The Longest Journey by E. M. Forster
Poor Mr. Ansell was actually sitting in the garden of Dunwood House. It was Sunday morning. The air was full of roasting beef. The sound of a manly hymn, taken very fast, floated over the road from the school chapel. He frowned, for he was reading a book, the Essays of Anthony Eustace Failing.
He was here on account of this book—at least so he told himself. It had just been published, and the Jacksons were sure that Mr. Elliot would have a copy. For a book one may go anywhere. It would not have been logical to enter Dunwood House for the purpose of seeing Rickie, when Rickie had not come to supper yesterday to see him. He was at Sawston to assure himself of his friend's grave. With quiet eyes he had intended to view the sods, with unfaltering fingers to inscribe the epitaph. Love remained. But in high matters he was practical. He knew that it would be useless to reveal it.
"Morning!" said a voice behind him.
He saw no reason to reply to this superfluous statement, and went on with his reading.
"Morning!" said the voice again.
As for the Essays, the thought was somewhat old-fashioned, and he picked many holes in it; nor was he anything but bored by the prospect of the brotherhood of man. However, Mr. Failing stuck to his guns, such as they were, and fired from them several good remarks. Very notable was his distinction between coarseness and vulgarity (coarseness, revealing something; vulgarity, concealing something), and his avowed preference for coarseness. Vulgarity, to him, had been the primal curse, the shoddy reticence that prevents man opening his heart to man, the power that makes against equality. From it sprang all the things that he hated—class shibboleths, ladies, lidies, the game laws, the Conservative party—all the things that accent the divergencies rather than the similarities in human nature. Whereas coarseness—But at this point Herbert Pembroke had scrawled with a blue pencil: "Childish. One reads no further."
"Morning!" repeated the voice.
Ansell read further, for here was the book of a man who had tried, however unsuccessfully, to practice what he preached. Mrs. Failing, in her Introduction, described with delicate irony his difficulties as a landlord; but she did not record the love in which his name was held. Nor could her irony touch him when he cried: "Attain the practical through the unpractical. There is no other road." Ansell was inclined to think that the unpractical is its own reward, but he respected those who attempted to journey beyond it. We must all of us go over the mountains. There is certainly no other road.
"Nice morning!" said the voice.
It was not a nice morning, so Ansell felt bound to speak. He answered: "No. Why?" A clod of earth immediately struck him on the back. He turned round indignantly, for he hated physical rudeness. A square man of ruddy aspect was pacing the gravel path, his hands deep in his pockets. He was very angry. Then he saw that the clod of earth nourished a blue lobelia, and that a wound of corresponding size appeared on the pie-shaped bed. He was not so angry. "I expect they will mind it," he reflected. Last night, at the Jacksons', Agnes had displayed a brisk pity that made him wish to wring her neck. Maude had not exaggerated. Mr. Pembroke had patronized through a sorrowful voice and large round eyes. Till he met these people he had never been told that his career was a failure. Apparently it was. They would never have been civil to him if it had been a success, if they or theirs had anything to fear from him.
In many ways Ansell was a conceited man; but he was never proud of being right. He had foreseen Rickie's catastrophe from the first, but derived from this no consolation. In many ways he was pedantic; but his pedantry lay close to the vineyards of life—far closer than that fetich Experience of the innumerable tea-cups. He had a great many facts to learn, and before he died he learnt a suitable quantity. But he never forgot that the holiness of the heart's imagination can alone classify these facts—can alone decide which is an exception, which an example. "How unpractical it all is!" That was his comment on Dunwood House. "How unbusiness-like! They live together without love. They work without conviction. They seek money without requiring it. They die, and nothing will have happened, either for themselves or for others." It is a comment that the academic mind will often make when first confronted with the world.
