Flowering Wilderness, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 22

Jack Muskham occupied a bedroom at Burton’s Club when racing kept him overnight in town. Having read an account of the Derby in The Daily Phase, he turned the paper idly. The other features in ‘that rag’ were commonly of little interest to him. Its editing shocked his formalism, its news jarred his taste, its politics offended him by being so like his own. But his perusal was not perfunctory enough to prevent him from seeing the headline ‘Mr. Desert’s Apostasy.’ Reading the half column that followed it, he pushed the paper away and said: “That fellow must be stopped.”

Glorying in his yellow streak, was he, and taking that nice girl with him to Coventry! Hadn’t even the decency to avoid being seen with her in public on the very day when he was confessing himself as yellow as that rag!

In an age when tolerations and condonations seemed almost a disease, Jack Muskham knew and registered his own mind. He had disliked young Desert at first sight. The fellow’s name suited him! And to think that this nice girl, who, without any training, had made those shrewd remarks about the racehorse, was to have her life ruined by this yellow-livered young braggart! It was too much! If it hadn’t been for Lawrence, indeed, he would have done something about it before now. But there his mind stammered. What? . . . Here was the fellow publicly confessing his disgrace! An old dodge, that — taking the sting out of criticism! Making a virtue of necessity! Parading his desertion! That cock shouldn’t fight, if he had his way! But once more his mind stammered . . . No outsider could interfere. And yet, unless there were some outward and visible sign condemning the fellow’s conduct, it would look as if nobody cared.

‘By George!’ he thought. ‘This Club, at least, can sit up and take notice. We don’t want rats in Burton’s!’

He brought the matter up in Committee meeting that very afternoon, and was astonished almost to consternation by the apathy with which it was received. Of the seven members present —‘the Squire,’ Wilfrid Bentworth, being in the Chair — four seemed to think it was a matter between young Desert and his conscience, and, besides, it looked like being a newspaper stunt. Times had changed since Lyall wrote that poem. One member went so far as to say he didn’t want to be bothered, he hadn’t read The Leopard, he didn’t know Desert, and he hated The Daily Phase.

“So do I,” said Jack Muskham, “but here’s the poem.” He had sent out for it and spent an hour after lunch reading it. “Let me read you a bit. It’s poisonous.”

“For heaven’s sake no, Jack!”

The fifth member, who had so far said nothing, supposed that if Muskham pressed it they must all read the thing.

“I do press it.”

‘The Squire,’ hitherto square and silent, remarked: “The secretary will get copies and send them round to the Committee. Better send them, too, a copy of today’s Daily Phase. We’ll discuss it at the meeting next Friday. Now about this claret?” And they moved to consideration of important matters.

It has been noticed that when a newspaper of a certain type lights on an incident which enables it at once to exhibit virtue and beat the drum of its own policy, it will exploit that incident, within the limits of the law of libel, without regard to the susceptibilities of individuals. Secured by the confession in Compson Grice’s letter, The Daily Phase made the most of its opportunity, and in the eight days intervening before the next Committee meeting gave the Committeemen little chance of professing ignorance or indifference. Everybody, indeed, was reading and talking about The Leopard and, on the morning of the adjourned meeting, The Daily Phase had a long allusive column on the extreme importance of British behaviour in the East. It had also a large-type advertisement. “The Leopard and other Poems, by Wilfrid Desert: published by Compson Grice: 40,000 copies sold: Third Large Impression ready.”

A debate on the ostracism of a fellow-being will bring almost any man to a Committee meeting; and the attendance included some never before known to come.

A motion had been framed by Jack Muskham.

“That the Honourable Wilfrid Desert be requested, under Rule 23, to resign his membership of Burton’s Club, because of conduct unbecoming to a member.”

He opened the discussion in these words:

“You’ve all had copies of Desert’s poem The Leopard and The Daily Phase of yesterday week. There’s no doubt about the thing. Desert has publicly owned to having ratted from his religion at the pistol’s point, and I say he’s no longer fit to be a member of this Club. It was founded in memory of a very great traveller who’d have dared Hell itself. We don’t want people here who don’t act up to English traditions, and make a song about it into the bargain.”

