RICHARD LE GALLIENNE
IN MEMORY OF ANGEL
Let thy soul strive that still the same Be early friendship's sacred flame; The affinities have strongest part In youth, and draw men heart to heart: As life wears on and finds no rest, The individual in each breast Is tyrannous to sunder them.
Chapter I. HARD YOUNG HEARTS. II. CONCERNING THOSE "ATLANTIC LINERS" AND AN OLD DESK. III. OF THE LOVE OF HENRY AND ESTHER. IV. OF THE PROFESSIONS THAT CHOOSE, AND MIKE LAFLIN. V. OF THE LOVE OF ESTHER AND MIKE, AND THE MESURIER LAW IN REGARD TO "SWEETHEARTS". VI. THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF HOME. VII. A LINK WITH CIVILISATION. VIII. A RHAPSODY OF TYRE. IX. A PENITENTIARY OF THE MATHEMATICS. X. THE GRASS BETWEEN THE FLAG-STONES. XI. HUMANITY IN HIGH PLACES. XII. DAMON AND PYTHIAS. XIII. DAMON AND PYTHIAS AT THE THEATRE. XIV. CONTRIBUTIONS TOWARDS A GENEALOGY. XV. MERELY A HUMBLE INTERRUPTION AND ILLUSTRATION OF THE LAST. XVI. CHAPTER FOURTEEN CONCLUDED. XVII. DOT'S DECISION. XVIII. MIKE AND HIS MILLION POUNDS. XIX. ON CERTAIN ADVANTAGES OF A BACKWATER. XX. THE MAN IN POSSESSION. XXI. LITTLE MISS FLOWER. XXII. MIKE'S FIRST LAURELS. XXIII. THE MOTHER OF AN ANGEL. XXIV. AN ANCIENT THEORY OF HEAVEN. XXV. THE LAST CONTINUED, AFTER A BRIEF INTERVAL. XXVI. CONCERNING THE BEST KIND OF WIFE FOR A POET. XXVII. THE BOOK OF ANGELICA. XXVIII. WHAT COMES OF PUBLISHING A BOOK. XXIX. MIKE'S TURN TO MOVE. XXX. UNCHARTERED FREEDOM. XXXI. A PREPOSTEROUS AUNT. XXXII. THE LITERARY GENTLEMAN IN THE BACK PARLOUR. XXXIII. "THIS IS LONDON, THIS IS LIFE". XXXIV. THE WITS. XXXV. BACK TO REALITY. XXXVI. THE OLD HOME MEANWHILE. XXXVII. STAGE WAITS, MR. LAFLIN. XXXVIII. ESTHER AND HENRY ONCE MORE. XXXIX. MIKE AFAR. XL. A LEGACY MORE PRECIOUS THAN GOLD. XLI. LABORIOUS DAYS. XLII. A HEAVIER FOOTFALL. XLIII. STILL ANOTHER CALLER. XLIV. THE END OF A BEGINNING.
HARD YOUNG HEARTS
Behind the Venetian blinds of a respectable middle-class, fifty-pound-a-year, "semi-detached," "family" house, in a respectable middle-class road of the little north-county town of Sidon, midway between the trees of wealth upon the hill, and the business quarters that ended in squalor on the bank of the broad and busy river,—a house boasting a few shabby trees of its own, in its damp little rockeried slips of front and back gardens,—on a May evening some ten or twelve years ago, a momentous crisis of contrasts had been reached.
The house was still as for a battle. It was holding its breath to hear what was going on in the front parlour, the door of which seemed to wear an expression of being more than usually closed. A mournful half-light fell through a little stained-glass vestibule into a hat-racked hall, on the walls of which hung several pictures of those great steamships known as "Atlantic liners" in big gilt frames—pictures of a significance presently to be noted. A beautiful old eight-day clock ticked solemnly to the flickering of the hall lamp. From below came occasionally a furtive creaking of the kitchen stairs. The two servants were half way up them listening. The stairs a flight above the hall also creaked at intervals. Two young girls, respectively about fourteen and fifteen, were craning necks out of nightdresses over the balusters in a shadowy angle of the staircase. On the floor above them three other little girls of gradually diminishing ages slept, unconscious of the issues being decided between their big brother and their eldest sister on the one side, and their father and mother on the other, in the front parlour below.
That parlour, a room of good size, was unostentatiously furnished with good bourgeois mahogany. A buxom mahogany chiffonier, a large square dining-table, a black marble clock with two dials, one being a barometer, three large oil landscapes of exceedingly umbrageous trees and glassy lakes, inoffensively uninteresting, more Atlantic liners, and a large bookcase, apparently filled with serried lines of bound magazines, and an excellent Brussels carpet of quiet pattern, were mainly responsible for a general effect of middle-class comfort, in which, indeed, if beauty had not been included, it had not been wilfully violated, but merely unthought of. The young people for whom these familiar objects meant a symbolism deep-rooted in their earliest memories could hardly in fairness have declared anything positively painful in that room—except perhaps those Atlantic liners; their charges against furniture, which was unconsciously to them accumulating memories that would some day bring tears of tenderness to their eyes, could only have been negative. Beauty had been left out, but at least ugliness had not been ostentatiously called in. There was no bad taste.
In fact, whatever the individual character of each component object, there was included in the general effect a certain indefinable dignity, which had doubtless nothing to do with the mahogany, but was probably one of those subtle atmospheric impressions which a room takes from the people who habitually live in it. Had you entered that room when it was empty, you would instinctively have felt that it was accustomed to the occupancy of calm and refined people. There was something almost religious in its quiet. Some one often sat there who, whatever his commonplace disguises as a provincial man of business, however inadequate to his powers the work life had given him to do, provincial and humiliating as were the formulae with which narrowing conditions had supplied him for expression of himself, was in his central being an aristocrat,—though that was the very last word James Mesurier would have thought of applying to himself. He was a man of business, serving God and his employers with stern uprightness, and bringing up a large family with something of the Puritan severity which had marked his own early training; and, as in his own case no such allowance had been made, making no allowance in his rigid abstract code for the diverse temperaments of his children,—children in whom certain qualities and needs of his own nature, dormant from his birth, were awakening, supplemented by the fuller-fed intelligence and richer nature of the mother, into expansive and rebellious individualities.
It was now about eleven o'clock, and the house was thus lit and alive half-an-hour beyond the rigorously enforced bed-time. An hour before, James Mesurier had been peacefully engaged on the task which had been nightly with him at this hour for twenty-five years,—the writing of his diary, in a shorthand which he wrote with a neatness, almost a daintiness, that always marked his use of pen and ink, and gave to his merely commercial correspondence and his quite exquisitely kept accounts, a certain touch of the scholar,—again an air of distinction in excess of, and unaccounted for, by the nature of the interests which it dignified.
His somewhat narrow range of reading, had you followed it by his careful markings through those bound volumes of sermons in the bookcase, bore the same evidence of inherited and inadequately occupied refinement. His life from boyhood had been too much of a struggle to leave him much leisure for reading, and such as he had enjoyed had been diverted into evangelical channels by the influence of a certain pious old lady, with whom as a young man he had boarded, and for whose memory all his life he cherished a reverence little short of saint-worship.
The name of Mrs. Quiggins, whose portrait had still a conspicuous niche among the lares of the household,—a little thin silvery old widow-lady, suggesting great sadness, much gentleness, and a little severity,—had thus become for the family of James Mesurier a symbol of sanctity, with which a properly accredited saint of the calendar could certainly not, in that Protestant home, have competed. It was she who had given him that little well-worn Bible which lay on the table with his letters and papers, as he wrote under the lamplight, and than which a world full of sacred relics contains none more sacred. A business-like elastic band encircled its covers, as a precaution against pages becoming loose with much turning; and inside you would have found scarcely a chapter unpencilled,—texts underlined, and sermons of special helpfulness noted by date and preacher on the margin,—the itinerary of a devout human soul on its way through this world to the next.
The Bible and the sermons of a certain famous Nonconformist Divine of the day were James Mesurier's favourite and practically his only reading, at this time; though as a young man he had picked up a fair education for himself, and had taken a certain interest in modern history. For novels he had not merely disapproval, but absolutely no taste. Once in a specially genial mood he had undertaken to try "Ivanhoe," to please his favourite daughter,—this night in revolt against him,—and in half-an-hour he had been surprised with laughter, sound asleep. The sermon that would send him to sleep had never been written, at all events by his favourite theologian, whose sermons he read every Sunday afternoon, and annotated with that same loving appreciation and careful pencil with which a scholar annotates some classic; so true is it that it is we who dignify our occupations, not they us.
