CHAPTER XVI. FLORENCE
The very afternoon after Aaron's arrival in Florence the sky became dark, the wind cold, and rain began steadily to fall. He sat in his big, bleak room above the river, and watched the pale green water fused with yellow, the many-threaded streams fuse into one, as swiftly the surface flood came down from the hills. Across, the dark green hills looked darker in the wet, the umbrella pines held up in vain above the villas. But away below, on the Lungarno, traffic rattled as ever.
Aaron went down at five o'clock to tea, and found himself alone next a group of women, mostly Swedes or Danish or Dutch, drinking a peculiar brown herb-brew which tasted like nothing else on earth, and eating two thick bits of darkish bread smeared with a brown smear which hoped it was jam, but hoped in vain. Unhappily he sat in the gilt and red, massively ornate room, while the foreign women eyed him. Oh, bitter to be a male under such circumstances.
He escaped as soon as possible back to his far-off regions, lonely and cheerless, away above. But he rather liked the far-off remoteness in the big old Florentine house: he did not mind the peculiar dark, uncosy dreariness. It was not really dreary: only indifferent. Indifferent to comfort, indifferent to all homeliness and cosiness. The over-big furniture trying to be impressive, but never to be pretty or bright or cheerful. There it stood, ugly and apart. And there let it stand.—Neither did he mind the lack of fire, the cold sombreness of his big bedroom. At home, in England, the bright grate and the ruddy fire, the thick hearth-rug and the man's arm-chair, these had been inevitable. And now he was glad to get away from it all. He was glad not to have a cosy hearth, and his own arm-chair. He was glad to feel the cold, and to breathe the unwarmed air. He preferred the Italian way of no fires, no heating. If the day was cold, he was willing to be cold too. If it was dark, he was willing to be dark. The cosy brightness of a real home—it had stifled him till he felt his lungs would burst. The horrors of real domesticity. No, the Italian brutal way was better.
So he put his overcoat over his knee, and studied some music he had bought in Milan: some Pergolesi and the Scarlatti he liked, and some Corelli. He preferred frail, sensitive, abstract music, with not much feeling in it, but a certain limpidity and purity. Night fell as he sat reading the scores. He would have liked to try certain pieces on his flute. But his flute was too sensitive, it winced from the new strange surroundings, and would not blossom.
Dinner sounded at last—at eight o'clock, or something after. He had to learn to expect the meals always forty minutes late. Down he went, down the long, dark, lonely corridors and staircases. The dining room was right downstairs. But he had a little table to himself near the door, the elderly women were at some little distance. The only other men were Agostmo, the unshapely waiter, and an Italian duke, with wife and child and nurse, the family sitting all together at a table halfway down the room, and utterly pre-occupied with a little yellow dog.
However, the food was good enough, and sufficient, and the waiter and the maid-servant cheerful and bustling. Everything felt happy-go-lucky and informal, there was no particular atmosphere. Nobody put on any airs, because nobody in the Nardini took any notice if they did. The little ducal dog yapped, the ducal son shouted, the waiter dropped half a dozen spoons, the old women knitted during the waits, and all went off so badly that it was quite pleasant. Yes, Aaron preferred it to Bertolini's, which was trying to be efficient and correct: though not making any strenuous effort. Still, Bertolini's was much more up to the scratch, there was the tension of proper standards. Whereas here at Nardini's, nothing mattered very much.
It was November. When he got up to his far-off room again, Aaron felt almost as if he were in a castle with the drawbridge drawn up. Through the open window came the sound of the swelling Arno, as it rushed and rustled along over its gravel-shoals. Lights spangled the opposite side. Traffic sounded deep below. The room was not really cold, for the summer sun so soaks into these thick old buildings, that it takes a month or two of winter to soak it out.—The rain still fell.
In the morning it was still November, and the dawn came slowly. And through the open window was the sound of the river's rushing. But the traffic started before dawn, with a bang and a rattle of carts, and a bang and jingle of tram-cars over the not-distant bridge. Oh, noisy Florence! At half-past seven Aaron rang for his coffee: and got it at a few minutes past eight. The signorina had told him to take his coffee in bed.
Rain was still falling. But towards nine o'clock it lifted, and he decided to go out. A wet, wet world. Carriages going by, with huge wet shiny umbrellas, black and with many points, erected to cover the driver and the tail of the horse and the box-seat. The hood of the carriage covered the fare. Clatter-clatter through the rain. Peasants with long wagons and slow oxen, and pale-green huge umbrellas erected for the driver to walk beneath. Men tripping along in cloaks, shawls, umbrellas, anything, quite unconcerned. A man loading gravel in the river-bed, in spite of the wet. And innumerable bells ringing: but innumerable bells. The great soft trembling of the cathedral bell felt in all the air.
Anyhow it was a new world. Aaron went along close to the tall thick houses, following his nose. And suddenly he caught sight of the long slim neck of the Palazzo Vecchio up above, in the air. And in another minute he was passing between massive buildings, out into the Piazza della Signoria. There he stood still and looked round him in real surprise, and real joy. The flat empty square with its stone paving was all wet. The great buildings rose dark. The dark, sheer front of the Palazzo Vecchio went up like a cliff, to the battlements, and the slim tower soared dark and hawk-like, crested, high above. And at the foot of the cliff stood the great naked David, white and stripped in the wet, white against the dark, warm-dark cliff of the building—and near, the heavy naked men of Bandinelli.
The first thing he had seen, as he turned into the square, was the back of one of these Bandinelli statues: a great naked man of marble, with a heavy back and strong naked flanks over which the water was trickling. And then to come immediately upon the David, so much whiter, glistening skin-white in the wet, standing a little forward, and shrinking.
He may be ugly, too naturalistic, too big, and anything else you like. But the David in the Piazza della Signoria, there under the dark great palace, in the position Michelangelo chose for him, there, standing forward stripped and exposed and eternally half-shrinking, half—wishing to expose himself, he is the genius of Florence. The adolescent, the white, self-conscious, physical adolescent: enormous, in keeping with the stark, grim, enormous palace, which is dark and bare as he is white and bare. And behind, the big, lumpy Bandinelli men are in keeping too. They may be ugly—but they are there in their place, and they have their own lumpy reality. And this morning in the rain, standing unbroken, with the water trickling down their flanks and along the inner side of their great thighs, they were real enough, representing the undaunted physical nature of the heavier Florentines.
Aaron looked and looked at the three great naked men. David so much white, and standing forward, self-conscious: then at the great splendid front of the Palazzo Vecchio: and at the fountain splashing water upon its wet, wet figures; and the distant equestrian statue; and the stone-flagged space of the grim square. And he felt that here he was in one of the world's living centres, here, in the Piazza della Signoria. The sense of having arrived—of having reached a perfect centre of the human world: this he had.
And so, satisfied, he turned round to look at the bronze Perseus which rose just above him. Benvenuto Cellini's dark hero looked female, with his plump hips and his waist, female and rather insignificant: graceful, and rather vulgar. The clownish Bandinellis were somehow more to the point.—Then all the statuary in the Loggia! But that is a mistake. It looks too much like the yard of a monumental mason.
The great, naked men in the rain, under the dark-grey November sky, in the dark, strong inviolable square! The wonderful hawk-head of the old palace. The physical, self-conscious adolescent, Michelangelo's David, shrinking and exposing himself, with his white, slack limbs! Florence, passionate, fearless Florence had spoken herself out.—Aaron was fascinated by the Piazza della Signoria. He never went into the town, nor returned from it to his lodging, without contriving to pass through the square. And he never passed through it without satisfaction. Here men had been at their intensest, most naked pitch, here, at the end of the old world and the beginning of the new. Since then, always rather puling and apologetic.
Aaron felt a new self, a new life-urge rising inside himself. Florence seemed to start a new man in him. It was a town of men. On Friday morning, so early, he heard the traffic. Early, he watched the rather low, two-wheeled traps of the peasants spanking recklessly over the bridge, coming in to town. And then, when he went out, he found the Piazza della Signoria packed with men: but all, all men. And all farmers, land-owners and land-workers. The curious, fine-nosed Tuscan farmers, with their half-sardonic, amber-coloured eyes. Their curious individuality, their clothes worn so easy and reckless, their hats with the personal twist. Their curious full oval cheeks, their tendency to be too fat, to have a belly and heavy limbs. Their close-sitting dark hair. And above all, their sharp, almost acrid, mocking expression, the silent curl of the nose, the eternal challenge, the rock-bottom unbelief, and the subtle fearlessness. The dangerous, subtle, never-dying fearlessness, and the acrid unbelief. But men! Men! A town of men, in spite of everything. The one manly quality, undying, acrid fearlessness. The eternal challenge of the un-quenched human soul. Perhaps too acrid and challenging today, when there is nothing left to challenge. But men—who existed without apology and without justification. Men who would neither justify themselves nor apologize for themselves. Just men. The rarest thing left in our sweet Christendom.
Altogether Aaron was pleased with himself, for being in Florence. Those were early days after the war, when as yet very few foreigners had returned, and the place had the native sombreness and intensity. So that our friend did not mind being alone.
The third day, however, Francis called on him. There was a tap at the bedroom door, and the young man entered, all eyes of curiosity.
"Oh, there you ARE!" he cried, flinging his hand and twisting his waist and then laying his hand on his breast. "Such a LONG way up to you! But miles—! Well, how are you? Are you quite all right here? You are? I'm so glad—we've been so rushed, seeing people that we haven't had a MINUTE. But not a MINUTE! People! People! People! Isn't it amazing how many there are, and how many one knows, and gets to know! But amazing! Endless acquaintances!—Oh, and such quaint people here! so ODD! So MORE than odd! Oh, extraordinary—!" Francis chuckled to himself over the extraordinariness. Then he seated himself gracefully at Aaron's table. "Oh, MUSIC! What? Corelli! So interesting! So very CLEVER, these people, weren't they!—Corelli and the younger Scarlatti and all that crowd." Here he closed the score again. "But now—LOOK! Do you want to know anybody here, or don't you? I've told them about you, and of course they're dying to meet you and hear you play. But I thought it best not to mention anything about—about your being hard-up, and all that. I said you were just here on a visit. You see with this kind of people I'm sure it's much the best not to let them start off by thinking you will need them at all—or that you MIGHT need them. Why give yourself away, anyhow? Just meet them and take them for what they're worth—and then you can see. If they like to give you an engagement to play at some show or other—well, you can decide when the time comes whether you will accept. Much better that these kind of people shouldn't get it into their heads at once that they can hire your services. It doesn't do. They haven't enough discrimination for that. Much best make rather a favour of it, than sort of ask them to hire you.—Don't you agree? Perhaps I'm wrong."
Aaron sat and listened and wondered at the wisdom and the genuine kindness of the young beau. And more still, he wondered at the profound social disillusionment. This handsome collie dog was something of a social wolf, half showing his fangs at the moment. But with genuine kindheartedness for another wolf. Aaron was touched.
"Yes, I think that's the best way," he said.
"You do! Yes, so do I. Oh, they are such queer people! Why is it, do you think, that English people abroad go so very QUEER—so ultra-English—INCREDIBLE!—and at the same time so perfectly impossible? But impossible! Pathological, I assure you.—And as for their sexual behaviour—oh, dear, don't mention it. I assure you it doesn't bear mention.—And all quite flagrant, quite unabashed—under the cover of this fanatical Englishness. But I couldn't begin to TELL you all the things. It's just incredible."
Aaron wondered how on earth Francis had been able to discover and bear witness to so much that was incredible, in a bare two days. But a little gossip, and an addition of lurid imagination will carry you anywhere.
"Well now," said Francis. "What are you doing today?"
Aaron was not doing anything in particular.
"Then will you come and have dinner with us—?"
Francis fixed up the time and the place—a small restaurant at the other end of the town. Then he leaned out of the window.
"Fascinating place! Oh, fascinating place!" he said, soliloquy. "And you've got a superb view. Almost better than ours, I think.—Well then, half-past seven. We're meeting a few other people, mostly residents or people staying some time. We're not inviting them. Just dropping in, you know—a little restaurant. We shall see you then! Well then, a rivederci till this evening.—So glad you like Florence! I'm simply loving it—revelling. And the pictures!—Oh—"
The party that evening consisted all of men: Francis and Angus, and a writer, James Argyle, and little Algy Constable, and tiny Louis Mee, and deaf Walter Rosen. They all snapped and rattled at one another, and were rather spiteful but rather amusing. Francis and Angus had to leave early. They had another appointment. And James Argyle got quite tipsy, and said to Aaron:
"But, my boy, don't let yourself be led astray by the talk of such people as Algy. Beware of them, my boy, if you've a soul to save. If you've a soul to save!" And he swallowed the remains of his litre.
Algy's nose trembled a little, and his eyes blinked. "And if you've a soul to LOSE," he said, "I would warn you very earnestly against Argyle." Whereupon Algy shut one eye and opened the other so wide, that Aaron was almost scared. "Quite right, my boy. Ha! Ha! Never a truer thing said! Ha-ha-ha." Argyle laughed his Mephistophelian tipsy laugh. "They'll teach you to save. Never was such a lot of ripe old savers! Save their old trouser-buttons! Go to them if you want to learn to save. Oh, yes, I advise it seriously. You'll lose nothing—not even a reputation.—You may lose a SOUL, of course. But that's a detail, among such a hoard of banknotes and trouser-buttons. Ha-ha! What's a soul, to them—?"
"What is it to you, is perhaps the more pertinent question," said Algy, flapping his eyelids like some crazy owl. "It is you who specialise in the matter of soul, and we who are in need of enlightenment—"
"Yes, very true, you ARE! You ARE in need of enlightenment. A set of benighted wise virgins. Ha-ha-ha! That's good, that—benighted wise virgins! What—" Argyle put his red face near to Aaron's, and made a moue, narrowing his eyes quizzically as he peered up from under his level grey eyebrows. "Sit in the dark to save the lamp-oil—And all no good to them.—When the bridegroom cometh—! Ha-ha! Good that! Good, my boy!—The bridegroom—" he giggled to himself. "What about the bridegroom, Algy, my boy? Eh? What about him? Better trim your wick, old man, if it's not too late—"
"We were talking of souls, not wicks, Argyle," said Algy.
"Same thing. Upon my soul it all amounts to the same thing. Where's the soul in a man that hasn't got a bedfellow—eh?—answer me that! Can't be done you know. Might as well ask a virgin chicken to lay you an egg."
"Then there ought to be a good deal of it about," said Algy.
"Of what? Of soul? There ought to be a good deal of soul about?—Ah, because there's a good deal of—, you mean.—Ah, I wish it were so. I wish it were so. But, believe me, there's far more damned chastity in the world, than anything else. Even in this town.—Call it chastity, if you like. I see nothing in it but sterility. It takes a rat to praise long tails. Impotence set up the praise of chastity—believe me or not—but that's the bottom of it. The virtue is made out of the necessity.—Ha-ha-ha!—Like them! Like them! Ha-ha! Saving their souls! Why they'd save the waste matter of their bodies if they could. Grieves them to part with it.—Ha! ha!—ha!"
There was a pause. Argyle was in his cups, which left no more to be said. Algy, quivering and angry, looked disconcertingly round the room as if he were quite calm and collected. The deaf Jewish Rosen was smiling down his nose and saying: "What was that last? I didn't catch that last," cupping his ear with his hand in the frantic hope that someone would answer. No one paid any heed.
"I shall be going," said Algy, looking round. Then to Aaron he said, "You play the flute, I hear. May we hear you some time?"
"Yes," said Aaron, non-committal.
"Well, look here—come to tea tomorrow. I shall have some friends, and Del Torre will play the piano. Come to tea tomorrow, will you?"
"Thank you, I will."
"And perhaps you'll bring your flute along."
"Don't you do any such thing, my boy. Make them entertain YOU, for once.—They're always squeezing an entertainment out of somebody—" and Argyle desperately emptied the remains of Algy's wine into his own glass: whilst Algy stood as if listening to something far off, and blinking terribly.
"Anyhow," he said at length, "you'll come, won't you? And bring the flute if you feel like it."
"Don't you take that flute, my boy," persisted Argyle. "Don't think of such a thing. If they want a concert, let them buy their tickets and go to the Teatro Diana. Or to Marchesa del Torre's Saturday morning. She can afford to treat them." Algy looked at Argyle, and blinked. "Well," he said. "I hope you'll get home all right, Argyle."
"Thank you for your courtesy, Algy. Won't you lend me your arm?"
As Algy was small and frail, somewhat shaky, and as Argyle was a finely built, heavy man of fifty or more, the slap was unkind.
"Afraid I can't tonight. Good-night—"
Algy departed, so did little Mee, who had sat with a little delighted disapproval on his tiny, bird-like face, without saying anything. And even the Jew Rosen put away his deaf-machine and began awkwardly to take his leave. His long nose was smiling to itself complacently at all the things Argyle had been saying.
When he, too, had gone, Argyle arched his brows at Aaron, saying:
"Oh, my dear fellow, what a lot they are!—Little Mee—looking like an innocent little boy. He's over seventy if he's a day. Well over seventy. Well, you don't believe me. Ask his mother—ask his mother. She's ninety-five. Old lady of ninety-five—" Argyle even laughed himself at his own preposterousness.
"And then Algy—Algy's not a fool, you know. Oh, he can be most entertaining, most witty, and amusing. But he's out of place here. He should be in Kensington, dandling round the ladies' drawing rooms and making his mots. They're rich, you know, the pair of them. Little Mee used to boast that he lived on eleven-and-three-pence a week. Had to, poor chap. But then what does a white mouse like that need? Makes a heavy meal on a cheese-paring. Luck, you know—but of course he's come into money as well. Rich as Croesus, and still lives on nineteen-and-two-pence a week. Though it's nearly double, of course, what it used to be. No wonder he looks anxious. They disapprove of me—oh, quite right, quite right from their own point of view. Where would their money be otherwise? It wouldn't last long if I laid hands on it—" he made a devilish quizzing face. "But you know, they get on my nerves. Little old maids, you know, little old maids. I'm sure I'm surprised at their patience with me.—But when people are patient with you, you want to spit gall at them. Don't you? Ha-ha-ha! Poor old Algy.—Did I lay it on him tonight, or did I miss him?"
"I think you got him," said Aaron.
"He'll never forgive me. Depend on it, he'll never forgive me. Ha-ha! I like to be unforgiven. It adds ZEST to one's intercourse with people, to know that they'll never forgive one. Ha-ha-ha! Little old maids, who do their knitting with their tongues. Poor old Algy—he drops his stitches now. Ha-ha-ha!—Must be eighty, I should say."
Aaron laughed. He had never met a man like Argyle before—and he could not help being charmed. The other man had a certain wicked whimsicality that was very attractive, when levelled against someone else, and not against oneself. He must have been very handsome in his day, with his natural dignity, and his clean-shaven strong square face. But now his face was all red and softened and inflamed, his eyes had gone small and wicked under his bushy grey brows. Still he had a presence. And his grey hair, almost gone white, was still handsome.
"And what are you going to do in Florence?" asked Argyle.
"Well," said Argyle. "Make what you can out of them, and then go. Go before they have time to do the dirty on you. If they think you want anything from them, they'll treat you like a dog, like a dog. Oh, they're very frightened of anybody who wants anything of them: frightened to death. I see nothing of them.—Live by myself—see nobody. Can't stand it, you know: their silly little teaparties—simply can't stand it. No, I live alone—and shall die alone.—At least, I sincerely hope so. I should be sorry to have any of them hanging round."
The restaurant was empty, the pale, malarial waiter—he had of course contracted malaria during the war—was looking purple round the eyes. But Argyle callously sat on. Aaron therefore rose to his feet.
"Oh, I'm coming, I'm coming," said Argyle.
He got unsteadily to his feet. The waiter helped him on with his coat: and he put a disreputable-looking little curly hat on his head. Then he took his stick.
"Don't look at my appearance, my dear fellow," said Argyle. "I am frayed at the wrists—look here!" He showed the cuffs of his overcoat, just frayed through. "I've got a trunkful of clothes in London, if only somebody would bring it out to me.—Ready then! Avanti!"
And so they passed out into the still rainy street. Argyle lived in the very centre of the town: in the Cathedral Square. Aaron left him at his hotel door.
"But come and see me," said Argyle. "Call for me at twelve o'clock—or just before twelve—and let us have luncheon together. What! Is that all right?—Yes, come just before twelve.—When?—Tomorrow? Tomorrow morning? Will you come tomorrow?"
Aaron said he would on Monday.
