CHAPTER XI. MORE PILLAR OF SALT
The opera season ended, Aaron was invited by Cyril Scott to join a group of musical people in a village by the sea. He accepted, and spent a pleasant month. It pleased the young men musically-inclined and bohemian by profession to patronise the flautist, whom they declared marvellous. Bohemians with well-to-do parents, they could already afford to squander a little spasmodic and self-gratifying patronage. And Aaron did not mind being patronised. He had nothing else to do.
But the party broke up early in September. The flautist was detained a few days at a country house, for the amusement of the guests. Then he left for London.
In London he found himself at a loose end. A certain fretful dislike of the patronage of indifferent young men, younger than himself, and a certain distaste for regular work in the orchestra made him look round. He wanted something else. He wanted to disappear again. Qualms and emotions concerning his abandoned family overcame him. The early, delicate autumn affected him. He took a train to the Midlands.
And again, just after dark, he strolled with his little bag across the field which lay at the end of his garden. It had been mown, and the grass was already growing long. He stood and looked at the line of back windows, lighted once more. He smelled the scents of autumn, phlox and moist old vegetation and corn in sheaf. A nostalgia which was half at least revulsion affected him. The place, the home, at once fascinated and revolted him.
Sitting in his shed, he scrutinised his garden carefully, in the starlight. There were two rows of beans, rather disshevelled. Near at hand the marrow plants sprawled from their old bed. He could detect the perfume of a few carnations. He wondered who it was had planted the garden, during his long absence. Anyhow, there it was, planted and fruited and waning into autumn.
The blind was not drawn. It was eight o'clock. The children were going to bed. Aaron waited in his shed, his bowels stirred with violent but only half-admitted emotions. There was his wife, slim and graceful, holding a little mug to the baby's mouth. And the baby was drinking. She looked lonely. Wild emotions attacked his heart. There was going to be a wild and emotional reconciliation.
Was there? It seemed like something fearful and imminent. A passion arose in him, a craving for the violent emotional reconciliation. He waited impatiently for the children to be gone to bed, gnawed with restless desire.
He heard the clock strike nine, then half-past, from the village behind. The children would be asleep. His wife was sitting sewing some little frock. He went lingering down the garden path, stooping to lift the fallen carnations, to see how they were. There were many flowers, but small. He broke one off, then threw it away. The golden rod was out. Even in the little lawn there were asters, as of old.
His wife started to listen, hearing his step. He was filled with a violent conflict of tenderness, like a sickness. He hesitated, tapping at the door, and entered. His wife started to her feet, at bay.
"What have you come for!" was her involuntary ejaculation.
But he, with the familiar odd jerk of his head towards the garden, asked with a faint smile:
"Who planted the garden?"
And he felt himself dropping into the twang of the vernacular, which he had discarded.
Lottie only stood and stared at him, objectively. She did not think to answer. He took his hat off, and put it on the dresser. Again the familiar act maddened her.
"What have you come for?" she cried again, with a voice full of hate. Or perhaps it was fear and doubt and even hope as well. He heard only hate.
This time he turned to look at her. The old dagger was drawn in her.
"I wonder," he said, "myself."
Then she recovered herself, and with trembling hand picked up her sewing again. But she still stood at bay, beyond the table. She said nothing. He, feeling tired, sat down on the chair nearest the door. But he reached for his hat, and kept it on his knee. She, as she stood there unnaturally, went on with her sewing. There was silence for some time. Curious sensations and emotions went through the man's frame seeming to destroy him. They were like electric shocks, which he felt she emitted against him. And an old sickness came in him again. He had forgotten it. It was the sickness of the unrecognised and incomprehensible strain between him and her.
After a time she put down her sewing, and sat again in her chair.
"Do you know how vilely you've treated me?" she said, staring across the space at him. He averted his face.
Yet he answered, not without irony.
"I suppose so."
"And why?" she cried. "I should like to know why."
He did not answer. The way she rushed in made him go vague.
"Justify yourself. Say why you've been so vile to me. Say what you had against me," she demanded.
"What I HAD against her," he mused to himself: and he wondered that she used the past tense. He made no answer.
"Accuse me," she insisted. "Say what I've done to make you treat me like this. Say it. You must THINK it hard enough."
"Nay," he said. "I don't think it."
This speech, by which he merely meant that he did not trouble to formulate any injuries he had against her, puzzled her.
"Don't come pretending you love me, NOW. It's too late," she said with contempt. Yet perhaps also hope.
"You might wait till I start pretending," he said.
This enraged her.
"You vile creature!" she exclaimed. "Go! What have you come for?"
"To look at YOU," he said sarcastically.
After a few minutes she began to cry, sobbing violently into her apron. And again his bowels stirred and boiled.
"What have I done! What have I done! I don't know what I've done that he should be like this to me," she sobbed, into her apron. It was childish, and perhaps true. At least it was true from the childish part of her nature. He sat gloomy and uneasy.
She took the apron from her tear-stained face, and looked at him. It was true, in her moments of roused exposure she was a beautiful woman—a beautiful woman. At this moment, with her flushed, tear-stained, wilful distress, she was beautiful.
"Tell me," she challenged. "Tell me! Tell me what I've done. Tell me what you have against me. Tell me."
Watching like a lynx, she saw the puzzled, hurt look in his face. Telling isn't so easy—especially when the trouble goes too deep for conscious comprehension. He couldn't tell what he had against her. And he had not the slightest intention of doing what she would have liked him to do, starting to pile up detailed grievances. He knew the detailed grievances were nothing in themselves.
"You CAN'T," she cried vindictively. "You CAN'T. You CAN'T find anything real to bring against me, though you'd like to. You'd like to be able to accuse me of something, but you CAN'T, because you know there isn't anything."
She watched him, watched. And he sat in the chair near the door, without moving.
"You're unnatural, that's what you are," she cried. "You're unnatural. You're not a man. You haven't got a man's feelings. You're nasty, and cold, and unnatural. And you're a coward. You're a coward. You run away from me, without telling me what you've got against me."
"When you've had enough, you go away and you don't care what you do," he said, epigrammatic.
She paused a moment.
"Enough of what?" she said. "What have you had enough of? Of me and your children? It's a nice manly thing to say. Haven't I loved you? Haven't I loved you for twelve years, and worked and slaved for you and tried to keep you right? Heaven knows where you'd have been but for me, evil as you are at the bottom. You're evil, that's what it is—and weak. You're too weak to love a woman and give her what she wants: too weak. Unmanly and cowardly, he runs away."
"No wonder," he said.
"No," she cried. "It IS no wonder, with a nature like yours: weak and unnatural and evil. It IS no wonder."
She became quiet—and then started to cry again, into her apron. Aaron waited. He felt physically weak.
"And who knows what you've been doing all these months?" she wept. "Who knows all the vile things you've been doing? And you're the father of my children—the father of my little girls—and who knows what vile things he's guilty of, all these months?"
"I shouldn't let my imagination run away with me," he answered. "I've been playing the flute in the orchestra of one of the theatres in London."
"Ha!" she cried. "It's more than that. Don't think I'm going to believe you. I know you, with your smooth-sounding lies. You're a liar, as you know. And I know you've been doing other things besides play a flute in an orchestra. You!—as if I don't know you. And then coming crawling back to me with your lies and your pretense. Don't think I'm taken in."
"I should be sorry," he said.
"Coming crawling back to me, and expecting to be forgiven," she went on. "But no—I don't forgive—and I can't forgive—never—not as long as I live shall I forgive what you've done to me."
"You can wait till you're asked, anyhow," he said.
"And you can wait," she said. "And you shall wait." She took up her sewing, and stitched steadily, as if calmly. Anyone glancing in would have imagined a quiet domestic hearth at that moment. He, too, feeling physically weak, remained silent, feeling his soul absent from the scene.
Again she suddenly burst into tears, weeping bitterly.
"And the children," she sobbed, rocking herself with grief and chagrin. "What have I been able to say to the children—what have I been able to tell them?"
"What HAVE you told them?" he asked coldly.
"I told them you'd gone away to work," she sobbed, laying her head on her arms on the table. "What else could I tell them? I couldn't tell them the vile truth about their father. I couldn't tell THEM how evil you are." She sobbed and moaned.
He wondered what exactly the vile truth would have been, had she started to tell it. And he began to feel, coldly and cynically, that among all her distress there was a luxuriating in the violent emotions of the scene in hand, and the situation altogether.
Then again she became quiet, and picked up her sewing. She stitched quietly, wistfully, for some time. Then she looked up at him—a long look of reproach, and sombre accusation, and wifely tenderness. He turned his face aside.
"You know you've been wrong to me, don't you?" she said, half wistfully, half menacing.
He felt her wistfulness and her menace tearing him in his bowels and loins.
"You do know, don't you?" she insisted, still with the wistful appeal, and the veiled threat.
"You do, or you would answer," she said. "You've still got enough that's right in you, for you to know."
She waited. He sat still, as if drawn by hot wires.
Then she slipped across to him, put her arms round him, sank on her knees at his side, and sank her face against his thigh.
"Say you know how wrong you are. Say you know how cruel you've been to me," she pleaded. But under her female pleading and appeal he felt the iron of her threat.
"You DO know it," she murmured, looking up into his face as she crouched by his knee. "You DO know it. I can see in your eyes that you know it. And why have you come back to me, if you don't know it! Why have you come back to me? Tell me!" Her arms gave him a sharp, compulsory little clutch round the waist. "Tell me! Tell me!" she murmured, with all her appeal liquid in her throat.
But him, it half overcame, and at the same time, horrified. He had a certain horror of her. The strange liquid sound of her appeal seemed to him like the swaying of a serpent which mesmerises the fated, fluttering, helpless bird. She clasped her arms round him, she drew him to her, she half roused his passion. At the same time she coldly horrified and repelled him. He had not the faintest feeling, at the moment, of his own wrong. But she wanted to win his own self-betrayal out of him. He could see himself as the fascinated victim, falling to this cajoling, awful woman, the wife of his bosom. But as well, he had a soul outside himself, which looked on the whole scene with cold revulsion, and which was as unchangeable as time.
"No," he said. "I don't feel wrong."
"You DO!" she said, giving him a sharp, admonitory clutch. "You DO. Only you're silly, and obstinate, babyish and silly and obstinate. An obstinate little boy—you DO feel wrong. And you ARE wrong. And you've got to say it."
But quietly he disengaged himself and got to his feet, his face pale and set, obstinate as she said. He put his hat on, and took his little bag. She watched him curiously, still crouching by his chair.
"I'll go," he said, putting his hand on the latch.
Suddenly she sprang to her feet and clutched him by the shirt-neck, her hand inside his soft collar, half strangling him.
"You villain," she said, and her face was transfigured with passion as he had never seen it before, horrible. "You villain!" she said thickly. "What have you come here for?"
His soul went black as he looked at her. He broke her hand away from his shirt collar, bursting the stud-holes. She recoiled in silence. And in one black, unconscious movement he was gone, down the garden and over the fence and across the country, swallowed in a black unconsciousness.
She, realising, sank upon the hearth-rug and lay there curled upon herself. She was defeated. But she, too, would never yield. She lay quite motionless for some time. Then she got up, feeling the draught on the floor. She closed the door, and drew down the blind. Then she looked at her wrist, which he had gripped, and which pained her. Then she went to the mirror and looked for a long time at her white, strained, determined face. Come life, come death, she, too would never yield. And she realised now that he would never yield.
She was faint with weariness, and would be glad to get to bed and sleep.
Aaron meanwhile had walked across the country and was looking for a place to rest. He found a cornfield with a half-built stack, and sheaves in stook. Ten to one some tramp would have found the stack. He threw a dozen sheaves together and lay down, looking at the stars in the September sky. He, too, would never yield. The illusion of love was gone for ever. Love was a battle in which each party strove for the mastery of the other's soul. So far, man had yielded the mastery to woman. Now he was fighting for it back again. And too late, for the woman would never yield.
But whether woman yielded or not, he would keep the mastery of his own soul and conscience and actions. He would never yield himself up to her judgment again. He would hold himself forever beyond her jurisdiction.
Henceforth, life single, not life double.
He looked at the sky, and thanked the universe for the blessedness of being alone in the universe. To be alone, to be oneself, not to be driven or violated into something which is not oneself, surely it is better than anything. He thought of Lottie, and knew how much more truly herself she was when she was alone, with no man to distort her. And he was thankful for the division between them. Such scenes as the last were too horrible and unreal.
As for future unions, too soon to think about it. Let there be clean and pure division first, perfected singleness. That is the only way to final, living unison: through sheer, finished singleness.
CHAPTER XII. NOVARA
Having no job for the autumn, Aaron fidgetted in London. He played at some concerts and some private shows. He was one of an odd quartette, for example, which went to play to Lady Artemis Hooper, when she lay in bed after her famous escapade of falling through the window of her taxi-cab. Aaron had that curious knack, which belongs to some people, of getting into the swim without knowing he was doing it. Lady Artemis thought his flute lovely, and had him again to play for her. Aaron looked at her and she at him. She, as she reclined there in bed in a sort of half-light, well made-up, smoking her cigarettes and talking in a rather raucous voice, making her slightly rasping witty comments to the other men in the room—of course there were other men, the audience—was a shock to the flautist. This was the bride of the moment! Curious how raucous her voice sounded out of the cigarette smoke. Yet he liked her—the reckless note of the modern, social freebooter. In himself was a touch of the same quality.
"Do you love playing?" she asked him.
"Yes," he said, with that shadow of irony which seemed like a smile on his face.
"Live for it, so to speak," she said.
"I make my living by it," he said.
"But that's not really how you take it?" she said. He eyed her. She watched him over her cigarette. It was a personal moment.
"I don't think about it," he said.
"I'm sure you don't. You wouldn't be so good if you did. You're awfully lucky, you know, to be able to pour yourself down your flute."
"You think I go down easy?" he laughed.
"Ah!" she replied, flicking her cigarette broadcast. "That's the point. What should you say, Jimmy?" she turned to one of the men. He screwed his eyeglass nervously and stiffened himself to look at her.
"I—I shouldn't like to say, off-hand," came the small-voiced, self-conscious answer. And Jimmy bridled himself and glanced at Aaron.
"Do you find it a tight squeeze, then?" she said, turning to Aaron once more.
"No, I can't say that," he answered. "What of me goes down goes down easy enough. It's what doesn't go down."
"And how much is that?" she asked, eying him.
"A good bit, maybe," he said.
"Slops over, so to speak," she retorted sarcastically. "And which do you enjoy more, trickling down your flute or slopping over on to the lap of Mother Earth—of Miss, more probably!"
"Depends," he said.
Having got him a few steps too far upon the personal ground, she left him to get off by himself.
So he found London got on his nerves. He felt it rubbed him the wrong way. He was flattered, of course, by his own success—and felt at the same time irritated by it. This state of mind was by no means acceptable. Wherever he was he liked to be given, tacitly, the first place—or a place among the first. Among the musical people he frequented, he found himself on a callow kind of equality with everybody, even the stars and aristocrats, at one moment, and a backstairs outsider the next. It was all just as the moment demanded. There was a certain excitement in slithering up and down the social scale, one minute chatting in a personal tete-a-tete with the most famous, or notorious, of the society beauties: and the next walking in the rain, with his flute in a bag, to his grubby lodging in Bloomsbury. Only the excitement roused all the savage sarcasm that lay at the bottom of his soul, and which burned there like an unhealthy bile.
Therefore he determined to clear out—to disappear. He had a letter from Lilly, from Novara. Lilly was drifting about. Aaron wrote to Novara, and asked if he should come to Italy, having no money to speak of. "Come if you want to. Bring your flute. And if you've no money, put on a good suit of clothes and a big black hat, and play outside the best cafe in any Italian town, and you'll collect enough to get on with."
It was a sporting chance. Aaron packed his bag and got a passport, and wrote to Lilly to say he would join him, as invited, at Sir William Franks'. He hoped Lilly's answer would arrive before he left London. But it didn't.
Therefore behold our hero alighting at Novara, two hours late, on a wet, dark evening. He hoped Lilly would be there: but nobody. With some slight dismay he faced the big, crowded station. The stream of people carried him automatically through the barrier, a porter having seized his bag, and volleyed various unintelligible questions at him. Aaron understood not one word. So he just wandered after the blue blouse of the porter.
The porter deposited the bag on the steps of the station front, fired off more questions and gesticulated into the half-illuminated space of darkness outside the station. Aaron decided it meant a cab, so he nodded and said "Yes." But there were no cabs. So once more the blue-bloused porter slung the big bag and the little bag on the strap over his shoulder, and they plunged into the night, towards some lights and a sort of theatre place.
One carriage stood there in the rain—yes, and it was free.
"Keb? Yes—orright—sir. Whe'to? Where you go? Sir William Franks? Yes, I know. Long way go—go long way. Sir William Franks."
The cabman spattered his few words of English. Aaron gave the porter an English shilling. The porter let the coin lie in the middle of his palm, as if it were a live beetle, and darted to the light of the carriage to examine the beast, exclaiming volubly. The cabman, wild with interest, peered down from the box into the palm of the porter, and carried on an impassioned dialogue. Aaron stood with one foot on the step.
"What you give—he? One franc?" asked the driver.
"A shilling," said Aaron.
"One sheeling. Yes. I know that. One sheeling English"—and the driver went off into impassioned exclamations in Torinese. The porter, still muttering and holding his hand as if the coin might sting him, filtered away.
"Orright. He know—sheeling—orright. English moneys, eh? Yes, he know. You get up, sir."
And away went Aaron, under the hood of the carriage, clattering down the wide darkness of Novara, over a bridge apparently, past huge rain-wet statues, and through more rainy, half-lit streets.
They stopped at last outside a sort of park wall with trees above. The big gates were just beyond.
"Sir William Franks—there." In a mixture of Italian and English the driver told Aaron to get down and ring the bell on the right. Aaron got down and in the darkness was able to read the name on the plate.
"How much?" said Aaron to the driver.
"Ten franc," said the fat driver.
But it was his turn now to screw down and scrutinise the pink ten-shilling note. He waved it in his hand.
"Not good, eh? Not good moneys?"
"Yes," said Aaron, rather indignantly. "Good English money. Ten shillings. Better than ten francs, a good deal. Better—better—"
"Good—you say? Ten sheeling—" The driver muttered and muttered, as if dissatisfied. But as a matter of fact he stowed the note in his waistcoat pocket with considerable satisfaction, looked at Aaron curiously, and drove away.
Aaron stood there in the dark outside the big gates, and wished himself somewhere else. However, he rang the bell. There was a huge barking of dogs on the other side. Presently a light switched on, and a woman, followed by a man, appeared cautiously, in the half-opened doorway.
"Sir William Franks?" said Aaron.
And Aaron stepped with his two bags inside the gate. Huge dogs jumped round. He stood in the darkness under the trees at the foot of the park. The woman fastened the gate—Aaron saw a door—and through an uncurtained window a man writing at a desk—rather like the clerk in an hotel office. He was going with his two bags to the open door, when the woman stopped him, and began talking to him in Italian. It was evident he must not go on. So he put down the bags. The man stood a few yards away, watchfully.
Aaron looked down at the woman and tried to make out something of what she was saying, but could not. The dogs still barked spasmodically, drops fell from the tall, dark trees that rose overhead.
"Is Mr. Lilly here? Mr. Lilly?" he asked.
"Signor Lillee. No, Signore—"
And off the woman went in Italian. But it was evident Lilly was not at the house. Aaron wished more than ever he had not come, but had gone to an hotel.
He made out that the woman was asking him for his name—"Meester—? Meester—?" she kept saying, with a note of interrogation.
"Sisson. Mr. Sisson," said Aaron, who was becoming impatient. And he found a visiting card to give her. She seemed appeased—said something about telephone—and left him standing.
The rain had ceased, but big drops were shaken from the dark, high trees. Through the uncurtained window he saw the man at the desk reach the telephone. There was a long pause. At length the woman came back and motioned to him to go up—up the drive which curved and disappeared under the dark trees.
"Go up there?" said Aaron, pointing.
