"I'm sure, sir, I am very sorry you should have witnessed such a scene. Never, really, in the whole course of my life ..."
"There is positively no excuse for allowing such people ..."
"I will not go on with the marriage," roared the Registrar; "really, Mr. Freeman, you ought to have seen. You know how short-sighted I am. I will not proceed with this marriage."
"Oh, please, sir, Mr. Registrar, don't say that," exclaimed Matilda. "If you don't go on now, he'll never marry me; I'll never be able to bring 'im to the scratch again. Indeed, sir, 'e's not so drunk as he looks. 'Tis mostly the effect of the morning hair upon him."
"I shall not proceed with the marriage," said the Registrar, sternly. "I have never seen anything more disgraceful in my life. You come here to enter into a most solemn, I may say a sacred, contract, and you are not able to answer to your names; it is disgraceful."
"Indeed I am, sir; my name is Matilda, that's the English of it, but my poor mother kept company with a Frenchman, and he would have me christened Matilde; but it is all the same, it is the same name, indeed it is, sir. Do marry us; I shan't be able to get him to the scratch again. For the last five years ..."
"Potter, Potter, show these people out; how dare you admit people who were in a state of inebriation?"
"I didn't 'ear what you said, sir."
"Show these people out, and if you ever do it again, you'll have to remain in the workhouse."
"This way, ladies and gentlemen, this way. I'm the regular attendant."
"Come along, Tilly dear, you'll have to wait another night afore we are churched. Come, Tilly; do you hear me? Come, Tilda."
Frightened as she was, the words "another night" suggested an idea to poor Matilde, and turning with supplicating eyes to the Registrar, she implored that they might make an appointment for the morrow. After some demur the Registrar consented, and she went away tearful, but in hope that she would be able to bring him on the morrow, as he put it, "fit to the post." This matter having been settled, the Registrar turned to Frank. Never in the course of his experience had the like occurred. He was extremely sorry that he (Mr. Escott) had been present. True, they were not situated in a fashionable neighbourhood, the people were ignorant, and it was often difficult to get them to sign their names correctly; but he was bound to admit that they were orderly, and seemed to realize, he would say, the seriousness of the transaction.
"It is," said the Registrar, "our object to maintain the strictly legal character of the ceremony—the contract, I should say—and to avoid any affectation of ritual whatsoever. I regret that you, sir, a representative of the press ..."
"The nephew and heir to Lord Mount Rorke," suggested the clerk.
The Registrar bowed, and murmured that he did not know he had that honour. Then he spoke for some time of the moral good the registry offices had effected among the working classes; how they had allowed the poor—for instance, the person who has been known for years in the neighbourhood as Mrs. Thompson, to legalize her cohabitation without scandal.
But Frank thought only of his wife, when he should clasp her hand, saying, "Dearest wife!" He had brought his dramatic and musical critics with him. The dramatic critic—a genial soul, well known to the shop-girls in Oxford Street, without social prejudices—was deep in conversation with the father and brother of the bride; the musical critic, a mild-faced man, adjusted his spectacles, and awaking from his dream reminded them of an afternoon concert that began unusually early, and where his presence was indispensable. When the declarations were over, Frank asked when he should put the ring on.
"Some like to use the ring, some don't; it isn't necessary; all the best people of course do," said the Assistant-Registrar, who had not yawned once since he had heard that Frank's uncle was Lord Mount Rorke.
"I am much obliged to you for the information; but I should like to have my question answered—When am I to put on the ring?"
The dramatic critic tittered, and Frank authoritatively expostulated. But the Registrar interposed, saying—
"It is usual to put the ring on when the bride has answered to the declarations."
"Now all of ye can kiss the bride," exclaimed the clerk from Cashel.
Frank was indignant; the Registrar explained that the kissing of the bride was an old custom still retained among the lower classes, but Frank was not to be mollified, and the unhappy clerk was ordered to leave the room.
The wedding party drove to the Temple, where champagne was awaiting them; and when health and happiness had been drunk the critics left, and the party became a family one.
Mike was in his bedroom; he was too indolent to move out of Escott's rooms, and by avoiding him he hoped to avert expulsion and angry altercations. The night he spent in gambling, the evening in dining; and some hours of each afternoon were devoted to the composition of his trilogy. Now he lay in his arm-chair smoking cigarettes, drinking lemonade, and thinking. He was especially attracted by the picture he hoped to paint in the first play of John and Jesus; and from time to time his mind filled with a picture of Herod's daughter. Closing his eyes slightly he saw her breasts, scarce hidden beneath jewels, and precious scarves floated from her waist as she advanced in a vaulted hall of pale blue architecture, slender fluted columns, and pointed arches. He sipped his lemonade, enjoying his soft, changing, and vague dream. But now he heard voices in the next room, and listening attentively he could distinguish the conversation.
"The drivelling idiot!" he thought. "So he's gone and married her—that slut of a barmaid! Mount Rorke will never forgive him. I wouldn't be surprised if he married again. The idiot!"
The reprobate father declared he had not hoped to see such a day, so let bygones be bygones, that was his feeling. She had always been a good daughter; they had had differences of opinion, but let bygones be bygones. He had lived to see his daughter married to a gentleman, if ever there was one; and his only desire was that God might spare him to see her Lady Mount Rorke. Why should she not be Lady Mount Rorke? She was as pretty a girl as there was in London, and a good girl too; and now that she was married to a gentleman, he hoped they would both remember to let bygones be bygones.
"Great Scott!" thought Mike; "and he'll have to live with her for the next thirty years, watching her growing fat, old, and foolish. And that father!—won't he give trouble! What a pig-sty the fellow has made of his life!"
Lizzie asked her father not to cry. Then came a slight altercation between Lizzie and her husband, in which it was passionately debated whether Harry, the brother, was fitted to succeed Mike on the paper.
"How the fellow has done for himself! A nice sort of paper they'll bring out."
A cloud passed over Mike's face when he thought it would probably be this young gentleman who would continue his articles—Lions of the Season.
"You have quarrelled with Mike," said Lizzie, "and you say you aren't going to make it up again. You'll want some one, and Harry writes very nicely indeed. When he was at school his master always praised his writing. When he is in love he writes off page after page. I should like you to see the letters he wrote to ..."
"Now, Liz, I really—I wish you wouldn't ..."
"I am sure he would soon get into it."
"Quite so, quite so; I hope he will; I'm sure Harry will get into it—and the way to get into it is for him to send me some paragraphs. I will look over his 'copy,' making the alterations I think necessary. But for the moment, until he has learned the trick of writing paragraphs, he would be of no use to me in the office. I should never get the paper out. I must have an experienced writer by me."
Then he dropped his voice, and Mike heard nothing till Frank said—
"That cad Fletcher is still here; we don't speak, of course; we passed each other on the staircase the other night. If he doesn't clear out soon I'll have to turn him out. You know who he is—a farmer's son, and used to live in a little house about a mile from Mount Rorke Castle, on the side of the road."
Mike thrilled with rage and hatred.
"You brute! you fool! you husband of a bar-girl!—you'll never be Lord Mount Rorke! He that came from the palace shall go to the garret; he that came from the little house on the roadside shall go to the castle, you brute!"
And Mike vowed that he would conquer sloth and lasciviousness, and outrageously triumph in the gaudy, foolish world, and insult his rival with riches and even honour. Then he heard Lizzie reproach Frank for refusing her first request, and the foolish fellow's expostulations suscitated feelings in Mike of intense satisfaction. He smiled triumphantly when he heard the old man's talents as accountant referred to.
"Father never told you about his failure," said Lizzie. Then the story with all its knots was laboriously unravelled.
"But," said the old man, "my books were declared to be perfect; I was complimented on my books; I was proud of them books."
"Great Scott! the brother as sub-editor, the father as book-keeper, the sister as wife—it would be difficult to imagine anything more complete. I'm sorry for the paper, though;—and my series, what a hash they'll make of it!" Taking the room in a glance, and imagining the others with every piece of furniture and every picture, he thought—"I give him a year, and then these rooms will be for sale. I shall get them; but I must clear out."
He had won four hundred pounds within the last week, and this and his share in a play which was doing fairly well in the provinces, had run up his balance at the bank higher than it had ever stood—to nearly a thousand pounds.