"Monday, eh! You say Monday! Very well then. Don't you forget now. Don't you forget. For I've a memory like a vice. I shan't forget.—Just before twelve then. And come right up. I'm right under the roof. In Paradise, as the porter always says. Siamo nel paradiso. But he's a cretin. As near Paradise as I care for, for it's devilish hot in summer, and damned cold in winter. Don't you forget now—Monday, twelve o'clock."
And Argyle pinched Aaron's arm fast, then went unsteadily up the steps to his hotel door.
The next day at Algy's there was a crowd Algy had a very pleasant flat indeed, kept more scrupulously neat and finicking than ever any woman's flat was kept. So today, with its bowls of flowers and its pictures and books and old furniture, and Algy, very nicely dressed, fluttering and blinking and making really a charming host, it was all very delightful to the little mob of visitors. They were a curious lot, it is true: everybody rather exceptional. Which though it may be startling, is so very much better fun than everybody all alike. Aaron talked to an old, old Italian elegant in side-curls, who peeled off his grey gloves and studied his formalities with a delightful Mid-Victorian dash, and told stories about a plaint which Lady Surry had against Lord Marsh, and was quite incomprehensible. Out rolled the English words, like plums out of a burst bag, and all completely unintelligible. But the old beau was supremely satisfied. He loved talking English, and holding his listeners spell-bound.
Next to Aaron on the sofa sat the Marchesa del Torre, an American woman from the Southern States, who had lived most of her life in Europe. She was about forty years of age, handsome, well-dressed, and quiet in the buzz of the tea-party. It was evident she was one of Algy's lionesses. Now she sat by Aaron, eating nothing, but taking a cup of tea and keeping still. She seemed sad—or not well perhaps. Her eyes were heavy. But she was very carefully made up, and very well dressed, though simply: and sitting there, full-bosomed, rather sad, remote-seeming, she suggested to Aaron a modern Cleopatra brooding, Anthony-less.
Her husband, the Marchese, was a little intense Italian in a colonel's grey uniform, cavalry, leather gaiters. He had blue eyes, his hair was cut very short, his head looked hard and rather military: he would have been taken for an Austrian officer, or even a German, had it not been for the peculiar Italian sprightliness and touch of grimace in his mobile countenance. He was rather like a gnome—not ugly, but odd.
Now he came and stood opposite to Signor di Lanti, and quizzed him in Italian. But it was evident, in quizzing the old buck, the little Marchese was hovering near his wife, in ear-shot. Algy came up with cigarettes, and she at once began to smoke, with that peculiar heavy intensity of a nervous woman.
Aaron did not say anything—did not know what to say. He was peculiarly conscious of the woman sitting next to him, her arm near his. She smoked heavily, in silence, as if abstracted, a sort of cloud on her level, dark brows. Her hair was dark, but a softish brown, not black, and her skin was fair. Her bosom would be white.—Why Aaron should have had this thought, he could not for the life of him say.
Manfredi, her husband, rolled his blue eyes and grimaced as he laughed at old Lanti. But it was obvious that his attention was diverted sideways, towards his wife. Aaron, who was tired of nursing a tea-cup, placed in on a table and resumed his seat in silence. But suddenly the little Marchese whipped out his cigarette-case, and making a little bow, presented it to Aaron, saying:
"Won't you smoke?"
"Thank you," said Aaron.
"Turkish that side—Virginia there—you see."
"Thank you, Turkish," said Aaron.
The little officer in his dove-grey and yellow uniform snapped his box shut again, and presented a light.
"You are new in Florence?" he said, as he presented the match.
"Four days," said Aaron.
"And I hear you are musical."
"I play the flute—no more."
"Ah, yes—but then you play it as an artist, not as an accomplishment."
"But how do you know?" laughed Aaron.
"I was told so—and I believe it."
"That's nice of you, anyhow—But you are a musician too."
"Yes—we are both musicians—my wife and I."
Manfredi looked at his wife. She flicked the ash off her cigarette.
"What sort?" said Aaron.
"Why, how do you mean, what sort? We are dilettanti, I suppose."
"No—what is your instrument? The piano?"
"Yes—the pianoforte. And my wife sings. But we are very much out of practice. I have been at the war four years, and we have had our home in Paris. My wife was in Paris, she did not wish to stay in Italy alone. And so—you see—everything goes—"
"But you will begin again?"
"Yes. We have begun already. We have music on Saturday mornings. Next Saturday a string quartette, and violin solos by a young Florentine woman—a friend—very good indeed, daughter of our Professor Tortoli, who composes—as you may know—"
"Yes," said Aaron.
"Would you care to come and hear—?"
"Awfully nice if you would—" suddenly said the wife, quite simply, as if she had merely been tired, and not talking before.
"I should like to very much—"
"Do come then."
While they were making the arrangements, Algy came up in his blandest manner.
"Now Marchesa—might we hope for a song?"
"No—I don't sing any more," came the slow, contralto reply.
"Oh, but you can't mean you say that deliberately—"
"Yes, quite deliberately—" She threw away her cigarette and opened her little gold case to take another.
"But what can have brought you to such a disastrous decision?"
"I can't say," she replied, with a little laugh. "The war, probably."
"Oh, but don't let the war deprive us of this, as of everything else."
"Can't be helped," she said. "I have no choice in the matter. The bird has flown—" She spoke with a certain heavy languor.
"You mean the bird of your voice? Oh, but that is quite impossible. One can hear it calling out of the leaves every time you speak."
"I'm afraid you can't get him to do any more than call out of the leaves."
"But—but—pardon me—is it because you don't intend there should be any more song? Is that your intention?"
"That I couldn't say," said the Marchesa, smoking, smoking.
"Yes," said Manfredi. "At the present time it is because she WILL not—not because she cannot. It is her will, as you say."
"Dear me! Dear me!" said Algy. "But this is really another disaster added to the war list.—But—but—will none of us ever be able to persuade you?" He smiled half cajoling, half pathetic, with a prodigious flapping of his eyes.
"I don't know," said she. "That will be as it must be."
"Then can't we say it must be SONG once more?"
To this sally she merely laughed, and pressed out her half-smoked cigarette.
"How very disappointing! How very cruel of—of fate—and the war—and—and all the sum total of evils," said Algy.
"Perhaps—" here the little and piquant host turned to Aaron.
"Perhaps Mr. Sisson, your flute might call out the bird of song. As thrushes call each other into challenge, you know. Don't you think that is very probable?"
"I have no idea," said Aaron.
"But you, Marchesa. Won't you give us hope that it might be so?"
"I've no idea, either," said she. "But I should very much like to hear Mr. Sisson's flute. It's an instrument I like extremely."
"There now. You see you may work the miracle, Mr. Sisson. Won't you play to us?"
"I'm afraid I didn't bring my flute along," said Aaron "I didn't want to arrive with a little bag."
"Quite!" said Algy. "What a pity it wouldn't go in your pocket."
"Not music and all," said Aaron.
"Dear me! What a comble of disappointment. I never felt so strongly, Marchesa, that the old life and the old world had collapsed.—Really—I shall soon have to try to give up being cheerful at all."
"Don't do that," said the Marchesa. "It isn't worth the effort."
"Ah! I'm glad you find it so. Then I have hope."
She merely smiled, indifferent.
The teaparty began to break up—Aaron found himself going down the stairs with the Marchesa and her husband. They descended all three in silence, husband and wife in front. Once outside the door, the husband asked:
"How shall we go home, dear? Tram or carriage—?" It was evident he was economical.
"Walk," she said, glancing over her shoulder at Aaron. "We are all going the same way, I believe."
Aaron said where he lived. They were just across the river. And so all three proceeded to walk through the town.
"You are sure it won't be too much for you—too far?" said the little officer, taking his wife's arm solicitously. She was taller than he. But he was a spirited fellow.
"No, I feel like walking."
"So long as you don't have to pay for it afterwards."
Aaron gathered that she was not well. Yet she did not look ill—unless it were nerves. She had that peculiar heavy remote quality of pre-occupation and neurosis.
The streets of Florence were very full this Sunday evening, almost impassable, crowded particularly with gangs of grey-green soldiers. The three made their way brokenly, and with difficulty. The Italian was in a constant state of returning salutes. The grey-green, sturdy, unsoldierly soldiers looked at the woman as she passed.
"I am sure you had better take a carriage," said Manfredi.
"No—I don't mind it."
"Do you feel at home in Florence?" Aaron asked her.
"Yes—as much as anywhere. Oh, yes—quite at home."
"Do you like it as well as anywhere?" he asked.
"Yes—for a time. Paris for the most part."
"No, never America. I came when I was quite a little girl to Europe—Madrid—Constantinople—Paris. I hardly knew America at all."
Aaron remembered that Francis had told him, the Marchesa's father had been ambassador to Paris.
"So you feel you have no country of your own?"
"I have Italy. I am Italian now, you know."
Aaron wondered why she spoke so muted, so numbed. Manfredi seemed really attached to her—and she to him. They were so simple with one another.
They came towards the bridge where they should part.
"Won't you come and have a cocktail?" she said.
"Now?" said Aaron.
"Yes. This is the right time for a cocktail. What time is it, Manfredi?"
"Half past six. Do come and have one with us," said the Italian. "We always take one about this time."
Aaron continued with them over the bridge. They had the first floor of an old palazzo opposite, a little way up the hill. A man-servant opened the door.
"If only it will be warm," she said. "The apartment is almost impossible to keep warm. We will sit in the little room."
Aaron found himself in a quite warm room with shaded lights and a mixture of old Italian stiffness and deep soft modern comfort. The Marchesa went away to take off her wraps, and the Marchese chatted with Aaron. The little officer was amiable and kind, and it was evident he liked his guest.
"Would you like to see the room where we have music?" he said. "It is a fine room for the purpose—we used before the war to have music every Saturday morning, from ten to twelve: and all friends might come. Usually we had fifteen or twenty people. Now we are starting again. I myself enjoy it so much. I am afraid my wife isn't so enthusiastic as she used to be. I wish something would rouse her up, you know. The war seemed to take her life away. Here in Florence are so many amateurs. Very good indeed. We can have very good chamber-music indeed. I hope it will cheer her up and make her quite herself again. I was away for such long periods, at the front.—And it was not good for her to be alone.—I am hoping now all will be better."
So saying, the little, odd officer switched on the lights of the long salon. It was a handsome room in the Italian mode of the Empire period—beautiful old faded tapestry panels—reddish—and some ormolu furniture—and other things mixed in—rather conglomerate, but pleasing, all the more pleasing. It was big, not too empty, and seemed to belong to human life, not to show and shut-upedness. The host was happy showing it.
"Of course the flat in Paris is more luxurious than this," he said. "But I prefer this. I prefer it here." There was a certain wistfulness as he looked round, then began to switch off the lights.
They returned to the little salotta. The Marchesa was seated in a low chair. She wore a very thin white blouse, that showed her arms and her throat. She was a full-breasted, soft-skinned woman, though not stout.
"Make the cocktails then, Manfredi," she said. "Do you find this room very cold?" she asked of Aaron.
"Not a bit cold," he said.
"The stove goes all the time," she said, "but without much effect."
"You wear such thin clothes," he said.
"Ah, no, the stove should give heat enough. Do sit down. Will you smoke? There are cigarettes—and cigars, if you prefer them."
"No, I've got my own, thanks."
She took her own cigarette from her gold case.
"It is a fine room, for music, the big room," said he.
"Yes, quite. Would you like to play for us some time, do you think?"
"Do you want me to? I mean does it interest you?"
"Music altogether—! Well! I used to love it. Now—I'm not sure. Manfredi lives for it, almost."
"For that and nothing else?" asked Aaron.
"No, no! No, no! Other things as well."
"But you don't like it much any more?"
"I don't know. Perhaps I don't. I'm not sure."
"You don't look forward to the Saturday mornings?" he asked.
"Perhaps I don't—but for Manfredi's sake, of course, I do. But for his sake more than my own, I admit. And I think he knows it."
"A crowd of people in one's house—" said Aaron.
"Yes, the people. But it's not only that. It's the music itself—I think I can't stand it any more. I don't know."
"Too emotional? Too much feeling for you?"
"Yes, perhaps. But no. What I can't stand is chords, you know: harmonies. A number of sounds all sounding together. It just makes me ill. It makes me feel so sick."
"What—do you want discords?—dissonances?"
"No—they are nearly as bad. No, it's just when any number of musical notes, different notes, come together, harmonies or discords. Even a single chord struck on the piano. It makes me feel sick. I just feel as if I should retch. Isn't it strange? Of course, I don't tell Manfredi. It would be too cruel to him. It would cut his life in two."
"But then why do you have the music—the Saturdays—then?"
"Oh, I just keep out of the way as much as possible. I'm sure you feel there is something wrong with me, that I take it as I do," she added, as if anxious: but half ironical.
"No—I was just wondering—I believe I feel something the same myself. I know orchestra makes me blind with hate or I don't know what. But I want to throw bombs."
"There now. It does that to me, too. Only now it has fairly got me down, and I feel nothing but helpless nausea. You know, like when you are seasick."
Her dark-blue, heavy, haunted-looking eyes were resting on him as if she hoped for something. He watched her face steadily, a curious intelligence flickering on his own.
"Yes," he said. "I understand it. And I know, at the bottom, I'm like that. But I keep myself from realising, don't you know? Else perhaps, where should I be? Because I make my life and my living at it, as well."
"At music! Do you! But how bad for you. But perhaps the flute is different. I have a feeling that it is. I can think of one single pipe-note—yes, I can think of it quite, quite calmly. And I can't even think of the piano, or of the violin with its tremolo, or of orchestra, or of a string quartette—or even a military band—I can't think of it without a shudder. I can only bear drum-and-fife. Isn't it crazy of me—but from the other, from what we call music proper, I've endured too much. But bring your flute one day. Bring it, will you? And let me hear it quite alone. Quite, quite alone. I think it might do me an awful lot of good. I do, really. I can imagine it." She closed her eyes and her strange, sing-song lapsing voice came to an end. She spoke almost like one in a trance—or a sleep-walker.
"I've got it now in my overcoat pocket," he said, "if you like."
"Have you? Yes!" She was never hurried: always slow and resonant, so that the echoes of her voice seemed to linger. "Yes—do get it. Do get it. And play in the other room—quite—quite without accompaniment. Do—and try me."
"And you will tell me what you feel?"
Aaron went out to his overcoat. When he returned with his flute, which he was screwing together, Manfredi had come with the tray and the three cocktails. The Marchesa took her glass.
"Listen, Manfredi," she said. "Mr. Sisson is going to play, quite alone in the sala. And I am going to sit here and listen."
"Very well," said Manfredi. "Drink your cocktail first. Are you going to play without music?"
"Yes," said Aaron.
"I'll just put on the lights for you."
"No—leave it dark. Enough light will come in from here."
"Sure?" said Manfredi.
The little soldier was an intruder at the moment. Both the others felt it so. But they bore him no grudge. They knew it was they who were exceptional, not he. Aaron swallowed his drink, and looked towards the door.
"Sit down, Manfredi. Sit still," said the Marchesa.
"Won't you let me try some accompaniment?" said the soldier.
"No. I shall just play a little thing from memory," said Aaron.
"Sit down, dear. Sit down," said the Marchesa to her husband.
He seated himself obediently. The flash of bright yellow on the grey of his uniform seemed to make him like a chaffinch or a gnome.
Aaron retired to the other room, and waited awhile, to get back the spell which connected him with the woman, and gave the two of them this strange isolation, beyond the bounds of life, as it seemed.
He caught it again. And there, in the darkness of the big room, he put his flute to his lips, and began to play. It was a clear, sharp, lilted run-and-fall of notes, not a tune in any sense of the word, and yet a melody, a bright, quick sound of pure animation, a bright, quick, animate noise, running and pausing. It was like a bird's singing, in that it had no human emotion or passion or intention or meaning—a ripple and poise of animate sound. But it was unlike a bird's singing, in that the notes followed clear and single one after the other, in their subtle gallop. A nightingale is rather like that—a wild sound. To read all the human pathos into nightingales' singing is nonsense. A wild, savage, non-human lurch and squander of sound, beautiful, but entirely unaesthetic.
What Aaron was playing was not of his own invention. It was a bit of mediaeval phrasing written for the pipe and the viol. It made the piano seem a ponderous, nerve-wracking steam-roller of noise, and the violin, as we know it, a hateful wire-drawn nerve-torturer.
After a little while, when he entered the smaller room again, the Marchesa looked full into his face.
"Good!" she said. "Good!"
And a gleam almost of happiness seemed to light her up. She seemed like one who had been kept in a horrible enchanted castle—for years and years. Oh, a horrible enchanted castle, with wet walls of emotions and ponderous chains of feelings and a ghastly atmosphere of must-be. She felt she had seen through the opening door a crack of sunshine, and thin, pure, light outside air, outside, beyond this dank and beastly dungeon of feelings and moral necessity. Ugh!—she shuddered convulsively at what had been. She looked at her little husband. Chains of necessity all round him: a little jailor. Yet she was fond of him. If only he would throw away the castle keys. He was a little gnome. What did he clutch the castle-keys so tight for?
Aaron looked at her. He knew that they understood one another, he and she. Without any moral necessity or any other necessity. Outside—they had got outside the castle of so-called human life. Outside the horrible, stinking human castle Of life. A bit of true, limpid freedom. Just a glimpse.
"Charming!" said the Marchese. "Truly charming! But what was it you played?"
Aaron told him.
"But truly delightful. I say, won't you play for us one of these Saturdays? And won't you let me take the accompaniment? I should be charmed, charmed if you would."
"All right," said Aaron.
"Do drink another cocktail," said his hostess.
He did so. And then he rose to leave.
"Will you stay to dinner?" said the Marchesa. "We have two people coming—two Italian relatives of my husband. But—"
No, Aaron declined to stay to dinner.
"Then won't you come on—let me see—on Wednesday? Do come on Wednesday. We are alone. And do bring the flute. Come at half-past six, as today, will you? Yes?"
Aaron promised—and then he found himself in the street. It was half-past seven. Instead of returning straight home, he crossed the Ponte Vecchio and walked straight into the crowd. The night was fine now. He had his overcoat over his arm, and in a sort of trance or frenzy, whirled away by his evening's experience, and by the woman, he strode swiftly forward, hardly heeding anything, but rushing blindly on through all the crowd, carried away by his own feelings, as much as if he had been alone, and all these many people merely trees.
Leaving the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele a gang of soldiers suddenly rushed round him, buffeting him in one direction, whilst another gang, swinging round the corner, threw him back helpless again into the midst of the first gang. For some moments he struggled among the rude, brutal little mob of grey-green coarse uniforms that smelt so strong of soldiers. Then, irritated, he found himself free again, shaking himself and passing on towards the cathedral. Irritated, he now put on his overcoat and buttoned it to the throat, closing himself in, as it were, from the brutal insolence of the Sunday night mob of men. Before, he had been walking through them in a rush of naked feeling, all exposed to their tender mercies. He now gathered himself together.
As he was going home, suddenly, just as he was passing the Bargello, he stopped. He stopped, and put his hand to his breast pocket. His letter-case was gone. He had been robbed. It was as if lightning ran through him at that moment, as if a fluid electricity rushed down his limbs, through the sluice of his knees, and out at his feet, leaving him standing there almost unconscious. For a moment unconscious and superconscious he stood there. He had been robbed. They had put their hand in his breast and robbed him. If they had stabbed him, it could hardly have had a greater effect on him.
And he had known it. He had known it. When the soldiers jostled him so evilly they robbed him. And he knew it. He had known it as if it were fate. Even as if it were fated beforehand.
Feeling quite weak and faint, as if he had really been struck by some evil electric fluid, he walked on. And as soon as he began to walk, he began to reason. Perhaps his letter-case was in his other coat. Perhaps he had not had it with him at all. Perhaps he was feeling all this, just for nothing. Perhaps it was all folly.
He hurried forward. He wanted to make sure. He wanted relief. It was as if the power of evil had suddenly seized him and thrown him, and he wanted to say it was not so, that he had imagined it all, conjured it up. He did not want to admit the power of evil—particularly at that moment. For surely a very ugly evil spirit had struck him, in the midst of that gang of Italian soldiers. He knew it—it had pierced him. It had got him.
But he wanted to say it was not so. Reaching the house, he hastened upwards to his far-off, lonely room, through the dark corridors. Once in his own apartment, he shut the door and switched on the light, a sensation like fear at his heart. Then he searched his other pockets. He looked everywhere. In vain.
In vain, truly enough. For he knew the thing was stolen. He had known it all along. The soldiers had deliberately plotted, had deliberately rushed him and taken his purse. They must have watched him previously. They must have grinned, and jeered at him.
