THE DIVINE FIRE
Author of Mr. and Mrs. Nevill Tyson, Two Sides of a Question, etc. etc.
Mr. OWEN SEAMAN in Punch says:—
"Miss Sinclair is always quietly sure of herself. That is why she will not be hurried, but moves through her gradual scheme with so leisured a serenity; why her style, fluent and facile, never forces its natural eloquence; why her humour plays with a diffused light over all her work and seldom needs the advertisement of scintillating epigrams. Judged by almost every standard to which a comedy like this should be referred, I find her book, 'The Divine Fire' the most remarkable that I have read for many years."
BY THE SAME AUTHOR TWO SIDES OF A QUESTION
BOOK I DISJECTA MEMBRA POETAE
BOOK II LUCIA'S WAY
BOOK III THE HOUSE OF BONDAGE
BOOK IV THE MAN HIMSELF
DISJECTA MEMBRA POETAE
Horace Jewdwine had made the most remarkable of his many remarkable discoveries. At least he thought he had. He could not be quite sure, which was his excuse for referring it to his cousin Lucia, whose instinct (he would not call it judgement) in these matters was infallible—strangely infallible for so young a girl. What, he wondered, would she say to Savage Keith Rickman?
On Saturday, when he first came down into Devonshire, he would have been glad to know. But to-day, which was a Tuesday, he was not interested in Rickman. To eat strawberries all morning; to lie out in the hammock all afternoon, under the beach-tree on the lawn of Court House; to let the peace of the old green garden sink into him; to look at Lucia and forget, utterly forget, about his work (the making of discoveries), that was what he wanted. But Lucia wanted to talk, and to talk about Rickman earnestly as if he were a burning question, when even lying in the hammock Jewdwine was so hot that it bothered him to talk at all.
He was beginning to be sorry that he had introduced him—the exciting topic, that is to say, not the man; for Rickman you could scarcely introduce, not at any rate to Lucia Harden.
"Well, Lucia?" He pronounced her name in the Italian manner, "Loo-chee-a," with a languid stress on the vowels, and his tone conveyed a certain weary but polite forbearance.
Lucia herself, he noticed, had an ardent look, as if a particularly interesting idea had just occurred to her. He wished it hadn't. An idea of Lucia's would commit him to an opinion of his own; and at the moment Jewdwine was not prepared to abandon himself to anything so definite and irretrievable. He had not yet made up his mind about Rickman, and did not want to make it up now. Certainty was impossible owing to his somewhat embarrassing acquaintance with the man. That, again, was where Lucia had come in. Her vision of him would be free and undisturbed by any suggestion of his bodily presence.
Meanwhile, Rickman's poem, or rather the first two Acts of his neo-classic drama, Helen in Leuce, lay on Lucia's lap. Jewdwine had obtained it under protest and with much secrecy. He had promised Rickman, solemnly, not to show it to a soul; but he had shown it to Lucia. It was all right, he said, so long as he refrained from disclosing the name of the person who had written it. Not that she would have been any the wiser if he had.
"And it was you who discovered him?" Her voice lingered with a peculiarly tender and agreeable vibration on the "you." He closed his eyes and let that, too, sink into him.
"Yes," he murmured, "nobody else has had a hand in it—as yet."
"And what are you going to do with him now you have discovered him?"
He opened his eyes, startled by the uncomfortable suggestion. It had not yet occurred to him that the discovery of Rickman could entail any responsibility whatever.
"I don't know that I'm going to do anything with him. Unless some day I use him for an article."
"Oh, Horace, is that the way you treat your friends?"
He smiled. "Yes Lucy, sometimes, when they deserve it."
"You haven't told me your friend's name?"
"No. I betrayed his innocent confidence sufficiently in showing you his play. I can't tell you his name."
"After all, his name doesn't matter."
"No, it doesn't matter. Very likely you'll hear enough of it some day. You haven't told me what you think of him."
"I don't know what I think—But then, I don't know him."
"No," he said, roused to interest by her hesitation, "you don't know him. That's the beauty of it."
She gave the manuscript back into his hands. "Take him away. He makes me feel uncomfortable."
"To tell the truth, Lucy, he makes me feel uncomfortable, too."
"Well, when you think you've got hold of a genius, and you take him up and stake your reputation on him—and all the time you can't be sure whether it's a spark of the divine fire or a mere flash in the pan. It happens over and over again. The burnt critic dreads the divine fire."
His eyes were fixed on the title page as if fascinated by the words, Helen in Leuce.
"But this is not bad—it's not bad for two and twenty."
"Only two and twenty?"
"That's all. It looks as if he were made for immortality."
She turned to him that ardent gaze which made the hot day hotter.
"Dear Horace, you're going to do great things for him."
The worst of having a cousin who adores you is that magnificence is expected of you, regularly and as a matter of course. He was not even sure that Lucia did not credit him with power to work miracles. The idea was flattering but also somewhat inconvenient.
"I don't know about great things. I should like to do something. The question is what. He's a little unfortunate in—in his surroundings, and he's been ill, poor fellow. If one could give him a change. If one were only rich and could afford to send him abroad for a year. I had thought of asking him down to Oxford."
"And why didn't you?"
"Well, you know, one gets rather crowded up with things in term time."
Lucia looked thoughtfully at the refined, luxurious figure in the hammock. Horace was entitled to the hammock, for he had been ill. He was entitled also to the ministrations of his cousin Lucia. Lucia spent her time in planning and doing kind things, and, from the sudden luminous sweetness of her face, he gathered that something of the sort was in preparation now.
It was. "Horace," she said, "would you like to ask him here?"
"No, Lucy, I wouldn't. I don't think it would do."
"But why not—if he's your friend?"
"If he's my friend."
"You said he was your friend. You did, you know." (Another awkward consequence of a cousin's adoration; she is apt to remember and attach importance to your most trivial utterances.)
"Pardon me, I said he was my find."
"Where did you find him?"
"I found him in the City—in a shop."
She smiled at the rhythmic utterance. The tragedy of the revelation was such that it could be expressed only in blank verse.
"The shop doesn't matter."
"No, but he does. You couldn't stand him, Lucia. You see, for one thing, he sometimes drops his aitches."
"Well, if he does,—he'll be out all day, and there's the open country to drop them in. I really don't mind, if you'd like to ask him. Do you think he'd like to be asked?"
"There's no possible doubt about that."
"Then ask him. Ask him now. You can't do it when father's not at home."
Jewdwine repressed a smile. Even now, from the windows of the east wing, there burst, suddenly, the sound of fiddling, a masterly fiddling inspired by infernal passion, controlled by divine technique. It was his uncle, Sir Frederick, and he wished him at the devil. If all accounts were true, Sir Frederick, when not actually fiddling, was going there with a celerity that left nothing to be desired; he was, if you came to think of it, a rather amazing sort of chaperone.
And yet, but for that fleeting and tumultuous presence, Horace himself would not be staying at Court House. Really, he reflected. Lucia ought to get some lady to live with her. It was the correct thing, and therefore it was not a little surprising that Lucia did not do it. An expression of disapproval passed over his pale, fastidious face.
"Father won't mind," she said.
"No, but I should." He said it in a tone which was meant to settle the question.
She sat still, turning over the pages of the manuscript which she had again taken on her lap.
"I suppose he is very dreadful. Still, I think we ought to do something for him."
"And what would you propose to do?"
There was an irritating smile on her cousin's face. He was thinking, "So she wants to patronize him, does she?"
He did not say what he thought; with Lucia that was unnecessary, for she always knew. He only said, "I don't exactly see you playing Beatrice to his Dante."
Lucia coloured, and Horace felt that he had been right. The Hardens had always been patronizing; his mother and sister were the most superbly patronizing women he knew. And Rickman might or might not be a great man, but Lucia, even at three and twenty, was a great lady in her way. Why shouldn't she patronize him, if she liked? And he smiled again more irritatingly than ever. Nobody could be more irritating than this Oxford don when he gave his mind to it.
"Lucy—if you only knew him, I don't think you'd suggest my bringing him down here."
He was smiling still, while his imagination dallied with the monstrous vision.
"I wouldn't have suggested it," she said coldly, "if I hadn't thought you'd like it."
Horace felt a little ashamed of himself. He knew he had only to think about Lucia in her presence to change the colour on her cheeks, and his last thought had left a stain there like the mark of a blow. Never had he known any woman so sensitive as his cousin Lucia.
"So I should like it, dear, if it were possible, or rather if he were not impossible. His manners have not that repose which distinguishes his Helen. Really, for two and twenty, he is marvellously restrained."
"Restrained? Do you think so?"
"Certainly," he said, his thought gaining precision in opposition to her vagueness, "his Helen is pure Vere de Vere. You might read me some of it."
She read, and in the golden afternoon her voice built up the cold, polished marble of the verse. She had not been able to tell him what she thought of Rickman; but her voice, in its profound vibrations, made apparent that which she, and she only, had discerned in him, the troubled pulse of youth, the passion of the imprisoned and tumultuous soul, the soul which Horace had assured her inhabited the body of an aitchless shopman. Lucia might not have the intuition of genius, but she had the genius of intuition; she had seen what the great Oxford critic had not been able to see.
The sound of the fiddling ceased as suddenly as it had begun; and over the grey house and the green garden was the peace of heaven and of the enfolding hills.
Jewdwine breathed a sigh of contentment at the close of the great chorus in the second Act. After all, Rickman was the best antidote to Rickman.
But Lucia was looking ardent again, as if she were about to speak.
"Don't, Lucy," he murmured.
"Don't talk any more about him now. It's too hot. Wait till the cool of the evening."
"I thought you wanted me to play to you then."
Jewdwine looked at her; he noted the purity of her face, the beautiful pose of her body, stretched in the deck-chair, her fine white hands and arms that hung there, slender, inert and frail. He admired these things so much that he failed to see that they expressed not only beauty but a certain delicacy of physique, and that her languor which appealed to him was the languor of fatigue.
