Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter IV

In the Meads

The Meads of St. Augustine had, no doubt, once on a time been flowery, and burgesses had walked there of a Sunday, plucking summer nosegays. If there were a flower now, it would be found on the altar of the Reverend Hilary’s church, or on Mrs. Hilary’s dining-table. The rest of a numerous population had heard of these unnatural products, and, indeed, seeing them occasionally in baskets, would utter the words: “Aoh! Look at the luv-ly flahers!”

When Michael visited his uncle, according to promise, on Ascot Cup Day, he was ushered hurriedly into the presence of twenty little Augustinians on the point of being taken in a covered motor van for a fortnight among flowers in a state of nature. His Aunt May was standing among them. She was a tall woman with bright brown shingled hair going grey, and the slightly rapt expression of one listening to music. Her smile was very sweet, and this, with the puzzled twitch of her delicate eyebrows, as who should say placidly: “What next, I wonder?” endeared her to everyone. She had emerged from a Rectory in Huntingdonshire, in the early years of the century, and had married Hilary at the age of twenty. He had kept her busy ever since. Her boys and girls were all at school now, so that in term time she had merely some hundreds of Augustinians for a family. Hilary was wont to say: “May’s a wonder. Now that she’s had her hair off, she’s got so much time on her hands that we’re thinking of keeping guinea-pigs. If she’d only let me grow a beard, we could really get a move on.”

She greeted Michael with a nod and a twitch.

“Young London, my dear,” she said, privately, “just off to Leatherhead. Rather sweet, aren’t they?”

Michael, indeed, was surprised by the solidity and neatness of the twenty young Augustinians. Judging by the streets from which they came and the mothers who were there to see them off, their families had evidently gone ‘all out’ to get them in condition for Leatherhead.

He stood grinning amiably, while they were ushered out on the glowing pavement between the unrestrained appreciation of their mothers and sisters. Into the van, open only at the rear, they were piled, with four young ladies to look after them.

“Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,” murmured Michael.

His aunt laughed.

“Yes, poor little dears, won’t they be hot! But aren’t they good?” She lowered her voice. “And d’you know what they’ll say when they come back after their fortnight? ‘Oh! yes, we liked it all very much, thank you, but it was rather slow. We like the streets better.’ Every year it’s the same.”

“Then, what’s the use of sending them, Aunt May?”

“It does them good physically; they look sturdy enough, but they aren’t really strong. Besides, it seems so dreadful they should never see the country. Of course we country-bred folk, Michael, never can realise what London streets are to children — very nearly Heaven, you know.”

The motor van moved to an accompaniment of fluttered handkerchiefs and shrill cheering.

“The mothers love them to go,” said his aunt; “it’s kind of distinguished. Well, that’s that! What would you like to see next? The street we’ve just bought, to gut and re-gut? Hilary’ll be there with the architect.”

“Who owned the street?” asked Michael.

“He lived in Capri. I don’t suppose he ever saw it. He died the other day, and we got it rather reasonably, considering how central we are, here. Sites are valuable.”

“Have you paid for it?”

“Oh! no.” Her eyebrows twitched. “Postdated a cheque on Providence.”

“Good Lord!”

“We had to have the street. It was such a chance. We’ve paid the deposit, and we’ve got till September to get the rest.”

“How much?” said Michael.

“Thirty-two thousand.”

Michael gasped.

“Oh! We shall get it, dear, Hilary’s wonderful in that way. Here’s the street.”

It was a curving street of which, to Michael, slowly passing, each house seemed more dilapidated than the last. Grimy and defaced, with peeling plaster, broken rails and windows, and a look of having been abandoned to its fate — like some half-burnt-out ship — it hit the senses and the heart with its forlornness.

“What sort of people live here, Aunt May?”

“All sorts — three or four families to each house. Covent Garden workers, hawkers, girls in factories, out-of-works — every kind. The unmentionable insect abounds, Michael. The girls are wonderful — they keep their clothes in paper bags. Many of them turn out quite neat. If they didn’t, of course, they’d get the sack, poor dears.”

“But is it possible,” said Michael, “that people can WANT to go on living here?”

His aunt’s brows became intricate.

“It isn’t a question of want, my dear. It’s a simple economic proposition. Where else can they live so cheaply? It’s more than that, even; where else can they go at all, if they’re turned out? The Authorities demolished a street not long ago up there, and built that great block of workmen’s flats; but the rents were prohibitive to the people who had been living in the street, and they simply melted away to other slums. Besides, you know, they don’t like those barracky flats, and I don’t wonder. They’d much rather have a little house, if they can; or the floor of a house if they can’t. Or even a room. That’s in the English nature, and it will be till they design workmen’s dwellings better. The English like to live low down: I suppose because they always have. Oh! Here’s Hilary!”