That was evidently the intention. So he picked up his bags and strode forward, from out of the circle of electric light, up the curved drive in the darkness. It was a steep incline. He saw trees and the grass slopes. There was a tang of snow in the air.
Suddenly, up ahead, a brilliant light switched on. He continued uphill through the trees along the path, towards it, and at length, emerged at the foot of a great flight of steps, above which was a wide glass entrance, and an Italian manservant in white gloves hovering as if on the brink.
Aaron emerged from the drive and climbed the steps. The manservant came down two steps and took the little bag. Then he ushered Aaron and the big bag into a large, pillared hall, with thick Turkish carpet on the floor, and handsome appointments. It was spacious, comfortable and warm; but somewhat pretentious; rather like the imposing hall into which the heroine suddenly enters on the film.
Aaron dropped his heavy bag, with relief, and stood there, hat in hand, in his damp overcoat in the circle of light, looking vaguely at the yellow marble pillars, the gilded arches above, the shadowy distances and the great stairs. The butler disappeared—reappeared in another moment—and through an open doorway came the host. Sir William was a small, clean old man with a thin, white beard and a courtly deportment, wearing a black velvet dinner jacket faced with purple silk.
"How do you do, Mr. Sisson. You come straight from England?"
Sir William held out his hand courteously and benevolently, smiling an old man's smile of hospitality.
"Mr. Lilly has gone away?" said Aaron.
"Yes. He left us several days ago."
"You didn't expect me, then?"
"Yes, oh, yes. Yes, oh, yes. Very glad to see you—well, now, come in and have some dinner—"
At this moment Lady Franks appeared—short, rather plump, but erect and definite, in a black silk dress and pearls round her throat.
"How do you do? We are just at dinner," she said. "You haven't eaten? No—well, then—would you like a bath now, or—?"
It was evident the Franks had dispensed much hospitality: much of it charitable. Aaron felt it.
"No," he said. "I'll wash my hands and come straight in, shall I?"
"Yes, perhaps that would be better—"
"I'm afraid I am a nuisance."
"Not at all—Beppe—" and she gave instructions in Italian.
Another footman appeared, and took the big bag. Aaron took the little one this time. They climbed the broad, turning stairs, crossed another handsome lounge, gilt and ormolu and yellow silk chairs and scattered copies of The Graphic or of Country Life, then they disappeared through a doorway into a much narrower flight of stairs. Man can so rarely keep it up all the way, the grandeur.
Two black and white chamber-maids appeared. Aaron found himself in a blue silk bedroom, and a footman unstrapping his bag, which he did not want unstrapped. Next minute he was beckoned and allured by the Italian servants down the corridor, and presented to the handsome, spacious bathroom, which was warm and creamy-coloured and glittering with massive silver and mysterious with up-to-date conveniences. There he was left to his own devices, and felt like a small boy finding out how it works. For even the mere turning on of the taps was a problem in silver mechanics.
In spite of all the splendours and the elaborated convenience, he washed himself in good hot water, and wished he were having a bath, chiefly because of the wardrobe of marvellous Turkish towels. Then he clicked his way back to his bedroom, changed his shirt and combed his hair in the blue silk bedroom with the Greuze picture, and felt a little dim and superficial surprise. He had fallen into country house parties before, but never into quite such a plushy sense of riches. He felt he ought to have his breath taken away. But alas, the cinema has taken our breath away so often, investing us in all the splendours of the splendidest American millionaire, or all the heroics and marvels of the Somme or the North Pole, that life has now no magnate richer than we, no hero nobler than we have been, on the film. Connu! Connu! Everything life has to offer is known to us, couldn't be known better, from the film.
So Aaron tied his tie in front of a big Venice mirror, and nothing was a surprise to him. He found a footman hovering to escort him to the dining-room—a real Italian footman, uneasy because milady's dinner was unsettled. He entered the rather small dining-room, and saw the people at table.
He was told various names: bowed to a young, slim woman with big blue eyes and dark hair like a photograph, then to a smaller rather colourless young woman with a large nose: then to a stout, rubicund, bald colonel, and to a tall, thin, Oxford-looking major with a black patch over his eye—both these men in khaki: finally to a good-looking, well-nourished young man in a dinner-jacket, and he sat down to his soup, on his hostess' left hand. The colonel sat on her right, and was confidential. Little Sir William, with his hair and his beard white like spun glass, his manner very courteous and animated, the purple facings of his velvet jacket very impressive, sat at the far end of the table jesting with the ladies and showing his teeth in an old man's smile, a little bit affected, but pleasant, wishing everybody to be happy.
Aaron ate his soup, trying to catch up. Milady's own confidential Italian butler, fidelity itself, hovered quivering near, spiritually helping the newcomer to catch up. Two nice little entree dishes, specially prepared for Aaron to take the place of the bygone fish and vol au-vents of the proper dinner, testified to the courtesy and charity of his hostess.
Well, eating rapidly, he had more or less caught up by the time the sweets came. So he swallowed a glass of wine and looked round. His hostess with her pearls, and her diamond star in her grey hair, was speaking of Lilly and then of music to him.
"I hear you are a musician. That's what I should have been if I had had my way."
"What instrument?" asked Aaron.
"Oh, the piano. Yours is the flute, Mr. Lilly says. I think the flute can be so attractive. But I feel, of course you have more range with the piano. I love the piano—and orchestra."
At that moment, the colonel and hostess-duties distracted her. But she came back in snatches. She was a woman who reminded him a little of Queen Victoria; so assured in her own room, a large part of her attention always given to the successful issue of her duties, the remainder at the disposal of her guests. It was an old-fashioned, not unpleasant feeling: like retrospect. But she had beautiful, big, smooth emeralds and sapphires on her fingers. Money! What a curious thing it is! Aaron noticed the deference of all the guests at table: a touch of obsequiousness: before the money! And the host and hostess accepted the deference, nay, expected it, as their due. Yet both Sir William and Lady Franks knew that it was only money and success. They had both a certain afterthought, knowing dimly that the game was but a game, and that they were the helpless leaders in the game. They had a certain basic ordinariness which prevented their making any great hits, and which kept them disillusioned all the while. They remembered their poor and insignificant days.
"And I hear you were playing in the orchestra at Covent Garden. We came back from London last week. I enjoyed Beecham's operas so much."
"Which do you like best?" said Aaron.
"Oh, the Russian. I think Ivan. It is such fine music."
"I find Ivan artificial."
"Do you? Oh, I don't think so. No, I don't think you can say that."
Aaron wondered at her assurance. She seemed to put him just a tiny bit in his place, even in an opinion on music. Money gave her that right, too. Curious—the only authority left. And he deferred to her opinion: that is, to her money. He did it almost deliberately. Yes—what did he believe in, besides money? What does any man? He looked at the black patch over the major's eye. What had he given his eye for?—the nation's money. Well, and very necessary, too; otherwise we might be where the wretched Austrians are. Instead of which—how smooth his hostess' sapphires!
"Of course I myself prefer Moussorgsky," said Aaron. "I think he is a greater artist. But perhaps it is just personal preference."
"Yes. Boris is wonderful. Oh, some of the scenes in Boris!"
"And even more Kovantchina," said Aaron. "I wish we could go back to melody pure and simple. Yet I find Kovantchina, which is all mass music practically, gives me more satisfaction than any other opera."
"Do you really? I shouldn't say so: oh, no—but you can't mean that you would like all music to go back to melody pure and simple! Just a flute—just a pipe! Oh, Mr. Sisson, you are bigoted for your instrument. I just LIVE in harmony—chords, chords!" She struck imaginary chords on the white damask, and her sapphires swam blue. But at the same time she was watching to see if Sir William had still got beside his plate the white medicine cachet which he must swallow at every meal. Because if so, she must remind him to swallow it. However, at that very moment, he put it on his tongue. So that she could turn her attention again to Aaron and the imaginary chord on the white damask; the thing she just lived in. But the rubicund bald colonel, more rubicund after wine, most rubicund now the Marsala was going, snatched her attention with a burly homage to her femininity, and shared his fear with her with a boyish gallantry.
When the women had gone up, Sir William came near and put his hand on Aaron's shoulder. It was evident the charm was beginning to work. Sir William was a self-made man, and not in the least a snob. He liked the fundamental ordinariness in Aaron, the commonness of the common man.
"Well now, Mr. Sisson, we are very glad to see you! Very glad, indeed. I count Mr. Lilly one of the most interesting men it has ever been my good fortune to know. And so for your own sake, and for Mr. Lilly's sake, we are very glad to see you. Arthur, my boy, give Mr. Sisson some Marsala—and take some yourself."
"Thank you, Sir," said the well-nourished young man in nice evening clothes. "You'll take another glass yourself, Sir?"
"Yes, I will, I will. I will drink a glass with Mr. Sisson. Major, where are you wandering off to? Come and take a glass with us, my boy."
"Thanks, Sir William," drawled the young major with the black patch.
"Now, Colonel—I hope you are in good health and spirits."
"Never better, Sir William, never better."
"I'm very glad to hear it; very glad indeed. Try my Marsala—I think it is quite good. Port is beyond us for the moment—for the moment—"
And the old man sipped his brown wine, and smiled again. He made quite a handsome picture: but he was frail.
"And where are you bound, Mr. Sisson? Towards Rome?"
"I came to meet Lilly," said Aaron.
"Ah! But Lilly has fled over the borders by this time. Never was such a man for crossing frontiers. Wonderful person, to be able to do it."
"Where has he gone?" said Aaron.
"I think to Geneva for the moment. But he certainly talked of Venice. You yourself have no definite goal?"
"Ah! You have not come to Italy to practice your art?"
"I shall HAVE to practice it: or else—no, I haven't come for that."
"Ah, you will HAVE to practice it. Ah, yes! We are all under the necessity to eat. And you have a family in England? Am I not right?"
"Quite. I've got a family depending on me."
"Yes, then you must practice your art: you must practice your art. Well—shall we join the ladies? Coffee will no doubt be served."
"Will you take my arm, Sir?" said the well-nourished Arthur.
"Thank you, thank you," the old man motioned him away.
So they went upstairs to where the three women were sitting in the library round the fire, chattering not very interested. The entry of Sir William at once made a stir.
The girl in white, with the biggish nose, fluttered round him. She was Arthur's wife. The girl in soft blue spread herself on the couch: she was the young Major's wife, and she had a blue band round her hair. The Colonel hovered stout and fidgetty round Lady Franks and the liqueur stand. He and the Major were both in khaki—belonging to the service on duty in Italy still.
Coffee appeared—and Sir William doled out creme de menthe. There was no conversation—only tedious words. The little party was just commonplace and dull—boring. Yet Sir William, the self-made man, was a study. And the young, Oxford-like Major, with his English diffidence and his one dark, pensive, baffled eye was only waiting to be earnest, poor devil.
The girl in white had been a sort of companion to Lady Franks, so that Arthur was more or less a son-in-law. In this capacity, he acted. Aaron strayed round uneasily looking at the books, bought but not read, and at the big pictures above. It was Arthur who fetched out the little boxes containing the orders conferred on Sir William for his war-work: and perhaps more, for the many thousands of pounds he had spent on his war-work.
There were three orders: one British, and quite important, a large silver star for the breast: one Italian, smaller, and silver and gold; and one from the State of Ruritania, in silver and red-and-green enamel, smaller than the others.
"Come now, William," said Lady Franks, "you must try them all on. You must try them all on together, and let us see how you look."
The little, frail old man, with his strange old man's blue eyes and his old man's perpetual laugh, swelled out his chest and said:
"What, am I to appear in all my vanities?" And he laughed shortly.
"Of course you are. We want to see you," said the white girl.
"Indeed we do! We shouldn't mind all appearing in such vanities—what, Lady Franks!" boomed the Colonel.
"I should think not," replied his hostess. "When a man has honours conferred on him, it shows a poor spirit if he isn't proud of them."
"Of course I am proud of them!" said Sir William. "Well then, come and have them pinned on. I think it's wonderful to have got so much in one life-time—wonderful," said Lady Franks.
"Oh, Sir William is a wonderful man," said the Colonel. "Well—we won't say so before him. But let us look at him in his orders."
Arthur, always ready on these occasions, had taken the large and shining British star from its box, and drew near to Sir William, who stood swelling his chest, pleased, proud, and a little wistful.
"This one first, Sir," said Arthur.
Sir William stood very still, half tremulous, like a man undergoing an operation.
"And it goes just here—the level of the heart. This is where it goes." And carefully he pinned the large, radiating ornament on the black velvet dinner-jacket of the old man.
"That is the first—and very becoming," said Lady Franks.
"Oh, very becoming! Very becoming!" said the tall wife of the Major—she was a handsome young woman of the tall, frail type.
"Do you think so, my dear?" said the old man, with his eternal smile: the curious smile of old people when they are dead.
"Not only becoming, Sir," said the Major, bending his tall, slim figure forwards. "But a reassuring sign that a nation knows how to distinguish her valuable men."
"Quite!" said Lady Franks. "I think it is a very great honour to have got it. The king was most gracious, too— Now the other. That goes beside it—the Italian—"
Sir William stood there undergoing the operation of the pinning-on. The Italian star being somewhat smaller than the British, there was a slight question as to where exactly it should be placed. However, Arthur decided it: and the old man stood before the company with his two stars on his breast.
"And now the Ruritanian," said Lady Franks eagerly.
"That doesn't go on the same level with the others, Lady Franks," said Arthur. "That goes much lower down—about here."
"Are you sure?" said Lady Franks. "Doesn't it go more here?"
"No no, no no, not at all. Here! Isn't it so, Sybil?"
"Yes, I think so," said Sybil.
Old Sir William stood quite silent, his breast prepared, peering over the facings of his coat to see where the star was going. The Colonel was called in, and though he knew nothing about it, he agreed with Arthur, who apparently did know something. So the star was pinned quite low down. Sir William, peeping down, exclaimed:
"Well, that is most curious now! I wear an order over the pit of my stomach! I think that is very curious: a curious place to wear an order."
"Stand up! Stand up and let us look!" said Lady Franks. "There now, isn't it handsome? And isn't it a great deal of honour for one man? Could he have expected so much, in one life-time? I call it wonderful. Come and look at yourself, dear"—and she led him to a mirror.
"What's more, all thoroughly deserved," said Arthur.
"I should think so," said the Colonel, fidgetting.
"Ah, yes, nobody has deserved them better," cooed Sybil.
"Nor on more humane and generous grounds," said the Major, sotto voce.
"The effort to save life, indeed," returned the Major's young wife: "splendid!"
Sir William stood naively before the mirror and looked at his three stars on his black velvet dinner-jacket.
"Almost directly over the pit of my stomach," he said. "I hope that is not a decoration for my greedy APPETITE." And he laughed at the young women.
"I assure you it is in position, Sir," said Arthur. "Absolutely correct. I will read it out to you later."
"Aren't you satisfied? Aren't you a proud man! Isn't it wonderful?" said Lady Franks. "Why, what more could a man want from life? He could never EXPECT so much."
"Yes, my dear. I AM a proud man. Three countries have honoured me—" There was a little, breathless pause.
"And not more than they ought to have done," said Sybil.
"Well! Well! I shall have my head turned. Let me return to my own humble self. I am too much in the stars at the moment."
Sir William turned to Arthur to have his decorations removed. Aaron, standing in the background, felt the whole scene strange, childish, a little touching. And Lady Franks was so obviously trying to console her husband: to console the frail, excitable old man with his honours. But why console him? Did he need consolation? And did she? It was evident that only the hard-money woman in her put any price on the decorations.
Aaron came forward and examined the orders, one after the other. Just metal playthings of curious shiny silver and gilt and enamel. Heavy the British one—but only like some heavy buckle, a piece of metal merely when one turned it over. Somebody dropped the Italian cross, and there was a moment of horror. But the lump of metal took no hurt. Queer to see the things stowed in their boxes again. Aaron had always imagined these mysterious decorations as shining by nature on the breasts of heroes. Pinned-on pieces of metal were a considerable come-down.
The orders were put away, the party sat round the fire in the comfortable library, the men sipping more creme de menthe, since nothing else offered, and the couple of hours in front promising the tedium of small-talk of tedious people who had really nothing to say and no particular originality in saying it.
Aaron, however, had reckoned without his host. Sir William sat upright in his chair, with all the determination of a frail old man who insists on being level with the young. The new guest sat in a lower chair, smoking, that curious glimmer on his face which made him so attractive, and which only meant that he was looking on the whole scene from the outside, as it were, from beyond a fence. Sir William came almost directly to the attack.
"And so, Mr. Sisson, you have no definite purpose in coming to Italy?"
"No, none," said Aaron. "I wanted to join Lilly."
"But when you had joined him—?"
"Oh, nothing—stay here a time, in this country, if I could earn my keep."
"Ah!—earn your keep? So you hope to earn your keep here? May I ask how?"
"By my flute."
"Italy is a poor country."
"I don't want much."
"You have a family to provide for."
"They are provided for—for a couple of years."
"Oh, indeed! Is that so?"
The old man got out of Aaron the detailed account of his circumstances—how he had left so much money to be paid over to his wife, and had received only a small amount for himself.
"I see you are like Lilly—you trust to Providence," said Sir William.
"Providence or fate," said Aaron.
"Lilly calls it Providence," said Sir William. "For my own part, I always advise Providence plus a banking account. I have every belief in Providence, plus a banking account. Providence and no banking account I have observed to be almost invariably fatal. Lilly and I have argued it. He believes in casting his bread upon the waters. I sincerely hope he won't have to cast himself after his bread, one of these days. Providence with a banking account. Believe in Providence once you have secured enough to live on. I should consider it disastrous to believe in Providence BEFORE. One can never be SURE of Providence."
"What can you be sure of, then?" said Aaron.
"Well, in moderation, I can believe in a little hard cash, and in my own ability to earn a little hard cash."
"Perhaps Lilly believes in his own ability, too."
"No. Not so. Because he will never directly work to earn money. He works—and works quite well, I am told: but only as the spirit moves him, and never with any eye to the market. Now I call that TEMPTING Providence, myself. The spirit may move him in quite an opposite direction to the market—then where is Lilly? I have put it to him more than once."
"The spirit generally does move him dead against the market," said Aaron. "But he manages to scrape along."
"In a state of jeopardy: all the time in a state of jeopardy," said the old man. "His whole existence, and that of his wife, is completely precarious. I found, in my youth, the spirit moved me to various things which would have left me and my wife starving. So I realised in time, this was no good. I took my spirit in hand, therefore, and made him pull the cart which mankind is riding in. I harnessed him to the work of productive labour. And so he brought me my reward."
"Yes," said Aaron. "But every man according to his belief."
"I don't see," said Sir William, "how a man can BELIEVE in a Providence unless he sets himself definitely to the work of earning his daily bread, and making provision for future needs. That's what Providence means to me—making provision for oneself and one's family. Now, Mr. Lilly—and you yourself—you say you believe in a Providence that does NOT compel you to earn your daily bread, and make provision. I confess myself I cannot see it: and Lilly has never been able to convince me."
"I don't believe in a kind-hearted Providence," said Aaron, "and I don't believe Lilly does. But I believe in chance. I believe, if I go my own way, without tying my nose to a job, chance will always throw something in my way: enough to get along with."
"But on what do you base such a very unwarrantable belief?"
"I just feel like that."
"And if you are ever quite without success—and nothing to fall back on?"
"I can work at something."
"In case of illness, for example?"
"I can go to a hospital—or die."
"Dear me! However, you are more logical than Lilly. He seems to believe that he has the Invisible—call it Providence if you will—on his side, and that this Invisible will never leave him in the lurch, or let him down, so long as he sticks to his own side of the bargain, and NEVER works for his own ends. I don't quite see how he works. Certainly he seems to me a man who squanders a great deal of talent unworthily. Yet for some reason or other he calls this true, genuine activity, and has a contempt for actual work by which a man makes provision for his years and for his family. In the end, he will have to fall back on charity. But when I say so, he denies it, and says that in the end we, the men who work and make provision, will have to fall back on him. Well, all I can say is, that SO FAR he is in far greater danger of having to fall back on me, than I on him."
The old man sat back in his chair with a little laugh of triumph. But it smote almost devilishly on Aaron's ears, and for the first time in his life he felt that there existed a necessity for taking sides.