Similarly, James Mesurier presided over the destinies of a large commercial undertaking, with the air of one who had been called rather to direct an empire than a business. You would say as he went by, "There goes one accustomed to rule, accustomed to be regarded with great respect;" but that air had been his long before the authority that once more inadequately accounted for it.
Thus this night, as he sat writing, his handsome, rather small, iron-grey head bent over his papers, his face somewhat French in character, his short beard slightly pointed; distinguished, refined, severe; he had the look of a marshal of France engrossed with documents of state.
The mother, who sat in an armchair by the fire, reading, was a woman of about forty-five, with a fine blonde, aquiline face, distinctively English, and radiating intelligence from its large sympathetic lines. She was in some respects so different from her husband as at times to make children precociously wise—but nevertheless, far from knowing everything—wonder why she had ever married their father, for whom, at that time, it would be hypocrisy to describe their attitude as one of love. To them he was not so much a father as the policeman of home,—a personification of stern negative decrees, a systematic thwarter of almost everything they most cared to do. He was a sort of embodied "Thou shalt not," only to be won into acquiescence by one influence,—that of the mother, whose married life, as she looked back on it, seemed to consist of little else than bringing children into the world, with a Christian-like regularity, and interceding with the father for their varying temperaments when there.
Though it might have been regarded as certain beforehand, that seven children would differ each from each other in at least as many ways, it never seems to have occurred to the father that one inflexible system for them all could hardly be wise or comfortable. But, indeed, like so many parents similarly trained and circumstanced, it is questionable whether he ever realised their possession of separate individualities till they were pleaded for by the mother, or made, as on this evening, surprising assertion of themselves.
Though this system of mediation had been responsible for the only disagreements in their married life, there had never been any long or serious difference between husband and wife; for, in spite of natures so different, they loved each other with that love which is given us for the very purpose of such situations, the love that no strain can snap, the love that reconciles all such disparities. Though Mary Mesurier had also been brought up among Nonconformists, and though the conditions of her youth, like her husband's, had been far from adequate to the demands of her nature, yet her religion had been of a gentler character, broadening instead of narrowing in its effects, and had concerned itself less with divinity than humanity. Her home life, if humble, had been genial and rich in love, and there had come into it generous influences from the outer world,—books with more of the human beat in them than is to be found in sermons; and particularly an old travelled grandfather who had been regarded as the rolling stone of his family, but in whom, at all events, failure and travel had developed a great gentleness and understanding of the human creature, which in long walks and talks with his little grand-daughter somehow passed over into her young character, and proved the best legacy he could have left her. Through him too was encouraged a native love of poetry, of which in her childhood her memory acquired a stock which never failed her, and which had often cheered her lonely hours by successive cradles. She had a fine natural gift of recitation, and in evening hours when the home was particularly united in some glow of visitors or birthday celebration, she would be persuaded to recall some of those old songs and simple apologues, with such charm that even her husband, to whom verse was naturally an incomprehensible triviality, was visibly softened, and perhaps, deep in the sadness of his silent nature, moved to a passing realisation of a certain something kind and musical in life which he had strangely missed.
This greater breadth of temperament and training enabled Mary Mesurier to understand and make allowances for the narrower and harder nature of her husband, whom she learnt in time rather to pity for the bleakness of his early days, than to condemn for their effect upon his character. He was strong, good, clever, and handsome, and exceptionally all those four good reasons for loving him; and the intellectual sympathy, the sharing of broader interests, which she sometimes missed in him, she had for some three or four years come to find in her eldest son, who, to his father's bewilderment and disappointment, had reincarnated his own strong will, in connection with literary practices and dreams which threatened to end in his becoming a poet, instead of the business man expected of him, for which development that love of poetry in one parent, and a certain love of books in both, was no doubt to some degree guiltily responsible.
James Mesurier, as we have said, was no judge of poetry; and, had he been so, a reading of his son's early effusions would have made him still more obdurate in the choice for him of a commercial career; but on general principles he was quite sufficiently firm against any but the most non-committing, leisure-hour flirtation with the Muse. The mother, while agreeing with the father's main proposition of the undesirability, nay, impossibility, of literature as a livelihood,—had not the great and successful Sir Walter himself described it as a good walking-stick, but a poor crutch; a stick applied, since its first application as an image, to the shoulders of how many generations of youthful genius,—was naturally more sympathetic towards her son's ambition, and encouraged it to the extent of helping from her housekeeping money the formation of his little library, even occasionally proving successful in winning sums of money from the father for the purchase of some book specially, as the young man would declare, necessary for his development.
As this little library had outgrown the accommodation of the common rooms, a daring scheme had been conceived between mother and son,—no less than that he should have a small room set apart for himself as a study. When first broached to the father, this scheme had met with an absolute denial that seemed to promise no hope of further consideration; but the mother, accepting defeat at the time, had tried again and again, with patient dexterity at favourable moments, till at last one proud day the little room, with its bookshelves, a cast of Dante, and a strange picture or two, was a beautiful, significant fact—all ready for the possible visitation of the Muse.
In such ways had the mother negotiated the needs of all her children; though the youth of the rest—save the eldest girl, whose music lessons had meant a battle, and whose growing attractiveness for the boys of the district, and one in particular, was presently to mean another—made as yet but small demands. In one question, however, periodically fruitful of argument, even the youngest was becoming interested,—the question of the visits to the household of the various friends and playmates of the children. To these, it must be admitted, James Mesurier was apt to be hardly less of a figure of fear than to his own children; for, apart from the fact that such inroads from without were apt to disturb his few quiet evening hours with rollicking and laughter, he, being entirely unsocial in his own nature, had a curious idea that the family should be sufficient to itself, and that the desire for any form of entertainment outside it was a sign of dissatisfaction with God's gifts of a good home, and generally a frivolity to be discouraged.
As a boy he had grown up without companions, and as a man had remained lonely, till he had met in his wife the one comrade of his days. What had been good enough for their father should be good enough for his children, was a formula which he applied all round to their bringing up, curiously forgetful, for a man at heart so just, of the pleasure one would have expected it to be to make sure that the errors of his own training were not repeated in that of his offspring. But, indeed, there was in him constitutionally something of the Puritan suspicion of, and aversion from, pleasure, which it had never occurred to him to consider as the end of, or, indeed, as a considerable element of existence. Life was somehow too serious for play, spiritually as well as materially; and much work and a little rest was the eternal and, on the whole, salutary lot of man.
Such were some of the conditions among which the young Mesuriers found themselves, and of which their impatience had become momentously explosive this February evening.
For some days there had been an energetic simmer of rebellion among the four elder children against a new edict of early rising which was surely somewhat arbitrary. Early rising was one of James Mesurier's articles of faith; and he was always up and dressed by half-past six, though there was no breakfast till eight, and absolutely no necessity for his rising at that hour beyond his own desire. There was still less, indeed none at all, for his children to rise thus early; but nevertheless he had recently decreed that such, for the future, must be the rule. The rule fell heaviest upon the sisters, for the elder brother had always enjoyed a certain immunity from such edicts. His sense of justice, however, kindled none the less at this final piece of tyranny. He blazed and fumed indignantly on behalf of his sisters, in the sanctuary of that little study,—a spot where the despot seldom set foot; and out of this comparatively trivial cause had sprung a mighty resolution, which he and she whom he proudly honoured as "sister and friend" had, after some girding of the loins, repaired to the front parlour this evening to communicate.
They had entered somewhat abruptly, and stood rather dramatically by the table on which the father was writing,—the son with dark set face, in which could be seen both the father and mother, and the daughter, timid and close to him, resolutely keeping back her tears, a slim young copy of the mother.
"Well, my dears?" said the father, looking up with a keen, rather surprised glance, and in a tone which qualified with some severity the "my dears."
The son had had some exceedingly fine beginnings in his head, but they fled ignominiously with the calm that was necessary for their successful delivery, and he blurted at once to the point.
"We have come to say that we are no longer comfortable at home, and have decided to leave it."
"Henry," exclaimed the mother, hastily, "what do you mean, how can you be so ungrateful?"
"Mary, my dear," interrupted the father, "please leave the matter to me." Then turning to the son: "What is this you are saying? I'm afraid I don't understand."
"I mean that Esther and I have decided to leave home and live together; because it is impossible for us to live here any longer in happiness—"
"On what do you propose to live?"
"My salary will be sufficient for the present."
"Sixty pounds a year!"
"And may I ask what is wrong with your home? You have every comfort—far more than your mother or father were accustomed to."
"Yes, indeed!" echoed the mother.
