THIS IS THE END
BY STELLA BENSON
This is the end, for the moment, of all my thinking, this is my unfinal conclusion. There is no reason in tangible things, and no system in the ordinary ways of the world. Hands were made to grope, and feet to stumble, and the only things you may count on are the unaccountable things. System is a fairy and a dream, you never find system where or when you expect it. There are no reasons except reasons you and I don't know.
I should not be really surprised if the policeman across the way grew wings, or if the deep sea rose and washed out the chaos of the land. I should not raise my eyebrows if the daily press became the Little Sunbeam of the Home, or if Cabinet Ministers struck for a decrease of wages. I feel no security in facts, precedent seems no protection to me. The wisdom you can find in an Encyclopedia, or in Selfridge's Information Bureau, seems to me just a transitory adaptation to quicksand circumstances.
But if the things which I know in spite of my education were false, if the eyes of the sea forgot their secret, or if the accent of the steep woods became vulgar, if the fairy adventures that happen in my heart fell flat, if the good friends my eyes have never seen failed me,—then indeed should I know emptiness, and an astonishment that would kill.
I want to introduce you to Jay, a 'bus-conductor and an idealist. She is not the heroine, but the most constantly apparent woman in this book. I cannot introduce you to a heroine because I have never met one.
She was a person who took nothing in the world for granted, but as she had only a slight connection with the world, that is not saying very much. Her answer to everything was "Why?" The fundamental facts that you and I accept from our youth upwards, like Be Good and You Will Be Happy, or Change Your Boots When You Come In Out Of The Wet, or Respect Your Elders, or Love Your Neighbour, or Never Cross Your Legs Above The Knee, did not impress Jay.
I never knew her as a baby, but I am sure she must have been born a propounder of questions, and a smiler at the answers she received. I daresay she used to ask questions—without result—long before she could talk, but I am quite sure she was not embittered by the lack of result. Nothing ever embittered Jay, not even her own pessimism. There is a finality about bitterness, and Jay was never final. Her last word was always on a questioning note. Her mind was always open, waiting for more. "Oh no," she would tell her pillow at night, "there must be a better answer than that ..."
Perhaps it is hardly necessary to add that she had quarrelled with her Family, and run away from home. Her Family knew neither what she was doing nor where she was doing it. Families are incurably conceited, and this one supposed that, having broken away from it, Jay was going to the bad. On the contrary, she was a 'bus-conductor, but I only tell you this in confidence. I repeat the Family did not know it, and does not know it yet.
The Family sometimes said that Jay was an idealist, but it did not really think so. The Family sometimes said that she was rather mad, but it did not know how mad she was, or it would have sent her away to live in a doctor's establishment at Margate. It never realised that it had only come in contact with about one-fifth of its young relation, and that the other four-fifths were shut away from it. Shut away in a shining bubble world with only room in it for one—for One, and a shining bubble Story.
I do not know how universal an experience a Secret Story and a Secret Friend may be. Perhaps this wonder is a commonplace to you, only you are more reticent about it than Jay or I. But to me, even after twenty years' intimacy with what I can only describe as a supplementary life that I cannot describe, it still seems so very wonderful that I cannot believe I share it with every man and woman in the street.
The great advantage of a Secret Story over other stories is that you cannot put it into print. So I can only show you the initial letter, and you may if you choose look upon it as an imaginary hieroglyphic. Or you may not.
Just this, that a bubble world can contain a round and russet horizon of high woods which you can attain, and from the horizon a long view of an unending sea. You can run down across the dappled fields, you can run down into the cove and stroke the sea and hear the intimate minor singing of it. And when you feel as strong as the morning, you can shout and run against the wind, against the flying sand that never blows above your knees. And when you feel as tired as the night, you can climb slowly up the cliff path and go into the House, the House you know much better than any house your ordinary eyes have seen, and there you will find your Secret Friends. The best part about Secret Friends is that they will never weary you by knowing you. You share their House, your passing hand helps to polish the base of that wooden figure that ends the banisters, you know the childish delight of that wide short chimney in the big turret room, a chimney so wide and so short that you can stand inside the great crooked fireplace and whisper to the birds that look down from the edge of the chimney only a yard or two above you. You know how comfy those big beds are, you sit at the long clothless table in the brown dining-room. With all these things you are intimate, and yet you pass through the place as a ghost, your bubble enchantment encloses you, your Secret Friends have no knowledge of you, their story runs without you. Your unnecessary identity is tactfully ignored, and you know the heaven of being dispassionate and detached among things you love.
All these things can a bubble world contain. You have to get inside things to find out how limitless they are. And I think if you don't believe it all, it is none the less true for that, because in that case you are the sort of person who believes a thing less the truer it is.
If Jay's Family did not know she was a 'bus-conductor, and did not know she was a story-possessor, what did it know about her? It knew she disliked the smell of bananas, and that she had not taken advantage of an expensive education, and that she was Stock Size (Small Ladies'), and that she was christened Jane Elizabeth, and that she took after her father to an excessive extent, and that she was rather too apt to swallow this Socialist nonsense. As Families go, it was fairly well informed about her.
The Family was a rather promiscuous one. It had more tortuous relationships than most families have, although there were only four in it, not counting Mr. Russell.
I might as well introduce you to the Family before I settle down to the story. From careful study of the press reviews I gather that a story is considered a necessary thing in a novel, so this time I am going to try and include one.
You may, if you please, meet the Family after breakfast at Mr. Russell's house in Kensington, about three months after Jay had run away. There were four people in the room. They were Cousin Gustus, Mrs. Gustus, Kew, and Mr. Russell.
It behoves me to try and tell you very simply about Mrs. Gustus, because she prided herself on simplicity. Spelt with a capital S, it constituted her Deity; her heaven was a severe and shadowless eternity, and plain words were the flowers that grew in her Elysian fields. She had simplified her life and her looks. Even her smile was shorn of all accessories like dimples or twinkles. Her hair, which was not abundant, was the colour of corn, straight and shining. Her eyes were a cold dark grey.
Now to be simple is all very well, but turn it into an active verb and you spoil the whole idea. To simplify seems forced, and I think Mrs. Gustus struck harder on the note of simplification than that of simplicity. I should not dare to criticise her, however, and Cousin Gustus was satisfied, so criticism in any case would be intrusive. It is just possible that he occasionally wished that she would dress herself in a more human way—patronise in winter the humble Viyella stripe, for instance, or in summer the flippant sprig. But a large proportion of Mrs. Gustus's faith was founded on simple strong colours in wide expanses, introduced, as it were, one to another by judicious black. Anybody but Mrs. Gustus would have been drowned in her clothes. But she was conceived on a generous scale, she was almost gorgeous, she barely missed exaggeration. In her manner I think she did not miss it. She had therefore the gift of coping with colour. It remains for me to add that her age was five-and-forty, and that she was a novelist. The recording angel had probably noted the fact of her novelism among her virtues, but she had an imperceptible earthly public. She wrote laborious books, full of short peevish sentences, of such very pure construction that they were extremely difficult to understand. She wore spectacles with aggressive tortoise-shell rims. She said, "I am short-sighted. I am obliged to wear spectacles. Why should I try to conceal the fact? I will not have a pair of rimless ghosts haunting my face. I will wear spectacles without shame." But the real truth was that the tortoise-shell rims were more becoming to her. Mrs. Gustus was known to her husband's family as Anonyma. The origin of this habit was an old joke, and I have forgotten the point of it.
Cousin Gustus was second cousin once removed to Kew and Kew's sister Jay, and had kindly brought them up from childhood. He was now at the further end of the sixties, and embittered by many things: an unsuitable marriage, the approach of the psalmist's age-limit, incurably modern surroundings, an internal complaint, and a haunting wish to relieve the Government of the management of the War. These drawbacks were to a certain extent linked, they accounted for each other. The complaint hindered him from offering his services as Secretary of State; it made of him a slave, so he could not pretend to be a master. He cherished his slavery, for it happened to be painless, and supplied him with a certain dignity which would otherwise have been difficult to secure. During the summer the complaint hibernated, and ceased to interest either doctors or relations, which was naturally hard to bear. To these trials you may add the disgraceful behaviour of his young cousin Jay, and admit that Cousin Gustus had every excuse for encouraging pessimism of the most pronounced type.
Jay's brother Kew was twenty-five, and from this it follows that he had already drunk the surprising beverage of War. His military history included a little splinter of hate in the left shoulder, followed by a depressing period almost entirely spent in the society of medical boards, three months of light duty consisting of weary instruction of fools in an East coast town, and now an interval of leave at the end of which the battalion to which he had lately been attached hoped to go to France. In one way it was a pity he ever joined the Army, for khaki clashed badly with most of Mrs. Gustus's colour theories. But he had never noticed that: his eye and his ear and his mind were all equally slow to appreciate clashings of any kind. He was rather aloof from comparison and criticism, but not on principle. He had no principles—at least no original ones, just the ordinary stuffy old principles of decency and all that. He never turned his eyes inward, as far as the passer-by could see; he lived a breezy life outside himself. He never tried to make a fine Kew of himself; he never propounded riddles to his Creator, which is the way most of us make our reputations.
