The Tower of Oblivion, p.1Oliver Onions
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THE TOWER OF OBLIVION
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY NEW YORK . BOSTON . CHICAGO . DALLAS ATLANTA . SAN FRANCISCO
MACMILLAN & CO., LIMITED LONDON . BOMBAY . CALCUTTA MELBOURNE
THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, LTD. TORONTO
The Tower of Oblivion
AUTHOR OF "A CASE IN CAMERA," ETC.
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1921
_All rights reserved_
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY OLIVER ONIONS
Set up and printed. Published November, 1921.
Press of J. J. Little & Ives Company New York, U. S. A.
NIGEL PLAYFAIR and the Ladies and Gentlemen of "THE BEGGAR'S OPERA COMPANY" (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, June 5th, 1920)
who were so constantly his "pleasure and soft repose" while the following pages were writing, this book is dedicated
their friend and well-wisher
England Page THE SIDE-SLIP 1 THE STERN CHASE 57 THE STRAPHANGER 91 THE DOUBLE CROSS 129 THE PIVOT 181
THE LONG SPLICE 207 THE EVEN KEEL 261 THE CUT-OUT 327 THE DESERT ISLAND 371 THE HOME STRETCH 407
THE TOWER OF OBLIVION
I think it is Edgar Allan Poe who says that while a plain thing may onoccasion be told with a certain amount of elaboration of style, one thatis unusual in its very nature is best related in the simplest termspossible. I shall adopt the second of these methods in telling thisstory of my friend, Derwent Rose. And I will begin straight away withthat afternoon of the spring of last year when, with my own eyes, Ifirst saw, or fancied I saw, the beginning of the change in him.
The Lyonnesse Club meets in an electric-lighted basement-suite a littleway off the Strand, and as I descended the stairs I saw him in thenarrow passage. He was standing almost immediately under an incandescentlamp that projected on its curved petiole from the wall. The light shonebrilliantly on his hair, where hardly a hint of grey or trace ofthinness yet showed, and his handsome brow and straight nose were infull illumination and the rest of his face in sharp shadow. He wore adark blue suit with an exquisitely pinned soft white silk collar, towhich, as I watched, his fingers moved once; and he was examining withdeep attention a print that hung on the buff-washed wall.
I spoke behind him. "Hello, Derry! One doesn't often see your facehere."
Quietly as I spoke, he started. Ordinarily he had very straight andsteady grey-blue eyes, alert and receptive, but for some seconds theylooked from me to the print and from the print to me, irresolutely andwith equally divided attention. One would almost have thought that hehad heard his name called from a great distance. Then his eyes settledfinally 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? Youought 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 foundit worth a glance. It was a common collotype reproduction of a stodgynight-effect, a full moon in a black-leaded sky with reflections inwater to match--price perhaps five shillings. Then suddenly, lookingover his shoulder, I realised where his interest in it lay. He was notlooking at the picture at all. In the polished glass, that made anexcellent mirror in that concentrated light, I had seen his eyesearnestly fixed on his own eyes, his cheeks, his hair, his chin....
Well, Derwent Rose had better reason than most men for looking athimself in a picture-glass if he chose. Indeed it had already struck methat that afternoon he looked even more than ordinarily fresh andhandsome. Let me, before we go any further, describe his personalappearance to you.
He had, as I knew, passed his forty-fifth birthday in the precedingJanuary; but he would have been taken anywhere for at least tenyears younger. You will believe this when I tell you that at theage of thirty-nine, that is to say in the year 1914, he had walkedinto 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 ofcompany-sergeant-major, and had hardly looked a day older when he hadcome out again, with a herring-bone of chevrons on his cuff and acaptain's stars on his shoulder--not so much as scratched. He was justover six feet high, with the shoulders of a paviour and the heart andlung capacity of a diver. Had you not been told that he wrote novelsyou would have thought that he ran a ranch. His frame was a perfectlybalanced combination of springiness and dead-lift power of muscle; andto see those grey-blue eyes that looked into yours out of unwrinkledlids was to wonder what secret he possessed that the cares and rubs anddisillusions 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 thatreminded you of a handler of boats or a breaker of horses there stillpeeped out from time to time the qualities of his earlier, uneasybooks--the gay and mortal and inhuman irony of _The Vicarage of Bray_,the vehement, unchecked passion of _An Ape in Hell_. If to the ordinarybookstall-gazer these works were unknown--well, that was part of thetask that Derwent Rose had set himself. It is part of the task anywriter sets himself who refuses all standards but his own, and works onthe assumption that he is going to live for ever. Only his lastpublished book, _The Hands of Esau_, showed a fundamental urbanity, amellower restraint, and perhaps these were the securer the more hardlythey had been come by. I for one expected that his next book would riselike a star above the vapours where we others let off our littlesix-shilling crackers ... but his body seemed a mere flouting of theyears.
And here he stood under the corolla of an incandescent lamp, looking athimself for wrinkles!
Then in the glass he caught my eye, and flushed a little to have beencaught attitudinising. He gave a covert glance round to see whetheranybody else had observed him. A few yards away, in the doorway, MadgeAird was smilingly receiving the Club's guests, but for the moment Madgewas 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'twant a compliment. I'm asking you a question. How do I look? I've aspecial 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 foryou to begin to worry about your looks, Derry. I know your age, ofcourse, but for all practical purposes you may consider yourselfthirty-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 willbe in the papers with the O.M. round your neck. You'll p
But he hung back. And yet it was largely his own fault if in such placesas this Club he felt like a fish out of water. It might even have beencalled a perverse and not very amiable vanity in him, and I had hoped hehad got over this shyness, arrogance, or both. We have to live in aworld, even if we are as gifted mentally and physically as was DerwentRose. 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 handwent to the soft collar.
"What have I come for, you mean? I want you to find out for me ifthere'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 bloodstirred in his cheeks. He spoke roughly, impolitely. And even up tothis point his manner had been curt enough.
"Why do you say it like that?" he demanded. "'First' novel, with asneer? She wrote a novel, if that's what you mean."
Yet, though he began by glaring at me, he ended by looking uneasilyaway. You too may have wondered why publishers so eagerly insist thatsome novel or other is a really-and-truly 'first' one. Your bootmakerdoesn'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 DerwentRose would have been far more likely to applaud the novel that ended anignominious career than the one that began it. Yet here he was,apparently wishing to outface me about something or other, yet at thesame 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 isthere such a devil of a lot of difference between one novel and anotherwhen 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 thissuperior attitude. Why must everybody do the Big Bow Wow all the time?Can't somebody write something just for amuse--I mean must they alwaysbe banging the George Coverham Big Drum? As long as it doesn't make anypretence.... 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 hadlately seen. Surely my remark about that "first" novel had been innocentenough; but he had replied surlily, unamiably, unfamiliarly...."Unfamiliar?" No, that is not the word. I should rather say remotelyfamiliar, recollected, brought forward again out of some time that waspast. 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 betoo ... something; I gave it up. I only knew that the author of _TheHands 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 whetherMrs 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 womenand their new clothes and how right their instincts are if you only givethem plenty of pocket-money and leave 'em alone?"
I smiled. Perhaps it was a little like Madge. But I noticed his sharpdistinction between the novels of one woman and the "first" novel ofanother. It began to look as if behind Mrs Hugo Bassett the novelist layDaphne Bassett the woman.
"Well," I sighed, "I'm to ask for Mrs Hugo Bassett. What's the title ofher 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 meinside the doorway.
"_Who_ is he?" she whispered ardently in my ear. Her plump ringed handclutched my sleeve, and there was the liveliest curiosity in the darkeyes 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; andI 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 amoment was half-way to the cloakroom. I hope he got his own hat, for hewas out again almost instantly. I had a glimpse of his magnificent backas he hurried along the passage, then a flying heel at the turn of thestairs and he was gone. Turning, I saw that Madge had watched hisdeparture with me. She almost ran to me.
"Quickly, George--who, _who_ is your Beautiful Bear, and why have youbeen keeping a superb creature like that from me?" she demanded. "I knewhe was waiting for a woman. Every skirt that came in----" at the swingof 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_ soopenly before."
My friend has scored off me often enough in the past. This time I scoredoff 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 DerwentRose?"
"I always thought you knew everybody in London."
"_That_ was Derwent Rose!" Then she added, with inexpressible convictionand satisfaction, "_Ah!_"
I am always a little uneasy when Madge Aird says "Ah!" in that tone. Shewas Madge Ruthven before she married Alec Aird, and I have oftenwondered whether in the past any of her Scottish forbears had anytraffic with France. I am not now thinking of the air with which shealways wore her clothes, from whatever it was on her head to the alwaysirresistible shoes on her tiny feet. I mean the workings of her mind.There is none of our northern softness and hesitation and mystery aboutthese. All she thinks and says has a logical completeness and finishthat somehow always seems just a little too good to be true. Few thingsin this world are so neatly right as that. But wrong though herconclusions may be, they are always dazzlingly effective, and you haveto swallow them or reject them whole.
"_Ah!_" she murmured again, with the intensest self-approval; and Iwondered what unreliable imperfection she was meditating now. You neverknow with her. She sees so many people, goes to so many places, hears somuch. Often the mere mention of a name is enough to touch off thatinstantaneous fuse of her memory that leads straight into the heart ofheaven 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 situationperfectly fascinating!"
"Why, of him and Daphne Bassett. But poor old George, I keep forgettingthat you're the noblest Roman of them all and don't listen to our horridpetty little scandal. And evidently you haven't read _The ParthianArrow_."