"Yes, we know you are very good and kind, and mean everything for our good; but you don't understand other needs of our natures, and you make no allowance for our individualities—"
"Indeed! Individualities—I should like you to have heard what my father would have said to talk about individualities. A rope's end would have been his answer to that—"
"It would have been a very silly one, and no argument."
"It would have been effective, at all events."
"Not with me—"
"Well, please don't bandy words with me, sir. If you," particularly addressing his son, "wish to go—then go; but remember that once you have left your father's roof, you leave it for ever. As for your sister, she has no power to leave her mother and father without my consent, and that I shall certainly withhold till she is of a proper age to know what is best for herself—"
"She will go then without your consent," defiantly answered the son.
"Oh, Henry, for shame!" exclaimed Mrs. Mesurier.
"Mother dear, I'm sorry,—we don't mean to be disrespectful or undutiful,—but father's petty tyrannies are more than we can bear. He objects to the friends we care for; he denies us the theatre—"
"Most certainly, and shall continue to do so. I have never been inside a theatre in my life; nor, with my consent, shall any child of mine enter one of them."
"You can evidently know little about them then, and you'd be a much finer man if you had," flashed out the son.
"Your sitting in judgment on your father is certainly very pretty, I must say,"—answered the father,—"very pretty; and I can only hope that you will not have cause to regret it some future day. But I cannot allow you to disturb me," for, with something of a pang, Henry noticed signs of agitation amid the severity of his parent, though the matter was too momentous for him to allow the indulgence of pity.
"You have been a source of much anxiety to your mother and me, a child of many prayers;" the father continued. "Whether it is the books you read, or the friends you associate with, that are responsible for your strange and, to my thinking, impious opinions, I do not know; but this I know, that your influence on your sister has not of late been for good, and for her sake, and the sake of your young sisters, it may perhaps be well that your influence in the home be removed—"
"Oh, James," exclaimed the wife.
"Mary, my dear, you must let me finish. If Henry will go, go he shall; but if he still stays, he must learn that I am master in this house, and that while I remain so, not he, but I shall dictate how it is to be carried on."
It was at this point that Esther ventured to lift the girlish tremor of her voice.
"But, father, if you'll forgive my saying so, I think it would be best for another reason for us to go. There are too many of us. We haven't room to grow. We get in each other's way. And then it would ease you; it would be less expense—"
"When I complain of having to support my children, it will be time to speak of that—"
"But you have complained," hotly interrupted the son; "you have reproached us many a time for what we cost you for clothes and food—"
"Yes, when you have shown yourselves ungrateful for them, as you do to-night—"
"Ungrateful! For what should we be grateful? That you do your bare duty of feeding and clothing us, and even for that, expect, in my case at all events, that I shall prove so much business capital invested for the future. Was it we who asked to come into the world? Did you consult us, or did you beget us for anything but your own selfish pleasure, without a thought—"
Henry got no further. His father had grown white, and, with terrible anger pointed to the door.
"Leave the room, sir," he said, "and to-morrow leave my house for ever."
The son was not cowed. He stood with an unflinching defiance before the father, in whom he forgot the father and saw only the tyrant. For a moment it seemed as if some unnatural blow would be struck; but so much of pain was spared the future memory of the scene, and saying only, "It is true for all that," he turned and left the room. The sister followed him in silence, and the door closed.
Mother and father looked at each other. They had brought up children, they had suffered and toiled for them,—that they should talk to them like this! Mrs. Mesurier came over to her husband, and put her arm tenderly on his shoulder.
"Never mind, dear. I'm sure he didn't mean to talk like that. He is a good boy at heart, but you don't understand each other."
"Mary dear, we will talk no more of it to-night," he replied; "I will try and put it from me. You go to bed. I will finish my diary, and be up in a few minutes."
When he was alone, he sat still a little while, with a great lonely pain on his face, and almost visibly upon it too the smart of the wounded pride of his haughty nature. Never in his life had he been spoken to like that,—and by his own son! The pang of it was almost more than he could bear. But presently he had so far mastered himself as to take up his pen and continue his writing. When that was finished, he opened his Bible and read his wonted chapter. It was just the simple twenty-third psalm: "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." It was his favourite psalm, and always had a remarkable tranquillising effect upon him. James Mesurier's faith in God was very great. Then he knelt down and prayed in silence,—prayed with a great love for his disobedient children; and, when he rose from his knees, anger and pain had been washed away from his face, and a serenity that is not of this world was there instead.
CONCERNING THOSE "ATLANTIC LINERS" AND AN OLD DESK
Of all battles in this complicated civil warfare of human life, none is more painful than that being constantly waged from generation to generation between young and old, and none, it would appear, more inevitable, or indeed necessary. "The good gods sigh for the cost and pain," and as, growing older ourselves, we become spectators of such a conflict, with eyes able to see the real goodness and truth of both combatants, how often must we exclaim: "Oh, just for a little touch of sympathetic comprehension on either side!"
And yet, after all, it is from the older generation that we have a right to expect that. If that vaunted "experience" with which they are accustomed to extinguish the voice of the young means anything, it should surely include some knowledge of the needs of expanding youth, and be prepared to meet them, not in a spirit of despotic denial, but in that of thoughtful provision. The young cannot afford to be generous, even if they possess the necessary insight. It would mean their losing their battle,—a battle very necessary for them to win.
Sometimes it would seem that a very little kindly explanation on the part of the elder would set the younger at a point of view where greater sympathy would be possible. The great demand of the young is for some form of poetry in their lives and surroundings; and it is largely the fault of the old if the poetry of one generation is almost invariably the prose of the next.
Those "Atlantic liners" are an illustration of my meaning. To the young Mesuriers they were hideous chromo-lithographs in vulgar gilt frames, arbitrary defacements of home; but undoubtedly even they would have found a tolerant tenderness for them, had they realised that they represented the poetry—long since renounced and put behind him—of James Mesurier's life. He had come of a race of sea-captains, two of his brothers had been sailors, and deep down in his heart the spirit of romance answered, with voice fresh and young as ever, to any breath or association of the sea. But he seldom, if ever, spoke of it, and only in an anecdote or two was it occasionally brought to mind. Sometimes his wife would tease him with the vanity which, on holidays by the sea, would send him forth on blustering tempestuous nights clad in a greatcoat of blue pilot-cloth and a sealskin cap, and tell how proud he was on one occasion, as he stood on the wharf, at being addressed as "captain," and asked what ship he had brought into port. Even the hard heart of youth must soften at such a reminiscence.
Then scattered about the house was many a prosaic bit of furniture which was musical with memories for the parents,—memories of their first little homes and their early struggles together. This side-board, now relegated to the children's play-room, had once been their piece de resistance in such and such a street, twelve years ago, before their children had risen up and—not called them blessed.
A few years, and the light of poetry will be upon these things for their children too; but, meanwhile, can we blame them that they cannot accept the poetry of their elders in exchange for that of their own which they are impatient to make? And when that poetry is made and resident in similar concrete objects of home—how will it seem, one wonders, to their children? This old desk which Esther has been allowed to appropriate, and in a secret drawer of which are already accumulating certain love-letters and lavender, will it ever, one wonders, turn to lumber in younger hands? For a little while she leans her sweet young bosom against it, and writes scented letters in a girlish hand to a little red-headed boy who has these past weeks begun to love her. Can it be possible that the desk on which Esther once wrote to her little Mike will ever hear itself spoken of as "this ugly old thing"? Let us hope not.
OF THE LOVE OF HENRY AND ESTHER
Father and son had both meant what they said; and even the mother, for whom it would be the cruellest wrench of all, knew that Henry was going to leave home. Not literally on the morrow, for the following evening he had appeared before his father to apologise for the manner—carefully for the manner, not the matter,—in which he had spoken to him the evening before, and asked for a day or two in which to make his arrangements for departure. James Mesurier was too strong a man to be resentful, and he accepted his son's apology with a gentleness that, as each knew, detracted nothing from the resolution which each had come to.
"My boy," he said, "you will never have such good friends as your father and mother; but it is best that you go out into the world to learn it."
There is something terribly winning and unnerving to the blackest resolution, when the severity of the strong dissolves for a brief moment into tenderness. The rare kind words of the stern, explain it as we will, and unjust as the preference must surely be, one values beyond the frequent forgivenesses of the gentle. Mary Mesurier would have laid down her life in defence of her son's greatest fault, and James Mesurier would as readily have court-martialled him for his smallest, and yet, somehow, a kind word from him brought the tears to his son's eyes.
