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Title: Prelude to Waking Author: Miles Franklin * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0801321h.html Language: English Date first posted: March 2015 Most recent update: March 2015 Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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ENGLAND'S GENIUS CRACKS,
Mother England, lead us still,
In the honour of thy will!
From this stupor, creeping, cold,
As of blood in veins grown old,
Waken England! Ere too late!
Slay the beast within thy gate.
Brave for freedom and the truth,
With a trumpet call to youth,
Lift again thy lamp on high,
Valiant beacon in the sky!
Once again the pioneer,
Clod with courage, shorn of fear,
Leave behind the outworn goal,
Forge new frontiers for the soul!
Walking firmly in new ways,
Fill with beauty coming days.
For thine old-time glory's sake,
Waken England! England wake!
In the honour of thy will,
Bravely England, lead us still.
(Frontispiece to Merlin Giltinane's Brochure)
Novels are sometimes prefaced by statements that the characters in them are purely fictional. Cunning clauses of similar import are inserted in publishers' agreements. Such precautions are, on the one hand, against certain epizoons, more delicately called blackmailers, who, aided by legal gymnastics, lie in wait for chances to batten. On the other hand the Law needs—when on the side of justice—to be furnished with powers to restrain the malicious who would make capital by ridiculing and calumniating their associates. However, those who ignore financial enterprises to indulge in fictional experiments in a field so remote and unadvertised as Australia need fear no plunderable accumulation of pelf, and I can therefore risk the consequences of declaring that the characters in this story are as real as that truth which is clearer in fiction than in fact. So:
The elder Giltinane contains a slight precipitate of my own father—on the lesser reaches of my inspired parent's character—and slightly more of a pioneer who told me stories of kangaroos in Queensland and of an Oxford Don he came upon on the way to Alaska.[See Author's Note to Up the Country.] A brother contributed a small facet for the sketch of the younger Giltinane. The Lady Courtley is taken, without subterfuge, from another of my choicest friends. Cobbler the Elder is derived from the followers of a housekeeper whom I once underwent; Cobbler the Younger is somewhat copied from an adolescent acquaintance, who degenerated before my eyes at one of the great Public Schools. The old Earl Montraven I met at a political tea party at Belsize Park, and the Great Editor at the Ladies' Athenaeum Club, where we were hostessed by a distinguished American author. Mrs Char Brindle is distantly drawn from the owner of a toylike farm in Devonshire, though he was far above dropping his aitches or calling the movies "flims". Mex Tarbuck is direct from the films, of which, during a parti-coloured career, I have so far seen at least a score of examples. Pamela Clutterbuck-Leeper resides in West End comedies and novels. The la ffollettes are familiar to a circle so wide and worthy that ridicule awaits any practitioner who, either for gain or vanity, seeks to impersonate them. Lady George beseeches me to withhold any clue to her lest the pirates of Mayfair, who, without compunction, hit below the belts of their friends to serve themselves, should bribe Alfred Dud and his invaluable spouse to forsake her service for theirs.
BRENT OF BIN BIN
"I have come," announced Merlin, as she seated herself on a settee in Lady George's drawing-room, and I cast a platonic glance at her lyrical legs and ankles.
At that date (circa 1924-5) fashion decreed that women for public appearance should free their bodies in knee-length smocks with necks and arms uncovered, while the legs were displayed in pink silk stockings. In this instance the result was comforting to sight and reassuring to reason. In my tight soft collar, clumsy trousers and fusty padded coat, I wished, enviously, that the vogue would similarly emancipate men.
"I have come," repeated Merlin.
"So much is obvious," said I, reflecting how few feminine legs and ankles are anything but an affront to the would-be amorous, and puzzling that amour should he so dependent upon externals.
"I want your help and comfort, Niggeh old grub."
"You wax garrulous. You should eschew repetition," said I, parking my feet on one of Lady George's ugliest chairs, and pulling at my cigarette.
Merlin comes to me occasionally to seek diagnostical discussion. I go to her intermittently to untie the more tangible knots into which I caracole.
"Some of the epigrammatists of Mayfair are attributing a liaison to us," said she, just like that.
"Liaisons are for various purposes, usually preposterous, and mostly have the same dull, disillusioning result," I replied, knocking the ash off my cigarette into one of Lady George's hideous ornaments.
"The word," said she, "suggests but one purpose to suburbia. In this instance, if you will not contradict the inference—the suburban inference—I shall be grateful for the subterfuge."
"This has the novelty of the unexpected, the undeserved. Pray proceed."
"Will you—what I mean is, you will, but how shall we provide a little fuel?"
"I thought such works of inspiration grew all a-hoh till they reached the crest all a-whoop, thence down hill all a-wop! Phut!"
"The Freudian species might, but ours is to be strictly Shavian."
"How disappointing, after your auspicious opening."
"Now you are merely imitating the Alarics and Almerics. I mean it to be a concession."
"I thought that such epics were an obsession."
"My concession is to an obsession. While one is in Mayfair one must..."
"...not be odd. I understand. But supposing that I acquiesce?"
"Of course you'll acquiesce. It'll be a tower of refuge."
She sighed as a happy young woman should not have done.
"Supposing I acquiesce," I persisted, "what about Rosalita?"
"I'll write to her," said Merlin.
I was at that date the sub-tenant of Lady George's flat on—is it Curzon Street or Cavendish Place?—I never can remember which at the distance of half the earth or half a year. To obviate invidiousness it shall herein be Curdish Street. In any case it had a Mayfair telephone number and was one of those genteel little slums, which like putrefaction in aristocratic cheese, reek in and out of Mayfair in the same dialect as Whitechapel's.
From one window I could see the buses passing up and down Piccadilly, and when I stepped out on the street only a small building obstructed a view of the buses passing along Park Lane. Doubtless that is what I paid for, because what I was rooked for that flat would have hired me a five-roomed apartment on Riverside Drive, with every modern amenity. There were no modern amenities in the Curdish Street apartment. The solid inconveniences were inclusive. The discomforts were extras.
As Miss Hazel Seatray, arriving upon me from Chicago armed with a letter of introduction from my friend Freda, exclaimed, "Why do they call it a flat, when it's really a dinky little house?"
"Why, that I cannot tell," said I, "unless it be that we English are a greatly imaginative people."
"In Noo York we'd call it a Bowery slum, but here it belongs to the nobility."
"It is just the strangest thing the way you don't care at all about your entrances here. I got mixed up with all those barrels of beer and couldn't find your door till a chauffeur showed me it was right beside me. I thought I was coming into some dungeon where murders are committed."
We adjoined forsooth a purveyor of fermented and spirituous liquors, and in Curdish Street's repertory of perfumes that of stale alcohol was raffishly about my door. My immediate landlady was the wife of the uncle of a practising marquess. There are marquesses and viscounts a-plenty who, again to quote Hazel, don't amount to a hill of beans, the abler and more robustious profiteers of our decade having put their noses out of credit in Lombard Street; but in passing, Lord George was the scion of a house blue-mouldy with purposeless dereliction.
He and his peers and compeers, who sip tea or gulp a piggin of grog in the windows of Piccadilly, are brothers royal of the poor relations in Sydney, described as Domain loafers. The Australians are proud of their Domain, where free speech sprouts on Sundays on the parent model. The climatic democracy, which enables gentlemen who spurn toil and lack hereditary incomes nevertheless to approximate the Piccadillians' ideal of existence by hibernating under an aboriginal fig-tree instead of in a leather arm-chair, has been celebrated by a native poet:
It's grand to be an unemployed
And lie in the Domain,
And wake up every second day—
And go to sleep again.
It's even grander and equally abandoned to snooze on Piccadilly, one's blue blood willy-nilly holding one in place with mellow high-toned grace. Ah, Piccadilly! Piccadilly, as a tony, towny, dilly-downy, towny, tony Place, for the joy of Percy, Bert, or even Willy; Piccadilly, smart or silly, Piccadilly holds the ace!
Lady George had been a dashing widow, and Lord George dashed decrepit when she assumed his name, because in Mayfair certain privileges attend the male person such as an income or a residence, and, in the case of the titled, no matter how derelict, social precedences.
It may have been precedence that lured Lady George—and residence, there being at that date a house famine—for or on what the couple lived outside of what they welshed sub-tenants for their flat, that was not a flat, numerous inmates of their set often conjectured. Perhaps their exercise of this branch of post-war profiteering was sufficient; though small in scope it was virulent. This sub-tenant octopus is credited with sapping the vitals of the London drama; and extended residence in that shelter in Curdish Street would have drowned me in permanent pot-boiling with not one but dozens of perfidious society novels to my score.
However, Lady George's depredations concern not this tale, except thereby.
"This flat with its modish address is the duck of a place for suspicion to sprout from," pursued Merlin.
"Is that why you chose it?" Merlin has always chosen my abodes since our first meeting.
"No, but we must make the most of it while we have it. You from a literary point of view, I from...
"Don't you get me balled-up in a misunderstanding with Rosalita," I stipulated.
She wrote to Rosalita that night, but that I did not know till some time later, nor Rosalita's reply, which was:
If it amuses you, go ahead with my ardent send-off. You'll be safe with my old spot of psycho-analysis—my lordy, how unromantically, disappointingly safe!
For in such a way do the obsessed regard the unpossessed.
But this is ahead of my exposition.
What I said was, "To boil the pot of this rendezvous, I'll wreathe a smart novel in the Mayfair mannah around you and this liaison de convenance."
"It might begin that way, but it would end up as self-revelation," she said indifferently.
"Is that what you think of all my literary success?"
"A novel by you about me would not be me, but only what you thought of me. Men's heroines are the awfullest stuffed monkeys."
"Well, so are women's heroes. Men and women couldn't endure each other as such except for the illusions and delusions in which they gyrate around each other."
"Sex is only a phase of adolescence—a very unpleasant one, I'm beginning to feel. The regret is that we never live long enough to see what we might do if we surmounted it. From adolescence we go direct to senility."
"True, O Queen! This prolongation of life they talk about is mostly prolongation of senility."
"Yes, and extension of youth is charlatanry to prolong adolescence and its capers, not to surmount it and have a wedge of adultness between that and senility."
"It is for the prolongation of adultery that they rush the quacks."
"In that case, what does it matter whether we have war or not, or order or anarchy? Sometimes I'm tired of being honest and virtuous, and wonder how the others get on."
"You sound like SOS for a rest cure."
"I need diversion. Begin your novel. I bet it won't be what you think it's going to be."
I accepted the challenge forthwith.
I first met Merlin in Chicago. We were there on cognate business. I had my flipper shattered early in the war and through my diplomatic connexions, and being a bright young man, was told-off to cross the Atlantic in the cause of inducing the mighty Republic to mop up her military glory on the Allies' side of the Western Front.
Merlin, being a bright young woman, had achieved the Balkan Fronts during some of the first great battles and retreats, and had been persuaded to collect North American funds for the Women's War Hospitals. This, she explained, took much more courage than to cross the Plain of Kossovo in a blizzard, to gather up human fragments under shell-fire around Bitolj, or to go on retreat from Ushtsche to Podgoritza over a trail where the howl of the wolves sometimes blotted out the sound of the pursuing guns, where the lorries decorated the sides of the icy precipices, and where the weak dropped out continuously: but there is an immolating streak of Puritanism in Merlin. It makes her on occasion see duty where every instinct rebels, and this, plus her adoration of the Serbs, sent her on that pilgrimage.
She was whoppingly successful at drawing-room meetings. She is the kind of person by whom the rich love to be slanged, and all American cities are as rich in rich women as a Christmas cake in plums, most of them Nonconformistically industrious in good works. True, some of them accomplish little beyond the sentimental evaporation consequent upon sitting in luxurious halls or "parlours" listening to talks about the unsavoury conditions of less efficient and less enterprising nationals, but the harvest was high for Merlin.
In a toy theatre, artistic and luxurious as a jewel box, on a certain evening, some war lions—French, Belgian and British—were undergoing entertainment, and a Miss Giltinane and I had been yarded to wave the Union Jack. During the obsequies (of enjoyment) my interest was aroused by overhearing a cool British voice insisting, "I haven't time to undergo any private entertainment, really I haven't, though..."
One of Chicago's Great Ladies, who was offering the entertainment, had other things besides wealth, and the wit to show them. "You cute little piece of audacity!" she exclaimed. "Only a Britisher would have the nerve to be impatient with a woman of my dollars, even in such a bewitching way. Let's elope for the evening!"
"But what about my hospitals? If you could see those poor darling Serbs staggering along a trail of death and destruction, shivering with malaria, with nothing in their knapsacks but a sodden hit of bread—nearly all holes! I'm tied on this ghastly collection wheel."
"I'll give you the biggest donation of anyone in Chicago," said the Great Lady, "if you'll slip right out now and spend the evening with me."
"Righto! That's a bargain. I'm engaged," said Miss Giltinane. Off they went together, the rich woman with a protecting arm around the poor one, and agreeing that the merely rich should be compelled to wear their earrings in their noses to the end that the likes of Miss Giltinane and the Great Lady should not be misled into wasting time on the likes of such, i.e. the merely rich.
I was left as waver-in-chief of the Union Jack, and found it more congenial and gracious to assist in acclaiming Belgium as the prodigy of a demented world's martial eruptions.
I grudged my compatriot her escape. Not that I did not enjoy similar attempts at being captured, some of them by the divinest dreams of girls; but they would have wanted to make love to me, or have expected me to make love to them. There were also members of my own sex eager to take me aside, but they would have expected me, being British, to drink and smoke, or even in more arduous ways to vindicate my virility; and as it was I was becoming a faded fratzzzzzzzle in that hysteroid campaign.
Next morning, Monday being the decrescendo day of the week, which, as a precaution against infantile senility, I kept for myself, I looked up the letter-press about Miss Giltinane. War temperature and the possibilities of publicity being what they were at that date in that locality, it screamed all across the country in headlines. In addition to the foregoing facts, it was recorded that Miss Merlin Giltinane was the great-great-grand-great&c-something of the famous Sir Guy de Giltinane, whose exploits had begun in the cradle in the old baronial hall at Dissland Snoring, culminated in the Crusades, and ended with his legs crossed in effigy, beside his good and beautiful lady missus in the little church of St Muckleberry Major.
The father of Miss Giltinane, a distant son of the Crusading house, infused with the love of adventure inbred in the sons of the Great British Empire, had wooed and won a brilliant tripos winner of Cambridge, and had settled in the Great Australian Bush from which, stated the generous reporter, came some of the most magnificent warriors in the stupendous fight for democracy, etc., etc. Miss Giltinane, it was proclaimed, showed her breeding in every line of her features, and, with a courage worthy of it, had led the retreat of the Serbian soldiers from Kragujevatz to Scutari; then to San Giovanni de Medua, where the masts of sunken food ships dotted the harbour, a monument to the enemy submarines—those vermin of the sea...
I rang up Miss Giltinane and introduced myself as a fellow British subject on a similar lay, who, being a little homesick, would like to take her to lunch. This was the wrong note. She said we were not children and had not come over to be homesick. I tried an honester note, apparently the right one with this downright, forthwith Colonial. I confessed my first sally to be a mere convention, the truth being I was so happy in the U.S.A. that I wished it were my own country.
"Good," said she. "I should like to meet you, but I haven't time for the Britishers who come over here without being pressed and then want to get together like spit-grubs and grizzle about their own superiority. The thing to do in another country is to enlarge your understanding by the very differences, not go sour on them."
I assured her that I was sound on this. "And you don't want to meow about the United States because it's not yet in the lunacy?"
"Good gracious no! If I might venture a secret I think it's jealousy."
"The fox without a tail business?"
"Yes. But we must keep our thoughts on that secret, or it would perhaps be high treason—but ah, if all the new nations could only by a Monroe Doctrine..."
"Ssh! When they take the virus here they won't be as subdued as our Motherland birds, and we don't want to cover our missions in scandal."
"Scarcely! And we're in the cattle stampede now. There's no way out but right through."
An hour later she stood before me where she had fixed the meeting in the Allies' Cafeteria on Wabash Avenue.
"I hope you like coming here," was her greeting. "I want to learn all I can of these wonderful places. They're so cheap, and you've no snobby waiter sniffing over your food and despising you if you're not in the tow of a sleek young rake or a corpulent old profiteer; and, besides, I want to start something like this when I go hack to London."
"What for?" I asked, foolishly.
"To earn my living. I'm as poor as a crow, and I have to keep my Daddy too."
I noted her well as she chose a table, where we deposited our overcoats, and then with her tray she led the way, unaffectedly and lithely. I have a horror of burstatious looking women, who seem as if melting would be the only way to get them into their clothes, and to peel them the only way to get them out—ugh! This young person was tallish, narrowly built and compact, with an appearance of well-covered slimness. Close-fitting things on her could never look tight. She was at that date twenty-two, but there were more lines on her face than customary on women of thirty in England. Her native sun had kissed her to a fictitious age, but breeding showed in every feature. And that is claptrap, seeing that eugenics remain too undeveloped to ensure any physical or mental trait, and that the human species is reproduced by hazard. However, Merlin's nose is straight and small with exquisite nostrils. Better, her eyes are clean and fearless, like a boy's before he becomes sex-conscious, and I felt that she was free from servility or pettiness.
"So you love America tool" I said.
"Oh, heavens, yes! If only I could have come here when I was young. But my father and mother went to Australia before I was horn and I've never had a chance."
"What do you mean?"
"I should like to write. It's the universal Australian ambition, of course. Even our swaggies and business men and jockeys write poetry. Housewives and commercial travellers, or magsmen as they're called, write novels. I'd like to write, not that trash, but books on philosophy, only I'm as ignorant as a bandicoot."
"You can be thankful for that," I said, and added the platitudes common to those who have an academic education.
"Don't be silly. I thirsted for real education. Mother gave me all she could in the intervals of doing five times what any working woman in England is asked to do, but oh, to frotter la cervelle among thousands at these beautiful universities. I could have worked my way through, too. I needn't have been a burden on my parents."
The U.S.A. is indeed a country designed to free children from the handicap which a large percentage of parents in all languages undoubtedly are.
"Why don't you bring your Daddy over here? You'd find so many more openings, and a higher return for your efforts."
"I'm too proud. I wasn't bred like a guinea pig, and after spoiling one country we can't come running over here to mess up another. We have an Empiah as large as the United States, and if we can't buck-up and make countries even better than this, where all the world is rushing more eagerly than to get to heaven, well then, I do think we're chumps: because we could pick out the grand things and beware of the awful ones."
My habit is pregnant silence and fruitful observation. I am rarely moved to such a spate of self-revelation as that girl's remark released. Food forgotten, I confessed that the outbreak of war had made me one of the unhappiest of mortals.
My father started in the consular service, and through study of international law, and by reason of his ability, had got into the diplomatic swim as a legal attaché of the British Embassy at the court of Uncle Sam. My parents' earlier peregrinations had resulted in my undergoing education as it is applied to la cervelle in the Public Schools of England as well as in colleges of the United States. My father's design for me was to qualify for both the English and American Bars and to specialize in international law. I craved, rather nebulously, to write, and balked my father's ambition by becoming a teacher of English, and keeping my dream in storage. The welter of chances to earn a living in the U.S.A. makes it possible for individualistic young men to thwart parental dictation, and I had been as happy as larry in good old farraginous U.S.A. till the war broke out and I was shoved back into the restrictive plexus of nationality.
Never was British subject more Americanized than I found myself at that date; but I could become an American citizen only by forswearing my own nationality. That was repugnant to me. I am, I suppose, a snob at heart. No outstanding Europeans were becoming American citizens, though many citizens confined to small compass in Europe had become noted and rich in the U.S.A. Clemenceau, Pasteur, Poincaré, Joffre, Jaurez, Madame Curie, Bernhardt, Karl Marx, Liebknecht, Freud, Nitti, Mussolini, Lenin, Trotsky, Tolstoy, Nansen, Branting, Amundsen, Lenglen, Melba, Bernard Shaw, de Valera, Galsworthy, Sybil Thorndyke, Lord Balfour and Lloyd George had not forsworn their nationality. It wasn't being done by the distinguished. By so doing I should declass myself to myself. By an ugly oath of repudiation I should lose my own nationality, and, in the nationality of my adoption, be for ever suspect unless I adhered to the line of a raucous and materialistic patriotism.
"I'm an internationalist intellectually," I said to Merlin upon this. "I think this rabid nationalism irrational. It's a bacillus the human race has to extirpate, and I feel at the moment that one must courageously meet the obligations of one's nationality and accord the right of self-determination to others."
"Yes, even to the Scilly Isles, if they claim it."
"Perhaps. However, as I couldn't glibly change my nationality as so many Europeans, and even Britishers, can for material advancement—"
"Those who grab the rights and privileges of both countries and evade the duties are the ones that make me sick."
"All the same, I lean towards cosmopolitanism as a form of widening civilization."
"So do I, but you must have roots—a base."
"Quite. But we need something better than internationalism as it is shaping now. Universalism, perhaps, is what I mean, and the stronger and saner the national root the better based we are for that."
"Exactly. Like a person with a sound home-background."
In any case we agreed that it was impossible to denationalize an adult of any strength of character. I had felt the urge to vindicate my nationality by enlisting in time for those first retreats when we had no trenches, in the days of Mons, when we doubled back and fired on ourselves, when the bullets came at us like a swarm of bees, and it was a miracle that retreat did not become a rout.
"But my national self-satisfaction was undermined by having lived over here for years, and I was wretched in the inefficiency of old-world methods. The domestic inconveniences! Comfort is impossible!"
"Yes, just think of the housekeeping arrangements here! Like paradise by comparison."
"Yes! I wasn't at home in the Homeland and could be only a sojourner in the land of my heart. I've been more miserable than I thought possible over the out-worn tin-pot ways of doing things. To see those palsied old women at the Queen's Workrooms trying to make a slipper out of a bit of rag; and the doddering old special constables, about as deadly as a taty-bogle. All the young being blown to pieces to settle their messes, and a new idea regarded as bad form."
"Well, of course," responded Miss Giltinane cheerily, "one expects the Motherland to be rather a back number: but still we must preserve it because it's a rich museum of things that have prestige from the cultural angle. Besides, it's a valuable headquarters for the Empiah in Europe. It's this way: England's like one's grandmother, naturally a bit antiquated, but all the same very important, and knowing and having more than we have. One must stand by one's grannie."
"Hang it all, I'm not your grannie, and most of those boys dying in the mud are as young as you are."
"But you had the good fortune to get shaken up overseas before you ossified. Dear little brushed-and-combed museum England—perfectly darling in its way, but terribly narrowing if one hadn't known the great new parts of the world, don't you think? What can we do to wake them up before everything has slipped from them? My Daddy says England's too full of dead wood."
"He's very likely right."
"He means those old jossers pomping about the clubs in Piccadilly and Whitehall. There's a perfect specimen at the Red Cross in Pall Mall. He inspects all us women going to the Front—an old chook with purple cheeks and shaky hands—Indian Major-General or something. He shrivels up the women, and the silly things aren't game to stand up to him. 'Call yourself a woman! Trying to be a man! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!' he snarled at me. 'I'm ashamed of you—trying to be a fool,' I said to him, and he was going to play old Harry with me; but I told him if he acted like that in the backblocks when a fire was rushing towards the homestead we'd fling him in the dam to cool his head: and that the war's like a terrible fire menacing the whole Empiah, and it's no time to be dillying about waiting for formal introductions and asking if one is male or female. And he calmed down like a lamb and said, 'So you've come all the way from the antipodes to help save the Empiah!' And he shook hands with me and opened the door with a stately bow. So even he wasn't a bad old grub when sense was knocked into him. I expect he was ruined early by pomping about India among submerged millions."
I lay back and laughed, happier than I had been for weeks, at the thought of that capitulating Anglo-Indian. The Empiah could not be lost if this girl's spirit was typical of England's chicks that gathered from afar upon seeing the blaze in the sky.
"Merlin Giltinane," said I, "may I call you by your first name?"
"I should love you to. What's yours?"
"Nigel, but my father has first right to that, so I'm Nije or Nig, but that's too like Nigger."
"Oh, let me call you Niggeh! With your fair complexion it will be a lark and show the dear Negroes that we don't mind. Like the Indians, they don't like to be called 'natives'; and we Australians just burst with pride to be natives of Australia."
"You Australians are chips of the old block. You have no national inferiority complex."
Why the blazes didn't I fall desperately in love with Merlin then instead of...What a lot of trouble it saves a man to have a commanding love affair that lasts! It is just possible that she may have taken me had I offered her a maiden passion. It is more possible that she may not: but virility will have fled the globe and none but Mr Shaw's he-ancients remain when more than a negligible percentage of men doubt their ability to win any woman, princess or pauper.
But how can a man fall in love with a woman, however young and fair and love-worthy, while she is heliographing ideals for the Empiah such as to inspire and demand cerebration by a statesman, and betrays her unconsciousness of the scale of view of the "old chooks" pomping or hibernating on Piccadilly, by referring to England as a valuable pied à terre? How could a man, I insist, for it is true that to "fall in love" a man has to suffer the total bereavement of whatsoever reason and wits he has.
Next day our ways separated. Merlin was working north by Minneapolis and St Paul into Canada, and I going farther west. She gave me an address that would always find her, somewhere in the Home Counties, where her maternal grandfather had been rector of St Botolph in the Turnips, a living in the gift of Baron Clingford, his cousin. Miss Clingford, Merlin's maternal aunt, never let anyone overlook the baronial cousinship.
When I returned to England I meant to write immediately to that address, but I never do this day what procrastination can defer to that, so went to Yorkshire to stay with my own maternal aunt. At fifty she was more blooming than many women of thirty-five, but was fretting sadly because the war was killing my grandfather. He was now eighty-two, a fine old buffer of robust intellect, who feared that the war was exterminating Liberal principles in England. After a week at golf with him I thought the Front would be a holiday, and this time I went with a Commission.
On my last night's leave a Serbian prince was to be entertained at one of the Piccadilly Clubs, and noting that members of the Women's War Hospitals were to be present to do him honour, I bethought me of Merlin Giltinane and decided to look in.
This time procrastination did not intervene and I found a few uninteresting people pawing over a gent with a straight hack to his skull, whose uniform proclaimed him a Serb; but no Merlin. My escape was blocked by a large handsome hostess who intimated that she would a word with me, and as she bagged real lions in Africa like fowls, and social lions in London like tame pheasants, I meekly hove to. She was addressing some minion unseen, and sounded quite ruffled in the expensively tailored uniform she favoured. "I don't have as much trouble to get a duchess to accept invitations as I do you."
"Perhaps the duchess has nothing better to do, and I have to work like a horse to save the Empiah and support myself and my Daddy."
Here was my quarry, so I circumvoluted the majestic lady to attain the smaller in the trim short-skirted uniform of the Women's War Hospitals. The powerful Londoner put her arm about her just as the Great Lady in Chicago had done, and coaxed, "There's a pet now, do come to my party. You can leave the moment you like, and you needn't be so proud of working for your Daddy that you turn up your nose at less fortunate mortals who haven't a Daddy left to work for."
"You've put it in such a generous and undermining way that I'll have to do what you want," said Merlin. Then she saw me. "Hullo, Niggeh old grub!" she exclaimed, picking up our congeniality just where it had begun in Chicago.
We spent most of what remained of that night together, re-expounding ourselves and our reactions towards nationality, internationality, imperialism, self-determinism, etc., etc. That was the reason I did not fall desperately in love with Merlin at the second opportunity, for a woman must let slip the garment of intelligence, and let the light of the coquette, or the noodle ( which sentimentality will exalt into that of a dove), rather than that of Minerva or Saint Joan, glint in her eyes ere amour will experience a coming-on disposition.
What I mean is illustrated by this thing in its lower reaches, when a beautiful girl of eighteen, if intelligent, can roam the world alone unmolested, while her moron sister of any age, and lacking beauty, is not in her own bailiwick safe among so-called gentlemen.
Merlin was still the crusader, intent upon salvaging her national section of the human family. Her heart, her intelligence, her energy, were bent to this racial, public purpose. What a different memory from that of her misguided sisters she gave a man to carry into the conflict! For all I dare pretend to know of life's pattern or purpose the others may not be misguided. They were, however, concerned with what they could feverishly snatch and recklessly give through the senses, lest the hour of disintegration find them unproved. Merlin was a spiritual oriflamme. Their preoccupation was with the body, with obtrusion and advertisement of it. Merlin was free from those coquetries that direct a man's observation and, if possible, desire toward it.
"Those poor deah gentle little pink Tommies and subalterns going out to die after the methods of mad gorillas, and never a meow out of them! It's so magnificent yet so stupendously demented—just like men. All one can do is stand by them till they calm down again. Oh, Niggeh dear, you have to go now too! Isn't it lunacy to destroy people who have a thinking apparatus, when they're so scarce! I hope you come back, because it's when it's all over we shall have to do our realest bit."
She was going again to the Balkans amid malaria and typhus. She tiptoed and bestowed on me the white kiss of consecration that sends a man toward death aware of that in him which surmounts the beast and survives the flesh.
When we spent another night in discussion all the war uniforms and decorations were as out of mode as Christmas mistletoe after the New Year. It was well on in 1919 and I had just returned from Russia. As a joke or a jaw what one did in the war was as passé as paste, and would cut no further figure except in the yarns of dotards who on the westering horizon of life might recall and englamour the past as they whiled away an hour or two awaiting Charon's yawl.
To escape the syrtis of has-beenism a man must shun mention of what he did in the war, for unless it was profiteering it will avail him nought. Not: What did you do in the Great War, Daddy? but: What did you make out of the boobs in the Great War, Daddy? Well, I made nothing out of them, being the daddy of a commercial boob myself, and desiring such to remain.
So I lightly pass over what I did and what was done to me in the Great War. With the exception of the Russian assignment, I had come through in a way that pleased my father and aunt immensely. I had carried out my non-combatant mission to the U.S.A. acceptably, and in the field ascended to a captaincy with three wound stripes and the Military Cross. I was a satisfactory captain to the tailors, being five foot eleven when I held myself erect, and what is known as stock size, free from plum pudding protuberances fore and aft. I got the M.C. for extricating my men under fire from a desperate situation. I assure you, deah readah, we ran the right way by good luck.
"Get demobbed before the rush and establish yourself before all the pretence about gratitude to brave heroes has ceased to function," said my father. "With your record and my official connexions I can get you the choice of a number of posts. As you don't fancy the Law, I advise business. All the best people are turning that way now."
It was gentlemanly of the old boy not to refer to the Russian expedition. I had gone there by way of Murmansk following the Armistice in November. My father's influence and my honourable and not too dangerous wounds had made my inclusion possible. I was to furnish material for articles for a certain daily, the finances of which had recently been reorganized. My father was in cahoots with some of the ginks and guys concerned, and since he was in the diplomatic racket and self-made, that is a certificate of the journal's "right thinking". I was instructed, however, to gather facts at first-hand and tell the truth. But what truth may seem varies with one's thinking apparatus and opportunities for observation, and, in regard to Russia, I foolishly attempted to be a pilot instead of a Pilate. In the circumstances I thought it honest to decline my father's offer.
I have, most likely, sufficient brains to gamble in wheat, to corner the babies' canned milk, or to adulterate the adolescents' vitamins for profit, but I have not the kind of patience to ensure the unabating low-minded vigilance demanded by so dull and unadventurous an avocation. At the risk of never cutting any coupons in this world or Conan Doyle's, I insisted mulishly upon my English right to be an original, to remain unstandardized, and to preserve my nonentity.
My experience in the army at war had strengthened my desire for personal self-determination. I was set upon escape from the standardizing hag of commercial ambition. I shrank from the fag of cultivating the proclivities and interests indispensable to a captain of industry. I had had enough as a captain of infantry. I had wallowed in my own filth in the miles of communal graves where the profiteers' obsessions had culminated. The unregulated trader's heaven with its production of human quantity regardless of quality, in order to provide markets and cannon fodder, can lead in the future, as in the immediate past, only to blind alleys of cumulatively bestial and annihilating Armageddons. The traders' and warriors' activities and prizes repel me. I hungered for the adventure of exploration of the human soul and the unrestricted exercise of the mind—two hinterlands still frontier free. I knew surely that I wished to retain the right to my own inconclusions and to seek recreation in the fashioning of my own fancies. This led me to the pen.
My poor father!
My poor aunt! who recently had been robbed of my grandfather in the eighty-fifth year of his reign and the fifth month of the Armistice. He had played his rounds of golf with the best of them to within a month of his passing, yet my aunt said she could never forgive the Boche for shortening his existence.
She had an additional count against our late adversaries now for what they had done to her darling nephew, for to shell-shock was attributed my determination in the thirty-second year of my foolishness—having hitherto given but slender evidence of precocity in this field—to sit down in London and scribble, instead of to ornament the posts that yawned for me in the United States of America and elsewhere.
When the shock of my aberration had subsided my aunt renewed a campaign of patriotism. The war had not been enough. We must fight the corpse. I could make heaps and heaps of money by using my war experience. Look at Such-and-Such's and So-and-So's best sellers! I, who had been at the frontest Front, far in front of these gentlemen who were reaping social laurels and cash, could surely do better. I had been to that dreadful Russia, too.
Neither I nor my father had told her of my failure in that field. Nor did I confess that I had written war stuff right along between campaigns and when convalescing. I had tempered it, too, knowing that the truth would be insupportable to the feeble and debauched souls of vicarious warriors and heroes. The rarities who faced the truth told me that my stuff, though brilliant, would not be permitted to appear through any publishing house or journal they knew of. The older men among these said, "Keep it by you for five years. Ordinary people by that time may be able to face facts."
My aunt continued to demand faked stuff full of heroic mush and propagandists' infamies, so that pot-bellied old men and flabby old women could still stew in a sense of their own racial superiority, and the coming generation of youngsters be duped anew to swashbuckling. Were they casuistically or merely stupidly blind to the fact that our reign as overlords of the globe was glimmering to its close? Or was it because they lacked first-hand impact with the U.S. and could not envisage the might and majesty of sheer raw power and energy that it is? Just to cross that country from east to west was enough to assure even a lay observer that there, in working order, is material power unconquerable by any other national agglomeration, or any that would combine against it. As soon as John Bull had begun war with the Kaiser England was doomed to suffer such irrecoverable wounds and wastage that the Union Jack—and every other Jack—had become automatically second to Old Glory. But among the diehards it was had form, almost treason, to admit awareness of this. They were habituated to empire, so clung to sinking glory and turned wanly from the realization that we must, and were still endowed to aim at ethical leadership in débâcle. There our future hope of greatness lay. Let profit and glory bellow where they would!
Though debarred from exposing a bestiality so stupid that one could never again in this life have any respect for the whole class of war-whoopers, I stood firm. I would not present war "nicely" for the sustenance of toad-like hypocrites who demanded idealized brutalities. "Dreadful, of course—war is not a picnic—but nevertheless magnificent in the heroic qualities it develops." I vaulted clear of the memory of the great idiocy, the unforgivable betrayal. Having survived incarceration in that demoniac hell of brutality, of stenches and vermin and filth beyond man's portrayal in language, I was pursued by a longing to express dainty gossamer fragments about life's loveliness.
Dedicated to a mistress who would brook no divided allegiance, I was fortunate that my grandfather had left me a legacy as evidence of his appreciation of my agreeing that the war was exterminating the Liberal principles of England. This, with my back pay, would be enough for my simple wants for a couple of years.
Only Merlin cheered me still.
"You haven't a wife or child or mother or father or sister depending on you," said she. "Develop your mind. Thinkers are the rarest wealth of any nation. The grabbers of the earth would never get anywhere, only that they grab ideas as well as sources of raw material."
"I'm not so sure."
"Don't be afraid to use your thinking apparatus. The nation with the cleverest ideas and sanest ideals is going to be among the survivors in the next era."
"I'm not so sure," I repeated despondently. "We may be swarmed over by the people with the numbers. Some beast of prey will organize them to manufacture munitions; any kind of creature is good enough to use a machine-gun. He doesn't need even animal courage, because he can be chained. The fewer ideas the better."
"Ah, ha!" ejaculated Merlin with sang-froid. "That's where poison gas or other increasingly efficient engines for mass murder are going to be the saving of the clever ones. Lethal machines will make it necessary to weed out the morons and other duds as ruthlessly as superfluous cabbage plants. As machines take the place of unskilled labourers they won't be kept to devour food like locusts when alive and to pollute the earth when dead. There may be marvellous possibilities to counter the menace of rabbit birth-rates."
"Can you find me a retreat within my means," I asked, "where I may meditate on these inspiring possibilities and express myself in dainty gossamer fragments about life's loveliness, as well as make my testimony about the new system in Russia."
In pursuance of what Merlin calls the lunatic half of their composition, male builders, during four years, had abandoned the building of houses in England to assist other nationals in the making of ruins in Flanders and France, with the inevitable result of a house famine in London and elsewhere. I was therefore surprised next day to have the option of a large bed-sitting-room with a kitchenette attached, and the luxury of a decent char in attendance. It was in West Central, in a street that was a curious mixture. Its miscellaneous character was an inheritance from the pre-motor-car way of living when the privileged had to have their servitors within reach, and the rich and the poor therefore lived side by side. Highly respectable dwellings intersected the area like the sound parts in aristocratic cheese. A long-ago gentleman's home near by now served as a hostel for the most 'self-respecting of self-supporting females such as secretaries, medical students and lecturers, while ladies of a different caravanserai infested the beat outside the wine shop on an opposing corner, and, on occasion, mistakenly disputed their territory with tamely monogamous wives.
Recently an old woman had been murdered in her little frowsy shop hard by for the pathetically few pence in her frowsy little till, and Merlin herself lived not a stone's throw distant, in a slightly larger flat than that offered me. There she kept her Daddy, because her aunt was no longer able to suffer him when the high heroism of the war period had exploded. The descendant of the Crusading de Giltinane had been equally dispirited when the expression of his thoughts was counted raving in the miniature villa adjacent to St Botolph in the Turnips.
The direct landlord of my premises was a cobbler. Outside the art of cobbling he had his physical being in the basement. My flat was under the roof, and under me lived two most respectable families, one above the other. The Cobbler was hesitant about my taking possession. I referred him to Merlin, because the place was a catch, taking one thing like the reasonable rent with another like the dearth of such apartments.
When Merlin came home from work she and I presented ourselves before the Cobbler together. He asked if she was my wife. I said no. He asked if we were contemplating marriage.
"You've got marriage on the brain," said Merlin. "I'm too busy for such tomfoolishness, and besides, I know too much about men."
The Cobbler, a pigeon-breasted thin little man with popping blue eyes and a walrus moustache that ambushed the sagging lines of a lugubrious mouth with three fangs—two up and one down—hinted that he wished to speak with Merlin alone. She promptly dismissed me.
"You see wot it is," said the shoe-mender, "I'm a respectable man."
"I hope so, or I should have nothing to do with you."
"An' it's this way, you see; I gotta boy to think of, and the Coram Street and Southampton Row beauties are pretty thick around here; an' wot I don't want to have is a string of them kind of females runnin' up an' down me stairs. If you was gain' to marry him, I know it would be orlright."
I should have thought that the kind of thing the Cobbler would rather take up man to man.
"If that's all your trouble, the only females running up and down will he me and a few of his older friends, and you must come in some evening and have tea with my Daddy and get him to talk about Australia." The emergence of her Australianism, and the prospect of harbouring a writer to add ton to his establishment, reassured the Cobbler.
"I told him," said Merlin, in repeating the conversation, "that if the Southampton Row beauties disport themselves to your undoing he has only to inform me, and I'll settle their hash for them."
"That," I complained, "was not quite nice of you, Merlin. Surely you know that I would never—"
"No," said Merlin, "I don't! You seem a dear, and quite human, but sex in men appears to be a virulent fungus quite separate from their humanness, and I have never yet seen a man who was fit to be off a chain when its lunacy enters into him. On the human side a man can have intelligence, affection, even be possessed of taste and refinement: yet let the sex fungus sprout and all this goes by the board. Hired creatures! Ugh! You can see young gins around the north of Australia nursing half-white babies, the same thing around any South Sea Island beach. It's not white women who are their fathers."
A conclusion so irrefutable reduced me to a meek murmur.
Thus, having been demobbed, and guaranteed by Merlin, I was sheltered by the Cobbler and settled in Marken Street, W.C.1, with promise of that lively sense of satisfaction which attends the healthy operation of creative faculties. I was nagged, however, by the Russian experiment. The Russians—their food, their music, their temperament—were a powerful new enthusiasm, which enlarged and enriched the world for me. Their gargantuan revolution, their prodigious plan for a better way of life, had gone to my head. It was a revelation. I must testify or be stymied on the green of my spiritual and intellectual progress. I set to work with zest. This testament was the first fruits of my freedom and beliefs that had been smelted in the furnace of war. For my cause's sake I was moderate and academic, and the result seemed good to me. Not to anyone else. To the rabid partisans it was too mild; to the "right thinkers" it was all wrong. It alarmed them, for the beneficiaries of plunder are furnished with a sixth and seventh and more senses to detect on the farthest horizon the smallest and faintest cloud that might threaten their privileges.
"Lay it by for a while," advised Merlin. This was absolution. I was freed to my dreams and meditations.