Mr. Russell, the host and adopted member of the Family, was fifty-two. He did not know Jay, having only lately been culled by Mrs. Gustus—that assiduous collector—and placed in the bosom of the Family. She had found him blossoming unloved in the wilderness of a War Work Committee. He was well informed, yet a good listener; perhaps he possessed both these virtues to excess. At any rate Mrs. Gustus had decided that he was worthy of Family friendship, and, being naturally extravagant, she conferred it upon him with both hands. Mr. Russell was married to a woman who had not properly realised the fact that she was Mrs. Russell. She spent her life in distant lands, helping the world to become better. At present she was understood to be propagating peace in the United States, and was never mentioned by or to her husband. My first impression of Mr. Russell was that he was rather fat, but I never could trace this impression to its origin. He had not exactly a double chin, but rather a chin and a half, and the rest of him followed this moderate example. His grey hair retired in a pronounced estuary over each temple, leaving a beautifully brushed peninsula between. He had no sense of humour, but hid this deformity skillfully. Hardly anybody knew that he was a poet, except presumably his dog. He often talked to his dog; he told it every speakable thought that he had. This was his only bad habit. Occasionally his dog was heard to reply in a small curious voice proceeding also from Mr. Russell.
These four people looked out at Kensington Gardens, which were rejoicing in the very babyhood of the year. The naked trees were like pillars in the mist, the grass was grey and whitened to the distance, the world had mislaid its horizon, and one's eye slid up without check between the trees to where the last word of a daylight moon whispered in the sky.
"I glory in a view that dispenses with colour," said Mrs. Gustus severely. She always spoke as though she were sure of the whole of what she intended to say. When she did hesitate, it only meant that she was seeking for the simplest word, and she would cap her pause with a monosyllable as curt as an explosion.
But glory is the right word, I think, for London in some moods. Do you know the feeling of a heart beating too high, when you see the great cliffs of London under rain or vague sunshine, or rising out of yellow air? Do you ever want, as I do, to stand with arms out against the London wind, and shout your own unmade poetry on the top of a 'bus? With this sort of grotesque glorying does London inspire me, so that I spend whole days together feeling that the essential I is too big for what encloses it.
Anonyma never felt like this. She often spoke the right word, but she nearly always spoke it coldly.
"This morning," said Kew, "when I looked out, I felt the futility of bed, so I made an assignation with the Hound when I met it trooping along with Russ in single file to the bathroom. Why does your Hound always accompany you there, Russ? Dogs must think us awfully irrational beasts, and yet—does that Hound really think you could elope for ever and be no more seen, with nothing on but pyjamas and a towel? I suppose he thinks 'You can't be too careful.' It makes one humble to live with a dog. I always blush when I see a dog dreaming, because I'm afraid they give us an undignified place in their dreams. Your Hound, Russ, dreams of you plunging into the Serpentine after a Canadian Goose, with your topper floating behind you, or Anonyma with her tongue hanging out, scratching at a little mousehole in Piccadilly. It is humiliating, isn't it? Anyway, before breakfast, Russ's Hound and I went and jumped over things in the Gardens. The park-keeper mistook us for young lambs."
Russell's Hound was called so by courtesy, in order to lend him a dignity which he lacked. He may have been twelve inches high at the shoulder, and he thought that he was exactly like a lion, except for a trifling difference in size. Dignity is not, of course, incompatible with small stature, but I think it was the twinkling gait of Mr. Russell's Hound that robbed him of moral weight, and prevented you from attaching great importance to his views.
"Young lambs!" exclaimed Mrs. Gustus. "Really, my good Kew, had you nothing better to do?"
"Not at that time," replied Kew. "You weren't up." And he sang to drown her sigh. Kew was the only person I ever knew who really sang to the tune of his moods. He sang Albert Hall sort of music very loudly when he was happy, and when he was extremely happy he roared so that his voice broke out of tune. When he was silent it was almost always because he was asleep, or because some other member of the Family was talking. When, by some accident, the whole Family was simultaneously silent, you could not help noticing what an oppressively still place London was. The sound of Russell's Hound sneezing in the hall was like a bomb.
But at the present moment Kew only sang a few bars of Beethoven in a small voice. He was rather sad, because of Jay. He had not realised till he came home how very thoroughly Jay had disappeared. He led the conversation to Jay. It often happened that Kew led conversations, because conversations, like the public, generally follow the loudest voice.
"Why so sudden?" asked Kew, apparently of the Round Pond, so loud was his voice. "That's what I can't make out. She used to be such a human sort, and anybody with half an ear could hear the decisions bubbling about under the lid for weeks before they boiled over."
Everybody—even Cousin Gustus—knew that he was talking of Jay. Kew said so much that he might be excused for forgetting occasionally what he had not said. Besides, he had talked of little else but Jay since he rejoined his Family two days before.
"She used to be a good girl," sighed Cousin Gustus. "So few girls are good."
Cousin Gustus is an expert pessimist. Vice, accidents, and terrible ends are his speciality. All virtue is to him an exception, and by him is immediately forgotten. In sudden deaths you cannot catch him out. If you were tossed from the horns of a bull into the jaws of a crocodile, and died of pneumonia contracted during the flight, you would not surprise Cousin Gustus. He is never at a loss for a precedent. The only way you could really astonish him would be by living a blameless life without adventure, and dying of old age in your bed.
"There were warnings," said Anonyma. "Little disagreements with Gustus."
"She wanted to bring vermin into the house," mourned Cousin Gustus.
Kew suggested: "White mice?"
"Not vermin unattended," Anonyma explained. "She wanted to adopt Brown Borough babies. She had been working desultorily in the Brown Borough since War broke out."
"That might explain the peculiar and un-Jay-like remark in her letter to you—that she would settle in no home except the Perfect Home. I hate things in capital letters."
"Why didn't she get married?" grumbled Cousin Gustus. "She was engaged for nearly three weeks to young William Morgan, a most respectable young man. So few young men—"
"She wrote to me that she couldn't keep up that engagement," said Kew. "Not even by looking upon it as War Work. She called him a 'Surface young man,' and that again seemed unlike her. She usen't to mind surfaceness. The War seems to have turned her upside down. But then, of course, the War has turned us all upside down, and in that position you generally get a rush of brains to the head. We're all feverish, that's what's the matter with us. When I was in hospital I lived for three weeks on the top of a high temperature, laughing. I want to laugh now.... It's a damn funny world."
"I once knew a man who died of apoplexy while swearing," sniffed Cousin Gustus.
"You have been damned unlucky in your friends, Cousin Gustus," said Kew. He paused, and then added: "Besides, I hardly ever say Damn without saying Un-damn to myself afterwards. It seems a pity to waste a precious word on an inadequate cause, and I always retrieve it if I can."
"Before you came down to breakfast this morning, Kew," said Anonyma, "we had an idea."
"Only one between you in all that time?" said Kew. "I was half an hour late."
"Now, Kew, be an angel and agree with the idea. I've set my heart on it," said Mrs. Gustus.
When Mrs. Gustus talked in a womanly way like this, the change was always unmistakable. She was naturally an unnatural talker, and when she mentioned such natural things as angels, you knew she was resorting deliberately to womanly charm in order to attain her end. There was something very cold-blooded about Anonyma's womanly charm.
"Good Lord," said Kew, "I wish angels had never been invented. I never am one, only people always tell me to be one. I never get officially recognised in heaven. What is the plan?"
"There is Russell's car doing nothing," began Mrs. Gustus.
"Do you mean Christina?" interrupted Kew, shocked at such formality. "Don't call her Russell's car, it sounds so cold."
"There is Russell's Christina doing nothing," compromised Anonyma. "And petrol isn't so bad as it will be. And it's a beautiful time of year. And you are not strong yet, really. And we want Jay back."
"A procession of facts doesn't make a plan," objected Kew.
"It may lead to one, eventually," said Mrs. Gustus. "Oh, Kew, I want to go out into the country, I want to thread the pale Spring air, and hear the lambs cry. I want to brush my face against the grass, and wade in a wave of bluebells. I want to forget blood and Belgians and kiss Nature."
"Take a twenty-eight 'bus, and kiss Hampstead Heath," suggested Kew. "The Spring has got there all right."
Anonyma, behind the coffee-pot, was jotting down in a notebook the salient points in her outburst. She always placed her literary calling first. And anyway, I should be rather proud if I could talk like that about the Spring without any preparation.
"The idea originally," began Mr. Russell tentatively, "was not only formed to allow Mrs. Gustus to enjoy the Spring, but also to make you quite strong before you go back to work. And, again, not only that, but also to try and trace your sister Jay."