"I don't suppose he will do much falling back," he said.
"Well, he is young yet. You are both young. You are squandering your youth. I am an old man, and I see the end."
"What end, Sir William?"
"Charity—and poverty—and some not very congenial 'job,' as you call it, to put bread in your mouth. No, no, I would not like to trust myself to your Providence, or to your Chance. Though I admit your Chance is a sounder proposition than Lilly's Providence. You speculate with your life and your talent. I admit the nature which is a born speculator. After all, with your flute, you will speculate in other people's taste for luxury, as a man may speculate in theatres or trains de luxe. You are the speculator. That may be your way of wisdom. But Lilly does not even speculate. I cannot see his point. I cannot see his point. I cannot see his point. Yet I have the greatest admiration for his mentality."
The old man had fired up during this conversation—and all the others in the room had gone silent. Lady Franks was palpably uneasy. She alone knew how frail the old man was—frailer by far than his years. She alone knew what fear of his own age, what fear of death haunted him now: fear of his own non-existence. His own old age was an agony to him; worse than an agony, a horror. He wanted to be young—to live, to live. And he was old, he was breaking up. The glistening youth of Aaron, the impetuousness of Lilly fascinated him. And both these men seemed calmly to contradict his own wealth and honours.
Lady Franks tried to turn off the conversation to the trickles of normal chit-chat. The Colonel was horribly bored—so were all the women—Arthur was indifferent. Only the young Major was implicated, troubled in his earnest and philosophic spirit.
"What I can't see," he said, "is the place that others have in your scheme."
"Is isn't a scheme," said Aaron.
"Well then, your way of life. Isn't it pretty selfish, to marry a woman and then expect her to live on very little indeed, and that always precarious, just because you happen to believe in Providence or in Chance: which I think worse? What I don't see is where others come in. What would the world be like if everybody lived that way?"
"Other people can please themselves," said Aaron.
"No, they can't—because you take first choice, it seems to me. Supposing your wife—or Lilly's wife—asks for security and for provision, as Sir William says. Surely she has a right to it."
"If I've no right to it myself—and I HAVE no right to it, if I don't want it—then what right has she?"
"Every right, I should say. All the more since you are improvident."
"Then she must manage her rights for herself. It's no good her foisting her rights on to me."
"Isn't that pure selfishness?"
"It may be. I shall send my wife money as long as I've money to send."
"And supposing you have none?"
"Then I can't send it—and she must look out for herself."
"I call that almost criminal selfishness."
"I can't help it."
The conversation with the young Major broke off.
"It is certainly a good thing for society that men like you and Mr. Lilly are not common," said Sir William, laughing.
"Becoming commoner every day, you'll find," interjaculated the Colonel.
"Indeed! Indeed! Well. May we ask you another question, Mr. Sisson? I hope you don't object to our catechism?"
"No. Nor your judgment afterwards," said Aaron, grinning.
"Then upon what grounds did you abandon your family? I know it is a tender subject. But Lilly spoke of it to us, and as far I could see...."
"There were no grounds," said Aaron. "No, there weren't I just left them."
"If it's a caprice to be begotten—and a caprice to be born—and a caprice to die—then that was a caprice, for it was the same."
"Like birth or death? I don't follow."
"It happened to me: as birth happened to me once—and death will happen. It was a sort of death, too: or a sort of birth. But as undeniable as either. And without any more grounds."
The old, tremulous man, and the young man were watching one another.
"A natural event," said Sir William.
"A natural event," said Aaron.
"Not that you loved any other woman?"
"God save me from it."
"You just left off loving?"
"Not even that. I went away."
"From it all."
"From the woman in particular?"
"Oh, yes. Yes. Yes, that."
"And you couldn't go back?"
Aaron shook his head.
"Yet you can give no reasons?"
"Not any reasons that would be any good. It wasn't a question of reasons. It was a question of her and me and what must be. What makes a child be born out of its mother to the pain and trouble of both of them? I don't know."
"But that is a natural process."
"So is this—or nothing."
"No," interposed the Major. "Because birth is a universal process—and yours is a specific, almost unique event."
"Well, unique or not, it so came about. I didn't ever leave off loving her—not as far as I know. I left her as I shall leave the earth when I die—because it has to be."
"Do you know what I think it is, Mr. Sisson?" put in Lady Franks. "I think you are just in a wicked state of mind: just that. Mr. Lilly, too. And you must be very careful, or some great misfortune will happen to you."
"It may," said Aaron.
"And it will, mark my word, it will."
"You almost wish it might, as a judgment on me," smiled Aaron.
"Oh, no, indeed. I should only be too sorry. But I feel it will, unless you are careful."
"I'll be careful, then."
"Yes, and you can't be too careful."
"You make me frightened."
"I would like to make you very frightened indeed, so that you went back humbly to your wife and family."
"It would HAVE to be a big fright then, I assure you."
"Ah, you are really heartless. It makes me angry."
She turned angrily aside.
"Well, well! Well, well! Life! Life! Young men are a new thing to me!" said Sir William, shaking his head. "Well, well! What do you say to whiskey and soda, Colonel?"
"Why, delighted, Sir William," said the Colonel, bouncing up.
"A night-cap, and then we retire," said Lady Franks.
Aaron sat thinking. He knew Sir William liked him: and that Lady Franks didn't. One day he might have to seek help from Sir William. So he had better placate milady. Wrinkling the fine, half mischievous smile on his face, and trading on his charm, he turned to his hostess.
"You wouldn't mind, Lady Franks, if I said nasty things about my wife and found a lot of fault with her. What makes you angry is that I know it is not a bit more her fault than mine, that we come apart. It can't be helped."
"Oh, yes, indeed. I disapprove of your way of looking at things altogether. It seems to me altogether cold and unmanly and inhuman. Thank goodness my experience of a man has been different."
"We can't all be alike, can we? And if I don't choose to let you see me crying, that doesn't prove I've never had a bad half hour, does it? I've had many—ay, and a many."
"Then why are you so WRONG, so wrong in your behaviour?"
"I suppose I've got to have my bout out: and when it's out, I can alter."
"Then I hope you've almost had your bout out," she said.
"So do I," said he, with a half-repentant, half-depressed look on his attractive face. The corners of his mouth grimaced slightly under his moustache.
"The best thing you can do is to go straight back to England, and to her."
"Perhaps I'd better ask her if she wants me, first," he said drily.
"Yes, you might do that, too." And Lady Franks felt she was quite getting on with her work of reform, and the restoring of woman to her natural throne. Best not go too fast, either.
"Say when," shouted the Colonel, who was manipulating the syphon.
"When," said Aaron.
The men stood up to their drinks.
"Will you be leaving in the morning, Mr. Sisson?" asked Lady Franks.
"May I stay till Monday morning?" said Aaron. They were at Saturday evening.
"Certainly. And you will take breakfast in your room: we all do. At what time? Half past eight?"
"Thank you very much."
"Then at half past eight the man will bring it in. Goodnight."
Once more in his blue silk bedroom, Aaron grimaced to himself and stood in the middle of the room grimacing. His hostess' admonitions were like vitriol in his ears. He looked out of the window. Through the darkness of trees, the lights of a city below. Italy! The air was cold with snow. He came back into his soft, warm room. Luxurious it was. And luxurious the deep, warm bed.
He was still asleep when the man came noiselessly in with the tray: and it was morning. Aaron woke and sat up. He felt that the deep, warm bed, and the soft, warm room had made him sleep too well: robbed him of his night, like a narcotic. He preferred to be more uncomfortable and more aware of the flight of the dark hours. It seemed numbing.
The footman in his grey house-jacket was neat and Italian and sympathising. He gave good-morning in Italian—then softly arranged the little table by the bedside, and put out the toast and coffee and butter and boiled egg and honey, with silver and delicate china. Aaron watched the soft, catlike motions of the man. The dark eyes glanced once at the blond man, leaning on his elbow on the pillow. Aaron's face had that watchful, half-amused expression. The man said something in Italian. Aaron shook his head, laughed, and said:
"Tell me in English."
The man went softly to the window curtains, and motioned them with his hand.
"Yes, do," said Aaron.
So the man drew the buff-coloured silk curtains: and Aaron, sitting in bed, could see away beyond red roofs of a town, and in the further heaven great snowy mountains.
"The Alps," he said in surprise.
"Gli Alpi—si, signore." The man bowed, gathered up Aaron's clothes, and silently retired.
Aaron watched through the window. It was a frosty morning at the end of September, with a clear blue morning-sky, Alpine, and the watchful, snow-streaked mountain tops bunched in the distance, as if waiting. There they were, hovering round, circling, waiting. They reminded him of marvellous striped sky-panthers circling round a great camp: the red-roofed city. Aaron looked, and looked again. In the near distance, under the house elm-tree tops were yellowing. He felt himself changing inside his skin.
So he turned away to his coffee and eggs. A little silver egg-cup with a curious little frill round it: honey in a frail, iridescent glass bowl, gold-iridescent: the charm of delicate and fine things. He smiled half mockingly to himself. Two instincts played in him: the one, an instinct for fine, delicate things: he had attractive hands; the other, an inclination to throw the dainty little table with all its niceties out of the window. It evoked a sort of devil in him.
He took his bath: the man had brought back his things: he dressed and went downstairs. No one in the lounge: he went down to the ground floor: no one in the big hall with its pillars of yellow marble and its gold arches, its enormous, dark, bluey-red carpet. He stood before the great glass doors. Some red flowers still were blooming in the tubs, on the steps, handsome: and beautiful chrysanthemums in the wide portico. Beyond, yellow leaves were already falling on the green grass and the neat drive. Everywhere was silent and empty. He climbed the wide stairs, sat in the long, upper lounge where the papers were. He wanted his hat and coat, and did not know where to find them. The windows looked on to a terraced garden, the hill rising steeply behind the house. He wanted to go out.
So he opened more doors, and in a long drawing-room came upon five or six manservants, all in the grey house-jackets, all clean-shaven, neat, with neat black hair, all with dusters or brushes or feather brooms, and all frolicking, chattering, playing like so many monkeys. They were all of the same neat, smallish size. They were all laughing. They rolled back a great rug as if it were some football game, one flew at the curtains. And they merely looked at Aaron and went on chattering, and laughing and dusting.
Surprised, and feeling that he trespassed, he stood at the window a moment looking out. The noise went on behind him. So he turned, smiling, and asked for his hat, pointing to his head. They knew at once what he wanted. One of the fellows beckoned him away, down to the hall and to the long cupboard place where hats and coats and sticks were hung. There was his hat; he put it on, while the man chattered to him pleasantly and unintelligibly, and opened for him the back door, into the garden.
CHAPTER XIII. WIE ES IHNEN GEFAELLT
The fresh morning air comes startling after a central heated house. So Aaron found it. He felt himself dashing up the steps into the garden like a bird dashing out of a trap where it has been caught: that warm and luxurious house. Heaven bless us, we who want to save civilisation. We had better make up our minds what of it we want to save. The kernel may be all well and good. But there is precious little kernel, to a lot of woolly stuffing and poisonous rind.
The gardens to Sir William's place were not imposing, and still rather war-neglected. But the pools of water lay smooth in the bright air, the flowers showed their colour beside the walks. Many birds dashed about, rather bewildered, having crossed the Alps in their migration southwards. Aaron noted with gratification a certain big magnificence, a certain reckless powerfulness in the still-blossoming, harsh-coloured, autumn flowers. Distinct satisfaction he derived from it.
He wandered upwards, up the succeeding flights of step; till he came to the upper rough hedge, and saw the wild copse on the hill-crest just above. Passing through a space in the hedge, he climbed the steep last bit of Sir William's lane. It was a little vineyard, with small vines and yellowing leaves. Everywhere the place looked neglected—but as if man had just begun to tackle it once more.
At the very top, by the wild hedge where spindle-berries hung pink, seats were placed, and from here the view was very beautiful. The hill dropped steep beneath him. A river wound on the near side of the city, crossed by a white bridge. The city lay close clustered, ruddy on the plains, glittering in the clear air with its flat roofs and domes and square towers, strangely naked-seeming in the clear, clean air. And massive in the further nearness, snow-streaked mountains, the tiger-like Alps. Tigers prowling between the north and the south. And this beautiful city lying nearest exposed. The snow-wind brushed her this morning like the icy whiskers of a tiger. And clear in the light lay Novara, wide, fearless, violent Novara. Beautiful the perfect air, the perfect and unblemished Alp-sky. And like the first southern flower, Novara.
Aaron sat watching in silence. Only the uneasy birds rustled. He watched the city and the winding river, the bridges, and the imminent Alps. He was on the south side. On the other side of the time barrier. His old, sleepy English nature was startled in its sleep. He felt like a man who knows it is time to wake up, and who doesn't want to wake up, to face the responsibility of another sort of day.
To open his darkest eyes and wake up to a new responsibility. Wake up and enter on the responsibility of a new self in himself. Ach, the horror of responsibility! He had all his life slept and shelved the burden. And he wanted to go on sleeping. It was so hateful to have to get a new grip on his own bowels, a new hard recklessness into his heart, a new and responsible consciousness into his mind and soul. He felt some finger prodding, prodding, prodding him awake out of the sleep of pathos and tragedy and spasmodic passion, and he wriggled, unwilling, oh, most unwilling to undertake the new business.
In fact he ran away again. He gave a last look at the town and its white-fanged mountains, and descended through the garden, round the way of the kitchen garden and garage and stables and pecking chickens, back to the house again. In the hall still no one. He went upstairs to the long lounge. There sat the rubicund, bald, boy-like Colonel reading the Graphic. Aaron sat down opposite him, and made a feeble attempt at conversation. But the Colonel wasn't having any. It was evident he didn't care for the fellow—Mr. Aaron, that is. Aaron therefore dried up, and began to sit him out, with the aid of The Queen. Came a servant, however, and said that the Signor Colonello was called up from the hospital, on the telephone. The Colonel once departed, Aaron fled again, this time out of the front doors, and down the steep little park to the gates.
Huge dogs and little dogs came bounding forward. Out of the lodge came the woman with the keys, smiling very pleasantly this morning. So, he was in the street. The wide road led him inevitably to the big bridge, with the violent, physical stone statue-groups. Men and women were moving about, and he noticed for the first time the littleness and the momentaneousness of the Italians in the street. Perhaps it was the wideness of the bridge and the subsequent big, open boulevard. But there it was: the people seemed little, upright brisk figures moving in a certain isolation, like tiny figures on a big stage. And he felt himself moving in the space between. All the northern cosiness gone. He was set down with a space round him.
Little trams flitted down the boulevard in the bright, sweet light. The barbers' shops were all busy, half the Novarese at that moment ambushed in lather, full in the public gaze. A shave is nothing if not a public act, in the south. At the little outdoor tables of the cafes a very few drinkers sat before empty coffee-cups. Most of the shops were shut. It was too soon after the war for life to be flowing very fast. The feeling of emptiness, of neglect, of lack of supplies was evident everywhere.
Aaron strolled on, surprised himself at his gallant feeling of liberty: a feeling of bravado and almost swaggering carelessness which is Italy's best gift to an Englishman. He had crossed the dividing line, and the values of life, though ostensibly and verbally the same, were dynamically different. Alas, however, the verbal and the ostensible, the accursed mechanical ideal gains day by day over the spontaneous life-dynamic, so that Italy becomes as idea-bound and as automatic as England: just a business proposition.
Coming to the station, he went inside. There he saw a money-changing window which was open, so he planked down a five-pound note and got two-hundred-and-ten lire. Here was a start. At a bookstall he saw a man buy a big timetable with a large railway map in it. He immediately bought the same. Then he retired to a corner to get his whereabouts.
In the morning he must move: where? He looked on the map. The map seemed to offer two alternatives, Milan and Genoa. He chose Milan, because of its musical associations and its cathedral. Milano then. Strolling and still strolling, he found the boards announcing Arrivals and Departures. As far as he could make out, the train for Milan left at 9:00 in the morning.
So much achieved, he left the big desolating caravanserai of the station. Soldiers were camped in every corner, lying in heaps asleep. In their grey-green uniform, he was surprised at their sturdy limbs and uniformly short stature. For the first time, he saw the cock-feathers of the Bersaglieri. There seemed a new life-quality everywhere. Many worlds, not one world. But alas, the one world triumphing more and more over the many worlds, the big oneness swallowing up the many small diversities in its insatiable gnawing appetite, leaving a dreary sameness throughout the world, that means at last complete sterility.
Aaron, however, was too new to the strangeness, he had no eye for the horrible sameness that was spreading like a disease over Italy from England and the north. He plunged into the space in front of the station, and took a new, wide boulevard. To his surprise he ran towards a big and over-animated statue that stood resolutely with its back to the magnificent snow-domes of the wild Alps. Wolves in the street could not have startled him more than those magnificent fierce-gleaming mountains of snow at the street-end, beyond the statue. He stood and wondered, and never thought to look who the gentleman was. Then he turned right round, and began to walk home.
Luncheon was at one o'clock. It was half-past twelve when he rang at the lodge gates. He climbed through the leaves of the little park, on a side-path, rather reluctantly towards the house. In the hall Lady Franks was discussing with Arthur a fat Pekinese who did not seem very well. She was sure the servants did not obey her orders concerning the Pekinese bitch. Arthur, who was more than indifferent, assured her they did. But she seemed to think that the whole of the male human race was in league against the miserable specimen of a she-dog. She almost cried, thinking her Queenie might by some chance meet with, perhaps, a harsh word or look. Queenie apparently fattened on the secret detestation of the male human species.
"I can't bear to think that a dumb creature might be ill-treated," she said to Aaron. "Thank goodness the Italians are better than they used to be."
"Are they better than they used to be?"
"Oh, much. They have learnt it from us."
She then enquired if her guest had slept, and if he were rested from his journey. Aaron, into whose face the faint snow-wind and the sun had brought a glow, replied that he had slept well and enjoyed the morning, thank you. Whereupon Lady Franks knitted her brows and said Sir William had had such a bad night. He had not been able to sleep, and had got up and walked about the room. The least excitement, and she dreaded a break-down. He must have absolute calm and restfulness.
"There's one for you and your jawing last night, Aaron, my boy!" said our hero to himself.
"I thought Sir William seemed so full of life and energy," he said, aloud.
"Ah, did you! No, he WANTS to be. But he can't do it. He's very much upset this morning. I have been very anxious about him."
"I am sorry to hear that."
Lady Franks departed to some duty. Aaron sat alone before the fire. It was a huge fireplace, like a dark chamber shut in by tall, finely-wrought iron gates. Behind these iron gates of curly iron the logs burned and flickered like leopards slumbering and lifting their heads within their cage. Aaron wondered who was the keeper of the savage element, who it was that would open the iron grille and throw on another log, like meat to the lions. To be sure the fire was only to be looked at: like wild beasts in the Zoo. For the house was warm from roof to floor. It was strange to see the blue air of sunlight outside, the yellow-edged leaves falling in the wind, the red flowers shaking.
The gong sounded softly through the house. The Colonel came in heartily from the garden, but did not speak to Aaron. The Major and his wife came pallid down the stairs. Lady Franks appeared, talking domestic-secretarial business with the wife of Arthur. Arthur, well-nourished and half at home, called down the stairs. And then Sir William descended, old and frail now in the morning, shaken: still he approached Aaron heartily, and asked him how he did, and how he had spent his morning. The old man who had made a fortune: how he expected homage: and how he got it! Homage, like most things, is just a convention and a social trick. Aaron found himself paying homage, too, to the old man who had made a fortune. But also, exacting a certain deference in return, from the old man who had made a fortune. Getting it, too. On what grounds? Youth, maybe. But mostly, scorn for fortunes and fortune-making. Did he scorn fortunes and fortune-making? Not he, otherwise whence this homage for the old man with much money? Aaron, like everybody else, was rather paralysed by a million sterling, personified in one old man. Paralysed, fascinated, overcome. All those three. Only having no final control over his own make-up, he could not drive himself into the money-making or even into the money-having habit. And he had just wit enough to threaten Sir William's golden king with his own ivory queen and knights of wilful life. And Sir William quaked.
