E-text prepared by Andrew Sly
Author of "A Mummer's Wife," "Confessions of a Young Man," Etc.
TO MY BROTHER AUGUSTUS, IN MEMORY OF MANY YEARS OF MUTUAL ASPIRATION AND LABOUR
Oaths, vociferations, and the slamming of cab-doors. The darkness was decorated by the pink of a silk skirt, the crimson of an opera-cloak vivid in the light of a carriage-lamp, with women's faces, necks, and hair. The women sprang gaily from hansoms and pushed through the swing-doors. It was Lubini's famous restaurant. Within the din was deafening.
"What cheer, 'Ria! 'Ria's on the job,"
roared thirty throats, all faultlessly clothed in the purest linen. They stood round a small bar, and two women and a boy endeavoured to execute their constant orders for brandies-and-sodas. They were shoulder to shoulder, and had to hold their liquor almost in each other's faces. A man whose hat had been broken addressed reproaches to a friend, who cursed him for interrupting his howling.
Issued from this saloon a long narrow gallery set with a single line of tables, now all occupied by reproaches to a friend, who cursed him for interrupting his howling.
Issued from this saloon a long narrow gallery set with a single line of tables, now all occupied by supping courtesans and their men. An odour of savouries, burnt cheese and vinegar met the nostrils, also the sharp smell of a patchouli-scented handkerchief drawn quickly from a bodice; and a young man protested energetically against a wild duck which had been kept a few days over its time. Lubini, or Lubi, as he was called by his pals, signed to the waiter, and deciding the case in favour of the young man, he pulled a handful of silver out of his pocket and offered to toss three lords, with whom he was conversing, for drinks all round.
"Feeling awfully bad, dear boy; haven't been what I could call sober since Monday. Would you mind holding my liquor for me? I must go and speak to that chappie."
Since John Norton had come to live in London, his idea had been to put his theory of life, which he had defined in his aphorism, "Let the world be my monastery," into active practice. He did not therefore refuse to accompany Mike Fletcher to restaurants and music-halls, and was satisfied so long as he was allowed to disassociate and isolate himself from the various women who clustered about Mike. But this evening he viewed the courtesans with more than the usual liberalism of mind, had even laughed loudly when one fainted and was upheld by anxious friends, the most zealous and the most intimate of whom bathed her white tragic face and listened in alarm to her incoherent murmurings of "Mike darling, oh, Mike!" John had uttered no word of protest until dear old Laura, who had never, as Mike said, behaved badly to anybody, and had been loved by everybody, sat down at their table, and the discussion turned on who was likely to be Bessie's first sweetheart, Bessie being her youngest sister whom she was "bringing out." Then he rose from the table and wished Mike good-night; but Mike's liking for John was sincere, and preferring his company to Laura's, he paid the bill and followed his friend out of the restaurant; and as they walked home together he listened to his grave and dignified admonitions, and though John could not touch Mike's conscience, he always moved his sympathies. It is the shallow and the insincere that inspire ridicule and contempt, and even in the dissipations of the Temple, where he had come to live, he had not failed to enforce respect for his convictions and ideals.
In the Temple John had made many acquaintances and friends, and about him were found the contributors to the Pilgrim, a weekly newspaper devoted to young men, their doings, their amusements, their literature, and their art. The editor and proprietor of this organ of amusement was Escott. His editorial work was principally done in his chambers in Temple Gardens, where he lived with his friend, Mike Fletcher. Of necessity the newspaper drew, like gravitation, art and literature, but the revelling lords who assembled there were a disintegrating influence, and made John Norton a sort of second centre; and Harding and Thompson and others of various temperaments and talents found their way to Pump Court. Like cuckoos, some men are only really at home in the homes of others; others are always ill at ease when taken out of the surroundings which they have composed to their ideas and requirements; and John Norton was never really John Norton except when, wrapped in his long dressing-gown and sitting in his high canonical chair, he listened to Harding's paradoxes or Thompson's sententious utterances. These artistic discussions—when in the passion of the moment, all the cares of life were lost and the soul battled in pure idea—were full of attraction and charm for John, and he often thought he had never been so happy. And then Harding's eyes would brighten, and his intelligence, eager as a wolf prowling for food, ran to and fro, seeking and sniffing in all John's interests and enthusiasms. He was at once fascinated by the scheme for the pessimistic poem and charmed with the projected voyage in Thibet and the book on the Great Lamas.
One evening a discussion arose as to whether Goethe had stolen from Schopenhauer, or Schopenhauer from Goethe, the comparison of man's life with the sun "which seems to set to our earthly eyes, but which in reality never sets, but shines on unceasingly." The conversation came to a pause, and then Harding said—
"Mike spoke to me of a pessimistic poem he has in mind; did he ever speak to you about it, Escott?"
"I think he said something once, but he did not tell me what it was about. He can speak of nothing now but a nun whom he has persuaded to leave her convent. I had thought of having some articles written about convents, and we went to Roehampton. While I was talking to my cousin, who is at school there, he got into conversation with one of the sisters. I don't know how he managed it, but he has persuaded her to leave the convent, and she is coming to see him to-morrow."
"You don't mean to say," cried John, "that he has persuaded one of the nuns to leave the convent and to come and see him in Temple Gardens? Such things should not be permitted. The Reverend Mother or some one is in fault. That man has been the ruin of hundreds, if not in fact, in thought. He brings an atmosphere of sensuality wherever he goes, and all must breathe it; even the most virtuous are contaminated. I have felt the pollution myself. If the woman is seventy she will look pleased and coquette if he notices her. The fascination is inexplicable!"
"We all experience it, and that is why we like Mike," said Harding. "I heard a lady, and a woman whose thoughts are not, I assure you, given to straying in that direction, say that the first time she saw him she hated him, but soon felt an influence like the fascination the serpent exercises over the bird stealing over her. We find but ourselves in all that we see, hear, and feel. The world is but our idea. All that women have of goodness, sweetness, gentleness, they keep for others. A woman would not speak to you of what is bad in her, but she would to Mike; her sensuality is the side of her nature which she shows him, be she Messalina or St. Theresa; the proportion, not the principle is altered. And this is why Mike cannot believe in virtue, and declares his incredulity to be founded on experience."
"No doubt, no doubt!"
Fresh brandies-and-sodas were poured out, fresh cigars were lighted, and John descended the staircase and walked with his friends into Pump Court, where they met Mike Fletcher.
"What have you been talking about to-night?" he asked.
"We wanted Norton to read us the pessimistic poem he is writing, but he says it is in a too unfinished state. I told him you were at work on one on the same subject. It is curious that you who differ so absolutely on essentials should agree to sink your differences at the very point at which you are most opposed to principle and practice."
After a pause, Mike said—
"I suppose it was Schopenhauer's dislike of women that first attracted you. He used to call women the short-legged race, that were only admitted into society a hundred and fifty years ago."
"Did he say that? Oh, how good, and how true! I never could think a female figure as beautiful as a male. A male figure rises to the head, and is a symbol of the intelligence; a woman's figure sinks to the inferior parts of the body, and is expressive of generation."
As he spoke his eyes followed the line and balance of Mike's neck and shoulders, which showed at this moment upon a dark shadow falling obliquely along an old wall. Soft, violet eyes in which tenderness dwelt, and the strangely tall and lithe figure was emphasized by the conventional pose—that pose of arm and thigh which the Greeks never wearied of. Seeing him, the mind turned from the reserve of the Christian world towards the frank enjoyment of the Pagan; and John's solid, rhythmless form was as symbolic of dogma as Mike's of the grace of Athens.
As he ascended the stairs, having bidden his friends good-night, John thought of the unfortunate nun whom that man had persuaded to leave her convent, and he wondered if he were justified in living in such close communion of thought with those whose lives were set in all opposition to the principles on which he had staked his life's value. He was thinking and writing the same thoughts as Fletcher. They were swimming in the same waters; they were living the same life.
Disturbed in mind he walked across the room, his spectacles glimmering on his high nose, his dressing-gown floating. The manuscript of the poems caught his eyes, and he turned over the sheets, his hand trembling violently. And if they were antagonistic to the spirit of his teaching, if not to the doctrine that the Church in her eternal wisdom deemed healthful and wise, and conducive to the best attainable morality and heaven? What a fearful responsibility he was taking upon himself! He had learned in bitter experience that he must seek salvation rather in elimination than in acceptance of responsibilities. But his poems were all he deemed best in the world. For a moment John stood face to face with, and he looked into the eyes of, the Church. The dome of St. Peter's, a solitary pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests. Oh! wonderful symbolization of man's lust of eternal life!
Must he renounce all his beliefs? The wish so dear to him that the unspeakable spectacle of life might cease for ever; must he give thanks for existence because it gave him a small chance of gaining heaven? Then it were well to bring others into the world.... True it is that the Church does not advance into such sloughs of optimism, but how different is her teaching from that of the early fathers, and how different is such dull optimism from the severe spirit of early Christianity.
Whither lay his duty? Must he burn the poems? Far better that they should burn and he should save his soul from burning. A sudden vision of hell, a realistic mediaeval hell full of black devils and ovens came upon him, and he saw himself thrust into flame. It seemed to him certain that his soul was lost—so certain, that the source of prayer died within him and he fell prostrate. He cursed, with curses that seared his soul as he uttered them, Harding, that cynical atheist, who had striven to undermine his faith, and he shrank from thought of Fletcher, that dirty voluptuary.
He went out for long walks, hoping by exercise to throw off the gloom and horror which were thickening in his brain. He sought vainly to arrive at some certain opinions concerning his poems, and he weighed every line, not now for cadence and colour, but with a view of determining their ethical tendencies; and this poor torn soul stood trembling on the verge of fearful abyss of unreason and doubt.
And when he walked in the streets, London appeared a dismal, phantom city. The tall houses vanishing in darkness, the unending noise, the sudden and vague figures passing; some with unclean gaze, others in mysterious haste, the courtesans springing from hansoms and entering their restaurant, lurking prostitutes, jocular lads, and alleys suggestive of crime. All and everything that is city fell violently upon his mind, jarring it, and flashing over his brow all the horror of delirium. His pace quickened, and he longed for wings to rise out of the abominable labyrinth.
