Author of "Potterism"
Boni and Liveright Publishers New York
TO MY MOTHER DRIVING GAILY THROUGH THE ADVENTUROUS MIDDLE YEARS
I. NEVILLE'S BIRTHDAY II. MRS. HILARY'S BIRTHDAY III. FAMILY LIFE IV. ROOTS V. SEAWEED VI. JIM VII. GERDA VIII. NAN IX. THE PACE X. PRINCIPLES XI. THAT WHICH REMAINS XII. THE MOTHER XIII. THE DAUGHTER XIV. YOUTH TO YOUTH XV. THE DREAM XVI. TIME XVII. THE KEY
'As to that,' said Mr. Cradock, 'we may say that all ages are dangerous to all people, in this dangerous life we live.'
'Reflecting how, at the best, human life on this minute and perishing planet is a mere episode, and as brief as a dream....'
Trivia: Logan Pearsall Smith.
Neville, at five o'clock (Nature's time, not man's) on the morning of her birthday, woke from the dream-broken sleep of summer dawns, hot with the burden of two sheets and a blanket, roused by the multitudinous silver calling of a world full of birds. They chattered and bickered about the creepered house, shrill and sweet, like a hundred brooks running together down steep rocky places after snow. And, not like brooks, and strangely unlike birds, like, in fact, nothing in the world except a cuckoo clock, a cuckoo shouted foolishly in the lowest boughs of the great elm across the silver lawn.
Neville turned on her face, cupped her small, pale, tanned face in her sunburnt hands, and looked out with sleepy violet eyes. The sharp joy of the young day struck into her as she breathed it through the wide window. She shivered ecstatically as it blew coldly onto her bare throat and chest, and forgot the restless birthday bitterness of the night; forgot how she had lain and thought "Another year gone, and nothing done yet. Soon all the years will be gone, and nothing ever will be done." Done by her, she, of course, meant, as all who are familiar with birthdays will know. But what was something and what was nothing, neither she nor others with birthdays could satisfactorily define. They have lived, they have eaten, drunk, loved, bathed, suffered, talked, danced in the night and rejoiced in the dawn, warmed, in fact, both hands before the fire of life, but still they are not ready to depart. For they are behindhand with time, obsessed with so many worlds, so much to do, the petty done, the undone vast. It depressed Milton when he turned twenty-three; it depresses all those with vain and ambitious temperaments at least once a year. Some call it remorse for wasted days, and are proud of it; others call it vanity, discontent or greed, and are ashamed of it. It makes no difference either way.
Neville, flinging it off lightly with her bedclothes, sprang out of bed, thrust her brown feet into sand shoes, her slight, straight, pyjama-clad body into a big coat, quietly slipped into the passage, where, behind three shut doors, slept Rodney, Gerda and Kay, and stole down the back stairs to the kitchen, which was dim and blinded, blue with china and pale with dawn, and had a gas stove. She made herself some tea. She also got some bread and marmalade out of the larder, spread two thick chunks, and munching one of them, slipped out of the sleeping house into the dissipated and riotous garden.
Looking up at the honeysuckle-buried window of the bedroom of Gerda, Neville nearly whistled the call to which Gerda was wont to reply. Nearly, but not quite. On the whole it was a morning to be out alone in. Besides, Neville wanted to forget, for the moment, about birthdays, and Gerda would have reminded her.
Going round by the yard, she fetched Esau instead, who wouldn't remind her, and whose hysterical joy she hushed with a warning hand.
Across the wet and silver lawn she sauntered, between the monstrous shadows of the elms, her feet in the old sand shoes leaving dark prints in the dew, her mouth full of bread and marmalade, her black plait bobbing on her shoulders, and Esau tumbling round her. Across the lawn to the wood, cool and dim still, but not quiet, for it rang with music and rustled with life. Through the boughs of beeches and elms and firs the young day flickered gold, so that the bluebell patches were half lit, like blue water in the sun, half grey, like water at twilight. Between two great waves of them a brown path ran steeply down to a deep little stream. Neville and Esau, scrambling a little way upstream, stopped at a broad swirling pool it made between rocks. Here Neville removed coat, shoes and pyjamas and sat poised for a moment on the jutting rock, a slight and naked body, long in the leg, finely and supplely knit, with light, flexible muscles—a body built for swiftness, grace and a certain wiry strength. She sat there while she twisted her black plait round her head, then she slipped into the cold, clear, swirling pool, which in one part was just over her depth, and called to Esau to come in too, and Esau, as usual, didn't, but only barked.
One swim round is enough, if not too much, as everyone who knows sunrise bathing will agree. Neville scrambled out, discovered that she had forgotten the towel, dried herself on her coat, resumed her pyjamas, and sat down to eat her second slice of bread and marmalade. When she had finished it she climbed a beech tree, swarming neatly up the smooth trunk in order to get into the sunshine, and sat on a broad branch astride, whistling shrilly, trying to catch the tune now from one bird, now from another.
These, of course, were the moments when being alive was enough. Swimming, bread and marmalade, sitting high in a beech tree in the golden eye of the morning sun—that was life. One flew then, like a gay ship with the wind in its sails, over the cold black bottomless waters of misgiving. Many such a June morning Neville remembered in the past.... She wondered if Gerda and if Kay thus sailed over sorrow, too. Rodney, she knew, did. But she knew Rodney better, in some ways, than she knew Gerda and Kay.
To think suddenly of Rodney, of Gerda and of Kay, sleeping in the still house beyond the singing wood and silver garden, was to founder swiftly in the cold, dark seas, to be hurt again with the stabbing envy of the night. Not jealousy, for she loved them all too well for that. But envy of their chances, of their contacts with life. Having her own contacts, she wanted all kinds of others too. Not only Rodney's, Gerda's and Kay's, but those of all her family and friends. Conscious, as one is on birthdays, of intense life hurrying swiftly to annihilation, she strove desperately to dam it. It went too fast. She looked at the wet strands of black hair now spread over her shoulders to dry in the sun, at her strong, supple, active limbs, and thought of the days to come, when the black hair should be grey and the supple limbs refuse to carry her up beech trees, and when, if she bathed in the sunrise, she would get rheumatism. In those days, what did one do to keep from sinking in the black seas of regret? One sat by the fire, or in the sunlit garden, old and grey and full of sleep—yes, one went to sleep, when one could. When one couldn't, one read. But one's eyes got tired soon—Neville thought of her grandmother—and one had to be read aloud to, by someone who couldn't read aloud. That wouldn't be enough to stifle vain regrets; only rejoicing actively in the body did that. So, before that time came, one must have slain regret, crushed that serpent's head for good and all.
But did anyone ever succeed in doing this? Rodney, who had his full, successful, useful, interesting life; Rodney, who had made his mark and was making it; Rodney, the envy of many others, and particularly the envy of Neville, with the jagged ends of her long since broken career stabbing her; Rodney from time to time burned inwardly with scorching ambitions, with jealousies of other men, with all the heats, rancours and troubles of the race that is set before us. He had done, was doing, something, but it wasn't enough. He had got, was getting, far,—but it wasn't far enough. He couldn't achieve what he wanted; there were obstacles everywhere. Fools hindered his work; men less capable than he got jobs he should have had. Immersed in politics, he would have liked more time for writing; he would have liked a hundred other careers besides his own, and could have but the one. (Gerda and Kay, still poised on the threshold of life, still believed that they could indeed have a hundred.) No, Rodney was not immune from sorrow, but at least he had more with which to keep it at bay than Neville. Neville had no personal achievements; she had only her love for Rodney, Gerda and Kay, her interest in the queer, enchanting pageant of life, her physical vigours (she could beat any of the rest of them at swimming, walking, tennis or squash) and her active but wasted brain. A good brain, too; she had easily and with brilliance passed her medical examinations long ago—those of them for which she had had time before she had been interrupted. But now a wasted brain; squandered, atrophied, gone soft with disuse. Could she begin to use it now? Or was she forever held captive, in deep woods, between the two twilights?
"I am in deep woods, Between the two twilights. Over valley and hill I hear the woodland wave Like the voice of Time, as slow, The voice of Life, as grave, The voice of Death, as still...."
The voices, the young loud clear voices of Gerda and of Kay, shrilled down from the garden, and Esau yapped in answer. They were calling her. They had probably been to wake her and had found her gone.
Neville smiled (when she smiled a dimple came in one pale brown cheek) and swung herself down from the beech. Kay and Gerda were of enormous importance; the most important things in life, except Rodney; but not everything, because nothing is ever everything in this so complex world.
When she came out of the wood into the garden, now all golden with morning, they flung themselves upon her and called her a sneak for not having wakened them to bathe.
"You'll be late for breakfast," they chanted. "Late on your forty-third birthday."