"Well, and how have you spent your morning?" asked the host.
"I went first to look at the garden."
"Ah, not much to see now. They have been beautiful with flowers, once. But for two and a half years the house has been a hospital for officers—and even tents in the park and garden—as many as two hundred wounded and sick at a time. We are only just returning to civil life. And flowers need time. Yes—yes—British officers—for two and a half years. But did you go up, now, to the belvedere?"
"To the top—where the vines are? I never expected the mountains."
"You never expected the mountains? Pray, why not? They are always there!"
"But I was never there before. I never knew they were there, round the town. I didn't expect it like that."
"Ah! So you found our city impressive?"
"Very! Ah, very! A new world to me. I feel I've come out of myself."
"Yes, it is a wonderful sight—a wonderful sight— But you have not been INTO the town?"
"Yes. I saw the men being shaved, and all the soldiers at the station: and a statue, and mountains behind it. Oh, I've had a full morning."
"A full morning! That is good, that is good!" The old man looked again at the younger man, and seemed to get life from him, to live in him vicariously.
"Come," said the hostess. "Luncheon."
Aaron sat again on his hostess' left hand. The Colonel was more affable now it was meal-time. Sir William was again in a good humour, chaffing the young ladies with an old man's gallantry. But now he insisted on drawing Aaron into the play. And Aaron did not want to be drawn. He did not one bit want to chaffer gallantries with the young women. Between him and Sir William there was a curious rivalry—unconscious on both sides. The old knight had devoted an energetic, adventurous, almost an artistic nature to the making of his fortune and the developing of later philanthropies. He had no children. Aaron was devoting a similar nature to anything but fortune-making and philanthropy. The one held life to be a storing-up of produce and a conservation of energy: the other held life to be a sheer spending of energy and a storing-up of nothing but experience. There they were, in opposition, the old man and the young. Sir William kept calling Aaron into the chaffer at the other end of the table: and Aaron kept on refusing to join. He hated long distance answers, anyhow. And in his mood of the moment he hated the young women. He had a conversation with Arthur about statues: concerning which Aaron knew nothing, and Arthur less than nothing. Then Lady Franks turned the conversation to the soldiers at the station, and said how Sir William had equipped rest-huts for the Italian privates, near the station: but that such was the jealousy and spite of the Italian Red Cross—or some such body, locally—that Sir William's huts had been left empty—standing unused—while the men had slept on the stone floor of the station, night after night, in icy winter. There was evidently much bitter feeling as a result of Sir William's philanthropy. Apparently even the honey of lavish charity had turned to gall in the Italian mouth: at least the official mouth. Which gall had been spat back at the charitable, much to his pain. It is in truth a difficult world, particularly when you have another race to deal with. After which came the beef-olives.
"Oh," said Lady Franks, "I had such a dreadful dream last night, such a dreadful dream. It upset me so much. I have not been able to get over it all day."
"What was it?" said Aaron. "Tell it, and break it."
"Why," said his hostess, "I dreamed I was asleep in my room—just as I actually was—and that it was night, yet with a terrible sort of light, like the dead light before dawn, so that one could see. And my maid Giuseppina came running into my room, saying: 'Signora! Signora! Si alza! Subito! Signora! Vengono su!'—and I said, 'Chi? Chi sono chi vengono? Chi?'—'I Novaresi! I Novaresi vengono su. Vengono qui!'—I got out of bed and went to the window. And there they were, in the dead light, rushing up to the house, through the trees. It was so awful, I haven't been able to forget it all day."
"Tell me what the words are in English," said Aaron.
"Why," she said, "get up, get up—the Novaresi, the people of Novara are coming up—vengono su—they are coming up—the Novara people—work-people. I can't forget it. It was so real, I can't believe it didn't actually happen."
"Ah," said Aaron. "It will never happen. I know, that whatever one foresees, and FEELS has happened, never happens in real life. It sort of works itself off through the imagining of it."
"Well, it was almost more real to me than real life," said his hostess.
"Then it will never happen in real life," he said.
Luncheon passed, and coffee. The party began to disperse—Lady Franks to answer more letters, with the aid of Arthur's wife—some to sleep, some to walk. Aaron escaped once more through the big gates. This time he turned his back on the town and the mountains, and climbed up the hill into the country. So he went between the banks and the bushes, watching for unknown plants and shrubs, hearing the birds, feeling the influence of a new soil. At the top of the hill he saw over into vineyards, and a new strange valley with a winding river, and jumbled, entangled hills. Strange wild country so near the town. It seemed to keep an almost virgin wildness—yet he saw the white houses dotted here and there.
Just below him was a peasant house: and on a little loggia in the sun two peasants in white shirtsleeves and black Sunday suits were sitting drinking wine, and talking, talking. Peasant youths in black hats, their sweethearts in dark stuff dresses, wearing no hat, but a black silk or a white silk scarf, passed slowly along the little road just below the ridge. None looked up to see Aaron sitting there alone. From some hidden place somebody was playing an accordion, a jerky sound in the still afternoon. And away beyond lay the unchanging, mysterious valley, and the infolding, mysterious hills of Italy.
Returning back again another way, he lost himself at the foot of the hill in new and deserted suburb streets—unfinished streets of seemingly unfinished houses. Then a sort of boulevard where bourgeois families were taking the Sunday afternoon walk: stout papas, stout, pallid mamas in rather cheap black fur, little girls very much dressed, and long lads in short socks and round sailor caps, ribbons fluttering. Alien they felt, alien, alien, as a bourgeois crowd always does, but particularly a foreign, Sunday-best bourgeois crowd. Aaron wandered and wandered, finding the tram terminus and trying blank, unfinished street after street. He had a great disinclination to ask his way.
At last he recognised the bank and the little stream of water that ran along the street side. So he was back in time for tea. A hospital nurse was there, and two other strange women. Arthur played the part of host. Sir William came in from a walk with the dogs, but retired to his room without taking tea.
And so the evening fell. Aaron sat in the hall at some distance from the fire, which burned behind its wrought iron gates. He was tired now with all his impressions, and dispirited. He thought of his wife and children at home: of the church-bells ringing so loudly across the field beyond his garden end: of the dark-clad people trailing unevenly across the two paths, one to the left, one to the right, forking their way towards the houses of the town, to church or to chapel: mostly to chapel. At this hour he himself would be dressed in his best clothes, tying his bow, ready to go out to the public house. And his wife would be resenting his holiday departure, whilst she was left fastened to the children.
Rather tired and dispirited in this alien place, he wondered if he wished himself back. But the moment he actually realised himself at home, and felt the tension of barrenness which it meant, felt the curious and deadly opposition of his wife's will against his own nature, the almost nauseating ache which it amounted to, he pulled himself together and rejoiced again in his new surroundings. Her will, her will, her terrible, implacable, cunning will! What was there in the female will so diabolical, he asked himself, that it could press like a flat sheet of iron against a man all the time? The female will! He realised now that he had a horror of it. It was flat and inflexible as a sheet of iron. But also it was cunning as a snake that could sing treacherous songs.
Of two people at a deadlock, he always reminded himself, there is not one only wholly at fault. Both must be at fault. Having a detached and logical soul, he never let himself forget this truth. Take Lottie! He had loved her. He had never loved any other woman. If he had had his other affairs—it was out of spite or defiance or curiosity. They meant nothing. He and Lottie had loved one another. And the love had developed almost at once into a kind of combat. Lottie had been the only child of headstrong, well-to-do parents. He also had been the only child of his widowed mother. Well then, both he and Lottie had been brought up to consider themselves the first in whatsoever company they found themselves. During the early months of the marriage he had, of course, continued the spoiling of the young wife. But this never altered the fact that, by his very nature, he considered himself as first and almost as single in any relationship. First and single he felt, and as such he bore himself. It had taken him years to realise that Lottie also felt herself first and single: under all her whimsicalness and fretfulness was a conviction as firm as steel: that she, as woman, was the centre of creation, the man was but an adjunct. She, as woman, and particularly as mother, was the first great source of life and being, and also of culture. The man was but the instrument and the finisher. She was the source and the substance.
Sure enough, Lottie had never formulated this belief inside herself. But it was formulated for her in the whole world. It is the substantial and professed belief of the whole white world. She did but inevitably represent what the whole world around her asserted: the life-centrality of woman. Woman, the life-bearer, the life-source.
Nearly all men agree to the assertion. Practically all men, even while demanding their selfish rights as superior males, tacitly agree to the fact of the sacred life-bearing priority of woman. Tacitly, they yield the worship to that which is female. Tacitly, they conspire to agree that all that is productive, all that is fine and sensitive and most essentially noble, is woman. This, in their productive and religious souls, they believe. And however much they may react against the belief, loathing their women, running to prostitutes, or beer or anything, out of reaction against this great and ignominious dogma of the sacred priority of women, still they do but profane the god they worship. Profaning woman, they still inversely worship her.
But in Aaron was planted another seed. He did not know it. He started off on the good old tack of worshipping his woman while his heart was honest, and profaning her in his fits of temper and revolt. But he made a bad show. Born in him was a spirit which could not worship woman: no, and would not. Could not and would not. It was not in him. In early days, he tried to pretend it was in him. But through his plaintive and homage-rendering love of a young husband was always, for the woman, discernible the arrogance of self-unyielding male. He never yielded himself: never. All his mad loving was only an effort. Afterwards, he was as devilishly unyielded as ever. And it was an instinct in her, that her man must yield to her, so that she should envelop him yielding, in her all-beneficent love. She was quite sure that her love was all-beneficent. Of this no shadow of doubt. She was quite sure that the highest her man could ever know or ever reach, was to be perfectly enveloped in her all-beneficent love. This was her idea of marriage. She held it not as an idea, but as a profound impulse and instinct: an instinct developed in her by the age in which she lived. All that was deepest and most sacred in he feeling centred in this belief.
And he outraged her! Oh, from the first day and the first night, she felt he outraged her. True, for some time she had been taken in by his manifest love. But though you can deceive the conscious mind, you can never deceive the deep, unconscious instinct. She could never understand whence arose in her, almost from the first days of marriage with him, her terrible paroxysms of hatred for him. She was in love with him: ah, heaven, how maddeningly she was in love with him: a certain unseizable beauty that was his, and which fascinated her as a snake a bird. But in revulsion, how she hated him! How she abhorred him! How she despised and shuddered at him! He seemed a horrible thing to her.
And then again, oh, God, the agony of her desire for him. The agony of her long, long desire for him. He was a passionate lover. He gave her, ostensibly, all she asked for. He withheld from her nothing, no experience, no degree of intimacy. She was his initiate, or he hers.
And yet, oh, horror for a woman, he withheld everything from her. He withheld the very centre of himself. For a long time, she never realised. She was dazed and maddened only. But as months of married experience passed into years of married torment, she began to understand. It was that, after their most tremendous, and, it seemed to her, heaven-rending passion—yea, when for her every veil seemed rent and a terrible and sacred creative darkness covered the earth—then—after all this wonder and miracle—in crept a poisonous grey snake of disillusionment, a poisonous grey snake of disillusion that bit her to madness, so that she really was a mad woman, demented.
Why? Why? He never gave himself. He never came to her, really. He withheld himself. Yes, in those supreme and sacred times which for her were the whole culmination of life and being, the ecstasy of unspeakable passional conjunction, he was not really hers. He was withheld. He withheld the central core of himself, like the devil and hell-fiend he was. He cheated and made play with her tremendous passional soul, her sacred sex passion, most sacred of all things for a woman. All the time, some central part of him stood apart from her, aside, looking on.
Oh, agony and horror for a passionate, fierce-hearted woman! She who loved him. She who loved him to madness. She who would have died for him. She who did die with him, many terrible and magnificent connubial deaths, in his arms, her husband.
Her husband! How bitter the word grew to her! Her husband! and him never once given, given wholly to her! Her husband—and in all the frenzied finality of desire, she never fully possessed him, not once. No, not once. As time went on, she learned it for inevitable. Not once!
And then, how she hated him! Cheated, foiled, betrayed, forced to love him or to hate him: never able to be at peace near him nor away from him: poor Lottie, no wonder she was as a mad woman. She was strictly as a woman demented, after the birth of her second child. For all her instinct, all her impulse, all her desire, and above all, all her will, was to possess her man in very fulness once: just once: and once and for all. Once, just once: and it would be once and for all.
But never! Never! Not once! Never! Not for one single solitary second! Was it not enough to send a woman mad! Was it not enough to make her demented! Yes, and mad she was. She made his life a hell for him. She bit him to the bone with her frenzy of rage, chagrin, and agony. She drove him mad, too: mad, so that he beat her: mad so that he longed to kill her. But even in his greatest rages it was the same: he never finally lost himself: he remained, somewhere in the centre, in possession of himself. She sometimes wished he would kill her: or that she would kill him. Neither event happened.
And neither of them understood what was happening. How should they? They were both dazed, horrified, and mortified. He took to leaving her alone as much as was possible. But when he had to come home, there was her terrible will, like a flat, cold snake coiled round his soul and squeezing him to death. Yes, she did not relent. She was a good wife and mother. All her duties she fulfilled. But she was not one to yield. He must yield. That was written in eternal letters, on the iron tablet of her will. He must yield. She the woman, the mother of his children, how should she ever even think to yield? It was unthinkable. He, the man, the weak, the false, the treacherous, the half-hearted, it was he who must yield. Was not hers the divine will and the divine right? Ha, she would be less than woman if she ever capitulated, abandoned her divine responsibility as woman! No, he must yield.
So, he was unfaithful to her. Piling reproach after reproach upon himself, he added adultery to his brutality. And this was the beginning of the end. She was more than maddened: but he began to grow silent, unresponsive, as if he did not hear her. He was unfaithful to her: and oh, in such a low way. Such shame, such shame! But he only smiled carelessly now, and asked her what she wanted. She had asked for all she got. That he reiterated. And that was all he would do.
Terrible was, that she found even his smile of insolent indifference half-beautiful. Oh, bitter chain to bear! But she summoned up all her strange woman's will. She fought against his fascination, the fascination he exerted over her. With fearful efforts of will she fought against it, and mastered it. And then, suddenly, horror and agony of it, up it would rush in her again, her unbearable desire for him, the longing for his contact, his quality of beauty.
That was a cross hard to bear. Yet even that she bore. And schooled herself into a fretful, petulant manner of indifference. Her odd, whimsical petulance hid a will which he, and he alone, knew to be stronger than steel, strong as a diabolical, cold, grey snake that presses and presses and cannot-relax: nay, cannot relax. She became the same as he. Even in her moments of most passionate desire for him, the cold and snake-like tension of her will never relaxed, and the cold, snake-like eye of her intention never closed.
So, till it reached a deadlock. Each will was wound tense, and so fixed. Fixed! There was neither any relaxing or any increase of pressure. Fixed. Hard like a numbness, a grip that was solidifying and turning to stone.
He realised, somehow, that at this terrible passive game of fixed tension she would beat him. Her fixed female soul, her wound-up female will would solidify into stone—whereas his must break. In him something must break. It was a cold and fatal deadlock, profitless. A life-automatism of fixed tension that suddenly, in him, did break. His will flew loose in a recoil: a recoil away from her. He left her, as inevitably as a broken spring flies out from its hold.
Not that he was broken. He would not do her even that credit. He had only flown loose from the old centre-fixture. His will was still entire and unabated. Only he did not know: he did not understand. He swung wildly about from place to place, as if he were broken.
Then suddenly, on this Sunday evening in the strange country, he realised something about himself. He realised that he had never intended to yield himself fully to her or to anything: that he did not intend ever to yield himself up entirely to her or to anything: that his very being pivoted on the fact of his isolate self-responsibility, aloneness. His intrinsic and central aloneness was the very centre of his being. Break it, and he broke his being. Break this central aloneness, and he broke everything. It was the great temptation, to yield himself: and it was the final sacrilege. Anyhow, it was something which, from his profoundest soul, he did not intend to do. By the innermost isolation and singleness of his own soul he would abide though the skies fell on top of one another, and seven heavens collapsed.
Vaguely he realised this. And vaguely he realised that this had been the root cause of his strife with Lottie: Lottie, the only person who had mattered at all to him in all the world: save perhaps his mother. And his mother had not mattered, no, not one-half nor one-fifth what Lottie had mattered. So it was: there was, for him, only her significant in the universe. And between him and her matters were as they were.
He coldly and terribly hated her, for a moment. Then no more. There was no solution. It was a situation without a solution. But at any rate, it was now a defined situation. He could rest in peace.
Thoughts something in this manner ran through Aaron's subconscious mind as he sat still in the strange house. He could not have fired it all off at any listener, as these pages are fired off at any chance reader. Nevertheless there it was, risen to half consciousness in him. All his life he had hated knowing what he felt. He had wilfully, if not consciously, kept a gulf between his passional soul and his open mind. In his mind was pinned up a nice description of himself, and a description of Lottie, sort of authentic passports to be used in the conscious world. These authentic passports, self-describing: nose short, mouth normal, etc.; he had insisted that they should do all the duty of the man himself. This ready-made and very banal idea of himself as a really quite nice individual: eyes blue, nose short, mouth normal, chin normal; this he had insisted was really himself. It was his conscious mask.
Now at last, after years of struggle, he seemed suddenly to have dropped his mask on the floor, and broken it. His authentic self-describing passport, his complete and satisfactory idea of himself suddenly became a rag of paper, ridiculous. What on earth did it matter if he was nice or not, if his chin was normal or abnormal.
His mask, his idea of himself dropped and was broken to bits. There he sat now maskless and invisible. That was how he strictly felt: invisible and undefined, rather like Wells' Invisible Man. He had no longer a mask to present to people: he was present and invisible: they could not really think anything about him, because they could not really see him. What did they see when they looked at him? Lady Franks, for example. He neither knew nor cared. He only knew he was invisible to himself and everybody, and that all thinking about what he was like was only a silly game of Mrs. Mackenzie's Dead.
So there. The old Aaron Sisson was as if painfully transmuted, as the Invisible Man when he underwent his transmutations. Now he was gone, and no longer to be seen. His visibility lost for ever.
And then what? Sitting there as an invisible presence, the preconceived world melted also and was gone. Lady Franks, Sir William, all the guests, they talked and maneuvered with their visible personalities, manipulating the masks of themselves. And underneath there was something invisible and dying—something fading, wilting: the essential plasm of themselves: their invisible being.
Well now, and what next? Having in some curious manner tumbled from the tree of modern knowledge, and cracked and rolled out from the shell of the preconceived idea of himself like some dark, night-lustrous chestnut from the green ostensibility of the burr, he lay as it were exposed but invisible on the floor, knowing, but making no conceptions: knowing, but having no idea. Now that he was finally unmasked and exposed, the accepted idea of himself cracked and rolled aside like a broken chestnut-burr, the mask split and shattered, he was at last quiet and free. He had dreaded exposure: and behold, we cannot be exposed, for we are invisible. We cannot be exposed to the looks of others, for our very being is night-lustrous and unseeable. Like the Invisible Man, we are only revealed through our clothes and our masks.
In his own powerful but subconscious fashion Aaron realized this. He was a musician. And hence even his deepest ideas: were not word-ideas, his very thoughts were not composed of words and ideal concepts. They too, his thoughts and his ideas, were dark and invisible, as electric vibrations are invisible no matter how many words they may purport. If I, as a word-user, must translate his deep conscious vibrations into finite words, that is my own business. I do but make a translation of the man. He would speak in music. I speak with words.
The inaudible music of his conscious soul conveyed his meaning in him quite as clearly as I convey it in words: probably much more clearly. But in his own mode only: and it was in his own mode only he realised what I must put into words. These words are my own affair. His mind was music.
Don't grumble at me then, gentle reader, and swear at me that this damned fellow wasn't half clever enough to think all these smart things, and realise all these fine-drawn-out subtleties. You are quite right, he wasn't, yet it all resolved itself in him as I say, and it is for you to prove that it didn't.