He sat down in a chair, to recover from the shock. The pocket-book contained four hundred francs, three one-pound notes, and various letters and private effects. Well, these were lost. But it was not so much the loss as the assault on his person that caused him to feel so stricken. He felt the jeering, gibing blows they had given as they jostled him.
And now he sat, weak in every limb, and said to himself: "Yes—and if I hadn't rushed along so full of feeling: if I hadn't exposed myself: if I hadn't got worked up with the Marchesa, and then rushed all kindled through the streets, without reserve, it would never have happened. I gave myself away: and there was someone ready to snatch what I gave. I gave myself away. It is my own fault. I should have been on my guard. I should be always on my guard: always, always. With God and the devil both, I should be on my guard. Godly or devilish, I should hold fast to my reserve and keep on the watch. And if I don't, I deserve what I get."
But still he sat in his chair in his bedroom, dazed. One part of his soul was saying emphatically: It serves you right. It is nothing but right. It serves everybody right who rushes enkindled through the street, and trusts implicitly in mankind and in the life-spirit, as if mankind and the life-spirit were a playground for enkindled individuals. It serves you right. You have paid about twelve pounds sterling for your lesson. Fool, you might have known beforehand, and then you needn't have paid at all. You can ill afford twelve pounds sterling, you fool. But since paid you have, then mind, mind the lesson is learned. Never again. Never expose yourself again. Never again absolute trust. It is a blasphemy against life, is absolute trust. Has a wild creature ever absolute trust? It minds itself. Sleeping or waking it is on its guard. And so must you be, or you'll go under. Sleeping or waking, man or woman, God or the devil, keep your guard over yourself. Keep your guard over yourself, lest worse befall you. No man is robbed unless he incites a robber. No man is murdered unless he attracts a murderer. Then be not robbed: it lies within your own power. And be not murdered. Or if you are, you deserve it. Keep your guard over yourself, now, always and forever. Yes, against God quite as hard as against the devil. He's fully as dangerous to you....
Thus thinking, not in his mind but in his soul, his active, living soul, he gathered his equanimity once more, and accepted the fact. So he rose and tidied himself for dinner. His face was now set, and still. His heart also was still—and fearless. Because its sentinel was stationed. Stationed, stationed for ever.
And Aaron never forgot. After this, it became essential to him to feel that the sentinel stood guard in his own heart. He felt a strange unease the moment he was off his guard. Asleep or awake, in the midst of the deepest passion or the suddenest love, or in the throes of greatest excitement or bewilderment, somewhere, some corner of himself was awake to the fact that the sentinel of the soul must not sleep, no, never, not for one instant.
CHAPTER XVII. HIGH UP OVER THE CATHEDRAL SQUARE
Aaron and Lilly sat in Argyle's little loggia, high up under the eaves of the small hotel, a sort of long attic-terrace just under the roof, where no one would have suspected it. It was level with the grey conical roof of the Baptistery. Here sat Aaron and Lilly in the afternoon, in the last of the lovely autumn sunshine. Below, the square was already cold in shadow, the pink and white and green Baptistery rose lantern-shaped as from some sea-shore, cool, cold and wan now the sun was gone. Black figures, innumerable black figures, curious because they were all on end, up on end—Aaron could not say why he expected them to be horizontal—little black figures upon end, like fishes that swim on their tails, wiggled endlessly across the piazza, little carriages on natural all-fours rattled tinily across, the yellow little tram-cars, like dogs slipped round the corner. The balcony was so high up, that the sound was ineffectual. The upper space, above the houses, was nearer than the under-currents of the noisy town. Sunlight, lovely full sunlight, lingered warm and still on the balcony. It caught the facade of the cathedral sideways, like the tips of a flower, and sideways lit up the stem of Giotto's tower, like a lily stem, or a long, lovely pale pink and white and green pistil of the lily of the cathedral. Florence, the flowery town. Firenze—Fiorenze—the flowery town: the red lilies. The Fiorentini, the flower-souled. Flowers with good roots in the mud and muck, as should be: and fearless blossoms in air, like the cathedral and the tower and the David.
"I love it," said Lilly. "I love this place, I love the cathedral and the tower. I love its pinkness and its paleness. The Gothic souls find fault with it, and say it is gimcrack and tawdry and cheap. But I love it, it is delicate and rosy, and the dark stripes are as they should be, like the tiger marks on a pink lily. It's a lily, not a rose; a pinky white lily with dark tigery marks. And heavy, too, in its own substance: earth-substance, risen from earth into the air: and never forgetting the dark, black-fierce earth—I reckon here men for a moment were themselves, as a plant in flower is for the moment completely itself. Then it goes off. As Florence has gone off. No flowers now. But it HAS flowered. And I don't see why a race should be like an aloe tree, flower once and die. Why should it? Why not flower again? Why not?"
"If it's going to, it will," said Aaron. "Our deciding about it won't alter it."
"The decision is part of the business."
Here they were interrupted by Argyle, who put his head through one of the windows. He had flecks of lather on his reddened face.
"Do you think you're wise now," he said, "to sit in that sun?"
"In November?" laughed Lilly.
"Always fear the sun when there's an 'r' in the month," said Argyle. "Always fear it 'r' or no 'r,' I say. I'm frightened of it. I've been in the South, I know what it is. I tell you I'm frightened of it. But if you think you can stand it—well—"
"It won't last much longer, anyhow," said Lilly.
"Too long for me, my boy. I'm a shady bird, in all senses of the word, in all senses of the word.—Now are you comfortable? What? Have another cushion? A rug for your knees? You're quite sure now? Well, wait just one moment till the waiter brings up a syphon, and you shall have a whiskey and soda. Precious—oh, yes, very precious these days—like drinking gold. Thirty-five lire a bottle, my boy!" Argyle pulled a long face, and made a noise with his lips. "But I had this bottle given me, and luckily you've come while there's a drop left. Very glad you have! Very glad you have."
Here he poked a little table through the window, and put a bottle and two glasses, one a tooth-glass, upon it. Then he withdrew again to finish shaving. The waiter presently hobbled up with the syphon and third glass. Argyle pushed his head through the window, that was only a little higher than the balcony. He was soon neatly shaved, and was brushing his hair.
"Go ahead, my boys, go ahead with that whiskey!" he said.
"We'll wait for you," said Lilly.
"No, no, don't think of it. However, if you will, I shall be one minute only—one minute only. I'll put on the water for the tea now. Oh, damned bad methylated spirit they sell now! And six francs a litre! Six francs a litre! I don't know what I'm going to do, the air I breathe costs money nowadays—Just one moment and I'll be with you! Just one moment—"
In a very little while he came from the tiny attic bedroom, through the tiniest cupboard of a sitting-room under the eaves, where his books were, and where he had hung his old red India tapestries—or silk embroideries—and he emerged there up above the world on the loggia.
"Now then—siamo nel paradiso, eh? Paradisal enough for you, is it?"
"The devil looking over Lincoln," said Lilly laughing, glancing up into Argyle's face.
"The devil looking over Florence would feel sad," said Argyle. "The place is fast growing respectable—Oh, piety makes the devil chuckle. But respectability, my boy, argues a serious diminution of spunk. And when the spunk diminishes we-ell—it's enough to make the most sturdy devil look sick. What? No doubt about it, no doubt whatever—There—!" he had just finished settling his tie and buttoning his waistcoat. "How do I look, eh? Presentable?—I've just had this suit turned. Clever little tailor across the way there. But he charged me a hundred and twenty francs." Argyle pulled a face, and made the little trumping noise with his lips. "However—not bad, is it?—He had to let in a bit at the back of the waistcoat, and a gusset, my boy, a gusset—in the trousers back. Seems I've grown in the arsal region. Well, well, might do worse.—Is it all right?"
Lilly eyed the suit.
"Very nice. Very nice indeed. Such a good cloth! That makes all the difference."
"Oh, my dear fellow, all the difference! This suit is eleven years old—eleven years old. But beautiful English cloth—before the war, before the war!"
"It looks quite wonderfully expensive and smart now," said Lilly.
"Expensive and smart, eh! Ha-ha-ha! Well, it cost me a hundred and twenty francs to have it turned, and I found that expensive enough. Well, now, come—" here Argyle's voice took on a new gay cheer. "A whiskey and soda, Lilly? Say when! Oh, nonsense, nonsense! You're going to have double that. You're no lily of the valley here, remember. Not with me. Not likely. Siamo nel paradiso, remember."
"But why should we drink your whiskey? Tea would do for us just as well."
"Not likely! Not likely! When I have the pleasure of your company, my boy, we drink a glass of something, unless I am utterly stripped. Say when, Aaron."
"When," said Aaron.
Argyle at last seated himself heavily in a small chair. The sun had left the loggia, but was glowing still on Giotto's tower and the top of the cathedral facade, and on the remoter great red-tiled dome.
"Look at my little red monthly rose," said Argyle. "Wonderful little fellow! I wouldn't have anything happen to him for the world. Oh, a bacchic little chap. I made Pasquale wear a wreath of them on his hair. Very becoming they were, very.—Oh, I've had a charming show of flowers. Wonderful creatures sunflowers are." They got up and put their heads over the balcony, looking down on the square below. "Oh, great fun, great fun.—Yes, I had a charming show of flowers, charming.—Zinnias, petunias, ranunculus, sunflowers, white stocks—oh, charming. Look at that bit of honeysuckle. You see the berries where his flowers were! Delicious scent, I assure you."
Under the little balcony wall Argyle had put square red-tiled pots, all round, and in these still bloomed a few pansies and asters, whilst in a corner a monthly rose hung flowers like round blood-drops. Argyle was as tidy and scrupulous in his tiny rooms and his balcony as if he were a first-rate sea-man on a yacht. Lilly remarked on this.
"Do you see signs of the old maid coming out in me? Oh, I don't doubt it. I don't doubt it. We all end that way. Age makes old maids of us all. And Tanny is all right, you say? Bring her to see me. Why didn't she come today?"
"You know you don't like people unless you expect them."
"Oh, but my dear fellow!—You and Tanny; you'd be welcome if you came at my busiest moment. Of course you would. I'd be glad to see you if you interrupted me at any crucial moment.—I am alone now till August. Then we shall go away together somewhere. But you and Tanny; why, there's the world, and there's Lilly: that's how I put it, my boy."
"All right, Argyle.—Hoflichkeiten."
"What? Gar keine Hoflichkeiten. Wahrhaftiger Kerl bin ich.—When am I going to see Tanny? When are you coming to dine with me?"
"After you've dined with us—say the day after tomorrow."
"Right you are. Delighted—. Let me look if that water's boiling." He got up and poked half himself inside the bedroom. "Not yet. Damned filthy methylated spirit they sell."
"Look," said Lilly. "There's Del Torre!"
"Like some sort of midge, in that damned grey-and-yellow uniform. I can't stand it, I tell you. I can't stand the sight of any more of these uniforms. Like a blight on the human landscape. Like a blight. Like green-flies on rose-trees, smother-flies. Europe's got the smother-fly in these infernal shoddy militarists."
"Del Torre's coming out of it as soon as he can," said Lilly.
"I should think so, too."
"I like him myself—very much. Look, he's seen us! He wants to come up, Argyle."
"What, in that uniform! I'll see him in his grandmother's crinoline first."
"Don't be fanatical, it's bad taste. Let him come up a minute."
"Not for my sake. But for yours, he shall," Argyle stood at the parapet of the balcony and waved his arm. "Yes, come up," he said, "come up, you little mistkafer—what the Americans call a bug. Come up and be damned."
Of course Del Torre was too far off to hear this exhortation. Lilly also waved to him—and watched him pass into the doorway far below.
"I'll rinse one of these glasses for him," said Argyle.
The Marchese's step was heard on the stone stairs: then his knock.
"Come in! Come in!" cried Argyle from the bedroom, where he was rinsing the glass. The Marchese entered, grinning with his curious, half courteous greeting. "Go through—go through," cried Argyle. "Go on to the loggia—and mind your head. Good heavens, mind your head in that doorway."
The Marchese just missed the top of the doorway as he climbed the abrupt steps on to the loggia.—There he greeted Lilly and Aaron with hearty handshakes.
"Very glad to see you—very glad, indeed!" he cried, grinning with excited courtesy and pleasure, and covering Lilly's hand with both his own gloved hands. "When did you come to Florence?"
There was a little explanation. Argyle shoved the last chair—it was a luggage stool—through the window.
"All I can do for you in the way of a chair," he said.
"Ah, that is all right," said the Marchese. "Well, it is very nice up here—and very nice company. Of the very best, the very best in Florence."
"The highest, anyhow," said Argyle grimly, as he entered with the glass. "Have a whiskey and soda, Del Torre. It's the bottom of the bottle, as you see."
"The bottom of the bottle! Then I start with the tail-end, yes!" He stretched his blue eyes so that the whites showed all round, and grinned a wide, gnome-like grin.
"You made that start long ago, my dear fellow. Don't play the ingenue with me, you know it won't work. Say when, my man, say when!"
"Yes, when," said Del Torre. "When did I make that start, then?"
"At some unmentionably young age. Chickens such as you soon learn to cheep."
"Chickens such as I soon learn to cheap," repeated Del Torre, pleased with the verbal play. "What is cheap, please? What is TO CHEAP?"
"Cheep! Cheep!" squeaked Argyle, making a face at the little Italian, who was perched on one strap of the luggage-stool. "It's what chickens say when they're poking their little noses into new adventures—naughty ones."
"Are chickens naughty? Oh! I thought they could only be good!"
"Featherless chickens like yourself, my boy."
"Oh, as for featherless—then there is no saying what they will do.—" And here the Marchese turned away from Argyle with the inevitable question to Lilly:
"Well, and how long will you stay in Florence?"
Lilly did not know: but he was not leaving immediately.
"Good! Then you will come and see us at once...."
Argyle rose once more, and went to make the tea. He shoved a lump of cake—or rather panetone, good currant loaf—through the window, with a knife to cut it.
"Help yourselves to the panetone," he said. "Eat it up. The tea is coming at once. You'll have to drink it in your glasses, there's only one old cup."
The Marchese cut the cake, and offered pieces. The two men took and ate.
"So you have already found Mr. Sisson!" said Del Torre to Lilly.
"Ran straight into him in the Via Nazionale," said Lilly.
"Oh, one always runs into everybody in Florence. We are all already acquainted: also with the flute. That is a great pleasure."
"So I think.—Does your wife like it, too?"
"Very much, indeed! She is quite eprise. I, too, shall have to learn to play it."
"And run the risk of spoiling the shape of your mouth—like Alcibiades."
"Is there a risk? Yes! Then I shan't play it. My mouth is too beautiful.—But Mr. Sisson has not spoilt his mouth."
"Not yet," said Lilly. "Give him time."
"Is he also afraid—like Alcibiades?"
"Are you, Aaron?" said Lilly.
"Afraid of spoiling your beauty by screwing your mouth to the flute?"
"I look a fool, do I, when I'm playing?" said Aaron.
"Only the least little bit in the world," said Lilly. "The way you prance your head, you know, like a horse."
"Ah, well," said Aaron. "I've nothing to lose."
"And were you surprised, Lilly, to find your friend here?" asked Del Torre.
"I ought to have been. But I wasn't really."
"Then you expected him?"
"No. It came naturally, though.—But why did you come, Aaron? What exactly brought you?"
"Accident," said Aaron.
"Ah, no! No! There is no such thing as accident," said the Italian. "A man is drawn by his fate, where he goes."
"You are right," said Argyle, who came now with the teapot. "A man is drawn—or driven. Driven, I've found it. Ah, my dear fellow, what is life but a search for a friend? A search for a friend—that sums it up."
"Or a lover," said the Marchese, grinning.
"Same thing. Same thing. My hair is white—but that is the sum of my whole experience. The search for a friend." There was something at once real and sentimental in Argyle's tone.
"And never finding?" said Lilly, laughing.
"Oh, what would you? Often finding. Often finding. And losing, of course.—A life's history. Give me your glass. Miserable tea, but nobody has sent me any from England—"
"And you will go on till you die, Argyle?" said Lilly. "Always seeking a friend—and always a new one?"
"If I lose the friend I've got. Ah, my dear fellow, in that case I shall go on seeking. I hope so, I assure you. Something will be very wrong with me, if ever I sit friendless and make no search."
"But, Argyle, there is a time to leave off."
"To leave off what, to leave off what?"
"Having friends: or a friend, rather: or seeking to have one."
"Oh, no! Not at all, my friend. Not at all! Only death can make an end of that, my friend. Only death. And I should say, not even death. Not even death ends a man's search for a friend. That is my belief. You may hang me for it, but I shall never alter."
"Nay," said Lilly. "There is a time to love, and a time to leave off loving."
"All I can say to that is that my time to leave off hasn't come yet," said Argyle, with obstinate feeling.
"Ah, yes, it has. It is only a habit and an idea you stick to."
"Indeed, it is no such thing. Indeed, it is no such thing. It is a profound desire and necessity: and what is more, a belief."
"An obstinate persistency, you mean," said Lilly.
"Well, call it so if it pleases you. It is by no means so to me." There was a brief pause. The sun had left the cathedral dome and the tower, the sky was full of light, the square swimming in shadow.
"But can a man live," said the Marchese, "without having something he lives for: something he wishes for, or longs for, and tries that he may get?"
"Impossible! Completely impossible!" said Argyle. "Man is a seeker, and except as such, he has no significance, no importance."
"He bores me with his seeking," said Lilly. "He should learn to possess himself—to be himself—and keep still."
"Ay, perhaps so," said Aaron. "Only—"
"But my dear boy, believe me, a man is never himself save in the supreme state of love: or perhaps hate, too, which amounts to the same thing. Never really himself.—Apart from this he is a tram-driver or a money-shoveller or an idea-machine. Only in the state of love is he really a man, and really himself. I say so, because I know," said Argyle.
"Ah, yes. That is one side of the truth. It is quite true, also. But it is just as true to say, that a man is never less himself, than in the supreme state of love. Never less himself, than then."
"Maybe! Maybe! But what could be better? What could be better than to lose oneself with someone you love, entirely, and so find yourself. Ah, my dear fellow, that is my creed, that is my creed, and you can't shake me in it. Never in that. Never in that."
"Yes, Argyle," said Lilly. "I know you're an obstinate love-apostle."
"I am! I am! And I have certain standards, my boy, and certain ideals which I never transgress. Never transgress. And never abandon."
"All right, then, you are an incurable love-maker."
"Pray God I am," said Argyle.
"Yes," said the Marchese. "Perhaps we are all so. What else do you give? Would you have us make money? Or do you give the centre of your spirit to your work? How is it to be?"
"I don't vitally care either about money or my work or—" Lilly faltered.
"Or what, then?"
"Or anything. I don't really care about anything. Except that—"
"You don't care about anything? But what is that for a life?" cried the Marchese, with a hollow mockery.
"What do YOU care for?" asked Lilly.
"Me? I care for several things. I care for my wife. I care for love. And I care to be loved. And I care for some pleasures. And I care for music. And I care for Italy."
"You are well off for cares," said Lilly.
"And you seem to me so very poor," said Del Torre.
"I should say so—if he cares for nothing," interjaculated Argyle. Then he clapped Lilly on the shoulder with a laugh. "Ha! Ha! Ha!—But he only says it to tease us," he cried, shaking Lilly's shoulder. "He cares more than we do for his own way of loving. Come along, don't try and take us in. We are old birds, old birds," said Argyle. But at that moment he seemed a bit doddering.
"A man can't live," said the Italian, "without an object."
"Well—and that object?" said Lilly.
"Well—it may be many things. Mostly it is two things.—love, and money. But it may be many things: ambition, patriotism, science, art—many things. But it is some objective. Something outside the self. Perhaps many things outside the self."
"I have had only one objective all my life," said Argyle. "And that was love. For that I have spent my life."
"And the lives of a number of other people, too," said Lilly.
"Admitted. Oh, admitted. It takes two to make love: unless you're a miserable—"
"Don't you think," said Aaron, turning to Lilly, "that however you try to get away from it, if you're not after money, and can't fit yourself into a job—you've got to, you've got to try and find something else—somebody else—somebody. You can't really be alone."
"No matter how many mistakes you've made—you can't really be alone—?" asked Lilly.
"You can be alone for a minute. You can be alone just in that minute when you've broken free, and you feel heart thankful to be alone, because the other thing wasn't to be borne. But you can't keep on being alone. No matter how many tunes you've broken free, and feel, thank God to be alone (nothing on earth is so good as to breathe fresh air and be alone), no matter how many times you've felt this—it wears off every time, and you begin to look again—and you begin to roam round. And even if you won't admit it to yourself, still you are seeking—seeking. Aren't you? Aren't you yourself seeking?"