He had no longer the heart to stimulate the rebellion of Esther, as he felt it his duty to do; and, to her disappointment, he announced that, on the whole, it would perhaps be best for him to go alone.
"It would almost kill poor mother," he said; "and father means well after all," he added.
"I'm afraid it would break father's heart," said Esther.
So these two young people agreed to spare their parents, though—let it not be otherwise imagined—at a great sacrifice. The little paper on which they had carefully worked out their housekeeping, skilfully allotting so much for rent, butcher's meat, milk, coals, and washing, and making "everything" come most optimistically to L59 17s. 9d. a year, would be of no use now, at all events for the present. Their little Charles and Mary Lamb dream must be laid aside—for, of course, they had thought of Charles and Mary Lamb; and indeed, out beyond this history of a few youthful years, their friendship was to prove itself far from unworthy of its famous model.
Yet at this time it was of no great antiquity; for, but a very few years back, Henry had been a miniature tyrant too, and ruled it over his kingdom of six sisters with all the hideous egoism of a pampered "son and heir." Although in the very middle class of society into which Henry Mesurier was born, the dignity of eldest son is one but very contingently connected with tangible inheritance, it is none the less vigorously kept up; and, no doubt, without any consciousness of partiality, Henry Mesurier, from his childhood, had been brought up to regard himself as a sort of young prince, for whom all the privileges of home were, by divine right, reserved. For example, he took his meals with his parents fully five years before any of his sisters were allowed to do so; and for retention of this privilege, when at length the democratic measure of its extension to his two elder sisters was proposed, he fought with the bitterest spirit of caste. Indeed, few oligarchs have been more wildly hated than Henry Mesurier up to the age, say, of fourteen. That was the age of his last thrashing, and it was in the gloomy dusk of that momentous occasion, as he lay alone with smarting back in the twilight of an unusually early bed-time, that a possible new view of woman—as a creature of like passions and privileges—presented itself to him.
His thrashing had been so unjustly severe, that even the granite little hearts of his sisters had been softened; and Esther, managing to secrete a cake that he loved from the tea that was lost to him, stole with it to the top of the house, where he writhed amid lonely echoes and shadows.
She had brought it to him awkwardly, by no means sure of its reception, but sure in her heart that she would hate him for ever, if he missed the meaning of the little solatium. But fortunately his back was far too sore, and his spirit too broken to remember his pride, and he accepted the offering with gratitude and tears.
"Kiss me, Esther," he had said; and a wonderful thrill had gone through the little girl at this strange softness in the mighty, while the dawn of a wonderful pity for the lot of woman had, unconsciously, broken in the soul of the boy.
"Kiss me again, Esther," he had said, and, with the tears that mingled in that kiss, an eternal friendship was baptized.
Henry rose on the morrow a changed being. The grosser pretensions of the male had fallen from him for ever, and there was at first something almost awe-inspiring to his sisters in the gentle solicitude for them and their rights and pleasures which replaced the old despotism. From that time, Esther and he became closer and closer companions, and as they more and more formed an oligarchy of two, a rearrangement of parties in the little parliament of home came about, to be upset again as Dot and Mat qualified for admission into that exclusive little circle.
So soon as Henry had a new dream or a new thought, he shared it with Esther; and freely as he had received from Carlyle, or Emerson, or Thoreau, freely he passed it on to her. For the gloomiest occasion he had some strengthening text, and one of the last things he did before he left home was to make for her a little book which he called "Faith for Cloudy Days," consisting of energising and sustaining phrases from certain great writers,—as it were, a bottle of philosophical phosphates against seasons of spiritual cowardice or debility. There one opened and read: "Sudden the worst turns best to the brave" or Thoreau's "I have yet to hear a single word of wisdom spoken to me by my elders," or again Matthew Arnold's
"Tasks in hours of insight willed May be through hours of gloom fulfilled."
James Mesurier knew nothing of all this; but if he had, he might have understood that after all his children were not so far from the kingdom of heaven.
OF THE PROFESSIONS THAT CHOOSE, AND MIKE LAFLIN
However we may hint at its explanation by theories of inheritance, it still remains curious with what unerring instinct a child of character will from the first, and when it is so evidently ignorant of the field of choice, select, out of all life's occupations and distinctions, one special work it hungers to do, one special distinction that to it seems the most desirable of earthly honours. That Mary Mesurier loved poetry, and James Mesurier sermons, in face of the fact that so many mothers and fathers have done the same with no such result, hardly seems adequate to account for the peculiar glamour which, almost before he could read, there was for Henry Mesurier in any form of print. While books were still being read to him, there had already come into his mind, unaccountably, as by outside suggestion, that there could be nothing so splendid in the world as to write a book for one's self. To be either a soldier, a sailor, an architect, or an engineer, would, doubtless, have its fascinations as well; but to make a real printed book, with your name in gilt letters outside, was real romance.
At that early day, and for a long while after, the boy had no preference for any particular kind of book. It was an entirely abstract passion for print and paper. To have been the author of "The Iliad" or of Beeton's "Book of Household Recipes" would have given him almost the same exaltation of authorship; and the thrill of worship which came over him when, one early day, a man who had actually had an article on the sugar bounties accepted by a commercial magazine was pointed out to him in the street, was one he never forgot; nor in after years did he ever encounter that transfigured contributor without an involuntary recurrence of that old feeling of awe. No subsequent acquaintance with editorial rooms ever led him into materialistic explanations of that enchanted piece of work—a newspaper. The editors might do their best—and succeed surprisingly—in looking like ordinary mortals, you might even know the leader-writers, and, with the very public, gaze through gratings into the subterranean printing-rooms,—the mystery none the less remained. No exposure of editorial staffs or other machinery could destroy the sense of enchantment, as no amount of anatomy or biology can destroy the mystery of the human miracle.
So I suppose Nature first makes us in love with the tools we are to use, long before we have a thought upon what we shall use them. Perhaps the first desire of the born writer is to be a compositor. Out of the love of mere type quickly evolves a love of mere words for their own sake; but whether we shall make use of them as a historian, novelist, philosopher, or poet, is a secondary consideration, a mere afterthought. To Henry Mesurier had already come the time when the face of life began to Wear a certain aspect, the peculiar attraction of which for himself he longed to fix, a certain mystical importance attaching to the commonest every-day objects and circumstances, a certain ecstatic quality in the simplest experiences; but even so far as it had been revealed, this dawning vision of the world seemed only to have come to him, not so much to find expression, as to mock him with his childish incapacity adequately to use the very tools he loved. He would hang for hours over some scene in nature, caught in a woodland spell, like a nympholept of old; but when he tried to put in words what he had seen, what a poor piece of ornamental gardening the thing was! There were trees and birds and grass, to be sure; but there was nothing of that meaning look which they had worn, that look of being tiptoe with revelation which is one of the most fascinating tricks of the visible world, and which even a harsh town full of chimneys can sometimes take on when seen in given moments and lights. And it was astonishing to see into what lifeless imitative verse his most original and passionate moments could be transformed.
Still some unreasonably indulgent spirit of the air, that had evidently not read his manuscripts, whispered him to be of good cheer: the lifeless words would not always be lifeless, some day the birds would sing in his verses too. This sense of failure did not, it must be said, immediately follow composition; for, for a little while the original expression of the thing seen reinforced with reflected significance its pale copy. It was only some weeks after, when the written copy was left to do all the work itself, that its foolish inadequacy was exposed.
"However, there is one consolation, they are not worse than Keats and Shelley wrote at the same age," he said to himself, as he looked through a bundle of the poor things the evening before his room was to be dismantled. "Indeed, they couldn't be," he added, with a smile. Fortunately he was but nineteen as yet; would he venture on a like comparison were he twenty-five?
Yes, his little room was to be dismantled on the morrow,—this first little private chapel of his spirit. This fair order of shelves, this external harmony answering to an inner harmony of his spirit, were to be broken up for ever. Often as he had sat in the folioed lamplit nook which was, as it were, the very chancel of the little church, and gazed in an ecstasy at the books, each with a great shining name of fame upon its cover, it had seemed as though he had put his very soul outside him, externalised it in this little corner of books and pictures. His soul shivered, as one who must go houseless awhile, at the thought that to-morrow its home would be no more. When and how would be its reincarnation? More magnificent, maybe, but never this again. It was sacrilege,—was it not ingratitude too? When once more the books and the pictures began to form into a new harmony, there would be no mother's love to help the work go on....
