It was of bloomy old red brick, and built into its walls were the crowns and clasped hands and other insignia of insurance companies long since defunct. The children of the secluded square had swung upon the low gate at the end of the entrance-alley until little more than the solid top bar of it remained, and the alley itself ran past boarded basement windows on which tramps had chalked their cryptic marks. The path was washed and worn uneven by the spilling of water from the eaves of the encroaching next house, and cats and dogs had made the approach their own. The chances of a tenant did not seem such as to warrant the keeping of the "To Let" boards in a state of legibility and repair, and as a matter of fact they were not so kept.
For six months Oleron had passed the old place twice a day or oftener, on his way from his lodgings to the room, ten minutes' walk away, he had taken to work in; and for six months no hatchet-like notice-board had fallen across his path. This might have been due to the fact that he usually took the other side of the square. But he chanced one morning to take the side that ran past the broken gate and the rain-worn entrance alley, and to pause before one of the inclined boards. The board bore, besides the agent's name, the announcement, written apparently about the time of Oleron's own early youth, that the key was to be had at Number Six....
The first thing that the new parson noticed, as he rode up the narrow, precipitous street late in the October afternoon, was that the muffled knock-knocking that proceeded from the houses ceased as he ascended; and the next was that he had never in his life seen so many mongrel dogs as prowled and sniffed at his heels. He had left his grey galloway in Horwick Town, three miles back; he now saw the reason why they had laughed, and advised him that he might as well sell it there and then. Wadsworth Shelf had been steep; Wadsworth Street was precipitous; and at the head of the street rose Wadsworth Scout, dark and mountainous. The Scout was thinly wooded here and there with birch and mountain-ash. It overshadowed the village beneath it; and as the parson reached the small square at its foot he saw, over an irregular row of roofs, the squat belfry of the little church that was now his charge. A ramshackle inn, with a long horse-trough in front of it, occupied the lower side of the square.
As the knock-knocking ceased entirely, the parson became conscious that men and women had come softly out into the street behind him, and he knew without looking that behind every blind and shutter there was a pair of eyes. A raw-boned fellow lounged against the horse-trough of the inn, and he had taken off one of his wood-soled clogs and was peering into it as if for a stone. The parson had been warned that few in his new cure were known by their baptismal names, and had been told the name by which he must seek his own verger and bellringer. Approaching the fellow with the clog, he asked where he should find one Pim o’ Cuddy. The fellow jerked his head in the direction of the church under the dark Scout, and continued to peer into the clog. The dogs trailed after the parson as he crossed the square....
Lady Tasker had missed her way in the Tube. She had been on, or rather under known ground on the Piccadilly Railway as far as Leicester Square, but after that she had not heard, or else had forgotten, that in order to get to Hampstead by the train into which she had stepped she must change at Camden Town. Or perhaps she had merely wondered what Camden Town supposed itself to be that she should put herself to the trouble of changing there. With the newspaper held at arm's length, and a little figure-8-shaped gold glass moving slightly between her puckered old eyes and the page, she was reading the "By the Way" column of the "Globe."—"All change," called the man at Highgate; and, still unconscious of her mistake, Lady Tasker left the train. She was the last to enter the lift. But for an unhurried raising of the little locket-shaped glass as the attendant fidgeted at the half-closed gate she might have been the first to enter the next lift.
Only from the policeman outside Highgate Station did she learn that she must either take the Tube back again to Camden Town or else walk across the Heath.
Now Lady Tasker was seventy, and, with the exception of the Zoo, a place she visited from time to time with troops of turbulent great-nephews, the whole of North London was a sort of Camden Town to her, that is to say, she had no objection to its existence so long as it wasn't troublesome. It was half-past three when she said as much to the Highgate policeman, who up to that time had been an ordinary easy-going Conservative; by five-and-twenty minutes to four she had made of him a fuming Radical. He was saying something about South Square and Merton Lane. Lady Tasker addressed the bracing Highgate air in one of those expressionless and semi-ventriloquial asides that, especially in a mixed company, always made her ladyship very well worth sitting next to....
THE STONE WALL
THE PIGEON PAIR
THE SOUL STORM
BY THE WAY
METHUEN'S POPULAR NOVELS
Crown 8vo, 6s. each
One day in the early June of the year 1900 I was taking a walk on Hampstead Heath and found myself in the neighbourhood of the Vale of Health. About that time my eyes were very much open for such things as house-agents' notice-boards and placards in windows that announced that houses or portions of houses were to let. I was going to be married, and wanted a place in which to live.
My salary was one hundred and fifty pounds a year. I figured on the wages-book of the Freight and Ballast Company as "Jeffries, J. H., Int. Ex. Con.," which meant that I was an intermediate clerk of the Confidential Exchange Department, and to this description of myself I affixed each week my signature across a penny stamp in formal receipt of my three pounds. I could have been paid in gold had I wished, but I had preferred a weekly cheque, and I took care never to cash this cheque at our own offices in Waterloo Place. I did not wish it to be known that I had no banking account. As a matter of fact, I now had one, though I should not have liked to disclose it to the Income Tax Commissioners. The reason for this reticence lay in the smallness, not in the largeness, of my balance. I had learned that in certain circumstances it pays you to appear better off than you are.
It was a Sunday, a Whit-Sunday, on which I took my walk, and on my way up from Camden Town across the Lower Heath I had passed among the canvas and tent-pegs and staked-out "pitches" that were the preparation for the Bank Holiday on the morrow. Tall chevaux de frises of swings were locked back with long bars; about the caravans picked out with red and green, the proprietors of cocoanut-shies and roundabouts smoked their pipes; and up the East Heath Road there rumbled from time to time, shaking the ground, a traction-engine with its string of waggons and gaudy tumbrils....
PART II VERANDAH COTTAGE
PART III WELL WALK
PART IV IDDESLEIGH GATE
ENVOI SIR JULIUS PEPPER DICTATES
The tale I am setting out to tell has to do with the killing, on a May morning of the year 1919, of one young man by another who claimed, and still claims, to have been his friend. The circumstances were singular—perhaps even unique; the consequences affected a number of people in various interesting ways and byways; and since the manner of telling the story has been left entirely to me, I will begin with the breakfast-party that Philip Esdaile gave that morning at his studio in Lennox Street, Chelsea....
In Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, there used to stand, and may stand yet, a tenement of which the ground floor was a small “lock-up” greengrocer’s shop, and the remaining portions either dwelling-rooms or else rooms that, like the shop, were left at night and returned to again the next morning. The narrow entry to the right of the shop had once been white-washed, but was now so discoloured that the street boys had ceased to scribble on its walls the names of horses and other matters. It was full of the smell of apples and oranges and of the more suspect odour of earth and bruised rinds and decaying outer leaves, and there was usually a cat or two about, licking up the last splash left by the milkman’s can. When a new milkman took the round he was lucky if he did not come down all-fours at the bottom of the narrow winding staircase that turned off sharp to the right. The staircase itself was as black as the inside of a pair of bellows, and a piece of paper at the foot of it bore two names:
Miss Dorothy Lennard Miss Amory Towers
These were followed by the words: “First Floor: if Out, leave Parcels at Shop.”