At that moment a gable of a church rose against the sky. The gates were open, and one passing through seemed to John like an angel, and obeying the instinct which compels the hunted animal to seek refuge in the earth, he entered, and threw himself on his knees. Relief came, and the dread about his heart was loosened in the romantic twilight. One poor woman knelt amid the chairs; presently she rose and went to the confessional. He waited his turn, his eyes fixed on the candles that burned in the dusky distance.
"Father, forgive me, for I have sinned!"
The priest, an old man of gray and shrivelled mien, settled his cassock and mumbled some Latin.
"I have come to ask your advice, father, rather than to confess the sins I have committed in the last week. Since I have come to live in London I have been drawn into the society of the dissolute and the impure."
"And you have found that your faith and your morals are being weakened by association with these men?"
"I have to thank God that I am uninfluenced by them. Their society presents no attractions for me, but I am engaged in literary pursuits, and most of the young men with whom I am brought in contact lead unclean and unholy lives. I have striven, and have in some measure succeeded, in enforcing respect for my ideals; never have I countenanced indecent conversation, although perhaps I have not always set as stern a face against it as I might have."
"But you have never joined in it?"
"Never. But, father, I am on the eve of the publication of a volume of poems, and I am grievously afflicted with scruples lest their tendency does not stand in agreement with the teaching of our holy Church."
"Do you fear their morality, my son?"
"No, no!" said John in an agitated voice, which caused the old man to raise his eyes and glance inquiringly at his penitent; "the poem I am most fearful of is a philosophic poem based on Schopenhauer."
"I did not catch the name."
"Schopenhauer; if you are acquainted with his works, father, you will appreciate my anxieties, and will see just where my difficulty lies."
"I cannot say I can call to mind at this moment any exact idea of his philosophy; does it include a denial of the existence of God?"
"His teaching, I admit, is atheistic in its tendency, but I do not follow him to his conclusions. A part of his theory—that of the resignation of desire of life—seems to me not only reconcilable with the traditions of the Church, but may really be said to have been original and vital in early Christianity, however much it may have been forgotten in these later centuries. Jesus Christ our Lord is the perfect symbol of the denial of the will to live."
"Jesus Christ our Lord died to save us from the consequences of the sin of our first parents. He died of His own free-will, but we may not live an hour more than is given to us to live, though we desire it with our whole heart. We may be called away at any moment."
John bent his head before the sublime stupidity of the priest.
"I was anxious, father, to give you in a few words some account of the philosophy which has been engaging my attention, so that you might better understand my difficulties. Although Schopenhauer may be wrong in his theory regarding the will, the conclusion he draws from it, namely, that we may only find lasting peace in resignation, seems to me well within the dogma of our holy Church."
"It surprises me that he should hold such opinions, for if he does not acknowledge a future state, the present must be everything, and the gratification of the senses the only...."
"I assure you, father, no one can be more opposed to materialism than Schopenhauer. He holds the world we live in to be a mere delusion—the veil of Maya."
"I am afraid, my son, I cannot speak with any degree of certainty about either of those authors, but I think it my duty to warn you against inclining too willing an ear to the specious sophistries of German philosophers. It would be well if you were to turn to our Christian philosophers; our great cardinal—Cardinal Newman—has over and over again refuted the enemies of the Church. I have forgotten the name."
"Now I will give you absolution."
The burlesque into which his confession had drifted awakened new terrors in John and sensations of sacrilege. He listened devoutly to the prattle of the priest, and to crush the rebellious spirit in him he promised to submit his poems; and he did not allow himself to think the old man incapable of understanding them. But he knew he would not submit those poems, and turning from the degradation he faced a command which had suddenly come upon him. A great battle raged; and growing at every moment less conscious of all save his soul's salvation, he walked through the streets, his stick held forward like a church candle.
He walked through the city, seeing it not, and hearing all cruel voices dying to one—this: "I can only attain salvation by the elimination of all responsibilities. There is therefore but one course to adopt." Decision came upon him like the surgeon's knife. It was in the cold darkness of his rooms in Pump Court. He raised his face, deadly pale, from his hands; but gradually it went aflame with the joy and rapture of sacrifice, and taking his manuscript, he lighted it in the gas. He held it for a few moments till it was well on fire, and then threw it all blazing under the grate.
An odour of spirits evaporated in the warm winds of May which came through the open window. The rich velvet sofa of early English design was littered with proofs and copies of the Pilgrim, and the stamped velvet was two shades richer in tone than the pale dead-red of the floorcloth. Small pictures in light frames harmonized with a green paper of long interlacing leaves. On the right, the grand piano and the slender brass lamps; and the impression of refinement and taste was continued, for between the blue chintz curtains the river lay soft as a picture of old Venice. The beauty of the water, full of the shadows of hay and sails, many forms of chimneys, wharfs, and warehouses, made panoramic and picturesque by the motion of the great hay-boats, were surely wanted for the windows of this beautiful apartment.
Mike and Frank stood facing the view, and talked of Lily Young, whom Mike was momentarily expecting.
"You know as much about it as I do. It was only just at the end that you spoke to your cousin and I got in a few words."
"What did you say?"
"What could I say? Something to the effect that the convent must be a very happy home."
"How did you know she cared for you?"
"I always know that. The second time we went there she told me she was going to leave the convent. I asked her what had decided her to take that step, and she looked at me—that thirsting look which women cannot repress. I said I hoped I should see her when she came to London; she said she hoped so too. Then I knew it was all right. I pressed her hand, and when we went again I said she would find a letter waiting for her at the post-office. Somehow she got the letter sooner than I expected, and wrote to say she'd come here if she could. Here is the letter. But will she come?"
"Even if she does, I don't see what good it will do you; it isn't as if you were really in love with her."
"I believe I am in love; it sounds rather awful, doesn't it? but she is wondrous sweet. I want to be true to her. I want to live for her. I'm not half so bad as you think I am. I have often tried to be constant, and now I mean to be. This ceaseless desire of change is very stupid, and it leads to nothing. I'm sick of change, and would think of none but her. You have no idea how I have altered since I have seen her. I used to desire all women. I wrote a ballade the other day on the women of two centuries hence. Is it not shocking to think that we shall lie mouldering in our graves while women are dancing and kissing? They will not even know that I lived and was loved. It will not occur to them to say as they undress of an evening, 'Were he alive to-day we might love him.'"
THE BALLADE OF DON JUAN DEAD
My days for singing and loving are over, And stark I lie in my narrow bed, I care not at all if roses cover, Or if above me the snow is spread; I am weary of dreaming of my sweet dead, All gone like me unto common clay. Life's bowers are full of love's fair fray, Of piercing kisses and subtle snares; So gallants are conquered, ah, well away!— My love was stronger and fiercer than theirs.
O happy moths that now flit and hover From the blossom of white to the blossom of red, Take heed, for I was a lordly lover Till the little day of my life had sped; As straight as a pine-tree, a golden head, And eyes as blue as an austral bay. Ladies, when loosing your evening array, Reflect, had you lived in my years, my prayers Might have won you from weakly lovers away— My love was stronger and fiercer than theirs.
Through the song of the thrush and the pipe of the plover Sweet voices come down through the binding lead; O queens that every age must discover For men, that man's delight may be fed; Oh, sister queens to the queens I wed. For the space of a year, a month, a day, No thirst but mine could your thirst allay; And oh, for an hour of life, my dears, To kiss you, to laugh at your lovers' dismay— My love was stronger and fiercer than theirs.
ENVOI Prince was I ever of festival gay, And time never silvered my locks with gray; The love of your lovers is as hope that despairs, So think of me sometimes, dear ladies, I pray— My love was stronger and fiercer than theirs.
"It is like all your poetry—merely meretricious glitter; there is no heart in it. That a man should like to have a nice mistress, a girl he is really fond of, is simple enough, but lamentation over the limbo of unborn loveliness is, to my mind, sheer nonsense."
"Of course it is silly, but I cannot alter it; it is the sex and not any individual woman that attracts me. I enter a ball-room and I see one, one whom I have never seen before, and I say, 'It is she whom I have sought, I can love her.' I am always disappointed, but hope is born again in every fresh face. Women are so common when they have loved you."
Startled by his words, Mike strove to measure the thought.
"I can see nothing interesting in the fact that it is natural to you to behave badly to every woman who gives you a chance of deceiving her. That's what it amounts to. At the end of a week you'll tire of this new girl as you did of the others. I think it a great shame. It isn't gentlemanly."
Mike winced at the word "gentlemanly." For a moment he thought of resentment, but his natural amiability predominated, and he said—
"I hope not. I really do think I can love this one; she isn't like the others. Besides, I shall be much happier. There is, I know, a great sweetness in constancy. I long for this sweetness." Seeing by Frank's face that he was still angry, he pursued his thoughts in the line which he fancied would be most agreeable; he did so without violence to his feelings. It was as natural to him to think one way as another. Mike's sycophancy was so innate that it did not appear, and was therefore almost invariably successful. "I have been the lover of scores of women, but I never loved one. I have always hoped to love; it is love that I seek. I find love-tokens and I do not know who were the givers. I have possessed nothing but the flesh, and I have always looked beyond the flesh. I never sought a woman for her beauty. I dreamed of a companion, one who would share each thought; I have dreamed of a woman to whom I could bring my poetry, who could comprehend all sorrows, and with whom I might deplore the sadness of life until we forget it was sad, and I have been given some more or less imperfect flesh."
"I," said Frank, "don't care a rap for your blue-stockings. I like a girl to look pretty and sweet in a muslin dress, her hair with the sun on it slipping over her shoulders, a large hat throwing a shadow over the garden of her face. I like her to come and sit on my knee in the twilight before dinner, to come behind me when I am working and put her hand on my forehead, saying, 'Poor old man, you are tired!'"
"And you could love one girl all your life—Lizzie Baker, for instance; and you could give up all women for one, and never wander again free to gather?"
"It is always the same thing."