As he considered his good fortune, a sudden desire of change of scene suddenly sprang upon him, and in full revulsion of feeling his mind turned from the long hours in the yellow glare of lamp-light, the staring faces, the heaps of gold and notes, and the cards flying silently around the empty space of green baize; from the long hours spent correcting and manipulating sentences; from the heat and turmoil and dirt of London; from Frank Escott and his family; from stinking, steamy restaurants; from the high flights of stairs, and the prostitution of the Temple. And like butterflies above two flowers, his thoughts hovered in uncertain desire between the sanctity of a honeymoon with Lily Young in a fair enchanted pavilion on a terrace by the sea, near, but not too near, white villas, in a place as fairylike as a town etched by Whistler, and some months of pensive and abstracted life, full to overflowing with the joy and eagerness of incessant cerebration; a summer spent in a quiet country-side, full of field-paths, and hedge-rows, and shadowy woodland lanes—rich with red gables, surprises of woodbine and great sunflowers—where he would walk meditatively in the sunsetting, seeing the village lads and lassies pass, interested in their homely life, so resting his brain after the day's labour; then in his study he would find the candles already lighted, the kettle singing, his books and his manuscripts ready for three excellent hours; upon his face the night would breathe the rustling of leaves and the rich odour of the stocks and tall lilies, until he closed the window at midnight, casting one long sad and regretful look upon the gold mysteries of the heavens.
So his reverie ran, interrupted by the conversation in the next room. He heard his name mentioned frequently. The situation was embarrassing, for he could not open a door without being heard. At last he tramped boldly out, slamming the doors after him, leaving a note for Frank on the table in the passage. It ran as follows—"I am leaving town in a few days. I shall remove my things probably on Monday. Much obliged to you for your hospitality; and now, good-bye." "That will look," he thought, "as if I had not overheard his remarks. How glad I shall be to get away! Oh, for new scenes, new faces! 'How pleasant it is to have money!—heigh-ho!—how pleasant it is to have money!' Whither shall I go? Whither? To Italy, and write my poem? To Paris or Norway? I feel as if I should never care to see this filthy Temple again." Even the old dining-hall, with its flights of steps and balustrades, seemed to have lost all accent of romance; but he stayed to watch the long flight of the pigeons as they came on straightened wings from the gables. "What familiar birds they are! Nothing is so like a woman as a pigeon; perhaps that's the reason Norton does not like them. Norton! I haven't seen him for ages—since that morning...." He turned into Pump Court. The doors were wide open; and there was luggage and some packing-cases on the landing. The floor-matting was rolled, and the screen which protected from draughts the high canonical chair in which Norton read and wrote was overthrown. John was packing his portmanteau, and on either side of him there was a Buddha and Indian warrior which he had lately purchased.
"What, leaving? Giving up your rooms?"
"Yes; I'm going down to Sussex. I do not think it is worth while keeping these rooms on."
Mike expressed his regret. Mike said, "No one understands you as I do." Herein lay the strength of Mike's nature; he won himself through all reserve, and soon John was telling him his state of soul: that he felt it would not be right for him to countenance with his presence any longer the atheism and immorality of the Temple. Lady Helen's death had come for a warning. "After the burning of my poems, after having sacrificed so much, it was indeed a pitiful thing to find myself one of that shocking revel which had culminated in the death of that woman."
"There he goes again," thought Mike, "running after his conscience like a dog after his tail—a performing dog, too; one that likes an audience." And to stimulate the mental antics in which he was so much interested, he said, "Do you believe she is in hell?"
"I refrain from judging her. She may have repented in the moment of death. God is her judge. But I shall never forget that morning; and I feel that my presence at your party imposes on me some measure of responsibility. As for you, Mike, I really think you ought to consider her fate as an omen. It was you ..."
"For goodness' sake, don't. It was Frank who invented the notion that she killed herself because I had been flirting with her. I never heard of anything so ridiculous. I protest. You know the absurdly sentimental view he takes. It is grossly unfair."
Knowing well how to interest John, Mike defended himself passionately, as if he were really concerned to place his soul in a true light; and twenty minutes were agreeably spent in sampling, classifying, and judging of motives. Then the conversation turned on the morality of women, and Mike judiciously selected some instances from his stock of experiences whereby John might judge of their animalism. Like us all, John loved to talk sensuality; but it was imperative that the discussion should be carried forward with gravity and reserve. Seated in his high canonical chair, wrapped in his dressing-gown, John would bend forward listening, as if from the Bench or the pulpit, awaking to a more intense interest when some more than usually bitter vial of satire was emptied upon the fair sex. He had once amused Harding very much by his admonishment of a Palais Royal farce.
"It was not," he said, "so much the questionableness of the play; what shocked me most was the horrible levity of the audience, the laughter with which every indecent allusion was greeted."
The conversation had fallen, and Mike said—
"So you are going away? Well, we shall all miss you very much. But you don't intend to bury yourself in the country; you'll come up to town sometimes."
"I feel I must not stay here; the place has grown unbearable." A look of horror passed over John's face. "Hall has the rooms opposite. His life is a disgrace; he hurries through his writing, and rushes out to beat up the Strand, as he puts it, for shop-girls. I could not live here any longer."
Mike could not but laugh a little; and offended, John rose and continued the packing of his Indian gods. Allusion was made to Byzantine art; and Mike told the story of Frank's marriage; and John laughed prodigiously at the account he gave of the conversation overheard. Regarding the quarrel John was undecided. He found himself forced to admit that Mike's conduct deserved rebuke; but at the same time, Frank's sentimental views were wholly distasteful to him. Then in reply to a question as to where he was going, Mike said he didn't know. John invited him to come and stay at Thornby Place.
"It is half-past three now. Do you think you could get your things packed in time to catch the six o'clock?"
"I think so. I can instruct Southwood; she will forward the rest of my things."
"Then be off at once; I have a lot to do. Hall is going to take my furniture off my hands. I have made rather a good bargain with him."
Nothing could suit Mike better. He had never stayed in a country house; and now as he hurried down the Temple, remembrances of Mount Rorke Castle rose in his mind—the parade of dresses on the summer lawns, and the picturesqueness of the shooting parties about the long, withering woods.
For some minutes longer the men lay resting in the heather, their eyes drinking the colour and varied lights and lines of the vast horizon. The downs rose like cliffs, and the dead level of the weald was freckled with brick towns; every hedgerow was visible as the markings on a chess-board; the distant lands were merged in blue vapour, and the windmill on its little hill seemed like a bit out of a young lady's sketch-book.
"How charming it is here!—how delightful! How sorrow seems to vanish, or to hang far away in one's life like a little cloud! It is only in moments of contemplation like this, when our wretched individuality is lost in the benedictive influences of nature, that true happiness is found. Ah! the wonderful philosophy of the East, the wisdom of the ancient races! Christianity is but a vulgarization of Buddhism, an adaptation, an arrangement for family consumption."
They were not a mile from where John had seen Kitty for a last time. Now the mere recollection of her jarred his joy in the evening, for he had long since begun to understand that his love of her had been a kind of accident, even as her death a strange unaccountable divagation of his true nature. He had grown ashamed of his passion, and he now thought that, like Parsifal, instead of yielding, he should have looked down and seen a cross in the sword's hilt, and the temptation should have passed. That cruel death, never explained, so mysterious and so involved in horror! In what measure was he to blame? In what light was he to view this strange death as a symbol, as a sign? And if she had not been killed? If he had married her? To escape from these assaults of conscience he buried his mind in his books and writings, not in his history of Christian Latin, for now his history of those writers appeared to him sterile, and he congratulated himself that he had outgrown love of such paradoxes.
Solemn, and with the great curves of palms, the sky arched above them, and all the coombes filled with all the mystery of evening shadow, and all around lay the sea—a rim of sea illimitable.
At the end of a long silence Mike spoke of his poem.
"You must have written a good deal of it by this time."
"No, I have written very little;" and then yielding to his desire to astonish, confessed he was working at a trilogy on the life of Christ, and had already decided the main lines and incidents of the three plays. His idea was the disintegration of the legend, which had united under a godhead certain socialistic aspirations then prevalent in Judaea. In his first play, John, he introduces two reformers, one of whom is assassinated by John; the second perishes in a street broil, leaving the field free for the triumph of Jesus of Nazareth. In the second play, Jesus, he tells the story of Jesus and the Magdalene. She throws over her protector, one of the Rabbi, and refuses her admirer, Judas, for Jesus. The Rabbi plots to destroy Jesus, and employs Judas. In the third play, Peter, he pictures the struggle of the new idea in pagan Rome, and it ends in Peter flying from Rome to escape crucifixion; but outside the city he sees Christ carrying His cross, and Christ says He is going to be crucified a second time, whereupon Peter returns to Rome.
As they descended the rough chalk road into the weald, John said, "I have sacrificed much for my religion. I think, therefore, I have a right to say that it is hard that my house should be selected for the manufacture of blasphemous trilogies."
Knowing that argument would profit him nothing, Mike allayed John's heaving conscience with promises not to write another line of the trilogy, and to devote himself entirely to his poem. At the end of a long silence, John said—
"Now the very name of Schopenhauer revolts me. I accept nothing of his ideas. From that ridiculous pessimism I have drifted very far indeed. Pessimism is impossible. To live we must have an ideal, and pessimism offers none. So far it is inferior even to positivism."
"Pessimism offers no ideal! It offers the highest—not to create life is the only good; the creation of life is the only evil; all else which man in his bestial stupidity calls good and evil is ephemeral and illusionary."
