The Longest Journey by E. M. Forster
Hither had Rickie moved in ten days—from disgust to penitence, from penitence to longing from a life of horror to a new life, in which he still surprised himself by unexpected words. Hullo, Stephen! For the son of his mother had come back, to forgive him, as she would have done, to live with him, as she had planned.
"He's drunk this time," said Agnes wearily. She too had altered: the scandal was ageing her, and Ansell came to the house daily.
But Stephen was now insensible.
"Stephen, you live here—"
"Good gracious me!" interposed Herbert. "My advice is, that we all go to bed. The less said the better while our nerves are in this state. Very well, Rickie. Of course, Wonham sleeps the night if you wish." They carried the drunken mass into the spare room. A mass of scandal it seemed to one of them, a symbol of redemption to the other. Neither acknowledged it a man, who would answer them back after a few hours' rest.
"Ansell thought he would never forgive me," said Rickie. "For once he's wrong."
"Come to bed now, I think." And as Rickie laid his hand on the sleeper's hair, he added, "You won't do anything foolish, will you? You are still in a morbid state. Your poor mother—Pardon me, dear boy; it is my turn to speak out. You thought it was your father, and minded. It is your mother. Surely you ought to mind more?"
"I have been too far back," said Rickie gently. "Ansell took me on a journey that was even new to him. We got behind right and wrong, to a place where only one thing matters—that the Beloved should rise from the dead."
"But you won't do anything rash?"
"Why should I?"
"Remember poor Agnes," he stammered. "I—I am the first to acknowledge that we might have pursued a different policy. But we are committed to it now. It makes no difference whose son he is. I mean, he is the same person. You and I and my sister stand or fall together. It was our agreement from the first. I hope—No more of these distressing scenes with her, there's a dear fellow. I assure you they make my heart bleed."
"Things will quiet down now."
"To bed now; I insist upon that much."
"Very well," said Rickie, and when they were in the passage, locked the door from the outside. "We want no more muddles," he explained.
Mr. Pembroke was left examining the hall. The bust of Hermes was broken. So was the pot of the palm. He could not go to bed without once more sounding Rickie. "You'll do nothing rash," he called. "The notion of him living here was, of course, a passing impulse. We three have adopted a common policy."
"Now, you go away!" called a voice that was almost flippant. "I never did belong to that great sect whose doctrine is that each one should select—at least, I'm not going to belong to it any longer. Go away to bed."
"A good night's rest is what you need," threatened Herbert, and retired, not to find one for himself.
But Rickie slept. The guilt of months and the remorse of the last ten days had alike departed. He had thought that his life was poisoned, and lo! it was purified. He had cursed his mother, and Ansell had replied, "You may be right, but you stand too near to settle. Step backwards. Pretend that it happened to me. Do you want me to curse my mother? Now, step forward and see whether anything has changed." Something had changed. He had journeyed—as on rare occasions a man must—till he stood behind right and wrong. On the banks of the grey torrent of life, love is the only flower. A little way up the stream and a little way down had Rickie glanced, and he knew that she whom he loved had risen from the dead, and might rise again. "Come away—let them die out—let them die out." Surely that dream was a vision! To-night also he hurried to the window—to remember, with a smile, that Orion is not among the stars of June.
"Let me die out. She will continue," he murmured, and in making plans for Stephen's happiness, fell asleep.
Next morning after breakfast he announced that his brother must live at Dunwood House. They were awed by the very moderation of his tone. "There's nothing else to be done. Cadover's hopeless, and a boy of those tendencies can't go drifting. There is also the question of a profession for him, and his allowance."
"We have to thank Mr. Ansell for this," was all that Agnes could say; and "I foresee disaster," was the contribution of Herbert.
"There's plenty of money about," Rickie continued. "Quite a man's-worth too much. It has been one of our absurdities. Don't look so sad, Herbert. I'm sorry for you people, but he's sure to let us down easy." For his experience of drunkards and of Stephen was small.
He supposed that he had come without malice to renew the offer of ten days ago.
"It is the end of Dunwood House."
Rickie nodded, and hoped not. Agnes, who was not looking well, began to cry. "Oh, it is too bad," she complained, "when I've saved you from him all these years." But he could not pity her, nor even sympathize with her wounded delicacy. The time for such nonsense was over. He would take his share of the blame: it was cant to assume it all.
Perhaps he was over-hard. He did not realize how large his share was, nor how his very virtues were to blame for her deterioration. "If I had a girl, I'd keep her in line," is not the remark of a fool nor of a cad. Rickie had not kept his wife in line. He had shown her all the workings of his soul, mistaking this for love; and in consequence she was the worse woman after two years of marriage, and he, on this morning of freedom, was harder upon her than he need have been.
The spare room bell rang. Herbert had a painful struggle between curiosity and duty, for the bell for chapel was ringing also, and he must go through the drizzle to school. He promised to come up in the interval, Rickie, who had rapped his head that Sunday on the edge of the table, was still forbidden to work. Before him a quiet morning lay. Secure of his victory, he took the portrait of their mother in his hand and walked leisurely upstairs. The bell continued to ring.
