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The Challoners written by E.F. Benson who was an English novelist, biographer, memoirist, archaeologist and short story writer. This book was published in 1904. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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E. F. Benson
The hot stress of a real midsummer day towards the end of June had given place to the exquisite tempered warmth of evening, and a little breeze born of the hour before sunset, and made fragrant among the glowing flower-beds of the vicarage garden just ruffled the hair of Helen Challoner as she half sat, half lay in a long deck-chair at the edge of the croquet-lawn, reading a red-covered book with the absorbed intentness which she devoted to any occupation that interested her. To the west a line of tall box-hedge, of that smooth and compacted growth which many years alone can give, screened her from the level rays of the sun, which was but an hour above the horizon, and performed the almost more desirable function of screening her from the windows of the house, for a cigarette was between her fingers, and the juxtaposition of women and tobacco was a combination that had probably never occurred to her father as possible. The cigarette, however, was as a matter of fact wasting its sweetness uninhaled and burning down with a long peninsula of charred paper on the leeward side of it, for her book absorbed her quite completely. Indeed, this seat here under cover of the box-hedge was a manœuvre of double strategy, for the book was no less anathema in this house than the cigarette, being, in fact, “The Mill on the Floss,” by an author who, however celebrated, yet remained in the opinion both of Helen’s father and aunt a person of unchristian belief and heathenish conduct.
Helen wore no hat, and the dusky, smouldering gold of her hair burned low over her forehead. Her eyelids, smooth with the unwrinkled firmness of flesh of twenty-two years, drooped low over her book, but between the lids there showed a thin line of matchless violet. There were but a few pages more to read, and her underlip, full and sensitive in outline, quivered from time to time with the emotion that so filled her, and her breath came quickly through her thin nostrils. As she read on, her half-smoked cigarette dropped from between the fingers of her left hand and sent up little whorls of blue smoke as it lay unheeded on the grass, and her eyes grew suddenly dim. Then the last page was turned, and with a sudden sobbing intake of her breath she closed the book.
She sat quite still for a moment, the book lying in her lap, looking with misty, unseeing eyes over the great stretch of open land and sky in front of her. In the immediate foreground lay the croquet-lawn, with disjected mallets and aimless balls scattered about, while slowly across it, like some silent tide, the shadows grew and lengthened. Beyond, at the top of a grassy bank still in sunlight, ran a terraced walk bordered deeply with tall herbacious plants; farther out of sight behind the border were a few fields, water meadows of the chalk-stream, and beyond again and above rose the splendid and austere line of Hampshire downs, tanned with this month of English summer to a russet mellowness. A sky of untarnished blue held a slip of pale and crescent moon, and the splendour and the unutterable sadness of evening, of a day gone, brooded a sweet, regretful presence over everything.
Suddenly the girl sat up.
“Martin!” she cried, “Martin!”
“Well?” asked a very lazy voice from a hammock between two trees at the end of the lawn.
“Come here. Oh, do come. I can’t shout.”
The hammock-ropes wheezed and creaked, and a tall, loose-limbed boy, looking not much more than twenty, strolled over to where she sat.
“I’ve won my bet,” he said; “so pay up, Helen. I said the end would make you cry. You are crying, you know. I count that crying.”
“I know. I’ll pay all right,” she said. “I almost wish it had been more.”
“So do I,” said Martin. “That’s easily arranged then.”
Helen paid no attention to this.
“Oh, Martin, those two coming together like that at the end. And that beast, that beast——“
“Yes, among others. But Tom particularly. They none of them knew, they none of them guessed what she, what Maggie was. Oh, oh! How horribly sad, and how horribly beautiful—like, like this evening.”
Martin took out his cigarette-case.
“For you?” he asked.
“No; you gave me one which I haven’t—I don’t know where it is. Oh, it’s smoking itself on the grass. Oh, my goodness! Anyhow, Maggie lived; that is the point. Dreadful people, dreadful circumstances, all that one would think would make living impossible, surrounded her. But she managed it. And what am I to do, please?”
“I wonder if you know how like you that is,” he said.
“Your instant application of Maggie to yourself. Really it is very odd that you and I are twins. If only I had half your eye for the practical way of getting through things, I should pass my examinations. And if you had only half my eye for the theoretical beauty of leaving distasteful things alone——“
Helen sat up with a quick, decisive movement, letting the book drop on the grass.
“Martin, if we didn’t happen to have been brother and sister we should have fallen desperately in love with each other and been accepted at once. At least I should have proposed to you, and you would certainly have said ‘Yes.’ And I should have made home happy for you on twopence farthing a year, and always had your slippers warm when you came home in the evening, and the kettle boiling on the hob. And you could have spent the rest of our joint incomes on grand pianos and music paper.”
“You are too overwhelmingly generous, Helen,” said he. “I don’t think I can accept it from you.”
Helen got up.
“Oh, how I hate, how I hate——” she began.
“That’s no use,” said Martin.
“Use? Of course not. Oh, it’s all very well for you. You are away half the year at Cambridge, and have no end of a time. But I am here. I and the Room!”
“What’s the ‘Room’?” asked her brother.
Helen pushed back her hair again and sat down on the lawn by Martin.