Hilary Charwell, in a dark grey Norfolk suit, a turn-down collar open at the neck, and no hat, was standing in the doorway of a house, talking to another spare man with a thin, and, to Michael, very pleasant face.

“Well, Michael, my boy, what think you of Slant Street? Each one of these houses is going to be gutted and made as bright as a new pin.”

“How long will they keep bright, Uncle Hilary?”

“Oh! That’s all right,” said Hilary, “judging by our experiments so far. Give ’em a chance, and the people are only too glad to keep their houses clean. It’s wonderful what they do, as it is. Come in and see, but don’t touch the walls. May, you stay and talk to James. An Irish lady in here; we haven’t many. Can I come in, Mrs. Corrigan?”

“Sure an’ ye can. Plased to see your rivirence, though ut’s not tidy I am this mornin’.”

A broad woman, with grizzled black hair and brawny arms, had paused in whatever she was doing to a room inconceivably crowded and encrusted. Three people evidently slept in the big bed, and one in a cot; cooking seemed to go on at the ordinary small black hearth, over which, on a mantel-board, were the social trophies of a lifetime. Some clothes were hung on a line. The patched and greasy walls had no pictures.

“My nephew, Mr. Michael Mont, Mrs. Corrigan; he’s a Member of Parliament.”

The lady put her arms akimbo.

“Indeed, an’ is he, then?”

It was said with an infinite indulgence that went to Michael’s heart. “An’ is ut true your rivirence has bought the street? An’ what would ye be doing with ut? Ye won’t be afther turning us out, I’m thinking.”

“Not for the world, Mrs. Corrigan.”

“Well, an’ I knew that. I said to them: ‘It’s cleaning our insides he’ll maybe doing, but he’ll never be afther putting us out.’”

“When the turn of this house comes, Mrs. Corrigan — I hope before very long — we’ll find you good lodgings till you can come back here to new walls and floors and ceilings, a good range, no more bugs, and proper washing arrangements.”

“Well, an’ wouldn’t that be the day I’d like to see!”

“You’ll see it fast enough. Look Michael, if I put my finger through there, the genuine article will stalk forth! It’s you that can’t knock holes in your walls, Mrs. Corrigan.”

“An’ that’s the truth o’ God,” replied Mrs. Corrigan. “The last time Corrigan knocked a peg in, ’twas terrible — the life there was in there!”

“Well, Mrs. Corrigan, I’m delighted to see you looking so well. Good morning, and tell Corrigan if his donkey wants a rest any time, there’ll be room in our paddock. Will you be going hopping this year?”

“We will that,” replied Mrs. Corrigan. “Good-day to you rivirence; good-day, sorr!”

On the bare, decrepit landing Hilary Charwell said: “Salt of the earth, Michael. But imagine living in that atmosphere! Luckily, they’re all ‘snoof’.”

“What?” said Michael, taking deep breaths of the somewhat less complicated air.

“It’s a portmanteau syllable for ‘Got no sense of smell to speak of.’ And wanted, too. One says ‘deaf,’ ‘blind,’ ‘dumb’— why not ‘snoof’?”

“Excellent! How long do you reckon it’ll take you to convert this street, Uncle Hilary?”

“About three years.”

“And how are you going to get the money?”

“Win, wangle and scrounge it. In here there are three girls who serve in ‘Fetter and Poplin’s.’ They’re all out, of course. Neat, isn’t it? See their paper bags?”

“I say, Uncle, would you blame a girl for doing anything to get out of a house like this?”

“No,” said the Reverend Hilary, “I would not, and that’s the truth o’ God.”

“That’s why I love you, Uncle Hilary. You restore my faith in the Church.”

“My dear boy,” said Hilary, “the old Reformation was nothing to what’s been going on in the Church lately. You wait and see! Though I confess a little wholesome Disestablishment would do us all no harm. Come and have lunch, and we’ll talk about my slum conversion scheme. We’ll bring James along.”

“You see,” he resumed, when they were seated in the Vicarage dining-room, “there must be any amount of people who would be glad enough to lay out a small proportion of their wealth at two per cent., with the prospect of a rise to four as time went on, if they were certain that it meant the elimination of the slums. We’ve experimented and we find that we can put slum houses into proper living condition for their existing population at a mere fraction over the old rents, and pay two per cent, on our outlay. If we can do that here, it can be done in all slum centres, by private Slum Conversion Societies such as ours, working on the principle of not displacing the existing slum population. But what’s wanted, of course, is money — a General Slum Conversion fund — Bonds at two per cent., with bonuses, repayable in twenty years, from which the Societies could draw funds as they need them for buying and converting slum property.”