"See about his breakfast," he called to Agnes, who replied, "Very well." The handle of the spare room door was moving slowly. "I'm coming," he cried. The handle was still. He unlocked and entered, his heart full of charity.
But within stood a man who probably owned the world.
Rickie scarcely knew him; last night he had seemed so colorless, no negligible. In a few hours he had recaptured motion and passion and the imprint of the sunlight and the wind. He stood, not consciously heroic, with arms that dangled from broad stooping shoulders, and feet that played with a hassock on the carpet. But his hair was beautiful against the grey sky, and his eyes, recalling the sky unclouded, shot past the intruder as if to some worthier vision. So intent was their gaze that Rickie himself glanced backwards, only to see the neat passage and the banisters at the top of the stairs. Then the lips beat together twice, and out burst a torrent of amazing words.
"Add it all up, and let me know how much. I'd sooner have died. It never took me that way before. I must have broken pounds' worth. If you'll not tell the police, I promise you shan't lose, Mr. Elliot, I swear. But it may be months before I send it. Everything is to be new. You've not to be a penny out of pocket, do you see? Do let me go, this once again."
"What's the trouble?" asked Rickie, as if they had been friends for years. "My dear man, we've other things to talk about. Gracious me, what a fuss! If you'd smashed the whole house I wouldn't mind, so long as you came back."
"I'd sooner have died," gulped Stephen.
"You did nearly! It was I who caught you. Never mind yesterday's rag. What can you manage for breakfast?"
The face grew more angry and more puzzled. "Yesterday wasn't a rag," he said without focusing his eyes. "I was drunk, but naturally meant it."
"To smash you. Bad liquor did what Mrs. Elliot couldn't. I've put myself in the wrong. You've got me."
It was a poor beginning.
"As I have got you," said Rickie, controlling himself, "I want to have a talk with you. There has been a ghastly mistake."
But Stephen, with a countryman's persistency, continued on his own line. He meant to be civil, but Rickie went cold round the mouth. For he had not even been angry with them. Until he was drunk, they had been dirty people—not his sort. Then the trivial injury recurred, and he had reeled to smash them as he passed. "And I will pay for everything," was his refrain, with which the sighing of raindrops mingled. "You shan't lose a penny, if only you let me free."
"You'll pay for my coffin if you talk like that any longer! Will you, one, forgive my frightful behaviour; two, live with me?" For his only hope was in a cheerful precision.
Stephen grew more agitated. He thought it was some trick.
"I was saying I made an unspeakable mistake. Ansell put me right, but it was too late to find you. Don't think I got off easily. Ansell doesn't spare one. And you've got to forgive me, to share my life, to share my money.—I've brought you this photograph—I want it to be the first thing you accept from me—you have the greater right—I know all the story now. You know who it is?"
"Oh yes; but I don't want to drag all that in."
"It is only her wish if we live together. She was planning it when she died."
"I can't follow—because—to share your life? Did you know I called here last Sunday week?"
"Yes. But then I only knew half. I thought you were my father's son."
Stephen's anger and bewilderment were increasing. He stuttered. "What—what's the odds if you did?"
"I hated my father," said Rickie. "I loved my mother." And never had the phrases seemed so destitute of meaning.
"Last Sunday week," interrupted Stephen, his voice suddenly rising, "I came to call on you. Not as this or that's son. Not to fall on your neck. Nor to live here. Nor—damn your dirty little mind! I meant to say I didn't come for money. Sorry. Sorry. I simply came as I was, and I haven't altered since."
"Yes—yet our mother—for me she has risen from the dead since then—I know I was wrong—"
"And where do I come in?" He kicked the hassock. "I haven't risen from the dead. I haven't altered since last Sunday week. I'm—" He stuttered again. He could not quite explain what he was. "The man towards Andover—after all, he was having principles. But you've—" His voice broke. "I mind it—I'm—I don't alter—blackguard one week—live here the next—I keep to one or the other—you've hurt something most badly in me that I didn't know was there."
"Don't let us talk," said Rickie. "It gets worse every minute. Simply say you forgive me; shake hands, and have done with it."
"That I won't. That I couldn't. In fact, I don't know what you mean."
Then Rickie began a new appeal—not to pity, for now he was in no mood to whimper. For all its pathos, there was something heroic in this meeting. "I warn you to stop here with me, Stephen. No one else in the world will look after you. As far as I know, you have never been really unhappy yet or suffered, as you should do, from your faults. Last night you nearly killed yourself with drink. Never mind why I'm willing to cure you. I am willing, and I warn you to give me the chance. Forgive me or not, as you choose. I care for other things more."
Stephen looked at him at last, faintly approving. The offer was ridiculous, but it did treat him as a man.
