In the hall someone rose from a sofa, and came towards him. It was Courtier.
“Run you to earth at last,” he said; “I wish you'd come and dine with me. I'm leaving England to-morrow night, and there are things I want to say.”
There passed through Miltoun's mind the rapid thought: 'Does he know?' He assented, however, and they went out together.
“It's difficult to find a quiet place,” said Courtier; “but this might do.”
The place chosen was a little hostel, frequented by racing men, and famed for the excellence of its steaks. And as they sat down opposite each other in the almost empty room, Miltoun thought: Yes, he does know! Can I stand any more of this? He waited almost savagely for the attack he felt was coming.
“So you are going to give up your seat?” said Courtier.
Miltoun looked at him for some seconds, before replying.
“From what town-crier did you hear that?”
But there was that in Courtier's face which checked his anger; its friendliness was transparent.
“I am about her only friend,” Courtier proceeded earnestly; “and this is my last chance—to say nothing of my feeling towards you, which, believe me, is very cordial.”
“Go on, then,” Miltoun muttered.
“Forgive me for putting it bluntly. Have you considered what her position was before she met you?”
Miltoun felt the blood rushing to his face, but he sat still, clenching his nails into the palms of his hands.
“Yes, yes,” said Courtier, “but that attitude of mind—you used to have it yourself—which decrees either living death, or spiritual adultery to women, makes my blood boil. You can't deny that those were the alternatives, and I say you had the right fundamentally to protest against them, not only in words but deeds. You did protest, I know; but this present decision of yours is a climb down, as much as to say that your protest was wrong.”
Miltoun rose from his seat. “I cannot discuss this,” he said; “I cannot.”
“For her sake, you must. If you give up your public work, you'll spoil her life a second time.”
Miltoun again sat down. At the word 'must' a steely feeling had come to his aid; his eyes began to resemble the old Cardinal's. “Your nature and mine, Courtier,” he said, “are too far apart; we shall never understand each other.”
“Never mind that,” answered Courtier. “Admitting those two alternatives to be horrible, which you never would have done unless the facts had been brought home to you personally—”
“That,” said Miltoun icily, “I deny your right to say.”
“Anyway, you do admit them—if you believe you had not the right to rescue her, on what principle do you base that belief?”
Miltoun placed his elbow on the table, and leaning his chin on his hand, regarded the champion of lost causes without speaking. There was such a turmoil going on within him that with difficulty he could force his lips to obey him.
“By what right do you ask me that?” he said at last. He saw Courtier's face grow scarlet, and his fingers twisting furiously at those flame-like moustaches; but his answer was as steadily ironical as usual.
“Well, I can hardly sit still, my last evening in England, without lifting a finger, while you immolate a woman to whom I feel like a brother. I'll tell you what your principle is: Authority, unjust or just, desirable or undesirable, must be implicitly obeyed. To break a law, no matter on what provocation, or for whose sake, is to break the commandment.”
“Don't hesitate—say, of God.”
“Of an infallible fixed Power. Is that a true definition of your principle?”
“Yes,” said Miltoun, between his teeth, “I think so.”
“Exceptions prove the rule.”
“Hard cases make bad law.”
Courtier smiled: “I knew you were coming out with that. I deny that they do with this law, which is altogether behind the times. You had the right to rescue this woman.”
“No, Courtier, if we must fight, let us fight on the naked facts. I have not rescued anyone. I have merely stolen sooner than starve. That is why I cannot go on pretending to be a pattern. If it were known, I could not retain my seat an hour; I can't take advantage of an accidental secrecy. Could you?”
Courtier was silent; and with his eyes Miltoun pressed on him, as though he would despatch him with that glance.
“I could,” said Courtier at last. “When this law, by enforcing spiritual adultery on those who have come to hate their mates, destroys the sanctity of the married state—the very sanctity it professes to uphold, you must expect to have it broken by reasoning men and women without their feeling shame, or losing self-respect.”
In Miltoun there was rising that vast and subtle passion for dialectic combat, which was of his very fibre. He had almost lost the feeling that this was his own future being discussed. He saw before him in this sanguine man, whose voice and eyes had such a white-hot sound and look, the incarnation of all that he temperamentally opposed.
“That,” he said, “is devil's advocacy. I admit no individual as judge in his own case.”