"You might play to me, now," he said.
She looked at him again, a lingering, meditative look, a look in which, if adoration was quiescent, there was no criticism and no reproach, only a melancholy wonder. And he, too, wondered; wondered what she was thinking of.
She was thinking a dreadful thought. "Is Horace selfish? Is Horace selfish?" a little voice kept calling at the back of her brain and would not be quiet. At last she answered it to her own satisfaction. "No, he is not selfish, he is only ill."
And presently, as if on mature consideration, she rose and went into the house.
His eyes followed, well pleased, the delicate undulations of her figure.
Horace Jewdwine was the most exacting, the most fastidious of men. His entire nature was dominated by the critical faculty in him; and Lucia satisfied its most difficult demands. Try as he would, there was really nothing in her which he could take exception to, barring her absurd adoration of his uncle Frederick; and even that, when you came to think of it, flowed from the innocence which was more than half her charm. He could not say positively wherein her beauty consisted, therefore he was always tempted to look at her in the hope of finding out. There was nothing insistent and nothing obvious about it. Some women, for instance, irritated your admiration by the capricious prettiness of one or two features, or fatigued it by the monotonous regularity of all. The beauty of others was vulgarized by the flamboyance of some irrelevant detail, such as hair. Lucia's hair was merely dark; and it made, as hair should make, the simplest adornment for her head, the most perfect setting for her face. As for her features, (though it was impossible to think of them, or anything about her as incorrect) they eluded while they fascinated him by their subtlety. Lucia's beauty, in short, appealed to him, because it did not commit him to any irretrievable opinion.
But nothing, not even her beauty, pleased him better than the way in which she managed her intellect, divining by some infallible instinct how much of it was wanted by any given listener at a given time. She had none of the nasty tricks that clever women have, always on the look out to go one better, and to catch you tripping. Her lucidity was remarkable; but it served to show up other people's strong points rather than her own. Lucia did not impress you as being clever, and Jewdwine, who had a clever man's natural distaste for clever women, admired his cousin's intellect, as well he might, for it was he who had taught her how to use it. Her sense of humour, too (for Lucia was dangerously gifted), that sense which more than any of her senses can wreck a woman—he would have liked her just as well if she had had none; but some, no doubt, she needed, if only to save her from the situations to which her kindness and her innocence exposed her; and she had just the right amount and no more. Heavens! Supposing, without it, she had met Keith Rickman and had yielded to the temptation to be kind to him! Even in the heat Jewdwine shivered at the thought.
He put it from him, he put Rickman altogether from his mind. It was not to think about Rickman that he came down to Court House. On a day as hot as this, he wanted nothing but to keep cool. The gentle oscillation of the hammock in the green shadows of the beech-tree symbolized this attitude towards Rickman and all other ardent questions.
Still, it was not disagreeable to know that if he could only make up his mind to something very definite and irretrievable indeed, Court House would one day be his. It was the only house in England that came up to his idea of what a country house should be. A square Tudor building with two short, gable-ended wings, thrown out at right angles to its front; three friendly grey walls enclosing a little courtyard made golden all day long with sunshine from the south. Court House was older than anything near it except Harmouth Bridge and the Parish Church. Standing apart in its own green lands, it looked older than the young red earth beneath it, a mass upheaved from the grey foundations of the hills. Its face, turned seawards, was rough and pitted with the salt air; thousands upon thousands of lichens gave it a greenish bloom, with here and there a rusty patch on groin and gable. It contained the Harden Library, the Harden Library, one of the finest private collections in the country. It contained also his cousin Lucia.
He had always loved Court House, but not always his cousin Lucia. The scholarly descendant of a long line of scholars, Jewdwine knew that he had been a favourite with his grandfather, Sir Joseph Harden, the Master of Lazarus, he was convinced (erroneously) that he was a Harden by blood and by temperament, and of course if he had only been a Harden by name, and not a Jewdwine, Court House and the great Harden Library would have been his instead of his cousin Lucia's. He knew that his grandfather had wished them to be his. Lucia's mother was dead long ago; and when his uncle Sir Frederick definitely renounced the domestic life, Lucia and Lucia alone stood between him and the inheritance that should have been his. This hardly constituted a reason for being fond of Lucia.
His grandfather had wished him to be fond of her. But not until Jewdwine was five and twenty and began to feel the primordial manhood stirring in his scholarly blood did he perceive that his cousin Lucia was not a hindrance but a way. The way was so obvious that it was no wonder that he did not see it all at once. He did not really see it till Sir Joseph sent for him on his death-bed.
"There's been some mistake, Horace," Sir Joseph had then said. "Your mother should have been the boy and your uncle Frederick the girl. Then Lucia would have been a Jewdwine, and you a Harden."
And Horace had said, "I'm afraid I can't be a Harden, sir; but is there any reason why Lucia—?"
"I was coming to that," said Sir Joseph. But he never came to it. Horace, however, was in some way aware that the same idea had occurred to both of them. Whatever it was, the old man had died happy in it.
There was no engagement, only a something altogether intangible and vague, understood to be an understanding. And Lucia adored him. If she had not adored him he might have been urged to something irretrievable and definite. As it was, there was no need, and nothing could have been more soothing than the golden concord of that understanding.
Needless to say if Lucia had been anybody but Lucia, such a solution would have been impossible. He was fastidious. He would not have married a woman simply because his grandfather wished it; and he could not have married a woman simply because she inherited property that ought to have been his. And he could not have married any woman who would have suspected him of such brutality. He could only marry a woman who was consummately suitable to him, in whom nothing jarred, nothing offended; and his cousin Lucia was such a woman. The very fact that she was his cousin was an assurance of her rightness. It followed that, love being the expression of that perfect and predestined harmony, he could only marry for love. Not for a great estate, for Court House and the Harden Library. No, to do him justice, his seeking of Lucia was independent of his reflection that these things would be added unto him. Still, once married to Lucia, there was only Sir Frederick and his infernal fiddle between him and ultimate, inviolable possession; and Sir Frederick, to use his own phrase, had "about played himself out." From what a stage and to what mad music!
From the east wing came the sound, not of his uncle's fiddle, but of the music he desired, the tremendous and difficult music that, on a hot July afternoon, taxed the delicate player's strength to its utmost. Lucia began with Scarlatti and Bach; wandered off through Schumann into Chopin, a moonlit enchanted wilderness of sound; paused, and wound up superbly with Beethoven, the "Sonata Appassionata."
And as she came back to him over the green lawn she seemed to Jewdwine to be trailing tumultuous echoes of her music; the splendour and the passion of her playing hung about her like a luminous cloud. He rose and went to meet her, and in his eyes there was a light, a light of wonder and of worship.
"I think," she said, "you do look a little happier."
"I am tolerably happy, thanks."
"So am I."
"Yes, but you don't look it. What are you thinking of?"
She turned, and they walked together towards the house.
"I was thinking—it's quite cool, now, Horace—of what you said—about that friend of yours."
"Lucy! Was I rude? Did I make you unhappy?"
"Not you. Don't you see that it's just because I'm happy that I want to be kind to him?"
"Just like your sweetness. But, dear child, you can't be kind to everybody. It really doesn't do."
She said no more; she had certainly something else to think about.
That was on a Tuesday, a hot afternoon in July, eighteen ninety-one.
It was Wednesday evening in April, eighteen ninety-two. Spring was coming up on the south wind from the river; spring was in the narrow streets and in the great highway of the Strand, and in a certain bookseller's shop in the Strand. And it was Easter, not to say Bank Holiday, already in the soul of the young man who sat there compiling the Quarterly Catalogue. For it was in the days of his obscurity.
The shop, a corner one, was part of a gigantic modern structure, with a decorated facade in pinkish terra-cotta, and topped by four pinkish cupolas. It was brutally, tyrannously imposing. It towered above its neighbours, dwarfing the long sky-line of the Strand; its flushed cupolas mocked the white and heavenly soaring of St. Mary's. Whether you approached it from the river, or from the City, or from the west, you could see nothing else, so monstrous was it, so flagrant and so new. Though the day was not yet done, the electric light streamed over the pavement from the huge windows of the ground floor; a coronal of dazzling globes hung over the doorway at the corner; there, as you turned, the sombre windows of the second-hand department stretched half way down the side street; here, in the great thoroughfare, the newest of new books stood out, solicitous and alluring, in suits of blazing scarlet and vivid green, of vellum and gilt, of polished leather that shone like amber and malachite and lapis lazuli.
Within, a wall broken by a wide and lofty arch divided the front from the back shop. On the right of the arch was the mahogany pew of the cashier, on the left, a tall pillar stove radiating intolerable heat. Four steps led through the arch into the back shop, the floor of which was raised in a sort of platform. On the platform was a table, and at the table sat the young man compiling the Quarterly Catalogue.
Front shop and back shop reeked with the smells of new mahogany, dust, pillar-stove, gum, hot-pressed paper and Russia leather. He sat in the middle of them, in an atmosphere so thick that it could be seen hanging about him like an aura, luminous in the glare of the electric light. His slender, nervous hands worked rapidly, with a business-like air of dexterity and dispatch. But every now and then he raised his head and stared for quite a long time at the round, white, foolish face of the clock, and whenever he did this his eyes were the eyes of a young man who has no adequate sense of his surroundings.
The remarkable thing about the new shop was that already, like a bar or a restaurant, it drew to it a certain group of young men, punctually, irresistibly. A small group—you could almost count them on the fingers of one hand—they came from Fleet Street, from the Temple, from the Junior Journalists' Club over the way. They were never seen looking in at the windows or hanging about the counter; they were not the least bit of good to the shop, those customers. But they were evidently some good to the young man. Whatever they did or did not do, they always ended by drifting to the platform, to his table. They sat on it in friendly attitudes and talked to him.
