The Longest Journey by E. M. Forster
The carriage that Mrs. Failing had sent to meet her nephew returned from Cadchurch station empty. She was preparing for a solitary dinner when he somehow arrived, full of apologies, but more sedate than she had expected. She cut his explanations short. "Never mind how you got here. You are here, and I am quite pleased to see you." He changed his clothes and they proceeded to the dining-room.
There was a bright fire, but the curtains were not drawn. Mr. Failing had believed that windows with the night behind are more beautiful than any pictures, and his widow had kept to the custom. It was brave of her to persevere, lumps of chalk having come out of the night last June. For some obscure reason—not so obscure to Rickie—she had preserved them as mementoes of an episode. Seeing them in a row on the mantelpiece, he expected that their first topic would be Stephen. But they never mentioned him, though he was latent in all that they said.
It was of Mr. Failing that they spoke. The Essays had been a success. She was really pleased. The book was brought in at her request, and between the courses she read it aloud to her nephew, in her soft yet unsympathetic voice. Then she sent for the press notices—after all no one despises them—and read their comments on her introduction. She wielded a graceful pen, was apt, adequate, suggestive, indispensable, unnecessary. So the meal passed pleasantly away, for no one could so well combine the formal with the unconventional, and it only seemed charming when papers littered her stately table.
"My man wrote very nicely," she observed. "Now, you read me something out of him that you like. Read 'The True Patriot.'"
He took the book and found: "Let us love one another. Let our children, physical and spiritual, love one another. It is all that we can do. Perhaps the earth will neglect our love. Perhaps she will confirm it, and suffer some rallying-point, spire, mound, for the new generations to cherish."
"He wrote that when he was young. Later on he doubted whether we had better love one another, or whether the earth will confirm anything. He died a most unhappy man."
He could not help saying, "Not knowing that the earth had confirmed him."
"Has she? It is quite possible. We meet so seldom in these days, she and I. Do you see much of the earth?"
"Do you expect that she will confirm you?"
"It is quite possible."
"Beware of her, Rickie, I think."
"I think not."
"Beware of her, surely. Going back to her really is going back—throwing away the artificiality which (though you young people won't confess it) is the only good thing in life. Don't pretend you are simple. Once I pretended. Don't pretend that you care for anything but for clever talk such as this, and for books."
"The talk," said Leighton afterwards, "certainly was clever. But it meant something, all the same." He heard no more, for his mistress told him to retire.
"And my nephew, this being so, make up your quarrel with your wife." She stretched out her hand to him with real feeling. "It is easier now than it will be later. Poor lady, she has written to me foolishly and often, but, on the whole, I side with her against you. She would grant you all that you fought for—all the people, all the theories. I have it, in her writing, that she will never interfere with your life again."
"She cannot help interfering," said Rickie, with his eyes on the black windows. "She despises me. Besides, I do not love her."
"I know, my dear. Nor she you. I am not being sentimental. I say once more, beware of the earth. We are conventional people, and conventions—if you will but see it—are majestic in their way, and will claim us in the end. We do not live for great passions or for great memories, or for anything great."
He threw up his head. "We do."
"Now listen to me. I am serious and friendly tonight, as you must have observed. I have asked you here partly to amuse myself—you belong to my March Past—but also to give you good advice. There has been a volcano—a phenomenon which I too once greatly admired. The eruption is over. Let the conventions do their work now, and clear the rubbish away. My age is fifty-nine, and I tell you solemnly that the important things in life are little things, and that people are not important at all. Go back to your wife."
He looked at her, and was filled with pity. He knew that he would never be frightened of her again. Only because she was serious and friendly did he trouble himself to reply. "There is one little fact I should like to tell you, as confuting your theory. The idea of a story—a long story—had been in my head for a year. As a dream to amuse myself—the kind of amusement you would recommend for the future. I should have had time to write it, but the people round me coloured my life, and so it never seemed worth while. For the story is not likely to pay. Then came the volcano. A few days after it was over I lay in bed looking out upon a world of rubbish. Two men I know—one intellectual, the other very much the reverse—burst into the room. They said, 'What happened to your short stories? They weren't good, but where are they? Why have you stopped writing? Why haven't you been to Italy? You must write. You must go. Because to write, to go, is you.' Well, I have written, and yesterday we sent the long story out on its rounds. The men do not like it, for different reasons. But it mattered very much to them that I should write it, and so it got written. As I told you, this is only one fact; other facts, I trust, have happened in the last five months. But I mention it to prove that people are important, and therefore, however much it inconveniences my wife, I will not go back to her."
"And Italy?" asked Mrs. Failing.
This question he avoided. Italy must wait. Now that he had the time, he had not the money.
"Or what is the long story about, then?"
"About a man and a woman who meet and are happy."
"Somewhat of a tour de force, I conclude."
