THE COMBINED MAZE
BY MAY SINCLAIR
AUTHOR OF "THE DIVINE FIRE"
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS NEW YORK AND LONDON MCMXIII
COPYRIGHT, 1913, BY HARPER & BROTHERS PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA PUBLISHED FEBRUARY, 1913
THE COMBINED MAZE
You may say that there was something wrong somewhere, some mistake, from the very beginning, in his parentage, in the time and place and manner of his birth. It was in the early eighties, over a shabby chemist's shop in Wandsworth High Street, and it came of the union of Fulleymore Ransome, a little, middle-aged chemist, weedy, parched, furtively inebriate, and his wife Emma, the daughter of John Randall, a draper.
They called him John Randall Fulleymore Ransome, and Ranny for short.
Ranny should have been born in lands of adventure, under the green light of a virgin forest, or on some illimitable prairie; he should have sailed with the vikings or fought with Cromwell's Ironsides; or, better still, he should have run, half-naked, splendidly pagan, bearing the torch of Marathon.
And yet he bore his torch.
From the very first his mother said that Ranny was that venturesome. He showed it in his ill-considered and ungovernable determination to be born, and it was hard to say which of them, Ranny or his mother, more nearly died of it. She must have been aware that there was a hitch somewhere; for, referring again and again, as she did, to Ranny's venturesomeness, she would say, "It beats me where he gets it from."
He may have got some of it from her, for she, poor thing, had sunk, adventurously, in one disastrous marriage her whole stock of youth and gaiety and charm. It was Ranny's youth and charm and gaiety that made him so surprising and so unaccountable.
Circumstances were not encouraging to Ranny's youth, nor to his private and particular ambition, the cultivation of a superb physique. For, not only was he a little chemist's son, he was a great furniture dealer's inexpensive and utterly insignificant clerk, one of a dozen confined in a long mahogany pen where they sat at long mahogany desks, upon high mahogany stools, making invoices of chairs and tables and wardrobes and washstands and all manner of furniture. You would never have known, to see him sitting there, that John Randall Fulleymore Ransome was a leader in Section I of the London Polytechnic Gymnasium.
So far, in his way, he testified, he bore his torch. Confined as he was in a mahogany pen, born and brought up in the odor of drugs, and surrounded by every ignominious sign of disease and infirmity, his dream was yet of cleanness, of health, and the splendor of physical perfection. The thing that young Ransome most loathed and abhorred was Flabbiness, next to Flabbiness, Weediness. The years of his adolescence were one long struggle and battle against these two. He had them ever before him, and associated them, absurdly but inveterately, with a pharmaceutical chemist's occupation; of Weediness his father being the prime example; while for Flabbiness, young Mercier, his father's assistant—well, Mercier, as he said, "took the biscuit." It was horrible for young Ransome to inhabit the same house with young Mercier, because of his flabbiness.
In all cities there are many thousand Ransomes, more or less confined in mahogany cages, but John Randall Fulleymore stands for all of them. He was one of those who, in a cold twilight on a Saturday afternoon, stagger from the trampled field, hot-eyed under their wild hair, whose garments are stained from the torn grass and uptrodden earth, with here and there a rent and the white gleam of a shoulder or a thigh; whose vivid, virile odor has a tang of earth in it. He is the image and the type of these forlorn, foredoomed young athletes, these exponents of a city's desperate adolescence, these inarticulate enthusiasts of the earth. He bursts from his pen in the evening at seven or half past, he snatches somewhere a cup of cocoa and a sandwich, and at nine he is seen, half pagan in his "zephyr" and his "shorts," sprinting like mad through the main thoroughfares. In summer some pitch, more or less perfect, waits for him in suburban playing fields; and the River knows him, at Battersea, at Chelsea, at Hammersmith, and at Wandsworth, the River knows him as he is, the indomitable and impassioned worshiper of the body and the earth.
And if the moon sees him sometimes haggard, panting, though indomitable, though impassioned, reeling on the last lap of his last mile, and limping through Wandsworth High Street home to the house of the weedy pharmaceutical chemist his father, if the moon sees Ransome, why, the Moon is a lady, and she does not tell.
* * * * *
If you asked him what he did it for, he would say you did it because it kept you fit, also (if you pressed him) because it kept you decent.
And to know how right he was you had only to look at him, escaped from his cage; you had only to follow his progress through the lighted streets and observe his unbending behavior before the salutations of the night. His fitness, combined with his decency, made him a wonder, a desire, and a despair. Slender and upright, immaculately high-collared, his thin serge suit molded by his sheer muscular development to the semblance of perfection, Ranny was a mark for loitering feet and wandering eyes. Ranny was brown-faced and brown-haired; he had brown eyes made clear with a strain of gray, rather narrow eyes, ever so slightly tilted, narrowing still, and lengthening, as with humor, at the outer corners. There was humor in his mouth, wide but fine, that tilted slightly upward when he spoke. There was humor even in his nose with its subtle curve, the slender length of its bridge, and its tip, wide spread, and like his mouth and eyes, slightly uptilted.
Ranny, in short, was fascinating. And at every turn his mysterious decency betrayed the promise of his charm.
* * * * *
It was Fred Booty, his friend and companion of the pen, who first put him in the right way, discerning in him a fine original genius for adventure.
For when Ranny's mother said he was that venturesome, she meant that he was fond, fantastically and violently fond of danger, of adventure. His cunning in this matter beat her clean—how he found the things to do he did do; the things, the frightful things he did about the house with bannisters and windows, of which she knew. As for the things he found to do with bicycles on Wandsworth Common and Putney Hill they were known mainly to his Maker and Fred Booty. Booty, who could judge (being "a bit handy with a bike" himself), said of them that they were "a fair treat."
But these were the deeds of his boyhood, and in nineteen-two Ransome looked back on them with contempt. Follies they were, things a silly kid does; and it wasn't by those monkey tricks that a fellow developed his physique. Booty had found Ransome in his attic one Saturday afternoon, a year ago, half stripped, and contemplating ruefully what he conceived to be the first horrible, mushy dawn of Flabbiness in his biceps muscle. All he wanted, Booty had then declared, was a turn or two at the Poly. Gym. Then Booty took Ransome round to his place in Putney Bridge Road, and they sat on Booty's bed with their arms round each other's shoulders while Booty read aloud to Ransome from the pages of the Poly. Prospectus. Booty was a slender, agile youth with an innocent, sanguine face, the face of a beardless faun, finished off with a bush of blond hair that stood up from his forehead like a monumental flame.
He read very slowly, in a voice that had in it both an adolescent croak and an engaging Cockney tang.
"The Poly.," said Booty, "really was a Club, 'where,'" he underlined it, "'every reasonable facil'ty shall bee offered fer the formation of a steadfast character, and—of—true friendships; fer trainin' the intellec'—'"
"Int'lec' be blowed," said Ransome.
"'And fer leadin' an upright, unselfish life. Day by day,'" read Booty, "'the battle of life becomes more strenuous. To succeed entyles careful preparation and stern'—stern, Ranny—'deetermination, it deemands the choice of good friends and the avoid'nce of those persons and things which tend to lessen, instead of to increase the reesources of the individyool.' There, wot d'you think of that, Ran?"
Ran didn't think much of it until Booty pointed out to him, one by one, the privileges he would enjoy as a member of the Poly.
For the ridiculous yearly sum of ten-and-six (it was all he could rise to) Ransome had become a member of the Poly. Ten-and-six threw open to him every year the Poly. Gym., the Poly. Swimming Bath, and the Poly. Circulating Library. For ten-and-six he could further command the services (once a week) of the doctor attached to the Poly. and of its experienced legal adviser.
That tickled Ransome. He didn't see himself by any possibility requiring communion with that experienced man. But it tickled him, the sheer fantastic opulence and extravagance of the thing. It tickled him so much that whenever you disagreed with or offended Ransome his jest was to refer you, magnificently, to "my legal adviser."
Yes, for fantastic opulence and extravagance, Ransome had never seen anything to beat the Poly. There was no end to it, no end to the privileges you enjoyed. He positively ran amuck among his privileges—those, that is to say, offered him by the Poly. Swimming Bath and the Poly. Gym. As he said, he "fair abused 'em." But he considered that the Poly. "got home again" on his exceptionally moderate use of the Circulating Library, and his total abstention from the Bible Classes. He was not yet aware of any soul in him apart from that abounding and sufficing physical energy expressed in Fitness, nor was he violently conscious of any moral sense apart from Decency.
And Ranny despised the votaries of intellectual light; he more than suspected them of Weediness, if not of Flabbiness. Yet (as he waited for Booty in the vestibule), through much darkness and confusion, and always at an immeasurable distance from him, he discerned, glory beyond glory, the things that the Poly., in its great mercy and pity, had reserved for those "queer johnnies." It made him giddy merely to look at the posters of its lectures and its classes. It gave him the headache to think of the things the fellows—fellows of a deplorable physique—and girls, too, did there. For his part, he looked forward to the day when, by a further subscription of ten-and-six, he would enroll himself as a member of the Athletic Club.
It was as if the Poly. put out feeler after feeler to draw him to itself. Only to one thing he would not be drawn. When Booty advised him to join the Poly. Ramblers he stood firm. For some shy or unfathomable reason of his own he refused to become a Poly. Rambler. When it came to the Poly. Ramblers he was adamant. It was one of those vital points at which he resisted this process of absorption in the Poly. Booty denounced his attitude as eminently anti-social—uppish, he called it.