“The Room is the latest of my many trials,” she said. “It is quite new. Outside it is corrugated iron, inside it is distemper, covered by a dreadful sort of moisture, which is Essence of Village Children. On the walls there are maps of the Holy Land and Hampshire. I know the road from Dan even unto Beersheba as well as I know the road from here to Winchester. There is a library there of soiled books of travel and missionary enterprise, and a complete set of “Good Words.” There is also a wellspring there, only I can’t find it and stop it up, which continually pours up an odour of stuffiness. It is the sort of place where nothing nice could ever happen. And there on Tuesday evening I teach arithmetic to dreadful little boys. On Wednesday I read to mothers,—I am getting to hate the word,—who knit shapeless articles while I read. I read them abominable little stories about the respective powers of faith, hope, and love, and the virtue of being good, and the vice of being wicked. I don’t suppose any of them could be wicked if they tried.”
Helen paused a moment.
“Oh, Martin, it is heavenly to have you at home, and be able to say all these things straight out just once. It makes me feel so much better. May I go on?”
“Yes; take your time,” said Martin.
“Well, where had I got to? Oh, yes, Wednesday. On Thursday Mr. Wilkins,—he’s the new curate, whom you haven’t seen yet: spectacles, bicycle, and proposes to me every now and then,—Mr. Wilkins on Thursday has something for men only; I don’t know what, but I’m sure it’s dreadful. Friday—girls’ class. And on Saturday a choir practice. A—Choir—Practice. Now, you have been to church here——“
“Rather,” said Martin.
“And heard the singing. It is to produce that marvellous result that we practice. Even I know how awful it is. There was a man called the Reverend P. Henley. I sing the alto of his horrid chant. Would you like to hear me sing? And on Sunday I have the Sunday-school. They use heaps of pomatum, you know. And they learn by heart their duty towards their neighbours, and when I am not looking pull each other’s hair. Then it is Monday again, and we begin all over again. Oh, think of it! You see, I am not by nature a ministering angel, and I have to spend my whole life in ministering to these people. They have no intelligence, nothing that I can lay hold of or join hands with. It is not their fault, and it is not my fault that I am not a ministering angel. But what is the use of battering at their intelligences when they haven’t got any? Also they are personally distasteful to me.”
Martin laughed at this tirade, and thoughtfully executed a gnat that had designed to dine off his brown fingers.
“Why, I thought you were such a success,” he said. “Father held you up to me as an example and a shining light.”
“Of course I’m a success,” cried Helen. “I’ve got to do this sort of thing; and if one has to do something, it is simple imbecility not to do it well. You’re an imbecile, you know, darling.”
“Oh, I know that,” said he. “At least I’ve been told it often enough.”
Helen was silent a moment, looking very affectionately at her brother’s long, slim figure as he lay stretched on the grass by her side. His straw hat was tilted over his eyes, and of his face there appeared only his chin and his mouth a little open, shewing a very white line of teeth. And the current of her thoughts hardly changed when she went on to speak of him, not herself.
“Martin, how is it you can’t get through your examinations?” she asked. “You do work, don’t you? And though I called you an imbecile just now, you have more perception than most people. Or do you spend all your day at the piano?”
“He has forbidden me to have a piano in my rooms next term,” said Martin. “So I shall have to waste more time in walking to the pianos of other people and interrupting their work as well as my own.”
“Ah, that’s too bad,” said Helen.
Martin only grunted in reply, and his sister went on:
“But it is foolish of you,” she said. “Indeed it is foolish. No doubt what you have got to do, Greek, Latin, is all very dull to you and seems very useless, but it is surely better to look at it as one of those things that has got to be done. As you say, and as father says, and as I say, I am a success at all these dreadful functions in the Room. Why? Merely because it has got to be done, and therefore, although it is all intensely stupid and bores me so much that I could cry, I attend sufficiently to do it respectably. Now, can’t you adopt the same attitude towards classics? Besides, you know what father feels about it.”
“I am perfectly aware of what father feels about it,” said Martin, dryly.
“Has he been at you again?”
“Yes, I think you might call it that without conveying a false impression. He apparently wants to give me to understand that it is some moral crime not to be able to do Greek iambics. Well, I am a criminal then. I can’t. Also that it is impossible to be educated without. Then I began arguing,—which is always stupid,—and said I supposed it depended on what one meant by education. And he said he imagined he was the best judge of that. So there we were.”
“And what do you mean by education?” asked Helen.
“Why, of course, the appreciation of beauty,” said Martin, quickly. “‘O world as God has made it,’—you know the lines.”
“Ah, say them,” she said.
Martin sat up, tilting back his hat.
“‘O world as God has made it, all is beauty,And knowing this is love, and love is duty,What further may be sought for or declared?’”
“Yes, that isn’t a bad creed,” said Helen.
“I hope not, for it is mine. And it seems to me that you may look for beauty and find it in almost everything. Where you look for it should depend entirely on your tastes. Father finds it in the works of Demosthenes, but I in the works of Schumann and a few other people he has never heard of.”
“But aren’t Greek plays beautiful?” asked Helen.
“Oh, I daresay. But, being what I am, music concerns me more. Don’t let’s argue. It is so enfeebling. When I begin arguing I always feel like Mr. Tulliver, when he said, ‘It’s puzzling work, is talking.’”
“Well, you and I ought to be pretty well puzzled by now,” she said. “I’m sure we’ve talked enough. I’ll play you one-half game of croquet before dinner. Oh, by the way, father is dining with Uncle Rupert. You and Aunt Clara and I will be alone. You will have to read prayers.”
“And sing the hymn an octave below,” remarked Martin.
