The napoleon of notting.., p.8
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       The Napoleon of Notting Hill, p.8

          
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  CHAPTER III--_Enter a Lunatic_

  The King of the Fairies, who was, it is to be presumed, the godfatherof King Auberon, must have been very favourable on this particular dayto his fantastic godchild, for with the entrance of the guard of theProvost of Notting Hill there was a certain more or less inexplicableaddition to his delight. The wretched navvies and sandwich-men whocarried the colours of Bayswater or South Kensington, engaged merelyfor the day to satisfy the Royal hobby, slouched into the room with acomparatively hang-dog air, and a great part of the King'sintellectual pleasure consisted in the contrast between the arroganceof their swords and feathers and the meek misery of their faces. Butthese Notting Hill halberdiers in their red tunics belted with goldhad the air rather of an absurd gravity. They seemed, so to speak, tobe taking part in the joke. They marched and wheeled into positionwith an almost startling dignity and discipline.

  They carried a yellow banner with a great red lion, named by the Kingas the Notting Hill emblem, after a small public-house in theneighbourhood, which he once frequented.

  Between the two lines of his followers there advanced towards the Kinga tall, red-haired young man, with high features and bold blue eyes.He would have been called handsome, but that a certain indefinable airof his nose being too big for his face, and his feet for his legs,gave him a look of awkwardness and extreme youth. His robes were red,according to the King's heraldry, and, alone among the Provosts, hewas girt with a great sword. This was Adam Wayne, the intractableProvost of Notting Hill.

  The King flung himself back in his chair, and rubbed his hands.

  "What a day, what a day!" he said to himself. "Now there'll be a row.I'd no idea it would be such fun as it is. These Provosts are so veryindignant, so very reasonable, so very right. This fellow, by the lookin his eyes, is even more indignant than the rest. No sign in thoselarge blue eyes, at any rate, of ever having heard of a joke. He'llremonstrate with the others, and they'll remonstrate with him, andthey'll all make themselves sumptuously happy remonstrating with me."

  "Welcome, my Lord," he said aloud. "What news from the Hill of aHundred Legends? What have you for the ear of your King? I know thattroubles have arisen between you and these others, our cousins, butthese troubles it shall be our pride to compose. And I doubt not, andcannot doubt, that your love for me is not less tender, no lessardent, than theirs."

  Mr. Buck made a bitter face, and James Barker's nostrils curled;Wilson began to giggle faintly, and the Provost of West Kensingtonfollowed in a smothered way. But the big blue eyes of Adam Wayne neverchanged, and he called out in an odd, boyish voice down the hall--

  "I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have--mysword."

  And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt onone knee behind it.

  There was a dead silence.

  "I beg your pardon," said the King, blankly.

  "You speak well, sire," said Adam Wayne, "as you ever speak, when yousay that my love is not less than the love of these. Small would it beif it were not more. For I am the heir of your scheme--the child ofthe great Charter. I stand here for the rights the Charter gave me,and I swear, by your sacred crown, that where I stand, I stand fast."

  "I BRING HOMAGE TO MY KING."]

  The eyes of all five men stood out of their heads.

  Then Buck said, in his jolly, jarring voice: "Is the whole world mad?"

  The King sprang to his feet, and his eyes blazed.

  "Yes," he cried, in a voice of exultation, "the whole world is mad,but Adam Wayne and me. It is true as death what I told you long ago,James Barker, seriousness sends men mad. You are mad, because you carefor politics, as mad as a man who collects tram tickets. Buck is mad,because he cares for money, as mad as a man who lives on opium. Wilsonis mad, because he thinks himself right, as mad as a man who thinkshimself God Almighty. The Provost of West Kensington is mad, becausehe thinks he is respectable, as mad as a man who thinks he is achicken. All men are mad but the humorist, who cares for nothing andpossesses everything. I thought that there was only one humorist inEngland. Fools!--dolts!--open your cows' eyes; there are two! InNotting Hill--in that unpromising elevation--there has been born anartist! You thought to spoil my joke, and bully me out of it, bybecoming more and more modern, more and more practical, more and morebustling and rational. Oh, what a feast it was to answer you bybecoming more and more august, more and more gracious, more and moreancient and mellow! But this lad has seen how to bowl me out. He hasanswered me back, vaunt for vaunt, rhetoric for rhetoric. He haslifted the only shield I cannot break, the shield of an impenetrablepomposity. Listen to him. You have come, my Lord, about Pump Street?"

  "About the city of Notting Hill," answered Wayne, proudly, "of whichPump Street is a living and rejoicing part."

  "Not a very large part," said Barker, contemptuously.

  "That which is large enough for the rich to covet," said Wayne,drawing up his head, "is large enough for the poor to defend."