All that winter Ransome's nights and days were regulated in a perfect order—making statements of account for nine hours on five days of the week and four on Saturdays. Three evenings for the Poly. Gym. One for the Swimming Bath. One for sprinting. One (Saturday) for rest or relaxation after the violence of Rugger. One (Sunday) for the improvement of the mind. On Sundays he was very seldom good for anything else.
But in the spring of nineteen-two something stirred in him, something watched and waited; with a subtle agitation, a vague and delicate excitement, it exulted and aspired. The sensation, or whatever it was, had as yet no separate existence of its own. So perfect, in this spring of nineteen-two, was the harmony of Ransome's being that the pulse of the unborn thing was one with all his other pulses; it was one, indistinguishably, with the splendor of life, the madness of running, and the joy he took in his own remarkable performances on the horizontal bar. It had the effect of heightening, mysteriously and indescribably, the joy, the madness, and the splendor. And it was dominant, insistent. Like some great and unintelligible motif it ran ringing and sounding through the vast rhythmic tumult of physical energy.
Not for a moment did he connect it with the increasing interest that he took in the appearance of the Young Ladies of the Poly. Gym. He was not aware how aware he was of their coming, nor how his heart thumped and throbbed and his nerves trembled at the tramp, tramp of their feet along the floor.
For sometimes, it might be twice a year, the young men and the young women of the Gymnasium met and mingled in a Grand Display.
He was fairly well used to it; and yet he had never got over his amazement at finding that girls, those things of constitutional and predestined flabbiness, could do very nearly (though not quite) everything that he could, leaving him little besides his pre-eminence on the horizontal bar. And yearly the regiment of girls who could "do things" at the Poly. increased under his very eyes. Their invasion disturbed him in his vision of their flabbiness; it rubbed it into him, the things that they could do.
Not but what he had felt it—he had felt them—all about him, outside, in the streets where they jostled him, and in the world made mostly of mahogany, the world of counters and of desks, of pens where they too were herded and shut up and compelled, like him, to toil. Queer things, girls, for they seemed, incomprehensibly, to like it. Their liking it, their businesslike assumption of equality, their incessant appearance (authorized, it is true, by business) at the railings of his pen, the peculiar disenchanting promiscuity of it all, preserved young Ransome in his eccentricity of indifference to their sex. In fact, if you tried to talk about sex to young Ransome (and Mercier did try) he would denounce it as "silly goat's talk," and your absorption in it as "the most mutton-headed form of Flabbiness yet out."
* * * * *
But that was before the Grand Display of the autumn of last year, when Winny Dymond appeared in the March Past of Section I of the Women's Gymnasium; before he had followed Winny as she ran at top speed through all the turnings and windings of the Combined Maze.
There were about fifty of them, picked; all attired in black stockings, in dark-blue knickerbockers, and in tunics that reached to the knee, red-belted and trimmed with red. Stunning, he called them; so much so that they fair took away his breath.
That was what he said when it was all over. By that time he was ashamed to confess that at the moment of its apparition the March Past had been somewhat of a shock to him. He had his ideas, and he was not prepared for the uniform; still less was he prepared for a personal encounter with such quantities of young women all at once.
All sorts of girls—sturdy and slender girls; queer girls with lean, wiry bodies; deceptive girls with bodies curiously plastic under the appearance of fragility; here a young miracle of physical culture; there a girl with the pointed breasts and flying shoulders, the limbs, the hips, the questing face that recalled some fugitive soul of the woods and mountains; long-nosed, sallow, nervous Jewish girls; English girls with stolid, colorless faces; here and there a face rosy and full-blown, or a pretty tilted profile and a wonderful, elaborate head of hair. One or two of these heads positively lit up the procession with their red and gold, gave it the splendor and beauty of a pageant.
They came on, single file and double file and four abreast, the long line doubling and turning upon itself; all alike in the straight drop of the arms to the hips, the rise and fall of their black-stockinged legs, the arching and pointing of the feet; all deliciously alike in their air of indestructible propriety. Here you caught one leashing an iniquitous little smile in the corners of her eyes under her lashes; or one, aware of her proud beauty, and bearing herself because of it, with the extreme of indestructible propriety.
There were no words to express young Ransome's indifference to proud beauty.
If he found something tender and absurd in the movements of all those long black stockings, it was for the sake and on account of the long black stockings worn by little Winny Dymond.
Winny Dymond was not proud, neither was she what he supposed you would call beautiful. She was not one of those conspicuous by their flaming and elaborate hair.
What he first noted in her with wonder and admiration was the absence of weediness and flabbiness. Better known, she stirred in him, as a child might, an altogether indescribable sense of tenderness and absurdity. She stood out for him simply by the fact that, of all the young ladies of the Polytechnic, she was the only one he really knew—barring Maudie Hollis, and Maudie, though she was the proud beauty of the Polytechnic, didn't count.
For Maudie was ear-marked, so to speak, as the property (when he could afford a place to put her in) of Fred Booty. Ransome would no more have dreamed of cultivating an independent acquaintance with Maudie than he would of pocketing the silver cup that Booty won in last year's Hurdle Race. It was because of Maudie, and at Booty's irresistible request, that he, the slave of friendship, had consented, unwillingly and perfunctorily at first, to become Miss Dymond's cavalier. Maudie, also at Booty's passionate appeal, had for six months shared with Winny Dymond a room off Wandsworth High Street, so that, as he put it, he might feel that she was near him; with the desolating result that they weren't by any means, no, not by a long chalk, so near. For Maudie, out of levity or sheer exuberant kindness of the heart, had persuaded Winny Dymond to join the Polytechnic. In her proud beauty and in her affianced state she could afford to be exuberantly kind. And Booty in his vision of nearness had been counting on the long journey by night from Regent Street to Wandsworth High Street alone with Maudie; and, though Miss Dymond practically effaced herself, it wasn't—with a girl of Maudie's temperament—the same thing at all. For Maudie in company was apt to be a little stiff and stand-offish in her manner.
Then (one afternoon in the autumn of last year it was) Booty sounded Ransome, finding himself alone with him in the mahogany pen when the senior clerks were at their tea. "I say," he said, "there's something I want you to do for me," and Ransome, in his recklessness, his magnificence, said "Right-O!"
He said afterward that he had gathered from the expression of his friend's face that his trouble was financial, a matter of five bob, or fifteen at the very worst. And you could trust Boots to pay up any day. So that he was properly floored when Boots, in a thick, earnest voice, explained the nature of the service he required—that he, Ransome, should go with him, nightly, to a convenient corner of Oxford Street, and there collar that kid, Winny Dymond, and lug her along.
"Do you mean," asked Ransome, "walk home with her?"
Well, yes; that, Booty intimated, was about the size of it. She was a Wandsworth girl, and they'd got, he supposed, all four of them, to get there.
He was trying to carry it off, to give an air of inevitability to his preposterous proposal. But as young Ransome's face expressed his agony, Booty became almost abject in supplication. He didn't know, Ranny didn't, what it was to be situated like he, Booty, was. Booty wanted to know how he'd feel if it was him. To be gone on a girl like he was and only see her of an evenin' and then not be able to get any nearer her, because of havin' to make polite remarks to that wretched kid she was always cartin' round. At that rate he might just as well not be engaged at all—to Maudie; better engage himself to the bloomin' kid at once. It wasn't as if he had a decent chance of bein' spliced for good in a year or two's time. His evenin's and his Sundays and so forth were jolly well all he'd got. It was all very well for Ransome, he wasn't gone on a girl, else he'd know how erritatin' it was to the nerves. And if Ranny hadn't got the spunk to stand by a pal and see him through, why, then he'd cut the Poly. and make Maudie cut it too.
To most of this Ranny was silent, for it seemed to him that Boots was mad, or near it. But at that threat, so terrible to him, so terrible to the Polytechnic, so terrible to Booty, and so palpable a sign of his madness, he gave in. He said it was all right, only he didn't know what on earth he was to say to her.
Booty recovered his natural airiness. "Oh," he threw it off, "you say nothing."
And for the first night or so, as far as Ransome could remember, that was what he did say.
And he wasn't really clever at collaring her, either. There was something elusive, fugitive, uncatchable about Winny Dymond. It was Booty, driven by love to that extremity, who collared Maudie and walked off with her, with a suddenness and swiftness that left them stranded and amazed. "Fair pace-makin'," Ransome called it.
And Winny struggled and strove with those little legs of hers (jolly little legs he knew they were, too, in their long black stockings), strove and struggled, as if her life depended on it, to overtake them. And it was then that Ransome felt the first pricking of that sense of tenderness and absurdity.
He felt it again after a long silence when, as they were going toward Wandsworth Bridge, Winny suddenly addressed him.
"You know," she said, "you needn't trouble about me."
"I'm not troublin'," he said. "Leastways—that is—" he hesitated and was lost.
"You are," said she, with decision, "if you think you've got to see me home."
He said he thought that, considering the lateness of the hour and the loneliness of the scene, it was better that he should accompany her.
"But I can accompany myself," said she.