The landing of the first floor was slightly less black than the staircase itself, but the grey half-light filtered through, not from any window, but from the unhinged side of the door of the room rented by Miss Lennard and Miss Towers. As if the landing had been damp and the room beyond warm (which possibly was the case), this door, which was of thin matchboarding, warped inwards quite two inches at the top, and, indeed, seemed to be held only by the fastening in the middle. When the door happened to be locked the glimpse through this crack was always productive of a slight annoyance. It was as if Miss Dorothy Lennard or Miss Amory Towers was nearly in, or not quite gone away, or in any case must be returning in a few minutes. People often waited for quite a long time before finally giving up hope.
Early on an April afternoon some years ago there walked quickly into the entry and ran confidently up the dark stairs a tall young woman in a large black picture-hat and a long tea-coloured silk raincoat. On the first landing she pushed at the door with her foot. There was a short succession of flapping and shot-like sounds (for if the door skellowed inwards at the top it stuck correspondingly at the bottom), and then the door started open and the young woman entered.
“Amory!” she called loudly. “Where are you?”
The last words were superfluous, since (unless she had climbed out of the long front casement and on to the gutter) it was not possible for Miss Towers to be in hiding in the room. And out of the square aperture at the back, that commanded a view of washing, weeds, discarded bottles, the greengrocer’s “empties” and the back gardens of the west side of Oakley Street, she could not as much as have got her head. Nor did Miss Lennard wait for an answer. Down the chimney opposite the door there came a dense yellow cauliflower of smoke; Miss Lennard hastily closed the door again; and then, first looking for a moment this way and that, she strode to a black-and-white desk near the long casement and began to turn over the litter upon it. This, which was a foot and more high, consisted of magazines and ladies’ journals and tracing-paper and proofs, and it was surmounted, first, by a plate with a couple of bananas and a half-eaten bunch of grapes upon it, and secondly, by a glass of water, clear above, cloudy in the middle, and with a thick reddish sediment at the bottom. As she sought, Miss Lennard popped three or four grapes into her large O of a mouth, throwing the skins towards the fireplace, from which another opaque yellow cauliflower poured, though this time not quite so far out into the room. She had removed her gloves; her hands were large and firm and waxen and without rings; and one or other of them found its way of itself to the grapes while the other continued its search.
The smoking of the chimney had blackened the ceiling, which bellied downwards in the middle like the under side of a giant’s mattress; and it had also dimmed the surfaces of such of the brighter objects of furniture as the cheap working-room contained—the picture-glasses, the gate-legged table, a bowl full of dead daffodils, and some crockery. But Miss Lennard and Miss Towers frequently said that it was not for the inside of the room, but for the sake of the views from the long lattice in front, that they had chosen the place. These were for ever changing and charming. From a standpoint just within the door you looked over the Embankment Gardens and saw, through trees, lighters following the bullying tugs, or barges, their sails reefed to the sprits, resembling tall attenuated figures in the act of grasping punting-poles. Placing yourself in the middle of the worn floor you saw, crossed out as it were by the middle lattice, the Chelsea Jelly Factory and other buildings across the river. And standing quite by the fireplace you saw the lacy lines of the Suspension Bridge and the low grey-green trees of Battersea Park. As the chimney emitted more yellow curds, Miss Lennard, with an “Ugh!” opened the middle section of this window. The papers among which she had been searching were instantly whisked across the floor.
“Bother the thing!” she muttered. “How stupid if it’s at Oxford Street all the time!... I say, Amory, have you seen that Doubleday thing? You know—the Chemisettes. I was sure I’d left it here.”
The door had rattled again, and Miss Amory Towers had entered.
Miss Towers did not answer at once. From a brown pudding-bowl of a hat with a silken cord round it, she drew out two enamel-headed hatpins, and hung the hat on a hook. Its removal showed her rich hair no longer in a plait, but wreathed round and round her head and interplaited until it resembled a vividly painted fir cone. She wore a peacock’s-neck-coloured blouse with several necklaces of iridescent shells at the collar; a roughened leather belt encircled the waist that would have been large had she herself not been so small; and, while the breeze from the open window rippled in Dorothy’s tea-coloured raincoat, it hardly stirred the folds of Amory’s heavier skirt of dusty-looking brown velvet.
She moved to the window. “I haven’t touched your things,” she said.
Then she stood, half leaning against the embrasure, gazing moodily across the river.
Certainly she was fetchingly pretty. As if you had looked at her through one of the very weak reducing-glasses illustrators use in order to see how their work will diminish, so her features had not only a special smallness, but somehow a special brightness of their own as well. The slight neck was white as a bluebell stalk; the faint flower-like stippling that never quite broke through into avowed freckles reminded you of a rubbed old miniature that might have been painted, not on ivory, but on a lamina of pale gold; and her inordinate hair lighted up the whole casement angle. But she was perturbed about something. She watched a string of lighters drift down with the tide, and then, without turning her head, said, “Dorothy——”
Dorothy, who had been once more searching among the scattered papers, rose from her knees. She held a piece of paper in her hand. “Got it!” she cried triumphantly. “I knew I’d left it here.... What?”
“Have you heard about Aunt Jerry?”
“Thank goodness I haven’t trailed all the way from Oxford Street for nothing!... Aunt Jerry? No. What about her?”
“She’s going to be married.”
Ordinarily Dorothy Lennard’s blue eyes were wide, receptive rounds; in moments of surprise they always seemed to open to twice their size. They did so now.
“No!... Oh, my dear, do tell me, quick.”
“Mr. Massey, at the boarding-house.”
“Mr.——? Not the safety-valve?” she cried.
“My—dear!... But he’s forty if he’s a day,” Dorothy exclaimed.
“He’s forty-three. Aunt Jerry’s thirty-eight.”
“Oh, but she’s such a darling! Have they told people yet? May I write her a note? When are they going to be married?” Miss Lennard came as near to asking the three questions all in one as was physically possible.
“Write if you like. They’re getting married in July. I call it——”
But instead of saying what she called it Amory turned impatiently to the window again. She was biting the corner of her upper lip.
“Why,” said Dorothy, checked in her glee, “what’s the matter?”
But Amory did not speak. She had been about to say, if a thing so obvious needed to be said, that it was ridiculous (to say the least) for people of thirty-eight and forty-three to be thinking about marriage; but that was not all. There were other things, that, since Dorothy could not understand them even if she did say them, were perhaps not worth wasting breath over. Not that Dorothy was actually dull; but for all that Amory had almost ceased to hope that Dorothy would ever grasp her, Amory’s, true position. Their circumstances were so very different. Of course Amory was ready to concede that Dorothy, like herself, did contrive to live on what she earned; she earned from thirty to thirty-five shillings a week as a fashion artist; but it was one thing to make do on that, with people behind you to catch you when you stumbled, and quite another to have (as Amory had under her godmother’s will) a scanty thirteen pounds a quarter, to sell a sketch or a picture once in a blue moon, and to know that that is all the help you need look forward to. Dorothy would quickly have found out the difference had it been she, Amory, who had had the people with houses in town and places up and down the country, and herself, Dorothy, who had been the daughter of a poor and clever Cambridge practitioner who had died before he had managed to get on his feet, and had left his daughter to live with the only relative she had in the world in a hateful boarding-house in Shepherd’s Bush! And it was all very fine for Dorothy to joke about it, and to say that the fewer relatives she had the luckier she was. There was no getting away from it: these things did give a confidence to Dorothy’s stride, and an assurance to her glance, and an expectation of success to her eyes.