"Let me tell you of a fault of mine, and how I was punished for it," continued Rickie. "Two years ago I behaved badly to you, up at the Rings. No, even a few days before that. We went for a ride, and I thought too much of other matters, and did not try to understand you. Then came the Rings, and in the evening, when you called up to me most kindly, I never answered. But the ride was the beginning. Ever since then I have taken the world at second-hand. I have bothered less and less to look it in the face—until not only you, but every one else has turned unreal. Never Ansell: he kept away, and somehow saved himself. But every one else. Do you remember in one of Tony Failing's books, 'Cast bitter bread upon the waters, and after many days it really does come back to you'? This had been true of my life; it will be equally true of a drunkard's, and I warn you to stop with me."
"I can't stop after that cheque," said Stephen more gently. "But I do remember the ride. I was a bit bored myself."
Agnes, who had not been seeing to the breakfast, chose this moment to call from the passage. "Of course he can't stop," she exclaimed. "For better or worse, it's settled. We've none of us altered since last Sunday week."
"There you're right, Mrs. Elliot!" he shouted, starting out of the temperate past. "We haven't altered." With a rare flash of insight he turned on Rickie. "I see your game. You don't care about ME drinking, or to shake MY hand. It's some one else you want to cure—as it were, that old photograph. You talk to me, but all the time you look at the photograph." He snatched it up.
"I've my own ideas of good manners, and to look friends between the eyes is one of them; and this"—he tore the photograph across "and this"—he tore it again—"and these—" He flung the pieces at the man, who had sunk into a chair. "For my part, I'm off."
Then Rickie was heroic no longer. Turning round in his chair, he covered his face. The man was right. He did not love him, even as he had never hated him. In either passion he had degraded him to be a symbol for the vanished past. The man was right, and would have been lovable. He longed to be back riding over those windy fields, to be back in those mystic circles, beneath pure sky. Then they could have watched and helped and taught each other, until the word was a reality, and the past not a torn photograph, but Demeter the goddess rejoicing in the spring. Ah, if he had seized those high opportunities! For they led to the highest of all, the symbolic moment, which, if a man accepts, he has accepted life.
The voice of Agnes, which had lured him then ("For my sake," she had whispered), pealed over him now in triumph. Abruptly it broke into sobs that had the effect of rain. He started up. The anger had died out of Stephen's face, not for a subtle reason but because here was a woman, near him, and unhappy.
She tried to apologize, and brought on a fresh burst of tears. Something had upset her. They heard her locking the door of her room. From that moment their intercourse was changed.
"Why does she keep crying today?" mused Rickie, as if he spoke to some mutual friend.
"I can make a guess," said Stephen, and his heavy face flushed.
"Did you insult her?" he asked feebly.
"But who's Gerald?"
Rickie raised his hand to his mouth.
"She looked at me as if she knew me, and then gasps 'Gerald,' and started crying."
"Gerald is the name of some one she once knew."
"So I thought." There was a long silence, in which they could hear a piteous gulping cough. "Where is he now?" asked Stephen.
"And then you—?"
"Bad, this sort of thing."
"I didn't know of this particular thing. She acted as if she had forgotten him. Perhaps she had, and you woke him up. There are queer tricks in the world. She is overstrained. She has probably been plotting ever since you burst in last night."
Stephen stood irresolute. "I suppose you and she pulled together?" He said at last.
"Get away from us, man! I mind losing you. Yet it's as well you don't stop."
"Oh, THAT'S out of the question," said Stephen, brushing his cap.
"If you've guessed anything, I'd be obliged if you didn't mention it. I've no right to ask, but I'd be obliged."
He nodded, and walked slowly along the landing and down the stairs. Rickie accompanied him, and even opened the front door. It was as if Agnes had absorbed the passion out of both of them. The suburb was now wrapped in a cloud, not of its own making. Sigh after sigh passed along its streets to break against dripping walls. The school, the houses were hidden, and all civilization seemed in abeyance. Only the simplest sounds, the simplest desires emerged. They agreed that this weather was strange after such a sunset.
"That's a collie," said Stephen, listening.
"I wish you'd have some breakfast before starting."
"No food, thanks. But you know" He paused. "It's all been a muddle, and I've no objection to your coming along with me."
The cloud descended lower.
"Come with me as a man," said Stephen, already out in the mist. "Not as a brother; who cares what people did years back? We're alive together, and the rest is cant. Here am I, Rickie, and there are you, a fair wreck. They've no use for you here,—never had any, if the truth was known,—and they've only made you beastly. This house, so to speak, has the rot. It's common-sense that you should come."
"Stephen, wait a minute. What do you mean?"
"Wait's what we won't do," said Stephen at the gate.
"I must ask—"
He did wait for a minute, and sobs were heard, faint, hopeless, vindictive. Then he trudged away, and Rickie soon lost his colour and his form. But a voice persisted, saying, "Come, I do mean it. Come; I will take care of you, I can manage you."
The words were kind; yet it was not for their sake that Rickie plunged into the impalpable cloud. In the voice he had found a surer guarantee. Habits and sex may change with the new generation, features may alter with the play of a private passion, but a voice is apart from these. It lies nearer to the racial essence and perhaps to the divine; it can, at all events, overleap one grave.