"Oh, that's another matter," put in Argyle. "Lilly is happily married and on the shelf. With such a fine woman as Tanny I should think so—RATHER! But his is an exceptional nature, and an exceptional case. As for me, I made a hell of my marriage, and I swear it nearly sent me to hell. But I didn't forswear love, when I forswore marriage and woman. Not by ANY means."
"Are you not seeking any more, Lilly?" asked the Marchese. "Do you seek nothing?"
"We married men who haven't left our wives, are we supposed to seek anything?" said Lilly. "Aren't we perfectly satisfied and in bliss with the wonderful women who honour us as wives?"
"Ah, yes, yes!" said the Marchese. "But now we are not speaking to the world. Now we try to speak of that which we have in our centre of our hearts."
"And what have we there?" said Lilly.
"Well—shall I say? We have unrest. We have another need. We have something that hurts and eats us, yes, eats us inside. Do I speak the truth?"
"Yes. But what is the something?"
"I don't know. I don't know. But it is something in love, I think. It is love itself which gnaws us inside, like a cancer," said the Italian.
"But why should it? Is that the nature of love?" said Lilly.
"I don't know. Truly. I don't know.—But perhaps it is in the nature of love—I don't know.—But I tell you, I love my wife—she is very dear to me. I admire her, I trust her, I believe her. She is to me much more than any woman, more even than my mother.—And so, I am very happy. I am very happy, she is very happy, in our love and our marriage.—But wait. Nothing has changed—the love has not changed: it is the same.—And yet we are NOT happy. No, we are not happy. I know she is not happy, I know I am not—"
"Why should you be?" said Lilly.
"Yes—and it is not even happiness," said the Marchese, screwing up his face in a painful effort of confession. "It is not even happiness. No, I do not ask to be happy. Why should I? It is childish—but there is for both of us, I know it, something which bites us, which eats us within, and drives us, drives us, somewhere, we don't know where. But it drives us, and eats away the life—and yet we love each other, and we must not separate—Do you know what I mean? Do you understand me at all in what I say? I speak what is true."
"Yes, I understand. I'm in the same dilemma myself.—But what I want to hear, is WHY you think it is so. Why is it?"
"Shall I say what I think? Yes? And you can tell me if it is foolish to you.—Shall I tell you? Well. Because a woman, she now first wants the man, and he must go to her because he is wanted. Do you understand?—You know—supposing I go to a woman—supposing she is my wife—and I go to her, yes, with my blood all ready, because it is I who want. Then she puts me off. Then she says, not now, not now, I am tired, I am not well. I do not feel like it. She puts me off—till I am angry or sorry or whatever I am—but till my blood has gone down again, you understand, and I don't want her any more. And then she puts her arms round me, and caresses me, and makes love to me—till she rouses me once more. So, and so she rouses me—and so I come to her. And I love her, it is very good, very good. But it was she who began, it was her initiative, you know.—I do not think, in all my life, my wife has loved me from my initiative, you know. She will yield to me—because I insist, or because she wants to be a good submissive wife who loves me. So she will yield to me. But ah, what is it, you know? What is it a woman who allows me, and who has no answer? It is something worse than nothing—worse than nothing. And so it makes me very discontented and unbelieving.—If I say to her, she says it is not true—not at all true. Then she says, all she wants is that I should desire her, that I should love her and desire her. But even that is putting her will first. And if I come to her so, if I come to her of my own desire, then she puts me off. She puts me off, or she only allows me to come to her. Even now it is the same after ten years, as it was at first. But now I know, and for many years I did not know—"
The little man was intense. His face was strained, his blue eyes so stretched that they showed the whites all round. He gazed into Lilly's face.
"But does it matter?" said Lilly slowly, "in which of you the desire initiates? Isn't the result the same?"
"It matters. It matters—" cried the Marchese.
"Oh, my dear fellow, how MUCH it matters—" interrupted Argyle sagely.
"Ay!" said Aaron.
The Marchese looked from one to the other of them.
"It matters!" he cried. "It matters life or death. It used to be, that desire started in the man, and the woman answered. It used to be so for a long time in Italy. For this reason the women were kept away from the men. For this reason our Catholic religion tried to keep the young girls in convents, and innocent, before marriage. So that with their minds they should not know, and should not start this terrible thing, this woman's desire over a man, beforehand. This desire which starts in a woman's head, when she knows, and which takes a man for her use, for her service. This is Eve. Ah, I hate Eve. I hate her, when she knows, and when she WILLS. I hate her when she will make of me that which serves her desire.—She may love me, she may be soft and kind to me, she may give her life for me. But why? Only because I am HERS. I am that thing which does her most intimate service. She can see no other in me. And I may be no other to her—"
"Then why not let it be so, and be satisfied?" said Lilly.
"Because I cannot. I cannot. I would. But I cannot. The Borghesia—the citizens—the bourgeoisie, they are the ones who can. Oh, yes. The bourgeoisie, the shopkeepers, these serve their wives so, and their wives love them. They are the marital maquereaux—the husband-maquereau, you know. Their wives are so stout and happy, and they dote on their husbands and always betray them. So it is with the bourgeoise. She loves her husband so much, and is always seeking to betray him. Or she is a Madame Bovary, seeking for a scandal. But the bourgeois husband, he goes on being the same. He is the horse, and she the driver. And when she says gee-up, you know—then he comes ready, like a hired maquereau. Only he feels so good, like a good little boy at her breast. And then there are the nice little children. And so they keep the world going.—But for me—" he spat suddenly and with frenzy on the floor.
"You are quite right, my boy," said Argyle. "You are quite right. They've got the start of us, the women: and we've got to canter when they say gee-up. I—oh, I went through it all. But I broke the shafts and smashed the matrimonial cart, I can tell you, and I didn't care whether I smashed her up along with it or not. I didn't care one single bit, I assure you.—And here I am. And she is dead and buried these dozen years. Well—well! Life, you know, life. And women oh, they are the very hottest hell once they get the start of you. There's NOTHING they won't do to you, once they've got you. Nothing they won't do to you. Especially if they love you. Then you may as well give up the ghost: or smash the cart behind you, and her in it. Otherwise she will just harry you into submission, and make a dog of you, and cuckold you under your nose. And you'll submit. Oh, you'll submit, and go on calling her my darling. Or else, if you won't submit, she'll do for you. Your only chance is to smash the shafts, and the whole matrimonial cart. Or she'll do for you. For a woman has an uncanny, hellish strength—she's a she-bear and a wolf, is a woman when she's got the start of you. Oh, it's a terrible experience, if you're not a bourgeois, and not one of the knuckling-under money-making sort."
"Knuckling-under sort. Yes. That is it," said the Marchese.
"But can't there be a balancing of wills?" said Lilly.
"My dear boy, the balance lies in that, that when one goes up, the other goes down. One acts, the other takes. It is the only way in love—And the women are nowadays the active party. Oh, yes, not a shadow of doubt about it. They take the initiative, and the man plays up. That's how it is. The man just plays up.—Nice manly proceeding, what!" cried Argyle.
"But why can't man accept it as the natural order of things?" said Lilly. "Science makes it the natural order."
"All my —— to science," said Argyle. "No man with one drop of real spunk in him can stand it long."
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" cried the Italian. "Most men want it so. Most men want only, that a woman shall want them, and they shall then play up to her when she has roused them. Most men want only this: that a woman shall choose one man out, to be her man, and he shall worship her and come up when she shall provoke him. Otherwise he is to keep still. And the woman, she is quite sure of her part. She must be loved and adored, and above all, obeyed, particularly in her sex desire. There she must not be thwarted, or she becomes a devil. And if she is obeyed, she becomes a misunderstood woman with nerves, looking round for the next man whom she can bring under. So it is."
"Well," said Lilly. "And then what?"
"Nay," interrupted Aaron. "But do you think it's true what he says? Have you found it like that? You're married. Has your experience been different, or the same?"
"What was yours?" asked Lilly.
"Mine was the same. Mine was the same, if ever it was," said Aaron.
"And mine was EXTREMELY similar," said Argyle with a grimace.
"And yours, Lilly?" asked the Marchese anxiously.
"Not very different," said Lilly.
"Ah!" cried Del Torre, jerking up erect as if he had found something.
"And what's your way out?" Aaron asked him.
"I'm not out—so I won't holloa," said Lilly. "But Del Torre puts it best.—What do you say is the way out, Del Torre?"
"The way out is that it should change: that the man should be the asker and the woman the answerer. It must change."
"But it doesn't. Prrr!" Argyle made his trumpeting noise.
"Does it?" asked Lilly of the Marchese.
"No. I think it does not."
"And will it ever again?"
"And then what?"
"Then? Why then man seeks a pis-aller. Then he seeks something which will give him answer, and which will not only draw him, draw him, with a terrible sexual will.—So he seeks young girls, who know nothing, and so cannot force him. He thinks he will possess them while they are young, and they will be soft and responding to his wishes.—But in this, too, he is mistaken. Because now a baby of one year, if it be a female, is like a woman of forty, so is its will made up, so it will force a man."
"And so young girls are no good, even as a pis-aller."
"No good—because they are all modern women. Every one, a modern woman. Not one who isn't."
"Terrible thing, the modern woman," put in Argyle.
"Then man seeks other forms of loves, always seeking the loving response, you know, of one gentler and tenderer than himself, who will wait till the man desires, and then will answer with full love.—But it is all pis-aller, you know."
"Not by any means, my boy," cried Argyle.
"And then a man naturally loves his own wife, too, even if it is not bearable to love her."
"Or one leaves her, like Aaron," said Lilly.
"And seeks another woman, so," said the Marchese.
"Does he seek another woman?" said Lilly. "Do you, Aaron?"
"I don't WANT to," said Aaron. "But—I can't stand by myself in the middle of the world and in the middle of people, and know I am quite by myself, and nowhere to go, and nothing to hold on to. I can for a day or two—But then, it becomes unbearable as well. You get frightened. You feel you might go funny—as you would if you stood on this balcony wall with all the space beneath you."
"Can't one be alone—quite alone?" said Lilly.
"But no—it is absurd. Like Saint Simeon Stylites on a pillar. But it is absurd!" cried the Italian.
"I don't mean like Simeon Stylites. I mean can't one live with one's wife, and be fond of her: and with one's friends, and enjoy their company: and with the world and everything, pleasantly: and yet KNOW that one is alone? Essentially, at the very core of me, alone. Eternally alone. And choosing to be alone. Not sentimental or LONELY. Alone, choosing to be alone, because by one's own nature one is alone. The being with another person is secondary," said Lilly.
"One is alone," said Argyle, "in all but love. In all but love, my dear fellow. And then I agree with you."
"No," said Lilly, "in love most intensely of all, alone."
"Completely incomprehensible," said Argyle. "Amounts to nothing."
"One man is but a part. How can he be so alone?" said the Marchese.
"In so far as he is a single individual soul, he IS alone—ipso facto. In so far as I am I, and only I am I, and I am only I, in so far, I am inevitably and eternally alone, and it is my last blessedness to know it, and to accept it, and to live with this as the core of my self-knowledge."
"My dear boy, you are becoming metaphysical, and that is as bad as softening of the brain," said Argyle.
"All right," said Lilly.
"And," said the Marchese, "it may be so by REASON. But in the heart—? Can the heart ever beat quite alone? Plop! Plop!—Can the heart beat quite alone, alone in all the atmosphere, all the space of the universe? Plop! Plop! Plop!—Quite alone in all the space?" A slow smile came over the Italian's face. "It is impossible. It may eat against the heart of other men, in anger, all in pressure against the others. It may beat hard, like iron, saying it is independent. But this is only beating against the heart of mankind, not alone.—But either with or against the heart of mankind, or the heart of someone, mother, wife, friend, children—so must the heart of every man beat. It is so."
"It beats alone in its own silence," said Lilly.
The Italian shook his head.
"We'd better be going inside, anyhow," said Argyle. "Some of you will be taking cold."
"Aaron," said Lilly. "Is it true for you?"
"Nearly," said Aaron, looking into the quiet, half-amused, yet frightening eyes of the other man. "Or it has been."
"A miss is as good as a mile," laughed Lilly, rising and picking up his chair to take it indoors. And the laughter of his voice was so like a simple, deliberate amiability, that Aaron's heart really stood still for a second. He knew that Lilly was alone—as far as he, Aaron, was concerned. Lilly was alone—and out of his isolation came his words, indifferent as to whether they came or not. And he left his friends utterly to their own choice. Utterly to their own choice. Aaron felt that Lilly was there, existing in life, yet neither asking for connection nor preventing any connection. He was present, he was the real centre of the group. And yet he asked nothing of them, and he imposed nothing. He left each to himself, and he himself remained just himself: neither more nor less. And there was a finality about it, which was at once maddening and fascinating. Aaron felt angry, as if he were half insulted by the other man's placing the gift of friendship or connection so quietly back in the giver's hands. Lilly would receive no gift of friendship in equality. Neither would he violently refuse it. He let it lie unmarked. And yet at the same time Aaron knew that he could depend on the other man for help, nay, almost for life itself—so long as it entailed no breaking of the intrinsic isolation of Lilly's soul. But this condition was also hateful. And there was also a great fascination in it.
CHAPTER XVIII. THE MARCHESA
So Aaron dined with the Marchesa and Manfredi. He was quite startled when his hostess came in: she seemed like somebody else. She seemed like a demon, her hair on her brows, her terrible modern elegance. She wore a wonderful gown of thin blue velvet, of a lovely colour, with some kind of gauzy gold-threaded filament down the sides. It was terribly modern, short, and showed her legs and her shoulders and breast and all her beautiful white arms. Round her throat was a collar of dark-blue sapphires. Her hair was done low, almost to the brows, and heavy, like an Aubrey Beardsley drawing. She was most carefully made up—yet with that touch of exaggeration, lips slightly too red, which was quite intentional, and which frightened Aaron. He thought her wonderful, and sinister. She affected him with a touch of horror. She sat down opposite him, and her beautifully shapen legs, in frail, goldish stockings, seemed to glisten metallic naked, thrust from out of the wonderful, wonderful skin, like periwinkle-blue velvet. She had tapestry shoes, blue and gold: and almost one could see her toes: metallic naked. The gold-threaded gauze slipped at her side. Aaron could not help watching the naked-seeming arch of her foot. It was as if she were dusted with dark gold-dust upon her marvellous nudity.
She must have seen his face, seen that he was ebloui.
"You brought the flute?" she said, in that toneless, melancholy, unstriving voice of hers. Her voice alone was the same: direct and bare and quiet.
"Perhaps I shall sing later on, if you'll accompany me. Will you?"
"I thought you hated accompaniments."
"Oh, no—not just unison. I don't mean accompaniment. I mean unison. I don't know how it will be. But will you try?"
"Yes, I'll try."
"Manfredi is just bringing the cocktails. Do you think you'd prefer orange in yours?"
"Ill have mine as you have yours."
"I don't take orange in mine. Won't you smoke?"
The strange, naked, remote-seeming voice! And then the beautiful firm limbs thrust out in that dress, and nakedly dusky as with gold-dust. Her beautiful woman's legs, slightly glistening, duskily. His one abiding instinct was to touch them, to kiss them. He had never known a woman to exercise such power over him. It was a bare, occult force, something he could not cope with.
Manfredi came in with the little tray. He was still in uniform.
"Hello!" cried the little Italian. "Glad to see you—well, everything all right? Glad to hear it. How is the cocktail, Nan?"
"Yes," she said. "All right."
"One drop too much peach, eh?"
"No, all right."
"Ah," and the little officer seated himself, stretching his gaitered legs as if gaily. He had a curious smiling look on his face, that Aaron thought also diabolical—and almost handsome. Suddenly the odd, laughing, satanic beauty of the little man was visible.
"Well, and what have you been doing with yourself?" said he. "What did you do yesterday?"
"Yesterday?" said Aaron. "I went to the Uffizi."
"To the Uffizi? Well! And what did you think of it?"
"I think it is. I think it is. What pictures did you look at?"
"I was with Dekker. We looked at most, I believe."
"And what do you remember best?"
"I remember Botticelli's Venus on the Shell."
"Yes! Yes!—" said Manfredi. "I like her. But I like others better. You thought her a pretty woman, yes?"
"No—not particularly pretty. But I like her body. And I like the fresh air. I like the fresh air, the summer sea-air all through it—through her as well."
"And her face?" asked the Marchesa, with a slow, ironic smile.
"Yes—she's a bit baby-faced," said Aaron.
"Trying to be more innocent than her own common-sense will let her," said the Marchesa.
"I don't agree with you, Nan," said her husband. "I think it is just that wistfulness and innocence which makes her the true Venus: the true modern Venus. She chooses NOT to know too much. And that is her attraction. Don't you agree, Aaron? Excuse me, but everybody speaks of you as Aaron. It seems to come naturally. Most people speak of me as Manfredi, too, because it is easier, perhaps, than Del Torre. So if you find it easier, use it. Do you mind that I call you Aaron?"
"Not at all. I hate Misters, always."
"Yes, so do I. I like one name only."
The little officer seemed very winning and delightful to Aaron this evening—and Aaron began to like him extremely. But the dominating consciousness in the room was the woman's.
"DO you agree, Mr. Sisson?" said the Marchesa. "Do you agree that the mock-innocence and the sham-wistfulness of Botticelli's Venus are her great charms?"
"I don't think she is at all charming, as a person," said Aaron. "As a particular woman, she makes no impression on me at all. But as a picture—and the fresh air, particularly the fresh air. She doesn't seem so much a woman, you know, as the kind of out-of-doors morning-feelings at the seaside."
"Quite! A sort of sea-scape of a woman. With a perfectly sham innocence. Are you as keen on innocence as Manfredi is?"
"Innocence?" said Aaron. "It's the sort of thing I don't have much feeling about."
"Ah, I know you," laughed the soldier wickedly. "You are the sort of man who wants to be Anthony to Cleopatra. Ha-ha!"
Aaron winced as if struck. Then he too smiled, flattered. Yet he felt he had been struck! Did he want to be Anthony to Cleopatra? Without knowing, he was watching the Marchesa. And she was looking away, but knew he was watching her. And at last she turned her eyes to his, with a slow, dark smile, full of pain and fuller still of knowledge. A strange, dark, silent look of knowledge she gave him: from so far away, it seemed. And he felt all the bonds that held him melting away. His eyes remained fixed and gloomy, but with his mouth he smiled back at her. And he was terrified. He knew he was sulking towards her—sulking towards her. And he was terrified. But at the back of his mind, also, he knew there was Lilly, whom he might depend on. And also he wanted to sink towards her. The flesh and blood of him simply melted out, in desire towards her. Cost what may, he must come to her. And yet he knew at the same time that, cost what may, he must keep the power to recover himself from her. He must have his cake and eat it.
And she became Cleopatra to him. "Age cannot wither, nor custom stale—" To his instinctive, unwilled fancy, she was Cleopatra.
They went in to dinner, and he sat on her right hand. It was a smallish table, with a very few daisy-flowers: everything rather frail, and sparse. The food the same—nothing very heavy, all rather exquisite. They drank hock. And he was aware of her beautiful arms, and her bosom; her low-crowded, thick hair, parted in the centre: the sapphires on her throat, the heavy rings on her fingers: and the paint on her lips, the fard. Something deep, deep at the bottom of him hovered upon her, cleaved to her. Yet he was as if sightless, in a stupor. Who was she, what was she? He had lost all his grasp. Only he sat there, with his face turned to hers, or to her, all the time. And she talked to him. But she never looked at him.
Indeed she said little. It was the husband who talked. His manner towards Aaron was almost caressive. And Aaron liked it. The woman was silent mostly, and seemed remote. And Aaron felt his life ebb towards her. He felt the marvellousness, the rich beauty of her arms and breast. And the thought of her gold-dusted smooth limbs beneath the table made him feel almost an idiot.
The second wine was a gold-coloured Moselle, very soft and rich and beautiful. She drank this with pleasure, as one who understands. And for dessert there was a dish of cacchi—that orange-coloured, pulpy Japanese fruit—persimmons. Aaron had never eaten these before. Soft, almost slimy, of a wonderful colour, and of a flavour that had sunk from harsh astringency down to that first decay-sweetness which is all autumn-rich. The Marchese loved them, and scooped them out with his spoon. But she ate none.
Aaron did not know what they talked about, what was said. If someone had taken his mind away altogether, and left him with nothing but a body and a spinal consciousness, it would have been the same.
But at coffee the talk turned to Manfredi's duties. He would not be free from the army for some time yet. On the morrow, for example, he had to be out and away before it was day. He said he hated it, and wanted to be a free man once more. But it seemed to Aaron he would be a very bored man, once he was free. And then they drifted on to talk of the palazzo in which was their apartment.