The Honorable and Reverend Sidney Challoner—or, as he preferred to be addressed, the Reverend-Honorable—was a man of method and economy who hated wasting anything from time down to the brown paper in which parcels arrived, and at this moment he was employing the half-hour before it was necessary to go to dress for dinner at Chartries, his brother’s place, which stood pleasantly among woods about a mile distant, in finishing his sermon for Trinity Sunday. His study, where he worked, was singularly like himself, and seemed as integral a part of him as the snail-shell is of the snail. There was nothing, for instance, in the least drowsy or dusty about the room. Everything was in its place, the place of each thing being in every case strictly determined by the use to which it was to be put, and the frequency with which it was to be used. A scrupulously orderly and energetic severity in fact, was the keynote of the room.
Something of the same characteristic also ran through the sermon at which he was working, which was an exposition, historically introduced, of the less encouraging and comfortable verses of the Athanasian creed, which his congregation would have recited during the service. He was master of a style of English, in itself neat, correct, and lucid, which served him, not as in the sermons of so many preachers, to clothe and cover his lack of ideas, but to reveal the abundance of them and convey without possibility or misunderstanding, but rather with the precision of hitting a nail on the head, what he thought on any particular subject. There survived in him, indeed, a full if not a double portion of the Puritan spirit on religious matters; and though his mind, his soul, his actions were all dictated and impelled by a fervent and whole-hearted Christianity, yet his eloquence was wont to dwell, and did so here, on the doctrine of eternal damnation with a very curious gusto. It appeared to him that the truth of it was abundantly warranted in the Bible, and that it was therefore his duty as minister of the Word to bring this as well as other doctrines home to his flock. And something of the same grim aspect of duty extended to affairs of ordinary life; and where censure was clearly deserved, any offence was visited by him with a force that his approbation sometimes lacked if there was nothing to blame. The Puritan, too, survived in a certain mistrust he had of mirth and gaiety: without being in the least sour, he was so intensely serious that at any given moment it appeared to him that there was probably something better to do than to laugh, and a moment’s thought easily discovered what it was. Of work he was insatiable: if he was unsparing to others, at any rate he never spared himself, and the day of rest was to all in his house the most iron day of all. All pleasure, except that which was to him the greatest pleasure in life, active religious work and religious exercises, was put away; but since all exercises, even religious ones, are fatiguing, it was a weary household that went up to bed on Sunday evening.
Now, though to have a very strong vocation towards a particular work, to be convinced that such work is the highest and best in the world, and to do it is a disposition of affairs that makes for happiness, it is probable that if you had taken Mr. Challoner unawares and asked him if he was happy, he would have hesitated before he answered. For, in spite of his firm and convinced attitude, both towards life in general and to those most intimate with him, there rose deep down in the man a great fountain of tenderness, a great longing for love. Herein lay the secret tragedy of his life: he longed with the same intensity with which he served God for the ordinary human affections and relationships, but through the armour-crust of his nature—an armour, be it noted, of welded and hammered work and duty—his human hand could not break its way to clasp the hands of others. That still was the tragedy of his life with regard to his two children, just as it had been even more bitterly so with regard to his wife, a half-Italian by birth, whom he had adored with that serious fervour which suffused his nature. It was just his spiritual anxiety and care for her which had, by a refined irony of fate, come like an impassible barrier between them. To her he seemed always to be checking the innocent and sunny impulses of joy that were as vitally hers as fervour was his. He put it that there was always something better to be done with the precious passing hours than to sing or laugh or gather flowers or embroider some dainty fragment of personal embellishment. Or, rather, let her take these innocent tastes and raise them, elevate them, dedicate them. Let her sing by all means, but let her gift of music be devoted to the help of the parish choir; let her gather flowers to send to the sick; let her embroider an altar-cloth. But poor Mrs. Challoner, a girl still in years, whose motor-power in life was joy, found that to fit her pleasures to useful ends meant that they ceased to be pleasures. There are many natures, not necessarily shallow or selfish, like that; and when her husband told her that the flowers with which she loved to fill her rooms were beautiful to her so that thereby her thoughts might be led heavenwards, she was minded to throw them away.
From the first, indeed, the marriage had been strangely ill-assorted. It may have been made in heaven, but in that case it would probably have been far better if it had not come down to earth. Sidney Challoner had had his reason and his senses taken captive for a time by this delicious piece of dew and sunlight; on her side his imperiousness, his eager over-mastering desire for her, his extreme good looks, and perhaps also the fact that he stood next in succession to the earldom of Flintshire, his elder brother, the present holder of that delightful position, being unmarried, led her to accept his devotion. This disillusionment had soon come to each. The exquisite child-like beauty of his wife, behind which he had conjectured the child-like spirit, he found to be a mere mask; while to her the fiery, dominating lover turned to a hard, unbending master. A year after their marriage twins were born, and from that time the girl-mother had drooped and dwindled. The fogs of this northern climate—fogs, too, more intimate and distressing of mind and spirit—and the absence of mirth and laughter chilled her to the bone, and a year afterwards she was dead.