"Schopenhauer's arguments against suicide are not valid, that you admit, therefore it is impossible for the pessimist to justify his continued existence."
"Pardon me, the diffusion of the principle of sufficient reason can alone end this world, and we are justified in living in order that by example and precept we may dissuade others from the creation of life. The incomparable stupidity of life teaches us to love our parents—divine philosophy teaches us to forgive them."
That evening Mike played numerous games of backgammon with Mrs. Norton; talked till two in the morning to John of literature, and deplored the burning of the poems, and besought him to write them again, and to submit them, if need be, to a bishop. He worked hard to obliterate the effect of his foolish confidences; for he was very happy in this large country house, full of unexpected impressions for him. On the wide staircases he stopped, tense with sensations of space, order, and ample life. He was impressed by the timely meals, conducted by well-trained servants; and he found it pleasant to pass from the house into the richly-planted garden, and to see the coachman washing the carriage, the groom scraping out the horse's hooves, the horse tied to the high wall, the cowman stumping about the rick-yard—indeed all the homely work always in progress.
Sometimes he did not come down to lunch, and continued his work till late in the afternoon. At five he had tea in the drawing-room with Mrs. Norton, and afterwards went out to gather flowers in the garden with her, or he walked around the house with John, listening to his plans for the architectural reformation of his residence.
Mike had now been a month at Thornby Place. He was enchanted with this country-side, and seeing it lent itself to his pleasure—in other words, that it was necessary to his state of mind—he strove, and with insidious inveiglements, to win it, to cajole it, to make it part and parcel of himself. But its people were reserved. Instinctively Mike attacked the line and the point of least resistance, and the point of least resistance lay about three miles distant. A young squire—a young man of large property and an unimpeachable position in the county—lived there in a handsome house with his three sisters. His life consisted in rabbit-shooting and riding out every morning to see his sheep upon the downs. He was the rare man who does not desire himself other than he is. But content, though an unmixed blessing to its possessor, is not an attractive quality, and Mr. Dallas stood sorely in need of a friend. He loved his sisters, but to spend every evening in their society was monotonous, and he felt, and they felt still more keenly, that a nice young man would create an interest that at present was wanting in country life. Mike had heard of this young squire and his sisters, and had long desired to meet him. But they had paid their yearly visit to Thornby Place, and he could not persuade John to go to Holly Park.
One day riding on the downs, Mike inquired the way to Henfield of a young man who passed him riding a bay horse. The question was answered curtly—so curtly that Mike thought the stranger could not be led into conversation. In this he was mistaken, and at the end of half a mile felt he had succeeded in interesting his companion. As they descended into the weald, Mike told him he was stopping at Thornby Place, and the young squire told him he was Mr. Dallas. When about to part, Mike asked to be directed to the nearest inn, complaining that he was dying of thirst, for he wished to give Mr. Dallas an excuse for asking him to his house. Mr. Dallas availed himself of the excuse; and Mike prayed that he might find the ladies at home. They were in the drawing-room. The piano was played, and amid tea and muffins, tennis was discussed, allusions were made to man's inconstancy.
Mike left no uncertainty regarding his various qualities. He liked hunting as much as shooting, and having regard for the season of the year, he laid special stress upon his love for, and his prowess in, the game of tennis. A week later he received an invitation to tennis. Henceforth he rode over frequently to Holly Park. He was sometimes asked to stay the night, and an impression was gaining ground there that life was pleasanter with him than without him.
When he was not there the squire missed the morning ride and the game of billiards in the evening, and the companion to whom he could speak of his sheep and his lambs. Mike listened to the little troubles of each sister in the back garden, never failing to evince the profoundest sympathy. He was surprised to find that he enjoyed these conversations just as much as a metaphysical disquisition with John Norton. "I am not pretending," he often said to himself; "it is quite true;" and then he added philosophically, "Were I not interested in them I should not succeed in interesting them."
The brother, the sisters, the servants, even the lap-dog shared in the pleasure. The maid-servants liked to meet his tall figure in the passages; the young ladies loved to look into his tender eyes when they came in from their walk and found him in the drawing-room.
To touch Mike's skin was to touch his soul, and even the Yorkshire terrier was sensible of its gentleness, and soon preferred of all places to doze under his hand. Mike came into Dallas' room in the morning when he was taking his bath; he hung around the young ladies' rooms, speaking through the half-open doors; then when the doors were open, the young ladies fled and wrapped themselves in dressing-gowns. He felt his power; and by insidious intimations, by looks, words, projects for pleasure, presents, practical jokes, books, and talks about books, he proceeded joyously in his corruption of the entire household.
Naturally Mike rode his host's horses, and he borrowed his spurs, breeches, boots, and hunting-whip. And when he began to realize what an excellent pretext hunting is for making friends, and staying in country houses, he bought a couple of horses, which he kept at Holly Park free of cost. He had long since put aside his poem and his trilogy, and now thought of nothing but shooting and riding. He could throw his energies into anything, from writing a poem to playing chuck-farthing.
The first meet of the hounds was at Thornby Place, and in the vain hope of marrying her son, Mrs. Norton had invited the young girls of the entire country-side. Lady Edith Downsdale was especially included in her designs; but John instantly vetoed her hopes by asking Mike to take Lady Edith in to lunch. She stood holding her habit; and feeling the necessity of being brilliant, Mike said, pointing to the hounds and horses—
"How strange it is that that is of no interest to the artist! I suppose because it is only parade; whereas a bit of lane with a wind-blown hedge is a human emotion, and that is always interesting."
Soon after, a fox was found in the plantation that rimmed the lawn, and seeing that Lady Edith was watching him, Mike risked a fall over some high wattles; and this was the only notice he took of her until late in the afternoon, until all hope of hunting was ended. A fox had been "chopped" in cover, another had been miserably coursed and killed in a back garden. He strove to make himself agreeable while riding with her along the hillsides, watching the huntsman trying each patch of gorse in the coombes. She seemed to him splendid and charming, and he wondered if he could love her—marry her, and never grow weary of her. But when the hounds found in a large wood beneath the hills, and streamed across the meadows, he forgot her, and making his horse go in and out he fought for a start. A hundred and fifty were cantering down a steep muddy lane; a horseman who had come across the field strove to open a strong farm-gate. "It is locked," he roared; "jump." The lane was steep and greasy, the gate was four feet and a half. Mike rode at it. The animal dropped his hind-legs, Mike heard the gate rattle, and a little ejaculatory cry come from those he left behind. It was a close shave. Turning in his saddle he saw the immense crowd pressing about the gate, which could not be opened, and he knew very well that he would have the hounds to himself for many a mile.
He raced alone across the misty pasture lands, full of winter water and lingering leaf; the lofty downs like sea cliffs, appearing through great white masses of curling vapour. And all the episodes of that day—the great ox fences which his horse flew, going like a bird from field to field; the awkward stile, the various brooks,—that one overgrown with scrub which his horse had refused—thrilled him. And when the day was done, as he rode through the gathering night, inquiring out the way down many a deep and wooded lane, happiness sang within him, and like a pure animal he enjoyed the sensation of life, and he intoxicated on the thoughts of the friends that would have been his, the women and the numberless pleasures and adventures he could have engaged in, were he not obliged to earn money, or were not led away from them "by his accursed literary tastes."
Should he marry one of the sisters? Ridiculous! But what was there to do? To-day he was nearly thirty; in ten years he would be a middle-aged man; and, alas! for he felt in him manifold resources, sufficient were he to live for five hundred years. Must he marry Agnes? He might if she was a peeress in her own right! Or should he win a peerage for himself by some great poem, or by some great political treachery? No, no; he wanted nothing better than to live always strong and joyous in this corner of fair England; and to be always loved by girls, and to be always talked of by them about their tea-tables. Oh, for a cup of tea and a slice of warm buttered toast!
A good hour's ride yawned between him and Holly Park, but by crossing the downs it might be reduced to three-quarters of an hour. He hesitated, fearing he might miss his way in the fog, but the tea-table lured him. He resolved to attempt it, and forced his horse up a slightly indicated path, which he hoped would led him to a certain barn. High above him a horseman, faint as the shadow of a bird, made his way cantering briskly. Mike strove to overtake him, but suddenly missed him: behind him the pathway was disappearing.
Fearing he might have to pass a night on the downs, he turned his horse's head; but the animal was obdurate, and a moment after he was lost. He said, "Great Scott! where am I? Where did this ploughed field come from? I must be near the dike." Then thinking that he recognized the headland, he rode in a different direction, but was stopped by a paling and a chalk-pit, and, riding round it, he guessed the chalk-pit must be fifty feet deep. Strange white patches, fabulous hillocks, and distortions of ground loomed through the white darkness; and a valley opened on his right so steep that he was afraid to descend into it. Very soon minutes became hours and miles became leagues.