But he was becoming illogical. The clod of earth had disturbed him. Brushing the dirt off his back, he returned to the book. What a curious affair was the essay on "Gaps"! Solitude, star-crowned, pacing the fields of England, has a dialogue with Seclusion. He, poor little man, lives in the choicest scenery—among rocks, forests, emerald lawns, azure lakes. To keep people out he has built round his domain a high wall, on which is graven his motto—"Procul este profani." But he cannot enjoy himself. His only pleasure is in mocking the absent Profane. They are in his mind night and day. Their blemishes and stupidities form the subject of his great poem, "In the Heart of Nature." Then Solitude tells him that so it always will be until he makes a gap in the wall, and permits his seclusion to be the sport of circumstance. He obeys. The Profane invade him; but for short intervals they wander elsewhere, and during those intervals the heart of Nature is revealed to him.
This dialogue had really been suggested to Mr. Failing by a talk with his brother-in-law. It also touched Ansell. He looked at the man who had thrown the clod, and was now pacing with obvious youth and impudence upon the lawn. "Shall I improve my soul at his expense?" he thought. "I suppose I had better." In friendly tones he remarked, "Were you waiting for Mr. Pembroke?"
"No," said the young man. "Why?"
Ansell, after a moment's admiration, flung the Essays at him. They hit him in the back. The next moment he lay on his own back in the lobelia pie.
"But it hurts!" he gasped, in the tones of a puzzled civilization. "What you do hurts!" For the young man was nicking him over the shins with the rim of the book cover. "Little brute-ee—ow!"
"Then say Pax!"
Something revolted in Ansell. Why should he say Pax? Freeing his hand, he caught the little brute under the chin, and was again knocked into the lobelias by a blow on the mouth.
"Say Pax!" he repeated, pressing the philosopher's skull into the mould; and he added, with an anxiety that was somehow not offensive, "I do advise you. You'd really better."
Ansell swallowed a little blood. He tried to move, and he could not. He looked carefully into the young man's eyes and into the palm of his right hand, which at present swung unclenched, and he said "Pax!"
"Shake hands!" said the other, helping him up. There was nothing Ansell loathed so much as the hearty Britisher; but he shook hands, and they stared at each other awkwardly. With civil murmurs they picked the little blue flowers off each other's clothes. Ansell was trying to remember why they had quarrelled, and the young man was wondering why he had not guarded his chin properly. In the distance a hymn swung off—
"Fight the good. Fight with. All thy. Might."
They would be across from the chapel soon.
"Your book, sir?"
"Thank you, sir—yes."
"Why!" cried the young man—"why, it's 'What We Want'! At least the binding's exactly the same."
"It's called 'Essays,'" said Ansell.
"Then that's it. Mrs. Failing, you see, she wouldn't call it that, because three W's, you see, in a row, she said, are vulgar, and sound like Tolstoy, if you've heard of him."
Ansell confessed to an acquaintance, and then said, "Do you think 'What We Want' vulgar?" He was not at all interested, but he desired to escape from the atmosphere of pugilistic courtesy, more painful to him than blows themselves.
"It IS the same book," said the other—"same title, same binding." He weighed it like a brick in his muddy hands.
"Open it to see if the inside corresponds," said Ansell, swallowing a laugh and a little more blood with it.
With a liberal allowance of thumb-marks, he turned the pages over and read, "'the rural silence that is not a poet's luxury but a practical need for all men.' Yes, it is the same book." Smiling pleasantly over the discovery, he handed it back to the owner.
"And is it true?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Is it true that rural silence is a practical need?"
"Don't ask me!"
"Have you ever tried it?"
"A field with no noise in it, I suppose you mean. I don't understand."
Ansell smiled, but a slight fire in the man's eye checked him. After all, this was a person who could knock one down. Moreover, there was no reason why he should be teased. He had it in him to retort "No. Why?" He was not stupid in essentials. He was irritable—in Ansell's eyes a frequent sign of grace. Sitting down on the upturned seat, he remarked, "I like the book in many ways. I don't think 'What We Want' would have been a vulgar title. But I don't intend to spoil myself on the chance of mending the world, which is what the creed amounts to. Nor am I keen on rural silences."
