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The Longest Journey(Chapter30)

2006-08-29 01:13

  Part 3. Wiltshire Chapter XXX

  Stephen, the son of these people, had one instinct that troubled him. At night——especially out of doors——it seemed rather strange that he was alive. The dry grass pricked his cheek, the fields were invisible and mute, and here was he, throwing stones at the darkness or smoking a pipe. The stones vanished, the pipe would burn out. But he would be here in the morning when the sun rose, and he would bathe, and run in the mist. He was proud of his good circulation, and in the morning it seemed quite natural. But at night, why should there be this difference between him and the acres of land that cooled all round him until the sun returned? What lucky chance had heated him up, and sent him, warm and lovable, into a passive world? He had other instincts, but these gave him no trouble. He simply gratified each as it occurred, provided he could do so without grave injury to his fellows. But the instinct to wonder at the night was not to be thus appeased. At first he had lived under the care of Mr. Failing the only person to whom his mother spoke freely, the only person who had treated her neither as a criminal nor as a pioneer. In their rare but intimate conversations she had asked him to educate her son. "I will teach him Latin," he answered. "The rest such a boy must remember." Latin, at all events, was a failure: who could attend to Virgil when the sound of the thresher arose, and you knew that the stack was decreasing and that rats rushed more plentifully each moment to their doom? But he was fond of Mr. Failing, and cried when he died. Mrs. Elliot, a pleasant woman, died soon after.

  There was something fatal in the order of these deaths. Mr. Failing had made no provision for the boy in his will: his wife had promised to see to this. Then came Mr. Elliot's death, and, before the new home was created, the sudden death of Mrs. Elliot. She also left Stephen no money: she had none to leave. Chance threw him into the power of Mrs. Failing. "Let things go on as they are," she thought. "I will take care of this pretty little boy, and the ugly little boy can live with the Silts. After my death——well, the papers will be found after my death, and they can meet then. I like the idea of their mutual ignorance. It is amusing."

  He was then twelve. With a few brief intervals of school, he lived in Wiltshire until he was driven out. Life had two distinct sides——the drawing-room and the other. In the drawing-room people talked a good deal, laughing as they talked. Being clever, they did not care for animals: one man had never seen a hedgehog. In the other life people talked and laughed separately, or even did neither. On the whole, in spite of the wet and gamekeepers, this life was preferable. He knew where he was. He glanced at the boy, or later at the man, and behaved accordingly. There was no law—— the policeman was negligible. Nothing bound him but his own word, and he gave that sparingly.

  It is impossible to be romantic when you have your heart's desire, and such a boy disappointed Mrs. Failing greatly. His parents had met for one brief embrace, had found one little interval between the power of the rulers of this world and the power of death. He was the child of poetry and of rebellion, and poetry should run in his veins. But he lived too near the things he loved to seem poetical. Parted from them, he might yet satisfy her, and stretch out his hands with a pagan's yearning. As it was, he only rode her horses, and trespassed, and bathed, and worked, for no obvious reason, upon her fields. Affection she did not believe in, and made no attempt to mould him; and he, for his part, was very content to harden untouched into a man. His parents had given him excellent gifts——health, sturdy limbs, and a face not ugly,——gifts that his habits confirmed. They had also given him a cloudless spirit——the spirit of the seventeen days in which he was created. But they had not given him the spirit of their sit years of waiting, and love for one person was never to be the greatest thing he knew.

  "Philosophy" had postponed the quarrel between them. Incurious about his personal origin, he had a certain interest in our eternal problems. The interest never became a passion: it sprang out of his physical growth, and was soon merged in it again. Or, as he put it himself, "I must get fixed up before starting." He was soon fixed up as a materialist. Then he tore up the sixpenny reprints, and never amused Mrs. Failing so much again.

  About the time he fixed himself up, he took to drink. He knew of no reason against it. The instinct was in him, and it hurt nobody. Here, as elsewhere, his motions were decided, and he passed at once from roaring jollity to silence. For those who live on the fuddled borderland, who crawl home by the railings and maunder repentance in the morning, he had a biting contempt. A man must take his tumble and his headache. He was, in fact, as little disgusting as is conceivable; and hitherto he had not strained his constitution or his will. Nor did he get drunk as often as Agnes suggested. Thc real quarrel gathered elsewhere.

