artist in jellies and elder and cowslip wine.
And while I neglected the development of my uncle’s finances—and my own, in my scientific work and my absorbing conflict with the difficulties of flying,—his schemes grew more and more expansive and hazardous, and his spending wilder and laxer. I believe that a haunting sense of the intensifying unsoundness of his position accounts largely for his increasing irritability and his increasing secretiveness with my aunt and myself during these crowning years. He dreaded, I think, having to explain, he feared our jests might pierce unwittingly to the truth. Even in the privacy of his mind he would not face the truth. He was accumulating unrealisable securities in his safes until they hung a potential avalanche over the economic world. But his buying became a fever, and his restless desire to keep it up with himself that he was making a triumphant progress to limitless wealth gnawed deeper and deeper. A curious feature of this time with him was his buying over and over again of similar things. His ideas seemed to run in series. Within a twelve-month he bought five new motor-cars, each more swift and powerful than its predecessor, and only the repeated prompt resignation of his chief chauffeur at each moment of danger, prevented his driving them himself. He used them more and more. He developed a passion for locomotion for its own sake.
Then he began to chafe at Lady Grove, fretted by a chance jest he had overheard at a dinner. “This house, George,” he said. “It’s a misfit. There’s no elbow-room in it; it’s choked with old memories. And I can’t stand all these damned Durgans!
“That chap in the corner, George. No! the other corner! The man in a cherry-coloured coat. He watched you! He’d look silly if I stuck a poker through his Gizzard!”
“He’d look,” I reflected, “much as he does now. As though he was amused.”
He replaced his glasses, which had fallen at his emotion, and glared at his antagonists. “What are they? What are they all, the lot of ’em? Dead as Mutton! They just stuck in the mud. They didn’t even rise to the Reformation. The old out-of-date Reformation! Move with the times!—they moved against the times.
“Just a Family of Failure,—they never even tried!
“They’re jes’, George, exactly what I’m not. Exactly. It isn’t suitable. . . . All this living in the Past.
“And I want a bigger place too, George. I want air and sunlight and room to move about and more service. A house where you can get a Move on things! Zzzz. Why! it’s like a discord—it jars—even to have the telephone. . . . There’s nothing, nothing except the terrace, that’s worth a Rap. It’s all dark and old and dried up and full of old-fashioned things—musty old idees—fitter for a silver-fish than a modern man. . . . I don’t know how I got here.”
He broke out into a new grievance. “That damned vicar,” he complained, “thinks I ought to think myself lucky to get this place! Every time I meet him I can see him think it. . . . One of these days, George I’ll show him what a Mod’un house is like!”
And he did.
I remember the day when he declared, as Americans say, for Crest Hill. He had come up to see my new gas plant, for I was then only just beginning to experiment with auxiliary collapsible balloons, and all the time the shine of his glasses was wandering away to the open down beyond. “Let’s go back to Lady Grove over the hill,” he said. “Something I want to show you. Something fine!”
It was an empty sunlit place that summer evening, sky and earth warm with sundown, and a pe-wit or so just accentuating the pleasant stillness that ends a long clear day. A beautiful peace, it was, to wreck for ever. And there was my uncle, the modern man of power, in his grey top-hat and his grey suit and his black-ribboned glasses, short, thin-legged, large-stomached, pointing and gesticulating, threatening this calm.
He began with a wave of his arm. “That’s the place, George,” he said. “See?”
“Eh!” I cried—for I had been thinking of remote things.
“I got it.”
“For a house!—a Twentieth Century house! That’s the place for it!”
One of his characteristic phrases was begotten in him.
“Four-square to the winds of heaven, George!” he said. “Eh? Four-square to the winds of heaven!”
“You’ll get the winds up here,” I said.
“A mammoth house it ought to be, George—to suit these hills.”
“Quite,” I said.
“Great galleries and things—running out there and there—See? I been thinking of it, George! Looking out all this way—across the Weald. With its back to Lady Grove.”
“And the morning sun in its eye.”
“Like an eagle, George,—like an eagle!”
So he broached to me what speedily became the leading occupation of his culminating years, Crest Hill. But all the world has heard of that extravagant place which grew and changed its plans as it grew, and bubbled like a salted snail, and burgeoned and bulged and evermore grew. I know not what delirium of pinnacles and terraces and arcades and corridors glittered at last upon the uplands of his mind; the place, for all that its expansion was terminated abruptly by our collapse, is wonderful enough as it stands,—that empty instinctive building of a childless man. His chief architect was a young man named Westminster, whose work he had picked out in the architecture room of the Royal Academy on account of a certain grandiose courage in it, but with him he associated from time to time a number of fellow professionals, stonemasons, sanitary engineers, painters, sculptors, scribes, metal workers, wood carvers, furniture designers, ceramic specialists, landscape gardeners, and the man who designs the arrangement and ventilation of the various new houses in the London Zoological Gardens. In addition he had his own ideas. The thing occupied his mind at all times, but it held it completely from Friday night to Monday morning. He would come down to Lady Grove on Friday night in a crowded motor-car that almost dripped architects. He didn’t, however, confine himself to architects; every one was liable to an invitation to week-end and view Crest Hill, and many an eager promoter, unaware of how Napoleonically and completely my uncle had departmentalised his mind, tried to creep up to him by way of tiles and ventilators and new electric fittings. Always on Sunday mornings, unless the weather was vile, he would, so soon as breakfast and his secretaries were disposed of, visit the site with a considerable retinue, and alter and develop plans, making modifications, Zzzz-ing, giving immense new orders verbally—an unsatisfactory way, as Westminster and the contractors ultimately found.