"Curse!" he said thoughtfully, sucking at an empty pipe.
"Rickie's is invariably—filthy."
"Who says I know Rickie?"
"Well, you know his aunt. It's a possible link. Be gentle with Rickie. Don't knock him down if he doesn't think it's a nice morning."
The other was silent.
"Do you know him well?"
"Kind of." He was not inclined to talk. The wish to smoke was very violent in him, and Ansell noticed how he gazed at the wreaths that ascended from bowl and stem, and how, when the stem was in his mouth, he bit it. He gave the idea of an animal with just enough soul to contemplate its own bliss. United with refinement, such a type was common in Greece. It is not common today, and Ansell was surprised to find it in a friend of Rickie's. Rickie, if he could even "kind of know" such a creature, must be stirring in his grave.
"Do you know his wife too?"
"Oh yes. In a way I know Agnes. But thank you for this tobacco. Last night I nearly died. I have no money."
"Take the whole pouch—do."
After a moment's hesitation he did. "Fight the good" had scarcely ended, so quickly had their intimacy grown.
"I suppose you're a friend of Rickie's?"
Ansell was tempted to reply, "I don't know him at all." But it seemed no moment for the severer truths, so he said, "I knew him well at Cambridge, but I have seen very little of him since."
"Is it true that his baby was lame?"
"I believe so."
His teeth closed on his pipe. Chapel was over. The organist was prancing through the voluntary, and the first ripple of boys had already reached Dunwood House. In a few minutes the masters would be here too, and Ansell, who was becoming interested, hurried the conversation forward.
"Have you come far?"
"From Wiltshire. Do you know Wiltshire?" And for the first time there came into his face the shadow of a sentiment, the passing tribute to some mystery. "It's a good country. I live in one of the finest valleys out of Salisbury Plain. I mean, I lived."
"Have you been dismissed from Cadover, without a penny in your pocket?"
He was alarmed at this. Such knowledge seemed simply diabolical. Ansell explained that if his boots were chalky, if his clothes had obviously been slept in, if he knew Mrs. Failing, if he knew Wiltshire, and if he could buy no tobacco—then the deduction was possible. "You do just attend," he murmured.
The house was filling with boys, and Ansell saw, to his regret, the head of Agnes over the thuyia hedge that separated the small front garden from the side lawn where he was sitting. After a few minutes it was followed by the heads of Rickie and Mr. Pembroke. All the heads were turned the other way. But they would find his card in the hall, and if the man had left any message they would find that too. "What are you?" he demanded. "Who are you—your name—I don't care about that. But it interests me to class people, and up to now I have failed with you."
"I—" He stopped. Ansell reflected that there are worse answers. "I really don't know what I am. Used to think I was something special, but strikes me now I feel much like other chaps. Used to look down on the labourers. Used to take for granted I was a gentleman, but really I don't know where I do belong."
"One belongs to the place one sleeps in and to the people one eats with."
"As often as not I sleep out of doors and eat by myself, so that doesn't get you any further."
A silence, akin to poetry, invaded Ansell. Was it only a pose to like this man, or was he really wonderful? He was not romantic, for Romance is a figure with outstretched hands, yearning for the unattainable. Certain figures of the Greeks, to whom we continually return, suggested him a little. One expected nothing of him—no purity of phrase nor swift edged thought. Yet the conviction grew that he had been back somewhere—back to some table of the gods, spread in a field where there is no noise, and that he belonged for ever to the guests with whom he had eaten. Meanwhile he was simple and frank, and what he could tell he would tell to any one. He had not the suburban reticence. Ansell asked him, "Why did Mrs. Failing turn you out of Cadover? I should like to hear that too."
"Because she was tired of me. Because, again, I couldn't keep quiet over the farm hands. I ask you, is it right?" He became incoherent. Ansell caught, "And they grow old—they don't play games—it ends they can't play." An illustration emerged. "Take a kitten—if you fool about with her, she goes on playing well into a cat."
"But Mrs. Failing minded no mice being caught."