But as he mused in this no doubt sentimental fashion, the door opened and the little red-headed Mike entered. His was a little Flibbertigibbet of a face, already lined with the practice of mimicry; and there was in it a very attractive blending of tenderness and humour. Mike was also one of those whom life at the beginning had impressed with the delight of one kind of work and no other. When a mere imp of a boy, the heartless tormentor of a large and sententious stepmother, the despair of schoolmasters, the most ingenious of truants, a humorous ragamuffin invulnerable to punishment, it was already revealed to him that his mission in life was to be the observation and reproduction of human character, particularly in its humorous aspects. To this end Nature had gifted him with a face that was capable of every form of transformation, and at an early age he hastened to put it in training. All day long he was pulling faces. As an artist will sketch everything he comes across, so Mike would endeavour to imitate any characteristic expression or attitude, animate or inanimate, in the world around him. Dogs, little boys, and grotesque old men were his special delight, and of all his elders he had, it goes without saying, a private gallery of irreverently faithful portraits.
In addition to his plastic face, Nature had given him a larynx which was capable of imitating every human and inhuman sound. To squeak like a pig, bark like a dog, low like a cow, and crow like a cock, were the veriest juvenilia of his attainments; and he could imitate the buzzing of a fly so cunningly that flies themselves have often been deceived. It was this delight in imitation for its own sake, and not so much that he had been caught by the usual allurements of the theatre, that he looked upon the career of an actor as his natural and ultimate calling. It was already privately whispered in the little circle that Mike would some day go on the stage. But don't tell that as yet to old Mr. Laflin, whatever you do.
There was a good deal more in Mike than pulling faces, as Esther recently, and Henry before her, had discovered. His acting was some day to stir the hearts of audiences, because he had instincts for knowing human nature inside as well as out, knew the secret springs of tears, as well as the open secrets of laughter; and it was rather on this common ground of a rich "many-veined humanity" that these two had met and become friends, rather than on any real community of tastes and ideas. Yet Mike loved books too, and had an excellent taste in them, though perhaps he had hardly loved them, had not Henry and Esther loved them first, and it is quite certain, and quite proper, that he never found a page of any book so fascinating as the face of some lined and battered human being. Over that writing he was never found asleep.
There was one other literary matter on which he held a very personal and unshakable opinion,—Henry Mesurier's future as a poet; and on this he came just in the nick of time to cheer him this evening.
"The next move will be to London, old fellow," he said; "and then you'll soon see my prophecies come true. My opinion mayn't be worth much, but you know what it is. You'll be a great writer some day, never fear."
"Thank you, dear old boy. And you know what I think about your acting, don't you?"
Then it was that Esther appeared, and Henry made some transparent excuse to leave them awhile together.
"You dear old thing," said Esther, kissing him, "now don't stay away too long."
OF THE LOVE OF ESTHER AND MIKE, AND THE MESURIER LAW IN REGARD TO "SWEETHEARTS"
I'm afraid Esther was little more than fourteen when she had first seen and fallen in love with Mike. She had heard much of him from her brother; but, for one reason or another, he had never been to the house. One evening, however, at a concert, Henry had told her to look in a certain direction and she would see Mike.
"I don't suppose you'll call him good looking," he said.
So Esther had looked round, and seen the pretty curly red hair and the eager little wistful humorous face for the first time.
"Why, he's got a lovely little face!" she said, blushing deeply for no reason at all,—except perhaps that there had seemed something pleading and shelter-seeking in that little face, something that cried out to be "mothered," and that instantly there had welled up in her heart a great warm wish that some day she might be that for it and more.
And at the same instant it had occurred to the boy, that the face thus turned to him for a moment was the loveliest face he had ever seen, the only lovely face he would ever care to see. But with that thought, too, had come a curious pang of hopelessness into his heart. For Esther Mesurier was one of those girls who are the prizes of men. With all those pretty tall fellows about her, it was unlikely indeed that she would care for a little red-headed, face-pulling ragamuffin like him! And yet if she never could care for him,—never, never at all, what a lonely place the world would be!
When, after the concert, Henry looked round to introduce Mike to his sister, he had somehow slipped away and was nowhere to be seen.
However, it was not long after this that Mike paid a visit to Henry's study one evening, and, coming ostensibly to look at his books, once more saw his sister, and spoke to her a brief introductory word. His interest in literature became positively remarkable from this time; and the enthusiasm with which his actor's mind reflected, and, no doubt in all good faith, mimicked the various philosophical and literary enthusiasms of his friend, was, though neither realised it, a sure earnest of his future. More and more frequent visits to that study became necessary for its gratification; and, in the course of one of them, Mike confessed to Henry that he loved his sister, previously piling upon himself many anticipatory terms of ignominy for daring to do so presumptuous a thing. Henry, however, was so taken with the idea that, in his singleness of mind, he suffered no pang of retrospective suspicion of his friend's love for himself. Pending Esther's decision,—and of her mind in the matter, he had something more than a glimmering,—he welcomed Mike with gladness as a prospective brother-in-law, and, as soon as he found an opportunity, left them alone together, returning quite a long time afterwards—to find them extraordinarily happy, it would appear, at his safe return.
Esther and Mike had thus been fortunate enough to get that important question of a mate settled quite early in life, and to be saved from those arduous and desolating experiments in being fitted with a heart which so many less happy people have to go through. But this happy fact was as yet a secret beyond this strict circle of three; for, strange as it may sound, the beautiful attraction of a girl for a boy, the beautiful worship of a boy for a girl, were matters not even mentionable as yet in the Mesurier household. For a child, particularly a girl, under twenty to speak of having a "sweetheart" was an offence which had a strong savour of disgust in it, even for Mrs. Mesurier, broad-minded as in most matters she was.
So far as the only decent theory of the relations of the sexes was involuntarily explicit, by virtue of certain explosions on the subject, it was something like this: That, at a certain age, say twenty-one, or, for leniency, twenty, as it were on the striking of a clock, the young girl, who previously had been profoundly and inexpressibly unconscious that the male being existed, would suddenly sit up wide awake in an attitude of attention to offers of marriage; and that, similarly, the young man, who had meanwhile lived with his eyes shut and his senses asleep, would jump up also at the striking of a clock, and, as it were, with hilarity, say, "It is high time I chose a wife," and thereupon begin to look about, among the streets and tennis-parties known to him, for that impossible paragon,—a wife to satisfy both his parents.
One or two of Henry's earliest troubles and most drastic punishments had come of a propensity to "sweethearts," developed at an indecorously early age, and in fact at the time of which I write he could barely recall the name of Miss This or Miss The Other by the association of ancient physical pangs suffered for their sake. The greatest danger to such contraband passions was undoubtedly the post; for, in the Mesurier household, a more than Russian censorship was exercised over the incoming and—as far as it could be controlled—the outgoing mail. One old morning, at family breakfast, which the subsequent events of the evening were to fix on his mind, Henry Mesurier had grown white with fear, as the stupid maid had handed him a fat letter addressed in a sprawling school-girl's hand.
"Who is your letter from, Henry?" asked the father.
Henry blushed and boggled.
"Pass it over to me."
Resistance was worse than useless. As in war-time a woman will see her husband set up against a wall and shot before her face, as a conspirator sees the hands of the police close upon papers of the most terrible secrecy, so did Henry watch that scented little package pass with a sense of irrevocable loss into the cold hands of his father. The father opened it, placed a little white enclosure by the side of his coffee-cup for further inspection, and then read the letter—full of "darlings" and "for evers"—with the severe attention he would have given a business letter. Then he handed it across to the mother without a word, but with the look one doctor gives another in discovering a new and terrible symptom in a patient on whom they are consulting. While the mother read, the father opened the little packet, and out rolled a tiny plait of silky brown hair tied into a loop with a blue ribbon.
"Disgusting!" exclaimed the father and mother, simultaneously, to each other, as though the boy was not there.
"I am shocked at you, Henry," said the mother.
"I shall certainly write to the forward little girl's parents," said the father.
"Oh, don't do that, father," exclaimed the boy, in terror, and half wondering if so sweet a thing could really be so criminal.
"Don't dare to speak to me," said the father. "Leave the breakfast-table. I will see you again this evening."
Henry knew too well what the verb "to see" signified under the circumstances, and the day passed in such apprehensive gloom that it was a positive relief, when evening had at last come, to feel a walking-cane about him, at once more snaky and more notched than any previously applied to his stubborn young frame. Not to cry was, of course, a point of honour; and as the infuriating absence of tears inflamed the righteous anger of the parent, the stick splintered and broke with a crash, in which accident Henry learned he was responsible for a double offence.