They each had an arm round her; they propelled her towards the house. They were lithe, supple creatures of twenty and twenty-one. Between them walked Neville, with her small, pointed, elfish face, that was sensitive to every breath of thought and emotion like smooth water wind-stirred. With her great violet eyes brooding in it under thin black brows, and her wet hair hanging in loose strands, she looked like an ageless wood-dryad between two slim young saplings. Kay was a little like her in the face, only his violet eyes were short-sighted and he wore glasses. Gerda was smaller, fragile and straight as a wand, with a white little face and wavy hair of pure gold, bobbed round her thin white neck. And with far-set blue eyes and a delicate cleft chin and thin straight lips. For all she looked so frail, she could dance all night and return in the morning cool, composed and exquisite, like a lily bud. There was a look of immaculate sexless purity about Gerda; she might have stood for the angel Gabriel, wide-eyed and young and grave. With this wide innocent look she would talk unabashed of things which Neville felt revolting. And she, herself, was the product of a fastidious generation and class, and as nearly sexless as may be in this besexed world, which however is not, and can never be, saying much. Kay would do the same. They would read and discuss Freud, whom Neville, unfairly prejudiced, found both an obscene maniac and a liar. They might laugh with her at Freud when he expanded on that complex, whichever it is, by which mothers and daughters hate each other, and fathers and sons—but they both all the same took seriously things which seemed to Neville merely loathsome imbecilities. Gerda and Kay didn't, in point of fact, find so many things either funny or disgusting as Neville did; throwing her mind back twenty years, Neville tried to remember whether she had found the world as funny and as frightful when she was a medical student as she did now; on the whole she thought not. Boys and girls are, for all their high spirits, creatures of infinite solemnities and pomposities. They laugh; but the twinkling irony, mocking at itself and everything else, of the thirties and forties, they have not yet learnt. They cannot be gentle cynics; they are so full of faith and hope, and when these are hurt they turn savage. About Kay and Gerda there was a certain splendid earnestness with regard to life. Admirable creatures, thought Neville, watching them with whimsical tenderness. They had nothing to do with the pre-war, dilettante past, the sophisticated gaiety of the young century. Their childhood had been lived during the great war, and they had emerged from it hot with elemental things, discussing life, lust, love, politics and social reform, with cool candour, intelligent thoroughness and Elizabethan directness. They wouldn't mind having passions and giving them rein; they wouldn't think it vulgar, or even tedious, to lead loose lives. Probably, in fact, it wasn't; probably it was Neville, and the people who had grown up with her, who were overcivilized, too far from the crude stuff of life, the monotonies and emotionalisms of Nature. And now Nature was taking her rather startling revenge on the next generation.
Neville ran upstairs, and came down to breakfast dressed in blue cotton, with her damp hair smoothly taken back from her broad forehead that jutted broodingly over her short pointed face. She had the look of a dryad at odds with the world, a whimsical and elfish intellectual.
Rodney and Kay and Gerda had been putting parcels at her place, and a pile of letters lay among them. There is, anyhow, that about birthdays, however old they make you. Kay had given her a splendid great pocket-knife and a book he wanted to read, Gerda an oak box she had carved, and Rodney a new bicycle (by the front door) and a Brangwyn drawing (on the table). If Neville envied Kay and Gerda their future careers, she envied Rodney his present sphere. Her husband and the father of Gerda and Kay was a clever and distinguished-looking man of forty-five, and member, in the Labour interest, for a division of Surrey. He looked, however, more like a literary man. How to be useful though married: in Rodney's case the problem was so simple, in hers so complicated. She had envied Rodney a little twenty years ago; then she had stopped, because the bringing up of Kay and Gerda had been a work in itself; now she had begun again. Rodney and she were more like each other than they were like their children; they had some of the same vanities, fastidiousnesses, humours and withdrawals, and in some respects the same outlook on life. Only Rodney's had been solidified and developed by the contacts and exigencies of his career, and Neville's disembodied, devitalised and driven inwards by her more dilettante life. She "helped Rodney with the constituency" of course, but it was Rodney's constituency, not hers; she entertained his friends and hers when they were in town, but she knew herself a light woman, not a dealer in affairs. Yet her nature was stronger than Rodney's, larger and more mature; it was only his experience she lacked.
Rodney was and had always been charming; there could be no doubt about that, whatever else you might come to think about him. Able, too, but living on his nerves, wincing like a high-strung horse from the annoyances and disappointments of life, such as Quaker oats because the grape-nuts had come to an end, and the industrial news of the morning, which was as bad as usual and four times repeated in four quite different tones by the four daily papers which lay on the table. They took four papers not so much that there might be one for each of them as that they might have the entertainment of seeing how different the same news can be made to appear. One bond of union this family had which few families possess; they were (roughly speaking) united politically, so believed the same news to be good or bad. The chief difference in their political attitude was that Kay and Gerda joined societies and leagues, being still young enough to hold that causes were helped in this way.
"What about to-day?" Rodney asked Neville. "What are you going to do?"
She answered, "Tennis." (Neville had once been a county player.) "River. Lying about in the sun." (It should be explained that it was one of those nine days of the English summer of 1920 when this was a possible occupation.) "Anything anyone likes.... I've already had a good deal of day and a bathe.... Oh, Nan's coming down this afternoon."
She got that out of a letter. Nan was her youngest sister. They all proceeded to get and impart other things out of letters, in the way of families who are fairly united, as families go.
Gerda opened her lips to impart something, but remembered her father's distastes and refrained. Rodney, civilised, sensitive and progressive, had no patience with his children's unsophisticated leaning to a primitive crudeness. He told them they were young savages. So Gerda kept her news till later, when she and Neville and Kay were lying on rugs on the lawn after Neville had beaten Kay in a set of singles.
They lay and smoked and cooled, and Gerda, a cigarette stuck in one side of her mouth, a buttercup in the other, mumbled "Penelope's baby's come, by the way. A girl. Another surplus woman."
Neville's brows lazily went up.
"Penelope Jessop? What's she doing with a baby? I didn't know she'd got married."
"Oh, she hasn't, of course.... Didn't I tell you about Penelope? She lives with Martin Annesley now."
"Oh, I see. Marriage in the sight of heaven. That sort of thing."
Neville was of those who find marriages in the sight of heaven uncivilised and socially reactionary, a reversion, in fact, to Nature, which bored her. Gerda and Kay rightly believed such marriages to have some advantages over those more visible to the human eye (as being more readily dissoluble when fatiguing) and many advantages over no marriages at all, which do not increase the population, so depleted by the Great War. When they spoke in this admirably civic sense, Neville was apt to say "It doesn't want increasing. I waited twenty minutes before I could board my bus at Trafalgar Square the other day. It wants more depleting, I should say—a Great Plague or something," a view which Kay and Gerda thought truly egotistical.
"I do hope," said Neville, her thoughts having led her to the statement, "I do very much hope that neither of you will ever perpetrate that sort of marriage. It would be so dreadfully common of you."
"Impossible to say," Kay said, vaguely.
"Considering," said Gerda, "that there are a million more women than men in this country, it stands to reason that some system of polygamy must become the usual thing in the future."
"It's always been the usual thing, darling. Dreadfully usual. It's so much more amusing to be unusual in these ways."
Neville's voice trailed drowsily away. Polygamy. Sex. Free Love. Love in chains. The children seemed so often to be discussing these. Just as, twenty years ago, she and her friends had seemed always to be discussing the Limitations of Personality, the Ethics of Friendship, and the Nature, if any, of God. This last was to Kay and Gerda too hypothetical to be a stimulating theme. It would have sent them to sleep, as sex did Neville.
Neville, led by Free Love to a private vision, brooded cynically over savages dancing round a wood-pile in primeval forests, engaged in what missionaries, journalists, and writers of fiction about our coloured brothers call "nameless orgies" (as if you would expect most orgies to answer to their names, like the stars) and she saw the steep roads of the round world running back and back and back—on or back, it made no difference, since the world was round—to this. Saw, too, a thousand stuffy homes wherein sat couples linked by a legal formula so rigid, so lasting, so indelible, that not all their tears could wash out a word of it, unless they took to themselves other mates, in which case their second state might be worse than their first. Free love—love in chains. How absurd it all was, and how tragic too. One might react back to the remaining choice—no love at all—and that was absurder and more tragic still, since man was made (among other ends) to love. Looking under her heavy lashes at her pretty young children, incredibly youthful, absurdly theoretical, fiercely clean of mind and frank of speech, their clearness as yet unblurred by the expediencies, compromise and experimental contacts of life, Neville was stabbed by a sharp pang of fear and hope for them. Fear lest on some fleeting impulse they might founder into the sentimental triviality of short-lived contacts, or into the tedium of bonds which must out-live desire; hope that, by some fortunate chance, they might each achieve, as she had achieved, some relation which should be both durable and to be endured. As to the third path—no love at all—she did not believe that either Kay or Gerda would tread that. They were emotional, in their cool and youthful way, and also believed that they ought to increase the population. What a wonderful, noble thing to believe, at twenty, thought Neville, remembering the levity of her own irresponsible youth, when her only interest in the population had been a nightmare fear lest they should at last become so numerous that they would be driven out of the towns into the country and would be scuttling over the moors, downs and woods like black beetles in kitchens in the night. They were better than she had been, these children; more public-spirited and more in earnest about life.
Across the garden came Nan Hilary, having come down from town to see Neville on her forty-third birthday. Nan herself was not so incredibly old as Neville; (for forty-three is incredibly old, from any reasonable standpoint). Nan was thirty-three and a half. She represented the thirties; she was, in Neville's mind, a bridge between the remote twenties and the new, extraordinary forties in which one could hardly believe. It seems normal to be in the thirties; the right, ordinary age, that most people are. Nan, who wrote, and lived in rooms in Chelsea, was rather like a wild animal—a leopard or something. Long and lissome, with a small, round, sallow face and withdrawn, brooding yellow eyes under sulky black brows that slanted up to the outer corners. Nan had a good time socially and intellectually. She was clever and lazy; she would fritter away days and weeks in idle explorations into the humanities, or curled up in the sun in the country like a cat. Her worst fault was a cynical unkindness, against which she did not strive because investigating the less admirable traits of human beings amused her. She was infinitely amused by her nephew and her niece, but often spiteful to them, merely because they were young. To sum up, she was a cynic, a rake, an excellent literary critic, a sardonic and brilliant novelist, and she had a passionate, adoring and protecting affection for Neville, who was the only person who had always been told what she called the darker secrets of her life.
She sat down on the grass, her thin brown hands clasped round her ankles, and said to Neville, "You're looking very sweet, aged one. Forty-three seems to suit you."
"And you," Neville returned, "look as if you'd jazzed all night and written unkind reviews from dawn till breakfast time."
"That's just about right," Nan owned, and flung herself full length on her back, shutting her eyes against the sun. "That's why I've come down here to cool my jaded nerves. And also because Rosalind wanted to lunch with me."