He was so glad to be talked to, so frankly, engagingly, beautifully glad, that the pathos of it would have been too poignant, the obligation it almost forced on you too unbearable, but for his power, his monstrous, mysterious, personal glamour.
It lay partly, no doubt, in his appearance; not, no, not at all, in his make-up. He wore, like a thousand city clerks, a high collar, a speckled tie, a straight, dark blue serge suit. But in spite of the stiffness thus imposed on him, he had, unaccountably, the shy, savage beauty of an animal untamed, uncaught. He belonged to the slender, nervous, fair type; but the colour proper to it had been taken out of him by the shop. His head presented the utmost clearness of line compatible with irregularity of outline; and his face (from its heavy square forehead to its light square jaw) was full of strange harmonies, adjustments, compensations. His chin, rather long in a front view, rather prominent in profile, balanced the powerful proportions of his forehead. His upper lip, in spite of its slender arch, betrayed a youthful eagerness of the senses; but this effect was subtilized by the fineness of his lower lip, and, when they closed, it disappeared in the sudden, serious straightening of the lines. Even his nose (otherwise a firm feature, straight in the bridge and rather broad at the end) became grave or eager as the pose of the head hid or revealed the nostrils. He had queer eyes, of a thick dark blue, large, though deep set, showing a great deal of iris and very little white. Without being good-looking he was good to look at, when you could look long enough to find all these things out. He did not like being looked at. If you tried to hold him that way, his eyes were all over the place, seeking an escape; but they held you, whether you liked it or not.
It was uncanny, that fascination. If he had chosen to exert it in the interests of his shop he could presumably have cleaned those friendly young men out any day. But he never did exert it. Surrounded by wares whose very appearance was a venal solicitation, he never hinted by so much as the turn of a phrase that there was anything about him to be bought. And after what had passed between them, they felt that to hint it themselves—to him—would have been the last indelicacy. If they ever asked the price of a book it was to propitiate the grim grizzled fellow, so like a Methodist parson, who glared at them from the counter.
They kept their discovery to themselves, as if it had been something too precious to be handled, as if its charm, the poetry, the pathos of it must escape under discussion. But any of them who did compare notes agreed that their first idea had been that the shop was absurdly too big for the young man; their next that the young man was too big for the shop, miles, oh miles too big for it; their final impression being the tragedy of the disproportion, the misfit. Then, sadly, with lowered voices, they admitted that he had one flaw; when the poor fellow got excited, don't you know, he sometimes dropt—no—no, he skipped—his aitches. It didn't happen often, but they felt it terrible that it should happen at all—to him. They touched it tenderly; if it was not exactly part of his poetry it was part of his pathos. The shop was responsible for it. He ought never, never to have been there.
And yet, bad as it was, they felt that he must be consoled, sustained by what he knew about himself, what it was inconceivable that he should not know.
He may, indeed, have reflected with some complacency that in spite of everything, his great classic drama, Helen in Leuce, was lying finished in the dressing-table drawer in his bedroom, and that for the last month those very modern poems that he called Saturnalia had been careering through the columns of The Planet. But at the moment he was mainly supported by the coming of Easter.
The scene of the tragedy, that shop in the Strand, was well-lit and well-appointed. But he, Savage Keith Rickman, had much preferred the dark little second-hand shop in the City where he had laboured as a boy. There was something soothing in its very obscurity and retirement. He could sit there for an hour at a time, peacefully reading his Homer. In that agreeable dusty twilight, outward forms were dimmed with familiarity and dirt. His dreams took shape before him, they came and went at will, undisturbed by any gross collision with reality. There was hardly any part of it that was not consecrated by some divine visitation. It was in the corner by the window, standing on a step-ladder and fumbling in the darkness for a copy of Demosthenes, De Corona, that he lit on his first Idea. From his seat behind the counter, staring, as was his custom, into the recess where the coal-scuttle was, he first saw the immortal face of Helen in Leuce.
Here, all that beautiful world of thought lay open to the terrific invasion of things. His dreams refused to stand out with sufficient distinctness from a background of coloured bindings, plate glass and mahogany. They were liable at any moment to be broken by the violent contours of customers. A sight of Helen in Leuce could be obtained only by dint of much concentrated staring at the clock; and as often as not Mr. Rickman's eye dropt its visionary freight on encountering the cashier's eye in its passage from the clock to the paper.
But (as he reflected with some humour) though Mr. Rickman's ideas so frequently miscarried, owing to that malignant influence, his genius, like Nature irresistible and indestructible, compelled him perpetually to bring forth. Exposed on his little dais or platform, in hideous publicity, he suffered the divine labour and agony of creation. He was the slave of his passion and his hour.
A wave of heat broke from the pillar-stove and spread through the shop, strewing the heavier smells like a wrack behind it. And through it all, with every swing of the great mahogany doors, there stole into his young senses a something delicious and disturbing, faintly discernible as the Spring.
He thrust his work from him, tilted back his chair at a dangerous angle, and began reviewing his engagements for the coming Bank Holiday.
He was only three and twenty, and at three and twenty an infinite measure of life can be pressed into the great three days. He saw in fancy the procession of the hours, the flight of the dreams, of all the gorgeous intellectual pageants that move through the pages of Saturnalia. For in ninety-two Savage Keith Rickman was a little poet about town, a cockney poet, the poet not only of neo-classic drama, but of green suburban Saturday noons, and flaming Saturday nights, and of a great many things besides. He had made his plans long beforehand, and was prepared to consign to instant perdition the person or thing that should interfere with them. Good Friday morning, an hour's cycling before breakfast in Regent's Park, by way of pumping some air into his lungs, then, ten hours at least of high Parnassian leisure, of dalliance in Academic shades; he saw himself wooing some reluctant classic, or, far more likely, flirting with his own capricious and bewildering muse. (In a world of prose it is only by such divine snatches that poets are made) Friday evening, dinner at his club, the Junior Journalists'. Saturday morning, recovery from dinner at the Junior Journalists'. Saturday afternoon, to Hampstead or the Hippodrome with Flossie Walker, the little clerk, who lived in his boarding-house and never had any fun to speak of. Saturday night, supper with—well, with Miss Poppy Grace of the Jubilee Variety Theatre. He had a sudden vision of Poppy as he was wont to meet her in delightful intimacy, instantaneously followed by her image that flaunted on the posters out there in the Strand, Poppy as she appeared behind the foot-lights, in red silk skirts and black silk stockings, skimming, whirling, swaying, and deftly shaking her foot at him. Midnight and morning merging into one. Sunday, to Richmond, probably, with Poppy and some others. Monday, up the river with Himself. Not for worlds, that is to say, not for any amount of Poppies, would he have broken his appointment with that brilliant and yet inscrutable companion who is so eternally fascinating at twenty-three. Monday was indistinct but luminous, a restless, shimmering background for ideas. Ideas! They swarmed like motes in the blue air; they loomed, they floated, vague, and somewhat supernaturally large, all made out of Mr. Rickman's brain. And in the midst of the ideas a figure insanely whirled, till it became a mere wheel of flying skirts and tossing limbs.
At this point Mr. Rickman caught the cashier's eye looking at him over the little mahogany rails of his pew, and he began wondering how on earth the cashier would behave when they loosed him out for the Bank Holiday. Then he set to and wrote hard at the Quarterly Catalogue. In all London there was not a more prolific or versatile writer than Savage Keith Rickman. But if in ninety-two you had asked him for his masterpiece, his magnum opus, his life-work, he would mention nothing that he had written, but refer you, soberly and benignly, to that colossal performance, the Quarterly Catalogue.
"Vandam: Amours of Great Men (a little soiled). Rare. 30s." He was in the middle of the Vs now and within measurable distance of the end. Business being slack in the front shop, he finished earlier than usual, and actually found himself with nearly a whole hour upon his hands before dinner. He had half a mind to spend it at his club, the Junior Journalists', in the side street over the way.
Only half a mind; for Mr. Rickman entertained the most innocent beliefs with regard to that club of his. He was not yet sure whether it belonged to him or he to it; but in going to the Junior Journalists' he conceived himself to be going into society. So extreme was his illusion.
Mr. Rickman's place was in the shop and his home was in a boarding house, and for years he had thought of belonging to that club; but quite hopelessly, as of a thing beyond attainment. It had never occurred to him that anything could come of those invasions of the friendly young men. Yet this was what had come of them. He was friends, under the rose, that is to say, over the counter, with Horace Jewdwine of Lazarus College, Oxford. Jewdwine had proposed him on his own merits, somebody else had seconded him (he supposed) on Jewdwine's, and between them they had smuggled him in. This would be his first appearance as a Junior Journalist. And he might well feel a little diffident about it; for, though some of the members knew him, he could not honestly say he knew any of them, except Rankin (of The Planet) who possibly mightn't, and Jewdwine who certainly wouldn't, be there. But the plunge had to be made some time; he might as well make it now.
From the threshold of the Junior Journalists' he looked back across the side street, as across a gulf, at the place he had just left. His eyes moved from the jutting sign-board at the corner, announcing Gentlemen's Libraries Purchased, to the legend that ran above the window, blazoned in letters of gold:
Isaac Rickman: New & Second-Hand Bookseller.
His connexion with it was by no means casual and temporary. It was his father's shop.
The little booksellers of the Strand, in their death struggle against Rickman's, never cursed that house more heartily than did the Junior Journalists, in their friendly, shabby little den, smelling of old leather and tobacco and the town. They complained that it cut on two-thirds of the light from the front windows of the reading-room. Not that any of them were ever known to read in it. They used it chiefly as a place to talk in, for which purpose little illumination was required.