"I haven't. Tell me what it's a
"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 hershoulder as, with a wisk of her ribboned ankles and another gale in theshake of feathers, she was off.
"Not now--another time. I shall be in fairly early this evening ifyou're staying in town. It's quite an interesting situation. And ifyou'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 HugoBassett also.
I live out in Surrey, my car happened to be in dock, and I had my trainto think of. As I walked slowly up the short street to the Strand Ipuzzled over Madge's words. Evidently she found some connection betweenthat "first" novel, _The Parthian Arrow_, and Rose's own book, _An Apein Hell_. Well, my ignorance could soon be remedied. There was abookshop just round the corner, and I could be the possessor of a copyof Mrs Bassett's book in five minutes.
But suddenly, on the point of hailing a taxi, I dropped the point of mystick again. Somewhere at the back of my mind was the feeling that therewas some invitation or appointment I had overlooked. I knew that itcould be of no great importance, and, looking back on these eventssince, I have thought that it was perhaps a mere disinclination to godown to Surrey that night that gave me pause. I may say that I amunmarried, and have got my housekeeper fairly well trained to my ways.
So, standing on the kerb, I brought a number of papers from my pocketand 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 itwas to take place at the rather unusual hour of six o'clock. No doubtthis was in order that the learned speaker might get his paper over byhalf-past seven, leaving his learned listeners free to dine. A taxislowed 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 timethat afternoon.
I will tell you in a moment the subject of that lecture I had sosuddenly decided to attend. First, a word as to my attitude at that timetowards new discoveries and new thought in general. I was enormously,wistfully interested in them. Instinctively, at that time, I stretchedout my hands to them. I had lived long enough in the world to realisethat such events as Trafalgar and the French Revolution were mereevents of yesterday, and the possibilities of an equally near to-morrowhaunted me. I shrank from the thought that while the dead stones of theLaw Courts and Australia House would still be there after I had gone, Ishould 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 channelsin so little a time, the new blood of London's old unchanging veins. Onebegins 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 Imight 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 leadingarticle in _The Times_ of slightly later date. On a subject of this kindI would rather use an expert's words than risk the inaccuracies thatmight 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 afellow-savant that I had come that afternoon to the Society of Arts.
To tell the truth, a certain whimsical humour in the idea had attractedme. When a man's books sell as well as mine do, and he is asflatteringly thought of as I am, it is rather tickling to be told thathe is really an infant of sixteen or seventeen, telling fairy-stories toa gigantic public nursery the average age of which is perhaps twelve.Sir George Coverham, Knight, merely the top boy of a kindergarten ofadults!... It pleased me, and I rather hoped the lecturer would approachhis 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 lanternpierced the gloom, I was able dimly to distinguish that the subject ofthe lecture had not attracted more than a couple of dozen people. Thesebarely filled the first two rows. The rest of the theatre appeared to beempty. Of the speaker himself nothing could be seen but a glimpse ofwhite beard as he moved slightly at the reading-lamp.
He read from a typescript in a flat, monotonous voice, with once in awhile a halting explanatory remark that trailed, paused, and thenstopped altogether. I watched the acute angles his wand made with itsown shadow on the diagrams projected by the lantern.
Then I thought I heard an impatient movement and muttering somewherebehind me. The speaker, after another long and painful pause, had justsaid, "I hope I've made that clear, gentlemen"; and I was almost certainthat the muffled growl had taken the shape of the words "You don't knowa damned thing about it!"
Then, a few minutes later, the sound was repeated, this time accompaniedby 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 ofit. Somebody a couple of rows behind me must be ill, I thought, andevidently others thought so too, for the lecturer came definitely to astop, and my eyes, now accustomed to the gloom, saw the turning offaces.
"Is anybody----?" a secretary or chairman called out, and I expected thelight 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 thewalls could be seen, and instantly every face, my own included, wasturned towards the back of a man who was seen to be hurriedly making hisway to the door.
I cannot tell you what happened at the Society of Arts after that. I wasalready on my feet, hurrying after that back. It was the same back I hadseen, in the same haste, leaving the Lyonnesse Club less than two hoursago.
He had got to the entrance hall before I caught him up. He accepted withrather disturbing docility the arm I slipped into his. All the fight hadgone out of him; he might not have been the same man who had so recentlytried to outface me about first novels. I looked at his face as we stoodby the glass doors that opened on to John Street. It showed both fearand 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 aboutenough 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 thelecture chamber.
We passed out and into John Street, he accommodating his ordinaryLondon-to-Brighton pace to mine. He once told me that five miles an hourwas walking, six stepping out a bit, and anything over six and a halfreally "going."
"Which way?" I asked at the end of the street.
"I suppose you'd better come round to my place," he replied; and wecrossed the Strand and struck north past Trafalgar Square.
He lived (I am not troubling you with the lobster we shared standing upat a counter, during which repast we did not exchange one singleword)--he lived in Cambridge Circus, and I hope I have not given you theimpression that Derwent Rose was desperately poor. When I spoke of himas having none too much either of money or success I meant as bycomparison with myself. Until, quite suddenly and by no means early inlife, my own reward came to me, I should have considered his quartersluxurious--once you had got there. This you did by means of a narrowstaircase from the various landings of which branched off the offices ofvariety-agents, film-brokers, furriers, jewellers and I don't know whatelse. The double windows he had had fitted into his room subdued thenoises of the Circus outside, and if he cared to draw his thick brocadecurtains as well he could obtain almost dead silence. His black oakfurniture was brightly polished by some basement person or other, hissaddlebag chairs scrupulously beaten and brushed. The two or threethousand books that completely filled two of his walls might have beenarranged by a librarian, so methodically and conveniently were theydisposed, with lettered and numbered tickets at intervals along theedges 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 intometiculousness, whom disorderly habits and departures from routine beginto irritate. In marked contrast with it was the topsy-turvy state of thelarge oval table with the beaded edge. This was in an appalling state ofconfusion. Newspapers had been tossed aside on to it, open books withtheir faces downwards sprawled over it. Empty shells of brown paperstill kept something of the shape of the books they had contained, andends of packer's string with bits of sealing-wax twined among them. Ateacup lay on its side in a wet saucer, a large oval milk-can stood nextto it. And on the top of all were the snaky rubber cords of an exerciserand a ten-pound, horsehair-stuffed medicine-ball.
I was about to hang up my hat in the neatly-curtained recess he had hadfitted up as a lobby when he exclaimed "Oh, chuck it anywhere," and setme the example by throwing his own hat and stick on to the clutter. Theycaught the medicine-ball, which rolled an inch or two, tottered, andthen fell with a soft dead thump to the floor. The next instant, as ifnow that his own door was closed behind him there was no longer any needto keep up appearances, he himself had fallen with a similar thud to thesofa. He, this piece of physical perfection who called six miles an hour"stepping out a bit," lay all limp and relaxed, with lids quiveringlightly 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'twant anything, thanks. Tell me what you thought of the lecture."
I began to say something, I hardly remember what, when, still with hiseyes closed and twitching, he interrupted me.
"All those silly charts--all those useless figures about the AmericanArmy--that's all waste of time. Making work for work's sake. I couldhave told him all that straight away."
I remembered those groans in the obscurity of the lecture-room. I spokequietly.
"Is that what you were going to tell him when you--interrupted alittle?"
I had to wait for his reply. When it did come I hardly heard it, so lowdid he speak.
"I know what you mean; but I can only tell you that if you'd beenvivisected like that you'd have squirmed a bit too."
I couldn't help thinking he had taken that lecture in a curiouslypersonal sense, and I said so.
"Vivisected?" I exclaimed. "I was vivisected, as you call it, just asmuch as you were--perhaps more in some ways. What on earth are youtalking about? It's a general question. It's human functions andfaculties at large he was vivisecting, not you or me. So," I concluded,"we were all vivisected alike, and when everybody's vivisected--yousee----" I made a little gesture.
Then he opened his eyes, and there was an expression in them thatsuddenly dried me up. It was an even more remarkable throw-back to aremembered and earlier manner than that I had witnessed earlier in theafternoon. 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--"Imean myself singly and specially, understand--the egregious andindestructible ego--and not merely just as much or as little as anybodyelse. 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 ofit for a moment, not even from him. And let me tell you at once thesurmise that had already flashed through my brain. I am a dependablesort of person myself, one of the kind that nothing startlingly new isever likely to happen to; but I was not so sure about his kind. Brainslike his often fly off at queer tangents, and I wondered whether he hadbeen reading too much of this current cant about "multiple personality"and had allowed it to run away with him. Every Tom, Dick and Harry seemsto rush to that for an explanation of everything nowadays. I had alreadynoticed, by the way, that one of the books that sprawled cover uppermoston his table was a book on the thyroid gland. But suddenly he seemed toguess at my thoughts. He spoke more quietly. Indeed he seemed to befully aware of these outbreaks of his, and to be trying to resist themmore and more strenuously as our conversation proceeded.
"Sorry, old fellow," he said contritely. "I'm very sorry. I oughtn't tohave spoken like that. But I'm not what they call 'disintegrating'; I'mthe 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 coursethat hasn't come.... It's a damn-all of a problem. Get yourself a drinkif you want one. No, I won't have one; I--I daren't. And you might drawthe curtains. When I hear the buses and taxis it makes me want to goout."
I drew his curtains for him, but did not take the drink. He sat on thesofa leaning a little forward, his great hands clasped between his kneesand working slightly and powerfully, as if he cracked walnuts in thepalms of them. The grey-blue eyes avoided mine. I have seen that sameavoiding glance in the eyes of a man who had something perfectly true totell, but so utterly improbable that he was self-convicted of lying evenin 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 ina way. I didn't mean you to take me too literally, of course."