"Have you read my poems yet?" enquired Gerda, who never showed the customary abashed hesitation in dealing with these matters. She and Kay sent their literary efforts to Nan to criticise, because they believed (a) in her powers as a critic, (b) in her influence in the literary world. Nan used in their behalf the former but seldom the latter, because, in spite of queer spasms of generosity, she was jealous of Gerda and Kay. Why should they want to write? Why shouldn't they do anything else in the world but trespass on her preserves? Not that verse was what she ever wrote or could write herself. And of course everyone wrote now, and especially the very young; but in a niece and nephew it was a tiresome trick. They didn't write well, because no one of their age ever does, but they might some day. They already came out in weekly papers and anthologies of contemporary verse. Very soon they would come out in little volumes. They'd much better, thought Nan, marry and get out of the way.
"Read them—yes," Nan returned laconically to Gerda's question.
"What," enquired Gerda, perseveringly, "did you think of them?"
"I said I'd read them," Nan replied. "I didn't say I'd thought of them."
Gerda looked at her with her wide, candid gaze, with the unrancorous placidity of the young, who are still used to being snubbed. Nan, she knew, would tease and baffle, withhold and gibe, but would always say what she thought in the end, and what she thought was always worth knowing, even though she was middle-aged.
Nan, turning her lithe body over on the grass, caught the patient child's look, and laughed. Generous impulses alternated in her with malicious moods where these absurd, solemn, egotistic, pretty children of Neville's were concerned.
"All right, Blue Eyes. I'll write it all down for you and send it to you with the MS., if you really want it. You won't like it, you know, but I suppose you're used to that by now."
Neville listened to them. Regret turned in her, cold and tired and envious. They all wrote except her. To write: it wasn't much of a thing to do, unless one did it really well, and it had never attracted her personally, but it was, nevertheless, something—a little piece of individual output thrown into the flowing river. She had never written, even when she was Gerda's age. Twenty years ago writing poetry hadn't been as it is to-day, a necessary part of youth's accomplishment like tennis, French or dancing. Besides, Neville could never have enjoyed writing poetry, because for her the gulf between good verse and bad was too wide to be bridged by her own achievements. Nor novels, because she disliked nearly all novels, finding them tedious, vulgar, conventional, and out of all relation both to life as lived and to the world of imagination. What she had written in early youth had been queer imaginative stuff, woven out of her childhood's explorations into fairyland and of her youth's into those still stranger tropical lands beyond seas where she had travelled with her father. But she hadn't written or much wanted to write; scientific studies had always attracted her more than literary achievements. Then she had married Rodney, and that was the end of all studies and achievements for her, though not the end of anything for Rodney, but the beginning.
Rodney came out of the house, his pipe in his mouth. He still had the lounging walk, shoulders high and hands in pockets, of the undergraduate; the walk also of Kay. He sat down among his family. Kay and Gerda looked at him with approval; though they knew his weakness, he was just the father they would have chosen, and of how few parents can this be said. They were proud to take him about with them to political meetings and so forth, and prouder still to sit under him while he addressed audiences. Few men of his great age were (on the whole) so right in the head and sound in the heart, and fewer still so delightful to the eye. When people talked about the Wicked Old Men, who, being still unfortunately unrestrained and unmurdered by the Young, make this wicked world what it is, Kay and Gerda always contended that there were a few exceptions.
Nan gave Rodney her small, fleeting smile. She had a critical friendliness for him, but had never believed him really good enough for Neville.
Gerda and Kay began to play a single, and Nan said, "I'm in a hole."
"Broke, darling?" Neville asked her, for that was usually it, though sometimes it was human entanglements.
Nan nodded. "If I could have ten pounds.... I'd let you have it in a fortnight."
"That's easy," said Rodney, in his kind, offhand way.
"Of course," Neville said. "You old spendthrift."
"Thank you, dears. Now I can get a birthday present for mother."
For Mrs. Hilary's birthday was next week, and to celebrate it her children habitually assembled at The Gulls, St. Mary's Bay, where she lived. Nan always gave her a more expensive present than she could afford, in a spasm of remorse for the irritation her mother roused in her.
"Oh, poor mother," Neville exclaimed, suddenly remembering that Mrs. Hilary would in a week be sixty-three, and that this must be worse by twenty years than to be forty-three.
The hurrying stream of life was loud in her ears. How quickly it was sweeping them all along—the young bodies of Gerda and of Kay leaping on the tennis court, the clear, analysing minds of Nan and Rodney and herself musing in the sun, the feverish heart of her mother, loving, hating, feeding restlessly on itself by the seaside, the age-calmed soul of her grandmother, who was eighty-four and drove out in a donkey chair by the same sea.
The lazy talking of Rodney and Nan, the cryings and strikings of Gerda and Kay, the noontide chirrupings of birds, the cluckings of distant hens pretending that they had laid eggs, all merged into the rushing of the inexorable river, along and along and along. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bearing all its sons away. Clatter, chatter, clatter, does it matter, matter, matter? They fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.... No, it probably didn't matter at all what one did, how much one got into one's life, since there was to be, anyhow, so soon an end.
The garden became strange and far and flat, like tapestry, or a dream....
The lunch gong boomed. Nan, who had fallen asleep with the suddenness of a lower animal, her cheek pillowed on her hand, woke and stretched. Gerda and Kay, not to be distracted from their purpose, finished the set.
"Thank God," said Nan, "that I am not lunching with Rosalind."
MRS. HILARY'S BIRTHDAY
They all turned up at The Gulls, St. Mary's Bay, in time for lunch on Mrs. Hilary's birthday. It was her special wish that all those of her children who could should do this each year. Jim, whom she preferred, couldn't come this time; he was a surgeon; it is an uncertain profession. The others all came; Neville and Pamela and Gilbert and Nan and with Gilbert his wife Rosalind, who had no right there because she was only an in-law, but if Rosalind thought it would amuse her to do anything you could not prevent her. She and Mrs. Hilary disliked one another a good deal, though Rosalind would say to the others, "Your darling mother! She's priceless, and I adore her!" She would say that when she had caught Mrs. Hilary in a mistake. She would draw her on to say she had read a book she hadn't read (it was a point of honour with Mrs. Hilary never to admit ignorance of any book mentioned by others) and then she would say, "I do love you, mother! It's not out yet; I've only seen Gilbert's review copy," and Mrs. Hilary would say, "In that case I suppose I am thinking of another book," and Rosalind would say to Neville or Pamela or Gilbert or Nan, "Your darling mother. I adore her!" and Nan, contemptuous of her mother for thinking such trivial pretence worth while, and with Rosalind for thinking malicious exposure worth while, would shrug her shoulders and turn away.
All but Neville arrived by the same train from town, the one getting in at 12.11. Neville had come from Surrey the day before and spent the night, because Mrs. Hilary liked to have her all to herself for a little time before the others came. After Jim, Neville was the child Mrs. Hilary preferred. She had always been a mother with marked preferences. There were various barriers between her and her various children; Gilbert, who was thirty-eight, had annoyed her long ago by taking up literature as a profession on leaving Cambridge, instead of doing what she described as "a man's job," and later on by marrying Rosalind, who was fast, and, in Mrs. Hilary's opinion, immoral. Pamela, who was thirty-nine and working in a settlement in Hoxton, annoyed her by her devotion to Frances Carr, the friend with whom she lived. Mrs. Hilary thought them very silly, these close friendships between women. They prevented marriage, and led to foolish fussing about one another's health and happiness. Nan annoyed her by "getting talked about" with men, by writing books which Mrs. Hilary found both dull and not very nice, in tone, and by her own irritated reactions to her mother's personality. Nan, in fact, was often rude and curt to her.
But Jim, who was a man and a doctor, a strong, good-humoured person and her eldest son, annoyed her not at all. Nor did Neville, who was her eldest daughter and had given her grandchildren and infinite sympathy.
Neville, knowing all these things and more, always arrived on the evenings before her mother's birthdays, and they talked all the morning. Mrs. Hilary was at her best with Neville. She was neither irritable nor nervous nor showing off. She looked much less than sixty-three. She was a tall, slight, trailing woman, with the remains of beauty, and her dark, untidy hair was only streaked with grey. Since her husband had died, ten years ago, she had lived at St. Mary's Bay with her mother. It had been her old home; not The Gulls, but the vicarage, in the days when St. Mary's Bay had been a little fishing village without an esplanade. To old Mrs. Lennox it was the same fishing village still, and the people, even the summer visitors, were to her the flock of her late husband, who had died twenty years ago.
"A good many changes lately," she would say to them. "Some people think the place is improving. But I can't say I like the esplanade."
But the visitors, unless they were very old, didn't know anything about the changes. To them St. Mary's Bay was not a fishing village but a seaside resort. To Mrs. Hilary it was her old home, and had healthy air and plenty of people for her mother to gossip with and was as good a place as any other for her to parch in like a withered flower now that the work of her life was done. The work of her life had been making a home for her husband and children; she had never had either the desire or the faculties for any other work. Now that work was over, and she was rather badly left, as she cared neither for cards, knitting, gardening, nor intellectual pursuits. Once, seven years ago, at Neville's instigation, she had tried London life for a time, but it had been no use. The people she met there were too unlike her, too intelligent and up to date; they went to meetings and concerts and picture exhibitions and read books and talked about public affairs not emotionally but coolly and drily; they were mildly surprised at Mrs. Hilary's vehemence of feeling on all points, and she was strained beyond endurance by their knowledge of facts and catholicity of interests. So she returned to St. Mary's Bay, where she passed muster as an intelligent woman, gossiped with her mother, the servants and their neighbours, read novels, brooded over the happier past, walked for miles alone along the coast, and slipped every now and then, as she had slipped even in youth, over the edge of emotionalism into hysterical passion or grief. Her mother was no use at such times; she only made her worse, sitting there in the calm of old age, looking tranquilly at the end, for her so near that nothing mattered. Only Jim or Neville were of any use then.
Neville on the eve of this her sixty-third birthday soothed one such outburst. The tedium of life, with no more to do in it—why couldn't it end? The lights were out, the flowers were dead—and yet the unhappy actors had to stay and stay and stay, idling on the empty, darkened stage. (That was how Mrs. Hilary, with her gift for picturesque language, put it.) Must it be empty, must it be dark, Neville uselessly asked, knowing quite well that for one of her mother's temperament it must. Mrs. Hilary had lived in and by her emotions; nothing else had counted. Life for her had burnt itself out, and its remnant was like the fag end of a cigarette, stale and old.