"We've got such a fine terrace—you can see it from your house where you are," said Manfredi. "Have you noticed it?"
"No," said Aaron.
"Near that tuft of palm-trees. Don't you know?"
"No," said Aaron.
"Let us go out and show it him," said the Marchesa.
Manfredi fetched her a cloak, and they went through various doors, then up some steps. The terrace was broad and open. It looked straight across the river at the opposite Lungarno: and there was the thin-necked tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, and the great dome of the cathedral in the distance, in shadow-bulk in the cold-aired night of stars. Little trams were running brilliant over the flat new bridge on the right. And from a garden just below rose a tuft of palm-trees.
"You see," said the Marchesa, coming and standing close to Aaron, so that she just touched him, "you can know the terrace, just by these palm trees. And you are in the Nardini just across there, are you? On the top floor, you said?"
"Yes, the top floor—one of the middle windows, I think."
"One that is always open now—and the others are shut. I have noticed it, not connecting it with you."
"Yes, my window is always open."
She was leaning very slightly against him, as he stood. And he knew, with the same kind of inevitability with which he knew he would one day die, that he would be the lover of this woman. Nay, that he was her lover already.
"Don't take cold," said Manfredi.
She turned at once indoors. Aaron caught a faint whiff of perfume from the little orange trees in tubs round the wall.
"Will you get the flute?" she said as they entered.
"And will you sing?" he answered.
"Play first," she said.
He did as she wished. As the other night, he went into the big music-room to play. And the stream of sound came out with the quick wild imperiousness of the pipe. It had an immediate effect on her. She seemed to relax the peculiar, drug-like tension which was upon her at all ordinary times. She seemed to go still, and yielding. Her red mouth looked as if it might moan with relief. She sat with her chin dropped on her breast, listening. And she did not move. But she sat softly, breathing rather quick, like one who has been hurt, and is soothed. A certain womanly naturalness seemed to soften her.
And the music of the flute came quick, rather brilliant like a call-note, or like a long quick message, half command. To her it was like a pure male voice—as a blackbird's when he calls: a pure male voice, not only calling, but telling her something, telling her something, and soothing her soul to sleep. It was like the fire-music putting Brunnhilde to sleep. But the pipe did not flicker and sink. It seemed to cause a natural relaxation in her soul, a peace. Perhaps it was more like waking to a sweet, morning awakening, after a night of tormented, painful tense sleep. Perhaps more like that.
When Aaron came in, she looked at him with a gentle, fresh smile that seemed to make the fard on her face look like a curious tiredness, which now she might recover from. And as the last time, it was difficult for her to identify this man with the voice of the flute. It was rather difficult. Except that, perhaps, between his brows was something of a doubt, and in his bearing an aloofness that made her dread he might go away and not come back. She could see it in him, that he might go away and not come back.
She said nothing to him, only just smiled. And the look of knowledge in her eyes seemed, for the moment, to be contained in another look: a look of faith, and at last happiness. Aaron's heart stood still. No, in her moment's mood of faith and at last peace, life-trust, he was perhaps more terrified of her than in her previous sinister elegance. His spirit started and shrank. What was she going to ask of him?
"I am so anxious that you should come to play one Saturday morning," said Manfredi. "With an accompaniment, you know. I should like so much to hear you with piano accompaniment."
"Very well," said Aaron.
"Will you really come? And will you practise with me, so that I can accompany you?" said Manfredi eagerly.
"Yes. I will," said Aaron.
"Oh, good! Oh, good! Look here, come in on Friday morning and let us both look through the music."
"If Mr. Sisson plays for the public," said the Marchesa, "he must not do it for charity. He must have the proper fee."
"No, I don't want it," said Aaron.
"But you must earn money, mustn't you?" said she.
"I must," said Aaron. "But I can do it somewhere else."
"No. If you play for the public, you must have your earnings. When you play for me, it is different."
"Of course," said Manfredi. "Every man must have his wage. I have mine from the Italian government—-"
After a while, Aaron asked the Marchesa if she would sing.
"Shall I?" she said.
"Then I will sing alone first, to let you see what you think of it—I shall be like Trilby—I won't say like Yvette Guilbert, because I daren't. So I will be like Trilby, and sing a little French song. Though not Malbrouck, and without a Svengali to keep me in tune."
She went near the door, and stood with heir hands by her side. There was something wistful, almost pathetic now, in her elegance.
"Derriere chez mon pere
Vole vole mon coeur, vole!
Derriere chez mon pere
Il y a un pommier doux.
Tout doux, et iou
Et iou, tout doux.
Il y a unpommier doux.
Trois belles princesses
Vole vole mon coeur, vole!
Trois belles princesses
Sont assis dessous.
Tout doux, et iou
Et iou, tout doux.
Sont asses dessous."
She had a beautiful, strong, sweet voice. But it was faltering, stumbling and sometimes it seemed to drop almost to speech. After three verses she faltered to an end, bitterly chagrined.
"No," she said. "It's no good. I can't sing." And she dropped in her chair.
"A lovely little tune," said Aaron. "Haven't you got the music?"
She rose, not answering, and found him a little book.
"What do the words mean?" he asked her.
She told him. And then he took his flute.
"You don't mind if I play it, do you?" he said.
So he played the tune. It was so simple. And he seemed to catch the lilt and the timbre of her voice.
"Come and sing it while I play—" he said.
"I can't sing," she said, shaking her head rather bitterly.
"But let us try," said he, disappointed.
"I know I can't," she said. But she rose.
He remained sitting at the little table, the book propped up under the reading lamp. She stood at a little distance, unhappy.
"I've always been like that," she said. "I could never sing music, unless I had a thing drilled into me, and then it wasn't singing any more."
But Aaron wasn't heeding. His flute was at his mouth, he was watching her. He sounded the note, but she did not begin. She was twisting her handkerchief. So he played the melody alone. At the end of the verse, he looked up at her again, and a half mocking smile played in his eyes. Again he sounded the note, a challenge. And this time, as at his bidding, she began to sing. The flute instantly swung with a lovely soft firmness into the song, and she wavered only for a minute or two. Then her soul and her voice got free, and she sang—she sang as she wanted to sing, as she had always wanted to sing, without that awful scotch, that impediment inside her own soul, which prevented her.
She sang free, with the flute gliding along with her. And oh, how beautiful it was for her! How beautiful it was to sing the little song in the sweetness of her own spirit. How sweet it was to move pure and unhampered at last in the music! The lovely ease and lilt of her own soul in its motion through the music! She wasn't aware of the flute. She didn't know there was anything except her own pure lovely song-drift. Her soul seemed to breathe as a butterfly breathes, as it rests on a leaf and slowly breathes its wings. For the first time! For the first time her soul drew its own deep breath. All her life, the breath had caught half-way. And now she breathed full, deep, to the deepest extent of her being.
And oh, it was so wonderful, she was dazed. The song ended, she stood with a dazed, happy face, like one just coming awake. And the fard on her face seemed like the old night-crust, the bad sleep. New and luminous she looked out. And she looked at Aaron with a proud smile.
"Bravo, Nan! That was what you wanted," said her husband.
"It was, wasn't it?" she said, turning a wondering, glowing face to him.
His face looked strange and withered and gnome-like, at the moment.
She went and sat in her chair, quite silent, as if in a trance. The two men also sat quite still. And in the silence a little drama played itself between the three, of which they knew definitely nothing. But Manfredi knew that Aaron had done what he himself never could do, for this woman. And yet the woman was his own woman, not Aaron's. And so, he was displaced. Aaron, sitting there, glowed with a sort of triumph. He had performed a little miracle, and felt himself a little wonder-worker, to whom reverence was due. And as in a dream the woman sat, feeling what a joy it was to float and move like a swan in the high air, flying upon the wings of her own spirit. She was as a swan which never before could get its wings quite open, and so which never could get up into the open, where alone it can sing. For swans, and storks make their music only when they are high, high up in the air. Then they can give sound to their strange spirits. And so, she.
Aaron and Manfredi kept their faces averted from one another and hardly spoke to one another. It was as if two invisible hands pushed their faces apart, away, averted. And Aaron's face glimmered with a little triumph, and a little grimace of obstinacy. And the Italian's face looked old, rather monkey-like, and of a deep, almost stone-bare bitterness. The woman looked wondering from one man to the other—wondering. The glimmer of the open flower, the wonder-look, still lasted. And Aaron said in his heart, what a goodly woman, what a woman to taste and enjoy. Ah, what a woman to enjoy! And was it not his privilege? Had he not gained it?
His manhood, or rather his maleness, rose powerfully in him, in a sort of mastery. He felt his own power, he felt suddenly his own virile title to strength and reward. Suddenly, and newly flushed with his own male super-power, he was going to have his reward. The woman was his reward. So it was, in him. And he cast it over in his mind. He wanted her—ha, didn't he! But the husband sat there, like a soap-stone Chinese monkey, greyish-green. So, it would have to be another time.
He rose, therefore, and took his leave.
"But you'll let us do that again, won't you?" said she.
"When you tell me, I'll come," said he.
"Then I'll tell you soon," said she.
So he left, and went home to his own place, and there to his own remote room. As he laid his flute on the table he looked at it and smiled. He remembered that Lilly had called it Aaron's Rod.
"So you blossom, do you?—and thorn as well," said he.
For such a long time he had been gripped inside himself, and withheld. For such a long time it had been hard and unyielding, so hard and unyielding. He had wanted nothing, his desire had kept itself back, fast back. For such a long time his desire for woman had withheld itself, hard and resistant. All his deep, desirous blood had been locked, he had wanted nobody, and nothing. And it had been hard to live, so. Without desire, without any movement of passionate love, only gripped back in recoil! That was an experience to endure.
And now came his desire back. But strong, fierce as iron. Like the strength of an eagle with the lightning in its talons. Something to glory in, something overweening, the powerful male passion, arrogant, royal, Jove's thunderbolt. Aaron's black rod of power, blossoming again with red Florentine lilies and fierce thorns. He moved about in the splendour of his own male lightning, invested in the thunder of the male passion-power. He had got it back, the male godliness, the male godhead.
So he slept, and dreamed violent dreams of strange, black strife, something like the street-riot in Milan, but more terrible. In the morning, however, he cared nothing about his dreams. As soon as it was really light, he rose, and opened his window wide. It was a grey, slow morning. But he saw neither the morning nor the river nor the woman walking on the gravel river-bed with her goose nor the green hill up to San Miniato. He watched the tuft of palm-trees, and the terrace beside it. He could just distinguish the terrace clearly, among the green of foliage. So he stood at his window for a full hour, and did not move. Motionless, planted, he stood and watched that terrace across above the Arno. But like a statue.
After an hour or so, he looked at his watch. It was nine o'clock. So he rang for his coffee, and meanwhile still stood watching the terrace on the hill. He felt his turn had come. The phoenix had risen in fire again, out of the ashes.
Therefore at ten o'clock he went over the bridge. He wrote on the back of his card a request, would she please let him have the little book of songs, that he might practise them over. The manservant went, and came back with the request that Aaron should wait. So Aaron entered, while the man took his hat.
The manservant spoke only French and Spanish, no English. He was a Spaniard, with greyish hair and stooping shoulders, and dark, mute-seeming eyes. He spoke as little as possible. The Marchesa had inherited him from her father.
Aaron sat in the little sitting-room and waited. After a rather long time the Marchesa came in—wearing a white, thin blouse and a blue skirt. She was hardly made up at all. She had an odd pleased, yet brooding look on her face as she gave Aaron her hand. Something brooded between her brows. And her voice was strange, with a strange, secret undertone, that he could not understand. He looked up at her. And his face was bright, and his knees, as he sat, were like the knees of the gods.
"You wanted the book of chansons?" she said.
"I wanted to learn your tunes," he replied.
"Yes. Look—here it is!" And she brought him the little yellow book. It was just a hand-book, with melody and words only, no accompaniment. So she stood offering him the book, but waiting as if for something else, and standing as if with another meaning.
He opened the leaves at random.
"But I ought to know which ones you sing," said he, rising and standing by her side with the open book.
"Yes," she said, looking over his arm. He turned the pages one by one. "Trois jeunes tambours," said she. "Yes, that.... Yes, En passant par la Lorraine.... Aupres de ma blonde.... Oh, I like that one so much—" He stood and went over the tune in his mind.
"Would you like me to play it?" he said.
"Very much," said she.
So he got his flute, propped up the book against a vase, and played the tune, whilst she hummed it fragmentarily. But as he played, he felt that he did not cast the spell over her. There was no connection. She was in some mysterious way withstanding him. She was withstanding him, and his male super-power, and his thunderbolt desire. She was, in some indescribable way, throwing cold water over his phoenix newly risen from the ashes of its nest in flames.
He realised that she did not want him to play. She did not want him to look at the songs. So he put the book away, and turned round, rather baffled, not quite sure what was happening, yet feeling she was withstanding him. He glanced at her face: it was inscrutable: it was her Cleopatra face once more, yet with something new and warm in it. He could not understand it. What was it in her face that puzzled him? Almost angered him? But she could not rob him of his male power, she could not divest him of his concentrated force.
"Won't you take off your coat?" she said, looking at him with strange, large dark eyes. A strange woman, he could not understand her. Yet, as he sat down again, having removed his overcoat, he felt her looking at his limbs, his physical body. And this went against him, he did not want it. Yet quite fixed in him too was the desire for her, her beautiful white arms, her whole soft white body. And such desire he would not contradict nor allow to be contradicted. It was his will also. Her whole soft white body—to possess it in its entirety, its fulness.
"What have you to do this morning?" she asked him.
"Nothing," he said. "Have you?" He lifted his head and looked at her.
"Nothing at all," said she.
And then they sat in silence, he with his head dropped. Then again he looked at her.
"Shall we be lovers?" he said.
She sat with her face averted, and did not answer. His heart struck heavily, but he did not relax.
"Shall we be lovers?" came his voice once more, with the faintest touch of irony.
Her face gradually grew dusky. And he wondered very much to see it.
"Yes," said she, still not looking at him. "If you wish."
"I do wish," he said. And all the time he sat with his eyes fixed on her face, and she sat with her face averted.
"Now?" he said. "And where?"
Again she was silent for some moments, as if struggling with herself. Then she looked at him—a long, strange, dark look, incomprehensible, and which he did not like.
"You don't want emotions? You don't want me to say things, do you?" he said.
A faint ironic smile came on her face.
"I know what all that is worth," she said, with curious calm equanimity. "No, I want none of that."
But now she sat gazing on him with wide, heavy, incomprehensible eyes. It annoyed him.
"What do you want to see in me?" he asked, with a smile, looking steadily back again.
And now she turned aside her face once more, and once more the dusky colour came in her cheek. He waited.
"Shall I go away?" he said at length.
"Would you rather?" she said, keeping her face averted.
"No," he said.
Then again she was silent.
"Where shall I come to you?" he said.
She paused a moment still, then answered:
"I'll go to my room."
"I don't know which it is," he said.
"I'll show it you," she said.
"And then I shall come to you in ten minutes. In ten minutes," he reiterated.
So she rose, and led the way out of the little salon. He walked with her to the door of her room, bowed his head as she looked at him, holding the door handle; and then he turned and went back to the drawing-room, glancing at his watch.
In the drawing-room he stood quite still, with his feet apart, and waited. He stood with his hands behind him, and his feet apart, quite motionless, planted and firm. So the minutes went by unheeded. He looked at his watch. The ten minutes were just up. He had heard footsteps and doors. So he decided to give her another five minutes. He wished to be quite sure that she had had her own time for her own movements.
Then at the end of the five minutes he went straight to her room, entered, and locked the door behind him. She was lying in bed, with her back to him.
He found her strange, not as he had imagined her. Not powerful, as he had imagined her. Strange, in his arms she seemed almost small and childish, whilst in daily life she looked a full, womanly woman. Strange, the naked way she clung to him! Almost like a sister, a younger sister! Or like a child! It filled him with a curious wonder, almost a bewilderment. In the dark sightlessness of passion, she seemed almost like a clinging child in his arms. And yet like a child who in some deep and essential way mocked him. In some strange and incomprehensible way, as a girl-child blindly obstinate in her deepest nature, she was against him. He felt she was not his woman. Through him went the feeling, "This is not my woman."
When, after a long sleep, he awoke and came fully to himself, with that click of awakeness which is the end, the first shades were closing on the afternoon. He got up and reached for his watch.
"Quarter past four," he said.
Her eyes stretched wide with surprise as she looked at him. But she said nothing. The same strange and wide, perhaps insatiable child-like curiosity was in her eyes as she watched him. He dressed very quickly. And her eyes were wide, and she said no single word.
But when he was dressed, and bent over her to say goodbye, she put her arms round him, that seemed such frail and childish arms now, yet withal so deadly in power. Her soft arms round his neck, her tangle of hair over his face. And yet, even as he kissed her, he felt her deadly. He wanted to be gone. He wanted to get out of her arms and her clinging and her tangle of hair and her curiosity and her strange and hateful power.
"You'll come again. We'll be like this again?" she whispered.
And it was hard for him to realise that this was that other woman, who had sat so silently on the sofa, so darkly and reservedly, at the tea at Algy's.
"Yes! I will! Goodbye now!" And he kissed her, and walked straight out of the room. Quickly he took his coat and his hat, quickly, and left the house. In his nostrils was still the scent with which the bed linen was faintly scented—he did not know what it was. But now he wiped his face and his mouth, to wipe it away.
He had eaten nothing since coffee that morning, and was hungry, faint-feeling. And his face, and his mind, felt withered. Curiously he felt blasted as if blighted by some electricity. And he knew, he knew quite well he was only in possession of a tithe of his natural faculties. And in his male spirit he felt himself hating her: hating her deeply, damnably. But he said to himself: "No, I won't hate her. I won't hate her."
So he went on, over the Ponte Vecchio, where the jeweller's windows on the bridge were already blazing with light, on into the town. He wanted to eat something, so he decided to go to a shop he knew, where one could stand and eat good tiny rolls split into truffle or salami sandwiches, and drink Marsala. So one after the other he ate little truffle rolls, and drank a few glasses of Marsala. And then he did not know what to do. He did not want to eat any more, he had had what he wanted. His hunger had been more nervous than sensual.
So he went into the street. It was just growing dark and the town was lighting up. He felt curiously blazed, as if some flame or electric power had gone through him and withered his vital tissue. Blazed, as if some kind of electric flame had run over him and withered him. His brain felt withered, his mind had only one of its many-sighted eyes left open and unscorched. So many of the eyes of his mind were scorched now and sightless.
Yet a restlessness was in his nerves. What should he do? He remembered he had a letter in his pocket from Sir William Franks. Sir William had still teased him about his fate and his providence, in which he, Aaron, was supposed to trust. "I shall be very glad to hear from you, and to know how your benevolent Providence—or was yours a Fate—has treated you since we saw you—-"
So, Aaron turned away, and walked to the post office. There he took paper, and sat down at one of the tables in the writing room, and wrote his answer. It was very strange, writing thus when most of his mind's eyes were scorched, and it seemed he could hardly see to hold the pen, to drive it straight across the paper. Yet write he must. And most of his faculties being quenched or blasted for the moment, he wrote perhaps his greatest, or his innermost, truth.—"I don't want my Fate or my Providence to treat me well. I don't want kindness or love. I don't believe in harmony and people loving one another. I believe in the fight and in nothing else. I believe in the fight which is in everything. And if it is a question of women, I believe in the fight of love, even if it blinds me. And if it is a question of the world, I believe in fighting it and in having it hate me, even if it breaks my legs. I want the world to hate me, because I can't bear the thought that it might love me. For of all things love is the most deadly to me, and especially from such a repulsive world as I think this is...."
Well, here was a letter for a poor old man to receive. But, in the dryness of his withered mind, Aaron got it out of himself. When a man writes a letter to himself, it is a pity to post it to somebody else. Perhaps the same is true of a book.
His letter written, however, he stamped it and sealed it and put it in the box. That made it final. Then he turned towards home. One fact remained unbroken in the debris of his consciousness: that in the town was Lilly: and that when he needed, he could go to Lilly: also, that in the world was Lottie, his wife: and that against Lottie, his heart burned with a deep, deep, almost unreachable bitterness.—Like a deep burn on his deepest soul, Lottie. And like a fate which he resented, yet which steadied him, Lilly.
He went home and lay on his bed. He had enough self-command to hear the gong and go down to dinner. White and abstract-looking, he sat and ate his dinner. And then, thank God, he could go to bed, alone, in his own cold bed, alone, thank God. To be alone in the night! For this he was unspeakably thankful.