In his now silent, maskless state of wordless comprehension, he knew that he had never wanted to surrender himself utterly to Lottie: nor to his mother: nor to anybody. The last extreme of self-abandon in love was for him an act of false behaviour. His own nature inside him fated him not to take this last false step, over the edge of the abyss of selflessness. Even if he wanted to, he could not. He might struggle on the edge of the precipice like an assassin struggling with his own soul, but he could not conquer. For, according to all the current prejudice and impulse in one direction, he too had believed that the final achievement, the consummation of human life, was this flinging oneself over the precipice, down the bottomless pit of love. Now he realised that love, even in its intensest, was only an attribute of the human soul: one of its incomprehensible gestures. And to fling down the whole soul in one gesture of finality in love was as much a criminal suicide as to jump off a church-tower or a mountain-peak. Let a man give himself as much as he liked in love, to seven thousand extremities, he must never give himself away. The more generous and the more passionate a soul, the more it gives itself. But the more absolute remains the law, that it shall never give itself away. Give thyself, but give thyself not away. That is the lesson written at the end of the long strange lane of love.
The idee fixe of today is that every individual shall not only give himself, but shall achieve the last glory of giving himself away. And since this takes two—you can't even make a present of yourself unless you've got somebody to receive the present; since this last extra-divine act takes two people to perform it, you've got to take into count not only your giver but your receiver. Who is going to be the giver and who the receiver.
Why, of course, in our long-drawn-out Christian day, man is given and woman is recipient. Man is the gift, woman the receiver. This is the sacrament we live by; the holy Communion we live for. That man gives himself to woman in an utter and sacred abandon, all, all, all himself given, and taken. Woman, eternal woman, she is the communicant. She receives the sacramental body and spirit of the man. And when she's got it, according to her passionate and all-too-sacred desire, completely, when she possesses her man at last finally and ultimately, without blemish or reservation in the perfection of the sacrament: then, also, poor woman, the blood and the body of which she has partaken become insipid or nauseous to her, she is driven mad by the endless meal of the marriage sacrament, poisoned by the sacred communion which was her goal and her soul's ambition.
We have pushed a process into a goal. The aim of any process is not the perpetuation of that process, but the completion thereof. Love is a process of the incomprehensible human soul: love also incomprehensible, but still only a process. The process should work to a completion, not to some horror of intensification and extremity wherein the soul and body ultimately perish. The completion of the process of love is the arrival at a state of simple, pure self-possession, for man and woman. Only that. Which isn't exciting enough for us sensationalists. We prefer abysses and maudlin self-abandon and self-sacrifice, the degeneration into a sort of slime and merge.
Perhaps, truly, the process of love is never accomplished. But it moves in great stages, and at the end of each stage a true goal, where the soul possesses itself in simple and generous singleness. Without this, love is a disease.
So Aaron, crossing a certain border-line and finding himself alone completely, accepted his loneliness or singleness as a fulfilment, a state of fulfilment. The long fight with Lottie had driven him at last to himself, so that he was quiet as a thing which has its root deep in life, and has lost its anxiety. As for considering the lily, it is not a matter of consideration. The lily toils and spins hard enough, in her own way. But without that strain and that anxiety with which we try to weave ourselves a life. The lily is life-rooted, life-central. She cannot worry. She is life itself, a little, delicate fountain playing creatively, for as long or as short a time as may be, and unable to be anxious. She may be sad or sorry, if the north wind blows. But even then, anxious she cannot be. Whether her fountain play or cease to play, from out the cold, damp earth, she cannot be anxious. She may only be glad or sorry, and continue her way. She is perfectly herself, whatever befall! even if frosts cut her off. Happy lily, never to be saddled with an idee fixe, never to be in the grip of a monomania for happiness or love or fulfilment. It is not laisser aller. It is life-rootedness. It is being by oneself, life-living, like the much-mooted lily. One toils, one spins, one strives: just as the lily does. But like her, taking one's own life-way amidst everything, and taking one's own life-way alone. Love too. But there also, taking one's way alone, happily alone in all the wonders of communion, swept up on the winds, but never swept away from one's very self. Two eagles in mid-air, maybe, like Whitman's Dalliance of Eagles. Two eagles in mid-air, grappling, whirling, coming to their intensification of love-oneness there in mid-air. In mid-air the love consummation. But all the time each lifted on its own wings: each bearing itself up on its own wings at every moment of the mid-air love consummation. That is the splendid love-way.
The party was festive at dinner-time, the women in their finest dresses, new flowers on the table, the best wine going. It was Sunday evening. Aaron too was dressed—and Lady Franks, in black lace and pearls, was almost gay. There were quails for dinner. The Colonel was quite happy. An air of conviviality gathered round the table during the course of the meal.
"I hope," said Aaron, "that we shall have some music tonight."
"I want so much to hear your flute," said his hostess.
"And I your piano," he said.
"I am very weak—very out of practise. I tremble at the thought of playing before a musician. But you must not be too critical."
"Oh," said Aaron, "I am not a man to be afraid of."
"Well, we will see," said Lady Franks. "But I am afraid of music itself."
"Yes," said Aaron. "I think it is risky."
"Risky! I don't see that! Music risky? Bach? Beethoven! No, I don't agree. On the contrary, I think it is most elevating—most morally inspiring. No, I tremble before it because it is so wonderful and elevating."
"I often find it makes me feel diabolical," said he.
"That is your misfortune, I am sure," said Lady Franks. "Please do take another—but perhaps you don't like mushrooms?"
Aaron quite liked mushrooms, and helped himself to the entree.
"But perhaps," said she, "you are too modern. You don't care for Bach or Beethoven or Chopin—dear Chopin."
"I find them all quite as modern as I am."
"Is that so! Yes. For myself I am quite old-fashioned—though I can appreciate Strauss and Stravinsky as well, some things. But my old things—ah, I don't think the moderns are so fine. They are not so deep. They haven't fathomed life so deeply." Lady Franks sighed faintly.
"They don't care for depths," said Aaron.
"No, they haven't the capacity. But I like big, deep music. Oh, I love orchestra. But my instrument is the piano. I like the great masters, Bach, Beethoven. They have such faith. You were talking of faith—believing that things would work out well for you in the end. Beethoven inspires that in me, too."
"He makes you feel that all will be well with you at last?"
"Yes, he does. He makes me feel faith in my PERSONAL destiny. And I do feel that there is something in one's special fate. I feel that I myself have a special kind of fate, that will always look after me."
"And you can trust to it?"
"Yes, I can. It ALWAYS turns out right. I think something has gone wrong—and then, it always turns out right. Why when we were in London—when we were at lunch one morning it suddenly struck me, haven't I left my fur cloak somewhere? It was rather cold, so I had taken it with me, and then never put it on. And I hadn't brought it home. I had left it somewhere. But whether in a taxi, or in a shop, or in a little show of pictures I had been to, I couldn't remember. I COULD NOT remember. And I thought to myself: have I lost my cloak? I went round to everywhere I could think of: no-trace of it. But I didn't give it up. Something prompted me not to give it up: quite distinctly, I felt something telling me that I should get it back. So I called at Scotland Yard and gave the information. Well, two days later I had a notice from Scotland Yard, so I went. And there was my cloak. I had it back. And that has happened to me almost every time. I almost always get my things back. And I always feel that something looks after me, do you know: almost takes care of me."
"But do you mean when you lose things—or in your life?"
"I mean when I lose things—or when I want to get something I want—I am very nearly ALWAYS successful. And I always feel there is some sort of higher power which does it for me."
"Finds your cloak for you."
"Yes. Wasn't it extraordinary? I felt when I saw my cloak in Scotland Yard: There, I KNEW I should recover you. And I always feel, as I say, that there is some higher power which helps me. Do you feel the same?"
"No, not that way, worse luck. I lost a batch of music a month ago which didn't belong to me—and which I couldn't replace. But I never could recover it: though I'm sure nobody wanted it."
"How very unfortunate! Whereas my fur cloak was just the thing that gets stolen most."
"I wished some power would trace my music: but apparently we aren't all gifted alike with guardian angels."
"Apparently not. And that is how I regard it: almost as a gift, you know, that my fairy godmother gave me in my cradle."
"For always recovering your property?"
"Yes—and succeeding in my undertakings."
"I'm afraid I had no fairy godmother."
"Well—I think I had. And very glad I am of it."
"Why, yes," said Aaron, looking at his hostess.
So the dinner sailed merrily on.
"But does Beethoven make you feel," said Aaron as an afterthought, "in the same way—that you will always find the things you have lost?"
"Yes—he makes me feel the same faith: that what I lose will be returned to me. Just as I found my cloak. And that if I enter into an undertaking, it will be successful."
"And your life has been always successful?"
"Yes—almost always. We have succeeded with almost everything."
"Why, yes," said Aaron, looking at her again.
But even so, he could see a good deal of hard wornness under her satisfaction. She had had her suffering, sure enough. But none the less, she was in the main satisfied. She sat there, a good hostess, and expected the homage due to her success. And of course she got it. Aaron himself did his little share of shoe-licking, and swallowed the taste of boot-polish with a grimace, knowing what he was about.
The dinner wound gaily to an end. The ladies retired. Sir William left his seat of honour at the end of the table and came and sat next to Aaron, summoning the other three men to cluster near.
"Now, Colonel," said the host, "send round the bottle."
With a flourish of the elbow and shoulder, the Colonel sent on the port, actually port, in those bleak, post-war days!
"Well, Mr. Sisson," said Sir William, "we will drink to your kind Providence: providing, of course, that we shall give no offence by so doing."
"No, sir; no, sir! The Providence belonged to Mr. Lilly. Mr. Sisson put his money on kindly fortune, I believe," said Arthur, who rosy and fresh with wine, looked as if he would make a marvelous bonne bouchee for a finely-discriminating cannibal.
"Ah, yes, indeed! A much more ingratiating lady to lift our glasses to. Mr. Sisson's kindly fortune. Fortuna gentil-issima! Well, Mr. Sisson, and may your Lady Fortune ever smile on you."
Sir William lifted his glass with an odd little smirk, some touch of a strange, prim old satyr lurking in his oddly inclined head. Nay, more than satyr: that curious, rather terrible iron demon that has fought with the world and wrung wealth from it, and which knows all about it. The devilish spirit of iron itself, and iron machines. So, with his strange, old smile showing his teeth rather terribly, the old knight glowered sightlessly over his glass at Aaron. Then he drank: the strange, careful, old-man's gesture in drinking.
"But," said Aaron, "if Fortune is a female—-"
"Fortune! Fortune! Why, Fortune is a lady. What do you say, Major?"
"She has all the airs of one, Sir William," said the Major, with the wistful grimness of his age and culture. And the young fellow stared like a crucified cyclops from his one eye: the black shutter being over the other.
"And all the graces," capped Sir William, delighted with himself.
"Oh, quite!" said the Major. "For some, all the airs, and for others, all the graces."
"Faint heart ne'er won fair lady, my boy," said Sir William. "Not that your heart is faint. On the contrary—as we know, and your country knows. But with Lady Fortune you need another kind of stout heart—oh, quite another kind."
"I believe it, sir: and the kind of stout heart which I am afraid I haven't got," said the Major.
"What!" said the old man. "Show the white feather before you've tackled the lady! Fill the Major's glass, Colonel. I am quite sure we will none of us ever say die."
"Not likely. Not if we know it," said the Colonel, stretching himself heartily inside his tunic. He was becoming ruddier than the cherry. All he cared about at the moment was his gay little port glass. But the Major's young cheek was hollow and sallow, his one eye terribly pathetic.
"And you, Mr. Sisson," said Sir William, "mean to carry all before you by taking no thought for the morrow. Well, now, we can only wish you success."
"I don't want to carry all before me," said Aaron. "I should be sorry. I want to walk past most of it."
"Can you tell us where to? I am intrigued, as Sybil says, to know where you will walk to. Come now. Enlighten us."
"Nowhere, I suppose."
"But is that satisfactory? Can you find it satisfactory?"
"Is it even true?" said the Major. "Isn't it quite as positive an act to walk away from a situation as to walk towards it?"
"My dear boy, you can't merely walk away from a situation. Believe that. If you walk away from Rome, you walk into the Maremma, or into the Alban Hills, or into the sea—but you walk into something. Now if I am going to walk away from Rome, I prefer to choose my direction, and therefore my destination."
"But you can't," said the Major.
"What can't you?"
"Choose. Either your direction or your destination." The Major was obstinate.
"Really!" said Sir William. "I have not found it so. I have not found it so. I have had to keep myself hard at work, all my life, choosing between this or that."
"And we," said the Major, "have no choice, except between this or nothing."
"Really! I am afraid," said Sir William, "I am afraid I am too old—or too young—which shall I say?—to understand."
"Too young, sir," said Arthur sweetly. "The child was always father to the man, I believe."
"I confess the Major makes me feel childish," said the old man. "The choice between this or nothing is a puzzler to me. Can you help me out, Mr. Sisson? What do you make of this this-or-nothing business? I can understand neck-or-nothing—-"
"I prefer the NOTHING part of it to the THIS part of it," said Aaron, grinning.
"Colonel," said the old man, "throw a little light on this nothingness."
"No, Sir William," said the Colonel. "I am all right as I am."
"As a matter of fact, so are we all, perfectly A-one," said Arthur.
Aaron broke into a laugh.
"That's the top and bottom of it," he laughed, flushed with wine, and handsome. We're all as right as ninepence. Only it's rather nice to talk."
"There!" said Sir William. "We're all as right as ninepence! We're all as right ninepence. So there well leave it, before the Major has time to say he is twopence short." Laughing his strange old soundless laugh, Sir William rose and made a little bow. "Come up and join the ladies in a minute or two," he said. Arthur opened the door for him and he left the room.
The four men were silent for a moment—then the Colonel whipped up the decanter and filled his glass. Then he stood up and clinked glasses with Aaron, like a real old sport.
"Luck to you," he said.
"Thanks," said Aaron.
"You're going in the morning?" said Arthur.
"Yes," said Aaron.
"What train?" said Arthur.
"Oh—then we shan't see you again. Well—best of luck."
"Best of luck—" echoed the Colonel.
"Same to you," said Aaron, and they all peered over their glasses and quite loved one another for a rosy minute.
"I should like to know, though," said the hollow-cheeked young Major with the black flap over his eye, "whether you do really mean you are all right—that it is all right with you—or whether you only say so to get away from the responsibility."
"I mean I don't really care—I don't a damn—let the devil take it all."
"The devil doesn't want it, either," said the Major.
"Then let him leave it. I don't care one single little curse about it all."
"Be damned. What is there to care about?" said the Colonel.
"Ay, what?" said Aaron.
"It's all the same, whether you care or don't care. So I say it's much easier not to care," said Arthur.
"Of course it is," said the Colonel gaily.
"And I think so, too," said Aaron.
"Right you are! We're all as right as ninepence—what? Good old sport! Here's yours!" cried the Colonel.
"We shall have to be going up," said Arthur, wise in his generation.
As they went into the hall, Arthur suddenly put one arm round Aaron's waist, and one arm round the Colonel's, and the three did a sudden little barn-dance towards the stairs. Arthur was feeling himself quite let loose again, back in his old regimental mess.
Approaching the foot of the stairs, he let go again. He was in that rosy condition when united-we-stand. But unfortunately it is a complicated job to climb the stairs in unison. The whole lot tends to fall backwards. Arthur, therefore, rosy, plump, looking so good to eat, stood still a moment in order to find his own neatly-slippered feet. Having found them, he proceeded to put them carefully one before the other, and to his enchantment found that this procedure was carrying him magically up the stairs. The Colonel, like a drowning man, clutched feebly for the straw of the great stair-rail—and missed it. He would have gone under, but that Aaron's hand gripped his arm. So, orientating once more like a fragile tendril, he reached again for the banister rail, and got it. After which, lifting his feet as if they were little packets of sand tied to his trouser buttons, he manipulated his way upwards. Aaron was in that pleasant state when he saw what everybody else was doing and was unconscious of what he did himself. Whilst tall, gaunt, erect, like a murdered Hamlet resurrected in khaki, with the terrible black shutter over his eye, the young Major came last.
Arthur was making a stern fight for his composure. His whole future depended on it. But do what he would, he could not get the flushed, pleased, mess-happy look off his face. The Colonel, oh, awful man, did a sort of plump roly-poly-cake-walk, like a fat boy, right to the very door of that santum-sanctorum, the library. Aaron was inwardly convulsed. Even the Major laughed.
But Arthur stiffened himself militarily and cleared his throat. All four started to compose themselves, like actors going on the stage, outside that library door. And then Arthur softly, almost wistfully, opened and held the door for the others to pass. The Colonel slunk meekly in, and sat in a chair in the background. The Major stalked in expressionless, and hovered towards the sofa where his wife sat.
There was a rather cold-water-down-your-back feeling in the library. The ladies had been waiting for coffee. Sir William was waiting, too. Therefore in a little tension, half silent, the coffee was handed round. Lady Franks was discussing something with Arthur's wife. Arthur's wife was in a cream lace dress, and looking what is called lovely. The Major's wife was in amethyst chiffon with dark-red roses, and was looking blindingly beautiful. The Colonel was looking into his coffee-cup as wistfully as if it contained the illusion of tawny port. The Major was looking into space, as if there and there alone, etc. Arthur was looking for something which Lady Franks had asked for, and which he was much too flushed to find. Sir William was looking at Aaron, and preparing for another coeur a coeur.
"Well," he said, "I doubt if you will care for Milan. It is one of the least Italian of all the towns, in my opinion. Venice, of course, is a thing apart. I cannot stand, myself, that miserable specimen the modern Roman. He has most of the vices of the old Romans and none of the virtues. The most congenial town, perhaps, for a stranger, is Florence. But it has a very bad climate."
Lady Franks rose significantly and left the room, accompanied by Arthur's wife. Aaron knew, silently, that he was summoned to follow. His hostess had her eye on him this evening. But always postponing his obedience to the cool commands of women, he remained talking with his host in the library, and sipping creme de menthe! Came the ripple of the pianoforte from the open doorway down at the further end of the room. Lady Franks was playing, in the large drawing-room. And the ripple of the music contained in it the hard insistence of the little woman's will. Coldly, and decidedly, she intended there should be no more unsettling conversations for the old Sir William. Aaron was to come forthwith into the drawing room. Which Aaron plainly understood—and so he didn't go. No, he didn't go, though the pianoforte rippled and swelled in volume. No, and he didn't go even when Lady Franks left off playing and came into the library again. There he sat, talking with Sir William. Let us do credit to Lady Franks' will-power, and admit that the talk was quite empty and distracted—none of the depths and skirmishes of the previous occasions. None the less, the talk continued. Lady Franks retired, discomfited, to her piano again. She would never break in upon her lord.
So now Aaron relented. He became more and more distracted. Sir William wandered away like some restless, hunted soul. The Colonel still sat in his chair, nursing his last drop of creme de menthe resentfully. He did not care for the green toffee-stuff. Arthur was busy. The Major lay sprawled in the last stages of everything on the sofa, holding his wife's hand. And the music came pathetically through the open folding-doors. Of course, she played with feeling—it went without saying. Aaron's soul felt rather tired. But she had a touch of discrimination also.
He rose and went to the drawing-room. It was a large, vacant-seeming, Empire sort of drawing-room, with yellow silk chairs along the walls and yellow silk panels upon the walls, and a huge, vasty crystal chandelier hanging from a faraway-above ceiling. Lady Franks sat at a large black Bechstein piano at one end of this vacant yellow state-room. She sat, a little plump elderly lady in black lace, for all the world like Queen Victoria in Max Beerbohm's drawing of Alfred Tennyson reading to her Victorian Majesty, with space before her. Arthur's wife was bending over some music in a remote corner of the big room.
Aaron seated himself on one of the chairs by the wall, to listen. Certainly it was a beautiful instrument. And certainly, in her way, she loved it. But Aaron remembered an anthem in which he had taken part as a boy.
His eye is on the sparrow
So I know He watches me.
For a long time he had failed to catch the word sparrow, and had heard:
His eye is on the spy-hole
So I know He watches me.
Which was just how it had all seemed to him, as a boy.
Now, as ever, he felt the eye was on the spy-hole. There sat the woman playing music. But her inward eye was on the spy-hole of her vital affairs—her domestic arrangements, her control of her household, guests and husband included. The other eye was left for the music, don't you know.