"No, that is just what it is not. The last one was thin, this one is fat; the last one was tall, this one is tiny. The last one was stupid, this one is witty. Some men seek the source of the Nile, I the lace of a bodice. A new love is a voyage of discovery. What is her furniture like? What will she say? What are her opinions of love? But when you have been a woman's lover a month you know her morally and physically. Society is based on the family. The family alone survives, it floats like an ark over every raging flood. But you may understand without being able to accept, and I cannot accept, although I understand and love family life. What promiscuity of body and mind! The idea of never being alone fills me with horror to lose that secret self, which, like a shy bird, flies out of sight in the day, but is with you, oh, how intensely in the morning!"
"Nothing pleases you so much as to be allowed to talk nonsense about yourself."
"Let me have those opera-glasses. That woman sitting on the bench is like her."
The trees of the embankment waved along the laughing water, and in scores the sparrows flitted across the sleek green sward. The porter in his bright uniform, cocked hat, and brass buttons, explained the way out to a woman. Her child wore a red sash and stooped to play with a cat that came along the railings, its tail high in the air.
"They know nothing of Lily Young," Mike said to himself; and knowing the porter could not interfere, he wondered what he would think if he knew all. "If she comes nothing can save her, she must and shall be mine."
Waterloo Bridge stood high above the river, level and lovely. Over Charing Cross the brightness was full of spires and pinnacles, but Southwark shore was lost in flat dimness. Then the sun glowed and Westminster ascended tall and romantic, St. Thomas's and St. John's floating in pale enchantment, and beneath the haze that heaved and drifted, revealing coal-barges moored by the Southwark shore, lay a sheet of gold. The candour of the morning laughed upon the river; and there came a little steamer into the dazzling water, her smoke heeling over, coiling and uncoiling like a snake, and casting tremendous shadow—in her train a line of boats laden to the edge with deal planks. Then the haze heaved and London disappeared, became again a gray city, faint and far away—faint as spires seem in a dream. Again and again the haze wreathed and went out, discovering wharfs and gold inscriptions, uncovering barges aground upon the purple slime of the Southwark shore, their yellow yards pointing like birds with outstretched necks.
The smoke of the little steamer curled and rolled over, now like a great snake, now like a great bird hovering with a snake in its talons; and the little steamer made pluckily for Blackfriars. Carts and hansoms, vans and brewers' vans, all silhouetting. Trains slip past, obliterating with white whiffs the delicate distances, the perplexing distances that in London are delicate and perplexing as a spider's web. Great hay-boats yellow in the sun, brown in the shadow—great hay-boats came by, their sails scarce filled with the light breeze; standing high, they sailed slowly and picturesquely, with men thrown in all attitudes; somnolent in sunshine and pungent odour—one only at work, wielding the great rudder.
"Ah! if she would not disappoint me; if she would only come; I would give my life not to be disappointed.... Three o'clock! She said she would be here by three, if she came at all. I think I could love her—I am sure of it; it would be impossible to weary of her—so frail—a white blonde. She said she would come, I know she wanted to.... This waiting is agony! Oh, if I were only good-looking! Whatever power I have over women I have acquired; it was the desire to please women that gave me whatever power I possess; I was as soft as wax, and in the fingers of desire was modified and moulded. You did not know me when I was a boy—I was hideous. It seemed to me impossible that women could love men. Women seemed to me so beautiful and desirable, men so hideous and revolting. Could they touch us without a revulsion of feeling? Could they really desire us? That is why I could not bear to give women money, nor a present of any kind—no, not even a flower. If I did all my pleasure was gone; I could not help thinking it was for what they got out of me that they liked me. I longed to penetrate the mystery of women's life. It seemed to me cruel that the differences between the sexes should never be allowed to dwindle, but should be strictly maintained through all the observances of life. There were beautiful beings walking by us of whom we knew nothing—irreparably separated from us. I wanted to be with this sex as a shadow is with its object."
"You didn't find many opportunities of gratifying your tastes in Cashel?"
"No, indeed! Of course the women about the town were not to be thought of." Unpleasant memories seemed to check his flow of words.
Without noticing his embarrassment, Frank said—
"After France it must have been a horrible change to come to Ireland. How old were you?"
"About fourteen. I could not endure the place. Every day was so appallingly like the last. There was nothing for me to do but to dream; I dreamed of everything. I longed to get alone and let my fancy wander—weaving tales of which I was the hero, building castles of which I was the lord."
"I remember always hearing of your riding and shooting. No one knew of your literary tastes. I don't mind telling you that Mount Rorke often suspected you of being a bit of a poacher."
"I believe I have knocked down a pheasant or two. I was an odd mixture—half a man of action, half a man of dreams. My position in Cashel was unbearable. My mother was a lady; my father—you know how he had let himself down. You cannot imagine the yearnings of a poor boy; you were brought up in all elegance and refinement. That beautiful park! On afternoons I used to walk there, and I remember the very moments I passed under the foliage of the great beeches and lay down to dream. I used to wander to the outskirts of the wood as near as I dared to the pleasure-grounds, and looking on the towers strove to imagine the life there. The bitterest curses lie in the hearts of young men who, understanding refinement and elegance, see it for ever out of their reach. I used to watch the parade of dresses passing on the summer lawns between the firs and flowering trees. What graceful and noble words were spoken!—and that man walking into the poetry of the laburnum gold, did he put his arm about her? And I wondered what silken ankles moved beneath her skirts. My brain was on fire, and I was crazed; I thought I should never hold a lady in my arms. A lady! all the delicacy of silk and lace, high-heeled shoes, and the scent and colour of hair that a coiffeur has braided."
"I think you are mad!"
Mike laughed and continued—
"I was so when I was sixteen. There was a girl staying there. Her hair was copper, and her flesh was pink and white. Her waist, you could span it. I saw her walking one day on ..."
"You must mean Lady Alice Hargood, a very tall girl?"
"Yes; five feet seven, quite. I saw her walking on the terrace with your uncle. Once she passed our house, and I smarted with shame of it as of some restless wound, and for days I remembered I was little better than a peasant. Originally we came, as you know, of good English stock, but nothing is vital but the present. I cried and cursed my existence, my father and the mother that bore me, and that night I climbed out by my window and roved through the dark about the castle so tall in the moonlight. The sky that night was like a soft blue veil, and the trees were painted quite black upon it. I looked for her window, and I imagined her sleeping with her copper hair tossed in the moonlight, like an illustration in a volume of Shelley.
"You remember the old wooden statue of a nymph that stood in the sycamores at the end of the terraces; she was the first naked woman I saw. I used to wander about her, sometimes at night, and I have often climbed about and hung round those shoulders, and ever since I have always met that breast of wood. You have been loved more truly; you have been possessed of woman more thoroughly than I. Though I clasp a woman in my arms, it is as if the Atlantic separated us. Did I never tell you of my first love affair? That was the romance of the wood nymph. One evening I climbed on the pedestal of my divinity, my cheek was pale ..."
"For God's sake, leave out the poetics, and come to the facts."
"If you don't let me tell my story in my own way I won't tell it at all. Out of my agony prayer rose to Alice, for now it pleased me to fancy there was some likeness between this statue and Lady Alice. The dome of leafage was sprinkled with the colour of the sunset, and as I pressed my lips to the wooden statue, I heard dead leaves rustling under a footstep. Holding the nymph with one arm, I turned and saw a lady approaching. She asked me why I kissed the statue. I looked away embarrassed, but she told me not to go, and she said, 'You are a pretty boy.' I said I had never seen a woman so beautiful. Again I grew ashamed, but the lady laughed. We stood talking in the stillness. She said I had pretty hands, and asked me if I regretted the nymph was not a real woman. She took my hands. I praised hers, and then I grew frightened, for I knew she came from the castle; the castle was to me what the Ark of the Covenant was to an Israelite. She put her arm about me, and my fears departed in the thrilling of an exquisite minute. She kissed me and said, 'Let us sit down.'"
"I wonder who she was! What was her name? You can tell me."
"No, I never mention names; besides, I am not certain she gave her right name."
"Are you sure she was staying at the castle? For if so, there would be no use for her to conceal her name. You could easily have found it out."
"Oh, yes, she was staying at the castle; she talked about you all. Don't you believe me?"
"What, all about the nymph? I am certain you thought you ought to have loved her, and if what Harding says is right, that there is more truth in what we think than in what we do, I'm sure you might say that you had been on a wedding-tour with one of the gargoyles."
Mike laughed; and Frank did not suspect that he had annoyed him. Mike's mother was a Frenchwoman, whom John Fletcher had met in Dublin and had pressed into a sudden marriage. At the end of three years of married life she had been forced to leave him, and strange were the legends of the profanities of that bed. She fled one day, taking her son with her. Fletcher did not even inquire where she had gone; and when at her death Mike returned to Ireland, he found his father in a small lodging-house playing the flute. Scarcely deigning to turn his head, he said—"Oh! is that you, Mike?—sit down."
At his father's death, Mike had sold the lease of the farm for three hundred pounds, and with that sum and a volume of verse he went to London. When he had published his poems he wrote two comedies. His efforts to get them produced led him into various society. He was naturally clever at cards, and one night he won three hundred pounds. Journalism he had of course dabbled in—he was drawn towards it by his eager impatient nature; he was drawn from it by his gluttonous and artistic nature. Only ten pounds for an article, whereas a successful "bridge" brought him ten times that amount, and he revolted against the column of platitudes that the hours whelmed in oblivion. There had been times, however, when he had been obliged to look to journalism for daily bread. The Spectator, always open to young talent, had published many of his poems; the Saturday had welcomed his paradoxes and strained eloquence; but whether he worked or whether he idled he never wanted money. He was one of those men who can always find five pounds in the streets of London.
We meet Mike in his prime—in his twenty-ninth year—a man of various capabilities, which an inveterate restlessness of temperament had left undeveloped—a man of genius, diswrought with passion, occasionally stricken with ambition.
"Let me have those glasses. There she is! I am sure it is she—there, leaning against the Embankment. Yes, yes, it is she. Look at her. I should know her figure among a thousand—those frail shoulders, that little waist; you could break her like a reed. How sweet she is on that background of flowing water, boats, wharfs, and chimneys; it all rises about her like a dream, and all is as faint upon the radiant air as a dream upon happy sleep. So she is coming to see me. She will keep her promise. I shall love her. I feel at last that love is near me. Supposing I were to marry her?"