Will you please imagine that continual intercourse with very talkative people had made Mr. Russell an adept at vocal compression. He had now almost lost the use of his vowels, and if I wrote as he spoke, the effect would be like an advertisement for a housemaid during the shortage of wood-pulp. I spare you this.
"There are three objections to the plan," said Kew. "First, that Anonyma doesn't really want to kiss the Spring; second, that I don't really want convalescent treatment; third, that Jay doesn't really want to be traced."
When Mrs. Gustus did not know the answer to an objection she left it unanswered. This is, of course, the simplest way. She snapped her notebook.
"Oh, Kew," she said, "you promised you'd be an angel." The double row of semi-detached buttons down her breast trembled with eagerness.
"Angeller and angeller," sighed Kew, "I never committed myself so far."
"I have a clue with which to trace Jay," said Mrs. Gustus. "I had a letter from her this morning."
Kew was a satisfactory person to surprise. He is never supercilious.
"You heard from Jay!" he said, in a voice as high as his eyebrows.
The letter which Mrs. Gustus showed to Kew may be quoted here:
"This place has stood since the year twelve something, and its windows look down without even the interruption of a sill at the coming and going of the tides. It has hardly any garden, and immediately to the right and the left of it the green down brims over the top of the cliff like the froth of ale over a silver goblet. To-night the tide is low, the sea is golden where the shallow waves break upon the sand, and ghostly green in the distance. When the tide is high, the sound and the sight of it seem to meet and make one thing. The waves press up the cliff then, and fall back on each other. Do you know the lines that are written on the face of a disappointed wave? To-night the clouds are like castles built on the plain of the sea. There is an aeroplane at this moment—dim as a little thought—coming between two turrets of cloud. I suppose it is that I can hear, but it sounds like the distant singing of the moon. I have come here to count up my theories, to count them and pile them up like money, in heaps, according to their value. Theories are such beautiful things, there must be some use in them. Or perhaps they are like money from a distant country, and not in currency here. Yet just as sheer metal, they must have some value.... It is wonderful that such happiness should come to me, and that it should last. I have the Sea and a Friend; there is nothing in the world I lack, and nothing that I regret...."
"What better clue could you want?" asked Mrs. Gustus. "We will take Christina round the sea-coast."
"Looking for silver cliffs and a golden sea," sighed Kew.
I don't know if I have mentioned or conveyed to you that Mrs. Gustus was a determined woman. At any rate she was, and it would therefore be waste of time to describe the gradual defeat of Kew. The final stage was the despatch of Kew to call on Nana in the Brown Borough. Jay's letter had the Brown Borough postmark, so it had apparently been sent to Nana to post. Nana might be described as the Second Clue in the pursuit of Jay. She was the Family's only link with Jay. The one drawback of Nana as a clue was that she was never to be found. Mrs. Gustus had called six times, but had been repulsed on each occasion by a totally dumb front door. But then Nana never had liked Anonyma. Nana was simple herself in an amateurish, unconscious sort of way, and I expect she disliked Anonyma's professional rivalry in the matter of simplicity. But Kew was always a favourite.
The 'bus roared up the canyons of the City, and its voice accompanied Kew in his tuneful meditations. A 'bus is not really well adapted for meditation. On my feet I can stride across unseen miles musing on love, in a taxi I can think about to-morrow's dinner, but on a 'bus my thoughts will go no further than my eyes can see. So Kew, although he thought he was thinking of Jay, was really considering the words in front of him—To Stop O'Bus strike Bell at Rear.[Footnote: He must have changed at the Bank into a Tilling 'bus.] He deduced from this that it was an Irish 'bus, and supposed that this accounted for its rather head-long behaviour. He spent some moments in imagining the MacBus, child of a sterner race, which would run gutturally without skids, and wear a different cut of bonnet.
He dismounted into a faint yellow fog diluted with a faint twilight, in the Brown Borough. The air was vague, making it not so much an impossibility to decipher the features of people approaching as a surprise to find it possible. A few rather premature bar row-flares adapted Scripture to modern conditions by hiding their light under tin substitutes for bushels, in the hope of protecting such valuables as cat's meat and bananas from aerial outrage. Kew pranced over prostrate children, and curved about the pavement to avoid artificially vivacious passers-by, who emerged from the public-houses.
Nana lived in a little alley which was like a fiord of peace running in from the shrill storm of the Brown Borough. Here little cottages shrank together, passive resisters of the twentieth century. Low crooked windows blinked through a mask of dirty creepers. Each little front garden contained a shrub, and was guarded by a low railing, although there would have been no room for a trespasser in addition to the shrub. Nana's house, at the end of the alley, looked along it to the far turmoil of the mother-street.
Kew insulted the gate, as usual, by stepping over it, and knocked at the door. He held his breath, so that he might more keenly hear the first whisperings of the floor upstairs, which would show that Nana was astir.
A gardenful of cats came and told him that his hopes were vain. Cats only exist, I think, for the chastening of man. They never come to me except to tell me the worst, and to crush me with quiet sarcasm should my optimism survive their warning.
But before the cats had finished speaking, there was a most un-Nana-like sound of bounding within, and Jay appeared. She threw herself out of the darkness of the door on to the twilit Kew.
The cats were ashamed to be seen watching this almost canine display, and went away.
"I didn't know you weren't in France," said Jay to Kew.
"I didn't know you weren't in Heaven," said Kew to Jay. "What's all this about golden seas and aeroplanes snarling around?"
"Oh, snarling.... That's just what they do," said Jay. "Let's pretend I said that."
It seemed as if childhood turned its face to them again after a thousand years. These roaring months of War run like a sea between us and our peaceful beginnings, so that a catchword flashed across out of our past is as beautiful and as incredible as the light in a dream.
When they were little they used to bargain for expressive words. Their childhood was full of such hair-splittings as: "If you tell how we said Wank-wank to the milkman, you must let me have the old lady who had a palpitation and puffocated running after the 'bus."
They were not spontaneous people. They were born with too great a love of words, a passion for drama at the expense of truth, and a habit of overweighting common life with romance. It was perhaps good for them to have acquired such a very simple relation by marriage as Anonyma.
"About the sea," said Jay, "I'll tell you later."
"Well, tell me first why you found home so suddenly unbearable. You've stood it for eighteen years."
"I've been a child all through those eighteen years. And to a child just the fact of grown-upness is so admirable. I wonder why. But under the fierce light that beats from the eye of a woman suddenly and violently grown old, Cousin Gustus and Anonyma don't—well, Kew, do they?"
The dusk filled the room as water fills a cup, and to look up at the light of an outside lamp on the ceiling was like looking up through water at the surface. Jay wore a dress of the same colour of the dusk, and her round face, faint as a bubble, seemed to float on its background unsupported.
"Didn't you think about adopting a baby?" suggested Kew. "That evidently put Cousin Gustus's back up."
"I didn't put Cousin Gustus's back up so high as he put mine," answered Jay. "Oh, Kew, what are the old that they should check us? What's the use of this war of one generation against another? Old people and young people reach a deadlock that's as bad as marriage without the possibility of divorce. Isn't all forced fidelity wrong?"
"What did you do, tell me, and what are you going to do?"
"Oh well, I felt something like frost in the air, and I couldn't define it. Really, it was work waiting to be done. Not work for the poor, but work with the poor. At home I talked about work, and Anonyma wrote about it, and Cousin Gustus shuddered at it. You were doing it all right, but where was I? Three days a week with soldiers' wives. My brow never sweated a drop. I thought there must be something better than a bird's-eye view of work. So I took a job at a bolster place.... Oh well, it doesn't matter now. I earned ten shillings a week, and paid half-a-crown for a little basement back. On Saturdays I got my Sunday clothes out of pawn, and came to tea with Nana. Do you remember the scones and the Welsh Rarebit that Nana used to make? I believe those things were worth the terror of the pawnshop. Oh, Kew, those pawnshops! Those little secret stalls that put shame into you where none was before. The pawn man—why is it that when you're already frightened is the moment that men choose to frighten you? Because weakness is the worst crime. That I have proved. My work was putting fluff into bolsters. There was a big bright grocers' calendar—the Death of Nelson—and if I could see it through the fog of fluff I felt that was a lucky day. I had to eat my lunch there, raspberry jam sandwiches—not fruit jam, you know, but raspberry flavour. It wasn't nice, and it used to get fluffy in that air. The others sat round and munched and picked their teeth and read Jew newspapers. Have you ever noticed that whichever way up you look at a Jew newspaper, you always feel as if you could read it better if you were standing on your head? My governor was a Jew too. He wasn't bad, but he looked wet, and his hair was a horror to me. His voice was tired of dealing with fluff—though he didn't deal with it so intimately as we did—and it only allowed him to whisper. The forewoman was always cross, but always as if she would rather not be so, as if she were being cross for a bet, and as if some one were watching her to see she was not kind by mistake. She looked terribly ill, because she had worked there for three months, which was a record. I stood it five weeks, and then I had a hemorrhage—only from the throat, the doctor said. I wanted to go to bed, but you can't, because the panel doctors in these parts will not come to you. My doctor was half an enormous mile away, and it seemed he only existed between seven and nine in the evenings. So I stayed up, so as not to get too weak to walk. I went and asked the governor for my stamps. I had only five stamps due to me, only five valuable threepences had been stopped out of my wages. But I had a silly conviction at that time that the Insurance Act was invented to help working people. What an absurd idea of mine! I went to the Jew for my card. He said mine was a hard case, but I was not entitled to a card; nobody under thirty, he said, was allowed by law to have a card. So I said it was only fair to tell him I was going to the Factory and Insurance Inspectors about him. I told him lots of things, and I was so angry that I cried. He was very angry too, and made me feel sick by splashing his wet hair about. He said it was unfair for ladies to interfere in things they knew nothing about. I said I interfered because I knew nothing about it, but that now I knew. I said that ladies and women had exactly the same kind of inside, and it was a kind that never thrived on fluff instead of food. I told him how I spent my ten shillings. He couldn't interrupt really, because he had no voice. Then I fainted, and a friend I have there, called Mrs. Love, came in. She had been listening at the door. She was very good to me.