To-night one of the windows in question was occupied by a small group of talkers isolated from the rest. There was Mackinnon, of The Literary Observer. There were the three wild young spirits of The Planet, Stables, who had launched it with frightful impetus into space (having borrowed a sum sufficient for the purpose), Maddox, who controlled its course, and Rankin, whose brilliance made it twinkle so brightly in the firmament. With them, but emphatically not of them, was Horace Jewdwine, of Lazarus, who had come up from Oxford to join the staff of The Museion.
Jewdwine and Mackinnon, both secure of a position and a salary, looked solemn and a little anxious; but the men of The Planet, having formed themselves into a sort of unlimited liability company, and started a brand new "weekly" of their own (upon no sort of security beyond their bare brains) were as persons without a single care, worry or responsibility. They were exchanging ideas in an off-hand and light-hearted manner, the only stipulation being that the ideas must be new; for, by some unwritten law of the club, the conversational currency was liable at any moment to be called in.
This evening, however, they had hit on a topic almost virgin from the mint.
"S.K.R.? Who is he? What is he?" said Mackinnon.
"I can't tell you what he is; but I can pretty soon tell you what he's not," said Stables. He was a very young man with a white face and red eyelids, who looked as if he sat up all night and went to bed in the day-time, as indeed he generally did.
"Omnis negatio est determinatio," murmured Jewdwine, without looking up from the letter he was trying to write.
"What has he done?" persisted Mackinnon.
"He's done a great many remarkable things," said Rankin; "things almost as remarkable as himself."
"Who unearthed him?"
"I did," said Rankin, so complacently that the deep lines relaxed round the five copper-coloured bosses that were his chin and cheeks and brow. (The rest of Rankin's face was spectacles and moustache.)
"Oh, did you?" said Maddox. Maddox was a short man with large shoulders; heavy browed, heavy jowled, heavy moustached. Maddox's appearance belied him; he looked British when he was half Celt; he struck you as overbearing when he was only top-heavy; he spoke as if he was angry when he was only in fun, as you could see by his eyes. Little babyish blue eyes they were with curly corners, a gay light in the sombre truculence of his face. They looked cautiously round.
"I can tell you a little tale about S.K.R. You know the last time Smythe was ill—?"
"You mean drunk."
"Well—temporarily extinguished. S.K.R., who knows his music-halls, was offered Smythe's berth. We delicately intimated to him that if he liked at any time to devote a little paragraph to Miss Poppy Grace, he was at perfect liberty to do so."
"A liberty he interpreted as poetic licence."
"Nothing of the sort. He absolutely declined the job."
"Well—the marvellous boy informed me that he was too intimate with the lady to write about her. At any rate with that noble impartiality which distinguishes the utterances of The Planet."
"Steady, man. He never told ye that!" said Mackinnon.
"I didn't say he told me, I said he informed me."
"And whar's the differ'nce? I don't see it at all."
"Trepan him, trepan him."
Stables took out his penknife and indicated by dumb show a surgical operation on Mackinnon's dome-like head.
"I gathered it," continued Maddox suavely, "from his manner. I culled his young thought like a flower."
"Perhaps," Rankin suggested, "he was afraid of compromising Poppy."
"He might have left that subtle consideration to Pilkington."
"That was it. He scented Dicky's hand in it, and wasn't particularly anxious to oblige him. The point of the joke is that he happens to owe Dicky a great deal more than he can conveniently pay. That'll give you some faint notion of the magnificence of his cheek."
Stables was impressed. He wondered what sort of young man it could be who had the moral courage to oppose Dicky Pilkington at such a moment. He could not have done it himself. Dicky Pilkington was the great and mysterious power at the back of The Planet.
"But this isn't the end of it. I told him, for his future guidance and encouragement, that he had mistaken cause and effect—that little variety artistes, like other people, are not popular because they are written about, but written about because they are popular—that The Planet is the organ of public opinion, not of private opinions; in short, that he wasn't in it, at all. I thought I'd sat on him till he was about flat—and the very next week he comes bounding in with his Saturnalia, as he calls them."
"That was your moment. Why didn't you rise up in your majesty and r-r-reject them?"
"Couldn't. They were too damned good." Maddox smiled at the reminiscence. "I wasn't going to let him sign them, but he took the wind out of my sails by stating beforehand that he didn't want to—that if I didn't mind—mind, if you please—he'd very much rather not. It's only the last week (when the Saturnalia were getting better and better) that he graciously permitted his initials to appear. S.K.R.—Savage Keith Rickman."
"Good Lord!" said Rankin; "what must he be like?"
"Ask Jewdwine," said Stables; "he's Jewdwine's man."
"Excuse me," said Maddox, "he is mine. I say, Jewdwine, what is he like?"
Jewdwine did not respond very eagerly; he wanted to get on with his letter. But the club had another unwritten law as to writing. If a majority of members desired to write, silence was vigorously insisted on. Any number short of a majority wrote as best they could. For this unfortunate scribe there could be no concession; he was in a minority of one.
"If"—said he, "you can imagine the soul of a young Sophocles, battling with that of a—of a junior journalist in the body of a dissipated little Cockney—"
"Can't," said Stables. "Haven't got enough imagination."
"The child of 'Ellas and of Ollywell Street'—innocent of—er—the rough breathing," suggested Maddox.
As it was now seven o'clock, and the Junior Journalists were dropping off one by one to the dining-room below, the young men of The Planet began to stretch their legs, and raise their voices, and behave like young men who believe their privacy to be inviolable and complete. They soon had the place to themselves, except for one person whose entrance had been covered by the outgoing stream; and he had delicately turned his back on them, and taken a seat in the farthest window, where his unobtrusive presence could be no possible hindrance to conversation.
"I've seen him after supper," said Maddox. He was obliged to speak rather loudly, because of the noise that came up from the overcrowded dining-room.
"Well, then, how did he strike you?"
Maddox's eyes curled with limpid, infantile devilry.
"Well, I daresay he might be a bit of a bounder when he's sober, but he's a perfect little gentleman when he's drunk. Softens him down somehow."
"In vino veritas—a true gentleman at heart."
"One of Nature's gentlemen. I know 'em," said Stables.
"One of Art's gentlemen," interposed Jewdwine severely, "and a very fine gentleman too, if you take him that way."
Jewdwine raised his head from his letter and looked round uneasily. Personalities were not altogether to his taste; besides, he was really anxious to finish that letter. He caught sight of a back at the other window.
"I think," said he quietly, "this conversation had better cease."
The owner of the back had moved, a little ostentatiously. He now got up and crossed the room. The back was still towards the group of talkers. Jewdwine followed its passage. He was fascinated. He gasped.
He could have sworn to that back anywhere, with its square but slender shoulders, its defiant swing from the straight hips, the head tossed a little backwards as if to correct the student's tendency to stoop. He looked from the back to Maddox. Maddox could not see what he saw, but his face reflected the horror of Jewdwine's.
Their voices were inaudible enough now.
"Do you know who it is?"
"I should think I did. It's the man himself."
"How truly damnable," said Rankin. After those words there was a silence which Jewdwine, like the wise man he was, utilized for his correspondence.
It was Maddox who recovered first. "Call him what you like," said he, in a wonderfully natural voice, between two puffs of a cigarette, "I consider him an uncommonly good sort. A bit of a bounder, but no end of a good sort."
The others were evidently impressed by this bold though desperate policy. Maddox himself was inclined to think that it had saved the situation, but he was anxious to make sure. Edging his chair by slow degrees, he turned discreetly round. With the tail of his eye he could see "the man himself" standing at the far end of the room. He saw too that his own effort, though supreme, had been unavailing. It had deceived no one, least of all S.K.R. "The man himself" stood on the very hearth of the club, with his back to the fireplace. It was the attitude of mastery, a mastery the more superb because unconscious. His eyes too, were the eyes of a master, twinkling a little as to their light, but steady as to their direction, being fixed on Maddox. He was smiling.
There was nothing malignant, or bitter, or sardonic about that smile. No devilry of delight at their confusion. No base abandonment of the whole countenance to mirth, but a curious one-sided smile, implying delicacies, reservations. A slow smile, reminiscent, ruminant, appreciative; it expressed (if so subtle and refined a thing could be said to express anything) a certain exquisite enjoyment of the phrases in which they had defined him.
And seeing it, Maddox said to himself, "He isn't a gentleman. He's something more."
In that moment the Celtic soul of Maddox had recognized its master, and had sworn to him unhesitating allegiance.
It was not until Rankin and the others had left the room that Jewdwine had courage to raise his head tentatively. He had only seen that young man's back, and he still clung to the hope that it might not be Rickman's, after all.
He looked up as steadily as he dared. Oh, no doubt that it was Rickman's back; no doubt, too, that it was his, Jewdwine's, duty to go up and speak to him. The young man had changed his place; he was at his window again, contemplating—as Jewdwine reflected with a pang of sympathy—the shop. So profound, so sacred almost, was his absorption that Jewdwine hesitated in his approach.
"Is it Rickman?" he asked, still tentative.
"Mr. Jewdwine!" Rickman's soul leapt to Jewdwine's from the depths; but the "Mister" marked the space it had had to travel. "When did you come up?"
"Three hours ago." ("He looks innocent," said Jewdwine to himself.)
"Then you weren't prepared for that?"
Jewdwine followed his fascinated gaze. He smiled faintly.
"You haven't noticed our new departure? We not only purchase Gentlemen's Libraries, but we sell the works of persons who may or may not be gentlemen."
Jewdwine felt profoundly uncomfortable. Rickman's face preserved its inimitable innocence, but he continued to stare fixedly before him.
"Poor fellow," thought Jewdwine, "he must have heard those imbecilities." He felt horribly responsible, responsible to the Club for the behaviour of Rickman and responsible to Rickman for the behaviour of the Club. What could he do to make it up to him? Happy thought—he would ask him to dinner at—yes, at his sister's, Miss Jewdwine's, house at Hampstead. That was to say, if his cousin, Lucia Harden, did not happen to be staying there. He was not quite sure how Rickman would strike that most fastidious of young ladies. And Rankin had said he drank.