"Why shouldn't you marry her if you love her? That is to say, if this is more than one of your ordinary caprices, spiced by the fact that its object is a nun."
The men looked at each other for a moment doubtful. Then Mike laughed.
"I hope I don't love her too much, that is all. But perhaps she will not come. Why is she standing there?"
"I should laugh if she turned on her heel and walked away right under your very nose."
A cloud passed over Mike's face.
"That's not possible," he said, and he raised the glass. "If I thought there was any chance of that I should go down to see her."
"You couldn't force her to come up. She seems to be admiring the view."
Then Lily left the embankment and turned towards the Temple.
"She is coming!" Mike cried, and laying down the opera-glass he took up the scent and squirted it about the room. "You won't make much noise, like a good fellow, will you? I shall tell her I am here alone."
"I shall make no noise—I shall finish my article. I am expecting Lizzie about four; I will slip out and meet her in the street. Good-bye."
Mike went to the head of the staircase, and looking down the prodigious height, he waited. It occurred to him that if he fell, the emparadised hour would be lost for ever. If she were to pass through the Temple without stopping at No. 2! The sound of little feet and the colour of a heliotrope skirt dispersed his fears, and he watched her growing larger as she mounted each flight of stairs; when she stopped to take breath, he thought of running down and carrying her up in his arms, but he did not move, and she did not see him until the last flight.
"Here you are at last!"
"I am afraid I have kept you waiting. I was not certain whether I should come."
"And you stopped to look at the view instead?"
"Yes, but how did you know that?"
"Ah! that's telling; come in."
The girl went in shyly.
"So this is where you live? How nicely you have arranged the room. I never saw a room like this before. How different from the convent! What would the nuns think if they saw me here? What strange pictures!—those ballet-girls; they remind me of the pantomime. Did you buy those pictures?"
"No; they are wonderful, aren't they? A friend of mine bought them in France."
"Yes; I forgot you knew him—how stupid of me! Had it not been for him I shouldn't have known you—I was thinking of something else."
"Where is he now? I hope he will not return while I am here. You did not tell him I was coming?"
"Of course not; he is away in France."
"And those portraits—it is always the same face."
"They are portraits of a girl he is in love with."
"Do you believe he is in love?"
"Yes, rather; head over heels. What do you think of the painting?"
Lily did not answer. She stood puzzled, striving to separate the confused notions the room conveyed to her. She wore on her shoulders a small black lace shawl and held a black silk parasol. She was very slender, and her features were small and regular, and so white was her face that the blue eyes seemed the only colour. There was, however, about the cheek-bones just such tint as mellow as a white rose.
"How beautiful you are to-day. I knew you would be beautiful when you discarded that shocking habit; but you are far more beautiful than I thought. Let me kiss you."
"No, you will make me regret that I came here. I wanted to see where you lived, so that when I was away I could imagine you writing your poems. Have you nothing more to show me? I want to see everything."
"Yes, come, I will show you our dining-room. Mr. Escott often gives dinner-parties. You must get your mother to bring you."
"I should like to. But what a good idea to have book-cases in the passages, they furnish the walls so well. And what are those rooms?"
"Those belong to Escott. Here is where I sleep."
"What a strange room!" discountenanced by the great Christ. She turned her head.
"That crucifix is a present from Frank. He bought it in Paris. It is superb expression of the faith of the Middle Ages."
"Old ages, I should think; it is all worm-eaten. And that Virgin? I did not know you were so religious."
"I do not believe in Christianity, but I think Christ is picturesque."
"Christ is very beautiful. When I prayed to Him an hour passed like a little minute. It always seemed to me more natural to pray to Him than to the Virgin Mary. But is that your bed?"
Upon a trellis supported by lion's claws a feather bed was laid. The sheets and pillows were covered with embroidered cloth, the gift of some unhappy lady, and about the twisted columns heavy draperies hung in apparent disorder. Lily sat down on the pouff ottoman. Mike took two Venetian glasses, poured out some champagne, and sat at her feet. She sipped the wine and nibbled a biscuit.
"Tell me about the convent," he said. "That is now a thing over and done."
"Fortunately I was not professed; had I taken vows I could not have broken them."
"Why not? A nun cannot be kept imprisoned nowadays."
"I should not have broken my vows."
"It was I who saved you from them—if you had not fallen in love with me ..."
"I never said I had fallen in love with you; I liked you, that was all."
"But it was for me you left the convent?"
"No; I had made up my mind to leave the convent long before I saw you. So you thought it was love at first sight."
"On my part, at least, it was love at first sight. How happy I am!—I can scarcely believe I have got you. To have you here by me seems so unreal, so impossible. I always loved you. I want to tell you about myself. You were my ideal when I was a boy; I had already imagined you; my poems were all addressed to you. My own sweet ideal that none knew of but myself. You shall come and see me all the summer through, in this room—our room. When will you come again?"
"I shall never come again—it is time to go."
"To go! Why, you haven't kissed me yet!"
"I do not intend to kiss you."
"How cruel of you! You say you will never come and see me again; you break and destroy my dream."
"How did you dream of me?"
"I dreamed the world was buried in snow, barred with frost—that I never went out, but sat here waiting for you to come. I dreamed that you came to see me on regular days. I saw myself writing poems to you, looking up to see the clock from time to time. Tea and wine were ready, and the room was scented with your favourite perfume. Ting! How the bell thrilled me, and with what precipitation I rushed to the door! There I found you. What pleasure to lead you to the great fire, to help you to take off your pelisse!"
The girl looked at him, her eyes full of innocent wonderment.
"How can you think of such things? It sounds like a fairy tale. And if it were summer-time?"
"Oh! if it were summer we should have roses in the room, and only a falling rose-leaf should remind us of the imperceptible passing of the hours. We should want no books, the picturesqueness of the river would be enough. And holding your little palm in mine, so silken and delicately moist, I would draw close to you."
Knowing his skin was delicate to the touch, he took her arm in his hand, but she drew her arm away, and there was incipient denial in the withdrawal. His face clouded. But he had not yet made up his mind how he should act, and to gain time to think, he said—
"Tell me why you thought of entering a convent?"
"I was not happy at home, and the convent, with its prayers and duties, seemed preferable. But it was not quite the same as I had imagined, and I couldn't learn to forget that there was a world of beauty, colour, and love."
"You could not but think of the world of men that awaited you."
"I only thought of Him."
"And who was he?"
"Ah! He was a very great saint, a greater saint than you'll ever be. I fell in love with Him when I was quite a little girl."
"What was his name?"
"I am not going to tell you. It was for Him I went into the convent; I was determined to be His bride in heaven. I used to read His life, and think of Him all day long. I had a friend who was also in love, but the reverend mother heard of our conversations, and we were forbidden to speak any more of our saints."
"Tell me his name? Was he anything like me?"
"Well, perhaps there is a something in the eyes."
The conversation dropped, and he laid his hand gently upon her foot. Drawing it back she spilt the wine.
"I must go."
"No, dearest, you must not."
She looked round, taking the room in one swift circular glance, her eyes resting one moment on the crucifix.
"This is cruel of you," he said. "I dreamed of you madly, and why do you destroy my dream? What shall I do?—where shall I go?—how shall I live if I don't get you?"
"Men do not mind whom they love; even in the convent we knew that."
"You seem to have known a good deal in that convent; I am not astonished that you left it."
"What do you mean?" She settled her shawl on her shoulders.
"Merely this; you are in a young man's room alone, and I love you."
"Love! You profane the word; loose me, I am going."
"No, you are not going, you must remain." There was an occasional nature in him, that of the vicious dog, and now it snarled. "If you did not love me, you should not have come here," he said interposing, getting between her and the door.
Then she entreated him to let her go. He laughed at her; then suddenly her face flamed with a passion he was unprepared for, and her eyes danced with strange lights. Few words were spoken, only a few ejaculatory phrases such as "How dare you?" "Let me go!" she said, as she strove to wrench her arms from his grasp. She caught up one of the glasses; but before she could throw it Mike seized her hand; he could not take it from her, and unconscious of danger (for if the glass broke both would be cut to the bone), she clenched it with a force that seemed impossible in one so frail. Her rage was like wildfire. Mike grew afraid, and preferring that the glass should be thrown than it should break in his hand, he loosed his fingers. It smashed against the opposite wall. He hoped that Frank had not heard; that he had left the chambers. He seized the second glass. When she raised her arm, Mike saw and heard the shattered window falling into the court below. He anticipated the porter's steps on the staircase and his knock at the door, and it was with an intense relief and triumph that he saw the bottle strike the curtain and fall harmless. He would win yet. Lily screamed piercingly.
"No one will hear," he said, laughing hoarsely.
She escaped him and she screamed three times. And now quite like a mad woman, she snatched a light chair and rushed to the window. Her frail frame shook, her thin face was swollen, and she seemed to have lost control over her eyes. If she should die! If she should go mad! Now really terrified, Mike prayed for forgiveness. She did not answer; she stood clenching her hands, choking.
"Sit down," he said, "drink something. You need not be afraid of me now—do as you like, I am your servant. I will ask only one thing of you—forgiveness. If you only knew!"
"Don't speak to me!" she gasped, "don't!"
"Forgive me, I beseech you; I love you better than all the world."
"Don't touch me! How dare you? Oh! how dare you?"
Mike watched her quivering. He saw she was sublime in her rage, and torn with desire and regret he continued his pleadings. It was some time before she spoke.
"And it was for this," she said, "I left my convent, and it was of him I used to dream! Oh! how bitter is my awakening!"
She grasped one of the thin columns of the bed and her attitude bespoke the revulsion of feeling that was passing in her soul; beneath the heavy curtains she stood pale all over, thrown by the shock of too coarse a reality. His perception of her innocence was a goad to his appetite, and his despair augmented at losing her. Now, as died the fulgurant rage that had supported her, and her normal strength being exhausted, a sudden weakness intervened, and she couldn't but allow Mike to lead her to a seat.