"Then, when I was well again, I found another job, but I shan't tell you what it is. As for the Inspectors, I complained, but—what's the use? So long as you must put fluff of that pernicious kind into bolsters, just so long will you kill the strength and the beauty of women. It looked so like a deadlock that it frightened me, and now in this wonderful life I lead, my Friend won't let me think of it. A deadlock is a dreadful accident, isn't it? because in theory it doesn't exist. I am working for a new end now. Isn't it splendid that there is really no Place Called Stop? There is always an end beyond the end, always something to love and look forward to. Life is a luxury, isn't it? there's no use in it—but how delightful!"
"You haven't told me about the sea yet," said Kew.
"Because I don't think you'd believe me. We were always liars, weren't we? That's because we're romantic, or if it's not romance, the symptoms of the disease are very like. Why can't we get rid of it all as Anonyma does? She has no gift except the gift of being able to get rid of superfluous romance. She takes that great ease impersonally, her pose is, 'It's a gift from Heaven, and an infernal bore.' But I never get nearer to joy than I do in this Secret World of mine, and with my Secret Friend."
"But what is it? What is he like?"
"I should be guilty of the murder of a secret if I told you. He isn't particularly romantic. I have seen him in a poor light; I have watched him in a most undignified temper; I have known him when he wanted a shave. I don't exist in this World of mine. I am just a column of thin air, watching with my soul."
"Then you're really telling lies to Anonyma when you write about it all? I'm not reproaching you of course, I only want to get my mind clear."
"I suppose they're lies," assented Jay ruefully, "though it seems sacrilege to say so, for I know these things better than I know myself. But Truth—or Untruth, what's the use of words like that when miracles are in question?"
"Oh, damn this What's the Use Trick," said Kew. "I suppose you picked that up in this private Heaven of yours. The whole thing's absolutely—My dear little Jay, am I offending you?"
"Yes," said Jay.
Chloris sighed too. Chloris had played the thankless part of third in this interview. She was Jay's friend, a terrier with a black eye. She shared Jay's burning desire to be of use, and, like most embryo reformers, she had a poor taste in dress. She wore her tail at an aimless angle, without chic; her markings were all lopsided. But her soul was ardent, and her life was always directed by some rather inscrutable theory or other. As a puppy she had been an inspired optimist, with legs like strips of elastic clumsily attached to a winged spirit. Later she had adopted a vigorous anarchist policy, and had inaugurated what was probably known in her set as the "Bite at Sight Campaign." Cured of this, she had become a gentle Socialist, and embraced the belief that all property—especially edible property—should be shared. Appetites, she argued, were meant to be appeased, and the preservation of game—or anything else—in the larder was an offence against the community. Now, at the age of five or so, she affected cynicism, pretended temporarily that life had left a bitter taste in her mouth, and sighed frequently.
"Kew," said Jay presently, "will you promise not to tell the Family you saw me? I don't want it to know about me. After all, theories are driving me, and theories don't concern that Family of ours. What's the use of a Family? (I'm saying this just to exasperate you.) A Family's just a little knot of not necessarily congenial people, with Fate rubbing their heads together so as to strike sparks of love. Love—what's the use of Love? I'd like to catch that Love and box his ears, making such a fool of the world. What's the use?"
"God knows," said Kew. "Cheer up, my friend, I promise I won't tell the Family I've seen you, or anything about you." At the same moment he remembered the motor tour.
"It's a lovely word faithful, isn't it?" she said, wriggling in her chair. "Yours faithfully is a most beautiful ending to a letter. Why is it that faith with a little F is such a perfect thing, and yet Faith, grown-up Faith in Church, is so tiring?"
"Perhaps one is overworked and the other isn't," suggested Kew.
As he went out into the darkness the noise of London sprang into his ears, and the remote brown room where he had left Jay seemed to become divided from him by great distances. The town was like a garden, and he, an insect, pressed through its undergrowth. The rare lamps and the stars flowered above him.
My yesterday has gone, has gone, and left me tired; And now to-morrow comes and beats upon the door; So I have built to-day, the day that I desired, Lest joy come not again, lest peace return no more, Lest comfort come no more.
So I have built to-day, a proud and perfect day, And I have built the towers of cliffs upon the sands. The foxgloves and the gorse I planted on my way. The thyme, the velvet thyme, grew up beneath my hands, Grew pink beneath my hands.
So I have built to-day, more precious than a dream; And I have painted peace upon the sky above; And I have made immense and misty seas that seem More kind to me than life, more fair to me than love, More beautiful than love.
And I have built a House, a House upon the brink Of high and twisted cliffs,—the sea's low singing fills it. And there my Secret Friend abides, and there I think I'll hide my heart away before to-morrow kills it, A cold to-morrow kills it.
Yes, I have built to-day, a wall against to-morrow, So let to-morrow knock, I shall not be afraid, For none shall give me death, and none shall give me sorrow, And none shall spoil this darling day that I have made. No storm shall stir my sea. No night but mine shall shade This day that I have made.
"We will start on our quest to-morrow," said Anonyma. "To-day I must work."
Nobody in Anonyma's circle was ever allowed to forget that she spent four hours a week in the service of her country. You would never guess how much insight into the souls of the poor, four hours a week can give to a person like Anonyma. She had written two books about the Brown Borough since the outbreak of War. The provincial Press had been much impressed by their vivid picture of slum realities. Anonyma's poor were always yearning, yearning to be understood and loved by a ministering upper class, yearning for light, for art, for self-expression, for novels by high-souled ladies. The atmosphere of Anonyma's fiction was thick with yearning.
Anonyma always came home from her Work with what she called "word-vignettes" in her notebook. She gave her Family the benefit of these during the rest of the week, besides fitting them into her books. So that although Cousin Gustus always conscientiously bought a dozen copies of each novel as it came out, he really wasted his money, for he was obliged to know all his wife's copy by heart before it got into print. By speaking each thought as well as writing it, Anonyma rather unfairly won a reputation twice over with the same material.
Anonyma produced a vignette now, in order to show how necessary it was that she should hurry to her yearning flock.
"I came into the room of one of my sailors' wives last week, and I found her with a baby sobbing on her breast, and an empty hearth at her feet. I thought of the eternal tragedy of womanhood. I said, 'Will my love help, my dear?'"
There was a pause, and Cousin Gustus sighed.
"What did she say?" asked Kew, without expecting an answer from the artist. After all, a word-vignette is not intended to have a sequel. It is supposed to fall complete with a little splash into your silent understanding. I must say Kew was rather tiresome in refusing to be content with the splash.
"So few women really understand how to stop a child crying," said Cousin Gustus, speaking from bitter and universal experience.
"That's the point," said Kew. "The child had probably swallowed a pin."
It generally breaks my heart to hear a story spoilt, but with Anonyma's word-vignettes I did not mind, because they were told as true, and yet they did not ring true. I must tell you that Anonyma had married into a family of accomplished white liars, and to them the ring of truth was as unmistakable as the dinner-bell. Few people could lie successfully to Kew or Jay, they knew that art from the inside. White lies are easily justified, but almost any lie can be whitewashed. Apart from the mutual attitude of Kew and Jay, who possessed something between them that might be called good faith, there was hardly any trust included in that family relationship. Cousin Gustus distrusted youth. He thought young people were always either lying to him or laughing at him, and indeed they often were. Only not so often as he thought. He was no prop on which to repose confidence, and it was very easy both to tell him lies and not to tell him facts.
Mrs. Gustus had no gift of intimacy. She was reserved about everything except herself, or what she believed to be herself. The self that she shared so generously with others was, however, not founded on fact, but modelled on the heroine of all her books. She killed her heroine whenever possible—I think she only once married her,—yet still the creature remained immortal in Mrs. Gustus's public personality. She concealed or transformed everything that did not seem artistic. Her notebook was a tangle of self-deceptions. The rest of the Family knew this. They never pretended to believe her.