  The King slapped both his legs, and waved his feet for a second in theair.

  "Every respectable person in Notting Hill," cut in Buck, with hiscold, coarse voice, "is for us and against you. I have plenty offriends in Notting Hill."

  "Your friends are those who have taken your gold for other men'shearthstones, my Lord Buck," said Provost Wayne. "I can well believethey are your friends."

  "They've never sold dirty toys, anyhow," said Buck, laughing shortly.

  "They've sold dirtier things," said Wayne, calmly: "they have soldthemselves."

  "It's no good, my Buckling," said the King, rolling about on hischair. "You can't cope with this chivalrous eloquence. You can't copewith an artist. You can't cope with the humorist of Notting Hill. Oh,_Nunc dimittis_--that I have lived to see this day! Provost Wayne, youstand firm?"

  "Let them wait and see," said Wayne. "If I stood firm before, do youthink I shall weaken now that I have seen the face of the King? For Ifight for something greater, if greater there can be, than thehearthstones of my people and the Lordship of the Lion. I fight foryour royal vision, for the great dream you dreamt of the League of theFree Cities. You have given me this liberty. If I had been a beggarand you had flung me a coin, if I had been a peasant in a dance andyou had flung me a favour, do you think I would have let it be takenby any ruffians on the road? This leadership and liberty of NottingHill is a gift from your Majesty, and if it is taken from me, by God!it shall be taken in battle, and the noise of that battle shall beheard in the flats of Chelsea and in the studios of St. John's Wood."

  "It is too much--it is too much," said the King. "Nature is weak. Imust speak to you, brother artist, without further disguise. Let meask you a solemn question. Adam Wayne, Lord High Provost of NottingHill, don't you think it splendid?"

  "Splendid!" cried Adam Wayne. "It has the splendour of God."

  "Bowled out again," said the King. "You will keep up the pose.Funnily, of course, it is serious. But seriously, isn't it funny?"

  "What?" asked Wayne, with the eyes of a baby.

  "Hang it all, don't play any more. The whole business--the Charter ofthe Cities. Isn't it immense?"

  "Immense is no unworthy word for that glorious design."

  "Oh, hang you! But, of course, I see. You want me to clear the room ofthese reasonable sows. You want the two humorists alone together.Leave us, gentlemen."

  Buck threw a sour look at Barker, and at a sullen signal the wholepageant of blue and green, of red, gold, and purple, rolled out ofthe room, leaving only two in the great hall, the King sitting in hisseat on the dais, and the red-clad figure still kneeling on the floorbefore his fallen sword.

  The King bounded down the steps and smacked Provost Wayne on the back.

  "Before the stars were made," he cried, "we were made for each other.It is too beautiful. Think of the valiant independence of Pump Street.That is the real thing. It is the deification of the ludicrous."

  The kneeling figure sprang to his feet with a fierce stagger.

  "Ludicrous!" he cried, with a fiery face.

  "Oh, come, come," said the King, impatiently, "you needn't keep it upwith me. The augurs must wink sometimes from sheer fatigue of theeyelids. Let us enjoy this for half an hour, not as actors, but asdramatic critics. Isn't it a joke?"

  Adam Wayne looked down like a boy, and answered in a constrainedvoice--

  "I do not understand your Majesty. I cannot believe that while I fightfor your royal charter your Majesty deserts me for these dogs of thegold hunt."

  "Oh, damn your--But what's this? What the devil's this?"

  The King stared into the young Provost's face, and in the twilight ofthe room began to see that his face was quite white and his lipshaking.

  "What in God's name is the matter?" cried Auberon, holding his wrist.

  Wayne flung back his face, and the tears were shining on it.

  "I am only a boy," he said, "but it's true. I would paint the Red Lionon my shield if I had only my blood."

  King Auberon dropped the hand and stood without stirring,thunderstruck.

  "My God in Heaven!" he said; "is it possible that there is within thefour seas of Britain a man who takes Notting Hill seriously?"

  "And my God in Heaven!" said Wayne passionately; "is it possible thatthere is within the four seas of Britain a man who does not take itseriously?"

  The King said nothing, but merely went back up the steps of the dais,like a man dazed. He fell back in his chair again and kicked hisheels.

  "If this sort of thing is to go on," he said weakly, "I shall begin todoubt the superiority of art to life. In Heaven's name, do not playwith me. Do you really mean that you are--God help me!--a Notting Hillpatriot; that you are--?"

  Wayne made a violent gesture, and the King soothed him wildly.

  "All right--all right--I see you are; but let me take it in. You doreally propose to fight these modern improvers with their boards andinspectors and surveyors and all the rest of it?"

  "Are they so terrible?" asked Wayne, scornfully.

  The King continued to stare at him as if he were a human curiosity.