"I am sorry; words cannot tell you how sorry I am. Why do you tremble so? You are not going to faint, say—drink something." Hastily he poured out some wine and held it to her lips. "I never was sorry before; now I know what sorrow is—I am sorry, Lily. I am not ashamed of my tears; look at them, and strive to understand. I never loved till I saw you. Ah! that lily face, when I saw it beneath the white veil, love leaped into my soul. Then I hated religion, and I longed to scale the sky to dispossess Heaven of that which I held the one sacred and desirable thing—you! My soul! I would have given it to burn for ten thousand years for one kiss, one touch of these snow-coloured hands. When I saw, or thought I saw, that you loved me, I was God. I said on reading your sweet letter, 'My life shall not pass without kissing at least once the lips of my chimera.'"
Words and images rose in his mind without sensation or effort, and experiencing the giddiness and exultation of the orator, he strove to win her with eloquence. And all his magnetism was in his hands and eyes—deep blue eyes full of fire and light were fixed upon her—hands, soft yet powerful hands held hers, sometimes were clenched on hers, and a voice which seemed his soul rose and fell, striving to sting her with passionate sound; but she remained absorbed in, and could not be drawn out of, angry thought.
"Now you are with me," he said, "nearly mine; here I see you like a picture that is mine. Around us is mighty London. I saved you from God, am I to lose you to Man? This was the prospect that faced me, that faces me, that drove me mad. All I did was to attempt to make you mine. I hold you by so little—I could not bear the thought that you might pass from me. A ship sails away, growing indistinct, and then disappears in the shadows; in London a cab rattles, appears and disappears behind other cabs, turns a corner, and is lost for ever. I failed, but had I succeeded you would have come back to me; I failed, is not that punishment enough? You will go from me; I shall not get you—that is sorrow enough for me; do not refuse me forgiveness. Ah! if you knew what it is to have sought love passionately, the high hopes entertained, and then the depth of every deception, and now the supreme grief of finding love and losing. Seeing love leave me without leaving one flying feather for token, I strove to pluck one—that is my crime. Go, since you must go, but do not go unforgiving, lest perhaps you might regret."
Lily did not cry. Her indignation was vented in broken phrases, the meaning of which she did not seem to realize, and so jarred and shaken were her nerves that without being aware of it her talk branched into observations on her mother, her home life, the convent, and the disappointments of childhood. So incoherently did she speak that for a moment Mike feared her brain was affected, and his efforts to lead her to speak of the present were fruitless. But suddenly, waxing calm, her inner nature shining through the eyes like light through porcelain, she said—
"I was wrong to come here, but I imagined men different. We know so little of the world in the convent.... Ah, I should have stayed there. It may be but a poor delusion, but it is better than such wickedness."
"But I love you."
"Love me! ... You say you have sought love; we find love in contemplation and desire of higher things. I am wanting in experience, but I know that love lives in thought, and not in violent passion; I know that a look from the loved one on entering a room, a touch of a hand at most will suffice, and I should have been satisfied to have seen your windows, and I should have gone away, my heart stored with impressions of you, and I should have been happy for weeks in the secret possession of such memories. So I have always understood love; so we understood love in the convent."
They were standing face to face in the faint twilight and scent of the bedroom. Through the gauze blind the river floated past, decorative and grand; the great hay-boats rose above the wharfs and steamers; one lay in the sun's silver casting a black shadow; a barge rowed by one man drifted round and round in the tide.
"When I knelt in the choir I lifted my heart to the saint I loved. How far was He from me? Millions of miles!—and yet He was very near. I dreamed of meeting Him in heaven, of seeing Him come robed in white with a palm in His hand, and then in a little darkness and dimness I felt Him take me to His breast. I loved to read of the miracles He performed, and one night I dreamed I saw Him in my cell—or was it you?"
All anger was gone from her face, and it reflected the play of her fancy. "I used to pray to you to come down and speak to me."
"And now," said Mike, smiling, "now that I have come to you, now that I call you, now that I hold my arms to you—you the bride-elect—now that the hour has come, shall I not possess you?"
"Do you think you can gain love by clasping me to your bosom? My love, though separated from me by a million miles, is nearer to me than yours has ever been."
"Did you not speak of me as the lover of your prayer, and you said that in ecstasy the nuns—and indeed it must be so—exchange a gibbeted saint for some ideal man? Give yourself; make this afternoon memorable."
"No; good-bye! Remember your promises. Come; I am going."
"I must not lose you," he cried, drunk with her beauty and doubly drunk with her sensuous idealism. "May I not even kiss you?"
"Well, if you like—once, just here," she said, pointing where white melted to faint rose.
Mastered, he followed her down the long stairs; but when they passed into the open air he felt he had lost her irrevocably. The river was now tinted with setting light, the balustrade of Waterloo Bridge showed like lace-work, the glass roofing of Charing Cross station was golden, and each spire distinct upon the moveless blue. The splashing of a steamer sounded strange upon his ears. The "Citizen" passed! She was crowded with human beings, all apparently alike. Then the eye separated them. An old lady making her way down the deck, a young man in gray clothes, a red soldier leaning over the rail, the captain walking on the bridge.
Mike called a hansom; a few seconds more and she would pass from him into London. He saw the horse's hooves, saw the cab appear and disappear behind other cabs; it turned a corner, and she was gone.
Seven hours had elapsed since he had parted from Lily Young, and these seven hours he had spent in restaurants and music-halls, seeking in dissipation surcease of sorrow and disappointment. He had dined at Lubi's, and had gone on with Lord Muchross and Lord Snowdown to the Royal, and they had returned in many hansoms and with many courtesans to drink at Lubi's. But his heart was not in gaiety, and feeling he could neither break a hat joyously nor allow his own to be broken good-humouredly, nor even sympathize with Dicky, the driver, who had not been sober since Monday, he turned and left the place.
"This is why fellows marry," he said, when he returned home, and sat smoking in the shadows—he had lighted only one lamp—depressed by the loneliness of the apartment. And more than an hour passed before he heard Frank's steps. Frank was in evening dress; he opened his cigarette-case, lighted a cigarette, and sat down willing to be amused. Mike told him the entire story with gestures and descriptive touches; on the right was the bed with its curtains hanging superbly, on the left the great hay-boats filling the window; and by insisting on the cruelest aspects, he succeeded in rendering it almost unbearable. But Frank had dined well, and as Lizzie had promised to come to breakfast he was in excellent humour, and on the whole relished the tale. He was duly impressed and interested by the subtlety of the fancy which made Lily tell how she used to identify her ideal lover while praying to Him, Him with the human ideal which had led her from the cloister, and which she had come to seek in the world. He was especially struck with, and he admired the conclusion of, the story, for Mike had invented a dramatic and effective ending.
"Well-nigh mad, drunk with her beauty and the sensuous charm of her imagination, I threw my arms about her. I felt her limbs against mine, and I said, 'I am mad for you; give yourself to me, and make this afternoon memorable.' There was a faint smile of reply in her eyes. They laughed gently, and she said, 'Well, perhaps I do love you a little.'"
Frank was deeply impressed by Mike's tact and judgement, and they talked of women, discussing each shade of feminine morality through the smoke of innumerable cigarettes; and after each epigram they looked in each other's eyes astonished at their genius and originality. Then Mike spoke of the paper and the articles that would have to be written on the morrow. He promised to get to work early, and they said good-night.
When Frank left Southwick two years ago and pursued Lizzie Baker to London, he had found her in straitened circumstances and unable to obtain employment. The first night he took her out to dinner and bought her a hat, on the second he bought her a gown, and soon after she became his mistress. Henceforth his days were devoted to her; they were seen together in all popular restaurants, and in the theatres. One day she went to see some relations, and Frank had to dine alone. He turned into Lubini's, but to his annoyance the only table available was one which stood next where Mike Fletcher was dining. "That fellow dining here," thought Frank, "when he ought to be digging potatoes in Ireland." But the accident of the waiter seeking for a newspaper forced him to say a few words, and Mike talked so agreeably that at the end of dinner they went out together and walked up and down, talking on journalism and women.
Suddenly the last strand of Frank's repugnance to make a friend of Mike broke, and he asked him to come up to his rooms and have a drink. They remained talking till daybreak, and separated as friends in the light of the empty town. Next day they dined together, and a few days after Frank and Lizzie breakfasted with Mike at his lodgings. But during the next month they saw very little of him, and this pause in the course of dining and journalistic discussion, indicating, as Frank thought it did, a coolness on Mike's part, determined the relation of these two men. When they ran against each other in the corridor of a theatre, Frank eagerly button-holed Mike, and asked him why he had not been to dine at Lubini's, and not suspecting that he dined there only when he was in funds, was surprised at his evasive answers. Mistress and lover were equally anxious to know why they had not been able to find him in any of the usual haunts; he urged a press of work, but it transpired he was harassed by creditors, and was looking out for rooms. Frank told him he was thinking of moving into the Temple.
"Lucky fellow! I wish I could afford to live there."
"I wish you could.... The apartment I have in mind is too large for me, you might take the half of it."
Mike knew where his comforts lay, and he accepted his friend's offer. There they founded, and there they edited, the Pilgrim, a weekly sixpenny paper devoted to young men, their doings, their amusements, their literature, and their art. Under their dual editorship this journal had prospered; it now circulated five thousand a week, and published twelve pages of advertisements. Frank, whose bent was hospitality, was therefore able to entertain his friends as it pleased him, and his rooms were daily and nightly filled with revelling lords, comic vocalists, and chorus girls. Mike often craved for other amusements and other society. Temple Gardens was but one page in the book of life, and every page in that book was equally interesting to him. He desired all amusements, to know all things, to be loved by every one; and longing for new sensations of life, he often escaped to the Cock tavern for a quiet dinner with some young barristers, and a quiet smoke afterwards with them in their rooms. It was there he had met John Norton.