Kew and Jay were skilled romancers, fact was clay in their hands. Nobody had ever taught them such a dull lesson as exact truthfulness. If they built the bare bones of their structures fairly accurately, they placed the whole in an artificial light, altering in some effective way the spirit of the facts. Education had impressed the importance of technical truthfulness on Kew. But he was a quick talker, and in order to keep him in line with his tongue, nature had made him quick of wit, quick in argument, and unconsciously quick in making and seeing loopholes for escape.
He was at present perfectly comfortable in his anomalous position regarding a search round the sea-coast for a Jay he knew to be in the Brown Borough.
"If I am going to work, I must go," said Anonyma. "Russ and I will go together as far as the Underground."
She looked at herself in the glass. The scarlet bird in her hat had an arresting expression. As she was putting on her gloves she said, "I'm sorry, Kew, about your disappointment, not finding Nana at home last night. But I told you so."
She had no fear of this much-shunned phrase.
"Never mind," said Kew mildly. "We'll put Christina on the track to-morrow."
Mr. Russell said a polite Good-bye to his Hound, and accompanied his friend Anonyma to the Underground. That was a fateful little journey for him.
As he turned from Anonyma's side at the bookstall, he noticed a 'bus positively beckoning to him. It had a lady conductor, and she was poised expectantly, one hand on the bell and the other beckoning to Mr. Russell. His nature was docile, and the 'bus was bound for Chancery Lane, his destination. He mounted the 'bus.
I need hardly tell you that a 'bus that makes deliberate advances to the public is the rarest sight in London. The self-respecting 'bus looks upon the public as dust beneath its tyres. Even a Brigadier-General with red tabs, on his way to Whitehall, looks pathetically humble waggling his cane at a 'bus. All 'bus-drivers have a kingly look; it comes from their proud position. The rest of the world is only worthy to communicate with that noble race by means of nods and becks and wreathed smiles.
"Chancery Lane, please," said Mr. Russell. "But why did you stop specially for me?"
"I thought your wife hailed me, sir," lied the 'bus-conductor.
Any allusion to his wife mildly annoyed Mr. Russell. "Not my wife," he said. "Merely a friend."
"Oh, I beg your pardon, sir," said the 'bus-conductor, and underlined the "beg" with the ting of her ticket-puncher. She was rather a darling 'bus-conductor, because she was also Jay. She had a short, though not a fat face, soft eyes, and very soft hair cut short to just below the lobes of her ears.
A gentleman with dingy but elaborate boot-uppers hailed and mounted the 'bus. "Shufftesbury Uvvenue?" he asked. He said it that way, of course, because he was a Shakespearian actor. The 'bus-conductor gave him his ticket, and then took her stand upon her platform, more or less unaware that Mr. Russell and the actor, both next to the door and opposite to each other, were looking at her with a pleased look.
Mr. Russell thought for some time, and then he said, "'T's a b'tiful day."
"That's what it is," replied the 'bus-conductor. "I wonder if it's wrong to enjoy being a 'bus-conductor?"
"I shouldn't think so," said Mr. Russell cautiously. "Why?"
The 'bus-conductor waved her hand towards a State hint that shouted in letters six foot high from an opposite wall: "DON'T USE A MOTOR CAR FOR PLEASURE." Mr. Russell read it very carefully and said nothing.
"This is a motor car," observed the 'bus-conductor, glancing at her inaccessible chauffeur. "And as for pleasure ..."
The high houses rose out of the earth like Alps, and the roar in the morning was like large music. She knew she had been an Olympian in a recent life, because she found herself familiar with greater and more gorgeous speed than any 'bus attains, and with the divine discords that high mountains and high cities sing.
"I hope it's not wrong, because I'm going on a motor tour to-morrow," said Mr. Russell. "On business of a sort, and yet also on pleasure. On a search, as a matter of fact."
"Oh, any search is pleasure," said the bus-conductor. "Especially if it's an abstract search."
"'Tisn't," said Mr. Russell. "'T's a search for a person."
The 'bus-conductor looked at the sky. "And are Anonyma and Kew going too?" she thought. You must bear in mind that she had deliberately plucked him from the side of Anonyma.
"Perhaps any pleasure is wrong in these days," she said.
"Come, come," said the actor. "Whut's wrung with these days? A German ship sunk yesterday. Thut's pleasurable enough."
The 'bus-conductor turned a cold eye upon him.
"I can cheer, but not laugh over such news as that," she said pompously. "Doesn't even a German find the sea bitter to drown in? An English woman or a German butcher, isn't it all the same when it comes to a Me, with a throat full of water? Hasn't a German got a Me?"
The actor looked at his boot-uppers. Mr. Russell thought. Shufftesbury Uvvenue arrived soon, and the actor alighted with some relief.
When the 'bus started again, the bus-conductor said, "Don't you think the only way you can get pleasure out of it all is by treating life as a bead upon a string?"
"That's a sufficient way, surely," said Mr. Russell. "If you can truly reach it."
In the Strand he asked, "May I come in this 'bus again?"
"This is a public 'bus," observed the 'bus-conductor.
"This is Monday," said Mr. Russell. "May I gather that during this week your 'bus will be passing Kensington Church at half-past eleven every morning?"
The 'bus-conductor did not answer. She went to the top of the 'bus to say, "Fezz plizz."
Mr. Russell thought so furiously that he was only roused by the sound of St. Paul's striking apparently several dozen in his immediate vicinity.
"This is Ludgate Hill. I only paid you as far as Chancery Lane. I owe you another halfpenny," said Mr. Russell.
"A penny," said the 'bus-conductor.
As he disappeared she thought, "There is something remarkable about that man. I wish I hadn't been so prosy. I wonder where and why Anonyma picked him up."
When Mr. Russell came home that evening, he said, "I met—"
"Isn't it wonderful—the people and the things one meets?" said Mrs. Gustus. "I met to-day a child with nothing but one garment on, rolling like a sparrow in the dust. The one garment, I thought, was the only drawback in the scene. Why can't we get back to simplicity?"
Mr. Russell, on second thoughts, was glad he had been interrupted. He did not feel discouraged, only he decided not to try again. His Hound jumped on to his knee and put a paw into his hand.
"I also persuaded a woman to give up drink," continued Mrs. Gustus. "I put it to her on the ground of simplicity. She was in bed, having been drunk the night before, and I sat on her bed with my hand on hers. I said, 'Dear fellow-woman, there are no essentials in life but bread and water and love. Everything else is a sort of skin-disease which has appeared on the surface of Nature, a disease which we call civilization.' She cried bitterly, and I gathered that she was lacking in all three essentials. I went and bought her four loaves of bread, on condition she would promise never to touch intoxicants again. I said I would not go away until she promised. She promised. I left her still crying."
Cousin Gustus sighed. He never went about himself, and only saw the world through his wife's eyes. This did not tend to cure his pessimism.
"It is wonderful how one can reach the bed-rock of life in two hours among the poor and simple," said Mrs. Gustus. "By the way, I only put in two hours to-day, because I think I can do better work in two hours twice a week than in four hours once. So I shall come up for the afternoon one day this week from wherever we are by then, and leave you three men prostrate on some shore, with your ears to Nature, like a child's ear to a shell."
She groped for her notebook.
"I must come up now and then too," said Mr. Russell, and poked his Hound secretly in the ribs.
* * * * *
I can't tell you what countless miles away his 'bus-conductor was by now. A certain fraction of her, to be sure, was sitting in the dark room at Number Eighteen Mabel Place, Brown Borough, with fierce hands pinching the table-cloth, and a hot forehead on the table. All day long the thirst for a secret journey had been in her throat. All day long the elaborate tangle of London had made difficult her way, but she had kicked aside the snare now, and her free feet were on the step of the House by the Sea.
No voices met her at the door, the hall was empty. The firelight pencilled in gold the edges of the wooden figure that presided over the stairs. I think I told you about that figure. I never knew whose it was—a saint's I think, but her virtuous expression was marred by her broken nose, and the finger with which she had once pointed to Heaven was also broken. Her figure was rather stiff, and so were her draperies, which fell in straight folds to her blocklike feet. Her right hand was raised high, and her left was held alertly away from her side and had unseparated fingers. She had seen a great procession of generations pass her pedestal, but she never saw Jay. Of course not, for Jay was not there. Only a column of thin watching air haunted the House.