Her death left him inconsolable, in so far that he determined never to marry again; but when his sister Clara came to keep house for him and look after the early education of Martin and Helen, it cannot be denied that the widower found himself more comfortable than he had been. For Clara was one of those not uncommon English spinsters who had a perfect passion for doing the things she ought to do and leaving completely undone the things she ought not. As the feminine element in the house of a parish priest it was her clear mission to be aunt, if not mother, to the flock, and classes and instructions, so hated of her niece’s soul, grew up under her care like seed sown in April. She had practically no pleasures, and her only relaxation was Patience, which she played regularly from the time dinner was finished till family prayers at a quarter to ten. Precisely at twenty minutes to ten, if the cards were going awkwardly, she began to cheat, and continued, if necessary, to cheat until the parlourmaid began to set out a row of chairs for the servants. Thus she was able by the time they filed in to sweep the cards triumphantly up together in their due and proper order and be humbly thankful for the temptations into which she had not fallen that day.
Mr. Challoner this evening found that the peroration with which he concluded his sermon took rather less time than he had anticipated, and there was still some ten minutes after he had arranged the sheets in order and placed them under a paper-weight to be read through in the morning before he need go to dress. As his custom was, he closed his eyes for a moment after finishing his work, in silent prayer that it might bear good fruit, and then, hearing the clash of croquet-balls from the garden, he strolled out to see his children. He had had a very unpleasant talk with Martin that morning on the subject of his late failure at Cambridge, and though the occasion seemed to him then and seemed still to have demanded stern speaking, he had wondered several times since whether he had not been too severe. Yet how else except by very earnest remonstrance could he awaken in the lad his sense of responsibility with regard to the spending of the days that would never come again. All his life he had faithfully and strenuously striven to implant in his boy the duty of making the best and the most of his youth. Prayer and work were the two great guides of life. These must be constant and concentrated; and how gravely and mortally would he himself be to blame if through any want of inculcation on his part his son grew up tepid in the one and slack in the other. Still, and here his essential tenderness groped about, Martin was young yet and more tender perhaps in mind even than in years, and the clash of croquet-balls and a sudden burst of boyish laughter from the lawn made him long to enter into his children’s pleasures. So without putting on his hat, for the evening breeze was not too cool to the head, he went out down the box-hedge and round the corner on to the croquet-lawn.
Martin, standing with his back to him, had not heard his approach, and was examining the position of his two balls, which were quite close together, but with an uncompromising wire between them. On the bank where they had been sitting lay “The Mill on the Floss,” and Helen was standing close by her brother, in the proud, calm consciousness of having wired him with complete success.
“Well, of all the devilish things to do, Helen,” said Martin at length, and struck wildly in the hopes of an impossible cannon off the wire.
“My turn, I think,” she said.
She walked across to the ball in play and saw her father.
“Come and play, father,” she said.
“No, dear; thanks. I must go and dress in a few minutes. Martin, old boy, come here a moment.”
Again his duty, the need for remonstrance, strove with his tenderness.
“Martin,” he said, gently, “that’s rather strong language to use to your sister, isn’t it? Don’t get in that sort of habit, dear fellow; never use words idly like that.”
At this all the genial instinctive pleasure faded out of Martin’s face and his eyes fell.
“Yes, father, I’m sorry,” he said, in a perfectly dull, conventional voice.
“I know it was only thoughtlessness, old boy,” said his father; “but try to think. There then. How’s the game going?—is Helen playing with the frightful precision we are getting accustomed to? Look there, she’s hit your ball from right across the lawn. Don’t be too merciless, Helen, with your poor brother.”
Helen smiled and made some laughing reply to her father. Then her eye caught sight of the book lying on the bank, her smile faded, and as she went after the ball she had hit she wondered what could be done. She guessed, though she had not heard the words, that Martin had already been rebuked for what he had said. She knew there had been one dreadful hour already that morning, and another was certain if her father saw the book. Mean time he was strolling down the lawn right in its direction, where it was lying radiant and blatant in its crimson cover on the vivid green of the grass. Martin also had seen what would happen, and as she passed him whispered to her:
“He’ll see it. O Lord!” with a drearily comic expression.
Mr. Challoner strolled on, came to where the book lay, and picked it up with the amiable intention of putting it on the chair to save its cover from the damp. As he did this, he read the title on the back. Then there was a dreadful pause.
“Is this yours, Martin?” he asked.
Mr. Challoner said nothing more, but went on his way, taking the book with him. At the corner of the box-hedge, however, he turned.
“If you are up when I come back, Martin,” he said, “will you come into my study? But don’t wait up for me if I am late.”
He turned his back again to walk on, and Martin thought he had gone. But next moment he paused again, and raised his voice slightly.
“You should answer when I speak to you,” he said.
“I thought you had gone, sir,” said Martin, with a little tremor of irritation in his tone.
This time he passed out of sight, and Martin threw down his croquet-mallet.
“Rather bad luck,” he said. “I’m not popular to-day. Helen, what a fool you were to leave it on the grass.”
“Oh, I am so sorry Martin,” she said. “What can I do? Would it do any good if I said I had been reading it?”
“No, not the slightest,” said he. “There would be enough to go round.”
“I will if you like,” said she. “You see, the worst of it is that only three days ago, the day before you came home, he said that he would not have a book of hers in the house. But you couldn’t be expected to know that.”
“No, but I did,” said Martin, “because you told me.”
Helen threw down her mallet too.
“Oh, it’s dreary,” she said.