In the light of Lucia Harden's and his sister's possible criticism, he considered him more carefully than he had done before.
The contrast between the two men was certainly rather marked. A gentleman can be neither more nor less than a gentleman, and Rickman, in a sense not altogether intended by Maddox, was decidedly more. His individuality was too exuberant, too irrepressible. He had the restless, emphatic air of a man who has but little leisure and is too obviously anxious to make the most of what he has. He always seemed to be talking against time; and as he talked his emotions played visibly, too visibly, on his humorous, irregular face. Taking into account his remarkable firmness of physique, it struck you that this transparency must be due to some excessive radiance of soul. A soul (in Jewdwine's opinion) a trifle too demonstrative in its hospitality to vagrant impressions. The Junior Journalists may have been a little hard on him. On the whole, he left you dubious until the moment when, from pure nervousness, his speech went wild, even suffering that slight elision of the aspirate observed by some of them. But then, he had a voice of such singular musical felicity that it charmed you into forgetfulness of these enormities.
It had charmed Jewdwine from the first, and Jewdwine was hard to charm. There was no room for speculation as to him. Even to the eye his type had none of the uncertainty and complexity of Rickman's. He looked neither more nor less than he was—an Oxford don, developing into a London Journalist. You divined that the process would be slow. There was no unseemly haste about Jewdwine; time had not been spared in the moulding of his body and his soul. He bore the impress of the ages; the whole man was clean-cut, aristocratic, finished, defined. You instinctively looked up to him; which was perhaps the reason why you remembered his conspicuously intellectual forehead and his pathetically fastidious nose, and forgot the vacillating mouth that drooped under a scanty, colourless moustache, hiding its weakness out of sight.
Rickman had always looked up to him. For Jewdwine, as Rankin had intimated, was the man who had discovered S.K.R. He was always discovering him. Not, as he was careful to inform you, that this argued any sort of intimacy; on the contrary, it meant that he was always losing sight of him in between. These lapses in their intercourse might be shorter or longer (they were frequently immense), but they had this advantage, that each fresh encounter presented Rickman as an entirely new thing, if anything, more curious and interesting than on the day, three years ago, when he unearthed him from behind the counter of a dingy second-hand bookshop in the City. He felt responsible for that, too.
Rickman was instantly aware that he was under criticism. But he mistook its nature and its grounds.
"Don't suppose," said he, "I'm ashamed of the shop. It isn't that. I wasn't ashamed of our other place—that little rat 'ole in the City."
Jewdwine shuddered through all his being.
"—But I am ashamed of this gaudy, pink concern. It's so brutally big. It can't live, you know, without sucking the life out of the little booksellers. They mayn't have made a great thing out of it, but they were happy enough before we came here."
"I never thought of it in that light."
"Haven't you? I have."
It was evident that little Rickman was deeply moved. His sentiments did him credit, and he deserved to be asked to dinner. At Hampstead? No—no, not at Hampstead; here, at the Club. The Club was the proper thing; a public recognition of him was the amende honorable. Besides, after all, it was the Club, not Jewdwine, that had offended, and it was right that the Club should expiate its offence.
"What are you doing at Easter?" he asked.
Rickman stroked his upper lip and smiled as if cherishing a joy as secret and unborn as his moustache. He recited a selection from the tale of his engagements.
"Can you dine with me here on Saturday? You're free, then, didn't you say?"
Rickman hesitated. That was not what he had said. He was anything but free, for was he not engaged for that evening to Miss Poppy Grace? He was pulled two ways, a hard pull. He admired Jewdwine with simple, hero-worshipping fervour; but he also admired Miss Poppy Grace. Again, he shrank from mentioning an engagement of that sort to Jewdwine, while, on the other hand concealment was equally painful, being foreign to his nature.
So he flushed a little as he replied, "Thanks awfully, I'm afraid I can't. I'm booked that night to Poppy Grace."
The flush deepened. Besides his natural sensitiveness on the subject of Miss Poppy Grace, he suffered tortures not wholly sentimental whenever he had occasion to mention her by her name. Poppy Grace—he felt that somehow it did not give you a very high idea of the lady, and that in this it did her an injustice. He could have avoided it by referring to her loftily as Miss Grace; but this course, besides being unfamiliar would have savoured somewhat of subterfuge. So he blurted it all out with an air of defiance, as much as to say that when you had called her Poppy Grace you had said the worst of her.
Jewdwine's face expressed, as Rickman had anticipated, an exquisite disapproval. His own taste in women was refined almost to nullity. How a poet and a scholar, even if not strictly speaking a gentleman, could care to spend two minutes in the society of Poppy Grace, was incomprehensible to Jewdwine.
"I didn't know you cultivated that sort of person."
"Oh—cultivate her—?"—His tone implied that the soil was rather too light for that.
"How long have you known her?"
"About six months, on and off."
"Oh, only on and off."
"On and off the stage, I mean. And that's knowledge," said Rickman. "Anybody can know them on; but it's not one man in a thousand knows them off—really knows them."
"I'm very glad to hear it."
He changed the subject. In Rickman the poet he was deeply interested; but at the moment Rickman the man inspired him with disgust.
Jewdwine had a weak digestion. When he sat at the high table, peering at his sole and chicken, with critical and pathetic twitchings of his fastidious nose, he shuddered at the vigorous animal appetites of undergraduates in Hall.
Even so he shrank now from the coarse exuberance of Rickman's youth. When it came to women, Rickman was impossible.
Now Jewdwine, while pursuing an inner train of thought that had Rickman for its subject, was also keeping his eye on a hansom, and wondering whether he would hail it and so reach Hampstead in time for dinner, or whether he would dine at the Club. Edith would be annoyed if he failed to keep his appointment, and the Club dinners were not good. But neither were Edith's; moreover, by dining at the Club for one-and-six, and taking a twopenny tram instead of a three-and-sixpenny cab, he would save one and tenpence.
"And yet," he continued thoughtfully, "the man who wrote Helen in Leuce was a poet. Or at least," he added, "one seventh part a poet."
Though Jewdwine's lower nature was preoccupied, the supreme critical faculty performed its functions with precision. The arithmetical method was perhaps suggested by the other calculation. He could not be quite sure, but he believed he had summed up Savage Rickman pretty accurately.
"Thanks," said Rickman, "you've got the fraction all right, anyhow. A poet one day out of seven; the other six days a potman in an infernal, stinking, flaring Gin-Palace-of-Art."
As he looked up at Rickman's, blazing with all its lights, he felt that he had hit on the satisfying, the defining phrase.
His face expressed a wistful desire to confer further with Jewdwine on this matter; but a certain delicacy restrained him.
Something fine in Jewdwine's nature, something half-human, half-tutorial, responded to the mute appeal that said so plainly, "Won't you hear me? I've so much to ask, so much to say. So many ideas, and you're the only man that can understand them." Jewdwine impressed everybody, himself included, as a person of prodigious understanding.
The question was, having understood Rickman, having discovered in him a neglected genius, having introduced him to the Club and asked him to dinner on the strength of it, how much further was he prepared to go? Why—provided he was sure of the genius, almost any length, short of introducing him to the ladies of his family. But was he sure? Savage Rickman was young, and youth is deceptive. Supposing he—Jewdwine—was deceived? Supposing the genius were to elude him, leaving him saddled with the man? What on earth should he do with him?
Things had been simpler in the earlier days of their acquaintance, when the counter stood between them, and formed a firm natural barrier to closer intercourse. Nobody, not even Jewdwine, knew what that handshake across the counter had meant for Rickman; how his soul had hungered and thirsted for Jewdwine's society; how, in "the little rat'ole in the City," it had consumed itself with longing. It was his first great passion, a passion that waited upon chance; to be gratified for five minutes, ten minutes at the most. Once Jewdwine had hung about the shop for half an hour talking; the interview being broken by Rickman's incessant calls to the counter. Once, they had taken a walk together down Cheapside, which from that moment became a holy place. Then came the day when, at Jewdwine's invitation, Helen in Leuce travelled down from London to Oxford, and from Oxford to Harmouth. Her neo-classic beauty appealed to Jewdwine's taste (and to the taste of Jewdwine's cousin); he recognized in Rickman a disciple, and was instantly persuaded of his genius. At one bound Rickman had leapt the barrier of the counter; and here he was, enthusiastic and devoted. To be sure, his devotion was not fed largely upon praise; for, unlike the younger man, Jewdwine admired but sparingly. Neither was it tainted with any thought of material advantage. Jewdwine was very free with his criticism and advice; but, beyond these high intellectual aids, it never occurred to Rickman that he had anything to gain by Jewdwine's friendship. Discipleship is the purest of all human relations.
Jewdwine divined this purity, and was touched by it. He prepared to accept a certain amount of responsibility. He looked at his watch. He could still get to Hampstead by eight o'clock, if he took a cab—say,—twenty minutes. He could spare him another ten. The Junior Journalists were coming back from their dinner and the room would soon be crowded. He took his disciple's arm in a protecting manner and steered him into a near recess. He felt that the ten minutes he was about to give him would be decisive in the young man's career.
"You've still got to find your formula. Not to have found your formula," he said solemnly, "is not to have found yourself."
"Perhaps I haven't been looking in very likely places," said Rickman, nobly touched, as he always was by the more personal utterances of the master.
"The Jubilee Variety Theatre, for instance. Do you go there to find the ideal, or in pursuit of the fugitive actuality?"
"Whichever you like to call it. Its name on the programme is Miss Poppy Grace."
"Look here, Rickman," said Jewdwine, gently; "when are you going to give up this business?"
"Well, at the moment I referred to your situation in the Gin Palace of Art—"
"I can't chuck it just yet. There's my father, you see. It would spoil all his pleasure in that new plate-glass and mahogany devilry. He's excited about it; wants to make it a big thing—"
"So he puts a big man into it?"