He smiled at the vision of Miss Dymond accompanying herself, at eleven o'clock at night, too—the idea! He smiled at it as if he saw in it something tender and absurd. He knew, of course, for he was not absolutely without experience, that girls said these things; they said them to draw fellows on; it was their artfulness. There was a word for it; Ransome thought the word was "cock-a-tree." But Winny Dymond didn't say those things—the least like that. She said them with the utmost gravity and determination. You might almost have thought she was offended but for the absence in her tone of any annoyance or embarrassment. Her tone, indeed, suggested serene sincerity and a sort of sympathy, the serious and compassionate consideration of his painful case. It was as if she had been aware all along of the frightful predicament he had been placed in by Fred Booty; as if she divined and understood his anguish in it and desired to help him out. That was evidently her idea—to help him out.
And as it grew on him—her idea—it grew on him also that there was a kind of fascination about the little figure in its long dark-blue coat.
She wasn't—he supposed she wasn't—pretty, but he found himself agreeably affected by her. He liked the queer look of her face, which began with a sort of squarishness in roundness and ended, with a sudden startling change of intention, in a pointed chin. He liked the clear sallow and faint rose of her skin, and her mouth which might have been too large if it had not been so firm and fine. He liked, vaguely, without knowing that he liked it, the quietness of her brown eyes and the faint, half-wondering arch above them; and quite definitely he liked the way she parted her brown hair in the middle and smoothed it till it lay in two long, low waves (just discernible under the brim of her hat) upon her forehead. He did not know that long afterward he was never to see Winny Dymond's eyes and parted hair without some vision of strength and profound placidity and cleanness.
All he said was he supposed there was no law against his occupying the same pavement; and then he could have sworn that Winny's face sent a little ghost of a smile flitting past him through the night.
"Well, anyhow," she said, "you needn't talk to me unless you like."
And at that he threw his head back and laughed aloud. And quite suddenly the moon came out and stared at them; came bang up on their left above the River (they were on the bridge now) out of a great cloud, a blazing and enormous moon. It tickled him. He called her attention to it, and said he didn't remember that he'd ever seen such a proper whopper of a moon and with such a shine on him. They hadn't half polished him, he said. Any one would think that things had all busted, got turned bottom side upward, and it was the bally old sun that was up there, grinnin' at them, through the hole he'd made.
"The idea!" said Winny; but she laughed at it, a little shrill and irresistible titter of delight always, as he was to learn, her homage to "ideas." He had them sometimes; they came on him all of a sudden, like that, and he couldn't help it; he couldn't stop them; he got them all the worse, all the more ungovernably, when Booty lunged at him, as he did, with his "Dry up, you silly blighter, you!" But that anybody should take pleasure in his ideas, that was an idea, if you like, to Ransome.
They got on after that like a house on fire.
* * * * *
But only for that night. For many nights that followed Winny proved more fugitive, more uncatchable than ever. As often as not, when they arrived in Oxford Street, she would be gone, fled half an hour before them, accompanying herself all the way to Wandsworth. Once he pursued her down Oxford Street, coming up with her as she boarded a bus in full flight; and they sat in it in gravity and silence, as strangers to each other. But nearly always she was too quick for him; she got away. And never (he thanked Heaven for that, long afterward), never for a moment did he misunderstand her. She made that impossible for him; impossible to forget that in her and all her shyness there was no art at all of "cock-a-tree," only her fixed and funny determination not "to put upon him."
And so the seeing home of Winny Dymond became a fascinating and uncertain game, fascinating because of its uncertainty; it had all the agitation and allurement of pursuit and capture; if she had wanted to allure and agitate him, no art of "cock-a-tree" could have served her better. He was determined to see Winny Dymond home.
And all the time it grew, it grew on him, that sense of tenderness and absurdity. He found it—that ineffable and poignant quality—in everything about her and in everything she did—in the gravity of her deportment at the Poly.; in her shy essaying of the parallel bars; in the incredible swiftness with which she ran before him in the Maze; in the way her hair, tied up with an immense black bow in a door-knocker plat, rose and fell forever on her shoulders as she ran. He found it in the fact he had discovered that her companions called her by absurd and tender names; Winky, and even Winks, they called her.
That was in the autumn of nineteen-one; and he was finding it all over again now in the spring of nineteen-two.
At last, he didn't know how it happened, but one night, having caught up with her after a hot chase, close by the railings of the Parish Church in Wandsworth High Street, in the very moment of parting from her he turned round and said, "Look here, Miss Dymond, you think I don't like seeing you home, don't you?"
"To be sure I do. It must be a regular nuisance, night after night," she answered.
"Well, it isn't," he said. "I like it. But look here—if you hate it—"
She said it with a simple, naive amazement.
He was almost brutal.
"But I don't. What an idea!"
"Well, if you don't, that settles it. Don't it?"
And it did.
It was the night of the Grand Display of the spring of nineteen-two.
To the Gymnasium of the London Polytechnic you ascended (in nineteen-two) as to a temple by a flight of steps, and found yourself in a great oblong room of white walls, with white pillars supporting the gallery that ran all round it. The railing of the gallery was of iron tracery, painted green, with a brass balustrade. The great clean white space, the long ropes for the trapezes which hung from the ceiling and were looped up now to the stanchions, the coarse canvas of the mattresses, the disciplined lines, the tramping feet, the commanding voices of the instructors, gave a confused and dreamlike suggestion of the lower deck of a man-of-war. To-night, under the west end of the gallery, a small platform was raised for the Mayor of Marylebone and a score of guests. The galleries themselves were packed with members of the Polytechnic and their friends.
The programme of the Grand Display announced as its first item:
PARALLEL BARS Tableau by MESSRS. BOOTY, TYSER, BUIST, WAUCHOPE, AND J. R. F. RANSOME
There was a murmur of surreptitious, half-ironic applause. "Stick it, Ransome; stick it, old boy!"
The reference was to his extraordinary attitude.
J. R. F. Ransome appeared as the apex and the crown of a rude triangular structure whose base was formed by the high parallel bars, flanked at each end by two bodies (Booty and Tyser front), two supple adolescent bodies, bent backward like two bows. He stood head downward on his hands that grasped and were supported by the locked arms of two solid athletes, Buist and Wauchope, themselves mounted gloriously and perilously on the straining bars.
Considered as to his arms, and the white "zephyr" and flannels that he wore, he was merely a marvelous young man balancing himself with difficulty in an unnatural posture. But his body, uptilted, poised as by a miracle in air, with the slender curve of its back, its flattened hips, its feet laid together like wings folded in the first downrush, might have been the body of a young immortal descending with facile precipitancy to earth.
He maintained for a sensible moment his appearance of having just flown from the roof of the Gymnasium. Far below, the photographer fumbled leisurely with his apparatus.
"Hurry up, there!" "Stick it, Ransome!" "Half a mo!" "Stick it, Ranny; stick it!" they whispered. "Steady does it."
And Ranny stuck it. Ranny actually, from his awful eminence, sang out, "No fear!"
The flashlight immortalized his moment.
That was his way—to stick it; to see it out; to go through with the adventure alert and gay, wearing that fine smile of his, so extravagantly uplifted at the corners. "Stick it!" was the motto of his individual recklessness and of the dogged, enduring conservatism of his class. It kept him in a mahogany pen, at a mahogany desk, for forty-four hours a week, and it sustained him in his orgies of physical energy at the Poly. Gym.
Best of all, it sustained him in his daily and nightly encounters with young Mercier.
He was all the more determined to stick it by the knowledge that young Mercier was up there in the gallery looking at him. He could see him leaning over the balustrade and smiling at him atrociously. He took advantage of an interval and joined him. He was half inclined to ask him what he meant by it. For he was always at it. Whenever young Mercier caught Ranny doing a sprint he smiled atrociously. At Wandsworth, behind the counter, or in the little zinc-roofed dispensing-room at the back, among the horribly smelling materials of his craft, he smiled, remembering him.
Mercier was a black-haired, thick-set youth with heavy features in a heavy, pasty face, a face oddly decorated by immense and slightly prominent blue eyes, a face where all day long the sensual dream brooded heavily. His black eyebrows gave it a certain accent and distinction. It was because of his dream that Leonard Mercier could afford to smile.
He was one of those who wanted to know what Ranny did it for. He couldn't see what fun the young goat got out of his evenings. Not half, no, nor a quarter of what he, Mercier, could get from one night at the Empire or when he took his girl to Earl's Court or the Wandsworth Coliseum. And, though up there in the gallery he had said "By Jove!" and that he was blowed, and that that young Ransome was a corker, though he boasted to three entire strangers that that young fellow was a friend of his, his curiosity was still unsatisfied. He still wanted to know what the young goat did it for.
He wanted to know it now. And at his insistence young Ransome was abashed. How could he explain to old Eno what he did it for or what it felt like? He couldn't explain it to himself, he had no words for it, for that ecstasy of living, that fusion of all faculties in one rhythm and one vibration, one continuous transport of physical energy. Take sprinting alone. How could he convey to Jujubes in his disgusting flabbiness any sense of the fine madness of running, of the race of the blood through the veins, of the hammer strokes of the heart, of the soft pad of the feet on the highway? To Jujubes, who went in like a cushion no matter where you prodded him, how describe the feel of a taut muscle, the mounting swell of it, the resistance, and the small, almost impalpable ripple and throb under the skin? He couldn't have described it to himself.
So he gave Jujubes his invariable casual answer. You did it because it kept you fit and because (he let old Eno have it) it kept you decent. Old Eno would be a lot decenter if he went in for it. It would do him worlds of good.
To which old Eno replied that he thought he saw himself! As for joining Ranny's precious old Poly., why, for all the Life you were likely to see there, you might as well be in a young ladies' boarding-school. And Ransome said that that was where Jujubes ought to be. He liked young ladies. Among them (he intimated) his flabbiness might not excite remark. Girls (he pondered it) were flabby things.