He frowned. "In literature we needn't intrude our own limitations. I'm not so silly as to think that all marriages turn out like mine. My character is to blame for our catastrophe, not marriage."
"My dear, I too have married; marriage is to blame."
But here again he seemed to know better.
"Well," she said, leaving the table and moving with her dessert to the mantelpiece, "so you are abandoning marriage and taking to literature. And are happy."
"Because, as we used to say at Cambridge, the cow is there. The world is real again. This is a room, that a window, outside is the night."
He pointed to the floor. "The day is straight below, shining through other windows into other rooms."
"You are very odd," she said after a pause, "and I do not like you at all. There you sit, eating my biscuits, and all the time you know that the earth is round. Who taught you? I am going to bed now, and all the night, you tell me, you and I and the biscuits go plunging eastwards, until we reach the sun. But breakfast will be at nine as usual. Good-night."
She rang the bell twice, and her maid came with her candle and her walking-stick: it was her habit of late to go to her room as soon as dinner was over, for she had no one to sit up with. Rickie was impressed by her loneliness, and also by the mixture in her of insight and obtuseness. She was so quick, so clear-headed, so imaginative even. But all the same, she had forgotten what people were like. Finding life dull, she had dropped lies into it, as a chemist drops a new element into a solution, hoping that life would thereby sparkle or turn some beautiful colour. She loved to mislead others, and in the end her private view of false and true was obscured, and she misled herself. How she must have enjoyed their errors over Stephen! But her own error had been greater, inasmuch as it was spiritual entirely.
Leighton came in with some coffee. Feeling it unnecessary to light the drawing-room lamp for one small young man, he persuaded Rickie to say he preferred the dining-room. So Rickie sat down by the fire playing with one of the lumps of chalk. His thoughts went back to the ford, from which they had scarcely wandered. Still he heard the horse in the dark drinking, still he saw the mystic rose, and the tunnel dropping diamonds. He had driven away alone, believing the earth had confirmed him. He stood behind things at last, and knew that conventions are not majestic, and that they will not claim us in the end.
As he mused, the chalk slipped from his fingers, and fell on the coffee-cup, which broke. The china, said Leighton, was expensive. He believed it was impossible to match it now. Each cup was different. It was a harlequin set. The saucer, without the cup, was therefore useless. Would Mr. Elliot please explain to Mrs. Failing how it happened.
Rickie promised he would explain.
He had left Stephen preparing to bathe, and had heard him working up-stream like an animal, splashing in the shallows, breathing heavily as he swam the pools; at times reeds snapped, or clods of earth were pulled in. By the fire he remembered it was again November. "Should you like a walk?" he asked Leighton, and told him who stopped in the village tonight. Leighton was pleased. At nine o'clock the two young men left the house, under a sky that was still only bright in the zenith. "It will rain tomorrow," Leighton said.
"My brother says, fine tomorrow."
"Fine tomorrow," Leighton echoed.
"Now which do you mean?" asked Rickie, laughing.
Since the plumes of the fir-trees touched over the drive, only a very little light penetrated. It was clearer outside the lodge gate, and bubbles of air, which Wiltshire seemed to have travelled from an immense distance, broke gently and separately on his face. They paused on the bridge. He asked whether the little fish and the bright green weeds were here now as well as in the summer. The footman had not noticed. Over the bridge they came to the cross-roads, of which one led to Salisbury and the other up through the string of villages to the railway station. The road in front was only the Roman road, the one that went on to the downs. Turning to the left, they were in Cadford.
"He will be with the Thompsons," said Rickie, looking up at dark eaves. "Perhaps he's in bed already."
"Perhaps he will be at The Antelope."
"No. Tonight he is with the Thompsons."
"With the Thompsons." After a dozen paces he said, "The Thompsons have gone away."
"They were turned out by Mr. Wilbraham on account of our broken windows."
"Are you sure?"
"Five families were turned out."
"That's bad for Stephen," said Rickie, after a pause. "He was looking forward—oh, it's monstrous in any case!"
"But the Thompsons have gone to London," said Leighton. "Why, that family—they say it's been in the valley hundreds of years, and never got beyond shepherding. To various parts of London."
"Let us try The Antelope, then."
"Let us try The Antelope."
The inn lay up in the village. Rickie hastened his pace. This tyranny was monstrous. Some men of the age of undergraduates had broken windows, and therefore they and their families were to be ruined. The fools who govern us find it easier to be severe. It saves them trouble to say, "The innocent must suffer with the guilty." It even gives them a thrill of pride. Against all this wicked nonsense, against the Wilbrahams and Pembrokes who try to rule our world Stephen would fight till he died. Stephen was a hero. He was a law to himself, and rightly. He was great enough to despise our small moralities. He was attaining love. This evening Rickie caught Ansell's enthusiasm, and felt it worth while to sacrifice everything for such a man.
"The Antelope," said Leighton. "Those lights under the greatest elm."