"There's nothing for it but to lie under a furze-bush." With two pocket-handkerchiefs he tied his horse's fore-legs close together, and sat down and lit a cigar. The furze-patch was quite hollow underneath and almost dry.
"It is nearly full moon," he said; "were it not for that it would be pitch dark. Good Lord! thirteen hours of this; I wish I had never been born!"
He had not, however, finished his first cigar before a horse's head and shoulders pushed through the mist. Mike sprang to his feet.
"Can you tell me the way off these infernal downs?" he cried. "Oh, I beg your pardon, Lady Edith."
"Oh, is that you, Mr. Fletcher? I have lost my way and my groom too. I am awfully frightened; I missed him of a sudden in the fog. What shall I do? Can you tell me the way?"
"Indeed I cannot; if I knew the way I should not be sitting under this furze-bush."
"What shall we do? I must get home."
"It is very terrible, Lady Edith, but I'm afraid you will not be able to get home till the fog lifts."
"But I must get home. I must! I must! What will they think? They'll be sending out to look for me. Won't you come with me, Mr. Fletcher, and help me to find the way?"
"I will, of course, do anything you like; but I warn you, Lady Edith, that riding about these downs in a fog is most dangerous; I as nearly as possible went over a chalk-pit fifty feet deep."
"Oh, Mr. Fletcher, I must get home; I cannot stay here all night; it is ridiculous."
They talked so for a few minutes. Then amid many protestations Lady Edith was induced to dismount. He forced her to drink, and to continue sipping from his hunting-flask, which was fortunately full of brandy; and when she said she was no longer cold, he put his arm about her, and they talked of their sensations on first seeing each other.
Three small stones, two embedded in the ground, the third, a large flint, lay close where the grass began, and the form of a bush was faint on the heavy white blanket in which the world was wrapped. A rabbit crept through the furze and frightened them, and they heard the horses browsing.
Mike declared he could say when she had begun to like him.
"You remember you were standing by the sideboard holding your habit over your boots; I brought you a glass of champagne, and you looked at me...."
She told him of her troubles since she had left school. He related the story of his own precarious fortunes; and as they lay dreaming of each other, the sound of horse's hoofs came through the darkness.
"Oh, do cry out, perhaps they will be able to tell us the way."
"Do you want to leave me?"
"No, no, but I must get home; what will father think?"
Mike shouted, and his shout was answered.
"Where are you?" asked the unknown.
"Here," said Mike.
"Where is here?"
"By the furze-bush."
"Where is the furze-bush?"
It was difficult to explain, and the voice grew fainter. Then it seemed to come from a different side.
Mike shouted again and again, and at last a horseman loomed like a nightmare out of the dark. It was Parker, Lady Edith's groom.
"Oh, Parker, how did you miss me? I have been awfully frightened; I don't know what I should have done if I had not met Mr. Fletcher."
"I was coming round that barn, my lady; you set off at a trot, my lady, and a cloud of fog came between us."
"Yes, yes; but do you know the way home?"
"I think, my lady, we are near the dike; but I wouldn't be certain."
"I nearly as possible rode into a chalk-pit," said Mike. "Unpleasant as it is, I think we had better remain where we are until it clears."
"Oh, no, no, we cannot remain here; we might walk and lead the horses."
"Very well, you get on your horse; I'll lead."
"No, no," she whispered, "give me your arm, and I'll walk."
They walked in the bitter, hopeless dark, stumbling over the rough ground, the groom following with the horses. But soon Lady Edith stopped, and leaning heavily on Mike, said—
"I can go no further; I wish I were dead!"
"Dead! No, no," he whispered; "live for my sake, darling."
At that moment the gable of a barn appeared like an apparition. The cattle which were lying in the yard started from under the horses' feet, and stood staring in round-eyed surprise. The barn was half full of hay, and in the dry pungent odour Mike and Lady Edith rested an hour. Sometimes a bullock filled the doorway with ungainly form and steaming nostrils; sometimes the lips of the lovers met. In about half an hour the groom returned with the news that the fog was lifting, and discovering a cart-track, they followed it over the hills for many a mile.
"There is Horton Borstal," cried Parker, as they entered a deep cutting overgrown with bushes. "I know my way now, my lady; we are seven miles from home."
When he bade Lady Edith good-bye, Mike's mind thrilled with a sense of singular satisfaction. Here was an adventure which seemed to him quite perfect; it had been preceded by no wearisome preliminaries, and he was not likely ever to see her again.
Weeks and months passed, and the simple-minded country folk with whom he had taken up his abode seemed more thoroughly devoted to him; the anchor of their belief seemed now deeply grounded, and in the peaceful bay of their affection his bark floated, safe from shipwrecking current or storm. There was neither subterfuge or duplicity in Mike; he was always singularly candid on the subject of his sins and general worthlessness, and he was never more natural in word and deed than at Holly Park. If its inmates had been reasonable they would have cast him forth; but reason enters hardly at all in the practical conduct of human life, and our loves and friendships owe to it neither origin or modification.
It was a house of copious meals and sleep. Mike stirred these sluggish livers, and they accepted him as a digestive; and they amused him, and he only dreamed vaguely of leaving them until he found his balance at the bank had fallen very low. Then he packed up his portmanteau and left them, and when he walked down the Strand he had forgotten them and all country pursuits, and wanted to talk of journalism; and he would have welcomed the obscurest paragraphist. Suddenly he saw Frank; and turning from a golden-haired actress who was smiling upon him, he said—
"How do you do?" The men shook hands, and stood constrainedly talking for a few minutes; then Mike suggested lunch, and they turned into Lubini's. The proprietor, a dapper little man, more like a rich man's valet than a waiter, whose fat fingers sparkled with rings, sat sipping sherry and reading the racing intelligence to a lord who offered to toss him for half-crowns.
"Now then, Lubi," cried the lord, "which is it? Come on; just this once."
Lubi demurred. "You toss too well for me; last night you did win seven times running—damn!"
"Come on, Lubi; here it is flat on the table."
Mike longed to pull his money out of his pocket, but he had not been on terms with Lubi since he had called him a Marchand de Soupe, an insult which Lubi had not been able to forgive, and it was the restaurateur's women-folk who welcomed him back to town after his long absence.
"What an air of dissipation, hilarity, and drink there is about the place!" said Mike. "Look!" and his eyes rested on two gross men—music-hall singers—who sat with their agent, sipping Chartreuse. "Three years ago," he said, "they were crying artichokes in an alley, and the slum is still upon their faces."
No one else was in the long gallery save the waiters, who dozed far away in the mean twilight of the glass-roofing.
"How jolly it is," said Mike, "to order your own dinner! Let's have some oysters—three dozen. We'll have a Chateaubriand—what do you say? And an omelette soufflee—what do you think? And a bottle of champagne. Waiter, bring me the wine-list."
Frank had spoken to Mike because he felt lonely; the world had turned a harsh face on him. Lord Mount Rorke had married, and the paper was losing its circulation.
"And how is the paper going?"
"Pretty well; just the same as usual. Do you ever see it? What do you think of my articles?"
"Your continuation of my series, Lions of the Season? Very good; I only saw one or two. I have been living in the country, and have hardly seen a paper for the last year and a half. You can't imagine the life I have been leading. Nice kind people 'tis true; I love them, but they never open a book. That is all very nice for a time—for three months, for six, for a year—but after that you feel a sense of alienation stealing over you."
Mike saw that Frank had only met with failure; so he was tempted to brandish his successes. He gave a humorous description of his friends—how he had picked them up; how they had supplied him with horses to ride and guns to shoot with.
"And what about the young ladies? Were they included in the hospitality?"
"They included themselves. How delicious love in a country house is!—and how different from other love it is, to follow a girl dressed for dinner into the drawing-room or library, and to take her by the waist, to feel a head leaning towards you and a mouth closing upon yours! Above all, when the room is in darkness—better still in the firelight—the light of the fire on her neck.... How good these oysters are! Have some more champagne."
Then, in a sudden silence, a music-hall gent was heard to say that some one was a splendid woman, beautifully developed.
"Now then, Lubi, old man, I toss you for a sovereign," cried a lord, who looked like a sandwich-man in his ample driving-coat.
"You no more toss with me, I have done with you; you too sharp for me."
"What! are you going to cut me? Are you going to warn me off your restaurant?"
Roars of laughter followed, and the lions of song gazed in admiration on the lord.
"I may be hard up," cried the lord; "but I'm damned if I ever look hard up; do I, Lubi?"
"Since you turn up head when you like, why should you look hard up?"
"You want us to believe you are a 'mug,' Lubi, that's about it, but it won't do. 'Mugs' are rare nowadays. I don't know where to go and look for them.... I say, Lubi," and he whispered something in the restaurateur's ear, "if you know of any knocking about, bring them down to my place; you shall stand in."