Chivalry constrained him to a mental reservation: Winny Dymond and the young ladies of the Poly. Gym. excepted.
But he was glad that Mercier didn't stay to see them. Young Leonard (whose smile was growing more and more atrocious) had declared that the young ladies of the Empire ballet were a bit more in his line, and he had made off, elbowing his way through the crowded gallery and crooning "Boys of the Empire!" as he went, while Ransome pursued him with the scornful adjuration to "Go home and take a saline draught!"
But you couldn't shame old Eno. He triumphed and exulted in his flabbiness. For he was a Boy of the Empire. He had seen Life, and would see more and more of it.
* * * * *
Ransome went down again into the hall. He removed himself from the crowd and leaned against a pillar, in abstraction, arms folded, showing the great muscles; a splendid figure in his white "zephyr" trimmed with crimson, with the crimson sash of leadership knotted at his side. Thus withdrawn, he watched, half furtively, the performance of the young ladies of the Polytechnic Gymnasium.
One by one, with an air incorruptibly decorous, the young ladies of the Polytechnic Gymnasium hurled themselves upon the parallel bars; they waggled themselves by their hands along them; they swung themselves from side to side of them, and outstretched themselves between them with a foot and a hand upon each bar; they raised their bodies, thus supported, like an arch; they slackened them and flung themselves (with a crescendo of decorous delirium) from side to side again, and over; alighting on their feet in a curtseying posture and with the left arm extended in a little perfunctory gesture of demonstration to the audience, as much as to say, "There you are, and nothing could be easier!"
Nothing could be more conventional and more unspeakably correct. Only when Winny Dymond did it there was a difference, or it seemed so to young Ransome. Winny approached the bars with shyness and a certain earnestness and gravity of intent. She hesitated; for a moment she was adorable in vacillation. She shook her head at the bars, she bit her lip at them; she set her face at them in defiance; then, with a sudden amazing celerity she gave a little run forward and leaped upon them; she swung herself in perfect rhythm and motion onward and upward and from side to side; she arched her sturdy but exquisitely supple body like a bridge, flung herself over as if in pure abandonment of joy and lighted on her feet, curtseying correctly but with something piteous in the gesture of the outstretched arm, and upon her face an expression of great surprise and wonder at herself, as if Winny said, not "There you are!" but "Here I am, and oh, I never thought I should be!"
And from his place by the pillar Ransome gave the little inarticulate murmur he reserved for Winny. It was charged with his sense of tenderness and absurdity.
* * * * *
A quarter to ten. His own performances—his wonderful performances on the horizontal bar—were over; and over the demonstration by F. Booty with the Indian clubs, where young Fred, slender and supple as a faun, played on his own muscles in faultless rhythm. And now with an eye upon the Mayor the order was given for the last item on the programme:
/# THE COMBINED MAZE #/
There was a rush of energetic young men who flung themselves upon the properties of the Gymnasium. They ran them—the parallel bars, the horses, the mattresses—in under the galleries; they uprooted the posts of the horizontal bar; they cleared the whole of the vast oblong space bounded by the pillars.
An attendant then appeared with a bit of chalk in his hand, and with the chalk he drew upon the floor certain mystic circles, one at each corner of the oblong, one in the center, the heart of the Maze, and facing it two smaller circles, one at each side on a visionary line. Seven mystic, seven sacred circles in all did he draw, and vanished, unconscious of the sanctity and symbolism of his deed.
For he, with his bit of white chalk, had marked the course for the great running, for the race that the young men and the young girls run together with the racing of the stars, for the unloosening of the holy primal energies in a figure and a measure and a ritual old as time.
It was all very well for the instructor (blind instrument of unspeakably mysterious forces) to pretend that he invented it, that august figure of the seven-circled Maze; to explain it, as he does to the inquiring, by the analogy of a billiard table with its pockets. For never yet, on any billiard table, was a race run and a contest waged like that in which these young men and girls ran and contended. Drawn up at the far end of the hall under the east gallery in two ranks, four-breasted, the men on the one side and the women on the other, they waited, and the leader of each rank had a foot on a corner circle. They waited, marking time with their feet, first, to the thudding beat of the barbell on the floor and then to an unheard measure, secret and restrained, the murmur of life in the blood, the rhythm of the soundless will, the beat of the unseen, urging energy, that gathered to intensity, desirous of the race.
As yet the soul of it slept in their rigid bodies, their grave, forward-looking faces, their behavior, so excessively correct. Somebody whispered the word, and on a sudden they let themselves go; they started. Young Tyser, breasting the wind of his own speed, his head uplifted and thrown backward, led the men, and she with the questing face and wide-pointing breasts of Artemis led the girls; and he had young Ransome on his heels and she Winny; and behind them the fourfold serried ranks thinned and thinned out and spun themselves in two lines of single file, two threads, one white, one dark blue, both flecked with crimson, two threads that in their running were wound and unwound and woven in a pattern, dark blue and white and crimson, that ran and never paused and never ended and was never the same. For first, each line was flung slantwise from the corner circle whence it had started, and where the two met, point by point perpetually, in the center circle, they as it were intersected, men and women wriggling, sliding, and darting with incredible dexterity through each other's ranks; and the pattern was a cross, a tricolor. Then they wheeled round the circle that was and was not their goal, and did it all over again; but instead of intersecting at the center circle they struck off there at a tangent, and the pattern, blue by blue divided from white by white, and all red-flecked, was two wide V's set point to point, a pattern that ran away and vanished as each thread, returning, wheeled round the circle whence the other thread had started.
And all this at the top speed set by Tyser, and with the thud of the men's feet and the pad of the women's; all this with a secret challenge and defiance of one sex to the other, with separation and estrangement, with a never-ending, baffling approach and flight, with the furtive darting of man from woman and of woman from man, whirled in their courses from each other as they met.
And now the lines doubled; they were running two abreast, slantwise; and as they intersected in the sacred center circle it was with a mingling of the threads, a weaving of blue with white, and white with blue; so that each man had in flight before him a maiden, and so that at their circles, east and west, where they wheeled they wheeled together, side by side, as the Maze flung them. And now they were circling and serpentining up and down, and down and up, with contrary motion, in a double figure of eight; they were winding in and out among the pillars and wheeling round the middle circles north and south, side by side, till they split there and parted and met again in the center and were flung from it, to wheel again deliriously, double-ringed, round all the six outermost circles at once.
And now, as if they were torn from the ends of the earth by the irresistible attraction of the seventh circle, they were whirling round the center in a double ring, a ring of young men round a ring of girls; and then, as by some mysterious compulsion, they divided and cast themselves off in rows of two couples, man and girl by man and girl, linked with arms on each other's shoulders, eight rows in all, eight spokes that sprang from the sacred circle ringed with eight, four men and four girls, who were the felly of the wheel, all running, all revolving. Such was the magic of the Maze, and the unconscious genius of the instructor, that the pattern of the running wound and unwound and knit itself together in the supreme symbol of the great Wheel of Eight Spokes, the Wheel of Life.
And the ancient rhythmic rush and race of the worlds, and the wheeling of all stars, the swinging and dancing of all atoms, the streaming and eddying of the ancestral stuff of life was in the whirling of that living Wheel; it was one immortal motion, continuous and triumphant in the bodies of those men and maidens as they ran. And they, shop-girls and shop-boys and young clerks, slipped off their memories of the desk and counter, and a joy, an instinct, and a sense that had no memory woke in them, savage, virgin, and shy; the pure and perfect joy of the young body in its own strength and speed; the instinct of the hunter of the hills and woodlands; the sense of feet padding on grass and fallen leaves, of ears pricking alert, of eyes that face the dawn on the high downs and go glancing through the coverts. And as this radiant and vehement life rose in them like a tide their gravity and shyness and severity passed from them; here and there hair was loosened, combs were shed, and nobody stopped to gather them; for frenzy seized on the young men, and their arms pressed on the girls' shoulders, urging the pace faster and faster; and light, swift as their flying feet, shot from their eyes, and they laughed each to the other as they ran. So divine was now the madness of their running, so inspired the whirling of the Wheel, that the thing showed plainly as the undying, immemorial ecstasy; showed as the secret dance of magic and of mystery, taken over by the London Polytechnic, and, at the very moment when its corybantic nature most declared itself, constrained to an order and a beauty tremendous and austere.
So wise and powerful was the London Polytechnic.
For Ransome, mixed with that joy of the running, there was a joy of his own, an instinct and a sense, virgin and shy, absolved from memory. He found it, when Winny Dymond ran before him, in the slender, innocent movement of her hips under her thin tunic, in the absurd flap-flapping of the door-knocker plat on her shoulders, in the glances flicked at him by the tail of her eye as she wheeled from him in the endless pursuit and capture and approach and flight, as she was parted, was flung from him and returned to him in the windings of the Maze. He found it to perfection in the pressure of each other's arms as the Maze wed them and whirled them running, locked together in the pattern of the wheel. It was not love so much as some inspired sense of comradeship mingled inextricably with that other sense of absurdity and tenderness.
Not love, not passion, even when in the excitement of the running she swerved to the wrong side and he had to turn her with his two hands upon her waist. For it was the law of their running that, though it was one with the movement of life itself, mysteriously, while the thing lasted, it precluded passion.
Ransome left Winny Dymond at St. Ann's Terrace, and went home along the High Street. He went very slowly, as if in thought.