"Shall I feel like that in twenty years?" Neville speculated aloud.
"I hope," said Mrs. Hilary, "that you won't have lost Rodney. So long as you have him...."
"But if I haven't...."
Neville looked down the years; saw herself without Rodney, perhaps looking after her mother, who would then have become (strange, incredible thought, but who could say?) calm with the calm of age; Kay and Gerda married or working or both.... What then? Only she was better equipped than her mother for the fag end of life; she had a serviceable brain and a sound education. She wouldn't pass empty days at a seaside resort. She would work at something, and be interested. Interesting work and interesting friends—her mother, by her very nature, could have neither, but was just clever enough to feel the want of them. The thing was to start some definite work now, before it was too late.
"Did Grandmama go through it?" Neville asked her mother.
"Oh, I expect so. I was selfish; I was wrapped up in home and all of you; I didn't notice. But I think she had it badly, for a time, when first she left the vicarage.... She's contented now."
They both looked at Grandmama, who was playing patience on the sofa and could not hear their talking for the sound of the sea. Yes, Grandmama was (apparently) contented now.
"There's work," mused Neville, thinking of the various links with life, the rafts, rather, which should carry age over the cold seas of tedious regret. "And there's natural gaiety. And intellectual interests. And contacts with other people—permanent contacts and temporary ones. And beauty. All those things. For some people, too, there's religion."
"And for all of us food and drink," said Mrs. Hilary, sharply. "Oh, I suppose you think I've no right to complain, as I've got all those things, except work."
But Neville shook her head, knowing that this was a delusion of her mother's, and that she had, in point of fact, none of them, except the contacts with people, which mostly either over-strained, irritated or bored her, and that aspect of religion which made her cry. For she was a Unitarian, and thought the Gospels infinitely sad and the souls of the departed most probably so merged in God as to be deprived of all individuality.
"It's better to be High Church or Roman Catholic and have services, or an Evangelical and have the Voice of God," Neville decided. And, indeed, it is probable that Mrs. Hilary would have been one or other of these things if it had not been for her late husband, who had disapproved of superstition and had instructed her in the Higher Thought and the Larger Hope.
Though heaviness endured for the night, joy came in the morning, as is apt to happen where there is sea air. Mrs. Hilary on her birthday had a revulsion to gaiety, owing to a fine day, her unstable temperament, letters, presents and being made a fuss of. Also Grandmama said, when she went up to see her after breakfast, "This new dress suits you particularly, my dear child. It brings out the colour in your eyes," and everyone likes to hear that when they are sixty-three or any other age.
So, when the rest of her children arrived, Mrs. Hilary was ready for them.
They embraced her in turn; Pamela, capable, humorous and intelligent, the very type of the professional woman at her best, but all the time preferring Frances Carr, anxious about her because she was overworking and run down; Nan, her extravagant present in her hands, on fire to protect her mother against old age, depression and Rosalind, yet knowing too how soon she herself would be smouldering with irritation; Gilbert, spare and cynical, writer of plays and literary editor of the Weekly Critic, and with him his wife Rosalind, whom Mrs. Hilary had long since judged as a voluptuous rake who led men on and made up unseemly stories and her lovely face, but who insisted on coming to The Gulls with Gilbert to see his adorable mother. Rosalind, who was always taking up things—art, or religion, or spiritualism, or young men—and dropping them when they bored her, had lately taken up psycho-analysis. She was studying what she called her mother-in-law's "case," looking for and finding complexes in her past which should account for her somewhat unbalanced present.
"I've never had complexes," Mrs. Hilary would declare, indignantly, as if they had been fleas or worse, and indeed when Rosalind handled them they were worse, much. From Rosalind Mrs. Hilary got the most unpleasant impression possible (which is to say a good deal) of psycho-analysts. "They have only one idea, and that is a disgusting one," she would assert, for she could only rarely and with difficulty see more than one idea in anything, particularly when it was a disgusting one. Her mind was of that sort—tenacious, intolerant, and not many-sided. That was where (partly where) she fell foul of her children, who saw sharply and clearly all around things and gave to each side its value. They knew Mrs. Hilary to be a muddled bigot, whose mind was stuffed with concrete instances and insusceptible of abstract reason. If anyone had asked her what she knew of psycho-analysis, she would have replied, in effect, that she knew Rosalind, and that was enough, more than enough, of psycho-analysis for her. She had also looked into Freud, and rightly had been disgusted.
"A man who spits deliberately onto his friends' stairs, on purpose to annoy the servants ... that is enough, the rest follows. The man is obviously a loathsome and indecent vulgarian. It comes from being a German, no doubt." Which settled that; and if anyone murmured "An Austrian," she would say, "It comes to the same thing, in questions of breeding." Mrs. Hilary, like Grandmama, settled people and things very quickly and satisfactorily.
They all sat in the front garden after lunch and looked out over the wonderful shining sea. Grandmama sat in her wheeled chair, Tchekov's Letters on her knees. She had made Mrs. Hilary get this book from Mudie's because she had read favourable reviews of it by Gilbert and Nan. Grandmama was a cleverish old lady, cleverer than her daughter.
"Jolly, isn't it," said Gilbert, seeing the book.
"Very entertaining," said Grandmama, and Mrs. Hilary echoed "Most," at which Grandmama eyed her with a twinkle, knowing that it bored her, like all the Russians. Mrs. Hilary cared nothing for style ("Literature!" said Lady Adela. "Give me something to read!"); she liked nice lifelike books about people as she believed them to be, and though she was quite prepared to believe that real Russians were like Russians in books, she felt that she did not care to meet either of them. But Mrs. Hilary had learnt that intelligent persons seldom liked the books which seemed to her to be about real, natural people, any more than they admired the pictures which struck her as being like things as they were. Though she thought those who differed from her profoundly wrong, she never admitted ignorance of the books they admired. For she was in a better position to differ from them about a book if she had nominally read it—and really it didn't matter if she had actually done so or not, for she knew beforehand what she would think of it if she had. So well she knew this, indeed, that the line between the books she had and hadn't read was, even in her own mind, smudgy and vague, not hard and clear as with most people. Often when she had seen reviews which quoted extracts she thought she had read the book, just as some people, when they have seen publishers' advertisements, think they have seen reviews, and declare roundly in libraries that a book is out when it lacks a month of publication.
Mrs. Hilary, having thus asserted her acquaintance with Tchekov's Letters, left Gilbert, Grandmama and Neville to talk about it together, and herself began telling the others how disappointed Jim had been that he could not come for her birthday.
"He was passionately anxious to come," she said, in her clear, vibrating voice, that struck a different note when she mentioned each one of her children, so that you always knew which she meant. "He never misses to-day if he can possibly help it. But he simply couldn't get away.... One of these tremendously difficult new operations, that hardly anyone can do. His work must come first, of course. He wouldn't be Jim if it didn't."
"Fancy knifing people in town a day like this," said Rosalind, stretching her large, lazy limbs in the sun. Rosalind was big and fair, and sensuously alive.
Music blared out from the parade. Gilbert, adjusting his glasses, observed its circumstances, with his air of detached, fastidious interest.
"The Army," he remarked. "The Army calling for strayed sheep."
"Oh," exclaimed Rosalind, raising herself, "wouldn't I love to go out and be saved! I was saved once, when I was eleven. It was one of my first thrills. I felt I was blacker in guilt than all creatures before me, and I came forward and found the Lord. Afraid I had a relapse rather soon, though."
"Horrible vulgarians," Mrs. Hilary commented, really meaning Rosalind at the age of eleven. "They have meetings on the parade every morning now. The police ought to stop it."
Grandmama was beating time with her hand on the arm of her chair to the merry music-hall tune and the ogreish words.
"Blood! Blood! Rivers of blood for you, Oceans of blood for me! All that the sinner has got to do Is to plunge into that Red Sea. Clean! Clean! Wash and be clean! Though filthy and black as a sweep you've been, The waves of that sea shall make you clean...."
"That," Mrs. Hilary asserted, with disgust, "is a most disagreeable way of worshipping God." She was addicted to these undeniable statements, taking nothing for granted.
"But a very racy tune, my dear," said Grandmama, "though the words are foolish and unpleasing."
Gilbert said, "A stimulating performance. If we don't restrain her, Rosalind will be getting saved again."
He was proud of Rosalind's vitality, whimsies and exuberances.
Rosalind, who had a fine rolling voice, began reciting "General Booth enters into heaven," by Mr. Vachell Lindsay, which Mrs. Hilary found disgusting.
"A wonderful man," said Grandmama, who had been reading the General's life in two large volumes. "Though mistaken about many things. And his Life would have been more interesting if it had been written by Mr. Lytton Strachey instead of Mr. Begbie; he has a better touch on our great religious leaders. Your grandfather," added Grandmama, "always got on well with the Army people. He encouraged them. The present vicar does not. He says their methods are deplorable and their goal a delusion."
Rosalind said "Their methods are entrancing and their goal the Lord. What more does he want? Clergymen are so narrow. That's why I had to give up being a churchwoman."
Rosalind had been a churchwoman (high) for nine months some six years ago, just after planchette and just before flag days. She had decided, after this brief trial, that incense and confessions, though immensely stimulating, did not weigh down the balance against early mass, Lent, and being thrown with other churchwomen.
"What about a bathe?" Neville suggested to all of them. "Mother?"
Mrs. Hilary, a keen bather, agreed. They all agreed except Grandmama, who was going out in her donkey chair instead, as one does at eighty-four.
They all went down to the beach, where the Army still sang of the Red Sea, and where the blue high tide clapped white hands on brown sand.
One by one they emerged from tents and sprang through the white leaping edge into the rocking blue, as other bathers were doing all round the bay. When Mrs. Hilary came out of her tent, Neville was waiting for her, poised like a slim girl, knee-deep in tumbling waves, shaking the water from her eyes.