  "And I suppose," he said, "that you think that the dentists and smalltradesmen and maiden ladies who inhabit Notting Hill, will rally withwar-hymns to your standard?"

  "If they have blood they will," said the Provost.

  "And I suppose," said the King, with his head back among the cushions,"that it never crossed your mind that"--his voice seemed to loseitself luxuriantly--"never crossed your mind that any one ever thoughtthat the idea of a Notting Hill idealism was--er--slightly--slightlyridiculous?"

  "Of course they think so," said Wayne.

  "What was the meaning of mocking the prophets?"

  "Where," asked the King, leaning forward--"where in Heaven's name didyou get this miraculously inane idea?"

  "You have been my tutor, Sire," said the Provost, "in all that is highand honourable."

  "Eh?" said the King.

  "It was your Majesty who first stirred my dim patriotism into flame.Ten years ago, when I was a boy (I am only nineteen), I was playing onthe slope of Pump Street, with a wooden sword and a paper helmet,dreaming of great wars. In an angry trance I struck out with my sword,and stood petrified, for I saw that I had struck you, Sire, my King,as you wandered in a noble secrecy, watching over your people'swelfare. But I need have had no fear. Then was I taught to understandKingliness. You neither shrank nor frowned. You summoned no guards.You invoked no punishments. But in august and burning words, which arewritten in my soul, never to be erased, you told me ever to turn mysword against the enemies of my inviolate city. Like a priest pointingto the altar, you pointed to the hill of Notting. 'So long,' you said,'as you are ready to die for the sacred mountain, even if it wereringed with all the armies of Bayswater.' I have not forgotten thewords, and I have reason now to remember them, for the hour is comeand the crown of your prophecy. The sacred hill is ringed with thearmies of Bayswater, and I am ready to die."

  The King was lying back in his chair, a kind of wreck.

  "Oh, Lord, Lord, Lord," he murmured, "what a life! what a life! All mywork! I seem to have done it all. So you're the red-haired boy thathit me in the waistcoat. What have I done? God, what have I done? Ithought I would have a joke, and I have created a passion. I tried tocompose a burlesque, and it seems to be turning halfway through intoan epic. What is to be done with such a world? In the Lord's name,wasn't the joke broad and bold enough? I abandoned my subtle humour toamuse you, and I seem to have brought tears to your eyes. What's to bedone with people when you write a pantomime for them--call thesausages classic festoons, and the policeman cut in two a tragedy ofpublic duty? But why am I talking? Why am I asking questions of a niceyoung gentleman who is totally mad? What is the good of it? What isthe good of anything? Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!"

  Suddenly he pulled himself upright.

  "Don't you really think the sacred Notting Hill at all absurd?"

  "Absurd?" asked Wayne, blankly. "Why should I?"

  The King stared back equally blankly.

  "I beg your pardon," he said.

  "Notting Hill," said the Provost, simply, "is a rise or high ground ofthe common earth, on which men have built houses to live, in whichthey are born, fall in love, pray, marry, and die. Why should I thinkit absurd?"

  The King smiled.

  "Because, my Leonidas--" he began, then suddenly, he knew not how,found his mind was a total blank. After all, why was it absurd? Whywas it absurd? He felt as if the floor of his mind had given way. Hefelt as all men feel when their first principles are hit hard with aquestion. Barker always felt so when the King said, "Why trouble aboutpolitics?"

  The King's thoughts were in a kind of rout; he could not collect them.

  "It is generally felt to be a little funny," he said vaguely.

  "I suppose," said Adam, turning on him with a fierce suddenness--"Isuppose you fancy crucifixion was a serious affair?"

  "Well, I--" began Auberon--"I admit I have generally thought it hadits graver side."

  "Then you are wrong," said Wayne, with incredible violence."Crucifixion is comic. It is exquisitely diverting. It was an absurdand obscene kind of impaling reserved for people who were made to belaughed at--for slaves and provincials, for dentists and smalltradesmen, as you would say. I have seen the grotesque gallows-shape,which the little Roman gutter-boys scribbled on walls as a vulgarjoke, blazing on the pinnacles of the temples of the world. And shallI turn back?"

  The King made no answer.

  Adam went on, his voice ringing in the roof.

  "This laughter with which men tyrannise is not the great power youthink it. Peter was crucified, and crucified head downwards. Whatcould be funnier than the idea of a respectable old Apostle upsidedown? What could be more in the style of your modern humour? But whatwas the good of it? Upside down or right side up, Peter was Peter tomankind. Upside down he stills hangs over Europe, and millions moveand breathe only in the life of his Church."

  King Auberon got up absently.

  "There is something in what you say," he said. "You seem to have beenthinking, young man."