"Damn me! You take me for a pump, do you? You get out!"
The genial lord roared the more, and assured Lubi he meant "mugs," and offered to toss him for a sovereign.
"How jolly this is!" said Mike. "I'm dying for a gamble; I feel as if I could play as I never played before. I have all the cards in my mind's eye. By George! I wish I could get hold of a 'mug,' I'd fleece him to the tune of five hundred before he knew where he was. But look at that woman! She's not bad."
"A great coarse creature like that! I never could understand you.... Have you heard of Lily Young lately?"
Mike's face fell.
"No," he said, "I have not. She is the only woman I ever loved. I would sooner see her than the green cloth. I really believe I love that girl. Somehow I cannot forget her."
"Well, come and see her to-day. Take your eyes off that disgusting harlot."
"No, not to-day," he replied, without removing his eyes. Five minutes after he said, "Very well, I will go. I must see her."
The waiter was called, the bill was paid, a hansom was hailed, and they were rolling westward. In the pleasure of this little expedition, Mike's rankling animosity was almost forgotten. He said—
"I love this drive west; I love to see London opening up, as it were, before the wheels of the hansom—Trafalgar Square, the Clubs, Pall Mall, St. James' Street, Piccadilly, the descent, and then the gracious ascent beneath the trees. You see how I anticipate it all."
"Do you remember that morning when Lady Helen committed suicide? What did you think of my article?"
"I didn't see it. I should have liked to have written about it; but you said that I wouldn't write feelingly."
Mrs. Young hardly rose from her sofa; but she welcomed them in plaintive accents. Lily showed less astonishment and pleasure at seeing him than Mike expected. She was talking to a lady, who was subsequently discovered to be the wife of a strange fat man, who, in his character of Orientalist, squatted upon the lowest seat in the room, and wore a velvet turban on his head, a voluminous overcoat circulating about him.
"As I said to Lady Hazeldean last night—I hope Mr. Gladstone did not hear me, he was talking to Lady Engleton Dixon about divorce, I really hope he did not hear me—but I really couldn't help saying that I thought it would be better if he believed less in the divorce of nations, even if I may not add that he might with advantage believe more in the divorce of persons not suited to each other."
When the conversation turned on Arabi, which it never failed to do in this house, the perfume-burners that had been presented to her and Mr. Young on their triumphal tour were pointed out.
"I telegraphed to Dilke," said Sir Joseph, "'You must not hang that man.' And when Mrs. Young accused him of not taking sufficient interest in Africa, he said—'My dear Mrs. Young, I not interested in Africa! You forget what I have done for Africa; how I have laboured for Africa. I shall not believe in the synthesis of humanity, nor will it be complete, till we get the black votes.'"
"Mr. Young and Lord Granville used to have such long discussions about Buddhism, and it always used to end in Mr. Young sending a copy of your book to Lord Granville."
"A very great distinction for me—a very great distinction for me," murmured Buddha; and allowing Mrs. Young to relieve him of his tea-cup, he said—"and now, Mrs. Young, I want to ask for your support and co-operation in a little scheme—a little scheme which I have been nourishing like a rose in my bosom for some years."
Sir Joseph raised his voice; and it was not until he had imposed silence on his wife that he consented to unfold his little scheme.
Then the fat man explained that in a certain province in Cylone (a name of six syllables) there was a temple, and this temple had belonged in the sixth century to a tribe of Buddhists (a name of seven syllables), and this temple had in the eighth century been taken from the Buddhists by a tribe of Brahmins (a name of eight syllables).
"And not being Mr. Gladstone," said Sir Joseph, "I do not propose to dispossess the Brahmins without compensation. I am merely desirous that the Brahmins should be bought out by the Indian Government at a cost of a hundred and fifty or two hundred thousand. If this were done the number of pilgrims to this holy shrine would be doubled, and the best results would follow."
"Oh, Mrs. Jellaby, where art thou?" thought Mike, and he boldly took advantage of the elaborate preparations that were being made for Sir Joseph to write his name on a fan, to move round the table and take a seat by Lily.
But Frank's patience was exhausted, and he rose to leave.
"People wonder at the genius of Shakespeare! I must say the stupidity of the ordinary man surprises me far more," said Mike.
"I'm a poor man to-day," said Frank, "but I would give L25 to have had Dickens with us—fancy walking up Piccadilly with him afterwards!
"Now I must go," he said. "Lizzie is waiting for me. I'll see you to-morrow," he cried, and drove away.
"Just fancy having to look after her, having to attend to her wants, having to leave a friend and return home to dine with her in a small room! How devilish pleasant it is to be free!—to say, 'Where shall I dine?' and to be able to answer, 'Anywhere.' But it is too early to dine, and too late to play whist. Damn it! I don't know what to do with myself."
Mike watched the elegantly-dressed men who passed hurriedly to their clubs, or drove west to dinner parties. Red clouds and dark clouds collected and rolled overhead, and in a chill wintry breeze the leaves of the tall trees shivered, fell, and were blown along the pavement with sharp harsh sound. London shrouded like a widow in long crape.
"What is there to do? Five o'clock! After that lunch I cannot dine before eight—three hours! Whom shall I go and see?"
A vision of women passed through his mind, but he turned from them all, and he said—
"I will go and see her."
He had met Miss Dudley in Brighton, in a house where he had been asked to tea. She was a small, elderly spinster with sharp features and gray curls. She had expected him to address to her a few commonplace remarks for politeness' sake, and then to leave her for some attractive girl. But he had showed no wish to leave her, and when they met again he walked by her bath-chair the entire length of the Cliff. Miss Dudley was a cripple. She had fallen from some rocks when a child playing on the beach, and had injured herself irremediably. She lived with her maid in a small lodging, and being often confined to her room for days, nearly every visitor was welcome. Mike liked this pallid and forgotten little woman. He found in her a strange sweetness—a wistfulness. There was poetry in her loneliness and her ruined health. Strength, health, and beauty had been crushed by a chance fall. But the accident had not affected the mind, unless perhaps it had raised it into more intense sympathy with life. And in all his various passions and neglected correspondence he never forgot for long to answer her letters, nor did he allow a month to pass without seeing her. And now he bought for her a great packet of roses and a novel; and with some misgivings he chose Zola's Page d'Amour.
"I think this is all right. She'll be delighted with it, if she'll read it."
She would have read anything he gave, and seen no harm since it came from him. The ailing caged bird cannot but delight in the thrilling of the wild bird that comes to it with the freedom of the sky and fields in its wings and song. She listened to all his stories, even to his stories of pigeon-shooting. She knew not how to reproach him. Her eyes fixed upon him, her gentle hand laid on the rail of her chair, she listened while he told her of the friends he had made, and his life in the country; its seascape and downlands, the furze where he had shot the rabbits, the lane where he had jumped the gate. Her pleasures had passed in thought—his in action; the world was for him—this room for her.
There is the long chair in which she lies nearly always; there is the cushion on which the tired head is leaned, a small beautifully-shaped head, and the sharp features are distinct on the dark velvet, for the lamp is on the mantelpiece, and the light falls full on the profile. The curtains are drawn, and the eyes animate with gratitude when Mike enters with his roses, and after asking kindly questions he takes a vase, and filling it with water, places the flowers therein, and sets it on the table beside her. There is her fire—(few indeed are the days in summer when she is without it)—the singing kettle suggests the homely tea, and the saucepan on the hearth the invalid. There is her bookcase, set with poetry and religion, and in one corner are the yellow-backed French novels that Mike has given her. They are the touches the most conclusive of reality in her life; and she often smiles, thinking how her friends will strive to explain how they came into her life when she is gone.
"How good of you to come and see me! Tell me about yourself, what you have been doing. I want to hear you talk."
"Well, I've brought you this book; it is a lovely book—you can read it—I think you can read it, otherwise I should not have given it to you."
He remained with her till seven, talking to her about hunting, shooting, literature, and card-playing.
"Now I must go," he said, glancing at the clock.
"Oh, so soon," exclaimed Miss Dudley, waking from her dream; "must you go?"
"I'm afraid I must; I haven't dined yet."
"And what are you going to do after dinner? You are going to play cards."
"How did you guess that?"
"I can't say," she said, laughing; "I think I can often guess your thoughts."
And during the long drive to Piccadilly, and as he eat his sole and drank his Pomard, he dreamed of the hands he should hold, and of the risks he should run when the cards were bad. His brain glowed with subtle combinations and surprises, and he longed to measure his strength against redoubtable antagonists. The two great whist players, Longley and Lovegrove, were there. He always felt jealous of Lovegrove's play. Lovegrove played an admirable game, always making the most of his cards. But there was none of that dash, and almost miraculous flashes of imagination and decision which characterized Mike, and Mike felt that if he had the money on, and with Longley for a partner, he could play as he had never played before; and ignoring a young man whom he might have rooked at ecarte, and avoiding a rich old gentleman who loved his game of piquet, and on whom Mike was used to rely in the old days for his Sunday dinner (he used to say the old gentleman gave the best dinners in London; they always ran into a tenner), he sat down at the whist-table. His partner played wretchedly, and though he had Longley and Lovegrove against him, he could not refrain from betting ten pounds on every rubber. He played till the club closed, he played till he had reduced his balance at the bank to nineteen pounds.