"Mice?" said the young man blankly. "What I was going to say is, that some one was jealous of my being at Cadover. I'll mention no names, but I fancy it was Mrs. Silt. I'm sorry for her if it was. Anyhow, she set Mrs. Failing against me. It came on the top of other things—and out I went."
"What did Mrs. Silt, whose name I don't mention, say?"
He looked guilty. "I don't know. Easy enough to find something to say. The point is that she said something. You know, Mr.—I don't know your name, mine's Wonham, but I'm more grateful than I can put it over this tobacco. I mean, you ought to know there is another side to this quarrel. It's wrong, but it's there."
Ansell told him not to be uneasy: he lad already guessed that there might be another side. But he could not make out why Mr. Wonham should have come straight from the aunt to the nephew. They were now sitting on the upturned seat. "What We Want," a good deal shattered, lay between them.
"On account of above-mentioned reasons, there was a row. I don't know—you can guess the style of thing. She wanted to treat me to the colonies, and had up the parson to talk soft-sawder and make out that a boundless continent was the place for a lad like me. I said, 'I can't run up to the Rings without getting tired, nor gallop a horse out of this view without tiring it, so what is the point of a boundless continent?' Then I saw that she was frightened of me, and bluffed a bit more, and in the end I was nipped. She caught me—just like her! when I had nothing on but flannels, and was coming into the house, having licked the Cadchurch team. She stood up in the doorway between those stone pilasters and said, 'No! Never again!' and behind her was Wilbraham, whom I tried to turn out, and the gardener, and poor old Leighton, who hates being hurt. She said, 'There's a hundred pounds for you at the London bank, and as much more in December. Go!' I said, 'Keep your—money, and tell me whose son I am.' I didn't care really. I only said it on the off-chance of hurting her. Sure enough, she caught on to the doorhandle (being lame) and said, 'I can't—I promised—I don't really want to,' and Wilbraham did stare. Then—she's very queer—she burst out laughing, and went for the packet after all, and we heard her laugh through the window as she got it. She rolled it at me down the steps, and she says, 'A leaf out of the eternal comedy for you, Stephen,' or something of that sort. I opened it as I walked down the drive, she laughing always and catching on to the handle of the front door. Of course it wasn't comic at all. But down in the village there were both cricket teams, already a little tight, and the mad plumber shouting 'Rights of Man!' They knew I was turned out. We did have a row, and kept it up too. They daren't touch Wilbraham's windows, but there isn't much glass left up at Cadover. When you start, it's worth going on, but in the end I had to cut. They subscribed a bob here and a bob there, and these are Flea Thompson's Sundays. I sent a line to Leighton not to forward my own things: I don't fancy them. They aren't really mine." He did not mention his great symbolic act, performed, it is to be feared, when he was rather drunk and the friendly policeman was looking the other way. He had cast all his flannels into the little millpond, and then waded himself through the dark cold water to the new clothes on the other side. Some one had flung his pipe and his packet after him. The packet had fallen short. For this reason it was wet when he handed it to Ansell, and ink that had been dry for twenty-three years had begun to run again.
"I wondered if you're right about the hundred pounds," said Ansell gravely. "It is pleasant to be proud, but it is unpleasant to die in the night through not having any tobacco."
"But I'm not proud. Look how I've taken your pouch! The hundred pounds was—well, can't you see yourself, it was quite different? It was, so to speak, inconvenient for me to take the hundred pounds. Or look again how I took a shilling from a boy who earns nine bob a-week! Proves pretty conclusively I'm not proud."
Ansell saw it was useless to argue. He perceived, beneath the slatternly use of words, the man, buttoned up in them, just as his body was buttoned up in a shoddy suit,—and he wondered more than ever that such a man should know the Elliots. He looked at the face, which was frank, proud, and beautiful, if truth is beauty. Of mercy or tact such a face knew little. It might be coarse, but it had in it nothing vulgar or wantonly cruel. "May I read these papers?" he said.