My graduation from hell had awakened me to the comfort of ordinary things. The day's most trivial routine, the "good morning" of the paper man, the importunities of children, the resigned patience of old people, now eased me with a softening gratitude, like shade in the heat of noonday. The glory of dawn and dusk, day and night, the loveliness of birds and flowers, the companionship of animals, filled me with rapture. All the hours of all the days would not give time enough to impart the saving news of this realization to my fellows. Wisps of gossamer loveliness accepted me as their medium, and enough acceptances to lure me on came from periodicals indistinct or of distinction.
The anguish of having two countries, one by birth, blood and affection, the other by affection and congeniality, was subsiding. I was being nationally reabsorbed. I was reverting to type. In re-charting myself, the English cast of my mind was reappearing, so that I knew I was going to be more comfortable mentally in England, freer to sit and meditate on my own uncertainties; in short, freer to be a crank; and so much has to be saved by cranks.
In those first days of my return, miserably uncomfortable and despairing, because of the inefficiency resulting from muddle and lack of the modern machinery of mechanical existence, I recalled discussions I had had with my friend Sherwood. Upon the outbreak of war I had been in Chicago eluding my father's designs by tutoring a plutocrat's son, whose "maw" had coveted my English accent, and in my free time consorting effulgently with my fellows-who-would-be of the writing craft. Sherwood has since become a bigwig among these, but then he was doing something like myself by day and pounding his typewriter far into the night. With a good many thinkers, he used to believe that there was no explanation of war but the grand lunacy of all those participating. Nevertheless, when the conflagration burst upon us he aligned himself with the French and British. This surprised me. Looking on dispassionately, it seemed to me, as it did to President Wilson, that one side made as plausible a case as the other for a catastrophe that could never be excused.
"Oh, no," said Sherwood confidently. "France and England must be helped to win. Their superiority lies in their being less efficiently organized." This in a day when every sociologist in the English tongue had been fervent in worship of Germany's organizing efficiency!
"The human race in the mass is still so undeveloped spiritually that too much organization is a menace. I'll show you what I mean. Look at this filthy slum!" He waved his arm to indicate that down-at-heel area between Rush Street Bridge and Chicago Avenue, and west from Lincoln Park Way to North Clark Street and farther, in the midst of which his genius had sought an inexpensive aerie. "That sort of thing is better in the hands of Muddle than in the hands of Efficient Organization. Under Efficient Organization at present it might be graded up a little, but it would become a hermetically sealed prison, standardizing mediocrity and less than mediocrity; whereas, under Muddle, an odd example of genius might develop unnoticed and get out through some crack. That's why I'm for England and France. Genius still has a one-in-ten chance of escaping with its life amid the disorganization."
His postulate had constantly aroused irritation in me during the days when my chances of dying in the mud of France or Flanders were being increased from one to ten by conceited and unorganizable old muddlers; but, having survived, I now recognized the golden truth of it, and saw in Marken Street one of those cracks in disorganization through which talent might escape unhampered by authority.
Yes, England, his own, own, desultory, casual land was the place for one who at thirty-two wanted to throw over material prospects in order to simmer. He would pass unnoticed in London. In the strident, opulent, standardized new world he might come under the ban of "right thinking" and have his head examined as to his sanity that he did not plunge into the vortex of psychological, college-induced efficiency and industry to produce therefrom an automobile to take the place of his legs, and the dollars to patronize between working hours some recreation show designed to obviate any possibility of or necessity for thought.
Yes, you know...
Even in England my father ( though he was tinctured with American ideas of success ) and my aunt felt that my crankiness had to be explained as shell-shock.
I longed to meet Sherwood again to tell him what a useful gift his exposition had been and also that I had recovered from socialistic sentimentality about the proletariat. As to Muddle v. Organization, I now believed that to fill the bellies of the proletariat and furnish them with modern gadgets and leave it at that would be only half the battle, or perhaps have worse results than laissez-faire. Equally fundamental is it to ensure for the supernormal minds and characters the freedom to think and experiment. A nation may waste a percentage of the mediocre to the brewers and lechers: ordinary activities can be relegated in large part to machines, but the nation failing to recognize and cherish its supernormals, or afraid to explore new realms of thought, is travelling backwards. The fruits of the thought and discoveries of the highly-endowed must be employed in the service of all mankind—regardless of sex or colour: not continue to be the private property of the groups of plunder, and by them used as weapons to maintain their privileged caste. After the grand war to end war and save freedom one would have thought that such trite general premises would find universal acceptance, but to breathe them, however gently, startled my relatives and their circle as bolshevism. Bolshevist and its derivatives were superseding socialist and anarchist and fenian as misapplied epithets of abuse. The cat for which the masters of finance and industry had really engaged in the grand war to end war was wriggling boldly out of the hag. It was clear to him that his masters never seriously intended him for the pond: there was no stone in the sack and its mouth was loosely tied. He shook the bells on his collar inscribed Status Quo. He sat up and began to clean his face in readiness for a saucer of milk. Cream would come later. His owners did not see him as a scarred old warrior whom another Armageddon would remove from his position as the World's Top Tom.
The pipe dreams of proletarian brotherhood were receding with the delusions of trench fever. The old money order had simply changed its nationality from the pound to the dollar, and the dollar, though not so heavy in content, was more plentiful and had a growing monopoly of all the new gadgets for making itself heard and felt.
At any rate, while awaiting the reassembling of the forces for freedom on bolshevistic or any less totalitarian scale I hailed the genius cracks provided by good old muddle. I now appreciated one of those deliciously unbelievable ladies whom England produces. In 1915, apropos my expressed despair in face of unavoidable muddle, she had contended, "In muddle lies the secret of our supremacy. If you did away with it, all our charm would be gone. England would be done!"
At that date I had faintingly murmured, "Alice in Wonderland is a literal transcript. Its author was a mathematician."
Today I sang in my heart "Hi! Ho! High Hunting! Me for the Genius Cracks!"
The romance of the Cobbler's life was his son. The Cobbler was a widower and so remained that his son might have something better than his father had known. During the last two years of the war the Cobbler had cobbled for the army's dirty, disinherited, smelly feet. Now he cobbled for the more circumscribed understandings of Bloomsbury. He had obtained the lease of his house cheaply since it was condemned as a habitation, but could not be demolished because of the house famine. The Cobbler furnished it from the second-hand shop next door and sub-let it in floors, thereby living rent free and getting in enough to keep the boy at school, though this undersized, walrus-moustached, pop-eyed, worse than-toothless citizen was no rack-renter. Lady George was his better in that.
"He's a real true parent," said Merlin, "who provides for his offspring like the higher animals and birds. He's not one of these creatures begging in the streets and proclaiming without shame that he has three or five young children in the gutter with no prospects of providing for them."
The Cobbler had found women, except as a wife, unprofitable. So he engaged the mellifluous Mrs Brindle as char, and shared her with the other tenants. He kept a bedroom-study behind the shop for his swanky son, who at present was at Harrow.
"Isn't it a pity there isn't something better for the poor little man to do with him than make a snob of him?" Merlin has a vigorous derry on the affectations induced by English Public School processes, not only in those who attend them, but in those who ape them. "The boy will be made a torture to himself and his pop-eyed walrus cobbler of a dad."
She herself had a restless old wallaby of a dad and thought him a treasure, so I remarked, "Young Cobbler will have to get over it. I had to when I went to the U.S.A. They thought I was half-witted, but I quickly adjusted myself."
"But you went to something grand and rich, and this poor little devil...It's going to be hard on the Cobbler, but I shall stand by him."
That meant, of course, that I, too, should have to stand by.
Those were delicious days, though I found the muse an elusive jade. Anything to postpone starting work! Any excuse to wait for inspiration instead of hugging method and industry! I could dream essays and novels like quicksilver in the brain; but when it came to putting them abjectly on paper everything intervened, even letters to my father, even letters to my aunt, who thought me a victim of shell-shock and bolshevism.
But though I dreamed and meditated consumingly I wrote succinctly too. The pleasantly-functioning char made my breakfast and often prepared a little lunch so that I could put in an uninterrupted day with only my evening meal to seek. It was summertime and the mechanical shortcomings not quite so discommoding. It was princely to stroll around to good old Fleming's ( the best value for the money in London), or to "The Tea Kettle" or "The Pot of Cream" or "The Sportsman" in Soho, when I felt a bit above myself, and thence into the pit of a theatre. Generally the shortest queue advertised the play with a thought in it for me, and thus back to my rickety, sagging, typical London bed.
It was so enchantingly unhasting in the post-war material scramble that no wonder my aunt thought me wanting. It was her terror that it should become known that her brilliant Captain M.C. nephew was mouldering in a shabby creaking place over a cobbler's shop reached by frowsy uneven stairs from a passage the width of the door and lit by a fly-spotted gas jet; but I welcomed her surreptitious calls. Her respectability was of the order to reassure chars and cobblers, and I always addressed her loudly as "Aunt" while we were passing my landlord's door.
Thus we each found satisfaction in our affairs. The Cobbler was uplifted by slaving for his son, I was engrossed in coaxing my thoughts, and Merlin contented to be supporting her Daddy. The nous of it, to have gone speculating in a Genius Crack!
"I hope I may simmer in this beatific state indefinitely," I said to Merlin.
"You'll be all right till you come to the boil about some woman; then if she's an average specimen you'll settle down as the matrimonial beast of burden. But if it should be some other man's property, heaven knows how it may disrupt you."
"I think I'm old enough now—gone thirty-two—to expect normality. The lack of sirens will be my safeguard. Of course, given the right siren, I could go mad with love."
"So could I, given a man such as—well, what right have I to expect the supernormal to waste himself on me: and as so many ordinary fellows have been killed, I'll step out and leave the remnants that are not enough to go round for the women who have not had their share of lovers, pestiferous or otherwise. I have other resources of mind to occupy me."
Merlin the abstract!
To support herself and Daddy, Merlin had intended to introduce a cafeteria to London. The idea bad to be abandoned at that date, owing to the impossibility of imposing a new mechanical plant upon English domestic antiquarianism. Imperviousness to mechanical innovations plus equanimity before a new idea has had an inconsistent effect upon British progress.
Instead of a cafeteria, therefore, Merlin, partnered by two others who had also served in the Women's War Hospitals, opened a little luncheon place on one floor not far from Piccadilly. It quickly increased to three floors. It was called the Mia Mia. Some mistook this for an attempt at a lovalilly title in one of the Mediterranean tongues till they were educated by the construction by Daddy of a little mia mia in an alcove at one end of the second floor, and the explanation that this was an Australian aboriginal shelter against the weather, and that the name had been chosen because of one of the proprietresses' Australian connexions and to indicate an unpretentious place.
The Londoner imagines himself completely aware, but one has only to observe him dabbing his rosy little nose on a new monument to realize how deliciously naïf he is about the most trivial innovations. So the mia mia proved a great advertisement. Similar stunts succeeded it. The Mia Mia Restaurant, Ltd was always packed at meal hours. The success of the undertaking was that these young women worked themselves, and each had special ability. The failure of it, as far as Merlin was concerned, was that poor old Daddy Giltinane, or Merlin's Daddy, as he was affectionately known, had practically nothing to do: and his restlessness could be alleviated only by ceaseless activity.
Daddy had flourished during the war. He loved to tickle the earth, and all the gardeners around St Botolph in the Turnips with the exception of one or two antique grandfathers having been called to dig trenches elsewhere, Daddy Giltinane had valiantly and opportunely filled the home breach. Then only sixty-six, and hale as people who have lived an outdoor life, he felt capable to outdo any man among Kitchener's tea-and-toast Tommies, and early sought to enlist in the regular army. He had, however, suffered rejection, that being the "bursted particular" season for volunteers. Later, his years had accumulated.
That he should thus be saving the Empiah had been a laudable, a gentlemanly, a Crusading enterprise, and Miss Clingford—of the family of Baron Clingford, don't forget!—upon whom he was quartered, managed to endure him by keeping his Crusading pedigree in the foreground and excusing his eccentricities by reason of his long sojourn on barbarous frontiers.
He also wandered around the gentle villages as a special constable, and was an entertaining windfall to the frail old tutor, the athletic butcher, and a couple of others associated with him. It became for them an inspiriting game of follow-my-leader, for Guy revelled in the dark nights and kept his comrades from falling in the ditches, while under the hedges he spun yarns about kangaroos and snakes, and blacks, and bandicoots, and sundowners and buck-jumping, and horse-racing; about birds that enjoyed folk-dancing upon the plains; about birds that laughed uproariously at the foolish antics of man; about droughts when all the world knew not one blade of grass; about floods when all the world was a sea, when settlers used their dog-kennels and pianos and fowl-houses as boats, when the rivers turned on themselves, and steamships lost the track; about rabbits that stretched from the rising to the going-down of the sun with not a needle-point of space between; about sandstorms that buried houses and fences, and many phenomena far from the ken of St Botolph and his turnips.
Daddy had been happily busy from morning till night and unacquainted with bodily fatigue or mental lassitude, while the ladies cooed softly that they did not know what would have happened to their gardens but for "that dear, wonderful, strange Mr Giltinane (he's descended—did you know?—from the Crusading Giltinanes of Dissland Snoring, and went away out into the wilds of Australia ). Isn't it good of him to help us as he does! His dear little daughter is with the Women's War Hospitals. Oh, yes, was on a retreat—with wolves! There's nothing like our own people, you know. They may occasionally be crude and—um—a little rough and urn—lacking in cultchah, but the breed always tells."
Convention forbade that Merlin should let her ageing Daddy out as an odd-jobs man after the Armistice had set. She must needs go to work to support him.
The place in Australia had been left to her brother to work. An accident that had left him with a groggy back debarred him from fighting for his country, even as a stretcher-bearer, so he had sent Daddy and Merlin, and stuck disappointedly to the land to produce that superb wool on which the convolutions of war profits had made fortunes for middle-men while the guns roared. What the Giltinanes inherited through Mrs Giltinane, with something borrowed, had sufficed for second-class passages at pre-war cost.
Thanks to the boom in wool Guy Giltinane managed to send remittances, but Daddy's coruscations not having been as a business man, there was an overdraft and other debts, and Merlin had an ambition to stand on her own feet.
The problem was to employ Daddy. The newspapers held him only an hour or two. Mia Mia stunts were intermittent. He peeled the potatoes for the restaurant, which was tolerated because real ladies were engaged in similar tasks, and Daddy was a pet among them: but only an ocean liner's greed for peeled potatoes could have fully occupied him.
Merlin suggested that he should do my window-boxes. Ah, ha! No more dreary aspidistras for me! I left them for the Express Dairy Company and went in for imantyphillums. The Cobbler and the other tenants also had striking fancies. The result was a revolution in window-boxes, and Daddy and the stairs in a gorgeous mess, but I undertook with Mrs Char Brindle to see to that, proud to be able to serve Merlin. But the window-boxes were soon reconstituted, the potatoes peeled, any messages we could concoct gleefully run—and what was there for Daddy? He was a reader of history and adventurous romance, but reading is a feeble substitute and quickly irked one of his restlessness. He took small boys to the Zoo, but we ran out of small boys, they at that date being industriously engaged in saving the Empiah by imbibing education. We sent him to Exhibitions, war and otherwise, but with the optic celerity and precision of those trained in the strange Australian bush, such artifices were dispatched d'un seul coup d'oeil.
Poor old Guy! He was like one of those caged wild things that people coddle in cities in the delusion that they love animals!
Merlin's idea was a little cottage in the outer suburbs with a garden where Daddy could grow vegetables for the restaurant. "If Daddy can only cover himself entirely with earth like a wombat, he's perfectly happy," she said. But places were impossible to acquire in that post-war era, and domestic helpers were work-shy, and it was altogether hard slogging for Merlin. At the end of the day she was often too spent for anything but bed.
But there was Daddy like a devouring engine of energy demanding manipulation.
He conversed lengthily with the Cobbler, who listened civilly, and Merlin was accordingly considerate of the Cobbler. He likewise yarned to me for hours and was welcome, since, in my glorious emancipation, I had leisure. He was a curious compound of the dreamer and a man of action—that is of physical motion. His ideas had the quality of one who, say in the eighties or nineties, had been exiled to some spot where current ideas rarely percolated, and who therefore had continued in exercise of those of the earlier date. His ideas were as out of mode as a poke-bonnet. A man of ideas, withal, and unconventional. He was distressed by the snobbery and cramped conventionality of England.
"It hasn't changed," he would say. "When the war's over, you'll see. Take the old Blinking-Blowfly at St Botolph in the Turnips; when she carried home her three ha'p'orth of fish she squawked for the whole village to observe her democracy—blooming old parakeet! If she'd seen us carrying home half a beast, or salting a whole one at Coolibah, and never thinking to mention the democracy of it!"
Daddy always referred to this most self-respecting British subject as the Blinking-Blowfly, though her ancient and honoured patronymic was Bleeker-Blofield.
"Dead wood! Dead wood!" he would murmur. "No one who's not a producer or a worker of some sort should live in a nation. They're dead wood. We must all produce. A nation carrying too much dead wood cannot survive."
All those old samples in Piccadilly making a career of their clubs, all those, like my aunt and his sister-in-law, were to Guy dead wood. He had quite a thesis in his producer theory, though production for production's sake, or profit's sake, may result in such irregularities as a boot town choked with unmarketable wares while Whitechapel's chilblained toes protrude.
"There's my sister-in-law, a good, clever woman, but narrow! God! She's like something brought up in a bottle that's only seen as far as the cork—narrow! She'd have been a great woman if she could have been rolled in the gutter!"
One day this thought escaped him, whether in reverie or argument I know not. Miss Clingford had a real lady's horror of a scene and had sustained herself by classifying such philosophizing as "raving", but Merlin had thought it better to abstract Daddy.
The cadet of a branch of an ancient family, Guy lacked the tendencies for prominence in a beast-of-prey civilization, and his upbringing had not helped him; but he had grown up at the time when Australia and New Zealand were the happy banishing grounds for those rendered ineffectual by education, heredity, environment, or all three. From his reminiscent monologues I could reconstruct his life and the lives of those imbricated.
His wife had progressed from St Bodolph in the Turnips to Newnham, thence to teaching, a profession which further removed women from the possibility of lovers in circles where men were already scarce; and one has only to read the novels mirroring life in England from the eighties to the beginning of the century to know how emasculated it was.
Guy Giltinane, lovable, imaginative, had come back on a visit from Australia in 1888, a bachelor of thirty-nine, imposing the colour and movement of his tales upon the drab eviscerated gentility of the clerical middle-class. The suffragettes and the war—Oyez! Oyez! The war has made a difference, not all for the worse.
Miss Clingford was then of an age to gauge that her life in England in the future could hold nothing but a gradual fading from what she had already achieved. Perhaps the Home Counties' lack of imagination spared her from visualizing the reality of hardship and the cultural uncongeniality to be met in Australia. She had been mesmerized by Guy as only the unimaginative can be mesmerized by travellers' tales. I never can be sure if it is English imagination or lack of it that puts us in the lead of world adventurers.
So this lady, a real lady—for such is the second Miss Clingford (of the family of Baron Clingford), in spite of her poke-bonnet views on fundamentalism and good form—a refined lady, a clever lady, reared in an enclosure into which no breath even of suffragettism had come, heard the voice of Guy of Giltinane's descendant. She forsook all that she had arduously and pioneeristically trained for—the higher education of women at that date still being a thing for the vulgar to sharpen their wits upon—and recklessly seizing her one chance of romance, followed the long, long track Down Under.
They had settled in the back country in days when six or nine pence per pound was the top price for wool, and when sheep that did not die of drought succumbed to footrot or fluke. This gentlewoman and gentleman were among the outer settlers; and Guy, though physically resourceful, was not a good manager; and pioneering, often hard and lonely for men, is harder and lonelier for women bringing forth their children without skilled help. This lady of thirty-eight brought forth her two. She educated them, for Merlin, in spite of her lamentations, was better educated than many a girl who has her college degrees either here or in the U.S.A.
I listened to Daddy's yarns of his early married life at first for Merlin's sake, but later for Mrs Giltinane's. She came to stand behind her husband and daughter, and her story was revealed through them. As a congenial companion for a brilliant woman with Cambridge and St Botolph as a background, and as a provider of this world's goods, Guy must have had shortcomings, but Mrs Giltinane had made no grievance of this. Merlin had escaped a number of complexes with which a woman in the case of Mrs Giltinane could have afflicted her child. Merlin delighted in her father and had a boundless affection for him.
"Daddy never spoils your dreams," she would say. "He helps you dream them."
However, by deduction, through Merlin, I sensed that Mrs Giltinane must have been gnawed by nostalgia, for Merlin had an ingrained and passionate rapture for England. She had such a longing for intellectual contacts, such a reverence for what society in the cultured sense must mean to the individual's development, that I dreaded her disillusionment.
Fortunately she was brave and wholesome; there were no festering areas in her mind. Her parents had been deeply friendly; she had not been starved for affection or action or sunlight in the pioneering experience. The upheaval of war brought responsibility and usefulness; the snobbery and pretentiousness, the beggars and poverty, the conditions that are horrifying when returning from the New World to the pied à terre of Empire were for the time in abeyance. Mother England was in trouble, and Merlin, young, hardy and adventurous, was exalted by the deeds she was able to perform in her rescue.
How to compute this sentiment of nationality that lies so lightly and holds so fast and far!
What is this love of native land? Irrational sentiment that will not bear scientific analysis, a fixation? Nevertheless, the richer the sensibility the deeper the well of sentiment to freshen the deserts of life. And this remains true of those so modernistic that they meet themselves returning from the year after next to seek the oil of sympathy for souls shop-worn and chapped by adolescent rebellion against hypocrisy and sentimentality.
Merlin enjoyed the glamour generated by youth and danger meeting in adventure. Behind her I could conjure up the shadow of her mother: hers the long slow contract, inch by inch, with nothing mitigated, nothing skipped. Had she that fortitude which kept our infantry in the mud of Flanders with a patience beyond believing and with the inference of stupidity, while others ventured recklessly with greater kudos? Just sitting and holding the lines amid death and filth and discomfort beyond telling, with never a thought of giving way, no despondency, no turning back, just holding on with a power of resistance incomputable because it was unconscious, an endurance that seemed mere torpidity, till the opposing lines wore out and broke before immobility that was impossible, but nevertheless was. So perhaps had it been with Mrs Giltinane. Or did she retain the glamour? I hope always for that brave lady's sake she did. Torpid or turbulent, each soul is a law unto itself.
Did she come back in spirit, or only in the spirit of her daughter? She died in 1913 without revisiting the Homeland. She lies far away, where the sun opens the earth in wide cracks and the wire-weed chokes the English garden flowers set on her grave in the new churchyard, with the apostle-birds and whistling pigeons to chime in primordial coolibahs, instead of rooks to caw in the immemorial elms of her youth; and Merlin and Daddy had come in the incalculable, individualistic, unorganized, unofficial, unfailing way of their breed to help save Mother England.
It happened in accordance with Merlin's prediction; even so, it fell upon us as a surprise. Essays and lyrical fragments came easily to me. More furious diatribes and my Russian treatise awaited a revolt against convalescent pap and a returning appetite for solids. An element of slackness after concentration may have aided my undoing. My lamented grandfather could have aired the apophthegm about Satan and idleness, since realization of the truth in platitudes is a depressing feature of approaching middle-age. My collapse was evidence that a man cannot live by reasoning without diversions. Even Christ would seem to have committed suicide as a way out of deadlock. Having the leisure to meditate and speculate to the end of thought, what then? A devilishly unsheltered prospect. We are driven back to earth without having discovered the purpose of existence, and compelled to admit that the eat-drink-and-be-merry school have an argument. We have as yet so few fragments on which to build a reasonable whole: the tragedy of our moth-span of life is that it has no extent of firm respite for experiment and discovery between infancy and senility.
It was the melancholy of that bleak recognition, no doubt, which punctured my Eden and threw me back upon the flesh-pots of the senses, even as I have seen many a valiant student of Christian Science in pain creep back to the draughts of materia medica. It was Merlin being joined to the issue that exposed its extent. It was the Cobbler who called in Merlin when he and Mrs Char Brindle proved inadequate in face of the catastrophe. I was forsooth in that gin which Nature sets for what Merlin paraphrases as the perpetration of the species: "All species," says she, "including rats and lice and centipedes, so man need not meow about it as though it were something to inflate self-esteem."
The trap was baited with Maisie Day, the sister of an assistant in a library where I sometimes went. The assistant and I had served together in France. He had been my batman at one stage and we were elated to renew old comradeship. I invited him to have tea in my digs. It chanced that he was engaged to meet Maisie, so I enlarged the invitation. The two of them appeared later. Maisie was deliciously pretty, or I thought so, she being below the age when Britishers lose their teeth.
Maisie listened so well and was so pretty that tea expanded into dinner at good old Fleming's, and a pit after that; war-time democracy at that date had not entirely abated, more especially as I had been partly reared in the U.S.A.
They invited me to their home at Ealing on a Sunday afternoon. I went. The father had been a policeman. The mother had a pension. Maisie worked in an office. They were nice people. I could sit in the garden and discuss books with the son, while Maisie served tea irreproachably and her mother knitted in the same style. I "got it a treat—not 'arf!" to quote the Cobbler.
Maisie's employment was near Oxford Circus and she was free at five thirty, so after that hour I gave all the parties for two that she would attend, either in my digs or at a theatre. The mother and son cultivated me as soon as they estimated my intentions. Maisie, however, would have none of me. At first, of course, I thought it was maidenly modesty. She was willing to be a friend—a perfectly proper chum, but nothing more. She was not a licentious war maiden. Or was she? Perhaps what bored her was that none but matrimonial advances occurred to me: I sometimes wonder to this day, since amorous failures register more indelibly than conquests in the male consciousness.
Her definite and persistent refusals so disrupted me that only Cupid knows how I acted. On looking back I gratefully admit my father and aunt's omnibus theory of shell-shock. When I threw the bed-clothes into the passage the Cobbler went for Merlin, though I explained that I always treated bed-clothes thus when in high temperature.
Merlin was most motherly and even more matter of fact. Having been reared where men were in a majority had militated against her sentimentalizing their normal seismic disturbances. Her attitude was: "There, there, petty! Poor unfortunate, you cannot escape these derangements at intervals. There, there, now, mother's here!"
She felt my pulse, inserted a thermometer, and altogether inspired confidence, though prudish suspicion alone knows what the Cobbler had tittle-tattled or how I distorted my narrative. As far as I can remember, I groaned, "She won't have me."
"You need a nice hot bath," said Merlin.
"She has absolutely refused to go on with me," I continued.
"Perhaps she's a connoisseur."
"She has absobloominglutely refused to..."
"I'll send for Daddy. He'll be a godsend to heat water and run messages."
"It's the only thing that explains life. It's the most glorious experience. No man is a real man who does not—"
"Where is this siren?" Merlin deigned to inquire.
"I took her for a trip to the Isle of Man and she refuses to have anything more—"
"Evidently someone else has more money or magnetism."
"Now," I shouted, rising in my bed with resentment of Merlin's asceticism, "I don't want to see or hear you ever again. Something, the most beautiful, the most glorious...only through it is manhood attained."
"There's not a Thomas Pussie under a London aucubatree who will not heartily agree," said Merlin, briskly reducing the room's disorder.
"Now!" I yelled, my sense of humour too fevered to discern the smile that resides in the tail of all Merlin's rebukes, "you revolt me! Something that is the holiest, the purest...you interpret coarsely. Save me from chaste women!"
"Have you had anything to eat today?" inquired Merlin.
I ignored this and roared, "I repeat, I assert, I defend that love is so sublime that those who have known the whole of love's experience—even the libertines and those upon the pavement, are perhaps nearer Truth than you and I, who have never..."
I think Daddy must have been patrolling the pavement opposite awaiting a signal, for at that moment he entered, his dial beaming like a new municipal clock in expectation of that entertainment engendered by the brain-storms of others.
"Hullo, Budgery old man!" said he, with patronizing cheerfulness as to a little boy of two who has earache, and must be diverted. Only for his daughter's presence I might have attacked him dangerously.
"Oh, Daddy darling, you heat some water and give him a nice big bath," said she.
The time-honoured bathing plant was a galvanized iron tub which lived under the kitchen table when idle, and was supplied by hot water from a kettle and a gas-ring. Daddy-darling was as happy as a monkey in a nut shop to be in requisition, and could he heard in operation like a Sinn Feiner resisting a Black and Tan investigation. Merlin, having the room in order, now invited me to sit in the arm-chair while she changed my bed.
I was giddy so she steadied me into the chair and surprised me by a kiss upon the cheek. "There, that's because you're a sweet dear of the best water, and I hereby adopt you as my brother. Some day when you know my darling brother you'll understand how much I mean. Do I understand you've been asking this siren to marry you and that she has the bad taste to refuse?"
I puzzled a hit and realized that while I had been relating the failure of pursuit in the middle-class manner of a reluctant maiden, Merlin had thought she was witnessing delirium tremens induced by something the Cobbler had suspected. She suggested saying no more till tomorrow, it being 9 p.m., but my excitation was too high for silence, so she sat beside me sympathetically while Daddy ramped affectionately in the next room. I was without shame. I withheld nothing. Merlin was better than a father confessor.
"If everything is as you say, I cannot make out why she has refused you," she commented. "There must be some equation unknown to us." This was so soothing that my temperature must have dropped a point or two. It was indeed strange that Maisie wouldn't take me. I cite Merlin's observations as evidence.
"I'm not hankering for marriage like some, yet I could marry you myself quite agreeably. You're lovable. You're fine as to shape and size, and good looking as to features and colour, with your blue eyes and nice mop of yellow-brown hair, and even your own teeth. You come of a good family and are healthy. If you have vices they're not obvious. You've better prospects of providing for a wife than thousands who rush into matrimony. There must be someone else."
"Her brother and mother say not."
"They mightn't know or might have reasons for not telling you. Have you proposed in a straightforward way so that she knows what you mean? I've known men just go mad and paw the air round about without—"
"I have written it all out plainly, and asked her mother and brother, too."
"Then it's a bit of a puzzle," said she. All my rage dissolved before her understanding. I became tractable in her hands.
"Here's Daddy waiting for his victim."
"Come on, Budgery," said Daddy.
With a warning against drowning or scalding me, she went off to the Mia Mia to forage. By the time Daddy had me refreshingly in bed and could be heard swabbing the kitchen, which was like a lower deck in a high sea, Merlin returned with approved viands.
"A little ballast in your tummy will take some of the hot air out of your head," she said. Daddy, still striving to be of use, suggested a doctor.
"Rats!" said his daughter. "Poultices of time and common sense are all that will help him, and doctors don't supply them."
Mrs Brindle had her orders. Merlin sent dainties from the Mia Mia, and with good old Daddy to hang on my every wish like a page to royalty, I rested peacefully that day. Merlin visited me about 9 p.m. by which hour she had seen Maisie and gone into my case. What had been her approach I did not inquire; but since men of all ages confided their troubles to her, whether about the prostate gland or their wives' inadequateness, there must have been something in her which made it equally natural for her to approach others.
She admitted Maisie to be quite pretty. "Though there's nothing in her beauty for me," she qualified. It meant that Maisie was an ordinary little thing in everything but her refusal of me, a fact quite evident to me now and equally evident to others then.
As I was in such a ramp, she agreed that if Maisie would have me it was a possible matrimonial speculation. "When this paroxysm passes she could very well be the house-keeping body who's the corner stone of most men writers' and artists' careers. Judging by the history of artists—Rodin, Anatole France, etc.—it's not likely you can go on long without a woman to hold up your hands."
She arranged, therefore, that on the coming Saturday Mrs Brindle should surpass herself while Daddy was to bring cakes and tea from the Mia Mia. I was to be dressed in my best lounge suit, and Maisie and Mrs Day were to visit me. After tea Merlin was to take Daddy and Mother Day to the cinematograph and I was to be left with Maisie.
It happened as Merlin planned. I dressed myself in my best lounge suit and Merlin pinned a rose in my buttonhole. There were plenty of flowers and cakes and friendliness, and I reclined gracefully in an arm-chair because not very well—malady unspecified. When the others disappeared I tried my luck again.
Maisie just laughed at me. She was so merry that I, too, was entertained. I pointed out that, though she might consider me an object of ridicule, so many of my contemporaries were missing that she might one day be sorry she had lost her chance. She laughed as she had done before. She did not want me, reasons unstated: she did not want to marry, reasons also unlisted. She was just merry and inexplicable.
Daddy Giltinane escorted Mrs Day and Merlin walked with Maisie to the Tube after the cinema, but though they had to wait some time for a train Merlin got little more from Maisie than I had.
"It's most astonishing," she said. "Here you are, with delightful qualities and nice enough for anyone to marry, and men scarce, and you a bit above the girl socially and financially, as she admits—a good catch, considering present conditions—and yet she turns you down inconsequently.
"She acts as if the garden were full of men and youth would last for ever," proceeded Merlin enthusiastically. "When most men are puffed up because of their unnatural scarcity, and imagine every girl is crazy for any old taty-bogle (and some of them are, but it's only because it's a way of earning their living) it's really most delightful to encounter Maisie. And she makes no ifs, or ands, or excuses—just laughs. Perhaps she prefers a single life, unless she finds some ideal, and she is free and independent, but not articulate. It's most refreshing. I respect her for rejecting you and refusing to be stampeded by dearth of other opportunities, or gain or anything else. She's so remarkable that she deserves the D.S.O."
This did not cheer me as it might have done had my sense of humour been in commission.
My temperature went up. No, I did not feel at all cheered. My temperature went down. It stayed too far down and I was tortured by a depression that amounted to melancholia, with a desire to take my life. However, I had the prescience to deliver myself up to Merlin.
"The thing about you that's so human and engaging is the way you tell about it without brooding secretly and denying your symptoms," she exclaimed.
Daddy was sent to feed and otherwise shadow me during the day. In the evenings Merlin came herself. As high temperatures wedded to low spirits continued, Merlin prescribed a doctor. He said he had numerous patients in a similar state. "The effects of the war—um-yes—yes—perhaps a little shell-shock; these cases are very subtle." As my temperature had been persistently high he thought it was typhoid, but could not decide for twenty-four hours, and ordered a milk diet.
"It's as much like typhoid as your grandmother's cat," said Merlin, which so cheered me that I repeated it to the doctor, who wasn't cheered at all. He was quite squiffy about his diagnosis being questioned. But next day I was as normal as an alarm-clock and the puzzled physician asked if Miss Giltinane were a medical practitioner.
Presently the temperature reappeared to put the doctor in countenance, and he ordered me to a nursing home. I did not want to go away companioned by that craving for a lethal draught, and an impasse occurred.
Merlin called in my father. He had opportunely arrived in London from Paris whither he had gone from Washington on behalf of the British Crown to give advice on a point of international law. In one interview Merlin did with that entrenched man of law what I had not been able to accomplish without hazarding family relations. She agreed with his shell-shock theory, and adduced the débâcle wrought by Maisie as evidence. She persuaded him that I had inherited his genius and that a sin would be committed against patriotism to deny it full play.
I gathered by deduction and inference that she had conveyed her conception of him as the youngest, handsomest, most sympathetic and understanding Daddy she had ever met, and accomplished his conversion by her vital sincerity and enthusiasm. Having a wonderful Daddy of her own, she further implied that daddies were fairy godfather creatures of an influence and volition to accomplish miracles. In what way my father, the immaculate, the conventional, would enjoy being lumped with Daddy Giltinane, a wild old cockatoo as different as an echidna from a gopher, I grinned to contemplate.
At first I was apprehensive that my father might muss-up my life again, but he was sitting by my bedside and conveying to me that instead of a fool I was a martyr and a hero, whose sensitive, artistic temperament—inherited from himself—could not escape derangement by what I had undergone in the defence of my country. He confessed that when young he, too, had had an ambition to write. What man who can sign his name hasn't? Merlin had shown him my little things in the distinguished periodicals. I suspect it was their innocuousness that reassured him so that he said they were the very things he would have written himself only...No man, even a surgeon or barrister, is above the testimony of print if he has not himself succeeded as a scribbler.
My father said if I could fix my affections on Merlin, who would be the makings of any man, he would give her a present of two thousand pounds on her wedding morning and make me an allowance of five hundred a year for life. There now, that was a bargain. Bribed to fall in love with Merlin!
He smiled tenderly as he mentioned her. There is no man so much fifty or married that, as Merlin asserts, he isn't likely at any moment to go off his pannikin amoristically. I thought of Merlin's views on this with glee.
My father was that night throwing a party. He was so sorry that I was not well enough to be one of his guests. Was he? He had thought of a nice little treat for Merlin, who had wearied herself by kind offices on my behalf; but as Merlin was eager for him to meet her Daddy he asked my aunt to make a fourth. My father had not been in the diplomatic service for nothing. Weak and depressed and sex-mad and shell-shocked and humiliated though I was, I grinned to think what a pleasure it would be for both my aunt and Daddy Giltinane. Another impact of raving against dead wood.
Serve Merlin right for taking possession of my affairs like that! And my father so sympathetic about my projects—crocodile!—pretending he was cultivating Merlin for me, when he knew I was ill with another preoccupation! Crocodile of the best water!
At any rate he removed me to his own hotel and thence to the seaside to enjoy the company of the wife of one of his friends and her children. It was wholesome and sweet to be with the kiddies, who gave me no time to brood. I believe there was something in the shell-shock theory, not because I wanted to think my own thoughts, but because I was so infernally weak and had toppled so completely for Maisie. It was merely the thing that happens over and over again between nerve-worn women and their physicians, and overstrained men and their nurses, and about which quaint old Freud makes such a lopsided song and dance.
My father brought Merlin to see me at Bournemouth. I conceded that he had scored in leaving Daddy behind. Merlin had come to find out what I wanted of my father, and anything she put forward would be considered his own idea of dealing with the genius which I had inherited from him. My father, looking so spruce and pleased with existence, and no shell-shock theory to account for it! Fatuous old josser! If he didn't mind himself he would experience shell-shock presently when the unsuspecting Merlin got a line on him. Serve him right! He was minus my modern understanding of certain of Merlin's views, being back in the troglodyte stage when people did not talk about sex suppression because they did not practise any—not men. That was in theory. My father was a good husband. My mother saw to that. She had retained all the English and acquired much American technique in sustaining the role of a petted wife, with "nervousness" imminent immediately the limelight receded from her.
To impress Merlin, my father was the perfect parent. I had done my bit; he would consider it doing his to stand by me till I was restored to vigour, and settled at some avocation. I stuck to my determination to write. Very well. I could take a term on the Riviera, superb health resort, where the poshest and swishest writers found inspiration. I said perversely I wanted to go to Russia with time to study the results of the October revolution. My father murmured diplomatically that the climate was too rigorous for one nervously depleted. Merlin rescued him by urging the claims of Australia. The world's attention was on Russia; Australia was unknown. I was mutinous about Russia. Merlin gave way. She offered to give a party for me before my father returned to Washington. It would be a literary evening and I could talk about Russia.
The party happened later at the home of a friend of a friend of Merlin. It was one of those sober but commodious houses in the West End. It had "old masters" and some eccentric and notorious leather wainscoting, soft carpets, dim lights and a butler. Nearly all the guests were en suite, some of them proposed by my father, some by Merlin and her friend, who was Lady Something-or-other. I was to read parts of my hook on Russia. I hoped to discover that the war had not killed Liberalism and that among that congregation of "governing" and "educated" people some would understand what the Russian experiment projected, and urge the publication of my essay.
The evening wasn't as dull as Merlin said it was. She complained that her ribs flapped with strain. She described my stuff as so mild and recondite that no one but a professor could grasp what I tried to convey.
"And, Niggeh old grub, you killed it by the monotonous expressionless way you droned along. And you read too much. You read and read till I thought everyone would be petrified."
I read for over an hour and a half—quite a stretch on a grave essay, which sets out facts quietly. Merlin said the dead silence got on her nerves. The quiet was so complete that I forgot my audience. They must have been interested or they would not have been so still. When I stopped, some charming ladies hoped I wasn't fatigued. They murmured that it was a triumph to hold an audience spellbound for so long. We were then treated to a supper such as in those post-war days was the privilege of profiteers. Some of the men remarked that there were many different ideas about Russia. One said loudly that he liked to hear all kinds of ideas, even if he did not agree with them. Everybody was polite and well-bred. Then we went home.
Two days later Merlin had a call from the police about me. That shows my talk was of more significance than she thought. The officer of the Law went to the Cobbler and asked him if his sub-tenant had been to Russia, and did he hold subversive ideas about that country. This rattled the Cobbler, so he sent the officer to Merlin.
"She's a 'ighly respectable young lady. She knows all abaht the said gent, and recommends him."
So to Merlin went the policeman to ask did she know me. She did. What did she know? That I was an excellent type in every way.
"Still and all, miss, he's been to Russia."
"Oh, yes. He loves Russia. He's an awful bore on the subject."
"He writes about it?"
"Have you any of those writings?"
"Yes. I'm taking care of them for him."
"Any objections to letting me see them?"
"None whatever, officer. Let me know what you think. You see, the poor dear expects me to read his stuff, and it's so tame and highflown that when I get to the second page I've forgotten the first."
"Isn't it about Russia?"
"I suppose so, but it's so gentle it's hard to tell. If you'd tell me what to say about it that would be such a help."
"Why's it so dull?"
"It's very English. You know, that gentle English way that understates and believes in free speech. I'll get the papers and wrap them up for you."