“How will you repay the Bonds in twenty years?”

“Oh! Like the Government — by issuing more.”

“But,” said Michael, “the local Authorities have very wide powers, and much more chance of getting the money.”

Hilary shook his head.

“Wide powers, yes; but they’re slow, Michael — the snail is a fast animal compared with them; besides, they only displace, because the rents they charge are too high. Also it’s not in the English character, my dear. Somehow we don’t like being ‘done for’ by officials, or being answerable to them. There’s lots of room, of course, for slum area treatment by Borough Councils, and they do lots of good work, but by themselves, they’ll never scotch the evil. You want the human touch; you want a sense of humour, and faith; and that’s a matter for private effort in every town where there are slums.”

“And who’s going to start this general fund?” asked Michael, gazing at his aunt’s eyebrows, which had begun to twitch.

“Well,” said Hilary, twinkling, “I thought that might be where you came in. That’s why I asked you down today, in fact.”

“The deuce!” said Michael almost leaping above the Irish stew on his plate.

“Exactly!” said his uncle; “but couldn’t you get together a Committee of both Houses to issue an appeal? From the work we’ve done James can give you exact figures. They could see for themselves what’s happened here. Surely, Michael, there must be ten just men who could be got to move in a matter like this —”

“‘Ten Apostles’,” said Michael, faintly.

“Well, but there’s no real need to bring Christ in-nothing remote or sentimental; you could approach them from any angle. Old Sir Timothy Fanfield, for example, would love to have a ‘go’ at slum landlordism. Then we’ve electrified all the kitchens so far, and mean to go on doing it — so you could get old Shropshire on that. Besides, there’s no need to confine the Committee to the two Houses — Sir Thomas Morsell, or, I should think, any of the big doctors, would come in; you could pinch a brace of bankers with Quaker blood in them; and there are always plenty of retired Governor Generals with their tongues out. Then if you could rope in a member of the Royal Family to head it — the trick would be done.”

“Poor Michael!” said his aunt’s soft voice: “Let him finish his stew, Hilary.”

But Michael had dropped his fork for good; he saw another kind of stew before him.

“The General Slum Conversion Fund,” went on Hilary, “affiliating every Slum Conversion Society in being or to be, so long as it conforms to the principle of not displacing the present inhabitant. Don’t you see what a pull that gives us over the inhabitants? — we start them straight, and we jolly well see that they don’t let their houses down again.”

“But can you?” said Michael.

“Ah! you’ve heard stories of baths being used for coal and vegetables, and all that. Take it from me, they’re exaggerated, Michael. Anyway, that’s where we private workers come in with a big advantage over municipal authorities. They have to drive, we try to lead.”

“Let me hot up your stew, dear?” said his aunt.

Michael refused. He perceived that it would need no hotting up! Another crusade! His Uncle Hilary had always fascinated him with his crusading blood — at the time of the Crusades the name had been Keroual, and, now spelt Charwell, was pronounced Cherwell, in accordance with the sound English custom of worrying foreigners.

“I’m not approaching you, Michael, with the inducement that you should make your name at this, because, after all, you’re a gent!”

“Thank you!” murmured Michael; “always glad of a kind word.”

“No. I’m suggesting that you ought to do something, considering your luck in life.”

“I quite agree,” said Michael, humbly. “The question seems to be: Is this the something?”

“It is, undoubtedly,” said his uncle, waving a salt-spoon on which was engraved the Charwell crest. “What else can it be?”

“Did you never hear of Foggartism, Uncle Hilary?”

“No; what’s that?”

“My aunt!” said Michael.

“Some blanc-mange, dear?”

“Not you, Aunt May! But did you really never hear of it, Uncle Hilary?”

“Foggartism? Is it that fog-abating scheme one reads about?”

“It is not,” said Michael. “Of course, you’re sunk in misery and sin here. Still, it’s almost too thick. YOU’VE heard of it, Aunt May?”

His aunt’s eyebrows became intricate again.

“I think,” she said, “I do remember hearing someone say it was balderdash!”

Michael groaned: “And you, Mr. James?”

“It’s to do with the currency, isn’t it?”

“And here,” said Michael, “we have three intelligent, public-spirited persons, who’ve never heard of Foggartism — and I’ve heard of nothing else for over a year.”

“Well,” said Hilary, “had you heard of my slum-conversion scheme?”

“Certainly not.”