"I wouldn't have broken that stick for five pounds," said the father, his interest suddenly withdrawn from his son; "it was given to me by my old friend Tarporley," which, as can be imagined, was a mighty satisfaction to the sad small soul, smarting, not merely from the stick, but from the sense that life held something stupid in its injustice, in that he was thus being mauled for the most beautiful exalted feeling that had ever visited his young heart.
Those dark ages of oppression were long since passed for Henry and Esther, when Mike began to steal in of an evening to see Esther, and they were only referred to now and again, anecdotally, as the nineteenth century looks back at the days of the Holy Inquisition; but still it was wise to be cautious, for an interdict against Mike's coming to the house was quite within possibility, even in this comparatively enlightened epoch; and that would have been even more effective than James Mesurier's old friend Tarporley's stick of sacred memory.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF HOME
Recalling for another moment or two the ancient affair of the heart described in the last chapter, it may pertinently be added that James Mesurier fulfilled his threat on that occasion, and had in fact written to the "forward little girl's" parents. Could he have seen the rather amused reception of his letter, he would have realised with sorrow that an age of parental leniency, little short of degeneration, was in certain quarters unmistakably supplanting the stern age of which he was in a degree an anachronistic survival. That forward little girl's parents chanced to know James Mesurier enough by sight and reputation to respect him, while they smiled across to each other at his rather quaint disciplinarianism. Could Henry Mesurier have seen that smile, he would not only have felt reassured as to the fate of his little sweetheart, but have understood that there were temperate zones of childhood, as well as arctic, when young life waxed gaily to the sound of laughter and other musical accompaniments.
This revelation, however, was deferred some few years, till he became acquainted with the merry family of which Mike Laflin was the characteristic expression. Old Mr. Laflin was a little, jolly, bald-headed gentleman, bubbling over with mirth, who liked to have young people about him, and in his quips and cranks was as young as, and much cleverer than, any of them. It almost startled Henry on his first introduction to this family of two daughters and two brothers, where the father was rather like a brother grown prematurely bald, and the stepmother supplied with monumental dignity that element of solemnity without which no properly regulated household is complete, to notice the camaraderie which prevailed amongst them all. Jokes were flying about from one to another all the time, and the father made a point of capping them all. This was home in a liberal sense which the word had never meant to Henry. Doubtless, it had its own individual restrictions and censorships; but its surface was at all events debonair, and it was serviceable to Henry as revealing the existence of more genial social climates than that in which he had been nurtured—though in making the comparison with his own atmosphere, he realised that this bonhomie was nothing more important than a grace.
Perhaps, nay, very surely, the seriousness, even the severity of, his own training, had been among the very conditions needed to make him what he some day hoped to be, though they had seemed so purposely inimical. Had James Mesurier's religion been more free and easy, a matter less personally assured and momentous, his son's almost oppressive sense of the spiritual significance of existence had been less radiant and constantly supporting. Life might have gained in superficial liveableness; but it would have lost in intensity, in real importance, and with that loss would have gone too Henry's chance of being a poet." The poet in a golden clime was born!"—once and again, maybe, but more often he comes from a land of iron and tears.
It is in the nature of things that Henry should begin to appreciate the services of his home to his development at the moment when he was leaving it. And the mere pang of the parting from it, when one day the hour for parting had surely come, was much more deep and complicated than he could have dreamed. As in our bodies we become conscious of certain vital centres, certain dependencies of relation and harmony, only when they have suffered shock, so often in life we may go along unconscious of the vital dependencies of our human relationships, till the moment comes to strain or sever them. Then a thousand hidden nerves quiver at the discovering touch of the knife. Henry's leaving home, though it had been originally the suggestion of violent feeling, was not to be an actual severance. His father's "leave my house for ever" had owed something to the rhetoric of anger, and the expulsion and cutting off which it had implied had since been so softened as practically to have disappeared. Henry was certainly not leaving his father's house for ever, but merely going into lodgings with a friend, with full privileges to visit his own home as often as he chose.
Still, he was, all the same, leaving home, and he was the first to leave it. The mother, at all events, knew that this was the beginning of the end, knew that, with her first-born's departure (desertion, she may have called it), a new era had commenced for the home,—the era of disintegration. For twenty years and more it had been all building and building; now it would be all just pulling down again; and there was a dreary sound as of demolition and wind-driven rain in her ears.
Oh, tragic love of mothers! Of no love is the final loss and doom so inevitably destined. The husband may desert the wife, but the son is sure to desert his mother—must, for nature demands the desertion. Put not your trust in princes—and yet put it rather in princes, oh, fond and doting parents, than in the blue-eyed flower of childhood for which year after year, with labours infinite, you would buy all the sunshine of the world.
Henry's pang at leaving home was mainly the pang of parting with his mother. It seemed more than a mere physical parting. It was his childhood that was parting from her for ever. When he came to see them he would be something different,—a man, an independent being. As long ago physically, now spiritually, the umbilical cord had been cut.
With Esther and Dot and Mat the parting was hardly a parting, as it was rather a promise of their all meeting together some day in a new place of freedom, which there was a sense of his going out to prepare for them. Their way would be his way, as the mother's could not; for theirs was the highway of youth, which, sooner or later, they would all take together, singing in the morning sun.
The three younger sisters, the as yet unopened buds of the family flower, took Henry's departure with the surface tears and the central indifference of childhood. When a family is so large, it practically includes two generations in itself; and these three girls were really to prove a generation so different in characteristics from their four elders as to demand a separate chronicle to themselves.
Thus as Henry drove away amid his trunks from the home of his father (genealogical poverty denies us the romantic grandiloquence of the plural), it was his mother's farewell arms and farewell tears, and his farewell promises to her, of which he was mainly conscious. He had promised "to take care of himself," and particularly to beware of damp sheets, and then he too had burst into tears. Indeed, it was generally a tearful business, after which everybody was glad to retire into corners to subside privately and dry themselves.
Henry crouched in the corner of his cab with fully half his cry to finish out; and, curiously, all the time a sad little story from an old holiday in the country kept haunting him. It was at once a fact and a fable concerning a happy little family of swallows, whose sudden tragedy he had seen with his own boyish, pitying eyes.
In a little vinery attached to an old country house which the Mesuriers had rented for a month or so for certain successive summers, two swallows had built their nest, and, in due course, there were three young swallows to keep them company. It was understood that the door of the vinery must be left open, that the parent swallows might fly to and fro for food; but by some accident it chanced that the door was one day closed, and the vinery not visited again for several days. When at last the door was opened again, the sight that met young eyes was one Henry had never forgotten. Three little starved swallows, hardly bigger than butterflies, lay upon the floor, and from the nest above hung the long horse-hairs with which the parents had vainly sought to anchor them safely to the home. But still sadder details were forthcoming, when the children, who had been wondering what had become of the parents, had suddenly discovered their wasted bodies in the grass a yard or two away from the vinery door. A few days ago this had been a happy, thriving home, and now it was absolutely desolated, done away with for ever. It needed no exceptional imagination or sympathy to conceive the agonised longing of the parents, as they had dashed themselves again and again upon that cruel, unyielding door, hearing the piteous cries of their young ones within, and the anguish in which their exhausted little lives had at last gone out. The young swallows had died for lack of food; but the old ones had died—for love. Had some other hand brought them food, would the young ones have missed the old ones like that?
A LINK WITH CIVILISATION
On the afternoon following Henry's departure, Esther went out for a walk, and she came presently to a pretty little house half hidden in its big garden. A well-kept lawn, richly bathed in sunlight, flashed through the trees; and, opening the gate and following the tree-shaded path along one side of the house, Esther presently mounted to a small terrace, where, as she had hoped, she came upon a dainty little lady watering her flowers.
"Why, Esther, it's you! How sweet of you! I was just dying to see you!" exclaimed the little lady, turning a pretty, but somewhat worn, and brilliantly sad face from her gardening. "Just let me finish this thirsty bed, and then you must give me a kiss. There!"
Then the two embraced; and as Mrs. Myrtilla Williamson held Esther at arm's length and looked at her admiringly,—
"How pretty you look to-day!" she exclaimed, generously. "That new hat's a great success. Didn't I tell you mauve was your colour? Turn round. Yes, dear, you look charming. Where in the world, I wonder, did you all get that grand look of yours from?—I don't mean your good looks merely, but that look of distinction. Your father and mother have it too; but where did they get it from? You're a puzzle-family—all of you. But wouldn't you like a cup of tea? Come in," and she led the way indoors to a tiny, sweet-smelling boudoir on the left of the hall, of which a dainty glimpse, with its books and water-colours and bibelots, was to be caught from the terrace.