"Come, mother. I'll race you out."
Mrs. Hilary waded in, a figure not without grace and dignity. Looking back they saw Rosalind coming down the beach, large-limbed and splendid, like Juno. Mrs. Hilary shrugged her shoulders.
"Disgusting," she remarked to Neville.
So much more, she meant, of Rosalind than of Rosalind's costume. Mrs. Hilary preferred it to be the other way about, for, though she did not really like either of them, she disliked the costume less than she disliked Rosalind.
"It's quite in the fashion," Neville assured her, and Mrs. Hilary, remarking that she was sure of that, splashed her head and face and pushed off, mainly to escape from Rosalind, who always sat in the foam, not being, like the Hilary family, an active swimmer.
Already Pamela and Gilbert were far out, swimming steadily against each other, and Nan was tumbling and turning like an eel close behind them.
Neville and Mrs. Hilary swam out a little way.
"I shall now float on my back," said Mrs. Hilary. "You swim on and catch up with the rest."
"You'll be all right?" Neville asked, lingering.
"Why shouldn't I be all right? I bathe nearly every day, you know, even if I am sixty-three." This was not accurate; she only bathed as a rule when it was warm, and this seldom occurs on our island coasts.
Neville, saying, "Don't stop in long, will you," left her and swam out into the blue with her swift, over-hand stroke. Neville was the best swimmer in a swimming family. She clove the water like a torpedo destroyer, swift and untiring between the hot summer sun and the cool summer sea. She shouted to the others, caught them up, raced them and won, and then they began to duck each other. When the Hilary brothers and sisters were swimming or playing together, they were even as they had been twenty years ago.
Mrs. Hilary watched them, swimming slowly round, a few feet out of her depth. They seemed to have forgotten her and her birthday. The only one who was within speaking distance was Rosalind, wallowing with her big white limbs in tumbling waves on the shore; Rosalind, whom she disliked; Rosalind, who was more than her costume, which was not saying much; Rosalind, before whom she had to keep up an appearance of immense enjoyment because Rosalind was so malicious.
"You wonderful woman! I can't think how you do it," Rosalind was crying to her in her rich, ripe voice out of the splashing waves. "But fancy their all swimming out and leaving you to yourself. Why, you might get cramp and sink. I'm no use, you know; I'm hopeless; can't keep up at all."
"I shan't trouble you, thank you," Mrs. Hilary called back, and her voice shook a little because she was getting chilled.
"Why, you're shivering," Rosalind cried. "Why don't you come out? You are wonderful, I do admire you.... It's no use waiting for the others, they'll be ages.... I say, look at Neville; fancy her being forty-three. I never knew such a family.... Come and sit in the waves with me, it's lovely and warm."
"I prefer swimming," said Mrs. Hilary, and she was shivering more now. She never stayed in so long as this; she usually only plunged in and came out.
Grandmama, stopping on the esplanade in her donkey chair, was waving and beckoning to her. Grandmama knew she had been in too long, and that her rheumatism would be bad.
"Come out, dear," Grandmama called, in her old thin voice. "Come out. You've been in far too long."
Mrs. Hilary only waved her hand to Grandmama. She was not going to come out, like an old woman, before the others did, the others, who had swum out and left her alone on her birthday bathe.
They were swimming back now, first all in a row, then one behind the other; Neville leading, with her arrowy drive, Gilbert and Pamela behind, so alike, with their pale, finely cut, intellectual faces, and their sharp chins cutting through the sea, and their quick, short, vigorous strokes, and Nan, still far out, swimming lazily on her back, the sun in her eyes.
Mrs. Hilary's heart stirred to see her swimming brood, so graceful and strong and swift and young. They possessed, surely, everything that was in the heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water over the earth. And she, who was sixty-three, possessed nothing. She could not even swim with her children. They might have thought of that, and stayed with her.... Neville, anyhow. Jim would have, said Mrs. Hilary to herself, half knowing and half not knowing that she was lying.
"Come out, dear!" called Grandmama from the esplanade. "You'll be ill!"
Back they came, Neville first. Neville, seeing from afar her mother's blue face, called "Mother dear, how cold you are! You shouldn't have stayed in so long!"
"I was waiting," Mrs. Hilary said, "for you."
"Oh why, dear?"
"Don't know. I thought I would.... It's pretty poor fun," Mrs. Hilary added, having failed after trying not to, "bathing all alone on one's birthday."
Neville gave a little sigh, and gently propelled her mother to the shore. She hadn't felt like this on her birthday, when Kay and Gerda had gone off to some avocation of their own and left her in the garden. Many things she had felt on her birthday, but not this. It is an undoubted truth that people react quite differently to birthdays.
Rosalind rose out of the foam like Aphrodite, grandly beautiful, though all the paint was washed off her face and lips.
"Wonderful people," she apostrophised the shore-coming family. "Anyone would think you were all nineteen. I was the only comfy one."
Rosalind was always talking about age, emphasizing it, as if it were very important.
They hurried up to the tents, and last of all came Nan, riding in to shore on a swelling wave and lying full length where it flung her, for the joy of feeling the wet sand sucking away beneath her.
Grandmama, waiting for them on the esplanade, was angry with Mrs. Hilary.
"My dear child, didn't you hear me call? You're perfectly blue. You know you never stay in more than five minutes. Neville, you should have seen that she didn't. Now you'll get your rheumatism back, child, and only yourself to thank. It's too silly. People of sixty-three carrying on as if they were fifty; I've no patience with it."
"They all swam out," said Mrs. Hilary, who, once having succumbed to the impulse to adopt this attitude, could not check it. "I waited for them."
Grandmama, who was cross, said "Very silly of you and very selfish of the children. Now you'd better go to bed with hot bottles and a posset."
But Mrs. Hilary, though she felt the red-hot stabbings of an attack of rheumatism already beginning, stayed up. She was happier now, because the children were making a fuss of her, suggesting remedies and so on. She would stay up, and show them she could be plucky and cheerful even with rheumatism. A definite thing, like illness or pain, always put her on her mettle; it was so easy to be brave when people knew you had something to be brave about, and so hard when they didn't.
They had an early tea, and then Gilbert and Rosalind, who were going out to dinner, caught the 5.15 back to town. Rosalind's departure made Mrs. Hilary more cheerful still. She soared into her gayest mood, and told them amusing stories of the natives, and how much she and Grandmama shocked some of them.
"All the same, dear," said Grandmama presently, "you know you often enjoy a chat with your neighbours very much. You'd be bored to death with no one to gossip with."
But Neville's hand, slipping into her mother's, meant "You shall adopt what pose you like on your birthday, darling. If you like to be too clever for anyone else in the Bay so that they bore you to tears and you shock them to fits—well, you shall, and we'll believe you."
Nan, listening sulkily to what she called to herself "mother's swank," for a moment almost preferred Rosalind, who was as frank and unposturing as an animal; Rosalind, with her malicious thrusts and her corrupt mind and her frank feminine greediness. For Rosalind, anyhow, didn't pretend to herself, though she did undoubtedly, when for any reason it suited her, lie to other people. Mrs. Hilary's lying went all through, deep down; it sprang out of the roots of her being, so that all the time she was making up, not only for others but for herself, a sham person who did not exist. That Nan found infinitely oppressive. So did Pamela, but Pamela was more tolerant and sympathetic and less ill-tempered than Nan, and observed the ways of others with quiet, ironic humour, saying nothing unkind. Pamela, when she didn't like a way of talking—when Rosalind, for instance, was being malicious or indecent or both—would skilfully carry the talk somewhere else. She could be a rapid and good talker, and could tell story after story, lightly and coolly, till danger points were past. Pamela was beautifully bred; she had savoir-faire as well as kindness, and never lost control of herself. These family gatherings really bored her a little, because her work and interests lay elsewhere, but she would never admit or show it. She was kind even to Rosalind, though cool. She had always been kind and cool to Rosalind, because Gilbert was her special brother, and when he had married this fast, painted and unHilaryish young woman, she had seen the necessity for taking firm hold of an attitude in the matter and retaining it. No one, not even Neville, not even Frances Carr, had ever seen behind Pamela's guard where Rosalind was concerned. When Nan abused Rosalind, Pamela would say "Don't be a spitfire, child. What's the use?" and change the subject. For Rosalind was, in Pamela's view, one of the things which were a pity but didn't really matter, so long as she didn't make Gilbert unhappy. And Gilbert, so far, was absurdly pleased and proud about her, in spite of occasional disapprovals of her excessive intimacies with others.
But, whatever they all felt about Rosalind, there was no doubt that the family party was happier for her departure. The departure of in-laws, even when they are quite nice in-laws, often has this effect on family parties. Mrs. Hilary had her three daughters to herself—the girls, as she still called them. She felt cosy and comforted, though in pain, lying on the sofa by the bay window in the warm afternoon sunshine, while Grandmama looked at the London Mercury, which had just come by the post, and the girls talked.
Their voices rose and fell against the soft splashing of the sea; Neville's, sweet and light, with pretty cadences, Pamela's, crisp, quick and decided, Nan's, trailing a little, almost drawling sometimes. The Hilary voices were all thin, not rich and full-bodied, like Rosalind's. Mrs. Hilary's was thin, like Grandmama's.
"Nice voices," thought Mrs. Hilary, languidly listening. "Nice children. But what nonsense they often talk."
They were talking now about the Minority Report of some committee, which had been drafted by Rodney. Rodney and the Minority and Neville and Pamela and Nan were all interested in what Mrs. Hilary called "This Labour nonsense which is so fashionable now." Mrs. Hilary herself, being unfashionable, was anti-Labour, since it was apparent to her that the working classes had already more power, money and education than was good for them, sons of Belial, flown with insolence and bonuses. Grandmama, being so nearly out of it all, was used only to say, in reply to these sentiments, "It will make no difference in the end. We shall all be the same in the grave, and in the life beyond. All these movements are very interesting, but the world goes round just the same." It was all very well for Grandmama to be philosophical; she wouldn't have to live for years ruled and triumphed over by her own gardener, which was the way Mrs. Hilary saw it.