At the railings of the Parish Church he paused, recalling something. Low and square-towered, couchant in the moonlight behind its railings, the Parish Church guarded under its long flank its huddled graves.
He smiled for very Youth. It was here that he had run Winny to earth and caught her. The Parish Church had been his accomplice in that capture.
Wandsworth High Street twists and winds with the waywardness of a river. The first turn brought him to the old stone bridge over the Wandle. On the bridge before him, in the crook of the street, were the booths and stalls of the night market, lit by blazing naphtha, color heaped on color in a leaping, waving flare as of torches. On either side was a twisted and jagged line of houses—brown-brick, flat-fronted, eighteenth-century houses, and houses with painted fronts. Here a tall, red-brick modern Parade shot up the gables of its insolent facade. There, oldest of all, a yellow house stooped forward on the posts that propped it. Somewhere up in the sky a tall chimney and a cupola. All beautiful under the night, all dark or dim, with sudden flashes and pallors and gleams, lamplit and moonlit; and all impressed upon Ransome's brain with an extraordinary vividness and importance, as if he had suddenly discovered something new about Wandsworth High Street.
What he had discovered was the blessedness of living as he did in Wandsworth High Street within three minutes' walk of St. Ann's Terrace.
To be sure, what with the shop and the storage for drugs, Ransome's father's house, with Ransome and his father and his mother and Mercier and the maid in it, was somewhat cramped. And neither Ransome nor his father nor his mother knew how beautiful it was with its brown-brick front, its steep-pitched roof, and the two dormer windows looking down on the High Street like two sleepy eyes under drooping lids. A narrow slip of a house, it stood a foot or two back between the wine merchant's and John Randall the draper's shop, and had the air of being squeezed out of existence by them. Yet the name of Fulleymore Ransome, in gold letters on a black ground, and with Pharmaceutical Chemist under it in a scroll, more than held its own beside John Randall. The chemist's dignity was further proclaimed by the immense bottles, three in a row (the Carboys, Mr. Ransome called them), holding the magic liquids, a blue, a red, and a yellow, wide-bellied at the base, and with pyramids for stoppers. Under them, dividing the window pane, a narrow gold band with black lettering advertised three distinct mineral waters.
A yellow-ochre blind now screened the lower half of that window. Drawn down unevenly and tilted at the bottom corner, it suffered a vague glimpse of objects that from his earliest years had never ceased to offend Ranny's sense of the beautiful and fit.
He had not as yet considered very deeply the problems of his life. Otherwise, in returning every night to his father's house, it must have struck him that he was not what you might call a free man. For his father's house had no door except the shop door, and it was the peculiarity of that shop door that it did not admit of any latch key. Every night young Ransome had to ring, and it was usually Mercier, with his abominable smile, who let him in.
To-night the door was opened cautiously on the chain and somebody whispered, "Is that you, Ranny?"
The chain was slipped, and he entered.
A small bead of gas burned on a bracket somewhere behind the counter. The light slid, pale as water, over the glass and mahogany of the show-cases, wherein white objects appeared as confused and disconnected patches. The darkness effaced every object in the shop that was not white, with the queer effect that rows upon rows of white jars showed as if hanging on it unsupported by their shelves. Very close, turned up to him out of the darkness, was Ranny's mother's face. He kissed it.
"Where's that Mercier?" said Ranny's mother.
"What? Isn't he back yet?"
"No," said Ranny's mother. "And your father's got the Headache."
By a tender and most pardonable confusion between the symptoms and its cause Ranny's mother had hit upon a phrase that made it possible for them to discuss his father's affliction without the smallest, most shadowy reference to its essential nature. For Ranny's mother, such reference would have been the last profanity, a sacrilege committed against the divinities of the hearth and of the marriage bed. But for that phrase Mr. Ransome's weakness must have been passed in silence as the unspeakable, incredible, unthinkable thing it was.
At the phrase, more frequent in his mother's mouth than ever, Ranny drew in his lips for a whistle; but instead of whistling he said, "Poor old Humming-bird."
"It's one of His bad ones," said Ranny's mother.
He raised the flap of the counter, and they went through. He turned up the gas so that the outlines of things asserted themselves and the labels on the white jars gave out their secret gold. On one of these labels, Hydrarg. Amm., which had no meaning for him, Ranny fixed a fascinated gaze, thus avoiding the revelations of his mother's face.
For Ranny's mother's face showed that she had been crying.
Plump, and yet not large, her figure and her face were formed for gaiety and charm. Her little nose was uptilted like Ranny's; but something that was not gaiety, but pathos, had dragged down and made tremulous the corners of a mouth that had once been tilted too—a flowerlike mouth, of the same tender texture as her face, a face that was once one wide-open, innocent pink flower. Now it was washed out and burnt with the courses of her tears. Worry had fretted her soft forehead into lines and twisted her eyebrows in an expression as of permanent surprise at life's handiwork. And under them her dim-blue eyes, red-lidded, looked out with the same sorrow and dismay. There was nothing left of her beauty but her exuberant light-brown hair, which she dressed high on her head with a twist and a topknot piteously reminiscent of gaiety and charm.
She laid her hand on the knob of the left-hand inner door.
"He's in the dispensin'-room," she said.
Ranny turned round. His features tilted slightly, compelled by something preposterous in the vision she had evoked.
"Whatever game is he playin' there?"
A faint flicker passed over his mother's face, as if it pleased her that he could talk in that way.
"Prescription," she said, and paused between her words to let it sink into him. "Makin' it up, he is. Old Mr. Beesley's heart mixture."
"My Hat!" said Ranny. He was impressed by the gravity of the situation.
There were all sorts of things, such as toothbrushes, patent medicines, babies' comforters, that Ranny's father with a Headache, or Ranny himself or his mother could be trusted to dispense at a moment's notice. But the drug strophanthus, prescribed for old Mr. Beesley, was not one of them. It was tricky stuff. He knew all about it; Mercier had told him. Whether it was to do Mr. Beesley good or not would depend on the precise degree and kind of Ranny's father's Headache.
"I've never known your father's Headache so bad as it is to-night," said Ranny's mother. "As for makin' up prescriptions, sufferin' as He is, He's not fit for it. He's not fit for it, Ranny."
That was as near as she could go.
"Of course he isn't."
(They had to keep it up together.)
But Ranny's mother felt that she had gone too far.
"He ought to be in His bed—"
"Of course he ought," said Ranny, tenderly.
"And He would be if it wasn't for that Mercier."
Thus subtly did she intimate that it was not his father but Mercier whose behavior was reprehensible.
"P'r'aps you'll go to him, Ranny?"
"Hadn't we better wait for Mercier?"
(Old Mr. Beesley's mixture was a case for Mercier.)
"Him? Goodness knows when he'll be in. And it's not likely that y'r father'll have him interferin' with him. They're sendin' at ten past eleven, and it's five past now."
Thus and thus only did she suggest the necessity for immediate action. Also her fear lest Mercier should find Mr. Ransome out. As if Mercier had not found him out long ago; as if he hadn't warned Ranny, time and again, of what might happen.
"All right, I'll go."
* * * * *
He went by the right-hand door at the back of the shop, and down a short and exceedingly narrow passage, lined with shallow shelves for the storage of drugs.
Another door at the end of the passage led straight into the dispensing-room outside, a long shed of corrugated iron run up against the garden wall and lined with honey-colored pine. Under a wide stretch of window was a work table. At one end of this table was a slab of white marble; at the other a porcelain sink fitted with taps and sprays for hot and cold water. From the far end of the room where the stove was came a smothered roar of gas flames. On the broken inner wall were shelves fitted with drawers of all sizes, each with its label, and above them other shelves with row after row of jars. Near the stove, more shelves with more and more jars, with phials, kettles, pannikins, and pipkins. Everywhere else shelves of medicine bottles, innumerable medicine bottles of all sorts and sizes, giving to the honey-colored walls a decorative glimmer of sea-blue and sea-green.
All this was brilliantly illuminated with gas that burned on every bracket.
To Ransome's senses it was as if the faint, the delicate colors of the place gave a more frightful grossness and pungency to its smell. Dying asafetida struggled still with gas fumes, and was pierced by another odor, a sharp and bitter odor that he knew.
At the long table, under the hanging gaselier, in shirt sleeves and apron, Mr. Ransome stood. The light fell full on his sallow baldness and its ring of iron-gray hair; on his sallow, sickly face; on his little long, peaked nose with its peevish nostrils; even on his thin and irritable mouth, unhidden by the scanty, close-trimmed iron-gray mustache and beard. He was weedy to the last degree.
Ranny came near and gazed inscrutably at this miracle of physical unfitness. Under his gaze the pitiful and insignificant figure bore itself as with a majesty of rectitude.
Mr. Ransome had before him a prescription, a medicine bottle, a large bottle of distilled water, two measuring-glasses, and a smaller bottle half full of a pale-amber liquid. He had been standing motionless, staring at these objects with a peculiar and intent solemnity. Now, as if challenged and challenging, he drew the smaller measuring-glass toward him with one hand. He held it to the light and moved his finger nail slowly along the middle measuring line. Then with two hands that trembled he poured into it a part of the infusion. The liquid went tink-tinkling in a succession of little jerks. He held it to the light; it rose a good inch above the line he had marked. He shook his head at it slowly, with an air of admonition and reproof, and poured it back into the bottle.