“I think,” said his aunt, “it would be an excellent thing if you’d smoke while I make the coffee. Now I do remember, Michael: Your mother did say to me that she wished you would get over it. I’d forgotten the name. It had to do with taking town-children away from their parents.”

“Partly,” said Michael, with gloom.

“You have to remember, dear, that the poorer people are, the more they cling to their children.”

“Vicarious joy in life,” put in Hilary.

“And the poorer children are, the more they cling to their gutters, as I was telling you.”

Michael buried his hands in his pockets.

“There is no good in me,” he said, stonily. “You’ve pitched on a stumer, Uncle Hilary.”

Both Hilary and his wife got up very quickly, and each put a hand on his shoulder.

“My dear boy!” said his aunt.

“God bless you!” said Hilary: “Have a ‘gasper.’”

“All right,” said Michael, grinning, “it’s wholesome.”

Whether or not it was the “gasper” that was wholesome, he took and lighted it from his uncle’s.

“What is the most pitiable sight in the world, Aunt May — I mean, next to seeing two people dance the Charleston?”

“The most pitiable sight?” said his aunt, dreamily. “Oh! I think — a rich man listening to a bad gramophone.”

“Wrong!” said Michael. “The most pitiable sight in the world is a politician barking up the right tree. Behold him!”

“Look out, May! Your machine’s boiling. She makes very good coffee, Michael — nothing like it for the grumps. Have some, and then James and I will show you the houses we’ve converted. James — come with me a moment.”

“Noted for his pertinacity,” muttered Michael, as they disappeared.

“Not only noted, Michael — dreaded.”

“Well, I would rather be Uncle Hilary than anybody I know.”

“He IS rather a dear,” murmured his aunt. “Coffee?”

“What does he really believe, Aunt May?”

“Well, he hardly has time for that.”

“Ah! that’s the new hope of the Church. All the rest is just as much an attempt to improve on mathematics as Einstein’s theory. Orthodox religion was devised for the cloister, Aunt May, and there aren’t any cloisters left.”

“Religion,” said his aunt, dreamily, “used to burn a good many people, Michael, not in cloisters.”

“Quite so, when it emerged from cloisters, religion used to be red-hot politics; then it became caste feeling, and now it’s a cross — word puzzle — You don’t solve THEM with your emotions.”

His aunt smiled.

“You have a dreadful way of putting things, my dear.”

“In our ‘suckles,’ Aunt May, we do nothing but put things — it destroys all motive power. But about this slum business: do you really advise me to have ‘a go’?”

“Not if you want a quiet life.”

“I don’t know that I do. I did, after the war; but not now. But, you see, I’ve tried Foggartism and everybody’s too sane to look at it. I really can’t afford to back another loser. Do you think there’s a chance of getting a national move on?”

“Only a sporting chance, dear.”

“Would you take it up then, if you were me?”

“My dear, I’m prejudiced — Hilary’s heart is so set on it; but it does seem to me that there’s no other cause I’d so gladly fail in. Well, not that exactly; but there really is nothing so important as giving our town dwellers decent living conditions.”

“It’s rather like going over to the enemy,” muttered Michael. “Our future oughtn’t to be so bound up in the towns.”

“It WILL be, whatever’s done. ‘A bird in the hand,’ and such a big bird, Michael. Ah! Here’s Hilary!”

Hilary and his architect took Michael forth again into the Meads. The afternoon had turned drizzly, and the dismal character of that flowerless quarter was more than ever apparent. Up street, down street, Hilary extolled the virtues of his parishoners. They drank, but not nearly so much as was natural in the circumstances; they were dirty, but he would be dirtier under their conditions. They didn’t come to church — who on earth would expect them to? They assaulted their wives to an almost negligible extent; were extraordinarily good, and extremely unwise, to their children. They had the most marvellous faculty for living on what was not a living wage. They helped each other far better than those who could afford to; never saved a bean, having no beans to save, and took no thought for a morrow which might be worse than today. Institutions they abominated. They were no more moral than was natural in their overcrowded state. Of philosophy they had plenty, of religion none that he could speak of. Their amusements were cinemas, streets, gaspers, public houses, and Sunday papers. They liked a tune, and would dance if afforded a chance. They had their own brand of honesty, which required special study. Unhappy? Not precisely, having given up a future state in this life or in that — realists to their encrusted fingernails. English? Well, nearly all, and mostly London-born. A few country folk had come in young, and would never go out old.

“You’d like them, Michael; nobody who really knows them can help liking them. And now, my dear fellow, good-bye, and think it over. The hope of England lies in you young men. God bless you!”

And with these words in his ears, Michael went home, to find his little son sickening for measles.

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