Mrs. Hilary began to get angry, hearing the girls talking in this silly way. Of course it was natural that Neville should agree with Rodney; but Pamela had picked up foolish ideas from working among the poor and living with Frances Carr, and Nan was, as usual, merely wrong-headed, childish and perverse.
Suddenly she broke out, losing her temper, as she often did when she disagreed with people's politics, for she did not take a calm and tolerant view of these things.
"I never heard such stuff in my life. I disagree with every word you've all said."
She always disagreed in bulk, like that. It seemed simpler than arguing separate points, and took less time and knowledge. She saw Neville wrinkling her broad forehead, doubtfully, as if wondering how the subject could most easily be changed, and that annoyed her.
Nan said, "You mean you disagree with the Report. Which clauses of it?" and there was that soft viciousness in her voice which showed that she knew Mrs. Hilary had not even read the Minority Report, or the Majority Report either. Nan was spiteful; always trying to prove that her mother didn't know what she was talking about; always trying to pin her down on points of detail. Like the people with whom Mrs. Hilary had failed to get on during her brief sojourn in London; they too had always shunned general disputes about opinion and sentiment, such as were carried on with profit in St. Mary's Bay, and pinned the discussion down to hard facts, about which the Bay's information was inaccurate and incomplete. As if you didn't know when you disagreed with a thing's whole drift, whether you had read it or not.... Mrs. Hilary had never had any head for facts.
"It's the whole idea," she said, hotly. "And I detest all these Labour people. Vile creatures.... Of course I don't mean people like Rodney—the University men. They're merely amateurs. But these dreadful Trades Union men, with their walrus moustaches.... Why can't they shave, like other people, if they want to be taken for gentlemen?"
Neville told her, chaffingly, that she was a mass of prejudice.
Grandmama, who had fallen asleep and dropped the London Mercury onto the floor, diverted the conversation by waking up and remarking that it seemed a less interesting number than usual on the whole, though some of the pieces of poetry were pretty, and that Mrs. Hilary ought not to lie under the open window.
Mrs. Hilary, who was getting worse, admitted that she had better be in bed.
"I hope," said Grandmama, "that it will be a lesson to you, dear, not to stay in the water so long again, even if you do want to show off before your daughter-in-law." Grandmama, who disliked Rosalind, usually called her to Mrs. Hilary "your daughter-in-law," saddling her, so to speak, with the responsibility for Gilbert's ill-advised marriage. To her grandchildren she would refer to Rosalind as "your sister-in-law," or "poor Gilbert's wife."
"The bathe was worth it," said Mrs. Hilary, swinging up to high spirits again. "It was a glorious bathe. But I have got rheumatics."
So Neville stayed on at The Gulls that night, to massage her mother's joints, and Pamela and Nan went back to Hoxton and Chelsea by the evening train. Pamela had supper, as usual, with Frances Carr, and Nan with Barry Briscoe, and they both talked and talked, about all the things you don't talk of in families but only to friends.
Neville meanwhile was saying to Grandmama in the drawing-room at The Gulls, after Mrs. Hilary had gone to bed, "I wish mother could get some regular interest or occupation. She would be much happier. Are there no jobs for elderly ladies in the Bay?"
"As many in the Bay," said Grandmama, up in arms for the Bay, "as anywhere else. Sick-visiting, care committees, boys' and girls' classes, and so on. I still keep as busy as I am able, as you know."
Neville did know. "If mother could do the same...."
"Mother can't. She's never been a rector's wife, as I have, and she doesn't care for such jobs. Mother never did care for any kind of work really, even as a girl. She married when she was nineteen and found the only work she was fitted for and interested in. That's over, and there's no other she can turn to. It's common enough, child, with women. They just have to make the best of it, and muddle through somehow till the end."
"You were different, Grandmama, weren't you? I mean, you were never at a loss for things to do."
Grandmama's thin, delicate face hardened for a moment into grim lines.
"At a loss—yes, I was what you call at a loss twenty years ago, when your grandfather died. The meaning was gone out of life, you see. I was sixty-four. For two years I was cut adrift from everything, and did nothing but brood and find trivial occupations to pass the time somehow. I lived on memories and emotions; I was hysterical and peevish and bored. Then I realised it wouldn't do; that I might have twenty years and more of life before me, and that I must do something with it. So I took up again all of my old work that I could. It was the hardest thing I ever did. I hated it at first. Then I got interested again, and it has kept me going all these years, though I've had to drop most of it now of course. But now I'm so near the end that it doesn't matter. You can drop work at eighty and keep calm and interested in life. You can't at sixty; it's too young.... Mother knows that too, but there seems no work she can do. She doesn't care for parish work as I do; she never learnt any art or craft or handiwork, and doesn't want to; she was never much good at intellectual work of any kind, and what mind she had as a girl—and her father and I did try to train her to use it—ran all to seed during her married life, so it's pretty nearly useless now. She spent herself on your father and all you children, and now she's bankrupt."
"Poor darling mother," Neville murmured.
Grandmama nodded. "Just so. She's left to read novels, gossip with stupid neighbours, look after me, write to you children, go on walks, and brood over the past. She would have been quite happy like that forty years ago. The young have high spirits, and can amuse themselves without work. She never wanted work when she was eighteen. It's the old who need work. They've lost their spring and their zest for life, and need something to hold on to. It's all wrong, the way we arrange it—making the young work and the old sit idle. It should be the other way about. Girls and boys don't get bored with perpetual holidays; they live each moment of them hard; they would welcome the eternal Sabbath; and indeed I trust we shall all do that, as our youth is to be renewed like eagles. But old age on this earth is far too sad to do nothing in. Remember that, child, when your time comes."
"Why, yes. But when one's married, you know, it's not so easy, keeping up with a job. I only wish I could.... I don't like being merely a married woman. Rodney isn't merely a married man, after all.... But anyhow I'll find something to amuse my old age, even if I can't work. I'll play patience or croquet or the piano, or all three, and I'll go to theatres and picture shows and concerts and meetings in the Albert Hall. Mother doesn't do any of those things. And she is so unhappy so often."
"Oh very. Very unhappy. Very often.... She should come to church more. This Unitarianism is depressing. No substance in it. I'd rather be a Papist and keep God in a box. Or belong to the Army and sing about rivers of blood. I daresay both are satisfying. All this sermon-on-the-mount-but-no-miracle business is most saddening. Because it's about impossibilities. You can receive a sacrament, and you can find salvation, but you can't live the sermon on the mount. So of course it makes people discontented."
Grandmama, who often in the evenings became a fluent though drowsy talker, might have wandered on like this till her bed-time, had not Mrs. Hilary here appeared, in her dressing-gown. She sat down, and said, trying to sound natural and not annoyed and failing. "I heard so much talk, I thought I would come down and be in it. I thought you were coming up to me again directly, Neville. I hadn't realised you meant to stay down and talk to Grandmama instead."
She hated Neville or any of them, but especially Neville, to talk intimately to Grandmama; it made her jealous. She tried and tried not to feel this, but it was never any use her fighting against jealousy, it was too strong for her.
Grandmama said placidly, "Neville and I were discussing different forms of religion."
"Is Neville thinking of adopting one of them?" Mrs. Hilary enquired, her jealousy making her sound sarcastic and scornful.
"No, mother. Not at present.... Come back to bed, and I'll sit with you, and we'll talk. I don't believe you should be up."
"Oh, I see I've interrupted. It was the last thing I meant. No, Neville, I'll go back to my room alone. You go on with your talk with Grandmama. I hate interrupting like this. I hoped you would have let me join. I don't get much of you in these days, after all. But stay and talk to Grandmama."
That was the point at which Nan would have sworn to herself and gone down to the beach. Neville did neither. She was gentle and soothing, and Grandmama was infinitely untroubled, and Mrs. Hilary presently picked up her spirits and went back to bed, and Neville spent the evening with her. These little scenes had occurred so often that they left only a slight impression on those concerned and slightest of all on Mrs. Hilary.
When Mrs. Hilary and Grandmama were both settled for the night (old and elderly people settle for the night—other people go to bed) Neville went down to the seashore and lay on the sand, watching the moon rise over the sea.
Beauty was there, rather than in elderly people. But in elderly people was such pathos, such tragedy, such pity, that they lay like a heavy weight on one's soul. If one could do anything to help....
To be aimless: to live on emotions and be by them consumed: that was pitiful. To have done one's work for life, and to be in return cast aside by life like a broken tool: that was tragic.
The thing was to defy life; to fly in the face of the fool nature, break her absurd rules, and wrest out of the breakage something for oneself by which to live at the last.
Neville flung her challenge to the black sea that slowly brightened under the moon's rising eye.
If you have broken off your medical studies at London University at the age of twenty-one and resume them at forty-three, you will find them (one is told) a considerably tougher job than you found them twenty-two years before. Youth is the time to read for examinations; youth is used to such foolishness, and takes it lightly in its stride. At thirty you may be and probably are much cleverer than you were at twenty; you will have more ideas and better ones, and infinitely more power of original and creative thought; but you will not, probably, find it so easy to grip and retain knowledge out of books and reproduce it to order. So the world has ordained that youth shall spend laborious days in doing this, and that middle age shall, in the main, put away these childish things, and act and work on in spite of the information thus acquired.
Neville Bendish, who was not even in the thirties, but so near the brink of senile decay as the forties, entered her name once more at the London University School of Medicine, and plunged forthwith into her interrupted studies. Her aim was to spend this summer in reacquiring such knowledge as should prepare her for the October session. And it was difficult beyond her imaginings. It had not been difficult twenty-two years ago; she had worked then with pleasure and interest, and taken examinations with easy triumph. As Kay did now at Cambridge, only more so, because she had been cleverer than Kay. She was a vain creature, and had believed that cleverness of hers to be unimpaired by life, until she came to try. She supposed that if she had spent her married life in head work, her head would never have lost the trick of it. But she hadn't. She had spent it on Rodney and Gerda and Kay, and the interesting, amusing life led by the wife of a man in Rodney's position, which had brought her always into contact with people and ideas. Much more amusing than grinding at intellectual work of her own, but it apparently caused the brain to atrophy. And she was, anyhow, tired of doing nothing in particular. After forty you must have your job, you must be independent of other people's jobs, of human and social contacts, however amusing and instructive.
