The Longest Journey by E. M. Forster
The coming months, though full of degradation and anxiety, were to bring him nothing so terrible as that night. It was the crisis of this agony. He was an outcast and a failure. But he was not again forced to contemplate these facts so clearly. Varden left in the morning, carrying the fatal letter with him. The whole house was relieved. The good angel was with the boys again, or else (as Herbert preferred to think) they had learnt a lesson, and were more humane in consequence. At all events, the disastrous term concluded quietly.
In the Christmas holidays the two masters made an abortive attempt to visit Italy, and at Easter there was talk of a cruise in the Aegean. Herbert actually went, and enjoyed Athens and Delphi. The Elliots paid a few visits together in England. They returned to Sawston about ten days before school opened, to find that Widdrington was again stopping with the Jacksons. Intercourse was painful, for the two families were scarcely on speaking terms; nor did the triumphant scaffoldings of the new boarding-house make things easier. (The party of progress had carried the day.) Widdrington was by nature touchy, but on this occasion he refused to take offence, and often dropped in to see them. His manner was friendly but critical. They agreed he was a nuisance. Then Agnes left, very abruptly, to see Mrs. Failing, and while she was away Rickie had a little stealthy intercourse.
Her absence, convenient as it was, puzzled him. Mrs. Silt, half goose, half stormy-petrel, had recently paid a flying visit to Cadover, and thence had flown, without an invitation, to Sawston. Generally she was not a welcome guest. On this occasion Agnes had welcomed her, and—so Rickie thought—had made her promise not to tell him something that she knew. The ladies had talked mysteriously. "Mr. Silt would be one with you there," said Mrs. Silt. Could there be any connection between the two visits?
Agnes's letters told him nothing: they never did. She was too clumsy or too cautious to express herself on paper. A drive to Stonehenge; an anthem in the Cathedral; Aunt Emily's love. And when he met her at Waterloo he learnt nothing (if there was anything to learn) from her face.
"How did you enjoy yourself?"
"Were you and she alone?"
"Sometimes. Sometimes other people."
"Will Uncle Tony's Essays be published?"
Here she was more communicative. The book was at last in proof. Aunt Emily had written a charming introduction; but she was so idle, she never finished things off.
They got into an omnibus for the Army and Navy Stores: she wanted to do some shopping before going down to Sawston.
"Did you read any of the Essays?"
"Every one. Delightful. Couldn't put them down. Now and then he spoilt them by statistics—but you should read his descriptions of Nature. He agrees with you: says the hills and trees are alive! Aunt Emily called you his spiritual heir, which I thought nice of her. We both so lamented that you have stopped writing." She quoted fragments of the Essays as they went up in the Stores' lift.
"What else did you talk about?"
"I've told you all my news. Now for yours. Let's have tea first."
They sat down in the corridor amid ladies in every stage of fatigue—haggard ladies, scarlet ladies, ladies with parcels that twisted from every finger like joints of meat. Gentlemen were scarcer, but all were of the sub-fashionable type, to which Rickie himself now belonged.
"I haven't done anything," he said feebly. "Ate, read, been rude to tradespeople, talked to Widdrington. Herbert arrived this morning. He has brought a most beautiful photograph of the Parthenon."
"What did you talk about?"
She might have heard every word. It was only the feeling of pleasure that he wished to conceal. Even when we love people, we desire to keep some corner secret from them, however small: it is a human right: it is personality. She began to cross-question him, but they were interrupted. A young lady at an adjacent table suddenly rose and cried, "Yes, it is you. I thought so from your walk." It was Maud Ansell.
"Oh, do come and join us!" he cried. "Let me introduce my wife." Maud bowed quite stiffly, but Agnes, taking it for ill-breeding, was not offended.
"Then I will come!" she continued in shrill, pleasant tones, adroitly poising her tea things on either hand, and transferring them to the Elliots' table. "Why haven't you ever come to us, pray?"
"I think you didn't ask me!"
"You weren't to be asked." She sprawled forward with a wagging finger. But her eyes had the honesty of her brother's. "Don't you remember the day you left us? Father said, 'Now, Mr. Elliot—' Or did he call you 'Elliot'? How one does forget. Anyhow, father said you weren't to wait for an invitation, and you said, 'No, I won't.' Ours is a fair-sized house,"—she turned somewhat haughtily to Agnes,—"and the second spare room, on account of a harp that hangs on the wall, is always reserved for Stewart's friends."