"If you don't mind, miss, I'll leave them with you. By what you say it's clear to me there's some mistake."
The officer backed out, eager to leave the MSS. Merlin told me this with glee. I was annoyed. But for this I might have fallen in love with her at that date.
"But I saved your papers for you! One of those old school ties, like my purple chook friend at Whitehall, at the party the other night must have reported you."
"At any rate it shows I wasn't too dull."
"I only put it that way to comfort the policeman. If I had tried to put him off there might have been trouble."
"That would have helped me. You say I'm so dull that even a policeman wouldn't tackle reading me!"
"I apologize about the dullness, but I'd love to know what the policeman would think of your hook. Besides, you needn't be so huffy. The most adorable people write the dullest stuff, and the clever stuff is often written by smart-alec horrors."
Everything she said was wrong. A girl may be flattered by a man telling her that she herself is worth all her hooks or songs or paintings, but to a male artist it is an outrage. I Might as well call him a pansy and be done with it. I was exceedingly annoyed.
That wasn't the end of it either. The policeman interviewed my father. One of the purple chooks had surely reported me. Merlin or the other women may have lacked the nous to appraise my stuff, but the boys of the old brigade weren't so simple. The war was well past. They had recovered from the scare of obligatory brotherhood. Guardians of the refurbished citadel of privilege could detect the tiniest storm-cloud on the horizon. This vigilance against me lifted my morale.
But my father stipulated that my expedition must he to the Riviera, or no funds. He did not want his career endangered by my bolshevism. Merlin urged the claims of Australia again. So did another friend, Freda Healey, whom I had known in Chicago, but who was now in London. I was so roiled with life and love and the whole galanty show of Europe that I consented to cut loose from the mess and dodder around the South Pacific. My father became generous again. "Stay away for two years if you like."
So one day, when the atmospheric gloom was at its height amid the immemorial discomforts of the obsolete domestic arrangements of London, I wiped the fog of the old harridan from my pince-nez and departed, leaving Merlin as my agent.
Away down and down away to the radiant, the fairy, the far South Seas! What fool would remain in the land of fogs when the lands of figs are open to him! The untravelled natives of this oasis in the grim North Sea cannot realize the warmth and colour of the unfilled lands. I comprehended this as I dawdled around Tahiti with the schooner folk, observing them, and listening closely to their skite, and jotting it down, adding copious notes from my stimulated imagination.
More than three years had gone before I stood again on the Giltinanes' doorstep one May morning bubbling like a Bogong streamlet with chuckles of goodwill. I particularly remember the beauty of the morning, which denotes my joy, for I rarely can recall what weather attended occasions. The Giltinanes could each describe, with the vividness of a wife remembering her bridal dress, what weather had enveloped an incident. They had lived with less obstruction between them and God's day and night.
I had come straight from the station out of the first division of the boat train, hoping to catch Merlin before she left for the restaurant. Following my departure she and Daddy had moved to one of the larger flats with the Cobbler, and I approached from the left, so as not to pas: the Cobbler's window. He could wait till later. The wall had been lately repointed, the door painted, the stairs mended and cleaned, the gas jet gilded. Otherwise the old rookery was the same—welcome stability in a world of change and chaos.
The door opened. There she was before my doting eyes trim, energetic, capable, unchanged, an apron over her dress.
"Niggeh darling! Is it you I see before my loving longing eyes?" she cried, snatching both my hands and dragging me in. "Daddy dear, he's come! Put on the kettle."
Daddy appeared coatless and with unlaced boots.
"Welcome home!" he shouted in his hearty backblocks way, giving me a handshake to remember. "It's tremendous to see you again. Sit down, man. Sit down!"
I obeyed, too happy for anything but laughter, while the kettle was put on and eggs and bacon prepared.
Yes, it was a wonderful morning. I remember at Southampton it was warm and bright enough to hold its own, even after the South Seas and the Mediterranean. The squalor of Marken Street could not now spoil its glory, for the gentle sunlight played on Daddy's window-boxes where tulip and narcissus blew triumphant.
"I've had breakfast," I managed to remark.
"You couldn't be such a pig—to have breakfast as early as that without waiting to come to us!" exclaimed Merlin. "On the ship at 5.30 a.m."
"I know those landing breakfasts," said Daddy. "Gosh, like an ant's nest. That was last week. You can eat another breakfast now."
"Yes," said Merlin. "We'll have afternoon tea in the morning with you, in the good old Coolibah way, and don't say a word about anything that matters till I can listen."
"You're looking like a new man. Why didn't you let us know, so we could have met you at the station?"
"This is better than the station."
Merlin busied herself preparing the meal while I sat with Daddy, too contented for speech. I looked at Daddy's black stockwhip coiled above the mantelpiece, and at the photographs of Mrs Giltinane, deceased, and of Guy Giltinane, junior, all of richer significance since I had been to Australia. With that great stockwhip Daddy on a visit to England in 1888 had given an exhibition at a garden fete in aid of St Botolph in the Turnips, and thereby met Merlin's mother. There were the brass shells and the wolf skin and other souvenirs that Merlin had brought home from the Balkan campaign, all as they had been three years ago. As we may cherish England's muddle for the Genius Cracks it provides, so may we tolerate discomforts resulting from her lethargy in adoption of excessive mechanical gadgetry for this comforting stability that allows old things to remain to welcome the wanderer back to an enduring base.
"How the time has flown!" exclaimed Merlin. "It seems only a month or two since you said good-bye."
"It seems like a lifetime." Daddy, sighed wistfully.
"And now you must tell us every word about Guy. You've actually seen him with the eyes that are looking at us now!"
They had waited for what was most poignantly in their consciousness till we settled down at the last cup of tea stage, and the Mia Mia had been telephoned to excuse Miss Giltinane.
Yes, I had lived intimately with him, had come straight from him. I had gone there at Merlin's request, on my way back from Tahiti, Suva, Raratonga and New Zealand. I had intended to stay for a week or two. The distractions of Piccadilly had still churned in me as I hurried through the Islands, but Guy Giltinane's wistfully siren land put a spell upon me and held me for all the seasons round thrice repeated, most of which I had spent in the company of Guy Junior.
I told of rides on a sedate brown mare that Merlin had left as a frolicking frizzy-tailed foal. Yes, I had heard the mopokes, and become acquainted with goannas, kangaroos and emus. The spit-grubs of Merlin's similes had sprinkled me with pure eucalyptus. The kookaburras had laughed at me night and morning, and their mocking glee was still in my ears when I awoke from sleep. I told of a corella and a pet kangaroo living still, and that I had entertained thoughts of bringing home a little porcupine.
"Oh, the darling! But it would have died of homesickness on the way."
Daddy asked about the new dam out in Emu paddock at the far end of the run. I was able to assure him it was now a dam of standing and experience, the yellow earthwork long since browned and baked and graced with reeds where the wild ducks nested.
Merlin wanted to know about the roses, and fig-trees, and grape-vines that she had planted, and whether the clematis still bloomed on the kitchen awning.
Mile by mile we caressed that wide, strange country, whose silence has a voice, and whose eerie beauty, before man has defaced it, captures the senses as does that of no other land I have seen. Out on the ridges I could still see the leaves of the bimby box gleaming like silver; the soft grey waters of the Bogan and Namoi gliding noiselessly past coolibah, yarran and belar in the perfume of the native mignonette; the flower-carpeted plains quivering in the sunlight, undulating to the mirage that ever retreated before the traveller. Already my heart gnawed to be there again.
Poor old Guy's eyes clouded with homesickness as we yarned. In London he was a dingo in a back-yard. It was easy to picture him out on those timbered levels kindling a bush-fire beside a myall log with its incense of violets rising in the blue smoke, the red sun sinking between the boles of the pine-trees as night came down like a blanket and other worlds hung out their lamps about the mighty Milky Way and its fairy attendants, the Magellans.
I brought them happy news of Guy as a man of enterprise who had benefited by the boom in wool. He had paid off the mortgages on Coolibah and secured part of an adjoining run for expansion in droughts. In going about with him I had intimately experienced the life of the pastoralists Down Under which was now filling my imagination.
I had experienced drought. Terrible indeed, and reminding me of war on some of the Fronts on a wide but less intensive scale. It was through the drought at Coolibah that I had met the family of Guy's fiancée as well as the girl herself. The parents of this Brenda Stanton had come from another part of the country as far from Coolibah as Caithness from Devon. They had the lease, or the rights, or whatever it is called under the Australian system of land tenure, to relief or summer runs in the snow country. There Guy and his flocks had migrated during two summers and I had gone with him and met a number of the early families whose grandparents had settled the area. I had dreamed and dawdled around the sites of old homesteads, many of them now indicated only by a crumbled chimney, a post or two, or orchard shrubs and trees. Many of the Australian homes are like birds' nests, occupied for a generation or less and then deserted to decay in the vast oblivion left by the vanishing Aborigines.
Guy had arranged his affairs and was coming home to spend a few weeks in England with Daddy and Merlin before settling down to married life. He was really coming this time. He had his passage booked and would be no more than a week or two behind me.
"I'm going back with him," said Daddy. "What is there for a man in these rows of bricks and mortar, stinking with hidebound ignorance and snobbery and vice? God! They don't know what real life is! They're like a lot of dried herrings in boxes. There was a man left a swell club last week because he was the only one who wears a top hat since the war. A man, did I say! I meant a stuffed tailor's dummy with nothing but gas in his veins and fumes in his brain: and the likes of me has to waste time reading about him in the paper!" Daddy threw last evening's paper on the stove and upset the milk. Merlin to the rescue.
"It sounds as if the boys of the old brigade have settled down again to their pre-war indulgences." Merlin restored the paper to him.
"You bet they have. Never learnt a thing. Here, another fellow writes that old Thingamy Something—some old jew-lizard of a Lord—wasn't recognized at the Meet because his face was without its cigar. What does it matter if his face was without his head, or his head without his brain, if that's all that's in them. Gosh, I suppose the men who write that stuff are paid. That's the sort of stuff they fill up the papers with instead of telling the poor ignorant devils some of the wonders of the world that I know. Didn't I tell you they wouldn't change after the war, or cut out the dead wood? God! they've blown all the green wood to pieces in France, and there's nothing left here but a few hollow logs eaten by the white ants. God, when you stop to think of it!"
We decided to lunch together at the Giltinanes' apartment. Daddy was sent to the Mia Mia with his basket. The restaurant was still waxing.
While he was gone I paid my respects to the Cobbler. Poor pop-eyed little devil, there he sat as I had left him sitting three years ago, his skinny thorax cramped over someone's stale, hard-worn shoe. All the sunlight, all the perfume, all the beauty of the natural world that had saturated my being since then while he sat there patiently enslaved—to what? Parental love?
God, to think of it, as Daddy Giltinane said.
"Poor old Daddy, he's so homesick. Guy must take him back to Coolibah. There's nothing for him here but a few errands," said Merlin as I dawdled in from seeing the Cobbler.
She had reserved my affairs for this interval and confirmed the glad rumour that I was well on the way to literary success. I had from time to time forwarded sheaves of stories of the South Pacific. These she had sold to magazines in the U.S.A. and London. A flattering bank account awaited me and a market for as many more yarns as I liked to write of the same quality and colouring. A London publisher was ready to bring out the stories in book form, and one in New York was willing to act simultaneously. There was an offer for cinema rights. Merlin had achieved all this for me as people do while their inexperience remains unaware of impossibility.
Merlin established me in a bed-sitting-room and writing den three blocks from my former haunt. Too happy for sleep, I sat late that night looking out on one of the garden squares that redeem London from a jungle of slums. In intervals, when the traffic fluctuated, I could, as on Marken Street, hear half a dozen clocks counting the hours. The lovely chiming bell of the Foundling Hospital headed the alarm, old St Pancras acknowledged it ( one note loud, one note soft), two or three lesser time-pieces such as St Peters, the Imperial Hotel's, and probably Christ Church or St George's, took up the cry that another hour had gone; then when the breeze was favourable, came Big Ben's august confirmation.
Life beckoned as alluringly as the mirages on the rim of the sphinx-like plains where I had lately ridden. Here I sat, justified in my choice of a career. Success as a writer meant attainment to a privileged estate in which I could be at peace from the schism of having two or more countries equally beloved. As a writer I was a citizen of the whole English-speaking world, and could live in my precious U.S.A. for long bouts without any civic, political or industrial duties necessitating technical citizenship. By the grace of translation I hoped before long to be a citizen in like manner of at least three or four other countries. All this without having to deny my breed by oaths of repudiation in order to assume a new nationality that would endure abroad only with the indignity of permit or subterfuge, and that might be revoked if one voiced a new thought.
Almost inconceivable was the forgetfulness of horrors that had seared the world as lately as 1918. Yet their smudge had been expunged, the experience leaving no effect but an impatience with humbug and all other clogs on the wheel of thought.
I busied myself with my short stories for book appearance. I refurbished the fragments written for love, while like a crowded and exciting tapestry behind it all was the dream of the new creation to embody my latest, most commanding love—Australia. I had returned idolatrous of the great spaces still undefiled by man. Greatly inspired by them, I believed it urgent for man to halt in his tracks and realize his unworthiness to ravish and infest all the earth and to exploit it malefically.
Halt incontinent fecundity!
I burbled and gurgled of the matter I had collected. My urge to portray Australian people and places postponed more political interests. My father was relieved to find me weaned from bolshevism. His diplomatic career was to his and my mother's liking and self-importance. He had had big luck in copper shares, and desired to set me up to do him honour. Ceasing to be ashamed of me as a case of shell-shock or softening of the brain, he had become proud. With a flowery gesture he increased my allowance to £750 per year.
"My dear boy, you must have a little while we're young together and able to enjoy it. I cannot have you waiting for my dissolution."
Verily, verily unto him that bath...
Surely heaven can be little advance on the exercise of the creative faculties, more especially when the result gains immediate recognition. There was, too, another infatuation lending radiance to existence.
In the light of what I was to confess, I was shamefaced over the Maisie episode. Out of her understanding, Merlin had not mentioned it. Six months of the South Seas parade had effaced the influence and effects of Maisie. She recurred to me merely as one encountered in passing. Should I recognize her now if I met her unexpectedly? I was ready to agree that she deserved the D.S.O. for having refused me. Supposing I had become yoked in the appalling intimacy of marriage with a woman who could so soon have fled my consciousness; a woman, as far as I know, who may not have had one idea or taste in common with me, and whose only distinction had been her refusal of me! This distinction remained puzzling.
This time I loved more substantially, and, being at the zenith in health, happiness, artistic activity, and maturity, no shell-shock theory could now detract from my state. During the voyage home my thoughts had often been on how Merlin would receive the news.
In Sydney, of all places, I met my heart's delight in Senorita Rosalita Manzanares, a brilliant young pianist let out of training to collect funds for an extension of her studies in Paris under le Boursin. She was supporting one of Australia's prima donnas on a home concert tour after European triumphs. ( Surely Australia has more prima donnas per capita than any other land!)
Rosalita had temperament, beauty, health, intelligence and talent, was, in short, the super-siren I had despaired of finding young and fancy free. I had reached my thirty-fifth year undamaged by the half-world, had not previously undergone an affair of magnitude, was undeterred by the scarcity of successes among my intimates, so believed I had reached the time of life and stability for this undertaking. I suffered heavy qualms, but according to confidences and records, some of the most triumphantly married have experienced tortures of apprehension preceding the plunge.
Rosalita's temperament was complementary to mine. I am profoundly susceptible to the inspiration of music; when made by Rosalita it was more than ever a direct stimulus to my creative output. She, too, respected my art above all others, and as we were both ultra-modern we determined to keep our separate personalities in face of the disintegrating familiarity of marriage. Her grandmother had been Spanish, and Rosalita had assumed this lady's maiden name and prefix for professional purposes. She was really as English as her paternal cousins, the Misses Millicent and Phyllis Robinson, but on the strength of the Spanish legend, acted as differently from them as if she had really been cradled in old Castille instead of Golders Green.
Merlin received the news perfectly. "I hope she'll play for me. I've been starved for music all my life."
"She'll adore to play for you. She's most generous and warm-hearted."
Merlin pored over Rosalita's photographs and said she was impatient to meet the original. Nothing in her attitude suggested that I was off my pannikin again, so I relied upon the idea that this passion was grande as well as normal.
Rosalita and I had left Australia about the same time, but she had a tour of South Africa to complete, and I hastened home by Suez to put my literary house in order against marriage. It was this haste that deprived me, to my everlasting subsequent regret, of the pleasure of Guy Giltinane's company on the homeward way. I was anything from three to five months ahead of Rosalita, depending upon whether her prima donna should double on her tracks in return engagements.
Merlin, of course, was to be best man and support me at the altar, though her official title might be bridesmaid.
"And now Merlin mine," I said one night when she had called upon me and we had talked far into the twilight about my affairs, "haven't you a romance of your own to tell me of? You know all my heart's secrets, and it'd be most unsisterly of you not to let me share yours."
"If I had a romance I'd love to tell you," she said gently, "but I don't think there ever will be one now. I sometimes long to have eight stalwart sons of my own, all in a row like steps of stairs. It'd be such fun to teach them to play the game bravely, but since the war I'm not so much attracted by the idea. There's no safeguard that they wouldn't be cannon fodder, or poison-gas fodder, and it's time for thinking women to consider what careless fecundity means."
"Yes, but it's the thinking ones who should be mothers."
"Not necessarily. Geniuses not infrequently reproduce defectives, and I know a toothless little man who sells newspapers, and his children are such intelligent and pretty dears that princesses might be proud of them. So the ordinary woman, so long as she's not a moron, can be left to physical motherhood. The thinkers have a higher kind of parental function."
"But you could have your babies, if you'd be satisfied with two or three instead of eight, and then have a long career after they were out of hand, fashioning a better social order."
"About men—" she continued, and this was the nearest she came to reference to Maisie, "I'm not surprised that they go dilly about girls as often as they do, but that they go dilly so seldom. So many girls are enchantresses that I'd be in trouble all the time, if I were a man. For a girl it's the other way about. There are so many duds and throw-outs in the male sex, so many incompetents. In addition, when one is marriageable in an age like this, when all the least-worst of the eligible are set opposite each other and blown to pieces—it's a good thing that some of us are not so sex-rampant as men like to think."
I had nothing fitting to say in face of this.
Merlin continued, "That's why I'm so pleased with the idea of a poison-gas war to be waged against civilians next time. Men are so rabidly sure of the inevitability of war that they'd jail anyone, even now, who produced a revolutionary plan for peace; so if their lunacy must break out in war intermittently it will be better to kill off whole sections of the community complete from grandpas to infants. That won't leave such an unwholesome hiatus as when the slaughter is confined to those of one sex and age."
"You belligerent little tyke!" I murmured, bilking the issue.
"It's not my own belligerence nor the vicarious belligerence of my sex: it's merely that I recognize the ineradicable belligerence of yours."
Oh, a male he would a-fighting go,
Whether his female would let him or no,
With a drum and fife and cockerel air,
With similar lunatics everywhere!
The next event was the coming Home of Guy Giltinane, junior. I was in this through adoption by Merlin in London, and doubly now following my residence with Guy at Coolibah, Down Under. I had brought my joys and difficulties to Merlin. She was to share her high tide with me.
It was good to see Guy's homesickness for his family turning to radiance in his eyes as he beheld them, the Giltinanes being extraverts, and as wholesome as the aromatic bush sunlight that had nurtured them. We drove through London on that first morning, all four in a taxi. Delight in the Homeland was implanted in Guy and he recognized without prompting the land-marks of his dreams. The sunshine was fragile when compared with the victorious sun at Coolibah, but hazily clear and warm. Waterloo Bridge was out of service and we came round by Westminister. An opportune jam in the traffic held us and Guy feasted his eyes on the river, on St Paul's and Lambeth, St Thomas's, the New County Hall, and the heart-stirring piles of Westminister. That robust old sport Big Ben rolled out his notes ten times in welcome while we waited, and Daddy recalled that on Armistice Day, after his war silence, Ben had gone a hundred.
Followed weeks of bliss for Daddy, Guy, Merlin and myself, I being included wherever convenable. Merlin had saved up a vacation from the Mia Mia to coincide with Guy's presence.
Daddy found immense relief from his uneasiness in chaperoning Guy Junior, on endless excursions. Guy had the Australian appetite for seeing and hearing, and the Australian hardiness to go with it, a prodigious combination, but not enough to rattle Daddy. There were other jaunts for Guy and me, for Merlin and Guy, and some for all of us. Daddy's great occasion came in accompanying Guy to the headquarters of the wool industry. Guy was an expert in wool on the hoof and to him this pilgrimage to Bradford corresponded to that of a Mormon to Salt Lake City, a Christian Scientist to the Mother Church in Boston, or an archaeologist to the Valley of the Kings. Residence in the luxurious ovens of North America had interrupted my education in wool. In Australia with Giltinane and his colleagues I accepted the fact that it is the most motherly and gracious of all fabrics for intimate wear north of 42° or south of 25°, and that the eye or touch accustomed to the pure merinos of the Commonwealth finds a coarseness in the coat of every other sheep in the universe.
The Giltinanes' reunion was rapturous as that of lovers, but purged of the rages, fears and dissatisfactions which frequently scourge amorists. Perhaps a day comes to some lovers, when, the scourge having waned, a comparable joy remains. For this alone is love. Most have only the scourge, which is not love at all but merely appetite surcharged to neurasthenia.
If only we could realize how precious are certain months and weeks and days, or even hours and minutes, while they are upon us! Impossible, however, for Guy and Merlin to have savoured those weeks more deeply had they known. Differently—perhaps more poignantly—but not more intensely.
The bannner event of the season was the week-end at Snippington Manor at Great Snippington in the Home Counties. This eclipsed the anticipation of Rosalita's homecoming as happiness, and set me to speculate whether romantic love, after all, were the most severe of joys or merely the most violent of seizures.
Like the party to hear my reading, the week-end one was convoluted. For several of us it originated with Merlin. She, in turn, owed it to the Viscountess Courtley of Oswaldtwistle.
When Merlin arrived in 1915 she had a letter from a member of the Courtley family, who had sheep-grazed contiguous to the Giltinanes outback in New South Wales. Mr Outback Courtley had warned Merlin that his relatives were not bodies to be requisitioned for trivial purposes. At that date they were a power in politics with too many whales to collate to be bothered frying sprats. Merlin, bent on saving the Empiah, therefore presented herself before Lord and Lady Courtley only to request their influence in getting to the Front.
Lady Courtley preferred people to be interesting and intellectual. She was a pillar in a circle from which the mental and moral duds, no matter how aristocratic, quickly betook themselves to more congenial cliques in Mayfair. A brainy pleb. had more chance of survival in Lady Courtley's set than a stupid senior marquess with a genealogical tree rooted in Shem or Ham. The wealth of a Wool Syndicate or a Pork Trust unmitigated was not enough to open her doors except for Party advancement. She and her husband were life-long partners in politics—which they conducted on the lines of high-class chess—and were among the rare who dignify politics. Putting public weal before private woe, a few such in successive generations save our city. Can they save it once again, or will the gangsters, the whoremongers, the devourers of children's birthrights, the adulterants of infants' food and other beasts of prey be too many for them?
Lady Courtley liked best of all the combination of brains and virtue, and the electric young crusader from the end of the earth was gathered to her inner circle with dispatch.
Lord Courtley had died, in the sixth year of his accession to the viscounty and the third of the war, of worry and the onerous hours he put into his brew of patriotism, which was to keep flying even a tattered rag of those freedoms which mean the real and only England to some of us. Later, when women became eligible as parliamentary candidates, his widow was invited to contest two or three constituencies, which denotes her status in Party politics. She refused all these invitations. She continued to exert her influence at Party meetings for a time, but withdrew increasingly to her own private circle. She grew more selective and more catholic in her social tastes—more catholic because she had more time for the arts and the discovery of the gifted, more selective because freed from the Party punishment of enduring dull and questionable souls.
It was at her house that Merlin met some of the distinguished. There came in unpretentious intimacy to the unobtrusive home in Lower Crooke Street a grand old crowd with famous names, some of them titled, a few above titles, while the young to be met there were of promise—of better things than audacious vulgarity and war-ripened licentiousness.
Such was the lady to whom Merlin owed the week-end. I discovered that she had been responsible also for the party at which I had been guilty of uttering a dishonoured cheque in the form of bolshevism. By reason of her advancing years—she was then seventy-three, though seeming not a day over sixty—and her retirement from politics, Lady Courtley had receded from the fervour and fury of big crushes and was concentrating on week-ends. Following Lord Courtley's death, she had sold her country place: with expanding taxes, and loneliness, and the Courtleys being comparatively poor, she felt it beyond her. But her life-long friend and admirer, the lord of Snippington Manor, had a spirit of hospitality not to be outdone by any Australian squatter and his wife ever fried by the Australian sun, as well as a butler able to cope at any hour of the day or night with any number of guests whether expected or unwelcome; and he had persuaded her to be chatelaine on occasion at his humpy, pooling their guests. Their circles overlapped; they both made a hobby of encouraging new artistic or intellectual accretions, so Lady Courtley was relieved of the fag of running a commodious establishment and Hugh la ffollette acquired a famous hostess, whom he had worshipped as a divinity for thirty-five years.
Lady Courtley, who was childless, adored Merlin, and Merlin said she sometimes shivered to think she might have missed this friendship. In this appreciative protection she absorbed culture and the Liberal ideas of her decade. Here was the England of her dreams, the society of her desire, and it gave her a too-glowing idea of Mayfair's resources, intellectually and ethically. To her it was the Grand Genius Crack of the Empiah.
What I appreciate about Mayfair myself is the free speech practised in some of its coteries. There one can discuss certain political subjects with a frankness and phlegm that would make a communist-nihilist-bolshevist green with envy, and ventilate certain other social subjects with a cool inconsequence that would lead the respectable lower middle class to believe the Empiah had indeed gone to the dawgs.
Lady Courtley straightway made a pet of Daddy Giltinane, and not entirely for Merlin's sake. Guy the Younger was valued for his fresh and unaffected colonialness, because her Ladyship took the Empire and its products seriously. She took Guy around London herself to gatherings, and to national monuments. This was a pleasant education to Guy, and a diversion to Lady Courtley, who repeated his antipodean observations at dinner-tables afterwards. I was accepted upon Merlin's recommendation, and instantly gave the salute royal to a woman of keen and lucid mind stored with a life's rich experience and enhanced by a kindliness and personal charm that made her outstanding in the best company.
Merlin's account of her Cobbler widower and his self-immolating ambition for his son, in a stratum where the chief of mammals begets without prevision or provision and with equanimity apprentices his offspring to the gutter, had aroused universal interest and inquiries as to where the unusual progenitor could be seen. Thereupon Lady Courtley said she would have the Cobbler and his son down to Snippington Manor some week-end.
This adventure fell in June. Merlin insisted that the Mrs Cophetua quality of the Cobbler's presence helped to make it the most joyous occasion of the season.
It certainly was the Cobbler's week-end. He took his invitation with the solemnity of a Royal command and threw himself upon Merlin's motherliness. She simply and impavidly tackled his linen and socks. Further, she sent his hands and nails to a chiropodist, they being beyond a manicurist. These details conquered, she impressed upon the Cobbler that he was to be just himself as he was with her: "And of course be lovely to my darling, darling Lady Courtley, and remember you are in the presence of a queen and an angel!"
"You bet; not 'arf, I will," said he.
The wardrobe of Cobbler the Younger was unimpeachable. The models he had observed at Harrow and Cambridge, with an idolatrous parent to provide the wherewithal, had at least achieved this for the young man, though he might achieve nothing further for himself.
Merlin had evolved for her father a trousseau not dulled by too much common sense nor yet lacking in dignity; besides, Guy Senior had the advantage of being thin, and much is conceded the old, and more to the wild men from overseas. [The Homeland fowl excels in his feeling of superiority, and how could he exercise it if there weren't those unversed in the niceties of his hen-run to give him scope? Likewise the birds from overseas can indulge their feeling of satisfaction in differing from the effete noodles, hidebound with conventionality, and thus the Empiah a little longer maintains its equilibrium.]
It was certainly my week-end as well as the Cobbler's. One of the irons in the fire of fun was in keeping my eye on Young Cobbler. Unless some bug made him run suddenly amok, the old man would be all right in that crowd, the most sophisticated and pleasantly-mannered in the world.
Young Cobbler was in the dark as to his destination and the composition of the party. He was apprehensive, I guessed, of how his father might appear—Harrow had long since done that for him—but he took comfort in the rival peculiarities of Guy the Elder, who was such a chum of his father, and, in the lad's argot "too beastly priceless": a lead was necessary before he knew how to take Merlin and her brother. He was hardly sure of me, till for his ease I dropped a word about acquaintance with Eton, though it had been more of the oppidan's than the colleger's, an influence early purged from my career by transplantation to American high schools.
We set off on Friday afternoon hound for "a cobber of Merlin's". It was entertaining to watch Young Cobbler's eyes at Great Snippington station when a Rolls-Royce with a uniformed chauffeur presented itself for our further transport.
"Oh, Lord Montraven darling!" cried Merlin, and this engaging old father of an ambassador and great-grandpa of potential ambassadors only just hatched, hailed her in his ingratiating, stammering style, and elegantly kissed her hand.
"Lady Courtley has allowed me the great pleasureer, of er—bringing you from the station," said he, "and you must come and sit with me in front."
"My father, you know, and this is a good friend," said Merlin, presenting the Cobbler. "The others are of small importance except to their families," she added offhandedly. Lord Montraven bowed kindly at large and we piled into his lordly conveyance. The Cobbler and the Guys took the back seat. Myself and Cobbler Junior, whose training to disguise emotion was sticking to him now, perched on the flap seats.
"I hope I'm not squashing you," remarked Merlin, as Lord Montraven gathered her to him between the chauffeur. The old gentleman whispered something inaudible in reply, but which I could guess, seeing it is somewhere writ that the jackdaw dances before the female of his species to a great age.
Snippington Manor, an unpretentious rambling old place, was now the chief seat of the head of the house of la ffollette, Hugh de Courtenay. He came of a long line of English sires who had chosen Irish brides, whereas Guy, the elder Giltinane, had known Irish fathers and English mothers back to Strongbow. The result was that these two men were strikingly alike in physique, differing only as widely separated environments had affected their surfaces.
Hugh de Courtenay la ffollette, through his Irish connexions, had been the Lord of Castle Kilbunion in County Mucklow. One of the most distinguished Gaelic scholars extant, he was celebrated for his essays on Celtic lore no less than for his pronouncements on agriculture, scientific agriculture being his chief profession. A life-long servant of the Irish cause, he had represented his part of the country in the House of Commons till the grand split, when he had been elected to the Free State Senate. His reward for this was the bombing and razing to the ground of Castle Kilbunion, which had ever been a nursery for Irish talent. Many famous Irish poems, novels and plays had been written in its hospitality, and its cupboards and walls were full of treasures of Irish art that had been willed to the nation. Now they blew in ashes, and the hospitable owner of the castle had transferred his domicile to England. One of his even more famous compatriots has observed that the lunatics at large in that sceptred isle are not so dangerous as those of the dear ould sod.
The gracious spirit of Hugh la ffollette had not been bombed. When interviewed he said that he could afford the outrage better than others. The manor house of his retreat now became a hostelry where a variegated social miscellany followed its master from the ruins of Castle Kilbunion.
Here would congregate, in season and out of season, such company as was to be found in numerous country houses for week-ends before the war. These privileged resorts approximated informal colleges where were admitted those supernormal students who made their way up through the Genius Cracks. The leading spirits among the amateur ( amateur in the sense in which the word applies socially in sport) faculty took seriously their responsibilities, whether of mere primogeniture or inherent genius. They strove to transmute foreign policy into international friendliness, and an Empire into a partnership of commonwealths, with all as it was, though more as it should be. Such association caused Merlin to exclaim, "I simply adore English week-ending!"
It was of this kind of collection of persons that an American, with introductions, said to my father upon his return to Washington in 1913, "I heard more socialism and red revolution talked in one day at luncheon at the Archbishop of Canterbury's than you could hear in a month here at trade union headquarters." Fumbling for an explanation, this gentleman had continued, "I guess it's because over there you've had everything clamped down into classes for so many hundreds of years that it's safe to play around with notions. You know it's only hot air and can't get loose, whereas with us, with all these buns and wogs who don't understand democracy, it doesn't do to let dynamite lie around like that."
"It's merely that we can examine an idea intellectually for what's in it without becoming hysterical," said my father, with that tinge of superiority which has occasionally made Englishmen unpopular in other English-speaking countries. This burden of being one of a governing class in a governing nation has now moved elsewhere, and presently in more strident accents than my father's will substitute for old standards of "good form" and "taking-one's-self-for-granted" more boisterously demonstrated ideas in "right thinking democracy" and world domination.
And all the same, hysterical or phlegmatic, someone had gone to the police when I had—ever so dully, according to Merlin—tried to discuss the Russian idea intellectually for what there was in it. So there!
One could drop in at Snippington Manor any week-end and find a circle often differing in personalities yet approximating in intellectual or artistic compound. People were allowed to do as they liked there, and those without nepotic status or means in the bank of the inner life soon sought other stamping ground.
Among those present at the famous week-end were a great editor—since passed away—an Australian K.C., complete with missus, and an American sociologist-historian, who had come to consult our archives and add to his laurels. There were Mex Tarbuck, the cowboy cinema star, whose name flashes any night in electric bulbs, an actor-producer, and an Irish Free State Cabinet Minister, who was also a playwright. There was an ex-Cabinet Minister and Pamela Clutterbuck-Leeper, who, through her mother, was a grand-daughter of Lord Montraven. Rosemary Courtley, a great-niece of seventeen, was mobilized to take care of Young Cobbler. There was a trade-union leader, who was presently to hold office in the brief Labour Government: and there were some of those undistinguished but charming ladies and gentlemen of leisure whose names are riot in any books or pictures, who do not shout from the boards of Parliament or the stage, but who are to be met where those who are celebrated disport themselves. They exude a glue to hold together private week-ends and public conferences. They act as chorus to the great, and are a deliverance, for it would be tarnation fatiguing were there no appreciative receptivity of greatness but only competitive performances. In addition were day guests, beaten-up from neighbouring coverts to make a couple of tennis sets. Old Lord and Lady Brockington from Brockington Lodge lunched with us, and while champing generous helpings of a Snippington Manor hen and a chine of Kilbunion bacon, asseverated their belief that vegetarianism is fatal to a sense of humour. The Cobbler was dizzied by the brilliance of their chatter and their chattels. There was on tap, too, a fellow named Tredenham, son of a war business success, who had jackerooed in New South Wales. He was composing an opera, the locale of which, he confided to Merlin, was Australia. He was merely one of the many people, poor or rich, of artistic aspirations, who found the la ffollette atmosphere conducive to creativeness. Tredenham was singular as the only man present unruffled by Pamela Clutterbuck-Leeper's fame as a wanton, politely called a siren.
Guy the Younger and I occupied a suite on the south side. Merlin and her precious Daddy adjoined us. The Cobblers were hard by. Sponsored by Lady Courtlev, we were in addition curiosities, and subject to special care. while the mere regulars, whom we displaced, were bedded at the White Hart in the village, which was practically an annex of the Manor.
There we all were, a divertingly mixed and damned fine sophisticated collection. There we had the England of the privileged in its mossy setting, as it lingered in odd patches. There were the great lawns stretching out on a level with the pleasant reception rooms, with, of course, a deodar to make shade should opportunity offer, and a mulberry-tree in a quiet corner maturing fruit for the birds. The shrubberies lay ready to shelter lovers. The roses bloomed in my lady's garden—Lady Courtney's garden. Our host was an old bachelor who so far had never publicly brought any lady but her to grace that spot, nor any not a lady to disgrace it secretly, if legend whispered truth.
But that is another parenthesis.
And through the corner of the rose garden ran the river Diz. A rose garden of one's own for hundreds of years, with a river flowing through it! Privilege! Spots important because of possession and nurture, and a tenure which finally rests on the tolerance of those never privileged to enjoy it.
Here came Guy Junior and Merlin with me on the first afternoon, Merlin exclaiming, "Look at the sweet little race! Isn't it a duck-a-down-dilly?"
"Yes," agreed Guy. "You wouldn't think they'd need a race here, with all the rain."
A famous river mistaken for a runnel such as trained from dam or windmill to soak vegetable garden or orchard Down Under!
Down a short run of steps lay the Dutch garden, its formal patterns guarded by ancient box and yew hedges, here and there pruned into umbrellas and corkscrews and peacocks, which preened their topiarian forms above the herbaceous borders and rock gardens beyond. Past the tennis and croquet lawns were the kitchen gardens and orchards with peach-, apricot-, pear-, and even plum-trees flattened upon the walls. Here on Sunday morning strolled Guy Junior with Lady Courtley to see trees treated as his mother had described.
"So much trouble with an old plum-tree, and an apricot-tree treated like a rarity!" A smile lighted his humorous eyes.
"And what do you do with them Down Under?"
"We grow apricots as breakwinds in some places, and the pigs feed on the fallen fruit, on peaches too, and we get very sick of plums. I know old deserted places where they rot in hundredweights in a good season." He looked around the park-like fields sloping away in the succulence of June. "It's so terribly green, like the pictures I thought came from the artist chaps' excited imagination. Looks as if it would always be too damp to sit on. Doesn't seem for everyday life and work, somehow."
"What an education to see it through your eyes. It is for you brave young people from the new worlds to retrieve us from reaction and unreality."
"I don't know so much about that," said he, thoughtfully. "Merlin says we have a terrible lot to learn, and mother used to talk the same way. We used to say a piece of poetry about England. By a native poet who never saw England. Something about:
"England! England! Thy name comes ringing
Till my lonely spirit with longing fails;
O never to touch thy flowers, thy snow!
Never to hear thy skylarks singing,
Never, never, thy nightingales,
Nor see the skies that above thee go!"
"Dear children! Our very own come back to us from the ends of the earth! We're not worthy of this," said Lady Courtley, and they moved on to see the vegetables.
Beyond the vegetables were the stables and byres and hen runs, and hay fields and beet fields. There it all was, manor house and messuages, lying in the fragile English sunlight, a fair and free demesne. Privilege! Privilege, with its roots so deep in the cool deep moss of tradition and sentiment, so mellowed by time, grown so gracious through sheltered generations that it seemed to be independent of the hard labour and deprivation which so patently support the blatant luxury and excesses of the newly risen masters of plunder.
It was sunny weather with the white clouds high up, and we could savour what of immemorial England was there illustrated. Here nothing was shabby, nothing falling into decay for lack of funds and upkeep. The melancholy spectacle of an age in process of supersession by a system of more powerful exploitation of the earth's resources and the genius of men, was in abeyance here, for the head of the house of la ffollette was a skilled and up-to-date agriculturalist. His theoretical contributions to the fundamental subject may be consulted at the British Museum. His practical performances, both on a Canadian ranch and on ancient farms in the United Kingdom, were so successful that his old masters—what of them were left by the Irish republicans—still hung on his own walls. His own guests still postured on well-barbered lawns, and the voice of the war profiteer, either in the accents of the dollar or the pound, there mingled with the softly modulated tones of the Lord of the Manor only as birds of passage.
Here were we all, free to move in and out unscheduled and unhurried. I strolled with my fellows or at intervals stole away to hug the satisfaction of existence in such circumstances. Beyond the grounds stretched a great portion of English history. These districts had known the marching Roman legions, the Boche of their day, with the difference that they had overcome where those of 1914-18 had been checked, for the time at least. Here Agricola had laid about him and ruled.
The glue brigade of this week-end knew their England, and industriously expounded it. The Great Editor came pointing out to Mex Tarbuck the direction, and retailing the legends of the old tracks where Harold Earl of Kent came from overthrowing his brother, and the other Harold King of Norway, then in turn to be vanquished by the Bastard of Normandy at Senlac Hill, not so far distant as the neighbours from each other on the Namoi or the Darling. I walked out of hearing of this history lesson on Saturday afternoon to a far corner of the grounds, where the trees of a brief avenue met above me, and absorbed the scents and sounds of an English country scene. The blackbirds and thrushes were around me and smaller things made their presence known by rustling leaves or chirps. The unhappiness of having been wrenched from the United States was now disappearing. England had reclaimed me. There was here something fine, something agelessly wrought from Time which would advance to new goodness and beauty and freedom.
Yes, it was my week-end, too.
My reverie was interrupted by Lord Brockington reminding Guy Junior of Ethelbert the Saxon to whom St Augustine preached. He pointed out on the horizon the high-peaked roofs, tall turrets and quaint chimney-stacks of what had once been his family's seat. There Ethelbert, first Christian king and his Frankish queen, Bertha, were supposed to have slept. There was mention of the Black Prince and a gateway going back to Edward VI, and all that kind of thing.
"Different from my part of the world," said Guy. "If we wanted a family or any other kind of seat, at first we jolly well had to make it with an axe. All new with us, except the blacks. They might go back beyond the gentry here if only we knew..."
Hugh la ffollette instructed Merlin. She and Guy, great-grandchildren of St Botolphus in the Turnips were heirs to the vast religious history of the area. My host seemed to have an inkling of it. The names flashed by like gems: St Alphage, Lanfranc, St Anselm. Simon of Sudbury was another that had poetic rhythm; and Cranmer's remained because he had had the courage to stretch out his hand in the flames to meet the burning—transcendent over torture during murder motivated by bigotry. There was faith! Had any member of the week-end muster, heir to all this valorous history, such faith and such stamina?
