IT was some little time after my arrival, as I shall presently relate, that the experience I call the thrill came to me in England — and, like all its predecessors, came through Nature. It came, that is, through the only apparatus I possessed as yet that could respond.
The point, I think, is of special interest; I note it now, on looking back upon the series as a whole, though at the time I did not note it.
For, compared with yourself at any rate, the aesthetic side of me is somewhat raw; of pictures, sculpture, music I am untaught and ignorant; with other Philistines, I “know what I like,” but nothing more. It is the honest but uncultured point of view. I am that primitive thing, the mere male animal. It was my love of Nature, therefore, that showed me beauty, since this was the only apparatus in my temperament able to respond. Natural, simple things, as before, were the channel through which beauty appealed to that latent store of love and wisdom in me which, it almost seemed, were being slowly educated.
The talks and intimacies with our mother, then, were largely over; the reknitting of an interrupted relationship was fairly accomplished; she had asked her questions, and listened to my answers. All the dropped threads had been picked up again, so that a pattern, similar to the one laid aside, now lay spread more or less comfortably before us. Outwardly, things seemed much as they were when I left home so many years ago. One might have thought the interval had been one of months, since her attitude refused to recognize all change, and change, and growth, was abhorrent to her type. For whereas I had altered, she had remained unmoved.
So unsatisfying was this state of things to me, however, that I felt unable to confide my deepest, as now I can do easily to you — so that during these few days of intercourse renewed, we had said, it seemed, all that was to be said with regard to the past. My health was most lovingly discussed, and then my immediate and remoter future. I was aware of this point of view — that I was, of course, her own dear son, but that I was also England’s son. She was intensely patriotic in the insular sense; my soul, I mean, belonged to the British Empire rather than to humanity and the world at large. Doubtless, a very right and natural way to look at things. . . . She expressed a real desire to “see your photographs, my boy, of those outlandish places where they sent you”; then, having asked certain questions about the few women (officers’ wives and so forth) who appeared in some of them, she leaned back in her chair, and gave me her very definite hopes about “my value to the country,” my “duty to the family traditions,” even to the point, finally, of suggesting Parliament, in what she termed with a certain touch of pride and dignity, “the true Conservative interest.”
“Men like yourself, Richard, are sorely needed now,” she added, looking at me with a restrained admiration; “I am sure the Party would nominate you for this Constituency that your father and your grandfather both represented before you. At any rate, they shall not put you on the shelf!”
And before I went to bed — it was my second or third night, I think — she had let me see plainly another hope that was equally dear to her: that I should marry again. There was an ominous reference to my “ample means,” a hint of regret that, since you were unavailable, and Eva dead, our branch of the family could not continue to improve the eastern counties and the world. At the back of her mind, indeed, I think there hovered definite names, for a garden party in my honour was suggested for the following week, to which the Chairman of the Local Conservatives would come, and where various desirable neighbours would be only too proud to make my acquaintance and press my colonial and distinguished fingers.
In the interval between my arrival and the “experience” I shall presently describe, I had meanwhile renewed my acquaintance with the countryside. The emotions, however, I anticipated, had even cherished and eagerly looked forward to, had not materialized. There was a chill of disappointment over me. For the beauty I had longed for seemed here so thickly veiled; and more than once I surprised in my heart a certain regret that I had come home at all. I caught myself thinking of that immense and trackless country I had left; I even craved it sometimes, both physically and mentally, as though, for all its luscious grossness, it held something that nourished and stimulated, something large, free and untamed that was lacking in this orderly land, so neatly fenced and parcelled out at home.
The imagined richness of my return, at any rate, was unfulfilled; the tie with our mother, though deep, was uninspiring; while that other more subtle and intangible link I had fondly dreamed might be strengthened, if not wholly proved, was met with a flat denial that seemed to classify it as nonexistent. Hope, in this particular connection, returned upon me, blank and unrewarded. . . . The familiar scenes woke no hint of pain, much less of questing sweetness. The glamour of association did not operate. No personal link was strengthened.
And, when I visited the garden we had known together, the shady path beneath the larches; saw, indeed, the very chairs that she and I had used, the framed portrait in the morning-room, the harp itself, now set with its limp and broken strings in my own chamber — I was unaware of any ghostly thrill; least of all could I feel that “somebody was pleased.”
Excursion farther afield deepened the disenchantment. The gorse was out upon the Common, that Common where we played as boys, thinking it vast and wonderful with the promise of high adventure behind every prickly clump. The vastness, of course, was gone, but the power of suggestion had gone likewise. It was merely a Common that deserved its name. For though this was but the close of May, I found it worn into threadbare patches, with edges unravelled like those of some old carpet in a seaside lodging-house. The lanes that fed it were already thick with dust as in thirsty August, and instead of eglantine, wild-roses, and the rest, a smell of petrol hung upon hedges that were quite lustreless. On the crest of the hill, whence we once thought the view included heaven, I stood by those beaten pines we named The Fort, counting jagged bits of glass and scraps of faded newspaper that marred the bright green of the sprouting bracken.
This glorious spot, once sacred to our dreams, was like a great backyard — the Backyard of the County — while the view we loved as the birthplace of all possible adventure, seemed to me now without spaciousness or distinction. The trees and hedges cramped the little fields and broke their rhythm. No great winds ever swept them clean. The landscape was confused: there was no adventure in it, suggestion least of all. Everything had already happened there.
And on my way home, resentful perhaps yet eager still, I did a dreadful thing. Possibly I hoped still for that divine sensation which refused to come. I visited the very field, the very poplar . . . I found the scene quite unchanged, but found it also — lifeless. The glamour of association did not operate. I knew no poignancy, desire lay inert. The thrill held stubbornly aloof. No link was strengthened. . . . I came home slowly, thinking instead of my mother’s plans and wishes for me, and of the clear intention to incorporate me in the stolid and conventional formulas of what appeared to me as uninspired English dullness. My disappointment crystallized into something like revolt. A faint hostility even rose in me as we sat together, talking of politics, of the London news just come to hand, of the neighbours, of the weather too. I was conscious of opposition to her stereotyped plans, and of resentment towards the lack of understanding in her. I would shake free and follow beauty. The yearning, for want of sympathy, and the hunger, for lack of sustenance, grew very strong and urgent in me.
I longed passionately just then for beauty — and for that revelation of it which included somewhere the personal emotion of a strangely eager love.
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