"Oh, well, I must see him started."
He spoke simply, as of a thing self-evident and indisputable. Jewdwine admired.
"You're quite right. You are handicapped. Heavily handicapped. So, for Goodness' sake, don't weight yourself any more. If you can't drop the Gin Palace, drop Miss Poppy Grace."
"Poppy Grace? She weighs about as much as a feather."
"Drop her, drop her, all the same."
"I can't. She wouldn't drop. She'd float."
"Don't float with her."
As he rose he spoke slowly and impressively. "What you've got to do is to pull yourself together. You can't afford to be dissolute, or even dissipated."
Rickman looked hard at Jewdwine's boots. Irreproachable boots, well made, well polished, unspotted by the world. And the only distinguishable word in Rickman's answer was "Life." And as he said "Life" he blushed like a girl when for the first time she says "Love," a blush of rapture and of shame, her young blood sensitive to the least hint of apathy in her audience.
Jewdwine's apathy was immense.
"Another name for the fugitive actuality," he said. "Well, I'm afraid I haven't any more time—" He looked round the room a little vaguely, and as he did so he laid on the young man's shoulder a delicate fastidious hand. "There are one or two men here I should have liked to introduce you to, if I'd had time.—Another night, perhaps—" He piloted him downstairs and so out into the Strand.
"Good night. Good night. Take my advice and leave the fugitive actuality alone."
Those were Jewdwine's last words, spoken from the depths of the hansom. It carried him to the classic heights of Hampstead, to the haunts of the cultivated, the intellectual, the refined.
Rickman remained a moment. His dreamy gaze was fixed on the massive pile before him, that rose, solidly soaring, flaunting a brutal challenge to the tender April sky. It stood for the vast material reality, the whole of that eternal, implacable Power which is at enmity with dreams; which may be conquered, propitiated, absorbed, but never annihilated or denied.
That actuality was not fugitive.
Perhaps it was not to be wondered at if Mr. Rickman had not yet found himself. There were, as he sorrowfully reflected, so many Mr. Rickmans.
There was Mr. Rickman of the front shop and second-hand department, known as "our Mr. Rickman." The shop was proud of him; his appearance was supposed to give it a certain cachet. He neither strutted nor grovelled; he moved about from shelf to shelf in an absent-minded scholarly manner. He served you, not with obsequiousness, nor yet with condescension, but with a certain remoteness and abstraction, a noble apathy. Though a bookseller, his literary conscience remained incorruptible. He would introduce you to his favourite authors with a magnificent take-it-or-leave-it air, while an almost imperceptible lifting of his eyebrows as he handed you your favourite was a subtle criticism of your taste. This method of conducting business was called keeping up the tone of the establishment. The appearance and disappearance of this person was timed and regulated by circumstances beyond his own control, so that of necessity all the other Mr. Rickmans were subject to him.
For there was Mr. Rickman the student and recluse, who inhabited the insides of other men's books. Owing to his habitual converse with intellects greater—really greater—than his own, he was an exceedingly humble and reverent person. A high and stainless soul. You would never have suspected his connection with Mr. Rickman, the Junior Journalist, the obscure writer of brilliant paragraphs, a fellow destitute of reverence and decency and everything except consummate impudence, a disconcerting humour and a startling style. But he was still more distantly related to Mr. Rickman the young man about town. And that made four. Besides these four there was a fifth, the serene and perfect intelligence, who from some height immeasurably far above them sat in judgement on them all. But for his abnormal sense of humour he would have been a Mr. Rickman of the pure reason, no good at all. As it was, he occasionally offered some reflection which was enjoyed but seldom acted upon.
And underneath these Mr. Rickmans, though inextricably, damnably one with them, was a certain apparently commonplace but amiable young man, who lived in a Bloomsbury boarding-house and dropped his aitches. This young man was tender and chivalrous, full of little innocent civilities to the ladies of his boarding-house; he admired, above all things, modesty in a woman, and somewhere, in the dark and unexplored corners of his nature, he concealed a prejudice in favour of marriage and the sanctities of home.
That made six, and no doubt they would have pulled together well enough; but the bother was that any one of them was liable at any moment to the visitation of the seventh—Mr. Rickman the genius. There was no telling whether he would come in the form of a high god or a demon, a consolation or a torment. Sometimes he would descend upon Mr. Rickman in the second-hand department, and attempt to seduce him from his allegiance to the Quarterly Catalogue. Or he would take up the poor journalist's copy as it lay on a table, and change it so that its own editor wouldn't know it again. And sometimes he would swoop down on the little bookseller as he sat at breakfast on a Sunday morning, in his nice frock coat and clean collar, and wrap his big flapping wings round him, and carry him off to the place where the divine ideas come from leaving a silent and to all appearances idiotic young gentleman in his place. Or he would sit down by that young gentleman's side and shake him out of his little innocences and complacencies, and turn all his little jokes into his own incomprehensible humour. And then the boarding-house would look uncomfortable and say to itself that Mr. Rickman had been drinking.
In short, it was a very confusing state of affairs, and one that made it almost impossible for Mr. Rickman to establish his identity. Seven Rickmans—only think of it! And some reckon an eighth, Mr. Rickman drunk. But this is not altogether fair; for intoxication acted rather on all seven at once, producing in them a gentle fusion with each other and the universe. They had ceased to struggle. But Mr. Rickman was not often drunk, or at least not nearly so often as his friends supposed.
So it was all very well for Jewdwine, who was not so bewilderingly constructed, to talk about finding your formula and pulling yourself together. How, Mr. Rickman argued, could you hope to find the formula of a fellow who could only be expressed in fractions, and vulgar fractions, too? How on earth could you pull yourself together when Nature had deliberately cut you into little pieces? Never since poor Orpheus was torn to tatters by the Maenads was there a poet so horribly subdivided. Talk of being dissolute, dissipated! Those adjectives were a poor description of S.K.R. It was more than sowing a mere handful of wild oats, it was a disintegration, a scattering of Rickmans to all the winds of the world.
Find himself, indeed!
Still, he was perfectly willing to try; and to that end (after dining with people who were anything but cultivated, or intellectual, or refined) he turned himself loose into the streets.
The streets—he was never tired of them. After nine or ten hours of sitting in a dusty second-hand bookshop, his soul was dry with thirst for the living world, and the young joy of the world, "the fugitive actuality." And her ways were in the streets.
Being a young poet about town, he turned to the streets as naturally as a young poet in the country turns to the woods and fields. For in the streets, if you know how to listen, you can hear the lyric soul of things as plainly, more plainly perhaps, than in the woods or fields. Only it sings another sort of song. And going into the streets was Rickman's way (the only way open to him as yet) of going into society. The doors were thrown hospitably wide to him; one day was as good as another; the world was always at home.
It was a world where he could pick and choose his acquaintance; where, indeed, out of that multitudinous, never-ending procession of persons, his power of selection was unlimited. He never had any difficulty with them; their methods were so charmingly simple and direct. In the streets the soul is surprised through the lifting of an eyelid, and the secret of the heart sits lightly on the curl of the lip. These passers by never wearied him; they flung him the flower of the mystery and—passed by. The perfection of social intercourse he conceived as a similar succession of radiant intimacies.
To-night he went southwards down Gower Street, drawn by the never-ending fugitive perspective of the lamps. He went westwards down Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly. The Circus was a gleaming basin filled with grey night clear as water, the floor of it alive with lights. Lights that stood still; lights that wandered from darkness into darkness; that met and parted, darting, wheeling, and crossing in their flight. Long avenues opened out of it, precipitous deep cuttings leading into the night. The steep, shadowy masses of building seemed piled sky-high, like a city of the air; here the gleam of some golden white facade, there some aerial battlement crowned with stars, with clusters, and points, and rings of flame that made a lucid twilight of the dark above them. Over all was an illusion of immensity.
Nine o'clock of an April night—the time when a great city has most power over those that love her; the time when she lowers her voice and subdues her brilliance, intimating that she is not what she seems; when she makes herself unearthly and insubstantial, veiling her grossness in the half-transparent night. Like some consummate temptress, she plays the mystic, clothing herself with light and darkness, skirting the intangible, hinting at the infinities, flinging out the eternal spiritual lure, so that she may better seduce the senses through the soul. And Rickman was too young a poet to distinguish clearly between his senses and his imagination, or his imagination and his soul.
He stood in Piccadilly Circus and regarded the spectacle of the night. He watched the groups gathering at the street corners, the boys that went laughing arm in arm, the young girls smiling into their lovers' eyes; here and there the faces of other women, dubious divinities of the gas-light and the pavement, passing and passing. A very ordinary spectacle. But to Rickman it had an immense significance, a rhythmic, processional resonance and grandeur. It was an unrhymed song out of Saturnalia, it was the luminous, passionate nocturne of the streets.
Half-past nine; a young girl met him and stopped. She laughed into his face.
"Pretty well pleased with yourself, aren't you?" said the young girl.
He laughed back again. He was pleased with the world, so of course he was pleased with himself. They were one. The same spirit was in Mr. Rickman that was in the young girl and in the young April night.
They walked together as far as the Strand, conversing innocently.
At ten o'clock he found himself in a corridor of the Jubilee Variety Theatre. The young girl had vanished.
For a moment he stood debating whether he would go home and work out some ideas he had. Or whether he would pursue the young Joy, the fugitive actuality, to the very threshold of the dawn. Whether, in short, he would make a night of it.
He was aroused by the sound of a box-door opening and shutting; and a shining shirt-front and a shining face darted suddenly into the light. At the same moment a voice hailed him.
"Hello, Razors! That you?"
Voice, face, and shining shirt-front belonged to Mr. Richard Pilkington, Financial Agent, of Shaftesbury Avenue.