"Of course. Oh yes; didn't I say? I'm Rickie's half-brother, come here to tell him the news. He doesn't know. There it is, put shortly for you. I was saying, though, that I bolted in the dark, slept in the rifle-butts above Salisbury, the sheds where they keep the cardboard men, you know, never locked up as they ought to be. I turned the whole place upside down to teach them."
"Here is your packet again," said Ansell. "Thank you. How interesting!" He rose from the seat and turned towards Dunwood House. He looked at the bow-windows, the cheap picturesque gables, the terracotta dragons clawing a dirty sky. He listened to the clink of plates and to the voice of Mr. Pembroke taking one of his innumerable roll-calls. He looked at the bed of lobelias. How interesting! What else was there to say?
"One must be the son of some one," remarked Stephen. And that was all he had to say. To him those names on the moistened paper were mere antiquities. He was neither proud of them nor ashamed. A man must have parents, or he cannot enter the delightful world. A man, if he has a brother, may reasonably visit him, for they may have interests in common. He continued his narrative, how in the night he had heard the clocks, how at daybreak, instead of entering the city, he had struck eastward to save money,—while Ansell still looked at the house and found that all his imagination and knowledge could lead him no farther than this: how interesting!
"—And what do you think of that for a holy horror?"
"For a what?" said Ansell, his thoughts far away.
"This man I am telling you about, who gave me a lift towards Andover, who said I was a blot on God's earth."
One o'clock struck. It was strange that neither of them had had any summons from the house.
"He said I ought to be ashamed of myself. He said, 'I'll not be the means of bringing shame to an honest gentleman and lady.' I told him not to be a fool. I said I knew what I was about. Rickie and Agnes are properly educated, which leads people to look at things straight, and not go screaming about blots. A man like me, with just a little reading at odd hours—I've got so far, and Rickie has been through Cambridge."
"And Mrs. Elliot?"
"Oh, she won't mind, and I told the man so; but he kept on saying, 'I'll not be the means of bringing shame to an honest gentleman and lady,' until I got out of his rotten cart." His eye watched the man a Nonconformist, driving away over God's earth. "I caught the train by running. I got to Waterloo at—"
Here the parlour-maid fluttered towards them, Would Mr. Wonham come in? Mrs. Elliot would be glad to see him now.
"Mrs. Elliot?" cried Ansell. "Not Mr. Elliot?"
"It's all the same," said Stephen, and moved towards the house.
"You see, I only left my name. They don't know why I've come."
"Perhaps Mr. Elliot sees me meanwhile?"
The parlour-maid looked blank. Mr. Elliot had not said so. He had been with Mrs. Elliot and Mr. Pembroke in the study. Now the gentlemen had gone upstairs.
"All right, I can wait." After all, Rickie was treating him as he had treated Rickie, as one in the grave, to whom it is futile to make any loving motion. Gone upstairs—to brush his hair for dinner! The irony of the situation appealed to him strongly. It reminded him of the Greek Drama, where the actors know so little and the spectators so much.
"But, by the bye," he called after Stephen, "I think I ought to tell you—don't—"
"What is it?"
"Don't—" Then he was silent. He had been tempted to explain everything, to tell the fellow how things stood, that he must avoid this if he wanted to attain that; that he must break the news to Rickie gently; that he must have at least one battle royal with Agnes. But it was contrary to his own spirit to coach people: he held the human soul to be a very delicate thing, which can receive eternal damage from a little patronage. Stephen must go into the house simply as himself, for thus alone would he remain there.
"I ought to knock my pipe out? Was that it?" "By no means. Go in, your pipe and you."
He hesitated, torn between propriety and desire. Then he followed the parlour-maid into the house smoking. As he entered the dinner-bell rang, and there was the sound of rushing feet, which died away into shuffling and silence. Through the window of the boys' dining-hall came the colourless voice of Rickie—"'Benedictus benedicat.'"
Ansell prepared himself to witness the second act of the drama; forgetting that all this world, and not part of it, is a stage.