"And you thought"--he hesitated for a moment and shivered slightly--"itwas something to be congratulated about?"
"Well--isn't it? Professionally you've staked out a magnificent coursefor yourself in which time means practically everything, and so, if youlive long enough, as you look like doing----"
Yet I cannot tell you what premonition of calamity seemed already toflow like an induced current from him to me. Ordinarily I am notspecially sensitised to receive impressions of this kind. I am just aman who had had the luck to think as most other people think and to beable to express their thoughts for them. The greater therefore must havebeen that current's projecting force. Certainly the greater was my shockwhen 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. Allthat I do remember is his own next words, the swift and agonisingcollapse of the whole man as he said them, and the feeling of my ownnape and spine.
"No, not a hundred. You're counting the wrong way. You got my age quiteright this afternoon. I'm thirty-five. And I shall live till I'msixteen."
Among the things that have contributed to the wordly success of SirGeorge Coverham, Knight, has been that author's rigid exclusion from hisbooks of everything that does not commend itself to the average commonsense of his fellow-beings. The most he seeks in his modest writings--Ispeak of him in the third person because, as Derry's head dropped overhis knees, it seemed impossible that this Sir George Coverham and Icould be one and the same person--the most he seeks is a line somewherebetween 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 writingthis story of Derwent Rose. For example: he had known Rose for somefifteen years, and, not to mince matters, there had been many highlyimpolite things in Rose's life during that time. More than once it hadseemed a very good thing indeed that he had had to work hard for hismoney. The great mental concentration necessary for the writing of someof 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 novelistgradually to reunite, as they gradually reunited that evening)--I, hisfriend, had already done what we all do when we are completely bowledover. I had instinctively sought refuge from his lunatic announcement intrifles--any trifle that lay nearest to hand. Suddenly I found myselfwondering why he was afraid to take a drink, and why I had had to drawhis curtains lest the sound of the buses and taxis should call him outinto the streets.
But presently he had recovered a little. He was even able to look at mewith the faint shadow of a smile.
"Well, that's the lot," he said. "I've given you the whole thing in anutshell. You heard that lecture and you know me. You can fill in therest for yourself."
Suddenly I looked at my watch. It was not yet half-past nine. I got onto 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 youwant a change. Leave word here that you'll be back in a week, and comealong."
But he did not move, except to shake his head.
"I expected you'd say that. It's what anybody would say. It simply meansthat you haven't taken it in yet. No, since we've started we'll goon--unless you'd rather not. I warn you there's a good deal to be saidfor 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 crackingnuts with his palms for nutcrackers.
"There's not an atom of doubt about what I'm going to tell you," hebegan. "Not an atom. Unless I'm mistaken you saw for yourself thisafternoon--though of course you didn't know what you were seeing. Yousimply 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 thatmatter?"
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 ofmy character when I was thirty-five, and--and--well, when you go youmight take that bottle of whisky with you and make me sign the pledge orsomething. 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'shappened to me, I don't know what, and _I'm getting younger instead ofolder?_"
"Derry----" I began, half rising; but he held up one heroically-mouldedhand.
"Let me finish. And if I happen to go to sleep suddenly you just walkstraight out, do you hear? Walk right out and shut the door. You're topromise that. There are some things I won't ask even a pal to gothrough.... So there it is. Instead of getting older like everybody elseI'm simply getting younger. I'm perfectly sober--I haven't had a drinkfor five days--and I tell you I shall go on till I'm thirty, and thentwenty-five, and then twenty, and then, at sixteen or thereabouts--thatfellow wasn't very sound on his ages to-night--I shall die. _Now_ haveyou got it?"
Even about human nature there are some things that you have to accept asit were mathematically. I am no mathematician, but I do know (forexample) that the common phrase "mathematically certain" is a misnomer.The whole essence of mathematics lies, not in its certainties, but inits assumptions, its power to embrace any concept whatever and pin itdown in the form of a symbol. Once you have adopted the symbol you don'ttrouble 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'smad statement and was willing to see what superstructure he was preparedto raise upon it. I was even able to speak in an almost calm andordinary 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 atthirty-five, and I know what I did; well, I simply know that I'm thatman again, and that I shall go on and re-do more or less what he'salready done. At some point in my life I must have got turned round, andnow I'm living it backwards again. And put multiple personality quiteout of your head. That's the whole point. I'm not anybody else, and Ishan't be anybody else. At this moment I'm Derwent Rose, as he alwayswas and always will be, but simply back at the mental and physical stagewhen he wrote _An Ape in Hell_."
To-day, looking back, it gives me an indescribable ache at my heart toremember the sudden and immense sense of relief his words gave me. Ibreathed again, as if a window had been opened and a draught of coolfresh air let in.
For if he only meant memory, then the thing wasn't so bad. The maniacalidea that had sent that cold shiver up my spine was capable of anordinary explanation after all. For what else is memory but the illusionthat one is living backwards again in this sense? How many ancientloves, hates, angers, can we not re-experience in any idle hour wechoose to give over to reverie? Beyond a doubt Rose had in some way beenabusing this mysterious faculty, and Surrey and the pine-woods was theplace 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 anordinary phenomenon. I don't want to talk about your work, but it alwaysdid seem to me that you went to rather appalling heights and fearsomedepths for the stuff of it. Personally I don't think either heaven orhell is the safest place to go to for 'copy.' Too terrifyingaltogether."
He seemed to consider this deeply. He was almost quiet again now. Againhe cracked invisible nuts, and his heels and toes rose and fell gentlyand alternately on the carpet.
"That's rather a new idea you've given me, George," he said at last. "Iadmit I hadn't thought of that. It might explain the beginninganyway--the turn-round. I suppose you mean I've been too close to theflames or the balm, and have got singed or the other thing, whatever youcall it. I see. Yes.... It's probably nothing to do with the thyroidafter all. I've been reading the wrong books. I never thought of thewritings of the Saints. Or the Devils.... By the way, some of the Saintsinduced 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 hearDerwent 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?"
Now I am not more squeamish than most men. I am far from having livedthe whole of my life in cotton-wool. But it needed no course in medicaljurisprudence to tell me what those marks were--the marks of teeth, andof a woman's teeth. I was deeply wounded. Rose's amusements in this sortwere no affair of mine, and I strongly resented this humiliation both ofhimself and of me.
But his hand gripped my arm like a vice. Suddenly I saw a quite new pairin his grey-blue eyes. It was a swift fear lest, instead of helping him,I should turn against him.
"Good God, man!" he cried in a high voice. "Don't think _that_! Don'tthink I'm such a cur as to--oh, my God, _that_ isn't the point! I'm notbragging about my conquests!... The point is that _these marks are tenyears old and they weren't there last night_!"
I tried to free myself from his grip, but he wouldn't let me go. He ranagitatedly on, repeating himself over and over again.
"There isn't much imagination about _that_, is there? _That_ isn'tfancy, is it? _That_ doesn't happen to any man any day, does it? A manwould be likely to remember _that_, wouldn't he? He wouldn't forget it,if it was only for the shame of it! Is _that_ just ordinary memory? Andhow would you feel when everything was healed over and forgotten, andyou'd settled decently down, and hoped everything was forgiven you--andthen you were to be dragged back over the ploughshares like that! I tellyou you've got to see it all crowding back on you again, before yourealise that forgetting's the greatest happiness in life!... I tell youon my word of honour that that happened ten years ago, when I wasthirty-five before, and that it wasn't there last night! _Now_ tell meI'm drunk or dreaming!"
Stupefied I stared at him. The issue was plain. Either he was tellingthe truth, or he was not. Either those marks were as recent as theylooked or as old as he said. He was to be believed or disbelieved. Therewas no middle way.
And my heart sank like a stone in my breast as suddenly I found myselfbelieving him. He saw that I did, and fumblingly sought to fasten thecollar again. But he had torn both buttonhole and band, and could onlycover up those shameful marks by turning up the collar of his dark bluejacket. He sat with his collar turned up for the rest of our talk.
Presently I felt a little more master of myself. I had moved over to thesofa and was sitting by his side. He, this youthful Hercules offorty-five, who wrote books and made you think of boats and horses, wasweeping softly. He was weeping for misery and hate of what, apparently,he must go through again. Stupidly my eyes rested on the carefullylettered and numbered shelves of books, and then on the slovenly litterof the table. The electric light gave the merest flicker--they weredoing something at the power-station--and then burned quietly on. Itshone on the black oak furniture and the saddlebag chairs, on our twohats on the table, on the neatly curtained recess where the hats shouldhave been. It was impossible not to see that in its contrast oforderliness and disorder the very room showed two sharp and distinctphases. Almost with voices the inanimate things seemed to cry it aloud.The man who had catalogued those bays of books had been the author of_The Hands of Esau_. He who now threw everything down on to thatdisgraceful table was he who had written _An Ape in Hell_.
He still wept quietly. I put my hand on his knee.
"All right, Derry," I said. "Try to pull yourself together. You say youcan't begin at the beginning. Very well, begin anywhere you like. I daresay something can be done. It may turn out to be--oh, shellshock orsomething."
But already my heart told me that it would turn out to be nothing of thekind.