There are many ghosts that haunt the House by the Sea. Jay is, of course, one of them, and for this reason she knows more about ghosts than any one I know. Fragments of untold stories are familiar to her. She knows how you may hear in the dark a movement by your bed, and fling out your hand and feel it grasped, and then feel the grasp slide up from your hand to your shoulder, from your shoulder to your throat, from your throat to your heart. She knows how you may go between trees in the moonlight to meet your friend, and find suddenly that some one is keeping pace with you, and how you, mistaking this companion for your friend, may say some silly greeting that only your friend understands. And how your heart drops as you hear the first breath of the reply. She knows how, walking in the mid-day streets of London, you may cross the path of some Great One who had a prior right by many thousand years to walk beside the Thames. These are the ghost stories that never get told. Few people can read them between the lines of press accounts of inquests, or in the dignified announcements of the failure of hearts, on the front page of the Morning Post. But Jay knows, because of her intimacy with the House by the Sea. There she meets her fellow-ghosts.
The House, as I told you, has hardly any garden; having the sea, it doesn't need one. But there is a little formal place about twenty paces across, set, as it were, in the heart of the House. A small prim square, bounded on the north, south and east by the House itself, and on the west by the cliff and the sea. There is a stone balustrade to divide the garden from space. In the middle of the square is a stone basin with becalmed water-lilies and of course goldfish. Round the basin the orderly ranks of little clipped box hedges manoeuvre. The untamed elements in the garden are the climbing things, they sing in gold and yellow and orange and red from the walls. The only official way into the garden is a door from the House, a bald door without eyebrows, so to speak, like all the doors and windows in the House. But there is an unofficial way into the garden, and Jay found her Secret Friend there. This is the short cut to the sea. In other words, it is a wriggly ladder, one end of which you attach to a hook in the wall, and the other you throw over the balustrade down the cliff to the sea. It is a long way to walk round the House and along the cliff and down to the sea by the path. And just as the house-agents always want to be one minute and a half from the church and the post-office, so we in the Secret House cannot afford to be more than a minute and a half from the sea.
The Secret Friend was there, and he was gazing so earnestly down the cliff that his hair was hanging forward most unbeautifully, and he was rather red in the face. He was looking at a little boat which was on its way towards the foot of the wriggly ladder. A schooner with the low sun climbing down her rigging breathed on the breathing sea not far away. The tide was high.
The oars of the little boat suddenly wavered and were paralysed. One of the rowers made a quick movement with his hand.
"It's the Law," said the Secret Friend, and he tried spasmodically to extinguish the sun with his hand. "It's the Law. The man with the tall and dewy brow."
The Law, in a fat officious-looking boat, came sneaking round the near point of the cliff. The air was so still, and the sea so calm, that you could hear the sides of the boat grate against the cliff. And the air was so clear that you could see the tall and dewy brow of the Law, as he stood up and discovered the wriggly ladder.
"To have a face like that," said the Secret Friend, "is to challenge fate. It makes me sick."
"What is this?" asked the Law, although there seemed little doubt that the thing was a wriggly ladder. No one answered; so the Law rowed to the foot of the thing in question. The Secret Friend jerked it up about six feet, and secured it so.
The Law cleared its throat, and looked nervously at the schooner, and at the sun, and at the other boat, and at the Secret Friend. The Law likes to be argued with. Take away words and where is the Law? Silence always annoys it.
Yet there was no silence in the Secret World. I remember how the roses sang, and how the sea mourned over the confusion of its gentle dreams. The knocking of the slow sea upon the cliff seemed like the ticking of the great clock that is our world. It was a night when every horizon had heaven calling from the other side.
The Story went on....
* * * * *
It was Chloris who brought Jay back to Number Eighteen Mabel Place, Brown Borough. Chloris gave an unromantic snort and sat with unnecessary clumsiness upon Jay's toe. So Jay returned, falling suddenly out of the music of the sea into the band-of-hopeful music of distant Boy Scouts on the march.
Number Eighteen Mabel Place is not, as a rule, a hopeful place to return to. Jay and I know quite well what Satan felt like when he was expelled from Heaven.
So Jay, whose refuge from most ills was talk, went to see a friend. She had many friends in the Brown Borough, and most of them were what Mrs. Gustus would call "undeserving." Mrs. Gustus has a very high mind; she and the C.O.S. are dreadfully grown-up institutions, I think; they forget what it feels like to have a good rampageous kick against the pricks. Nearly everybody in the Brown Borough enjoys a kick once a week (on pay-day)—and some of us go on kicking all our lives. At any rate, the Brown Borough is peopled with babies young and old, and high minds and grown-up institutions are apt to look over heads. Jay had a low mind and walked about on the Brown Borough level.
"I have got neuralgia," said Jay to Chloris, "my hat feels too tight. My head feels like tete de veau farcie. I shall go and talk to Mrs. 'Ero Edwards."
And so she did, and found that Mrs. 'Ero Edwards had been wanting to see her to tell her that the war would be over in June, and that the Edwards's nephew knew on the best authority that the Kaser couldn't get no kipper to his breakfast any more because Preserdink Wilson was a-holding of them up upon the high seas, and that Jimmy Wragge was "wanted" for "helping himself," and that young Dusty Morgan, the lodger, had gone for a soldier, and his wife had taken his job as driver of a van.
"There's only two jobs now," said Mrs. 'Ero Edwards, "wot you never see a woman doin', and one's a burglar, an' the other's a scarecrow."
Jay said, "The lady burglars would be so clever they'd never get into the papers, and the lady scarecrows would be so attractive that they'd fascinate the birds."
And then Mrs. 'Ero Edwards considered what she would say to an 'Un if she had him here, and Jay was called upon to provide 'Unnish replies in the 'Unnish lingo. Her German was so patriotically rusty that she could think of no better retorts than "Nicht hinauslehnen," or "Bitte nicht zu rauchen," or "Heisses Wasser, bitte," or "Wacht am Rhein," or "Streng verboten." Yet the dramatic effect of the interview was very good indeed, and Mrs. 'Ero Edwards's arguments were unanswerable in any tongue.
And then they thought they would make a surprise for young Mrs. Dusty Morgan, the lodger, against she come back from work, because she was that down'earted. So they went and bought some ribbon to tie up the curtains, and some flowers for the table, and put the chairs in happy and new attitudes of expectancy, and cleaned the windows, putting a piece of white paper on the broken pane instead of the rag, which was rather weary of its job. And then Mrs. 'Ero Edwards confided to Jay that young Mrs. Dusty wanted very much to find the picture of a real tip-top soldier, so that she might look at it and remember how this business was going to make a man of young Dusty. And Jay went all the way to the City and could find no picture of a tip-top soldier, and then she came back to the Brown Borough, and because of the intervention of Providence, found Albrecht Duerer's "St. George" second-hand in a Jew-shop. And they hung it up over the mantelpiece, and decided that it was rather like Dusty, if it wasn't for the uniform. And the general effect was so superb that Jay nearly spoilt it all by jumping a hole in the floor, so as to jog Time's elbow and bring Mrs. Dusty home quickly to see it all. It was a very delicate floor. Jay always jumped when she was impatient. She did everything with double fervour, and where you or I would have stamped one foot, she stamped two at once.
Mrs. Dusty Morgan came back a little bit drunk. When she saw the Saint over the mantelpiece she cried, and blasted the war that made it necessary to wear them ... respirators all over (the Saint is in armour),—and when she saw the flowers, she laughed, and said it seemed like Nothing-on-Earth to have Dusty away.
Oh, bend your eyes, nor send your glance about. Oh, watch your feet, nor stray beyond the kerb. Oh, bind your heart lest it find secrets out. For thus no punishment Of magic shall disturb Your very great content.
Oh, shut your lips to words that are forbidden. Oh, throw away your sword, nor think to fight. Seek not the best, the best is better hidden. Thus need you have no fear, No terrible delight Shall cross your path, my dear.
Call no man foe, but never love a stranger. Build up no plan, nor any star pursue. Go forth with crowds; in loneliness is danger. Thus nothing Fate can send, And nothing Fate can do Shall pierce your peace, my friend.
Christina the motor car started next morning. She set her tyres on the road to the Secret World. For all the clues that Jay provided pointed to that region.
"Here is another letter from Jay," said Mrs. Gustus as they started, bristling with clues. Odd, under the circumstances, that she writes to me so often and so freely. I will read you some of it, but not all, until I have thought my suspicions over. She writes:
"... A collision with the Law to-night, under a great sunset. It would have been rather silly by common daylight, but under a yellow sky with stars in it, I think nothing can live but romance. The tide was coming up, and the Law—a man with a tall and dewy brow—rowed up to the foot of our little ladder that leads to the sea.... You know those round stone balls that sit on the balustrades of formal gardens such as this ... we only meant to frighten the Law, a splash was all that we intended, but the sun was in my Friend's eyes as he dropped the ball. It struck the bow of the boat, which went under like a frightened porpoise. There were two men in it, besides the Law itself, and they all came up spitting and spouting, and stood up to their necks in water. Oaths bubbled up to us. The boat came up badly perforated, and I expect we shall get into trouble. It was funny, but the War has rather pacified us peace-time belligerents, and made people like me unused to collisions with authority. I felt very nervous, but it was all right because ..."
"I will read you no more, but in that much there should be several clues. We must keep the western sun in our eyes to begin with."