"Razors" was the name by which Rickman was known to his intimates in subtle allusion to his youth. He responded sulkily to the hail. Dicky Pilkington was the last person he desired to meet. For he owed Dicky a certain sum, not large, but larger than he could conveniently pay, and Dicky was objectionable for other reasons. He had mysterious relations with the Management of the Jubilee Theatre, and consequently unlimited facilities of access to Miss Poppy Grace. Besides, there was something about him that was deadly to ideas.
Ideas or no ideas, Mr. Pilkington was not to be evaded. He bore down on Rickman, shining genially, and addressed him with an air of banter.
"Couldn't have arranged it better. You're the very fellow I want."
There was a suggestion of a chuckle in his voice which sent Rickman's thoughts flying fearfully to his last I.O.U. The alert mind of Pilkington followed their flight. He was intensely amused. He always was amused when anybody showed a marked distaste for his society.
"Your business, not mine, this time, Rick. I happen to know of a ripping old library for sale down in Devonshire. Shouldn't have thought of it if I hadn't seen you."
"Well?" Rickman's face expressed an utter inability to perceive the connection. Once the iron shutters had closed on Rickman's he felt that he was no more a part of it. Words could not express his abhorrence of the indecent people who insisted on talking shop out of shop hours. And Dicky never had any decency.
"Well—it's practically on our hands, d'ye see? And if your people care to take over the whole lot, I can let you have it pretty reasonably."
Rickman's face emptied itself of all expression whatever.
"I say, you are a cool young cuss. Is this the way you generally do business?"
"I'll think it over."
"Wouldn't think too long if I were you. It ought to go by auction, and it might; only private contract's preferred."
"Out of respect for the feelin's of the family."
Rickman's eyes were wandering dreamily from the matter in hand. They had alighted on an enormous photograph of Miss Poppy Grace. For an instant thought, like a cloud, obscured the brilliance of Mr. Pilkington's face.
"Anyhow I've given you the straight tip," said Pilkington.
"Thanks. We'll send a fellow down to overhaul the thing."
"He'd better hurry up then. It may have to go by auction after all. But if you'd like the refusal of it, now's your chance."
But Rickman betrayed no enthusiasm.
"You'd better see the guv'nor about it."
Mr. Pilkington looked Rickman up and down, and encountered an immovable determination in his gaze.
"Right you are. I'll send him word to-night. Ta-ta!" He turned again in the moment of departing. "I say, he must send a good man down, you know. It'll take an expert. There's a lot of old things—Greek and Latin—that's something in your line, isn't it?"
But Rickman's line at present was the line of least resistance. It was ten past ten, and Poppy Grace was "on" from ten fifteen to ten forty.
She was only an ordinary little variety actress, and he knew her little programme pretty well by heart. But her fascinations were independent of the glamour of the foot-lights. It was off the stage that he had first come to know her, really know her, a thing that at the first blush of it seems impossible; for the great goddess Diana is not more divinely secret and secluded than (to a young bookseller) a popular Dance and Song Artiste in private life. Poppy's rooms were next door to the boarding-house balcony, and it was the balcony that did it.
Now, in the matter of balconies, if you choose to regard the receding wooden partition as a partition, and sit very far back behind it, you will have your balcony all to yourself, that is to say, you will see nothing, neither will you be seen. If, however, you prefer, as Mr. Rickman preferred, to lean forward over the railings and observe things passing in the street below, you can hardly help establishing some sort of communication with the next-door neighbour who happens to be doing the same thing. At first this communication was purely in the region of the mind, without so much as the movement of an eyelid on either side, and that made it all the more intimate and intense. But to sit there Sunday evening after Sunday evening, when the other boarders were at church, both looking at the same plane-tree opposite, or the same tail-end of a sunset flung across the chimney pots, without uttering a syllable or a sound, was at last seen by both in its true light, as a thing not only painful but absurd. So one evening the deep, full-hearted silence burst and flowered into speech. In common courtesy Mr. Rickman had to open his lips to ask her whether she objected to his smoking (she did not). Then it came to acknowledging each other in the streets; after that, to Poppy's coming out and looking over the balcony about the time when Mr. Rickman would be coming home from the shop, and to Mr. Rickman's looking to see if Poppy was looking; and so on, to that wonderful night when he saw her home from the Jubilee Theatre. The stars were out; not that Poppy cared a rap about the stars.
Her first appearance to-night was in the character of a coster-girl, a part well suited to her audacity and impertinent prettiness. Poppy was the tiniest dancer that ever whirled across a stage, a circumstance that somewhat diminished the vulgarity of her impersonation, while it gave it a very engaging character of its own. Her small Cockney face, with its impudent laughing nose, its curling mouth (none too small), its big, twinkling blue eyes, was framed in a golden fringe and side curls. She wore a purple velveteen skirt, a purple velveteen jacket with a large lace collar, and a still larger purple velveteen hat with white ostrich feathers that swayed madly from the perpendicular.
The secret of Poppy's popularity lay in this, that you could always depend on her; she always played the same part in the same manner; but her manner was her own. To come on the stage quietly; to look, in spite of her coster costume, the picture of suburban innocence, and pink and white propriety; to stand facing her audience for a second of time, motionless and in perfect gravity—it was a trick that, though Poppy never varied it, had a more killing effect than the most ingenious impromptu.
"Sh—sh—sh—sh!" A flutter of programmes in the pit was indignantly suppressed by the gallery. There was a movement of Poppy's right eyelid which in a larger woman would have been called a wink; in Poppy it appeared as an exaggerated twinkle. It was greeted with a roar of rapturous applause. Then Poppy, with her hands on her hips, and her head on one side, raised her Cockney voice in a high-pitched song, executing between each verse a slow, swinging chassee to the stage Humorist with the concertina.
"Oh, she's my fancy girl, With 'er 'air all outer curl, 'Ooks orf, eyes orf, petticoats all awry. For then she isn't shy; She gives 'er bangs a twirl, And it's—'Kiss me quick!'—and—'That's the Trick!' —and—(dim)—'Wouldn't yer like to try?'"
When the stage Humorist with the concertina stopped chasseeing, and put his finger to his nose, and observed, "That's wot you might call a dim innuender," Rickman could have kicked him.
(cresc.), 'But got up fit ter kill, In 'er velverteen an' frill, It's—'Ands orf!'—'Heyes orf!'—'Fetch yer one in the heye!'— A strollin' down the 'Igh, With 'Enery, Alf an' Bill, It's—'None er that!'—and 'Mind my 'at!'—and (fortissimo)—'WOULDN'T yer like to try!'"
"To try! To try!" Her chassee quickened ever so little, doubled on itself, and became a tortuous thing. Poppy's feet beat out the measure that is danced on East End pavements to the music of the concertina. In the very abandonment of burlesque Poppy remained an artist, and her dance preserved the gravity of the original ballet, designed for performance on a flagstone. Now it unfolded; it burst its bounds; it was a rhythmic stampede. Louder and louder, her clicking heels beat the furious time; higher and higher her dexterous toes flew to her feathers that bowed to meet them, and when her last superhuman kick sent her hat flying, and the Humorist caught it on his head, they had brought the house down.
Rickman went out to the bar, where he found Dicky Pilkington, and at Dicky's suggestion he endeavoured to quench with brandy and soda his inextinguishable thirst.
He returned to the storm and glare of the ballet, the last appearance of that small, incarnate genius of Folly. There were other dancers, but he saw none but her. He knew every pose and movement of her body, from her first tentative, preluding pirouette, to her last moon-struck dance, when she tossed her tall grenadier's cap to the back of the stage, and still spinning, shook out her hair, and flung herself backwards, till it streamed and eddied with the whirlwind of her dance. In her fantastic dress (she wore her colours, the red and black) her very womanhood had vanished, she was a mere insignificant morsel of flesh and blood, inspired by the dizzy, reckless Fury of the foot-lights.
There was a noise of many boots beating the floor of the house; it grew into a thick, solid body of sound, torn at intervals by a screaming whistle from the galleries. Someone up there shouted her name—"Poppy—Poppy Grace!" and Rickman shivered.
To Rickman's mind the name was an outrage; it reeked of popularity; it suggested—absurdly and abominably—a certain cheap drink of sudden and ephemeral effervescence. He never let his mind dwell on those dreadful syllables any longer than he could help; he never thought of her as Poppy Grace at all. He thought of her in undefined, extraordinary ways; now as some nameless aerial spirit, unaccountably wandering about in a world too gross for it; and now as the Young Joy, the fugitive actuality. To-night, after brandy and soda, his imagination possessed itself of Poppy, and wove round her the glory and gloom of the world. It saw in her, not the incarnation of the rosy moment, but the eternal sacrifice of woman, the tragedy of her abasement, her obedience to the world. Which, when he came to think of it, was really very clever of his imagination.
Meanwhile Poppy was behaving, as she had behaved for the last fifty nights, like a lunatic humming top. Now it had steadied itself in the intensity of its speed; the little humming-top was sleeping. Poppy, as she span, seemed to be standing, her feet rooted, her body swaying delicately from the hips, like a flower rocked by the wind, the light of her flickering flamewise. There was a stir, a wave, as if the heart of the house had heaved. Pit and gallery breathed hard. Rickman leaned forward with clouded eyes and troubled forehead, while the young shop-men—the other young shop-men—thrilled with familiar and delicious emotion. Now she curtsied, as she had curtsied for the last fifty nights, bowing lower and lower till her hair fell over her face and swept the stage; and now she shook her head till the great golden whorl of hair seemed the only part of her left spinning; then Poppy folded her arms and sank, sank till she sat on her heels, herself invisible, curtained in modest and mystic fashion by her hair.
"Bravo! Bravo!" "That's the trick!"—"Encore!"—"Oh, she's my fancy girl!"—"Encore-ore-ore-ore-ore!"
It was all over.
He hurried back to Bloomsbury, in the wake of her hansom, to the house of the balcony opposite the plane-trees. The plane-tree was half-withdrawn into the night, but the balcony hung out black in the yellow light from its three long windows. Poppy was not in the balcony.