Therefore Amory did not answer when her friend asked her what was the matter.
But Dorothy, after a moment’s cogitation, contrived, though probably by accident, to hit on what was the matter for herself.
“I must write to her at once,” she said. “In July—so soon! I am glad! I do hope they’ll be happy!... And what’ll you do? Go on living at the boarding-house?”
Ah! (Amory thought), so Dorothy did see it from somebody’s point of view besides Aunt Jerry’s! She moved one shoulder petulantly.
“Aunt Jerry paid the bills there,” she said.
“Do you mean that you’ll go and live with them when they’re married?” Dorothy asked.
“No, I don’t,” said Amory with marked brevity. Dorothy hadn’t seen her aunt and Mr. Massey together or she wouldn’t have asked that. And one of them was thirty-eight and the other forty-three! Talk about the loves of the valetudinarians!
“Well, what will you do?” Dorothy asked again.
Again Amory turned to the window. She spoke with her back to Dorothy.
“What can I do? What is there left? Come and live here, as far as I can see,” she replied.
“Oh,” cried Dorothy at once, struck with the idea, “that’ll be jolly!”
(Jolly! With that warped door and that chimney! Jolly! Amory almost laughed.)
“Oh yes, very jolly,” she said, tossing the adorable little head.
But Dorothy caught the tone in which she said it.
“Oh, I don’t suppose it will be if you’re determined it shan’t, but don’t I just wish I had your talent and chances!” she replied cheerfully. “My hat, wouldn’t I swap! Why, think of what all the critics—Hamilton Dix at any rate—are saying about you! You’re going to have a show all on your own——”
“H’m! If I ever do! Don’t forget it’s been put off three times already.”
“Well, but each time it couldn’t be helped, and you’re going ahead working all the time, and it’ll be a tremendous leg-up for you when it does come. You ought to have my job, my dear, in the middle of a catalogue rush, or when you’ve drawn the lingerie ladies as like fishes as ever they can be, and you get letters complaining that you’re starting young men on the downward path—you’d come back to your pictures thankfully enough then, I can tell you! The fact is you don’t know what you do want.... Now I’m going to make a cup of tea and then I must fly back; I only came for that Doubleday thing. Have some?”
She crossed to the sink, emptied the leaves from the teapot on to the heap that already choked the trap, and filled the kettle and set it on the fire.
It always annoyed Amory when Dorothy told her that she didn’t know really what she did want, for she always did know—at any rate for the time being. True, she had worked in various styles in the past; to an unintelligent watcher she might even have seemed vacillating and changeable: but after all, what better course could a student follow than that? Youth was the time for bold experiment. Settled convictions too early arrived at were things to be distrusted. And there were indications that she really had “found herself” at last. She had swept aside, quite a long time ago, her earlier efforts of the days of the McGrath; she had outgrown, too, the Meunier-like figures, all muscle and hammers and leather aprons, that had first attracted Mr. Hamilton Dix’s attention; and all round that Cheyne Walk room were stacked the canvases of her latest and (she hoped) her finally settled phase—her Saturday night street-markets, her “character studies” worked up from sketches made in Whitechapel and Shoreditch, her scenes sketched in alleys and courts and during long waits in gallery-queues. Therefore she was a little annoyed with Dorothy now.... Dorothy was clearing the table and cutting bread-and-butter. Amory continued to look out of the window.
Then, while Dorothy still prepared tea, she moved from the window and walked to the little shelf of books that occupied the recess on the farther side of the fireplace. She took down a volume protected by a stout brown paper wrapper and began to read as she stood. Still reading, she sidled slowly back to the window, where the light was better, and mechanically turned the page. She could always pick up a book and lose herself at a moment’s notice like this. If at such times she was spoken to, she usually gave an “Eh?” or a “Yes—no, I mean,” and continued to read. She considered it to be evidence of her powers of mental concentration.
The book she was reading now was the first volume of The Golden Bough. Such a book, of course, was far too expensive for her to buy; therefore, in order that she might read it and its kind, she subscribed to a sort of private Association which was composed of herself and a dozen or so of her old friends of the McGrath. They bought the books as they were published, passed them (protected by the brown paper covers) from one to another, and after a time sold them back to the bookseller again at diminished (but still quite good) prices. None but rather expensive and abstruse books were thus bought; had The Golden Bough been procurable in the Bohn Library the Association would have felt that something of its choiceness had gone; and Amory hoped, when she had got through The Golden Bough, to be the next in rotation for certain of the Tudor Translations, and she did wish Laura Beamish would hurry up with Apuleius and the Golden Ass. These things contributed to breadth of outlook. It had for too long been a justly-founded reproach against artists that they had no general culture. Amory felt that, of all people, an artist certainly could not know too much; and what an artist knows will go, sooner or later, into his or her art.... She was still deep in The Golden Bough when Dorothy called, “Ready—come along, Amory——”
Reluctantly Amory laid aside the book and sat down at the little gate-legged table.
As the two girls took tea they talked of Miss Geraldine Towers’s engagement, of Amory’s own plans after the wedding, of the Exhibition that for various reasons Mr. Hamilton Dix had repeatedly postponed, and of one thing and another. Then Dorothy rose. She must get back to the fashion studio in Oxford Street.
“You’re going to work, I suppose?” she said, as she tucked the Doubleday thing into her belt and adjusted her hat before the little kitchen mirror.
Amory yawned. That was another thing Dorothy never seemed really to grasp—that while she, Dorothy, might sit down to her absurd attenuated fashion figures as it were with the striking of a clock, Amory’s work was rather different. Dorothy, of course, always professed to admire Amory’s painting enormously; in a sense she had no choice but to do so, unless she wished to write herself down an out-and-out fool: but she never really understood, in spite of the pains Amory had taken with her. It was rather pathetic.... Amory yawned again.
“Oh, I don’t suppose I shall do very much. This about Aunt Jerry’s put me quite off. And”—she grimaced slightly—“there’s to-night. They’re having a party, or a celebration, or something at our boarding-house. I expect that’ll be rather ghastly. Want to come and see?”
But Dorothy only laughed.
“To-night? A party? Me? I shall be lucky if I get away by eleven.... And oh, I say, Amory,”—her tone changed suddenly, and all at once she seemed embarrassed,—“I nearly forgot—there’s something—it had almost slipped out of my head—I hope you won’t mind my suggesting it——”
It was part of Amory’s cleverness, helped of course by her wide reading, that she often knew what people were going to say almost before they knew it themselves. She knew what Dorothy was going to say now. And it was not true that Dorothy had nearly forgotten; that was merely false delicacy and a roundabout way of approaching the subject. Amory smiled.
“You see,” Dorothy went on, “there’s a job of sorts going—not a fashion—not exactly a fashion, that is—more like a painting—and I think the price could be screwed up to fifteen pounds for it—Mercier would get twenty-five; but then he’s Mercier. So I wondered——” She paused diffidently.