Tarbuck recurred, undergoing English culture at the hands of Pamela Clutterbuck-Leeper. She was identifying her genealogy with the area; but, with others of her length of pedigree, she could have claimed connexion with most of the great houses in any other corner of England, too. The privileged caste is a vigilantly guarded corporation. She was back to Canute and Gunwulf, Offa and Hild and Aethelflaed, the Saxons under Hengist and Horsa. She had it a bit mixed, I think, but neither she nor I nor Mex cared. It was all in the histories and guide-books. She and Mex had more immediate, equally eternal, equally universal fish to fry.
"Was Alfred the Great anywhere about here?"
"Burning the cakes made him a hero for boys."
"Yes, but he was more than a bad cook. He was the father of England as a nation."
"Like 'Washington with us."
"You should make a film of him. Show the continuity of English history and how our little island came to dominate the world."
"All that dope about these old guys isn't any good to you now. It doesn't make you any different from the girls in my last film."
"Doesn't it—not a little?"
"Well, just in sentiment, maybe."
Pamela's laugh was modulated to silver. Her voice, as soft as a sigh, carried to me only in snatches, but Mex asserted loudly and uncompromisingly, "I'm a married man, Lady Clutterbuck-Leeper."
"Among the right people we try to make marriage as little irksome as possible." As they circled the yew-trees that had furnished wood for the cross-bows of the Picts or an ambassador from Adam or someone, Mex passed out of hearing reiterating that he was a married man.
The wife of the Australian K.C., P.C., was with Lady Ruperta Lever—they, too, had come to see this view, the most extensive from the Manor.
"I always remember," said the Australian lady, "that St Alphage was carried off by the Danes and murdered. Relic worship came in somewhere with the bones of St Mildred and was the making of Canterbury, so advertisement is nothing new. But that sacking of Canterbury isn't so well known as the affray with a Becket. It's his tomb I must see...Lady Pamela seems to have made a conquest of that American."
"Pamela can't help it...Yes, a Becket's the most popular of all."
"The Black Prince is popular, too. I remember his tomb in the crypt...Lady Pamela didn't get her beauty from Lord Montraven."
"Nor from her other grandfather the Duke: How do you account for it?"
"Oh, well, you know the rumours...Pamela herself says she's awfully glad the Duke's not her granddad—the old trout is so like a fish..."
The parties coalesced, the Great Editor with them this time. The old names floated up again: Pevensey and Battle Abbey, John of Gaunt and Cromwell. Where Julius Caesar had come and Drake had sailed in the Golden Hind. This was a more literary group. Different names rose like leaves in the breeze: Chaucer, Erasmus, Marlowe, The Ingoldsby Legends, Thackeray, Dickens, even Stanley. A minor guest, but persistent antiquarian, drew attention to the arched windows of a wing of the Manor which had been restored from a three-seat sedilia, relic of the days when the building had been a priory. She went on to say that Snippington Manor was often claimed as the original of Tappington in The Ingoldsby Legends. It, too, was not far off: on one of the high roads from Canterbury to one of the Cinque Ports.
Merlin was ecstatic. The Ingoldsby Legends had been Daddy's choice among nursery tales for her.
"But that's only imaginary stuff—lies," objected Guy Junior. "I like the old chaps who were really here."
"At that distance of time," said Hugh la ffollette, "imaginary characters become as real as the supposedly real. The relation of imagination to reality is a metaphysical question." Guy remained true to a Becket. He wanted to see the actual spot where he had been "done in.
"Ah, yes, he remains the most romantic of them all by reason of his violent death," continued la ffollette. "You'd think that by now partisans would have learnt that violence aids, and eventually immortalizes, the principles they strive to stamp out."
As they moved away I pondered on the queer craving to live in the memory of their successors which afflicts mankind, and wondered if to live in legend could be worth a violent death. Since St Thomas a Becket, many others had obscurely died violent deaths for this England, or her owners. Among them, lately advertised into notoriety, was an uncanonized saint, the Unknown Soldier, with his tablet to entertain holidayers in their rounds of the ancient monuments, and to give colour to the fairytale of democracy. That unidentified piece of corruption could have been me. The thought of its posthumous anonymous immortality banished charm from the scene.
There wasn't an inch of those provinces but had been witness to bloody wars. Of old the land had been won and lost, lost and won, through dynasties and generations of recorded lawlessness. One brigand, raider or usurper—bullies all—had followed another. The scene was exquisite now, its appeal intensified by poignant memory. Artist Time had englamoured the whole heart-breaking, unavailing, uneasy, torturing mystery of human existence.
The idyllic landscape of today had lately been saved once again from a fresh set of owners by blood sacrifice, by ordeal, by physical torture of the young men of my decade. They had been wasted prodigally across half the globe. To what end? I could discern omens of nothing newer than the old fate of the sequacious: to be for ever at the mercy of the exploiting proclivities of the bold and buccaneering in their bullying and greed.
I was less sure than I had been half an hour since that here was something precious working toward something higher. Pamela was at the old playgirl waster tricks. Old Brockington and young Lever had learned nothing of the rising tide against them, and believed in the current governing classes governing to their own advantage, as of yore. Lady Courtley, Hugh la ffollette, Merlin and the Great Editor were genteelly trying to save the city.
The hell of France and Flanders rose again to disturb me. The disinherited men who had been promised this England in return for saving her, where were they—those who had survived? The Cobbler was having an experience as a freak, his son by the father's self-denial was being converted into a hanger-on and supporter of the privileged caste. This mansion was a Liberal stronghold, but even here the Bourbon mentality prevailed.
But I would not sink again to the despair of earlier years. I must escape, even as the playboys and wasters, and da-daists, and gaa-gaaists and coo-coos. And I had a new crack to freedom—Australia. If only I could convey something of the fascination of that land, so far and lone, lying in a cocoon of mystery, its earth purified of history and its offences by aeons of oblivion. It filled my senses. Here was escape.
For the moment I must return to the week-end with its collection of people who had been—some of them—of the governing class of England for five hundred years, with that class's self-assured taking-itself-for-grantedness, with the right to command, as inclination moved it, recruits from among those who in any field via the Genius Cracks push their heads through the wreck of wastage and the stodge of mediocrity.
The widowed Cobbler was a case in point. The tale of him and his exalted son could have titillated the truly Mayfair cliques, who on occasion, to relieve boredom, insolently pick up a pugilist or a jockey, a courtesan or a dancer, a social reformer or a prima donna or a Zulu, then phut! the toy is discarded. But at Snippington Manor the boy would be assayed as the fruit of a Genius Crack and given a chance to augment the Empire's resources. I am sure that Cobbler the Younger had been apprehensive of the enterprise, but he fell on his feet at the Manor, and it interested me to watch him patronizing the very qualities of the Giltinanes to which he owed his brief social elevation. Wasn't that just like real life! The Giltinanes had the bulge on the situation, Young Cobbler being an imitator and they all able to move on their own axes.
"Gosh! doesn't he just look it!" remarked Daddy Giltinane, as we went to our rooms to dress on the first evening, on beholding the youth's weirdly fashioned trousers of shrimp pink. For it was that year when a world of pre-war middle-aged, enervated by war, jadedly longed for post-war youth to infuse fresh spiritual motive power, and when youth responded to the need with the affectation of—Oxford bags! Yes, the most expensively subsidized, privileged of youth, bolstered with self-confidence, leisure and tradition, had helped to save the jolly old Empiah with fantastic pants!
"Gosh," proceeded Daddy, "the girls have got themselves into one leg of a trouser cut off at the knee, and this poor little bandicoot has put his legs each into a long skirt! God, to think of it!"
I took it that the lad looked to Daddy like the raw material from which the dead wood of his despair would later mature.
"The Giltinanes are rather priceless, aren't they," remarked Young Cobbler half an hour later apropos the fun Merlin was having with Daddy's toilet. She had retrieved him from the hall, where he had appeared in his walking boots, and re-issued him in the correct slippers.
Guy the Younger could be seen at the far end of a corridor at the windows in the ecclesiastic arches feasting his eyes on a corner of the grounds where some famous examples of topiary art sentinelled an angle of the drive, a vista so different from Down Under, yet so what he expected, that he could not get enough of it. He was a personable fellow as he stood there, slim and straight and unaffected. He had gone to Smile Row for his evening togs. He would not be a fool in any society, or let Merlin down.
I gazed dumbly at Young Cobbler. I lack the verbal facility of Merlin. I have to wind up like a watch before I go off. "What did you say?"
"They're rather priceless aren't they? Evidently a good deal of the tar-brush there, but I suppose that's usual where he comes from."
Guy Giltinane at thirty-two was more wrinkled than the Cobbler at fifty, for the great Australian sun fries the oil out of men's necks and hands till they are like a goanna skin. Guy had one of those white but firm skins which tan to mahogany, and his hands, though well kept, were like leather. His nose, on a smaller delicate scale, was an aquiline reproduction of his father's and of the Crusading Giltinane's, as depicted in old pictures. His eyes, of a bright English blue, looked like whitish holes in the darkness, but only the sun had coloured him. Stripped, he was whiter than Young Cobbler, who had a dark greasy skin and brown eyes. I exerted myself in honour of Merlin. I linked my arm in that of Young Cobbler and strolled away to a secluded angle of the gallery, now deserted for the dressing-hour. I was gentle, remembering his youth and that he but parroted what dozens of his elders said of Australians and New Zealanders because of the antipodeans' sunburn, and the speakers' ignorance. I warned him against staking too much on the Public School mannah, which he had imbibed to perfection. "You'll hear that it's the manner of the governing classes, and it was admired while they had something to govern, but you'd better not put too many beans in that bag. It's doubtful whether there'll much longer be peoples willing to be governed by what some of the Dominions stigmatize as the hee-haw accent, and others consider the veneer of an obsolete ass. As to the unpretentious, hearty, wide-awake folks like the Giltinanes being priceless: they are beyond price. You just watch out and see."
He took it like a lamb. He had my compatriots' endowment. The Bible says that the meek shall inherit the earth, so, despite Public School affectations, the disintegration of the Empiah may yet a while be stayed.
"You'll see some funny old birds from Australia, as from elsewhere," I proceeded. "They may be reactionary and fifth-rate, and cock-sure, and tanned and wrinkled and many other things, but the reason won't he anything so potential as the tar-brush, but merely that...
"...being ninety-eight per cent British and having the self-satisfaction that goes with it, plus isolation, leaves them in the wake of England mentally. The funniest and most too awfully beastly priceless of all are those who attempt the affectations that are being instilled into you, sonny, without quite bringing it off."
These few kind words addressed to Young Cobbler with a well-bred insolence that Mayfair could not exceed, and an accent which out-Harrowed the Young Cobbler's itself, left that young man for a few moments unaffectedly gaping at a thorough-bred looking young woman in a dazzling evening gown who up-rose from a high-backed divan, which should at that hour have been untenanted.
"Good gracious, Freda, where did you come from?" I exclaimed, sitting down to illustrate my joy with a giggle. Freda is second only to Merlin, and I cannot be sure that she doesn't come first in intellectual comradeship.
"With our ex-Premier and his wife." This had reference to the K.C. couple.
"Yes, of course, I remember—you are Australian."
Young Cobbler's eyes were still distended. He was relieved to escape. Freda and I forgathered ecstatically and let the Empiah rip for a while, though Freda had that inconsistent enterprise as much on her mind as Merlin. When we came to a pause Freda went to rejoin her friends and I sought the Giltinanes.
Guy was awaiting his sister's entry. It was for his surprise and approval she looked as she came down the wide gallery lined with ladies in farthingales and gentlemen in ruffs. She was covered—parts of her—by a miracle of the dressmaker's cunning, a handkerchief or two of silver tissue and rose-pink chiffon—or whatever is the name of that transparent stuff that doesn't fall to pieces so easily as tulle.
I was unprepared for quite such poise coupled with modern chic, even to shingled locks and the brevity of her gown. What a beauty she was with this facet of her being emphasized! The great Australian sun had kissed her so fervently that when twenty-two she had been able to assume the responsibilities of those of thirty without question. Since then the vaporous North Sea had pinkened her cheeks and our lenitive English atmosphere let time stand still for her, so at nearly thirty she appeared not a day older than when she had kissed Guy good-bye Down Under.
He came to meet her with that pride ever fullest with those of the same blood whose defections cast a shade on us, whose triumphs exalt us.
"Hullo, sis, you look like the little girl you were years ago, before mother left us," he said.
Lady Courtley was already in the reception hall with a few others, la ffollette came to meet Merlin and led her to Lady Courtley. Lord Montraven carried her fingers to his lips murmuring, "My pretty, pretty one!"
She looked up at him unaffectedly pleased, "You are a darling, Lord Montraven, to say that. I should love to be beautiful, but I've never had time to think about it, and now it's too late."
Young Cobbler, given a lead, soon found Guy Giltinane so attractive that at the end of thirty-six hours he said, "I'd like to go on the land with you in Australia. I think it would be too awfully jolly."
Guy looked at the aspirant and laughed good-naturedly. "Come along, my young pippin. I'll take you on as jackeroo. If you have any stuffing in you, you'll soon get over the way you talk, and grow out of the pink divided skirts."
Could we turn back the dial of years and live certain hours again, that week-end is the one I should demand a second time: in all my days perhaps it will be that those are the only hours I would live again. Better still, what a blissful adaptation could we but turn Mr Tar-buck's art upon life and by "slow motion" retard those rare hours that enthral, and again hurry the pace of the arid and trying stretches that more plenteously abound!
Round about, and up and down, and in and out we wandered at our will. Tennis raged, also dancing among those of all ages and weights, in the evenings or mornings or middays, as moved the spirit of Terpsichore or Jazz. Some took runs to historical monuments in the Rolls-Royce of Lord Montraven or the Daimler of their host, and there were Irish hunters in the stables that made Merlin's eyes dance with glee, when all the Giltinanes, accompanied by their host and one of the glue brigade, Esmé, a scion of the la ffollette clan, went for a gallop.
In my youth I vindicated my virility in rowing, running, swimming and tennis, having helped to win coveted trophies in all four. I used to say that I rode until associating with Guy Giltinane, after which I knew that I merely sat on horses and was carried about by the noble quadrupeds.
The weather promised one of our customary summerfuls of winter, so there were musical log fires here and there to entice us, and in the cerebration given tongue around these was, to some of us, the best entertainment. We reconstructed the Empiah and the world over and over again between Friday evening and Tuesday morning and some of us reconstrued the attendant isms at any minute on the doormats as we drew breath to go in or out or to retire for bed or change of raiment.
This collection contained members of the Liberal Party, as well as survivors of the Irish rebellion of 1916, so Russia's performance and plans were discussed, though it was illuminating to observe that the wildest Irish rebels did not go all the way there. The most popular idea for reorganization and renovation of England was through an aristocracy of intellect and idealism to supersede the moribund oligarchy of privilege and primogeniture. Education, was the cry, to pave the way for a bloodless revolution.
"You're merely trying to stem a proletarian dictatorship," I said to Merlin as we went to our rooms in the small hours, "and by censorious people outside the Empiah it's called our moral pretentiousness."
"I can't help that. We can't give up to fatalism and the beasts of prey."
"Of course not," said Freda. "But how are you going to bring about your revolution without the horrors of 1917 in Russia? Just because our national manner is milder you don't believe that privilege here will surrender its status and spoils any more willingly than in Russia or America."
"But listen to the people here: their whole lives are devoted to bettering conditions."
"Yes, to bettering conditions, not to removing the causes of those conditions. The rich will do everything for the poor but get off their backs. They'll go as far as letting the poor vote; dukes will contribute their duchesses to kiss hodcarriers to win them to vote for the status quo; captains of industry will provide palatial factories for their hands to toil in; they'll transport fighters for their cause in luxury liners—but they won't give up their own vested interests."
"Irrefutable," I murmured. "I've just been reading the memoirs of..."
"But I can't believe that all the rich are tyrants, not even the Tories. They want to progress."
"Well," I remarked, "you remember when I gave some information about the Russian plan, that was so dull that you nearly expired of boredom, someone of the governing class considered it so dangerous that the police were informed."
"Exactly," said Freda. "Privilege here is so firmly based as a religion and worshipped by those it disinherits that it's able to be gracious so long as its position isn't challenged."
"Still I believe—" murmured Merlin.
"You can't capsize a social and economic system by mere advocacy," contended Freda. "Laissez-faire has proved inadequate."
"Hang on to your dreams, Merlin mia," I advised. "Only by his dreams may a man, maid or nation become. You're a bonny crusader, brave as ever hatched in England's far-flung cradles."
"Now Niggeh, you are making fun of me!"
"Most assuredly! Most healthfully, but lovingly—lovingly!"
We wandered in and out of the billiard-room. Many of us wandered out more often than we wandered in, but the one who found a niche there was the Cobbler. In the billiard-room he became an entity because his unexpected proficiency captivated Lord Montraven, who had a strength for the game. The other guest who shone in the billiard-room was Mex Tarbuck. He and the Cobbler between them demonstrated a number of poolroom tricks that enraptured Lord Montraven. On the Sunday afternoon as they were proceeding to dress for dinner, the father of ambassadors clapped the Cobbler on the shoulder and stammered, "My er—my deah sirer, you must come to my place one week-end and show me that last stroke again."
Lord Montraven of Tintwistle was swell enough, and unconventional enough, and free enough—being a widower of standing—thus to embrace a cobbler or a cooper or a cop, an he darned well pleased: which is altogether different from doing it as a comrade or a brother or an equal. The Cobbler had no lack of attention. Lord Mont-raven spoke of putting Cobbler the Younger in touch with a sprig of his own house, who was likewise undergoing segregation at Cambridge. What a start that could have been to a thruster, to one self-making and vainglorious! But it might he a painful embarrassment to one without the guts or guineas to keep up, and Young Cobbler gave no signs of being one able to hew his own fortune among the fortunate.
"That's wot I like in these real torfs; they're as simple as you an' me. It's only the blighters wot ain't anythink that tries to pretend they're Gawd Almighty himself, if you understand wot I mean," said the Cobbler, who was having the time of his heeling and shoeing life.
"Lord Mountraving, he's a real torf, not 'arf he ain't. I like 'em like that—just the lawst word in the dictionary. That's wot I want the boy to he like," he further confided to me on the doormat. "Do you think he's shapin' that way?"
I wondered if Harrow and Cambridge could, in one act, instead of three or four generations, produce just that dithering hesitancy of gentlemanliness. No matter what befalls, a gussie so moulded can never be anything more nor less. But then I thought of those many young men, mostly sons of cobblers or milk-vendors or postmen or clerks or barbers, who, without even one semester at Harrow or Eton, nightly and afternoonly delight millions of English-speaking folk at home and overseas by reproducing exactly the obsolete Lord Montraven and his compeers, and, since this is an age of commercial substitutes and standardized reproduction...
"There is nothing to stop him," I murmured, "but I shouldn't let any particular type go to my head, if I were you, old warrior. I'd let him develop on his own axle."
Yes, it was decidedly the Cobbler's week-end.
Even more so it was Merlin's. Watching her success, I saw that it rested on personality. Whether she had other gifts I could not determine. In the arts it would be too late for her to develop any but literary. She might use her personal talent in politics, or socially if she married; but one did not connect her with marriage so ineluctably as one did Pamela Clutterbuck-Leeper. But thereby hang other parentheses.
The charm of all three Giltinanes was their vitality. With their zest and freedom from affectation they made life more intense for their associates. Any sense of futility suffered a setback in their presence. Merlin, as she frankly lamented, lacked education in the academic sense. There was no subject in which she was a specialist, but the distinguished historian cut short his remarks on the Etruscans, a discussion on Celtic lore of the Middle Ages was suspended, and Lord Brockington's reiteration that vegetarianism would banish bon vivancy was abandoned in mid-air when Merlin voiced her dreams for the future of England, as she was free to do among these Mayfairites.
What of that other Mayfair, photographically exposed in Bon Ton and the Teltale? Plain faces and bandy legs give evidence that old gentleman of style and spats are no more immune from baldness and toothlessness than are the wearers of sweaters and bursted boots. The full-page pictures of young women, more or less of beauty, are of those who encroach on the show-cases of theatricals and are posed with expressions as unplumbed as ever achieved by any dancer with all her brains in her toes. A life of golf and races and regattas and charity balls and bazaars, it would seem upon this evidence.
As depicted in novels and plays, over and over again, by young men so artificially educated, so apperceptive, so intuitive, that it is unbelievable they are not girls, it is a galanty show of young women of allegedly unfathomable yearnings, but as ripe to be any man's unexpurgated donah as any Evelyn or Emma of the new cut, or old cut, and pooh bah to the consequences! Examined, what are the consequences? Post-war consequences being powerless to devalue damsels as private property, chaperones are abolished, and, no longer vigilant at the door of technical virginity, now feverishly sludge in the same puddles as their more youthful contemporaries, and for the same catch, their post-dated afflictions being none the less virulent.
A world of lolling, dolling young men given over to cults of the pyjamas and flowered dressing-gowns, cigarette-holders and ties, dictated by good form, who look as if they were imbued with unwordable knowledge, knowledge for which there are no words that the censor would allow outside of Bible or dictionary, though pastors galore rush into print to insist upon the purity of tales about them when written slimly enough to get past.
A novelists' and playwrights' world of but one theme, of which its audience never tires, being faithful to familiarity even as unto the mother-in-law joke. A Mayfair that frequently endows the work of its endemic chroniclers with verisimilitude through law suits, when nauseously hysterical countesses and neo-countesses and brazenly competent cads fill the newspapers with their putrescent disclosures under the quaint caption of "dramatic developments in society scandal".
Merlin called this kind of Mayfair literature "kennel confessions", and held that they had no counterpart in reality. Such reality does not blossom where people who have disciplined or outlived carnality engage in cerebral association. Nevertheless that side of life was active at Snippington Manor during that ideal week-end. Its leading exponent was Pamela Clutterbuck-Leeper, who in her twenty-five years had achieved a widely-envied notoriety. She inherited her tendencies, according to the cynical Mayfairites, who inconsequently swop tales about their confiding intimates. Even the lower middle-classes felt competent to assert that Pamela was not Lord Montraven's grand-daughter, though she was his wife's, and that wife never had had any husband but Lord Montraven, who rested innocent of the rumour, or at least unperturbed. The Englishman is credited with taking cuckolding quietly. So many of the elite, including Lord Montraven's clan, boast of their Norman descent. The Conqueror himself was a bastard. Lord Montraven may have enjoyed a quid pro quo in cuckolding his neighbour. It is impossible to judge the mid-career of an attentuated white-headed septuagenarian by his avidity for kissing the hands of the belles of the party: it may he a hang-over or honest senescence.
His grand-daughter caused men to dither. Had she been a politician she could have equalled a du Barry or others it would be bad form to name, but at that date she was a slave to her senses rather than to any thirst for placement or power. She was one of those languid lilies whose every attitude is graceful. She seemed indifferent, remote, almost supercilious. She wafted around with half-closed eyes and men grovelled before her. The historian expounded history for her benefit. The Australian P.C., K.C. and the actor-manager were bewitched, mostly by Pamela's reputation. The trade-union leader abrogated democratic class-consciousness in her lackadaisical smile, while Lord Brockington, with bilious dislike of rabbit food, kept her in a corner to contend...
To do Pamela justice, her practice was innate and partly automatic. She charmed Daddy Giltinane and thus charmed Merlin, the way to whose antagonism was to slight her Daddy. Daddy gave an exhibition with his stockwhip as he had done years before at St Botolph in the Turnips. He was supported by Merlin and Guy Junior, but Daddy was the master. Pamela, with her eyes bandaged, stood while Daddy flicked a cigarette from her beautiful lips or curled that dreadful lash around her soft white throat without leaving a mark. For this Guy Junior and Merlin acclaimed her. Rosemary Courtley tied herself in knots, with Guy the Younger as tutor. Young Cobbler's native curiosity cracked his new Public School enamel. Daddy himself tutored Lady Pam-Ella, as she was to him. Her art in admiring men's performances, her freedom from the alienating itch to exhibit her own, so delighted Daddy that it became his week-end. The jackdaw dances to a great age, sure enough, and Daddy's unique whip dance delighted all ages.
What is the power of the Pamelas, the reputation of whom so disturbs and paralyses men? Pamela was the kind of nymph to whom a virtuous young man, who is engaged, quickly announces the fact as a defence. I told her I was engaged on the first evening. Guy Giltinane divulged his pre-emption early on Sunday morning. Mex Tarbuck's marital state was blared in the newspapers, but in chic circles marriage is more an incitement than a deterrent, and from the first evening Pamela made a dead set at Mex. He disregarded the opening in favour of stalking Merlin. She was enough to de-rail any he-man, married or moron or mormon, displaying himself in "flims" or "flivvers", and Mr Tarbuck transported himself in an automobile gorgeous enough to take a rise out of Tutankhamen. He invited Merlin to a moonlight run in it. She accepted enthusiastically, "Oh, Daddy, wouldn't you love a ride in it?"
Mex said his pace might upset Daddy, who, truth to tell, was not so easy leathering about in motor-cars as could be wished. To Mex's relief Daddy declined, but Merlin insisted upon taking her darling brother, from whom she could not be separated, and Pamela and me—all this innocent of Mex wishing otherwise than to give pleasure to as many as his car would accommodate. Perhaps Merlin was only seemingly innocent, for she would have thought Mex crooked hunting, a married man being off the map of eligibility for her. I could not yet discern any man on that map. I wondered how she would act if the object of her major seizure should be married. Would she be spartan enough...? But that is irrelevant.
Mex's wife, another film star, no doubt had Mex's code rather than Merlin's, and was able to take care of herself. At any rate, Mex was collared at first sight, and had Merlin met him an ell on the way...But Pamela had other ideas. Why?—unless she, who had few inhibitions, had not as yet scalped an elemental American film star. There was an affinity of names, as Guy Giltinane said, chuckling. The serpent himself doesn't know with women. However, the selected one had to act circumspectly, because though men in her own set said those unprintable things about her which denote a siren's popularity, it would not have been good form to have Pamela as a co-respondent.
There was no cause to fulminate against Tarbuck: he had been invited by Pamela with her double name going back to ancient glory and culminating in fin-de-guerre glamour. I have never been able to assume superiority about my countrywomen, as some do abroad; for English coldness in amour, under experienced observation, boils down to less vociferous caterwaulings. Enraged by Mex's overtures, I fulminated to Guy after our return from the midnight motor run.
"Greedy beast, I'd like to kick him!"
"I shouldn't bother being jealous about him, if I were you," drawled Guy.
"Jealous! How could I be jealous, with my own divinity every day coming nearer! I'm merely disgusted. If Merlin were my sister I wouldn't have that object leering at her."
Guy sat down and laughed. "If Merlin had been your sister as long as she's been mine, you'd know that Mex was the one to be sorry for. Besides, you're biased. He's a handsome, active fellow, who's done things that mean hard slogging, and that American brogue is very taking, I think. If he likes to butt his head against a stone wail, he's old enough to know what ails him. He's married and that bakes his cake with Merlin. It'll run off her like water off a duck's back without her suspecting for ages, and when it dawns on her—phut! It'll all he over like that. You don't know her! Huh! she had her first proposal at twelve, and was so startled that she pelted the man with clods, and he ran for his life."
He laughed heartily in remembrance.
"Since then I've got tired of keeping the tally. They'll be proposing to her till she's eighty, if I know anything."
His hilarity subsiding, he continued, "You know, we're all wrong about women. It's they who ought to protect us, instead of the other way about. A dud man has no chance to make anything but a fool of himself with a decent young woman with a head on her. He can buzz about a bit like a blow-fly in a bottle, but she'll soon finish him. As for the other sort, you couldn't keep them straight on a chain." He inclined his head to indicate a fellow guest and emitted the usual canine noun.
"Of course," he added, "if there was a madman that Sis couldn't shed by natural law, I'd boot him to Cape York with pleasure. I always keep an eye open for accidents of that kind. It's going to be better fun watching the old rooster—old Lord Thingamy Tin Whistle. Lordy, don't some of these old geebungs have a name to fit them like an eel skin!"
I forbore to remind him that my second name was Haltwhistle.
"I'm anxious to see that 'bust'. The whole thing's better than a dog fight." He took off his evening coat and held it up to observe the cloth. "By George! I'll often think of these days when I'm scraping flies off the jumbucks—growing wool to dress the rum old crocks and little sissies in their pink balloons. You'd hardly think they're human like us out there, would you? Great jumping snakes, wouldn't some of them feel a little drought-stricken in a plague of grasshoppers? What do you think old Slushy Bill would think of that for a real man's togs?" he said, examining the satin lining. "Think he had the D. Ts—eh? As for Sis, don't you lose any sleep or hair over her, unless it's by laughing."
He chortled again to picture such a scene. With his open-air alertness he always seemed to be in the right place when old Montraven was moved to kiss Merlin's hand. The dotard was thus saved from the transgression of more familiar osculation.
The jackdaw dances to a great age sure enough.
The jackdaw is in fact a jackass.
Tarbuck had a plausible approach to Merlin through her acquaintance with conditions likely to be subjects for films, but was diverted by Lady Clutterbuck-Leeper. To call her Lady Pamela, to his native convention, would have been equivalent to addressing Jane Smith as Miss Jane instead of Miss Smith. He may not so far have collected an English aristocrat, and men have urgent conceits in such conquests. At all events, the Lady Clutterbuck-Leeper was responsible for a fresh casualty, and the bold bright eyes of Tarbuck had a furtive gleam when they looked at her. As Pamela waxed deadly and he succumbed, he realized that Merlin was out of bounds. He was sentimental about a chaste woman in the "back to mother's knee" tradition, and would have hated Merlin to know of his fall. But Merlin was so set on helping her elders to save the Empiah, and the time was so short, that the danger of exposure was small.
The other person to be shielded from this knowledge was the Cobbler. It was such an occasion for him, and his ideals of the "torfs" were so elevated, that one could not with equanimity contemplate his pop blue eyes becoming popper because of the discovery of putrescence in high life. Especially not, as he halted me going to bed on the second night with, "Wot I want to know is where they get all this abaht rottenness in 'igh life. Ain't these as 'igh as you could wish 'em? And did you ever see a Christianer, respectabler lot of people? Lady Pamelia and that other one could do with a little more on 'em, but we are prepared for that. A man of experience expects it, 'aving seen it on the pictures an' in real life on the beach at Margate. Those that sneer abaht 'em, can't 'ave seen the real torfs at close quarters like we know them 'ere."
"Not like we know them here," I repeated. It was all so fantastic, yet so real, just like life in a smart-alec novel. To disillusion the Cobbler would have been a considerable breach of good form.
Tarbuck's presence rested on the aforesaid right of the privileged caste to command for inspection any being that rears its head above the ruck, it depending on the qualities of the "sport" whether he or she is merely a day's entertainment to the blase or has sufficient ballast to be recruited among the wits of Mayfair.
Mex was not a film star, but the film star, and had a wide choice of hospitality. His accents rang with fine resonance and oversea assurance in the ancestral spaces of the big drawing-room after dinner on the main night, where a fire glowed to ease the damp of high June, and drew the company together.
I had murmured that I thought it was to the crudity and blatancy of its film stories that the U.S.A. owed a great deal of its unpopularity among the cognoscenti on this side of the water. The monotony of the everlasting crooks and vamps and multi-millionaires and pestiferously conventional virgins earning their own livings, alienated intellectual sympathy. In the next half-hour Mex Tarbuck showed himself able to keep his head above the rabble of any clique by the way he disregarded me and oratorically and didactically mounted the hustings himself. The dominant invariably act so.
The probable effect of American films was a point immediately swamped under the inferiority of English productions, not propagandistically or artistically, but technically. As he was the only one there qualified to discuss this point with authority, we perforce listened. He asserted that the British were as unenterprisingly behind the times in their films as in their domestic services.
"That's about the time of Noah's Ark," remarked Merlin.
I agreed, just to demonstrate that we were a people able to discuss our shortcomings without apoplectic seizures.
"You're right! A noo idea is bad form to an Englishman." Max took the centre of the hearthrug as became a man used to the centre of the spotlight, and the close-up and the fade-away.
I had felt this myself on returning home at the beginning of the war. Now I considered it might be a gain to be impervious to new ideas. For one thing, an Englishman thus saves himself nerve fret, because a new idea for the sake of a new idea, and when frequently the new idea is no improvement on the old, results in more restlessness than progress. But Mex was proceeding free of my invertebrate conclusions.
"What you lack is women's inflooence. You don't develop your women, and there's so many more of them since the war that you must look for the brains and ingenooity there that the men miss through being too stuck on themselves."
There were delicate murmurs from the charming glue brigade, who have the art, whether natural or acquired—I have not yet psychoanalysed it—of seeming to agree. Is it achieved merely by listening artistically? It is an old culture and works equally with violent tories, or fanatical rebels, with those that are crudely flattering or smashingly critical. It operated now, and feeling the dew of sympathy, whether chimerical or real, Mex continued.
"As far as I have seen, the English woman is far too good for the English man."
"I think—er-ha-ha-er—if I might express it," stammered Lord Montraven of Tintwistle, "that men always feel that—that—er—women in any nation—are—betterer—than the men, God bless them!"
"So you are on safe ground there, Mex," said Giltinane the Younger, with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Well, an Englishman ignores his women too much. He puts them in the background when he should be featuring them; and this comes out distinctly in his movies. A metallurgist would as soon think of looking for auriferous quartz in the clothes closet as an Englishman would turn to his women for brains."
Again I agreed, but here is where I knew more than Mex Tarbuck, being indigenously English and at the same time thoroughly Americanized.
Mex was saved from wading further into a bad impression by Merlin. The quality of her intervention showed one more surely marked for prominence than Mex.
"What's wrong with your films—" said she. (It was English films that had been on trial, mark you, but she took Mex's rostrum by ignoring his points and imposing her own. However—)
"Our charwoman calls them the 'films', and I think it apt," I murmured, but no one took any notice of me and the opinions, at second hand, of the redoubtable Mrs Brindle.
"Your American films exaggerate life, and falsify it. You debauch imagination. At last wonder and surprise are bankrupted by over-stress. There's a gorgeous field for film-making in Australia, but it would be too tame after your hectic gangster cowboys and your machine-gun city murderers. Daddy knows lots about the bush of past days, and Guy knows about it now, but they won't begin to make films of it till every skerrick of the old life has gone. Then they'll have a cardboard kangaroo like the dragon in the Nibelungen."
Mex still sought to survive. "That, again, is the lack of enterprise of the English: you've got all these places stretching to glory and back again, and don't make any use of them. But say, tell me about your place there Down Under," he continued, surrendering. "Gee, I never saw anything like that whip-lashing stunt of your pop's. Have you many more like him? As soon as I pull the dough out of a few more big contracts I have an idea of setting up on my own, and you've put an idea into my head, young Miss Australia. What would you think of film acting?"
It straightaway became Merlin's evening.
Guy the Elder told rattling and unusual yarns of thirty years before. Under the skilled manipulation of Lady Courtley, Guy the Younger was lured to speak of today. He was one of those experts, who, if given a wisp of wool, can tell the age, sex and breed of the animal on which it has grown, from what area of its hide it was taken, and what the diet of the sheep for the last twelve months.
I had ridden out with him in the blinding sunlight to receive from the drovers flocks of sheep spreading a mile wide over the plains rimmed by the blue and silver mirage. It was high entertainment for me to watch that slight, quiet man saunter up to the gate of the home run and, opening it a slit, lean against it with apparent indifference and in a few minutes count accurately thousands of jumbucks as they ripped through in threes or fives like torrents in spring. He was, too, a skilled surgeon and physician to his flocks.
He pictured those magnificent spaces still unspoiled of man to those sitting there where all was gardened and owned, enclosed and tabulated.
"England must seem very small and cramped to you coming back to it after a lifetime out there," observed Pamela to Guy the Elder, who said something incoherent about dead wood. Guy the Younger admitted that it must be "just the place for literary fellows and bankers", though he would find it cramped after a while. It was evident that he considered it a place for the arts and holidays, rather than for real life.
"But it's all so heavenly when you see it like this," said Merlin, "though it can't continue to hold any place without conservation of its foundations and development of its extremities overseas. How can poor little England, so small and cold and far away up here, realize the might and majesty of the material achievements of the United States of America and the unspoiled glory of Canada and New Zealand and Australia? And when you tell them they won't listen, or don't understand."
"Darling, you must tell us. We must listen to our own children or go under," said Lady Courtley.
"Yes, Miss Giltinane," said our host with his seer's eyes and charming manner, "it is for you to rescue us from stagnation. We are not all, as Mr Tarbuck has so interestingly suggested, blind to women's genius. You must startle us from this lethargy, this torpor. I assure you it is not self-satisfaction."
"Yes," commented the Great Editor, who had said nothing hitherto. "Torpors, yes. Our morale is being dissipated by inaction; we are succumbing to sleepy-sickness."
"Why?" demanded Merlin. "We have natural resources boundless beyond our deserts. We must do new and great things—good great things, If you could only see Australia—mile after mile when all the bush is a blaze of blossom—and Canada, day after day you travel over its natural flower gardens..."
The reflection of those undefiled splendours lit her eyes as she spoke, hers a modified and expurgated version of "God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet". While the talk was tossed about me I dived inwardly to muse that the way for England, my England, to regain and extend her greatness, perhaps was that pointed out to a certain rich man of old. She must forsake the fleshpots of imperialism. She could afford no more wars. The great war to end all others for the present had winded dictators, profiteers, warriors and other belligerent duds, had blued England's investments and loaded her with debts. Another such debauch would make her a has-been and a beggar. I did not cast this thought for the trampling.
Besides, back of this thought were the shackles of others; recognition of the impotence to force upon peoples the most plausible utopias and stirrer-states; realization that could I ensure the emergence Of my England (my adored, ethical England in which I believe as deeply as the other Englishman with his soul hitched to material things believes in his dominating England), what then? All the stultiloqueriee of a generation cannot obscure the coocrete facts of—what? What are the concrete facts? Perhaps I must admit to a little shell-shock or other war-strain diverting me from "normalcy", as my American friends express it. To be normal in assonance with the articulate normal school, a Man must for ever be lustily greedy to eat, drink and go a-whoring or swashbuckling: But, deah readah (and you will indeed be deah, those of you who spend an hour with me in the confines of this novel, which started in levity and wound up elsewhere, instead of in the more normal company of the clever detectives or practioners in glittering pruriency), you and the psychoanalysts and cheirosophists can make what you like of my condition, but I for one am not always full of lust or of joy in beefsteak and burgundy. My inner consciousness is sensitive to depression in it most disconcerting way. I insert, as further evidence, that both in common life and in that recurrent lunacy called war, it has oftener been my lot to save the beef-and-muscle fellows from despair than it has been within their capacity to do similarly for me. I have a capable suspicion that this crude lustiness of the normal male is exaggerated—but men are so timid that they dissimulate their apparent deviation from the herd.
The Great Editor was proceeding: "Boundless natural resources, but in human progress you must realize that war has destroyed perhaps a generation's crop. It is somewhat this way. Ordinary humanity is like a trough of dough, it has to be leavened by genius, or it does not rise. There is very little genius, it is true. That only a little genius suffices is equally true. Too much would ferment the dough so that it would blow out of the tub..."
"That's the trouble with Ireland," interposed the Free State Cabinet Minister. "Too much genius altogether!"
Old Mormops Brockington could stand no more. He did not approve of the rabble that la ffollette collected. Vermin! la ffollette should have had enough of them when Castle Kilbunion was gutted over his head! Some fine morning he'd find Snippington Manor treated the same way. He purpled and stove in with, "England would be done with one of her handicaps if Ireland would sink in the sea. The Irish mind is moronic."
The Free State Minister glared and rose. The American historian-sociologist, sponsored by an educational trust, looked apprehensive. He was not inured to English free speech on its higher levels. Freda's voice intervened. It was cool and real old-school-tie, wherever she had procured the accent.
"Au contraire, your lordship"—was there just a soupcon of derision in the way she stressed the title? "The Irish mind is genius undiluted, and that can operate like alcohol when taken as a whole meal instead of as a stimulating appetizer. What the Irish need is stodge and more stodge as an alloy. English and Irish would be a transcendant mixture. The English genius is embedded so deeply in stodge that it can function with safety."
Brockington muttered something about bolshevists, the Irish politician laughed with delight, and the Great Editor accepted Freda's statement with a smile that was very English and disarming, and continued.
"Yes, man could not suddenly support the fullness of the genius that lies in him potentially. He must come to that gradually and toilsomely. But each generation, each decade, each five years, is dependent on a fresh infusion of genius, and it is appalling to speculate how much potential genius lies in France, in the Balkans, God knows where, wasted like..."
"There!" said Mex Tarbuck, eclipsed but unvanquished. "Your male genius. If you only looked to your female genius, England, as I see it, could lick creation yet. You have a potential field in all these women, many of them out of the ordinary—for it's mostly the fiutterbudgets with little to them who marry early. There will be a reserve of wonderful women here not given to motherhood and housekeeping. Transmute, sublimate their great qualities of motherhood, and lick creation—I want England to lead creation. If she don't, gee, no one else can."