Lord Flintshire, Mr. Challoner’s elder brother, with whom he was dining to-night, was a figure of some distinction. He had been at one time a political factor of great weight in the country, a weight due chiefly to the force of inertia, since he never professed the least personal interest in politics and could not possibly be considered as having any ambition or aim to gratify in spending so much time and labour in the interests of the Conservative party. His wealth and position, in fact, were like a large, heavy parcel strongly tied up and dropped into the Tory scale. But at the age of fifty-five he and they considered that he had done enough, resigned the Cabinet appointment he held, and for the last seven years had devoted himself with far more zest than he had ever brought into the political arena to the aristocratic pursuit of doing nothing whatever. To the successful discharge of this he brought all his acuteness and perception and practised it with such charming success as to raise it to the level of a fine art. He was never in a hurry and never either felt or exhibited the slightest sign of irritation or annoyance at anything which the world or the powers of heaven or hell chose to do. He had great appreciation of the fine arts and even a higher appreciation of the inimitable comedy of life, so that to live in a beautiful house, which he did, and fill it with congenial people constituted for him a far more engrossing occupation than politics had ever been. For his brother Sidney he had a very real affection, but also a certain sympathetic pity. He could understand, as he had once told him, what it must be to “feel like that.”
“You live perpetually in a bracing climate, my dear fellow,” he said, “and find it positively necessary to do dumb-bells all day. Yes, I will certainly give you a hundred pounds for your village Room. I shall be charmed to do so, but I don’t want to hear about it. And, pray, let me know if you want more.”
There was only a small party that night, and when the women went upstairs and the men seceded to the smoking-room, Lord Flintshire detained his brother for a moment as he was leaving.
“Will you not stop a quarter of an hour, my dear fellow,” he said, “and have a chat? I have not seen you since Easter. How are you all? How are Helen and Martin? That girl grows handsomer every time I see her. And Martin?”
“Martin has just achieved one of his annual failures at Cambridge,” said his father. “Yes, I will wait a quarter of an hour, Rupert. I should like to talk to you about him. I am a good deal troubled.”
“Wild oats of some kind?” asked the other. “If so, I should, if I were you, look very steadily in another direction. As one grows older, my dear Sidney, one is apt to look on wild oats as something much more poisonous than they really are—nightshade—deadly nightshade, for instance. But they are only wild oats really.”
Sidney sat down.
“Ah, you don’t expect me to share that view,” he said. “Sin is sin whether you are twenty or sixty. But Martin, as far as I know, has not been——“
“Playing about,” said Lord Flintshire, with the amiable desire to find a periphrasis. But it did not please his brother.
“I can’t discuss things with you in that spirit,” he said. “However, that point is really alien. I have no reason to suspect Martin of such things. But what I deplore is his general slackness. It is to the mind like low physical health to the body: it predisposes to all diseases. I had to speak to him severely about his failure at Cambridge this morning,—too severely perhaps,—and this evening again he has distressed me very much.”
“What has he done?” asked Rupert.
“Well, you will think it very insignificant, no doubt, but to me it appears most significant of his general state. He was playing croquet with Helen and I heard him say to her, ‘Well, of all the devilish things to do.’ Now, when we were boys, Rupert, we didn’t say that sort of thing at all, and we couldn’t have said it to our sisters.”
Lord Flintshire felt some kindly amusement at this. Sidney was such a dear fellow.
“But it is some years since we were boys,” said he at length, “and rightly or wrongly the world has begun to take things more—how shall I say it—to ride life on the snaffle instead of the curb. What else has Martin done?”
“He has brought into the house ‘The Mill on the Floss.’”
Rupert’s admirable courtesy enabled him not to smile.
“Have you read the book?” he asked.
“No; but I will not have a book of that author in the house. I said so only the other day. Martin must have known it. For all I know, he has given it to his sister to read.”
“I hope so,” said Lord Flintshire, quietly. “Because it is a very beautiful book. Of course his disobedience to your wishes is a different point, and to my mind a more serious one. But am I to understand that you are consulting me as to what general line you should take with Martin, what policy you should pursue?”
“Yes, I am very much puzzled, and I cannot seem to get any guidance about it. It does no good, I am afraid, to pull the poor lad up first here and then there thirty times a day. And it appears to do no good either to talk to him on the general principles of earnestness and industry. But I do so want him to grasp them. All the faults I see in him spring from slackness. He will not think. He did not think what the word he used to his sister means. He never thinks how just a little carelessness about his work repeated and again repeated must lead to a habit of idleness. I am most deeply thankful that our father was strict with us, Rupert. He made industry a habit with one.”
“A habit from which I have succeeded in freeing myself,” he said. “But Martin is not slack about everything. He is not slack about music.”
“Ah, that is a distraction which is responsible for a great deal of his idleness,” said his father. “But I have forbidden him to have a piano in his room next term.”
Lord Flintshire did not pursue this. There was a plot already on foot here, and his brother got up, and with his quick, neat touch put straight a couple of books lying on the table.
“There is this, too,” he said. “Not only does my continual correction of him seem to do no real good, but it certainly does harm to my relations with the boy. He will get to look on me as a continual menace to his pleasure, as a continual school-master. And I want to be kind to the lad, to make him happy, to make a friend of him. But when that which I consider my duty leads me to correct him, and again and again to correct him, I am so afraid that his estimate of the love I bear him will be lowered, eclipsed. And nothing in the world, Rupert, could be sadder to me than that my children should not think of me as their friend.”
His strong, tender voice quivered for a moment as he spoke these words, and he paused a moment to regain the complete control of himself.