I am not going to direct your attention specially to the more fantasticpart of what Derwent Rose told me in his rooms that night. I have foundno issue in that direction. Neither am I going into the metaphysics ofthe thing; I know no more about that than he ever knew himself. But ifyou care to read, in reverse, the progress of a man out of the sadshadows of middle-age back into the light and beauty and belief thatonce were his--always the same man, undeviating from the lines laid downby his own nature, re-approaching each phase as he had formerlyapproached it, but in times and circumstances so complex and alteredthat nothing in the pilgrimage was constant but himself--if, I say, youcare to read that extraordinary intertwining of what he had done andwhat he re-did, and are content with this, and will not pull me up everytime the mystery of the deeper cause confounds us both, then I amcontent too and we can go ahead.
It had been going on (he told me) for six months past; but at the outsetI ought to warn you that he had two scales of time. Here I wish that wewere all mathematicians, and that I could write and you could read hiswondrous history in symbolised concepts. However, we will do the best wecan with words.
Broadly speaking, he went backwards, not at a uniform rate, but in aseries of irregular and unequal slips. That is to say, that though insix months or so of actual time he had retrograded the ten years betweenforty-five and thirty-five, it did not follow that he had gone back fiveyears in three months or two and a half in any given six weeks. I wentcarefully into this point with him. I asked him, if the ratio was not asteady twenty to one (or a hundred and twenty months of experienced timeas against six by the clock) what he estimated it at for shorter periodsof either. But to this he could give no clear answer. Being unable tofix the precise turning-point, and hardly knowing when the indicationsin himself had begun (since at first he had put the whole thing aside asan absurdity), he had no datum. He had only become fully awake to thephenomenon when it had not been possible to disregard it any longer.
"Well, as we've got to assume something let's assume that," I said."When was it that you first had no doubt at all?"
This he did more or less remember. I give his account in his own words.
"It was about two months ago," he said. "I'd no book on hand. I don'tmind admitting that I'd never felt so stale and empty and sick ofeverything I'd ever done. In fact I'd got to the point you noticed thisafternoon."
"What point was that? Don't let's take anything for granted."
"When you rubbed me up about that first novel. I'd got to the point ofhardly seeing any difference worth mentioning between the worst stuffand the best, Shakespeare included. Do you mind if I go into that ratherin detail?"
"Here, I thought, is this creature man, this fellow called GeorgeCoverham or Derwent Rose, brought naked into a world that marvellouslydoesn't care a rap about him--but that he's got to contrive to make somesort of an interpretation of, because it's where he's got to live. Hehasn't got too long to live there either--a strictly limited time--sothat there's just him and this wonderful uncaring universe for it. Thisand nothing else is what happens every time a human being's brought intothe world. All this procreation and child-bearing are just for that--sothat somebody can make head or tail of the world.... Well, what do theydo to him? By and by they send him to school. That's the first steptowards taking him away from this universe he's trying to make somethingof and telling him instead what some other naked being before himthought about it all. That's all right as far as it goes. Just once in awhile, I suppose, two heads may be better than one. But"--he paused foremphasis--"when a third begins to repeat what a second has alreadyrepeated, and a fourth a third, and so on, by and by the universe beginsto drop right away into the background. The process goes on--it has goneon--till not one in ten million dreams there's a universe at all. Youknow what I mean--all talk about talk about talk about it. So, if you'veany sense of proportion at all, where does the difference between onebook and another come in?"
"Well--that's the state of mind you were in," I observed. Goodness knowsI wasn't trying to shut him up. If it did him good to talk I wouldgladly have listened to him all night. As
"I was only trying to explain how I felt," he answered apologetically."Let's start again. It was two months ago within a few days, and I knowit was a Monday morning, because Mrs Hyems doesn't come up on Sundays,and she brought a parcel that had been overlooked from Saturday night.It was half-past eight, and I was in there shaving"--he nodded in thedirection of his bedroom. "She wanted to call my attention to the parcelbecause it was registered."
"Is this just to fix the date, or has the parcel anything to do withit?"
"Both. I'm coming to the parcel in a minute. Well, as I was saying, Iwas just about fed up with things in general. Books in particular. Nicestate of mind for an author with his living to earn to begin the weekin! I remember stopping shaving to have a good hard look at myself. Iremember saying to myself in the glass, 'You're young, you're a perfectmiracle of youth; you've got quite a good brain as brains go; and yetinstead of getting out of doors and living every minute of one of God'sgood days you'll sit down there, and make scratches on bits of paperthat have got to be just like the scratches everybody else makes or youwon't sell 'em; isn't there something wrong somewhere?' I asked myselfthat in the glass. And mind you, I was feeling extraordinarily fitphysically. That's important. I'd felt like that for days past. Whowants to work when he feels like that?"
I sighed a little. Even I, with my modicum of health, have occasionallyfelt too fit to work.
"So I finished dressing and came in here to breakfast, and I washalf-way through breakfast when that book caught my eye."
"The parcel I spoke of. It was a book. As a matter of fact it was MrsBassett's book, _The Parthian Arrow_."
I glanced at him. "Registered?"
"Yes. You mean one doesn't usually register a common or garden novelunless you want there to be no mistake about the person getting it?"
"So I opened it there and then and began to read it. I read it at asingle sitting. Then I tore it in two. Wait a bit, I'll show you. Passme a book, any one. They're all the same."
I passed him a book from the untidy table, an ordinary two-inch-thickoctavo volume in a cloth binding. Now read carefully. He didn't evenchange his position on the sofa. Using his knees only as a support, withhis hands he tore the back into halves. Let me say it again. I don'tmean he tore it lengthwise along the stitching. He didn't separate thepages into dozens or scores, nor bend or break it. He just tore itacross as I might have torn a postcard. I can still see the creeping andfanning of the leaves under the dreadful pressure of his hands, the softwhity-grey fur of paper as the gap widened relentlessly before my eyes,hear the slightly harsher sound of the rending cloth and the little"zip" at the end.
Then he tossed the two halves on to the table again.
"I used to do a bit of that sort of thing years ago," he remarked,without even a quickening of his breath. "Half-crowns and packs ofcards, you know. But I'd had to drop it. Your muscles have changed bythe time you're forty-five. I'd tried to tear a pack of cards not longbefore, but I could only make a mess of them and had to give it up."
I found not a word to say. As much as the feat itself the terrifyingease with which he had done it made me gape.
"Yes, my strength came on me like Samson's that morning," he continued."I was scared of it myself. I didn't know what was happening, you see.I'm simply trying to tell you the first time I knew there was no mistakeabout it."
I found my voice.
"But why did you tear the book? I--I hope you weren't looking for theauthor this afternoon to tear her too!" I laughed nervously.
He turned earnest eyes on me.
"I swear I never meant her, George--in that accursed _Ape_ book of mine,I mean. Of course she must have thought I did, and--and--well, to beperfectly honest, I'm not quite sure she didn't start me on the idea.You've got to start somewhere. But I went over it a dozen timesafterwards. _Am_ I the man to take it out of a woman in print?" heappealed piteously.
He was not, and I tried to reassure him; but he broke in anew.
"Why, I'd forgotten all about her before I'd written a couple ofchapters! You're a novelist; you understand. If only she'd.... But Isuppose I left something in--some damnable wounding oversight--but Ican't find it even yet"--he glared round the room as if in search of acopy of his own book to submit to cross-examination all over again.
And then abruptly he seemed to put the book aside. His manner changed.He lifted himself from the cushions and spoke in a strained voice.
"Look here, George," he said hurriedly, jumping from point to point,"let's be getting on. I may be having to turn you out soon; this may beno place for you. Where had we got to? Where I tore that book. You wereasking me when I first felt sure of all this. Well, it wasn't just thebook, it was what happened inside me as well. Something gave way. I wasafraid. I'm afraid now. You've known me a long time, George; knownscandalous things about me, I'm afraid. But a man can live a prettyqueer sort of life and yet manage to keep something safe from harm allthe time. It's that that I'm hanging on to now. You see, I've never hadany habits or customs. I've never been the millionth man--the fellow whorepeats what they've all said before him. Every morning of my life I'vetried to look at the universe as if I'd never seen it before--as if ithad never been seen by anybody before. Dashed risky way of living....But I managed to keep something clean inside me ... thank God ... needit ... badly ... no time to go into all that now...."
He muttered unintelligibly. He was not actually looking at his watch,and yet he gave the impression of having his eye on the passage of time.Suddenly he went on with a new spurt.
"Don't interrupt, please. I may have made a miscalculation. You see,when I drop off to sleep.... About that book. I started it at breakfast,sent Mrs Hyems away, and never moved from my chair till I'd finished itin the afternoon. Then, when I ripped it in two, I seemed to ripsomething in myself with it. I can't describe it any other way.Something in me seemed to open and take me right back. Before breakfastthat morning I was what they call 'settling down in life.' I'd written_Esau_ since the _Ape_, and had lots of things planned. I'd even got abit old-maidish about all this"--he indicated his tidy walls."Then--piff! All that stage of my development seemed to go like smoke.No, no pain; no physical feeling of any kind except that sudden rush ofbodily strength. I just tore myself in two as I'd torn the book, and Iran to my glass--the glass I'd shaved in only a few hours ago."
"And you saw----?" the words broke breathlessly from me.
Slowly he shook his head. "Nothing--that time. _I hadn't been to sleep,you see. A sleep's got to come in between._ That's why you mustn't behere if I go to sleep.... No, it was the next morning I saw it."
Faintly I asked him what it was he had seen the next morning.
But before he could reply there had come a sudden wicked glitter intohis grey-blue eyes. His hand had once more gone to his upturned coatcollar. And he chuckled--chuckled.