There was a short silence, and then the fifth member of the Committee at the previous meeting remarked:

“It’s a deuced fine poem, all the same.”

A well-known K.C., who had once travelled in Turkey, added:

“Oughtn’t he to have been asked to attend?”

“Why?” asked Jack Muskham. “He can’t say more than is said in that poem, or in that letter of his publisher’s.”

The fourth member of the Committee at the previous meeting muttered: “I don’t like paying attention to The Daily Phase.”

“We can’t help his having chosen that particular rag,” said Jack Muskham.

“Very distasteful,” continued the fourth member, “diving into matters of conscience. Are we all prepared to say we wouldn’t have done the same?”

There was a sound as of feet shuffling, and a wrinkled expert on the early civilisations of Ceylon murmured: “To my mind, Desert is on the carpet — not for apostasy, but for the song he’s made about it. Decency should have kept him quiet. Advertising his book! It’s in a third edition, and everybody reading it. Making money out of it seems to me the limit.”

“I don’t suppose,” said the fourth member, “that he thought of that. It’s the accident of the sensation.”

“He could have withdrawn the book.”

“Depends on his contract. Besides, that would look like running from the storm he’s roused. As a matter of fact, I think it’s rather fine to have made an open confession.”

“Theatrical!” murmured the K.C.

“If this,” said Jack Muskham, “were one of the Service Clubs, they wouldn’t think twice about it.”

An author of Mexico Revisited said drily:

“But it is not.”

“I don’t know if you can judge poets like other people,” mused the fifth member.

“In matters of ordinary conduct,” said the expert on the civilisation of Ceylon, “why not?”

A little man at the end of the table opposite the Chairman remarked, “The D-d-daily Ph-Phase,” as if releasing a small spasm of wind.

“Everybody’s talking about the thing,” said the K.C.

“My young people,” put in a man who had not yet spoken, “scoff. They say: ‘What does it matter what he did?’ They talk about hypocrisy, laugh at Lyall’s poem, and say it’s good for the Empire to have some wind let out of it.”

“Exactly!” said Jack Muskham: “That’s the modern jargon. All standards gone by the board. Are we going to stand for that?”

“Anybody here know young Desert?” asked the fifth member.

“To nod to,” replied Jack Muskham.

Nobody else acknowledged acquaintanceship.

A very dark man with deep lively eyes said suddenly:

“All I can say is I trust the story has not got about in Afghanistan; I’m going there next month.”

“Why?” said the fourth member.

“Merely because it will add to the contempt with which I shall be regarded, anyway.”

Coming from a well-known traveller, this remark made more impression than anything said so far. Two members, who, with the Chairman, had not yet spoken, said simultaneously: “Quite!”

“I don’t like condemning a man unheard,” said the K.C.

“What about that, ‘Squire’?” asked the fourth member.

The Chairman, who was smoking a pipe, took it from his mouth.

“Anybody anything more to say?”

“Yes,” said the author of Mexico Revisited, “let’s put it on his conduct in publishing that poem.”

“You can’t,” growled Jack Muskham; “the whole thing’s of a piece. The point is simply: Is he fit to be a member here or not? I ask the Chairman to put that to the meeting.”

But the ‘Squire’ continued to smoke his pipe. His experience of Committees told him that the time was not yet. Separate or ‘knot’ discussions would now set in. They led nowhere, of course, but ministered to a general sense that the subject was having justice done to it.

Jack Muskham sat silent, his long face impassive and his long legs stretched out. The discussion continued.

“Well?” said the member who had revisited Mexico, at last.

The ‘Squire’ tapped out his pipe.

“I think,” he said, “that Mr. Desert should be asked to give us his reasons for publishing that poem.”

“Hear, hear!” said the K.C.

“Quite!” said the two members who had said it before.

“I agree,” said the authority on Ceylon.

“Anybody against that?” said the ‘Squire.’