“But nothing, not even that,” he said, “must or shall stand in my way or count for anything in regard to the responsibility which God has laid upon me to make my children worthy children of Him. I should be the weakest and most culpable of fathers if for the sake of any human affection, however sweet, I sacrificed one jot or tittle of that.”
Rupert was silent a moment. Though he had always felt great respect and esteem and strong affection for his brother, he had never found him, emotionally speaking, particularly interesting. He had the greatest admiration for his industrious, strenuous life, his undoubted mental gifts, his swift and keen intelligence, the absolute undeviating probity of his character; but his admiration had been somewhat of the sort a mechanician may feel for his bright engine with its rhythmical accuracy, its precise strokes, its clean efficiency and strength. But suddenly the engine had developed a human and a pathetic side: its throbs were not steam-driven only, but they were the throbs of a human heart. True, he had known the wild adoration of Sidney for his girl-wife, but that with its speedy disillusionment had seemed to him the one concession Sidney had made to the flesh. It was human, but it was not high humanity, otherwise he would have made a better recovery, so to speak. His passion had been awakened then, but not the man, and his religion and his passion together had mixed no better than oil and water. The experience had not humanized him.
Lord Flintshire’s strong appreciation of the inimitable comedy of life did not help him here, as he sat silent for a moment before replying. Elements of comedy were not wanting, his brother’s heart-felt distress at the fact of Martin calling his sister devilish, for instance, was ludicrous enough, but these things combined to form nothing to laugh at; the result was tragedy, tragedy in no grand and great style, but a pitiful little tragedy of misunderstanding and estrangement. And Rupert, knowing his brother and knowing Martin, saw no possibility of comedy entering with any unexpected “happy ending.” For Sidney was, so to speak, an irreconcileable: he admitted no sort or shadow of compromise; he would hold no parleying with the enemy, even if the enemy was entrenched in one of his own household. He and Martin, in fact, disagreed vitally and fundamentally; the lad was a good lad accidentally, essentially he was an artist to his finger-tips. Those were the influences which governed him. But to his father all the artists and all the artistic achievements of man were no more than a fringe on the visible garment of God.
“No one can really help you in this,” said Rupert at length, “except yourself and Martin. But I can suggest to you a certain point of view. Do, I beg you, allow for individualism in other people. You yourself, dear Sidney, have a great deal of it. But there is no reason to suppose that Martin has any less. And remember also that the younger generation is always ahead of the elder, and though we can, by using extreme care, influence them a little, yet the reins of government are in their hands, not ours. That is partly why I retired from politics. And as a practical suggestion I offer you this: I beg you to say nothing more about ‘The Mill on the Floss’ to Martin. It is quite impossible that he should agree with you, simply because he is of the next generation to you. Indeed, if you do not take care, that which you are afraid of will certainly happen, even if it has not happened already. He will get to think of you as a man who is always finding fault, always correcting—a thing fatal to friendship.”
“Is it irremediable if it has already happened?” asked Sidney, with a rather pathetic humility.
“Of course it is not, just because boys are so extraordinarily generous, so eager to like one. Martin is a delightful boy: he is upright, honest, clean. Be thankful for that, and let him develop on his own lines. He will do so, by the way, whether you like it or not; so it is just as well to like it. Besides, you must not interfere with other people’s individualities. I feel that rather strongly.”
Lord Flintshire got up and began walking softly up and down the room. In face he was very like his brother, but, though older, he looked younger, for there was a softness about his features extraordinarily youthful.
“As one gets old, my dear Sidney,” he said, “one stands in danger of getting old-fashioned. That seems to me to be a very terrible thing. One’s own convictions may become hard, fixed in outline, incapable of growth or adaptation, and one may become incapable of imagining that one can be wrong. You may draw your convictions from the highest source; you may be able to say quite honestly, ‘I believe with my whole heart that the will of God is so.’ But, as Oliver Cromwell once remarked, ‘It is just possible that one may be mistaken.’”
He paused a moment.
“I seldom talk so much,” he said, “but I have not quite done even now. The younger generation, take them all round, ride life, as I said, on the snaffle. Now, if you choose, you may call that slackness, and as slackness condemn it. But all your condemnation of it will do no good. Martin will continue to be what you call slack; mean time you are in danger of becoming what he would call tiresome. He will also, on occasion, continue to call his sister ‘devilish.’ Nor is there the slightest reason why he should not. If you or I had called our sisters devilish when we were boys, it would have been undesirable. What you forget is that ‘devilish’ does not mean now what it meant thirty years ago, nor does Martin mean by it what you mean by it.”
Mr. Challoner got up too, his mouth drawn rather tight.
“I am much obliged to you for your advice, Rupert,” he said, “but I find I disagree with you in principle so absolutely and fundamentally that there is no use in my discussing with you. I too claim my individual liberty, a very large part of which is concerned with my sense of responsibility for my children.”
“My dear fellow, you make a great mistake,” said Lord Flintshire.
“I cannot alter my convictions.”
“And you will make a great mess of it,” said the other.