"Not _this_, if that's what you mean," he said with a jerk of his head."That was my last adventure; the one I'm telling you about now was twobefore that." Then his chuckle dying away again, "You notice your facewhen you shave, don't you?--the texture of your skin and so on? Well,that was what I saw: just a few years younger, a few years softer, a fewyears smoother. The corners of your eyebrows here; you know how the browgets thin at the sides and those sprouts of long hair begin to come?Well, they'd gone. And I was scared at my strength coming back likethat.... I say, get me a drink, will you? No, no, blast it--not thatstuff--plain water."
I got him the water. He gulped it down. His fingertips were stillfeeling his eyebrows. Then with another spurt:
"What's the time now? Never mind--but I keep a diary now, you see. Haveto. Memory isn't to be trusted in a matter of this kind. And speaking ofmemory, it'll be hell's delight if that goes. You see, this isn't 1920
Then all in a moment he was on his feet. Without ceremony he had thrustmy hat into my hands. Comparatively gently, seeing what his strengthwas, he was hustling me towards the door.
"Sorry, old man"--the words came thickly--"thanks awfully--I expect Ishall be all right--don't bother about me.... But I shall have to movesooner or later--looks so dashed queer one man coming in and anothergoing out--too comic if they arrested me on a charge of making away withmyself.... See you soon--yourself out--quick, if you don't mind--go,go!"
The next moment I was out on his landing. He had almost carried me out.I heard the locking of his door, but after that, though I listened,nothing.
Presently it occurred to me that there was nothing to be gained bywaiting. It did not seem to be an occasion for calling for help, and ifthere was something he did not wish me to see it was hardly a friend'spart to stand there listening for it. Slowly I descended past the closedoffices of the cinema and variety agents and let myself out into thestreet. Involuntarily my eyes went up to his window, but no light showedthere, and I remembered that I had drawn his curtains myself. Among aknot of people who waited for omnibuses I stood on the kerb, lost inthought.
It was after eleven o'clock, and Haslemere was now out of the question.I could have got a bed at my Club, but I vaguely felt that there mightbe something rather more to the purpose to do than that. For someminutes I couldn't for the life of me think what it was. Four o'clock ofthat afternoon seemed an age ago.... Then I remembered. Madge Aird mightat least be able to throw a little light on the Daphne Bassett aspect ofthe affair. She had said she would be at home that evening, and I canalways have a bed at the Airds' for the asking.
I mounted a bus, descended at my Club, telephoned to Alec Aird, seized abag I kept ready packed in town, and by half-past eleven was on my wayto Empress Gate.
Alec himself opened the door to me. He was in his dinner-jacket, but hadthrust his feet into a comfortable pair of bedroom slippers and wassmoking his everlasting bulldog briar pipe. There were neither hats norcoats on the hall table, and he had the air of having the house tohimself.
"Thought it would be you," he said. "Lost your train? Give me yourbag--I'm scared to death of asking a servant to do anything after dinnerthese days. Come up."
"Isn't Madge in? She said she was going to be at home."
"Oh, Madge calls it being at home if she's in by midnight. She's only atthe Nobles. I don't think she's going on anywhere. Listen"--the click ofa key had sounded in the hall--"there she is, I expect."
It was Madge. She followed us up into the drawing-room a moment later,gave me a glance that was half surprised and half amused, and proceededto unscarf herself. Alec was relighting his pipe with the longtwisted-paper poker. There was a question in the eye he cocked at her.Alec is fond of home, and lives a good deal of his social lifevicariously, sending Madge to represent him and relying on her accountof the proceedings when she gets back. This is frequently lively.
"Oh, nobody much," she chattered. "The Tank Beverleys and the Hobsons,and Connie Fairham and her escapade, and Jock Diver with Mrs Hatchett.Washout of an evening; makes home seem quite nice, especially withGeorge here. Do give me a decent peg; they'd nothing but filthy cup."Then, as Alec busied himself at a tray, she shot another amused glanceat me. "Brought the Beautiful Bear, George?"
"I've just left him. I want to talk to you."
"Alec," she said promptly, "go to bed. George and I want to talk."
"Dashed if I do without a tune," Alec grumbled. "Play something."
Madge crossed to the music-stool, set her whisky-and-soda on the slidingrest, and began to play.
I waited in an extreme of impatience. The bus-ride to the Club, gettingmy bag, coming on to Empress Gate, greeting Alec--I suppose these thingshad occupied me just sufficiently to put away for half an hour theweight that had been placed upon me; but now, as I frowned at AlecAird's tiles and cut steel fender, that weight began to reimpose itself.Anxiously I wondered what might be happening at that very moment in thatother room with the drawn curtains, the orderly shelves and thedisreputable table.
A man who grew younger instead of older! A man who already was ten yearsyounger than he had been a few months ago! He had been quite right insaying, when I had tried to take him down to Haslemere, that that onlymeant that I had not yet taken it in. I was as far from being able totake it in as ever. More and more it forced itself on me as menacing,inimical, wild. What sane man could believe it? And yet, if it was notto be believed, why could I not shake it off? Why did it lurk, as itwere, in the half-lighted corners of Madge's drawing-room, allowing meall the time I wished in which to demonstrate it to be nonsense, andthen, when I had left not one aspect of it uncriticised and undenied,reunite and face me again exactly as before?
It happened, he said, while he slept; and he had strictly enjoined on methat if I saw him falling asleep I was to walk straight out of theplace. "There are some things I won't ask even a pal to go through."That meant that during his sleep those tufts of his eyebrows disappearedand that terrifying strength descended on him again. But what happened_before_ then? Was the actual and physical change simultaneous with theinner and mental one, or was it merely a confirmation that cameafterwards? _Had_ he changed in every respect but form and feature evenas I had talked to him? It frightened me to think that he had; but themore I thought of it the more it looked like it.
For there had taken place a struggle within him that had but increasedin intensity as the minutes had passed. I remembered the gravity withwhich he had pondered my suggestion that for the stuff of his novels hehad been too directly to heaven, too straight to hell. I don't pretendto know any more about heaven and hell than anybody else, but I have theordinary man's conception of the difference between good and evil,better and worse, and these principles, it seemed to me, had contendedin him. And he had striven to throw the weight of his personal will intothe worthier scale. There were things he did not wish to re-do, episodeshe did not wish to re-live. He had even wept that he must be dislodgedfrom that rock of his life to which his forty-five years had broughthim.... But what had followed? Suddenly a wicked chuckle. Violentexpressions had crept into his speech. A glitter had awakened in hiseyes, as if, since the thing must be gone through with, devilry anddefiance were a more manly part than weeping. "Well, if there's no helpfor it, let's be thorough one way or the other," I could have imaginedhim grimly saying....
And if this was so, what did it mean but that he _had_ actually grownyounger before my very eyes? I was merely shown, invisibly and a littlein advance, what the whole world would realise when his sleep hadsmoothed out a few more wrinkles, given a newer gloss to his hair and anadded brightness to his eyes....
And in that case why had I come to see Madge Aird? What could Madge do?What could anybody do? If the thing was true it was inescapable. He_must_ go back. Not one single stage could be avoided. Beyond theseepisodes which he dreaded lay others that perhaps he need not dread, andothers beyond those, and others beyond those ... until he attainedsixteen....
I continued to muse and Madge to play.
At last Alec got contentedly up. He straightened the creases from hisdinner-jacket.
And, refilling his pipe as he went, he was off. Madge drew up a smalltable between us, untied the ribbons of her cothurnes, rubbed thecreases from her ankles, and worked her toes inside their sheath ofsilk.
"Well?" she said; and then with a little rapturous gush, "I can't getthe creature's beauty out of my head! That skin--that hair--and thosewonderful books! It isn't fair. It's too many gifts for one person. Heought to be nationalised or something--turned over to the public like apark."
"I want you to tell me who Mrs Bassett is," I said.
She bargained. "It's a swap, mind. If I tell you about her you tell meabout him."
"Tell me about her first."
"Well"--she settled herself comfortably--"I'm sorry to see you come downto my own scandalmongering level. Do you want to put her into_Nonentities I Have Known_? If so, I'll Who's-Who her for you. Heregoes. Bassett, Daphne, _nee_ Daphne Wade. O.D. (only daughter, George)of Horatio Wade, rector of somewhere in Sussex, I forget where, butJulia Oliphant will tell you. He, the rector, M. (married) 1, Daphne'smother, and was M.B. (married by) 2, the child's governess. He died inthe year of his Lord I forget exactly when, leaving Daphne a littlemoney, otherwise I can hardly see Bassett marrying her. But Hugo pulledit off all right. My broker knows him. He's in the Oil Crush now, but hewas playing margins on a capital of twenty pounds when Daphne (excuse myvulgarity) caught the last bus home."
"She's a friend of Miss Oliphant's, is she?"
"She was. She and Julia and Rose were children together. But I'm notsure Julia speaks to her since _The Parthian Arrow_. She meant it forhim all right, whether he meant his for her or not. Life's full of quiethumour, isn't it?"
I will abridge a little of my friend's liveliness. Indeed as she caughtas it were out of the air something of my own mood, she dropped much ofit herself. This was the substance of what she told me:
Derwent Rose had written a book called _An Ape in Hell_. I don't know,Derry never knew, I don't think anybody knows to this day, the realorigin of the expression that formed its title; and if I were a syndicof one of these New Dictionaries I think I should frankly confess asmuch, instead of merely quoting other books as saying that "_A woman whodies without bearing a child is said to lead an Ape in Hell_." Had Iwritten that book, and in my own way, I think the four corners of theearth would have heard of it; as Derwent Rose had written it, in hisway, he had merely achieved a masterpiece for the reading of generationsto come. Our contemporary agglomeration (if Mr Goddard is right) of tenand twelve years old intelligences had practically passed it over.Briefly, the book had to do with the merciless economic pressure thatalready, in 1910, made it difficult for people to marry in the freshnessof their youth, and practically suicidal to have children. I cannotdelay to say more of the book. I saw in it nothing but pity and beautyand tenderness and a savage and generous anger, and how anybody couldhave taken it in any other sense I could not imagine.