"How is Mr. Ansell, your brother?" Maud's face fell. "Hadn't you heard?" she said in awe-struck tones.
"He hasn't got his fellowship. It's the second time he's failed. That means he will never get one. He will never be a don, nor live in Cambridge and that, as we had hoped."
"Oh, poor, poor fellow!" said Mrs. Elliot with a remorse that was sincere, though her congratulations would not have been. "I am so very sorry."
But Maud turned to Rickie. "Mr. Elliot, you might know. Tell me. What is wrong with Stewart's philosophy? What ought he to put in, or to alter, so as to succeed?"
Agnes, who knew better than this, smiled.
"I don't know," said Rickie sadly. They were none of them so clever, after all.
"Hegel," she continued vindictively. "They say he's read too much Hegel. But they never tell him what to read instead. Their own stuffy books, I suppose. Look here—no, that's the 'Windsor.'" After a little groping she produced a copy of "Mind," and handed it round as if it was a geological specimen. "Inside that there's a paragraph written about something Stewart's written about before, and there it says he's read too much Hegel, and it seems now that that's been the trouble all along." Her voice trembled. "I call it most unfair, and the fellowship's gone to a man who has counted the petals on an anemone."
Rickie had no inclination to smile.
"I wish Stewart had tried Oxford instead."
"I don't wish it!"
"You say that," she continued hotly, "and then you never come to see him, though you knew you were not to wait for an invitation."
"If it comes to that, Miss Ansell," retorted Rickie, in the laughing tones that one adopts on such occasions, "Stewart won't come to me, though he has had an invitation."
"Yes," chimed in Agnes, "we ask Mr. Ansell again and again, and he will have none of us."
Maud looked at her with a flashing eye. "My brother is a very peculiar person, and we ladies can't understand him. But I know one thing, and that's that he has a reason all round for what he does. Look here, I must be getting on. Waiter! Wai-ai-aiter! Bill, please. Separately, of course. Call the Army and Navy cheap! I know better!"
"How does the drapery department compare?" said Agnes sweetly.
The girl gave a sharp choking sound, gathered up her parcels, and left them. Rickie was too much disgusted with his wife to speak.
"Appalling person!" she gasped. "It was naughty of me, but I couldn't help it. What a dreadful fate for a clever man! To fail in life completely, and then to be thrown back on a family like that!"
"Maud is a snob and a Philistine. But, in her case, something emerges."
She glanced at him, but proceeded in her suavest tones, "Do let us make one great united attempt to get Mr. Ansell to Sawston."
"What a changeable friend you are! When we were engaged you were always talking about him."
"Would you finish your tea, and then we will buy the linoleum for the cubicles."
But she returned to the subject again, not only on that day but throughout the term. Could nothing be done for poor Mr. Ansell? It seemed that she could not rest until all that he had once held dear was humiliated. In this she strayed outside her nature: she was unpractical. And those who stray outside their nature invite disaster. Rickie, goaded by her, wrote to his friend again. The letter was in all ways unlike his old self. Ansell did not answer it. But he did write to Mr. Jackson, with whom he was not acquainted.
"Dear Mr. Jackson,—
"I understand from Widdrington that you have a large house. I would like to tell you how convenient it would be for me to come and stop in it. June suits me best.—
To which Mr. Jackson replied that not only in June but during the whole year his house was at the disposal of Mr. Ansell and of any one who resembled him.
But Agnes continued her life, cheerfully beating time. She, too, knew that her marriage was a failure, and in her spare moments regretted it. She wished that her husband was handsomer, more successful, more dictatorial. But she would think, "No, no; one mustn't grumble. It can't be helped." Ansell was wrong in sup-posing she might ever leave Rickie. Spiritual apathy prevented her. Nor would she ever be tempted by a jollier man. Here criticism would willingly alter its tone. For Agnes also has her tragedy. She belonged to the type—not necessarily an elevated one—that loves once and once only. Her love for Gerald had not been a noble passion: no imagination transfigured it. But such as it was, it sprang to embrace him, and he carried it away with him when he died. Les amours gui suivrent sont moins involuntaires: by an effort of the will she had warmed herself for Rickie.
She is not conscious of her tragedy, and therefore only the gods need weep at it. But it is fair to remember that hitherto she moves as one from whom the inner life has been withdrawn.