"We must look out for a householder of irregular—not to say murderous—habits," said Cousin Gustus. "Juggling with stone balls is a trick that is frequently fatal. Nobody but Jay would encourage it."
"We must comb out all western seaside resorts for local police with tall and dewy brows," said Kew.
But Mr. Russell, who preferred not to speak and drive Christina at the same time, drew up to the kerb, and removed his gloves, preparatory to saying something of importance.
Mr. Russell was at his best in a car, or, to put it another way, he was at his worst everywhere else. When he and Christina went out together they were only one entity. They were a centaur on wheels; Mr. Russell could feel the rushing of the road beneath his tyres, and I think if you had stuck a pin into the back seat, Mr. Russell would have known it. You could feel now the puzzled growl of Christina's engines as Mr. Russell pondered.
"But I remember ..." said Mr. Russell. "Now, did I see it in the paper...? I remember.... Half a minute, it is coming back."
"Here's to-day's paper," said Kew, who was getting a little confused. You will feel the same when you set out to follow the western sun in search of something you know you have left behind you.
Mr. Russell and Christina lingered beside the kerb for quite a minute, and then shrugged their shoulders and started again.
So the Family set their faces towards the Secret World, with Mr. Russell as their guide, and the morning sun behind them.
London is a friend whom I can leave knowing without doubt that she will be the same to me when I return, to-morrow or forty years hence, and that, if I do not return, she will sing the same song to inheritors of my happy lot in future generations. Always, whether sleeping or waking, I shall know that in Spring the sun rides over the silver streets of Kensington, and that in the Gardens the shorn sheep find very green pasture. Always the plaited threads of traffic will wind about the reel of London; always as you go up Regent Street from Pall Mall and look back, Westminster will rise with you like a dim sun over the horizon of Whitehall. That dive down Fleet Street and up to the black and white cliffs of St. Paul's will for ever bring to mind some rumour of romance. There is always a romance that we leave behind in London, and always London enlocks that flower for us, and keeps it fresh, so that when we come back we have our romance again.
Mr. Russell was a lover of London, and that is why he liked his new-found 'bus-conductor. He was an uncalculating sort of man, and he only thought that he had found a flower in London, a very London flower, and he hoped that London would show it to him again. He had no instinct either for the past or the future. He never looked back over the road he had trod, unless he was obliged to, and he never tried to look forward to the end of the road he was treading.
Mrs. Gustus, with an iron expression about her chin, kept time to the beat of Christina's engine with the throbbing of disagreeable thoughts. There was one thing very plain to her in the matter of Jay—that Jay was living a life that in a novel is called free, but in a Family—well—you know what ... Mrs. Gustus knew all about these Friends with capital F's, Friends with hair flopping over their foreheads, Friends who might drop stone balls on the Law and still retain their capital F's. She had, in fact, written about them with much daring and freedom. But one's young relations may never share the privileges of one's heroines. Sympathy with such goings on must be confined to the printed page.
"I will keep these things from the others," thought Mrs. Gustus. "They have no suspicions, and if we can find Jay I may be able to save her reputation yet."
Really she was thinking as much of her own good name as of Jay's. For there was a most irritating similarity between Jay's present apparent practices and Mrs. Gustus's own much-expressed theories. The beauty of a free life of simplicity had filled pages of Anonyma's notebooks, and also, to the annoyance of Cousin Gustus, had overflowed into her conversation. Cousin Gustus's memory had been constantly busy extracting from the past moral tales concerning the disasters attendant on excessive simplicity in human relationships. For a time it had seemed as if Cousin Gustus's lot had been cast entirely with the matrimonially unorthodox. And now Mrs. Gustus, for one impatient minute, wished that the children would pay more attention to their elderly and experienced guardian. It was too much to ask her—a professional theory-maker—to adapt her theories to the young and literal. That was the worst of Jay, she was so literal, so unimaginative, so lacking in the simple unpractical quality of poetry. However, not a word to the others. Jay's reputation and Anonyma's dignity might yet be saved.
"I don't know where we are going," said Anonyma presently. "I have no bump of locality."
She always spoke proudly of her failings, as though there were a rapt press interviewer at her elbow, anxious to make a word-vignette about her.
Mr. Russell was thinking, and Kew was singing, so between them they forgot to shape the course of Christina due west. When they got outside London, they found themselves going south.
To go out of London was like going out of doors. The beauty of London is a dim beauty, and while you are in the middle of it you forget what it is like to see things clearly. In London every hour is a hill of adventure, and in the country every hour is a dimple in a quiet expanse of time.
The Family went out over the hills of Surrey, and between roadside trees they saw the crowned heads of the seaward downs. The horizon sank lower around them, the fields and woods circled and squared the ribs of the land.
Before sunset they had reached the little town that guards the gate in the wall of the Sussex downs. They were welcomed by a thunderstorm, and by passionate rain that drove them to the inn. Christina, torn between her pride of soul and her pride of paint, was obliged to edge herself into a shed which was already occupied by two cows and a red and blue waggon.
When the pursuers of Jay set their feet on the uneven floor of the inn, they recognised the place immediately as ideal. Its windows squinted, its floor made you feel as though you were drunk, its banisters reeled, its flights of stairs looked frequently round in an angular way at their own beginnings.
"How Arcadian!" said Mrs. Gustus, as she splashed her signature into the visitor's book. "One could be content to vegetate for ever here. Isn't it pathetic how one spends one's life collecting heart's desires, until one suddenly discovers that in having nothing and in desiring nothing lies happiness."
But when they had been shown their sitting-room, and had ordered their supper—lamb and early peas and gooseberry tart with tons of cream—Mrs. Gustus saw the Ring, that great green breast of the country, against the broken evening sky, and said, "Now I see heights, and I shall never be happy or hungry till I have climbed them. The Lord made me so that I am never content until I am as near the sky as possible. Silly, no doubt. But what a sky! Blood-red and pale pink, what a unique chord of colour."
"Same chord as the livery of the Bank or England," said Kew, who was hungry, and had an aching shoulder. He hated beauty talked, just as he hated poetry forced into print apropos of nothing. Even to hear the Psalms read aloud used to make him blush, before his honest orthodoxy hardened him.
Mrs. Gustus asked the lamb and gooseberry tart to delay their coming; she placed Cousin Gustus in an arm-chair, first wrapping him up because he felt cold, and then unwrapping him again because he felt hot; she kissed him good-bye.
"We shan't be more than an hour," she said. When Mrs. Gustus said an hour, she meant two. If she had meant an hour, she would have said twenty minutes. "You must watch for us to appear on the highest point of the Ring."
"Don't watch, but pray," murmured Kew. "There's that thunderstorm just working up to another display."
And so it was, but when they reached the ridge of down that led to the Ring, they were glad they had come. They were half-drowned, and half-blinded, and half-deafened, but there is a reward to every effort. There was an enormous sky, and the sunlight spilled between the clouds to fall in pools upon the world. There was a chord made by many larks in the sky; the valleys held joy as a cup holds water. From the down the chalk-pits took great bites; the crinolined trees curtseyed down the slopes. The happy-coloured sea cut the world in half; the sight of a distant town at the corner of the river and the coast made one laugh for pleasure. There was a boat with sunlit sails creeping across the sea. I never see a boat on an utterly lonely sea without thinking of the secret stories that it carries, of the sun moving round that private world, of the shadows upon the deck that I cannot see, of the song of passing seas that I cannot hear, of the night coming across a great horizon to devour it when I shall have forgotten it. Further off and more suggestive than a star, it seems to me.
A gust of sunlight struck the watchers, and passed: they each ran a few steps towards the sight that pleased them most. And then they stood so long that Mr. Russell's Hound had time to make himself acquainted with every smell within twenty yards. He turned over a snail that sat—round and striped like a peppermint bull's-eye—on the short grass, he patted a little beetle that pushed its way across a world of disproportionate size, and then, by peevishly pulling the end of his whip which hung from Mr. Russell's pensive hand, he suggested that the pursuit should continue. So they walked to the crest of wood that stands at the top of the Ring, a compressed tabloid forest, fifty yards from side to side, as round as a florin piece.
The slopes rushed away from every side of it. There was a dark secret beneath those trees, there was a hint of very ancient love and still more ancient hatred. You could feel things beyond understanding, you left fact outside under the sky, and went in with a naked soul.
They walked across it in silence, well apart from each other. When they came out the other side, Mrs. Gustus said, "We must stay for a little while within reach of this. It has something ..."
Mr. Russell swallowed something that he had thought of saying, and instead drew his Hound's attention to a yellow square of mustard-field which made brilliant the distance.
Kew said nothing, but he felt choked with a lost remembrance of a very old childhood. He seemed to taste the quiet taste of youth here, there was even a feeling of going home through a damp evening to a nursery tea. It was the nursery of all Secret Worlds. Gods had been born there. No surprise could live there now, no wonder, no protest. The years like minutes fled between those trees, dynasties might fall during the singing of a bird. I think the thing that haunted the wood was a thing exactly as old and as romantic as the first child that tracked its Secret Friend across the floor of a forest.