Haunted by the five of clubs, which on one occasion he should have played and did not, he walked till he came to the Haymarket. Then he stopped. What could he do? All the life of idleness and luxury which he had so long enjoyed faded like a dream, and the spectre of cheap lodgings and daily journalism rose painfully distinct. He pitied the street-sweepers, and wondered if it were possible for him to slip down into the gutter. "When I have paid my hotel bill, I shan't have a tenner." He thought of Mrs. Byril, but the idea did not please him, and he remembered Frank had told him he had a cottage on the river. He would go there. He might put up for a night or two at Hall's.
"I will start a series of articles to-morrow. What shall it be?" An unfortunate still stood at the corner of the street. "'Letters to a Light o' Love!' Frank must advance me something upon them.... Those stupid women! if they were not so witless they could rise to any height. If I had only been a woman! ... If I had been a woman I should have liked to have been Ninon de Lanclos."
When Mike had paid his hotel bill, very few pounds were left for the card-room, and judging it was not an hour in which he might tempt fortune, he "rooked" a young man remorselessly. Having thus replenished his pockets he turned to the whist-table for amusement. Luck was against him; he played, defying luck, and left the club owing eighty pounds, five of which he had borrowed from Longley.
Next morning as he dozed, he wondered if, had he played the ten of diamonds instead of the seven of clubs, it would have materially altered his fortune; and from cards his thoughts wandered, till they took root in the articles he was to write for the Pilgrim. He was in Hall's spare bed-room—a large, square room, empty of all furniture except a camp bedstead. His portmanteau lay wide open in the middle of the floor, and a gaunt fireplace yawned amid some yellow marbles.
"'Darling, like a rose you hold the whole world between your lips, and you shed its leaves in little kisses.' That will do for the opening sentences." Then as words slipped from him he considered the component parts of his subject.
"The first letter is of course introductory, and I must establish certain facts, truths which have become distorted and falsified, or lost sight of. Addressing an ideal courtesan, I shall say, 'You must understand that the opening sentence of this letter does not include any part of the old reproach which has been levelled against you since man began to love you, and that was when he ceased to be an ape and became man.
"'If you were ever sphinx-like and bloodthirsty, which I very much doubt, you have changed flesh and skin, even the marrow of your bones. In these modern days you are a kind-hearted little woman who, to pursue an ancient metaphor, sheds the world rosewise in little kisses; but if you did not so shed it, the world would shed itself in tears. Your smiles and laughter are the last lights that play around the white hairs of an aged duke; your winsome tendernesses are the dreams of a young man who writes "pars" about you on Friday, and dines with you on Sunday; you are an ideal in many lives which without you would certainly be ideal-less.' Deuced good that; I wish I had a pencil to make a note; but I shall remember it. Then will come my historical paragraph. I shall show that it is only by confounding courtesans with queens, and love with ambition, that any sort of case can be made out against the former. Third paragraph—'Courtesans are a factor in the great problem of the circulation of wealth, etc.' It will be said that the money thus spent is unproductive.... So much the better! For if it were given to the poor it would merely enable them to bring more children into the world, thereby increasing immensely the general misery of the race. Schopenhauer will not be left out in the cold after all. Quote Lecky,—'The courtesan is the guardian angel of our hearths and homes, the protector of our wives and sisters.'"
"Will you have a bath this morning, sir?" cried the laundress, through the door.
"Yes, and get me a chop for breakfast."
"I shall tell her (the courtesan, not the laundress) how she may organize the various forces latent in her and culminate in a power which shall contain in essence the united responsibilities of church, music-hall, and picture gallery." Mike turned over on his back and roared with laughter. "Frank will be delighted. It will make the fortune of the paper. Then I shall attack my subject in detail. Dress, house, education, friends, female and male. Then the money question. She must make a provision for the future. Charming chapter there is to be written on the old age of the courtesan—charities—ostentatious charities—charitable bazaars, reception into the Roman Catholic faith."
"Shall I bring in your hot water, sir?" screamed the laundress.
"Yes, yes.... Shall my courtesan go on the stage? No, she shall be a pure courtesan, she shall remain unsullied of any labour. She might appear once on the boards;—no, no, she must remain a pure courtesan. Charming subject! It will make a book. Charming opportunity for wit, satire, fancy. I shall write the introductory letter after breakfast."
Frank was in shoaling water, and could not pay his contributors; but Mike could get blood out of a turnip, and Frank advanced him ten pounds on the proposed articles. Frank counted on these articles to whip up the circulation, and Mike promised to let him have four within the week, and left the cottage at Henley, where Frank was living, full of dreams of work. And every morning before he got out of bed he considered and reconsidered his subject, finding always more than one idea, and many a witty fancy; and every day after breakfast the work undone hung like a sword between Hall and him as they sat talking of their friends, of art, of women, of things that did not interest them. They hung around each other, loth yet desirous to part; they followed each other through the three rooms, buttoning their braces and shirt-collars. And when conversation had worn itself out, Mike accepted any pretext to postpone the day's work. He had to fetch ink or cigarettes.
But he was always detained, if not by friends, by the beauty of the gardens or the river. Never did the old dining-hall and the staircases, balustraded—on whose gray stone a leaf, the first of many, rustles—seem more intense and pregnant with that mystic mournfulness which is the Thames, and which is London. The dull sphinx-like water rolling through multitude of bricks, seemed to mark on this wistful autumn day a more melancholy enchantment, and looking out on the great waste of brick delicately blended with smoke and mist, and seeing the hay-boats sailing picturesquely, and the tugs making for Blackfriars, long lines of coal-barges in their wake, laden so deep that the water slopped over the gunwales, he thought of the spring morning when he had waited there for Lily. How she persisted in his mind! Why had he not asked her to marry him instead of striving to make her his mistress? She was too sweet to be cast off like the others; she would have accepted him if he had asked her. He had sacrificed marriage for self, and what had self given him?
Mike was surprised at these thoughts, and pleased, for they proved a certain residue of goodness in him; at all events, called into his consideration a side of his nature which he was not wearisomely familiar with. Then he dismissed these thoughts as he might have the letter of a determined creditor. He could still bid them go. And having easily rid himself of them, he noticed the porters in their white aprons, and the flight of pigeons, the sacred birds of the Temple, coming down from the roofs. And he loved now more than ever Fleet Street, and the various offices where he might idle, and the various luncheon-bars to which he might adjourn with one of the staff, perhaps with the editor of one of the newspapers. The October sunlight was warm and soft, greeted his face agreeably as he lounged, stopping before every shop in which there were books or prints. Ludgate Circus was always a favourite with him, partly because he loved St. Paul's, partly because women assembled there; and now in the mist, delicate and pure, rose above the town the lovely dome.
"None but the barbarians of the Thames," thought Mike, "none other would have allowed that most shameful bridge."
Mike hated Simpson's. He could not abide the stolid city folk, who devour there five and twenty saddles of mutton in an evening. He liked better the Cock Tavern, quiet, snug, and intimate. Wedged with a couple of chums in a comfortable corner, he shouted—
"Henry, get me a chop and a pint of bitter."
There he was sure to meet a young barrister ready to talk to him, and they returned together, swinging their sticks, happy in their bachelordom, proud of the old inns and courts. Often they stayed to look on the church, the church of the Knight Templars, those terrible and mysterious knights who, with crossed legs for sign of mission, and with long swords and kite-shaped shields, lie upon the pavement of the church.
One wet night, when every court and close was buried in a deep, cloying darkness, and the church seemed a dead thing, the pathetic stories of the windows suddenly became dreamily alive, and the organ sighed like one sad at heart. The young men entered; and in the pomp of the pipes, and in shadows starred by the candles, the lone organist sat playing a fugue by Bach.
"It is," said Mike, "like turning the pages of some precious missal, adorned with gold thread and bedazzled with rare jewels. It is like a poem by Edgar Allen Poe." Quelled, and in strange awe they listened, and when the music ceased, unable at once to return to the simple prose of their chambers, they lingered, commenting on the mock taste of the architecture of the dining-hall, and laughing at the inflated inscription over the doorway.
"It is worse," said Mike, "than the Middle Temple Hall—far worse; but I like this old colonnade, there is something so suggestive in this old inscription in bad Latin.
'Vetustissima Templariorum porticu Igne consumpta; an 1679 Nova haec sumptibus medii Templie extructa an 1681 Gulielmo Whiteloche arm Thesauoer.'"