The Great Editor, he whose candle has gone out since then, the world of thinkers prematurely robbed of its light through worry and grief induced by the war, leant forward with his deprecating smile and said to Merlin, "I for one await the genius of women. I accept Mr Tar-buck's suggestion as perhaps fruitful. You have not been cramped by the dead hand of tradition, you come from those tremendous spaces which must attune the spirit to adventure. You tell us what is the matter with Mother England."
"England can always renew her youth and her greatness in her Dominions," said the American sociologist-historian.
"Not at all," bawled a pre-war Liberal ex-Cabinet Minister, he who is nick-named Boanerges. "The Dominions are no use to us. They are so infernally parochial. They never have, and never will, produce anything better than a fifth-rate man. They have no originality. Australia has no patriots in the big sense. Her wool men's highest ambition is to get enough money to come over here to the golf clubs and ape the Berties and Cuthberts and Gussies who are killing England. You talk about the dead hand of tradition, but the good tradition hasn't touched their parish-pump souls; they can only imitate the Motherland's snobbery. There never has been a land as sweet and free as England, and never will be, if she would only cut free of the outsiders who are bleeding her white. We are afraid to say boo to the Dominions because of their wool and wheat. They hold a whip hand over us and drive us to everything reactionary."
"The Dominions will never properly develop while they have the restrictive imperialistic influence. Look how the United States flourished as soon as they threw off the English yoke," said the Free State Cabinet Minister, who had been a Sinn Feiner, and was now a compromising republican biding his time. "You only have to look at Ireland to see how poisonous the influence of England can be. England reduced to her proper proportions as a small nation might help to save mankind: swollen with imperialism she is a menace to the world."
"The catch there," Freda flung in, "is that when England sinks from being a menace there will be some other menace, and probably a much worse one."
"And our other Australian friends," said Lady Courtley in her diplomatic way. "They must make contribution, too. We need them all."
"What we need is more confidence in ourselves," said Lord Brockington gruffly. "We're the only people in the world who'll suffer detractions as if they were commendation. We're always disparaging ourselves—marvellous trait that—and all the time we're the most wonderful race alive today. Who's shouldering the war debt as we are? Is there any nation yet can touch us in manufacture, in ship-building? The genius of the English people has never been approached..."
"One of the funniest things about you," interposed the wife of the Australian K.C., who had not hitherto contributed, "is the way you all say how modest you are about your great qualities and how you run yourselves down, when all the while it seems to me you do nothing but praise yourselves and are never happy unless everyone else is praising you, too. I have to laugh..."
"We're like a professional beauty," said the Great Editor, "past our prime and trying to ignore our wrinkles. We insist upon our friends saying there are no ravages of time visible."
"I wonder if we're not too far in our decline to recover," ventured Lady Courtley.
"Yes," said the Free State Cabinet Minister, "Rome and Spain had their day in turn and now take a back seat. Is it now the turn of the British to retire while Mr Tarbuck gets into the saddle?"
"Not at ahl," said Tarbuck. "That idea of any one nation being the whole cheese is a back number. The world has grown too composite and interdependent for that. In future there's not going to be any one prima donkey and the rest nowhere..."
"You mean," said the actor-producer of renown, "that the star system in nations is passing as it is on the stage."
"You've said it," agreed Tarbuck, "and England's going to be a great deal more indispensable than ever she was as a leader when she gets the imperial bug out of her system and keeps a hold on the things that are her own, like sane government and freedom."
"What have you to say, my dear Miss Healey?" inquired Lady Courtley, with her enticing smile. "You can speak for Australia, as well as for England and Ireland."
"For Australia, being ninety-eight per cent British is not enough," said Freda, with a twinkle at Young Cobbler, who was sitting petrified in a corner. "I agree with the gentleman"—she bowed towards Boanerges—"who complains of England having to kow-tow to the Dominions' wealth in raw materials, and of our mediocrity and parochialism, our snobbery in imitating the wasters over here. Australia will remain a cultural desert till her native genius can function in its own soil. We are suffering from arrested mental development at present."
The Freestater praised this. Boanerges roared.
"Do you subscribe to the belief that Australia would be better if she could get from under England's wing?" asked our host.
"Our isolation and England's navy have kept us free and safe in some ways, but in the airship and wireless age that has come, Britain will be compelled to abandon us, and we are unfit to protect ourselves. We'll be like a fat child with his paws full of rich cake adrift among a hungry crowd. We'll be demoralized till we are taken over by a fresh protector."
"You present us with a drastic and precarious picture," said Lady Courtley.
"A simple fact, as it seems to me."
Freda was crisp and uncompromising. Her name was one to arouse suspicions of a Sinn Fein and intransigent attitude towards England. People in danger of being submerged grasp at any straw. Merlin was no practising sociologist; her fairer kind of beauty was disarming where Freda's was challenging. There was no bolshevism or subversion in Merlin's saving of the Empiah, but only that tolerance of ideas and personalities that has long made England the home of free speech—a noble liberalism, now discredited as mere laissez-faire, which is receding before the fury of oncoming and contending totalitarianisms.
"But you, too, are from Australia," said the Great Editor, turning to Merlin.
Merlin's beauty would have given any ideas more acceptance than the wisdom of Socrates would have commanded from poor old Ma Brockington, the Mormopsess or Mormopsis as the ribald called her.
Freda unobtrusively slipped out to the garden. I slyly followed.
"Poor old dears!" she murmured. "They won't realize that their reign is shattered."
"It's always been shattered—if you read what England's critics and patriots have said. They'd have listened to you, and I wanted to hear what you had to say about the future of Australia."
"Rabbits! There'll be no future but poverty and chaos for the world at large, no hope for my Australia in the new alignments, unless the Occident will abandon war and the Orient control its fecundity."
"But that is out of range. I want you to help me with the Australia that I have just discovered. I'm drunk with the thought of it."
"I know! A fine holiday from too much Piccadillian smart-alecism. Go ahead in your temporary infatuation. You'll make the Commonwealth purr with self-satisfaction. Miss Giltinane can return the compliment by cheering up England, but my Australia will still await her literary Moses."
"But Freda, don't be so snifty! I want you to help me; be my partner if you like; you really know Australia."
Freda made no reply as we moved within sound of the speakers. Merlin attracted those above the age of carnality, but while their ears calmly took in what she was saying, most male eyes were on Pamela, who said nothing. Female youth and beauty, even when handicapped with intelligence, may draw from virility the worship of restraint, but the wanton releases in men a wild fire beyond their volition. Mex Tarbuck let his ears relax while his eyes took on the strain, and occasionally Pamela gave him a glance that had nothing to do with what was being said.
"Now you who love both England and Australia," persisted the Great Editor, bending towards Merlin, "you must give us something constructive."
"I have no education."
"Out there you must have had something better than mere formal education. You haven't lost the vision. Tell us so that we may arouse and save what we love in Mother England. Mother England—what's right and what's wrong with her! Tell us! We specially need good news. Electrify our torpor. Our hearts will respond to encouragement. I shall see that you have a hearing."
Mex was enervated and bored by Tuesday morning, when he invited me to return to town with him in the pompous Mercedes. He did not invite anyone else. He said good-bye to Merlin with elaborate courtesy. Lady Pamelia, as the Cobbler called her, did not appear.
"Gee, this is sure the morning after the night before," he said with a yawn, as we started. He used one or two words about women that have their place in the dictionary and some smoking-rooms.
"Some women—very few, you mean," I responded, knowing he referred to one. "Very few women and most men," I amended, remembering Merlin's ideas.
Mex and Pamela had spent the week-end. It had been theirs alone—no, together.
Following the week-end life marched orthodoxly. As Daddy Giltinane reiterated, it was settling hack into prewar ruts. Many of the soldiers who had lived through saving England for the profiteers now—with their younger brothers—were withering on the dole. More playful than ever, the Pamela Clutterbuck-Leepers, male, female and neuter, cavorted, and querulously denounced their elders for having made a limbo of their privileged world. By some ratiocination of pragmatism the anthropomorphic God was deposed, and conscience banished as an inhibition. We elders (I was fast becoming one of them) at least had expiated in the trenches. There were, of course, Lady Courtley, Hugh la ffollette, and such idealists, who hoped to make a new world by the old laissez-faire democracy and evolution; and the Brockington and Clarry Lever crowd who were determined to shore-up the roofs of Sodom and Gomorrah against brimstone by keeping the masses everywhere in that state to which they had eternally been accustomed; and a few cranks like myself whom these folk reported to the police. (I had wondered all through the week-end had it been Lord Brockington or Clarry Lever who had pimped, because they had both been present when I strove honestly to testify about the Russian experiment.)
My single blessedness was running out and I was beset with numerous chores. Merlin had her family, though their departure was nearing. Guy the Younger wished to be back on the plains for shearing. In wool was his wisdom and his refuge.
I longed to ride with him again across those wide undulations to see the leaves of the bimby box gleaming like tin in the sun and the jumbucks snowy from the shears seeming as big as steers in that magnifying atmosphere. Again at dawn and dusk to hear the merry kookaburrahs, and the honey birds that called the live-long day in the yarran-trees whose golden fluff scented the air: it is impossible to convey the quality of these things.
Daddy Giltinane was upset at the thought of leave-taking from Merlin, and at the same time piteously agog about escaping from London.
"Poor old Dad," said Guy. "He's like a caged dingo here. He looks much more at home beside a log fire. He wants something to do. He's stronger now than lots of these pasty young townies, and there'll be plenty for him to do leathering about among the sheep. There's none of the young ones can teach him anything on the bed-rock facts of work out there. Where he has dropped behind is on new methods."
Merlin had elected to remain in London to study. When the pangs of separation should have eased, I looked forward to what she would make of herself freed from the slavery of a chef's responsibilities in a restaurant by day and from a restless and resourceless old parent at all other times.
"There's nothing for Sis out there now," said Guy. "She always longed for the things she gets here. All this business with Lady Courtley and her friends, chipping in with these old jossers that run Parliament, is just up to her weight. When she was quite little she used to read about the world market for wool and talk with the old men about it while other little girls would be crochetting those bits of lace to go under cakes or on the ends of their pants. She doesn't know how easily she's slipped into it all here. If she went back now she'd find it too much changed for endurance, especially without mother. She takes after mother and fits bang in here. I reckon I must take after the dad: he was reared in it all, but never could stand it.
"Writing for that editor man may turn up trumps; she was always a clever little thing, and when she's got her teeth into something let her come out for a long stay. I'll be married then, and the way'll be free for her to enjoy herself without worry."
"She may marry."
"Huh!" he grunted. "Do you see anyone who looks as if he could pull the wool over her eyes?"
"No. She's not the sentimental type."
"There's that young la ffollette with the girl's name."
"Yes. He seems rather a bosker chap—a bit haw! haw! but that's the fashion here."
"That fellow! He'd have nothing to give her."
"Doesn't he do anything?"
"He's on the dole."
"You mean the old fellow keeps him?"
"No, he's on the dole in Whitehall—Foreign Office."
"Are they on the dole there too?"
"Yes. The Cuthberts and Gussies get anything from ten to twenty quid a week there for attending one of the offices daily, while the Bills and Toms get sixteen or twenty-five bob a week for reporting at the Labour Exchanges. The principle is the same, but class distinctions must be preserved. There's a thousand men in one department that I know of doing less work than four hundred did in 1913. What's that but the dole? Fit for Merlin, huh!"
"If it conies to that, I reckon most of these people we meet are on the dole. What about old Thingamy Mont-raven with his tin whistle, and Lady Pamela and the Brockington beauties? Fat lot of use they'd be if some one hadn't plugged up the spondulix to support them. That Esmé seemed to have a clean-cut bonzer style about him, as far as I could judge."
"He's all right, I suppose, but not for Merlin."
"If she's going to marry at all, it's got to be some fellow walking about among us. We can't breed one specially. He'd be too young."
The waiter presented the wine list and I consulted it while Guy looked around the fine old dining-room. Once the habitation of notorious nobility, the historic pile now hived one of my father's swanky clubs, where he had introduced me to membership as a birthday present upon my first literary success.
"All this'll make me a bit collar-proud for crutching the jumbucks and tailing the lambs again," he said, half humorously. "Glory! if I could make some of them out there see all this when we're sitting under a coolibah dodging the ants and golloping a hunk of salt beef and dry bread!"
"It would be much more to the point if you could make some of these Homeland fowls on the dole know what it was to ride into the sunset, girth deep in grass and flowers, and see the wild ducks rise over the gilgais, or to go through the pine scrubs in flower—that resinous aromatic land! If I could smell the pine wood again as it wafts from a saw-mill or have it crackling and spitting from a cheery fire in the big white hearth—"
"Say, you're the real writer poetic sort of fellow, aren't you! I can see it all there when you make a list of it. That's the stuff! You come out again for a long stay when you want a place to write—some time when your missus is touring the cities. I'll build you a humpy of your own so you can be quiet. I'll put in a pine ceiling for you all knotted like that one that took your fancy; 'a house resonant with newness', you said."
"Not another word unless you want to see a strong man weep," I exclaimed. "You offer me the imperial gift of a world unspoiled and here all I can offer you—"
"Oh, it's all fine for what it is. It's very nice for us to have all this sort of thing here in England. I wouldn't have it changed."
He treasured England as oversea Britishers and Americans also do, as a museum, a family heirloom giving prestige. But lie left it to the women and artists and bankers, to the dukes and dudes and idlers and submerged slum dwellers, while he turned again to those mighty unconquered widths to wrestle in heat or cold, drought or flood, dust or mud, against mice and grasshoppers, flies and fleas, and foxes and fluctuating markets, feeling it more of a man's job to grow the most exquisite wool in the universe than to shelter in Piccadilly wearing it. He had—quite subconsciously—the new-world point of view: that to be an artist is not exactly a whole man's job, and that rakes and exquisites are deficient, no matter how clever. And this no disparagement of me, for he confirmed Merlin's choice of me as a brother by many times commending her to my care.
Then an incident happened in the Cobbler's establishment. Nothing delightful and comfortable is stable, only irritations and tragedies are unfailing. Our char, the mellifluous and capable Mrs Brindle, lost her husband. While he lived, we had heard of him unheedingly like a Mr Harris. "My 'usband" or "my ole man" was used as a bolster of status by his spouse. Only by death and removal did he become prominent to us. It had been a short illness. The poor chap had a stroke. Perhaps Mrs Brindle overfed him, he being over sixty and sedentary and she very active and only forty-six.
She returned after but a fortnight's absence elaborately encased in black, and inconsolable. She expressed herself as unable to endure the going home at night. The removal of someone to do something for is the most depolarizing of catastrophes. She had three married daughters in the U.S.A. and her son, also married, intended to follow them as soon as Uncle Sam's quota dodges would permit.
"Why not come to Australia," said Guy. "Plenty for you to do out there."
This casual suggestion was taken up with enthusiasm. Two days later Mrs Brindle asked the Giltinanes to see about her passage. Guy was a little perturbed by the responsibility.
"Don't come unless you're game to work like blazes; butter-making, pet lambs, fowls, washing and ironing, baking and cooking, jam-making, bottling fruit, callers, flower-pots, dressmaking, sewing—about what would knock up five or six London women dillying around one or two rooms with a tap in the sink, and a grocer round the corner to buy cabbages from."
The spirit of Drake, which the Giltinane personality had awakened in Mrs Brindle, was entertained by the recital.
"It sounds orl right. Something to lay me 'ands on, and here I'm just nothing but a last year's almanack now," she observed.
"And heat such as the Homeland fowls have never dreamt of when they squeak and gasp about the few middling warm hours you get here, and flies and mosquitoes and grasshoppers, and sand-storms til! even your teeth are full of grit."
The adventuress refused to be daunted.
"And lonely—neighbours eight and ten miles apart, no gossip with them except over the telephone."
Still Mrs Brindle did not jib, and Merlin said she would be a windfall to Guy's bride if she functioned at Coolibah as she did on Marken Street, W.C.1.
"All right," said Guy. "You come out and stick to it for two years, and if you're down in the mouth then, I'll see about you nipping across to the U.S.A. to your daughters. Is that a square dinkum bargain?"
Mrs Brindle said that it was.
Among farewell ceremonies, Guy had to re-visit his aunt at St Botolph in the Turnips. He desired a photograph of his maternal ancestors who lay side by side under a carved canopy in the old church, with little dogs for footstools and their family like ducks going to water in high relief on the wall. Merlin insisted upon Daddy going, too. He was inclined to be obstreperous.
"Gosh! We'll have tea with old mother Blinking-Blowfly, I suppose, with those dashed cups that hold a thimbleful, and I'm afraid will break in my fingers. And she'll jabber about the deah Prince and the rectah-ah-tattaty-tattaty-jabbety-tat! Gawd Almighty! to think some men have lived all their lives without escaping from that! Didn't I tell you they'd be just the same after the war? Squawking about carrying a pennyworth of fish home!"
"Now, Daddy, you mustn't be captious. Dear old Miss Bleeker-Blofield will put you to shame. No matter how rude you are, she'll still be a charming lady."
"Huh! That's what I'm talking about. If you dragged her over a bulldog-ants' nest, she'd still be charmed. Ah-tattaty-tattaty-tattaty-jabbety-tat! Blooming old magpie! People like that aren't human. They're just something that moves and eats and says tattaty-tattaty-jabbetytat. Wouldn't I like to see both your aunt and the blowfly in a sand-storm!"
"You could take my aunt with them," I offered. "She's neurasthenic from want of purpose, and will never have anything better to do than sit around her club for another thirty years."
"Dead wood! Wants cutting out."
But in spite of his burlesque of polite small talk, Daddy enjoyed himself at St Botolph in the Turnips. Tension was eased by approaching separation, and he met again his former special constable associates. He came back elated and helping Guy to carry the presents which, with their gentle grace, the old ladies had supplied for the bride they might never know.
"They'd be dashed good stuff," Daddy conceded, "if only they'd got out of the bottle thirty or forty years ago."
I was invited to join their pilgrimage to Cambridge. Merlin, on reaching her mother's alma mater, was so overcome that it took us all to comfort her. As we wandered around the old piles, every inch matchlessly beautiful, historically mellow, Merlin would stop to breathe it in.
"Oh, the beauty, the beauty! One could swoon in such beauty! It's not for mortal endurance. If only I could have come here to be educated, I might have become something. Mother must often have stood looking at this gate just where we stand now," she said, before the Gate of Honour at old Caius.
"Never mind," said Guy softly, "Mother had all this and she went away out to Australia..."
"Yes," interposed Daddy. "Bolted from it at the first opportunity. Your mother was a wonderful woman."
"She went away out to Australia," repeated Guy, "from this, and you were born right out there and come Home to it."
"Only just to look at it, not to be educated—" she wailed.
"Educated—mis-educated!" snorted Daddy. "I never learned a thing that was any good to me in real life. This is where they take decent children and turn them into monkeys like Young Cobbler—in his pink balloons! Gawd Almighty! There ought to be a law to prevent them from taking the hard-earned money of a decent useful man like the Cobbler to ruin his child for life!"
"What do you think of it all?" I asked Guy as we stood on one of the bridges and feasted on the beauty of the Backs in the dappled sunshine cast by white clouds swimming across the sun.
"I don't know enough to judge the fine points of it, I suppose. It's like a picture. It looks too beautiful for real use—but I was just thinking, it's all been done by the gardeners and builders. There's not one natural beautiful feature. It's flatter than Coolibah. This that they call a river is just a dirty little ditch with no beautiful reeds or ferns or shrubs like those Bogong streams. I reckon it all depends on time and things getting a name up."
He was diverted by a thin elderly lady in out-of-mode array—long skirt restricted at the loins, untidy crow's nest of hair with a broad hat flapping on top of it—escorting a string of small frowsy dogs decrepit with age and obesity.
"The dogs have long skirts, too," he chuckled. "They and their mistress would both look smarter bobbed. Can you tell me why the dogs are always so fat and the poor old women so thin? Glory! wouldn't I like to see a few of those dogs working out on the plains on a hot day! That'd knock the grease off them!"
"If you were given a drastic choice," I asked Merlin, "Australia and never this, or always this and never Australia, which would you prefer?"
Her answer came without premeditation. "Oh, if I couldn't have both, I'd rather never have seen this except in pictures, than never have known the plains when all the trees and flowers are in bloom. Oh yes, think of never having seen the great gum-trees in bloom for miles, and miles, and miles, on the way to Kosciusko, and those gullies when the tea-tree is like snow! They wipe out all the parks I've seen yet. And to be able to travel for days and days without running into this cold little old sea! They don't know what real riding or warmth or beautiful blue ranges are here, do they?"
There is no compromise with time. The last day comes at last. All the heartsome pilgrimages, all the pleasant little visits and leave-taking ceremonies slipped past. Daddy's restlessness became delirious and so heart-sick was Guy with the shadow of separation from his sister that his appetite left him. Women are much hardier in face of such ordeals, but I saw it in Merlin's eyes.
These long separations are practically exiles. Going to the antipodes remains transplantation to another sphere. Who but the idle and rootless rich can pull up their stakes for four or six months every now and again? What ordinary business or career would stand it, and what amount of wealth make the journey worth while for such a short visit? Even if transport services were speeded up to serve humanity's need, instead of slowed down to feed the god of mere profit, entire reorganization of human institutions and activities would be involved.
We went down to Tilbury by car together to catch the T.S. Chowder Bay, on which the Giltinanes had a two-berth deck cabin and Mrs Brindle a hunk amidships.
The last hour, the last moment came inexorably. The crack between the wharf and the big black hull began to widen. Softly, softly, slowly, slowly she was amid stream. Then off and out. We ran along the wharf, they stood astern, we waved and they waved white handkerchiefs, till the lean dark faces of Guy One and Guy Two and the larger and more blooming dial of Mrs Brindle, widowed but adventurous char, faded out and I led Merlin away.
"Never mind," I said, "we'll work like beavers to accomplish something and then you and I shall go together all around the world many times."
"When I lived in the bush, I adored visitors to come and was sick with loneliness when they left, so I made up my mind that I'd be the one to go. Now I know that going or being left, the pain is equal. If we had no feelings I wonder how it would work out?"
"I wouldn't give up the power to feel or be one of the stationary members of my breed for any consideration. Think what we know and delight in, and some day we'll drive again over the plains beyond Kidgee and, breasting the long rolling slope by the Government Dam, come in the cool of the evening to see the iron roofs of good old Coolibah gleaming like silver in the moonlight; and the dogs'll rush out to welcome us and disturb the kookaburrahs to laugh at us, and we'll hear the mopokes call from the timber beyond the woolshed, where Guy is going to build me a humpy of my own."
However, it was of her own desire that Merlin elected to stay. Any day she wished, she could settle her affairs and re-establish herself on her native plains.
Next morning we had letters brought ashore by the pilot as the ship finally kicked-off for her homeward run. Mine was a few lines from Guy that he had been too self-conscious, too English, to say about my happiness, a cheque for a wedding present, and the request that I should keep an eye on Merlin in case she needed a friendship beyond that of Lady Courtley.
"We'll catch them by wireless in the Mediterranean," I said, "and then off they go!"
Clipping southward day by day
Down through seas of indigo,
Where the flying fishes play
And the perfumed breezes blow.
Far away, far away!
Then another incident happened in the Cobbler's establishment.
Before leaving, her family had moved Merlin from the larger apartment, which she and her father had occupied, up to the little one, my old nest, under the roof, this change being effected to the convenience of both sets of tenants. We had seen that it was all shipshape for her, the Cobbler taking an eager interest, and Daddy prodigious in the window-boxes. Lady Courtley wanted her to settle in a more stylish apartment or to live with her, but Merlin had tasted the joys of independence. She really was very comfortable, as comfort goes in London, Mrs Brindle's daughter-in-law having taken on the Charing with the ambition of accumulating her passage-money to go with her husband to the U.S.A.
But three days after the departure of the Chowder Bay, Merlin appeared on my threshold with the information that she had all her things on a hand-cart below and was taking a room at my number. As one would not be vacant for a few days, Mrs Jones, my landlady, agreed to store her trunks in the basement, and, if I were agreeable, to make her up a bed in my little writing-room. Of course I was, or better still, ready to sleep at the club to suit her convenience. She was bubbling with excitement. I could see that something had happened.
When she and Mrs Jones had settled the matter of accommodation she burst out, "The Cobbler, the filthy horrible creature! He's mad, I think. He, well, don't think I'm mad or queer, but he, well, he actually proposed to me!" Her utterance was volcanic.
"Proposed what?" I lamely asked.
"Oh, you know, he proposed—asked me to—"
"Good God! Was he drunk?"
"No. But think if anyone should hear of it! The frowsy little beast with three execrable fangs and a bleached walrus moustache smelling of beer. And goggle eyes! About five feet five, pigeon-breasted and pigeon-toed, and drops his aitches!" Disgust choked speech.
"You mean he actually wanted—wanted—what did he say?"
"I can't tell you; it was too terrible. I thought he was going to tell me something about the boy, and I was listening sympathetically. Ugh!"
"I guess that week-end put him above himself," I observed, barren of adequate comment.
"I suppose the only thing that's kept him on the rails was Mrs Brindle. As I can cook and do everything in a house as easy as snuff, with the conceit of men when they're in a minority, no doubt he thought I'd be a cheap housekeeper plus wife. Ugh! Perhaps he thought I stayed behind on purpose; we've all treated him so kindly."
"What did you do?"
"I hardly know. I went for him with a chair, and he got out as fast as he could when he saw that I meant it; and the chair crashed against the door and broke the panel."
Further questions would have been indecent, her revulsion was so strong. My first impulse was to boot the Cobbler. Then I recalled Guy's idea that the dud male has no more chance with a young woman with a head on her than a fly in a bottle. The Cobbler's aspirations were so grotesque that I exploded uproariously. I was as giggle-some as adolescence when skitting at its elders merely for being elders. Merlin gave me a despairing look as though struck in the rear by an ally.
"Of course it would be funny to you," she choked. "Men revel in jokes about intoxication and obscenities about birth and other basic functions. Then they accuse women of an inferior sense of humour if they aren't similarly amused. I thought you understood so well, I felt that you were the only person in the world I could endure to know this—and yet you enjoy it!"
I could not suppress myself.
"The fearful thing I've continually to realize about men is that they're only half human. The other half is a strange lunacy and likely to come uppermost any moment. I shan't bother you again," she said, rising in a blaze of resentment.
I caught and held her before she reached the door, "Hold on, little Sis," I said, dropping into Guy's pet name. "I admit all you say, but give me a chance to act with my human half. I'm sorry I laughed, but I don't know what else to do but cry. I could go and thrash the Cobbler, but he's an elderly man, and frail, and you don't want anyone to hear of this."
"Oh, horrors, no!"
"Then we'd better keep quiet."
"Well then, the reason you've left Marken Street is that you couldn't bear the associations when your family left you, and you needn't go in that direction again." She nodded. "If the Cobbler remains off his chump, I'll deal with him."
"Supposing Lady Courtley should find out I foisted a degenerate on her!"
"Never mention him unless someone inquires, and then be casual. People think hardly at all of those who don't concern them. The political leaders know this and change their principles once a month without disaster."
"It makes me sick," she said, consenting to sit down. "Never speak of it again? I'll turn a key in my brain and shut it out."
So I moved off to the club and Mrs Jones was delighted to have Merlin though she stayed only a day or two, till she had the offer of a friend's flat for six months. It was safely off the Cobbler's beat, so we thought it well for her to accept it.
I did not see her for some days after that. She was busier than ever settling in her new premises and organizing the restaurant on a fresh basis, and a cable from the Cape told me that Rosalita would soon be on the water, which added fresh zest to my own efforts.
Merlin came to see me upon receipt of letters from Port Said telling of that downward progress. She came again a few days later. I expected another letter posted at Suez, but she did not mention it.
"Is there something among your cards you could take me to this evening," she asked presently.
"I'm very busy finishing something," I murmured. "I had not intended going anywhere this evening."
She went to my mirror and examined the cards for the day. "Greek tragedies—at the Poetry Circle. We'll go to that," she said.
It is not Merlin's habit to intrude upon work. "Do you mind going by yourself this evening?" I asked.
"Yes, I want you to come. I'll go with you to eat, and we'll go on to this at eight o'clock."
"Let's ring up that young la ffollette who went riding with you; he'll be dizzy with joy."
She was so impelling and so absent that I looked at her eyes. Then I sought my hat and out-door coat. She was evidently suffering homesickness for her family, each golden day clipping farther, farther south. When I run into a real mess whether financial, family, medical, or amorous, to whom have I turned or should I turn but Merlin? If she is not on the same continent when these cataclysms occur, I make it a reason for changing domicile. Who was I to fail her in whim or woe?
She ate little and said less while I read an article in an evening paper and then I offered her something cheerful, but she adhered to Greek tragedy. Later she made no comment OD the dullness of the lecturer. Neither did I. We were not facetious that night.
We went home together saying hardly anything. I think she said it was a beautiful night. At her doorway she said unexpectedly that she would see me home and make a cup of coffee for me on my gas ring. I said it was late. She said it was early, and had her way. We progressed silently past the old Squares with their fresh breath in the City's smut, I noting the new pavements sparkling like the frosted sequins on a lady's evening dress and she remarking, "Good old London does know how to lay a pavement, and keep it tidy!"
Presently we were seated in my diggings looking out into the splendid plane-trees of the Square. She took off her hat and laid her head back in my big thinking chair and said no more about the coffee. I sat down quietly and lit a cigarette. She had come to me for some reason and I must not irritate her by impatience.
Two of alcohol's addicts quarrelled on the corner, and the stomach of a third could be heard in loud and offensive rebellion under my window. The clatter of horse traffic transporting His Majesty's mail vans rose from the street.
Presently Merlin put her hand in her breast and drew out a cable envelope. She handed it to me warm from her body. I opened it thinking of the voyagers.
OUR DEAR GUY PASSED AWAY TODAY TYPHOID HEART FAILURE BURIED AT SEA LOVE DADDY.
My senses resisted the truth of the thing I read. By the date and time stamp Merlin must have had it thirty-six hours. She was beyond comfort. I wanted to put my arms about her but feared a false move, she was so white and still.
"You have only come to me now, dear?"
"I didn't want to bother you."
"Shall we go to Lady Courtley?"
"Oh, no, no. She couldn't understand. She's so beautifully old and near the end. These things cannot mean so much to the old, but I might have to live another fifty years without him."
I found she had known of the ship's progress daily from the head office. This message must have been wirelessed to one of the stations and cabled on from Colombo or Bombay. She could hear nothing by letter till her father reached Fremantle, a matter of two weeks still, and then another four or five, according to the luck in mails or freedom from shipping strikes—a long, long wait.
"It doesn't seem as if the words can be real," she said. I didn't know how to respond. Mother wit was needed to ease her towards tears.
"We'll have a letter from Ceylon," I ventured.
"Yes, but it won't matter," she said in a small white voice.
Guy's letter, lately written, laid upon me a charge of friendship.
Presently Merlin said, "I'm sorry to come bothering you in this weak way when you're so busy, but I couldn't bear it any longer by myself; I couldn't endure another night alone."
"Of course not," I responded, thinking of the grim Greek tragedies.
I sought Mrs Jones. She came and made up a bed in my little writing-room, moving softly. She caressed Merlin's cheek whispering, "Poor little girl, and think of that other poor girl out there."
Women have a better way in these things. Men have impoverished the machinery of affection by confining embraces to amoristic seizures.
"She will be better when she cries," said Mrs Jones to me in the passage. "You just sit with her, as you were such friends with him, and I'll keep my clothes on in case you want me."
I wished Merlin would weep to break that cold white composure, but when she did I was terrified.
I knew that this was the right thing to ease her, but I had my sex's dismay before a woman's sobs. Women have more sense of proportion about weeping. I felt like fainting in my agony of sympathy. She had come to me and I must not fail her, but ah, for Lady Courtley's wisdom and experience! In that long full sensitive life she must often have suffered such grief as this.
Merlin sobbed till she was exhausted and I took her up and laid her on the bed and bathed her face. Mrs Jones appeared with hot milk and made her take a few sips. Mrs Jones further persuaded her to take an aspirin and after putting her right to bed advised me to come and sit beside.
She fell into a still light sleep a little before daybreak. I remained in my seat. I could not risk her being alone to the awakening from the first sleep after such a shock.
Behind her loss was the shock of my own, slighter but grievous. As I sat there in the moonlight fearing to move lest I should interrupt that relieving unconsciousness, I lived again my arrival up-country whither I had gone to stay with Guy Giltinane upon Merlin's and her father's introduction. Guy had ridden out to welcome me at a point where the service car passed by the far end of Coolibah run.
"There's Giltinane come to meet you," said the felt-hatted driver beside whom I was sitting, the tonneau piled high with everything from pots of jam to loaves of bread, sheep-dip, a wool-sack or two, medicine—all the things ordered by the neighbours as he had gone by in the morning—as well as the other parcels which had come by post from the "palace emporiums" of Sydney.
In the distance was a slender form on a horse with its front feet high in the air.
"Ridin' a young 'un—frightened of the car," laconically remarked the driver, and thus Guy Giltinane came into my life waving a slouch hat in welcome and in the daily task performing a feat that my countrymen at home pay good money nightly to see filmed of cinema cowboys. He greeted me with rare cordiality. Under a nose gone aquiline and a deep tan, I could see something of Merlin and more of Daddy, and was immediately prepossessed in his favour. He took the saddle and bridle off his trembling two-year-old, whose sides were in a lather, and turned it loose in a neighbour's paddock to be reclaimed another day.
"I'm rather full up," said the driver.
"I'll get in underneath all right, and help you get rid of this stuff," said Guy cheerfully.
There had been a few remarks about Daddy and Merlin and then we whizzed for ten miles or so through a land undreamt by those who only Europe and North America know.
It was a wet coldish day, but the plains were bursting into spring. I gathered from remarks by the men, who were exulting in the rain, that it promised a rolling season, and was much interested in their minute knowledge and awareness of every post and rail and tree and beast to he seen on the country-side. Guy was as good as his word, handing out parcels to the little girls that met us in the wild scrub at intervals where no sign of a habitation was in sight. The homesteads in these instances were behind the ridges. In other cases we could see the iron roofs of the houses in their bowers of imported trees, the high fan of a windmill taking the place of the motherland's spire or tower.
Guy or the mailman had a cheery word for each claimant and asked after relatives or sheep and other domestic beasts and work. When there was no claimant for packages they were put in receptacles nailed on posts or trees. All new and delightful to me. From this had Merlin come.
Some miles on our way we were met by a mud-covered buggy drawn by a pair of horses. In it was another lean figure in slouch felt hat and I realized that the Diggers had come to fight in Europe in their everyday hats, dyed khaki to make them uniform and turned up at the sides to accommodate their rifles and lend an adventuring air. Here I left the mail service motor-car, successor of the coaches, sulkies or pack-horses which had earlier conveyed His Majesty's mails Down Under. Daddy's brilliance had not been as a business man, so it was a buggy not a car that met me, and I was pleased by the change to the horse pace so that I could better drink in the surroundings.
With eyes that had Merlin's lilt in them, Guy noted my absorption and named a dozen species of trees for me and described their woods. Some had black trunks and foliage of silver like that Japanese silver work inlaid in gunmetal. They thronged in serried millions, some of them tall and gunbarrel straight, others stunted and writhen and gnarled. Trees to be seen only in dreams, heard of in travellers' tales, or exploited by impressionist artists, trees of a character to make Corot envious in paradise, dispensed aromatic odours. Their names fell like words in ballads, and it is these unique creatures that the settlers have extirpated to make homes and cultivation paddocks.
Now and again Giltinane threw a word over his shoulder to the silent form in the back seat, about a track that had crossed the road or a sundowner who had been seen, or diagnosed a sheep so distant I should have needed binoculars to discern him. We traversed treeless stretches, green with spring, and then timbered belts.
"No," said Guy, "the timber has not been killed; the plains have been clear from the beginning."
We turned off the red road on to a track through the grass. "Ten miles to the homestead," remarked Guy.
Rabbits popped up; goannas scampered across our way, ludicrously lifting their long tails, and melted into the trunks of Corot's trees. Nesting magpies swooped belligerently, and other birds chimed in the trees. There were even emus just like those in zoos.
"The flying flowers, huh! you mean the grass parrots. I suppose they are pretty when you're not used to them. There's a porcupine. I haven't seen one for months." Guy pulled up and the man brought an echidna from some distance. I could not have distinguished it from a bundle of twigs. He handed it to me by one leg. I flinched. Guy laughed. "There were dozens of them when we were kiddies. We used to set them to burrowing races. Merlin was so cocky when one of hers won that she took him to bed with her. There were loud yowls when she went to sleep and rolled on him."
We passed Kidgee, the adjoining run, and breasted the long slope by the Government Darn. Swirling about it were clouds of birds glinting like gunmetal in the sinking sun. Circling aloft they changed to rose pink.
"Huh! Only the old galahs," remarked Guy.
Homing for the night they decked the brusque dark foliage of the native pines with garlands of pink roses. The roofs of Coolibah came to sight. Leading from the gates on the main road to the flower garden was a native thicket in which rose primordial trees supplemented by soldier lines of saplings.
"Yes," said Guy. "The dad is great on native trees, and mother thought it a pity to kill them all off and wait a lifetime for some foreign trees to grow. Their idea was to have a good avenue full-grown right from the jump. This is the talk of the country. It's a wonder more people don't do it."
The dogs rushed to meet us; pet lambs careered after a kangaroo, bleating loudly when they lost her, the roo seeming to play hide and seek humorously.
"Is that a neighbour's?" I asked of another congerie of roofs among the timber on a ridge half a mile or more away.
"The woolshed," said Guy. It was in a clump of trees in that direction that I was to have had my humpy.
"A castle in Spain, though 'twas never built."
(Merlin sighed in her sleep, but did not wake. Was she dreaming of the porcupines of years ago?)
"Welcome to Coolibah," said Guy. "Make yourself at home. Do just what you like and use anything you find as if it was your own. It's a bachelor establishment, but you mustn't mind that."
A fire blazed on the hearth of an airy room with a ceiling of pine—wonderfully knotted. A lavish high tea was laid with silver and napery in the Homeland fashion. A lady and her daughter were in charge. "Mrs and Miss Stanton, kind neighbours who come to keep me from reverting to the complete black while Merlin is away."
(It was to Brenda Stanton he later became engaged, and who would have to weather the news in Daddy's cable.)
Guy was a bachelor modernizing a good property and popular with all his fellows, and, in the friendly bush fashion, one or other of his neighbours did in turn what Mrs Stanton did that evening. Other neighbours came to tea. Introduced as an English friend of Daddy and Merlin in London, I had a kindly welcome.
In the evening we gathered around the big fire of myall logs. They had the perfume of violets, when dampened by the rain. Everyone was eager to hear of Daddy and Merlin, and what they had done in the war, and whether Merlin had deserted Coolibah permanently, and what Daddy thought of England after all the years, and if he was not hankering for the plains—a detailed friendly interest. I sensed their idea that Merlin might be of special interest to me, and that Mrs Stanton asked the question that was in all their minds, "Why didn't you bring Merlin home with you? We didn't come here till she left and are longing to see her."
"Is there anyone over there she likes better than herself?" Brenda Stanton inquired.
Guy interposed. "He'd be a wonderful fellow who would take Merlin's eye in that way. Clever little thing! She'll leave marriage for those who can't do other things."
I grinned inwardly. It was hardly complimentary to Miss Stanton, seeing how things were with her.
When all the guests had gone or were a-bed, too churned up for sleep, I sought the verandas to exult in the aroma of it all. The strange trees silhouetted against the stars so near and bright excited me. I was impatient for the dawn to test were they as wonderful as they had seemed in the first glimpse.
There followed one of the best interludes of my life. Time slipped away into months, months into a year and I could not depart. And why should I? I had repudiated the ambition of material advancement, so there and then were my business and delight.
An armful of papers came weekly by mail. Good old books and some quite up-to-date ones filled the homemade shelves in the comfortable sitting-room presided over by the Newnham graduate in cap and gown, who looked down from the over-mantel. The house had been fashioned by those awake to beauty in the new world as well as the old. It was a great place to write and think. There I put into shape the material that had been poured upon me at Tahiti and elsewhere about beachcombers and schooner skippers and traders and other products of the Pacific. My favourite retreat was a corner of the woolshed where silence reigned when the shearing was done and the spiders and little lizards held high revel till another season should bring another flurry of excited dogs, and persecuted sheep, and urgent men with whips and oaths to hold possession in the name of King Wool.
It was because of my fondness for this strange corner with its pungent odour of wool and tar that Guy Giltinane had promised me a humpy near by. He used laughingly to say, "You must send me copies of all the books you write in this corner, and I'll have a little case with a glass front put up here on the cornerpost and put them in."
I stayed the seasons three times round and found out the fickle nature of those plains. The promise of the first showery spring turned dusty. The sun shrivelled the grass, the ground cracked, the dams shrank. During two seasons Guy moved his sheep by train and drovers to the high country presided over by Mt Kosciusko. I too went up there and lived in a hut. I rode the runs, lumping salt and cleaning sheep of blowflies. It was a world and life of its own, different in trees and climate from Coolibah, except for the sheep. The sheep seemed to me as plentiful as the shingle at Hastings.