There he stands in my memory, the symbol of this age for me, the man of luck and advertisement, the current master of the world. There he stands upon the great outward sweep of the terrace before the huge main entrance, a little figure, ridiculously disproportionate to that forty-foot arch, with the granite ball behind him—the astronomical ball, brass coopered, that represented the world, with a little adjustable tube of lenses on a gun-metal arm that focussed the sun upon just that point of the earth on which it chanced to be shining vertically. There he stands, Napoleonically grouped with his retinue men in tweeds and golfing-suits, a little solicitor, whose name I forget, in grey trousers and a black jacket, and Westminster in Jaeger underclothing, a floriferous tie, and peculiar brown cloth of his own.
The downland breeze flutters my uncle’s coat-tails, disarranges his stiff hair, and insists on the evidence of undisciplined appetites in face and form, as he points out this or that feature in the prospect to his attentive collaborator.
Below are hundreds of feet of wheeling-planks, ditches, excavations, heaps of earth, piles of garden stone from the Wealden ridges. On either hand the walls of his irrelevant unmeaning palace rise at one time he had working in that place—disturbing the economic balance of the whole countryside by their presence—upwards of three thousand men. . . .
So he poses for my picture amidst the raw beginnings that were never to be completed. He did the strangest things about that place, things more and more detached from any conception of financial scale, things more and more apart from sober humanity. He seemed to think himself, at last, released from any such limitations. He moved a quite considerable hill, and nearly sixty mature trees were moved with it to open his prospect eastward, moved it about two hundred feet to the south. At another time he caught a suggestion from some city restaurant and made a billiard-room roofed with plate glass beneath the waters of his ornamental lake. He furnished one wing while its roof still awaited completion. He had a swimming bath thirty feet square next to his bedroom upstairs, and to crown it all he commenced a great wall to hold all his dominions together, free from the invasion of common men. It was a ten-foot wall, glass surmounted, and had it been completed as he intended it, it would have had a total length of nearly eleven miles. Some of it towards the last was so dishonestly built that it collapsed within a year upon its foundations, but some miles of it still stand. I never think of it now but what I think of the hundreds of eager little investors who followed his “star,” whose hopes and lives, whose wives’ security and children’s prospects are all mixed up beyond redemption with that flaking mortar. . . .
It is curious how many of these modern financiers of chance and bluff have ended their careers by building. It was not merely my uncle. Sooner or later they all seem to bring their luck to the test of realisation, try to make their fluid opulence coagulate out as bricks and mortar, bring moonshine into relations with a weekly wages-sheet. Then the whole fabric of confidence and imagination totters—and down they come. . . .
When I think of that despoiled hillside, that colossal litter of bricks and mortar, and crude roads and paths, the scaffolding and sheds, the general quality of unforeseeing outrage upon the peace of nature, I am reminded of a chat I had with the vicar one bleak day after he had witnessed a glide. He talked to me of aeronautics as I stood in jersey and shorts beside my machine, fresh from alighting, and his cadaverous face failed to conceal a peculiar desolation that possessed him.
“Almost you convince me,” he said, coming up to me, “against my will. . . . A marvellous invention! But it will take you a long time, sir, before you can emulate that perfect mechanism—the wing of a bird.”
He looked at my sheds.
“You’ve changed the look of this valley, too,” he said.
“Temporary defilements,” I remarked, guessing what was in his mind.
“Of course. Things come and go. Things come and go. But—H’m. I’ve just been up over the hill to look at Mr. Edward Ponderevo’s new house. That—that is something more permanent. A magnificent place!—in many ways. Imposing. I’ve never somehow brought myself to go that way before. Things are greatly advanced. . . . We find—the great number of strangers introduced into the villages about here by these operations, working-men chiefly, a little embarrassing. It put us out. They bring a new spirit into the place; betting—ideas—all sorts of queer notions. Our publicans like it, of course. And they come and sleep in one’s outhouses—and make the place a little unsafe at nights. The other morning I couldn’t sleep—a slight dyspepsia—and I looked out of the window. I was amazed to see people going by on bicycles. A silent procession. I counted ninety-seven—in the dawn. All going up to the new road for Crest Hill. Remarkable I thought it. And so I’ve been up to see what they were doing.”
“They would have been more than remarkable thirty years ago,” I said.
“Yes, indeed. Things change. We think nothing of it now at all—comparatively. And that big house—”
He raised his eyebrows. “Really stupendous! Stupendous.
“All the hillside—the old turf—cut to ribbons!”
His eye searched my face. “We’ve grown so accustomed to look up to Lady Grove,” he said, and smiled in search of sympathy. “It shifts our centre of gravity.”
“Things will readjust themselves,” I lied.
He snatched at the phrase. “Of course,” he said.
“They’ll readjust themselves—settle down again. Must. In the old way. It’s bound to come right again—a comforting thought. Yes. After all, Lady Grove itself had to be built once upon a time—was—to begin with—artificial.”
His eye returned to my aeroplane. He sought to dismiss his graver preoccupations. “I should think twice,” he remarked, “before I trusted myself to that concern. . . . But I suppose one grows accustomed to the motion.”
He bade me good morning and went his way, bowed and thoughtful. . . .
He had kept the truth from his mind a long time, but that morning it had forced its way to him with an aspect that brooked no denial that this time it was not just changes that were coming in his world, but that all his world lay open and defenceless, conquered and surrendered, doomed so far as he could see, root and branch, scale and form alike, to change.
|1. I think this is the story to which he is referring - ‘Below the Mill Dam’ - RT [back]|