CHAPTER XIX. CLEOPATRA, BUT NOT ANTHONY
Aaron awoke in the morning feeling better, but still only a part himself. The night alone had restored him. And the need to be alone still was his greatest need. He felt an intense resentment against the Marchesa. He felt that somehow, she had given him a scorpion. And his instinct was to hate her. And yet he avoided hating her. He remembered Lilly—and the saying that one must possess oneself, and be alone in possession of oneself. And somehow, under the influence of Lilly, he refused to follow the reflex of his own passion. He refused to hate the Marchesa. He did like her. He did esteem her. And after all, she too was struggling with her fate. He had a genuine sympathy with her. Nay, he was not going to hate her.
But he could not see her. He could not bear the thought that she might call and see him. So he took the tram to Settignano, and walked away all day into the country, having bread and sausage in his pocket. He sat for long hours among the cypress trees of Tuscany. And never had any trees seemed so like ghosts, like soft, strange, pregnant presences. He lay and watched tall cypresses breathing and communicating, faintly moving and as it were walking in the small wind. And his soul seemed to leave him and to go far away, far back, perhaps, to where life was all different and time passed otherwise than time passes now. As in clairvoyance he perceived it: that our life is only a fragment of the shell of life. That there has been and will be life, human life such as we do not begin to conceive. Much that is life has passed away from men, leaving us all mere bits. In the dark, mindful silence and inflection of the cypress trees, lost races, lost language, lost human ways of feeling and of knowing. Men have known as we can no more know, have felt as we can no more feel. Great life-realities gone into the darkness. But the cypresses commemorate. In the afternoon, Aaron felt the cypresses rising dark about him, like so many high visitants from an old, lost, lost subtle world, where men had the wonder of demons about them, the aura of demons, such as still clings to the cypresses, in Tuscany.
All day, he did not make up his mind what he was going to do. His first impulse was never to see her again. And this was his intention all day. But as he went home in the tram he softened, and thought. Nay, that would not be fair. For how had she treated him, otherwise than generously.
She had been generous, and the other thing, that he felt blasted afterwards, which was his experience, that was fate, and not her fault. So he must see her again. He must not act like a churl. But he would tell her—he would tell her that he was a married man, and that though he had left his wife, and though he had no dogma of fidelity, still, the years of marriage had made a married man of him, and any other woman than his wife was a strange woman to him, a violation. "I will tell her," he said to himself, "that at the bottom of my heart I love Lottie still, and that I can't help it. I believe that is true. It isn't love, perhaps. But it is marriage. I am married to Lottie. And that means I can't be married to another woman. It isn't my nature. And perhaps I can't bear to live with Lottie now, because I am married and not in love. When a man is married, he is not in love. A husband is not a lover. Lilly told me that: and I know it's true now. Lilly told me that a husband cannot be a lover, and a lover cannot be a husband. And that women will only have lovers now, and never a husband. Well, I am a husband, if I am anything. And I shall never be a lover again, not while I live. No, not to anybody. I haven't it in me. I'm a husband, and so it is finished with me as a lover. I can't be a lover any more, just as I can't be aged twenty any more. I am a man now, not an adolescent. And to my sorrow I am a husband to a woman who wants a lover: always a lover. But all women want lovers. And I can't be it any more. I don't want to. I have finished that. Finished for ever: unless I become senile—-"
Therefore next day he gathered up his courage. He would not have had courage unless he had known that he was not alone. The other man was in the town, and from this fact he derived his strength: the fact that Lilly was there. So at teatime he went over the river, and rang at her door. Yes, she was at home, and she had other visitors. She was wearing a beautiful soft afternoon dress, again of a blue like chicory-flowers, a pale, warm blue. And she had cornflowers in her belt: heaven knows where she had got them.
She greeted Aaron with some of the childish shyness. He could tell that she was glad he had come, and that she had wondered at his not coming sooner. She introduced him to her visitors: two young ladies and one old lady and one elderly Italian count. The conversation was mostly in French or Italian, so Aaron was rather out of it.
However, the visitors left fairly early, so Aaron stayed them out. When they had gone, he asked:
"Where is Manfredi?"
"He will come in soon. At about seven o'clock."
Then there was a silence again.
"You are dressed fine today," he said to her.
"Am I?" she smiled.
He was never able to make out quite what she felt, what she was feeling. But she had a quiet little air of proprietorship in him, which he did not like.
"You will stay to dinner tonight, won't you?" she said.
"No—not tonight," he said. And then, awkwardly, he added: "You know. I think it is better if we are friends—not lovers. You know—I don't feel free. I feel my wife, I suppose, somewhere inside me. And I can't help it—-"
She bent her head and was silent for some moments. Then she lifted her face and looked at him oddly.
"Yes," she said. "I am sure you love your wife."
The reply rather staggered him—and to tell the truth, annoyed him.
"Well," he said. "I don't know about love. But when one has been married for ten years—and I did love her—then—some sort of bond or something grows. I think some sort of connection grows between us, you know. And it isn't natural, quite, to break it.—Do you know what I mean?"
She paused a moment. Then, very softly, almost gently, she said:
"Yes, I do. I know so well what you mean."
He was really surprised at her soft acquiescence. What did she mean?
"But we can be friends, can't we?" he said.
"Yes, I hope so. Why, yes! Goodness, yes! I should be sorry if we couldn't be friends."
After which speech he felt that everything was all right—everything was A-one. And when Manfredi came home, the first sound he heard was the flute and his wife's singing.
"I'm so glad you've come," his wife said to him. "Shall we go into the sala and have real music? Will you play?"
"I should love to," replied the husband.
Behold them then in the big drawing-room, and Aaron and the Marchese practising together, and the Marchesa singing an Italian folk-song while her husband accompanied her on the pianoforte. But her singing was rather strained and forced. Still, they were quite a little family, and it seemed quite nice. As soon as she could, the Marchesa left the two men together, whilst she sat apart. Aaron and Manfredi went through old Italian and old German music, tried one thing and then another, and seemed quite like brothers. They arranged a piece which they should play together on a Saturday morning, eight days hence.
The next day, Saturday, Aaron went to one of the Del Torre music mornings. There was a string quartette—and a violin soloist—and the Marchese at the piano. The audience, some dozen or fourteen friends, sat at the near end of the room, or in the smaller salotta, whilst the musicians performed at the further end of the room. The Lillys were there, both Tanny and her husband. But apart from these, Aaron knew nobody, and felt uncomfortable. The Marchesa gave her guests little sandwiches and glasses of wine or Marsala or vermouth, as they chose. And she was quite the hostess: the well-bred and very simple, but still the conventional hostess. Aaron did not like it. And he could see that Lilly too was unhappy. In fact, the little man bolted the moment he could, dragging after him the indignant Tanny, who was so looking forward to the excellent little sandwiches. But no—Lilly just rudely bolted. Aaron followed as soon as he could.
"Will you come to dinner tomorrow evening?" said his hostess to him as he was leaving. And he agreed. He had really resented seeing her as a conventional hostess, attending so charmingly to all the other people, and treating him so merely as one of the guests, among many others. So that when at the last moment she quietly invited him to dinner next day, he was flattered and accepted at once.
The next day was Sunday—the seventh day after his coming together with the Marchesa—which had taken place on the Monday. And already he was feeling much less dramatic in his decision to keep himself apart from her, to be merely friends. Already the memory of the last time was fanning up in him, not as a warning but as a terrible incitement. Again the naked desire was getting hold of him, with that peculiar brutal powerfulness which startled him and also pleased him.
So that by the time Sunday morning came, his recoil had exhausted itself, and he was ready again, eager again, but more wary this time. He sat in his room alone in the morning, playing his flute, playing over from memory the tunes she loved, and imagining how he and she would get into unison in the evening. His flute, his Aaron's rod, would blossom once again with splendid scarlet flowers, the red Florentine lilies. It was curious, the passion he had for her: just unalloyed desire, and nothing else. Something he had not known in his life before. Previously there had been always some personal quality, some sort of personal tenderness. But here, none. She did not seem to want it. She seemed to hate it, indeed. No, all he felt was stark, naked desire, without a single pretension. True enough, his last experience had been a warning to him. His desire and himself likewise had broken rather disastrously under the proving. But not finally broken. He was ready again. And with all the sheer powerful insolence of desire he looked forward to the evening. For he almost expected Manfredi would not be there. The officer had said something about having to go to Padua on the Saturday afternoon.
So Aaron went skipping off to his appointment, at seven o'clock. Judge of his chagrin, then, when he found already seated in the salotta an elderly, quite well-known, very cultured and very well-connected English authoress. She was charming, in her white hair and dress of soft white wool and white lace, with a long chain of filigree gold beads, like bubbles. She was charming in her old-fashioned manner too, as if the world were still safe and stable, like a garden in which delightful culture, and choice ideas bloomed safe from wind and weather. Alas, never was Aaron more conscious of the crude collapse in the world than when he listened to this animated, young-seeming lady from the safe days of the seventies. All the old culture and choice ideas seemed like blowing bubbles. And dear old Corinna Wade, she seemed to be blowing bubbles still, as she sat there so charming in her soft white dress, and talked with her bright animation about the influence of woman in Parliament and the influence of woman in the Periclean day. Aaron listened spell-bound, watching the bubbles float round his head, and almost hearing them go pop.
To complete the party arrived an elderly litterateur who was more proud of his not-very-important social standing than of his literature. In fact he was one of those English snobs of the old order, living abroad. Perfectly well dressed for the evening, his grey hair and his prim face was the most well-dressed thing to be met in North Italy.
"Oh, so glad to see you, Mr. French. I didn't know you were in Florence again. You make that journey from Venice so often. I wonder you don't get tired of it," cried Corinna Wade.
"No," he said. "So long as duty to England calls me to Florence, I shall come to Florence. But I can LIVE in no town but Venice."
"No, I suppose you can't. Well, there is something special about Venice: having no streets and no carriages, and moving about in a gondola. I suppose it is all much more soothing."
"Much less nerve-racking, yes. And then there is a quality in the whole life. Of course I see few English people in Venice—only the old Venetian families, as a rule."
"Ah, yes. That must be very interesting. They are very exclusive still, the Venetian noblesse?" said Miss Wade.
"Oh, very exclusive," said Mr. French. "That is one of the charms. Venice is really altogether exclusive. It excludes the world, really, and defies time and modern movement. Yes, in spite of the steamers on the canal, and the tourists."
"That is so. That is so. Venice is a strange back-water. And the old families are very proud still, in these democratic days. They have a great opinion of themselves, I am told."
"Well," said Mr. French. "Perhaps you know the rhyme:
"'Veneziano gran' Signore
Padovano buon' dotore.
Vicenzese mangia il gatto
Veronese tutto matto—-'"
"How very amusing!" said Miss Wade. "Veneziana gran' Signore. The Venetian is a great gentleman! Yes, I know they are all convinced of it. Really, how very amusing, in these advanced days. To be born a Venetian, is to be born a great gentleman! But this outdoes divine right of king."
"To be born a Venetian GENTLEMAN, is to be born a great gentleman," said Mr. French, rather fussily.
"You seriously think so?" said Miss Wade. "Well now, what do you base your opinion on?"
Mr. French gave various bases for his opinion.
"Yes—interesting. Very interesting. Rather like the Byzantines—lingering on into far other ages. Anna Comnena always charmed me very much. HOW she despised the flower of the north—even Tancred! And so the lingering Venetian families! And you, in your palazzo on the Grand Canal: you are a northern barbarian civilised into the old Venetian Signoria. But how very romantic a situation!"
It was really amusing to see the old maid, how she skirmished and hit out gaily, like an old jaunty free lance: and to see the old bachelor, how prim he was, and nervy and fussy and precious, like an old maid.
But need we say that Mr. Aaron felt very much out of it. He sat and listened, with a sardonic small smile on his face and a sardonic gleam in his blue eyes, that looked so very blue on such an occasion. He made the two elderly people uncomfortable with his silence: his democratic silence, Miss Wade might have said.
However, Miss Wade lived out towards Galuzzo, so she rose early, to catch her tram. And Mr. French gallantly and properly rose to accompany her, to see her safe on board. Which left Aaron and the Marchesa alone.
"What time is Manfredi coming back?" said he.
"Tomorrow," replied she.
There was a pause.
"Why do you have those people?" he asked.
"Those two who were here this evening."
"Miss Wade and Mr. French?—Oh, I like Miss Wade so very much. She is so refreshing."
"Those old people," said Aaron. "They licked the sugar off the pill, and go on as if everything was toffee. And we've got to swallow the pill. It's easy to be refreshing—-"
"No, don't say anything against her. I like her so much."
"Mr. French!—Well, he's perhaps a little like the princess who felt the pea through three feather-beds. But he can be quite witty, and an excellent conversationalist, too. Oh yes, I like him quite well."
"Matter of taste," said Aaron.
They had not much to say to one another. The time passed, in the pauses. He looked at his watch.
"I shall have to go," he said.
"Won't you stay?" she said, in a small, muted voice.
"Stay all night?" he said.
"Yes," he said quietly. Did he not feel the strength of his desire on him.
After which she said no more. Only she offered him whiskey and soda, which he accepted.
"Go then," he said to her. "And I'll come to you.—Shall I come in fifteen minutes?"
She looked at him with strange, slow dark eyes. And he could not understand.
"Yes," she said. And she went.
And again, this night as before, she seemed strangely small and clinging in his arms. And this night he felt his passion drawn from him as if a long, live nerve were drawn out from his body, a long live thread of electric fire, a long, living nerve finely extracted from him, from the very roots of his soul. A long fine discharge of pure, bluish fire, from the core of his soul. It was an excruciating, but also an intensely gratifying sensation.
This night he slept with a deeper obliviousness than before. But ah, as it grew towards morning how he wished he could be alone.
They must stay together till the day was light. And she seemed to love clinging to him and curling strangely on his breast. He could never reconcile it with her who was a hostess entertaining her guests. How could she now in a sort of little ecstasy curl herself and nestle herself on his, Aaron's breast, tangling his face all over with her hair. He verily believed that this was what she really wanted of him: to curl herself on his naked breast, to make herself small, small, to feel his arms around her, while he himself was remote, silent, in some way inaccessible. This seemed almost to make her beside herself with gratification. But why, why? Was it because he was one of her own race, and she, as it were, crept right home to him?
He did not know. He only knew it had nothing to do with him: and that, save out of complaisance, he did not want it. It simply blasted his own central life. It simply blighted him.
And she clung to him closer. Strange, she was afraid of him! Afraid of him as of a fetish! Fetish afraid, and fetish-fascinated! Or was her fear only a delightful game of cat and mouse? Or was the fear genuine, and the delight the greater: a sort of sacrilege? The fear, and the dangerous, sacrilegious power over that which she feared.
In some way, she was not afraid of him at all. In some other way she used him as a mere magic implement, used him with the most amazing priestess-craft. Himself, the individual man which he was, this she treated with an indifference that was startling to him.
He forgot, perhaps, that this was how he had treated her. His famous desire for her, what had it been but this same attempt to strike a magic fire out of her, for his own ecstasy. They were playing the same game of fire. In him, however, there was all the time something hard and reckless and defiant, which stood apart. She was absolutely gone in her own incantations. She was absolutely gone, like a priestess utterly involved in her terrible rites. And he was part of the ritual only, God and victim in one. God and victim! All the time, God and victim. When his aloof soul realised, amid the welter of incantation, how he was being used,—not as himself but as something quite different—God and victim—then he dilated with intense surprise, and his remote soul stood up tall and knew itself alone. He didn't want it, not at all. He knew he was apart. And he looked back over the whole mystery of their love-contact. Only his soul was apart.
He was aware of the strength and beauty and godlikeness that his breast was then to her—the magic. But himself, he stood far off, like Moses' sister Miriam. She would drink the one drop of his innermost heart's blood, and he would be carrion. As Cleopatra killed her lovers in the morning. Surely they knew that death was their just climax. They had approached the climax. Accept then.
But his soul stood apart, and could have nothing to do with it. If he had really been tempted, he would have gone on, and she might have had his central heart's blood. Yes, and thrown away the carrion. He would have been willing.
But fatally, he was not tempted. His soul stood apart and decided. At the bottom of his soul he disliked her. Or if not her, then her whole motive. Her whole life-mode. He was neither God nor victim: neither greater nor less than himself. His soul, in its isolation as she lay on his breast, chose it so, with the soul's inevitability. So, there was no temptation.
When it was sufficiently light, he kissed her and left her. Quietly he left the silent flat. He had some difficulty in unfastening the various locks and bars and catches of the massive door downstairs, and began, in irritation and anger, to feel he was a prisoner, that he was locked in. But suddenly the ponderous door came loose, and he was out in the street. The door shut heavily behind him, with a shudder. He was out in the morning streets of Florence.
CHAPTER XX. THE BROKEN ROD
The day was rainy. Aaron stayed indoors alone, and copied music and slept. He felt the same stunned, withered feeling as before, but less intensely, less disastrously, this time. He knew now, without argument or thought that he would never go again to the Marchesa: not as a lover. He would go away from it all. He did not dislike her. But he would never see her again. A great gulf had opened, leaving him alone on the far side.
He did not go out till after dinner. When he got downstairs he found the heavy night-door closed. He wondered: then remembered the Signorina's fear of riots and disturbances. As again he fumbled with the catches, he felt that the doors of Florence were trying to prevent his egress. However, he got out.
It was a very dark night, about nine o'clock, and deserted seeming. He was struck by the strange, deserted feeling of the city's atmosphere. Yet he noticed before him, at the foot of the statue, three men, one with a torch: a long torch with naked flames. The men were stooping over something dark, the man with the torch bending forward too. It was a dark, weird little group, like Mediaeval Florence. Aaron lingered on his doorstep, watching. He could not see what they were doing. But now, the two were crouching down; over a long dark object on the ground, and the one with the torch bending also to look. What was it? They were just at the foot of the statue, a dark little group under the big pediment, the torch-flames weirdly flickering as the torch-bearer moved and stooped lower to the two crouching men, who seemed to be kneeling.
Aaron felt his blood stir. There was something dark and mysterious, stealthy, in the little scene. It was obvious the men did not want to draw attention, they were so quiet and furtive-seeming. And an eerie instinct prevented Aaron's going nearer to look. Instead, he swerved on to the Lungarno, and went along the top of the square, avoiding the little group in the centre. He walked the deserted dark-seeming street by the river, then turned inwards, into the city. He was going to the Piazza Vittoria Emmanuele, to sit in the cafe which is the centre of Florence at night. There he could sit for an hour, and drink his vermouth and watch the Florentines.
As he went along one of the dark, rather narrow streets, he heard a hurrying of feet behind him. Glancing round, he saw the torch-bearer coming along at a trot, holding his flaming torch up in front of him as he trotted down the middle of the narrow dark street. Aaron shrank under the wall. The trotting torch-bearer drew near, and now Aaron perceived the other two men slowly trotting behind, stealthily, bearing a stretcher on which a body was wrapped up, completely and darkly covered. The torch-bearer passed, the men with the stretcher passed too, hastily and stealthily, the flickering flames revealing them. They took no notice of Aaron, no notice of anything, but trotted softly on towards the centre of the city. Their queer, quick footsteps echoed down the distance. Then Aaron too resumed his way.
He came to the large, brilliantly-lighted cafe. It was Sunday evening, and the place was full. Men, Florentines, many, many men sat in groups and in twos and threes at the little marble tables. They were mostly in dark clothes or black overcoats. They had mostly been drinking just a cup of coffee—others however had glasses of wine or liquor. But mostly it was just a little coffee-tray with a tiny coffee pot and a cup and saucer. There was a faint film of tobacco smoke. And the men were all talking: talking, talking with that peculiar intensity of the Florentines. Aaron felt the intense, compressed sound of many half-secret voices. For the little groups and couples abated their voices, none wished that others should hear what they said.
Aaron was looking for a seat—there was no table to him—when suddenly someone took him by the arm. It was Argyle.
"Come along, now! Come and join us. Here, this way! Come along!"
Aaron let himself be led away towards a corner. There sat Lilly and a strange man: called Levison. The room was warm. Aaron could never bear to be too hot. After sitting a minute, he rose and took off his coat, and hung it on a stand near the window. As he did so he felt the weight of his flute—it was still in his pocket. And he wondered if it was safe to leave it.
"I suppose no one will steal from the overcoat pockets," he said, as he sat down.
"My dear chap, they'd steal the gold filling out of your teeth, if you happened to yawn," said Argyle. "Why, have you left valuables in your overcoat?"
"My flute," said Aaron.
"Oh, they won't steal that," said Argyle.