There I saw rivers being made. There I met the present generation of some of the earliest squatter families of Monaro. I gobbled their lore and legends. I crammed note-books and collected boxes heavy with old diaries, letters, newspapers—all the raw material for literary adventure.
I went with Guy Giltinane everywhere through a wide area of the Upper Murrumbidgee and Upper Murray. It was jolly all day in the open, picnicking under snow gums abloom, with the black and the white cockatoos flashing among them. We had invitations to visit the attractive, rambling old homesteads for thirty miles around. Hospitality seeped from every crack of them. The whole family, including dogs and pets, would break from verandas, kitchen, sheds, orchards or stockyards to welcome us.
I saw Menura and his lady in the cathedral aisles of his kingdom. There were trout in the rivulets. The gullies were a paradise of shrubs and daisies, only the mimulus musk had unaccountably lost its perfume since the war. The memory of that region, the lullaby sigh of its streams, its trees, its aromatic air comes back to me.
I shall never see it again.
As I sat beside Merlin Giltinane I knew that only in dreams or in fable would I ever revisit it. Guy, the pivot of that enchanted interlude, was gone. His open-hearted friendship and knowledge, his companionship, had for me recalled those places from mirage to actuality. He had been my mate—my cobber. Now in memory alone could the enchantment remain. Otherwise, for me, that eerie continent fell back to its gaunt loneliness, the spell of oblivion upon it. As my gift to Merlin, for Guy's sake, I must fulfil the literary end of the adventure. Of all the ecstasies and anguishes of this baffling comedy of life, on memory alone depends all that can stay with us for more than a moment. All else is silence.
I must have dozed a moment. A movement brought me to. Daylight had come, fine bright daylight with the sun, one of those London mornings that rashly gets up too early and collapses into tears and gloom before noon.
Merlin sat up looking like a child in Mrs Jones's night robe, her chestnut curls disarrayed. Seeing me still sitting there, memory flashed back. She lay down again pillowing her head on her arms. I caressed her pretty arms with the little sun- and work-bitten hands and she sat up and clung to me weeping, but gently this time, not with the riving grief of last night.
"I must go to poor old Daddy," she said. "Will you come with me to see about a passage?"
"Of course, I'll do anything you like, but here's Mrs Jones. She'll bring you some breakfast."
I left her to that gracious lady while I went to telephone Lady Courtley. I ran her down at Lady Brockington's, adjacent to Snippington Manor, and left a message with the butler to be sent in with her breakfast. An hour later I had a telegram saying she would be up during the forenoon. She had ampler equipment for the situation, in the prestige of her years, her womanhood, and Merlin's love for her. She took Merlin out of town with her during the afternoon.
She was to spend what remained of August and September in Scotland and the Midlands. She opposed the idea of Merlin sailing immediately to take charge of her father—said he might be thinking of returning to England. At all events she prevailed upon Merlin to await Daddy's point of view.
"Our little friend is very brave, but time is the only healer for these wounds, and time seems to take so long in youth that it is heartless to preach about it," said Lady Courtley to me.
Merlin sent me her father's letter from Colombo. It was characteristically short on news and long on affection. He wrote that Guy would not send a letter this time, as something he had eaten disagreed with him and he was feeling rather shaky, but he would write a long letter as soon as he was well and post it back from Fremantle.
I sought Mrs Brindle, junior, to learn what her mother-in-law might have written. She told of her triumphant progress on board where she had won a sweepstake of 30s. on the ship's run and said that she was standing the heat splendidly, though several were ill. One of these was young Mr Giltinane. She didn't know what was the matter with him, but he was pretty seedy.
I did not hear from Merlin or Lady Courtley for some weeks again, till one day a note from Lady Courtley said that Merlin would be up to see me in the morning. She wrote from a hotel in the Midlands.
The dear child has had letters from Fremantle, and is naturally upset. She wants to be with you, who are nearer her age, and the brother's friend. I let you know so that she may not be disappointed by finding you out. Perhaps you could bring her back and give me the pleasure of your company, too, for a few days, if you are not too busy.
Merlin arrived in a super-excited state. When we were alone she burst out, "I want to go away by myself where no one will ever see me or hear of me again. I could die with shame and despair."
"The Cobbler hasn't been bothering you, has he?"
"Oh, heavens! It's forty times worse! I have a Cobbler of my own now, the other way about. I feel as if I ought to go to the Cobbler and apologize for being rude to him."
"What on earth has happened?"
"Daddy has married Mrs Char Brindle."
I sat down and hung on to myself. I dared not this time risk any obscene masculine mirth.
"Poor old man. I expect he was in a great state."
"Perhaps this is why she went so gaily. I suppose the Cobbler knew all about it and that was why—"
"Now, now, don't think any worse of it than you can help. I'm sure it never entered his head till he was left alone."
"It's horrible! My own Daddy! My mother—"
"There now! Mrs Brindle is a deuced fine lump of a woman when she's properly dressed."
"Yes, but charwoman to the Cobbler! She drops her witches and talks about the 'flims'!"
The first shock of surprise past, I thought it was a fine disposal of Daddy Giltinane. The old rooster, a second time in life, and late at that, had done darned well for himself matrimonially. Mrs Brindle was kind, capable, healthy and handsome. It was outraging to Merlin's sensibilities, but I was relieved that Daddy had disposed of himself irrevocably so that his daughter would no longer feel responsible for him.
"Let's think it out cold-bloodedly. Poor old Daddy, he's a long way away. People won't know she was actually a char. She was a housekeeper, and the best families recruit themselves from housekeepers. People need never know at all what she was. Her family are all going to the United States, thank God. Of course it's a dreadful shock, but she'll be kind to your father, I'm sure; and if you take it sensibly it'll be your own business and no one else's."
I expect poor old Guy subconsciously married for liberty. Single, he was in danger of being yanked hack to associate with the dead wood and circumscribing tattaty-tattaty-jabbety-tat brigades.
Merlin stayed the night with Mrs Jones and we talked it out. The shock of this, like some caustic application, sealed the well of her greater grief. I took her back to the Midlands next day and found opportunity to tell Lady Courtley the whole thing. I knew the secret would be safe with her and knowledge of it would better fit her to comfort Merlin.
My faith in her sympathy and wisdom was justified. Her intelligent and apperceptive temperament, her sociological and political work, had familiarized her with tragedies in the raw right down to the gutters and beyond, to the prisons, where she had been a visitor and investigator. Her experience had encompassed all the lunacies and abnormalities for which men are available. This obscure incident did not disquiet her.
"Cobblers' daughters attain the chorus and marry into the peerage. Their in-laws have to carry on with them, but of course this child is wounded to the core." There was humorous understanding in her chuckle. "Merlin is affronted by the indignity of it. We can't expect her to be amused."
Lady Courtley was as thankful as I for the comfortable disposal of Daddy. She said Merlin should not be wasted in ordinary occupations. She should make a marriage that would recruit her for the political world.
"Have you anyone in view?" I asked with a twinge of anxiety.
"Some of us were thinking when she was at Snipping-ton Manor, what a lovely pair she and Esmé la ffollette would make."
Guy would not have disapproved of this, but to me Esmé seemed a very insignificant candidate for Merlin's favour. "Has Merlin shown any disposition towards—" I began uneasily.
"No. Nothing must be said at this juncture. It is just a possibility."
After that I became immersed in my own affairs.
I repeat, I was puzzled that the week-end at Snipping-ton should stand out as the high-water mark of happy enjoyment when my marriage with Rosalita was coming so near. But the nearer Rosalita's ship came, the farther into a region of enchanted recollection slipped the days with Merlin. What lay ahead seemed beset with perplexity and incalculable difficulty.
Rosalita wrote that she must establish herself in Paris. I was agreeable. I recognized that her artistic right to the Quartier and its ateliers equalled mine to the Genius Cracks of London. She invited me to marry her in Paris. To this I also consented. I met her at Marseilles and all my nervous apprehension vanished in her presence. It was like entering a tropic garden of warmth and colour and perfumed beauty, and we travelled in triumph to Paris. The weather was as usual, I believe, but it has left no remembrance. It was October.
Rosalita was to have some weeks' coaching under the unmatched le Boursin preparatory to a tour of the U.S.A. The great le Boursin himself was going over to give a few select spring recitals, and, for an immense consideration, was to pass judgment upon aspiring talent at two of the colleges of music. Rosalita proposed to stay over there, too, during the next summer and study under the master. She was by far the brightest star that had appeared in his firmament for a number of cycles, and accordingly subject to indulgences.
To meet these demands of an artistic career, our wedding was to be almost immediately. I asked Lady Courtley should I or should I not disturb Merlin by reminding her of her long-standing promise to support me. Lady Court-ley was of opinion that it would be good for Merlin. My suggestion that she should go over to Paris with me a week ahead of the day, to become acquainted with Rosalita, was also accepted.
What a joy it was to have her again tidying my affairs. To her I could confess, "Merlin, I am, in fact I should he, happy, but somehow I'm not. I succeed only in being uneasy."
Once in my youth I heard a lecture, avidly devoured by my older contemporaries, warriors for the emancipation of women. It was by the wife of a renowned English sociological gun whose gloatings on all sorts of pathological details about physical human functionings are acclaimed as scientific. His missus was advertised in whispers as likely to make stupendous disclosures. The chief was that brides were so unaware of what awaited them that the reality of honeymooning was as devastating as being awakened from the dream of it by the hoofs of a satyr.
Things have evened up since those inhibited days before the war. Counter divulgences from my younger married contemporaries, especially across the water, engender funk as to what the unknown jungle of marriage can disclose for bridegrooms. Numbers of them, already mercifully divorced, are frank about the purgatory of being called upon to be a satyr.
Merlin miraculously cheered me still.
"Forget yourself," said she. "Think of the poor girl, taking an uncharted plunge with a goblin like you! You have about thirty-three and a third chances in a hundred of encountering a nice human creature, while girls have to take a ten-to-one shot among beings that are only half human, and who at any moment might rush off to be the spouse of a char or a moron or—"
"A Maisie," said I, firmly grasping my one nettle of aberration known to Merlin in this field.
"Maisie was delicious," said she, soothingly to my self-esteem. "I've never been able to imagine why she didn't fall in love with you when she had the chance."
We flew to Paris hand in hand, so to speak. The season, in defiance of the calendar, had doubled back into summer. It was a perfect day, clear and warm with just a tang of autumn, such a day as intensifies the enchantment of this illusion called life.
My father, who had kindly arrived from the U.S.A for my wedding, wanted to fly with us, but I outwitted him.
Rosalita's reception of Merlin, and my friendship with her, was to be a test of how Rosalita and I were likely to pull together. I need not have feared. I am sure now that Merlin could be a guest of a monastery, or of a fashionable "madame" and no mistake would be made about her by the clientele of either establishment.
She asked Rosalita to play for her first thing and Rosalita straightway forsook me and wedding preparations and played every moment of the time, it seemed to me. I became a negligible item on the agenda in accordance with the fatuous joke about bridegrooms. I noticed, or thought I noticed, that after my father's arrival Merlin insisted upon more playing than ever; at all events the young women vied with each other in attentions to and flattery of Nigel Senior, and the relations between Rosalita and Merlin were most harmonious.
The wedding went through smoothly as far as I can be clear about it. I believe it was a fine day. It was like a registry office undertaking only in the sacred precincts of the Embassy, which through my father were available. I dimly recollect the most binding formal oaths which left me free from guilty self-dialogue.
After a week on the Riviera, we were to sail for the U.S.A., Rosalita for purposes already cited in connexion with the soi-disant demigod le Boursin, and I—throwing up my hat at the prospect—had received an offer from the doyen of American dramatic producers to turn one of my most celebrated short stories into a play.
The honeymoon was so gauche and timid in reality that at the end of two days Rosalita exclaimed, "Let's send for Merlin. Poor little thing wants helping out of that dejection over the death of her brother, and my music is the best thing in the world for her."
Merlin, who was remaining a week in Paris with a friend of Lady Courtley, responded to our SOS and my gallant and affectionate father, regardless of business or boredom, came down to escort her back to Paris and across to London.
"Now Merlin mine," I said in seeing her into her corner, "you remember that in exchange for this I go three days on your honeymoon. Don't you marry the man under false pretences. Let him know as soon as he proposes!"
I returned to London in the present year of corybantic disharmony.
My play had run for six months in New York, with a second company on tour. In the effulgent United States' way, Rosalita had been acclaimed as a young feminine Paderewski. She came in for a little extra notice as my beautiful Spanish wife, while I scored advertisement as her "blond, slight, tall, typically reserved, English husband".
The goose of adventure honked high for us both, and higher for the astute le Boursin, who wanted but such a brilliant pupil cometing about the country to put a topknot on his fame. After this tour, by which Rosalita amassed a little fortune, he shut down on her tyrannically, lest, as he said, she should be ruined by concert tricks, when by full study under him she could become one of the greatest living pianists.
I was eager for her to climb to the farthest heights in her art. I was eager to go on climbing in my own. We had both made elating beginnings. It was in the difficult technique of marriage that we had not progressed. How to wring a dignified and congenial association from its devastating familarity: how to keep oneself spiritually intact and mentally healthy under the smothering burden of this partnership, was the problem that ripened upon me. I should resist to the death its encroachment upon my separate entity. Rosalita, on the other hand, was, I feared, obsessed by outworn conventions.
"I will even give up my music, darling," the poor girl exclaimed, "if you think it interferes with our love-life."
"Good gracious, no!" I shuddered. "There's no need for it. What have I done, my love? In what way have I interfered with your right to freedom in your art that you should suspect me of such palaeolithic androcentricity?"
"It was only that sometimes I feel you may be a little jealous that my music comes between us in our love-life."
Had I been brutally truthful I should have exclaimed, "Good Lord! no! Your art is the buffer I hope to place before this love-life menace." Truthfulness would make marriage even more difficult to the sensitive, so instead of replying I reflected that interpreting music does not call upon the endowed instrumentalist to be valet to philosophy and psychology and biology as do certain reaches of my own art, and I put away the uneasy thought that Rosalita might be so unskilled in self-analysis as to attribute to me her own disquietudes. She was a beautiful, generous creature and it was neurasthenic to be apprehensive.
"If I retarded your career by so much as one note, the le Boursin dragon would have every right to devour me."
"Le Boursin is a silly old goblin. He says the English are too cold-blooded ever to be real artists, and that it's only my Spanish ancestry that saves me."
"That's making a little ancestry go a long way, and I'd sooner be too cold to be a real artist than so condimented that I could never write anything but a bedroom triangle."
"I believe le Boursin is right," she retorted, and threw herself into some wild Hungarian melodies.
I held to my determination to live in London for a season while she studied in Paris. I contended that it was necessary for my idiom that I should not be too long away from England; there was, too, a prospect of my play being produced in the West End. So it was agreed that she should set up a studio in Paris, and diggings in London, each establishment to be suitable for exchange visits at frequent intervals.
"I'm going to write to Merlin," she said when I was leaving her in Paris, "and tell her to let me know as soon as you really fall in love with someone. I'd like to see how you'd act."
"That you know already and always, my love."
"Do I? Are you sure?" she asked, with a searching glance.
I had written to Merlin to find me digs, this time suitable for visits from Rosalita. Merlin met me at Victoria with the news that she had the very thing.
I gazed enraptured. Merlin has always delighted me as trim and dainty, graceful and active. Now she was something more. The poise of her form had not been improved, that had been hers since she pulled herself up by her cradle wall. The added touch to a divine feminine subject had been accomplished by grooming, regardless of expense and regardful of leisure and skill. She was to me lovelier than the Fifth Avenue beauties—most regal, most regardless in the world—because she was less like an undaunted Empress and more like a fairy princess. While she had endless unconscious audacity she had no aggressive assurance. She was to me more attractive than the Parisienne, as sundry bulges, and artificiality in jewellery, high heels, perfumes and powders were absent. She was as smart as the smartest ladies in the smartest West End glitter comedies, with their smartness toned down to unusual quietness, and the Australian freedom from affectation added—a straightforward freedom from self-consciousness rare in so-called cultured British subjects.
It was a grey sloppy day of slanting rain, but she poked me cosily into a taxi and proceeded direct to Lady George's flat on Curdish Street. There a glowing hearth and a neat little dinner awaited me, prepared by the broad and rotund Mrs Dud and served by Mr Alfred Dud, her juvenile and skinny spouse. The Duds, she bade me to observe, were the chief attraction of the place.
Merlin sat opposite to me and talked Mayfair's plays and novels while Mr Dud was present. When we retreated to the little withdrawing-room, she threshed the fire while I looked out on the streets full to the brim of grey and glistening rain, the trees in Green Park flapping soddenly, wheel traffic hurrying on its way, pedestrians humped in their collars under their hats or umbrellas. Such a dear old, dreary, dankly rainy, lovely indoor London evening to spend in that comfortable nest, a red fire on the hearth and Merlin diffusing inner brightness.
Ah, the stimulation of her presence, which could at the same time radiate peace! The safety and comfort and delight of being with her once again! I turned towards her, my heart and hands outstretched, "Merlin mine, you are very dear to me."
"Am I, Niggeh dear?" she said, her eyes soft and starry. "So you are to me."
"You grow sweeter and sweeter each time I return, and you're altogether too dangerously beautiful to be at large."
"As to that, I'm not at large. Now to business."
She was still my English literary agent, seemingly with magical powers. Sums that were an advertisement to the purchasers were secured by her. My volume of short stories collected under the title of Where the Ban is Lifted, had commanded a surprising advance sum, and opulent royalties. She was at present coquetting with even more gilded offers for the next sheaf from the magazines to be reprinted in a second volume entitled Where Sleep the Unlisted. And there were offers for as many more stories on the same subject as I liked to produce.
"Hum," I mused, "that means restriction. It would maroon me in the bally South Seas with the amours of—"
"I'm so glad you see it," she broke in. "You'd be stuck to one spot not the size of a bandicoot run, like a certain popular she-novelist: and like several of the others who are already spitted to Mayfair."
"I only wrote those yarns to get in the boom of the surf on the reefs—it's a lovely sound!—and the scenery. The cave-man wallops about white men and brown women were just slung on like sugar on a pill so it would be swallowed by those of vitiated appetites who don't care about zephyrs, and maori flower and moonbeams. I never saw enough of miscegenation to fill a column, though at heavenly Papeete notices about venereal disease in the most distinguished language in the world are posted everywhere as if that had been the most prominent gift from the most civilized and scientific nation of the world to one of the gentlest."
"You'll have to take drastic measures against the rut."
"I shall. You bet! I took up writing to be free. I will not be bound. Back to the muddle of my Genius Crack! I'll write a society novel in rebellion."
"That would be as easy as boiling eggs, and this is the right address for it. The old wash-dirt for that has been so reworked it's a wonder it doesn't give the prospectors tetanus. Dress-up pornography. Renew acquaintance with Pamela—"
"What do you know about Pamela?" I asked, rather briskly.
"All that you knew at Snippington Manor that weekend, when we were all so happy there," she said with a sigh.
"You didn't act as if you did."
"Neither did you. Did you see Mex Tarbuck in New York?"
"One would have to be very modest to escape the glare of that headlight."
"I haven't forgotten his offer to make poineer Empire films. But about your society novel, it must have a striking title."
"Yes, 'The Lady with Golden Lip Salve', or 'The Blue Monocle'."
"If you want it to be really bizarre or unique call it The Lady with Natural Back Teeth'. Among the odontologically afflicted British that would make your heroine as fabulous and striking as a lady with a ten carat diamond in her nose."
"Yes, but what else?"
"An arresting title would be the main part of the story. You would fill in the remainder with epigrams deriding women, chastity, marriage, middle-age and honesty, and make a dissection, no matter how tedious so long as ungloved, of illicit love—voilà! You illustrate yourself as a versatile artist with the kind of experience which the virile feel sure to be the only source of artistic fizz."
"And what are you going to do to keep yourself from being segregated in a rut?" I asked.
During my absence she had published a pamphlet. It had the title "Wake up, Mother England!" The Great Editor had written a foreword before his death. The book had run into an enormous edition. At that stage of war convalescence, a writer arriving from somewhere, who, while seeming to criticize, merely extolled Great Britain, became popular to the heights of best selling. Merlin's effort would have been jejune from a politician or an international journalist, but coming from a young woman who had come from Coolibah and gone through the Serbian retreat to help save the Empiah it had had a hearty reception.
"I'm sick of that terrible brochure," she sighed. "If I'd waited till now I'd have trimmed considerably or not have written it at all. I'm compiling a cooks' hook as an antidote. It's to be called 'The Mia Mia Cooks' Book' so that we can put in anything we like."
"All right. I'll begin my great Australian series."
"You must have forgotten Australia by now."
"No. I've had time to idealize it and I can verify dimensions at Australia House...You're not giving up the Mia Mia?"
"Never!" she said as we were walking round to Lower Crooke Street where she was spending the night with Lady Courtley. "I wouldn't give up my restaurant for anything. It's independence, self-support, self-respect."
She made no reference to her marriage other than this, nor did I: nor she any to mine except to ask after Rosalita.
"You are so dear," slipped from me as we stood on Lady Courtley's doorstep, the night now clear and soft with stars, the old pavements white and clean as London pavements know how to be, at intervals sparkling like a frosted Christmas card, with here and there a trickle of rain lingering like a tear.
"You've said the same thing twice tonight," said she. "It's so sweet to hear and to have you back again that I forgive you, but you must beware! Repetition is the soul of—"
"Best sellers!" I broke in.
She stopped my mouth with a kiss. Standing on the step above me as someone could be seen approaching to open the glass door she remarked, "That re-establishes you as my really truly brother."
During my absence, most unexpectedly, Merlin had married.
Her husband was thirty-five years her senior: he was the amiable and distinguished lord of Snippington Manor, Hugh de Courtenay la ffollette. They had walked into an obscure church in the bride's parish one morning before London had its doormats out, with the relict of Courtley of Oswaldtwistle and Montraven of Tintwistle for witnesses, and thus eluded the photographers and paragraphers and the inquisitive neurasthenics who follow the weddings of "betters" much as the county tag-rag follow the hunts. They went abroad for several months and returned unobtrusively to settle in their appointed place in a manner that made their personal affairs stale news by the time it became known. Only a few social paragraphs resulted.
I cogitated about that marriage.
On leaving Merlin at Lady Courtley's, instead of addressing myself to Curdish Street and the ministrations of young Dud, I walked past the stone of Tyburn and the drinking trough for animals—which will be an equally obsolete relic to another generation—and spent miles in pondering the inexplicable complication.
A man so well placed financially and socially, so handsome, so charming, with all the gifts in the fairies' bestowal, who reaches sixty-five unwed, usually has a record as a deadly and invincible bachelor sated to demoralization by women's offerings. Behind la ffollette there was but one story. This night upon meeting Merlin again after my marriage and hers I recalled it. Merlin herself had told it me during that week-end at Snipping-ton Manor as we walked among the espaliered fruit-trees whence we had come through the rose garden and tennis-courts.
"When you look at the amours of today, what a disgrace to refinement they are compared with our host's," she had remarked. My thoughts had flown to Mex Tarbuck and Lady Pamela, of whom no doubt Merlin, in spite of our precautions, had also been thinking.
"He's supposed to have loved Lady Courtley, isn't he?"
"Still does, I hope," she replied. "One of Lady Courtley's friends told me all about it—Mrs Malcolm. She was Lady Courtley's bridesmaid. She says when he was a young man he was the darling of all the girls' hearts; but after he met Mrs Courtley—as she was then—he never thought of another woman."
"She must have been lovely then; she's beautiful still," I said, calculating that at the time she would be only a year or two older than Merlin now, a north country girl, doubtless more blooming than Merlin.
"Lovely as no other girl had any hope of being, Mrs Malcolm says, and Hugh la ffollette had every grace and accomplishment, and he's never looked at another woman from that day to this. Isn't it lovely to think of?"
"And Lady Courtley, did she reciprocate?"
"Not in the lovers' way, for she and her husband were the most perfect couple for the fifty-one years they were married."
"You mean la ffollette never had anything for his pains?"
"He's had a beautiful undesecrated thing for nearly forty years! Don't be as stupid as the others."
"But why—er—do you mean she never knew of this beautiful love for her?"
"Don't be a silly goose. Do you think any woman with the brain and understanding of Lady Courtley wouldn't know of a love like that?"
"And accepted it as just so much incense burnt before her?"
"She wasn't that sort."
"But if she let him waste his life and manhood?"
"Waste his life and manhood! It looks like it, doesn't it, with his record—one of the most distinguished men alive and still loved by young and old."
"But if he hadn't hung around for nothing—"
"Why on earth have you suddenly gone dunce!" she exclaimed. "I don't suppose he cavorted around Lady Courtley like the people in Mayfair plays, making himself a fool, and a pest to her: but there are lovely stories of how he came to her rescue socially and politically, and once he helped her husband financially in a wonderful way. He was a real friend of them both. It's enough to make one believe in a really truly Sir Galahad, and that there is such a thing as men transcending their ravening, lunatic half and being perfect in love with their human half."
"That's something more than human," I grumbled, rather to provoke further exposition than in disagreement. "If all men acted like that there would be no race, human or ravening."
"And a good thing, too! If we can't afford one great love affair now and then to transcend the flesh, we're in a terrible way indeed, and the sooner the poison-gas war wipes us out the better."
I persisted in density. "Lady Courtley secured a useful knight, if you like, but I don't see that he got anything at all, or that it was such a wonderful or unique affair. Unrequited swains are as common as red noses on frosty days."
"Yes! People who fall in love hysterically. If they can't win one love they're satisfied with the next. Others act furtively and dishonour their love till it becomes a degradation and a chain. Others never meet any man or woman of sufficient stature ideally to wake them in that way. But the glory of this is that he did. He met the one woman in the world who was worth his idealization. With others ready to be complaisant, if being complete would not attract, he's never accepted a substitute for Lady Court-ley. All his life a beautiful love—never trailed in the dust. Isn't it a sweet story, and so rare?"
"Do I understand then—"
"Oh, Niggeh dear, don't disappoint me by pretending you don't understand that the only way to keep some of the most precious things available to the human soul is by not having them at all."
Little more than a year since. Now she bore the name of la ffollette and was chatelaine of Snippington Manor. Curious as to how it had come about, next morning early, after but a couple of hours' sleep, I called upon her to go walking. It was clear and chilly and we had Mount Street gardens to ourselves. She had officiated at my amorous casualties without affectation; in turn I insisted upon my rights as a brother to know the rights of her romance, or her marriage, which more likely had taken place for dearth of romance. She answered as simply as questioned. Evidently there were still no furtive places in Merlin Giltinane la ffollette's inner life.
"When I came back to London after seeing you married, it was as bleak as a Presbyterian Sunday. Nothing for me at all but the Mia Mia. I couldn't stand London, and there was no place for me to go, with Guy dead and Daddy making Australia impossible.
"There can be no one like a brother—one like Guy.. Nothing can ever make up for his going. He was always there to care for me and give me everything since I was tiny. You couldn't know his generosity. He was so cheerful. No matter what a fix we might be in, he could see a funny side to it and find some way out.
"Now, never, not if I live to be ninety, never, never, never can I see him or hear his voice again—or let him know how much I loved him. Never! Never! The ache will always be in my heart."
She was alone with her grief. Her lament blotted out my presence. She was lost within herself, racked by dry sobs.
"Merlin dear, Guy knew what he was to you. It was such a rich relationship that love was around you both constantly. It didn't need any clumsy words."
She retrieved herself spartanly. "You could never understand how desolate it is to grieve so desperately that feeling dies."
She looked thinner and paler in the sunlight than in the animation of the previous evening.
"Lady Courtley was so good to me. The Great Editor was like an intellectual father and helped me to prune and train my wits, but he must die too. Then Lady Courtley took a pestiferous notion that I should be surrounded by young people. As a foundation there was Pamela, and I loved Rosemary Courtley's music, and I liked riding with Esmé la ffollette, and he dances like an angel. I was glad of the riding and dancing."
"That meant Esmé."
"Others too. They scared up others as like him as peas in a pod, that is outwardly. Inwardly Esmé is different. He has a lot of the fineness of his uncle."
"What did you do mostly?"
"We went the rounds of country houses, but mostly gathered at Snippington, as that was easiest for Lady Courtley. She could live her own life there without being worn out in the younger rackets. I got so sick of everything."
I added up that she had been through the Serbian retreat, a wearing campaign in U.S.A., then more war in the Balkans; after that she became a chef by day in hard times for supplies, and had had a restless parent on her hands as well. Finally, two cruel shocks had left her with nowhere to refuge, as she said. My own war strains, not nearly so prolonged, had resulted in delirium tremens about Maisie, hers in...
"I think Lady Courtley was in hopes I'd marry some nice young man, but—"
"Didn't the oafs—?"
"Poor boys, they were most generous, but I was so tired. I danced and said the silly flirty things that are in the fashionable novels and plays; and flippancy's the only refuge from cynicism. Lady Courtley said, as I could not love, I should make a marriage of friendship. She suggested a husband who could give me an engrossing career as his second in the political world. But I was half dead with mediocrity and monotony and homesickness, with nothing to be homesick for. You can't believe how terrible that is.
"And one night at Snippington, you know what a goblin Lord Brockington is, and since he's lost the poor old Mormopsis he has no brake. The senility of a gross old rake is revolting. The Mormops was standing on the hearthrug prating to the Alarics and Almerics and such. Said they were boobies compared with the young men of his day. He said that in his day Pamela and I would have long ago married."
"What did Pamela say?"
"She's wonderful for saying nothing, but he's her goblin, thank heaven. She slipped out of it, and I was left to face the Mormops's delicate cross-chat alone. Some of the Alarics were sweet. They barracked the old man: 'That's right, sir! She won't have us. We're not so wonderful, but we're all that there are, so she deserves to be a double-crossed old maid. If you could give us a few pointers from the old superior days.' You know the sort of tosh; and that silly old barnacle Lord Montraven—"
"What did he say?"
"Anything he said was too much. The Mormops persisted—old toad! He said I was on trial for my right to exist. Tell us what sort of fellow, if you had one made to order, you would accept if he proposed?' And I said, 'If a nice beautiful old gentleman full of sense and understanding and gentleness and peace with a mighty castle or palace, would marry me—' And they cried out, 'Why must he be old?' And I said, 'Because the young ones have no art of repose and don't have great castles unless they are morons or minors.' And they said, 'You unholy little snob; but all the Dominions are reactionary—why must it be such a big castle?' And I said, 'Simply because I want a place that would be so big that I could be hidden right away in one end of it where I'd hear and see no one, and no one would find me, and where I could stay alone and rest unmolested and be at peace and not worry about saving the Empiah or anything for years!' I said a lot more, but that was some of it.
"'What you want is a nunnery,' Lord Brockington said with a snap, but I said I wanted a rest, I was so tired, and nuns, I expect, have to work hard. And Esmé la ffollette said it sounded like a mighty dull time for the old boy with the castle, but if he had a castle himself he'd take it on, as he'd at least have the satisfaction of knowing that no one else had me; and everyone roared as if it was a funny joke, and old Brockington clapped Esmé on the shoulder and said he was not too slow for an effete modern. There's surely a strain of ravening lunacy in all men above clods, and in clods it is brutishness. And that silly old Lord Montraven—of course the poor old dear is senile, but senile old ladies don't go around proposing to young men—"
"Oh ho! don't they! And Merlin you brought that on yourself."
"Perhaps I did. But one of the boys started singing,
"'An old gent somewhat avuncular
But with nose somewhat carbuncular,
"and I managed to turn the subject."
"But that wasn't the end."
"No. Next day Hugh la ffollette came to me and said, 'I have been thinking about what you said last night', and I was ashamed, and said I didn't dream that he was within hearing. But—but—in short he said he was more sorry now than ever he had been that Castle Kilbunion was burnt down. He said the Manor was the largest dwelling he had to offer me now, but that I was welcome to a retreat in it and that he was an old man of peace and understanding. I said it was very kind of him, not dreaming all he meant, and when he made me understand, I nearly fainted, because I thought he, to whom I looked up with delight and satisfaction, had gone mawkish prematurely like Lord Montraven. So I got out of it as well as I could, and determined suddenly to have business at the Mia Mia. I could have cried to have Snippington swept away from me like that, because when I come into the broad corridor to the gallery in the summer evening I fancy I can see Guy still coming to meet me there and looking so lovely in his evening clothes—and we were all so happy there together, as it can never be again in this world...
"But I couldn't do anything suspicious by rushing away at once. I had to arrange for a telegram, and next day Lady Courtley came to me for Hugh. She said I was being wasted, that I was meant to be a political hostess, and that Hugh had been lying fallow too long. She pointed out the case of a Cabinet Minister who had married a mere schoolgirl, younger than his daughters, and how happy she is, and what a success as a hostess for the Party. She said if I became Hugh's nominal wife he could give me all I longed for in the way of peace and security and that I need have no fears, as he was not a carnally minded man.
"They promised me a long rest, and Hugh told me secretly that he had abandoned politics; I need have no fears of that burden. He is going all out into agriculture. Seems to think that if agriculture is sound and flourishing people will be able to get rid of the political ticks and other pests as the sheep do in a rolling season on the plains.
"Of course, I could rest secure in Hugh. I admire him and respect him more than any man in the world, and I was so tired. Hugh said the only danger was if my heart should become engaged later, and of course I knew that wouldn't be. And after you went away when you were married, I was so desperately lonely that I gave in."
"A dangerous undertaking, Merlin mia, if your affections should be engaged hereafter."
"Not if they were engaged on someone not free—and Hugh promised a perfectly beautiful refuge."
"Those young fellows had nothing to offer you?"
"No. I was tired and they offered no refuge, only the, well the—"
"The devouring slavery which makes marriage an uneasy incarceration for those of certain sensibilities," I said, whereat Merlin looked at me searchingly.
To discover that Pamela Clutterbuck-Leeper's proclivities had not been hidden from Merlin, reminded me of the Cobbler, set me wondering if he, too, had been as innocent as he seemed upon that eventful occasion; the coat we assume to survive among our fellows is interwoven with many threads of inconsistency and hypocrisy.
I betook myself to Marken Street shortly afterwards. I entered the little shop direct, as I had now no footing in those upper regions where I had dreamt myself free, and where there had been such happy meetings and such exceptional window-boxes.
The place looked cheerless and shabby, but the Cobbler was still at his bench working with his head bent over someone's dirty, hard-worn shoe. He looked cheerless and shabby, too, and as I looked at the undersized, pigeon-breasted, thin, pop-eyed little man I wondered if his ambition, like others I wotted of, had gone aglev. His design for his son, though meretricious, had been self-sacrificing enough to win the sympathy of any but misanthropists; that other, vaunting, unthinkably audacious, but even the victim of it should admit that it soared towards the stars rather than that miscegenation which evoked her disgust.
Twice abroad on high tides of emotional adventure had I been during five or six glowing years while Big Ben and his satraps kept horal check on the Cobbler in this dreary, dirty bottle. Never to have got out of it! Perhaps only once to have been off the floor of the bottle in that week-end, or in his dreams for his son. All the sunlight, all the perfume, all the beauty of the globe in places undefiled of man, to saturate the being—while the Cobbler had known only this, a bottle of smeared glass, and would never see farther than the cork! God! to think of it! as Daddy Giltinane would exclaim.
I went in and offered the hand of fellowship to the stooped old tradesman. He did not recognize me at first, and then did not seem at ease. It was my pleasure to make him so.
"Excuse me, I didn't see you at first in that light," he said, blinking up at me, and with apologies, in response to my motion, extended his toil-marred hand that Merlin had once light-heartedly prepared for appearance in the polite world.
"Well, how is the world using you since last we met?"
"Not too bad, and as I might say, not too good. Wot I mean is, I'm alive an' got me 'ealth w'en others is in the 'orspital or on the dole, but wot I mean is w'en I arsk meself 'Wot am I gettin' alit of it?'—Well, wot am I gettin'?"
"Are you getting a game of billiards out of it?"
"Not so often. It cawsts too much. I put a bit on the Derby, but it never amounts to nothink exciting."
"And how is that fine young collegian carrying himself?"
"You mean the boy?" I nodded. "He went to Canada, an' I don't hear of him only w'en he wants money, an' by that bein' pretty often, it can't be as thrivin' a place as some like to make out. You see, 'e got in with that young Clutterbuck-Leeper, cousin of Lady Pamelia, like wot the old cove said that time, w'en we was all at Snipeington Manor, and nacherally it wasn't good for him then to be with me, he Navin' been r'ared above himself, an' so he cleared off to Canada where I needn't be standin' in his light."
"I see," I murmured. Many parents less humble than the Cobbler have seen the culture of the Public School make boys uncomfortable with their parents: but schools guaranteed to make youths, at a certain phase of their adolescence, comfortable with their parents are not yet known to psychology. However, instead of wandering into that parenthesis, I returned to the debris of the Cobbler's dreams.
"But I heard you was married," he observed.
We discussed that, and taking the plunge, I said, "And Miss Merlin is married, too."
"Yes," he said. "Did you get any of them books written that you was everlastin' at?"
"Of course, I did. You must come and see them. When can you come and have tea with me?" The little man's eyes brightened. It was all I had to offer so that the Snippington Manor week-end should not stand starkly alone in that bottled existence. The Cobbler chose a Saturday afternoon.
We chatted a little longer. Mrs Brindle, junior, had gone to the U.S.A. with her husband and was making dollars plenteously where sixpences had been hard to earn in London. Since the Brindles had run out, the Cobbler, like others, had been at the mercy of women from the Labour Exchanges. A dozen destroyed by total inefficiency and alcohol had caused him to place the onus of finding useful cleaners upon the tenants, himself depending on an ancient and toothless beldame, who, free from the distilled octopus, was not so afflicted as her younger sisters.
"I wish you'd tell Miss Merlin that me 'art bled for 'er w'en her brother died, an' give 'er me best respects on 'er marriage."
"She will be glad to have your message."
Thus encouraged, he continued, "How's the old man comin' on?"
"Splendidly! The boom in wool continues." I added for Merlin's sake, "Mrs Brindle was a most unusual woman, much above her station."
Merlin must come to that tea for the Cobbler. She must disperse any tendency towards a "complex" relating to him; but I had only to mention the matter and she took charge.
"You'll write your name in your books when you give them to him, and I'll write mine in mine, and if ever that snip of a son comes back, he'll see," said she, and thus showed that she had condoned the eruption of the ravening lunatic side of the man and was her old sympathetic self towards the thwarted aspiring human half of him.
"We could have him at Snippington once more just to take the down off the thing completely. You could always be on hand to prevent gaucheries, Niggeh my pet. He'd be useful to play billiards with Lord Montraven. Poor old grub, he's too dotty for nearly everyone now, but I put up with him for Pamela's sake."
There was another probable fester from which I desired her to be healed, she who had done so much for me; but it, too, had had the sun of common sense on it, since I had left her, as she said, so terribly alone.
Brenda Stanton, her brother's fiancée, had written to her and she had written to Brenda, being much too unselfish to withhold comfort there. Brenda, estimating that the father's marriage would be a shock to Merlin, but unaware of her full embarrassment, had written consolingly.
Mrs Brindle, clearly a woman of ambition as well as capability, spoke of her housekeeping days, but evidently never of charing. Miss Stanton referred to the marriage as probably the best thing that could have happened. Mrs Brindle, praise be, was evidence that the pioneering stock of the British Isles, which has been game to roll up its sleeves and its pants in New England and Canada, New Zealand and Australia, has not all degenerated into the mere emigrants, who must be wet-nursed into little profiteering shops and amusement dens in overseas cities, where their slum-infected souls can repeat in unspoiled places the festering conditions of the old world. The Giltinanes and their neighbours would snort with merry derision that breasting the gentle slope by the Government Dam and coming to friendly old Coolibah should be considered pioneering. But Mrs Brindle had the resourcefulness to be successful in a different environment.
"Brenda tells me," said Merlin, "that she has left things all untouched in hopes I shall come some day, and that she's very good to Daddy. They seem to think a lot of her out there. She's right in with everyone we knew. They say she has a wonderful business head and sees that poor old Daddy makes the place pay like one o'clock. She wrote me quite a kind and dignified letter. I have taken pains to answer in a sensible way, but oh, with Guy and mother gone I don't think I could ever bear to go there again."
Nor could I, though the laughter of the kookaburrahs echoed in my ears on waking, and my memory holds the shapes of dark trees decked with garlands of avian roses.
The first week-end following my return I went down to Great Snippington. The season of the year was different but some of the week-enders were as of yore. Old Lord Brockington was there, shorn of his wife by death, and by certain kinds of living coloured like a coquelicot. He was, moreover, the bane of beauties' lives by his turn for ribald admiration. Lord Montraven had attained to even greater heights of amiable ditheration. At Merlin's command, I gave him the entertainment of showing me billiard strokes, equally boring whether he failed or succeeded.
Pamela constantly attended her grandfather now. She had greater freedom and better hunting as equerry to the old man than if she had shared her mother's domicile, for the dashing countess still liked to take the field herself, and mother and daughter in the same hunt sometimes creates a nauseating spectacle, and the younger contestant is at a disadvantage.
Rosemary Courtlev was there with her music, and, impressed by Rosalita's réclame, was urgent that she should come to England to receive native homage. Rosalita, I explained, was making up for concert ravages and could not leave the monster le Boursin. A member of the family, now seemingly ubiquitous, was Esmé la ffollette, heir, after his dad, to Snippington Manor, nephew to the present incumbent. Lady Courtley, of course, was there, and Merlin, like an ill-fated beauty of legend "with her bright eyes seemed to be the star of that goodly company".