This process he repeated seven times, always with the same solemn intentness, the same reproving and admonitory air.
At his seventh failure he turned with the dignity of a man overmastered by outrageous circumstance.
"Mercier not in?" he asked, sternly. (You would have said it was his son Randall that he admonished and reproved.)
"Not yet," said Ranny. And as he said it he possessed himself very gently of the measuring-glass and bottle. (Mr. Ransome affected not to notice this man[oe]uver.)
"What is it?"
"Tincture of strophanthus, sodae bicarb., and spirits of chloroform. Just you mind how you handle it."
"Right-O!" said Ranny.
The chemist's small, iron-gray eyes were fixed on him with severity and resentment.
"How much?" said Ranny.
"Up to three." Mr. Ransome's head was steadier than his hand.
Ranny poured the dose.
"Ac-acqua distillata—to eight ounces," said Mr. Ransome, disjointedly, but with an extreme incision.
Ranny poured again, and decanted the medicine into its bottle through a funnel, corked it, tied on the capsule, labeled, addressed, wrapped, and sealed it. The long-drawn, subtle corners of Ranny's eyes and mouth were lifted in that irrepressible smile of his, while Mr. Ransome asserted his pharmaceutical dignity by acrimonious comment. "Now then! You might have club feet instead of hands. Tha's right—mess the sealin'-wax, waste the string, spoil anything you haven't got to pay for. That'll do."
Mr. Ransome took the parcel from his son's hand, turned it round and round under the gaslight, laid it down, and dismissed it with a flick as of contempt for his incompetence. At that Ranny gave way and giggled.
Ten minutes later he and his mother stood in the doorway of the back parlor and watched the master's superb and solitary ascent to his bedroom on the first floor back. It was then that Ranny; still smiling, delivered his innermost opinion.
"Queer old Humming-bird. Ain't he, Mar?"
His mother shook her head at him. "Oh, Ranny," she said, "you shouldn't speak so disrespectful of your father."
But she kissed him for it, all the same.
That was how they kept it up together.
Not that Mrs. Ransome was conscious of keeping it up, of ministering to an illusion as monstrous as it was absurd. She had married Mr. Ransome, believing with a final and absolute conviction in his wisdom and his goodness. What she was keeping up had kept up for twenty-two years, and would keep up forever, was the attitude of her undying youth. It was its triumph over life itself.
In her youth the draper's daughter had been dazzled by Mr. Ransome, by his attainments, his position, his distinction. Fulleymore Ransome had about him the small refinement of the suburban shopkeeper, made finer by the intellectual processes that had turned him out a Pharmaceutical Chemist.
In her world of Wandsworth High Street his grave, fastidious figure had stood for everything that was superior. He was superior still. He had never offered his Headache as a spectacle to the public eye. Born in secrecy and solitude, it remained unseen outside the sacred circle of his home. Even there he had contrived to create around it an atmosphere of mystery. So that it was open to Mrs. Ransome to regard each Headache as an accident, a thing apart, solitary and miraculous in its occurrence. Faced with the incredible fact, she found a certain gratification in the thought that Mr. Ransome's position enabled him to order the best spirit wholesale, and with a professional impunity. So inviolate was his privacy that not even the wine and spirit merchant next door could gage the amount of his expenditure in this item.
Thus, in Mrs. Ransome's eyes, the worst Headache he had ever had could not impair his innermost integrity. Her vision of him was inspired by an innocence and sincerity that were of the substance of her soul. And in this optimism she had brought up her son.
Ranny, with his venturesomeness, had carried it a step further. For Ranny, not only did Mr. Ransome's inebriety conceal itself under the name of Headache, but in those hours when the Headache cast its intolerable gloom over the household Ranny persisted—from his childhood he had persisted—in regarding his father, perversely, as the source and fount of joy.
It was in this happy light he saw him on Sunday morning, when Mrs. Ransome came into the back parlor, where he was hiding his paper, The Pink 'Un, behind him under the sofa cushions. She was wearing her new slaty-gray gown with the lace collar, and a head-dress that combined the decorum of the bonnet with the levity and fascination of the hat. Black it was, with a spray of damask roses and their leaves, that spring upward from Mrs. Ransome's left ear.
"Your father's goin' to church," she said.
Ranny sat up among his cushions and said: "Oh, Lord! That Humming-bird's a fair treat."
He took it as a supreme instance of his father's humor.
But that was not the way Mrs. Ransome meant that he should take it. Ranny's admiration implied that the Humming-bird was carrying it off, successfully, if you like, but still carrying it. Whereas what she desired him to see was that there was nothing to be carried off. Obviously there could not be, when Mr. Ransome was prepared to go to church.
For the going to church of Mr. Ransome was itself a ritual, a high religious ceremony. Hitherto he had kept himself pure for it, abstaining from all Headache overnight. It was this habitual consecration of Mr. Ransome that made his last lapse so remarkable and so important, while it revealed it as fortuitous. Ranny had missed the deep logic of his mother's statement. Mr. Ransome was sidesman at the Parish Church, and at no time was the Headache compatible with being sidesman.
Nothing had ever interfered with the slow pageant of Mr. Ransome's progress toward church. Outside in the passage he was lingering over his preparations: the adjustment of his tie, the brushing of his tall hat, the drawing on of the dogskin gloves he wore in his office. It was not easy for Mr. Ransome to exceed the professional dignity of his frock coat and gray trousers, and yet every Sunday, by some miracle, he did exceed it. Each minute irreproachable detail of his dress accentuated, reiterated, the suggestion of his perpetual sobriety.
Still, there remained the memory of last night. Mrs. Ransome did not evade it; on the contrary, she used it to demonstrate the indomitable power of Mr. Ransome's will.
"I say he ought to be layin' down," she said. "But there—He won't. You know what He is since He's been sidesman. It's my belief He'd rise up off his deathbed to hand that plate. It's his duty to go, and go He will if He drops. That's your father all over."
"That's Him," Ranny assented.
His mother looked him in the face. It was the look, familiar to Ranny on a Sunday morning, that, while it reinstated Ranny's father in his rectitude, contrived subtly, insidiously, to put Ranny in the wrong.
"You're going, too," his mother said.
Well, no, he wasn't exactly going. Not, that was to say, to any church in Wandsworth. (He had, in fact, a pressing engagement to meet young Tyser at the first easterly signpost on Putney Common, and cycle with him to Richmond.)
"It's only a spin," said Ranny, though the look on his mother's face was enough to tell him that a spin, on a Sunday, was dissipation, and he, recklessly, iniquitously spinning, a prodigal most unsuitably descended from an upright father.
And then (this happened nearly every Sunday) Ranny set himself to charm away that look from his mother's face. First of all he said she was a tip-topper, a howling swell, and asked her where she expected to go to in that hat, nippin' in and cuttin' all the girls out, and she a married woman and a mother; and whether it wouldn't be fairer all around, and much more proper, if she was to wear something in the nature of a veil? Then he buttoned up her gloves over her little fat wrists and kissed her in several places where the veil ought to have been; and when he had informed her that "the Humming-bird was a regular toff," and had dismissed them both with his blessing, standing on the doorstep of the shop, he wheeled his bicycle out into the street, mounted it, and followed at the pace of a walking funeral until his parents had disappeared into the Parish Church.
Then Ranny, in his joy, set up a prolonged ringing of his bicycle bell, as it were the cry of his young soul, a shrill song of triumph and liberation and delight. And in his own vivid phrase, he "let her rip."
Of course he was a prodigal, a wastrel, a spendthrift. Going the pace, he was, with a vengeance, like a razzling-dazzling, devil-may-care young dog.
A prodigal driven by the lust of speed, dissipating his divine energies in this fierce whirling of the wheels; scattering his youth to the sun and his strength to the wind in the fury of riotous "biking." A drunkard, mad-drunk, blind-drunk with the draught of his onrush.
That was Ranny on a Sunday morning.
* * * * *
He returned, at one o'clock, to a dinner of roast mutton and apple tart. Conversation was sustained, for Mercier's benefit, at the extreme pitch of politeness and precision. It seemed to Ranny that at Sunday dinner his father reached, socially, a very high level. It seemed so to Mrs. Ransome as she bloomed and flushed in a brief return of her beauty above the mutton and the tart. She bloomed and flushed every time that Mr. Ransome did anything that proved his goodness and his wisdom. Sunday was the day in which she most believed in him, the day set apart for her worship of him.
By what blindfolded pieties, what subterfuges, what evasions she had achieved her own private superstition was unknown, even to herself. It was by courage and the magic of personality—some evocation of her lost gaiety and charm—but above all by courage that she had contrived to impose it upon other people.
The cult of Mr. Ransome reached its height at four o'clock on this Sunday afternoon, when Ranny's Uncle John Randall (Junior) and Aunt Randall dropped in to tea. Both Mr. and Mrs. Randall believed in Mr. Ransome with the fervent, immovable faith of innocence that has once for all taken an idea into its head. Long ago they had taken it into their heads that Mr. Ransome was a wise and good man. They had taken it on hearsay, on conjecture, on perpetual suggestion conveyed by Mrs. Ransome, and on the grounds—absolutely incontrovertible—that they had never heard a word to the contrary. Never, until the other day, when that young Mercier came to Wandsworth. And, as Mrs. Randall said, everybody knew what he was. Whatever it was that Mr. Randall had heard from young Mercier and told to Mrs. Randall, the two had agreed to hold their tongues about it, for Emmy's sake, and not to pass it on. Wild horses, Mrs. Randall said, wouldn't drag it out of her.