"Besides," said Lilly, "we should see anyone who touched it."
And so they settled down to the vermouth.
"Well," said Argyle, "what have you been doing with yourself, eh? I haven't seen a glimpse of you for a week. Been going to the dogs, eh?"
"Or the bitches," said Aaron.
"Oh, but look here, that's bad! That's bad! I can see I shall have to take you in hand, and commence my work of reform. Oh, I'm a great reformer, a Zwingli and Savonarola in one. I couldn't count the number of people I've led into the right way. It takes some finding, you know. Strait is the gate—damned strait sometimes. A damned tight squeeze...." Argyle was somewhat intoxicated. He spoke with a slight slur, and laughed, really tickled at his own jokes. The man Levison smiled acquiescent. But Lilly was not listening. His brow was heavy and he seemed abstracted. He hardly noticed Aaron's arrival.
"Did you see the row yesterday?" asked Levison.
"No," said Aaron. "What was it?"
It was the socialists. They were making a demonstration against the imprisonment of one of the railway-strikers. I was there. They went on all right, with a good bit of howling and gibing: a lot of young louts, you know. And the shop-keepers shut up shop, and nobody showed the Italian flag, of course. Well, when they came to the Via Benedetto Croce, there were a few mounted carabinieri. So they stopped the procession, and the sergeant said that the crowd could continue, could go on where they liked, but would they not go down the Via Verrocchio, because it was being repaired, the roadway was all up, and there were piles of cobble stones. These might prove a temptation and lead to trouble. So would the demonstrators not take that road—they might take any other they liked.—Well, the very moment he had finished, there was a revolver shot, he made a noise, and fell forward over his horse's nose. One of the anarchists had shot him. Then there was hell let loose, the carabinieri fired back, and people were bolting and fighting like devils. I cleared out, myself. But my God—what do you think of it?"
"Seems pretty mean," said Aaron.
"Mean!—He had just spoken them fair—they could go where they liked, only would they not go down the one road, because of the heap of stones. And they let him finish. And then shot him dead."
"Was he dead?" said Aaron.
"Yes—killed outright, the Nazione says."
There was a silence. The drinkers in the cafe all continued to talk vehemently, casting uneasy glances.
"Well," said Argyle, "if you let loose the dogs of war, you mustn't expect them to come to heel again in five minutes."
"But there's no fair play about it, not a bit," said Levison.
"Ah, my dear fellow, are you still so young and callow that you cherish the illusion of fair play?" said Argyle.
"Yes, I am," said Levison.
"Live longer and grow wiser," said Argyle, rather contemptuously.
"Are you a socialist?" asked Levison.
"Am I my aunt Tabitha's dachshund bitch called Bella," said Argyle, in his musical, indifferent voice. "Yes, Bella's her name. And if you can tell me a damneder name for a dog, I shall listen, I assure you, attentively."
"But you haven't got an aunt called Tabitha," said Aaron.
"Haven't I? Oh, haven't I? I've got TWO aunts called Tabitha: if not more."
"They aren't of any vital importance to you, are they?" said Levison.
"Not the very least in the world—if it hadn't been that my elder Aunt Tabitha had christened her dachshund bitch Bella. I cut myself off from the family after that. Oh, I turned over a new leaf, with not a family name on it. Couldn't stand Bella amongst the rest."
"You must have strained most of the gnats out of your drink, Argyle," said Lilly, laughing.
"Assiduously! Assiduously! I can't stand these little vermin. Oh, I am quite indifferent about swallowing a camel or two—or even a whole string of dromedaries. How charmingly Eastern that sounds! But gnats! Not for anything in the world would I swallow one."
"You're a bit of a SOCIALIST though, aren't you?" persisted Levison, now turning to Lilly.
"No," said Lilly. "I was."
"And am no more," said Argyle sarcastically. "My dear fellow, the only hope of salvation for the world lies in the re-institution of slavery."
"What kind of slavery?" asked Levison.
"Slavery! SLAVERY! When I say SLAVERY I don't mean any of your damned modern reform cant. I mean solid sound slavery on which the Greek and the Roman world rested. FAR finer worlds than ours, my dear chap! Oh FAR finer! And can't be done without slavery. Simply can't be done.—Oh, they'll all come to realise it, when they've had a bit more of this democratic washer-women business."
Levison was laughing, with a slight sneer down his nose. "Anyhow, there's no immediate danger—or hope, if you prefer it—of the re-instituting of classic slavery," he said.
"Unfortunately no. We are all such fools," said Argyle.
"Besides," said Levison, "who would you make slaves of?"
"Everybody, my dear chap: beginning with the idealists and the theorising Jews, and after them your nicely-bred gentlemen, and then perhaps, your profiteers and Rothschilds, and ALL politicians, and ending up with the proletariat," said Argyle.
"Then who would be the masters?—the professional classes, doctors and lawyers and so on?"
"What? Masters. They would be the sewerage slaves, as being those who had made most smells." There was a moment's silence.
"The only fault I have to find with your system," said Levison, rather acidly, "is that there would be only one master, and everybody else slaves."
"Do you call that a fault? What do you want with more than one master? Are you asking for several?—Well, perhaps there's cunning in THAT.—Cunning devils, cunning devils, these theorising slaves—" And Argyle pushed his face with a devilish leer into Aaron's face. "Cunning devils!" he reiterated, with a slight tipsy slur. "That be-fouled Epictetus wasn't the last of 'em—nor the first. Oh, not by any means, not by any means."
Here Lilly could not avoid a slight spasm of amusement. "But returning to serious conversation," said Levison, turning his rather sallow face to Lilly. "I think you'll agree with me that socialism is the inevitable next step—"
Lilly waited for some time without answering. Then he said, with unwilling attention to the question: "I suppose it's the logically inevitable next step."
"Use logic as lavatory paper," cried Argyle harshly. "Yes—logically inevitable—and humanly inevitable at the same time. Some form of socialism is bound to come, no matter how you postpone it or try variations," said Levison.
"All right, let it come," said Lilly. "It's not my affair, neither to help it nor to keep it back, or even to try varying it."
"There I don't follow you," said Levison. "Suppose you were in Russia now—"
"I watch it I'm not."
"But you're in Italy, which isn't far off. Supposing a socialist revolution takes place all around you. Won't that force the problem on you?—It is every man's problem," persisted Levison.
"Not mine," said Lilly.
"How shall you escape it?" said Levison.
"Because to me it is no problem. To Bolsh or not to Bolsh, as far as my mind goes, presents no problem. Not any more than to be or not to be. To be or not to be is simply no problem—"
"No, I quite agree, that since you are already existing, and since death is ultimately inevitable, to be or not to be is no sound problem," said Levison. "But the parallel isn't true of socialism. That is not a problem of existence, but of a certain mode of existence which centuries of thought and action on the part of Europe have now made logically inevitable for Europe. And therefore there is a problem. There is more than a problem, there is a dilemma. Either we must go to the logical conclusion—or—"
"Somewhere else," said Lilly.
"Yes—yes. Precisely! But where ELSE? That's the one half of the problem: supposing you do not agree to a logical progression in human social activity. Because after all, human society through the course of ages only enacts, spasmodically but still inevitably, the logical development of a given idea."
"Well, then, I tell you.—The idea and the ideal has for me gone dead—dead as carrion—"
"Which idea, which ideal precisely?"
"The ideal of love, the ideal that it is better to give than to receive, the ideal of liberty, the ideal of the brotherhood of man, the ideal of the sanctity of human life, the ideal of what we call goodness, charity, benevolence, public spirited-ness, the ideal of sacrifice for a cause, the ideal of unity and unanimity—all the lot—all the whole beehive of ideals—has all got the modern bee-disease, and gone putrid, stinking.—And when the ideal is dead and putrid, the logical sequence is only stink.—Which, for me, is the truth concerning the ideal of good, peaceful, loving humanity and its logical sequence in socialism and equality, equal opportunity or whatever you like.—But this time he stinketh—and I'm sorry for any Christus who brings him to life again, to stink livingly for another thirty years: the beastly Lazarus of our idealism."
"That may be true for you—"
"But it's true for nobody else," said Lilly. "All the worse for them. Let them die of the bee-disease."
"Not only that," persisted Levison, "but what is your alternative? Is it merely nihilism?"
"My alternative," said Lilly, "is an alternative for no one but myself, so I'll keep my mouth shut about it."
"That isn't fair."
"I tell you, the ideal of fairness stinks with the rest.—I have no obligation to say what I think."
"Yes, if you enter into conversation, you have—"
"Bah, then I didn't enter into conversation.—The only thing is, I agree in the rough with Argyle. You've got to have a sort of slavery again. People are not MEN: they are insects and instruments, and their destiny is slavery. They are too many for me, and so what I think is ineffectual. But ultimately they will be brought to agree—after sufficient extermination—and then they will elect for themselves a proper and healthy and energetic slavery."
"I should like to know what you mean by slavery. Because to me it is impossible that slavery should be healthy and energetic. You seem to have some other idea in your mind, and you merely use the word slavery out of exasperation—"
"I mean it none the less. I mean a real committal of the life-issue of inferior beings to the responsibility of a superior being."
"It'll take a bit of knowing, who are the inferior and which is the superior," said Levison sarcastically.
"Not a bit. It is written between a man's brows, which he is."
"I'm afraid we shall all read differently."
"So long as we're liars."
"And putting that question aside: I presume that you mean that this committal of the life-issue of inferior beings to someone higher shall be made voluntarily—a sort of voluntary self-gift of the inferiors—"
"Yes—more or less—and a voluntary acceptance. For it's no pretty gift, after all.—But once made it must be held fast by genuine power. Oh yes—no playing and fooling about with it. Permanent and very efficacious power."
"You mean military power?"
"I do, of course."
Here Levison smiled a long, slow, subtle smile of ridicule. It all seemed to him the preposterous pretentiousness of a megalomaniac—one whom, after a while, humanity would probably have the satisfaction of putting into prison, or into a lunatic asylum. And Levison felt strong, overwhelmingly strong, in the huge social power with which he, insignificant as he was, was armed against such criminal-imbecile pretensions as those above set forth. Prison or the lunatic asylum. The face of the fellow gloated in these two inevitable engines of his disapproval.
"It will take you some time before you'll get your doctrines accepted," he said.
"Accepted! I'd be sorry. I don't want a lot of swine snouting and sniffing at me with their acceptance.—Bah, Levison—one can easily make a fool of you. Do you take this as my gospel?"
"I take it you are speaking seriously."
Here Lilly broke into that peculiar, gay, whimsical smile.
"But I should say the blank opposite with just as much fervour," he declared.
"Do you mean to say you don't MEAN what you've been saying?" said Levison, now really looking angry.
"Why, I'll tell you the real truth," said Lilly. "I think every man is a sacred and holy individual, NEVER to be violated; I think there is only one thing I hate to the verge of madness, and that is BULLYING. To see any living creature BULLIED, in any way, almost makes a murderer of me. That is true. Do you believe it—?"
"Yes," said Levison unwillingly. "That may be true as well. You have no doubt, like most of us, got a complex nature which—"
C R A S H!
There intervened one awful minute of pure shock, when the soul was in darkness.
Out of this shock Aaron felt himself issuing amid a mass of terrible sensations: the fearful blow of the explosion, the noise of glass, the hoarse howl of people, the rushing of men, the sudden gulf, the awful gulfing whirlpool of horror in the social life.
He stood in agony and semi-blindness amid a chaos. Then as he began to recover his consciousness, he found himself standing by a pillar some distance from where he had been sitting: he saw a place where tables and chairs were all upside down, legs in the air, amid debris of glass and breakage: he saw the cafe almost empty, nearly everybody gone: he saw the owner, or the manager, advancing aghast to the place of debris: he saw Lilly standing not far off, white as a sheet, and as if unconscious. And still he had no idea of what had happened. He thought perhaps something had broken down. He could not understand.
Lilly began to look round. He caught Aaron's eye. And then Aaron began to approach his friend.
"What is it?" he asked.
"A bomb," said Lilly.
The manager, and one old waiter, and three or four youths had now advanced to the place of debris. And now Aaron saw that a man was lying there—and horror, blood was running across the floor of the cafe. Men began now hastily to return to the place. Some seized their hats and departed again at once. But many began to crowd in—a black eager crowd of men pressing to where the bomb had burst—where the man was lying. It was rather dark, some of the lamps were broken—but enough still shone. Men surged in with that eager, excited zest of people, when there has been an accident. Grey carabinieri, and carabinieri in the cocked hat and fine Sunday uniform pressed forward officiously.
"Let us go," said Lilly.
And he went to the far corner, where his hat hung. But Aaron looked in vain for his own hat. The bomb had fallen near the stand where he had hung it and his overcoat.
"My hat and coat?" he said to Lilly.
Lilly, not very tall, stood on tiptoe. Then he climbed on a chair and looked round. Then he squeezed past the crowd.
Aaron followed. On the other side of the crowd excited angry men were wrestling over overcoats that were mixed up with a broken marble table-top. Aaron spied his own black hat under the sofa near the wall. He waited his turn and then in the confusion pressed forward to where the coats were. Someone had dragged out his, and it lay on the floor under many feet. He managed, with a struggle, to get it from under the feet of the crowd. He felt at once for his flute. But his trampled, torn coat had no flute in its pocket. He pushed and struggled, caught sight of a section, and picked it up. But it was split right down, two silver stops were torn out, and a long thin spelch of wood was curiously torn off. He looked at it, and his heart stood still. No need to look for the rest.
He felt utterly, utterly overcome—as if he didn't care what became of him any further. He didn't care whether he were hit by a bomb, or whether he himself threw the next bomb, and hit somebody. He just didn't care any more about anything in life or death. It was as if the reins of his life slipped from his hands. And he would let everything run where it would, so long as it did run.
Then he became aware of Lilly's eyes on him—and automatically he joined the little man.
"Let us go," said Lilly.
And they pushed their way through the door. The police were just marching across the square. Aaron and Lilly walked in the opposite direction. Groups of people were watching. Suddenly Lilly swerved—in the middle of the road was a large black glisten of blood, trickling horribly. A wounded man had run from the blow and fallen here.
Aaron did not know where he was going. But in the Via Tournabuoni Lilly turned towards the Arno, and soon they were on the Ponte Santa Trinita.
"Who threw the bomb?" said Aaron.
"I suppose an anarchist."
"It's all the same," said Aaron.
The two men, as if unable to walk any further, leaned on the broad parapet of the bridge and looked at the water in the darkness of the still, deserted night. Aaron still had his flute section in his hand, his overcoat over his arm.
"Is that your flute?" asked Lilly.
"Bit of it. Smashed."
"Let me look."
He looked, and gave it back.
"No good," he said.
"Oh, no," said Aaron.
"Throw it in the river, Aaron," said Lilly.
Aaron turned and looked at him.
"Throw it in the river," repeated Lilly. "It's an end."
Aaron nervelessly dropped the flute into the stream. The two men stood leaning on the bridge-parapet, as if unable to move.
"We shall have to go home," said Lilly. "Tanny may hear of it and be anxious."
Aaron was quite dumbfounded by the night's event: the loss of his flute. Here was a blow he had not expected. And the loss was for him symbolistic. It chimed with something in his soul: the bomb, the smashed flute, the end.
"There goes Aaron's Rod, then," he said to Lilly.
"It'll grow again. It's a reed, a water-plant—you can't kill it," said Lilly, unheeding.
"You'll have to live without a rod, meanwhile."
To which pleasant remark Aaron made no reply.
CHAPTER XXI. WORDS
He went home to bed: and dreamed a strange dream. He dreamed that he was in a country with which he was not acquainted. Night was coming on, and he had nowhere to sleep. So he passed the mouth of a sort of cave or house, in which a woman, an old woman, sat. Therefore he entered, and though he could not understand the language, still his second self understood. The cave was a house: and men came home from work. His second self assumed that they were tin-miners.
He wandered uneasily to and fro, no one taking any particular notice of him. And he realized that there was a whole vast country spreading, a sort of underworld country, spreading away beyond him. He wandered from vast apartment to apartment, down narrow corridors like the roads in a mine. In one of the great square rooms, the men were going to eat. And it seemed to him that what they were going to eat was a man, naked man. But his second self knew that what appeared to his eyes as a man was really a man's skin stuffed tight with prepared meat, as the skin of a Bologna sausage. This did not prevent his seeing the naked man who was to be eaten walk slowly and stiffly across the gangway and down the corridor. He saw him from behind. It was a big handsome man in the prime of life, quite naked and perhaps stupid. But of course he was only a skin stuffed with meat, whom the grey tin-miners were going to eat.
Aaron, the dream-Aaron, turned another way, and strayed along the vast square rooms, cavern apartments. He came into one room where there were many children, all in white gowns. And they were all busily putting themselves to bed, in the many beds scattered about the room at haphazard. And each child went to bed with a wreath of flowers on its head, white flowers and pink, so it seemed. So there they all lay, in their flower-crowns in the vast space of the rooms. And Aaron went away.
He could not remember the following part. Only he seemed to have passed through many grey domestic apartments, where were all women, all greyish in their clothes and appearance, being wives of the underground tin-miners. The men were away and the dream-Aaron remembered with fear the food they were to eat.
The next thing he could recall was, that he was in a boat. And now he was most definitely two people. His invisible, conscious self, what we have called his second self, hovered as it were before the prow of the boat, seeing and knowing, but unseen. His other self, the palpable Aaron, sat as a passenger in the boat, which was being rowed by the unknown people of this underworld. They stood up as they thrust the boat along. Other passengers were in the boat too, women as well, but all of them unknown people, and not noticeable.
The boat was upon a great lake in the underworld country, a lake of dark blue water, but crystal clear and very beautiful in colour. The second or invisible Aaron sat in the prow and watched the fishes swimming suspended in the clear, beautiful dark-blue water. Some were pale fish, some frightening-looking, like centipedes swimming, and some were dark fish, of definite form, and delightful to watch.
The palpable or visible Aaron sat at the side of the boat, on the end of the middle seat, with his naked right elbow leaning out over the side. And now the boat entered upon shallows. The impalpable Aaron in the bows saw the whitish clay of the bottom swirl up in clouds at each thrust of the oars, whitish-clayey clouds which would envelope the strange fishes in a sudden mist. And on the right hand of the course stakes stood up in the water, at intervals, to mark the course.
The boat must pass very near these stakes, almost touching. And Aaron's naked elbow was leaning right over the side. As they approached the first stake, the boatmen all uttered a strange cry of warning, in a foreign language. The flesh-and-blood Aaron seemed not even to hear. The invisible Aaron heard, but did not comprehend the words of the cry.
So the naked elbow struck smartly against the stake as the boat passed.
The rowers rowed on. And still the flesh-and-blood Aaron sat with his arm over the side. Another stake was nearing. "Will he heed, will he heed?" thought the anxious second self. The rowers gave the strange warning cry. He did not heed, and again the elbow struck against the stake as the boat passed. And yet the flesh-and-blood Aaron sat on and made no sign. There were stakes all along this shallow part of the lake. Beyond was deep water again. The invisible Aaron was becoming anxious. "Will he never hear? Will he never heed? Will he never understand?" he thought. And he watched in pain for the next stake. But still the flesh-and-blood Aaron sat on, and though the rowers cried so acutely that the invisible Aaron almost understood their very language, still the Aaron seated at the side heard nothing, and his elbow struck against the third stake.
This was almost too much. But after a few moments, as the boat rowed on, the palpable Aaron changed his position as he sat, and drew in his arm: though even now he was not aware of any need to do so. The invisible Aaron breathed with relief in the bows, the boat swung steadily on, into the deep, unfathomable water again.
They were drawing near a city. A lake-city, like Mexico. They must have reached a city, because when Aaron woke up and tried to piece together the dream of which these are mere fragments, he could remember having just seen an idol. An Astarte he knew it as, seated by the road, and in her open lap, were some eggs: smallish hen's eggs, and one or two bigger eggs, like swan's, and one single little roll of bread. These lay in the lap of the roadside Astarte.... And then he could remember no more.
He woke, and for a minute tried to remember what he had been dreaming, and what it all meant. But he quickly relinquished the effort. So he looked at his watch: it was only half-past three. He had one of those American watches with luminous, phosphorescent figures and fingers. And tonight he felt afraid of its eerily shining face.
He was awake a long time in the dark—for two hours, thinking and not thinking, in that barren state which is not sleep, nor yet full wakefulness, and which is a painful strain. At length he went to sleep again, and did not wake till past eight o'clock. He did not ring for his coffee till nine.