It appeared to me that I could never get a moment with her without Esmé, if not actually cluttered under our feet, at least adding human interest to the scenery near by.
Formerly Merlin's intelligence and turn for politics had been considered remarkable, and she regarded as a recruit to the responsible social elements. She was reigning now as a beauty per se. Lady Courtley thought that the change was in the setting. I believed that the desolation of her heart had for the time removed certain mental barriers and Merlin was now attractive to forces rooted in the senses rather than in the mind.
I was put in my original room and Merlin came there to be sure I was comfortably installed. Taking my arm she came out upon the landing with me, not, I noticed, unobserved by Esmé la ffollette.
"It was here we all gathered. It seems a lifetime ago now," she said. "I came out this way with Daddy. I was wearing my new dress—the grandest I ever had till that date—and I saw your golden head and blue eyes watching me, Niggeh old grub, and there, just up there, Guy came to meet me. There at the window of the gallery, I can see him looking at me still."
I pressed her hand in understanding. "Oh, how I wish I could see him just once again! Then life seemed to be on the up grade, now it is stagnant. I suppose it'll remain that way for a little while and then comes the long downward grade with nothing in it."
"There will be something presently to change it."
"Yes, for those who find a mate around whom to revolve, or an absorbing métier. I'm glad, Niggeh darling, you have your beautiful Rosalita, but such a partnership is not for me."
For a glorious young woman to express such spiritual fatigue and to put away the possibility of mateship at thirty-two seemed preposterous, but there was her marriage, and Merlin was no crooked huntress. But should this thing that demolishes reason and honour overtake her, what then? Pondering the possibilities, I could see no giants at hand to sweep her off her feet, though the off-feet-sweeping is occasionally accomplished by those whom the onlookers put in the varlet class.
"Come," she said, putting a key in the lock of the door of what had been Guy Giltinane's room. It remained as it had been on that festive evening when Guy and I had discussed Mex Tarbuck and matters cognate, only now there were many photographs of Guy. One was full length as he had stood at the end of the corridor in his evening clothes, upon which he later had so humorously commented; another he had had for passport purposes. One, of the two men with Merlin, had been taken as a farewell picture, and there were many snaps enlarged—Guy at the tomb of his ancestors at Dissland Snoring, and also at St Botolph in the Turnips.
"You shall have the one you like best to stay with you while you are here," she said.
I chose one of half a dozen I had myself snapped. It was of Guy on an outlaw at Coolibah. The slim creature had its front feet on the top rail of the ploughed yard, with the other slim straight creature perched on the perpendicular back and waving his slouch hat as I had first seen him come to view across the spring-embroidered plains.
We came out of the room together and met my host, a gracious figure, who went with me and his wife to place the photograph where I could see it in the sunshine on awaking. He turned with affection to Merlin, putting his hand on her shoulder in sympathetic understanding. She rested her hand with equal affection on his. I was glad to see what was no surprise. Hugh la ffollette was such a knight that he could not fail in what he undertook.
We re-emerged into the corridor to be confronted by the inevitable Esmé, and Merlin went ahead with him, so well-paired as to gladden the eyes, while my host fell in with me.
"I'm glad you've returned to London," he said in his unstressed manner. "It will be delightful for Merlin, as I know you are congenial companions, both for your own sake and her brother's. We all look forward to meeting your wife. We should be charmed if she'd come and spend some time with us here."
Next morning Merlin introduced me to her refuge prepared in accordance with her humorous wish expressed to her youthful cavaliers previous to her marriage. In one wing of the rambling manor house had been an unused top story, in a former time perhaps filled with children or poor relations. This had been partly remodelled into one long low room, which by sliding doors could he partitioned into three, if so desired, and with windows all along one side and at both ends to trap whatever of sunlight might be abroad. It was lighted by electricity from the estate's plant and had steam pipes to heat it. The main approach had been blocked up. It was now reached by a little hidden stairway running up from a narrow passage in Merlin's private suite, and was immediately above her sleeping- and dressing-room and boudoir. So there was none below her but herself and the drawing-rooms, and nothing above her but the kind old roof itself. A more delightfully situated den never was!
Here were her old Australian treasures including her father's long stockwhip and her own, smaller. Here were a desk to fit a railroad president, a perfect typewriter on its own stand, a library of text-books and dictionaries, a sewing-machine and a piano. A well-equipped workshop for one of her talents.
I examined the carving of the desk, of a number of panels and chairs, which seemed to me to resemble the work of Grinling Gibbons.
"Yes. But it's by an Australian—Naomi Cannister. Look at my door." This had panels of satinwood carved to picture the boles of eucalypts. The fingerplates of glass displayed the feathers of the black cockatoo. "No one conies here without invitation," Merlin continued, "not even my dear friend. He says this is sanctuary from all the ogres of the castle. I've never brought any of my friends up here informally but you."
I thanked her for the honour and withdrew from the window to avoid giving cause for jealousy, but already someone had seen me.
"Well, at last you have your desire—we both have."
"How do you mean?" she asked quickly.
"I've got a den on Piccadilly. I can sit on my fundament all day and think, if so I desire, without being urged to strive for preference or profit. I've got a beautiful wife in Paris. You have all this: the piano, the typewriter and all the leisure and protected repose in the world to use your intelligence, just as you wished to, long ago."
"Guy is dead. Daddy is married to an ignorant woman. There's no one to do anything for now—the satisfaction of conceit or vanity in performance is lacking. I don't know why on earth I was ever so idiotic as to think I could do anything for life, except just to live."
"Merlin mia, just to live! If you've discovered that, you know all there's to be known, all there is or ever can be done in human form."
"But I don't think I am living. I'm just existing—drifting. I feel as if I'd died. All that used to matter so intensely, doesn't any longer. You have Rosalita to do things for."
"It's not that only, believe me. I've sometimes felt as you do, but I learnt something in the trenches. As I hid there in discomfort and filth I found out that the simple things of life were enough explanation for being. I've remembered that ever since I've got back to them. If I begin to feel blue I pull myself up with that. The sunlight, the flowers, the pageant of day and night and all the things man has discovered and devised. I hug the realization of living and life itself."
"I know. It's all there, but it seems to be veiled in something...Let's get to work."
We had come there to work on the galley proofs of her cookery book, and forgot the hour. The clock on the mantel, set in satinwood, carved in waratahs, showed us we were late for lunch. We appeared when punctual folk were chatting over their last plate. Merlin apologized. "We were so engrossed, we forgot the time."
"How delightful, darling," said Lady Courtley.
My host beamed upon me out of his clear eyes with the golden light in them as from an inward lamp. Lord Brockington bridled with flagitious ribaldries, but Lady Courtley kept him within bounds with yarns of the time when he had held the Chancellorship and her Party had been in Opposition. Only Esmé frowned till Pamela drifted out drawing him after her as she had the power to do.
And that was that!
Our host went to Ireland for a few weeks after this, and since I was all that was left of Merlin's own age that knew both Guy and Coolibah, we accordingly took refuge with each other. She came to Lower Crooke Street to Lady Courtley and we absented ourselves at shows and exhibitions. We had so much to say and so much more to be silent together about that such public-spirited enterprises formed a pleasant background.
Further, we, who were wont to say what we thought at some of Mayfair's little intimate family dinners and Sunday afternoons, while we withheld our epigrams from big crushes, changed our tactics. We gave ear to the cards that hailed us to omnibus entertainments for causes and charities, and to the vulgar-smart Anglo-American and the frowsier Anglo-Indian affairs, all of which Lady Courtley had disregarded since her political retirement. As she said, "There's a certain class of social effort successful for its suppers and wines which inevitably attracts human elements that are to me indigestible."
Just so. But while the elements of gustatory prowess were storming the buffet, Merlin and I could find nooks where, fur-wrapped against the bleak draughts which distinguish English hospitality, we could sit and discuss nothing, or literature, or our fellow guests. But we soon found that any nook selected by Merlin was not long free from certain Adonises with patent leather thatch and patent brains to match, prominently Esmé la ffollette, and a swine-eyed old buck or two, who considered themselves in the running with a young woman whose husband was sixty-six, while stodgy débutantes glowered disapproval on a married woman who was a candle for eligible moths.
It was following one of these evenings that Merlin had appeared in my flat flippantly suggesting a liaison.
"Every noodle in town thinks my being the wife of an elderly gentleman is an invitation for him to lay siege, and it's such a nuisance."
"Married women are safer quarry than spinsters."
"Not in some cases, when they find themselves dragged into a divorce case."
"In this age a man would rather risk being a co-respondent than a husband."
"It might be more disgraceful and expensive."
"In this age disgrace has gone the way of chaperones. To be a co-respondent may be irritating, but—it's not so unremitting or so long-continued as being a husband."
"You're so well-versed that you'll have noticed that young married women with danglers—"
"They assault my vision at every rout."
"Well, you'll note that everyone, though wallowing in the scandal behind their backs, is deferential to their faces, pairs them off, pretends not to see their connivances. Now, lots of people think you are my legal brother and our inner circle know you are honestly adopted and act accordingly by crowding around us, but the outsiders whom we don't care about, let them form other conclusions! It would be such a relief! I'm weary of being on guard and pretending I don't know what these Lotharios mean."
"Are they all Lotharios—none genuine?"
"Genuine or otherwise, it's equally trying."
"What about Esmé—the beauteous Esmé?"
"You mustn't use that slighting tone about Esmé," she said quickly. "Esmé—oh, Esmé's a jewel among husks."
"Then—the English oaf, was he too slow—"
"It wasn't Esmé who was slow," she riposted.
"Then was it you?" I said foolishly, wondering had she married over-hastily, for a street cleaner as he passed could surely have seen how it was with Esmé ever since that famous week-end at Great Snippington.
"I slow in a thing like that—oh, Niggeh! How can you?"
"A jewel among husks was Esmé," I thought; and he had likewise impressed Guy and Lady Courtley.
"Never mind who was slow," I parried. "Things are not irrevocable in these matter-of-fact days. Tell me, Sis, if it's Esmé upon whom your happiness depends—"
"No! No!" she cried out. "You don't understand at all! It's not fair to discuss Esmé. He's young, but he's a great gentleman—a knight like his uncle. He's young enough to recover."
"I don't know that I'd like people to misconstrue our time-honoured relationship, confirmed by Guy," I said slowly.
"I don't care what people think, and it might cure Esmé. All I ask is peace and refuge to mind my own business. Guy's death and Daddy's aberration knocked me off my pannikin. I was left with nothing for my heart to tie to, and I don't know if there ever will be anything again."
The spirit of the decade had weakened her resistance and evidently tinctured her with the current cynicism. She was now aware of the poverty of Mayfair's soul. Her enthusiasm for the intellectual contacts of her circle had abated. The energy and happiness which had been wont to radiate from her mental processes had attracted the companionship of her elders, and I have already stated that intelligence must be in abeyance before l'amour flowers.
Here was the difference between her and Pamela Clutterbuck-Leeper, equally beautiful in a different manner.
Pamela was tall, with features moulded where Merlin's were chiselled. She had intelligence but it was all expended in reigning under the euphemism of being a beauty. Some of the apperceptive considered Merlin the lovelier, and would forget to mention her beauty. They would quote her sayings, speak of her Australianness, her forthrightness, her vividness. People rarely repeated anything that Pamela said. She said remarkably little except in alcoves and nooks for two, but the quicksand quality of her allure inflamed men's blood and gave her wider notoriety.
Merlin was a beauty with a wholesome personality and her personality, till the time I had gone to the United States, had placed her as a privileged junior among the middle-aged and elderly politico-intellectuals. The blows to her affection had vanquished her crusading urge and intelligence. It was as though the protecting grille before a fair lady's window had been removed and I came back to find her defenceless before the practitioners of l'amour who regarded the possession of a husband so much her senior as an incentive to assail her.
So! After we had sat out a few dances and were seen wandering together early in the mornings, we began to be, as she had predicted, paired off. She was busy with her Mia Mia Cooks' Book and I with preliminaries to my antipodean work. To guard this from the inquisitive I feigned to be compiling a Mayfair thriller at present intituled "The Lady with Natural Back Teeth". Merlin was not so experienced with proofs as I, but as an agent she was a thing of her own, as Guy would have said, and altogether we had much business with each other.
Presently we found that others had much business about us. Confound them!
There came a time when I did not rank Lady George such a welsher as at first she seemed in charging so much for her little lair on Curdish Street, in view of there being attached to it the invaluable Dud and his wife, or the invaluable wife and her Dud. They were worth more than their wages, which I paid as an extra. It was miraculous to have Alfred and Mrs Dud in a decade when even the daughters of Duds and Dubs can neither be flattered nor fooled into forsaking their own homes to make homes for others. Their team-work was unfailing and most of it done by Mrs Dud. They were such a harmonious couple as make people of all ratings continue to essay matrimony on the gamble of attaining similar reward.
On an afternoon some weeks after my visit to Great Snippington Mrs Dud appeared in my doorway. This was evidence that Alfred was abroad enjoying that liberty which even the Duds crave personally, though when ordered by their masters they will fall mangled or poisoned defending themselves against the mental liberty of a new idea in government or behaviour. Mrs Dud usually administered Alfred in the background while he ministered to me in the foreground. This was the result of physique as much as of capabilities, Mrs Dud being a big pillowly person. She was one of those ugly, ungainly, indulgent old women who leaves the wifely inefficiency exposed in the divorce courts to the young and pretty specimens of her sex, while her own husband is generally her best advertising manager.
"A gentleman to see you, sir," said she.
"Tell him I'm not at home."
"I thought you would surely see him, sir." This meant she had promised him I would.
"There's not a man in the universe I want to see this afternoon, Mrs Dud," said I, being at that moment dedicated to the recapture of—for Occidentals—the lost art of meditation. Meditation was becoming a passion with me, not that I should not prefer more energetic occupation of my leisure, were it handy. I can play lawn tennis with the worst of them—when the worst are available; but they seldom are, on expensive city courts, and if I went to country houses in pursuit of my player peers I should be involved in a deal of the tattaty-tattaty-jabbety-tat afflictions, and become the victim of return incursions into my leisure. This plus marriage bade fair to be so expensive to rumination that I foresaw a time when bachelors of a thoughtful turn would fight to be put safely on the register of unmarriageables whence, in the hygienic age adumbrated, it would be a criminal offence to be taken in marriage.
"It's Sir Yew la ffollette," persisted Mrs Dud. "I thought—"
"Show Sir Hugh in at once," said I, arising from the middle of my backbone whereon I sit to muse while toasting the anatomical portion designed for this posture, for it was high autumn and in that latitude ponderous chilly, even as July or June.
I had not time to change my old army sweater, much darned at the elbows, for which I had an inalienable affection and which has won for me a number of paragraphs of free advertising. I had not yet taken to the geisha dressing-gown which Merlin insisted was necessary before I could bring the prescribed sprightliness to the portrayal of post-war amours and champagne or whisky tipsiness as demanded by the novel for the present nicknamed "The Lady with Natural Back Teeth".
Sir Hugh entered. I delight in Sir Hugh de Courtenay la ffollette, Bt. He is tall and spare and straight and gives the impression of intellectuality combined with gentleness. He gives me to wonder could he ever be haughty or impatient. He affects me as the sight of a rare bird about which one has heard travellers' tales, when at last it rests alive in its native environment before one's mortal eyes, a rare bird that we cribbed townies see only shabby and stationary in a museum or confined and homesick in a zoo.
In the way of memory mine flashed back to a day of riding with Guy across the plains which unfold beyond the Namoi towards the Barwon. There had been unexpected rain in the drought, and a great bird population from the far rim, where the glowing phantom waters mocked them, had surrounded the real waters of a big dam where the cool shadow of reeds had substance. Oh, those glowing widths—but how to convey the glamour of that inconsistent southern atmosphere to those who have known only France and Germany and the British Isles! There upon the plains in the light of full day were the whistling pigeons; the apostle-birds in their communities; the white spoon-bills; galahs or corellas in rosy clouds, and bright-hued parrots with their clinking notes like the glittering conversation of a high party. A little farther towards the horizon, where the world rolls down to nights beyond man-infested days, were the tall grey-brown emus coursing wide like sentinels; and yes, there, actually before my sophisticated, bespectacled, metropolis-denatured eyes were the brolgas engaged in their folk dance on the plain. Tall and stately they were, of a dignity immortal, like emperors and empresses condescending in a carnival, while all around for half a mile were armies of the ibises, grand birds these in their way, but mere retainers in such a congress.
To have Sir Hugh la ffollette in my own lair on Curdish Street had a somewhat similar effect. There was about him, elusive and luminous, a grace of manner vested in the spirit that made me arise and do honour.
He excused himself for intruding. I expressed my delight to see him and signed to Mrs Dud for tea.
A man of his education, who could himself prosper, who could bring prosperity to those around him free from the inefficiency of profiteering, who could preserve his soul serene above the fanatical spirit of greed and reprisal of his locality and age, was he not a little unreal, like a stately brolga upon his native plain, whose species is like to become extinct?
There he was before my fire, and there was no congestion in drawing him into conversation. He must have retained a strain of the Celt to free him from that Public School self-consciousness which often makes a seemingly affected ass of the best-intentioned Englishman. He discoursed on late literature with appreciation. Little wonder Merlin revelled in his companionship! And the man was so virile and comely. No arc senilis disfigured his eyes, golden and glowing. His form was lissom and upright, there was but a thread or so of silver in his dark hair, his beard—even a beard could not entirely deface such a man—still showed its original tawniness.
"I was hoping Lady la ffollette might drop in, and now I'm sure she will," I said, as Mrs Dud brought in the tea. As Sir Hugh had not till then honoured me with a call, I thought he and Merlin had a rendezvous.
"Ah," said he, "I thought she'd gone to the Duchess's matinée for the Children's Hospital with Lady Courtley this afternoon. It was about her that I came to speak. If she is to be here now I must postpone it till another occasion, when I shall not interrupt."
"You could not possibly interrupt, Sir Hugh, and if Merlin has gone to the matinée I shall not expect her. It was only that I hoped she might come today to relieve my stuffiness, but you have done that."
"It's good of you to say so," he remarked and paused for a minute or so, then continued quite simply, "I came to you to speak on the matter of Merlin's happiness."
I awaited something further, but he waited for me, so I said, "I thought she seemed particularly happy of late, and if happiness is only a figure of speech I mean that she's set free in the most delightful way to congenial pursuits." I made a slight inclination of my head towards Sir Hugh.
"You'll forgive me that I have ventured to come to you, and will, I hope, permit me to speak plainly because I believe that Merlin's happiness is also dear to you," he proceeded.
"Yes, very dear," I said. "Poor little thing, her brother's death was a great shock. She is not recovered from that vet, but I'm sure she's as happy as that loss allows her to be."
"Her happiness is a precious consideration to me," said Sir Hugh, "and rumours and hints have lately come to me that give me anxiety."
So, there were some unpliable sergeant-majors of duty who could not leave even a Sir Hugh alone, fanatics such as had burned down his castle which had ever been at the service of all thinkers, artists and patriots regardless of country, creed or party.
"Rumours are most insidous, but if you take the trouble to pursue them they generally end—well, in rumour."
"Quite so, that's why I've come to you. You see, when I gave my dear young friend the protection of my name I realized what a dangerous thing it was in the event of her feelings becoming engaged later. But she assured me that they never could again, that such a possibility was past for her, had come without reciprocation—though that seems impossible in the case of one altogether lovely."
He was silent a minute while I recalled the legend about him.
"There are others—more usual and more numerous—who can a number of times find their ideal and lose themselves in the great happiness which love means."
I remembered my passing infatuation for Maisie—but more of that in another parenthesis.
"I know it's usual to think love is past and then find, sometimes too late, that it's not so; but in such a case as this the situation would not be irrevocable, not with common sense and frankness." He looked straight at me with those brilliant eyes of his which seemed to X-ray his subject.
"Just so. I'm sure, Sir Hugh, that you weighed the matter, and I can assure you that, so far as I've ever known, you need have no uneasiness whatever."
"But it's with you that rumour connects Lady la ffollette's affections," he said, without hemming or hawing, and knocking me galley west by the unexpected implication.
"Her affections, I'm sure, I hope, are deeply engaged with me, as mine with her. Guy Giltinane was dearer than a brother to me: he left me his sister as a tender charge, and she has sistered me in the most intimate way for many years now. Your name and honour are safe with us. Though we may have been careless of convention, never by a thought—"
He raised in a gesture of denial that beautiful hand of his, the hand of an aristocrat in every detail from its nails and knuckles to the heavy signet ring with the ancient crest incised in onyx.
"I'm sure of that. This must be sedulously kept from Merlin. The necessities of convention must not be allowed to destroy by any shadow a beautiful relationship. I lean upon your discretion there. Merlin must be left in peace."
"Certainly! And I think you may be perfectly at rest. Such rumours have no foundation but our sympathetic affection, and we have enjoyed such close personal intercourse that I think I should know if such a change as you suggest came into her life; besides, Sir Hugh, that you should have deigned to investigate the rumour shows a mistaken modesty on your part."
He smiled his winning smile. "I feel as if a beautiful bird from another sphere had by some chance come to grace my aviary, and her happiness is so rare a charge that I am privileged to guard it only as regent till the rightful Prince Charming appears."
"It's something to be suspected even as a bogus Prince Charming, and if by some flippant word or careless intimacy of bearing we have given rise to rumours, I'm sure, Sir Hugh, that even the most licentious Piccadillian would not accuse Merlin and me of anything but a Shavian union."
Sir Hugh honoured me by laughing heartily. "A Shavian love affair—delicious! An epigram on those lines would be death to anything carnal in the rumours I have heard. Let us salute Mr Shaw. It's something to have been contemporaneous with him."
"There's another thing—forgive me for being personal, but rumour would seem to overlook that my heart and my honour are already happily and regularly engaged."
"Yes, of course. You must forgive me for coming. Let us enjoy several sets of Shavian triangles, and you must speedily bring your charming wife to make our acquaintance. Thank you for receiving me so kindly."
The excogitations which succeeded my atrophied attempt at meditation did not long continue following this unexpected visit and its surprising import, for there was speedily another, equally surprising but of similar import, from Esmé la ffollette.
I arose from the high end of my spine a second time. To fit my frame to these chairs with backs about eighteen inches high and seats commodious as half a bed I rest only my head and neck on the aft part and try to get the worth of the remainder by distributing my full back upon it, while the old prie-dieu marvels at the capsize in fashions. I again ordered tea. I further murmured my pleasure to see him, entwined with something about the weather, which was normal, and I reflected that if our climate were less lachrymose, we might contribute more to the gaiety of nations intentionally than we do at present inadvertently.
Esmé repudiated tea with scorn.
"No tea, thank you, Mrs Dud," I said to that indispensable citizeness.
"I'd be glad of a whisky and soda," said Esmé. I was able to produce Lady George's outfit, alcohol being one of the chief of my country's gods—than which there is none greater, except its navy. Perhaps we'd be ready to forswear the former only in the pursuit of efficiency in the latter.
Esmé's symptoms pointed to an attack of that delirium, which among the chief of mammals is called love. His uncle's visit had prepared me for this; besides, even the disinterested had long seen what ailed Esmé.
He glared at me very red in the face, and, reinforced by the great national help used indiscriminately in times of trouble, joy, or sickness, opened fire.
"See here, I'm a straight man and I hope you're the same." His diplomatic training would seem to have failed in this crisis.
"I hope so."
"If I set out a straight issue, I want to be met in a straight way."
"Well, damn it all, I've come about my—about Merlin." I said nothing. It was his move.
"Well, I—er, well I want to know what you mean, acting with her as you do?"
"You'll have to be a little more explicit. In what way do you consider my actions or manners in connexion with your aunt questionable?"
"My aunt!" he snorted. "Don't try to mug it up that way! She's no more my aunt than she's yours, and you know it."
"Just so. She's my sister."
"Bah! You're trying to muddy the waters."
I might have told him to bag his head, or something equally truculent and befitting a he-man, but I am, I believe, by reason of insulated emotions, one of the mild, reasonable, non-inflammable Englishmen, and further, this concerned Merlin and must be manipulated with reference to her comfort.
"Say, old man, tell me what has happened to upset you in this matter and we'll see what can be done about it."
Thereupon he pulled up his socks actually and metaphorically and flung himself into Lord George's most responsive chair.
"What has happened! God Almighty, can't you see? I'd give the eyes out of my head for Merlin's little finger, and she's bottled up there as Lady la ffollette with my uncle, who's a perfectly banging old sport in his proper place, but why the blazes he and Lady Courtley cooked up this trap and got poor little Merlin into it, I'm doomed if I know."
"What trap! You sit and yap like an imbecile flapper! What trap! You know as well as I do, and you know also that it's entirely artificial."
"As to artificiality, everything we think and say and read and play in this here Mayfair of ours and its ten thousand purulent reproductions elsewhere, is artificial, and in some cases none the worse, and in others none the better, for that."
"Oh!" said lie springing up so that his patent leather top knot flapped like a loose tile, "don't be a synthetic and psychoanalytical damphool. You know what I mean, and that it's against nature."
"All progress is against nature," I murmured, "else we should still be painted in woad—"
"I came here to talk to what I thought was a man, but I see you are a blinking, blithering, blasted—"
"—bumped and blighted imbecile. But say, old chap, let's start again. You tell me you adore Merlin. We need have no quarrel over that. She's worth it. You say she's immured in an unnatural situation. You very likely are right, but what if this artificial situation has only been entered into because there was no natural one to meet the case?"
"What do you mean?"
"Supposing there was no young man worthy of Merlin's love."
"Bah! Women don't love young men worthy of their love, or the world would be depopulated."
"True, O King! I must try again. Supposing no young unworthy man was able to attract Merlin and that was the reason she has accepted the artificial but restful retreat?"
"If that were true! But it's not! Merlin is only a woman, and has her natural human emotions like the rest of us. She's not silly enough to be entirely artificial or old enough to be all spiritual yet."
"Are you trying to tell me that she has a preference, that she, well, that she returns your affection?"
He bounded like Kipling's hero, who trod the ling like a buck in spring.
"Don't be an infernal—Oh, what's the good of talking to such a—If I had one hope that she thought of me one moment, would I be here making a bursted fool of myself? I'd he treading on air and be damned to you."
"Ah me," I sighed. "Then there doesn't seem to be anything we can do about it. Women love where they list, and it's generally the wrong one who loves us, and the right one lets us whistle down the wind till we wear our teeth out."
"I don't think you're acting on the square about this," said he, "though, mind you, where a lady is concerned, I don't blame you."
"Well, you put all your cards on the table and be done with it and I'll do the same."
"Well, it's rather a crude thing to say—oh, hang it all—do you feel the same about her as I do?"
"Did you ever say anything of this to Merlin when she was—before she was married?"
"Did I? Of course I did!"
"And it was no use?"
"Not an earthly. I believe she married partly to show me it was no go."
"That wouldn't seem to be inside reality."
"Oh, is anything inside reality when a man cares as I do—and you say you don't feel as I do about her?"
"No. Merlin is my sister. She's mighty dear to me—more congenial than my real sister, but not in the way you mean." I spoke with sincerity.
"Well! You're a bigger fool than I thought you, and you writing artistic bounders are supposed to be so burstingly prescient."
"No. We're merely pretentious."
"I'm beginning to believe it. Well, you can stay pretentious for my part." And he shut up like a cigarette-case, for which I honoured him as a gentleman worthy of his name.
"I'm sorry to have to mention it, la ffollette, but you've overlooked my wife, and that I married less than a year since for love. A man doesn't talk about these things, but this being an exceptional case when we've stripped—"
"Yes. But you must confess it's rather an extraordinary case. Your wife lives in Paris, the doted darling of that rotten old le Boursin, and you rattle back to London and are never seen apart from Lady la ffollette."
"Monsieur le Boursin idolizes my wife for her musical genius—"
"He does, does he? Let me give you a tip about le Boursin. Pamela—"
"What has she got to do with it?"
"Pamela has forgotten more than you and I know about that sort of thing."
"I have every confidence in my wife."
"Perhaps. What have you got in yourself? Why the deuce do you live in London?"
"A matter of publishers and idiom, and my play is coming on. A delicate ear is quickly demoralized. When I come back from the United States—"
"Rats! You deceive yourself. But I can see there's no use in making a further fool of myself. I suppose I should thank you for not kicking me out."
"Not at all, old blitherer. Come again. Believe me, I've been through it." I thought of Maisie—unbelievable vagary at this distance—and how Merlin had been my succour. It was my turn now to do something for her, and the more subterraneanly the better.
"You've been through it, you say, and recovered?"
"Rather! Before I met my wife—"
"Oh, that sort of affair! They don't count. But supposing your wife had been tied up to le Boursin or some other old rooster?"
"I don't know; but fellows recover, even from their wives."
"Not from a wife like Merlin. No one, no one worth it ever had a wife like Merlin."
What I might have said was cut short by an apparition, which for a moment diverted the love-blighted Esmé. Mrs Dud had evidently undertaken to believe that I was holding an unconfessed "at home" in my darned army sweater, and this time, without preliminaries, announced, "Lady Pamela Clutterbuck-Leeper."
A fragrant, languid lily buried in chinchilla wafted in. Esmé re-reddened, looked annoyed and muttered that he was just leaving.
"To what do I owe this enchanting surprise?" I murmured, kow-towing.
"I have a message from your wife whom I met a good deal in Paris," said she, graciously accepting a chair. "How good of you to bring it."
"Your wife is a most divine creature. I don't know how you can manage to live away from her for a moment." She released her beautiful throat.
"Only the demands of our arts—"
"Art is a cruel mistress, isn't she?"
"Not so cruel as love."
"Well, so long, old pippin," said Esmé.
"I have my little run-about outside and will drop you anywhere you wish," said Pamela.
"No thanks, not now. I've—"
Merlin came in unannounced with Lady Courtley and we all arose and did homage, and when the most honoured guest was seated on a tall straight-backed chair that became her like a throne, Esmé la ffollette had forgone his hurry and was seated where he could gaze voicelessly and intensely at Merlin. He looked only at Merlin, while Pamela looked often at him.
"Such awful voices and gestures!" said Lady Courtley, "only it was in a good cause I couldn't have endured it. But we'll forget all about the matinée now and turn to pleasanter things."
Merlin, who looked at us all impartially, said, "We've just come to nab you for tonight and it's providential that Esmé and Pamela are here, they'll make six."
"Sir Hugh met us at the matinée and has a box for the new opera at the Charing Cross, just by chance, and I can't resist it," said Lady Courtley.
"Yes! It's Lord Tredenham's opera," exclaimed Merlin. "You remember he was working on it at the Manor that week-end when Guy was there. It's been postponed and postponed because the prima donna is ill. This one to sing tonight just blew in a few days ago from the United States, and it's to be presented all in a rush."
"How thrilling!" said Lady Pamela. "There's been no end of mystery about it, and now we shall see."
"Yes," continued Merlin, "so Lady Courtley is going to have a nap now, and Sir Hugh is to bring her safe and straight to the theatre after dinner, and I thought we lesser mortals might have a beano here or somewhere. I've ordered the most wonderful flowers for the singers, and a little Victorian bouquet as a lark for Lord Tredenham."
Lady Pamela in her seductive way asked if she might run Lady Courtley around to Lower Crooke Street and, her offer being accepted, they departed escorted by us all on to the pavement where the odour of beer blossom reigned. Merlin and Esmé returned to the fire while I confabbed with Mrs Dud, who always rose to the suggestion of a picnic spree with the capability and capacity of a whale.
As I returned to the drawing-room, Merlin was looking at a volume of poems while Esmé made a screen of a newspaper from which to gaze upon her with such a look of abandoned adoration as an exiled peri might bestow on paradise. I observed how thin and worn was the finely chiselled face and how much of the la ffollette distinction invested the brow and eyes.
Ah me, that man should be an organism of emotion, evil or spiritual, equally racking!
It was so at the first night gala. Sir Hugh in knightly fashion handed Lady Courtley to the place of honour. Each enjoyed the occasion the more for the presence of the other, warmed in a mellow afterglow, the reward of those who have not insulted Time. Merlin, keeping in the background, so that she might not compete with those whose legitimate business it was to be conspicuous, was rarely lovely that night. Esmé again placed himself where he could gaze on her undisturbed. Recognizing the hunger in his eyes, I wondered if thirty-five years ago Sir Hugh's plight had been even so. Was it out of such a consuming fever he had welded an unsullied friendship to be a model to all given the grace to understand? Back in those years before Esmé had been, and I not yet grown to dabble in l'amour or love, had Sir Hugh been similarly consumed with longing beyond masculine control?
Lady Pamela sat in the forefront as her natural right, a languorous, indifferent beauty taking the assault of attention with assumed unconsciousness entirely aware. Many noted her. She seemed to note none, but I, with curiosity aroused by what the day had brought forth, noted that her drooping corner-wise glance was constantly towards Esmé. Her case was, however, more clouded than Esmé's by past events. Was she suffering for Esmé what Esmé suffered for Merlin, or was hers merely the avarice of the collector who had added a Mex Tarbuck to her score and who now coveted one difficult of capture because of a counter obsession?
Never had there been a more excited rustling of paper than that evening, for even the name of this new opera had been kept secret till now we read it on our programmes. Merlin squeezed my hand in glee and whispered, "It is Australian, as he told me at Great Snipping-ton. I'm so glad I have all those posies ready. You must come with me to find Lord Tredenham in the interval."
The strings tuned up, the chef d'orchestre took his place amid brisk and expectant applause. There fell a sudden sophisticated hush among those who hoped for something new to titillate their cloyed sensibilities.
It was Australian. The curtain went up on a gully which caused whispers of Wembley and Australia House. The overture was shot with haunting melody that would presently earn the sneers of the musical cognoscenti and make the conservative hope for a successor to Puccini. The new prima donna, unknown to London, captured all by her voice. The first act was sufficiently captivating and fresh in locale, décor and melody to become the season's theatrical sensation and to introduce to London Madame Ingera, a new diva of magnitude.
In the long interval Lady Courtley held court in the box with Sir Hugh as usher, and hearts that broke a generation earlier and found consolation, now crowded around her while Merlin hurried me towards the back of the theatre. Our purpose was frustrated by a theatre employee who informed us that no one could go behind the scenes by express order of Madame Ingera's manager. Merlin pleaded. The man knew Merlin and her Australian connexions and, loath to deny her, whispered confidentially, "I'd like to oblige you, my lady, but there's a great 'ullabaloo behind the scenes. The 'usband of the primer donner has arrived from Awstralier raising objection to his wife singing, and to keep the disturbance from her till all is over, her manager has set up a barricade. The 'usband is a big 'eavy lookin' feller, an' between you an' me, my lady, 'e's 'ad a few, if I know anythink. Well oiled, he is. That's woes the trouble with 'im."
We had to retreat. Esmé tendered his arm to Merlin and I perforce squired Pamela. We went on parade with the throng where all were reduced to star level by being more or less little somebodies. We had not proceeded more than a minute or two when I found myself in charge of Merlin while Esmé had changed to Pamela. Was it owing to the genius of Pamela or was it that Merlin seeing how it was with Esmé, took refuge with me?
To have Merlin's little paw on my sleeve made it a successful evening for me, though perhaps we had merely become accidentally disarranged by the onslaught of young Michaud Seriatte, the French Johnny who had done the portrait of Merlin that I liked best. He dismissed the music as good enough for London, but ma foi...and proceeded to effusiveness about Merlin's beauty. He ramped and raved without shame or lowering his voice, his emotions neither insulated nor inhibited. He was going to do a portrait of Lady Pamela, but she was merely le type anglais par excellence and that was all, whereas, mon Dieu! Merlin was enough to disturb the pulse of an Egyptian mummy. And tied to ce vieillard! Ma foi! It was nécessaire that Madame la ffollette must have a great love, alors!
Perhaps it was Michaud's notion that he was a candidate to this necessity that made Merlin seek my shelter. But as for that, Esmé gloomed and glared much more forbiddingly at all other candidates.
"Il est impossible que la lady la ffollette soit anglaise," said Michaud. "Elle est charmante! Elle est pleine de drôlerie, et d'esprit. Elle est tout à fait ravissante." He further confided to me that he was demented with the grande passion to contemplate her beauty, and had no hesitation in pronouncing her the most ravishing woman he had encountered.
Michaud conducted her back to our box. I fell into the shade of a curtain to ease a jam and while there overheard two of the flaneurs who infest such places.
"The little la ffollette beauty has that French tike in tow."
"Any sign of Lady Pamela hooking Esmé of that clan?"
"No. He's clean up the pole over his aunt. He! He!"
"And what about his aunt?"
"Oh, she's the acknowledged of that scribbler fellow—Where the Ban is Lifted, and so on—always together—nothing secret about it. They have a flat somewhere on Piccadilly."
"And you may add that the liaison is strictly Shavian," I said loudly and firmly, confronting them, head on.
They had the grace to look foolish. "No harm intended," stammered one of them.
"No harm taken where none exists," said I, rather neatly, I felt.
Their discomfiture was obliterated by a third of their pattern rushing up and blurting out a grand new scandal. He decanted what Merlin had learnt from the employee.
"Madame Ingera's alleged husband has been jumping off the-deep end in the bar. He's going to murder Tredenham without the option. It appears the libretto is the story of Tredenham in Australia years ago with the prima donkey. Hubby dear—a rough customer—is acting caveman and got 'em barricaded. Wouldn't it be too priceless if he rushed on to the stage and carried his woman off!"
"Don't let us miss such a possibility," they chattered, scampering back to their stalls.
I wondered if the husband were a genuine caveman betrayed by the Britons' comforter, or merely a great advertising stunt. In any case, it would engender sufficient gossip to fill the house from the best sets at each performance of this new opera. If he were genuine, what a strange state of affairs! Here would be the man threatening a scandal about his wife's career, while Rosalita's letters were full of a deepening plaint about my indifference solely because I wished to leave her artistic soul free. Perhaps women don't really want their artistic souls free!
The lights went down on the real comedies of the boxes and the dressing-rooms while they went up-on the mimic life on the stage and I was guided back to my seat by Merlin, who let her fingers remain in mine till I feared Esmé would discover us in the darkness, so penetrating is the eye of desire.
There was that night no sleep in my bed on Curdish Street. The music of the opera had been too haunting and the play too exciting, not the one on the stage, but that in which the two best qualified by the intensity of their interest to speak had accorded me the triumph of playing opposite the leading lady. As to those Piccadillian gossips, was I hot with indignation that our innocent affection was being blown upon by scatophaga? On the contrary, the implication plus the statements of Sir Hugh and Esmé la ffollette set a drugged sweetness throbbing in my veins which recoloured the universe and recharged existence.
And that pulled me up with a jerk.
Esmé la ffollette took to frequent calls upon me. Pamela, with the discernment of her state, discovered this, and also called incessantly on presumption of the friendship she had opened with my wife in Paris. I was driven to think of my old aerie with the Cobbler and taking cover there.
"She cares for you as I care for her," said Esmé to me during one of these visitations.
"She cares for me I hope as I care for her, very deeply indeed, but not at all in the way you mean."
"Tripe!" said Esmé, to whom his state lent unnatural intuition and equal irritability. "You've only to look at her eyes. Oh, damn it all, don't you suppose I've made sure!"
The result of his investigations tumbled from him. "Does she take any man but you to her private den? And haven't I taken her to top-hole affairs, and she always wants to leave before they're half over, but if you're at the dullest dog-fight in town, you go home together among the last."
"That may be a matter of dissimilarity of tastes on your part."
"Tripe! I've seen her drooping till you come and then oh, my, note the difference! See her looking for you in a crowd! She often overlooks me, but her eyes never miss you."
"You're a hectic ass! I expect she's glad to have me as a sort of old Dog Tray safety-match."
"Tripe! You're a fish. You've a wife as beautiful as any in the world, barring none except Merlin, and you leave her eating her heart out for you in Paris, and to be pawed over and breathed upon by that foul goblin le Boursin. The light dies out of the face of the most beautiful and fascinating woman in London—in the world—when you're not near, and you yap tosh about a brother—bah! Tripe!"
"Tripe and onions, eh? But see here, old man, even if what you imagine were true, it would help none of us. If I could be so tripefully conceited as to imagine Merlin had for me the kind of predilection you insist upon, it would merely mean that she was in your position, for I have my wife."
"Oh, you can't care a straw for your wife or you'd go over and murder le Boursin today."
"But I'm married, and Merlin's married; these facts are real, even if I am a tripe-fish and le Boursin murder-able!"
"Sorry, old man, if I'm offensive, but if Merlin cared for me, if I saw once in her eyes the look for me that comes there for you, nothing—no number of marriages—would keep me from my rightful paradise."
"But that, la ffollette, would mean abandoning law and order for what Merlin would call the order of the kennel."
"Oh, burst it all, I don't mean I'd carry her off like a caveman, but the artificial marriage could be annulled and the rightful one substituted: and damn it all, I think the only clean thing of law and order, that you prate about, would be for the two real lovers to bolt. It's not that, but the other business is the wrong order."
Had Hugh la ffollette a generation ago been consumed like this? Was it from such fevered suffering that the calm distinguished knight of today had risen like the phoenix? Had his rectitude years ago lain in his love being the wife of her own true love, of whom she had never tired?