Not that they believed or could believe such a thing of Mr. Ransome, who had been known in Wandsworth for five-and-twenty years before that young Mercier was so much as born. And by holding their tongues about it and not passing it on they had succeeded in dismissing from their minds, for long intervals at a time, the story they had heard about Mr. Ransome. "For, mind you," said Mr. Randall, "if it got about it would ruin him. Ruin him it would. As much as if it was true."
Long afterward when she thought of that Sunday, and how beautifully they'd spoken of Mr. Ransome; that Sunday when they had had tea upstairs in the best parlor on the front; that Sunday that had been half pleasure and half pain; that strange and ominous Sunday when poor Ranny had broken out and been so wild; long afterward, when she thought of it, Mrs. Ransome found that tears were in her eyes.
She had no idea then that they had heard anything. Family affection was what you looked for from the Randalls, and on Sundays they showed it by a frequent dropping in to tea.
John Randall, the draper, was a fine man. A tall, erect, full-fronted man, a superb figure in a frock coat. A man with a florid, handsome face, clean-shaved for the greater salience of his big mustache (dark, grizzled like his hair). A man with handsome eyes—prominent, slightly bloodshot, generous eyes. He might have passed for a soldier but for something that detracted, something that Ranny noticed. But even Ranny hesitated to call it flabbiness in so fine a man.
Mr. Randall had married a woman who had been even finer than himself. And she was still fine, with her black hair dressed in a prominent pompadour, and her figure curbed by the tightness of her Sunday gown. Under her polished hair Mrs. Randall's face shone with a blond pallor. It had grown up gradually round her features, and they, becoming more and more insignificant, were now merged in its general expression of good will. Ranny noted with wonder this increasing simplification of his Aunt Randall's face.
She entered as if under stress, towing her large husband through the doorway, and in and out among the furniture.
The room that received them was full of furniture, walnut wood, mid-Victorian in design, upholstered in rep, which had faded from crimson to an agreeable old rose. Rep curtains over Nottingham lace hung from the two windows. There was a davenport between them, and, opposite, a cabinet with a looking-glass back in three arches. It was Mr. Ransome's social distinction that he had inherited this walnut-wood furniture. Modernity was represented by a brand-new overmantle in stained wood and beveled glass, with little shelves displaying Japanese vases. The wall paper turned this front parlor into a bower of gilt roses (slightly tarnished on a grayish ground).
And as Mrs. Ransome sat at the head of the oval table in the center you would never have known that she was the woman with red eyes, the furtive, whispering woman who had opened the door to her son Randall last night. She sat in a most correct and upright attitude, she looked at John Randall and his wife, and smiled and flushed with gladness and with pride. It took so little to make her glad and proud. She was glad that Bessie was wearing the black and white which was so becoming to her. She was glad that there was honey as well as jam for tea, and that she had not cut the cake before they came. She was proud of her teapot, and of the appearance of her room. She was proud of Mr. Ransome's appearance at the table (where he sat austerely), and of her brother, John Randall, who looked so like a military man.
And John Randall talked; he talked; it was what he had come for. He had a right to talk. He was a member of the Borough Council, an important man, a man (it was said of him) with "ideas." He was a Liberal; and so, for that matter, was Mr. Ransome. Both were of the good, safe middle class, and took the good, safe, middle line.
They sat there; the Nottingham lace curtains veiled them from the gazes of the street, but their voices, raised in discussion, could be most distinctly heard; for the window was a little open, letting in the golden afternoon. They sat and drank tea and abused the Tory Government. Not any one Tory Government, but all Tory Governments. Mr. Ransome said that all Tory Governments were bad. Mr. Randall, aiming at precision, said he wouldn't say they were bad so much as stupid, cowardly, and dishonest. Stupid, because they were incapable of the ideas the Liberals had. Cowardly, because they let the Liberals do all the fighting for ideas. Dishonest, because they stole the ideas, purloined 'em, carried them out, and sneaked the credit.
And when Ranny asked if it mattered who got the credit provided they were carried out, Mr. Randall replied solemnly that it did matter, my boy. It mattered a great deal. Credit was everything, the nation's confidence was everything. A Government lived on credit and on nothing else. And his father told him that he hadn't understood what his uncle had been saying.
"If anybody asks me—" said Mr. Ransome. He interrupted himself to stare terribly at Mrs. Ransome, who was sending a signal to her son and a whisper, "Have a little slice of gingercake, Ran dear."
"If anybody asks me my objection to a Tory Government, I'll put it for 'em," said Mr. Ransome, "in a nutshell."
"Let's have it, Fulleymore," said Mr. Randall.
And Mr. Ransome let him have it—in a nutshell.
"With a Tory Government you always, sooner or later, have a war. And who," said Mr. Ransome, "wants war?"
Mr. Randall bowed and made a motion of his hand toward his brother-in-law, a complicated gesture which implied destruction of all Tory Governments, homage to Mr. Ransome, and dismissal of the subject as definitively settled by him.
Mrs. Ransome seized the moment to raise her eyebrows and the teapot toward Mrs. Randall, and to whisper again, surreptitiously, "Jest another little drain of tea?"
Then Ranny, who had tilted his chair most dangerously backward, was heard saying something. A bit of scrap, now and then, with other nations was, in Ranny's opinion, a jolly good thing. Kept you from gettin' Flabby. Kept you Fit.
Mr. Randall, in a large, forbearing manner, dealt with Ranny. He wanted to know whether he, Ranny, thought that the world was one almighty Poly. Gym.?
And Mr. Ransome answered: "That's precisely what he does think. Made for his amusement, the world is."
Ranny was young, and so they all treated him as if he were neither good nor wise.
And Ranny, desperately tilted backward, looked at them all with a smile that almost confirmed his father's view of his philosophy. He was working up for his great outbreak. He could feel the laughter struggling in his throat.
"I don't say," said Mr. Ransome, ignoring his son's folly, "that I'm complaining of this Boer War in especial. If anything"—he weighed it, determined, in his rectitude, to be just even to the war—"if anything we sold more of some things."
"Now what," said Mrs. Randall, "do you sell most of in time of war?"
"Sleepin' draughts, heart mixture, nerve tonic, stomach mixture, and so forth."
"And he can tell you," said Mr. Randall, "to a month's bookin' what meddycine he'll sell."
"What's more," said the chemist, with a sinister intonation, "I can tell who'll want 'em."
"Can you reelly now?" said Mrs. Randall. "Why, Fulleymore, you should have been a doctor. Shouldn't he, Emmy?"
Mrs. Ransome laughed softly in her pride. "He couldn't be much more than He is. Why, He doctors half the poor people in Wandsworth. They all come to Him, whether it's toothache or bronchitis or the influenza, or a housemaid with a whitlow on her finger, and He prescribes for all. If all the doctors in Wandsworth died to-morrow some of us would be no worse off."
"Many's the doctor's bill he's saved me," said Mr. Randall.
"Yes, but it's a tryin' life for Him, sufferin' as He is in 'is own 'ealth. Never knowin' when the night bell won't ring, and He have to get up out of his warm bed. He doesn't spare Himself, I can tell you."
And on they went for another quarter of an hour, boldly asserting, delicately hinting, subtly suggesting that Mr. Ransome was a good man; as if, Ranny reflected, anybody had ever said he wasn't. Mr. Ransome withdrew himself to his armchair by the fireplace, and the hymn of praise went on; it flowed round him where he sat morose and remote; and Ranny, in the window seat, was silent, listening with an inscrutable intentness to the three voices that ran on. He marveled at the way they kept it up. When his mother's light soprano broke, breathless for a moment, on a top note, Mrs. Randall's rich, guttural contralto came to its support, Mr. Randall supplying a running accompaniment of bass. And now they burst, all three of them, into anecdote and reminiscence, illustrating what they were all agreed about, that Mr. Ransome was a good man.
Nobody asked Ranny to join in; nobody knew, nobody cared what he was thinking, least of all Mr. Ransome.
He was thinking that he had asked Fred Booty in to tea, and that he had forgotten to say anything about it to his mother, and that Fred was late, and that his father wouldn't like it.
* * * * *
He didn't. He didn't like it at all. He didn't like Fred Booty to begin with, and when the impudent young monkey arrived after the others had gone, and had to have fresh tea made for him, thus accentuating and prolonging the unpleasantly, the intolerably festive hour, Mr. Ransome felt that he had been tried to the utmost, and that courtesy and forbearance had gone far enough for one Sunday. So he refused to speak when he was spoken to. He turned his back on his family and on Booty. He impressed them with his absolute and perfect disapproval.
For, as the Headache worked in Mr. Ransome, all young and gay and innocent things became abominable to him. Especially young things with spirits and appetites like his son Randall and Fred Booty. This afternoon they inspired him with a peculiar loathing and disgust. So did the malignant cheerfulness maintained by his wife. Escape no doubt was open to him. He might have left the room and sat by himself in the back parlor. But he spared them this humiliation. Outraged as he was, he would not go to the extreme length of forsaking them. He was a good man; and, as a good man, he would not be separated from his family, though he loathed it. So he hung about the room where they were; he brooded over it; he filled it with the spirit of the Headache. Young Booty became so infected, so poisoned with this presence that his nervous system suffered, and he all but choked over his tea. Young Booty, with his humor and his wit, the joy of Poly. Ramblers, sat in silence, miserably blushing, crumbling with agitated fingers the cake he dared not eat, and all the time trying not to look at Ranny.