"Would you please ask if he's there, and if he'd come for a turn with me. I don't think I'll go in."
Leighton opened the door. They saw a little room, blue with tobacco-smoke. Flanking the fire were deep settles hiding all but the legs of the men who lounged in them. Between the settles stood a table, covered with mugs and glasses. The scene was picturesque—fairer than the cutglass palaces of the town.
"Oh yes, he's there," he called, and after a moment's hesitation came out.
"Would he come?"
"No. I shouldn't say so," replied Leighton, with a furtive glance. He knew that Rickie was a milksop. "First night, you know, sir, among old friends."
"Yes, I know," said Rickie. "But he might like a turn down the village. It looks stuffy inside there, and poor fun probably to watch others drinking."
Leighton shut the door.
"What was that he called after you?"
"Oh, nothing. A man when he's drunk—he says the worst he's ever heard. At least, so they say."
"A man when he's drunk?"
"But Stephen isn't drinking?"
"He couldn't be. If he broke a promise—I don't pretend he's a saint. I don't want him one. But it isn't in him to break a promise."
"Yes, sir; I understand."
"In the train he promised me not to drink—nothing theatrical: just a promise for these few days."
"No, sir." "'No, sir,'" stamped Rickie. "'Yes! no! yes!' Can't you speak out? Is he drunk or isn't he?"
Leighton, justly exasperated, cried, "He can't stand, and I've told you so again and again."
"Stephen!" shouted Rickie, darting up the steps. Heat and the smell of beer awaited him, and he spoke more furiously than he had intended. "Is there any one here who's sober?" he cried. The landlord looked over the bar angrily, and asked him what he meant. He pointed to the deep settles. "Inside there he's drunk. Tell him he's broken his word, and I will not go with him to the Rings."
"Very well. You won't go with him to the Rings," said the landlord, stepping forward and slamming the door in his face.
In the room he was only angry, but out in the cool air he remembered that Stephen was a law to himself. He had chosen to break his word, and would break it again. Nothing else bound him. To yield to temptation is not fatal for most of us. But it was the end of everything for a hero.
"He's suddenly ruined!" he cried, not yet remembering himself. For a little he stood by the elm-tree, clutching the ridges of its bark. Even so would he wrestle tomorrow, and Stephen, imperturbable, reply, "My body is my own." Or worse still, he might wrestle with a pliant Stephen who promised him glibly again. While he prayed for a miracle to convert his brother, it struck him that he must pray for himself. For he, too, was ruined.
"Why, what's the matter?" asked Leighton. "Stephen's only being with friends. Mr. Elliot, sir, don't break down. Nothing's happened bad. No one's died yet, or even hurt themselves." Ever kind, he took hold of Rickie's arm, and, pitying such a nervous fellow, set out with him for home. The shoulders of Orion rose behind them over the topmost boughs of the elm. From the bridge the whole constellation was visible, and Rickie said, "May God receive me and pardon me for trusting the earth."
"But, Mr. Elliot, what have you done that's wrong?"
"Gone bankrupt, Leighton, for the second time. Pretended again that people were real. May God have mercy on me!"
Leighton dropped his arm. Though he did not understand, a chill of disgust passed over him, and he said, "I will go back to The Antelope. I will help them put Stephen to bed."
"Do. I will wait for you here." Then he leant against the parapet and prayed passionately, for he knew that the conventions would claim him soon. God was beyond them, but ah, how far beyond, and to be reached after what degradation! At the end of this childish detour his wife awaited him, not less surely because she was only his wife in name. He was too weak. Books and friends were not enough. Little by little she would claim him and corrupt him and make him what he had been; and the woman he loved would die out, in drunkenness, in debauchery, and her strength would be dissipated by a man, her beauty defiled in a man. She would not continue. That mystic rose and the face it illumined meant nothing. The stream—he was above it now—meant nothing, though it burst from the pure turf and ran for ever to the sea. The bather, the shoulders of Orion-they all meant nothing, and were going nowhere. The whole affair was a ridiculous dream.
Leighton returned, saying, "Haven't you seen Stephen? They say he followed us: he can still walk: I told you he wasn't so bad."
"I don't think he passed me. Ought one to look?" He wandered a little along the Roman road. Again nothing mattered. At the level-crossing he leant on the gate to watch a slow goods train pass. In the glare of the engine he saw that his brother had come this way, perhaps through some sodden memory of the Rings, and now lay drunk over the rails. Wearily he did a man's duty. There was time to raise him up and push him into safety. It is also a man's duty to save his own life, and therefore he tried. The train went over his knees. He died up in Cadover, whispering, "You have been right," to Mrs. Failing.
She wrote of him to Mrs. Lewin afterwards as "one who has failed in all he undertook; one of the thousands whose dust returns to the dust, accomplishing nothing in the interval. Agnes and I buried him to the sound of our cracked bell, and pretended that he had once been alive. The other, who was always honest, kept away."