Everything about Myrtilla Williamson was scrupulously, determinedly dainty, from the flowered tea-gown about her slim, girlish figure,—her predilection for that then novel and suspected garment was regarded as a sure mark of a certain Parisian levity by her neighbours,—to her just a little "precious" enunciation. In France, in the seventeenth century, she would almost certainly have been a visitor at the Hotel Rambouillet, and to-day she was mysteriously and disapprovingly spoken of as "aesthetic." She had a look as if she had tripped out of a Japanese fan, and slept at night in a pot-pourri jar. And she had brains, those good things—brains.
Her name was very like her life, one-half of which might be described as Myrtilla, the other half as Williamson. She was Myrtilla during the day, dabbling with her water-colours, her flowers, or her books; but at six o'clock each afternoon, with the sound of aggressive masculine boots in the hall, her life suddenly changed with a sigh to Williamson. The Williamson half of her life was so clumsily, so grotesquely ill-matched with the Myrtilla half that it was, and probably will always remain, a mystery why she had ever attempted so tasteless and inconvenient an addition,—a mystery, however, far from unique in the history of those mysteriously stupid unhappy marriages with evident boors which refined and charming women will, it is to be feared, go on making to the end of the human chapter.
It was perhaps a day hardly less interesting for Myrtilla than for the young people themselves when she had first met Henry and Esther Mesurier. Before, in the dull bourgeois society into which Williamson had transplanted her from London, she had found none with whom she dared be her natural Myrtilla. There she was expected to be Williamson to the bone. Henry and Esther, however, were only too grateful for Myrtilla, through whom was to come to them the revelation of some minor graces of life for which they had the instincts, but on which they had lacked instruction; and who, still more important, at least for Henry, was to be their first fragile link with certain strenuous new northern writers, translations of whom in every tongue had just then descended, Gothlike, upon Europe, to the great energising of its various literatures. She it was too who first handed them the fretted golden key to the enchanted garden of the Pre-Raphaelites, and the striking head of the young Dante in sepia, which had hung in a sort of shrine-recess in Henry's study, had been copied for him from Rossetti's sketch by Myrtilla's own hand.
She had, too, one of the most precious gifts for friendship, the gift of unselfish and diligent and progressive appreciation of all a friend's good points. She never flattered; but she never missed the smallest opportunity for praise. She was one of those rare people who make you feel happy in yourself, who send you away somehow dignified, profitably raised in your own esteem; just as others have a mysterious power of dejecting you in your proudest moments. If you had any charm, however shy, Myrtilla Williamson would find it, and send you away with a great gush of gratitude to her because it had been found at last. This was perhaps the greatest charm of her clever letters; they were all about "you,"—not, of course, that you didn't want to hear about her. But frequently all she told you of herself was her name. Perhaps she would write in the half-hour that remained between, say, a visit from Esther and the arrival of Williamson, to fix in a few intimate vivid words the charm of their afternoon together, and tell Esther in some new gratifying way what she was to her and why and how she was it; or when Henry had been there—even more carefully in the absence of Williamson—to read her his new poem, she would write him a long letter of literary criticism, just perceptibly vibrating with the emotion she might have felt for the romantic young poet, whom she allowed to call himself her "cavaliere servente," had she not been Williamson as well as Myrtilla, and had she not, as she somewhat unscientifically declared, been old enough to be his mother.
"Well," she said, as they sipped their tea, "so Henry's really gone. He slipped round to bid me a sort of good-bye yesterday, and told me the whole story. On the whole, I'm glad, though I know how you'll miss each other. But I'm sorriest for your mother. Yes, yes, I'm sorry for her. You must try to make it up to her, dear child. I think just that, above all things, would make me fear to be a mother. One can do without children," and there was a certain implication in the conversational atmosphere that children of the name of Williamson had been mercifully spared the world; "but when once they have come into one's life, it must be terrible to see them go out again. I should like to come round and have a little talk with your mother. I wonder if she'd care to see me?"
"So long as you don't come in your tea-gown," said Esther, with a laugh.
"Cruel child!" and then with a way she had of suddenly finding something she wanted to hear of among the interests of her friends, "Now," she said, "tell me something about Mike. I suppose the course of true love runs as smoothly as ever. Happy children! Give him my love when you see him, won't you?"
Esther told all there was to tell about Mike up-to-date, and wished she could have repaid her friend's sympathetic interest with a request for something similar about Williamson. But it was tacitly understood that there was nothing further to be said on that subject, and that the news of Myrtilla's life could hardly again take any more excitingly personal form than the bric-a-brac excitements of art or literature,—though indeed art and literature were, to be just to them, far more than bric-a-brac in the life of Myrtilla Williamson. They were, indeed, it was easy to see, a very sustaining religion for the lonely little woman who, having no children to study, and having completed her studies of Williamson, was driven a good deal upon the study and development of herself. The Williamson half of the day provided her fully with opportunities for the practice of all the philosophy she was likely to acquire from writers ancient and modern, and for the absorption of all the consolation history and biography was likely to afford in the stories of women similarly circumstanced. It is to be feared that Myrtilla not only wore tea-gowns in advance of her time, but was also somewhat prematurely something of a "new" woman; but this was a subject on which she really did very little to "poison" Esther's "young mind." Esther's young mind, in common with those of her two subsequent sisters, was little in need of "poisoning" from outside on such subjects. Indeed, it was a curious phenomenon to observe how all these young minds, sprung from a stock of such ancient, unquestioning faith, had, so to say, been born "poisoned;" or, to state the matter less metaphorically, had all been born with instincts for the most pitiless and effortless reasoning on all subjects human and divine.
As the hour approached when poor Myrtilla must change back to Williamson, Esther rose to say good-bye.
"Come again soon, dear girl; you don't know the good you do me."
The good, dear woman was entirely done by her unwearied, sympathetic discussion of the affairs and dreams of Esther, Mike, and Henry.
"Oh, here is a wonderful new book I intended to talk to you about. You can take it with you; I have finished it. Come next week and tell me what you think of it."
As Esther walked down the path, Myrtilla watched her, and, as she passed out of the gate, waved her a final kiss of parting, and turned indoors. There seemed something ever so sad about her dainty back as it disappeared into the doorway.
"Poor little woman!" said Esther to herself, as she looked to see the title of the book she was carrying. It included a curious Russian name, the correct pronunciation of which she foresaw she must ask Myrtilla on their next meeting. It was "The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff."
A RHAPSODY OF TYRE
Sidon, the stage of the moving events so far recorded, though it makes much of possessing a separate importance, is really a cross-river residential suburb of Tyre, the great seaport in which all the ships of the world come to and fro. During the day Sidon is virtually emptied of its men-folk, and is given up to perambulators and feminine activities generally; for the men have streamed across the ferries that bridge the sunny, boisterous river, to the docks and offices of Tyre.
Though Tyre is not a very old city, it is not so new as to be denied a few of those associations known as "historical." Tyre had once the honour to be taken by Prince Rupert, and long before that its nucleus had existed as a monk's ferry, by which travellers were rowed across the river to the monastery and posting-house at Sidon. Sometimes of an evening Henry and Mike would think of those far-off times as they looked over the ferry-boat at the long lines of river lights, with their restless heaving reflections; and sometimes they could picture to themselves the green sloping banks of the virgin fields, and hear the priory bell calling to them out of the darkness. But such were the faintest of their visions; and they loved the river banks best as they are to-day, with their Egyptian walls and swarming lights and tangled ships.
And whoso should think that that sordid commercial city, given up to all the prose of trade day by day, is not a poet at heart, has never seen her strange smile at evening when the shops are shut, and the offices empty, and the men who know her not gone home. For then across the crowded roofs softly comes a strange sweetness, and deep down among the gloomy wynds of deserted warehouses, still as temples, sudden fairies of sunset dance and dazzle, and touch the grimy walls with soft hands. In lonely back rooms, full of desks and dust, haunted lights of evening stand like splendid apparitions; and sometimes, if you lingered at the top of High Street, beneath the dark old church, and the moon was out on the left of the steeple and the sunset dying on the right, dying beyond the tangled masts and fading from the river, you would forget you were a city clerk, and you would wonder why the world was so beautiful, why the moon was made of pearl, and what it was that called to you out of yonder golden sea; and your heart would fill with a strange gladness, and you would call back to those unearthly voices, "I am yours, yours, all yours!"
Thus would this town of bales and merchants, of office-desks and stools, make poets at evening that she might stone them at noon. For, of course, she would have forgotten it all in the morning; and it were well not to remind her with your dreaming eyes of her last night's softness. She will look back at you with stony misunderstanding, and her new lover Reality will sharply box your ears.