I took to attending social functions where I could observe Merlin. I often sat in the stalls when she occupied her box at some charitable theatrical gala. There she sat like a queen, an acknowledged beauty who eclipsed even Lady Pamela and others in her class. I looked for what Esmé proclaimed, and fancied I discerned it in her lovely eyes when she greeted me, though reason insisted that the alchemy in my veins might bemuse my vision.
Esmé hovered in the offing consumed by a hunger for which there was no cure but response and possession, neither of which was possible, and no alleviation but Time, and Time, as Lady Courtley said, seems to take so long in youth that it is heartless to recommend it. Esmé was barely -twenty-seven.
Was life composed only of these emotions; this hunger and frustration of denial, or satiety and boredom through gratification?
Esmé la ffollette was in the diplomatic service. His maiden flight had been in Madrid, thereafter a post in Paris from which he could frequently fly home to London. Ensued a session at the Foreign Office, where he was one of the bright young men of whom things were expected: but his tenure of preliminary office there could not much longer be extended and he was designed for drafting to one of the South American berths.
He gloomed and glared increasingly on Lord George's hearth-rug. The strain for him was growing insupportable. He was so haggard and restless that he would have wrung his mother's heart strings could she have seen him, but Sir Edwin la ffollette, K.C.B., was Governor of an oversea State, and he and his worthy lady missus busy opening stock shows, attending horse races and tea parties and mothers' meetings, and otherwise flattering the oversea citizens of the Empiah, and absent from England these good two years. Neither his uncle nor Lady Courtley seemed to notice what was the matter. When people achieve a well-ordered old age, safe in the cool reaches of the higher man, the lower man long ago outgrown, no doubt the disturbances of youth appear like a succession of teething rashes or growing pains. But I was rather anxious about Esmé and did not know to whom to turn. He owned a V.C. for flying work during the two last years of the war, which had included many exploits indicative of entire recklessness of life, and I did not hear with equanimity his threats to "end it all". "What is the good of life anyhow, where all but a few get a raw deal?" I recalled how near I had been to this way out of suffering in the case of a mere Maisie. If he would go to South America, action and responsibility would set well on its way the time cure. The only two people with the kind of influence to have him removed, to whom I had access, were his uncle and Lady Courtley, and to these I could not go with Esmé's tale.
But one never knows what fluke may change one's luck. One evening Esmé sat in Lord George's best chair mured in inspissated and silent dejection. I wished him further, as the final page proofs of Merlin's contribution to the gaiety of saving the Empiah awaited my attention. But such were the signs that I was not letting Esmé la ffollette out of my sight. My plan of campaign was to dine at some bright gaudy place with the din of a jazz band and a bottle of Cliquot to confuse us, thence to the broadest revue in town with all the drink I could inveigle into him during the intervals, thence to supper and a Midnight Folly, by which time I hoped the universal British comforter would have so operated that I could take him home for safe keeping till the morning.
I was drearily awaiting the time of the next move when Alfred Dud could be heard in altercation as to whether or not I was at home. The invader settled the point by bursting right in.
It was Michaud Seriatte, whose immediate business, as speedily announced, was to commit suicide upon Lord George's hearth-rug, which, though a little motheaten, did not merit such profanity. The young man's larger business in London was a visit to make pastel studies of the popular beauties, through which he was at present a new rage.
Michaud produced a photograph of Merlin from his breast-pocket, flourished it and kissed it right in the middle of his French, naturally marcelled beard. Esmé arose with a yell, "Don't be so putrid or I'll break your beastly neck."
"He has rather a hirsute idea of love, but he's a brother in distress," I murmured, my risibility on the verge of that explosion which had alienated Merlin at the time of the Cobbler's derangement.
"Love! Love! le bel amour! It is the same in all languages. Hein?" He held the photograph on high and gazed at it theatrically.
"Just so, the same in all languages, and more so in cats'," I murmered.
"You agree, that it is the same in all languages?"
"Mais oui," said I
"Cats! You mean le chat. Pourquoi le chat?"
"In this connexion, tom-cats," Esmé savagely elucidated.
"Because you caterwaul."
Esmé seized the photograph. I feared an international imbroglio.
"Monsieur Seriatte," I interposed, "I am pleased to see you, but why am I honoured by your confidence?"
"That is easy of explanation. The fevair burns toujours in my brain till I can no more endure it, and you whom she loves, you are a cold fish, monsieur, vous êtes, you are a mormon. You have in Paris a wife surpassing beauty, and here une maîtresse—"
"You dare use such a word!" Esmé menaced him.
"We must allow for monsieur's incursions into our language. I know that he would not wittingly bring discredit on the name of a lady."
"Non! Ma foi! I will show you fishes of the cold blood how a gentleman can die pour l'amour."
He had his fingers on something in his pocket suspiciously like a revolver. He, too, had been an ace of the flying service in the war, had endured more years of its nerve-racking brutality than had Esmé, and had two obsessions—the artistic as well as the Latin temperament.
I whispered a warning to Esmé. He took it violently, falling immediately upon the unprepared ally, and being more athletic, had soon gone through his pockets and produced, sure enough, a spiteful little toy loaded in all its chambers.
"Excuse me, monsieur," said Esmé, "but it was necessary." Esmé was now in command of the situation. It would take only time and the pressure of responsibility to put him on that road where his uncle was so esteemed an ornament. He offered the whisky and soda I had in readiness for him, to Seriatte. He pushed Seriatte into Lord George's vacant shair. "You play up to me," he muttered aside, and waded in.
"See here, Seriatte, I'm going to talk like a Dutch uncle and an ally to you. This is the way it is in England. No man would blow his brains out and bring such trouble upon an innocent lady like the one we honour."
Seriatte interposed something about his Latin blood. Esmé was upon him furiously, "That's all rot! we feel more keenly than you but we don't make such a noise about it, and we think too much of an innocent and beautiful lady to make a stench of scandal about her name."
"Yes," said I, "we are all in the same boat and must make the best of it."
"Comment, in the same boat?"
"Creatures of exacerbated nervous systems salvaged from the war middens of Europe."
"We all love the lady, but she doesn't love us, so are we to go about exposing our wounds for Piccadilly to bray at?"
"You, you love the lady?" he asked me.
"It will be easier for this argument to let it go at that," I murmured to Esmé. He nodded.
"And the lady does not love you?"
"Not at all, only as a sister."
"Mon Dieu! Mais comme vous êtes drôles, you English!" He brightened. "But if she does not love yet, she will soon, and it may be me, or you, or you." He indicated us in turn.
"She loves her husband."
"Son mari, un vieillard!"
"You never can account for the ladies' taste," said Esmé.
"La jeunesse! La beauté! L'amour! Allons! we shall not yet despair."
"We are brothers bound by the same sorrow," I said.
He agreed. "You have loved before?" I inquired.
He shrugged. "Peut-être, but nevair as now."
"Ah, the present is always the best, so let's pursue it in the future."
"Come with me. I will show you," he exclaimed.
Glad of action, we seized our hats and coats and went off almost at the double to his studio off Regent Street. Arrived there he threw off his hat and uncovered a small line drawing of Merlin.
"Mon ange! As I remember her in my dreams!" he exclaimed, closing his eyes and tilting his head.
Esmé and I stood transfixed by that inner beauty such as to ravish the senses of men in paradise, reproduced by this gifted creature. We became lost in reverie. I can only record my own. This foreigner perhaps was right to despise our piscine blood. Here had I been intermittently with Merlin for ten years, had known her at twenty-two. At twenty-five, that glorious age of maiden maturity, she had mothered me through the Maisie affair. Maisie! Merlin there fancy-free and untrammelled, and my father offering me a bribe! My respect for my father reinstated itself illuminatingly and completely in that moment.
Then Rosalita, beautiful glowing Rosalita! Ach, that what took me there should have been dependent on the dimples that rioted in her cheeks, the dark shade on her bowed upper lip, the ripe curve of her throat and jaw, the vital magnetism of her physical being! I could see it now dispassionately. A revolt had ensued against the greedy nymph that dwelt in her to devour a man alive, unsatisfied till it should have despoiled his self-mastery. This I could not see while fevered. I should be immune now. Rosalita's impatience of my defection would be a fence. And Rosalita was a respectable woman. She did not seek a satyr outside of marriage. She was no polyandrist: had she been it would have been more comfortable for her husband, did he not rebel against cuckolding. A choice of two evils, and we Englishmen have the reputation of bearing cuckoldry more amiably than any other men of equal prestige. Perhaps we simply ignore it. Ignoring difficulties is one method of surmounting them.
Esmé, paying respect to Michaud's artistic gifts, saluted him in an old Flying Corps manner. The generous nature of Michaud was much moved. He assumed his exquisite Parisian manners.
"This I shall give to him, as her eyes look like that for him only, and for you and me, mon cher Esmé, I shall make a replica each."
Esmé wrung his hand again, "By jove, Seriatte, that is ripping of you. So help me God, I shall keep it always."
Bereft of words I sat down and left it to the other two. There was a fine gesture in the artist's generosity to me. Michaud tendered Esmé the accolade. Esmé bore up under it, beard and all.
"Tell me," said Michaud, "why you English are cold comme les poissons, and then, you are not cold, but are like us?"
"We are not cold, it is merely that our emotions are powerfully insulated," I ventured.
"Le mot piste!" exclaimed Michaud. "And when we suffer together mon frère it is thus." He kissed me too on both cheeks and I bore it humbly, all vis having gone out of me in the final shock of revelation. I did not deserve this. This genius could portray the very soul of Merlin in a few strokes after a few odd hours' acquaintance, whereas I had been privileged for years to associate with a treasure and had turned it to ordinary purposes. Oh me, oh my! and now it was too late, and a stupid mix-up all round.
"Une spirituelle," said Seriatte replacing over the portrait a piece of exquisite fabric. He then showed us an almost finished study in oils of Pamela, remarking casually, "Une sensuelle."
We dined at a Chinese restaurant near by. We drank one toast standing in silence. In Esmé la ffollette's eyes there glowed a lamp of consecration. He was stiff and straight in the back and the lip. Alcohol, except that toast, was abjured. Depression had been clapped in irons. It was firm resolve, suffering that can become ecstasy, on that firm face. Michaud Seriatte saw it too. He requested the honour of doing a head of him. "Ce type anglais—très beau."
After the theatre we dropped into Midnight Foolishness and thence a walk all about the town and squares leaving Michaud at the Berkeley about three thirty, after which Esmé accompanied me home.
"Well, that's that!" he said, bashing his hat into Lord George's irresponsive chair and standing on the hearth-rug before the dead fire. "It's all over, but the long slow pull from now till eighty, and that's implacable as God, inexorable as Time. But I'm glad to know where I am. That French chap has given me a different perspective. At first when he came in here I despised him for a hysterical fool and could have broken his neck with relief. That yowling business! It made me sick. Good God, I thought, am I like that?"
"Yes, the peculiarity about l'amour is that it seems a unique and noble visitation in ourselves and in everyone else merely kinship with our feline brothers."
"Quite! And it seems to me that a fellow has to do one thing or the other; accept it as a spasmodic affliction, or, it his tastes lie that way, become un sensuel—go the pace like some of the fellows we know, and put on no airs about it. Or, if a fellow thinks he has this blessed soul we've been worrying about since the beginning, and wishes to justify the human intellect, he'll have to lift himself out of the gutter by shutting down on the demonstrations of what you call the kennel crowd. You know what I mean?"
"Well then, all this he-man, red-blooded, lid-off self-expression crowd may be justified in their sneers at other people, for all I know. As far as I can make it out, there's no reason at all for life, and people perhaps are right to get all they can out of the passing hour through their mortal senses. Let 'em rip, as long as they don't interfere with me. But all the same I think if we want to make another kind of experiment, we have the right to do so.
"What I mean is that Uncle Hugh knew what he was about when he chose his own line. It might jolly well be an adventure to dig out the other side of a man as he has done and keep an unrequited love as a luxury, free from sensual flurries. You can see what they end in. You've only got to contrast old Montraven and Brockington and a few of those hearties with Uncle Hugh to see how far they fall behind. Even the war and burning down Castle Kilbunion didn't unhorse Uncle Hugh."
I pondered Merlin's dictum that the only way to capture the power of some of the most precious intangibles available to human experience was by mastery of self in abstention.
Is renunciation the only way to sublimate passion so that it remains as a strength instead of a weakness? Only a rare Sir Galahad or Sir Hugh could know. The greedy normal man, grasping the decomposing body of appetite and letting the essence escape, is not sane and brave enough to make the discovery.
Sex obsession, so rarely sublime, so commonly ridiculous or repellent, so constantly ephemeral, can, in spite of all obscenities, on occasion transcend the flesh. But can it ever sustain its glory in continued consummation? Had Sir Hugh won his Ishbel Courtley a generation ago could the devils of familiarity and satiety have been banished?
If Esmé could win his Merlin: if Merlin could have her—whom? Ah, who was hers? Could what people suggested be true? Could it possibly? Merlin was of a strength and self-control unknown to herself. She would never admit it.
At any rate, the mistake lies in thinking that the power to sublimate a universal function into a high spiritual comradeship is common to all, whereas what awaits the majority is merely through habit to establish an appetite.
Here was Esmé's devotion, such as contradicts reason and experience and simply exists sometimes—notwithstanding all the coarse unbelief of the fleshly-minded when they see it at hand, and their superstitious worship of it when it is romanticized by distance in time and canonized.
Had Merlin reciprocated Esmé's passion I could have opened my heart to her about it, perhaps have helped her, but to mention it to her now would be cruelty. If I threw myself on her mercy, she couldn't help but be kind with her mother kindness, but would she respond? I hardly could think it. Her continence and honour were also above reality, and the prospect of causing Rosalita distress would cast a stain on a thing acceptable to her only if perfect harmony were possible.
Irritation! How could caring for such as I make a tragedy for Rosalita? But if Merlin could care for me, why not Rosalita? Wonder and humility!
I was called from the recess in my inner life by the voice of Esmé.
"That picture, I take off my hat to the little French chap after that. He has different ideas and is within his rights to act accordingly. But it's easy to see there will be plenty of others for him, and he'll make the same noise each time. These Latins dramatize themselves, but it's not in our psychology to do that: we have to insulate our emotions. Of course, if there was any hope of Merlin ever caring for me, I'd wait till I was a hundred on spec. But she cares for you, old man. Perhaps she doesn't know it herself, but she does, and you don't respond—you pretend?"
"Suppose it didn't occur to me till you dinned it in?"
"God, to think any man living could be so dull about Merlin!"
"As I was attempting to say, I have a beautiful wife, who cares for me, you say."
"Eating her heart out."
"Well then, I must take up the married man's burden. I shall not fall behind you, la ffollette. As you say, if a man has a soul above the beasts, he must demonstrate it. Let's lay a clean oblation on the altar of love and see what happens. It will be better to transmute l'amour into pure affection than to degrade it into lust. The perfume of old lavender may be epicene, but it's preferable to the odour of the kennel."
"There are a great many slips and burnings by the way."
"The world doesn't know the inward burnings; it sees only the results of the oblations."
"It would believe nothing but the burnings—would yap about complexes and repressions if it did, till we are long dead, or very old, which is the same thing."
"Or when we are old the world will pass us by as negligible and be unable to realize that we were ever capable of burnings—inward or otherwise—so what does it matter?"
"Well, I worship Merlin as the angels. She's unassailable, I know. Sometimes I've hoped against better belief that she wasn't. I thought—forgive me, Barraclough—once or twice that there might be something between you and her, that there was a chance of her being like others."
"Put that away from you! Such a thing never entered my head till you put it there."
"Forgive me, old man; to have thought it is one of my slips, that none but you shall ever know."
As I spoke I condemned myself for a hypocrite, for, singing in my being making spring of autumn, was the siren sonnet, "My love loves me, and I love her, and some day, somewhere, perchance...perchance..."
That was one of my slips that not even Esmé must know.
"I'll get out of England as soon as I can," said he.
Overcome by self-consciousness to realize that we had stripped to each other in the acknowledgment of the higher urge in human nature—a terrific breach of good form among Englishmen—we reddened apoplectically, but Esmé was really brave.
"You can sneer at me for a fool or a sissie or a sentimentalist lacking in red blood, or anything else you like, but after having the luck to know that Merlin lives upon the same earth, it seems the only decent thing for a fellow to do, and I mean to have a shot at it. Nighty-night! See you sometime soon, old rooster!"
And Esmé la ffollette had gone.
The next event was the arrival of my father in London. He was accompanied by my Lady Mother, which was an advent, for not casually did she forsake the luxurious cosiness of American houses for the bleak, chilblained discomfort of London homes, from October to April. My father was now indeed to be Sir Nigel, and preening his feathers a little thereby, he being a normal soul, while my mother was rapturously "My Lady".
My father was to go as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to one of the South American Republics, and mother had come home to see her family. My aunt was ecstatic. It was now, "My sister, Lady Barraclough", and "that dear clever nephew of mine, the author of Where the Ban is Lifted", and "my beautiful and original little friend, Lady la ffollette".
I thought of Esmé, fluent in Spanish, trained in Madrid, anxious to go far away out of England and attain the higher man, and who would be a mainstay to my father. I decided on a little dinner in Lady George's flat to further Esmé's ends and my own inclination. I decided on it, I can't say I gave it exactly, being so constituted that when I announce a personal sociable my women friends take charge and all I have to do is meander through a gathering which people are good enough to describe as delightful or informal. As my friends will break other engagements to accept my invitations, they must mean it, or be singularly altruistic towards my convivial efforts.
Merlin generally officiated in London. Charming coeds used to be equally kind in college. On this occasion nothing could stay my Lady Mother, and with Mrs Dud to administer and Alfred to minister and my Plenipotentiary Father to see about the fermented and spirituous liquors, it promised to equal on one side those crushes successful for the gastric fare. My mother suggested, very naturally, that Rosalita should be a member of the dinner party, and as it was six days distant, I forthwith went to Paris to fetch her over. Rosalita turned dog.
"I'm not going on inspection parade," said she.
I pointed out that as she had known my father and mother well in the U.S.A. and was great friends with Merlin, this was an exaggeration, but she said, "You are such a cold fish you couldn't possibly understand my present mood if I explained it to you. Besides, a person who has to have things explained could never be simpatico."
"Don't you think you're drawing the long bow of your Spanish ancestry a little too long," I suggested, and thereby incensed my wife, for which I was sorry, being a man of peace and goodwill.
I returned without her, and as an excuse said she was suffering a bilious attack, which made her apprehensive of the Channel.
"Nonsense, son," said mother. "It's a good thing you aren't in the diplomatic corps. You must have been untactful and let your real feelings appear."
"What on earth do you mean by real feelings?"
"You had better ask Rosalita, though I'm sure she wouldn't tell you."
Women are the very devil with their insinuations. I don't believe they know they are making them half the time. More tiresome than their alleged intuitions.
"I'm not going to be shorn of such a decorative daughter-in-law as Rosalita. I shall go myself to Paris if I have time before I leave." My mother abounded in such generous gestures at present and employed them as part of the décor of her title.
My father took in Lady la ffollette. He had earned this honour long ago by a discernment which stupidly I had not inherited. When first seeing her on Marken Street, put to the base purpose of nurse to my aberration, and unaffectedly claiming to be a cook by profession, Sir Nigel had perceived at once a lady and an enchantress. He certainly deserved to be whispering to her now, admiration in his eyes and delight and tenderness in the slant of his dignified shoulders, in the days when she wore an ancestral title on her name and occasionally an ancestral tiara on her head. In past days I had had the density to disparage my father, to suspect him of mere ravening when he had been exercising connoisseurship. I felt like prostrating myself before him crying, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son." True, he had not been immediately open-hearted towards my desire to write, but, considering my previous disqualifications, what wonder? An ebullition now would incline him to fear a return of mental indisposition. The safest role was to keep my thoughts inside my head and my emotions inside my breast.
I heard Merlin saying to him, "Isn't it thrilling to be a plenipotentiary; and Sir Nigel is delicious, Sir Nigel! It's so nice to have a title while you're young and beautiful, with all your hair, waving in a crest, just like Niggeh's, and no middle-aged spread."
Sir Hugh took in my mother. I had Pamela, and Esmé my aunt. With her enamelled social experience, she was a stabilizing refuge for a young man distraught by the presence of one woman whom he adored with abandon without response, and of another who desired him and whose pursuit he eluded.
This was an occasion for the genealogical story of our family. Instigated by my self-satisfied Lady Mother, my Plenipotentiary Father trotted it out. The seat of our prestige and pedigree—which every true Englishman must have no matter how remote—is the house of Halt-whistle and Barraclough. Three or four generations back the old boy at the head of the clan had been a twin. The younger twin was an original and an oddity. Perhaps I took after him. At any rate, he has my posthumous fellow feeling. He married beneath him as normal males will, and that was why my father had to make himself. The progenitor resented that because he put his nose into this world twenty minutes later than my Lord Halt-whistle and Barraclough, he should have been just plain Barraclough. He maintained that his brother was hogging it to sign himself foolishly Haltwhistle and Barra-dough, which no man unless a Siamese twin could possibly be. He set up a claim for Barraclough as the right of the younger twin. He acted upon this thesis even to insisting upon being addressed as Lord Barraclough and his wife as Lady Barraclough. There had been ructions galore and a court case, which made good stories at the time, and a pleasing family legend for us now, and the explanation of why both my father and myself, as our grandfathers ahead of us, had been named Nigel Halt-whistle Barraclough.
"And now," said my mother beamingly, "there's at last a Lady Barraclough as well as a Lady Haltwhistle, as the old gentleman of individuality long ago tried to establish."
"A very minor ladyship, my dear," expostulated my father.
"Yes, but the jolly part of a ladyship is that it sounds just as grand for a knight's wife as for a marquess's," insisted Lady Barraclough.
When my mother was elated by the friendship she was ripening with the great Sir Hugh—the most distinguished living Anglo-Irish statesman, as the American papers proclaimed him—and my father was mellow with enjoyment of Lady la ffollette, I fired my diplomatic pop-gun.
"Say, dad, why don't you take Esmé with you to South America? He speaks Spanish like a hidalgo and is the greatest living coming ambassador."
It was out of this that later, making a gesture in the eyes of Lady la ffollette, my father cordially invited Esmé to accompany him in a desirable post. Esmé accepted instantly.
"Oh, dear, you're taking away the divinest dancer in London. What am I to do? Can't you make that indifferent son of yours practise more," said Merlin.
"Ah, Lady la ffollette, if I could only stay and dance with you myself, seeing my son's not worthy of his opportunities! But I shall dance with you tonight at Piranelo's, if I may, and every available night till I go."
"Then you must give me the first dance, Sir Nigel," she said, prettily.
"And the last and most of those in the middle," he replied beamingly.
Thus the party enlarged into dancing at Piranelo's, whither we went by taxi, my mother and father, my aunt and Sir Hugh in one, and myself, Merlin, Pamela and Esmé in a second. I don't remember Pamela's absence when the talk about Esmé as accomplice to a plenipotentiary was on. She may have postponed her emotion for this moment, as the actresses of the boards have nothing to impart to those of adjoining camps.
"Well, that's settled, and I'm more than grateful to you Barraclough for shoving me off," said Esmé in the taxi. "We get away before the end of the month, don't we?"
"So you really mean to go, and leave us, and no joke?" said Merlin.
"Rather! It's only a matter of having Sir Nigel's appointment confirmed—a mere form."
"I'm not grateful to Niggeh for sending you away, nor to you for seeming so glad to go," said she.
"Nor I," added Pamela. That sophisticated, amour-worn, practising siren burst into tears in the taxi and rocked with sobs. Was it genuine grief? I was dithering between amazement and my own tendency to hysteria in face of a woman's sobs. Esmé looked uncomfortable.
"It's no secret that I've been hanging about awaiting the first vacancy."
"You and Esmé had better walk."
Esmé jumped out with relieved alacrity and I meekly followed him. This command of Merlin's put us a little behind the others in arriving at Piranelo's, and when I sighted the latest of Britain's Envoys Extraordinary he was leading Pamela into a dance. It looked as if Lady la ffollette were a greater diplomat than even Sir Nigel. She and Sir Hugh were enchanting my Lady Mother. I seized Merlin, fearful lest she should discover the wild commotion of my heart to be so near hers, but she became absorbed in the sympathetic deviations of my feet.
"I think it would be safer and more original if I stood on your boots, Niggeh old grub, and you flopped me around that way."
To keep the ball going, I invited Pamela to the next dance, and she steered me through it with the competence of those young women who are employed to encourage the ganders to dance at smart hotels. My father had his reward with Merlin. He did so well that I was proud of him, actually and symbolically. His gyration around this delightful lady was neither the antics of a senescent jackdaw, nor the unseemliness of a Cobbler above himself, but the controlled stimulation which a connoisseur of women enjoyed in the presence of one who did credit to his judgment.
But Esmé could not be entirely thwarted of his own, and many eyes turned towards this pair, graceful and skilled. The eyes of Merlin were bright with health and enjoyment of the music and the rhythm, for she was a born dancer, but the eyes of Esmé were those of a brave man renouncing paradise, and set on that road indifferent as God, inexorable as Time. Michaud Seriatte opportunely appeared to make conversational camouflage with our group and to await an opportunity of dancing with Merlin, but she and Esmé totally disappeared and the French gentleman gracefully did his duty by Pamela and also by my mother and my aunt. There were others to do likewise in that throng where several of the Piccadilly cliques were known to each other, and Merlin and Esmé's prolonged disappearance was not noticeable except to me, and Pamela, and Seriatte. Hein?
I can only suspect what passed between Merlin and her nephew-in-law. Neither was confidential, though I gave every lead when opportunity occurred. Did he confess his love, his renunciation: did she confess that she had one? Had she one? For whom? Ah, to know that! What of self-abnegation?
It seemed to me that out of that interview must have come the surprising announcement that a marriage had been arranged between the Lady Pamela Maud Clutterbuck-Leeper, daughter of the Earl and Countess of Mal-cartes of Curdish Square, and grand-daughter of the Earl Montraven of Tintwistle; and Esmé Hugh, eldest son of Sir Edwin and Lady la ffollette, at present holding gubnatorial office in the antipodes, and nephew and heir presumptive of Sir Hugh la ffollette of Castle Kilbunion, Ireland, and Snippington Manor in the Home Counties.
The wedding was to be immediately before the young people sailed. There followed the record of Esmé's connexion with my father and with his distinguished uncle and his beautiful and clever young aunt-in-law. Also followed many comments on the beauty of the bride elect, a family habit inherited from her mother and her grandmother, the duchess, and of her relation to ambassadors, her uncle being one of the most distinguished of Britain's servants in the field.
Paragraphers went further and hoped that Mr Nigel Barraclough would visit his family in South America, where his lovely and gifted young Spanish wife would be persona grata, and from whence he should give his admirers portrayals of Spanish American life as inimitable as those of the South Seas with which he had made his name. Ho! Ho!
My aunt purred with resuscitation to be in it all after idleness to neurasthenia at her club, though she was half frantic with the errands upon which my mother drove her, this the first work she had undergone since the war Lad shortened my grandfather's life at the age of eighty-five. The chivalrous knights of Piccadilly by word of mouth put an unmannerly light on the good luck of Lady Pamela at getting herself so well ranged in spite of all, and whispered and winked obscenities about the la ffollette predisposition towards dream amour.
Esmé requested me to support him at the altar, rather unexpectedly, seeing I was but a recent friend, but it gave me the footing to venture, "Why this sudden and uncalled-for descent into marriage?"
"A man must manipulate his destiny in the way that seems best to him," he replied absently.
"I think all the love of a certain kind is on Pamela's side," I tried with Merlin, "and I don't suppose it will be very lasting even on hers."
"It will be lasting enough."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Lasting enough to provide a la ffollette heir."
"You mean one that he can be sure is a la ffollette."
"That always is simply by courtesy of the woman. Men are helpless," said she. "Besides, as Freda says, Pamela had to be provided for. In her circle women of her type aren't sent to reformatories or let sink to the gutter. After all, why should they be penalized for a virility matching men's? It often gives them the strength to hold high places of power through men."
As Merlin would not volunteer, I trod flat-footedly, driven by curiosity, "I don't believe Esmé would have thought of marrying her but for you pressing it upon him."
She did not deny her influence. "He'll be all right. Pamela is easy to love. Remember how nice she was to poor Daddy at Snippington Manor. She'll have full play for her social education at a Latin Embassy and he'll grow fond of her in time. Better that than to be raving for her now and quickly bored; and it seems men must be one thing or the other."
"I don't know why you should say that. If none other, there's the example of Sir Hugh himself, the story insisted upon by yourself. Esmé reminds me of his uncle."
"Perhaps by marrying Pamela, Esmé is carrying out, in another form, a similar tribute to knightly romance."
There was matter for rumination in this, and her mood withheld confidence and discouraged further inquisitiveness.
In pedestrian offices of nurse to me, she had been subjected to exhibitions of what she termed the ravening half of men. Further confession would disclose me as a creature of one woman after another like my fellows, one who had needed her succour with a Maisie—though Maisie was wonderful of her kind and above most kinds—and later her understanding with Rosalita. I wasn't such a Piccadillian prize ass as now to offer her a bound and shop-worn adoration.
Esmé's marriage, though unaccountable, was comforting to me. He and I were heirs-apparent to Merlin's affections. Glad thought that Esmé was erecting a barrier between himself and possibility. After all, Sir Hugh was old according to the calendar. Men of his age were dying daily. With her robust temperament Rosalita surely could not continue loving me indefinitely. Surrounded by those who desired her and who were themselves desirable, one day she might put me in the position of no gentleman unless I released her? I bestirred myself to commend the nuptials of Esmé and Pamela and to lend a hand as a man can in such a crisis.
Once I had idly wondered how Merlin would act should the great seizure in her case embrace a married man. Now I was urgently curious. Was I witnessing that battle now? Were her inhibitions so ingrained, her honesty about poaching so fundamental, that only subconsciously would she love illicitly? Would she suspect my state? In another's case she had flouted the idea of a woman of intelligence being obtuse to "a love like that".
I pondered the evidence line by line, connoting each word like a detective. Sir Hugh had come to me saying that rumour attributed Merlin to be fond of me. I went right back to the days of Maisie. Merlin had said:
"I'm not hankering for marriage like some, yet I could marry you myself quite agreeably."
"It's most astonishing. Here you are, with all the most delightful qualities and nice enough for anyone to marry..."
"I have never been able to fathom to this day why she [Maisie] did not fall in love with you when she had the chance."
I believe I have made a good psychological dab at the reason why I did not fall in love with Merlin when chances gaped for me. A man learns how to live only by living and by the time he has accumulated useful information it is too late to act upon it in this world. More particularly does this apply to the life of the emotions. I could see in the aft light cast by experience and experiment that one's greatest, most inspiring life partner would be, for example, Merlin. There was in her a promise of abiding personal enchantment when the electrifying fever should have abated; but this knowledge had come only through experience of the harepipes, wide of spiritual and mental affinity, into which the fever can lead one. To escape from those traps now would mean repudiation of obligations of fundamental social importance.
But the clues lured me on:
"You are very dear to me," I had said to her, still in the delusion of honest brotherhood.
"Am I, Niggeh dear? So are you to me," she had responded—was it in similarly honest unreality?
"When I came back to London after seeing you married it was as bleak as...there was nothing for me at all...and when you went away after you were married I felt too desperately lonely."
To my suggestion of her affections becoming later engaged she had said quickly, "Not if they were engaged on someone not free."
"Someone not free"—could that be me? Palpitating possibility!
And Sir Hugh in considering the danger of her affections becoming engaged later had said, "She assured me they never could again, such a thing...had come without reciprocation."
This seemed more like inhibition than subconsciousness. Was this a confession of unrequited love? Intoxicating combination! My damnable stupidity and non-inflammability!
But all the same Merlin's self-control was such that I could not be sure. In spirit as well as in deed she would carry her travail alone and high.
Ah, to discover without shattering the present fine edifice of affection! The present edifice was too precious to risk. But the sweet delusion remained to drug the blood. Could I be sure of that glad unlawful secret to lock in my consciousness, even fathoms down, I could draw on it for sustenance and imitate the role of Sir Hugh with assurance.
Thus would we trick our spiritual self for which no trick is acceptable and from which all subterfuge must be swept before the sum of Truth—implacable as God, inexorable as Time—will come straight in the soul of man, and without which he is not man but one of the beasts that raven.
Rosalita was demanding my presence in Paris, but as she had pettishly refused to come to my dinner party, or so far, to pay me a visit at all in London, I had deferred another trip to Paris till Christmas. My mother had not found time to go there before returning to New York, thence to South America.
Rosalita's accusations of coldness were beginning to have a stultifying effect on me. Dear me! Dear me! Must I feel armed and resistant against my wife?
I took to walking. In the dull grey slush of advancing autumn, ugh! how dreary it was.
Merlin seemed to me to be thinner, and I fancied rather avoided me. She was now seldom on Lower Crooke Street. She and Sir Hugh and Lady Courtley spent all their time at Snippington Manor and spoke of going abroad for the winter.
I walked and walked.
The satisfaction in having found my métier seemed to be waning, and how to orientate myself a second time I knew not. All philosophies fail a man in need. So I walked and walked. And in every letter from Paris was a plaint of my calorific faultiness. So I walked and walked. Till a man's legs fail him at least he has this form of retreat.
One afternoon I returned from slopping about in a weeping fog in Battersea Park, thankful to have walked myself to a state where it would be pleasant to sit down and rest, and perhaps even possible to catch up a little of the arrears in sleep. I inserted my key noiselessly in the lock with the intention of stealing up the as yet unlighted stairs to the big chair in my bedroom, where I could turn on a gas fire and hide, even from the Duds.
I was met by signs of invasion—umbrella, raincoat and goloshes in the hall, footsteps above. I reconnoitred with my ears, and Merlin's voice met me clear and true. She was never a whisperer nor nudger. Celestial music to my ears, but I was restrained from rushing up with whoops of welcome by the realization that she was not alone. Those goloshes were not hers. She never wore such things, nor do I recall her in a raincoat. She pinned her faith to umbrellas, many sizes too large, and segregated herself under them. She maintained that no male creature could hold an umbrella so that it didn't make a runnel with her ear as a dam. As she was not tall enough to hold an umbrella over an inferior creature who was generally superior in altitude, he had perforce to remain apart. She took a mischievous delight in subjecting the Alarics and Almerics to the necessity of stooping to peep under her silken roof, but when she did the same to me I considered it going too far. As Guy used to say with his indulgent laugh, "When Merlin puts up her blooming old gamp you might as well go home and leave her to herself."
I had met her one day on Piccadilly with Michaud Seriatte in this umbrella dance, which he was taking as the coquetry of rumour, that being his obsession.
I knew now what was the matter with me. I was suffering an accumulated hunger for Merlin, for the sun, for freedom and inspiration once again to light my consciousness. I wanted to get away from the grey slush of sooty rain to those parts of the world saturated with heat, and once again to drive across the plains on a day breathless and palpitant under a brazen triumphant sun to reach old Coolibah's waterbag!
I had time to think thus as I stood on the landing, chary of compromising myself with the unwelcome invader.
"It's just by good luck I happened to be here. I haven't been for weeks, and just came about some proofs," said Merlin. The sound of sudden sobbing followed, and unnerved me.
"There, there, darling! You must be perishing and seasick from that dreary old Channel. Come and lie down before the fire. Mrs Dud will make you a nice hot drink."
"But my husband, where is my husband?" wailed the voice of Rosalita. "I want him."
Panic made me his own.
"I expect he's pottering around somewhere and will be here any minute. Did he know you were coming?"
"What a lovely surprise for him!"
Rosalita sobbed more wildly. Fright paralysed me. "Dear! Dear! You're all upset."
"I believe he's run away on purpose. He's deserted me for months. I'm going to have a baby, and he doesn't care."
"Rosalita, darling! Is it true? How lovely! Come to the couch, there's a pet."
"But where's my husband?"
"Does he know this?"
"No. I haven't told him. He doesn't care."
"But he will when he knows."
"If he cared he ought to know by instinct."
"Oh, no! Poor dears, how could they know. They haven't any sense that way. When they have they're not so nice."
"He won't care."
"You just wait and see. He'll he dithering with excitement and joy."
"Do you think he will?" The voice craved reassurance, and was a reproach to me.
"Oh, yes! Nothing makes men so conceited. They just go off their pannikin. They're so childish about their powers."
I have rarely come so near to fainting. I felt worse than at any time under bombardment. This carrying-on the race is the plague. Never have I felt for my unfortunate father as I did in that flashing moment. Poor man, what he must have suffered with such an unresponsive brute as I—up till now. Well, like a drowning man, I felt if I was spared it should be different in future. My one satisfaction was that my sister had come first and I hoped the shock had worn off the fatherhood business a little by the time of my arrival.
"Do you really think he'll care?" pleaded Rosalita.
"I don't think. I know. He's rather a simple childish dear, though he thinks himself so involved."
"Don't you think he's hard and cold?"
"Oh no! He's as soft as boiled turnips. You just wait." Rosalita was right. I was cold as Greenland and hard as petrifaction.
"Do you think he'll come soon?"
"I hope not till we're all ready for him. This is such a grand occasion, we must have the stage all set. You're going to be the centre of things like a queen, and he'll buzz around like a bumble-bee in a bottle."
My panic deepened. To face my wife I should have had to be dragged in between the Duds. I might have fallen sobbing on Merlin. I felt now the funk which I have seen annihilate many a poor fellow awaiting the signal to bombard, and from which till now I had been immune. I had been singularly cold and careless under fire, filled with an exalted recklessness. I cannot excuse or explain. I do not care to. I merely record the symptoms. Freudians and red-bloods, he-men and cavemen can make what they like of it.
Preservation of decency demanded flight. Thanks to the inefficient fiend who presides over the destinies of men on this plane, I stole out undiscovered and kept away from the line of vision of my windows, leaving the field to Merlin—adorable, warm-hearted Merlin. She would not balk. I would joyfully have laid my life under an omnibus for her in that hour could it have done her any good, but I was terrified of Rosalita as I have never been of woman.
I sloshed forth into the park. I had its dreary slop to myself, a place seemly for one in a trap from which all hope had fled.
My own beautiful Merlin—no, mine never again! There she was across a gulf in the heaven where "For the Brave" is inscribed on the portals, while I shivered afar among the damned defaulters.
For of all the virtues the greatest is courage, and it has several facets. There is a dashing spontaneous bravery that is recklessness and which can hold the gamble of superhuman adventure against irreparable disaster; there is a fine courage that weighs the cost and can make the final sacrifice of life itself: but the long, slow, cold, dull, drudging courage needed for the long, slow, grimly drudging days is the greatest courage, and its name is fortitude.
I knew all this. At the Front I had rescued better men than I from worse attacks of funk than this. I was sane enough to know I should be all right by and by. I should return and begin treading that relentless road of fortitude, implacable as God, inexorable as Time. That loathsome small red object—son or daughter—would one day entwine its fingers in the egotism that was myself and become an object of vainglory. I was human, and I had seen bachelors of harder shell than I had ever been succumb. But for the present I must flee. Only so could I maintain the decencies with Merlin and Rosalita.
I bethought me of a shuffling expedient to gain time. I could have a cheque cashed at the club and take a few things in a suit-case from there. I would send Mrs Dud a telegram:
GONE TO PARIS WILL WRITE.
This would obviate wounding Rosalita. It could be inferred that I had hastened to her following her last letter, and Merlin was there to place an inspiring interpretation on my antics. Rosalita and she would be radiantly awaiting to surprise me on my return.
I had made a sister and nurse of her in days gone by. She was now bravely filling the part of aunt-in-waiting.
I actually set out for Paris. On arrival there, finding my wife had crossed I could return by the next train, having made a decent story of a decently devoted husband, and having conquered my panic—somewhat.
I regained poise en route. There was now a matronly wall for ever between Merlin and me on the romantic road. She was not one to accept romance from any old father of another woman's children. What in this contingency mattered those treasured words and phrases evidential of romantic love? Decency and common sense wiped them off the slate. There was no refuge for me now but Fortitude and Time. And Fortitude is as constant, as relentless as Time, and of Time one who knew it long and used it well had said: "Time seems to take so long in youth that it is heartless preaching to bring it forward as the only assuagement."
I felt as Merlin when she had sobbed from a bereaved heart: "These things cannot mean so much to the old, they are so beautifully near the end, but I might have to live another fifty years without him."
Romance grew dim in my consciousness even as the long enticing road across the plains beyond Kidgee with its long gentle slope towards the Government Dam in days palpitant and breathless at 105 degrees in the shade of coolibah and needlewood. Like Guy Giltinane, junior, it was a comfort that had been.
But no! It was not so altogether desolate. Merlin was removed from me on but one facet of existence. She still could be mine by employment of that high formula for the brave. I could wear it in my heart till I became a mellow and gracious conqueror of carnal man like Sir Hugh la ffollette, whom no disaster could now unhorse.
I hung out a banner in that secret place where a man lives alone and rides to mortal combat with dragons of the flesh. Under the device that was mine ran the legend:
PRESERVATION OF THINGS
MOST PRECIOUS TO THE HUMAN SOUL
SOMETIMES LIES IN RENUNCIATION.
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