  Presentable people have run wild in their youth. But the hour comes when they turn from their boorish company to higher things. This hour never came for Stephen. Somewhat a bully by nature, he kept where his powers would tell, and continued to quarrel and play with the men he had known as boys. He prolonged their youth unduly. "They won't settle down," said Mr. Wilbraham to his wife. "They're wanting things. It's the germ of a Trades Union. I shall get rid of a few of the worst." Then Stephen rushed up to Mrs. Failing and worried her. "It wasn't fair. So-and-so was a good sort. He did his work. Keen about it? No. Why should he be? Why should he be keen about somebody else's land? But keen enough. And very keen on football." She laughed, and said a word about So-and-so to Mr. Wilbraham. Mr. Wilbraham blazed up. "How could the farm go on without discipline? How could there be discipline if Mr. Stephen interfered? Mr. Stephen liked power. He spoke to the men like one of themselves, and pretended it was all equality, but he took care to come out top. Natural, of course, that, being a gentleman, he should. But not natural for a gentleman to loiter all day with poor people and learn their work, and put wrong notions into their heads, and carry their newfangled grievances to Mrs. Failing. Which partly accounted for the deficit on the past year." She rebuked Stephen. Then he lost his temper, was rude to her, and insulted Mr. Wilbraham.

  The worst days of Mr. Failing's rule seemed to be returning. And Stephen had a practical experience, and also a taste for battle, that her husband had never possessed. He drew up a list of grievances, some absurd, others fundamental. No newspapers in the reading-room, you could put a plate under the Thompsons' door, no level cricket-pitch, no allotments and no time to work in them, Mrs. Wilbraham's knife-boy underpaid. "Aren't you a little unwise?" she asked coldly. "I am more bored than you think over the farm." She was wanting to correct the proofs of the book and rewrite the prefatory memoir. In her irritation she wrote to Agnes. Agnes replied sympathetically, and Mrs. Failing, clever as she was, fell into the power of the younger woman. They discussed him at first as a wretch of a boy; then he got drunk and somehow it seemed more criminal. All that she needed now was a personal grievance, which Agnes casually supplied. Though vindictive, she was determined to treat him well, and thought with satisfaction of our distant colonies. But he burst into an odd passion: he would sooner starve than leave England. "Why?" she asked. "Are you in love?" He picked up a lump of the chalk-they were by the arbour——and made no answer. The vicar murmured, "It is not like going abroad——Greater Britain——blood is thicker than water——" A lump of chalk broke her drawing-room window on the Saturday.

  Thus Stephen left Wiltshire, half-blackguard, half-martyr. Do not brand him as a socialist. He had no quarrel with society, nor any particular belief in people because they are poor. He only held the creed of "here am I and there are you," and therefore class distinctions were trivial things to him, and life no decorous scheme, but a personal combat or a personal truce. For the same reason ancestry also was trivial, and a man not the dearer because the same woman was mother to them both. Yet it seemed worth while to go to Sawston with the news. Perhaps nothing would come of it; perhaps friendly intercourse, and a home while he looked around.

  When they wronged him he walked quietly away. He never thought of allotting the blame, nor or appealing to Ansell, who still sat brooding in the side-garden. He only knew that educated people could be horrible, and that a clean liver must never enter Dunwood House again. The air seemed stuffy. He spat in the gutter. Was it yesterday he had lain in the rifle-butts over Salisbury? Slightly aggrieved, he wondered why he was not back there now. "I ought to have written first," he reflected. "Here is my money gone. I cannot move. The Elliots have, as it were, practically robbed me." That was the only grudge he retained against them. Their suspicions and insults were to him as the curses of a tramp whom he passed by the wayside. They were dirty people, not his sort. He summed up the complicated tragedy as a "take in."