The Pilgrim was composed of sixteen columns of paragraphs in which society, art, and letters were dealt with—the form of expression preferred being the most exaggerated. Indeed, the formula of criticism that Mike and Frank, guided by Harding, had developed, was to consider as worthless all that the world held in estimation, and to laud as best all that world had agreed to discard. John Norton's views regarding Latin literature had been adopted, and Virgil was declared to be the great old bore of antiquity, and some three or four quite unknown names, gathered amid the Fathers, were upon occasion trailed in triumph with adjectives of praise.
What painter of Madonnas does the world agree to consider as the greatest? Raphael—Raphael was therefore decried as being scarcely superior to Sir Frederick Leighton; and one of the early Italian painters, Francesco Bianchi, whom Vasari exhumes in some three or four lines, was praised as possessing a subtle and mysterious talent very different indeed from the hesitating smile of La Jaconde. There is a picture of the Holy Family by him in the Louvre, and of it Harding wrote—"This canvas exhales for us the most delicious emanations, sorrowful bewitchments, insidious sacrileges, and troubled prayers."
All institutions, especially the Royal Academy, St. Paul's Cathedral, Drury Lane Theatre, and Eton College, were held to be the symbols of man's earthiness, the bar-room and music-hall as certain proof of his divine origin; actors were scorned and prize-fighters revered; the genius of courtesans, the folly of education, and the poetry of pantomime formed the themes on which the articles which made the centre of the paper were written. Insolent letters were addressed to eminent people, and a novel by Harding, the hero of which was a butler and the heroine a cook, was in course of publication.
Mike was about to begin a series of articles in this genial journal, entitled Lions of the Season. His first lion was a young man who had invented a pantomime, Pierrot murders his Wife, which he was acting with success in fashionable drawing-rooms. A mute brings Pierrot back more dead than alive from the cemetery, and throws him in a chair. When Pierrot recovers he re-acts the murder before a portrait of his wife—how he tied her down and tickled her to death. Then he begins drinking, and finally sets fire to the curtains of the bed and is burnt.
It was the day before publishing day, and since breakfast the young men had been drinking, smoking, telling tales, and writing paragraphs; from time to time the page-boy brought in proofs, and the narrators made pause till he had left the room. Frank continued reading Mike's manuscript, now and then stopping to praise a felicitous epithet.
At last he said—"Harding, what do you think of this?—'The Sphynx is representative of the grave and monumental genius of Egypt, the Faun of the gracious genius of Rome, the Pierrot of the fantastic genius of the Renaissance. And, in this one creation, I am not sure that the seventeenth does not take the palm from the earlier centuries. Pierrot!—there is music, there is poetry in the name. The soul of an epoch lives in that name, evocative as it is of shadowy trees, lawny spaces, brocade, pointed bodices, high heels and guitars. And in expression how much more perfect is he than his ancestor, the Faun! His animality is indicated without coarse or awkward symbolism; without cloven hoof or hirsute ears—only a white face, a long white dress with large white buttons, and a black skull-cap; and yet, somehow, the effect is achieved. The great white creature is not quite human—hereditary sin has not descended upon him; he is not quite responsible for his acts.'"
"I like the paragraph," said Harding; "you finish up, of course, with the apotheosis of pantomimists, and announce him as one of the lions of the season. Who are your other lions and lionesses?"
"The others will be far better," said Mike. He took a cigarette from a silver box on the table, and, speaking as he puffed at it, entered into the explanation of his ideas.
Mademoiselle D'Or, the premiere danseuse who had just arrived from Vienna, was to be the lioness of next week. Mike told how he would translate into words the insidious poetry of the blossom-like skirt that the pink body pierces like a stem, the beautiful springing, the lifted arms, then the flight from the wings; the posturing, the artificial smiles; this art a survival of Oriental tradition; this art at once so carnal and so enthusiastically ideal. "A prize-fighter will follow the danseuse. And I shall gloat in Gautier-like cadence—if I can catch it—over each superb muscle and each splendid development. But my best article will be on Kitty Carew. Since Laura Bell and Mabel Grey our courtesans have been but a mediocre lot."
"You must not say that in the Pilgrim—we should offend all our friends," Harding said, and he poured himself out a brandy-and-soda.
Mike laughed, and walking up and down the room, he continued—
"That it should be so is inexplicable, that it is so is certain; we have not had since Mabel Grey died a courtesan whom a foreign prince, passing London, would visit as a matter of course as he would visit St. Paul's or Westminster Abbey; and yet London has advanced enormously in all that constitutes wealth and civilization. In Paris, as in ancient Greece, courtesans are rich, brilliant, and depraved; here in London the women are poor, stupid, and almost virtuous. Kitty is revolution. I know for a fact that she has had as much as L1000 from a foreign potentate, and she spends in one day upon her tiger-cat what would keep a poor family in affluence for a week. Nor can she say half a dozen words without being witty. What do you think of this? We were discussing the old question, if it were well for a woman to have a sweetheart. Kitty said, 'London has given me everything but that. I can always find a man who will give me five and twenty guineas, but a sweetheart I can't find.'"
Every pen stopped, and expectation was on every face. After a pause Mike continued—
"Kitty said, 'In the first place he must please me, and I am very difficult to please; then I must please him, and sufficiently for him to give up his whole time to me. And he must not be poor, for although he would not give me money, it would cost him several hundreds a year to invite me to dinner and send me flowers. And where am I to find this combination of qualities?' Can't you hear her saying it, her sweet face like a tea-rose, those innocent blue eyes all laughing with happiness? The great stockbroker, who has been with her for the last ten years, settled fifty thousand pounds when he first took her up. She was speaking to me about him the other day, and when I said, 'Why didn't you leave him when the money was settled?' she said, 'Oh no, I wouldn't do a dirty trick like that; I contented myself simply by being unfaithful to him.'"
"This is no doubt very clever, but if you put all you have told us into your article, you'll certainly have the paper turned off the book-stalls."
The conversation paused. Every one finished his brandy-and-soda, and the correction of proofs was continued in silence, interrupted only by an occasional oath or a word of remonstrance from Frank, who begged Drake, a huge-shouldered man, whose hand was never out of the cigarette-box, not to drop the lighted ends on the carpet. Mike was reading Harding's article.
"I think we shall have a good number this week," said Mike. "But we want a piece of verse. I wonder if you could get something from John Norton. What do you think of Norton, Harding?"
"He is one of the most interesting men I know. His pessimism, his Catholicism, his yearning for ritual, his very genuine hatred of women, it all fascinates me."
"What do you think of that poem he told us of the other night?"
"Intensely interesting; but he will never be able to complete it. A man may be full of talent and yet be nothing of an artist; a man may be far less clever than Norton, and with a subtler artistic sense. If a seal had really something to say, I believe it would find a way of saying it; but has John Norton really got any idea so overwhelmingly new and personal that it would force a way of utterance where none existed? The Christian creed with its tale of Mary must be of all creeds most antipathetic to his natural instincts, he nevertheless accepts it.... If you agitate a pool from different sides you must stir up mud, and this is what occurs in Norton's brain; it is agitated equally from different sides, and the result is mud."
Mike looked at Harding inquiringly, for a moment wondered if the novelist understood him as he seemed to understand Norton.
A knock was heard, and Norton entered. His popularity was visible in the pleasant smiles and words which greeted him.
"You are just the man we want," cried Frank. "We want to publish one of your poems in the paper this week."
"I have burnt my poems," he answered, with something more of sacerdotal tone and gesture than usual.
All the scribblers looked up. "You don't mean to say seriously that you have burnt your poems?"
"Yes; but I do not care to discuss my reasons. You do not feel as I do."
"You mean to say that you have burnt The Last Struggle—the poem you told us about the other night?"
"Yes, I felt I could not reconcile its teaching, or I should say the tendency of its teaching, to my religion. I do not regret—besides, I had to do it; I felt I was going off my head. I should have gone mad. I have been through agonies. I could not think. Thought and pain and trouble were as one in my brain. I heard voices.... I had to do it. And now a great calm has come. I feel much better."
"You are a curious chap."
Then at the end of a long silence John said, as if he wished to change the conversation—
"Even though I did burn my pessimistic poem, the world will not go without one. You are writing a poem on Schopenhauer's philosophy. It is hard to associate pessimism with you."
"Only because you take the ordinary view of the tendency of pessimistic teaching," said Mike. "If you want a young and laughing world, preach Schopenhauer at every street corner; if you want a sober utilitarian world, preach Comte."
"Doesn't much matter what the world is as long as it is not sober," chuckled Platt, the paragraph-writing youth at the bottom of the table.
"Hold your tongue!" cried Drake, and he lighted another cigarette preparatory to fixing his whole attention on the paradox that Mike was about to enounce.
"The optimist believes in the regeneration of the race, in its ultimate perfectibility, the synthesis of humanity, the providential idea, and the path of the future; he therefore puts on a shovel hat, cries out against lust, and depreciates prostitution."
"Oh, the brute!" chuckled the wizen youth, "without prostitutes and public-houses! what a world to live in!"
"The optimist counsels manual labour for all. The pessimist believes that forgetfulness and nothingness is the whole of man. He says, 'I defy the wisest of you to tell me why I am here, and being here, what good is gained by my assisting to bring others here.' The pessimist is therefore the gay Johnny, and the optimist is the melancholy Johnny. The former drinks champagne and takes his 'tart' out to dinner, the latter says that life is not intended to be happy in—that there is plenty of time to rest when you are dead."
John laughed loudly; but a moment after, reassuming his look of admonition, he asked Mike to tell him about his poem.
"The subject is astonishingly beautiful," said Mike; "I only speak of the subject; no one, not even Victor Hugo or Shelley, ever conceived a finer theme. But they had execution, I have only the idea. I suppose the world to have ended; but ended, how? Man has at last recognized that life is, in equal parts, misery and abomination, and has resolved that it shall cease. The tide of passion has again risen, and lashed by repression to tenfold fury, the shores of life have again been strewn with new victims; but knowledge—calm, will-less knowledge—has gradually invaded all hearts; and the restless, shifting sea (which is passion) shrinks to its furthest limits.