Lady Sunningdale had few habits, and was thus very adaptable, but one was to make a punctual first appearance half an hour before luncheon. Her appearance, though long-delayed, was brilliant when it came, and it was as if a fresh and many-coloured sun had arisen to take the shine out of the splendour of the noon-day. Years were the only things in which she was no longer young, but the youthfulness of her mind, tastes, character was perfectly spontaneous and natural, and she still retained to the full all the eager curiosity of youth, all youth’s insatiable appetite for pleasure. In person she was very tall and largely made, but she moved with exquisite briskness and vigour, and, though stout, still clung to her waist. Her hat generally contained a perfect aviary of birds perched about on it, and her dresses to match her tastes were rather youthful in cut and colour. She wore also white satin shoes with extremely high heels, which had been known, when she walked in wet or clayey places, to be drawn with a cloop, like the drawing of a cork, completely off her feet, the heel being driven into the ground by her weight in the manner of a nail. But, as a rule, she avoided clayey places; indeed, she seldom walked at all, except at this stated time, half an hour before luncheon. But she made up for her lack of walking by talking; this she did on all occasions to as many people as possible, and was extremely entertaining.
She was staying now (she spent the greater part of her life in staying) for a rather extensive weekend, that is to say from Friday till Monday, with Lord Flintshire, and the morning after her arrival came radiantly downstairs at a quarter-past one. Two irrepressible dachshunds barked excitedly round her, and as she stepped on to the terrace where her host was sitting, she was trying, without the least success, to put up a pale-blue sunshade with a handle of Saxe-china.
“Dear Flints,” she cried, “how sweet of you to wait for me! Where is everybody? Yes. Isn’t it a divine morning? Everything looks as if it had been washed during the night. Why is one such a fool as ever to leave the country and go to London? If one had a single spark of originality one would never go near it. Yes. Please put up my sunshade for me. I know I look hideous this morning; but it doesn’t matter how one looks in the country, which is another of its charms. But I didn’t sleep a wink,—I never close my eyes in the country; really, London is the place to live in. I have contradicted myself, have I not? Who cares? I’m sure I don’t. Where are the dogs? Please whistle on your fingers, if you can. So piercing, is it not? There they are! Ah, how naughty! Yes, who cares whether one contradicts one’s self? It shews, in fact, that one’s powers of sympathy and of seeing other points of view are defective, unless one sees both sides of every question, and upholds both vehemently. Yes, do let us walk down the terrace. I adore walking. Oh, Suez Canal, running over the flower-beds like that! How naughty!”
“Suez Canal?” interpolated Lord Flintshire, who, walking by her side, looked like a small rowing-boat towed by a brig in full sail.
“Yes, don’t you see how dreadfully long he is? Now tell me all about your brother who dined here last night. I thought him too fascinating, and we had a great talk about somebody called Kennet, I think he said. Mr. Chancellor is very high-church, is he not? His mouth looked to me high-church. There is something perfectly beautiful about high-church mouths. Look at Lady Otterbourne’s: her mouth is exactly like your brother’s. So is the Bishop of Tavistock’s, whom I adore. He plays the flute divinely, looking funnier than anything I ever saw—so funny that I never want to laugh. Somehow a bishop playing on a flute—or do I mean low-church? I think I must mean low-church. And so your brother is Martin’s father. I sent a message by him last night to tell Martin to come and see me this afternoon. I completely lost my heart to Martin last winter. It is terrible to lose one’s heart when one is fifty, because one has already lost one’s looks, so that it leaves one really denuded. Besides it seems so careless. That is a chestnut, I think. But everything worth saying has been said years before even I was born. Where is Suez? Naughty!”
Lady Sunningdale’s conversation flowed in the manner of a river in flood; it flowed over everything, it foamed and spouted, and there was always the sense—never left unjustified—that there was plenty more to come. It flowed, in fact, over so many different subjects that her interlocutor had a practically limitless range of topics from which to select the matter of his reply; on the other hand, he could fly off on any tangent of his own without initiating incongruity, or, again, he could be silent, completely confident that Lady Sunningdale would go on. But the last topic suited Lord Flintshire very well.
“Do tell me what you think of Martin,” he said.
“But too fascinating and a genius. That combination is so rare; geniuses are usually quite unpresentable. He was staying with us at Easter, and I used to borrow him, as one borrows a book and tries to forget to return it. Where is Sahara? Will you whistle again, please. And his playing—well, merely sublime. He can even play Wagner on the piano. Orchestral music on the piano is generally detestable, but Martin—I used to tell him I believed he had instruments concealed about his person. He is quite clever enough to. My dear, you can hear the strings. Then he used to draw me caricatures of all the extremely tiresome people who were in the house. And his mimicry! Sunningdale finding fault with the soup, and me telling him he was a gross feeder. My dear Flint, I could have sworn it was us. You know the charming way we behave at dinner. Frank Yorkshire, too,—you would have thought that nobody could have imitated Frank. But Martin—‘Beauty is probably evil in its origin, which accounts for the extreme plainness of good people!’ Simply too killing. I suppose your low-church brother doesn’t approve of him, or appreciate him. A slight frigidity occurred when I mentioned Martin!”
“He certainly doesn’t appreciate all the excellencies you have mentioned. I doubt if he really knows they exist.”
“That is always the way,” said Lady Sunningdale, with a florid gesture of despair. “That very rare product, a natural artistic genius, always makes its wayward appearance in utterly uncongenial places. I am bound to say it usually leaves them before long; but what a waste of time! Dear Flints, don’t walk quite so fast. I had no idea this terrace was so interminable. We shall be miles from the house when we reach the end. Where are my angels? But it really is a pity. And I suppose his father will make a curate or a Greek scholar of him.”
“That is just what he is afraid he will not do. He was talking to me about it last night.”
Lady Sunningdale’s attention suddenly and completely wandered.