Outside was a bright day—but he hardly heeded it. He lay profitlessly thinking. With the breaking of the flute, that which was slowly breaking had finally shattered at last. And there was nothing ahead: no plan, no prospect. He knew quite well that people would help him: Francis Dekker or Angus Guest or the Marchese or Lilly. They would get him a new flute, and find him engagements. But what was the good? His flute was broken, and broken finally. The bomb had settled it. The bomb had settled it and everything. It was an end, no matter how he tried to patch things up. The only thing he felt was a thread of destiny attaching him to Lilly. The rest had all gone as bare and bald as the dead orb of the moon. So he made up his mind, if he could, to make some plan that would bring his life together with that of his evanescent friend.
Lilly was a peculiar bird. Clever and attractive as he undoubtedly was, he was perhaps the most objectionable person to know. It was stamped on his peculiar face. Aaron thought of Lilly's dark, ugly face, which had something that lurked in it as a creature under leaves. Then he thought of the wide-apart eyes, with their curious candour and surety. The peculiar, half-veiled surety, as if nothing, nothing could overcome him. It made people angry, this look of silent, indifferent assurance. "Nothing can touch him on the quick, nothing can really GET at him," they felt at last. And they felt it with resentment, almost with hate. They wanted to be able to get at him. For he was so open-seeming, so very outspoken. He gave himself away so much. And he had no money to fall back on. Yet he gave himself away so easily, paid such attention, almost deference to any chance friend. So they all thought: Here is a wise person who finds me the wonder which I really am.—And lo and behold, after he had given them the trial, and found their inevitable limitations, he departed and ceased to heed their wonderful existence. Which, to say the least of it, was fraudulent and damnable. It was then, after his departure, that they realised his basic indifference to them, and his silent arrogance. A silent arrogance that knew all their wisdom, and left them to it.
Aaron had been through it all. He had started by thinking Lilly a peculiar little freak: gone on to think him a wonderful chap, and a bit pathetic: progressed, and found him generous, but overbearing: then cruel and intolerant, allowing no man to have a soul of his own: then terribly arrogant, throwing a fellow aside like an old glove which is in holes at the finger-ends. And all the time, which was most beastly, seeing through one. All the time, freak and outsider as he was, Lilly knew. He knew, and his soul was against the whole world.
Driven to bay, and forced to choose. Forced to choose, not between life and death, but between the world and the uncertain, assertive Lilly. Forced to choose, and yet, in the world, having nothing left to choose. For in the world there was nothing left to choose, unless he would give in and try for success. Aaron knew well enough that if he liked to do a bit of buttering, people would gladly make a success of him, and give him money and success. He could become quite a favourite.
But no! If he had to give in to something: if he really had to give in, and it seemed he had: then he would rather give in to the little Lilly than to the beastly people of the world. If he had to give in, then it should be to no woman, and to no social ideal, and to no social institution. No!—if he had to yield his wilful independence, and give himself, then he would rather give himself to the little, individual man than to any of the rest. For to tell the truth, in the man was something incomprehensible, which had dominion over him, if he chose to allow it.
As he lay pondering this over, escaping from the cul de sac in which he had been running for so long, by yielding to one of his pursuers: yielding to the peculiar mastery of one man's nature rather than to the quicksands of woman or the stinking bogs of society: yielding, since yield he must, in some direction or other: yielding in a new direction now, to one strange and incalculable little individual: as Aaron lay so relaxing, finding a peculiar delight in giving his soul to his mind's hero, the self-same hero tapped and entered.
"I wondered," he said, "if you'd like to walk into the country with me: it is such a nice day. I thought you might have gone out already. But here you are in bed like a woman who's had a baby.—You're all right, are you?"
"Yes," said Aaron. "I'm all right."
"Miserable about your flute?—Ah, well, there are more flutes. Get up then." And Lilly went to the window, and stood looking out at the river.
"We're going away on Thursday," he said.
"Where to?" said Aaron.
"Naples. We've got a little house there for the winter—in the country, not far from Sorrento—I must get a bit of work done, now the winter is coming. And forget all about everything and just live with life. What's the good of running after life, when we've got it in us, if nobody prevents us and obstructs us?"
Aaron felt very queer.
"But for how long will you settle down—?" he asked.
"Oh, only the winter. I am a vagrant really: or a migrant. I must migrate. Do you think a cuckoo in Africa and a cuckoo in Essex is one AND the same bird? Anyhow, I know I must oscillate between north and south, so oscillate I do. It's just my nature. All people don't have the same needs."
"Perhaps not," said Aaron, who had risen and was sitting on the side of the bed.
"I would very much like to try life in another continent, among another race. I feel Europe becoming like a cage to me. Europe may be all right in herself. But I find myself chafing. Another year I shall get out. I shall leave Europe. I begin to feel caged."
"I guess there are others that feel caged, as well as you," said Aaron.
"I guess there are."
"And maybe they haven't a chance to get out."
Lilly was silent a moment. Then he said:
"Well, I didn't make life and society. I can only go my own way."
Aaron too was silent. A deep disappointment was settling over his spirit.
"Will you be alone all winter?"
"Just myself and Tanny," he answered. "But people always turn up."
"And then next year, what will you do?"
"Who knows? I may sail far off. I should like to. I should like to try quite a new life-mode. This is finished in me—and yet perhaps it is absurd to go further. I'm rather sick of seekers. I hate a seeker."
"What," said Aaron rather sarcastically—"those who are looking for a new religion?"
"Religion—and love—and all that. It's a disease now."
"Oh, I don't know," said Aaron. "Perhaps the lack of love and religion is the disease."
"Ah—bah! The grinding the old millstones of love and God is what ails us, when there's no more grist between the stones. We've ground love very small. Time to forget it. Forget the very words religion, and God, and love—then have a shot at a new mode. But the very words rivet us down and don't let us move. Rivets, and we can't get them out."
"And where should we be if we could?" said Aaron.
"We might begin to be ourselves, anyhow."
"And what does that mean?" said Aaron. "Being yourself—what does it mean?"
"To me, everything."
"And to most folks, nothing. They've got to have a goal."
"There is no goal. I loathe goals more than any other impertinence. Gaols, they are. Bah—jails and jailers, gaols and gaolers—-"
"Wherever you go, you'll find people with their noses tied to some goal," said Aaron.
"Their wagon hitched to a star—which goes round and round like an ass in a gin," laughed Lilly. "Be damned to it."
Aaron got himself dressed, and the two men went out, took a tram and went into the country. Aaron could not help it—Lilly put his back up. They came to a little inn near a bridge, where a broad stream rustled bright and shallow. It was a sunny warm day, and Aaron and Lilly had a table outside under the thin trees at the top of the bank above the river. The yellow leaves were falling—the Tuscan sky was turquoise blue. In the stream below three naked boys still adventurously bathed, and lay flat on the shingle in the sun. A wagon with two pale, loving, velvety oxen drew slowly down the hill, looking at each step as if they were going to come to rest, to move no more. But still they stepped forward. Till they came to the inn, and there they stood at rest. Two old women were picking the last acorns under three scrubby oak-trees, whilst a girl with bare feet drove her two goats and a sheep up from the water-side towards the women. The girl wore a dress that had been blue, perhaps indigo, but which had faded to the beautiful lavender-purple colour which is so common, and which always reminded Lilly of purple anemones in the south.
The two friends sat in the sun and drank red wine. It was midday. From the thin, square belfry on the opposite hill the bells had rung. The old women and the girl squatted under the trees, eating their bread and figs. The boys were dressing, fluttering into their shirts on the stream's shingle. A big girl went past, with somebody's dinner tied in a red kerchief and perched on her head. It was one of the most precious hours: the hour of pause, noon, and the sun, and the quiet acceptance of the world. At such a time everything seems to fall into a true relationship, after the strain of work and of urge.
Aaron looked at Lilly, and saw the same odd, distant look on his face as on the face of some animal when it lies awake and alert, yet perfectly at one with its surroundings. It was something quite different from happiness: an alert enjoyment of rest, an intense and satisfying sense of centrality. As a dog when it basks in the sun with one eye open and winking: or a rabbit quite still and wide-eyed, with a faintly-twitching nose. Not passivity, but alert enjoyment of being central, life-central in one's own little circumambient world.
They sat thus still—or lay under the trees—for an hour and a half. Then Lilly paid the bill, and went on.
"What am I going to do this winter, do you think?" Aaron asked.
"What do you want to do?"
"Nay, that's what I want to know."
"Do you want anything? I mean, does something drive you from inside?"
"I can't just rest," said Aaron.
"Can't you settle down to something?—to a job, for instance?"
"I've not found the job I could settle down to, yet," said Aaron.
"It's just my nature."
"Are you a seeker? Have you got a divine urge, or need?"
"How do I know?" laughed Aaron. "Perhaps I've got a DAMNED urge, at the bottom of me. I'm sure it's nothing divine."
"Very well then. Now, in life, there are only two great dynamic urges—do you believe me—?"
"How do I know?" laughed Aaron. "Do you want to be believed?"
"No, I don't care a straw. Only for your own sake, you'd better believe me."
"All right then—what about it?"
"Well, then, there are only two great dynamic urges in LIFE: love and power."
"Love and power?" said Aaron. "I don't see power as so very important."
"You don't see because you don't look. But that's not the point. What sort of urge is your urge? Is it the love urge?"
"I don't know," said Aaron.
"Yes, you do. You know that you have got an urge, don't you?"
"Yes—" rather unwillingly Aaron admitted it.
"Well then, what is it? Is it that you want to love, or to be obeyed?"
"A bit of both."
"All right—a bit of both. And what are you looking for in love?—A woman whom you can love, and who will love you, out and out and all in all and happy ever after sort of thing?"
"That's what I started out for, perhaps," laughed Aaron.
"And now you know it's all my eye!" Aaron looked at Lilly, unwilling to admit it. Lilly began to laugh.
"You know it well enough," he said. "It's one of your lost illusions, my boy. Well, then, what next? Is it a God you're after? Do you want a God you can strive to and attain, through love, and live happy ever after, countless millions of eternities, immortality and all that? Is this your little dodge?"
Again Aaron looked at Lilly with that odd double look of mockery and unwillingness to give himself away.
"All right then. You've got a love-urge that urges you to God; have you? Then go and join the Buddhists in Burmah, or the newest fangled Christians in Europe. Go and stick your head in a bush of Nirvana or spiritual perfection. Trot off."
"I won't," said Aaron.
"You must. If you've got a love-urge, then give it its fulfilment."
"I haven't got a love-urge."
"You have. You want to get excited in love. You want to be carried away in love. You want to whoosh off in a nice little love whoosh and love yourself. Don't deny it. I know you do. You want passion to sweep you off on wings of fire till you surpass yourself, and like the swooping eagle swoop right into the sun. I know you, my love-boy."
"Not any more—not any more. I've been had too often," laughed Aaron.
"Bah, it's a lesson men never learn. No matter how sick they make themselves with love, they always rush for more, like a dog to his vomit."
"Well, what am I to do then, if I'm not to love?" cried Aaron.
"You want to go on, from passion to passion, from ecstasy to ecstasy, from triumph to triumph, till you can whoosh away into glory, beyond yourself, all bonds loosened and happy ever after. Either that or Nirvana, opposite side of the medal."
"There's probably more hate than love in me," said Aaron.
"That's the recoil of the same urge. The anarchist, the criminal, the murderer, he is only the extreme lover acting on the recoil. But it is love: only in recoil. It flies back, the love-urge, and becomes a horror."
"All right then. I'm a criminal and a murderer," said Aaron.
"No, you're not. But you've a love-urge. And perhaps on the recoil just now. But listen to me. It's no good thinking the love-urge is the one and only. Niente! You can whoosh if you like, and get excited and carried away loving a woman, or humanity, or God. Swoop away in the love direction till you lose yourself. But that's where you're had. You can't lose yourself. You can try. But you might just as well try to swallow yourself. You'll only bite your fingers off in the attempt. You can't lose yourself, neither in woman nor humanity nor in God. You've always got yourself on your hands in the end: and a very raw and jaded and humiliated and nervous-neurasthenic self it is, too, in the end. A very nasty thing to wake up to is one's own raw self after an excessive love-whoosh. Look even at President Wilson: he love-whooshed for humanity, and found in the end he'd only got a very sorry self on his hands.
"So leave off. Leave off, my boy. Leave off love-whooshing. You can't lose yourself, so stop trying. The responsibility is on your own shoulders all the time, and no God which man has ever struck can take it off. You ARE yourself and so BE yourself. Stick to it and abide by it. Passion or no passion, ecstasy or no ecstasy, urge or no urge, there's no goal outside you, where you can consummate like an eagle flying into the sun, or a moth into a candle. There's no goal outside you—and there's no God outside you. No God, whom you can get to and rest in. None. It's a case of:
'Trot, trot to market, to buy a penny bun,
And trot, trot back again, as fast as you can run.'
But there's no God outside you, whom you can rise to or sink to or swoop away to. You can't even gum yourself to a divine Nirvana moon. Because all the time you've got to eat your dinner and digest it. There is no goal outside you. None.
"There is only one thing, your own very self. So you'd better stick to it. You can't be any bigger than just yourself, so you needn't drag God in. You've got one job, and no more. There inside you lies your own very self, like a germinating egg, your precious Easter egg of your own soul. There it is, developing bit by bit, from one single egg-cell which you were at your conception in your mother's womb, on and on to the strange and peculiar complication in unity which never stops till you die—if then. You've got an innermost, integral unique self, and since it's the only thing you have got or ever will have, don't go trying to lose it. You've got to develop it, from the egg into the chicken, and from the chicken into the one-and-only phoenix, of which there can only be one at a time in the universe. There can only be one of you at a time in the universe—and one of me. So don't forget it. Your own single oneness is your destiny. Your destiny comes from within, from your own self-form. And you can't know it beforehand, neither your destiny nor your self-form. You can only develop it. You can only stick to your own very self, and NEVER betray it. And by so sticking, you develop the one and only phoenix of your own self, and you unfold your own destiny, as a dandelion unfolds itself into a dandelion, and not into a stick of celery.
"Remember this, my boy: you've never got to deny the Holy Ghost which is inside you, your own soul's self. Never. Or you'll catch it. And you've never got to think you'll dodge the responsibility of your own soul's self, by loving or sacrificing or Nirvaning—or even anarchising and throwing bombs. You never will...."
Aaron was silenced for a moment by this flood of words. Then he said smiling:
"So I'd better sit tight on my soul, till it hatches, had I?"
"Oh, yes. If your soul's urge urges you to love, then love. But always know that what you are doing is the fulfilling of your own soul's impulse. It's no good trying to act by prescription: not a bit. And it's no use getting into frenzies. If you've got to go in for love and passion, go in for them. But they aren't the goal. They're a mere means: a life-means, if you will. The only goal is the fulfilling of your own soul's active desire and suggestion. Be passionate as much as ever it is your nature to be passionate, and deeply sensual as far as you can be. Small souls have a small sensuality, deep souls a deep one. But remember, all the time, the responsibility is upon your own head, it all rests with your own lonely soul, the responsibility for your own action."
"I never said it didn't," said Aaron.
"You never said it did. You never accepted. You thought there was something outside, to justify you: God, or a creed, or a prescription. But remember, your soul inside you is your only Godhead. It develops your actions within you as a tree develops its own new cells. And the cells push on into buds and boughs and flowers. And these are your passion and your acts and your thoughts and expressions, your developing consciousness. You don't know beforehand, and you can't. You can only stick to your own soul through thick and thin.
"You are your own Tree of Life, roots and limbs and trunk. Somewhere within the wholeness of the tree lies the very self, the quick: its own innate Holy Ghost. And this Holy Ghost puts forth new buds, and pushes past old limits, and shakes off a whole body of dying leaves. And the old limits hate being empassed, and the old leaves hate to fall. But they must, if the tree-soul says so...."
They had sat again during this harangue, under a white wall. Aaron listened more to the voice than the words. It was more the sound value which entered his soul, the tone, the strange speech-music which sank into him. The sense he hardly heeded. And yet he understood, he knew. He understood, oh so much more deeply than if he had listened with his head. And he answered an objection from the bottom of his soul.
"But you talk," he said, "as if we were like trees, alone by ourselves in the world. We aren't. If we love, it needs another person than ourselves. And if we hate, and even if we talk."
"Quite," said Lilly. "And that's just the point. We've got to love and hate moreover—and even talk. But we haven't got to fix on any one of these modes, and say that's the only mode. It is such imbecility to say that love and love alone must rule. It is so obviously not the case. Yet we try and make it so."
"I feel that," said Aaron. "It's all a lie."
"It's worse. It's a half lie. But listen. I told you there were two urges—two great life-urges, didn't I? There may be more. But it comes on me so strongly, now, that there are two: love, and power. And we've been trying to work ourselves, at least as individuals, from the love-urge exclusively, hating the power-urge, and repressing it. And now I find we've got to accept the very thing we've hated.
"We've exhausted our love-urge, for the moment. And yet we try to force it to continue working. So we get inevitably anarchy and murder. It's no good. We've got to accept the power motive, accept it in deep responsibility, do you understand me? It is a great life motive. It was that great dark power-urge which kept Egypt so intensely living for so many centuries. It is a vast dark source of life and strength in us now, waiting either to issue into true action, or to burst into cataclysm. Power—the power-urge. The will-to-power—but not in Nietzsche's sense. Not intellectual power. Not mental power. Not conscious will-power. Not even wisdom. But dark, living, fructifying power. Do you know what I mean?"
"I don't know," said Aaron.
"Take what you call love, for example. In the real way of love, the positive aim is to make the other person—or persons—happy. It devotes itself to the other or to others. But change the mode. Let the urge be the urge of power. Then the great desire is not happiness, neither of the beloved nor of oneself. Happiness is only one of many states, and it is horrible to think of fixing us down to one state. The urge of power does not seek for happiness any more than for any other state. It urges from within, darkly, for the displacing of the old leaves, the inception of the new. It is powerful and self-central, not seeking its centre outside, in some God or some beloved, but acting indomitably from within itself.
"And of course there must be one who urges, and one who is impelled. Just as in love there is a beloved and a lover: The man is supposed to be the lover, the woman the beloved. Now, in the urge of power, it is the reverse. The woman must submit, but deeply, deeply submit. Not to any foolish fixed authority, not to any foolish and arbitrary will. But to something deep, deeper. To the soul in its dark motion of power and pride. We must reverse the poles. The woman must now submit—but deeply, deeply, and richly! No subservience. None of that. No slavery. A deep, unfathomable free submission."
"You'll never get it," said Aaron.
"You will, if you abandon the love idea and the love motive, and if you stand apart, and never bully, never force from the conscious will. That's where Nietzsche was wrong. His was the conscious and benevolent will, in fact, the love-will. But the deep power-urge is not conscious of its aims: and it is certainly not consciously benevolent or love-directed.—Whatever else happens, somewhere, sometime, the deep power-urge in man will have to issue forth again, and woman will submit, livingly, not subjectedly."
"She never will," persisted Aaron. "Anything else will happen, but not that."
"She will," said Lilly, "once man disengages himself from the love-mode, and stands clear. Once he stands clear, and the other great urge begins to flow in him, then the woman won't be able to resist. Her own soul will wish to yield itself."
"Woman yield—?" Aaron re-echoed.
"Woman—and man too. Yield to the deep power-soul in the individual man, and obey implicitly. I don't go back on what I said before. I do believe that every man must fulfil his own soul, every woman must be herself, herself only, not some man's instrument, or some embodied theory. But the mode of our being is such that we can only live and have our being whilst we are implicit in one of the great dynamic modes. We MUST either love, or rule. And once the love-mode changes, as change it must, for we are worn out and becoming evil in its persistence, then the other mode will take place in us. And there will be profound, profound obedience in place of this love-crying, obedience to the incalculable power-urge. And men must submit to the greater soul in a man, for their guidance: and women must submit to the positive power-soul in man, for their being."
"You'll never get it," said Aaron.
"You will, when all men want it. All men say, they want a leader. Then let them in their souls submit to some greater soul than theirs. At present, when they say they want a leader, they mean they want an instrument, like Lloyd George. A mere instrument for their use. But it's more than that. It's the reverse. It's the deep, fathomless submission to the heroic soul in a greater man. You, Aaron, you too have the need to submit. You, too, have the need livingly to yield to a more heroic soul, to give yourself. You know you have. And you know it isn't love. It is life-submission. And you know it. But you kick against the pricks. And perhaps you'd rather die than yield. And so, die you must. It is your affair."
There was a long pause. Then Aaron looked up into Lilly's face. It was dark and remote-seeming. It was like a Byzantine eikon at the moment.
"And whom shall I submit to?" he said.
"Your soul will tell you," replied the other.