Sir William appeared hovering in the doorway, not at all liking the defection of Mr. Aaron. Then he retreated. He seemed not to care for music. The Major's wife hovered—felt it her duty to aude, or play audience—and entered, seating herself in a breath of lilac and amethyst again at the near distance. The Major, after a certain beating about the bush, followed and sat wrapt in dim contemplation near his wife. Arthur luckily was still busy with something.
Aaron of course made proper musical remarks in the intervals—Arthur's wife sorted out more pieces. Arthur appeared—and then the Colonel. The Colonel tip-toed beautifully across the wide blank space of the Empire room, and seated himself on a chair, rather in the distance, with his back to the wall, facing Aaron. When Lady Franks finished her piece, to everybody's amazement the Colonel clapped gaily to himself and said Bravo! as if at a Cafe Chantant, looking round for his glass. But there was no glass. So he crossed his neatly-khakied legs, and looked rapt again.
Lady Franks started with a vivace Schumann piece. Everybody listened in sanctified silence, trying to seem to like it. When suddenly our Colonel began to spring and bounce in his chair, slinging his loose leg with a kind of rapture up and down in the air, and capering upon his posterior, doing a sitting-down jig to the Schumann vivace. Arthur, who had seated himself at the farthest extremity of the room, winked with wild bliss at Aaron. The Major tried to look as if he noticed nothing, and only succeeded in looking agonised. His wife studied the point of her silver shoe minutely, and peeped through her hair at the performance. Aaron grimly chuckled, and loved the Colonel with real tenderness.
And the game went on while the vivace lasted. Up and down bounced the plump Colonel on his chair, kicking with his bright, black-patent toe higher and higher, getting quite enthusiastic over his jig. Rosy and unabashed, he was worthy of the great nation he belonged to. The broad-seated Empire chair showed no signs of giving way. Let him enjoy himself, away there across the yellow Sahara of this silk-panelled salon. Aaron felt quite cheered up.
"Well, now," he thought to himself, "this man is in entire command of a very important branch of the British Service in Italy. We are a great race still."
But Lady Franks must have twigged. Her playing went rather stiff. She came to the end of the vivace movement, and abandoned her piece.
"I always prefer Schumann in his vivace moods," said Aaron.
"Do you?" said Lady Franks. "Oh, I don't know."
It was now the turn of Arthur's wife to sing. Arthur seemed to get further away: if it was possible, for he was at the remotest remote end of the room, near the gallery doors. The Colonel became quiet, pensive. The Major's wife eyed the young woman in white lace, and seemed not to care for lace. Arthur seemed to be trying to push himself backwards through the wall. Lady Franks switched on more lights into the vast and voluminous crystal chandelier which hung like some glory-cloud above the room's centre. And Arthur's wife sang sweet little French songs, and Ye Banks and Braes, and Caro mio ben, which goes without saying: and so on. She had quite a nice voice and was quite adequately trained. Which is enough said. Aaron had all his nerves on edge.
Then he had to play the flute. Arthur strolled upstairs with him, arm-in-arm, where he went to fetch his instrument.
"I find music in the home rather a strain, you know," said Arthur.
"Cruel strain. I quite agree," said Aaron.
"I don't mind it so much in the theatre—or even a concert—where there are a lot of other people to take the edge off— But after a good dinner—"
"It's medicine," said Aaron.
"Well, you know, it really is, to me. It affects my inside." Aaron laughed. And then, in the yellow drawing-room, blew into his pipe and played. He knew so well that Arthur, the Major, the Major's wife, the Colonel, and Sir William thought it merely an intolerable bore. However, he played. His hostess even accompanied him in a Mozart bit.
CHAPTER XIV. XX SETTEMBRE
Aaron was awakened in the morning by the soft entrance of the butler with the tray: it was just seven o'clock. Lady Franks' household was punctual as the sun itself.
But our hero roused himself with a wrench. The very act of lifting himself from the pillow was like a fight this morning. Why? He recognized his own wrench, the pain with which he struggled under the necessity to move. Why shouldn't he want to move? Why not? Because he didn't want the day in front—the plunge into a strange country, towards nowhere, with no aim in view. True, he said that ultimately he wanted to join Lilly. But this was hardly more than a sop, an excuse for his own irrational behaviour. He was breaking loose from one connection after another; and what for? Why break every tie? Snap, snap, snap went the bonds and ligatures which bound him to the life that had formed him, the people he had loved or liked. He found all his affections snapping off, all the ties which united him with his own people coming asunder. And why? In God's name, why? What was there instead?
There was nothingness. There was just himself, and blank nothingness. He had perhaps a faint sense of Lilly ahead of him; an impulse in that direction, or else merely an illusion. He could not persuade himself that he was seeking for love, for any kind of unison or communion. He knew well enough that the thought of any loving, any sort of real coming together between himself and anybody or anything, was just objectionable to him. No—he was not moving towards anything: he was moving almost violently away from everything. And that was what he wanted. Only that. Only let him not run into any sort of embrace with anything or anybody—this was what he asked. Let no new connection be made between himself and anything on earth. Let all old connections break. This was his craving.
Yet he struggled under it this morning as under the lid of a tomb. The terrible sudden weight of inertia! He knew the tray stood ready by the bed: he knew the automobile would be at the door at eight o'clock, for Lady Franks had said so, and he half divined that the servant had also said so: yet there he lay, in a kind of paralysis in this bed. He seemed for the moment to have lost his will. Why go forward into more nothingness, away from all that he knew, all he was accustomed to and all he belonged to?
However, with a click he sat up. And the very instant he had poured his coffee from the little silver coffee-pot into his delicate cup, he was ready for anything and everything. The sense of silent adventure took him, the exhilarated feeling that he was fulfilling his own inward destiny. Pleasant to taste was the coffee, the bread, the honey—delicious.
The man brought his clothes, and again informed him that the automobile would be at the door at eight o'clock: or at least so he made out.
"I can walk," said Aaron.
"Milady ha comandato l'automobile," said the man softly.
It was evident that if Milady had ordered it, so it must be.
So Aaron left the still-sleeping house, and got into the soft and luxurious car. As he dropped through the park he wondered that Sir William and Lady Franks should be so kind to him: a complete stranger. But so it was. There he sat in their car. He wondered, also, as he ran over the bridge and into the city, whether this soft-running automobile would ever rouse the socialistic bile of the work-people. For the first time in his life, as he sat among the snug cushions, he realised what it might be to be rich and uneasy: uneasy, even if not afraid, lurking there inside an expensive car.—Well, it wasn't much of a sensation anyhow: and riches were stuffy, like wadded upholstery on everything. He was glad to get out into the fresh air of the common crowd. He was glad to be in the bleak, not-very-busy station. He was glad to be part of common life. For the very atmosphere of riches seems to be stuffed and wadded, never any real reaction. It was terrible, as if one's very body, shoulders and arms, were upholstered and made cushiony. Ugh, but he was glad to shake off himself the atmosphere of wealth and motor-cars, to get out of it all. It was like getting out of quilted clothes.
"Well," thought Aaron, "if this is all it amounts to, to be rich, you can have riches. They talk about money being power. But the only sort of power it has over me is to bring on a kind of numbness, which I fairly hate. No wonder rich people don't seem to be really alive."
The relief of escaping quite took away his self-conscious embarrassment at the station. He carried his own bags, bought a third-class ticket, and got into the train for Milan without caring one straw for the comments or the looks of the porters.
It began to rain. The rain ran across the great plain of north Italy. Aaron sat in his wood-seated carriage and smoked his pipe in silence, looking at the thick, short Lombards opposite him without heeding them. He paid hardly any outward attention to his surroundings, but sat involved in himself.
In Milan he had been advised to go to the Hotel Britannia, because it was not expensive, and English people went there. So he took a carriage, drove round the green space in front of Milan station, and away into the town. The streets were busy, but only half-heartedly so.
It must be confessed that every new move he made was rather an effort. Even he himself wondered why he was struggling with foreign porters and foreign cabmen, being talked at and not understanding a word. But there he was. So he went on with it.
The hotel was small and congenial. The hotel porter answered in English. Aaron was given a little room with a tiny balcony, looking on to a quiet street. So, he had a home of his own once more. He washed, and then counted his money. Thirty-seven pounds he had: and no more. He stood on the balcony and looked at the people going by below. Life seems to be moving so quick, when one looks down on it from above.
Across the road was a large stone house with its green shutters all closed. But from the flagpole under the eaves, over the central window of the uppermost floor—the house was four storeys high—waved the Italian flag in the melancholy damp air. Aaron looked at it—the red, white and green tricolour, with the white cross of Savoy in the centre. It hung damp and still. And there seemed a curious vacancy in the city—something empty and depressing in the great human centre. Not that there was really a lack of people. But the spirit of the town seemed depressed and empty. It was a national holiday. The Italian flag was hanging from almost every housefront.
It was about three o'clock in the afternoon. Aaron sat in the restaurant of the hotel drinking tea, for he was rather tired, and looking through the thin curtains at the little square outside, where people passed: little groups of dark, aimless-seeming men, a little bit poorer looking—perhaps rather shorter in stature—but very much like the people in any other town. Yet the feeling of the city was so different from that of London. There seemed a curious emptiness. The rain had ceased, but the pavements were still wet. There was a tension.
Suddenly there was a noise of two shots, fired in rapid succession. Aaron turned startled to look into the quiet piazza. And to his amazement, the pavements were empty, not a soul was in sight. Two minutes before the place was busy with passers-by, and a newspaper man selling the Corriere, and little carriages rattling through. Now, as if by magic, nobody, nothing. It was as if they had all melted into thin air.
The waiter, too, was peeping behind the curtain. A carriage came trotting into the square—an odd man took his way alone—the traffic began to stir once more, and people reappeared as suddenly as they had disappeared. Then the waiter ran hastily and furtively out and craned his neck, peering round the square. He spoke with two youths—rather loutish youths. Then he returned to his duty in the hotel restaurant.
"What was it? What were the shots?" Aaron asked him.
"Oh—somebody shooting at a dog," said the man negligently.
"At a dog!" said Aaron, with round eyes.
He finished his tea, and went out into the town. His hotel was not far from the cathedral square. Passing through the arcade, he came in sight of the famous cathedral with its numerous spines pricking into the afternoon air. He was not as impressed as he should have been. And yet there was something in the northern city—this big square with all the trams threading through, the little yellow Continental trams: and the spiny bulk of the great cathedral, like a grey-purple sea-urchin with many spines, on the one side, the ornamental grass-plots and flower beds on the other: the big shops going all along the further strands, all round: and the endless restless nervous drift of a north Italian crowd, so nervous, so twitchy; nervous and twitchy as the slipping past of the little yellow tram-cars; it all affected him with a sense of strangeness, nervousness, and approaching winter. It struck him the people were afraid of themselves: afraid of their own souls, and that which was in their own souls.
Turning up the broad steps of the cathedral, he entered the famous building. The sky had cleared, and the freshened light shone coloured in living tablets round the wonderful, towering, rose-hearted dusk of the great church. At some altars lights flickered uneasily. At some unseen side altar mass was going on, and a strange ragged music fluttered out on the incense-dusk of the great and lofty interior, which was all shadow, all shadow, hung round with jewel tablets of light. Particularly beautiful the great east bay, above the great altar. And all the time, over the big-patterned marble floor, the faint click and rustle of feet coming and going, coming and going, like shallow uneasy water rustled back and forth in a trough. A white dog trotted pale through the under-dusk, over the pale, big-patterned floor. Aaron came to the side altar where mass was going on, candles ruddily wavering. There was a small cluster of kneeling women—a ragged handful of on-looking men—and people wandering up and wandering away, young women with neatly dressed black hair, and shawls, but without hats; fine young women in very high heels; young men with nothing to do; ragged men with nothing to do. All strayed faintly clicking over the slabbed floor, and glanced at the flickering altar where the white-surpliced boys were curtseying and the white-and-gold priest bowing, his hands over his breast, in the candle-light. All strayed, glanced, lingered, and strayed away again, as if the spectacle were not sufficiently holding. The bell chimed for the elevation of the Host. But the thin trickle of people trickled the same, uneasily, over the slabbed floor of the vastly-upreaching shadow-foliaged cathedral.
The smell of incense in his nostrils, Aaron went out again by a side door, and began to walk along the pavements of the cathedral square, looking at the shops. Some were closed, and had little notices pinned on them. Some were open, and seemed half-stocked with half-elegant things. Men were carrying newspapers. In the cafes a few men were seated drinking vermouth. In the doorway of the restaurants waiters stood inert, looking out on the streets. The curious heart-eating ennui of the big town on a holiday came over our hero. He felt he must get out, whatever happened. He could not bear it.
So he went back to his hotel and up to his room. It was still only five o'clock. And he did not know what to do with himself. He lay down on the bed, and looked at the painting on his bedroom ceiling. It was a terrible business in reckitt's blue and browny gold, with awful heraldic beasts, rather worm-wriggly, displayed in a blue field.
As he lay thinking of nothing and feeling nothing except a certain weariness, or dreariness, or tension, or God-knows-what, he heard a loud hoarse noise of humanity in the distance, something frightening. Rising, he went on to his little balcony. It was a sort of procession, or march of men, here and there a red flag fluttering from a man's fist. There had been a big meeting, and this was the issue. The procession was irregular, but powerful, men four abreast. They emerged irregularly from the small piazza to the street, calling and vociferating. They stopped before a shop and clotted into a crowd, shouting, becoming vicious. Over the shop-door hung a tricolour, a national flag. The shop was closed, but the men began to knock at the door. They were all workmen, some in railway men's caps, mostly in black felt hats. Some wore red cotton neck-ties. They lifted their faces to the national flag, and as they shouted and gesticulated Aaron could see their strong teeth in their jaws. There was something frightening in their lean, strong Italian jaws, something inhuman and possessed-looking in their foreign, southern-shaped faces, so much more formed and demon-looking than northern faces. They had a demon-like set purpose, and the noise of their voices was like a jarring of steel weapons. Aaron wondered what they wanted. There were no women—all men—a strange male, slashing sound. Vicious it was—the head of the procession swirling like a little pool, the thick wedge of the procession beyond, flecked with red flags.
A window opened above the shop, and a frowsty-looking man, yellow-pale, was quickly and nervously hauling in the national flag. There were shouts of derision and mockery—a great overtone of acrid derision—the flag and its owner ignominiously disappeared. And the procession moved on. Almost every shop had a flag flying. And every one of these flags now disappeared, quickly or slowly, sooner or later, in obedience to the command of the vicious, derisive crowd, that marched and clotted slowly down the street, having its own way.
Only one flag remained flying—the big tricolour that floated from the top storey of the house opposite Aaron's hotel. The ground floor of this house consisted of shop-premises—now closed. There was no sign of any occupant. The flag floated inert aloft.
The whole crowd had come to a stop immediately below the hotel, and all were now looking up at the green and white and red tricolour which stirred damply in the early evening light, from under the broad eaves of the house opposite. Aaron looked at the long flag, which drooped almost unmoved from the eaves-shadow, and he half expected it to furl itself up of its own accord, in obedience to the will of the masses. Then he looked down at the packed black shoulders of the mob below, and at the curious clustering pattern of a sea of black hats. He could hardly see anything but hats and shoulders, uneasily moving like boiling pitch away beneath him. But the shouts began to come up hotter and hotter. There had been a great ringing of a door-bell and battering on the shop-door. The crowd—the swollen head of the procession—talked and shouted, occupying the centre of the street, but leaving the pavement clear. A woman in a white blouse appeared in the shop-door. She came out and looked up at the flag and shook her head and gesticulated with her hands. It was evidently not her flag—she had nothing to do with it. The leaders again turned to the large house-door, and began to ring all the bells and to knock with their knuckles. But no good—there was no answer. They looked up again at the flag. Voices rose ragged and ironical. The woman explained something again. Apparently there was nobody at home in the upper floors—all entrance was locked—there was no caretaker. Nobody owned the flag. There it hung under the broad eaves of the strong stone house, and didn't even know that it was guilty. The woman went back into her shop and drew down the iron shutter from inside.
The crowd, nonplussed, now began to argue and shout and whistle. The voices rose in pitch and derision. Steam was getting up. There hung the flag. The procession crowded forward and filled the street in a mass below. All the rest of the street was empty and shut up. And still hung the showy rag, red and white and green, up aloft.
Suddenly there was a lull—then shouts, half-encouraging, half-derisive. And Aaron saw a smallish-black figure of a youth, fair-haired, not more than seventeen years old, clinging like a monkey to the front of the house, and by the help of the heavy drain-pipe and the stone-work ornamentation climbing up to the stone ledge that ran under ground-floor windows, up like a sudden cat on to the projecting footing. He did not stop there, but continued his race like some frantic lizard running up the great wall-front, working away from the noise below, as if in sheer fright. It was one unending wriggling movement, sheer up the front of the impassive, heavy stone house.
The flag hung from a pole under one of the windows of the top storey—the third floor. Up went the wriggling figure of the possessed youth. The cries of the crowd below were now wild, ragged ejaculations of excitement and encouragement. The youth seemed to be lifted up, almost magically on the intense upreaching excitement of the massed men below. He passed the ledge of the first floor, like a lizard he wriggled up and passed the ledge or coping of the second floor, and there he was, like an upward-climbing shadow, scrambling on to the coping of the third floor. The crowd was for a second electrically still as the boy rose there erect, cleaving to the wall with the tips of his fingers.
But he did not hesitate for one breath. He was on his feet and running along the narrow coping that went across the house under the third floor windows, running there on that narrow footing away above the street, straight to the flag. He had got it—he had clutched it in his hand, a handful of it. Exactly like a great flame rose the simultaneous yell of the crowd as the boy jerked and got the flag loose. He had torn it down. A tremendous prolonged yell, touched with a snarl of triumph, and searing like a puff of flame, sounded as the boy remained for one moment with the flag in his hand looking down at the crowd below. His face was odd and elated and still. Then with the slightest gesture he threw the flag from him, and Aaron watched the gaudy remnant falling towards the many faces, whilst the noise of yelling rose up unheard.
There was a great clutch and hiss in the crowd. The boy still stood unmoved, holding by one hand behind him, looking down from above, from his dangerous elevation, in a sort of abstraction.
And the next thing Aaron was conscious of was the sound of trumpets. A sudden startling challenge of trumpets, and out of nowhere a sudden rush of grey-green carabinieri battering the crowd wildly with truncheons. It was so sudden that Aaron heard nothing any more. He only saw.
In utmost amazement he saw the greeny-grey uniformed carabinieri rushing thick and wild and indiscriminate on the crowd: a sudden new excited crowd in uniforms attacking the black crowd, beating them wildly with truncheons. There was a seething moment in the street below. And almost instantaneously the original crowd burst into a terror of frenzy. The mob broke as if something had exploded inside it. A few black-hatted men fought furiously to get themselves free of the hated soldiers; in the confusion bunches of men staggered, reeled, fell, and were struggling among the legs of their comrades and of the carabinieri. But the bulk of the crowd just burst and fled—in every direction. Like drops of water they seemed to fly up at the very walls themselves. They darted into any entry, any doorway. They sprang up the walls and clambered into the ground-floor windows. They sprang up the walls on to window-ledges, and then jumped down again, and ran—clambering, wriggling, darting, running in every direction; some cut, blood on their faces, terror or frenzy of flight in their hearts. Not so much terror as the frenzy of running away. In a breath the street was empty.
And all the time, there above on the stone coping stood the long-faced, fair-haired boy, while four stout carabinieri in the street below stood with uplifted revolvers and covered him, shouting that if he moved they would shoot. So there he stood, still looking down, still holding with his left hand behind him, covered by the four revolvers. He was not so much afraid as twitchily self-conscious because of his false position.
Meanwhile down below the crowd had dispersed—melted momentaneously. The carabinieri were busy arresting the men who had fallen and been trodden underfoot, or who had foolishly let themselves be taken; perhaps half a dozen men, half a dozen prisoners; less rather than more. The sergeant ordered these to be secured between soldiers. And last of all the youth up above, still covered by the revolvers, was ordered to come down. He turned quite quietly, and quite humbly, cautiously picked his way along the coping towards the drain-pipe. He reached this pipe and began, in humiliation, to climb down. It was a real climb down.