Rodney wasn't altogether pleased, though he understood. He wanted her constant companionship and interest in his own work.
"You've had twenty-two years of it, darling," Neville said. "Now I must Live my own Life, as the Victorians used to put it. I must be a doctor; quite seriously I must. I want it. It's my job. The only one I could ever really have been much good at. The sight of human bones or a rabbit's brain thrills me, as the sight of a platform and a listening audience thrills you, or as pen and paper (I suppose) thrill the children. You ought to be glad I don't want to write. Our family seems to run to that as a rule."
"But," Rodney said, "you don't mean ever to practise, surely? You won't have time for it, with all the other things you do."
"It's the other things I shan't have time for, old man. Sorry, but there it is.... It's all along of mother, you see. She's such an object lesson in how not to grow old. If she'd been a doctor, now...."
"She couldn't have been a doctor, possibly. She hasn't the head. On the other hand, you've got enough head to keep going without the slavery of a job like this, even when you're old."
"I'm not so sure. My brain isn't what it was; it may soften altogether unless I do something with it before it's too late. Then there I shall be, a burden to myself and everyone else.... After all, Rodney, you've your job. Can't I have mine? Aren't you a modern, an intellectual and a feminist?"
Rodney, who believed with truth that he was all these things, gave in.
Kay and Gerda, with the large-minded tolerance of their years, thought mother's scheme was all right and rather sporting, if she really liked the sort of thing, which they, for their part, didn't.
So Neville recommenced medical study, finding it difficult beyond belief. It made her head ache.
She envied Kay and Gerda, as they all three lay and worked in the garden, with chocolates, cigarettes and Esau grouped comfortably round them. Kay was reading economics for his Tripos, Gerda was drawing pictures for her poems; neither, apparently, found any difficulty in concentrating on their work when they happened to want to.
What, Neville speculated, her thoughts, as usual, wandering from her book, would become of Gerda? She was a clever child at her own things, though with great gaps in her equipment of knowledge, which came from ignoring at school those of her studies which had not seemed to her of importance. She had firmly declined a University education; she had decided that it was not a fruitful start in life, and was also afraid of getting an academic mind. But at economic and social subjects, at drawing and at writing, she worked without indolence, taking them earnestly, still young enough to believe it important that she should attain proficiency.
Neville, on the other hand, was indolent. For twenty-two years she had pleased herself, done what she wanted when she wanted to, played the flirt with life. And now she had become soft-willed. Now, sitting in the garden with her books, like Gerda and Kay, she would find that the volumes had slipped from her knee and that she was listening to the birds in the elms. Or she would fling them aside and get up and stretch herself, and stroll into the little wood beyond the garden, or down to the river, or she would propose tennis, or go up to town for some meeting or concert or to see someone, though she didn't really want to, having quite enough of London during that part of the year when they lived there. She only went up now because otherwise she would be working. At this rate she would never be ready to resume her medical course in the autumn.
"I will attend. I will. I will," she whispered to herself, a hand pressed to each temple to constrain her mind. And for five minutes she would attend, and then she would drift away on a sea of pleasant indolence, and time fluttered away from her like an escaping bird, and she knew herself for a light woman who would never excel. And Kay's brown head was bent over his book, and raised sometimes to chaff or talk, and bent over his books again, the thread of his attention unbroken by his easy interruptions. And Gerda's golden head lay pillowed in her two clasped hands, and she stared up at the blue through the green and did nothing at all, for that was often Gerda's unashamed way.
Often Rodney sat in the garden too and worked. And his work Neville felt that she too could have done; it was work needing initiative and creative thought, work suitable to his forty-five years, not cramming in knowledge from books. Neville at times thought that she too would stand for parliament one day. A foolish, childish game it was, and probably really therefore more in her line than solid work.
Nan came down in July to stay with them. While she was there, Barry Briscoe, who was helping with a W.E.A. summer school at Haslemere, would come over on Sundays and spend the day with them. Not even the rains of July 1920 made Barry weary or depressed. His eyes were bright behind his glasses; his hands were usually full of papers, committee reports, agenda, and the other foods he fed on, unsatiated and unabashed. Barry was splendid. What ardour, what enthusiasm, burning like beacons in a wrecked world! So wrecked a world that all but the very best and the very worst had given it up as a bad job; the best because they hoped on, hoped ever, the worst because of the pickings that fall to such as they out of the collapsing ruins. But Barry, from the very heart of the ruin, would cry "Here is what we must do," and his eyes would gleam with faith and resolution, and he would form a committee and act. And when he saw how the committee failed, as committees will, and how little good it all was, he would laugh ruefully and try something else. Barry, as he would tell you frankly—if you enquired, not otherwise,—believed in God. He was the son of a famous Quaker philanthropist, and had been brought up to see good works done and even garden cities built. I am aware that this must prejudice many people against Barry; and indeed many people were annoyed by certain aspects of him. But, as he was intellectually brilliant and personally attractive, these people were as a rule ready to overlook what they called the Quaker oats. Nan, who overlooked nothing, was frankly at war with him on some points, and he with her. Nan, cynical, clear-eyed, selfish and blase, cared nothing for the salvaging of what remained of the world out of the wreck, nothing for the I.L.P., less than nothing for garden cities, philanthropy, the W.E.A., and God. And committees she detested. Take them all away, and there remained Barry Briscoe, and for him she did not care nothing.
It was the oddest friendship, thought Neville, observing how, when Barry was there, all Nan's perversities and moods fell away, leaving her as agreeable as he. Her keen and ironic intelligence met his, and they so understood each other that they finished each other's sentences, and others present could only with difficulty keep up with them. Neville believed them to be in love, but did not know whether they had ever informed one another of the fact. They might still be pretending to one another that their friendship was merely one of those affectionate intellectual intimacies of which some of us have so many and which are so often misunderstood. Or they might not. It was entirely their business, either way.
Barry was a chatterbox. He lay on the lawn and rooted up daisies and made them into ridiculous chains, and talked and talked and talked. Rodney and Neville and Nan talked too, and Kay would lunge in with the crude and charming dogmatics of his years. But Gerda, chewing a blade of grass, lay idle and withdrawn, her fair brows unpuckered by the afternoon sun (because it was July, 1920), her blue eyes on Barry, who was so different; or else she would be withdrawn but not idle, for she would be drawing houses tumbling down, or men on stilts, fantastic and proud, or goblins, or geese running with outstretched necks round a green. Or she would be writing something like this:
"I Float on the tide, In the rain. I am the starfish vomited up by the retching cod. He thinks That I am he. But I know. That he is I. For the creature is far greater than its god."
(Gerda was of those who think it is rather chic to have one rhyme in your poem, just to show that you can do it.)
"That child over there makes one feel so cheap and ridiculous, jabbering away."
That was Barry, breaking off to look at Gerda where she lay on her elbows on a rug, idle and still. "And it's not," he went on, "that she doesn't know about the subject, either. I've heard her on it."
He threw the daisy chain he had just made at her, so that it alighted on her head, hanging askew over one eye.
"Just like a daisy bud herself, isn't she," he commented, and raced on, forgetting her.
Neat in her person and ways, Gerda adjusted the daisy chain so that it ringed her golden head in an orderly circle. Like a daisy bud herself, Rodney agreed in his mind, his eyes smiling at her, his affection, momentarily turned that way, groping for the wild, remote little soul in her that he only vaguely and paternally knew. The little pretty. And clever, too, in her own queer, uneven way. But what was she, with it all? He knew Kay, the long, sweet-tempered boy, better. For Kay represented highly civilized, passably educated, keen-minded youth. Gerda wasn't highly civilized, was hardly passably educated, and keen would be an inapt word for that queer, remote, woodland mind of hers.... Rodney returned to more soluble problems.
Mrs. Hilary and Grandmama came to Windover. Mrs. Hilary would rather have come without Grandmama, but Grandmama enjoyed the jaunt, as she called it. For eighty-four, Grandmama was wonderfully sporting. They arrived on Saturday afternoon, and rested after the journey, as is usually done by people of Grandmama's age, and often by people of Mrs. Hilary's. Sunday was full of such delicate clashings as occur when new people have joined a party. Grandmama was for morning church, and Neville drove her to it in the pony carriage. So Mrs. Hilary, not being able to endure that they should go off alone together, had to go too, though she did not like church, morning or other.
She sighed over it at lunch.
"So stuffy. So long. And the hymns...."
But Grandmama said, "My dear, we had David and Goliath. What more do you want?"
During David and Goliath Grandmama's head had nodded approvingly, and her thin old lips had half smiled at the valiant child with his swaggering lies about bears and lions, at the gallant child and the giant.
Mrs. Hilary, herself romantically sensible, as middle-aged ladies are, of valour and high adventure, granted Grandmama David and Goliath, but still repined at the hymns and the sermon.
"Good words, my dear, good words," Grandmama said to that. For Grandmama had been brought up not to criticise sermons, but had failed to bring up Mrs. Hilary to the same self-abnegation. The trouble with Mrs. Hilary was, and had always been, that she expected (even now) too much of life. Grandmama expected only what she got. And Neville, wisest of all, had not listened, for she too expected what she would get if she did. She was really rather like Grandmama, in her cynically patient acquiescence, only brought up in a different generation, and not to hear sermons. In the gulf of years between these two, Mrs. Hilary's restless, questing passion fretted like unquiet waves.
"This Barry Briscoe," said Mrs. Hilary to Neville after lunch, as she watched Nan and he start off for a walk together. "I suppose he's in love with her?"