Once or twice a week Hall dined at the Cock for the purpose of meeting his friends, whom he invited after dinner to his rooms to smoke and drink till midnight. His welcome was so cordial that all were glad to come. The hospitality was that which is met in all chambers in the Temple. Coffee was made with difficulty, delay, and uncertain result; a bottle of port was sometimes produced; of whiskey and water there was always plenty. Every one brought his own tobacco; and in decrepit chairs beneath dangerously-laden bookcases some six or seven barristers enjoyed themselves in conversation, smoke, and drink. Mike recognized how characteristically Temple was this society, how different from the heterogeneous visitors of Temple Gardens in the heyday of Frank's fortune.
James Norris was a small, thin man, dark and with regular features, clean shaven like a priest or an actor, vaguely resembling both, inclining towards the hieratic rather than to the histrionic type. He dressed always in black, and the closely-buttoned jacket revealed the spareness of his body. He was met often in the evening, going to dine at the Cock; but was rarely seen walking about the Temple in the day-time. It was impossible to meet any one more suasive and agreeable; his suavity was penetrating as his small dark eyes. He lived in Elm Court, and his rooms impressed you with a sense of cleanliness and comfort. The furniture was all in solid mahogany; there were no knick-knacks or any lightness, and almost the only aesthetic intentions were a few sober engravings—portraits of men in wigs and breastplates. He took pleasure in these and also in some first editions, containing the original plates, which, when you knew him well, he produced from the bookcase and descanted on their value and rarity.
Mr. Norris had always an excellent cigar to offer you, and he pressed you to taste of his old port, and his Chartreuse; there was whiskey for you too, if you cared to take it, and allusion was made to its age. But it was neither an influence nor a characteristic of his rooms; the port wine was. If there was fruit on the sideboard, there was also pounded sugar; and it is such detail as the pounded sugar that announces an inveterate bachelorhood. Some men are born bachelors. And when a man is born a bachelor, the signs unmistakable are hardly apparent at thirty; it is not until the fortieth year is approached that the fateful markings become recognizable. James Norris was forty-two, and was therefore a full-fledged bachelor. He was a bachelor in the complete equipment of his chambers. He was bachelor in his arm-chair and his stock of wine; his hospitality was that of a bachelor, for a man who feels instinctively that he will never own a "house and home" constructs the materiality of his life in chambers upon a fuller basis than the man who feels instinctively that he will, sooner or later, exchange the perch-like existence of his chambers for the nest-like completeness of a home in South Kensington.
James Norris was of an excellent county family in Essex. He had a brother in the army, a brother in the Civil Service, and a brother in the Diplomatic Service. He had also a brother who composed somewhat unsuccessful waltz tunes, who borrowed money, and James thought that his brother caused him some anxiety of mind. The eldest brother, John Norris, lived at the family place, Halton Grange, where he stayed when he went on the Eastern circuit. James was far too securely a gentleman to speak much of Halton Grange; nevertheless, the flavour of landed estate transpired in the course of conversation. He has returned from circuit, having finished up with a partridge drive, etc.
James Norris was a sensualist. His sensuality was recognizable in the close-set eyes and in the sharp prominent chin (he resembled vaguely the portrait of Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal); he never spoke of his amours, but occasionally he would drop an observation, especially if he were talking to Mike Fletcher, that afforded a sudden glimpse of a soul touched if not tainted with erotism. But James Norris was above all things prudent, and knew how to keep vice well in hand.
Like another, he had had his love story, or that which in the life of such a man might pass for a love story. He had flirted a great deal when he was thirty, with a married woman. She had not troubled, she had only slightly eddied, stirred with a few ripples the placidity of a placid stream of life. In hours of lassitude it pleased him to think that she had ruined his life. Man is ever ready to think that his failure comes from without rather than from within. He wrote to her every week a long letter, and spent a large part of the long vacation in her house in Yorkshire, telling her that he had never loved any one but her.
James Norris was an able lawyer, and he was an able lawyer for three reasons. First, because he was a clear-headed man of the world, who had not allowed his intelligence to rust;—it formed part of the routine of his life to read some pages of a standard author before going to bed; he studied all the notorious articles that appeared in the reviews, attempting the assimilation of the ideas which seemed to him best in our time. Secondly, he was industrious, and if he led an independent life, dining frequently in a tavern instead of touting for briefs in society, and so harmed himself, such misadventure was counterbalanced by his industry and his prudence. Thirdly, his sweetness and geniality made him a favourite with the bench. He had much insight into human nature, he studied it, and could detect almost at once the two leading spirits on a jury; and he was always aware of the idiosyncrasies of the judge he was pleading before, and knew how to respect and to flatter them.
Charles Stokes was the oldest man who frequented Hall's chambers, and his venerable appearance was an anomaly in a company formed principally of men under forty. In truth, Charles Stokes was not more than forty-six or seven, but he explained that living everywhere, and doing everything, had aged him beyond his years. In mind, however, he was the youngest there, and his manner was often distressingly juvenile. He wore old clothes which looked as if they had not been brushed for some weeks, and his linen was of dubious cleanliness, and about his rumpled collar there floated a half-tied black necktie. Mike, who hated all things that reminded him of the casualness of this human frame, never was at ease in his presence, and his eye turned in disgust from sight of the poor old gentleman's trembling and ossified fingers. His beard was long and almost white; he snuffed, and smoked a clay pipe, and sat in the arm-chair which stood in the corner beneath the screen which John Norton had left to Hall.
He was always addressed as Mr. Stokes; Hall complimented him and kept him well supplied with whiskey-and-water. He was listened to on account of his age—that is to say, on account of his apparent age, and on account of his gentleness. Harding had described him as one who talked learned nonsense in sweetly-measured intonations. But although Harding ridiculed him, he often led him into conversation, and listened with obvious interest, for Mr. Stokes had drifted through many modes and manners of life, and had in so doing acquired some vague knowledge.
He had written a book on the ancient religions of India, which he called the Cradleland of Arts and Creeds, and Harding, ever on the alert to pick a brain however poor it might be, enticed him into discussion in which frequent allusion was made to Vishnu and Siva.
Yes, drifted is the word that best expresses Mr. Stokes' passage through life—he had drifted. He was one of the many millions who live without a fixed intention, without even knowing what they desire; and he had drifted because in him strength and weakness stood at equipoise; no defect was heavy enough for anchor, nor was there any quality large enough for sufficient sail; he had drifted from country to country, from profession to profession, whither winds and waves might bear him.
"Of course I'm a failure," was a phrase that Mr. Stokes repeated with a mild, gentle humour, and without any trace of bitterness. He spoke of himself with the naive candour of a docile school-boy, who has taken up several subjects for examination and been ploughed in them all. For Mr. Stokes had been to Oxford, and left it without taking a degree. Then he had gone into the army, and had proved himself a thoroughly inefficient soldier, and more than any man before or after, had succeeded in rousing the ire of both adjutant and colonel. It was impossible to teach him any drill; what he was taught to-day he forgot to-morrow; when the general came down to inspect, the confusion he created in the barrack-yard had proved so complex, that for a second it had taxed the knowledge of the drill-sergeant to get the men straight again.
Mr. Stokes was late at all times and all occasions: he was late for drill, he was late for mess, he was late for church; and when sent for he was always found in his room, either learning a part or writing a play. His one passion was theatricals; and wherever the regiment was stationed, he very soon discovered those who were disposed to get up a performance of a farce.
When he left the army he joined the Indian bar, and there he applied himself in his own absent-minded fashion to the study of Sanscrit, neglecting Hindustani, which would have been of use to him in his profession. Through India, China, and America he had drifted. In New York he had edited a newspaper; in San Francisco he had lectured, and he returned home with an English nobleman who had engaged him as private secretary.
When he passed out of the nobleman's service he took chambers in the Temple, and devoted his abundant leisure to writing his memoirs, and the pleasantest part of his life began. The Temple suited him perfectly, its Bohemianism was congenial to him, the library was convenient, and as no man likes to wholly cut himself adrift from his profession, the vicinity of the law courts, and a modicum of legal conversation in the evening, sufficed to maintain in his absent-minded head the illusion that he was practising at the bar. His chambers were bare and dreary, unadorned with spoils from India or China. Mr. Stokes retained nothing; he had passed through life like a bird. He had drifted, and all things had drifted from him; he did not even possess a copy of his Cradleland of Arts and Creeds. He had lost all except a small property in Kent, and appeared to be quite alone in the world.
Mr. Stokes talked rarely of his love affairs, and his allusions were so partial that nothing exact could be determined about him. It was, however, noticed that he wore a gold bracelet indissolubly fastened upon his right wrist, and it was supposed that an Indian princess had given him this, and that a goldsmith had soldered it upon him in her presence, as she lay on her death-bed. It was noticed that a young girl came to see him at intervals, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by her aunt. Mr. Stokes made no secret of this young person, and he spoke of her as his adopted daughter. Mr. Stokes dined at a theatrical club. All men liked him; he was genial and harmless.