Oh, friend of childlike mind, what is it that these two years have taken from us, what is it that we have lost, oh friend, besides contentment?
All the way home Kew sang very loudly the first tune he ever knew.
When the Family (including Mr. Russell) got back to the inn, the lamb and the gooseberry tart and Cousin Gustus were all waiting for them. But they were delayed in the hall. A stout young woman with a pleasant face of small vocabulary turned from the visitors' book and stopped Mrs. Gustus.
"Are you THE Mrs. Augustus Martin?" she asked.
"I am she," replied Anonyma. Her grammar in moments of emergency always impressed Kew.
I cannot say that Mrs. Gustus seemed surprised. She was the sort of person to hide even from herself the fact that this thing had never happened before. She remained perfectly calm as if repeating a hackneyed experience. Kew was astonished. Mr. Russell shared this feeling. Having a certain personal admiration for Mrs. Gustus, he had tried on more than one occasion to find pleasure in her books, but without success.
The stout young lady said nothing more than "Oh" for the moment, but she breathed it in such a manner that Mrs. Gustus saw at once the duty of asking her to dine with the Family.
When the admirer was introduced to Cousin Gustus, she said, "Oh, so this is your husband ..." and gazed on that melancholy man with eagerness. When she saw Mr. Russell's Hound she said, "And this is your dog," and was about to crown him with a corresponding halo when Mrs. Gustus disclaimed the connection.
"It is wonderful to meet you, of all people, in this romantic place," said the admirer as she pursued her peas. "Do you know, whenever I finish one of your books, I feel so romantic I want to kiss everybody I meet. Oh, those courtly heroes of yours!"
A heavy silence fell for a moment.
"And your descriptions of nature," continued the admirer. "That sunset seen from the west coast of Ireland that you describe in The Courtship of Hartley Casey. You must know Ireland very well."
"I have never been there," said Mrs. Gustus. "I evolve my scenery. After all, Nature lives in the heart of each one of us. I think we all have a sort of Secret World of our own, out of which all that is best in us comes. One does not need to see with one's outward eyes."
"Oh, goodness me, how true that is," said the admirer. "But you must write a book about the downs, won't you? Do you take notes on your travels?"
"My notebook is never out of my hand," answered Mrs. Gustus. "I jot down whatever occurs to me, wherever I may be. I write by moonlight in the night, I have had to pause in the middle of my prayers in Church, I have stood transfixed in the full flow of a London street. I always hope that people will think I am suddenly remembering that I forgot to order to-morrow's dinner."
But really she knew that no one could ever be deceived in the purpose of the notebook.
"Oh, mustn't it be wonderful!" breathed the admirer, and Cousin Gustus, who was always properly impressed by his wife when the example was set by strangers, nodded with a proprietary smile. "And are you writing now?" she continued.
"I am always writing," said Mrs. Gustus, who had seldom enjoyed herself so much, "my pen never rests. A lifetime is too short to allow of rest. But I am not here primarily for inspiration. We are on a quest."
"Oh, how romantic," moaned the admirer.
"It is a quest with a certain amount of romance in it," agreed Anonyma. "We are seeking a House By The Sea. We know very little about it except that it exists. We know that its windows look west, and that the sun sets over the sea. We know that it stands ungardened on the cliff and has a great view. We know that it is seven hundred years old, and full of inspiration ..."
"We know," continued Kew, "that you can—and often do—drop a fishing-line out of the window into the sea when you are tired of playing the goldfish in the water-butt. We know that the owner of the house is a rotten shot, and that the stone balls from the balustrade are not at this moment where they ought to be. We know that aeroplanes as well as seagulls nest in those cliffs...."
"We know—" began Mr. Russell, but this was too much for Mrs. Gustus. After all, the lady was her admirer.
"What's all this?" said Mrs. Gustus. "What do you people know about it?"
"I just thought I would talk a little now," said Kew. "I get quickly tired of hearing other people giving information without help from me."
"At any rate, Russ," continued Mrs. Gustus, "you can't know anything whatever about the matter. You have hardly listened when I read Jay's letters."
"I told you that I remembered," said Mr. Russell. "I don't know how. I remember sitting on a high cliff and seeing three black birds swim in a row, and dive in a row, and in a row come up again after I had counted hundreds."
"Nonsense," said Mrs. Gustus, trying not to appear cross before the visitor, "you're thinking of something else. You can see such a sight as that at the Zoo any day."
"You all seem to know quite a lot about the place," said the admirer, "yet not much of a very practical nature, if I may say so."
"Everything practical is unromantic," said Mrs. Gustus. "There is nothing true or beautiful in the world but poetry. If we seek in real simplicity of mind, we shall find what we seek, for simplicity is poetry, and poetry is truth."
"Also, of course, England has only one west coast," added Kew, "and if we don't find the place we shall have found a good many other things by the time we have finished."
"It may be in Ireland," suggested the admirer.
"No, because she answers our letters so quickly."
"My young cousin, the object of our search."
"Did she run away?" asked the admirer, in a voice strangled with excitement.
To admit that a young relation of Anonyma's should run away from her would be undignified.
"You mustn't take us too seriously," said Mrs. Gustus lightly. "It isn't a case of an elopement, or anything like that. Just an excuse for a tour, and a rest from wearisome war work. A wild-goose chase, nothing but fun in it."
"Wild goose is a good description of Jay," said Cousin Gustus. It was rather.
Next morning the admirer, twittering with excitement, came in upon the Family while it was having its breakfast.
"Oh, I had such an idea in the night," she said. "I couldn't sleep, of course, after such an exciting day. I believe I have been fated to help you in your quest. I know of a house near here, and the more I think of it the more sure I feel that it is the place you want."
"Who lives there?"
"A young man with his mother. I forget the name."
"Place we want's west," objected Mr. Russell.
"You never can tell," said Anonyma. "This place may stand on a salient, facing west. Our search must be thorough."
"It's such a lovely walk," said the admirer. "I should be so much honoured if you would let me show you the way. Oh, I say, do you think me very presumptuous?"
Her self-consciousness took the form of a constant repentance. In the night she would go over her day and probe it for tender points. "Oh, that was a dreadful thing to say," was a refrain that would keep her awake for hours, wriggling and giggling in her bed over the dreadfulness of it. She had too little egoism. The lack gave her face a look of littleness. A lack of altruism has the same outward effect. A complete face should be full of something, of gentleness, of vigour, of humour, of wickedness. The admirer's face was only half full of anything. All the same there was charm about her, the fact that she was an admirer was charming. Mrs. Gustus reassured her.
"We shall be most grateful for a guide."
"We should be even more grateful for an excuse to call on this inoffensive young man and his mother at eleven o'clock in the morning," objected Kew.
"He ought to be at the Front," was the excuse provided by Cousin Gustus.
"So ought I," sighed Kew.
"Oh, but you're a wounded, aren't you?" asked the admirer. There were signs of a possible transfer of admiration, and Mrs. Gustus interposed with presence of mind.
"We'll start," she said. "Don't let's be hampered in the beginning of our quest by social littleness."
She was conscious that she looked handsome enough for any breach of convention. She wore an unusual shaped dress the colour of vanilla ice. Instead of doing her hair as usual in one severe penny bun at the back, she had constructed a halfpenny bun, so to speak, over each ear. This is a very literary way of doing the hair, and the remembrance of the admirer, haunting Anonyma's waking thoughts, had inspired the change.
Their way lay through the beechwood that embroiders the hem of the down's cloak. There are only two colours in a beechwood after rain, lilac and green. A bank of violets is not more pure in colour than a beech trunk shining in the sun. The two colours answered one another, fainter and fainter, away and away, to the end of one's sight, and there were two cuckoos, hidden in the dream, mocking each other in velvet voices. The view between the trees was made up of horizons that tilted one's chin. The bracken, very young, on an opposite slope, was like a cloud of green wings alighting. But the look of their destination disappointed them.
"This house faces south," said Kew.
"I feel sure—" began Mr. Russell, but Mrs. Gustus said:
"As we are here, we might ask. To be sure, the cliff is rather tame."
"But there is an aeroplane," persisted the admirer.
"Now pause, Anonyma," Kew warned her. "Pause and consider what you are going to say."
"Consideration only unearths difficulties," laughed Anonyma. "Best go forward in faith and fearlessness."
She was under the impression that she constantly laughed in a nicely naughty way at Kew's excessive conventionality.
As they drew nearer to the cliff, it grew tamer and tamer. The house, too, became dangerously like a villa; a super-villa, to be sure, and not in its first offensive youth, but still closely connected with the villa tribe. Its complexion was a bilious yellow, and it had red-rimmed windows. It was close to the sea, however, and its windows, with their blinds drawn down against the sun, looked like eyes downcast towards the beach.