"There have been Messiahs, there have been persecutions, but the Word has been preached unintermittently. Crowds have gathered to listen to the wild-eyed prophets. You see them on the desert promontories, preaching that human life must cease; they call it a disgraceful episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets—you see them hunted and tortured as were their ancestors, the Christians of the reign of Diocletian. You see them entering cottage doors and making converts in humble homes. The world, grown tired of vain misery, accepts oblivion.
"The rage and the seething of the sea is the image I select to represent the struggle for life. The dawn is my image for the diffusion and triumph of sufficient reason. In a couple of hundred lines I have set my scene, and I begin. It is in the plains of Normandy; of countless millions only two friends remain. One of them is dying. As the stars recede he stretches his hand to his companion, breathes once more, looking him in the face, joyous in the attainment of final rest. A hole is scraped, and the last burial is achieved. Then the man, a young beautiful man with the pallor of long vigils and spiritual combat upon his face, arises.
"The scene echoes strangely the asceticism that produced it. Rose-garden and vineyard are gone; there are no fields, nor hedgerows, nor gables seen picturesquely on a sky, human with smoke mildly ascending. A broken wall that a great elm tears and rends, startles the silence; apple-orchards spread no flowery snow, and the familiar thrushes have deserted the moss-grown trees, in other times their trees; and the virgin forest ceases only to make bleak place for marish plains with lonely pools and stagnating streams, where perchance a heron rises on blue and heavy wings.
"All the beautiful colours the world had worn when she was man's mistress are gone, and now, as if mourning for her lover and lord, she is clad only in sombre raiment. Since her lord departed she bears but scanty fruit, and since her lover left her, she that was glad has grown morose; her joy seems to have died with his; and the feeling of gloom is heightened, when at the sound of the man's footsteps a pack of wild dogs escape from a ruin, where they have been sleeping, and wake the forest with lugubrious yelps and barks. About the dismantled porches no single rose—the survival of roses planted by some fair woman's hand—remains to tell that man was once there—worked there for his daily bread, seeking a goodness and truth in life which was not his lot to attain.
"There are few open spaces, and the man has to follow the tracks of animals. Sometimes he comes upon a herd of horses feeding in a glade; they turn and look upon him in a round-eyed surprise, and he sees them galloping on the hill-sides, their manes and tails floating in the wind.
"Paris is covered with brushwood, and trees and wood from the shore have torn away the bridges, of which only a few fragments remain. Dim and desolate are those marshes now in the twilight shedding.
"The river swirls through multitudinous ruins, lighted by a crescent moon; clouds hurry and gather and bear away the day. The man stands like a saint of old, who, on the last verge of the desert, turns and smiles upon the world he conquered.
"The great night collects and advances in shadow; and wandering vapour, taking fire in the darkness, rolls, tumbling over and over like fiery serpents, through loneliness and reeds.
"But in the eternal sunshine of the South flowers have not become extinct; winds have carried seeds hither and thither, and the earth has waxed lovely, and the calm of the spiritual evenings of the Adriatic descend upon eternal perfume and the songs of birds. Symbol of pain or joy there is none, and the august silence is undisturbed by tears. From rotting hangings in Venice rats run, and that idle wave of palace-stairs laps in listless leisure the fallen glories of Veronese. As it is with painters so it is with poets, and wolf cubs tear the pages of the last Divine Comedy in the world. Rome is his great agony, her shameful history falls before his eyes like a painted curtain. All the inner nature of life is revealed to him, and he sees into the heart of things as did Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane—Christ, that most perfect symbol of the denial of the will to live; and, like Christ, he cries that the world may pass from him.
"But in resignation, hatred and horror vanish, and he muses again on the more than human redemption, the great atonement that man has made for his shameful life's history; and standing amid the orange and almond trees, amid a profusion of bloom that the world seems to have brought for thank-offering, amid an apparent and glorious victory of inanimate nature, he falls down in worship of his race that had freely surrendered all, knowing it to be nothing, and in surrender had gained all.
"In that moment of intense consciousness a cry breaks the stillness, and searching among the marbles he finds a dying woman. Gathering some fruit, he gives her to eat, and they walk together, she considering him as saviour and lord, he wrapped in the contemplation of the end. They are the end, and all paling fascination, which is the world, is passing from them, and they are passing from it. And the splendour of gold and red ascends and spreads—crown and raiment of a world that has regained its primal beauty.
"'We are alone,' the woman says. 'The world is ours; we are as king and queen, and greater than any king or queen.'
"Her dark olive skin changes about the neck like a fruit near to ripen, and the large arms, curving deeply, fall from the shoulder in superb indolences of movement, and the hair, varying from burnt-up black to blue, curls like a fleece adown the shoulders. She is large and strong, a fitting mother of man, supple in the joints as the young panther that has just bounded into the thickets; and her rich almond eyes, dark, and moon-like in their depth of mystery, are fixed on him. Then he awakes to the danger of the enchantment; but she pleads that they, the last of mankind, may remain watching over each other till the end; and seeing his eyes flash, her heart rejoices. And out of the glare of the moon they passed beneath the sycamores. And listening to the fierce tune of the nightingales in the dusky daylight there, temptation hisses like a serpent; and the woman listens, and drawing herself about the man, she says—
"'The world is ours; let us make it ours for ever; let us give birth to a new race more great and beautiful than that which is dead. Love me, for I am love; all the dead beauties of the race are incarnate in me. I am the type and epitome of all. Was the Venus we saw yesterday among the myrtles more lovely than I?'
"But he casts her from him, asking in despair (for he loves her) if they are to renew the misery and abomination which it required all the courage and all the wisdom of all the ages to subdue? He calls names from love's most fearful chronicle—Cleopatra, Faustina, Borgia. A little while and man's shameful life will no longer disturb the silence of the heavens. But no perception of life's shame touches the heart of the woman. 'I am love,' she cries again. 'Take me, and make me the mother of men. In me are incarnate all the love songs of the world. I am Beatrice; I am Juliet. I shall be all love to you—Fair Rosamond and Queen Eleanor. I am the rose! I am the nightingale!'
"She follows him in all depths of the forests wherever he may go. In the white morning he finds her kneeling by him, and in blue and rose evening he sees her whiteness crouching in the brake. He has fled to a last retreat in the hills where he thought she could not follow, and after a long day of travel lies down. But she comes upon him in his first sleep, and with amorous arms uplifted, and hair shed to the knee, throws herself upon him. It is in the soft and sensual scent of the honeysuckle. The bright lips strive, and for an instant his soul turns sick with famine for the face; but only for an instant, and in a supreme revulsion of feeling he beseeches her, crying that the world may not end as it began, in blood. But she heeds him not, and to save the generations he dashes her on the rocks.
"Man began in bloodshed, in bloodshed he has ended.
"Standing against the last tinge of purple, he gazes for a last time upon the magnificence of a virgin world, seeing the tawny forms of lions in the shadows, watching them drinking at the stream."
"Adam and Eve at the end of the world," said Drake. "A very pretty subject; but I distinctly object to an Eve with black hair. Eve and golden hair have ever been considered inseparable things."
"That's true," said Platt; "the moment my missis went wrong her hair turned yellow."
Mike joined in the jocularity, but at the first pause he asked Escott what he thought of his poem.
"I have only one fault to find. Does not the denouement seem too violent? Would it not be better if the man were to succeed in escaping from her, and then vexed with scruples to return and find her dead? What splendid lamentations over the body of the last woman!—and as the man wanders beneath the waxing and waning moon he hears nature lamenting the last woman. Mountains, rocks, forests, speak to him only of her."
"Yes, that would do.... But no—what am I saying? Such a conclusion would be in exact contradiction to the philosophy of my poem. For it is man's natural and inveterate stupidity (Schopenhauer calls it Will) that forces man to live and continue his species. Reason is the opposing force. As time goes on reason becomes more and more complete, until at last it turns upon the will and denies it, like the scorpion, which, if surrounded by a ring of fire, will turn and sting itself to death. Were the man to escape, and returning find the woman dead, it would not be reason but accident which put an end to this ridiculous world."
Seeing that attention was withdrawn from him Drake filled his pockets with cigarettes, split a soda with Platt, and seized upon the entrance of half a dozen young men as an excuse for ceasing to write paragraphs. Although it had only struck six they were all in evening dress. They were under thirty, and in them elegance and dissipation were equally evident. Lord Muchross, a clean-shaven Johnnie, walked at the head of the gang, assuming by virtue of his greater volubility a sort of headship. Dicky, the driver, a stout commoner, spoke of drink; and a languid blonde, Lord Snowdown, leaned against the chimney-piece displaying a thin figure. The others took seats and laughed whenever Lord Muchross spoke.
"Here we are, old chappie, just in time to drink to the health of the number. Ha, ha, ha! What damned libel have you in this week? Ha, ha!"
"Awful bad head, a heavy day yesterday," said Dicky—"drunk blind."
"Had to put him in a wheelbarrow, wheeled him into a greengrocer's shop, put a carrot in his mouth, and rang the bell," shouted Muchross.
"Ha, ha, ha!" shouted the others.
"Had a rippin' day all the same, didn't we, old Dicky? Went up the river in Snowdown's launch. Had lunch by Tag's Island, went as far as Datchet. There we met Dicky; he tooted us round by Staines. There we got in a fresh team, galloped all the way to Houndslow. Laura brought her sister. Kitty was with us. Made us die with a story she told us of a fellow she was spoony on. Had to put him under the bed.... Ghastly joke, dear boy!"
Amid roars of laughter Dicky's voice was heard—
"She calls him Love's martyr; he nearly died of bronchitis, and became a priest. Kitty swears she'll go to confession to him one of these days."
"By Jove, if she does I'll publish it in the Pilgrim."
"Too late this week," Mike said to Frank.
"We got to town by half past six, went round to the Cri. to have a sherry-and-bitters, dined at the Royal, went on to the Pav., and on with all the girls in hansoms, four in each, to Snowdown's."
"See me dance the polka, dear boy," cried the languid lord, awaking suddenly from his indolence, and as he pranced across the room most of his drink went over Drake's neck; and amid oaths and laughter Escott besought of the revellers to retire.