It was not the first time she had tried to put work into Amory’s way. And Amory knew that she was perfectly right in refusing it; it was Dorothy who did not know that the commercially acceptable thing is separate in kind, and not a dilution of a different excellence. Dorothy, by rising, might in time attain to the heights of the great Mercier, who did “Doubleday Spring Covers,” but Amory, stooping, would only have stooped for nothing. She lifted her golden eyes to her friend. She was half amused at the success of her guess, and half sensible of Dorothy’s well-meaningness and kindness of heart.
“It’s awfully good of you—but you know I simply shouldn’t know how to begin,” she said. “I think perhaps I’d better stick to my own job.”
“Not if I gave you tips?” said Dorothy, almost wistfully.
“I’m afraid not.”
Dorothy openly admired her. The two girls had been at the McGrath together, and Dorothy’s admiration was the homage that artistic vice (fashion-drawing) paid to artistic virtue (street-markets and an impending one-man-show)....
II THE SURPRISE PARTY
III THE FASHION STUDIO
IV THE MCGRATH
V POUNDS AND SHILLINGS
VI WOMAN’S WHOLE EXISTENCE
VII THE VOICE THAT BREATHED O’ER EDEN
II A DAMSEL ERRANT
III “BUSINESS AS USUAL”
IV “IL FAUT QU’ UNE PORTE—”
V BOND AND FREE
I THE LEAGUE
BOOK TWO A VERY MODERN MARRIAGE
I THE WITAN
PORTION OF TREE OF THE LENNARDS AND TASKERS (Comments by Lady Tasker)
II THE POND-ROOM
III THE “NOVUM”
IV THE STONE WALL
V THREE SHIPS
I THE PIGEON PAIR
II THE ’VERT
III THE IMPERIALISTS
IV THE OUTSIDERS
V “HOUSE FULL”
VI THE SOUL STORM
II BY THE WAY
III DE TROP
IV GRAY YOUTH
The Lyonnesse Club meets in an electric-lighted basement-suite a little way off the Strand, and as I descended the stairs I saw him in the narrow passage. He was standing almost immediately under an incandescent lamp that projected on its curved petiole from the wall. The light shone brilliantly on his hair, where hardly a hint of grey or trace of thinness yet showed, and his handsome brow and straight nose were in full illumination and the rest of his face in sharp shadow. He wore a dark blue suit with an exquisitely pinned soft white silk collar, to which, as I watched, his fingers moved once; and he was examining with deep attention a print that hung on the buff-washed wall.
I spoke behind him. "Hello, Derry! One doesn't often see your face here."
Quietly as I spoke, he started. Ordinarily he had very straight and steady grey-blue eyes, alert and receptive, but for some seconds they looked from me to the print and from the print to me, irresolutely and with equally divided attention. One would almost have thought that he had heard his name called from a great distance. Then his eyes settled finally on the print, and he repeated my last words over his shoulder.
"My face? Here?... No."
"What's the picture? Anything special?"
Still without moving his eyes from it he replied, "The picture? You ought to know more about it than I—it's your Club, not mine——"
And he continued his absorbed scrutiny.
Now I had passed that picture scores of times before and had never found it worth a glance. It was a common collotype reproduction of a stodgy night-effect, a full moon in a black-leaded sky with reflections in water to match—price perhaps five shillings. Then suddenly, looking over his shoulder, I realised where his interest in it lay. He was not looking at the picture at all. In the polished glass, that made an excellent mirror in that concentrated light, I had seen his eyes earnestly fixed on his own eyes, his cheeks, his hair, his chin....
Well, Derwent Rose had better reason than most men for looking at himself in a picture-glass if he chose. Indeed it had already struck me that that afternoon he looked even more than ordinarily fresh and handsome. Let me, before we go any further, describe his personal appearance to you.
He had, as I knew, passed his forty-fifth birthday in the preceding January; but he would have been taken anywhere for at least ten years younger. You will believe this when I tell you that at the age of thirty-nine, that is to say in the year 1914, he had walked into a recruiting-office, had given his age as twenty-eight, received the compliments of the R.A.M.C. major who had examined him, had joined an infantry battalion as a private, risen to the rank of company-sergeant-major, and had hardly looked a day older when he had come out again, with a herring-bone of chevrons on his cuff and a captain's stars on his shoulder—not so much as scratched. He was just over six feet high, with the shoulders of a paviour and the heart and lung capacity of a diver. Had you not been told that he wrote novels you would have thought that he ran a ranch. His frame was a perfectly balanced combination of springiness and dead-lift power of muscle; and to see those grey-blue eyes that looked into yours out of unwrinkled lids was to wonder what secret he possessed that the cares and rubs and disillusions of life should so have passed him by.
Yet he had had his share of these, and more. His looks might be smooth, but wrinkles enough lay behind his writing. From those boyish eyes that reminded you of a handler of boats or a breaker of horses there still peeped out from time to time the qualities of his earlier, uneasy books—the gay and mortal and inhuman irony of The Vicarage of Bray, the vehement, unchecked passion of An Ape in Hell. If to the ordinary bookstall-gazer these works were unknown—well, that was part of the task that Derwent Rose had set himself. It is part of the task any writer sets himself who refuses all standards but his own, and works on the assumption that he is going to live for ever. Only his last published book, The Hands of Esau, showed a fundamental urbanity, a mellower restraint, and perhaps these were the securer the more hardly they had been come by. I for one expected that his next book would rise like a star above the vapours where we others let off our little six-shilling crackers ... but his body seemed a mere flouting of the years.
And here he stood under the corolla of an incandescent lamp, looking at himself for wrinkles!
Then in the glass he caught my eye, and flushed a little to have been caught attitudinising. He gave a covert glance round to see whether anybody else had observed him. A few yards away, in the doorway, Madge Aird was smilingly receiving the Club's guests, but for the moment Madge was looking the other way. Then he spoke in a muffled voice.
"Well? Notice anything? How do I look? How do I strike you? No, I don't want a compliment. I'm asking you a question. How do I look? I've a special reason for wanting to know."
I laughed a little, not without envy.
"How do you look!" I said. "Another ten years will be time enough for you to begin to worry about your looks, Derry. I know your age, of course, but for all practical purposes you may consider yourself thirty-five, my young friend."
Sadly, sadly now I remember the eagerness of his turn.
"How much?" he demanded.
"I said thirty-five or thereabouts, you Darling of the Gods. I'm fifty, but you make me look sixty, and when you're a hundred your picture will be in the papers with the O.M. round your neck. You'll probably have picked up the Nobel Prize too, and a few other trifles on the way. You've got a physique to match your brain, lucky fellow that you are, and nothing but accident can stop you. Don't go out and get run over, that's all. Well, are you coming in?"
But he hung back. And yet it was largely his own fault if in such places as this Club he felt like a fish out of water. It might even have been called a perverse and not very amiable vanity in him, and I had hoped he had got over this shyness, arrogance, or both. We have to live in a world, even if we are as gifted mentally and physically as was Derwent Rose. But it was no good pressing him. I remembered him of old.
"Then if you're not coming in?" I ventured to hint; and again his hand went to the soft collar.
"What have I come for, you mean? I want you to find out for me if there's a Mrs Bassett here."
"I don't think I know her."
"Mrs Hugo Bassett. Ask somebody, will you?"
"What's she like to look at?"