Yet one person had done so--a friend of his childhood, the author of_The Parthian Arrow_.
"One moment," I said when Madge arrived at this point. "There's onething that isn't quite clear. His book came out in 1910. Hers onlyappeared quite lately."
"That's so," she admitted.
"But nobody brings out a rejoinder ten years after the event."
"Well--she did. Read the book. Another thing: she started her bookimmediately his appeared, in 1910."
"How do you know that?"
"Those sleeves her heroine wears went out in 1910," was hercharacteristic reply. "She never even took the trouble to bring them upto date."
So that the rancour, if there was any, was not only persistent, butseemed to have a curiously desultory quality as well.
"Well--go on," I said.
But here she broke out suddenly: "But surely, George, even you can seewhere the _Ape_ must have hurt her!"
"As I've neither seen the lady nor read her book----"
"But you know what his book's all about.... It was in her childlessnessthat she felt it."
"_What!_" I cried. "Is anybody so stupid as to suppose that a man likeDerwent Rose would----"
"Wait a bit. Look at it as she sees it. She married at twenty-nine.She's forty-one now. And nothing's happened, and nothing's likely to.They were boy and girl together. Now suppose _I'd_ had an affair withsomebody in _my_ young days, and had married somebody else, and thenhe'd gone and--rubbed it in. I don't think I should have written a_Parthian Arrow_ even then, but I'm not going to drop dead when I hearthat another woman did."
"Doesn't that just prove it?" she cried triumphantly. "If she'd had ababy the first year she'd probably have forgotten all about her book.But when the second year came, and the third, and the fourth--well,thank God I've got my Jennie at school; but I can guess. These thingsget worse for a woman instead of better as time goes on. And now she'sforty-one. I can't say I see very much mystery about those ten years."
"But," I said, "all this rests on the assumption that at one time theywere lovers. He certainly didn't speak as if that had been so."
"Ah, then he has spoken of her! What did he say?"
"Just what you'd expect him to say, of course--that he's awfully sickhe's upset her without intending to, and wants to explain."
She mused. Then, with the most disconcerting promptitude, she laughedand threw her whole castle down to the ground.
"Well, I suppose I'm wrong. If that was really the colour of the Bear'shide I don't suppose he'd be a friend of yours, and I certainlyshouldn't want to meet him. It's because I'm probably wrong that it's sofascinating. I don't want to be right just yet. No, George, all I saidthis afternoon was that it was an interesting situation, and I defy youto say it isn't. Now tell me lots and lots about him."
But that was impossible. Once more every sane particle in me wasbeginning to doubt whether I had been in Cambridge Circus that eveningat all. Moreover, one other thing had struck me with something of ashock. This was those ten years during which Mrs Bassett had nursed heranger against him. Those ten years, for him, did not exist, or existedonly with the most amazing qualifications. As mere time they did notexist, but as experience they did. For him the _Arrow_ and the _Ape_were both contemporaneous and not. In one sense ten years separatedthem, but in another her retort had come back to him as it were byreturn of post. Desperately I tried to envisage a situation so utterlybeyond reason. I tried to set it out in my mind in parallel columns:
He was thirty-five when he wrote She was thirty-one when she read his _Ape_. it and began her rejoinder.
He was forty-five when he read She was forty-one at the time the _Arrow_. that he read it.
But he was thirty-five again. She was still forty-one.
He was going on getting younger. She would get no younger.
He was convinced he would die at She---- sixteen.
But I had to give it up. It made my head ache. It shocked my sense ofthe unities. And then fortunately there came a revulsion.
After all (I thought testily) Rose might consider himself a confoundedlylucky fellow. What, after all, was he grumbling at? Because he was goingto have his precious, precious youth all over again? His health andvigour and strength all over again, so that he could tear a book in twoas I might have torn a piece of paper? His clear skin and glossy hairand the keen sight of his eyes once more? He was luckier than poor Madgeand myself! And what, if that American was right, was he risking?Nothing that I could see, unless he should go beyond that age of themaximum of his faculties, which he was persuaded he would not do. And inaddition to the approaching brilliance of his youth it was notimpossible that he would keep the whole of his accumulated experience aswell. Not for him that old and b
"Now tell me about him," said Madge.
But she could not suppress a yawn as she said it. I knew that she, likemyself, was longing to slip out of her clothes and to get into bed.
"Another time," I said, wearily rising. "Which room are you putting mein?"
As she rose I did not notice what it was that she caught up from aside-table and put under her wrap. She preceded me upstairs. The roominto which she showed me was one I had occupied before, and only a minorchange or two had since been made. One of these caught my eye. It was aleather-framed photograph of Miss Oliphant that stood with thereading-lamp on the bedside table.
"Well, good night," Madge yawned. "They'll bring you tea up. Don't readtoo long--bad for the eyes and the electric-light bill----"
Then it was that I noticed the book she had quietly slipped on to thetable. It was Mrs Bassett's book, _The Parthian Arrow_.
Part of the fuss my numerous friends made about my Knighthood was thisdesire of theirs that my portrait should be painted and hung up in theLyonnesse Club. Whether in fact I shall ever look down from thosebuff-washed walls I am at present unable to say. That rests with MissJulia Oliphant. I myself merely have the feeling that if she doesn'tpaint me I hardly wish to be painted.
Her name was not among those originally chosen by the Portrait Committeeand submitted to me. It was Madge who, by half-past twelve the followingday, had decided to include her. We were walking along together toGloucester Road Station. Madge was going out to lunch.
"Well, go and see her," she said.... "But they ought to have let yousleep on, George. I wish I hadn't left you that book."
"Oh, I'm perfectly fit and fresh. The Boltons, you said? I shall go andsee her this afternoon."
"You say you don't know her well?"
"I've met her once."
We entered the station. I took my friend's ticket. I saw her to the gateof her lift, and the attendant paused, his hand on the iron lattice.
"Well," she said, "I think you'll find that won't matter. Let me knowhow you go on. Good-bye--and you can tell the Bear from me that nodecent person believes a word of it."
And with a wave of her hand across the grille she sank with the liftinto the ground.
I walked to my Club, lunched alone, and then, in a corner of thesmoking-room, busied myself with my rather scanty recollections of thelady I was going to see that afternoon. Though I had only actually mether upon one occasion, we had a sort of hearsay acquaintance inaddition. She and Derwent Rose had been children together, and one doesnot begin quite at the beginning with the friends of one's friends.Moreover, there are these people whom one may actually meet only at wideintervals, but over whom absence does not seem to have its ordinarypower. Nothing seems to ice over, you come together again at the pointwhere you left off. Perhaps because you draw your nourishment from thesame elements, you are able to take the gaps for granted.
Nevertheless, of my own single personal meeting with Miss Oliphant Icould remember little but her eyes. I had been presented to her across asmall dinner-table, with rosy-shaded electric candles, that had turnedthose great eyes pansy-black in the pinky gloom. I had guessed that inthe daylight they were of the deep brown kind that, alas, so frequentlymeans glasses for reading and distressing headaches; but what had struckme at the time had been their quiet readiness and familiarity, as ifthey said to me, "He's told me about you; I wonder what he's said toyou about me!"
And now those same eyes, photographed in a leather frame, had watched meduring the whole of the previous night. They had watched me as I hadread that awful book. Darkly watchful and expectant, they had seen myfirst amazed incredulity, then my successive waves of anger. "But goon," they had seemed ever to urge me; "there's much more to come!"
And under the bedside lamp they had been still watching me when the maidhad brought in tea and had flung the curtains aside, admitting thebright sunshine.
Then, when the book had dropped from my hand to the floor, they hadsaid, "Don't you think it would be rather a good thing if you were tocome to see me?"
I am not going to advertise that hateful book of Mrs Bassett's. If Icould have torn it in two as Rose had torn it I should have done so. Shehad hardly changed his name--for what was "Kendal Thorne" but DerwentRose? So I will merely say that to old memories she had added new andmalicious inventions, and had produced a ridiculous grotesque of a vainand peevish childhood, an impossibly blatant youth, and a culminationborn of her own distorted imagination. It was for her, and not forhimself, that he had blushed. For her sake he would have torn up everysingle copy of it if by that means it could never have been. He couldhave scolded her, shaken her, smacked her, ashamed, angry and helplessas one is before an ill-conditioned child who nevertheless has claims onone. That there could ever have been any passage between them her bookput entirely out of the question. And so much for _The Parthian Arrow_.
At half-past three that afternoon I was at the Boltons, ringing MissOliphant's bell. A tiny maid admitted me, and I was shown into a sort ofalcove with a good deal of tapestry and bric-a-brac and brass about, thesort of things the artists of half a generation ago affected for thesake of their "colour." Nor was the studio into which I was presentlyshown much different from a hundred other studios I had seen. Theseglass-roofed, indigo-blinded, north-lighted wells, I may say, alwaysdepress me, and had I to live in one of them I should instantly have aside-window cut, so that I might at least have a glimpse once in a whileof somebody who passed in the outer world.
But somehow the place suited Miss Oliphant. Perhaps it was the northlight. Artists choose the north light because it varies little, andthere was something about her that didn't vary very much either. Shecame through a portiere-hung door, and as she stood there for a moment,not surprised (for I had telephoned that I was coming), but with thatfamiliarity and expectancy once more in her dark eyes, I was able tocheck this cool and composed impression of her with my former one ofover-lustrous eyes in the pinky gloom of the shaded lamps of thedinner-table.