  While Rickie was being carried upstairs, and while Ansell (had he known it) was dashing about the streets for him, he lay under a railway arch trying to settle his plans. He must pay back the friends who had given him shillings and clothes. He thought of Flea, whose Sundays he was spoiling——poor Flea, who ought to be in them now, shining before his girl. "I daresay he'll be ashamed and not go to see her, and then she'll take the other man." He was also very hungry. That worm Mrs. Elliot would be through her lunch by now. Trying his braces round him, and tearing up those old wet documents, he stepped forth to make money. A villainous young brute he looked: his clothes were dirty, and he had lost the spring of the morning. Touching the walls, frowning, talking to himself at times, he slouched disconsolately northwards; no wonder that some tawdry girls screamed at him, or that matrons averted their eyes as they hurried to afternoon church. He wandered from one suburb to another, till he was among people more villainous than himself, who bought his tobacco from him and sold him food. Again the neighbourhood "went up," and families, instead of sitting on their doorsteps, would sit behind thick muslin curtains. Again it would "go down" into a more avowed despair. Far into the night he wandered, until he came to a solemn river majestic as a stream in hell. Therein were gathered the waters of Central England——those that flow off Hindhead, off the Chilterns, off Wiltshire north of the Plain. Therein they were made intolerable ere they reached the sea. But the waters he had known escaped. Their course lay southward into the Avon by forests and beautiful fields, even swift, even pure, until they mirrored the tower of Christchurch and greeted the ramparts of the Isle of Wight. Of these he thought for a moment as he crossed the black river and entered the heart of the modern world. Here he found employment. He was not hampered by genteel traditions, and, as it was near quarter-day, managed to get taken on at a furniture warehouse. He moved people from the suburbs to London, from London to the suburbs, from one suburb to another. His companions were hurried and querulous. In particular, he loathed the foreman, a pious humbug who allowed no swearing, but indulged in something far more degraded——the Cockney repartee. The London intellect, so pert and shallow, like a stream that never reaches the ocean, disgusted him almost as much as the London physique, which for all its dexterity is not permanent, and seldom continues into the third generation. His father, had he known it, had felt the same; for between Mr. Elliot and the foreman the gulf was social, not spiritual: both spent their lives in trying to be clever. And Tony Failing had once put the thing into words: "There's no such thing as a Londoner. He's only a country man on the road to sterility."

  At the end of ten days he had saved scarcely anything. Once he passed the bank where a hundred pounds lay ready for him, but it was still inconvenient for him to take them. Then duty sent him to a suburb not very far from Sawston. In the evening a man who was driving a trap asked him to hold it, and by mistake tipped him a sovereign. Stephen called after him; but the man had a woman with him and wanted to show off, and though he had meant to tip a shilling, and could not afford that, he shouted back that his sovereign was as good as any one's, and that if Stephen did not think so he could do various things and go to various places. On the action of this man much depends. Stephen changed the sovereign into a postal order, and sent it off to the people at Cadford. It did not pay them back, but it paid them something, and he felt that his soul was free.

  A few shillings remained in his pocket. They would have paid his fare towards Wiltshire, a good county; but what should he do there? Who would employ him? Today the journey did not seem worth while. "Tomorrow, perhaps," he thought, and determined to spend the money on pleasure of another kind. Two-pence went for a ride on an electric tram. From the top he saw the sun descend——a disc with a dark red edge. The same sun was descending over Salisbury intolerably bright. Out of the golden haze the spire would be piercing, like a purple needle; then mists arose from the Avon and the other streams. Lamps flickered, but in the outer purity the villages were already slumbering. Salisbury is only a Gothic upstart beside these. For generations they have come down to her to buy or to worship, and have found in her the reasonable crisis of their lives; but generations before she was built they were clinging to the soil, and renewing it with sheep and dogs and men, who found the crisis of their lives upon Stonehenge. The blood of these men ran in Stephen; the vigour they had won for him was as yet untarnished; out on those downs they had united with rough women to make the thing he spoke of as "himself"; the last of them has rescued a woman of a different kind from streets and houses such as these. As the sun descended he got off the tram with a smile of expectation. A public-house lay opposite, and a boy in a dirty uniform was already lighting its enormous lamp. His lips parted, and he went in.

  Two hours later, when Rickie and Herbert were going the rounds, a brick came crashing at the study window. Herbert peered into the garden, and a hooligan slipped by him into the house, wrecked the hall, lurched up the stairs, fell against the banisters, balanced for a moment on his spine, and slid over. Herbert called for the police. Rickie, who was upon the landing, caught the man by the knees and saved his life.

  "What is it?" cried Agnes, emerging.

  "It's Stephen come back," was the answer. "Hullo, Stephen!"

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