"Can't say. Haven't seen her for years."
"Wait a bit. Is it somebody called Daphne Bassett?"
"Yes, yes—Daphne," he said quickly.
"Who published what's called a 'first novel' some little time ago?"
Instantly I saw that I had said something he didn't like. The blood stirred in his cheeks. He spoke roughly, impolitely. And even up to this point his manner had been curt enough.
"Why do you say it like that?" he demanded. "'First' novel, with a sneer? She wrote a novel, if that's what you mean."
Yet, though he began by glaring at me, he ended by looking uneasily away. You too may have wondered why publishers so eagerly insist that some novel or other is a really-and-truly 'first' one. Your bootmaker doesn't boast that the pair of boots he sells you is his 'first' pair, and you wouldn't eat your cook's 'first' dinner if you could help it. You may take it from me that in the ordinary course of things Derwent Rose would have been far more likely to applaud the novel that ended an ignominious career than the one that began it. Yet here he was, apparently wishing to outface me about something or other, yet at the same time unable to look me in the eye.
"There's got to be a first before there can be a second, hasn't there?" he growled. "Jessica had to have a First Prayer, didn't she? And is there such a devil of a lot of difference between one novel and another when you come to think of it—yours or mine or anybody else's?"
It was at this point that I began to watch him attentively.
"Go on, Derry," I said.
"There isn't; you know there isn't; and I'm getting sick of this superior attitude. Why must everybody do the Big Bow Wow all the time? Can't somebody write something just for amuse—I mean must they always be banging the George Coverham Big Drum? As long as it doesn't make any pretence.... Have you read it?" he demanded suddenly.
"Then you don't know anything about it."
It was here that I became conscious of what I have called the Change. Whatever had happened to put him out, this was not the Derry Rose I had lately seen. Surely my remark about that "first" novel had been innocent enough; but he had replied surlily, unamiably, unfamiliarly.... "Unfamiliar?" No, that is not the word. I should rather say remotely familiar, recollected, brought forward again out of some time that was past. Just as in his resplendent physical appearance he seemed to be "too" well, if such a thing can be, so in his manner he seemed to be too ... something; I gave it up. I only knew that the author of The Hands of Esau would not have spoken thus.
"Well, will you find out for me if she's here?" he said in a softer one.
I fancy that already he was sorry he had not spoken more quietly.
"Why not come in and see for yourself?"
"Oh—you know how I hate this sort of thing."
"Not long ago you spoke of joining the Lyonnesse."
"I know. I thought I would. But I've decided it's out of my line."
"Then at least come and be introduced to Mrs Aird. She'll know whether Mrs Bassett's here or not."
The blue-grey eyes gave mine a quick and critical glance.
"Is that the Mrs Aird who writes those bright books about young women and their new clothes and how right their instincts are if you only give them plenty of pocket-money and leave 'em alone?"
I smiled. Perhaps it was a little like Madge. But I noticed his sharp distinction between the novels of one woman and the "first" novel of another. It began to look as if behind Mrs Hugo Bassett the novelist lay Daphne Bassett the woman.
"Well," I sighed, "I'm to ask for Mrs Hugo Bassett. What's the title of her book?"
"The Parthian Arrow."
"Mrs Hugo Bassett, author of The Parthian Arrow. Very well——"
I approached Madge, but before I could ask my question she had drawn me inside the doorway.
"Who is he?" she whispered ardently in my ear. Her plump ringed hand clutched my sleeve, and there was the liveliest curiosity in the dark eyes that looked up at me from under her nodding hat with black pleureuse feathers.
"Is there a Mrs Bassett here—Daphne Bassett?"
"Has she been, and is she likely to come?"
"She hasn't been, and nobody'll come now. But George——"
"I'll see you presently; just let me get rid of my message," I said; and I returned to Rose.
A glance at my face was enough for him. He may have muttered a "Thank-you," but I didn't hear it; he had spun on his heel and in a moment was half-way to the cloakroom. I hope he got his own hat, for he was out again almost instantly. I had a glimpse of his magnificent back as he hurried along the passage, then a flying heel at the turn of the stairs and he was gone. Turning, I saw that Madge had watched his departure with me. She almost ran to me.
"Quickly, George—who, who is your Beautiful Bear, and why have you been keeping a superb creature like that from me?" she demanded. "I knew he was waiting for a woman. Every skirt that came in——" at the swing of her head the feathers tossed like an inky weeping-elm in a gale. "But," she added, "I confess I never saw a man admire himself quite so openly before."
My friend has scored off me often enough in the past. This time I scored off her.
"Derwent Rose always was good-looking," I remarked.
She fell a step back.
"George!—Derwent Rose! You don't mean to say that that was Derwent Rose?"
"I always thought you knew everybody in London."
"That was Derwent Rose!" Then she added, with inexpressible conviction and satisfaction, "Ah!"
I am always a little uneasy when Madge Aird says "Ah!" in that tone. She was Madge Ruthven before she married Alec Aird, and I have often wondered whether in the past any of her Scottish forbears had any traffic with France. I am not now thinking of the air with which she always wore her clothes, from whatever it was on her head to the always irresistible shoes on her tiny feet. I mean the workings of her mind. There is none of our northern softness and hesitation and mystery about these. All she thinks and says has a logical completeness and finish that somehow always seems just a little too good to be true. Few things in this world are so neatly right as that. But wrong though her conclusions may be, they are always dazzlingly effective, and you have to swallow them or reject them whole.
"Ah!" she murmured again, with the intensest self-approval; and I wondered what unreliable imperfection she was meditating now. You never know with her. She sees so many people, goes to so many places, hears so much. Often the mere mention of a name is enough to touch off that instantaneous fuse of her memory that leads straight into the heart of heaven knows what family history or hidden scandal.
"And what do you mean by 'Ah'?" I asked her.
"The gorgeous creature! I never dreamed—but this makes the situation perfectly fascinating!"
"Why, of him and Daphne Bassett. But poor old George, I keep forgetting that you're the noblest Roman of them all and don't listen to our horrid petty little scandal. And evidently you haven't read The Parthian Arrow."
"I haven't. Tell me what it's about."
"But you've read An Ape in Hell?"
"Of course. Tell me what the other's about."
But at that moment she was claimed. Her next words came over her shoulder as, with a wisk of her ribboned ankles and another gale in the shake of feathers, she was off.
"Not now—another time. I shall be in fairly early this evening if you're staying in town. It's quite an interesting situation. And if you'll bring your Beautiful Bear to see me some time, I'll——"
I understood her to mean that in that case she would bring Mrs Hugo Bassett also.II
I live out in Surrey, my car happened to be in dock, and I had my train to think of. As I walked slowly up the short street to the Strand I puzzled over Madge's words. Evidently she found some connection between that "first" novel, The Parthian Arrow, and Rose's own book, An Ape in Hell. Well, my ignorance could soon be remedied. There was a bookshop just round the corner, and I could be the possessor of a copy of Mrs Bassett's book in five minutes.
But suddenly, on the point of hailing a taxi, I dropped the point of my stick again. Somewhere at the back of my mind was the feeling that there was some invitation or appointment I had overlooked. I knew that it could be of no great importance, and, looking back on these events since, I have thought that it was perhaps a mere disinclination to go down to Surrey that night that gave me pause. I may say that I am unmarried, and have got my housekeeper fairly well trained to my ways.