Her hair, like her eyes, was dark; but she had a habit rather than astyle of dressing it. It was piled in a high mass over her white brow,quite neatly, but rather as if to have it out of the way and done withthan as making the most of its rich glossy treasure. A dateless, but byno means inappropriate tea-gown of filmy grey with a gold threadsomewhere in it showed her long harmonious lines of limb and allowed herbreasts to be guessed at; and the ripeness of her shoulders set off herlong and almost too slender neck. She had cool and beautiful hands,sleeved to the wrist; but the daylight added to her years. At our formermeeting I should have said she was thirty-five. Now I saw that she couldhardly be less than forty.
She took my hand for a moment, smiled, but without speaking, and beganto busy herself at a Benares tray. She reinserted the plug of anelectric kettle, which immediately broke into a purr. She listened for amoment with her ear at the kettle, and then suddenly filled the teapot.She spoke, once more smiling, through the little cloudlet of steam.
"Do sit down," she said, indicating a "property" curule chair. "Well,how's Derry? Have you seen him lately?"
I made a note of the name she too called him by, and said, Yes, I hadseen him yesterday. "I'm sorry to say he seemed worried," I added.
"Oh? What's worrying him?" she asked, withdrawing the plug from the walland popping a cosy over the pot. It was a French cosy, a dainty littleporcelain Marie Antoinette, with a sac and a padded and filigreedpetticoat, and I remember thinking that if Miss Oliphant ever went tofancy-dress dances the costume of her cosy would have suited her verywell.
"Have you read that horrible woman's horrible book?" I asked herpoint-blank.
"_The Parthian Arrow?_ Yes, I've read it," she said equably.
"Well, I should say that's one of the things that'
She considered the teapot. "We'll give it two minutes and then take thebag out," she remarked. Then, "Oh yes, I've read it. I don't think sheneed have written it either. But it is written, and there's an end ofit. As for Derry, anybody who knows him knows that his whole life's beenone marvellous mistake after another. He dodges it somehow in his books,but he knows nothing whatever about women in real life. Never did.Sugar?"
This was hardly what Madge Aird had led me to expect. I had gatheredfrom her that Miss Oliphant and Mrs Bassett had more or less fallen outabout that book; in fact Madge had definitely said, "I'm not sure thatthey speak now." But here was Miss Oliphant, Rose's friend, not onlyquite inadequately angry on the one hand, but on the other talking aboutRose's ignorance of women almost as if he had been as much to blame asMrs Bassett herself.... Moreover, when a woman tells a man that anotherman knows nothing about women, the man who is spoken to invariably triesthe words on himself to see whether he too is included in thedisparagement. My understanding of Miss Oliphant, such as it was,suddenly failed me. I looked at her again to see whether, and if sowhere, I had made a mistake.
She was doing a perfectly innocent little thing, one that at any othertime I might have found charming. Her long fingers were slyly liftingthe tops of sandwich after sandwich in search of the kind she wanted. Achild does the same thing with sweets--and sometimes goes beyond merepeeping. But the infantility of the gesture jarred on me, and jarred noless when, her eyes meeting mine, she laughed, pouted, and said: "Well,after all, I cut them." I did not smile. Her coolness and unconcern whena friend was savagely attacked disappointed me. As for the portrait thatwas to have been the excuse for my call on her, I was glad now that ithadn't been mentioned. I now doubted whether I should mention it. I hadsupposed her to be a woman--not merely a female painter who gave a malesitter tea in her studio.
"I don't understand you," I said, a little curtly I'm afraid. "You speakas if that book was a mere point of view to which she's entitled."
Again she smiled at me, as if she liked me very much.
"Well, she has her point of view. It's evident that you don't know MrsBassett."
"Her book's told me all about her that I ever want to know."
"So," she laughed, "you're just showing how cross you can be?"
At that moment there came a ring at the bell. She was on her feetinstantly, as if to forestall the little maid. With less tact than ever,I thought, her fingertips touched my shoulder lightly as she passed byme. It was only then that I noticed that the Benares tray held a thirdcup and saucer.
The next moment she had shown Mrs Bassett herself in.
I am going to show Mrs Bassett in and out of this story again with allpossible speed. Only once have I set eyes on the lady since, and thatwas in a moment when I was far too occupied with other matters to giveher more than a glance. She came in, a fluff of cendre hair, surmountedby a hat made of a thousand brilliant tiny blue feathers. This wasintended to enhance the pallid blue of her eyes; as a matter of fact itcompletely extinguished it. She was a Christmas-tree of silver stole andsilver muff, toy dog, and a pale blue padded and embroidered object thatI presently discovered to be the dog's quilt. I was presented to her,bowed, and--suddenly found myself alone with her. Miss Oliphant hadpicked up the teapot and was nowhere to be seen.
And this was the kind of arch ripple that proceeded from the author of_The Parthian Arrow_:
"Oh, how d'you do, Sir George? Really a red-letter day. Sir GeorgeCoverham and Julia Oliphant together. Quite a galaxy--or is galaxy wrongand does it take more than two to make one, like the Milky Way?--_Oh,Puppetty, my stole!_--You mustn't mind if I ask you thousands ofquestions--I always do when I meet distinguished people--peep behind thescenes, eh?--_Puppetty, I shall slap you!_"--a tap on the beast'sboot-button of a nose. "_So_ handsome, Julia is, don't you think? Not ina picture-postcard sort of way, perhaps, but such character (don't youcall it?) and such a lovely figure! I know if I were a man I should fallhead over ears in love with her! Do you mind, Sir George?"
She meant, not did I mind falling in love with Miss Oliphant, but did Imind taking the dog's cradle and quilt from her arms. I did so, made mybow as Miss Oliphant appeared again, and moved quickly towards thealcove where I had left my hat.
But it was Miss Oliphant herself who stopped me, and stopped me not somuch by her quietly-spoken words--"I want you to stay"--as by the suddencommand in her eyes. This was quite unmistakable. For the first timesince I had entered her studio I saw the woman I had expected to see.That look was too imperious altogether to disobey. I sat down again.
I swear that Mrs Bassett wore that silver stole twenty different ways inas many minutes. The air about her was ceaselessly in motion. IfPuppetty was in his quilted cradle she had him out; if he was out sheput him back again and tucked him in. She kissed and scolded thewretched beast, and discussed Miss Oliphant's pictures and my own books.Only her own book she never once mentioned. And I sat, saying as littleas possible, looking from one to the other of the two women.
Then, out of the very excess of the contrast between them, light beganto dawn on me. All at once I found myself saying to myself, "This can'tbe what it appears to be. There's something behind it all. Look at themsitting there, and believe if you can that the one who's pouring out teacouldn't, for sheer womanliness, eat the other alive! Look at her! She'sa whole packed-full history behind her, and one that's by no means at anend yet. It radiates from every particle of her. Of course Miss Oliphantcares just as much as you do when her friend's attacked. She's adifferent way of showing it, that's all. See if she isn't putting thatother one through her paces now, and for your benefit. She's not keepingyou here without a reason. Sit still and watch."
I repeat that I said this to myself.
And from that moment I knew I was on the right track.
At last Mrs Bassett rose to go. I assure you that I was on my feetalmost before she was, for I knew that my talk with Miss Oliphant wasnot now to be resumed--it was to begin. The author of _The ParthianArrow_ was piled up with quilts, cradles and Puppetty again, and I needsay no more about the thickness of her skin than that she gave me hertelephone number and asked me to go and see her. I bowed, and JuliaOliphant towered over her as she showed her out.
Seldom in my life have I held a door open for a woman with greaterpleasure.
The outer door closed, and Miss Oliphant reappeared and crossed slowlyto the settee. I now knew beyond all doubt that I was right. She seemedsuddenly exhausted. She passed her hand wearily over those too-lustrouseyes. Listlessly she told me to smoke if I wanted to. Then shecontinued to sit in silence.
At last she roused a little. She turned her eyes on me.
"Well--now you've seen the author of _The Parthian Arrow_."
I made no remark.
"And," she continued, "you did exactly as I expected--exactly what a manwould do."
"What was that?"
"You'd one look, and then you turned away."
"One look was enough."
"Oh, you all think you've got rid of a thing when you've turned yourbacks on it. That's the way men quarrel. 'Oh, So-and-So's a bounder;blackball him and have done with it.' And so long as he isn't in yourClub he doesn't exist for you."
I pondered, my eyes on her old-fashioned studio-trappings. "Well, saythat's a man's way of defending his friend. What's a woman's?"
Our eyes met once more, and I knew a very great deal about Miss JuliaOliphant by the time she had uttered her next six words.
"A woman has her to tea," she replied.
Then, as if something within her would no longer be pent up, she brokeinto rapid speech.
"Oh, _I_ know you men! You're all too, too kind! Forgive me if I say Ithink you like the feeling. It pleases you, and you don't stop to thinkthat it puts all the more on us. You make your magnificent gesture, butwe have to go round picking up after you. Do you think I'd let thatwoman out of my sight
"To trick me?"
"Yes, when you first came in. I saw you were puzzled and--disappointedin me. You see, when a person's coming to tea and may be here any momentyou have to keep some sort of hand on yourself. It isn't the time toindulge your real feelings. So I took no chances. I'm sorry if I threwyou off the track.... Well, you've seen her, and you've read her book.Tell me where you think the toy dog comes in."