"We are still four columns short, we must get on." And for an hour and a half the scratching of the pens was only interrupted by the striking of a match and an occasional damn. At six they adjourned to the office. They walked along the Strand swinging their sticks, full of consciousness of a day's work done. Drake and Platt, who had avenged some private wrongs in their paragraphs, were disturbed by the fear of libel; Harding gnawed the end of his moustache, and reconsidered his attack on a contemporary writer, pointing his gibes afresh.
They trooped up-stairs, the door was thrown open. It was a small office, and at the end of the partitioned space a clerk sat in front of a ledger on a high stool, his face against the window. Lounging on the counter, turning over the leaves of back numbers, they discussed the advertisements. They stood up when Lady Helen entered. [Footnote: See A Modern Lover.] She had come to speak to Frank about a poem, and she only paused in her rapid visit to shake hands with Harding, and she asked Mike if his poems would be published that season.
The contributors to the Pilgrim dined together on Wednesday, and spent four shillings a head in an old English tavern, where unlimited joint and vegetables could be obtained for half-a-crown. The old-fashioned boxes into which the guests edged themselves had not been removed, and about the mahogany bar, placed in the passage in front of the proprietress's parlour, two dingy barmaids served actors from the adjoining theatre with whisky-and-water. The contributors to the Pilgrim had selected a box, and were clamouring for food. Smacking his lips, the head-waiter, an antiquity who cashed cheques and told stories about Mr. Dickens and Mr. Thackeray, stopped in front of this table.
"Roast beef, very nice—a nice cut, sir; saddle of mutton just up."
All decided for saddle of mutton.
"Saddle of mutton, number three."
Greasy and white the carver came, and as if the meat were a delight the carver sliced it out. Some one remarked this.
"That is nothing," said Thompson; "you should hear Hopkins grunting as he cuts the venison on Tuesdays and Fridays, and how he sucks his lips as he ladles out the gravy. We only enjoy a slice or two, whereas his pleasure ends only with the haunch."
The evening newspapers were caught up, glanced at, and abused as worthless rags, and the editors covered with lively ridicule.
The conversation turned on Boulogne, where Mike had loved many solicitors' wives, and then on the impurity of the society girl and the prurient purity of her creation—the "English" novel.
"I believe that it is so," said Harding; "and in her immorality we find the reason for all this bewildering outcry against the slightest license in literature. Strange that in a manifestly impure age there should be a national tendency towards chaste literature. I am not sure that a moral literature does not of necessity imply much laxity in practical morality. We seek in art what we do not find in ourselves, and it would be true to nature to represent an unfortunate woman delighting in reading of such purity as her own life daily insulted and contradicted; and the novel is the rag in which this leper age coquets before the mirror of its hypocrisy, rehearsing the deception it would practise on future time."
"You must consider the influence of impure literature upon young people," said John.
"No, no; the influence of a book is nothing; it is life that influences and corrupts. I sent my story of a drunken woman to Randall, and the next time I heard from him he wrote to say he had married his mistress, and he knew she was a drunkard."
"It is easy to prove that bad books don't do any harm; if they did, by the same rule good books would do good, and the world would have been converted long ago," said Frank.
Harding thought how he might best appropriate the epigram, and when the influence of the liberty lately acquired by girls had been discussed—the right to go out shopping in the morning, to sit out dances on dark stairs; in a word, the decadence and overthrow of the chaperon—the conversation again turned on art.
"It is very difficult," said Harding, "to be great as the old masters were great. A man is great when every one is great. In the great ages if you were not great you did not exist at all, but in these days everything conspires to support the weak."
Out of deference to John, who had worn for some time a very solid look of disapproval, Mike ceased to discourse on half-hours passed on staircases, and in summer-houses when the gardener had gone to dinner, and he spoke about naturalistic novels and an exhibition of pastels.
"As time goes on, poetry, history, philosophy, will so multiply that the day will come when the learned will not even know the names of their predecessors. There is nothing that will not increase out of all reckoning except the naturalistic novel. A man may write twenty volumes of poetry, history, and philosophy, but a man will never be born who will write more than two, at the most three, naturalistic novels. The naturalistic novel is the essence of a phase of life that the writer has lived in and assimilated. If you take into consideration the difficulty of observing twice, of the time an experience takes to ripen in you, you will easily understand a priori that the man will never be born who will write three realistic novels."
Coffee and cigars were ordered, and Harding extolled the charm and grace of pastels.
Thompson said—"I keep pastels for my hours of idleness—cowardly hours, when I have no heart to struggle with nature, and may but smile and kiss my hand to her at a distance. For dreaming I know nothing like pastel; it is the painter's opium pipe.... Latour was the greatest pastellist of the eighteenth century, and he never attempted more than a drawing heightened with colour. But how suggestive, how elegant, how well-bred!"
Then in reply to some flattery on the personality of his art, Thompson said, "It is strange, for I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament—temperament is the word—I know nothing. When I hear people talk about temperament, it always seem to me like the strong man in the fair, who straddles his legs, and asks some one to step upon the palm of his hand."
Drake joined in the discussion, and the chatter that came from this enormous man was as small as his head, which sat like a pin's-head above his shoulders. Platt drifted from the obscene into the incomprehensible. The room was fast emptying, and the waiter loitered, waiting to be paid.
"We must be getting off," said Mike; "it is nearly eleven o'clock, and we have still the best part of the paper to read through."
"Don't be in such a damned hurry," said Frank, authoritatively.
Harding bade them good-night at the door, and the editors walked down Fleet Street. To pass up a rickety court to the printer's, or to go through the stage-door to the stage, produced similar sensations in Mike. The white-washed wall, the glare of the raw gas, the low monotonous voice of the reading-boy, like one studying a part, or perhaps like the murmur of the distant audience; the boy coming in asking for "copy" or proof, like the call-boy, with his "Curtain's going up, gentlemen." Is there not analogy between the preparation of the paper that will be before the public in the morning, and the preparation of the play that will be before its eyes in the evening?
From the glass closet where they waited for the "pages," they could see the compositors bending over the forms. The light lay upon a red beard, a freckled neck, the crimson of the volutes of an ear.
In the glass closet there were three wooden chairs, a table, and an inkstand; on the shelf by the door a few books—the London Directory, an English Dictionary, a French Dictionary—the titles of the remaining books did not catch the eye. As they waited, for no "pages" would be ready for them for some time, Mike glanced at stray numbers of two trade journals. It seemed to him strange that the same compositors who set up these papers should set up the Pilgrim.
Presently the "pages" began to come in, but long delays intervened, and it transpired that some of the "copy" was not yet in type. Frank grew weary, and he complained of headache, and asked Mike to see the paper through for him. Mike thought Frank selfish, but there was no help for it. He could not refuse, but must wait in the paraffin-like smell of the ink, listening to the droning voice of the reading-boy. If he could only get the proof of his poem he could kill time by correcting it; but it could not be obtained. Two hours passed, and he still sat watching the red beard of a compositor, and the crimson volutes of an ear. At last the printer's devil, his short sleeves rolled up, brought in a couple of pages. Mike read, following the lines with his pen, correcting the literals, and he cursed when the "devil" told him that ten more lines of copy were wanting to complete page nine. What should he write?
About two o'clock, holding her ball-skirts out of the dirt, a lady entered.
"How do you do, Emily?" said Mike. "Just fancy seeing you here, and at this hour!" He was glad of the interruption; but his pleasure was dashed by the fear that she would ask him to come home with her.
"Oh, I have had such a pleasant party; So-and-so sang at Lady Southey's. Oh, I have enjoyed myself! I knew I should find you here; but I am interrupting. I will go." She put her arm round his neck. He looked at her diamonds, and congratulated himself that she was a lady.
"I am afraid I am interrupting you," she said again.
"Oh no, you aren't, I shall be done in half an hour; I have only got a few more pages to read through. Escott went away, selfish brute that he is, and has left me to do all the work."
She sat by his side contentedly reading what he had written. At half-past two all the pages were passed for press, and they descended the spiral iron staircase, through the grease and vinegar smell of the ink, in view of heads and arms of a hundred compositors, in hearing of the drowsy murmur of the reading-boy. Her brougham was at the door. As she stepped in Mike screwed up his courage and said good-bye.
"Won't you come?" she said, with disappointment in her eyes.
"No, not to-night. I have been slaving at that paper for the last four hours. Thanks; not to-night. Good-bye; I'll see you next week."
The brougham rolled away, and Mike walked home. The hands of the clocks were stretching towards three, and only a few drink-disfigured creatures of thirty-five or forty lingered; so horrible were they that he did not answer their salutations.
Mike was in his bath when Frank entered.
"What, not dressed yet?"
"All very well for you to talk. You left me at eleven to get the paper out as best I could. I did not get away from the printer's before half-past two."
"I'm very sorry, but you've no idea how ill I felt. I really couldn't have stayed on. I heard you come in. You weren't alone."
The room was pleasant with the Eau de Lubin, and Mike's beautiful figure appealed to Frank's artistic sense; and he noticed it in relation to the twisted oak columns of the bed. The body, it was smooth and white as marble; and the pectoral muscles were especially beautiful when he leaned forward to wipe a lifted leg. He turned, and the back narrowed like a leaf, and expanded in shapes as subtle. He was really a superb animal as he stepped out of his bath.
"I wish to heavens you'd dress. Leave off messing yourself about. I want breakfast. Lizzie's waiting. What are you putting on those clothes for? Where are you going?"
"I am going to see Lily Young. She wrote to me this morning saying she had her mother's permission to ask me to come."
"She won't like you any better for all that scent and washing."
"Which of these neckties do you like?"
"I don't know.... I wish you'd be quick. Come on!"
As he fixed his tie with a pearl pin he whistled the "Wedding March." Catching Frank's eyes, he laughed and sang at the top of his voice as he went down the passage.
Lizzie was reading in one of the arm-chairs that stood by the high chimney-piece tall with tiles and blue vases. The stiffness and glare of the red cloth in which the room was furnished, contrasted with the soft colour of the tapestry which covered one wall. The round table shone with silver, and an agreeable smell of coffee and sausages pervaded the room. Lizzie looked up astonished; but without giving her time to ask questions, Mike seized her and rushed her up and down.