So, standing on the kerb, I brought a number of papers from my pocket and began to turn them over in search of the forgotten appointment.
I found it. It was a lecture by a Fellow of a Learned Society, and it was to take place at the rather unusual hour of six o'clock. No doubt this was in order that the learned speaker might get his paper over by half-past seven, leaving his learned listeners free to dine. A taxi slowed down in front of me.
"Society of Arts," I said to the driver.
A minute later I was on my way to see Derwent Rose for the second time that afternoon.
I will tell you in a moment the subject of that lecture I had so suddenly decided to attend. First, a word as to my attitude at that time towards new discoveries and new thought in general. I was enormously, wistfully interested in them. Instinctively, at that time, I stretched out my hands to them. I had lived long enough in the world to realise that such events as Trafalgar and the French Revolution were mere events of yesterday, and the possibilities of an equally near to-morrow haunted me. I shrank from the thought that while the dead stones of the Law Courts and Australia House would still be there after I had gone, I should not at least be able to make a guess at the stream of Life, uncradled yet, that would beat and press and flow along those channels in so little a time, the new blood of London's old unchanging veins. One begins to think of these things when one is fifty.
So, at a minute or so to six, my taxi set me down in the Adelphi, when I might have been a happier man had it taken me straight to Waterloo.
And now for what that lecture was all about.
My meaning will perhaps be clearer if I give an extract from a leading article in The Times of slightly later date. On a subject of this kind I would rather use an expert's words than risk the inaccuracies that might creep into my own.
"Human beings," the article begins, "differ not only in the knowledge they have acquired, but in their dower of intelligence or natural ability. It has long been accepted that the former property may continue to increase until the natural faculties begin to abate, but that the latter has a maximum for each individual, attained early in life.... Intelligence, as opposed to knowledge, is fully developed before the age of schooling is over. Sixteen years has usually been taken as the age at which, even in those best endowed, the limit of intelligence has been reached. Obviously the standard varies in different individuals; the degree of intelligence passed through by the more fortunate at the age of ten may be the final attainment of others, and all intermediate stages occur.... Mr H. H. Goddard, an American psychologist of international repute, classifies the intelligence of his countrymen into seven grades, but believes that in exceptional cases, amounting to four and a half per cent. of the population, a superlative standard is reached at the age of nineteen. On the other hand, seventy per cent. of the citizens of the United States have to carry on their lives with the intelligence of children of fourteen, and ten per cent. with that of children of ten."
It was to hear these conclusions of Mr Goddard's expounded by a fellow-savant that I had come that afternoon to the Society of Arts.
To tell the truth, a certain whimsical humour in the idea had attracted me. When a man's books sell as well as mine do, and he is as flatteringly thought of as I am, it is rather tickling to be told that he is really an infant of sixteen or seventeen, telling fairy-stories to a gigantic public nursery the average age of which is perhaps twelve. Sir George Coverham, Knight, merely the top boy of a kindergarten of adults!... It pleased me, and I rather hoped the lecturer would approach his subject from that humorous angle.
The lights were being turned down as I entered the lecture chamber. Quietly, not to make a disturbance, I tiptoed to the nearest seat. Then, as with a preliminary hiss or two the shaft of light from the lantern pierced the gloom, I was able dimly to distinguish that the subject of the lecture had not attracted more than a couple of dozen people. These barely filled the first two rows. The rest of the theatre appeared to be empty. Of the speaker himself nothing could be seen but a glimpse of white beard as he moved slightly at the reading-lamp.
He read from a typescript in a flat, monotonous voice, with once in a while a halting explanatory remark that trailed, paused, and then stopped altogether. I watched the acute angles his wand made with its own shadow on the diagrams projected by the lantern.
Then I thought I heard an impatient movement and muttering somewhere behind me. The speaker, after another long and painful pause, had just said, "I hope I've made that clear, gentlemen"; and I was almost certain that the muffled growl had taken the shape of the words "You don't know a damned thing about it!"
Then, a few minutes later, the sound was repeated, this time accompanied by an unmistakable groan.
"Sssh!" said somebody sharply from the front or second row.
The lecture dragged on.
But about the next and final outbreak there was no doubt whatever. Neither was there about the sharp suffering of whoever was the cause of it. Somebody a couple of rows behind me must be ill, I thought, and evidently others thought so too, for the lecturer came definitely to a stop, and my eyes, now accustomed to the gloom, saw the turning of faces.
"Is anybody——?" a secretary or chairman called out, and I expected the light to go up at any moment.
In the end, however, the lecture was finished without further incident. The lights were switched on, the dingy classic painted panels on the walls could be seen, and instantly every face, my own included, was turned towards the back of a man who was seen to be hurriedly making his way to the door.
I cannot tell you what happened at the Society of Arts after that. I was already on my feet, hurrying after that back. It was the same back I had seen, in the same haste, leaving the Lyonnesse Club less than two hours ago.
He had got to the entrance hall before I caught him up. He accepted with rather disturbing docility the arm I slipped into his. All the fight had gone out of him; he might not have been the same man who had so recently tried to outface me about first novels. I looked at his face as we stood by the glass doors that opened on to John Street. It showed both fear and pain.
"What's the matter, Derry? Can I be of any help?" I asked him anxiously.
He muttered, "Yes—yes—about time I called somebody in—just about enough of it——"
"Do you want a doctor? Shall we call at a chemist's?"
He stared at me for a moment; then I vow he almost laughed.
"A doctor? No thanks. One dose a day's quite enough."
"One dose of what?"
"Words," he replied, with a jerk of his head in the direction of the lecture chamber.
We passed out and into John Street, he accommodating his ordinary London-to-Brighton pace to mine. He once told me that five miles an hour was walking, six stepping out a bit, and anything over six and a half really "going."
"Which way?" I asked at the end of the street.
"I suppose you'd better come round to my place," he replied; and we crossed the Strand and struck north past Trafalgar Square.
He lived (I am not troubling you with the lobster we shared standing up at a counter, during which repast we did not exchange one single word)—he lived in Cambridge Circus, and I hope I have not given you the impression that Derwent Rose was desperately poor. When I spoke of him as having none too much either of money or success I meant as by comparison with myself. Until, quite suddenly and by no means early in life, my own reward came to me, I should have considered his quarters luxurious—once you had got there. This you did by means of a narrow staircase from the various landings of which branched off the offices of variety-agents, film-brokers, furriers, jewellers and I don't know what else. The double windows he had had fitted into his room subdued the noises of the Circus outside, and if he cared to draw his thick brocade curtains as well he could obtain almost dead silence. His black oak furniture was brightly polished by some basement person or other, his saddlebag chairs scrupulously beaten and brushed. The two or three thousand books that completely filled two of his walls might have been arranged by a librarian, so methodically and conveniently were they disposed, with lettered and numbered tickets at intervals along the edges of the shelves; and I knew that he had begun a catalogue of them. All this portion of his room spoke of a man settling down into meticulousness, whom disorderly habits and departures from routine begin to irritate. In marked contrast with it was the topsy-turvy state of the large oval table with the beaded edge. This was in an appalling state of confusion. Newspapers had been tossed aside on to it, open books with their faces downwards sprawled over it. Empty shells of brown paper still kept something of the shape of the books they had contained, and ends of packer's string with bits of sealing-wax twined among them. A teacup lay on its side in a wet saucer, a large oval milk-can stood next to it. And on the top of all were the snaky rubber cords of an exerciser and a ten-pound, horsehair-stuffed medicine-ball.