  "Only feeling, sire," answered the Provost. "I was born, like othermen, in a spot of the earth which I loved because I had played boys'games there, and fallen in love, and talked with my friends throughnights that were nights of the gods. And I feel the riddle. Theselittle gardens where we told our loves. These streets where we broughtout our dead. Why should they be commonplace? Why should they beabsurd? Why should it be grotesque to say that a pillar-box is poeticwhen for a year I could not see a red pillar-box against the yellowevening in a certain street without being wracked with something ofwhich God keeps the secret, but which is stronger than sorrow or joy?Why should any one be able to raise a laugh by saying 'the Cause ofNotting Hill'?--Notting Hill where thousands of immortal spirits blazewith alternate hope and fear."

  Auberon was flicking dust off his sleeve with quite a new seriousnesson his face, distinct from the owlish solemnity which was the pose ofhis humour.

  "It is very difficult," he said at last. "It is a damned difficultthing. I see what you mean; I agree with you even up to a point--or Ishould like to agree with you, if I were young enough to be a prophetand poet. I feel a truth in everything you say until you come to thewords 'Notting Hill.' And then I regret to say that the old Adamawakes roaring with laughter and makes short work of the new Adam,whose name is Wayne."

  For the first time Provost Wayne was silent, and stood gazing dreamilyat the floor. Evening was closing in, and the room had grown darker.

  "I know," he said, in a strange, almost sleepy voice, "there is truthin what you say, too. It is hard not to laugh at the common names--Ionly say we should not. I have thought of a remedy; but such thoughtsare rather terrible."

  "What thoughts?" asked Auberon.

  The Provost of Notting Hill seemed to have fallen into a kind oftrance; in his eyes was an elvish light.

  "I know of a magic wand, but it is a wand that only one or two mayrightly use, and only seldom. It is a fairy wand of great fear,stronger than those who use it--often frightful, often wicked to use.But whatever is touched with it is never again wholly common; whateveris touched with it takes a magic from outside the world. If I touch,with this fairy wand, the railways and the roads of Notting Hill, menwill love them, and be afraid of them for ever."

  "What the devil are you talking about?" asked the King.

  "It has made mean landscapes magnificent, and hovels outlastcathedrals," went on the madman. "Why should it not make lamp-postsfairer than Greek lamps; and an omnibus-ride like a painted ship? Thetouch of it is the finger of a strange perfection."

  "What is your wand?" cried the King, impatiently.

  "There it is," said Wayne; and pointed to the floor, where his swordlay flat and shining.

  "The sword!" cried the King; and sprang up straight on the dais.

  "Yes, yes," cried Wayne, hoarsely. "The things touched by that arenot vulgar; the things touched by that--"

  King Auberon made a gesture of horror.

  "You will shed blood for that!" he cried. "For a cursed point ofview--"

  "Oh, you kings, you kings!" cried out Adam, in a burst of scorn. "Howhumane you are, how tender, how considerate! You will make war for afrontier, or the imports of a foreign harbour; you will shed blood forthe precise duty on lace, or the salute to an admiral. But for thethings that make life itself worthy or miserable--how humane you are!I say here, and I know well what I speak of, there were never anynecessary wars but the religious wars. There were never any just warsbut the religious wars. There were never any humane wars but thereligious wars. For these men were fighting for something thatclaimed, at least, to be the happiness of a man, the virtue of a man.A Crusader thought, at least, that Islam hurt the soul of every man,king or tinker, that it could really capture. I think Buck and Barkerand these rich vultures hurt the soul of every man, hurt every inch ofthe ground, hurt every brick of the houses, that they can reallycapture. Do you think I have no right to fight for Notting Hill, youwhose English Government has so often fought for tomfooleries? If, asyour rich friends say, there are no gods, and the skies are dark aboveus, what should a man fight for, but the place where he had the Edenof childhood and the short heaven of first love? If no temples and noscriptures are sacred, what is sacred if a man's own youth is notsacred?"

  The King walked a little restlessly up and down the dais.

  "It is hard," he said, biting his lips, "to assent to a view sodesperate--so responsible...."

  As he spoke, the door of the audience chamber fell ajar, and throughthe aperture came, like the sudden chatter of a bird, the high, nasal,but well-bred voice of Barker.

  "I said to him quite plainly--the public interests--"

  Auberon turned on Wayne with violence.

  "What the devil is all this? What am I saying? What are you saying?Have you hypnotised me? Curse your uncanny blue eyes! Let me go. Giveme back my sense of humour. Give it me back--give it me back, I say!"

  "I solemnly assure you," said Wayne, uneasily, with a gesture, as iffeeling all over himself, "that I haven't got it."

  The King fell back in his chair, and went into a roar of Rabelaisianlaughter.

  "I don't think you have," he cried.

  BOOK III

 
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