For if he looked at Ranny he would be done for; he would not be able to contain himself, beholding how Ranny stuck it, and what he made of it, that intolerable, that incredible Sunday afternoon; how he saw it through; how he got back on it and found in it his own. For, as Mr. Ransome went from gloom to gloom, Ranny's spirit soared, indomitable, and his merriment rose in him, wave on wave.
What he could make of it Booty saw in an instant when Mr. Ransome left the room at the summons of the shop-bell. Ranny, with a smile of positive affection, watched him as he went.
"Queer old percher, ain't he?" Ranny said.
Then he let himself go, addressing himself to Booty.
"The old Porcupine may seem to you a trifle melancholy and morose. You can't see what's goin' on in his mind. You've no ideer of the glee he bottles up inside himself. Fair bubblin' and sparklin' in him, it is. Some day he'll bust out with it. I shouldn't be surprised if, at any moment now, he was to break out into song."
Booty, very hot and uncomfortable under Mrs. Ransome's eyes, affected to reprove him. "You dry up, you young rotter. Jolly lot of bottlin' up there is about you."
But there was that in Ranny which seemed as if it would never dry up. He hopped a chair seven times running, out of pure light-heartedness. The sound of the hopping brought Mr. Ransome in a fury from the shop below. He stood in the doorway, absurd as to his stature, but tremendous in the expression of the gloom that was his soul.
"What's goin' on here?" he asked, in a voice that would have thundered if it could.
"It's me," said Ranny. "Practisin'."
"I won't 'ave it then. I'll 'ave none of this leapin' and jumpin' over the shop on a Sunday afternoon. Pandemonium it is. 'Aven't you got all the week for your silly monkey tricks? I won't 'ave this room used, Mother, if he can't behave himself in it of a Sunday."
And he slammed the door on himself.
"On Sunday evenin'," said his son, imperturbably, as if there had been no interruption, "eight-thirty to eleven, at his residence, High Street, Wandsworth, Mr. Fulleymore Ransome will give an Entertainment. Humorous Impersonations: Mr. F. Ransome. Step Dancin': Mr. F. Ransome. Ladies are requested to remove their hats. Song: Put Me Among the Girls, Mr. F. Ransome—"
"For shame, Ranny," said his mother, behind her pocket handkerchief.
"—There will be a short interval for refreshment, when festivities will conclude with a performance on the French Horn: Mr. F. Ransome."
His mother laughed as she always did (relieved that he could take it that way); but this time, through all her laughter, he could see that there was something wrong.
And in the evening, when he had returned from seeing Booty home, she told him what it was. They were alone together in the front parlor.
"Ranny," she said, suddenly; "if I were you I wouldn't bring strangers in for a bit while your father's sufferin' as he is."
"Oh, I say, Mother—"
Ranny was disconcerted, for he had been going to ask her if he might bring Winny Dymond in some day.
"Well," she said, "it isn't as if He was one that could get away by Himself, like. He's always in and out."
"Yes. The old Hedgehog scuttles about pretty ubiquitous, don't he?"
That was all he said.
But though he took it like that, he knew his mother's heart; he knew what it had cost her to give him that pitiful hint. He was balancing himself on the arm of her chair now, and hanging over her like a lover.
He had always been more like a lover to her than a son. Mr. Ransome's transports (if he could be said to have transports) of affection were violent, with long intermissions and most brief. Ranny had ways, soft words, cajoleries, caresses that charmed her in her secret desolation. Balancing himself on the arm of her chair, he had his face hidden in the nape of her neck, where he affected ecstasy and the sniffing in of fragrance, as if his mother were a flower.
"What do you do?" said Ranny. "Do you bury yourself in violets all night, or what?"
"Violets indeed! Get along with you!"
"Violets aren't in it with your neck, Mother—nor roses neither. What did God Almighty think he was making when he made you?"
"Don't you dare to speak so," said his mother, smiling secretly.
"Lord bless you! He don't mind," said Ranny. "He's not like Par."
And he plunged into her neck again and burrowed there.
"Ranny, if you knew how you worried me, you wouldn't do it. You reelly wouldn't. I don't know what'll come to you, goin' on so reckless."
"It's because I love you," said Ranny, half stifled with his burrowing. "You fair drive me mad. I could eat you, Mother, and thrive on it."
"Get along with you! There! You're spoiling all my Sunday lace."
Ranny emerged, and his mother looked at him.
"Such a sight as you are. If you could see yourself," she said.
She raised her hand and stroked, not without tenderness, his rumpled hair.
"P'r'aps—If you had a sweetheart, Ran, you'd leave off makin' a fool of your old mother."
"I wouldn't leave off kissin' her," said he.
And then, suddenly, it struck him that he had never kissed Winny. He hadn't even thought of it. He saw her fugitive, swift-darting, rebellious rather than reluctant under his embrace; and at the thought he blushed, suddenly, all over.
His mother was unaware that his kisses had become dreamy, tentative, foreboding. She said to herself: "When his time comes there'll be no holding him. But he isn't one that'll be in a hurry, Ranny isn't."
She took comfort from that thought.
Ranny had received his first intimation that he was not a free man. And it had come upon him with something of a shock. He had made his burst for freedom five years ago, when he refused to be a Pharmaceutical Chemist in his father's shop, because he could not stand his father's ubiquity. And yet he was not free to leave his father's house; for he did not see how, as things were going, he could leave his mother. He was not free to ask his friends there either; not, that was to say, friends who were strangers to his father and the Headache. Above all, he was not free to ask Winny Dymond. He had thought he was, but his mother had made him see that he wasn't, because of his father's Headache; that he really ought not to expose the poor old Humming-bird to the rude criticism of people who did not know how good he was. That was what his mother, bless her! had been trying to make him see. And if it came to exposing, if this was to be a fair sample of their Sundays, if the Humming-bird was going to take the cake for queerness, what right had he to expose little Winny?
And would she stand it if he did? She might come once, perhaps, but not again. The Humming-bird would be a bit too much for her.
Then how on earth, Ranny asked himself, was he going to get any further with a girl like Winny? His acquaintance with her was bound to be a furtive and a secret thing. He loathed anything furtive, and he hated secrecy. And Winny would loathe and hate them, too. And she might turn on him and ask him why she was to be made love to in the streets when his mother had a house and he lived in it?
It was the first time that this idea of making love had come to him. Of course he had always supposed that he would marry some day; but as for making love, it was his mother who had put into his head that exquisitely agitating idea.
To make love to little Winny and to marry her, if (and that was not by any means so certain) she would have him—no idea could well have agitated Ranny more. It blunted the fine razorlike edge of his appetite for Sunday supper. It obscured his interest in The Pink 'Un, which he had unearthed from under the sofa cushion in the back parlor, whither he had withdrawn himself to think of it. And thinking of it took away the best part of his Sunday night's sleep.
For, after all, it was impossible; and the more you thought of it the more impossible it was. He couldn't marry. He simply couldn't afford it on a salary of eight pounds a month, which was a little under a hundred a year. He couldn't even afford it on his rise. Fellows did. But he considered it was a beastly shame of them; yes, a beastly shame it was to go and tie a girl to you when you couldn't keep her properly, to say nothing of letting her in for having kids you couldn't keep at all. Ranny had very fixed and firm opinions about marrying; for he had seen fellows doing it, rushing bald-headed into this tremendous business, for no reason but that they had got so gone on some girl they couldn't stick it without her. Ranny, in his decency, considered that that wasn't a reason; that they ought to stick it; that they ought to think of the girl, and that of all the beastly things you could do to her, this was the beastliest, because it tied her.
He had more than ever decided that it was so, as he lay in his attic sleepless on his narrow iron bedstead, staring up at the steep slope of the white-washed ceiling that leaned over him, pressed on him, and threatened him; watching it glimmer and darken and glimmer again to the dawn. He had put away from him the almost tangible vision of Winny lying there, pretty as she would be, in her little white nightgown, and her hair tossed over his pillow, perhaps, and he vowed that for Winny's sake he would never do that thing.
As for the feeling he had unmistakably begun to have for Winny, he would have to put that away, too, until he could afford to produce it.
It might also be wiser, for his own sake, to give up seeing her until he could afford it; but to this pitch of abnegation Ranny, for all his decency, couldn't rise.
Besides, he had to see her. He had to see her home.
* * * * *
And so he took his feeling and put it away, together with a certain sachet, scented with violets, and having a pattern of violets on a white-satin ground, and the word Violet going slantwise across it in embroidery. He had bought it (from his mother) in the shop, to keep (he said) in his drawer among his handkerchiefs. And in his drawer, among his handkerchiefs, he kept it, wrapped tenderly in tissue paper. He tried hard to forget that he had really bought it to give to Winny on her birthday. He tried hard to forget his feeling, wrapped up and put away with it. But he couldn't forget it; because every day his handkerchiefs, impregnated with the scent of violets, gave out a whiff that reminded him, and his feeling was inextricably entangled with that whiff.
It was with him as he worked in his mahogany pen at Woolridge's. All day a faint odor of violets clung to him and spread itself subtly about the counting-house, and the fellows noticed it and sniffed. And, oh, how they chaffed him. "Um-m-m. You been rolling in a bed of violets, Ranny?" And "Oo-ooh, what price violets?" And "You might tell us her name, old chappie, if you won't give the address." Till his life was a burden to him.