It is no use reminding the Exchange that it looked like a scene from Romeo and Juliet in the moonlight. It dare not admit it. But wait patiently till the evening. Tyre will be yours again with the sunset. She pretends all day that it is the Mayor in the gilded coach and the pursy merchantmen she cares for; but it is really you, a poor shabby poet, she loves all the time, for you only does she wear her gauzy silks at evening!
A PENITENTIARY OF THE MATHEMATICS
Yes, Mike was some day to be another Kean, and Henry was to prove a serious rival to Shakespeare; but, meanwhile, they were clerks in the offices of Tyre.
Of the rigours, and therefore too the truancies and humours of the lot official, Mike was comparatively so comfortably circumstanced as to have little knowledge. His father was the king of a little flourishing prison of desks, and Mike was one of the heirs-apparent. Consequently, his lot, though dull, was seldom bitter; and many mitigations of it were within his privilege. With Henry it was different. He was a humble unit among twenty other slaves, chained to that modern substitute for the galleys, the desk; and, in a wicked bargain, he had contracted to give his life-blood from nine in the morning till six in the evening, for sixty pounds a year, with an occasional "rise," which, after thirty years' service, might end in your having reached a proud annual three hundred for the rest of your maimed and narrowed days.
Henry had come to the office straight from school, at the age of sixteen; and, though classrooms breathe an air sufficiently frigid and suggestive of inhuman interests and unmeaning discipline, the icy air of that office had at first almost taken his breath. The place was so ridiculously serious! There might conceivedly be interests in the world worthy of so abject an absorption, so bleaching an obeisance of the individual; but Henry, with the dews of certain classics still upon him, remembered that anything really Olympian in its importance is always strong enough to smile. It is a lesser strength that must make the muscular effort of severity. True dignities, as often as possible, stand at ease. But here indeed were no true strengths and dignities,—only prison-strengths and prison-dignities. Here the majesties, the occupations, the offences, were alike frivolities, fantastically changed about into solemnities.
That first impression of abject bowed heads and chains rattled beneath desks, was roughly correct. For all that was human in a man, this was a prison. These men who bent over foolish papers were evidently convicts of the most desperate character; so, at all events, you would judge when occasionally one or other of the prison-governors, known as "partners," passed among them with the lash of his eye. Such faint human twittering as may have grown up amongst even these poor exiles would suddenly die into a silence white with fear, as when the shadow of a hawk falls across the song of smaller birds.
No human relations are acknowledged here. Outside, you may be a husband wonderfully beloved and tragically important; you may be a man whose courage has be-medalled your brave breast; you may be a passionate and subtle musician in your private hours; you may even on Sundays be a much appreciated vessel of the divine: but all such distinctions are not current here; here they are foreign coin, diplomas unacknowledged in this barbarous realm of ink and steel. The more ignorant, the more narrow, the more mean, the more unnatural, you can contrive to be, the better will be your lot in this sad monastery of Mammon. When the door hissed behind you, with that little patent pneumatic device, you ceased to be a human being, and began to be—the human machine. All the vitality you have stored within that pale body you are expected to exhaust here,—you have sold it, don't you remember, for sixty or three hundred pounds a year; you are not expected to have any left over for pleasures. That will be robbery. Masters suffer much from peculation indeed in this way; but a machine is in course of invention which shall put an end to this, by the application of which to your heart the task-master will know whether or not you have spent every available heart-beat in his slavery during the day, or whether you are endeavouring, you miserable thief, to steal home with a little remnant of it for your children at night.
This was the theory of the office, as Henry once heard it expressed, with a cynicism more brief and direct from the lips of one of his task-masters; but it must be admitted that in certain respects his experience was extreme. There are offices which are the ears and eyes of activities absorbingly and even romantically human. To be in a shipping-office is not perhaps to be the rose, but it is to live near it,—the great rose of the sea. You are, so to say, a land-sailor, a supercargo left on shore. Your office-windows are lashed with hurricanes; your talk is frequently of cyclones. The names of far romantic isles are constantly on your lips, and your bills of lading are threepenny romances in themselves. Strange produce of distant lands are your daily concern, and the four winds meet at your counter with a savour of tar. For all you know, a pirate may claim your attention any minute of the day.
Or, again, to be, say, in a corn-merchant's, a clearing-house of the fruitful earth. There at your telephone you may hear the corn-fields whispering to you, hear the wheat waving in the wind, and the thin chatter of oats. Or you may sell butter and cheese in an office that smells of farms. However removed, you are an indirect agent of the earth, a humble go-between of the seasons and the eternal needs of man.
Or, once more, you may be one of the thousand clerks of a great manufacturer, and be humbly related to one of the arts or crafts that gladden the eye or add to the comforts of man. Or even, though you may be denied so close an association with the elements, or the arts, you may be the pen to some subtle legal confidante of human nature. Your office may be stored with records of human perversity and whimsicality. You may be the witness to fantastic wills, or assist in the administration of the estates of lunatics. At all events, you will come within hearing of the human passions. Misers will visit you at times, and beautiful ladies in mourning deep as their distress; and from your desk you will catch a glimpse of the sombre pageantry of litigious man.
Though it is true that a certain far-off flavour of these legal excitements occasionally enlivened the business to which Henry had been sacrificially indentured, for the most part it was an abstract parasitical thing which had succeeded in persuading other businesses, more directly fed from the human spring, of its obliging usefulness in relieving them of detachable burdens. In fact, it had no activity or interest of its own to account for, so it proposed, in default of any such original reason for existence, to look after the accounts of others, as a self-constituted body of financial police. For those engaged in it, except those who had been born mentally deformed, or those who had become unnaturally perverted by long usage, it was a sort of penitentiary of the mathematics.
THE GRASS BETWEEN THE FLAG-STONES
Yes, it was a curiously unreal world; and, for the first day or two, as Henry, bent, lonely and bewildered, over his desk, studied it furtively with questioning eyes, it seemed to him as though he had strayed into some asylum for the insane, where fantastic interests and mock honours take the place of the real interests and honours of sane human beings.
Part of the business of the firm consisted in the collection of house-rents, frequently entailing visits from tenants and questions of repairs. A certain Mr. Smith, a wiry little grey-headed man, with a keen face and a decisive manner, looked after this branch; and the gusto with which he did it was one of Henry's earliest and most instructive amazements. House-repairs were quite evidently his poetry, and he never seemed so happy as when passionately wrangling with a tenant on some question of drains. The words "cesspool" and "wet-trap"—words to which I don't pretend to attach any meaning—seemed to be particular favourites of his. In fact, an hour seldom passed without their falling from his lips. But Mr. Smith's great opportunity was a gale. For that always meant an exciting harvest of dislodged chimney-pots, flying slates, and smashed skylights, which would impart an energetic interest to his life for days.
Again, in Henry's department—for the office was cut into two halves, with about ten clerks in each, the partners having, of course, their own private offices, from which they might dart out at any moment—there was a certain little fussy chief clerk who was obviously a person of very mysterious importance. He was frequently away, evidently on missions of great moment, for always on his return he would be closeted immediately with one or other of the partners, who in turn seemed to consider him important too, and would sometimes treat him almost like one of themselves, actually condescending to laugh with him now and again over some joke, evidently as mysterious as all the rest. This Mr. Perkins seldom noticed the juniors in his department, though occasionally he would select one of them to accompany him on one of his missions to clients of the firm; and they would start off together, as you may see a plumber and his apprentice sometimes in the streets,—the proud master-plumber in front, and the little apprentice plumber behind, carrying the lead pipe and the iron smelting-pot.
Now, did Mr. Smith really take such a heart-interest in cesspools and wet-traps as he appeared to do? and did Mr. Perkins really think he mattered all that?
These were two of the earliest questions which Henry asked himself, and as time brought the answers to them, and kindred questions, there were unexpected elements of comfort for the heart of the boy, longing so desperately in that barren place for any hint of the human touch. One day Mr. Smith startled him by mentioning Dickens, and even Charles Lamb. It was a kindly recognition of Mesurier's rumoured interest in literature. Henry looked at him in amazement. "Oh, you read then!" he exclaimed. Of anything so human as reading he had suspected no one in that office.
Then as to the great Mr. Perkins, the time came when he was to prove very human indeed. For, dying suddenly one day, his various work had to pass into other hands; and, bit by bit, it began to leak out that those missions had not been so industriously devoted to the interests of the firm, nor been so carefully executed, as had been imagined. For Mr. Perkins, it transpired, had been fond of his pleasures, could appreciate wine, and liked an occasional informal holiday. So, posthumously, he began to wear for Henry a faint halo of humanity.