I was about to hang up my hat in the neatly-curtained recess he had had fitted up as a lobby when he exclaimed "Oh, chuck it anywhere," and set me the example by throwing his own hat and stick on to the clutter. They caught the medicine-ball, which rolled an inch or two, tottered, and then fell with a soft dead thump to the floor. The next instant, as if now that his own door was closed behind him there was no longer any need to keep up appearances, he himself had fallen with a similar thud to the sofa. He, this piece of physical perfection who called six miles an hour "stepping out a bit," lay all limp and relaxed, with lids quivering lightly over his closed eyes. He spoke with his eyes closed.
"Well, what did you think of it?" he said, breathing deeply.
I tried to keep my anxiety out of my tone.
"What did I think of the lecture?"
"Yes, the lecture if you like. That'll do to start with. No, I don't want anything, thanks. Tell me what you thought of the lecture."
I began to say something, I hardly remember what, when, still with his eyes closed and twitching, he interrupted me.
"All those silly charts—all those useless figures about the American Army—that's all waste of time. Making work for work's sake. I could have told him all that straight away."
I remembered those groans in the obscurity of the lecture-room. I spoke quietly.
"Is that what you were going to tell him when you—interrupted a little?"
I had to wait for his reply. When it did come I hardly heard it, so low did he speak.
"I know what you mean; but I can only tell you that if you'd been vivisected like that you'd have squirmed a bit too."
I couldn't help thinking he had taken that lecture in a curiously personal sense, and I said so.
"Vivisected?" I exclaimed. "I was vivisected, as you call it, just as much as you were—perhaps more in some ways. What on earth are you talking about? It's a general question. It's human functions and faculties at large he was vivisecting, not you or me. So," I concluded, "we were all vivisected alike, and when everybody's vivisected—you see——" I made a little gesture.
Then he opened his eyes, and there was an expression in them that suddenly dried me up. It was an even more remarkable throw-back to a remembered and earlier manner than that I had witnessed earlier in the afternoon. In short, it was an expression of unconcealed contempt.
"Q.E.D.," he said. "Finis, Explicit, and the Upper Fourth next Term. You'd have made a good schoolmaster.... I tell you that when I say 'I' and 'myself'"—he positively glared with irascibility and impatience—"I mean myself singly and specially, understand—the egregious and indestructible ego—and not merely just as much or as little as anybody else. Get that well into your head or I won't talk to you."
Had he not been so visibly suffering I shouldn't have stood the tone of it for a moment, not even from him. And let me tell you at once the surmise that had already flashed through my brain. I am a dependable sort of person myself, one of the kind that nothing startlingly new is ever likely to happen to; but I was not so sure about his kind. Brains like his often fly off at queer tangents, and I wondered whether he had been reading too much of this current cant about "multiple personality" and had allowed it to run away with him. Every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to rush to that for an explanation of everything nowadays. I had already noticed, by the way, that one of the books that sprawled cover uppermost on his table was a book on the thyroid gland. But suddenly he seemed to guess at my thoughts. He spoke more quietly. Indeed he seemed to be fully aware of these outbreaks of his, and to be trying to resist them more and more strenuously as our conversation proceeded.
"Sorry, old fellow," he said contritely. "I'm very sorry. I oughtn't to have spoken like that. But I'm not what they call 'disintegrating'; I'm the last man to do that. When I say 'I' I mean the 'I' I've always been. That's just the devil of it."
"Suppose you begin at the beginning," I suggested.
"There you are!" was his swift reply. He was sitting up on the sofa now, and was facing it, whatever "it" was, with a calmer courage. "I can't begin at the beginning. All I really know yet's the end, and of course that hasn't come.... It's a damn-all of a problem. Get yourself a drink if you want one. No, I won't have one; I—I daren't. And you might draw the curtains. When I hear the buses and taxis it makes me want to go out."
I drew his curtains for him, but did not take the drink. He sat on the sofa leaning a little forward, his great hands clasped between his knees and working slightly and powerfully, as if he cracked walnuts in the palms of them. The grey-blue eyes avoided mine. I have seen that same avoiding glance in the eyes of a man who had something perfectly true to tell, but so utterly improbable that he was self-convicted of lying even in speaking of it.
"About what you were saying this afternoon in that Club place—my age," he began in a constrained voice. "You—you meant it, I suppose?"
"That you'd live to be a hundred and be world-famous? Yes, I meant it in a way. I didn't mean you to take me too literally, of course."
"And you thought"—he hesitated for a moment and shivered slightly—"it was something to be congratulated about?"
"Well—isn't it? Professionally you've staked out a magnificent course for yourself in which time means practically everything, and so, if you live long enough, as you look like doing——"
Yet I cannot tell you what premonition of calamity seemed already to flow like an induced current from him to me. Ordinarily I am not specially sensitised to receive impressions of this kind. I am just a man who had had the luck to think as most other people think and to be able to express their thoughts for them. The greater therefore must have been that current's projecting force. Certainly the greater was my shock when it did come.
"I shan't live to be a hundred," he said in a low voice.
I cannot remember what I said, or whether I said anything at all. All that I do remember is his own next words, the swift and agonising collapse of the whole man as he said them, and the feeling of my own nape and spine.
"No, not a hundred. You're counting the wrong way. You got my age quite right this afternoon. I'm thirty-five. And I shall live till I'm sixteen."III
Among the things that have contributed to the wordly success of Sir George Coverham, Knight, has been that author's rigid exclusion from his books of everything that does not commend itself to the average common sense of his fellow-beings. The most he seeks in his modest writings—I speak of him in the third person because, as Derry's head dropped over his knees, it seemed impossible that this Sir George Coverham and I could be one and the same person—the most he seeks is a line somewhere between ordinary experience and the most, rather than the least, attractive presentation of it. In a word, his books are polite, debonair, and deliberately planned so as not to shock anybody.
Therefore in some ways he may be quite the wrong person to be writing this story of Derwent Rose. For example: he had known Rose for some fifteen years, and, not to mince matters, there had been many highly impolite things in Rose's life during that time. More than once it had seemed a very good thing indeed that he had had to work hard for his money. The great mental concentration necessary for the writing of some of his books must have kept him out of a good deal of mischief.
So I (I am allowing myself the man and Sir George Coverham the novelist gradually to reunite, as they gradually reunited that evening)—I, his friend, had already done what we all do when we are completely bowled over. I had instinctively sought refuge from his lunatic announcement in trifles—any trifle that lay nearest to hand. Suddenly I found myself wondering why he was afraid to take a drink, and why I had had to draw his curtains lest the sound of the buses and taxis should call him out into the streets.
But presently he had recovered a little. He was even able to look at me with the faint shadow of a smile.
"Well, that's the lot," he said. "I've given you the whole thing in a nutshell. You heard that lecture and you know me. You can fill in the rest for yourself."