Once in the street he was surrounded by the grey uniforms. The soldiers formed up. The sergeant gave the order. And away they marched, the dejected youth a prisoner between them.
Then were heard a few scattered yells of derision and protest, a few shouts of anger and derision against the carabinieri. There were once more gangs of men and groups of youths along the street. They sent up an occasional shout. But always over their shoulders, and pretending it was not they who shouted. They were all cowed and hang-dog once more, and made not the slightest effort to save the youth. Nevertheless, they prowled and watched, ready for the next time.
So, away went the prisoner and the grey-green soldiers, and the street was left to the little gangs and groups of hangdog, discontented men, all thoroughly out of countenance. The scene was ended.
Aaron looked round, dazed. And then for the first time he noticed, on the next balcony to his own, two young men: young gentlemen, he would have said. The one was tall and handsome and well-coloured, might be Italian. But the other with his pale thin face and his rimless monocle in his eye, he was surely an Englishman. He was surely one of the young officers shattered by the war. A look of strange, arch, bird-like pleasure was on his face at this moment: if one could imagine the gleaming smile of a white owl over the events that had just passed, this was the impression produced on Aaron by the face of the young man with the monocle. The other youth, the ruddy, handsome one, had knitted his brows in mock distress, and was glancing with a look of shrewd curiosity at Aaron, and with a look of almost self-satisfied excitement first to one end of the street, then to the other.
"But imagine, Angus, it's all over!" he said, laying his hand on the arm of the monocled young man, and making great eyes—not without a shrewd glance in Aaron's direction.
"Did you see him fall!" replied Angus, with another strange gleam.
"Yes. But was he HURT—?"
"I don't know. I should think so. He fell right back out of that on to those stones!"
"But how perfectly AWFUL! Did you ever see anything like it?"
"No. It's one of the funniest things I ever did see. I saw nothing quite like it, even in the war—"
Here Aaron withdrew into his room. His mind and soul were in a whirl. He sat down in his chair, and did not move again for a great while. When he did move, he took his flute and played he knew not what. But strange, strange his soul passed into his instrument. Or passed half into his instrument. There was a big residue left, to go bitter, or to ferment into gold old wine of wisdom.
He did not notice the dinner gong, and only the arrival of the chamber-maid, to put the wash-table in order, sent him down to the restaurant. The first thing he saw, as he entered, was the two young Englishmen seated at a table in a corner just behind him. Their hair was brushed straight back from their foreheads, making the sweep of the head bright and impeccable, and leaving both the young faces clear as if in cameo. Angus had laid his monocle on the table, and was looking round the room with wide, light-blue eyes, looking hard, like some bird-creature, and seeming to see nothing. He had evidently been very ill: was still very ill. His cheeks and even his jaw seemed shrunken, almost withered. He forgot his dinner: or he did not care for it. Probably the latter.
"What do you think, Francis," he said, "of making a plan to see Florence and Sienna and Orvieto on the way down, instead of going straight to Rome?" He spoke in precise, particularly-enunciated words, in a public-school manner, but with a strong twang of South Wales.
"Why, Angus," came the graceful voice of Francis, "I thought we had settled to go straight through via Pisa." Francis was graceful in everything—in his tall, elegant figure, in the poses of his handsome head, in the modulation of his voice.
"Yes, but I see we can go either way—either Pisa or Florence. And I thought it might be nice to look at Florence and Sienna and Orvieto. I believe they're very lovely," came the soft, precise voice of Angus, ending in a touch of odd emotion on the words "very lovely," as if it were a new experience to him to be using them.
"I'm SURE they're marvellous. I'm quite sure they're marvellously beautiful," said Francis, in his assured, elegant way. "Well, then, Angus—suppose we do that, then?—When shall we start?"
Angus was the nervous insister. Francis was quite occupied with his own thoughts and calculations and curiosity. For he was very curious, not to say inquisitive. And at the present moment he had a new subject to ponder.
This new subject was Aaron, who sat with his back to our new couple, and who, with his fine sharp ears, caught every word that they said. Aaron's back was broad enough, and his shoulders square, and his head rather small and fairish and well-shaped—and Francis was intrigued. He wanted to know, was the man English. He looked so English—yet he might be—he might perhaps be Danish, Scandinavian, or Dutch. Therefore, the elegant young man watched and listened with all his ears.
The waiter who had brought Aaron his soup now came very free and easy, to ask for further orders.
"What would you like to drink? Wine? Chianti? Or white wine? Or beer?"—The old-fashioned "Sir" was dropped. It is too old-fashioned now, since the war.
"What SHOULD I drink?" said Aaron, whose acquaintance with wines was not very large.
"Half-litre of Chianti: that is very good," said the waiter, with the air of a man who knew only too well how to bring up his betters, and train them in the way they should go.
"All right," said Aaron.
The welcome sound of these two magic words, All Right! was what the waiter most desired. "All right! Yes! All Right!" This is the pith, the marrow, the sum and essence of the English language to a southerner. Of course it is not all right. It is Or-rye—and one word at that. The blow that would be given to most foreign waiters, if they were forced to realize that the famous orye was really composed of two words, and spelt all right, would be too cruel, perhaps.
"Half litre Chianti. Orye," said the waiter. And we'll let him say it.
"ENGLISH!" whispered Francis melodramatically in the ear of Angus. "I THOUGHT so. The flautist."
Angus put in his monocle, and stared at the oblivious shoulders of Aaron, without apparently seeing anything. "Yes. Obviously English," said Angus, pursing like a bird.
"Oh, but I heard him," whispered Francis emphatically. "Quite," said Angus. "But quite inoffensive."
"Oh, but Angus, my dear—he's the FLAUTIST. Don't you remember? The divine bit of Scriabin. At least I believe it was Scriabin.—But PERFECTLY DIVINE!!! I adore the flute above all things—" And Francis placed his hand on Angus' arm, and rolled his eyes—Lay this to the credit of a bottle of Lacrimae Cristi, if you like.
"Yes. So do I," said Angus, again looking archly through the monocle, and seeing nothing. "I wonder what he's doing here."
"Don't you think we might ASK him?" said Francis, in a vehement whisper. "After all, we are the only three English people in the place."
"For the moment, apparently we are," said Angus. "But the English are all over the place wherever you go, like bits of orange peel in the street. Don't forget that, Francesco."
"No, Angus, I don't. The point is, his flute is PERFECTLY DIVINE—and he seems quite attractive in himself. Don't you think so?"
"Oh, quite," said Angus, whose observations had got no further than the black cloth of the back of Aaron's jacket. That there was a man inside he had not yet paused to consider.
"Quite a musician," said Francis.
"The hired sort," said Angus, "most probably."
"But he PLAYS—he plays most marvellously. THAT you can't get away from, Angus."
"I quite agree," said Angus.
"Well, then? Don't you think we might hear him again? Don't you think we might get him to play for us?—But I should love it more than anything."
"Yes, I should, too," said Angus. "You might ask him to coffee and a liqueur."
"I should like to—most awfully. But do you think I might?"
"Oh, yes. He won't mind being offered a coffee and liqueur. We can give him something decent—Where's the waiter?" Angus lifted his pinched, ugly bare face and looked round with weird command for the waiter. The waiter, having not much to do, and feeling ready to draw these two weird young birds, allowed himself to be summoned.
"Where's the wine list? What liqueurs have you got?" demanded Angus abruptly.
The waiter rattled off a list, beginning with Strega and ending with cherry brandy.
"Grand Marnier," said Angus. "And leave the bottle."
Then he looked with arch triumph at Francis, like a wicked bird. Francis bit his finger moodily, and glowered with handsome, dark-blue uncertain eyes at Mr. Aaron, who was just surveying the Frutte, which consisted of two rather old pomegranates and various pale yellow apples, with a sprinkling of withered dried figs. At the moment, they all looked like a Natura Morta arrangement.
"But do you think I might—?" said Francis moodily. Angus pursed his lips with a reckless brightness.
"Why not? I see no reason why you shouldn't," he said. Whereupon Francis cleared his throat, disposed of his serviette, and rose to his feet, slowly but gracefully. Then he composed himself, and took on the air he wished to assume at the moment. It was a nice degage air, half naive and half enthusiastic. Then he crossed to Aaron's table, and stood on one lounging hip, gracefully, and bent forward in a confidential manner, and said:
"Do excuse me. But I MUST ask you if it was you we heard playing the flute so perfectly wonderfully, just before dinner."
The voice was confidential and ingratiating. Aaron, relieved from the world's stress and seeing life anew in the rosy glow of half a litre of good old Chianti—the war was so near but gone by—looked up at the dark blue, ingenuous, well-adapted eyes of our friend Francis, and smiling, said:
"Yes, I saw you on the balcony as well."
"Oh, did you notice us?" plunged Francis. "But wasn't it an extraordinary affair?"
"Very," said Aaron. "I couldn't make it out, could you?"
"Oh," cried Francis. "I never try. It's all much too new and complicated for me.—But perhaps you know Italy?"
"No, I don't," said Aaron.
"Neither do we. And we feel rather stunned. We had only just arrived—and then—Oh!" Francis put up his hand to his comely brow and rolled his eyes. "I feel perfectly overwhelmed with it still."
He here allowed himself to sink friendlily into the vacant chair opposite Aaron's.
"Yes, I thought it was a bit exciting," said Aaron. "I wonder what will become of him—"
"—Of the one who climbed for the flag, you mean? No!—But wasn't it perfectly marvellous! Oh, incredible, quite incredible!—And then your flute to finish it all! Oh! I felt it only wanted that.—I haven't got over it yet. But your playing was MARVELLOUS, really marvellous. Do you know, I can't forget it. You are a professional musician, of course."
"If you mean I play for a living," said Aaron. "I have played in orchestras in London."
"Of course! Of course! I knew you must be a professional. But don't you give private recitals, too?"
"No, I never have."
"Oh!" cried Francis, catching his breath. "I can't believe it. But you play MARVELLOUSLY! Oh, I just loved it, it simply swept me away, after that scene in the street. It seemed to sum it all up, you know."
"Did it," said Aaron, rather grimly.
"But won't you come and have coffee with us at our table?" said Francis. "We should like it most awfully if you would."
"Yes, thank you," said Aaron, half-rising.
"But you haven't had your dessert," said Francis, laying a fatherly detaining hand on the arm of the other man. Aaron looked at the detaining hand.
"The dessert isn't much to stop for," he said. "I can take with me what I want." And he picked out a handful of dried figs.
The two went across to Angus' table.
"We're going to take coffee together," said Francis complacently, playing the host with a suave assurance that was rather amusing and charming in him.
"Yes. I'm very glad," said Angus. Let us give the show away: he was being wilfully nice. But he was quite glad; to be able to be so nice. Anything to have a bit of life going: especially a bit of pleased life. He looked at Aaron's comely, wine-warmed face with gratification.
"Have a Grand Marnier," he said. "I don't know how bad it is. Everything is bad now. They lay it down to the war as well. It used to be quite a decent drink. What the war had got to do with bad liqueurs, I don't know."
Aaron sat down in a chair at their table.
"But let us introduce ourselves," said Francis. "I am Francis—or really Franz Dekker—And this is Angus Guest, my friend."
"And my name is Aaron Sisson."
"What! What did you say?" said Francis, leaning forward. He, too, had sharp ears.
"Aaron Sisson! Oh, but how amusing! What a nice name!"
"No better than yours, is it?"
"Mine! Franz Dekker! Oh, much more amusing, I think," said Francis archly.
"Oh, well, it's a matter of opinion. You're the double decker, not me."
"The double decker!" said Francis archly. "Why, what do you mean!—" He rolled his eyes significantly. "But may I introduce my friend Angus Guest."
"You've introduced me already, Francesco," said Angus.
"So sorry," said Francis.
"Guest!" said Aaron.
Francis suddenly began to laugh.
"May he not be Guest?" he asked, fatherly.
"Very likely," said Aaron. "Not that I was ever good at guessing."
Francis tilted his eyebrows. Fortunately the waiter arrived with the coffee.
"Tell me," said Francis, "will you have your coffee black, or with milk?" He was determined to restore a tone of sobriety.
The coffee was sipped in sober solemnity.
"Is music your line as well, then?" asked Aaron.
"No, we're painters. We're going to work in Rome."
"To earn your living?"
The amount of discretion, modesty, and reserve which Francis put into these two syllables gave Aaron to think that he had two real young swells to deal with.
"No," continued Francis. "I was only JUST down from Oxford when the war came—and Angus had been about ten months at the Slade—But I have always painted.—So now we are going to work, really hard, in Rome, to make up for lost time.—Oh, one has lost so much time, in the war. And such PRECIOUS time! I don't know if ever one will even be able to make it up again." Francis tilted his handsome eyebrows and put his head on one side with a wise-distressed look.
"No," said Angus. "One will never be able to make it up. What is more, one will never be able to start again where one left off. We're shattered old men, now, in one sense. And in another sense, we're just pre-war babies."
The speech was uttered with an odd abruptness and didacticism which made Aaron open his eyes. Angus had that peculiar manner: he seemed to be haranguing himself in the circle of his own thoughts, not addressing himself to his listener.
So his listener listened on the outside edge of the young fellow's crowded thoughts. Francis put on a distressed air, and let his attention wander. Angus pursed his lips and his eyes were stretched wide with a kind of pleasure, like a wicked owl which has just joyfully hooted an ill omen.
"Tell me," said Francis to Aaron. "Where were YOU all the time during the war?"
"I was doing my job," said Aaron. Which led to his explaining his origins.
"Really! So your music is quite new! But how interesting!" cried Francis.
Aaron explained further.
"And so the war hardly affected you? But what did you FEEL about it, privately?"
"I didn't feel much. I didn't know what to feel. Other folks did such a lot of feeling, I thought I'd better keep my mouth shut."
"Yes, quite!" said Angus. "Everybody had such a lot of feelings on somebody else's behalf, that nobody ever had time to realise what they felt themselves. I know I was like that. The feelings all came on to me from the outside: like flies settling on meat. Before I knew where I was I was eaten up with a swarm of feelings, and I found myself in the trenches. God knows what for. And ever since then I've been trying to get out of my swarm of feelings, which buzz in and out of me and have nothing to do with me. I realised it in hospital. It's exactly like trying to get out of a swarm of nasty dirty flies. And every one you kill makes you sick, but doesn't make the swarm any less."
Again Angus pursed and bridled and looked like a pleased, wicked white owl. Then he polished his monocle on a very choice silk handkerchief, and fixed it unseeing in his left eye.
But Francis was not interested in his friend's experiences. For Francis had had a job in the War Office—whereas Angus was a war-hero with shattered nerves. And let him depreciate his own experiences as much as he liked, the young man with the monocle kept tight hold on his prestige as a war hero. Only for himself, though. He by no means insisted that anyone else should be war-bitten.
Francis was one of those men who, like women, can set up the sympathetic flow and make a fellow give himself away without realising what he is doing. So there sat our friend Aaron, amusingly unbosoming himself of all his history and experiences, drawn out by the arch, subtle attentiveness of the handsome Francis. Angus listened, too, with pleased amusedness on his pale, emaciated face, pursing his shrunken jaw. And Aaron sipped various glasses of the liqueur, and told all his tale as if it was a comedy. A comedy it seemed, too, at that hour. And a comedy no doubt it was. But mixed, like most things in this life. Mixed.
It was quite late before this seance broke up: and the waiter itching to get rid of the fellows.
"Well, now," said Francis, as he rose from the table and settled his elegant waist, resting on one hip, as usual. "We shall see you in the morning, I hope. You say you are going to Venice. Why? Have you some engagement in Venice?"
"No," said Aaron. "I only was going to look for a friend—Rawdon Lilly."
"Rawdon Lilly! Why, is he in Venice? Oh, I've heard SUCH a lot about him. I should like so much to meet him. But I heard he was in Germany—"
"I don't know where he is."
"Angus! Didn't we hear that Lilly was in Germany?"
"Yes, in Munich, being psychoanalysed, I believe it was."
Aaron looked rather blank.
"But have you anything to take you to Venice? It's such a bad climate in the winter. Why not come with us to Florence?" said Francis.
Aaron wavered. He really did not know what to do.
"Think about it," said Francis, laying his hand on Aaron's arm. "Think about it tonight. And we'll meet in the morning. At what time?"
"Any time," said Aaron.
"Well, say eleven. We'll meet in the lounge here at eleven. Will that suit you? All right, then. It's so awfully nice meeting you. That marvellous flute.—And think about Florence. But do come. Don't disappoint us."
The two young men went elegantly upstairs.
CHAPTER XV. A RAILWAY JOURNEY
The next day but one, the three set off for Florence. Aaron had made an excursion from Milan with the two young heroes, and dined with them subsequently at the most expensive restaurant in the town. Then they had all gone home—and had sat in the young men's bedroom drinking tea, whilst Aaron played the flute. Francis was really musical, and enchanted. Angus enjoyed the novelty, and the moderate patronage he was able to confer. And Aaron felt amused and pleased, and hoped he was paying for his treat.
So behold them setting off for Florence in the early morning. Angus and Francis had first-class tickets: Aaron took a third-class.
"Come and have lunch with us on the train," said Angus. "I'll order three places, and we can lunch together."
"Oh, I can buy a bit of food at the station," said Aaron.
"No, come and lunch with us. It will be much nicer. And we shall enjoy it as well," said Angus.
"Of course! Ever so much nicer! Of course!" cried Francis. "Yes, why not, indeed! Why should you hesitate?"
"All right, then," said Aaron, not without some feeling of constraint.
So they separated. The young men settled themselves amidst the red plush and crochet-work, looking, with their hair plastered smoothly back, quite as first class as you could wish, creating quite the right impression on the porters and the travelling Italians. Aaron went to his third-class, further up the train.
"Well, then, au revoir, till luncheon," cried Francis.
The train was fairly full in the third and second classes. However, Aaron got his seat, and the porter brought on his bags, after disposing of the young men's luggage. Aaron gave the tip uneasily. He always hated tipping—it seemed humiliating both ways. And the airy aplomb of the two young cavaliers, as they settled down among the red plush and the obsequiousness, and said "Well, then, au revoir till luncheon," was peculiarly unsettling: though they did not intend it so.
"The porter thinks I'm their servant—their valet," said Aaron to himself, and a curious half-amused, half-contemptuous look flickered on his face. It annoyed him. The falsity occasioned by the difference in the price of the tickets was really humiliating. Aaron had lived long enough to know that as far as manhood and intellect went—nay, even education—he was not the inferior of the two young "gentlemen." He knew quite well that, as far as intrinsic nature went, they did not imagine him an inferior: rather the contrary. They had rather an exaggerated respect for him and his life-power, and even his origin. And yet—they had the inestimable cash advantage—and they were going to keep it. They knew it was nothing more than an artificial cash superiority. But they gripped it all the more intensely. They were the upper middle classes. They were Eton and Oxford. And they were going to hang on to their privileges. In these days, it is a fool who abdicates before he's forced to. And therefore:
"Well, then—au revoir till luncheon."
They were being so awfully nice. And inwardly they were not condescending. But socially, they just had to be. The world is made like that. It wasn't their own private fault. It was no fault at all. It was just the mode in which they were educated, the style of their living. And as we know, le style, c'est l'homme.
Angus came of very wealthy iron people near Merthyr. Already he had a very fair income of his own. As soon as the law-business concerning his father's and his grandfather's will was settled, he would be well off. And he knew it, and valued himself accordingly. Francis was the son of a highly-esteemed barrister and politician of Sydney, and in his day would inherit his father's lately-won baronetcy. But Francis had not very much money: and was much more class-flexible than Angus. Angus had been born in a house with a park, and of awful, hard-willed, money-bound people. Francis came of a much more adventurous, loose, excitable family, he had the colonial newness and adaptability. He knew, for his own part, that class superiority was just a trick, nowadays. Still, it was a trick that paid. And a trick he was going to play as long as it did pay.
