The Longest Journey by E. M. Forster

CHAPTER XIX

They did not get to Italy at Easter. Herbert had the offer of some private pupils, and needed Rickie's help. It seemed unreasonable to leave England when money was to be made in it, so they went to Ilfracombe instead. They spent three weeks among the natural advantages and unnatural disadvantages of that resort. It was out of the season, and they encamped in a huge hotel, which took them at a reduction. By a disastrous chance the Jacksons were down there too, and a good deal of constrained civility had to pass between the two families. Constrained it was not in Mr. Jackson's case. At all times he was ready to talk, and as long as they kept off the school it was pleasant enough. But he was very indiscreet, and feminine tact had often to intervene. "Go away, dear ladies," he would then observe. "You think you see life because you see the chasms in it. Yet all the chasms are full of female skeletons." The ladies smiled anxiously. To Rickie he was friendly and even intimate. They had long talks on the deserted Capstone, while their wives sat reading in the Winter Garden and Mr. Pembroke kept an eye upon the tutored youths. "Once I had tutored youths," said Mr. Jackson, "but I lost them all by letting them paddle with my nieces. It is so impossible to remember what is proper." And sooner or later their talk gravitated towards his central passion—the Fragments of Sophocles. Some day ("never," said Herbert) he would edit them. At present they were merely in his blood. With the zeal of a scholar and the imagination of a poet he reconstructed lost dramas—Niobe, Phaedra, Philoctetes against Troy, whose names, but for an accident, would have thrilled the world. "Is it worth it?" he cried. "Had we better be planting potatoes?" And then: "We had; but this is the second best."

Agnes did not approve of these colloquies. Mr. Jackson was not a buffoon, but he behaved like one, which is what matters; and from the Winter Garden she could see people laughing at him, and at her husband, who got excited too. She hinted once or twice, but no notice was taken, and at last she said rather sharply, "Now, you're not to, Rickie. I won't have it."

"He's a type that suits me. He knows people I know, or would like to have known. He was a friend of Tony Failing's. It is so hard to realize that a man connected with one was great. Uncle Tony seems to have been. He loved poetry and music and pictures, and everything tempted him to live in a kind of cultured paradise, with the door shut upon squalor. But to have more decent people in the world—he sacrificed everything to that. He would have 'smashed the whole beauty-shop' if it would help him. I really couldn't go as far as that. I don't think one need go as far—pictures might have to be smashed, but not music or poetry; surely they help—and Jackson doesn't think so either."

"Well, I won't have it, and that's enough." She laughed, for her voice had a little been that of the professional scold. "You see we must hang together. He's in the reactionary camp."

"He doesn't know it. He doesn't know that he is in any camp at all."

"His wife is, which comes to the same."

"Still, it's the holidays—" He and Mr. Jackson had drifted apart in the term, chiefly owing to the affair of Varden. "We were to have the holidays to ourselves, you know." And following some line of thought, he continued, "He cheers one up. He does believe in poetry. Smart, sentimental books do seem absolutely absurd to him, and gods and fairies far nearer to reality. He tries to express all modern life in the terms of Greek mythology, because the Greeks looked very straight at things, and Demeter or Aphrodite are thinner veils than 'The survival of the fittest', or 'A marriage has been arranged,' and other draperies of modern journalese."

"And do you know what that means?"

"It means that poetry, not prose, lies at the core."

"No. I can tell you what it means—balder-dash."

His mouth fell. She was sweeping away the cobwebs with a vengeance. "I hope you're wrong," he replied, "for those are the lines on which I've been writing, however badly, for the last two years."

"But you write stories, not poems."

He looked at his watch. "Lessons again. One never has a moment's peace."

"Poor Rickie. You shall have a real holiday in the summer." And she called after him to say, "Remember, dear, about Mr. Jackson. Don't go talking so much to him."

Rather arbitrary. Her tone had been a little arbitrary of late. But what did it matter? Mr. Jackson was not a friend, and he must risk the chance of offending Widdrington. After the lesson he wrote to Ansell, whom he had not seen since June, asking him to come down to Ilfracombe, if only for a day. On reading the letter over, its tone displeased him. It was quite pathetic: it sounded like a cry from prison. "I can't send him such nonsense," he thought, and wrote again. But phrase it as he would the letter always suggested that he was unhappy. "What's wrong?" he wondered. "I could write anything I wanted to him once." So he scrawled "Come!" on a post-card. But even this seemed too serious. The post-card followed the letters, and Agnes found them all in the waste-paper basket.

Then she said, "I've been thinking—oughtn't you to ask Mr. Ansell over? A breath of sea air would do the poor thing good."

There was no difficulty now. He wrote at once, "My dear Stewart, We both so much wish you could come over." But the invitation was refused. A little uneasy he wrote again, using the dialect of their past intimacy. The effect of this letter was not pathetic but jaunty, and he felt a keen regret as soon as it slipped into the box. It was a relief to receive no reply.

He brooded a good deal over this painful yet intangible episode. Was the pain all of his own creating? or had it been produced by something external? And he got the answer that brooding always gives—it was both. He was morbid, and had been so since his visit to Cadover—quicker to register discomfort than joy. But, none the less, Ansell was definitely brutal, and Agnes definitely jealous. Brutality he could understand, alien as it was to himself. Jealousy, equally alien, was a harder matter. Let husband and wife be as sun and moon, or as moon and sun. Shall they therefore not give greeting to the stars? He was willing to grant that the love that inspired her might be higher than his own. Yet did it not exclude them both from much that is gracious? That dream of his when he rode on the Wiltshire expanses—a curious dream: the lark silent, the earth dissolving. And he awoke from it into a valley full of men.

She was jealous in many ways—sometimes in an open humorous fashion, sometimes more subtly, never content till "we" had extended our patronage, and, if possible, our pity. She began to patronize and pity Ansell, and most sincerely trusted that he would get his fellowship. Otherwise what was the poor fellow to do? Ridiculous as it may seem, she was even jealous of Nature. One day her husband escaped from Ilfracombe to Morthoe, and came back ecstatic over its fangs of slate, piercing an oily sea. "Sounds like an hippopotamus," she said peevishly. And when they returned to Sawston through the Virgilian counties, she disliked him looking out of the windows, for all the world as if Nature was some dangerous woman.

He resumed his duties with a feeling that he had never left them. Again he confronted the assembled house. This term was again the term; school still the world in miniature. The music of the four-part fugue entered into him more deeply, and he began to hum its little phrases. The same routine, the same diplomacies, the same old sense of only half knowing boys or men—he returned to it all: and all that changed was the cloud of unreality, which ever brooded a little more densely than before. He spoke to his wife about this, he spoke to her about everything, and she was alarmed, and wanted him to see a doctor. But he explained that it was nothing of any practical importance, nothing that interfered with his work or his appetite, nothing more than a feeling that the cow was not really there. She laughed, and "how is the cow today?" soon passed into a domestic joke.



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