She was speaking vehemently enough now. She did not give me time toreply.
"I'll tell you. You and Derry--all the decent men--a toy dog fetches youevery time. You're all so, _so_ kind! You see tragedies and emptycradles and all the rest of it straight away. And perhaps once in awhile you're right. But you can take it from me you're wrong this time.I've known her all my life, and I don't believe she ever for a singlemoment wanted a child. She'd never have put up with the bother of one.So Derry's worrying all about nothing. All that sticks in her throat isthat she imagines she's been pilloried as not being able to have one.Her vanity was hurt, not her motherhood at all. Now that she's got ridof that bookful of bile I think she's a perfectly happy woman. Her daysare just one succession of shopping and matinees and calls andmanicuring and Turkish baths and getting rid of Bassett's money. It wasjust the same during the war--flag-days and driving convalescents about,and bits of canteen-work and committees by the score.... Oh, Derryneedn't worry his head; tragedy's quite out of the picture! Let's havethe truth. No weeping Niobe--just scents and powders and Puppetty and animaginary grievance--that's her."
I think it is my own sex that is the merciful one, at any rate to woman.Man has made radiant veils for her, has shut his eyes to this or thatstark aspect of her, because the world has to go on by his efforts andhe cannot afford to begin his scheme of things all over again every timehe sees the red light of the prime in a woman's eyes. Julia Oliphant hadspoken cruelly, ruthlessly, without decency; and I now knew why. Nowoman cares that a wrong is done in the abstract. Her bitterness andhate ever mean that someone dear to her has been subjected to indignityand pain. And suddenly I rose from my seat, crossed to the settee, and,sitting down by Julia Oliphant's side, did a thing I am not in thehabit of doing upon a short acquaintance. I took both her hands intomine.
With as little hesitation as I had taken them her fingers closed onmine. And I fancied the quick strong pressure answered the question Iwas going to ask her before ever my lips spoke it. It had all been theremonths before--all prepared and promised in that first steady intimatelook across the rosy-shaded candles of that dinner-table. I spoke quitequietly.
"Isn't there something I'd better know--and hadn't you better tell menow?" I said.
Again that firm cool pressure of the fingers. The tired eyes lookedgratefully into mine.
"I always knew you'd be like that if only----"
"Then tell me. Because when you've done I've something to tell you."
God knows what fires were instantly ablaze in the depths of the eyes.
"About him?" broke instantly from her lips.
"You tell me first."
The fires died down, and the voice dropped again.
"Tell you? I don't mind telling you.... Of course; all my life; eversince we were children together. Not that he ever gave me a thought. Butthat made no difference."
And having said it she had said all. I saw the beginning of the firesagain. She went straight on. "Now what were you going to tell me?"
Remember it was not yet eighteen hours since Derwent Rose had thrust meout of his door, torn between an angel and a devil within himself. Butwhat are eighteen hours to a man who has two scales of time? To him theymight represent years of experience. He had clung desperately to hisbetter man, but--who knew?--already he might be less accessible to theangelic. If I was not already too late, to catch him while he was ofthat same mind and will was the important thing. If this woman who hadjust told me with such touching simplicity that she had loved him allher life was indeed his good angel, it seemed to me that here was herwork waiting for her. I saw her as none the less loving that she couldvehemently hate for the protection of her love. That she would fly tohim the moment her mind grasped his story I had not an instant's doubt.Nor did I stop to consider that I might be betraying something he didnot wish known. It was no time for subtleties. Remembering his anguish,I did not think he would refuse any help that was to be had. Here by myside was his cure if cure there was to be found.
Still with her hands in mine, I took my plunge.
The first time she interrupted me was very much where I had interruptedhim. She wanted to know, apart from mere imaginary changes that mighthave been due to variable health, what visible proofs there were of allthis. I wished to spare her those two ( )'s on Rose's neck, but shesmiled ever so faintly.
"Yes, you're all nice dears. But I know perfectly well the kind of thingit might be. So don't let that trouble you. It's important, you know."
So I told her. She merely nodded. "He never did know anything aboutwomen," she said. "Go on."
Her next interruption came when I spoke of his tearing the book, thoughthis was more of a confirmation than a true interruption.
"He was a perfectly glorious athlete," she remarked calmly, "but healways hated pot-hunting, and later of course his books interfered withhis training a good deal. I remember once ... but never mind. I wonderif we shall have all that over again?"
"Then you've managed to swallow the monstrous thing so far?" I said inwonder.
"I told you his life had been one marvellous mistake after another. Goon," she replied.
But as I proceeded her calm became less and less assured. I waspurposely omitting from my account such elements as might tend toagitate her, but she seemed to divine this, and perhaps she thought Isuppressed more than I did. Suddenly she broke out:
"Never mind all that about ratios. I don't know anything about ratios.The point is, when does he expect the next--attack?"
"I hardly know--I rather think----" I began, now quite violently holdingher hands, which she had tried to withdraw. She had also attempted torise.
"Soon? A month? A week? To-morrow?" she demanded.
"He's not sure himself, but I'm rather afraid----"
She allowed me to say no more. She plucked her hands from mineand ran out of the studio. I heard the single faint "ting" of atelephone-receiver being lifted from its fork, and a moment later, "Isthat the taxi-rank? The Boltons--Miss Oliphant--as quick as you can."
Three minutes later she reappeared. She had thrown a wrap over hertea-gown, and was hurriedly tying a scarf under her chin.
"Isn't that taxi here yet? How long should it take from here toCambridge Circus?"
"Twenty or twenty-five minutes."
"You'd better come with me. You can tell me the rest on the way.... Whata time he is taking! Wouldn't it be quicker to pick one up outside?Listen--no, that's only letters. Perhaps the man's waiting and hasn'trung--let's wait at the street entrance--here's your hat----"
She opened the inner door, kicked aside the letters on the floor, andsped along the corridor. The taxi glided up as we reached the entrance.
The next minute we were on our way.
The streets were full and our progress was slow. People were hurrying totheir homeward tubes, running along in knots of a dozen or a score atthe tails of the slowing-down omnibuses.
"Surely there ought to be a quicker way than along Oxford Street at thishour!" she exclaimed petulantly. Then she threw herself back in thecorner. Apparently she had forgotten all about the rest of my story. Oneidea and one only possessed her--haste, haste. I am perfectly sure thathad she been in the driver's seat not an uplifted blue and white cuff inLondon would have stopped her.
And her restlessness communicated itself to me. I too felt that intalking to Madge Aird the previous evening, in reading that wretchedbook all night, in not having told Miss Oliphant straight away what Ihad to say, I had lost precious time. Some step ought to have been takenquicker--immediatel
"Damn!" I said as another extended arm stopped us; and Julia Oliphantsank back, biting her lip.
Then an endless wait at the corner of Charing Cross Road....
But even that taxi-drive had to come to an end.
"It's just near here, isn't it?" she asked, her hand on the door; and Isprang out. It would be quicker to walk the last few yards. These fewyards, however, nearly cost Miss Oliphant her life, for I only justsucceeded in dragging her out of the way of a newsboy's bicycle thatdarted like a minnow from behind a heavy dray. We stood at Rose's door.
I pressed the button of his bell, which was the third of a littlevertical row of four; but even as I did so I noticed something unusualabout its appearance. The little brass slip that bore his name had gone.I was unable to say whether it had been there on the previous evening,as he himself had admitted me, but gone it was now, and from certainindications it seemed not to have been unscrewed, but wrenched off. Myheart sank, but I was careful to conceal from Miss Oliphant theforeboding I felt.
"He may be out," I muttered. "I'll ring for the housekeeper."
To fetch Mrs Hyems up from her basement took more time, but at last sheappeared, and a look of mingled perplexity and relief came into the eyesthat met mine.
"Mr Rose?" I said.
"Aren't you the gentleman as came last night, sir?" she said. "Didn't hego out with you? I heard you come down; about eleven o'clock it wouldbe; and he didn't seem to be not a minute after you----"
"Hasn't he been back since?"
"I can't make it out, sir. He hasn't been to bed, and there was a notefor me on his table this morning. Paid all up he has, but not a wordabout his milk nor his washing nor his letters nor when he's comingback. And he left his door open, which that isn't his way. Perhaps you'dlike to come up, sir?"
We followed her up the stairs. His door still stood wide open, and asfar as I could see his room was exactly as I had left it last night. Themedicine-ball still lay where it had rolled on the floor, the cushionsof the sofa still bore the imprint of his body. I turned to thecaretaker.
"You say he's paid you, Mrs Hyems?"
"To the end of the week, sir, except for his washing and ceterer."
"And he's left no address?"
"No more than I tell you, sir."
"Then," I said briskly, "I should just tidy his room and close his door.He'll probably be back to-night. If he isn't let me know. Here's myaddress."
But as I said it I seemed to see again those marks where his name-platehad been. Derry always carried, suspended in his trousers-pocket by alittle swivelled thong, one of those fearsome-looking compendium knivesthat consist of half a dozen tools in one. The plate had not beenunscrewed; what he had done had been to thrust one of these bladesbehind it and to rip it bodily from its bed. I pictured it all only tooclearly. Myself carefully watched out of the way--a cheque hurriedlywritten--a gulp of whisky perhaps and the call of the streets--a dashdownstairs with his door left open behind him--a minute's feverish workover the plate.... He had left his books, his papers, his furniture, hismedicine-ball. But his name he had taken away, and I did not think thatthose rooms in Cambridge Circus would see Derwent Rose's face any more.
The Tower of Oblivion by Oliver Onions / Science Fiction have rating 3.8 out of 5 / Based on19 votes