“You should build a pergola here, Flints,” she said. “There is a pergola at Frank Yorkshire’s villa in Capri, which is the most divine thing I ever saw, covered with roses. We used to dine there, and earwigs dropped into one’s hair, and from the dark one heard those extraordinary Italian melodies from the piazza. That is where I should like to live, to leave the world utterly and entirely and just exist. So unworldly. Yes. My angels, they want their dinner, and so does their mamma.”
They had got to the end of the terrace, and Lady Sunningdale gazed about her with roving, abstracted eyes. She never did anything, even gaze, without her thoughts being occupied with something totally different, and now as she looked over the great swelling lines of downs which flowed and melted into each other like interlacing muscles away to the horizon, across the hollow where the roofs and grey spires of Winchester trembled in a haze of heat, her thoughts were further away than the horizon itself.
“So affected of people to pretend not to like food,” she said, “or, if it is genuine, it shows they are partly imbecile, lacking the sense of taste. Yes, what Martin wants is to be chucked into an artistic milieu to see what he is really worth. And the artistic milieu is exactly what he hasn’t got. He is starving, he is living on himself. Now, no artist except the very greatest artist can do that, and even then he dies very quickly. He wants to be soaked and steeped in art. Paris, now! There is the artistic milieu there; but the music is generally atrocious,—nearly as bad as in London. He could lunch at the Café Champêtre then.”
“Why do you wish him to do that?” asked Lord Flintshire.
“Dear Flints, because the cooking is so good. The really artist is a gourmet in everything, including food. Think of the story of Beethoven and the soup. He threw it in the footman’s face because it was cold. He could not bear that it should not be hot. Cold soup in one’s face—how horrible!—and thrown by Beethoven! Even that would not make it pleasant. Certainly Martin has the instincts of a great artist. He has a sense of form in all he does, which, I expect, means nothing to your brother. Certainly also he has the sense of form in himself. My dear, he is an absolute Adonis, and as slim as asparagus, the English kind.”
Lord Flintshire laughed.
“And when do you expect this paragon?” he asked.
“After lunch. To let Martin go on learning Greek and curacies is like looking on at somebody being slowly murdered. Pray do as I tell you and get him away from that terrible parsonage. Why, the word is enough to upset an artist. It sounds so like parsnips.”
“I feel sure his father would never consent to let him run free in Paris,” he said.
“Because he has the insular distrust of Paris as a residence for the young.”
“My dear Flints,” she said, with some impatience, “if a young man is going to get into messes and make mudpies, he will make them anywhere. Surely it is the least desirable thing in the world that he should make them in the parsonage. Yes. You see your brother has so much character himself that he doesn’t seriously think that anybody else has got any.”
“I wish you would say these things to him,” said Lord Flintshire.
“I will, if I get an opportunity. But if not Paris, London, Rome, anywhere. Take poor Martin’s collar off, and let him roll in the grass. Yes, let us turn. Surely it is lunch-time. But do put up a pergola here all down the terrace and leave out the earwigs. My angels, we are going to our dinners.”
She turned, her very high heels clicking on the hard gravel of the terrace, and paused a moment.
“The mistake in principle which your fascinating brother is making,” she said, “lies in thinking that every one is cast in the same mould, which is his own, and has to be educated in the same manner. Whereas one of the few things of which we can be absolutely certain is that everybody is cast in different moulds. What fools people are really! Fancy trying to make a scholar or a parson of poor Martin! Such a waste, too, as well as an impossibility. Sunningdale might as well insist on my taking lessons in juggling or mathematics. Don’t you hate conjuring-tricks? What is the point of cutting open a loaf of bread and finding a globe of gold-fish inside it? Nobody in their senses could call me stupid, but I am morally incapable of adding up three figures correctly. Why? Simply because the process bores me, and I therefore do it wrong.”
“That is a fascinating theory of education for the young.”
“It may or may not be fascinating, but it is certainly true. The point of education is to develop any taste you may possess, not to bore you with the acquisition of knowledge. Ah, there is Stella Plympton coming to meet us. She has immense charm, and look at the way her head is set on her shoulders. Really, to have a neck is the only thing that matters. A girl with a neck has only to say ‘Good-morning’ for every one to exclaim, ‘How brilliant!’ Whereas people like me, with no neck, have to talk from morning till night at the tops of our voices, and wear ridiculous hats, or else every one says, ‘Poor dear, how much she has aged, and how very dull and heavy she is.’ Flints, I have immense trials. I often wonder how I keep up as I do, and am so frequently the life and soul of the party. Yes. Every one made in the same mould indeed! Stella and me, for instance. Flints, your brother is an imbecile. I don’t propose to learn Greek, because he can talk it in his sleep. Helen, too! Is she to be kept in that dreadful parsonage all her life, and see nobody but district visitors? I think we ought to take your brother’s family in hand. He neglects them shamefully; he ought to be prosecuted for criminal neglect. A man has a duty towards his children.”
Lord Flintshire laughed.
“And only last night I was telling Sidney that his sense of duty towards them was too strong.”
Again Lady Sunningdale’s attention rushed headlong away with the bit in its teeth; it was so rapid that one could not say it wandered.
“The last act of the ‘Götterdämmerung’!” she exclaimed. “My dear, they gave it superbly the other night; at Covent Garden, too, of all places,—though the ravens did come in ten bars too soon, and Siegfried had to throw them away. I never slept for a week afterwards.”
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