Mr. Joseph Silk was the son of a London clergyman. He was a tall, spare young man, who was often met about the Temple, striding towards his offices or the library. He was comically careful not to say anything that might offend, and nervously concerned to retreat from all persons and things which did not seem to him to offer possibilities of future help; and his assumed geniality and good-fellowship hung about him awkwardly, like the clothes of a broad-chested, thick-thighed man about miserable limbs. For some time Silk had been seriously thinking of cutting himself adrift from all acquaintanceship with Hall. He had, until now, borne with his acquaintanceship because Hall was connected with a society journal that wrote perilously near the law of libel; several times the paper had been threatened with actions, but had somehow, much to Silk's chagrin, managed to escape. All the actionable paragraphs had been discussed with Silk; on each occasion Hall had come down to his chambers for advice, and he felt sure that he would be employed in the case when it did come off. But unfortunately this showed no signs of accomplishment. Silk read the paper every week for the paragraph that was to bring him fame; he would have given almost anything to be employed "in a good advertising case." But he had noticed that instead of becoming more aggressive and personal, that week by week the newspaper was moderating its tone. In the last issue several paragraphs had caught his eye, which could not be described otherwise than as complimentary; there were also several new pages of advertisements; and these robbed him of all hope of an action. He counted the pages, "twelve pages of advertisements—nothing further of a questionable character will go into that paper," thought he, and forthwith fell to considering Hall's invitation to "come in that evening, if he had nothing better to do." He had decided that he would not go, but at the last moment had gone, and now, as he sat drinking whiskey-and-water, he glanced round the company, thinking it might injure him if it became known that he spent his evenings there, and he inwardly resolved he would never again be seen in Hall's rooms.
Silk had been called to the bar about seven years. The first years he considered he had wasted, but during the last four he applied himself to his profession. He had determined "to make a success of life," that was how he put it to himself. He had, during the last four years, done a good deal of "devilling"; he had attended at the Old Bailey watching for "soups" with untiring patience. But lately, within the last couple of years, he had made up his mind that waiting for "soups" at the Old Bailey was not the way to fame or fortune. His first idea of a path out of his present circumstances was through Hall and the newspaper; but he had lately bethought himself of an easier and wider way, one more fruitful of chances and beset with prizes. This broad and easy road to success which he had lately begun to see, wound through his father's drawing-room. London clergymen have, as a rule, large salaries and abundant leisure, and young Silk determined to turn his father's leisure to account. The Reverend Silk required no pressing. "Show me what line to take, and I will take it," said he; and young Silk, knowing well the various firms of solicitors that were dispensing such briefs as he could take, instructed his father when and where he should exercise his tea-table agreeabilities, and forthwith the reverend gentleman commenced his social wrigglings. There were teas and dinners, and calls, and lying without end. Over the wine young Silk cajoled the senior member of the firm, and in the drawing-room, sitting by the wife, he alluded to his father's philanthropic duties, which he relieved with such sniggering and pruriency as he thought the occasion demanded.
About six months ago, Mr. Joseph Silk had accidentally learnt, in the treasurer's offices, that the second floor in No. 5, Paper Buildings was unoccupied. He had thought of changing his chambers, but a second floor in Paper Buildings was beyond his means. But two or three days after, as he was walking from his area in King's Bench Walk to the library, he suddenly remembered that the celebrated advocate, Sir Arthur Haldane, lived on the first floor in Paper Buildings. Now at his father's house, or in one of the houses his father frequented, he might meet Sir Arthur; indeed, a meeting could easily be arranged. Here Mr. Silk's sallow face almost flushed with a little colour, and his heart beat as his little scheme pressed upon his mind. Dreading an obstacle, he feared to allow the thought to formulate; but after a moment he let it slip, and it said—"Now if I were to take the second floor, I should often meet Sir Arthur on the doorstep and staircase. What an immense advantage it would be to me when Stoggard and Higgins learnt that I was on terms of friendship with Sir Arthur. I know as a positive fact that Stoggard and Higgins would give anything to get Sir Arthur for some of their work.... But the rent is very heavy in Paper Buildings. I must speak to father about it." A few weeks after, Mr. Joseph transferred his furniture to No. 2, Paper Buildings; and not long after he had the pleasure of meeting Sir Arthur at dinner.
Mr. Silk's love affairs were neither numerous nor interesting. He had spent little of his time with women, and little of his money upon women, and his amativeness had led him into no wilder exploit than the seduction of his laundress's daughter, by whom he had had a child. Indeed, it had once been whispered that the mother, with the child in her arms, had knocked at King's Bench Walk and had insisted on being admitted. Having not the slightest knowledge or perception of female nature, he had extricated himself with difficulty from the scandal by which he was menaced, and was severely mulcted before the girl was induced to leave London. About every three months she wrote to him, and these letters were read with horror and burnt in trembling haste; for Mr. Joseph Silk was now meditating for matrimonial and legal purposes one of the daughters of one of the solicitors he had met in Paper Buildings, and being an exceedingly nervous, ignorant, and unsympathetic man in all that did not concern his profession, was vastly disturbed at every echo of his indiscretion.
Harding, in reply to a question as to what he thought of Silk, said—
"What do I think of Silk? Cotton back" ... and every one laughed, feeling the intrinsic truth of the judgement.
Mr. George Cooper was Mr. Joseph Silk's friend. Cooper consulted Silk on every point. Whenever he saw a light in Silk's chambers he thrilled a little with anticipation of the pleasant hour before him, and they sat together discussing the abilities of various eminent judges and barristers. Silk told humorous anecdotes of the judges; Cooper was exercised concerning their morality, and enlarged anxiously on the responsibility of placing a man on the Bench without having full knowledge of his private life. Silk listened, puffing at his pipe, and to avoid committing himself to an opinion, asked Cooper to have another glass of port. Before they parted allusion was made to the law-books that Cooper was writing—Cooper was always bringing out new editions of other people's books, and continually exposed the bad law they wrote in his conversation. He had waited his turn like another for "soups" at the Bailey, and like another had grown weary of waiting; besides, the meditative cast of his mind enticed him towards chamber practice and away from public pleading before judge and jury. Silk sought "a big advertising case"; he desired the excitement of court, and, though he never refused any work, he dreaded the lonely hours necessary for the perfect drawing up of a long indictment. Cooper was very much impressed with Silk's abilities; he thought him too hard and mechanical, not sufficiently interested in the science of morals; but these defects of character were forgotten in his homage to his friend's worldly shrewdness. For Cooper was unendowed with worldly shrewdness, and, like all dreamers, was attracted by a mind which controlled while he might only attempt to understand. Cooper's aspirations towards an ideal tickled Silk's mind as it prepared its snares. Cooper often invited Silk to dine with him at the National Liberal Club; Silk sometimes asked Cooper to dine with him at the Union. Silk and Cooper were considered alike, and there were many points in which their appearances coincided. Cooper was the shorter man of the two, but both were tall, thin, narrow, and sallow complexioned; both were essentially clean, respectable, and middle-class.
Cooper was the son of a Low Church bishop who had gained his mitre by temperance oratory, and what his Lordship was in the cathedral, Cooper was in the suburban drawing-rooms where radical politics and the woman's cause were discussed. When he had a brief he brought it to the library to show it; he almost lived in the library. He arrived the moment it was opened, and brought a packet of sandwiches so as not to waste time going out to lunch. His chambers were furnished without taste, but the works of Comte and Spencer showed that he had attempted to think; and the works of several socialistic writers showed that he had striven to solve the problem of human misery. On the table were several novels by Balzac, which conversation with Harding had led him to purchase and to read. He likewise possessed a few volumes of modern poetry, but he freely confessed that he preferred Pope, Dryden, and Johnson; and it was impossible to bring him to understand that De Quincey was more subtle and suggestive than the author of London.
Generally our souls are made of one conspicuous modern mental aspect; but below this aspect we are woven and coloured by the spirit of some preceding century, our chance inheritance, and Cooper was a sort of product of the pedantry of Johnson and the utilitarian mysticism of Comte. Perhaps the idea nearest to Cooper's heart was "the woman's cause." The misery and ignominy of human life had affected him, and he dreamed of the world's regeneration through women; and though well aware that Comte and Spencer advocate the application of experience in all our many mental embarrassments, he failed to reconsider his beliefs in female virtue, although frequently pressed to do so by Mike. Some personal animosity had grown out of their desire to convince each other. Cooper had once even meditated Mike's conversion, and Mike never missed an opportunity of telling some story which he deemed destructive of Cooper's faith. His faith was to him what a microscope is to a scientist, and it enabled him to discover the finest characteristics in the souls of bar-girls, chorus girls, and prostitutes; and even when he fell, and they fell, his belief in their virtue and the nobility of their womanly instincts remained unshaken.