While Aaron sat, a little pale at the gills, immobile, ruminating these matters, a not very pleasant look about his nose-end, he heard a voice:
"Oh, there you ARE! I thought I'd better come and see, so that we can fetch you at lunch time.—You've got a seat? Are you quite comfortable? Is there anything I could get you? Why, you're in a non-smoker!—But that doesn't matter, everybody will smoke. Are you sure you have everything? Oh, but wait just one moment—"
It was Francis, long and elegant, with his straight shoulders and his coat buttoned to show his waist, and his face so well-formed and so modern. So modern, altogether. His voice was pleasantly modulated, and never hurried. He now looked as if a thought had struck him. He put a finger to his brow, and hastened back to his own carriage. In a minute, he returned with a new London literary magazine.
"Something to read—I shall have to FLY—See you at lunch," and he had turned and elegantly hastened, but not too fast, back to his carriage. The porter was holding the door for him. So Francis looked pleasantly hurried, but by no means rushed. Oh, dear, no. He took his time. It was not for him to bolt and scramble like a mere Italian.
The people in Aaron's carriage had watched the apparition of the elegant youth intently. For them, he was a being from another sphere—no doubt a young milordo with power wealth, and glamorous life behind him. Which was just what Francis intended to convey. So handsome—so very, very impressive in all his elegant calm showiness. He made such a bella figura. It was just what the Italians loved. Those in the first class regions thought he might even be an Italian, he was so attractive.
The train in motion, the many Italian eyes in the carriage studied Aaron. He, too, was good-looking. But by no means as fascinating as the young milordo. Not half as sympathetic. No good at all at playing a role. Probably a servant of the young signori.
Aaron stared out of the window, and played the one single British role left to him, that of ignoring his neighbours, isolating himself in their midst, and minding his own business. Upon this insular trick our greatness and our predominance depends—such as it is. Yes, they might look at him. They might think him a servant or what they liked. But he was inaccessible to them. He isolated himself upon himself, and there remained.
It was a lovely day, a lovely, lovely day of early autumn. Over the great plain of Lombardy a magnificent blue sky glowed like mid-summer, the sun shone strong. The great plain, with its great stripes of cultivation—without hedges or boundaries—-how beautiful it was! Sometimes he saw oxen ploughing. Sometimes. Oh, so beautiful, teams of eight, or ten, even of twelve pale, great soft oxen in procession, ploughing the dark velvety earth, a driver with a great whip at their head, a man far behind holding the plough-shafts. Beautiful the soft, soft plunging motion of oxen moving forwards. Beautiful the strange, snaky lifting of the muzzles, the swaying of the sharp horns. And the soft, soft crawling motion of a team of oxen, so invisible, almost, yet so inevitable. Now and again straight canals of water flashed blue. Now and again the great lines of grey-silvery poplars rose and made avenues or lovely grey airy quadrangles across the plain. Their top boughs were spangled with gold and green leaf. Sometimes the vine-leaves were gold and red, a patterning. And the great square farm-homesteads, white, red-roofed, with their out-buildings, stood naked amid the lands, without screen or softening. There was something big and exposed about it all. No more the cosy English ambushed life, no longer the cosy littleness of the landscape. A bigness—and nothing to shelter the unshrinking spirit. It was all exposed, exposed to the sweep of plain, to the high, strong sky, and to human gaze. A kind of boldness, an indifference. Aaron was impressed and fascinated. He looked with new interest at the Italians in the carriage with him—for this same boldness and indifference and exposed gesture. And he found it in them, too. And again it fascinated him. It seemed so much bigger, as if the walls of life had fallen. Nay, the walls of English life will have to fall.
Sitting there in the third-class carriage, he became happy again. The presence of his fellow-passengers was not so hampering as in England. In England, everybody seems held tight and gripped, nothing is left free. Every passenger seems like a parcel holding his string as fast as he can about him, lest one corner of the wrapper should come undone and reveal what is inside. And every other passenger is forced, by the public will, to hold himself as tight-bound also. Which in the end becomes a sort of self-conscious madness.
But here, in the third class carriage, there was no tight string round every man. They were not all trussed with self-conscious string as tight as capons. They had a sufficient amount of callousness and indifference and natural equanimity. True, one of them spat continually on the floor, in large spits. And another sat with his boots all unlaced and his collar off, and various important buttons undone. They did not seem to care if bits of themselves did show, through the gaps in the wrapping. Aaron winced—but he preferred it to English tightness. He was pleased, he was happy with the Italians. He thought how generous and natural they were.
So the towns passed by, and the hours, and he seemed at last to have got outside himself and his old conditions. It seemed like a great escape. There was magic again in life—real magic. Was it illusion, or was it genuine? He thought it was genuine, and opened his soul a if there was no danger.
Lunch-time came. Francis summoned Aaron down the rocking tram. The three men had a table to themselves, and all felt they were enjoying themselves very much indeed. Of course Francis and Angus made a great impression again. But in the dining car were mostly middle-class, well-to-do Italians. And these did not look upon our two young heroes as two young wonders. No, rather with some criticism, and some class-envy. But they were impressed. Oh, they were impressed! How should they not be, when our young gentlemen had such an air! Aaron was conscious all the time that the fellow-diners were being properly impressed by the flower of civilisation and the salt of the earth, namely, young, well-to-do Englishmen. And he had a faint premonition, based on experience perhaps, that fellow-passengers in the end never forgive the man who has "impressed" them. Mankind loves being impressed. It asks to be impressed. It almost forces those whom it can force to play a role and to make an impression. And afterwards, never forgives.
When the train ran into Bologna Station, they were still in the restaurant car. Nor did they go at once to their seats. Angus had paid the bill. There was three-quarters-of-an-hour's wait in Bologna.
"You may as well come down and sit with us," said Francis. "We've got nobody in our carriage, so why shouldn't we all stay together during the wait. You kept your own seat, I suppose."
No, he had forgotten. So when he went to look for it, it was occupied by a stout man who was just taking off his collar and wrapping a white kerchief round his neck. The third class carriages were packed. For those were early days after the war, while men still had pre-war notions and were poor. Ten months would steal imperceptibly by, and the mysterious revolution would be effected. Then, the second class and the first class would be packed, indescribably packed, crowded, on all great trains: and the third class carriages, lo and behold, would be comparatively empty. Oh, marvellous days of bankruptcy, when nobody will condescend to travel third!
However, these were still modest, sombre months immediately after the peace. So a large man with a fat neck and a white kerchief, and his collar over his knee, sat in Aaron's seat. Aaron looked at the man, and at his own luggage overhead. The fat man saw him looking and stared back: then stared also at the luggage overhead: and with his almost invisible north-Italian gesture said much plainer than words would have said it: "Go to hell. I'm here and I'm going to stop here."
There was something insolent and unbearable about the look—and about the rocky fixity of the large man. He sat as if he had insolently taken root in his seat. Aaron flushed slightly. Francis and Angus strolled along the train, outside, for the corridor was already blocked with the mad Bologna rush, and the baggage belonging. They joined Aaron as he stood on the platform.
"But where is YOUR SEAT?" cried Francis, peering into the packed and jammed compartments of the third class.
"That man's sitting in it."
"Which?" cried Francis, indignant.
"The fat one there—with the collar on his knee."
"But it was your seat—!"
Francis' gorge rose in indignation. He mounted into the corridor. And in the doorway of the compartment he bridled like an angry horse rearing, bridling his head. Poising himself on one hip, he stared fixedly at the man with the collar on his knee, then at the baggage aloft. He looked down at the fat man as a bird looks down from the eaves of a house. But the man looked back with a solid, rock-like impudence, before which an Englishman quails: a jeering, immovable insolence, with a sneer round the nose and a solid-seated posterior.
"But," said Francis in English—none of them had any Italian yet. "But," said Francis, turning round to Aaron, "that was YOUR SEAT?" and he flung his long fore-finger in the direction of the fat man's thighs.
"Yes!" said Aaron.
"And he's TAKEN it—!" cried Francis in indignation.
"And knows it, too," said Aaron.
"But—!" and Francis looked round imperiously, as if to summon his bodyguard. But bodyguards are no longer forthcoming, and train-guards are far from satisfactory. The fat man sat on, with a sneer-grin, very faint but very effective, round his nose, and a solidly-planted posterior. He quite enjoyed the pantomime of the young foreigners. The other passengers said something to him, and he answered laconic. Then they all had the faint sneer-grin round their noses. A woman in the corner grinned jeeringly straight in Francis' face. His charm failed entirely this time: and as for his commandingness, that was ineffectual indeed. Rage came up in him.
"Oh well—something must be done," said he decisively. "But didn't you put something in the seat to RESERVE it?"
"Only that New Statesman—but he's moved it."
The man still sat with the invisible sneer-grin on his face, and that peculiar and immovable plant of his Italian posterior.
"Mais—cette place etait RESERVEE—" said Francis, moving to the direct attack.
The man turned aside and ignored him utterly—then said something to the men opposite, and they all began to show their teeth in a grin.
Francis was not so easily foiled. He touched the man on the arm. The man looked round threateningly, as if he had been struck.
"Cette place est reservee—par ce Monsieur—" said Francis with hauteur, though still in an explanatory tone, and pointing to Aaron.
The Italian looked him, not in the eyes, but between the eyes, and sneered full in his face. Then he looked with contempt at Aaron. And then he said, in Italian, that there was room for such snobs in the first class, and that they had not any right to come occupying the place of honest men in the third.
"Gia! Gia!" barked the other passengers in the carriage.
"Loro possono andare prima classa—PRIMA CLASSA!" said the woman in the corner, in a very high voice, as if talking to deaf people, and pointing to Aaron's luggage, then along the train to the first class carriages.
"C'e posto la," said one of the men, shrugging his shoulders.
There was a jeering quality in the hard insolence which made Francis go very red and Augus very white. Angus stared like a death's-head behind his monocle, with death-blue eyes.
"Oh, never mind. Come along to the first class. I'll pay the difference. We shall be much better all together. Get the luggage down, Francis. It wouldn't be possible to travel with this lot, even if he gave up the seat. There's plenty of room in our carriage—and I'll pay the extra," said Angus.
He knew there was one solution—and only one—Money.
But Francis bit his finger. He felt almost beside himself—and quite powerless. For he knew the guard of the train would jeer too. It is not so easy to interfere with honest third-class Bolognesi in Bologna station, even if they have taken another man's seat. Powerless, his brow knitted, and looking just like Mephistopheles with his high forehead and slightly arched nose, Mephistopheles in a rage, he hauled down Aaron's bag and handed it to Angus. So they transferred themselves to the first-class carriage, while the fat man and his party in the third-class watched in jeering, triumphant silence. Solid, planted, immovable, in static triumph.
So Aaron sat with the others amid the red plush, whilst the train began its long slow climb of the Apennines, stinking sulphurous through tunnels innumerable. Wonderful the steep slopes, the great chestnut woods, and then the great distances glimpsed between the heights, Firenzuola away and beneath, Turneresque hills far off, built of heaven-bloom, not of earth. It was cold at the summit-station, ice and snow in the air, fierce. Our travellers shrank into the carriage again, and wrapped themselves round.
Then the train began its long slither downhill, still through a whole necklace of tunnels, which fortunately no longer stank. So down and down, till the plain appears in sight once more, the Arno valley. But then began the inevitable hitch that always happens in Italian travel. The train began to hesitate—to falter to a halt, whistling shrilly as if in protest: whistling pip-pip-pip in expostulation as it stood forlorn among the fields: then stealing forward again and stealthily making pace, gathering speed, till it had got up a regular spurt: then suddenly the brakes came on with a jerk, more faltering to a halt, more whistling and pip-pip-pipping, as the engine stood jingling with impatience: after which another creak and splash, and another choking off. So on till they landed in Prato station: and there they sat. A fellow passenger told them, there was an hour to wait here: an hour. Something had happened up the line.
"Then I propose we make tea," said Angus, beaming.
"Why not! Of course. Let us make tea. And I will look for water."
So Aaron and Francis went to the restaurant bar and filled the little pan at the tap. Angus got down the red picnic case, of which he was so fond, and spread out the various arrangements on the floor of the coupe. He soon had the spirit-lamp burning, the water heating. Francis proposed that he and Aaron should dash into Prato and see what could be bought, whilst the tea was in preparation. So off they went, leaving Angus like a busy old wizard manipulating his arrangements on the floor of the carriage, his monocle beaming with bliss. The one fat fellow—passenger with a lurid striped rug over his knees watched with acute interest. Everybody who passed the doorway stood to contemplate the scene with pleasure. Officials came and studied the situation with appreciation. Then Francis and Aaron returned with a large supply of roast chestnuts, piping hot, and hard dried plums, and good dried figs, and rather stale rusks. They found the water just boiling, Angus just throwing in the tea-egg, and the fellow-passenger just poking his nose right in, he was so thrilled.
Nothing pleased Angus so much as thus pitching camp in the midst of civilisation. The scrubby newspaper packets of chestnuts, plums, figs and rusks were spread out: Francis flew for salt to the man at the bar, and came back with a little paper of rock-salt: the brown tea was dispensed in the silver-fitted glasses from the immortal luncheon-case: and the picnic was in full swing. Angus, being in the height of his happiness, now sat on the seat cross-legged, with his feet under him, in the authentic Buddha fashion, and on his face the queer rapt alert look, half a smile, also somewhat Buddhistic, holding his glass of brown tea in his hand. He was as rapt and immobile as if he really were in a mystic state. Yet it was only his delight in the tea-party. The fellow-passenger peered at the tea, and said in broken French, was it good. In equally fragmentary French Francis said very good, and offered the fat passenger some. He, however, held up his hand in protest, as if to say not for any money would he swallow the hot-watery stuff. And he pulled out a flask of wine. But a handful of chestnuts he accepted.
The train-conductor, ticket-collector, and the heavy green soldier who protected them, swung open the door and stared attentively. The fellow passenger addressed himself to these new-comers, and they all began to smile good-naturedly. Then the fellow-passenger—he was stout and fifty and had a brilliant striped rug always over his knees—pointed out the Buddha-like position of Angus, and the three in-starers smiled again. And so the fellow-passenger thought he must try too. So he put aside his rug, and lifted his feet from the floor, and took his toes in his hands, and tried to bring his legs up and his feet under him. But his knees were fat, his trousers in the direst extreme of peril, and he could no more manage it than if he had tried to swallow himself. So he desisted suddenly, rather scared, whilst the three bunched and official heads in the doorway laughed and jested at him, showing their teeth and teasing him. But on our gypsy party they turned their eyes with admiration. They loved the novelty and the fun. And on the thin, elegant Angus in his new London clothes, they looked really puzzled, as he sat there immobile, gleaming through his monocle like some Buddha going wicked, perched cross-legged and ecstatic on the red velvet seat. They marvelled that the lower half of him could so double up, like a foot-rule. So they stared till they had seen enough. When they suddenly said "Buon 'appetito," withdrew their heads and shoulders, slammed the door, and departed.
Then the train set off also—and shortly after six arrived in Florence. It was debated what should Aaron do in Florence. The young men had engaged a room at Bertolini's hotel, on the Lungarno. Bertolini's was not expensive—but Aaron knew that his friends would not long endure hotel life. However, he went along with the other two, trusting to find a cheaper place on the morrow.
It was growing quite dark as they drove to the hotel, but still was light enough to show the river rustling, the Ponte Vecchio spanning its little storeys across the flood, on its low, heavy piers: and some sort of magic of the darkening, varied houses facing, on the other side of the stream. Of course they were all enchanted.
"I knew," said Francis, "we should love it."
Aaron was told he could have a little back room and pension terms for fifteen lire a day, if he stayed at least fifteen days. The exchange was then at forty-five. So fifteen lire meant just six-shillings-and-six pence a day, without extras. Extras meant wine, tea, butter, and light. It was decided he should look for something cheaper next day.
By the tone of the young men, he now gathered that they would prefer it if he took himself off to a cheaper place. They wished to be on their own.
"Well, then," said Francis, "you will be in to lunch here, won't you? Then we'll see you at lunch."
It was as if both the young men had drawn in their feelers now. They were afraid of finding the new man an incubus. They wanted to wash their hands of him. Aaron's brow darkened.
"Perhaps it was right your love to dissemble
But why did you kick me down stairs?..."
Then morning found him out early, before his friends had arisen. It was sunny again. The magic of Florence at once overcame him, and he forgot the bore of limited means and hotel costs. He went straight out of the hotel door, across the road, and leaned on the river parapet. There ran the Arno: not such a flood after all, but a green stream with shoals of pebbles in its course. Across, and in the delicate shadow of the early sun, stood the opposite Lungarno, the old flat houses, pink, or white, or grey stone, with their green shutters, some closed, some opened. It had a flowery effect, the skyline irregular against the morning light. To the right the delicate Trinita bridge, to the left, the old bridge with its little shops over the river. Beyond, towards the sun, glimpses of green, sky-bloomed country: Tuscany.
There was a noise and clatter of traffic: boys pushing hand-barrows over the cobble-stones, slow bullocks stepping side by side, and shouldering one another affectionately, drawing a load of country produce, then horses in great brilliant scarlet cloths, like vivid palls, slowly pulling the long narrow carts of the district: and men hu-huing!—and people calling: all the sharp, clattering morning noise of Florence.
"Oh, Angus! Do come and look! OH, so lovely!"
Glancing up, he saw the elegant figure of Francis, in fine coloured-silk pyjamas, perched on a small upper balcony, turning away from the river towards the bedroom again, his hand lifted to his lips, as if to catch there his cry of delight. The whole pose was classic and effective: and very amusing. How the Italians would love it!
Aaron slipped back across the road, and walked away under the houses towards the Ponte Vecchio. He passed the bridge—and passed the Uffizi—watching the green hills opposite, and San Miniato. Then he noticed the over-dramatic group of statuary in the Piazza Mentana—male and physical and melodramatic—and then the corner house. It was a big old Florentine house, with many green shutters and wide eaves. There was a notice plate by the door—"Pension Nardini."
He came to a full stop. He stared at the notice-plate, stared at the glass door, and turning round, stared at the over-pathetic dead soldier on the arm of his over-heroic pistol-firing comrade; Mentana—and the date! Aaron wondered what and where Mentana was. Then at last he summoned his energy, opened the glass door, and mounted the first stairs.
He waited some time before anybody appeared. Then a maid-servant.
"Can I have a room?" said Aaron.
The bewildered, wild-eyed servant maid opened a door and showed him into a heavily-gilt, heavily-plush drawing-room with a great deal of frantic grandeur about it. There he sat and cooled his heels for half an hour. Arrived at length a stout young lady—handsome, with big dark-blue Italian eyes—but anaemic and too stout.
"Oh!" she said as she entered, not knowing what else to say.
"Good-morning," said Aaron awkwardly.
"Oh, good-morning! English! Yes! Oh, I am so sorry to keep you, you know, to make you wait so long. I was upstairs, you know, with a lady. Will you sit?"
"Can I have a room?" said Aaron.
"A room! Yes, you can."
"Terms! Oh! Why, ten francs a day, you know, pension—if you stay—How long will you stay?"
"At least a month, I expect."
"A month! Oh yes. Yes, ten francs a day."
"Everything. Yes, everything. Coffee, bread, honey or jam in the morning: lunch at half-past twelve; tea in the drawing-room, half-past four: dinner at half-past seven: all very nice. And a warm room with the sun—Would you like to see?"
So Aaron was led up the big, rambling old house to the top floor—then along a long old corridor—and at last into a big bedroom with two beds and a red tiled floor—a little dreary, as ever—but the sun just beginning to come in, and a lovely view on to the river, towards the Ponte Vecchio, and at the hills with their pines and villas and verdure opposite.
Here he would settle. The signorina would send a man for his bags, at half past two in the afternoon.
At luncheon Aaron found the two friends, and told them of his move.
"How very nice for you! Ten francs a day—but that is nothing. I am so pleased you've found something. And when will you be moving in?" said Francis.
"At half-past two."
"Oh, so soon. Yes, just as well.—But we shall see you from time to time, of course. What did you say the address was? Oh, yes—just near the awful statue. Very well. We can look you up any time—and you will find us here. Leave a message if we should happen not to be in—we've got lots of engagements—"
Aaron's Rod by D. H. Lawrence - Full Text (Chapters 16-21)