Suddenly I looked at my watch. It was not yet half-past nine. I got on to my feet.
"You'd better get your hat and come down to Haslemere with me," I said. "We can catch the ten-ten. You're all on edge about something and you want a change. Leave word here that you'll be back in a week, and come along."
But he did not move, except to shake his head.
"I expected you'd say that. It's what anybody would say. It simply means that you haven't taken it in yet. No, since we've started we'll go on—unless you'd rather not. I warn you there's a good deal to be said for not going on."
"Why not talk about it down at Haslemere?"
Once more there was the hint of irascibility.
"Do you want to hear or don't you?"
Slowly I sat down again, and he resumed his former attitude of cracking nuts with his palms for nutcrackers.
"There's not an atom of doubt about what I'm going to tell you," he began. "Not an atom. Unless I'm mistaken you saw for yourself this afternoon—though of course you didn't know what you were seeing. You simply thought I looked younger, didn't you?"
I waited in silence.
"And I fancy my manner got a bit on your nerves—does a bit now for that matter?"
This also I let pass without remark.
"Well, let's start from that point. You said I looked thirty-five. Well, it's just that that's getting on your nerves—the less amiable side of my character when I was thirty-five, and—and—well, when you go you might take that bottle of whisky with you and make me sign the pledge or something. I'm trying—I'm honestly trying—to hang on, you see."
I sighed. "I wish you could make it a bit plainer," I said.
"I'm making it as plain as I can. Is this plain—that something's happened to me, I don't know what, and I'm getting younger instead of older?"
"Derry——" I began, half rising; but he held up one heroically-moulded hand.
"Let me finish. And if I happen to go to sleep suddenly you just walk straight out, do you hear? Walk right out and shut the door. You're to promise that. There are some things I won't ask even a pal to go through.... So there it is. Instead of getting older like everybody else I'm simply getting younger. I'm perfectly sober—I haven't had a drink for five days—and I tell you I shall go on till I'm thirty, and then twenty-five, and then twenty, and then, at sixteen or thereabouts—that fellow wasn't very sound on his ages to-night—I shall die. Now have you got it?"
Even about human nature there are some things that you have to accept as it were mathematically. I am no mathematician, but I do know (for example) that the common phrase "mathematically certain" is a misnomer. The whole essence of mathematics lies, not in its certainties, but in its assumptions, its power to embrace any concept whatever and pin it down in the form of a symbol. Once you have adopted the symbol you don't trouble about what lies behind it. You merely proceed to reason on it.
It can only have been in some such way that I accepted Derwent Rose's mad statement and was willing to see what superstructure he was prepared to raise upon it. I was even able to speak in an almost calm and ordinary voice.
"Tell me how you know all this," I said.
He was logical and prompt.
"By my knowledge of myself, and also by my memory. I know what I was at thirty-five, and I know what I did; well, I simply know that I'm that man again, and that I shall go on and re-do more or less what he's already done. At some point in my life I must have got turned round, and now I'm living it backwards again. And put multiple personality quite out of your head. That's the whole point. I'm not anybody else, and I shan't be anybody else. At this moment I'm Derwent Rose, as he always was and always will be, but simply back at the mental and physical stage when he wrote An Ape in Hell."
To-day, looking back, it gives me an indescribable ache at my heart to remember the sudden and immense sense of relief his words gave me. I breathed again, as if a window had been opened and a draught of cool fresh air let in.
For if he only meant memory, then the thing wasn't so bad. The maniacal idea that had sent that cold shiver up my spine was capable of an ordinary explanation after all. For what else is memory but the illusion that one is living backwards again in this sense? How many ancient loves, hates, angers, can we not re-experience in any idle hour we choose to give over to reverie? Beyond a doubt Rose had in some way been abusing this mysterious faculty, and Surrey and the pine-woods was the place for him.
"I see," I said at last. "I confess you frightened me for a moment. Anyway that's all right. You only have what we all have more or less. You merely bring greater powers than the rest of us to bear on an ordinary phenomenon. I don't want to talk about your work, but it always did seem to me that you went to rather appalling heights and fearsome depths for the stuff of it. Personally I don't think either heaven or hell is the safest place to go to for 'copy.' Too terrifying altogether."
He seemed to consider this deeply. He was almost quiet again now. Again he cracked invisible nuts, and his heels and toes rose and fell gently and alternately on the carpet.
"That's rather a new idea you've given me, George," he said at last. "I admit I hadn't thought of that. It might explain the beginning anyway—the turn-round. I suppose you mean I've been too close to the flames or the balm, and have got singed or the other thing, whatever you call it. I see. Yes.... It's probably nothing to do with the thyroid after all. I've been reading the wrong books. I never thought of the writings of the Saints. Or the Devils.... By the way, some of the Saints induced the stigmata on themselves by a sort of spiritual process, didn't they?"
I frowned and moved uneasily in my chair. I wasn't anxious to hear Derwent Rose either on ecstasy or blasphemy. But he went on.
"So that's useful as far as it goes. But—you'd hardly call this spiritual, would you?"
I think I mentioned that he wore a soft white collar, pinned and tied with exquisite neatness. A moment later he wore it no longer. Without troubling about pin, studs or buttons, with a swift movement he had ripped the collar, tie and half the shirt-band from his neck, and showed, of an angry and recent purply-red, vivid on his magnificent throat, two curved marks like these brackets—().
Now I am not more squeamish than most men. I am far from having lived the whole of my life in cotton-wool. But it needed no course in medical jurisprudence to tell me what those marks were—the marks of teeth, and of a woman's teeth. I was deeply wounded. Rose's amusements in this sort were no affair of mine, and I strongly resented this humiliation both of himself and of me.
But his hand gripped my arm like a vice. Suddenly I saw a quite new pair in his grey-blue eyes. It was a swift fear lest, instead of helping him, I should turn against him....
The day was warm, and hay was cutting. Combings of hay striped the hedges where the carts had passed, and as the Royal Hotel conveyance was so wide that it had to draw in in order to allow anything else to pass it, wisps had lodged also in the cords of the great pile of boxes and brown tin trunks that occupied the forward part of it. Honeysuckle tangled the hedge-tops; the wild roses were out below; and in the ditches the paler scabious was of the colour of the sky, the deeper that of the mountains towards which the old horse lazily clop-clopped....
At first blush, Widdershins is a conventional haunted house story involving an unsuccessful writer, who moves into an empty house in hope that isolation will help his failing creativity. His sensitivity and imagination are enhanced by his seclusion, but his art, his only friend, and his sanity are all destroyed in the process ...
The story can be read as narrating the gradual possession of the protagonist by a mysterious and possessive feminine spirit, or as a realistic description of a psychotic outbreak culminating in catatonia and murder, told from the psychotic subject’s point of view. The precise description of the slow disintegration of the protagonist’s mind is terrifying in either case.
Included are:“The Beckoning Fair One” read by Stefan Rudnicki“Phantas” read by Paul Boehmer“Rooum” read by Stefan Rudnicki“Benlian” read by Paul Boehmer“The Accident” read by Gabrielle de Cuir “The Lost Thyrsus” read by Rosalyn Landor “Hic Jacet” read by Stefan Rudnicki“The Cigarette Case” read by Paul Boehmer