He went up into the room where the light was, a room that had been once an ordinary Bloomsbury drawing-room, the drawing-room of Propriety. Now it was Poppy's drawing-room.
You came straight out of a desert of dreary and obscure respectability, and it burst, it blossomed into Poppy before your eyes. Portraits of Poppy on the walls, in every conceivable and inconceivable attitude. Poppy's canary in the window, in a cage hung with yellow gauze. Poppy's mandoline in an easy chair by itself. Poppy's hat on the grand piano, tumbling head over heels among a litter of coffee cups. On the tea-table a pair of shoes that could have belonged to nobody but Poppy, they were so diminutive. In the waste paper basket a bouquet that must have been Poppy's too, it was so enormous. And on the table in the window a Japanese flower-bowl that served as a handy receptacle for cigarette ash and spent vestas. Two immense mirrors facing each other reflected these objects and Poppy, when she was there, for ever and ever, in diminishing perspective. But Poppy was not there.
Passing through this brilliant scene into the back room beyond, he found her finishing her supper.
Poppy was not at all surprised to see him. She addressed him as "Rickets," and invited him under that name to sit down and have some supper, too.
But Rickets did not want any supper. He sat down at the clear end of the table, and looked on as in a dream. And when Poppy had finished she came and sat by him on the clear end of the table, and made cigarettes, and drank champagne out of a little tumbler.
"Thought you might feel a little lonely over there, Ricky-ticky," said she.
Poppy was in spirits. If she had yielded to the glad impulse of her heart, she would have stood on one foot and twirled the other over Ricky-ticky's head. But she restrained herself. Somehow, before Ricky-ticky, Poppy never played any of those tricks that delighted Mr. Pilkington and other gentlemen of her acquaintance. She merely sat on the table. She was in her ballet-dress, and before sitting on the table she arranged her red skirts over her black legs with a prodigious air of propriety. Poppy herself did not know whether this meant that she wanted Ricky-ticky to think her nice, or whether she wanted to think Ricky-ticky nice. After all, it came to the same thing; for to Poppy the peculiar charm of Ricky-ticky was his innocence.
The clock on St. Pancras church struck half-past eleven; in his hanging cage in the front room, behind his yellow gauze curtain, Poppy's canary woke out of his first sleep. He untucked his head from under his wing and chirrupped drowsily.
"Oh, dicky," said Poppy, "it's time you were in your little bed!"
He did not take the hint. He was intent on certain movements of Poppy's fingers and the tip of her tongue concerned in the making of cigarettes.
He was gazing into her face as if it held for him the secret of the world. And that look embarrassed her. It had all the assurance of age and all the wonder of youth in it. Poppy's eyes were trained to look out for danger signals in the eyes of boys, for Poppy, according to those lights of hers, was honest. If she knew the secret of the world, she would not have told it to Ricky-ticky; he was much too young. Men, in Poppy's code of morality, were different. But this amazing, dreamy, interrogative look was not the sort of thing that Poppy was accustomed to, and for once in her life Poppy felt shy.
"I say, Rickets, there goes a quarter to twelve. Did I wake him out of his little sleep?"
Poppy talked as much to the canary as to Rickets, which made it all quite proper. As for Rickman, he talked hardly at all.
"You'll have to go in ten minutes, Rick." And by way of softening this announcement she gave him some champagne.
He had paid no attention to that hint either, being occupied with a curious phenomenon. Though Poppy was, for her, most unusually stationary, he found that it was making him slightly giddy to look at her.
He was arriving at that moment of intoxication when things lose their baldness and immobility, and the world begins to float like an enchanted island in a beautiful blood-warm haze. Nothing could be more agreeable than the first approaches of this blessed state; he encouraged it, anticipating with ecstasy each stage in the mounting of the illusion. For when he was sober he saw Poppy very much as she was; but when he was drunk she became for him a being immaculate, divine. He moved in a region of gross but glorious exaggeration, where his wretched little Cockney passion assumed the proportions of a superb romance. His soul that minute was the home of the purest, most exalted emotions. Yes, he could certainly feel it coming on. Poppy's face was growing bigger and bigger, opening out and blossoming like an enormous flower.
"Nine minutes up. In another minute you go."
It seemed to him that Poppy was measuring time by pouring champagne into little tumblers, and that she gave him champagne to drink. He knew it was no use drinking it, for that thirst of his was unquenchable; but he drank, for the sake of the illusion; and as he drank it seemed to him that not only was Poppy worthy of all adoration, but that his passion for her was no mere vulgar and earthly passion; it was a glorious and immortal thing.
Poppy looked at him curiously. She was the soul of hospitality, but it struck her that she was being a little too liberal with the champagne.
"No, Razors. No more fizz. If I were to drink a drop more it would spoil my little dance that always fetches the boys."
She turned her tumbler upside down in token of renunciation and led the way into the front room. He followed her with enchanted feet. He was now moving as in an Arabian Night's dream.
In the front room was a sofa—No, a divan, and on the divan the skin of a Polar bear sprawling. Rickman and Poppy sat on the top of the bear. Such a disreputable, out-of-elbow, cosmopolitan bear! His little eye-holes were screwed up in a wicked wink, a wink that repudiated any connection with his native waters of the Pole.
The house was very still. Behind his yellow gauze curtain the canary stirred in his sleep. "Swe-eet," he murmured plaintively in his dream.
"Swe-eet, dicky!" echoed Poppy. Then because she had nothing to say she began to sing. She sang the song of Simpson the tenor, Simpson the master of tears.
"'Twas on the night our little byby died, And Bill, 'e comes, and, 'Sal,' 'e sez,'look ere, I've signed a pledge,'ser 'e, 'agains the beer. 'D'ye see?' Sez 'e. 'And wot I 'ope ter syve Will tittervyte 'is bloomin' little gryve.' Then—Well—yo' should 'ave 'eard us 'ow we cried— Like bloomin' kids—the—night—the byby—died.
"That song," said Poppy, "doesn't exactly suit my style of beauty. You should have heard Simpey sing it. That 'd 'ave given you something to 'owl for."
For Rickman looked depressed.
The sound of Poppy's song waked the canary; he fluttered down from his perch and stretched his wings, trailing them on the floor of his cage to brush the sleep out of them.
"Did you ever see such affectation," said Poppy, "look at him, striking attitudes up there, all by 'is little self!"
Poppy seemed to cling to the idea of the canary as a symbol of propriety.
"Do you know, Rickets, it's past twelve o'clock?"
No, he didn't know. He had taken no count of time. But he knew that he had drunk a great many little tumblers of champagne, and that his love for Poppy seemed more than ever a supersensuous and immortal thing. He pulled himself together in order to tell her so; but at that moment he was confronted by an insuperable difficulty. In the tender and passionate speech that he was about to make to her, it would be necessary to address her by name. But how—in Heaven's name—could he address a divinity as Poppy? He settled the difficulty by deciding that he would not address her at all. There should be no invocation. He would simply explain.
He got up and walked about the room and explained in such words as pleased him the distinction between the corruptible and the incorruptible Eros. From time to time he chanted his own poems in the intervals of explaining; for they bore upon the matter in hand.
"Rickets," said Poppy, severely, "you've had too much fizz. I can see it in your eyes—most unmistakably. I know it isn't very nice of me to say so, when it's my fizz you've been drinking; but it isn't really mine, it's Dicky Pilkington's—at least he paid for it."
But Rickets did not hear her. His soul, soaring on wings of champagne, was borne far away from Dicky Pilkington.
"Know" (chanted Rickets) "that the Love which is my Lord most high, He changeth not with seasons and with days, His feet are shod with light in all his ways. And when he followeth none have power to fly.
"He chooseth whom he will, and draweth nigh. To them alone whom he himself doth raise Unto his perfect service and his praise; Of such Love's lowliest minister am I."
"If you'd asked me," said Poppy, "I should have said he had a pretty good opinion of himself. What do you say, Dicky?"
"Sweet!" sang the canary in one pure, penetrating note, the voice of Innocence itself.
"Isn't he rakish?" But Poppy got no answer from the sonneteer. He had wheeled round from her, carried away in the triumph and rapture of the sestette. His steps marked the beat of the iambics, he turned on his heel at the end of every line. For the moment he was sober, as men count sobriety.
"For he I serve hath paced Heaven's golden floor, And chanted with the Seraphims' glad choir; Lo! All his wings are plumed with fervent fire; He hath twain that bear him upward evermore, With twain he veils his holy eyes before The mystery of his own divine desire.
"Does it remind you of anything?" he asked. It struck her as odd that he seemed to realize her presence with difficulty.
"No, I can't say that I ever heard anything like it in my life."
"Well, the idea's bagged from Dante—I mean Dante-gabrier-rossetti. But he doesn't want it as badly as I do. In fac', I don' think he wants it at all where he is now. If he does, he can take any of mine in exchange. You bear me out, Poppy—I invite the gentleman to step down and make 's own s'lection: Nobody can say I plagiarize anyborry—anyborry but myself."
"All right, don't you worry, old chappy," said Poppy soothingly. "You come here and sit quiet."
He came and sat down beside her, as if the evening had only just begun. He sat down carefully, tenderly, lest he should crush so much as the hem of her fan-like, diaphanous skirts. And then he began to talk to her.
He said there was no woman—no lady—in the world for whom he felt such reverence and admiration; "Pop-oppy," he said, "you're fit to dance before God on the floor of Heaven when they've swept it."
"Oh come," said Poppy, "can't you go one better?"
He could. He did. He intimated that though he worshipped every hair of Poppy's little head and every inch of Poppy's little body, what held him, at the moment, were the fascinations of her mind, and the positively gorgeous beauty of her soul. Yes; there could be no doubt that the object of his devotion was Poppy's imperishable soul.