“I don’t see the use of it,” muttered Jack Muskham. “He ratted, and he’s confessed it.”

No one else objecting, the ‘Squire’ continued:

“The Secretary will ask him to see us and explain. There’s no other business, gentlemen.”

In spite of the general understanding that the matter was sub judice, these proceedings were confided to Sir Lawrence before the day was out by three members of the Committee, including Jack Muskham. He took the knowledge out with him to dinner at South Street.

Since the publication of the poems and Compson Grice’s letter, Michael and Fleur had talked of little else, forced to by the comments and questionings of practically every acquaintance. They differed radically. Michael, originally averse to publication of the poem, now that it was out, stoutly defended the honesty and courage of Wilfrid’s avowal. Fleur could not forgive what she called the ‘stupidity of the whole thing.’ If he had only kept quiet and not indulged his conscience or his pride, the matter would have blown over, leaving practically no mark. It was, she said, unfair to Dinny, and unnecessary so far as Wilfrid himself was concerned; but of course he had always been like that. She had not forgotten the uncompromising way in which eight years ago he had asked her to become his mistress, and the still more uncompromising way in which he had fled from her when she had not complied. When Sir Lawrence told them of the meeting at Burton’s, she said simply:

“Well, what could he expect?”

Michael muttered:

“Why is Jack Muskham so bitter?”

“Some dogs attack each other at sight. Others come to it more meditatively. This appears to be a case of both. I should say Dinny is the bone.”

Fleur laughed.

“Jack Muskham and Dinny!”

“Sub-consciously, my dear. The workings of a misogynist’s mind are not for us to pry into, except in Vienna. They can tell you everything there; even to the origin of hiccoughs.”

“I doubt if Wilfrid will go before the Committee,” said Michael, gloomily. Fleur confirmed him.

“Of course he won’t, Michael.”

“Then what will happen?”

“Almost certainly he’ll be expelled under rule whatever it is.”

Michael shrugged. “He won’t care. What’s a Club more or less?”

“No,” said Fleur; “but at present the thing is in flux — people just talk about it; but expulsion from his Club will be definite condemnation. It’s just what’s wanted to make opinion line up against him.”

“And FOR him.”

“Oh! for him, yes; but we know what that amounts to — the disgruntled.”

“That’s all beside the point,” said Michael gruffly. “I know what he’s feeling: his first instinct was to defy that Arab, and he bitterly regrets that he went back on it.”

Sir Lawrence nodded.

“Dinny asked me if there was anything he could do to show publicly that he wasn’t a coward. You’d think there might be, but it’s not easy. People object to be put into positions of extreme danger in order that their rescuers may get into the papers. Van horses seldom run away in Piccadilly. He might throw someone off Westminster Bridge, and jump in after him; but that would merely be murder and suicide. Curious that, with all the heroism there is about, it should be so difficult to be deliberately heroic.”

“He ought to face the Committee,” said Michael; “and I hope he will. There’s something he told me. It sounds silly; but, knowing Wilfrid, one can see it made all the difference.”

Fleur had planted her elbows on the polished table and her chin on her hands. So, leaning forward, she looked like the girl contemplating a china image in her father’s picture by Alfred Stevens.

“Well?” she said. “What is it?”

“He said he felt sorry for his executioner.”

Neither his wife nor his father moved, except for a slight raising of the eyebrows. He went on defiantly:

“Of course, it sounds absurd, but he said the fellow begged him not to make him shoot — he was under a vow to convert the infidel.”

“To mention that to the Committee,” Sir Lawrence said slowly, “would certainly be telling it to the marines.”

“He’s not likely to,” said Fleur; “he’d rather die than be laughed at.”

“Exactly! I only mentioned it to show that the whole thing’s not so simple as it appears to the pukka sahib.”

“When,” murmured Sir Lawrence, in a detached voice, “have I heard anything so nicely ironical? But all this is not helping Dinny.”

“I think I’ll go and see him again,” said Michael.

“The simplest thing,” said Fleur, “is for him to resign at once.”

And with that common-sense conclusion the discussion closed.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37