“Ah! Now we're coming to it. By the way, shall we get out of this heat?”
They were no sooner in the cooler street, than the voice of Courtier began again:
“Distrust of human nature, fear—it's the whole basis of action for men of your stamp. You deny the right of the individual to judge, because you've no faith in the essential goodness of men; at heart you believe them bad. You give them no freedom, you allow them no consent, because you believe that their decisions would move downwards, and not upwards. Well, it's the whole difference between the aristocratic and the democratic view of life. As you once told me, you hate and fear the crowd.”
Miltoun eyed that steady sanguine face askance:
“Yes,” he said, “I do believe that men are raised in spite of themselves.”
“You're honest. By whom?”
Again Miltoun felt rising within him a sort of fury. Once for all he would slay this red-haired rebel; he answered with almost savage irony:
“Strangely enough, by that Being to mention whom you object—working through the medium of the best.”
“High-Priest! Look at that girl slinking along there, with her eye on us; suppose, instead of withdrawing your garment, you went over and talked to her, got her to tell you what she really felt and thought, you'd find things that would astonish you. At bottom, mankind is splendid. And they're raised, sir, by the aspiration that's in all of them. Haven't you ever noticed that public sentiment is always in advance of the Law?”
“And you,” said Miltoun, “are the man who is never on the side of the majority?”
The champion of lost causes uttered a short laugh.
“Not so logical as all that,” he answered; “the wind still blows; and Life's not a set of rules hung up in an office. Let's see, where are we?” They had been brought to a stand-still by a group on the pavement in front of the Queen's Hall: “Shall we go in, and hear some music, and cool our tongues?”
Miltoun nodded, and they went in.
The great lighted hall, filled with the faint bluefish vapour from hundreds of little rolls of tobacco leaf, was crowded from floor to ceiling.
Taking his stand among the straw-hatted throng, Miltoun heard that steady ironical voice behind him:
“Profanum vulgus! Come to listen to the finest piece of music ever written! Folk whom you wouldn't trust a yard to know what was good for them! Deplorable sight, isn't it?”
He made no answer. The first slow notes of the seventh Symphony of Beethoven had begun to steal forth across the bank of flowers; and, save for the steady rising of that bluefish vapour, as it were incense burnt to the god of melody, the crowd had become deathly still, as though one mind, one spirit, possessed each pale face inclined towards that music rising and falling like the sighing of the winds, that welcome from death the freed spirits of the beautiful.
When the last notes had died away, he turned and walked out.
“Well,” said the voice behind him, “hasn't that shown you how things swell and grow; how splendid the world is?”
“It has shown me how beautiful the world can be made by a great man.”
And suddenly, as if the music had loosened some band within him, he began to pour forth words:
“Look at the crowd in this street, Courtier, which of all crowds in the whole world can best afford to be left to itself; secure from pestilence, earthquake, cyclone, drought, from extremes of heat and cold, in the heart of the greatest and safest city in the world; and yet-see the figure of that policeman! Running through all the good behaviour of this crowd, however safe and free it looks, there is, there always must be, a central force holding it together. Where does that central force come from? From the crowd itself, you say. I answer: No. Look back at the origin of human States. From the beginnings of things, the best man has been the unconscious medium of authority, of the controlling principle, of the divine force; he felt that power within him—physical, at first—he used it to take the lead, he has held the lead ever since, he must always hold it. All your processes of election, your so-called democratic apparatus, are only a blind to the inquiring, a sop to the hungry, a salve to the pride of the rebellious. They are merely surface machinery; they cannot prevent the best man from coming to the top; for the best man stands nearest to the Deity, and is the first to receive the waves that come from Him. I'm not speaking of heredity. The best man is not necessarily born in my class, and I, at all events, do not believe he is any more frequent there than in other classes.”
He stopped as suddenly as he had begun.
“You needn't be afraid,” answered Courtier, “that I take you for an average specimen. You're at one end, and I at the other, and we probably both miss the golden mark. But the world is not ruled by power, and the fear which power produces, as you think, it's ruled by love. Society is held together by the natural decency in man, by fellow-feeling. The democratic principle, which you despise, at root means nothing at all but that. Man left to himself is on the upward lay. If it weren't so, do you imagine for a moment your 'boys in blue' could keep order? A man knows unconsciously what he can and what he can't do, without losing his self-respect. He sucks that knowledge in with every breath. Laws and authority are not the be-all and end-all, they are conveniences, machinery, conduit pipes, main roads. They're not of the structure of the building—they're only scaffolding.”