"I suppose so. Something of the kind, anyhow."
Mrs. Hilary said, discontentedly, "Another of Nan's married men, no doubt. She collects them."
"No, Barry's not married."
Mrs. Hilary looked more interested. "Not? Oh, then it may come to something.... I wish Nan would marry. It's quite time."
"Nan isn't exactly keen to, you know. She's got so much else to do."
"Fiddlesticks. You don't encourage her in such nonsense, I hope, Neville."
"I? It's not for me to encourage Nan in anything. She doesn't need it. But as to marriage—yes, I think I wish she would do it, sometime, whenever she's ready. It would give her something she hasn't got; emotional steadiness, perhaps I mean. She squanders a bit, now. On the other hand, her writing would rather go to the wall; if she went on with it it would be against odds all the time."
"What's writing?" enquired Mrs. Hilary, with a snap of her finger and thumb. "Writing!"
As this seemed too vague or too large a question for Neville to answer, she did not try to do so, and Mrs. Hilary replied to it herself.
"Mere showing off," she explained it. "Throwing your paltry ideas at a world which doesn't want them. Writing like Nan's I mean. It's not as if she wrote really good books."
"Oh well. Who does that, after all? And what is a good book?" Here were two questions which Mrs. Hilary, in her turn, could not answer. Because most of the books which seemed good to her did not, as she well knew, seem good to Neville, or to any of her children, and she wasn't going to give herself away. She murmured something about Thackeray and Dickens, which Neville let pass.
"Writing's just a thing to do, as I see it," Neville went on. "A job, like another. One must have a job, you know. Not for the money, but for the job's sake. And Nan enjoys it. But I daresay she'd enjoy marriage too."
"Does she love this man?"
"I don't know. I shouldn't be surprised. She hasn't told me so."
"Probably she doesn't, as he's single. Nan's so perverse. She will love the wrong men, always."
"You shouldn't believe all Rosalind tells you, mother. Rosalind has a too vivid fancy and a scandalous tongue."
Mrs. Hilary coloured a little. She did not like Neville to think that she had been letting Rosalind gossip to her about Nan.
"You know perfectly well, Neville, that I never trust a word Rosalind says. I suppose I needn't rely on my daughter-in-law for news about my own daughter's affairs. I can see things for myself. You can't deny that Nan has had compromising affairs with married men."
"Compromising." Neville turned over the word, thoughtfully and fastidiously. "Funny word, mother. I'm not sure I know what it means. But I don't think anything ever compromises Nan; she's too free for that.... Well, let's marry her off to Barry Briscoe. It will be a quaint menage, but I daresay they'd pull it off. Barry's delightful. I should think even Nan could live with him."
"He writes books about education, doesn't he? Education and democracy."
"Well, he does. But there's always something, after all, against all of us. And it might be worse. It might be poetry or fiction or psycho-analysis."
Neville said psycho-analysis in order to start another hare and take her mother's attention off Nan's marriage before the marriage became crystallised out of all being. But Mrs. Hilary for the first time (for usually she was reliable) did not rise. She looked thoughtful, even a shade embarrassed, and said vaguely, "Oh, people must write, of course. If it isn't one thing it will be another." After a moment she added, "This psycho-analysis, Neville," saying the word with distaste indeed, but so much more calmly than usual that Neville looked at her in surprise. "This psycho-analysis. I suppose it does make wonderful cures, doesn't it, when all is said?"
"Cures—oh yes, wonderful cures. Shell-shock, insomnia, nervous depression, lumbago, suicidal mania, family life—anything." Neville's attention was straying to Grandmama, who was coming slowly towards them down the path, leaning on her stick, so she did not see Mrs. Hilary's curious, lit eagerness.
"But how can they cure all those things just by talking indecently about sex?"
"Oh mother, they don't. You're so crude, darling. You've got hold of only one tiny part of it—the part practised by Austrian professors on Viennese degenerates. Many of the doctors are really sane and brilliant. I know of cases...."
"Well," said Mrs. Hilary, quickly and rather crossly, "I can't talk about it before Grandmama."
Neville got up to meet Grandmama, put a hand under her arm, and conducted her to her special chair beneath the cedar. You had to help and conduct someone so old, so frail, so delightful as Grandmama, even if Mrs. Hilary did wish it were being done by any hand than yours. Mrs. Hilary in fact made a movement to get to Grandmama first, but sixty-three does not rise from low deck chairs so swiftly as forty-three. So she had to watch her daughter leading her mother, and to note once more with a familiar pang the queer, unmistakable likeness between the smooth, clear oval face and the old wrinkled one, the heavily lashed deep blue eyes and the old faded ones, the elfish, close-lipped, dimpling smile and the old, elfish, thin-lipped, sweet one. Neville, her Neville, flower of her flock, her loveliest, first and best, her dearest but for Jim, her pride, and nearer than Jim, because of sex, which set Jim on a platform to be worshipped, but kept Neville on a level to be loved, to be stormed at when storms rose, to be clung to when all God's waters went over one's head. Oh Neville, that you should smile at Grandmama like that, that Grandmama should, as she always had, steal your confidence that should have been all your mother's! That you should perhaps even talk over your mother with Grandmama (as if she were something further from each of you than each from the other), pushing her out of the close circle of your intimacy into the region of problems to be solved.... Oh God, how bitter a thing to bear!
The garden, the summer border of bright flowers, swam in tears.... Mrs. Hilary turned away her face, pretending to be pulling up daisies from the grass. But, unlike the ostrich, she well knew that they always saw. To the children, as to Grandmama, they were an old story, those hot, facile, stinging tears of Mrs. Hilary's that made Neville weary with pity, and Nan cold with scorn, and Rosalind happy with lazy malice, and Pamela bright and cool and firm, like a woman doctor. Only Grandmama took them unmoved, for she had always known them.
Grandmama, settled in her special chair, remarked on the unusual (for July) fineness of the day, and requested Neville to read them the chief items of news in the Observer, which she had brought out with her. So Neville read about the unfortunate doings of the Supreme Council at Spa, and Grandmama said "Poor creatures," tolerantly, as she had said when they were at Paris, and again at San Remo; and about General Dyer and the Amritsar debate, and Grandmama said "Poor man. But one mustn't treat one's fellow creatures as he did, even the poor Indian, who, I quite believe, is intolerably provoking. I see the Morning Post is getting up a subscription for him, contributed to by Those Who Remember Cawnpore, Haters of Trotzky, Montague and Lansbury, Furious English-woman, and many other generous and emotional people. That is kind and right. We should not let even our more impulsive generals starve."
Then Neville read about Ireland, which was just then in a disturbed state, and Grandmama said it certainly seemed restless, and mentioned with what looked like a gleam of hope that they would never return, that her friends the Dormers were there. Mrs. Hilary shot out, with still averted face, that the whole of Ireland ought to be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it was more bother than it was worth. This was her usual and only contribution towards a solution of the Irish question.
Then Mr. Churchill and Russia had their turn (it was the time of the Golovin trouble) and Grandmama said people seemed always to get so very sly, as well as so very much annoyed and excited, whenever Russia was mentioned, and that seemed like a sign that God did not mean us, in this country, to mention it much, perhaps not even to think of it. She personally seldom did. Then Neville read a paragraph about the Anglo-Catholic Congress, and about that Grandmama was for the first time a little severe, for Grandpapa had not been an Anglo-Catholic, and indeed in his day there were none of this faith. You were either High Church, Broad Church or Evangelical. (Unless, of course, you had been led astray by Huxley and Darwin and were nothing whatever.) Grandpapa had been Broad, with a dash of Evangelical; or perhaps it was the other way round; but anyhow Grandpapa had not been High Church, or, as they called it in his time, Tractarian. So Grandmama enquired, snippily, "Who are these Anglo-Catholics, my dear? One seems to hear so much of them in these days. I can't help thinking they are rather noisy...." as she might have spoken of Bolshevists, or the Labour Party, or the National Party, or Sinn Fein, or any other of the organisations of which Grandpapa had been innocent. "There are so many of these new things," said Grandmama, "I daresay modern young people like Gerda and Kay are quite in with it all."
"I'm afraid," said Neville, "that Gerda and Kay are secularists at present."
"Poor children," Grandmama said gently. Secularism made her think of the violent and vulgar Mr. Bradlaugh. It was, in her view, a noisier thing even than Anglo-Catholicism. "Well, they have plenty of time to get over it and settle down to something quieter." Broad-Evangelical she meant, or Evangelical-Broad; and Neville smiled at the idea of Gerda, in particular, being either of these. She believed that if Gerda were to turn from secularism it would either be to Anglo-Catholicism or to Rome. Or Gerda might become a Quaker, or a lone mystic contemplating in woods, but a Broad-Evangelical, no. There was a delicate, reckless extravagance about Gerda which would prohibit that. If you came to that, what girl or boy did, in these days, fall into any of the categories which Grandmama and Grandpapa had known, whether religiously or politically? You might as well suggest that Gerda and Kay should be Tories or Whigs.
And by this time they had given Mrs. Hilary so much time to recover her poise that she could join in, and say that Anglo-Catholics were very ostentatious people, and only gave all that money which they had, undoubtedly, given at the recent Congress in order to make a splash and show off.
"Tearing off their jewellery in public like that," said Mrs. Hilary, in disgust, as she might have said tearing off their chemises, "and gold watches lying in piles on the collection table, still ticking...." She felt it was indecent that the watches should have still been ticking; it made the thing an orgy, like a revival meeting, or some cannibal rite at which victims were offered up still breathing....
So much for the Anglo-Catholic Congress. The Church Congress was better, being more decent and in order, though Mrs. Hilary knew that the whole established Church was wrong.
And so they came to literature, to a review of Mr. Conrad's new novel and a paragraph about a famous annual literary prize. Grandmama thought it very nice that young writers should be encouraged by cash prizes. "Not," as she added, "that there seems any danger of any of them being discouraged, even without that.... But Nan and Kay and Gerda ought to go in for it. It would be a nice thing for them to work for."