Miltoun lunged out with the retort
“Without which no building could be built.”
“That's rather different, my friend, from identifying them with the building. They are things to be taken down as fast as ever they can be cleared away, to make room for an edifice that begins on earth, not in the sky. All the scaffolding of law is merely there to save time, to prevent the temple, as it mounts, from losing its way, and straying out of form.”
“No,” said Miltoun, “no! The scaffolding, as you call it, is the material projection of the architect's conception, without which the temple does not and cannot rise; and the architect is God, working through the minds and spirits most akin to Himself.”
“We are now at the bed-rock,” cried Courtier, “your God is outside this world. Mine within it.”
“And never the twain shall meet!”
In the silence that followed Miltoun saw that they were in Leicester Square, all quiet as yet before the theatres had disgorged; quiet yet waiting, with the lights, like yellow stars low-driven from the dark heavens, clinging to the white shapes of music-halls and cafes, and a sort of flying glamour blanching the still foliage of the plane trees.
“A 'whitely wanton'—this Square!” said Courtier: “Alive as a face; no end to its queer beauty! And, by Jove, if you went deep enough, you'd find goodness even here.”
“And you'd ignore the vice,” Miltoun answered.
He felt weary all of a sudden, anxious to get to his rooms, unwilling to continue this battle of words, that brought him no nearer to relief. It was with strange lassitude that he heard the voice still speaking:
“We must make a night of it, since to-morrow we die.... You would curb licence from without—I from within. When I get up and when I go to bed, when I draw a breath, see a face, or a flower, or a tree—if I didn't feel that I was looking on the Deity, I believe I should quit this palace of varieties, from sheer boredom. You, I understand, can't look on your God, unless you withdraw into some high place. Isn't it a bit lonely there?”
“There are worse things than loneliness.” And they walked on, in silence; till suddenly Miltoun broke out:
“You talk of tyranny! What tyranny could equal this tyranny of your freedom? What tyranny in the world like that of this 'free' vulgar, narrow street, with its hundred journals teeming like ants' nests, to produce-what? In the entrails of that creature of your freedom, Courtier, there is room neither for exaltation, discipline, nor sacrifice; there is room only for commerce, and licence.”
There was no answer for a moment; and from those tall houses, whose lighted windows he had apostrophized, Miltoun turned away towards the river. “No,” said the voice beside him, “for all its faults, the wind blows in that street, and there's a chance for everything. By God, I would rather see a few stars struggle out in a black sky than any of your perfect artificial lighting.”
And suddenly it seemed to Miltoun that he could never free himself from the echoes of that voice—it was not worth while to try. “We are repeating ourselves,” he said, dryly.
The river's black water was making stilly, slow recessional under a half-moon. Beneath the cloak of night the chaos on the far bank, the forms of cranes, high buildings, jetties, the bodies of the sleeping barges, a—million queer dark shapes, were invested with emotion. All was religious out there, all beautiful, all strange. And over this great quiet friend of man, lamps—those humble flowers of night, were throwing down the faint continual glamour of fallen petals; and a sweet-scented wind stole along from the West, very slow as yet, bringing in advance the tremor and perfume of the innumerable trees and fields which the river had loved as she came by.
A murmur that was no true sound, but like the whisper of a heart to a heart, accompanied this voyage of the dark water.
Then a small blunt skiff—manned by two rowers came by under the wall, with the thudding and the creak of oars.
“So 'To-morrow we die'?” said Miltoun: “You mean, I suppose, that 'public life' is the breath of my nostrils, and I must die, because I give it up?”
“Am I right in thinking that it was my young sister who sent you on this crusade?”
Courtier did not answer.
“And so,” Miltoun went on, looking him through and through; “to-morrow is to be your last day, too? Well, you're right to go. She is not an ugly duckling, who can live out of the social pond; she'll always want her native element. And now, we'll say goodbye! Whatever happens to us both, I shall remember this evening.” Smiling, he put out his hand 'Moriturus te saluto.'